Thursday, June 23, 2005

Pax Verstehens

In German, to understand is verstehen. The noun, understanding is Verstand, although this is used for the faculty, while Verstehen is used for the activity of grasping or comprehending. This distinction allows us to raise a philosophical question about the motto, "Peace through Understanding". What is it that is to be grasped or understood that will bring peace? Is the idea merely that we should look at the unisphere and realize that all human beings share the same planet and so we ought to get along? That seems too handy, oversimplistic, a false start for an easy way out. We will have to work at understanding. If we want to defend the claim that peace can be won through understanding, we need to look at what sort of work understanding entails, and how peace can be found among the fruits of this work.
Plato distinguished three sorts of cognition, corresponding to successively superior areas on his divided line: doxa (opinion), dianoia (discursive reasoning), and noesis (intellection). The method of dianoia is analysis, while the method of noesis is dialectic. In Boethius (d. 525?), dianoia and noesis are considered the activities of ratio and intellectus, respectively. This distinction was introduced into German by Meister Eckhart (d. 1327?) as that between Vernunft and Verstand.

Vernunft is the conceptualization of the sensory world and its contents, while Verstand was taken by the mystics as the intuitive understanding of God.
Of course, mystics like Eckhart also held that there is a kind of peace that can only be achieved through the intuitive understanding of God. This is another sort of peace through understanding.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Yearning for "Peace through Understanding"


The theme of the 1964 New York World's Fair was "Peace through Understanding." I have adopted it as my own personal motto. I was eleven when my parents took my little brother and me to the fair. The idea of peace through understanding was supposed to be symbolized by a giant steel globe, the Unisphere. It was all pretty impressive. The future looked bright. Technology and scientific progress would lead us to an age of comfort, efficiency, discovery, convenience, unending progress, invention, and peace! But where did the idea for this theme of peace through understanding originate? The best information I've been able to find is at: Building the 1964 World's Fair. There are several points to note. First, whatever noble idea of helping children learn about the world was in the mind of Jerold Weinstein and Robert Koppel (who promoted the idea of having the fair), when Robert Moses took over it was given a spin that emphasized technological expertise as understanding, and the idea was that it was the US that would be educating the world. Any peace envisioned would be a Pax Americana. Here is a quote from Jeffery Stanton's page mentioned above.

While the 1939/40 Fair was structured around a single idea, "Building a World of Tomorrow," Moses was motivated by his desire that the new Fair contain endless variety, "to be universal, to have something for everyone." Moses accepted the Fair's theme "Peace Through Understanding" that was originally proposed by Jerome Weinstein during Robert Koppel's tenure as Fair president, but he was quick to add others. Moses declared "The basic purpose of the Fair is Peace through Understanding, that is education of the peoples of the world as to the interdependence of nations to ensure a lasting peace. The Fair is dedicated to Man's achievements on a shrinking globe in an expanding universe, his inventions, discoveries, arts, skills and aspirations...." The other Fair theme was "A Millennium of Progress."

What is written on the plaque below the unisphere, however, is none of the above:
“Dedicated to man's aspirations toward Peace through mutual understanding and symbolizing his achievements in an expanding universe.”
Peace through understanding becomes a mere aspiration while the unisphere is taken to be a symbol for something else entirely: achievements won as a manifest destiny over the entire universe is as conquered territory expands.
The text of the back of a postcard from the fair is better:
New York World's Fair 1964-1965
"Peace through Understanding"

The Unisphere is the theme symbol of the Fair. Its top is 140 feet above ground level and the globe is 120 feet in diameter with an open grid of latitudes and longitudes supporting the land masses. The reflecting pool beneath is 310 feet in diameter. It dramatizes the interrelation of the peoples of the world and their yearning for "Peace through Understanding."

We're still yearning.

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