Saintly Thoughts

On "The Discarded Image"

It is not my intent to turn this space into a book review, but I feel that I must share with my loyal readers a most extraordinary book, "The Discarded Image" by C.S. Lewis, which I just recently completed reading.  The book is essentially the published form of a series of lectures Lewis gave at Cambridge aimed at providing an introduction to those sources and tendencies which made up the Medieval artistic imagination, all in the hopes that it might aid students who wish to better understand and (perhaps even) 'enjoy' their study of Medieval literature.  He refers to this conglomeration of influences as the Medieval "Model" (though I suspect that in a post-Kuhn critical context we might more accurately refer to it as the Medieval "Paradigm").  The books methodology is to provide a 'pathway' by which modern readers might better understand some of the considerations and assumptions concerning the medieval world that would have been second nature to persons living in the middle ages, but which are now more-or-less foreign to our modern sensibilities.  His considerations include but are not limited to: an overview of the most important pagan and medieval sources with which a medieval author could assume his reader was familiar but which have fallen out of general readership by all but medieval specialists (i.e. Lucan and Boethius); an overview of medieval astronomy, cosmology, and physics (i.e. the crystal spheres, object tendencies, and bodily humors); developmental mythology (from angels and daemons to faeries and fawns); and even musings on how best to interpret the medieval's understanding of patently "outrageous" maps and bestiaries.

Now, all of this may sound extremely esoteric and on some level, it is.  I picked up this book because I recently started re-reading Dante's Comedia and thought it might provide some useful insights into how Dante's intended audience might have read his poem.  On this expectation this book has certainly delivered.  But I found, somewhat to my surprise, that the most interesting aspect of this book has more to do with considering what it means to view the universe through the "lens" of whatever one's age's prevailing "model" might be.  And while this is primarily a work interested in artistic imagination, Lewis suggests that on some level general conceptualizations of scientific concepts themselves are influenced by this process (and hence why I suggest the idea of a "paradigm" might be in order).  For what difference does it make that the medieval's conceived of a hierarchical universe in which base matter expresses a "downward tendency" while moderns conceive of gravity fields as responsible for this affect?  Mr. Lewis thinks that matters a great deal; for are not the two model's both, as expressed in language and imagination, competing metaphors?  It's true that the modern model "fits the appearances" of the world that we have now perceived in a way which the Aristotelian model does not, however this older model perfectly encapsulated the world which these older thinkers were able to see and observe in their own time.  The suggestion then is, how many of our own modern model's unassailable aspects are really derived "purely" from the data of the observable world (important in the modern model and--perhaps surprisingly--also in the medieval model) and how many are themselves shaped by the model's inevitable effect upon our imaginations?  Now, Lewis is no relativist, and (though a partisan) neither is he an apologist for the medieval over the modern model.  Lewis' point is that to observe and to synthesize within the imagination one's idea of what one is observing or what one should observe are two processes that mutually inform one another.  And invariably, because a model or paradigm is never the whole, there are things that a certain model will present and account for well and things which it will not present as well.  And when one model replaces another, even if the model is objectively 'better' in that it better fits the appearances than a previous model, this does not mean that it presents all things so well as as did the previous model, nor does it save the present model--whatsoever that model may be--from the day when its accrued language and 'obvious' suppositions are themselves overturned by yet another model which better fits appearances which were not even dreamt of by its predecessor. 

Now, all this may seem a very obvious point to anyone familiar with the writings of Kuhn, the philosophy of science, Ptolemy, or a whole host of other things.  What I found unique here was not so much the thesis (or perhaps I would do better to say "musings" since arguably the comparison of the modern and the medieval is not Lewis' central concern) but the method whereby one is invited into the imagination and the very mind of one of our medieval forebears, and asked to examine the modern scientific model from their perspective, not as ignorant Cretans, but as intelligent and inquisitive human beings (for so they were) curious as to what led us to jettison their model and replace it with a model of our own.  Once we see the role that language and imagination play in how we inevitably interact with our present historical 'model', how can we not be struck by a sense of humility, recognizing (if not ever really fully comprehending) all those layers of assumption and imagination and language and community which shape our conceptualization of the 'real' and the 'observable'.  For an age as enamored with our own progress and power as this current age, any opportunity to inject a bit of humility into our conceptualization of ourselves should be most welcome.  

(I apologize the poor wording of this post.  I am attempting to cover a work which is itself a summary very quickly, and I was up late last night finishing the book.  I just wanted to be sure that I got this post up as quickly as possible.  Please feel free to contact me if you wish for any clarifications.)