Sunday, September 18, 2005

Linguist Friend writes: More than Human?

When I was a child, I was puzzled that my father was able to communicate knowledgeably with both of the outstanding groups of technical professionals who worked in the region of south-east Virginia where we lived, researchers in aeronautics and designers of ships (his original profession). His overlapping insight was a puzzle to me, because at that age I could not see that both fields are based on fluid mechanics, so that fundamental knowledge of one field led to considerable understanding of the other.
Later on, when I went to college in New England, I encountered other intellectual aristocracies, at a university at which benign inter-student competition stemmed from the fact that almost each student had been the best in his high school. However, such competition was not always the case. I recall clearly that when returning to my freshman dorm from breakfast one morning, I noticed that in one dorm near my own, one student near his first-floor window was dictating a paper to one of his fellow-classmates, while a third one was busily typing up the previously dictated pages. I realized after a few inquiries that this student had been able to impress his classmates with his quality so profoundly that they were willing to subordinate themselves to him, at least for this project.
This idea of personal superiority is at once tempting and in conflict with some of the basic values of Western civilization. Concepts of the superman have been developed by thinkers as mutually contradictory as Goethe and Nietsche. Personally I suspect that, to the contrary, the inspiring thing about those who achieve greatly is not that they are superhuman, but that they are entirely human, and suggest previously unrecognized human potential.
The science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon in the early 1950s added other dimensions to this topic in his unforgettable novel More than Human, in which he described the interactions within a small group of people, outcast children differing in race, sex, age, and gifts (telekinesis, etc.), each of whom contributed one significant part to the whole, and how the group dealt with the world or failed to do so. No doubt Sturgeon had a philosophical motif, but the novel works profoundly as literature. The significance of the individual gifts and value of different individual humans, of course, emphasizes a basic aspect of Western civilization.
This point is distinct from just winning. The cult heroes of American civilization have become the businessman and the lawyer, and the main rule of the game is in terms of the bumper–sticker "the one who dies with the most toys wins". In this spirit, America has been transfixed by Roberts' candidacy for the Supreme Court as a superb example of the advocate who wins the argument (for his employer, let us not forget, rather than as a matter of personal conviction). However, to win an argument is not the same as to answer the question or to solve the problem. That requires a deeper understanding, more like the ability to understand the laws of fluid mechanics and manipulate them creatively to make possible the flight of a mass of twisted metal. One should not mistake the skilled and successful manipulator of known solutions to problems, or the advocate for those solutions, for a thinker who recognizes or conceives and answers fundamental questions.
The role of the Supreme Court is fascinating because it goes far beyond that of the technician. It is at once highly technical and potentially highly creative, both legal and philosophical. I was reminded of that recently in thinking of the contrast between Roberts and the Harvard freshman (a math major, actually) recalled in the second paragraph above. He is Laurence Tribe, formerly Harvard Law School's Tyler Professor of Constitutional Law, and since 2004 Loeb University Professor. As a specialist in and scholarly contributor to constitutional law, he has often been named as a potential liberal candidate for the Supreme Court. Among other things, the law is an implementation of and response to human values that are central to religion, so that religion cannot remain indifferent to the events in our society which focus on it so profoundly. Today's leading New York Times editorial (9/18/05) states that Roberts has not yet demonstrated qualities that show him a convincing candidate for the position for which he has been nominated.
Comparison to Tribe, simply as a single example of possible alternatives, underlines that

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