Monday 13 September 2021

The Play of Old and New

by Andrew Porter
In trying to figure out what's valuable in the old and the new, what should we keep or discard? Should change be invited or checked?
We know there is a relationship between the old and the new. It's both complex and fascinating. What is established may stay in place, or it may be replaced and perish.

If we want to help change society, or government, or ourselves for the better, how much of the old should we keep, and how much discard? Is modest reform in order, or a revolution? Should the depletion of, say, rain forests be allowed or prevented?

Aristotle delineated 'potential' as material, and 'actual' as form. We gather, therefore, that what exists is often on its way to completion, whereas the goal is the actual. This contrasts with the view that what exists is the 'actual', while future possibilities are 'potential'. Added to this is the fact that the old was once new, and the new will become old.

It might help us clarify the relationship if we can articulate the flow of old to new in real time.

Should we see it as a flow, or as a fixed contrast? What does a dynamic tension mean in this case? Is the new a rejection of the ossification of the old, or is it in harmony with it? How do old and new relate to the metaphysical principles of Order and Freedom? Are the old and the new in a dance with each other, the new emerging from the potentiality which already exists? Does novelty merely help advance and develop what has been?

Something that goes on throughout nature may sort much of this out. We regenerate skin and bone and muscle tissue, while certain sets of brain cells endure past these changes. It is all us. We are old and new.

Take a reformer, in politics or elsewhere, who wants to enact significant change. They have to deal both with the old and with the new. Existing patterns to overcome, new ideas to consider and implement. How will society change? How much hold ought it to have? The old is a mixed bag. How justified is the new? Potential beckons, but is it in that which exists, or in the ends at which a process aims?

Old and new act as permeable membranes to each other, each in flux in relation to the other. Novelty is in the potential of current things. A reformer usually tries to jettison a large chunk of the old, but, like their own body, must keep a substantial part of it. Imagine if both current existents and new emergences followed a reason. Would it be different in nature than in human life?

I'll skip away now with the questions. I blithely leave the answers to you.

Photo credit GharPedia


docmartincohen said...

Well, as the author says, this is a piece asking questions and not offering many answers. Which is a bit easy! I'm a bit puzzled about the passing reference to certain brain cells that Andrew says "endure past these changes" - sounds like a relic of Christian resurrection theory!

But on the more general theme of "the old and the new in a dance with each other" (nice phrase) surely this is right. Take the whole universe, for example. We like to say it has a beginning and end. But what do we mean by that? What does it mean to say something began at the moment time began? It seems we assume a past state, the one before the universe, the "emptyverse" if I might offer a neologism and become a respected quantum scientist later…

Keith said...

‘I’ll skip away now with questions. I’ll blithely leave the answers to you’. Yup, you did, on both counts. I looked at the many questions posed and came to this (probably unsatisfying) thirty-thousand-foot answer to each one: It depends. My point is that the open-endedness of the post’s questions means that circumstantial context inevitably deeply matters in order to attempt answers. Doable within an essay perhaps, but unfortunately not doable within the framework of a comment. Food for thought offline, however.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

It's good to read something which reminds us of nuance.

And it reminds me of a philosophy textbook I once had, at Nelson Mandela University. Modern European Thought: Continuity and Change in Ideas, 1600-1950, by Franklin Le Van Baumer. It cast a whole epoch in terms of being and becoming.

Keith said...

To your point, Andrew, about change . . . As the legend goes, Theseus was an imposing Greek hero, who consolidated power and became the mythical king of Athens. Along the way, he awed everyone by leading victorious military campaigns. The Athenians honoured Theseus by displaying his ship in the Athenian harbour. As the decades rolled by, parts of the ship rotted. To preserve the memorial, each time a plank decayed, the Athenians replaced it with a new plank of the same kind of wood. First one plank, then several, then many, then all.

As parts of the ship were replaced, one might wonder at what point it was no longer the ‘ship of Theseus’. Or, perhaps the ship retained its unique (undiminished) identity the entire time, no matter how many planks were replaced. As to identity, the issue might be different if the old planks had been warehoused and later reassembled into the ship. The challenge in weighing these scenarios is deciding whether any of the ships might still be revered as the legendary ‘ship of Theseus’: the ship whose planks had been replaced over the years, or the ship reassembled from the stored rotten planks, or neither.

docmartincohen said...

Yes, Keith gives a good example of change as a seamless flow, so seamless that we are no longer sure where the 'change' comes. And clearly too, in the ship of Theseus example, what emerges is both new and old: the planks are new but the ship they create is the old ship. Perhaps what the ship suggests is that all those contrasts "dichotomies" Andrew offers are illusory…

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