Friday, April 5, 2019

Forming the cathedral


Years ago, I was struck by a comment by Richard Foreman: "I come from a tradition of Western culture, in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense and 'cathedral-like' structure of the highly educated and articulate personality — a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West." The very concept of "the West," and certainly the privileging of it, is of course worthy of debate, but that's not what drew my attention. I was attracted to the more general ideas that the scholar has a personal mission to absorb as much information as possible; that, to give shape and purpose and attainability to that mission, the scholar might propose some cultural definition of what information is "theirs" in some sense, i.e. what they can realistically hope to absorb and contribute to and what subject matter they have a responsibility to; and that the result of this effort is that their acquired learning, unique to them as an individual, becomes like a cathedral, a mix of form and function, and it shapes their personality.

“You pile up associations the way you pile up bricks. Memory itself," said Louise Bourgeois, "is a form of architecture.”

The mind builds a house as the body does: brick by brick.

"Cathedral thinking," according to Kimberly Nicholas, is "collectively working toward a transcendent purpose we may or may not live to see accomplished but that will outlive us all."

Actual Cathedrals of Learning

Steven Connor in The Madness of Knowledge: On Wisdom, Ignorance and Fantasies of Knowing (2019):

"Universities have a fondness for these structures, which sometimes, as with the Uniersity of London's Senate House, impractically and overheatingly house libraries. Berkeley's Sather Tower, a campanile whose carillon still plays regularly, houses fossils of animals retrieved from the tar pits of California, as though to figure the transformation of life into stone and then stone into the second life of knowing. When I first visited the University of Pittsburgh I thought the name 'Cathedral of Learning' given to the 160-metre (535-ft) structure that dominates the campus must be an affectionate joke. But that indeed has been its official name since the first class was held in it in 1931. It is in fact only the fourth tallest educational building in the world, after the main building of the Moscow State University, the Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower in Tokyo (so named because its curved shape, resembling a bud, seed or pair of praying hands, suggests a nurturing structure for those it contains) and the helical Mode Gakuen Spiral Towers in Nagoya."


"In medieval Europe," wrote Paul Von Ward, "the soaring edifices that eventually evolved into the Gothic cathedral emphasized religion's otherworldly focus. Its vertical character stressed the hierarchy of concepts on which the church was organized and by which it was controlled."


In 1933, Peter Wessel Zapffe wrote in his essay "The Last Messiah" (trans. Gisle R. Tangenes):

The mechanism of anchoring also serves from early childhood; parents, home, the street become matters of course to the child and give it a sense of assurance. This sphere of experience is the first, and perhaps the happiest, protection against the cosmos that we ever get to know in life...

* * *

Any culture is a great, rounded system of anchorings, built on foundational firmaments, the basic cultural ideas. The average person makes do with the collective firmaments, the personality is building for himself, the person of character has finished his construction, more or less grounded on the inherited, collective main firmaments (God, the Church, the State, morality, fate, the law of life, the people, the future). The closer to main firmaments a certain carrying element is, the more perilous it is to touch. Here a direct protection is normally established by means of penal codes and threats of prosecution (inquisition, censorship, the Conservative approach to life).

The carrying capacity of each segment either depends on its fictitious nature having not been seen through yet, or else on its being recognised as necessary anyway. Hence the religious education in schools, which even atheists support because they know no other way to bring children into social ways of response.

Whenever people realise the fictitiousness or redundancy of the segments, they will strive to replace them with new ones (‘the limited duration of Truths’) – and whence flows all the spiritual and cultural strife which, along with economic competition, forms the dynamic content of world history.

* * *

The very foundational firmaments are rarely replaced without great social spasms and a risk of complete dissolution (reformation, revolution)."

You can anchor your learning to something in another culture. Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty wrote in 1988: "The fear that we will lose our own way, our own voice, by being swallowed up in the maelstrom of relativism, is a paranoid one; we may still make moral judgments, value judgments, while listening with openness to alternate worldviews. The fear that we will be unable to learn, deeply and personally, the classics of other peoples is equally unfoudned; such classics are no harder than Homer for us to learn. The 'common core' of our curriculum is entirely arbitrary; if you dig deeply enough from any spot on the surface of the earth, you will reach the center."


One might want to study everything broadly. Howard Bloom calls it "'omnology,' a field dedicated to the most zoomed-out cross-disciplinary search for knowledge." For most people, however, this is generally not a reasonable or useful goal. You can't build a beautiful cathedral out of Anything and Everything.


Veering in another direction, one might have a hyperfocused interest in just one subject and hope that everyone else wants to discuss the same thing. Amitai Etzioni calls this a "megalogue." Among "moral megalogues," as he wrote in 2009, "Recent issues have included the legitimacy of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and whether gay couples can legally marry. In earlier decades, women's rights and minority rights were topics of such discussions. Megalogues involve millions of members of a society exchanging views with one another at workplaces, during family gatherings, in the media, and at public events. They are often contentious and passionate, and, while they have no clear beginning or endpoint, they tend to lead to changes in a society's culture and its members' behavior." James M. Gustafson said that "participation in a serious moral dialogue moving toward consensus is more important than the consensus itself...[because] participation in moral discourse deepens, broadens, and extends [people's] capacity to make responsible moral judgments."

Data bank

A more modern idea is that a giant data trove of beliefs and thoughts could be used to reconstruct a human personality and give it life inside a robot. This is a bit different from the idea of a cathedral, because, while a building designed for worship pays homage to a larger tradition, a personality data bank pays homage only to oneself.

What if your academic 'cathedral' doesn't represent your reality?

The American philosopher William James wrote in Pragmatism (1907) that a student ("a graduate of some Western college") had recently submitted a thesis to him that complained that philosophy classrooms required students "to open relations with a universe entirely distinct from the one you left behind you in the street. The two were supposed, he said, to have so little to do with each other, that you could not possibly occupy your mind with them at the same time. The world of concrete personal experiences to which the street belongs is a multitudinous beyond imagination, tangled, muddy, painful, and perplexed. The world to which your philosophy-professor introduces you is simple, clean and noble. The contradictions of real life are absent from it. Its architecture is classic. Principles of reason trace its outlines, logical necessities cement its parts. Purity and dignity are what it most expresses. It is a kind of marble temple shining on a hill." In this way, philosophy fails to explain or to make "an account of this actual world" and instead makes "a substitute for it, a remedy, a way of escape." Philosophy's cathedral is built as an "addition" upon the "intolerably confused and gothic character" of the real-world building that was already there; philosophy is "a classic sanctuary in which the rationalist fancy may take refuge."


Richard Foreman. Quoted in "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" by Nicholas Carr. The Atlantic. July/August 2008. p. 63.

Louise Bourgeois, quoted in the dedication to Carmen Maria Machado. In the Dream House: A Memoir. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2019.

Kimberly Nicholas. Under the Sky We Make: How to Be Human in a Warming World. New York: Putnam, 2021.

Paul Von Ward. Gods, Genes, and Consciousness: Nonhuman intervention in human history. Charlottesville, Va.: Hampton Roads Publishing Co., 2004. p. 334.

"Grand Inquisitor" by Nando Pelusi, on the work of Howard Bloom, author of The Lucifer Principle and Global Brain. Psychology Today, January/February 2008, p. 41.

Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty. Other Peoples’ Myths: The Cave of Echoes. (1988) Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1995. p. 144.

"Get Rich Now." Amitai Etzioni. Excerpted from The New Republic (June 17, 2009). Reprinted in UTNE Reader (Jan-Feb 2010), p. 41.

James M. Gustafson. "The Church: A Community of Moral Discourse." in The Church as Moral Decision-Maker (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 1970), pp. 83-95. Quoted in James Calvin Davis. In Defense of Civility: How Religion Can Unite America on Seven Moral Issues that Divide Us. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010. pp. 168-169.

William James. Pragmatism. pp. 21-22.