It is an observable historical fact that the way forward is often understood to be the way backwards, or at least a glance backwards, a sensibility for a prior state and a desire to bring that state back into the present.
Returns, revivals, recoveries. The more we move through time, the farther we get away from perceived standards and centres of value. We don’t recognize those centres as such as we move through them, but only when we’ve moved away from them.
Every now and then, we rise up against these departures and wish to move back to more central positions. It is a kind of perceived entropy, the realisation that we’ve lost the right path, that the more we move away from the centre of energy, the more entropic the entire system gets.
In philosophy, Edmund Husserl and the first generation of those who came to be known as ‘phenomenologists’ proposed a return to – in Husserl’s words – the things themselves. It was a recognition that philosophy had become disconnected from experience, an accumulation of empty talk and nonsensical jargon. They wanted a return to unmediated experience, a purification of the philosophical project, a recapture of the centre of gravity.
The Reformation looked back to the sources of Christian faith, seeking to recapture the early days of Christianity. In text, practice and sensibility, the early Reformers harked back to an age from which their generation had moved too far. To the sacred things themselves, recovering the ground lost, in their opinion, to the entropy of medieval faith.
In the Renaissance, the revival of the classical age was also a return to the things themselves, the bracketing of a middle-age encumbering access to what’s beautiful, true and right.
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