“Do not sit high up on the ladder of abstraction.” That's what I’ve said often to young journalists in 2012. “Emphasize specific detail.” And in reading yesterday an essay the great novelist Walker Percy wrote in 1990, I remembered that ladder of abstraction problems go deeper than writing.
Percy wrote, “Darwin, Newton, and Freud were theorists. They pursued truth more or less successfully by theory—from which, however, they themselves were exempt. You will look in vain in Darwin’s Origin of Species for an explanation of Darwin’s behavior in writing Origin of Species. … The theorist is not encompassed by his theory. One’s self is always a leftover from one’s theory.”
True, and what happens when we blithely theorize about others? More Percy: “Marx and Stalin, Nietzsche and Hitler were also theorists. When theory is applied, not to matter or beasts, but to man, the consequence is that millions of men can be eliminated without compunction or even much interest. Survivors of both Hitler’s Holocaust and Stalin’s terror reported that their oppressors were not ‘horrible’ or ‘diabolical’ but seemed, on the contrary, quite ordinary, even bored by their actions, as if were all in a day’s work. …”
The way to stop theorizing (and stop being bored) is to realize what a weird and wonderful place the world is, with nooks and crannies filled by odd specifics—and Percy names one in particular: “Jews are a stumbling block to theory. … The great paradox of the Western world is that even though it was in the Judeo-Christian West that modern science arose and flourished, it is Judeo-Christianity which the present-day scientific state of mind finds the most offensive among the world’s religions.”
That’s why, as a Jew and a Christian, I readily embrace science but skewer the religion of scientism. Percy explains: “Judaism is offensive because it claims that God entered into a covenant with a single tribe, with it and no other. Christianity is doubly offensive because it claims not only this but also that God became one man, He and no other. One cannot imagine any statement more offensive to the present-day scientific state of mind.”
Percy concludes that two conclusions are possible: “One is that both the Jewish and Christian claims are untrue, are in fact nonsense, and that the scientific mind-set is correct. The other is that the scientific method is correct as far as it goes, but the theoretical mind-set, which assigns significance to single things and events only insofar as they are exemplars of theory or items for consumption, is in fact an inflation of a method of knowing and is unwarranted.”
The inflation of currency is bad but the inflation of knowing is worse.