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November 4 2012 1 04 /11 /November /2012 20:52


It is quite likely that very few readers of this blog will have read Making Sense of Us in its entirety, so I am once more faced with the dilemma that I identified in several of my earlier, and indeed recent posts. How can I adequately connect with readers who are unfamiliar with the book's conclusion, spelled out very succinctly in the book's final chapter?


This post is an attempt at answering that question; I was, in fact alerted to its possible answer when tracking down the quote from Ernst Cassirer that forms a substantial element in the content of the post titled "The Human Condition . . .continued". Although that quotation is indisputably from Cassirer's Essay on Man, in my seaching for the exact reference I rediscovered the importance attached to it by Charles W. Hendel in his Preface and Introduction to Ernst Cassirer's Philosophy of Symbolic Forms in the edition published by Yale University Press in 1955.


Charles W.Hendel's reference occurs in a section in which he was commenting upon the ethical implications of Cassirer's approach, and this immediately reminded me of my own reference to the ethical implications of the conclusion I reached in Chapter Ten of my own book. For those of you unfamiliar with that chapter, the following quotation may enable you to connect at least tentatively with its ethical significance:


We are part of the evolutionary process of the universe. In us is expressed, possibly for the first time, a new element in that process. That new element is an awareness of the universe and of ourselves, and a critical ability to examine our own worth as contributors to, or detractors from, the evolutionary process itself. Our individual minds, and our common cooperative mind, represent that aspect of Nature that can contemplate, examine, and take stock of itself. We don't simply live out our hour upon the stage. Quite the contrary. We are involved in the writing of the continuous drama of life. Our possibilities for contributing to the progress of that drama are beyond our current ability to determine, although some part of them may be envisaged. What we do to and with ourselves and our world has a potentially critical significance for the future course of Nature, of whose self-observing mind, we must avow, we are at the moment possibly only the very slender beginning . . . Our obligation, then, is to use our understanding to optimize our contribution to the potential for cooperation amongst ourselves, to transcend simple exclusive preoccupation with self, and to foster creativity in any form that bids fair to contribute to evolutionary progress. A significant contribution to that progress is within the power of each of us individually, and all of us in concert. This is a moral commitment. It does not require for its fulfillment a specific envisagement of an ultimate consummation, a final "end."


On the contrary, it makes our process our purpose.        [MSOU p. 163]

In the light of this, you will scarcely be surprised that I was encouraged to find that Charles W. Hendel ends his long, and excellent, Introduction to The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms with a very similar statement, emphasizing that the entirety of Cassirer's book constitutes "a summons to an ethical task".  [The emphasis is mine.]


Neither Cassirer nor I are originators of such an obligation as I have identified above. Notably, Zygmunt Bauman takes a similar stance (beautifully, in The Art of Life), and Comte, Hegel, Weber, and Durkheim similarly, although with varieties of emphasis and qualification. It is particularly unfortunate, I believe, that Comte came to believe such an ethical obligation should necessarily be identified as a religious one, since that choice inevitably led to a widespread rejection of his overall attempt at a universal scheme of understanding. I must confess, however, that I can feel something like the excitement that he himself must have felt, although it should be amply apparent by now to readers of this blog that his position is not one that I would be willing to share. For the moment, though, I'd like to re-iterate my belief that Norbert Elias's concept of the "We-I balance", as well as Bauman's frequent references to the work of Emmanuel Lévinas contain significant implications for our joint human resolution of the crises currently facing us.


As I also mentioned in the "Human Condition . . . continued" post, however, much more needs to be said, both about Comte's overall scheme, and the factors that led to his espousal of it.  Plenty more to discuss! In the meantime, may I again urge casual readers to acquire, and read, my own book?!!





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