Discourse theory, etc/angels

Chris Burford cburford at gn.apc.org
Mon Jul 17 07:42:04 MDT 1995

In comment on:

From: ay581 at yfn.ysu.edu (Robert V. Scheetz)
Date: Sat, 15 Jul 1995 23:22:55 -0400
Subject: Discourse theory, etc.

Terry Eagleton in last Monthly Review construes
post-modernist intelligentsia as demoralized
leftists: those who accept that history is over
and Capital has won, go about deconstructing
the significance of this unacceptable reality
by deconstructing significance and reality.

Also somewhat of the old "angels on the head of
a pin" scholastic cottage industry.

I was coincidentally trying to track down the origin of
this calumny by the modernists against the mediaeval
scholastics when I was pleasantly surprised to see it
mentioned in Robert's post.

The fact that it echoes down to the internet shows how
powerful the verdict of history is, and suggests to me
mind, a cultural assassination attempt that was

Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy, is
fair enough not to quote it, but to summarise in his
chapter on St Thomas Aquinas, "since angels have no
bodies, they can only be distinct through specific
differences, not through positions in space."

It seems to me therefore probable that the much ridiculed
discussion was a way for a virtually non-technological
society to think about concepts of processes that have
immense power but not spatial dimension in themselves.

It is also about scaling by analogy. I read backward
echoes of the concept of self-similarity at all scalar
levels ie that there may be as complex a substructure at
the level of atomic physics as at the level of astrophysics.
(Not identical, but of a similar level of complexity).
How many bosons can dance within an atom is not a silly
question. Nor is it a silly question that their precise
location in space can never be identified.

I am not mainly picking this up because of a desire to
raise the banner "Unfair to Scholastics!", respectful though
I think we should be to all human cultures, present or past.
But if we are to criticise in turn post-modernists, we should
be clear about the basis on which we are doing it. I do not
think we can object that post-moderninsts get fascinated by
finer and finer detail of the interconnection between Madonna's
corsetry, and the marketting of Pepsi, but that they cannot
also focus on the larger patterns of the world economy
in which a global social process is out of global social
control. They merely illustrate it sometimes wittily,
usually pathetically.

Does anyone know who first accused the Scholastics of
fruitless debates about how many angels can dance on the head of
a pin?

Chris Burford, London.

cc: ay581 at yfn.ysu.edu (Robert V. Scheetz)

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