Sacred & Profane / Teaching / Society / Social Epistemology / Religion /

Sacred & Profane

Mission: to challenge glib assumptions about man’s ability to distinguish sacred from profane: both concepts being culturally subjective

Durkheim observed that while there are many religions without a concept of god, even religions without superstition, there are no religions without a confident distinction between sacred and profane. I came upon Ivan Illich’s account of the distinction last night while correcting my download of the on-line version of Deschooling Society (see InfoAll blog):

We permit the state to ascertain the universal educational deficiencies of its citizens and establish one specialized agency to treat them. We thus share in the delusion that we can distinguish between what is necessary education for others and what is not, just as former generations established laws which defined what was sacred and what was profane.

Durkheim recognized that this ability to divide social reality into two realms was the very essence of formal religion. There are, he reasoned, religions without the supernatural and religions without gods, but none which does not subdivide the world into things and times and persons that are sacred and others that as a consequence are profane. Durkheim’s insight can be applied to the sociology of education, for school is radically divisive in a similar way.

How many categories of thought and experience are there that may not be nourished by reference to these statements merely by Durkheim and Illich? At first glance Illich’s use of Durkheim may seem to be way off the main path. Give yourself a moment to follow the path anyway: it should be a main road. I am going to add another path. Followed, it may not be the Mississippi, but could well develop into the Ohio.

As a young student assigned unfashionable quantities of poetry, I came to love rhyme. The rhyming sophistication of a Keats is easy for my generation. So is that of a Herrick or a Lovelace. Byron or Butler complicates things. By the time I was nineteen or twenty the rhymes of tone-deaf William Butler Yeats seemed supreme. I was as certain as only the religious, sacred mind can be that there was something innately profound as only the sacred can be in the association of the rhymed words in

A woman can be proud and stiff
When on Love intent
But love has pitched his mansion
In the place of excrement.
Nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.

I repeat: my point is not addressed to the profundity of the poetry however profound it may be but specifically to the internal profundity of the rhyme itself. Sole … whole, intent … rent in rhymed association were intrinsically profound to an extent that was mystical, magical, sacred …

By age twenty-four or -five in graduate school I was still ready to stake my soul on it the same as I would have on the relationships of musical harmony.

I was nearly prepared to commit murder when in my forties a musician told me that harmonic profundity was merely an illusion, that the relationships were merely cultural, learned. I still (partly) disagree and believe that a non-benighted mathematics could argue it well. But back in my twenties in graduate school, an analogous comment by a professor led to less, not more resolution on my part. My linguistics professor pooh-poohed the onomatopoetic theory of language, said there was nothing in it. I certainly believed that the theory (at least as usually stated) was naïve, but that still there was something there. I knew what a future paper would argue and I knew that Yeats’ Crazy Jane and the Bishop would figure strongly in it.

So I set myself to concentrate, to put on a front burner what had never not been on a back burner: intrinsic meaning buried deep in language, and sometimes evoked (like a ghost? like marsh gas?) in poetry. … And I came up empty.

Now my failure, my suddenly dawning uncertainty, does not in itself prove anything. Maybe I’m not smart enough. Maybe lots of things. Einstein’s discomfort with quantum theory neither proves nor disproves it. A debater’s inability to sway an audience neither proves nor disproves his argument’s possible quality. But I’m reminded of the time (recently narrated here) that weird circumstances brought this virgin under the influence of a drug, that I’d had visions of massive profundity, that I’d brought all my (compromised) concentration to bear to capture at least one jewel from the experience, to preserve it for future polishing, and was able to grasp nothing, became convinced that the “profundities” were wholly subjective and hallucinatory.


As I pondered onomatopoeia in language, my confidence that I was almost intelligent while the professors, as a group, were fundamentally flawed didn’t waver, but my confidence that some meaning was in the sound, did. Language is not harmony. Anything Pythagorean about vocabulary is more likely to be coincidence after eons of change. Even ur-language probably had more to do with evolutionary accident than some Pythagorean or Keplerian ideal dynamic.

I’m not sure this is so; I’m just no longer “certain” that it isn’t. (Maybe further development of my theory of Macroinformation will come to be able to show qualitative differences quantitatively: the way we can weight the bacon and see that one pound is more than one half pound.)

This file, like so many, has not at all taken the direction I’d originally intended for it, but I am on the subject: and now I’ll jump to where I believe Durkheim’s observation, extended by Illich, may go: into the arena of Certainty as Pathology.

A central pathology in that arena is mankind’s ludicrous confidence that he can know Right from Wrong: as though they were tautologies. (They behave like tautologies, but they are not rational.)

In some religions only god is scared.

In Christianity, man is born in “original sin.”

In American democracy only numbers of humans (the majority) are sacred.

Twelve ordinary citizens determine the “truth.”

How’s that for a reversal of axioms, of definitions, of meanings?

How can the same population buy original sin as a congregation and hold themselves sacred as a polity?

OK, so it needs to be rewritten, perhaps differently organized. I bet you have more resources for your work than I have for mine: you do it. I’ll get to it when I can. Meantime: I say there’s even more food for thought: my additions in the context of Illich’s expansion of Durkheim.

My main arguments need to be made here. I plan that they will be. But for now I jump ahead once again. It’s not that Mars needs to be replaced with Christ, it’s not that Jehovah needs to be replaced by Marx, it’s not that King George needs to be replaced by General George … What the possibility of human integrity (if not human survival) needs is that Certainty be replaced by the non-equilibrium thermodynamics of Ilya Prigogine: The End of Certainty.

I write today in a state of severe psychic imbalance. I first read those words of Ivan Illich in the New York Review a year or so prior to the publication of Deschooling Society. Yet I now see that I nevertheless didn’t follow those implications properly. Over the years I’ve given up on God and followed god instead, given up on Christianity and followed Jesus instead, given up on Jesus and follow Bateson, Fuller, Illich, Prigogine instead, but I never gave up on my religious conviction that I could tell profane from sacred.

Now I see that it’s a dichotomy that we must give up both sides of: a false dichotomy. It’s not that everything should be secular; secular is as wrong-headed as sacred. It isn’t that if we’re not sacred, then we’re profane. We are not and never have been either. There’s no such “thing.”

What we are is alive: and in trouble.note And nothing fostered by any sacred or profane institution (that’s ever been fundednote) can help us. We need to find and study an independent intelligence with a fresh view of reality. No, it isn’t Professor Hawking; it’s Professor Prigogine. Time and entropy are not reversible. Equations that treat them as though they are are poppycock.

Friend, forget the Truth: meet the universe.

Before what is sacred, people lose all sense of power and all confidence; they occupy a powerless and humble attitude toward it. And yet no thing is sacred of itself, but by my declaring it sacred, by my declaration, my judgment, my bending the knee; in short, by my conscience.

Max Stirner

We’re in real trouble when follies such as clearing land (for agriculture, then cities, then battlefields) are protected from discussion by a veil of the sacred.

Too regularly “the sacred” merely masks bad habits.

Too regularly thought models become orthodoxy and orthodoxy is accepted as sacred.

@ K. 2001 05 04


In trouble:
There being currently five or so billion of us is not “proof” that we’re doing fine. The contrary is a strong possibility. When I made my six gallon batches of beer, I’d start with a fraction of a gram of yeast. Within a day, there’d be many grams of yeast, burbling away. After a few days the yeast would be at its maximum population , geared to the amount of sugar remaining. After six days the sugar was 99% gone and 99% of the yeast had died or were dying. All bottled the six gallons of beer contained a fraction of a gram of viable yeast: gone into hibernation. Any alive were like flies in September: stumble bums of their former selves.


Institution Ever Funded:
FLEX was never funded. Even without the media’s help, the public should have seen and seized its chance to escape from itself. I suppose the schooled society will have to hit rock bottom before it recognizes the need for fundamental change. Just remember that numerically few bounce from the rocks alive. There’ll be a lot of dead elephants for one cat or one mouse scurrying away.


Social Epistemology Cosmology Etc.

About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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