Always on the move

We like to explain the development of human society and culture by way of revolutions. The agricultural revolution, the Axial Age of philosophical revolution, the monotheistic revolution, the industrial revolution, etc. In the sequence of revolutions whereby human society (most often understood as the Western society), there is one revolution that stands, in my view, above all others. This is what may be called the revolution of movement.

European thought has always struggled with the relationship between permanence and motion, being and process. The heavens moved, but the Earth stood still, but what if it also moved? An idea which took a long time to take off. The same with languages, peoples, cultures, traditions, even nature. Movement has always been an accepted idea (how could it be otherwise), but its relationship to permanence and essence, the fruit of a strong ancient development, was hard to resolve.

The challenge was kept in tension by a commitment to both abstract philosophy and empirical observation. Dante realised languages shift, that the Italian of his ancestors would have been different from his own, but how could he conclude that they’ve always shifted and evolved? His commitment to the received wisdom of the biblical account, the paradigm at the time, inflected his findings in ways which we now know to be inaccurate. So what? In the long run, this struggle between two orders of knowledge proved most fruitful and pushed science (understood in the largest possible sense) towards new horizons. We have come far, but the challenge remains.

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