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Bridging the Chasm: New England Transcendentalism in the 1900s

Kirby Urner
Aug 11, 2018 · 6 min read

The chasm I’m talking about in the title is one I’ve mentioned many times: that of C.P. Snow (1905–1980), when describing the gulf opening up, in his day, between those schooled in the arcana of mathematics versus those schooled in the esoterica of the humanities.

I experienced this divide first hand at Princeton, wherein those of us taking courses in the “E-Quad” (engineering quadrangle) were stereotyped as not truly steeped in the Liberal Arts. We shared the same campus, but not the same curriculum.

Perhaps H.G. Wells (1866–1946) drew attention to this chasm most effectively, in The Time Machine, wherein he projects this bifurcation into the far future. A species divide has occurred by then.

The engineers, now Morlocks, live in subterranean caverns and have all the technical know-how. The Liberals (I’ll call them that for short), live on the surface, as Eloi. They’re in a happy paradise but for the fact the Morlocks occasionally pop to the surface at night and carry off Eloi for consumption. Clearly, inter-species relations among the former humans were not all that good.

Around the time C.P. Snow was describing the yawning abyss, and its dire implications, one R. Buckminster Fuller (1895–1983) matriculated into Harvard. As a New England Brahman, his family had longstanding connections to Cambridge. Fuller had gone to a prep school, Milton Academy, and had some starry-eyed illusions about what life at Harvard might entail. He was a showman at heart, and might have been happier at Princeton, which encourages thespians through McCarter Theater. He would have been closer to Einstein, whom he came to idolize.

Young Fuller was already good at mathematics or at least he considered himself to be, and so he dove into the Liberal Arts out of determination to become well-rounded. From an early age, he treasured the ideal of a comprehensive education. He hoped to become a Renaissance Man, more like Dr. Arthur Loeb (1923–2002), with whom he came to collaborate, much later in his trajectory.

He also wanted to better understand his own family heritage, meaning he tracked down and studied the writings of his great aunt, Margaret Fuller Ossoli (1810–1850). She had been a first editor of Dial Magazine, which helped propel the careers of the early New England Transcendentalists. His destiny would be to join their number.

Fuller’s theatrical nature drove him to excess. He treated the entire cast of some New York play to a lavish round of drinks and blew his budget. He was dismissed from Harvard and sent by his family to a hard labor assignment in a cotton mill. This chapter marked the beginning of his strained relationship with academia.

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from a Martian Math storyboard

He regarded his Harvard teachers as over-specialized, and when World War 1 rolled around, he was eager to leave academic life for the Navy. At last he found the inter-disciplinary curriculum he’d been seeking: the world view passed on by the admiralty, at Annapolis, would shape his thinking from then on. He gained command of a ship. He also served as an communications officer right when radio was revolutionizing the military. Coordinating operations on a grand scale: this is what his World Game would be about.

Against this background, I want to make a simple point: Fuller’s magnum opus Synergetics is anchored on the Humanities side of the chasm and builds its bridge to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) coming from PATH (Philosophy, Anthropology, Theater, History). His project was to resurrect Natural Philosophy as a discipline, a brand of Neoplatonism one might argue, and to lead prose readers, those schooled in metaphorical thinking and allusive writing, into the world of mathematics.

Geometry was key. He would streamline spatial geometry by focusing on the tetrahedron, rather than the cube, as the most sublime (and the simplest) of the Platonics. By this means, he would crack open the STEM codes, rendering them intelligible to the Liberal Arts side. He would later return to Harvard as one of those allowed to occupy the Elliot Norton Chair of Poetry.

Nowadays, if you wish to claim your credential as a student of American literature up through the 1900s, you will have studied Synergetics, at least to the point of knowing about its Concentric Hierarchy of Polyhedrons. You will know about the A, B, T, E and S modules, the Coupler, the Mite, and how these fit together to form a set of concentric shapes.

You will understand the metaphor of tension, connecting the dots, and compression, the special cases so connected. Generalized principles, accessible to the mind, give our brains the means to perpetually reorganize. We’re “machine learners” in that sense. Synergetics is about opening one’s mind to intuitions in order to keep one’s brain a useful harvester of information and problem solver on behalf of the entire world.

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A & B modules, by R. Hawkins

Students of the Visual Arts likely also have a thorough grasp of this same Concentric Hierarchy, given its ability to organize one’s thinking. If your university or college saddled you with debt, without passing on this knowledge, you have a right to feel short changed. Warn your peers if this withholding of vital heritage continues.

Synergetics anchors to experience with two core concepts: that of shape, and that of scale.

We know what it means to focus on something’s shape, irrespective of its size. We also know that size matters, and that structures cannot be scaled up and down the size spectrum willy-nilly, as the ratio of surface to enclosed volume is far from constant. The structural solutions obtained at the nano-scale cannot be expected at lower frequencies. We’ve been learning a lot about these power laws from the Santa Fe Institute.

Shapes may be represented as polyhedrons, which double as the paradigm objects of object oriented programming in some curricula. These may be resized, but also rotated (by matrix or quaternion) and translated, even turned inside-out.

The attributes of concavity and convexity enter in, with the observer not forgotten or ignored. As a viewpoint, I might be inside or outside said container. Perhaps I observe the vista prior to the shape’s tuning in, and after the shape’s tuning out. The idea is conceptuality begins with awareness of topological features, by tactile senses in addition to mind’s eye.

Does all this sound a bit like phenomenology? That would not be coincidental. As a philosophical language, Synergetics is dialed in to capture meaning from any and all decipherable communications, the stuff of Universe. I’m not claiming Synergetics is a path to omniscience, so much as a discipline for letting more knowledge filter in, on a need to know basis. We have practical needs, for food and shelter, for water and air. To the extent we’re able to economize and optimize, we have energy left over to think up some better arrangements, some longer term solutions. Synergetics is about gaining “just in time” access to an inventory of decipherable (usable) prior achievements.

Why is the Global U curriculum so weak? Why is Philosophy in particular so anemic? What might we do to strengthen our abilities in the face of onrushing challenges? Good questions. Stay tuned.

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