An early, and perhaps the definitive, expression of living capital was offered by Socrates, who emphasized his origins as the son of a midwife. Socrates felt himself responsible for aiding in the birth of fully formed ideas capable of taking on independent lives of their own.
Socrates demonstrates his method in Plato’s Meno, a dialogue in which an uneducated slave boy is shown to possess within himself a capacity for recognizing the truth of geometrical knowledge he had never been taught. On the basis of lessons like this from Socrates, Plato set the stage for a systematic science.
He did so in one way by redefining the elements of geometry. Geometry up to Plato analyzed, copied, and manipulated actual line segments, arcs, and angles. More importantly, everyone tended to talk about the geometrical figure being analyzed in a way that assumed everything about it was specific and local to it.
Plato, however, realized the special significance of the difference between names and concepts, between words and things. This difference is especially obvious in numbers and in geometry. Up until the Greeks, no one remarked upon this difference. That is, until the Greeks, we never find numbers apart from the things counted. No previous culture had seen that 2 + 2 = 4 no matter what is counted.
But the Greeks saw this, and they also had other significant insights into the regularities of geometrical figures, such as are evident in the Pythagorean theorem and the role of pi in determining the area of a circle. Plato came to realize that arithmetic and geometry do not actually have anything to do at all with the particular things counted or figures analyzed. The same results could be produced, and the Socratic method employed to produce living ideas, no matter which particular instances of things counted or drawn were involved.
And so Plato held that a point is not a dot made in the dust or with a drop of ink on paper; rather, a point is an indivisible line. Similarly, a line is not a sequence of points drawn out to a particular length; rather, it is an indivisible plane.
The history of science has been read and written as the progressive extension of these kinds of abstract idealizations and their application to ever more diverse phenomena.
The success of the new geometry and its extensions into modern science pushed its first principles so far into the background that they were forgotten, provoking 20th-century philosophers such as Husserl (1970, pp. 5 ff.) to write of “science’s loss of meaning for life.” And this is where we find the source of the ironic twist that brings inanimate forms of capital to economic life and leaves living forms of capital economically dead.
In the extension of geometry to astronomy, Copernicus, Kepler, and others conceived of the metaphor of the universe as a mechanical clockwork. The practical power and the aesthetic beauty of the very idea that nature could be conceived mathematically in this way exerted an irresistible grip on humanity, a grip that continues to this day. The depth and breadth of meaning that has been created via technological representations of nature’s constants, from telescopes and televisions to microwave ovens and cell phones, is truly astounding.
But as we all know, our existence is threatened by the very success of these technologies. Captivated as we are in the thrall of the efficiencies and effects of our tools, we have more than ever become the tool of our tools, as Thoreau put it, or, in Nietszche’s words, casualties of the victory of method over science.
After decades or even centuries of futilely struggling against, or passively submitting to, technology, it may seem that there are no remaining viable options for breaking the spell. We are, however, surrounded by, even immersed in, myriad hints and suggestions as to another way. How exactly did Socrates midwife the birth of living ideas? What might be the consequences of following Husserl’s students Schutz and Tymieniecka in turning from death as our common destiny to birth as our common origin? How might the logic of reproductive viability function as a form of biomimicry capable of informing an unmodern or amodern redefinition of capital? Can we deliberately and productively re-enact in the social sciences the process of expanding actor/agent networks--or better, complex, multilevel ecosystems--by which natural technoscience unfolded?
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