Essay 6: Enchantment as an “Engine of Education”

We started this book mentioning Wittgenstein’s assertion, “Light dawns gradually over the whole.”

There are two “players”—light (illumination) and the whole.

The learner, especially the deeper variety of learner, then has two quests: the flashlight or searchlight that gives off the light and the “problem” of defining “the whole.”

We argue in this book only something called “enchantment” (seeing the magic in some question or phenomenon or thing) can be the engine that gives you the impetus to go on in this double search.

For example:

  1. Think of the opening line in the great novel from 1959, The Last of the Just, which won the Goncourt Prize, the highest literary award in France.

The opening line, which serves as a kind of “overture” for the entire book, is: 

“Our eyes register the light of dead stars.”

The author uses this as a figure of speech which captures the lasting influence of people who came before you who somehow are “stars” in the sense of principal actors in your mental life. When you begin the novel, you don’t know if the writer is going to use this concept not as a statement about stellar objects in the sky, as understood by astronomy or cosmology or optics, but in the personal influence sense, as he does. 

This is a beautiful “overture” because it links the physical to the personal in a “dual metaphor.” There’s a secondary poetical device since stars could mean shiny objects in the sky or people as in “movie stars.”

Great writing has this “enchanting” quality and it addresses a deep human hunger for so-called “words to live by.”

  1. Go back to our elementary math example where 1=.9 recurring.

A student gets intrigued by this and senses “how can that be? how can you add these decimal nines infinitely?

In fact, this is a deep and “enchanting” question. If you look into something called infinitesimals (smallest math “objects”) you will find that this issue is still an “argument without end” to use Pieter Geyl’s phrase.

Furthermore: If something is or seems to be “an argument without end,” what does that imply about our ability to “nail” things down in our minds?  That’s an enchanting question in itself which resonates with the Descartes “epistemology” and certitude quest we have seen previously.

Then there’s the other elusive “player” in the Wittgenstein sentence: “the whole.”

Does one mean the whole of a novel or math problem? The whole of the world of metaphors and numerical thinking (i.e., math)? Does one mean everything that exists? It’s not a set or static “thing.”

The point is not to decide any of this in a “once-and-for-all” way. The point is only to allow the enchantment engine to carry the student into these realms and domains without insisting on an eternal “final answer.”

This is why this kind of meta-intelligent self-education or re-education parts company with quests such as Stephen Hawking’s, to “know the mind of God” as mentioned in the last lines of his 1988 book, A Brief History of Time.

Enchantment gives you some pre-understanding which pulls you higher and you can relax the insistence on finality or absolute certainty which characterizes the whole trajectory from Descartes through Husserl, who died in 1938 (think of his book, Cartesian Meditations) through contemporary “scientism” such as exemplified by Hawking with his undoubted analytical genius.