Category Archives: Philosophy

Nonlinear Golden Rule

If we imagine the Golden Rule not as a flat, linear formula, but a generative iterative process which produces multiple depths or meta-layers of itself — GR1, GR2, GR3, etc. — I find that it trends toward an asymptotic point, GRx, but a point of generality and universality, so general it is practically void, so universal it is boundless. It is nothing more than “Treat real beings as real”. Real, as opposed to what? As opposed to mere extensions of one’s own being.

The formula of the Golden Rule is do to others as you would have done to you. (I think everything that follows also applies to the Silver Rule variant, “do not do to others what you do not want done to you,” but I can’t/won’t math, and that extends to formal logic.)

The first iteration, GR1, has us concretely treat others as we concretely wish to be treated, in accordance with our own personal preferences. But it is immediately obvious that this amounts to an imposition of one person’s taste upon another, and we would not want that done to us, so we must iterate again, this time more responsively to the other, as we would wish if the other were us, as GR requires.

The second iteration, GR2, has us do to the other according to their own preference.

But, now, perhaps the context is not fitting for the action at all, however much it would be preferred were the context right. Or perhaps another action is needed at this time, in this context.

So, GR3 indicates asking what this person prefers at this time in this context.

But does the person even want our involvement in this situation…? How should we even find out? Some might appreciate being noticed and want to be asked, others might want to be noticed but resent needing to be asked, others might hate even being noticed. We must respond the best we can.

Notice, in this GR series, the trajectory moves away from us treating the other as a duplicate of our own self, and involves more and more understanding and responding to them as real and different from ourselves. But what precisely, does this entail? What is the output of the application?

I would argue that here we apply one of my favorite insights from Richard Rorty, that sometimes progress is best viewed as movement away from something undesirable, rather than movement toward some known, desirable, pre-defined destination. The Golden Rule cannot give us any pat readout of an answer regarding what to do, but it can direct us away from what not to do (GR0 or GR1) and set us on a trajectory that to me seems unattainably, but absolutely good, non-relativistically in principle, but thoroughly relativistically in practice.

Good means trying with all our heart, soul and strength to approach GRx in our dealings with all beings in our complex, entangled lives — a universal, boundless, empty — but all-consuming, endless task.

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I’ll also point out that if the Golden Rule is a nonlinear process, it should be expected to share characteristics of other nonlinear processes, most importantly, sensitivity to initial conditions (aka “the butterfly effect”), which entail radical unpredictability of outcome by means of linear formulae. The peculiar thing about the Mandelbrot Set is that each infinitely divisible point in the complex plane produces unique but similar and orderly behaviors, even points separated by an infinitely infinitesimal degree.

Pragmatic presequence

I just connected two of my favorite ideas, the hermeneutic priority of the question, and the pragmatic maxim.

Both are attempts to account for meanings of ideas.

The principle of the hermeneutic priority of the question sees understanding an idea as a matter of hearing it as a response to an implied or explicit question. If a reader hears the idea as the response to the question intended by one expressing the idea, the idea is understood, or at least it is not misunderstood.

The pragmatic maxim (originally conceived by C. S. Peirce) sees the meaning of an idea as the consequences that follow from the idea if it is believed to be true — the “cash value” of the idea. (One wonderful application of the pragmatic maxim is religious. Stop asking whether God exists or not, and instead ask what follows from your belief or disbelief in God. Therefores are far more clarifying than definitions!)

These two ideas snap together with irresistible elegance, as the complementary upstream and downstream of meaning — the pragmatic presequence and consequence of ideas.

To fully understand the meaning of any idea, first, conceive it as a response to the question or problem that actually engendered it, then develop the consequences that follow from it.

Subjective disposition

If, from our very earliest moments, we learn to conceive ourselves as beings who exist in space, an object among objects, within a world held in common — and then later to understand subjectivity as a way to account for differences in how we apparently experience this shared space-bound, object-filled reality we inhabit together, our basic disposition will be objective.

Is this the natural human intellect, or is it cultural? I don’t know, but I can say that this was the disposition I had when I emerged from the oblivion of early childhood, and it seems to be, if not universal, common to most people around me.

When I was very young, Unless I was confronted with evidence to the contrary, I assumed people experienced things the way I did. When they didn’t, this seemed to require explanation. Of course, every child learns the fundamental fact of subjectivity, that I have my experiences and others have theirs. I can feel pain or pleasure, when others do not, and vice versa. To recognize that an something painless or even pleasurable to me might be painful to another is less obvious. And to suspect that that the pain another is attempting to express or describe might be of a kind unlike any pain I’ve known is far from obvious.

But all of these ways of conceiving subjectivity, as means to explain difference in a common objective field, belongs to what I’m calling an objective disposition.

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Somewhere in my early 30s I shifted my disposition to a subjective one — or rather, I began to — because the first event in the shift was a second objectivity.

I want to clarify what I mean here by shift, because this shift was not only a change in ideas, or assessment of what ideas were true or false, better or worse, more or less compelling or more or less useful for my purposes.

The shift in disposition arose from a mixture of interrogating my basic understandings and values, and experimentally entertaining new understandings and values, but did not consist essentially of new ideas or ideals. Something else happened, and it could not be communicated in any direct way. It could only be indicated or expressed, not explained. All I could say about the change itself was that it defied speech, that it changed literally everything and that I could not imagine a supernatural event more surprising or momentous than this.

Strangely, what I was able to talk about was the objective world as it reemerged in a very new way — what Richard Rorty calls redescription. This new world demanded redescription.

Later, the need to bridge this new objectivity and my own experience of it with the understandings of others around me, especially those closest to me, became urgent. As I reflected on the relationship between subjectivity and the multiple objectivities that had seemed true to me, and in fact, in both cases were indistinguishable from reality itself, I shifted from a second objectivity to what I am calling a subjective disposition, which sees all objectivity as arising from subjectivity.

I stopped feeling the need to root my metaphysical accounts in a shared objective, spatial world containing objects and subjects, as the primary setting of reality, and everted the relationship so that space, time, objects and fellow subjects were contained within subjects who have the strange ability to interact and even to commune into larger subjectivities and to individuate into smaller ones. Where consistent commonalities of experience occur across subjectivities, objectivity emerges, expands, stabilizes and establishes itself so firmly it becomes possible to evert truth so fully that subjectivity seems to be an epiphenomenon of objectivity.

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So, now, I’ll ask you: Was this a religious conversion?

When I read accounts of religious people, I believe I know exactly what they are talking about.

However, if you were to ask a typical smart atheist to make a list of all the stuff they do not believe, I would probably share most of their disbeliefs (if not all of them).

So, I had a strange shift in pretty much everything all at once, and reached for the concepts available around me to make sense of it. Had I experienced the same thing a thousand years ago, I would have had different concepts around me. Perhaps I would have made sense of it with angels and demons and netherworlds, instead of subjects and objects and redescriptions.

Dadvice to Helen

Helen sent Susan and me a page from her Mussar book, and asked “What does this mean?”

For some reason (probably because I was reading Fishbane) I found this question inspiring, and gave a reply that I want to capture here:

First, understand, there won’t be a factual answer. It will be more a tilt of understanding.

The best thing is to struggle. Ask yourself some questions: “The vengeance was toward Egypt via the waters, not toward the waters per se. Gratitude prevented Moses from using waters as an instrument of vengeance. Where have I seen situations where gratitude impedes vengeance?”

Or “Is there always collateral damage in seeking vengeance? Where have I seen it? How can I link gratitude to choosing not to be violent?”

Or “If we have a deep feeling of all-encompassing gratitude, is vengeance even possible at all? Is violence? Is hatred? What happens to our moral and emotional disposition if gratitude dominates our moral disposition?”

That is how to wrangle with sacred texts and commentaries.

Does that help at all? You should spend around 10 minutes meditating in self-dialogue of this kind for every minute you spend reading. Maybe even start by writing yourself questions. The tilt in understanding actually happens in the thrust of questions you discover to ask yourself.

Every factual statement we hear gets its meaning from an implied question. Most misunderstandings can be reduced to hearing a statement as answering a question the statement was not meant to answer. In philosophy we are trying to acquire conceptions capable of posing unasked questions and producing novel answers.

 

Depiction of villains

Whenever I want to know who someone is, I try to get them to talk about the people they hate. Whether in art or life, the depiction of villains demonstrates selfhood more than depiction of heroes.

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Definitions de-finitize. They tell us what something is, by distinguishing it from what it is not. But we are most accustomed to third person definitions. How can a person seeing from the first person define my own self from the entire everything I enworld? “My” is somehow not first person, here, nor is “me”.

Me — first person object — is a deflected 3rd person who corresponds with I, first person subject.

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Some people understand themselves only as first person object (me), while first person subject (I) is lost in oblivion.

Such people “look for themselves” but rarely \ask: who’s looking? They assume self is some kind of findable content instead of a container, a found thing instead of the finding agent, someone known instead of someone who knows — a thing among things within everything, not an everything of its own.

They are the I-less Mes.

A society of I-less Mes, also act as a We-less We who acts without detecting the We who acts.

They’ll each say “speaking as a…”, but they don’t realize there is a We who needs everyone to speak as a something. The political We remains as inconceivable as the Me who constitutes it.

Here  even subjects are objects, but the real subject always remains preconceived.

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I-less Me, Me-less I seem to attract, as do I-full Me and Me-full I.

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These mind states are not essential. They are produced by how we think and act in the world. They are varieties of enworldment, and can be changed.

When enworldments change, miracles happen.

Sacred and profane

The bits of reality that understand that they and all other bits of reality are finite participants in absolute infinitude — each its own center-point in the infinite sphere whose center is everywhere, but whose circumference is nowhere —  seem almost essentially different from the finite bits of reality that mistake themselves for the absolute itself, by seeing validity in only one of the myriad possible truth-conceptions.

One of the better essentialisms, if one must be an essentialist is the distinction between sacred and profane.

The sacred is deeply, humbly, mystically pluralist. If one commits to a single truth, this is a methodological decision.

The profane, on the other hand, is philosophically omniscient, conceptually equipped to understand every relevant fact, though lacking capacity to contain all facts, because nobody can know everything.

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If I could make one change to the world it would be to persuade all parents to adopt this as their scold of choice: “You are not the sole center of the universe.”

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We have sacred and profane confused. Sacredness is oriented toward living relationship with what is not ourselves — not comprehension, belief or identity, which has much more to do with our own sequestered mental processes, however passionately we process our mental product.

But we feel heat from high-voltage mental short-circuits and mistake it for the warmth of care.

This encourages us to view the most profane, fevered theological fanatics for the most devoutly religious people, despite the fact that the object of their devotion is ideoidols — not any being who transcends their imaginations. Similarly, we allow ideological identity-mongers to enjoy exclusive rights to the virtue of empathy, though their intense feelings are bound up now with real living people that they know personally, but with their own mental images, their own logics, their own sociological theories, and most of all their own ethical status — and they fail to notice that they dehumanize not only their detested enemies, but those they imagine themselves to champion. Worshippers of imagined gods, defenders of make-believe people, riding into epic battles on the side of good against the forces of evil — dangerous sleepwalkers in philosophical Augmented Reality goggles, swinging real weapons in real rooms with real people in them…

Meanwhile, sacredness goes about its work respectfully and unobtrusively, learning, sharing, forming relationships and making modest accomplishments.

Inherent truth

Today, we are inclined to take Michelangelo’s notion of forms inhering within blocks of marble more as poetic expression than factual assertion: “The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.”

Perhaps someday we will reach a point where, similarly, we will hear the notion of truth inhering within reality as poetic expression. At the time we will experience even the driest, most matter-of-fact assertions that reality bears an inherent truth as one kind of poetic stance, without any inclination to argue over whether it is true that fact is a poetic mode.

“I can picture in my mind a world without war, a world without hate. And I can picture us attacking that world because they’d never expect it.” – Jack Handey

The Collective Mental Disorder game

I don’t know why I do this. I just posted something thoughtful on Facebook to be ignored, snarked at or bufoonated upon.

From years of reading about mass misbehaviors (aka history) and living through a couple myself, I’ve come to the belief that whatever can go wrong in the mind of an individual can also go even more horribly wrong in the culture of a collectivity.

I enjoy the exercise of imagining every variety of mental disorder on a mass scale. I start with speculating what it would look like as a mass phenomenon from the outside, because that is easier. You can look for pattern matches using stuff you’ve picked up from History Channel or best seller historical fiction. That’s the warmup.

Then I try to imagine the same phenomenon from the inside as an unsuspecting participant, fully bought into the version of truth generated by the totalizing interpretive scheme and its logic. I’ve learned this in school as fact, see it reinforced wherever I look, and everyone around me agrees with it (or at least all decent people do). What is the world like from this standpoint, ordered within this perspective?

A few examples: What would mass delusion be like, experienced from the inside? What about mass narcissism? Mass OCD? Mass sociopathy? Would there be any hints of what was going on? How could I know? I’m guessing every hint would be handily explained away by the logic of the disorder, so how would would I and those around me logically neutralize every clue that we’d lost our collective mind?

I have a copy of the DSM on my shelf, and people sometimes ask why we we have it. I usually answer “bad taste in friends” or something along the lines of needing to diagnose my book hoarding problem — but I think I’m going to take it off my shelf and put it on my coffee table, so I can open it to a random place and play the Collective Mental Disorder game with visitors.

I recommend declining any invitations to my home until this whim blows over.

The Click

Myriad ways to experience the world are possible, and these ways of seeing the world correspond with particular orderings of intuitive activity.

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Can you perceive this dancer to be spinning clockwise and then to be spinning counter-clockwise? Can you feel what kind of effort you are making? There may be inner-chatter associated with your effort, but if you pay close attention you’ll notice that the chatter is neither the effort itself, nor is it able to capture the effort in words. Something beyond language is happening.

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When we look at an optical illusion and we perceive it first one way, then another — what is going on there? This in not a primarily a linguistic phenomenon. There is an inner click, and our perception changes from one stable state to another.

When we read a text and we derive one meaning from it, but then later, another — is this really that different from the various gestalt modes of an optical illusion? And is the intellectual click that happens across the different readings really a linguistic phenomenon?

I would argue that both of these cases manifest a tacit shift in our intuitive order, which we experience most obviously as a change in experience of an intentional object (a visual field or a text) — but which also for the duration of the experience changes how it is to exist.

Like optical illusions, like texts with layered meanings, minds are multistable. And the various stabilities perceived or understood “out there” are actually the various stabilities “in here” doing the perceiving or conceiving in a particular mode of inner intuitive collaboration. This is what is at stake in all interpretation. We ourselves change in understanding. (A religious person might prefer saying it in different language: Our souls are transfigured by faith.)

Of course, we can also lose order. We can be of two minds on some matter, or we may be conflicted, confused or perplexed. These less-ordered or chaotic states also affect how it is to exist.

Confusion about what is going on in the world makes us feel confused in our own being. It is no accident that we say “I am confused” when we are unable to make sense of something.

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To get our intuitive mess back in order when we say “I am confused” or to break an intuitive order that says “I am miserable” or “The world is a vale of misery” we cannot just operate directly on our intuitions. Intuitions just aren’t of a nature where we can manipulate them like objects. (((Intuitions are subjects, each a sand-sized jewel in Indra’s Net, each a divine spark that beyonds All in its own partial way.)))

I would also argue that operating directly on the conclusions our intuitive orders produces willful delusions. We cannot just decide that “I am clear” or “I am happy” or “The world is a vale of happiness” and spontaneously see things that way, any more than we can look at an optical illusion and just assert that we see it as the gestalt we haven’t gotten to click yet.

We must approach our intuitive orders indirectly, through various intentional objects, and do intuitive experiments, trying to entertain it in a multiplicity of ways, until a gestalt shift occurs that changes what we experience on the whole and in part. I call these gestalts synesis.

When the click happens and we truly understand a situation differently, experience it differently, reach different conclusions and find ourselves feeling and responding differently — this is metanoia.

Metanoia is often translated as repentance, which is not altogether wrong, but it misses the spirit of the change. It is not about penitential emotions that motivate us to do better. It is about re-understanding things in such a way that makes the non-desirability of our old way clear, and causes a new way of understanding, behaving and existing to emerge that is experienced as preferable to the earlier way.

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When we try to change our lives, what we believe, how we behave, without making our intuitions click into a new order, we will speak and act in a way that is artificial. We must constantly micromanage ourselves, police ourselves, remain vigilant of ourselves. We must consciously “do the work” of enforcing the desired cognitions, conduct and speech, or our unconscious selves will horrify and shame us with its unwanted outputs.

If we change our lives through metanoia, the change is obviously different from what seemed natural to us before, but this new existence is second-natural. We spontaneously, intuitively (literally), effortlessly have a new and preferable outlook on things, and our souls somehow, mysteriously, feel better.

This year's winning illusion presents a simple shape rotating around a horizontal and vertical axis at the same time

Methodic wisdom

Susan and I have been debating what wisdom is. We each felt the other’s view was incomplete. I thought her conception was overlapping too much with prudence; she thought mine reduced wisdom with mere open-mindedness. (Actually, she was right.) As we turned the question and viewed it from multiple angles, it became clear, as is so often the case, that it was a matter of emphasis. She was emphasizing exercise of foresight and consideration — awareness of implications beyond the immediate desires and compulsions. I was emphasizing readiness for thought-defying shock — awareness that our awareness is always partial and situated within a much vaster and weirder context, only the minutest speck of which we are conceptually prepared to understand or even perceive. We’re slowly converging on an agreement. Here’s my latest attempt, written primarily for Susan’s review:

Wisdom is an attitude of mind that considers ramifying implications that transcend the immediate concern, in time, in space and in subjectivity — especially those nonobvious implications that unfold only in careful consideration and those that unfold in ways inconceivable until they unfold in reality and which will be understood as inevitable only in retrospect. Wisdom expects to be surprised, because wisdom knows the limitations of thought, and leaves room for irruptions of reality and the epiphanies they bring.


If we accept this definition of wisdom, that would make design practice a methodical form of wisdom — an alternative to speculative-thought-and-talk decision-making.

Design method directs us to go to the reality we plan to change, and encourages us to interact with it directly, in order to encounter some of the implications and ramifications of our proposed changes — many of which we otherwise would never consider.

Design is methodic wisdom.


Chief among design’s considerations are the subjective ones — the interpretive and experiential consequences of deep, hidden differences in subjectivity that must be learned before they can even be conceived. (* see note below.)

Subjective learning of new conceptions is a rigorous exercise of hermeneutic, intellectual and emotional empathy (which I prefer calling synesis). It can sometimes radically redefine the designer’s understanding of the design problem, by revealing it in a new subjective light with new practical consequences — metanoia.

This metanoia — this new, consequential reconception — simultaneously reframes the problem and opens space for novel solutions. Problems and solutions, questions and answers, possibilities and actualities burst forth together with new conceptions. And because the new conception has been learned from real people and refer to real contexts, the newly conceived solutions are far more relevant and on-the-mark. I like to call design metanoia “precision inspiration”.


(* Note: The whole field of thought around conception is grossly misunderstood. Until a conception is learned, all ideas that require it are either inconceivable — submerged in intellectual blindness, neither perceivable nor imaginable — or misunderstood by another conception that comprehends it in a wrong sense, and commits category mistakes. If the originating conception of a set of ideas is finally acquired, the new conception spontaneously reorders the understandings, both on the whole and in part, and there is an epiphany. If the reconception is a very deep one, upon which many other conceptions are rooted, and these have wide-ranging pragmatic consequences, it can seem that everything has changed all at once. The scales seem to have fallen from one’s eyes, one feels reborn as a new person, and it feels and if the entire world has transfigured itself. Until one has experienced something like this, all language associated with this kind of event sounds like magical hocus-pocus — but this is only a misconception of what remains inconceivable. The consequences of this hocus-pocus are just the copious category mistakes of the believing fundamentalist and the unbelieving antifundamentalist.)

Soul-shaping

 

A souls is a multistable dynamic intuitive system.

Insofar as it is a system that remains stable across changing conditions, a soul has a character, a personality of its own, enduring selfhood. To the degree a soul changes and adapts to conditions, a soul is responsive to the world.

At the extreme of selfhood is closed self, an intuitive system that no longer adapts or responds to the world, but instead uses the same intuitions the same way all the time. Only information it can comprehend is seriously entertained, and only conclusions that reinforce its workings are accepted. The soul maintains itself in a closed, circular state of autism.

At the extreme of responsiveness is the fragmentary self, an intuitive system that is so adaptive to its environment that it cannot find its own enduring selfhood within the changing configurations that its intuitions take as circumstances buffet it around. Its only hope for integrity come from the social environment. If the social environment gives it an identity and expects it to perform that identity, the soul responds obediently and then finds itself able to feel itself to be a self. But if the environment does not provide these reinforcements, the self is literally existentially threatened, and goes into a crisis. The soul has no internal means to maintain its own stable sense of self, and exists in a fragmentary state of borderline personality.

Under certain circumstances the closed selves and fragmentary selves can form an alliance. The closed selves adopt an ideology and ethical ruleset that, when performed, assigns stable identities to those who would otherwise live in fragmentary nothingness. The alliance requires strict adherence to roles and rules, and deviations from it, especially those which contradict the ideological conceptions and produce conditions that threaten its collective closed system, are treated as a collective existential threat. These alliances have low intolerance of stresses from beyond its ideological horizon, especially modes of conception incommensurable with the logic that holds its brittle system together.

When a person insists that selfhood is a superstructural artifact of social forces, that a person is reducible to the play of various identities, that social standpoints imprison us within limited understanding, beyond which there is blind belief in the testimony of others or disbelief and violence, this indicates participation in the closed alliance.

The overpowering need for selfhood in one particular conception, existentially threatened by rival theories or expressions of selfhood is the driving force behind all illiberalism.

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Liberal democracy requires selves of a different shape, neither closed circles, nor open fragments, but a synthesis of the two, which I symbolize as a spiral — multistable dynamic intuitive system that is stable but is, to a degree, open to realities that challenge its integrity. It does this by cultivating a dynamic stability that can shapeshift in response to different challenges of its understanding — that is, it can entertain multiple understandings, but which is ordered by a deeper integrity that sees multiplicity of understanding as intrinsic to the human condition.

This deeper integrity goes by the name pluralism.

Pluralism’s unique mode of understanding, which conceives inconceivability in a manner conducive to actually conceiving inconceivable truths, and in this, to continually reaffirm its own pluralistic integrity.

Not all citizens of a liberal democracy must be pluralists, but enough must participate in political and cultural life to prevent a closed alliance to form, and for illiberalism to drive pluralism underground.

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Hermeneutics is important in pluralism and in religion, because any deep act of understanding requires a soul to respond to a stable set of conceptions with a stability of its own, to re-form itself in an act of understanding. It must experiment with polysemic words and allow them to combine and crystalize in multiple ways, and then to respond selfully to these crystallization with its own intuitive order, and experience how it is to understand this text, this phenomenon, this design this way, and accordingly experience the world from this state.

Producing meaningful artifacts — whether objects, interactions, services, arguments, rituals, symbols — that order an understanding soul in a way that improves the experience of life is experience design at its profoundest level.

The pragmatic consequences of the Pragmatic Maxim

The amazing thing about Pragmatism is how simple it is in its core. 

The entire Pragmatism philosophy in all its pluralistic blooming, buzzing varieties, as well as pragmatist approaches to myriad other disciplines — is just the working out of the practical consequences of this conception of meaning, encapsulated in the Pragmatic Maxim

In order to ascertain the meaning of an intellectual conception one should consider what practical consequences might conceivably result by necessity from the truth of that conception; and the sum of these consequences will constitute the entire meaning of the conception.

These are holy words. 

Strange agents

Differences in how we interpret, think about and interact with the world are not matters of different vocabularies. On the contrary, divergent vocabularies are a matter of pre-verbal difference in interpretations and mental, emotional and practical responses.

Confusing things considerably, however, is the strange fact that adoption and use of new vocabularies can effect changes in our pre-verbal mental faculties. This how I explain our collective linguistic wrong turn, which, while not entirely fruitless has become barren. I’m turning my wheel sharply the other direction, and adopting a hard-nosed intuitivism, as painful as it is to make my language-mind admit it is not autonomous and self-contained, and that its facile answers are appealing more for being linguistically facile than for being real answers that truly account for life outside language.

I’ve been calling these strange agents intuitions.

Jealousy

I see jealousy as a painful but valuable form of perception. It is the detection of estrangement, real or possible, and the disruption it inflicts on the self.

There are at least three ways to avoid feeling jealousy, each a strategy against estranging disruption.

The first, most obvious one is that your relationships are on solid ground and are not currently at risk of estrangement.

A less obvious one is that your relationships are so impersonal that estrangement is the norm, and therefore not a threat. Incurable loneliness, emptiness, depression and irritability is the consequence. But these consequences of impersonality can become normal, too, and produces a worldview that experiences life itself as essentially impersonal and meaningless, just a play of social forces creating and animating social agents, who strive for power and mistake superstructural mental artifacts for souls.

The last one is that you and those with whom you relate are integrated within a social structure that keeps everyone in stable, fixed and familiar relationships with one another. Held in place and in shape within a complex network of interpersonal bonds and social associations, nobody is in danger of total estrangement. This stability, however, comes at the cost of personal freedom.

To encapsulate each cause in a word, defense against jealousy can come from intimacy, politics or culture.

 

Theology opposed to mundane life and art

By Fishbane’s conception, what I do is not philosophy, but theology:

As with our lives in the natural world, theology is grounded in everyday reality — which includes both our normal experiences in time and space, and those caesural moments when something elemental breaks into consciousness. Moreover, as with the aesthetic imagination, theology is a symbolic form which takes our experiences in the natural world and reshapes them, so that their special qualities and depths may be brought to mind. We have noted that poetry in particular is a deliberate attempt to refocus our attention on daily happenings and their extraordinary dimensions or character. Theology tries to do this as well, but in an altogether unique and intensified manner.

I would put it this way. If in our ordinary experience caesural moments seem to happen against our will or expectation, and artwork tries, both willfully and expectantly, to create experiences of an elemental character, intentionally disrupting our normal habitude and common perceptions, theology tries to transform this perception of elementariness into a sustained way of life and thought. This does not mean living at some abnormal edge of experience, out of touch with our regular sense of things. It rather means taking a particular stand where the elemental and the everyday intersect. In ordinary life, the everyday is generally habitual, and when the elemental breaks through it overwhelms one totally; thus their crossing point is not so much an element of consciousness as the place of a radical opening of awareness. By contrast, the artwork tries to create a fabrication of the crossing point so that one may experience the sights and sounds of existence in a more primary way, and thus allow the elemental to cleanse our rudimentary perceptions for the sake of life. The artist therefore tries to jolt one into perceptions of the elemental so that it will challenge casual consciousness. Artwork is a response to ordinariness, and to the sealing of the abysses through routine mindlessness.

The ideal of theology is different. It tries to stand in the natural world where we live our everyday lives, and to experience all its happenings as points of crossing, where the elemental depths come to some phenomenal perception. Theology thus seeks to orient the self to a twofold dimension: to the numinous qualities of unsayable origin inhering in every moment of existence. So understood, all our worldly experiences are prismatic revelations of a deeper elementariness, the worldly shapes of primal forces received as sensations on our bodies and stimulations in our minds. It is thus through a wholly natural attitude toward the world that a deeper phenomenality is disclosed. A task of theology is therefore to attune the self to the unfolding occurrence of things in all their particularities and conjunctions, and help one remain steadfast at each new crossing point where raw elementariness, radically given, becomes human experience.

Theology is thus situated at the border of the known and unknown, of the manifest and the concealed. It is at this nexus that the self seeks God. For just here there is both a sense of happening and the excess of all happening, extending to the utmost depths of Being and beyond. Theology gathers the import of this awareness and attunes the heart to it, directing one’s attention beyond the perceived appearance of things to the intuited and imagined vastness of all existence, ever generated from the ultimate Source of all things (and actuality). This most primal Depth (beyond the Beyond of all conception), so infinitely disposing, is what we haltingly bring to mind by the word God. We thus gesture the thought-image of a supernal Font of Being; and with it also this more paradoxical, corollary notion: that if all existence is not God as such, it is also not other than God, Life of all life.

It was with such matters in mind that I spoke earlier of theology as a spiritual practice, whose principal task is to guide human thought and sensibility toward God. As the exercise of theological thinking unfolds, it directs the human spirit toward an increasingly focused awareness of God as the heart and breath of all existence, and tries to sustain that focus throughout the course of life. Put differently, theology seeks to cultivate an abiding consciousness of God’s informing presence in all the realities of existence, the infinite modalities of divine effectivity. Hence the world is both what we “take” it to be, in all the moments of ordinary experience, and what we must “untake” it to be, when we relate all things back to their ontological and primordial ground in God.

I have been trying for decades now to convince religious and mystical friends and acquaintances that my primary form of religious practice is thinking. This is inconceivable to many spiritual temperaments whose relationship to thought is different from mine. They conceive thought as something that stands apart from reality, and thinks about things, over and against. For such people, thinking as participation within reality is itself a remote idea that is hard to think about, and with such things we are often tempted to dismiss them as nonexistent. For someone whose existence is oriented to this mode of thinking, this kind of dismissal can feel personal, and when I was younger I did take spiritual anti-intellectualism, however benevolently intended, very personally, as the deepest inhospitality: “there is no room in my world for you, except as a deluded and arrogant fool.”

I’ve long since stopped trying to argue with inhospitality. The thoughts I love are ones who must be invited in and entertained as possible. They are not equipped with argumentative battering rams. They cannot debate their way into consideration. But when someone does invite these ideas into their souls, even as a guest whose stay is temporary, I feel grateful.

Fishbane also gives me a feeling of home. By giving voice to how I exist, proclaiming that this is a way to be — a good way — I feel enworlded with my own kind. I have a place here. I do not have to wander, homeless, seeking hospitality.

With a place of our own, a home, hospitality is something that we can give as well as receive.