Essay 36: What We Mean by “Epochal Waters”

We sometimes use the phrase “epochal waters” to refer to the deepest layers of the past which we “swimmers” at the surface of the ocean don’t see or know. “Epochal waters” are latent, currents are closer to the surface.

There’s a similar idea from the French philosopher Michel Foucault who died in 1984. In his The Order of Things, classic from 1966, he talks about the “episteme” (as in epistemology) that frames everything from deep down. (The Greeks distinguished between “techne” (arts, crafts, practical skills and “episteme” (theory, overview).

“In essence, Les mots et les choses (Foucault’s The Order of Things) maintains that every period is characterized by an underground configuration that delineates its culture, a grid of knowledge making possible every scientific discourse, every production of statements. Foucault designates this historical a priori as an episteme, deeply basic to defining and limiting what any period can—or cannot—think.

Each science develops within the framework of an episteme, and therefore is linked in part with other sciences contemporary with it.

(Didier Eribon, Michel Foucault, Harvard University Press,  1991, page 158)

Take a simple example. A discussion comes up about what man is or does or thinks or knows. In today’s episteme or pre-definition, one thinks immediately not of man in terms of language or the invention of gods, but in terms of computational genomics, big data, bipedalism (walking upright on two legs). Its assumed in advance via an invisible episteme, that science and technology. physics, genetics, big data, chemistry and biology hold the answer and the rest is sort of outdated. This feeling is automatic and reflexive like breathing and might be called “mental breathing.”

One’s thoughts are immediately sent in certain directions or grooves, a process  that is automatic and more like a “mental reflex” than a freely chosen “analytical frame.” The thinker has been “trained” in advance and the episteme pre-decides what is thinkable and what is not.

There are deep episteme that underlie all analyses: for example, in the Anglo-American tradition of looking at things, the phrase “human nature” inevitably comes in as a deus ex machina (i.e., sudden way of clinching an argument, the “magic factor” that has been there all along). If you ask why are you suddenly “importing” the concept of “human nature,” the person who uses the phrase has no idea. It’s in the “epochal water” or Foucault’s episteme, and it suddenly swims up from below at the sea floor.

Another quick example: In the Anglo-American mind, there’s a belief from “way down and far away” that failure in life is mostly about individual behavior (laziness, alcoholism, etc.) and personal “stances” while “circum-stances” are an excuse. This way of sequencing acceptable explanations is deeply pre-established in a way that is itself hard to explain. It serves to “frame the picture” in advance. These are all “epochal water“ or episteme phenomena.

Essay 10: Towards a Cosmopolitan Re-Education

Education today is still completely parochial and we will now give an example of making education completely cosmopolitan (i.e., based on global “inputs”).

There’s a Japanese critique of the entire Western tradition of technology-and-man defeating nature. We will come to the Japanese critique in a moment. First, we remind the reader of Western ideas of man as conqueror of nature: think of Sophocles’ classic play Antigone where perhaps the most famous choral ode in Greek drama occurs, “Ode to Man” which celebrates man’s techno-rise (our word technology derives from Greek “techne”):

“Humanity has built ships to conquer the seas, crafted plows to tame the earth, bent animals to his will, raised houses to defeat the rain and the snow.”

Nearly everything is about humanity asserting its will over nature.

One finds a restatement of this conquest-of nature theme in fellow Greek dramatist Aeschylus in his great Prometheus Bound, where he criticizes the men of old in their pre-Promethean ignorance:


“They handled all things in bewilderment and confusion. They did not know of building houses with bricks to face the sun; they did not know how to work in wood. They lived like swarming ants in holes in the ground, in the sunless caves of the earth. For them there was no secure token by which to tell winter nor the flowering spring nor the summer with its crops; all their doings were without intelligent calculation until I showed them the rising of the stars, and the settings, hard to observe. And further I discovered to them numbering, pre-eminent among subtle devices, and the combining of letters as a means of remembering all things, the Muses’ mother, skilled in craft.

“It was I who first yoked beasts for them in the yokes and made of those beasts the slaves of trace chain and pack saddle that they might be man’s substitute in the hardest tasks; and I harnessed to the carriage, so that they loved the rein, horses, the crowning pride of the rich man’s luxury. It was I and none other who discovered ships, the sail-driven wagons that the sea buffets. Such were the contrivances that I discovered for men.

“Greatest was this: in the former times if a man fell sick he had no defense against the sickness, neither healing food nor drink, nor unguent; but through the lack of drugs men wasted away, until I showed them the blending of mild simples wherewith they drive out all manner of diseases…It was I who made visible to men’s eyes the flaming signs of the sky that were before dim. So much for these. beneath the earth, man’s hidden blessing, copper, iron, silver, and gold—will anyone claim to have discovered these before I did?

“One brief word will tell the whole story: all arts that mortals have come from Prometheus.”

(Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, University of Chicago Press, Aeschylus II, 1956, pages 155-156)

One can begin to see how “Promethean man” culminates in Francis Bacon’s (died in 1626) admonition to “place Nature on the rack so that man might force her to tell her secrets.” 

Thus, the Western tradition comes close to a war on nature itself.

Now we come to a critique of this from Japan on the other side of the Pacific:

Natsume Sōseki (died in 1916), the greatest writer in modern Japanese literature, has a protagonist in the 1913 classic Kojin (“The Wayfarer”):

“Constant motion and flow is our very fate.”

“Man’s insecurity stems from the advance of science. Never once has science, which never ceases to move forward, allowed us to pause.

From walking to rickshaw, from rickshaw to carriage, from carriage to train, from train to automobile, from there on to the dirigible, further on to the airplane, and further on and on—no matter how far we may go, it won’t let us take a breath. How far it will sweep us along, nobody knows for sure. It is really frightening.”

(Sōseki, The Wayfarer, Tuttle Books, 1967, page 285)

This sense of things that Promethean/Baconian man will place mankind in a runaway train with no brakes or endpoint is a critique that makes us think. The counterargument that we know of no other way out of poverty is “co-valid” and we have a kind of legitimate “argument without end” which cannot be easily dismissed. We cannot really divide the world into proponents of science/technology on the one side and Luddites on the other. That is too simplistic. There are legitimate concerns about de-humanization through modern science and technology in Adorno and Horkheimer, say, who fear a global shipwreck based on this “runaway train with no brakes or endpoint.” The current climate change crisis comes to mind.

Our main point here is not to enter this argument or to take sides but to show the reader how a cosmopolitan “post-parochial” education might look and how this kind of meta-intelligent pedagogy would be deeply “eye-opening” and help the Wittgenstein process where “light dawns gradually over the whole” as we have seen.

Cosmopolitan Re-Education That Includes Movies and Songs

Another dimension of cosmopolitanism in education is the complete assimilation of movies and songs into the analysis (i.e., all-media cosmopolitanism). here’s a movie example that continues the argument between the conquer nature position and de-humanization fears.

Think of the movie Things to Come.

Things to Come is a 1936 movie masterpiece based on an H.G. Wells sociological sci-fi masterpiece.

In the last minutes of the movie, there’s an exchange between “John Cabal” (played by Raymond Massey) who looks at the stars and says, “All or nothing. We must conquer all of it or disappear. No rest for man in general.”

The other man (“Passworthy”) radically differs: “we are such small little creatures and cannot live that way.”

The storyline of this movie:

A global war begins in 1940. This war drags out over many decades until most of the people still alive (mostly those born after the war started) do not even know who started it or why. Nothing is being manufactured at all any more and society has broken down into primitive localized communities. In 1966, a great plague wipes out most of what people are left but small numbers still survive. One day a strange aircraft lands at one of these communities and its pilot tells of an organization which is rebuilding civilization and slowly moving across the world re-civilizing these groups of survivors. Great reconstruction takes place over the next few decades and society is once again great and strong. The world’s population is now living in underground cities. 

In the year 2035, on the eve of man’s first flight to the moon, a popular uprising against progress (which some people claim has caused the wars of the past) gains support and becomes violent.