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John William Corrington on the Recovery of the Humanities

In Academia, America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Essays, History, Humanities, John William Corrington, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Scholarship, Southern History, Southern Literature, Western Philosophy, Writing on November 7, 2018 at 6:45 am

John William Corrington wrote two essays on the recovery of the humanities, both of which are collected in my edition of his work, The Southern Philosopher. 

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The first of these originated as a lecture for the Southern Humanities Conference in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1984. Corrington sets out in that piece to define the “humanities” and to explain why he believes they need recovering. He argues that symbolism is essential to the humanities and that symbolism has been under assault since the Enlightenment.

Corrington believes that the Enlightenment ushered in an era of scientism and materialism that led to the rise of Nazism, Marxist-Leninism, secular humanism, and logical positivism, all of which contributed to the “decerebration” of the humanities. The task of recovering the humanities, according to Corrington, involves “the need to re­examine the fundamental experiences and symbols upon which any serious notion of the Humanities must be grounded, and to question our present understanding and application of those symbols.”

Corrington undertakes this task through the paradigms of Eric Voegelin, who frames his analysis in terms of the mythopoetic thought of certain peoples and places, the role of the human psyche, and the nature of divinity and the infinite. Corrington examines the difference between psyche and physis; the former formulates mythopoetic meaning out of the data of the phenomenal world and provides the basis for our understanding of political order. By way of consciousness, the psyche comprehends and organizes logos and thereby structures our understanding of reality, including what it means to be human.

The second essay concerning the recovery of the humanities originated as a lecture at Kansas State University in 1986. It builds on the ideas in the previous essay / lecture regarding the derailment of the humanities in light of the gradual loss of noetic homonoia or sense of like-mindedness among disparate cultures with similar understandings of symbolic order.

Corrington seeks to substantiate the arguments from the previous essay / lecture by consulting T. S. Eliot’s notion of order as experienced through literary texts. Corrington suggests that Eliot’s notion of order “exists initially in the psyche of the poet-critic who represents his experience of truth by way of the symbolism of simultaneous order; it exists secondarily in the collective psyches of those who are capable of reenacting Eliot’s experience theoretically, and who find themselves, as if in Platonic dialogue with the poet, bound to admit the truth of what he says about the order—even as his work continues and extends the order.” Applying Eliot’s notion of order to classical texts, Corrington demonstrates that symbolized experience has a temporal element whereas the psyche, existing independently of any one person, is timeless.

Corrington references the National Socialist German Worker’s Party (otherwise known as the Nazi Party), various Marxist-Leninist operations, the French Academy, and the Index Libororum of the Holy Office as examples of practices and institutions that attempted to break down the ideal order that is represented in the continuity of certain canonical texts. Corrington challenges Eliot’s apparent assumption that art and literature are the proper lenses for examining symbolic order. He considers what qualities of a work make it literary as opposed to philosophical—or something else entirely. His point is not to discredit Eliot but to suggest that Eliot’s notion of order in literature is nuanced and complex.

Corrington argues that what drives human culture is “the human psyche in search of itself in the multiplicity of its forms, dimensions, and possibilities—and the loving and fearing tension within that psyche toward the divine ground.” Corrington returns to the idea that studying symbolic orders in different times and places reveals the commonalities between disparate peoples and cultures: “Whether we probe the roots of high civilizations or purportedly ‘primitive’ cultures, the result is the same: the foundations of human order are invariant: The society in question either represents itself as mirroring the order of the cosmos, the society of the gods, or expresses itself as that existential ground upon which gods and men interact with one another, the business of men and gods inextricably fused.” Understood this way, the political order of any given society can be explained as a reflection of metaxy, that state between the human and the divine whereby humans attempt to organize themselves in keeping with their beliefs about the nature of the divine and its order.

The understanding of human place in the world in relation to the divine is, according to Corrington, the humanities. Corrington critiques Eliot’s notion of an ideal order, but credits Eliot for what Eliot’s theory discloses, to wit, the organizing possibility of symbols to convey experiential realities: “Eliot’s earlier critical expression of an ideal order is thus discovered to be an inadequate but evocative symbolism which has, even as a poem might, invited us to probe the experience symbolized and rectify, through analysis of the symbolisms, the precise character of the experience.” Corrington again calls for the recovery of the humanities, not for the sake of any divisive telos or ideological goal, but instead for the unifying potential of an experiential and symbolic understanding of human purpose over time and in disparate places.

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