Once again, I’ve been reading selections from the Sophia Perennis.
My response today, as it has been from the beginning is this: Accepting as given the intellective certainty that we are endowed with microcosmic insight to know a divine macrocosmic Absolute is certainly one beautiful way to understand the human condition and to relate ourselves to that which transcends, envelops and involves us.
An Absolutist can prove the Truth of this understanding — and I cannot disprove it.
But proofs prove nothing, unless we start from a faith that they do.
I do not share this faith that Logos and the Absolute are one and the same — not even from a human perspective. In other words, I am not Christian, though I do love Christianity.* (see note below.)
From where I stand, the only absolute I know is a simple fundamental fact of human condition: I am — as we all are — finite being situated within infinite being, whose being, by virtue of infinitude, defies all totalizing conception. I am inclined to include also the concept of being itself as defied by infinitude.
It is the task of faith to relate ourselves — I — to infinite Thou — from the very heart of this all-encompassing, edgeless Thou. And this task requires more than the conceiving mind. It requires one’s entire being — mind, feelings, intuitions, willpower, blood, muscle, bone. All these are mobilized by faith that relates I to the Infinite One.
Through my own urgent incessant efforts to find the inadequacies in my own totalizing conceptions, I have arrived at a faith that infinity is inexhaustibly capable of shocking my finite conception with new revelations beyond the limits of my current conceptive capacity.
For this to happen, I must welcome the inconceivable shock before its advent, enduring the dread that heralds its coming — and to do all this for the sake of the shock itself and not for the reward of epiphanic bliss that often follows the shock.
Each time this happen, I am invited or demanded to conceive a new way to accommodate the new revelations as well as a way to relate myself to this incredibly strange situation of being within being among beings, where at any moment, if you maintain an open heart, new beings may enter from the edges of nowhere, ex nihilo.
If I am anything, I am exnihilist.
But this accommodation is never final. No norm is ever finally just, however just it seems to the judge who judges it. We fiddle away with our codifications, persuaded we at last have Knowledge of Good snd Evil. But only the appeal, only the shock of the suppressed voice finally heard is just, and it comes from beyond what we conceive.
Whence things have their origin,
Thence also their destruction happens,
According to necessity;
For they give to each other justice and recompense
For their injustice
In conformity with the ordinance of Time.
(* NOTE: “What is love but understanding and rejoicing at the fact that another lives, feels and acts in a way different from and opposite to ours?” We must not try to be who or what we love; we must be with, toward, for our beloved. Only then can we participate in I-transcendent We. This We is as inconceivable as God Godself, and this We is as much God as any finite being can hope to be. A Jewish sage presented love of God and love of neighbor as one and the same highest mitzvah. Do both in one action of love, or you do neither.)
Martin Buber, in his Introduction to Pointing the Way makes an extremely important distinction between two forms of religiosity:
In this selection of my essays from the years 1909 to 1954, I have, with one exception, included only those that, in the main, I can also stand behind today.
The one exception is ‘The Teaching of the Tao,’ the treatise which introduced my 1909 translation of selected Talks and Parables of Chuang-tzu. I have included this essay because, in connection with the development of my thought, it seems to me too important to be withheld from the reader in this collection. But I ask him while reading it to bear in mind that this small work belongs to a stage that I had to pass through before I could enter into an independent relationship with being. One may call it the ‘mystical’ phase if one understands as mystic the belief in a unification of the self with the all-self, attainable by man in levels or intervals of his earthly life. Underlying this belief, when it appears in its true form, is usually a genuine ‘ecstatic’ experience. But it is the experience of an exclusive and all-absorbing unity of his own self. This self is then so uniquely manifest, and it appears then so uniquely existent, that the individual loses the knowledge, ‘This is my self, distinguished and separate from every other self’. He loses the sure knowledge of the principium individuationis, and understands this precious experience of his unity as the experience of the unity.
When this man returns into life in the world and with the world, he is naturally inclined from then on to regard everyday life as an obscuring of the true life. Instead of bringing into unity his whole existence as he lives it day by day, from the hours of blissful exaltation unto those of hardship and of sickness, instead of living this existence as unity, he constantly flees from it into the experience of unity, into the detached feeling of unity of being, elevated above life. But he thereby turns away from his existence as a man, the existence into which he has been set, through conception and birth, for life and death in this unique personal form. Now he no longer stands in the dual basic attitude that is destined to him as a man: carrying being in his person, wishing to complete it, and ever again going forth to meet worldly and above-worldly being over against him, wishing to be a helper to it. Rather in the ‘lower’ periods he regards everything as preparation for the ‘higher.’ But in these ‘higher hours’ he no longer knows anything over against him: the great dialogue between I and Thou is silent; nothing else exists than his self, which he experiences as the self. That is certainly an exalted form of being untrue but it is still being untrue. Being true to the being in which and before which I am placed is the one thing that is needful.
I recognized this and what follows from it five years after setting down this small work. It took another five years for this recognition to ripen to expression. The readers for whom I hope are those who see my way as one, parallel to their own way towards true existence.
I’ve called the confusion of the unified self with the All-Self misapotheosis.
I do not believe that Taoism is a religion of misapotheosis, but I do think that the shift from an ecliptic mode of existence to an authentically existential one does lead one through a “soliptic” mode — an philosophically-induced autism — that frees a soul from onerous conceptual obligations and liberates it to reconceive existence in a more spontaneously intuitive mode.
This soliptic state produces so much pleasure it tempts a soul to a life of permanent alienated bliss, defended by an attitude of “contemptus mundi” toward whatever threatens to re-obligate it. Many spiritual people are imprisoned by this liberation and never escape it.
Whole : Heaven
Participation : Man
Parts : Earth
Some kinds of knowledge are simply there for the grasping. You point your head at an object and a fact tumbles into your mind.
Other kinds of knowledge are constructed. Grasped facts are logically or causally linked to produce systems of knowledge. Facts are glued together with “therefores”, “thusses”, “ands” and other operations to make complex assertions. Then the whole assertion is black-boxed, sealed shut and labeled “idea”.
Other kinds of knowledge are analogical. We recognize some abstract characteristic and say “this is like that in x respect”. Then we give x some name, and then that x becomes one more graspable object. Sometimes that named abstraction becomes more real to us than the original this and that. Identity occludes uniqueness.
Some kinds of knowledge — to me, the most fascinating and consequential knowledge — requires us to change ourselves before we acquire the capacity to understand them. Or perhaps it would be better to say: we must change who we are before we have an ability to participate in this knowing. Until we make this change we are inadequate to the knowledge, and we cannot even recognize, conceive or comprehend that there is anything knowable. We are “blind”, or lack “ears to hear” what is meant. We lack the living question to which this knowing is an articulate response.
Until we acquire such a conceptive capacity, though, we will go right along knowing exactly what all this miraculous seeing, hearing and conceiving means. We will overflow with explanations for why people believe it and what kind of validity it has or lacks. We cannot conceive that we don’t really conceive its meaning, because we have no point of comparison.
We are trapped in our unpunctured soap bubble of omniscience, and even if that pops, there is another beyond it, containing it.
It’s soap bubbles all the way out, sahib.
Nobody knows more than someone who knows nothing.
IN THE NORTHERN DARKNESS there is a fish and his name is K’un. The K’un is so huge I don’t know how many thousand li he measures. He changes and becomes a bird whose name is P’eng. The back of the P’eng measures I don’t know how many thousand li across and, when he rises up and flies off, his wings are like clouds all over the sky. When the sea begins to move, this bird sets off for the southern darkness, which is the Lake of Heaven.
The Universal Harmony records various wonders, and it says: “When the P’eng journeys to the southern darkness, the waters are roiled for three thousand li. He beats the whirlwind and rises ninety thousand li, setting off on the sixth month gale.” Wavering heat, bits of dust, living things blowing each other about — the sky looks very blue. Is that its real color, or is it because it is so far away and has no end? When the bird looks down, all he sees is blue too.
If water is not piled up deep enough, it won’t have the strength to bear up a big boat. Pour a cup of water into a hollow in the floor and bits of trash will sail on it like boats. But set the cup there and it will stick fast, for the water is too shallow and the boat too large. If wind is not piled up deep enough, it won’t have the strength to bear up great wings. Therefore when the P’eng rises ninety thousand li, he must have the wind under him like that. Only then can he mount on the back of the wind, shoulder the blue sky, and nothing can hinder or block him. Only then can he set his eyes to the south.
The cicada and the little dove laugh at this, saying, “When we make an effort and fly up, we can get as far as the elm or the sapanwood tree, but sometimes we don’t make it and just fall down on the ground. Now how is anyone going to go ninety thousand li to the south!” — Chuang Tzu
If an atheist were to make an exhaustive list of all their disbeliefs, they would likely match the items on my own disbelief list.
Yet, I am not an atheist.
I share the disbeliefs of atheists, but I share the faith of the religious.
I respect the former, but the latter is more important.
If atheists were able to focus less on the objects of religious belief, and more on the religious subject, they might make progress toward understanding religion. But this is where objective thought hits its limits, and that limit is the uncrossable horizon where there be dragons — irrationality.
Arthur C. Clarke is famous for saying “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Religion is such a technology.
From my phenomenological, hermeneutical and pragmatic inclinations and self-education, I cannot help but read Renee Guenon (and to a degree, Frithjof Schuon) critically, as conveying extremely sharp, clear and, above all, grounding insights into the human condition — that is the condition of finitude within and toward infinitude — but proceeding from these to unwarrantedly objective speculations about the structure of what extends beyond what can be objectively known.
Having ridden this planet around the sun more than fifty times — which, believe it, or not, continues to surprise even after twenty or even thirty rides, and not in ways you might derive from the first thirty — and having been spiritually humiliated out of (I hope) most of my youthful hubris, I’m saying this not only tentatively, not only cautiously, but with acute, apprehensive modestly.
When I say “I cannot help but” I say it with anxious awareness that this might very well situate my stage of understanding to someone who has transcended it — but also, to those who most definitely have not.
Such is the nature of transcendent insight: those who know can’t tell and those who can tell don’t know nearly as much as they believe. When evaluating claims to transcendent knowledge, one crucial thing I look for is signs of awareness of this “horizonal” condition. If you have been given a divine gift of unshakable certainty, I will suspect, perhaps wrongly, you are still in the early and paved stages of your journey. The first appearance of new-to-me always is always new-to-the-world, most of all with the most commonplace wisdom.
So, here it is, laid out flat for convenient scrutinty: The same human tendency that compels us to ground our subjectivity in an objective world, to attribute mind to the functioning of a brain, makes metaphysicians ground our subjectivity in a positive metaphysics. Or, to put it in Guenon’s language, from where I stand I see the Lesser Mysteries (of “true man”) as greater than the Greater Mysteries (of “transcendent man”).
I must really be where I really am if I wish to really go to other real places.
If you know better, please speak up.
Belief is the content of comprehension, those ideas our mind can grasp.
Faith is an attitude toward pure apprehension, encounters with that which our mind can touch, barely touch, fleetingly, but not grasp.
These incomprehensible apprehensions, which fill us with apprehension that something beyond our minds exists — something within which we subsist in our own existence — challenges the mundane world of our comprehension.
If our faith is one that condemns, ignores or demphasizes apprehension, we will have a faith in and of belief, and are at risk of succumbing to ideo-idolatry.
From Rene Guenon’s The Great Triad:
It is also said that Heaven, which envelops and embraces all things, presents a ‘ventral’ — that is to say inward — face to the Cosmos while the Earth that supports all things presents a ‘ dorsal’ or outward face. This can be easily grasped by simply looking at the diagram below, in which Heaven and Earth are respectively represented by a concentric circle and a square.
It will be observed that this diagram reproduces the shape of Chinese coins, which also happens originally to have been the shape of certain ritual tablets. The part that the characters are inscribed on — that is, the solid area between the circular outline and the square empty space in the centre — clearly corresponds to the Cosmos comprising the ‘ten thousand beings’. The fact that this area is bounded by two voids is a symbolic expression of the fact that what is not between Heaven and Earth is for that very reason not a part of manifestation.
I was sent an image of an everting sphere.
Note how the sphere becomes a shell-like torus midway through the eversion.
Note how we human beings are such that we can view reality from an inner first-person and outer third-person and experiences at once a metaphysical behind and a metaphysical beyond.
Recall that the Chinese coin was understood to be the negative space of Tao, the inner square, yin, the outer infinity, yang — but it is obvious these two are one and the same from everywhere beyond the coin.
In the creation myth this everting sphere just spawned, human being, human existence exists everywhere that the infinite sphere whose center is everywhere and periphery is nowhere forms a torus at mid-eversion, creating a unique everything, a soul, a person.
I wonder if I could make a book on images of eversions and the torus. I would make a chapbook, a second signature, to Geometric Meditations, and it would be called Everso.
Here’s the material I have so far, starting, of course with a dedication to the gorging torus, who I am now wondering is more complicated than I thought only days ago…
Rolled up like an egg
I have needed the word “evert” many times, but had to resort to flipping, reversing, inverting, turning… inside-out.
Evert – verb [with obj.]
Turn (a structure or organ) outward or inside out.
eversible – adjective.
eversion – noun
ORIGIN mid 16th cent. (in the sense ‘upset, overthrow’): from Latin evertere, from e- (variant of ex-) ‘out’ + vertere ‘to turn.’
Now I can say things like:
- Everything in the world is the world everted.
- A comedy is an everted tragedy. A tragedy is an everted comedy.
- A pearl is an everted oyster shell. An oyster coats the ocean with mother-of-pearl. Outside the shell is ocean, inside the pearl is ocean. Between inner-shell and outer-pearl is slimy oyster-flesh, which ceaselessly coats everything it isn’t with mother-of-pearl. It is as if the flesh cannot stand anything that does not have a smooth, continuous and lustrous surface. We could call the flesh’s Other — that which requires coating — “father-of-pearl”.
- Imagine Pandora’s box as a pearl everting to an all-ensconcing shell as Pandora opened it, and Eden as an all-ensconcing shell everted to a pearl upon Adam’s eviction.
- An object is an everted subject.
In the end,
the trees will grow like snakes,
splitting and sloughing bark,
bending in coils of green heartwood;
and the snakes will grow like trees,
depositing skin under skin,
and in their turgid leather casings,
they will lie about on the ground
like broken branches.
Shells and Pearls (a collection of previous pearl posts):
An oyster coats the ocean with an inner-shell made of mother-of-pearl lined. Anything from the outside that gets inside is coated, too. A pearl is an everted oyster shell, and an everted pearl is a shell’s inner lining. Outside the shell is ocean, inside the pearl is ocean. Between inner-shell and outer-pearl is delicate oyster-flesh, which ceaselessly coats everything it is not with mother-of-pearl. It is as if this flesh cannot stand anything that does not have a smooth, continuous and lustrous surface. We could call the flesh’s Other — that which requires coating — father-of-pearl.
Minds secrete knowing like mother-of-pearl, coating irritant reality with lustrous likeness.
You are absurd. You defy comprehension.
That is, you defy my way of understanding. I cannot continue to understand my world as I understand it and also understand you.
That is, you do not fit inside my soul.
I am faced with the most fundamental moral choice: Do I break open my soul? or do I bury you in mother-of-pearl?
(A meditation on Levinas’s use of the term “exception” in Otherwise Than Being.)
We make category mistakes when attempting to understand metaphysics, conceiving what must be exceived.
Positive metaphysics are objectionable, in the most etymologically literal way, when they try to conceptualize what can only be exceptualized, to objectify that to which we are subject, to comprehend what comprehends — in order to achieve certainty about what is radically surprising.
In my own religious life, this category mistake is made tacitly at the practical and moral level, and then, consequentially, explicitly and consciously. Just as the retinas of our eyes see things upside-down, our mind’s eye sees things inside-out. We naturally confuse insidedness and outsidedness. By this view, human nature is less perverse than it is everse.
Imagine, with as much topological precision as you can muster, expulsion from Eden as belonging-at-home flipped inside-out.
That galut in the pit of your gut: everted Eden?
A garden is an everted fruit, and a fruit, an everted garden.
The nacre inner lining of a shell is an everted pearl, and a pearl, an everted nacre lining.
The exception is the everted conception, and the conception, the everted exception.
Pearls are inside-out oyster shells. Or are oyster shells inside-out pearls?
The oyster coats its world with layers of iridescent calcium. With the same substance it protects itself from the dangers concaving in from the outside and the irritants convexing it from the inside.
Some random notes on the inner topology of oysters…
A pearl is an inside-out oyster shell.
An oyster coats the ocean with mother-of-pearl.
Outside the shell is ocean, inside the pearl is ocean.
Between inner-shell and outer-pearl is slimy oyster-flesh, ceaselessly coating everything it isn’t with mother-of-pearl.
It is as if the flesh cannot stand anything that does not have a smooth, continuous and lustrous surface. We could call the flesh’s Other — that which requires coating — “father-of-pearl”.
Every pearl is an iridescent tomb with an irritant sealed inside. We love the luster of the outer coat, but inside is what was once known as filth.
We could also think of the oyster shell as the fortress walls and the pearl as a prison cell.
We make pearls of what is Other, then love what we’ve made of the Other, which is ourselves.
We love our misunderstandings. We never cut into what we love with critique. Inside is just a grain or a fragment, of interest only to other grains and fragments.
Sometimes an alien bit of beyond gets inside one’s horizon, but it can always be explained.
Imagine Pandora’s box as a pearl turned outside-side in upon its being opened, and Eden as an oyster’s interior turned inside-out into a pearl with Adam’s eviction.
I hate to borrow techie terminology for philosophical purposes, and I hate it even more when the term has already been heavily appropriated and bastardized by non-techie types, but here it works so well I’m overriding taste.
I’ve been playing with the concept of deixis as a way of accounting for differences in metaphysical conception so deeply sedimented beneath our explicit beliefs and thoughts that we don’t even know how to discuss them, think them or even to frame questions about them.
The hypothesis is a simple one: infants are implicitly inducted into a metaphysics from their earliest moments of postnatal existence. The way the parents respond to the infant, speaking and interacting, orients the new person to the world in ways that prepare the mind for conceptualization and speech by establishing a pre-verbal ontology that I propose takes the form of categories of person — I, we, you, thou, y’all, it, those, them, and so on. The sequence in which these persons (the deictic structures) occur in relation to one another — which one precedes and becomes the “experience near” reference point for the next layer in the “stack” — has profound implications for the overall character of existence as full consciousness emerges and develops.
When someone else’s basic conception of reality seems absolutely bonkers to us, I suggest this might trace back to their deictic stack. Someone whose original sense of reality is a Thou is bound to have profoundly different intuitions from one whose first sense of reality is It. or I or We — or Them.
Years ago I heard it claimed that Asian parents interact with their babies differently from European parents. Where European parents hand a ball to their child, they say “ball”, which orients the interaction to 3rd person singular, Asian parents tend to say “thank you”, which orients the interaction within 1st person plural. These parenting practices might account for the deeper differences in sensibility across cultures.
I want to keep in keep in mind, too, that the differentiation of self from not-self might come down to resistance. That is, we experience objective reality most tangibly in what is objectionable — what stands out as unexpected or unwanted . This might mean that someone with a perfect mother might experience the reality of It long before the reality of Thou, precisely because Thou is so anticipative, accommodating, comforting that Thou does not stand out as other but remains submerged in subject. In such a case, the world of It might be the first resisting reality the infant encounters. Or a sibling intruding as Them or unskillfully or obtrusively interacting as a semi-accommodating Thou or We might come first.
I’m less interested here in establishing a a factual hypothesis than a way to frame the question of why we have such different basic conceptions of reality, and why are these intuitions so painfully difficult to think about and navigate? If we recognize that just as every explicit statement has its origin in indexicality (we know what a ball is because someone handed us a red ball and said “ball” or “red” or “thank you”), I think all our actions, utterances and thoughts refer back to an enworldment, and that one way to understand the character of the enworldment is to study its genesis as a sequence of original differentiations.
Now I’m sounding like Hegel. Maybe I’m just crossing Hegel with Piaget and multiplying them with James to produce a more pluralistic dialectic rooted in early childhood development. Dunno. But my mind keeps dragging me back to this idea. Also my own philosophical conversions have all taken the form of metaphysical replatforming (ugh) on different persons. With Nietzsche I refounded my 3rd person plural universe (scientistic, objective metaphysics, in which minds were an emergent property of brains) on a 1st person singular base (phenomenological, subject-first metaphysics, where whatever its ultimate nature, our mind conceives a brain and then conceives the brain as emergently generating mind, but, importantly, without in the least changing the fact that the mind came first). I called the first view “ecliptic” and described it as I-in-world, and the second “soliptic” / “world-in-me”. It is important to recognize that with this shift in perspective the thoughts themselves everted, and stopped being objective facts I thought about, and became the subjective process from which my thoughts came. Get where I’m coming from? It was a conversion experience that mapped to everything converts say, but it all happened without any supernatural processes an atheist would rule out. And I should know, because I would have ruled it out, too. Yet it was a religious conversion, and it left me religious (albeit in a way that really, really bothers theists who look too closely). Since then Jewish thinkers, culminating in Buber with his I-Thou dialogical thinking, have shifted me to 1st person plural via 2nd person singular, then again, via Latour into a thorough blurring of I-Thou-It that has led me to root metaphysics in a predifferentiated adeictic point beyond persons of any kind, but which must, to a finite person, must manifest, or (shit!!) incarnate in person form (whether 1st, 2nd or 3rd person). And now with all this three-person incarnating God talk I sound totally Christian. I do love Christianity, too. But I love it in a Jewish way, as a Jew.
I see the autism spectrum as one half of a much longer spectrum, one that runs from the extreme pole of full autism (mind-blindness to others) to full borderline (mind-blindness to oneself).
A person (or group) unbalanced toward the autism end of this enlarged spectrum will proudly refuse to care what anyone else thinks. A person (or group) unbalanced toward the borderline end will feel existentially threatened by the thoughts of others, because the thoughts of others is the sole source of selfhood for the borderline personality.
The ideal, of course is the middle region, where we are aware of what others are thinking, feeling and intending, but we remain rooted in what we ourselves think, feel and intend. Even when we consider changing our views, we do so as ourselves, making an evaluation and decision.
This ideal is represented in my Geometric Meditations book in the symbol of the spiral.
Reading Whitehead’s Modes of Thought I’m reminded of Levinas’s dichotomy of totality versus infinity, and Schuon’s similar indefinite versus infinite. The former term (totality/indefinitude) is some particular conception of all possibilities, against which all particulars are defined; the latter term (infinity/infinite) is real possibility independent of any and every conception. According to Schuon, the indefinite (within a totality) simply repeats a finite entity interminably. The idea of time extending endlessly backwards and forwards is indefinite time, and should not be confused with infinite time, Eternity. That, at least, is what I took from him 15 years ago when I read Stations of Wisdom.
From within any particular conception the difference between totality/indefinitude and infinity is indistinguishable, and for casual practical purposes we treat them as identical. The difference between the two comes into view only when reality defies our conceptual repertoire by producing an inconceivable actuality that refuses to fit within possibilities anticipated by the totality in question and its indefinite possibilities.
We encounter infinity as such when we experience viscerally an incapacity to comprehend, and I will list three instances where this happens:
- When we encounter a natural phenomenon that cannot be understood in natural terms as we know it. If we confront the phenomenon as an anomaly to be understood by changing our understanding of nature as a whole, and we do come to understand it in new term, the before and after of our understanding hints at infinity.
- When we encounter another mind who attempts to convey concepts inconceivable within the terms of our current conceptual repertoire. These concepts are used to explain reality in alternative terms that conflict with our own, resulting in apparent factual disagreements, but the intensity of such conflicts betrays that more is at stake than epistemic differences. If we shift from disputing facts to attempting a plurality of understandings to compare, the parallax among worldviews opens a depth vision capable of penetrating further into infinitude.
- When religion works on us, and draws us from contemplating the indefinite into a living relationship with infinity, which permeates reality, and addresses us continuously.
I’ve travelled a long way from the passage that inspired this reflection:
Matter-of-fact is the notion of mere existence. But when we seek to grasp this notion, it distinguishes itself into the subordinate notions of various types of existence for example, fanciful or actual existences, and many other types. Thus the notion of existence involves the notion of an environment of existences and of types of existences. Any one instance of existence involves the notion of other existences, connected with it and yet beyond it. This notion of the environment introduces the notion of “more and less,” and of multiplicity.
In Taoism the infinite is Tao and the indefinite is “the ten thousand things”. I love thinking about people’s totalities as “everythings” and then imagining a totality of totalities as “ten thousand everythings”, each potentially forming a relationship with infinity, starting with forming relationships with one another and their shared realities. This is not intersubjectivity worship.
Whence things have their origin,
Thence also their destruction happens,
According to necessity;
For they give to each other justice and recompense
For their injustice
In conformity with the ordinance of Time.
The Greek word for “whence things have their origin” is the apeiron — primordial chaos. The world without form, void, with blindness upon its face — that over which the spirit moves… the element in which when we are perplexed we drown: this is apeiron.
I am vitally interested in the experience of grappling with apeiron. The apeiron in all its dreadfulness is what we encounter when we actually transcend ourselves. (And it is ourselves we transcend when we transcend — not the natural world, like magic-mongers claim!) Bliss might follow transcendence, but it is strictly what follows — and it happens after transcendence has happened, not during it. If you “follow your bliss” you flee transcendence back into your most finite (most conceptually infinity-containing) self: that who you are, not that who you are not but who simultaneously exceeds and involves you.
Nowhere is “no pain, no gain” it truer than in religious activity.
If I have a positive metaphysical conviction it is in the existence of apeiron.
But if the ultimate reality is apeiron, and apeiron is not an essential wholeness but an infinite profusion of particular views of the whole — a flood of incommensurate meanings — we are morally free to find our own commensurations. Not “everything is permitted” but myriad things are… But as a liberal, I’m most interested in what we humans permit: and I want to permit what permits. According to Richard Rorty, this makes me an ironist.
So, metaphysically, I am Taoist. However, I do not think metaphysical beliefs are a suitable foundation for religion. Equating religions and belief systems (ideologies), faiths and factual convictions causes us to make category mistakes that block religious life. My preference for radical pragmatism resembles the religious attitude of a Buddhist. (I agree with Buddhism on what religions do/are.) But ultimately my passionate Judeo-Christian moral commitment to human dignity makes me not only resemble a liberal Christian — it makes me identify as a Judeochristian.
By the way, starting today, I’m removing the hyphen from Judeo-Christian, because Judeochristianity is not a hybrid of two separate things, but a refusal to separate them in the first place.
This morning I registered apeirony.com and apeironism.com.
What is the pragmatic “cash value” of a person’s moral vision? I propose this: Where is that person motivated or resistant to experiment, at what cost and at what risk?
Where: What possibilities of reality does the experimenter wish to investigate and bring to light? These possibilities can range from definite hypotheses or questions to indefinite intuitions of potential.
Cost: How much does the experimenter propose to invest or save, and who pays for doing the experiment and who pays for not doing it?
Risk: What level of unpredictability is the experimenter ready to tolerate?
Two forms of dialectic can be distinguished. They have different characters and different trajectories.
Synthetic dialectic moves toward monism.
- Synthetic dialectic is reductionistic.
- Its method is to uncover and cancel contradictions in antitheses which preserve irrelevant, complicating and inhibiting distinctions.
- Synthetic dialectic has a passionate and destructive character. It tends to destroy complex structure and release energy.
- Synthetic dialectic tends to decrease the total number of categories as well as the quantity and complexity of relationships connecting these categories, while increasing the scope of the remaining categories.
- Synthetic dialectic is experienced as liberation from de-centering illusions — oppressive notions that alienate a person from himself, prevent him from living according to his own experience and judgment, and which oblige him to live according to the experiences and judgments of others.
- The thrust of synthetic dialectic is to detect the irrelevance and invalidity of alien claims and to reject them on that basis.
- Whether idealistic or materialistic, synthetic dialectic attempts to finally subsume all being under a single, universal ontological category, or a monad. This category is understood to be basis of truth. Thinking from other bases is at best provisional and at worst, false.
- Synthetic dialectic can appear absolutist, and often succumbs to absolutism.
- Synthetic dialectic strengthens the will, but weakens the intellect.
- Synthetic dialectic synthesizes — “puts together” — broader, more universal categories. Fewer and fewer particularities are perceived in their particularity, but are taken as generalities, types or manifested principles and are treated according to their abstract intelligible character. Anomalous particularities are disregarded as irrelevant.
Analytic dialectic moves toward pluralism.
- Analytic dialectic is antireductionistic.
- Its method is to uncover and cancel contradictions in antitheses which project unnecessary, simplistic and unproductive equivalencies.
- Analytic dialectic has a moderating and constructive character. It tends to consume energy generating structures of increasing complexity.
- Analytic dialectic tends to increase the total number of categories and the quantity and complexity of relationships connecting them, while decreasing the scope of each categories.
- Analytic dialectic discovers diversity within apparent equivalency. It looks for failures to detect relevant distinctions made by other people, due to the crudeness of one’s own schema. It discovers both new distinctions and new, valid, obligating claims from others.
- The thrust of analytic dialectic is to detect the relevance and validity of alien claims and to affirm them.
- Analytic dialectic attempts to understand multiple, overlapping ontological existences in all being, which permits the understanding of diverse, valid and finite perspectives. The ground of being is understood as an engulfing infinity, to which human beings relate in finite terms.
- Analytic dialectic can appear relativist, and often succumbs to relativism.
- Analytic dialectic strengthens the intellect, but weakens the will.
- Analytic dialectic scrutinizes broad, universal categories and analyzes — “loosens them up” — into finer categorizations more capable of doing justice to “particularities in their particularity”. Particularities are still treated according to their intelligible character, but intelligibility is obligated to answer to the truth of particulars and to accommodate them.
Both forms of dialectic are necessary to human life. Neither is intrinsically good nor intrinsically bad. The question is one of context and dynamic balance.
Ch’eng of North Gate said to the Yellow Emperor, “When Your Majesty performed the Hsien-ch’ih music in the wilds around Lake Tung-t’ing, I listened, and at first I was afraid. I listened some more and felt weary, and then I listened to the end and felt confused. Overwhelmed, speechless, I couldn’t get hold of myself.”
“It’s not surprising you felt that way,” said the emperor. “I performed it through man, tuned it to Heaven, went forward with ritual principle, and established it in Great Purity. Perfect music must first respond to the needs of man, accord with the reason of Heaven, proceed by the Five Virtues, and blend with spontaneity; only then can it bring order to the four seasons and bestow a final harmony upon the ten thousand things. Then the four seasons will rise one after the other, the ten thousand things will take their turn at living. Now flourishing, now decaying, the civil and military strains will keep them in step; now with clear notes, now with dull ones, the yin and the yang will blend all in harmony, the sounds flowing forth like light, like hibernating insects that start to wriggle again, like the crash of thunder with which I awe the world. At the end, no tail; at the beginning, no head; now dead, now alive, now flat on the ground, now up on its feet, its constancy is unending, yet there is nothing that can be counted on. That’s why you felt afraid.
“Then I played it with the harmony of yin and yang, lit it with the shining of sun and moon; its notes I was able to make long or short, yielding or strong, modulating about a single unity, but bowing before no rule or constancy. In the valley they filled the valley; in the void they filled the void; plugging up the crevices, holding back the spirit, accepting things on their own terms. Its notes were clear and radiant, its fame high and bright. Therefore the ghosts and spirits kept to their darkness and the sun, moon, stars, and constellations marched in their orbits. I made it stop where there is an end to things, made it flow where there is no stopping. You try to fathom it but can’t understand, try to gaze at it but can’t see, try to overtake it but can’t catch up. You stand dazed before the four-directioned emptiness of the Way, or lean on your desk and moan. Your eyes fail before you can see, your strength knuckles under before you can catch up. It was nothing I could do anything about. Your body melted into the empty void, and this brought you to an idle freedom. It was this idle freedom that made you feel weary.
“Then I played it with unwearying notes and tuned it to the command of spontaneity. Therefore there seemed to be a chaos where things grow in thickets together, a maturity where nothing takes form, a universal plucking where nothing gets pulled, a clouded obscurity where there is no sound. It moved in no direction at all, rested in mysterious shadow. Some called it death, some called it life, some called it fruit, some called it flower. It flowed and scattered, and bowed before no constant tone. The world, perplexed by it, went to the sage for instruction, for the sage is the comprehender of true form and the completer of fate. When the Heavenly mechanism is not put into action and yet the five vital organs are all complete this may be called the music of Heaven. Wordless, it delights the mind. Therefore the lord of Yen sang its praises thus: ‘Listen — you do not hear its sound; look — you do not see its form. It fills all Heaven and earth, enwraps all the six directions.’ You wanted to hear it but had no way to go about it. That was why you felt confused.
“Music begins with fear, and because of this fear there is dread, as of a curse. Then I add the weariness, and because of the weariness there is compliance. I end it all with confusion, and because of the confusion there is stupidity. And because of the stupidity there is the Way, the Way that can be lifted up and carried around wherever you go.”
This is pretty much a paraphrasing of what I’m always saying, one way or another, but I think it’s a relatively clear one. What I’m trying to do is to classify the different modes of understanding available to us to help us relate and unify our experience. In this diagram the darker, outer circles of why, how and what are the space in which we can feel the relevance of a problem and pursue understanding; the brighter inner circles of the venn diagram are the successful resolution of a problem through the exercise of various modes of understanding. At the center is totality as (as I believe) Levinas uses it, though without the moral overtones.
My view is that most us overemphasize episteme (the type of knowledge by which we comprehend objects), if we recognize the other forms of understanding at all. Even when we do, we tend to reduce them to the terms of episteme. In my view, sophia and phronesis are felt and responded, to aptly or not, according to the degree of one’s understanding. One’s ability to articulate the understanding has much less to do than with one’s ability to relate and respond (verbally or not) by the terms of and to the ends set by the understanding. Sophia and phronesis are essentially tacit forms of knowledge, which can find articulations, but precedes and exceeds the articulation of language.
These diagrams are the attempts of my own episteme to relate to the other faculties within my soul. And when I find myself caring about the form and content of these diagrams and then later catch myself working naturally according to the principles I’m attempting to show, I experience wholeness of purpose and coherence in the world. And if others experience my diagrams this way — or show me how I can improve them, or convince me that I ought to destroy them — I feel the potential of the world to be a home.
I’m always looking for structures, but not because I think the structure is already there to be discovered. It’s because I think sanity requires these kinds of structures. I am perfectly willing to project a structure onto reality as if it is already in it, and see it there afterward. These structures are not tools I employ to help me see; they’re understanding itself, by which I see.
I’m enough of a skeptic that I do not care if a model is a discovery or an invention. What matters is that it is experienced as a discovery, and that the structure clings to my vision as if it is part of what I see, not a feature of my sight.