Tail Chasing

It is commonly assumed that the first human picture of the world was a mess: fragmentary sensations, unstructured but simply registered by unreflecting experience, severally endowed with spirits or demons by the just-evolving human imagination, only reprocessed later into coherent schemes by prehistoric bricoleurs who constructed the first categories. The earliest world-pictures we know about, however, are not of this kind. Human intellects make sense of things and, if anything, err on the side of coherence. Geniuses of my acquaintance, who almost seem clever enough to make sense of the world if they so wished, are more likely to accept it as a muddle than the common man who invests it with a transcendent character of its own or recognizes it as filled with divine purpose in which nothing is out of place. Pluralism and chaos are harder to grasp – harder, perhaps, to understand and certainly to accept – than monism and order. For a whole society to accept an agreed world-picture as senseless, random and intractable, people seem to need a lot of collective disillusionment, accumulated and transmitted over many generations.

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto

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