Spolia (2)

by Terence MacNamee

Last week, looking at the spolia which are a feature of architecture in the Mediterranean world, I talked about how ideas as well as hunks of stone get recycled over the centuries and the millennia. When I reflect on this, I feel prompted to ask: is there not space for a new discipline that would specialize in recycling obsolete systems of knowledge?

The cue is given by Hermann Hesse’s Glass Bead Game. In his novel of that name, he envisaged a future world in which all the intellectual content of the past, from East and West, would be expressed in a new formalism like music (or Chinese characters) and played like the contrasting themes and the variations in a musical composition. What is interesting is that he shows the possibility of adapting formal structures from one field of endeavour for use in another. The result is new insight, and a kind of beauty of form.

Now Hesse’s was a work of imagination. But spolia are also of practical value. Obsolete systems of knowledge often contain useful elements which are lost when a new theoretical orthodoxy establishes itself. As Kuhn with his perspective on “paradigms” made clear, the baby often gets thrown out with the bath-water. Today there is much talk of “research traditions” in the sciences of man, which have useful ideas in them that are forgotten when there is no-one to pursue them.

In the philosophy of knowledge, Karl Popper’s “World 3” is a world of propositions and theories (besides “World 1”, physical states, and “World 2”, mental states). Although World 3 content originates in the brains of particular thinkers, it is independent of individuals and thus potentially accessible to all. Popper pointed out that his World 3 contains not only true propositions, but also false ones, or partly-true ones. Indeed, he says, we can never know that propositions are true, and the chances are that they will be superseded sooner or later by something better. What Popper didn’t touch on was: what do we do with the obsolete propositions? Do they just gather dust, like books in a library that are no longer read? Surely something can be done with them.

In history, this has always been so. Great cultural leaps forward by nations in the past were not an accident; more often than not, they were due to traditions that were recycled in new ways. Often it was a religious tradition that was adapted to a secular context, but there are many other examples.

So let us not throw everything away whenever a new orthodoxy establishes itself. Let us diligently search among the rubble of discarded theories and find what we can use for new purposes. A fine old pillar in a palace can still serve as a pillar in a new cathedral. Or, even more interestingly, an architectural element can be reused for a completely different function. In the new building, it all somehow makes sense in a way that the original builder could never have dreamed of.