Essay 76: Education and the Question of a “Scheme of Things”

The French classic The Thibaults (Les Thibault) from 1922 has a dialog about the presence or absence of “a scheme of things” behind everything. This Roger Martin du Gard (died 1958, Nobel 1937) classic gives us an insight into the relationship between education and this “scheme of things.”


The Thibaults is a multi-volume roman-fleuve (saga novel) by Roger Martin du Gard, which follows the fortunes of two brothers, Antoine and Jacques Thibault, from their upbringing in a prosperous Catholic bourgeois family to the end of the First World War.

Antione, one of the Thibault brothers, has a conversation with a priest at the very end of the novel:

“I talked just now about a Universal Order and a Scheme of Things…actually we’ve as many reasons to question the existence of a Scheme of Things as to take it for granted. From his actual viewpoint, the human animal I am observes an immense tangle of conflicting forces. But do these forces obey a universal law outside themselves, distinct from them? Or do they, rather, obey—so to speak—internal laws, each atom being a law unto itself, that compels it to work out a ‘personal destiny’? I see these forces obeying laws which do not control them from outside but join up with them, but do nothing more than in some way stimulate them…And anyhow, what a jumble it is, the course of natural phenomena! I’d just as soon believe that causes spring from each other ad infinitum, each cause being the effect of another cause, and each effect the cause of other effects.

“Why should one want to assume at all costs a Scheme of Things?

“It’s only another bait form our logic-ridden minds. Why try to find a common ‘purpose’ in the movements of atoms endlessly clashing and glancing off each other? Personally, I’ve often told myself that everything happens just as if nothing led to anything, as if nothing had a meaning.”

Antione shook his head. “that blind appeal—to what? To that problematic Scheme of Things! To a deaf and dumb abstraction, that takes no heed of us.”

(Roger Martin du Gard, The Thibaults, Bantam Modern Classic, 1968, pages 768-770)

All bodies of knowledge like religion, philosophy, science posit a scheme of things which is perhaps subtle or occluded (“The Occluded Imam” or “mystery of the Holy Trinity”) or “the mind of God” (Steven Hawking’s way of getting at this) or “the Method of Absolute Doubt” leading to final certainty (Descartes).

String theory talks this way too.

In our own educational remediation effort, we are agnostic about any Scheme of Things and do not try to link books, lectures, courses to some pre-existing schema or “final layer underlying everything” at all.

Students create an evolving overview by “circum-spective” “walking around” or meta-intelligence and there is no ultimate “Eureka moment” where “everything is illuminated” (to use the title of the contemporary novel by that name.) We also do not deny the possibility of the existence of a Scheme of Things. Education thought of this way is an exploration and quest that does not end and there does not have to be a final “knowledge map“ or “truth atlas” other than home-made student “composite sketches” which are tentative and not final or “apodictic.”

Essay 34: Arguments Without End: Are They Good or Bad?

The Dutch historian Pieter Geyl (died in 1966) coined the phrase “argument without end” to get at the constant reappearance of old arguments or viewpoints. One gets the impression that arguments are either persistent or perhaps permanent. One simplistic example could be argument about socialism: Sweden is “good,” but Venezuela (or Cuba) is bad. This book takes the view that “arguments without end” are not the end of knowledge but rather a potential beginning: it could be that some issues cannot be captured by one school of thought: the awarding of the 1974 Nobel Prize to both Hayek (“the right”) and Myrdal (“the left”) is an example of this need for hybridity. Both Hayek and Myrdal are each seeing something valid and it’s a “fool’s errand” to decide who is “eternally” correct.

Let’s apply this thinking to a deep “argument without end” within and about history.

Michel Foucault (died in 1984) following Nietzsche, argues that history seems “linear” but is more random and non-linear than the “linear” historians see or admit.

There’s an aphorism in Nietzsche, (from his The Dawn) which Foucault uses…history is made by the “iron-hand of necessity shaking the dice-box of chance.”

In other words the world we know, traveling somehow from the assassination of Kennedy (November 2, 1963) to the impeachment hearings of Trump in October 2019, must be thought of as a kind of “random walk” behind which are trends, cycles, so that one gets a fusion of structure and surprise. If you emphasize surprise you’re closer to Foucault than to those narrative historians who think they can show you the exact threads which connect “then and now.”

Here’s an example of such a historian, the celebrated G.R. Elton of England, whose classic The Tudor Revolution in Government is a masterpiece of orthodox analysis. The book centers on the administrative revolution in the 1530s in England which implied, says Elton, “As regards political and social structure, the sixteenth century produced something quite new in England—the self-contained sovereign state in which no power on earth could challenge the supremacy of statute made by the crown in parliament.”

“In this revolution, in this making of a new kind of state productive of a new kind of society, administrative reforms played their part. It is against this background of controlled upheaval that they must be seen and understood.”

(Elton, The Tudor Revolution in Government, Cambridge University press, 1966, page 426/427)

Orthodox historians see history as a “nail-down-able” system of storylines and the controlled upheavals have a direction (teleology) which allows you to use—in this case the 1530s in England—as a beginning, an origin, a “datum line,” and once you have this clear starting point you can follow the story to now and include comparative developments in France or Germany or China.

The orthodox “explain strategy” starts with an origin, a “starting gate” like a horse-race.

The FoucaultNietzsche view is that these starting points are not entirely useless but in the end don’t help you because history is in the end governed by “the dice-box of chance” even if it is held by “the iron-hand of necessity.” History is more “upheaval” than “control” more surprise than structure. “Determinism” such as perhaps based by pinning down a starting point from which one can “build out,” is a wish-dream since history is nonlinear and nondeterministic. Even Elton’s phrase “controlled upheaval” is full of questions and problems.

Modern “complexity theory” in mathematics tries to get at these differences analytically. A “meta-intelligent” student would go from this historians’ “argument without end” to the analysis of complexity in math as a way of rounding out the exploration.

An “argument without end” can thus be useful if the student does not insist on some final “apodictic” or certain-forever answer.