Sunday, August 28, 2011

Visionary

Arsen Darnay has a post in which he discusses the history of the word 'visionary'. As he notes, there was a period in which it was something of an insult, much like 'enthusiast' was; indeed, calling people enthusiastic visionaries in the eighteenth century would have been an extraordinary insult, equivalent to saying that they were irrational fanatics incapable of distinguishing their own thoughts from divine inspirations. This phase is not insignificant for the history of ideas: very notably, philosophers who were regularly criticized for being 'visionary' tended to fall out of cognizance in the nineteenth century. One of these was Nicolas Malebranche, who constantly had to deal with the criticism. In Elucidation Ten to The Search after Truth he gave a brief but biting response to it:

I prefer to be called a visionary, or one of the Illuminati, or any of the lovely things with which the imagination (always sarcastic in insignificant minds) usually answers arguments it does not understand and against which it is defenseless, than to agree that bodies can enlighten me, that I am my own master, reason, and light, and that in order to be well-versed in anything I need only consult myself or other men who can perhaps fill my ears with noise, but who certainly cannot fill my mind with light. (LO 613)

The "I am my own master, reason, and light" part (a better translation: 'I am my own teacher, reason, and light') is an allusion to Augustine, whose basic epistemology Malebranche adapts. Which makes it a fitting topic for today, I suppose, since today is the Feast of St. Augustine, although it is superceded by Sunday for liturgical purposes.

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