The shapes of time, Shelagh Duckham Cox

The Certainty of Doubt. Tributes to Peter Munz
Miles Fairburn and W H Oliver (eds)
Victoria University Press, Wellington, $39.95
ISBN 086473302X

Immigration is a strange enterprise. In 1966, just off the Northern Star, heading for the exit of the Wellington overseas terminal, I was stopped by a wharfie. He asked if I liked New Zealand. I soon learned how frequent this question was, how serious even when posed as a familiar half-joke and how impossible it was to answer it satisfactorily,

Ambivalence lurked beneath its innocent surface. The new immigrant was obviously expected to assimilate at once. The practices of New Zealand daily life must be adopted, its opportunities thankfully taken, its customs willingly embraced. Newcomers avoided rejection and ghettoisation in a small country with an egalitarian ethos. But they were accepted only at the price of at least appearing to cast off the aspects of their past that didn’t fit the national self-image. The message towards the end of the wave of immigration that started with the war was loud and simple. Adjust. Become one of us the moment you get off the boat.

Deeper down, the question carried different implications. It involved at least an indirect acknowledgment of the immigrant’s former life. New Zealand needed settlers with skills. So once people with selected skills arrived they must be slotted into place and allowed their voice and influence. Incoming abilities were a necessary contribution to the shaping of an emerging society. And a European — particularly British — background was not only a shared legacy but an ongoing source of cultural nourishment. So the demand to adapt was shot through with a recognition that the nation needed attributes that had been bred elsewhere. There was a basic contradiction — assimilate and assimilate now but we need what you’ve brought with you, so don’t lose it in the process. Benefiting from newcomers without selling out to them could be a tricky business.

These thoughts were in my mind as I read The Certainty of Doubt. Tributes to Peter Munz. A festschrift in honour of his seventy-fifth birthday, this collection of essays focuses on Peter Munz’s work. The work is at the core of the life and it impels a certain kind of response from most of the contributors. The mind is enmeshed in the spirit of the man and the products of an exceptional intellect take on a personal colour even at their most abstract. Equally, the personal history infuses the thought.

Peter Munz came to New Zealand with his mother and sister in 1940. They had fled Hitler’s Germany and then Italy. The family was steeped in the high liberal German tradition of erudition and civilised values. In Christchurch Munz became a student at Canterbury University College. Neither the history department nor the college as a whole was a stimulating intellectual milieu, Bill Oliver says in his chapter, “Petrus Contra Mundum”. But it was here that Munz started his long New Zealand career of simply going his own way and he submitted an MA thesis in the philosophy of history that achieved a legendary status amongst the historians who followed him. He was an original from the beginning but settling doesn’t seem to have been too much of a problem. In Oliver’s words he “mixed energetically” in a society “which he could deal with quite efficiently”.

At the college Munz met Karl Popper, another refugee from European fascism. Popper’s thought exerted a deep and enduring influence on him. But he was too much his own man ever to let it shape him wholly. Throughout his moves, first to Wellington and a junior teaching position at Victoria University and then to England and Cambridge (almost as soon as the war was over), Munz engaged with Popper’s ideas. He could have become Popper’s acolyte. Instead he returned to New Zealand once he had qualified. Contributors to the festschrift find his return hard to explain and convey the impression that he could have chosen virtually anywhere in western academia to live and work. But it was here he stayed, based at Victoria University until his retirement. Now, from a house in Brooklyn with what John Roberts calls one of the best views in Wellington — a nice symbolic touch, that, for a man with so broad a view of the world — he traces the shapes of time. From a well-placed New Zealand eyrie, he considers the universal thrusts that help to give rise to the quiddity of actual events. Munz, according to Paul Hoffmann is deeply moved by the inscrutable mystery of time.

And, indeed, to the extent that a polymath like Munz can be categorised by identifying him with one subject, that subject is time. But, unlike Hoffmann, most of the contributors to the book portray Munz as a man with a structuring soul who isn’t content to leave much of his understanding to the realm of the inscrutable. It’s the shapes of time that are his concern. Some of the festschrift essayists baulk a bit at what they see as elements of excessive patterning in his understanding of the growth of knowledge, particularly as it manifests itself in the evolutionary view of thought developed in his later life. For Munz states explicitly that the relationship between the passage of time and the growth of knowledge is not random.

Friedel Weinert gives a clear and full exposition of the relationship between the thought of Munz and Karl Popper, his one-time mentor. Both are evolutionists. Popper’s lasting contribution to the history of thought, according to Munz, was “evolutionary epistemology”. In putting his own stamp on ideas he’d first developed with Popper, Munz renamed the system “philosophical darwinism” or “selectionism”.  According to this way of looking at the world, a common denominator exists between the growth of knowledge and the growth of organisms.

Just as in ordinary evolution, organisms are naturally selected, so in the growth of knowledge certain theories are selected… Every organism which has ever appeared on earth is a sort of conjecture; if the information it contains about its environment is compatible with that environment the organism survives because it will breed faster than organisms which contain information less compatible with the environment. The same is true of conscious theories. Every theory is a conjecture, a proposal. Once made, it is compared to the environment and, if compatible, it survives error elimination. (Munz: Our Knowledge and the Growth of Knowledge, 1985)

In Munz’s thought, evolution is the unifying bridge principle which spans cultures and epochs and makes them commensurable. An evolutionary philosophy entails a universal sweep. In adapting to its environment human knowledge eliminates error; to the extent that human environments are largely the same, the process of adaptation will occur in largely the same manner. Weinert calls Munz a serious system builder. His system by definition concerns a single unified quest for knowledge and it must apply everywhere.

It seems to me that this way of seeing the world can help to explain Munz’s puzzling decision to stay in New Zealand. Explicitly or implicitly, some of the book’s contributors particularly expatriate scholars who knew Munz at Victoria University earlier in their careers — portray this country as outside the mainstream of his intellectual interests. But he doesn’t appear to see it that way himself. As long as contact can be made with the rest of the world occupied with the business of knowledge (and Munz has always kept close international links through sabbaticals, conferences, reading, correspondence and now email) it doesn’t matter where you live. All intellectual progress is going to be made along the same lines anyway. It might almost be said that for an intellectual with a belief in the evolution of thought immigration is not an issue. By coming to New Zealand, the thinker in Munz has not in fact left one life for another. He is a free spirit who isn’t German or Jewish or indeed anything else.

Not that the Peter Munz of this collection has ever become anything like an inhabitant of Swift’s Laputa — living a life based on theories and never touching the ground. His intellectual enterprise is decidedly not the equivalent of the distillation of sunbeams from cucumbers. There are occasional expressions of unease in the book about the relation of his theories to “real life”. Friedel Weinert sees Munz’s enthusiasm for the biological model as tempting him to downplay the importance of empirical knowledge, for instance. But then, tongue slightly in cheek, John O’Shea gives us Munz as a chainsaw freak and a dedicated scavenger of firewood. And the title of an obituary Munz once wrote for the Evening Post was “Great thoughts and a liking for milkshakes”. There’s the general system and there are particular predilections.

For Munz is a historian as much as he is a philosopher and the scholarly equivalent of the milkshake is at the balancing end of his continuum of thought. Munz’s historical research and writing are well-respected by his peers. I’m not a historian but I can see that Munz’s historical interests are extraordinarily various and they zone in on real men in real places. And for Munz history and philosophy are never ultimately divided. For the figures of history who thought in original ways fuelled the engine of evolution that is central to Munz’s philosophy. Colin Davis sees Munz’s interest in the Reformation thinker Richard Hooker, for example, as having a consistent place in his overall philosophical scheme. Hooker was on the cusp of the medieval and modern worlds and for Munz “[the modern world] evolved out of the very fullness of the best that medieval thought had to offer”.

Munz’s grand design depends on the specificities of history. But it has no place for philosophical views of the world that lie wholly beyond it. Ways of seeing that are in basic opposition to the single thrust can’t be incorporated into an evolutionary theory of knowledge. Instead for Munz they are manifestations of closed-circuit thinking or of tribalism.

This means, as far as I can tell, that there is no possibility of recognition of the scholarship of gender, race or class in his scheme of things. All three intellectual approaches are based on understandings of the distribution of power. Those who traditionally have no power (women, people of non-dominant races, the underclass) all, once they are able to break free from the mainstream thinking that is the controlling tool of power, simply see things differently. A serious twentieth-century system that fails to acknowledge the centrality of oppositional epistemologies leaves out a central contemporary insight.

In my view, a theoretical grand design is lacking if it can’t explain the present as effectively as it explains the past. But this reservation mustn’t be allowed to stand in the way of an overarching appreciation. The Certainty of Doubt celebrates a flowering and we are fortunate that it has taken place mostly in this country. Munz is a one-man reproach to the parochial. Or, rather — for a reproach implies censoriousness towards his adopted land and there’s never a hint of that — a chainsawing monument to what is irreducible to the petty and narrow-minded in human thought.

Yet I return to the thoughts on immigration with which I began. In one way there’s nothing equivocal about Munz the immigrant. He has chosen to develop his exceptional power here and drawn to himself thinkers who use the opportunity a festschrift provides to thank him for what he has given them. Nonetheless, ambivalences may have blocked his path. In Bill Oliver’s view, Munz has been undervalued when it comes to the rewards bestowed by universities and the government. Would his work have been more loudly and generally received if he had been a New Zealander by birth? Would his contribution to New Zealand intellectual life then have been acclaimed by the nation as a whole?

Shelagh Duckham Cox used to teach sociological theory and women’s studies at Massey University. Once she was a British immigrant. Now she is a New Zealander. 

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