The long-prevalent belief that what is proposed as truth or reason can only be credited in the degree that it is consistent with the strata of physical reality by any means available to our experience is mistaken. It is mistaken in its conception of the nature of the physical, and, therefore, in the nature of everything else. It has insisted that what it offers as the sole model of reality is exhaustively pertinent to every meaningful question about reality, dismissing as not meaningful every question to which it is not pertinent. But, for some time now, science has been fetching back strange reports, about the radical apparent discontinuity between volatile reality at the subatomic level and the stolid lawfulness of reality at the scale of our experience, for example. The fathomless anomalies of the infinitesimal present as any ordinary day, any transient thought. We know now that physical being as we experience it is wildly untypical in cosmic terms. Reality as we know it now does not yield or legitimize a narrow or prejudicial vocabulary. Science has given us grounds for a liberating humility. We need not continue to encumber our thinking with strictures it has long since put aside.
We should instead be finding language that is capable, capacious, and responsive. The expectations induced by any fixed approach should be relaxed, in pondering history as surely as in considering human nature or the depths of physical reality. Ideology has been a terrible mistake, theory another one. Both mimic positivism in their stringencies and exclusions. There is no writer, and so on. Why should any given thing have happened? No theory, no convention or prejudice, should take precedence over the fact that, if it did happen, it arose out of the endless complexity of human life, human lives. The Puritan Thomas Shepard, generally credited with founding Harvard, remarked that a man with a wooden leg could trim his foot to fit his shoe, but in the case of a living limb this would not be advisable. Those who think about history should avoid such trimming, since they deal with living flesh, specifically those human swarms whose passage through the world is the sum and substance of history.
We have not yet absorbed the fact that history has fallen into our laps now. We hardly know what it is, let alone what we should do with it. We have been busy destroying the landmarks that might otherwise help us orient ourselves. We have impoverished ourselves of every sense of how, over time, a society emerged that we and most of the world have considered decent and fortunate. Could we save this good order from a present threat? If it collapsed, could we rebuild it? These are real questions.
The stringencies and inadequacies of positivism in all its forms have sent me to the literature of early modern, pre-positivist thought, where its attritions were not yet felt. I have been reading some old sermons and treatises by sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English and Anglo-Americans. I have been reading the Puritans. I confess to being drawn to orphan figures, movements, and periods. My reward is in the discovery of their frequently remarkable value and significance. It was no doubt inevitable that I would come finally to the Puritans, among the most effectively dismissed of all historically consequential movements. They are seldom mentioned except as a pernicious influence on our civilization, both early and abiding. Few grounds are offered to support this view of them, and those that are offered are ill-informed.
Read it all (hat tip:AH).