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Nathan Thomas-Scene4 Magazine

Nathan Thomas

Not Your Grandpaw’s Epistemology: Or,
We’re All Marxists Now

There’s a story about Stanislavsky editing his book about acting.  In the book are recurring references to the actor’s soul or spirit.  In Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union such things were not to be allowed.  The materialism of Marxist philosophy was thought reflect reality in a way that disallowed the old-fashioned idea of a soul.  And Stalin’s Soviet Union was such that Stanislavsky’s friends warned the great man that he should delete all references to soul in his book. According to the story Stanislavsky’s reply was – all right, I’ll do that – what possible other term can I use to refer to the human soul that doesn’t refer to humans having a soul?

In the mid-1980s, I worked with a Polish director who had worked with Grotowski and was interested in answering questions about this theatre genius.  In one conversation, he said that it’s impossible to understand all of Grotowski without also considering Grotowski’s Polish Catholic heritage.

Our thoughts, our feelings, and our actions intertwine in ways that we don’t quite understand.  Research neuro-psychologists work in one direction.  Philosophers and brain researchers and psycho-linguists work from a wide variety of other perspectives.  People dealing with all kinds of physical therapies also all tug at trying to wrap around the intertwining of thoughts, feelings, and actions.

If you’re in the business of academic theory about acting, you know that the trend in recent years has been to look to neuro-psychology to find some answers about the human organism that might be applied to understanding the art of acting better.  Whether most of this research has filtered down into the usual contemporary acting classroom is unknown.  This observer is doubtful it has.

Between my shelves in my private library, my shelves at work, and my e-reader, I probably have about 100 books about acting in some fashion.  Some books -- like the old standard, Acting Is Believing by Charles McGaw (now in its 12th edition with updates by Larry Clark and Kenneth Stilson) – I have more than copy and edition. Some of the Stanislavsky books I have in more than one translation.

I can’t claim that I’ve read each and every word in every one of these books, but I have read most of them.  Very little has been published since at least 1950 that isn’t in some way a re-focusing or re-working or a simplification of Stanislavsky’s seminal work.

One has to look to books from early in the 20th century to find some support for the old system of declamation training, for example.  Eric Morris might over-emphasize a kind of personal emotionalism, or Maxine Klein might seem very much of the 1960s; the work, though, can be tied with fair accuracy to Stanislavsky’s work.

So, what about this business of the actor’s soul?

We live in a culture that trends toward more secularism.  Many readers likely regard this trend positively.  For some readers the place of religious thought or practice should be practically done away with.  Religion in its myriad forms and practices, for some, has been nothing but a blight on humanity.

Garrison Keillor (can I still quote Keillor?) used to make a joke that all Minnesotans were Lutheran, even the Catholics.  And it was a Lutheran god that atheists did not believe existed.

In my experience, there’s some truth to that. When I was in Louisiana, I would teach public speaking courses and courses in persuasive argument. Regularly I’d hear a speech about how we ought to buck against organized religion.  In every case the student wasn’t arguing about bucking against the Roman Catholic hierarchy or against local synagogues.  The student was essentially arguing against a Southern Baptist culture that was a little too tight in sensitive areas.

My job isn’t to condemn folks who feel rebellious against the culture of their youth.  A lot of people have good reasons to want to break free from some or all of the culture that raised them.  The great writer Anton Chekhov wrote a letter late in his life that talks about how he had been beat by his father as he was growing up.  Beating children was an expected part of the culture of Chekhov’s youth.  It’s a good thing to let some areas of a culture be buried in the ash heap of history.

One of the arguments I hear from atheists is the lack of evidence that there is a god – certainly a god that seems recognizable to Jews, Christians, and/or Muslims.

A lack of evidence.

This “lack of evidence” is why we need to revolutionize our epistemology. 

Pretty much since the 17th and 18th centuries, evidence refers to scientific observations.  As our trust in each other has dwindled over the past fifty years or so, our trust as a culture in scientific observation has grown. (Individuals may distrust science – please see immunization or climate change deniers.)

Consequentially, folks look to evidence – usually quantitative evidence – as the basis for “knowing.”  As in, “I can only know something if I have this kind of evidence. If there’s not this kind of evidence, then all we have is mere opinion.”

By this line of thinking, the lack of evidence of a god means that any notion of god is mere opinion or in the realm of faith, which is for some is a less combative way of saying “mere opinion.”

I love my daughter.  I know this.  This love is something I know.

OK.  Prove it.

Almost any of the repeatable quantitative criteria that would show evidence of my love for my daughter would in the detailing of them actually tend to lessen the real love I experience in regard my child.  (“Let’s tot up the numbers of time he got up in the night, the amount of throw-up cleaned up, the number of breakfasts cooked.  Then we’ll compare those numbers against his wife’s numbers.  That will prove . . .  .”)

We know that love includes doing those things out of love.  But we also know that love is far more than just a collection of actions.

I could go further and give many examples of the failures of evidence-based thinking in science that have relied upon humans being all-too-human in how they observe and report on the world. James Burke recounts several of these stories in the last chapter of his book/tv series The Day the Universe Changed.  Two quick stories will suffice.  Google the story about “N”-Rays.  Don’t worry, I’ll wait.


Second, when Michelson and Morley first saw the results that tested the effects of ether, they didn’t surmise that there was no ether.  Rather they, along with other scientists, thought the experiment had failed!

My job isn’t to recount scientific failure. I have no problem with science nor with the technology that stems (heh – see what I did there?) from that science.

So, what is my job, then?

My task today is to ask you to think about new or different ways of looking at evidence. 

The universe inside us often seems as chaotic and strange as the universe which we inhabit.  We not only desire, but we need good evidence in the on-going challenge of making good decisions to build our always unknowable future.

And this is not because I want you to believe in God.  (I’ll leave that to God.)

We live in times in which foundational areas of our lives seem to be held in the balance.  If we’re Enlightenment folks who will only believe in materialist evidence, then the materialist basis of Marxism wins.

The goals of education will always fail if we just look at materialist data about jobs and careers.  Our education systems need to surpass mere vocational preparation. We need people who are prepared for the messy work of citizenship.

How do we make the positive case that freedom is better than other ways of living?  How do we speak of something as huge as justice if we look only at “the numbers?”

The true things – the important things of our lives -- like love and freedom and justice and peace – are things we can know about.  But the knowing of them might be beyond evidentiary quantification.  Indeed, we might find “evidence” that shows that lack of love or lack of freedom might be better for us on paper as a kind of intellectual experiment. 

But our lives are not an intellectual experiment. The future of our world is not some abstract construct.  We need to find a way to talk about the ways in which we can support continually and insure the institutions and means by which we can maintain justice, build peace, and support the ways of love.

As the great Sergei Tcherkasski has written, Stanislavsky looked to the practice of yoga as a foundation for the actor’s work. Yoga provides purposeful relaxation, helps center concentration and attentiveness, promotes communion among participants, and helps practitioners be mindful about breath.

It was part of a way for the Russian master to help care for the actor’s soul.  He knew that the actor had a soul that needed as much tending and caring as the actor’s emotions and the actor’s will and the actor’s imagination.

The human soul, the heart, the brain, the body all intertwine to make a whole person. 

Probably some folks have been turned off by my talking of the actor’s soul.  Actors, like all humans, have a soul.  That is something I know.

Well, what possible other term can I use to refer to the human soul that doesn’t refer to humans having a soul? 

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Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor,
Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer,
and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, and is a member of the
theatre faculty at Alvernia College.
He also writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives

©2018 Nathan Thomas
©2018 Publication Scene4 Magazine




April 2018

Volume 18 Issue 11

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