The great chain of being and its variants were both the explicit and the tacit metaphysics of what might be called the ‘Christian’ and ‘Islamic’ civilizations for almost two thousand years.
What's tacit metaphysics and what's explicit metaphysics?
Explicit metaphysics is conducted in the ivory tower by scholars, priests and other professionals whose social role elects them as the guardians of knowledge.It’s often technical or esoteric and requires training. Tacit metaphysics lives in the street and plays a cognitive role: moving easily between life and work and informing all aspects of our existence.
The two aren’t unrelated - ideas can be ‘captured’ by professionals and spread far and wide. The idea of computer is a good example. Or they might emerge from the street and then codified by the professionals. The pan-Indian concept of Bhakti - broadly ‘faith’ - is a good example; Bhakti emerged as a popular feeling well before it was written into the canon.
Lovejoy set out to analyze the GCB and one of his methodological innovations was a molecular theory of ideas.
Lovejoy has a term for the basic intuitions out which we form ever more complex ones. He calls them ‘unit ideas.’ The most important unit idea of our age is of course that of the machine.
I don’t have the desire or the energy to do a Lovejoy on Lovejoy, but it sure looks like the ‘unit idea’ lives on in the form of ‘memes,’ ‘mental models’ etc.
But memes and mental models are the molecules of everyday life, while unit ideas have an exalted position as the foundation of high intellectual culture. Consider the idea of Geometric order, of which Euclid’s Geometry is the most important text. While the idea of geometric perfection is clearly important in the natural sciences, the idea lives in many avatars:
‘God is a Geometer’ and if you think circles are the perfect geometrical object, then it becomes ‘obvious’ that the planets must move in circles around the earth.
Spinoza’s Euclidean approach to ethics.
City planning and the rectilinear arrangement of streets.
John Rawls’ design for a perfect society with its original position and the veil of ignorance.
Geometricity tames the chaos of the world - with all the insinuations of control and dominance that come with taming. Being so powerful spawns legions of haters so unsurprisingly, there are reactions to the idea of geometricity. The Romantic era was full of detractors. Lovejoy gives this example:
Geometricity takes on an explicit form in the natural sciences but it has a tacit life well beyond those technical disciplines - there’s a immediately perceivable sense in which Scandinavia is more geometric than India.
I am spending so much time on geometricity because it's a unit idea for me, one that helps me understand the otherwise alien landscape of the GCB. Why is form so powerful? I don't know but geometry is one of its sources. In its Euclidean lineage, geometry is a formal discipline, vying with logic as the central ‘formal’ source of unit ideas. The same Newton who wrote his Principia in imitation of Euclid also spent much time modeling the Trinity. Form goes everywhere.
Less metaphysics and more physics, but we should also add dynamics to the list of uber unit ideas.
Since they inform all existence, the GCB used to regulate everything from social life to ideas about nature to religious ritual. I will be leaning on Lovejoy to take us through this thicket, but my own perspective is going to be formal throughout. While I will pay attention to metaphysical concepts like the Self and Identity, they will be analyzed ‘formally.’
Because the formal disciplines are among the few intellectual disciplines where there’s direct continuity between the times of Aristotle to today’s cutting edge research (history and literature also come to mind).
It’s hard for me to enter into the mind of a religious penitent of the 13th century, but it’s not that hard for me to appreciate the ancient Greek proof of the irrationality of the square root of two. If I focus on religious beliefs, chances are I will experience the shift from the Great Chain of Being to the modern mechanical picture as an incommensurable shift, but if I plot the formal course of history, I will likely see the transformations as paradigm shifts but within realms of commensurability.
Form makes intelligibility intelligible across the ages