Overblog Follow this blog
Administration Create my blog
April 22 2013 2 22 /04 /April /2013 19:38

I suspect many readers of my posts have had qualms about the degree to which aspects of my arguments might seem to over-emphasize abstract argument at the expense of immediate relevance to the issues we face. For those of you who still entertain such concerns, may I strongly suggest you read the following blog posting, which concerns the recently arrested "terror suspect" in Boston Massachusetts. It is available here. The prior reference to the issue confronted in that article may be found in my posting "Words, and what they carry."

 

John.

Repost 0
Published by makingsenseofus
write a comment
April 1 2013 2 01 /04 /April /2013 19:25

Why do we so often miss the point of what is actually going on in life, and in our lives? I think it must be because we are preoccupied with immediate issues, rather than with the processes that cause them to be issues in the first place.

 

Issues seem to point us directly towards what needs to be done in order to resolve them in our own favor. Our preferred default setting for decision-making thus seems to be "What do I need to do about this in order to get rid of it as a problem?" rather than "What do I need to do to change the processes that created the problem in the first place? . . . and perhaps continue to create others like it?" We seem to be continually fated to create the very problems that endanger not only our well-being but our likelihood of survival. (I deliberately chose to say "seem to be fated". Therein lies part of our problem. We pervasively disregard the potential of our capacity to choose.)

 

J.

Repost 0
Published by makingsenseofus
write a comment
March 31 2013 1 31 /03 /March /2013 23:29

First, a warning . . . I suspect this post will appear in my overall blog inventory as having been written before the post on effability. It would make considerably better sense for you to read it after that post.

 

What I intend to do here is to explore to its very limits the potential implications of the metaphor about music used by Terry Eagleton in that earlier post. The consequent exploration may prove too imprecise for some, and perhaps too contrived for others, but what is required for music to have an effect has pre-occupied me for some time, so, after commenting on it in that previous post, I think it's worth while to push the signifcance of the metaphor as far as it can reasonably go.

 

As I've already mentioned, I have long thought that a symphony orchestra is itself a powerful illustration of the cooperative ability of human beings. Each person has a unique part to play, although many play different instruments, and the conductor "plays" nothing, except the orchestra itself, and, through that, of course, the music. It's worthwhile to look at how it all works. Although on any given performance or rehearsal occasion, there is necessarily a specific group agreement as to what the "content" will be, there has already occurred a great deal of independent, cooperative and convergent activity. It is hard to appraise the degree of investment that underlies every independent, cooperative, fragmented and unitary activity of all those involved in what is eventually realized in a given orchestral performance  . . . Years of lessons, practice, affiliation, reciprocal guidance, challenge, and support, both emotional and practical; in addition, recovery from set-backs, conflictual living demands and the everyday demands of life; and more . . .

 

And that is just the musicians themselves. Think, too, of the extensive infrastructure necessary for realizing the simple opportunity to play: the venues, the concert halls, the schools, the public spaces, and the commitment of all those involved in organizing the effective functioning of the services needed . . .

 

Does your mind boggle? Mine does.

 

Behind it all, too, are the composers who are realizing something of themselves in what they write, and thus enabling something similar to become available to us when it is revealed in the performance. What is it, then, that is revealed to us? And why is it important? It is scarcely sufficient to comment that we are "moved", or even that we are perhaps put in touch with aspects of our experience of existence that make us feel what would otherwise be invisible to us. What could those evidences of human musical achievement placed by Carl Sagan into the Voyager spacecraft mean to an alien civilization? I often think of Kurt Vonnegut's fictional message conveyed to a distant alien civilization in his novel, The Sirens of Titan. The deciphered message turns out to be "Greetings!"

 

There is wisdom in this, I think. Our own composers, musicians and artists are all showing us to ourselves, and inviting us in to celebrate who and what we are, and strive to be. Any realization of the potential in us to share both our pain and our ecstasy helps us be more fully alive, and thus more appreciative of other life and other selves. That's a profoundly significant achievement, wouldn't you say?


 


Given Langer's insights, then, I think it's fair to transcend Wittgenstein's ultimate injunction at the end of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and substitute something like the following: "Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we need not be silent. We may well find other modes of engagement. Indeed, we must." I suspect, if Langer's work had been available to Wittgenstein, he would have welcomed the modification.

 

(I'm afraid I've left this post in my drafts folder for far too long, and, as will be obvious from other recent posts, I've recently come to focus on the much larger issues than the one dealt with here. It's still connected, of course, as Bauman, too, comments in his The Art of Life, but I thought it best to simply release this draft as is, and let you make of it what you will!)

 

Cheers,

 

John

Repost 0
Published by makingsenseofus
write a comment
March 19 2013 3 19 /03 /March /2013 19:27

I've experienced an interesting convergence of sensibilities over the past few days, and, quite apart from ruminating on the factors that combine to promote a new opening of mind to their existence, I'm presently trying to come to terms with what I think I've now discovered.

 

Three separate "events" all seemed to be inclined in a similar direction. First (perhaps?) I've been re-reading some of the marvelous Donna Leon mysteries, featuring her fictional detective Guido Brunetti, his family, his friends, and his encounters with the incongruities of the modern state. Second, I was recently almost fortuitously able to reconnect with a previous colleague (of forty years ago). Third, I and a very dear friend (whom I've known since his very birth) became engaged in a deeply-felt discussion about the connection between pragmatic concerns and the metaphysical. (Please don't be distracted by the abstract terms––we simply met in a way that neither of us was quite prepared for.)

 

I'll try to track the convergent elements in these three occasions . . .

 

In re-reading the Leon books, it became much clearer to me that their power depended very much on Leon's ability to project the incongruent aspects of one's own identity into other characters, so that one's inner dilemmas could be fully expressed, and in fact "come to life" in the consequent dialogical interaction between the fictional participants.

 

Something similar transpired in my discussions with those other two real people identified above.The discussions with G. (by e-mail) put me in touch with aspects of our joint experiences forty years previously that had previously been invisible to me. My discussion with D. (in person) did something very similar for our here and now relationship.

 

In every case, then, what was occurring could be conceptualized as a conversation about meaning itself, by the very people who were at that very moment creating it through their dialogic interaction.

 

That's both pretty humbling, and marvelously enlightening, because it was the process itself that was elucidating meaning, at the very moment that it was being created. I'm sorry that at the moment I can't be any clearer than that . . . but it is in a way like being inside the miracle at the very moment of its occurrence. Perhaps that's what full realization actually is.

 

I'd better post this before I start getting fragmented again!

 

Cheers,

 

John

Repost 0
Published by makingsenseofus
write a comment
March 11 2013 2 11 /03 /March /2013 22:16

Since following up on my own recommendation the other day to consider the implications of Johanna Seibt's article on "Process Philosophy" in the on-line Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, I was sufficiently intrigued by Alfred North Whitehead's treatment of the manner in which past processes always contain future possibility, and future possibility is thus always pregnant in the present, that I became suddenly aware of a perspective on my own contributions to process that had previously eluded me. So, as with so many things, I found that my own experience was an exemplar of something truly universal . . .

 

Like many others living in this cyberspace age, I find that my "catchment area" for reading is so much vaster than it used to be. However, so much of my reading is still from books, articles, newspapers, commentaries, and commentaries on commentaries, as well as from the internet, that I often cannot remember the source of any particular idea, perspective, or opinion. I have had two or three wierd experiences recently that were discombobulating (to say the least!) in relation to this.

 

I was reading something recently in "hard copy" form, and found that my stream-of-consciousness internal comments were starting to group themselves into admiring statements of the "that's really interesting" or "yes, I agree with that" sort, when I suddenly realized that I was unknowingly reading something that I had myself written some time previously. It was a little bit like coming across a full length mirror in a store, and seeing my own image in it as if I were a stranger. I have also, however, had the experience of reading something of which I was quite critical, and then, similarly, suddenly realizing that it was something I had written myself. "Surely, I couldn't have said that!" I think . . . and then have to accept, usually reluctantly, that I did.

 

Well, that's clearly disconcerting, but at the same time it's humbling. It's as if the I that wrote whatever it was is no longer the I that I experience myself as being now. And yet it is––and I am.

 

Some years ago, when I was teaching students of social work at UBC, it was not uncommon for my students, upon seeing themselves on videotape, to exclaim variants of "I can't believe that's me!" or "I can't believe I said that!" Even more devastating would be the experience of having been confronted by another student as having done or said a particular thing, having denied that anything of the sort was possible, and then being confronted with the video-taped evidence. (I must add that I was often no different from others in my own reactions––which I hope had the consequence of us all being a bit the wiser, and less trenchantly judgmental than before we were alerted to our incongruities.) So many of our intolerancies, I believe, are due to our failure, not to see ourselves as others see us (for they, too, can be mistaken), but to realize that we ourselves may be very different than we imagine ourselves to be.

 

Perhaps, indeed, our common future depends in part on whether we can truly allow ourselves to see ourselves? (And perhaps to forgive ourselves, and others, too, for making it so hard to do so?)

 

More, soon.

 

John.

Repost 0
Published by makingsenseofus
write a comment
March 5 2013 3 05 /03 /March /2013 01:10

For those readers who are familiar with Making Sense of Us, and perhaps even for some of you who have dipped only occasionally into this blog, it will come as no surprise that my overall purpose has consistently been to show how the manner in which we make our different kinds of sense itself affects the kind of sense we are able to make. What may be less apparent, though, is that I also believe (and want to convince you also) that it is possible to bring about a better world than the one we have so far participated in creating if we can better understand why we make the sense we do.

 

The world we all inhabit is one where each of us actively participates in "bringing something about," and yet at the same time is subject to what simply seems to "come about" independently of our actions or our wishes. It is not surprising, then, that in our experiencing of these two often countervailing processes, we often feel disempowered or helpless. I have also shown, I hope (!), that we have come to compensate for that sense of helplessness by creating surrogate satisfactions which, because they are surrogates, are both transitory and ineffective. It is, indeed, because they are ineffective and transitory that they so pervasively permeate our motives. Even further, some of those surrogate endeavours threaten not only our survival, but contribute to our victimization of one another.

 

Is there a better way of coming to terms with the ambivalencies, polarizations, incongruities, and indeed conflicts that seem to constitute the inevitable circumstances and character of our lives?

 

As many of you will know, I had no intention of opening up metaphysical concerns in my book. You will also know that I was led inexorably to the necessity of confronting them in my last chapter; inexorably, because awareness of those concerns emerged logically from my own arguments.  If I was to accept the validity of my own arguments, my only choice was whether to confront the metaphysics, or to back off.

 

I should perhaps have been better prepared for that confrontation, since dealing with conflicts of belief in interpersonal relationships had constituted the focus of my professional activities for many years. Those activities were primarily of a pragmatic nature, as befitted the responsibilities of my various professional positions, but it was because of the insufficiencies of a purely pragmatic attitude towards the resolution of conflicts in both direct social work practice and in teaching that I eventually undertook the long commitment to write a book that would enable me to explore further the unacknowledged assumptions of my profession, and, indeed, of my species. Readers of the earlier "An Anniversary Moment" will have some idea of why I was so motivated.

 

Perhaps some of you will also remember that my moment of epiphany described in that post is best described as an encounter with the realization that humankind itself may be considered a "work in process", and thus requires a consideration of ourselves that does not easily accept the differentiation of our attitudes and activities into what we might call Darwinian competitive elements relevant to our survival, but sees them rather as mistaken polarities of attitude and belief, due to our failure to accord ourselves as a species a significant role in the evolution of the universe itself. In this view, all divisive religions, political systems, nationalities, ethnicities, occupations (in short, any identity-organising belief that denies the subjective logic of any other) have the potential to endanger not only our survival, but also our fulfillment as participants in a continuously evolving cosmos.

 

Whew! I don't know if you managed to survive those overly long sentences unscathed, but I'll save any fiddling with them until later. What I want to do right now is simply to emphasize that the sense we make by embracing antagonistic identities, and distracting ourselves from our ability to be potential resources to one another is indeed a fundamentally metaphysical concern. That is, it is not simply a utilitarian concern about survival, but rather a philosophical concern about purpose, meaning and value. Elsewhere I have commented on particular circumstances and events that have distracted us from that concern. All I want to say here (once more!) is that WE ALL MATTER. And we matter because we all produce effects.

 

In closing, I'd simply like to share a recent discovery. I have, because of some very useful recent conversations with a friend, returned to a more thorough consideration of the ideas of the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, who himself arrived at a preoccupation with matters metaphysical by a somewhat different route than I've described for myself above. Whitehead is for me the most significant metaphysical thinker of the past century. The whole field of enquiry of which Whitehead was himself arguably the prime modern initiator is the subject of the excellent article on "Process Philosophy" by Johanna Seibt in the on-line Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. That article, in my view, effectively establishes the context for all the ruminations I allowed myself to entertain in the above text. Dr. Seibt brilliantly analyzes the evolution of Process Philosophy from the era of Epictetus to that of our current scientific and "emergence"-preoccupied cosmological theories. I have rarely read a more lucid and compelling summary. It documents the importance of what may well come to be seen as the very revolution in our human awareness that enabled us to commit to the eternal greatness of which Whitehead spoke. Process philosophy makes better sense because it pays attention both to the manner in which the universe is bringing itself about and to the specifics of our own involvement in that process.

 

Cheers,

 

John.

 

 

 


Repost 0
Published by makingsenseofus
write a comment
February 22 2013 6 22 /02 /February /2013 22:07

I'm very aware that those of you who have already read MSOU may have been exasperated at my decision not to follow up there on the implications of every tendril reaching out to some larger meaning. This blog was undertaken specifically to make up for that relative deficiency, but, as most of you will now know, I've jumped around quite a bit, and have not been systematic in following up on every issue.

 

This post specifically picks up on one of those issues, namely, the potential control of the quality of any debate about meaning by controlling the terms that are available for discussing it. For those of you who have a copy of the book at hand, the statements I want to expand on form a major element in the content of chapter five, titled "Error."  For others, I'll simple quote briefly from a crucial section of the exposition so that you can feel at least provisionally "on board." The following is from page eighty in the book:

 

To determine the vocabulary for representing and discussing human affairs gives any group, whether it be an oligarchy, a nation, a religion, an ethnic group, a gang, an institution (in short, any organized group whatsoever) a powerful position in relation to its own interests. The choice or refutation of a particular vocabulary can be a powerful political act, since it promotes or refutes a particular organizing image of reality itself.

 

Attentive readers of this blog will already know that I've touched on this issue several times, usually in the course of making a point about something else. What made me decide to deal with it specifically in its own right was my realization that it was my own failing to deal with it directly that had resulted in my resorting to scarcely veiled sarcasm in my commentary on the manner in which others (with whom I disagreed) were selective in the connotations they ascribed to particular words. My parenthetical comment on Stephen Hawking's use of the word "God" in a previous post was what alerted me. I then remembered my comment in a still earlier post on Einstein's similar acceptance of the term (in a Spinozan vein) and Stuart Kauffman's attempt to co-opt the use of the term "sacred", probably with a nod towards Durkheim, in discussions of the meaning of research findings in the physical and biological sciences. Kauffman was particularly lucid on the issue in his piece for Edge.org, which can be found here.

 

 

At the same time, my conscience niggled me again about my avoiding discussion of this very issue with a good friend who was critical of my gloss on the meaning assigned to the words "sin" and "evil" in everyday contexts. My point, however, is not simply that using a vocabulary with a long history of very particular associations inhibits our own ability to express something different, but that, in using terms which have very different connotations for those who've used them to justify positions that are antagonistic to our own, we unknowingly yield an advantage to those with whom we disagree. We can, of course, use particular wordings ironically, as I think it likely that Hawking did in his pronouncement on the mind of God, but such irony is likely to be either invisible, or immediately interpreted as hostile by those who think and feel differently. (Possibly Hawking was again making a wry comment on an earlier pope's exhortation to him not to enquire into the workings of God.)

 

In MSOU I gave similar examples of semantic control of content via the use of specific metaphors. In the fields of politics, marketing, religion,and even specialized areas of human enquiry, the very vocabularies determine the direction of attention and thinking. And that's not even to mention the different significances of particular words accorded by different languages. Many years ago the playwright Arthur Miller commented on the problems of misinterpretation arising from the shared assumptions of people in the US and the UK that they were speaking the same language.

 

I don't know how far I can go with this, as it leads into every structural variant in languages themselves. Also, as I've illustrated both in the book and in this blog, particular polarities can promote particular kinds of metaphors, which themselves promote particular ways of thinking. If you go to Edge.org, and track down Lera Boroditsky there, you'll find she has some very significant things to say about the language constraints affecting such variations, as indeed George Steiner does, although somewhat less vividly, in the wonderful, but demanding, After Babel: Aspects of language and translation.

 

In the meantime, it should be clear that our language preferences are for the most part invisible to us, until, that is, we find that they prejudice the kinds of encounters we have with one another because they import assumptions that turn out to be anathema(!) to someone else. I guess, perhaps rather over simply, that drawing our attention to such phenomena is the very first step towards our investigating our unknowing collusion in producing them. I hope so!

 

Cheers,

 

John.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 


Repost 0
Published by makingsenseofus
write a comment
February 19 2013 3 19 /02 /February /2013 00:44

Like so many things––indeed, everything!––this blog is ever in process, so I can't be too distressed by not having successfully concluded the last post in convincing fashion . . . The following is my attempt to take it a bit further.

 

The questions that must remain in any reader's mind were already in mine, and both you and I need more complete answers to them than I have yet given. If you can accept, however, even, for the moment, as a provisional hypothesis, that we all want to be effective in our lives, I think it's reasonable to suggest that, in the absence of any conviction that we truly are, we will settle for a convincing feeling that we might well be, or that someone we admire and feel some identification with, is. Even if we cannot find a living person who warrants that projection, there must certainly have been someone in the past whom we can admire as a successful avatar of ourselves, or perhaps an almost successful one. Even further, if we can find no such person, we can nevertheless entertain the possibility that such a person might exist.

 

In that light, it is understandable that many of the world's religious beliefs are attached to a person, whether a saviour, or a prophet, or a holy person, who carried in their person the aura of one with a complete understanding of the meaning of life, and knew how to live effectively in the light of that knowledge. The obvious examples are the Buddha, Jesus Christ, Mohammed, Lao Tse, and possibly a host of others who are unknown to me because of the limits of my own experience, education, or intelligence. Interestingly, what those people have in common is that they were, in fact, people. In other words, they were like us, and therefore can stand as models for the possibility of achieving a transcendent understanding of the meaning of existence.

 

It won't have escaped your notice, I suspect, that my references to meaning in the above paragraph bear on both existence in its entirety, and life itself as a particularly significant aspect of it.. As symbolizing and conceptualizing human beings, we are of course concerned with the meaning of both. Would it be too extravagant, then, to suggest that the interests of human beings have led us to separate those two different sorts of understanding? Specifically, that our efforts to understand the meaning of life are different from those directed towards understanding existence . . .?

 

It's certainly apparent that such a summary is indeed born out by our observable human preoccupations and activities. It is by no means a large step to feel that our own existence cannot possible fall into the same category of potential understanding as that which bears on how galaxies come about and whether quantum "mechanisms" will eventually lead to the discovery of "the mind of God." (That was Stephen Hawking's prediction a few years back.)

 

I notice in the news today that there is now extensive speculation on the possibility, now revealed by the apparent discovery of the Higgs boson, that our universe might well be such as to disappear "in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye"; but not until an almost unthinkable amount of time has passed. Although much of the commentary in response to this speculation seems to be very much like a collective shrug of our human shoulders, the possibility might well, I hope, give us pause to consider more thoughtfully the role that we ourselves continuously play in the unfolding of the universe. It is not adequate, I believe, to ask simply if we matter to the universe. We can't possibly know that now, or perhaps even ever, but every single one of us knows that we matter to us. Shouldn't we endeavor to live consciously in the light of that? Every single one of us matters. It is how we respond to that which will profoundly affect the future that is available to us.

 

John.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Repost 0
Published by makingsenseofus
write a comment
February 3 2013 1 03 /02 /February /2013 23:57

My last post was in part a rumination on my procrastination in following up on the implications of the last chapter of my book. (See also "Chapter Ten Revisited.") My emotional log jamb, however, as can perhaps be discerned in that last post, eventually yielded, not only to the persuasiveness of the argument in Alfred North Whitehead's book referenced in that post, but also to an even more significant fundamental consideration developed in his earlier The Function of Reason (1929). The critical nudge that enabled me to make the eventual breakthrough can be attributed to a friend who had drawn my attention to a YouTube presentation of Iain McGilchrist talking about his widely acclaimed recent book, (The Master and His Emissary, Yale university Press, 2009.) in which he had proposed a critical return to a consideration of the relative roles of the right and left brain activity in the human mind.

 

In reading McGilchrist I became increasingly aware of his own unknowingly reductive stance in attributing to the left brain an almost conscious motivation to resist the more context-aware sensibility of the right brain functioning. How could such thinking emerge in such an insightful and meticulously documented account of the various research findings?

 

The short answer I rather obviously found in McGilchrist's inattentiveness to the implications of the "selfishness" metaphor first promulgated by Richard Dawkins, but that in itself clearly does not suffice. The more significant question is: how can we (all of us) so easily be thrown off-course by references to motive in general? Why, indeed, do we so easily succumb to the attractions of attributing motive so arbitrarily? I found my answer in Whitehead's earlier propositions about the role of symbolism in the evolution of mind.

 

My last post suggested, as did the last chapter of my book, that feeling meaningful primarily consists both in being effective and in feeling affirmed. That is, in having a feeling of continuous effective identity. (Both insights I owe to Whitehead.) Because the existential situation of human beings is such as to make us acutely aware of our apparent effective insignificance in relation to everything else, in particular with regard to the overwhelming vastness of the universe itself, both in space and time, it is hard to feel that any single one of us could be meaningful in such a context, or even that we might be meaningful collectively. It is here that Whitehead's proposition of the possibility of contributing to "some eternal greatness incarnate in the passage of temporal fact" unveils the larger meaningful potential of any individual or even group existence. It isn't simply that our group life is larger and longer than any individual life, but rather that that group life over unforeseeable time is a continuing and constantly-being-created cumulative outcome of behaviour in our own individual lives. In other words we, together, and in relation to everything else, are able to play a consciously determining part in the evolution of the universe itself. It would be hard to find anything more meaningful than that!

 

I am very aware that such a statement, useful as it may be in bending our attention to see each other as allies rather than enemies, nevertheless scarcely touches the problem of why, as a species, we remain collectively ignorant of the possibility of an "eternal greatness", and thus of our ability to contribute to it.

 

Whitehead's The Function of Reason suggests the answer. The very symbolic ability that so distinguishes us from other life forms, also constitutes for us the means of avoiding both the opportunity it offers, and the responsibility for achieving, or failing to achieve, its realization.

 

How is this brought about?

 

It is brought about by the way symbolism itself works.

 

Since the entirety of my book was devoted to an investigation of how that working affects everything human beings choose to do, I trust I may be forgiven for not repeating its arguments in detail.

 

What I can do, however, is connect those arguments more closely to the concerns that Whitehead discusses in both Adventures of Ideas and The Function of Reason. In some repects, what I have to say can also be considered to be a commentary on the substance of Thomas Nagel's recent book  Mind and Cosmos. In that regard, readers may find it useful to review the discussion of Nagel's book at:

 

http://www.aeonmagazine.com/world-views/steven-poole-teleology/

 

or in the various review sources listed on Google.

 

What Whitehead does, however, is significantly sidestep the issues that Nagel and his critics were to place front and centre. Whitehead's arguments––and, indeed, mine––do not treat of teleology in the manner chosen by Nagel and his critics. I am no more concerned with the idea of a pre-established "first cause" teleology than was Whitehead. I am more concerned (as should we all, I believe!) with the emergence of mind in the process of evolution. The emergence of mind specifically does not need to have been predetermined. It is perfectly valid to consider our own minds, and, indeed, our collective mind, as more likely to be an outcome of the very process of evolution, whose logic was the primary focus of Whitehead's concerns way back in 1929.

 

Now, that's all simply a gloss, of course. Here's the nub: our very ability to symbolize has not only permitted us rigorously to investigate the physical workings of the universe; it has also fostered our conjectures about "ultimate" meaning. Although such conjectures have occasioned internecine and bloody conflict between human beings, there can be no absolute evidential basis for evaluating the truth or falsity of conflicting religious dogmas. There is, however, ample evidence that the very claims of absolute truth are themselves the source of our failure to come to terms with one another. (The dynamics involved are identified and discussed in MSOU.)

 

If our primary concerns are indeed to feel effective, it is understandable that we should make use of our symbolic abilities to create the very circumstances that would enable us to realize that feeling to its fullest. And so much the better, of course, if we were to find others who were able to confirm us in our convictions, and thus affirm us as effective actors in our lives.

 

It is always dangerous, of course, to make such all-embracing propositions. The almost infinite variability of human sensibilities would seem to authorize only a far more circumspect generalization. It is nevertheless widely evident that we humans do group ourselves with one another in accordance with our predilections, and that there must be a logic in such associative activity that can be discerned and understood in larger terms than those fostered by our exposure to the almost infinite variety of idiosyncratic manifestations of motive.  

 

All human beings are symbolizers, but it's important to remember that we are also animals. To enjoy effectiveness, then, it's clearly possible for us to experience it in different forms in those two domains. We can enjoy the effectiveness of our own physicality in many different ways, just as those dolphins do, enjoying their coordinated leaps, or as the seagulls playing in the turbulence of gusting winds. Adult human beings tend not to skip along as we did when children, but most of us enjoy physical games of some sort, and, in the absence of any specific skill on our own part, we also enjoy witnessing the evidence of others doing so. I don't know if other animals can enjoy the pleasure of others of their species in that way, but I'm pretty sure our human experience is such that we can also enjoy vicariously the athleticism and physical skill of others, to the point that we can experience it as a compensatory satisfaction for our own ineptitude, or as a shared, projected, experience of physical effectiveness. This latter possibility can be traced (again, as argued in MSOU) to our symbolically enabled ability to understand what it feels like to be someone else.

 

It is insofar as we are symbolizers, then, that we can vicariously experience the effectiveness of others as compensation for the dissatisfaction we may feel about our own abilities. We can also rather obviously find satisfactions occasioned by the process of symbolizing itself, regardless of the arenas in which that symbolizing activity is exercised, and possibly independently of the outcomes of that activity. The tendency to excess of verbiage in virtually every area of academic enterprise is arguably ample evidence of feelings of spurious effectiveness. Many are those who can talk up a storm without actually saying something meaningful! (And not only academics, of course!)

 

What I am saying in short, then, is that our symbolizing abilities provide us with ample opportunities for distracting both ourselves and others from the possible ultimate horror of meaninglessness. I am still only skating over the surface of all the surrogate opportunities available to us, of course. One rather obvious one is to claim "ownership" of what are widely accepted as being symbols of effectiveness: money, possessions, reputation, power over others, political or social rank, awards. Anything that qualifies for admiration by others can be used as an indicator of apparent meaningfulness. The very lack of those appurtenancies to the less fortunate in any society may well be considered as evidence of that group's lack of significant meaning in those societies where those appurtenancies are valued. Zygmunt Bauman's identification of those factors that signal the humiliation or social unworthiness of people is very relevant here.

 

In summary, let me put the situation even more bluntly: faced with the possibility of meaninglessness, individual human beings have the option of searching for surrogate satisfactions wherever the ascendant values of the society in which they live attach meaningful value to them. It is almost a given that awareness of our own contribution to such processes is vestigial and intermittent.

 

It's virtually impossible to compile an inventory of every viable manner of compensating for one's anxiety about meaninglessness, of course, but, in concentrating on the possibilities, it's also likely that one will be distracted from considering the importance of those of our day-to-day activities that we engage in almost without awareness of their relevance to some larger significance. Many of those activities are simply what we do without any special kind of attentiveness, because they are part of our daily habit of attending to what is necessary for simply living. We keep ourselves clean; we prepare our food; we look after our surroundings; we do some form of "work"; we eat when we are hungry; we sleep when we are tired. But we also play with our children, listen to the radio, watch or listen to the news, do the washing up, go shopping, check up on a neighbour who is ill, read a book, go to a concert, remember a birthday, write to an old friend. In fact, then, in our day-to-day activities we scarcely give thought to the metaphysical concern as to what is meaningful and what is not. 

 

Such habitual disregard is understandable. Inevitably, however, it has costs. I think they take two apparently fundamentally different forms. However, both result from our attempts to reject the probability that we are indeed ourselves powerless in relation to  the forces that determine the shape of existence.

 

If we believe that any larger purposefulness that exists exists independently of us, we thus necessarily disqualify ourselves from having any power in relation to it. As a result, we almost arbitrarily attribute such power on the one hand either to an hypothesized "prime mover" or force, or, on the other, either to specific others whose interests are in opposition to ours, or to processes in relation to which, although we have contributed to them, we feel helplessly subject. What advantages do these very different alternatives offer us? The first alternative carries with it the possibility of our associating ourselves with the hypothesized force, and thus allows us to feel that we are participants in its power, even if we don't understand it, since we are fulfilling its will. The second gives us a whole selection of purposes that challenge us to act against the hypothesized enemy or force, and thus achieve a meaningful purpose. Our effectiveness is continually gainsaid, but its promise is also as constantly refurbished. We can at least war against enemies, and those enemies can also be held to account for the processes that we judge to be responsible for virtually everything that renders us ineffective. As the example of McGilchrist shows, we can even personalize the enemy as a select bit of ourselves!

 

I'm sure you will have discerned the difficulty I had in formulating those sentences! The bottom line, I suppose, is to question in what respects we as human beings have any purpose beyond the immediate demands made on us by the circumstances of our lives. As you will know both (hopefully) from my book, or from my prior posts, I do believe there is an eternal greatness to which we can contribute. But not, as I have also argued in the book, "willy nilly." It is transparently obvious that we could indeed be the engineers our own extinction. To recognize that possibility we would need to be willing to face our own responsibility for our survival or for our passing.

 

After struggling so long with the drafting of this post, I think perhaps the previous post, and my post referring to Chapter Ten of Making Sense of Us, may provide better points of entry into these complex issues than the present one. There is a tendency for many of us to feel, I think, that preoccupations with metaphysical issues are a recipe for disaster. As was remarked to me many year ago by some of my students, it's possible to be too "self" conscious. Indeed it is, but an off-centered perspective on such a consciousness contains the means of its own transcendence. (As I know many of my students discovered on their own account.) The current absence of a group self-consciouness in humankind––that is, an awareness of humankind as a group "self"––does not. 

 

Off-centered consciousness of ourselves is extensively discussed in my book.

 

More soon!

 

John.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 


 

 

 

 

 

 



Repost 0
Published by makingsenseofus
write a comment
January 21 2013 2 21 /01 /January /2013 19:20

In the last chapter of my book Making Sense of Us I made a case for our committing ourselves, both as individual beings, and as a species collectively, to an optimal process of being, rather than to a pre-determined goal. The relevant section, if you are not familiar with it, is summarized in a curtailed extract form in the post "Revisiting Chapter Ten."

 

Readers who are familiar with the complete book will know that Chapter Ten proposes that the question posed in the first chapter of the book was unanswerable, in essence because it was the wrong question for us to be asking. That question was posed as "What's it all about?" Just to bring other readers on board, I should add that the title of Chapter Ten was "A Better question––and an Answer." The question I suggested that we are all asking of ourselves, most frequently without being aware of it, is "What are we about?" I hope it will be obvious that this is also simply another way of asking the question "What am I about?"––or rather, that both questions are complementary to one another. An adequate answer to either one implies our answer to the other also.

 

I have been struggling for some time to find an adequate way to talk about why I think my suggested answer to both complementary questions is so important. There are two potential ways of going about this, and that was where I got stuck, because I didn't want to alienate those who might "instinctively" reject my argument. I got closer to a resolution some time ago, when reading the earlier sections of Alfred North Whitehead's book Adventures of Ideas. Whitehead suggested that there are two fundamentally different ways of contriving an answer to both the question posed in my first chapter, and the different one suggested in the last. I cannot adequately summarize his argument briefly, but he suggested simply as example that the answers to those questions asserted by Buddhism on the one hand, and the varieties of Christianity on the other were inadequate, because neither confronted honestly the dilemma that all human beings face. In essence he was saying that both kinds of answer were fundamentally missing the point. He then went on to suggest, not an answer, but the form that an adequate answer would require.

 

Here is Whitehead's summary statement (I am quoting from page 33 of his book, in its currently still available Free Press paperback edition):

 

"I hazard the prophecy that that religion will conquer which can render clear to popular understanding some eternal greatness incarnate in the passage of temporal fact."

 

Now, I think there is a profound insight in this statement, unfortunately compromised in the form that Whitehead imposed on it by his fundamentally theistic stance to ultimate meaning.

 

However, the profound insight shines through, unattenuated, if we endeavour a non-theistic paraphrase, thus: (It should be clear that the first person singular subject of the sentence is no longer a reference to Whitehead, but to me . . .)

 

"I hazard the suggestion that that vision of human meaning will prevail which can render clear to popular understanding some eternal greatness incarnate in the passage of temporal fact."

 

Let me try to summarize that in more modern language:

 

I believe that a vision of human meaning that recognizes our own joint responsibility for creating it will prevail, because it will mean that we have come to terms with our own potential to contribute to that realization.

 

Well, that's probably enough to be getting on with for the moment! The essence of what I'm saying can perhaps be better understood by referring to chapter ten itself. The major message is that our own individual purposes and joint meaning transcend the span of any individual physical existence. It is not so much that we are afraid of death, as suggested by Ernest Becker, but that we are afraid of meaninglessness. We are not meaningless. We are part of the evolution of the universe. How about that?!! And what are its implications for how we act, both individually and collectively?

 

Cheers,

 

John.

 

 

 


 


Repost 0
Published by makingsenseofus
write a comment

Overview

  • : Making Sense of Us
  • Making Sense of Us
  • : A discussion forum for all things related to my book, 'Making Sense of Us', which explores how we can reach a better understanding of one another, ourselves, and indeed everything else!
  • Contact

Free text

Free text

Links