Readers of this blog will be familiar with the hesitations and procrastinations that seem inevitably to precede any particular posting that I hazard to publish. In that respect this particular post is no different, but it explains more fully than I have so far managed, I think,the reasons for my caution. Those reasons are themselves indicators of the enormity of the challenges facing us as necessary companions in the enterprise of making sense of our lives.
I should perhaps have phrased that differently, as, for example, in "making sense of our existence." That difference in wording itself indicates the nature of our difficulty: "making sense of our lives" is likely to emphasize for each of us our own emotional, cognitive, and attitudinal tasks; "making sense of our existence" emphasizes rather our common engagement in determining a destiny to which each of us can undoubtedly contribute, but to the determination of which it is unlikely that we are willing, except occasionally, to give our immediate attention. As that cartoon character remarked so characteristically and pointedly, "Life is just one darned thing after another!" There are always "more immediate" things to attend to than our trajectory as a species.
In the writing of Making Sense of Us, I was at first only marginally aware of how, inexorably, my investigation of how we come to make the kinds of sense we do make was taking both me and my readers into a confrontation with what I suppose I need to call the question of our ultimate meaning. In fact, the "conclusion" I reached in my final chapter was, I suspect, almost as surprising for my readers as it was for me.
Possibly you can understand now something more of the reasons for my hesitations. Upon reaching the end of my book, I not only realized I was at virtually another beginning point, but that, in writing about the further implications of my last chapter, I would be presuming something of the present readers of this blog that was not only unrealistic, but unfair. Those of you who have read the book will (I think!) feel that, in arriving at the dénouement, you had earned the right to participate in further exploring the implications of its conclusion, since you and I had shared an essentially similar journey. This is not to imply, however, that we had all arrived at the same place. The metaphors of journeys, arrivals, and so on can only take us so far(!)––and not always in a useful direction . . .
That last chapter, and indeed the book as a whole, nevertheless raised questions that cry out to be addressed. Those questions were implied in the various quotes from Norbert Elias I cited in recent posts, and made clearer, I hope, in my subsequent attempts to give them a more prominent place in our general awareness. This post is my effort to engage more directly in answering them.
In his monumental 3 volumes of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Ernst Cassirer expressed both the hope and the belief that understanding the manner in which symbolic forms themselves both contribute to and distract from our likelihood of making better sense would enable us to free ourselves from the constraints of our purely physical existence. He expressed it succinctly in his An Essay on Man, published in English by Yale University Press in 1944:
Human Culture taken as a whole may be described as the process of man's [sic] progressive self-liberation.
(I believe that, if he were writing today, Cassirer would himself have remarked upon his use of the gender-specific pronoun as historical evidence of the validity of the point he was making!)
Cassirer's comment is particularly relevant to my present purpose. Norbert Elias, Zygmunt Bauman, and indeed all those writing today about the manner in which human beings can and do attempt to make sense of our own existence, are writing in the variously coloured light of our known history as a species, but also, specifically in the last hundred and fifty years or so, with the very different perspectives now available to us as a result of the symbolic efforts of those thinkers we now define as sociologists.
Sociology, recognized as such, is still relatively new to us, and I believe we are still in the stage of groping to realize its full potential. It's nevertheless important to note (as indeed Cassirer did in a comment at the very beginning of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms) that any formulation contains within itself the power to restrict our thinking, as well as to open it up. Auguste Comte, now generally recognized as a prime initiator of the new science, himself attempted an analysis of the ways in which explanatory thinking can inhibit the progressive self-liberation of which Cassirer was subsequently to speak. Comte saw humankind as having progressed through two previous stages to a potential third stage which was, at the time he wrote, not fully realized. For a full explanation of the categories he discerned, I should perhaps simply refer you to the relevant entries in Wikipedia and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. For my purposes here, however, I will speak of them in only the most general of terms, given that I reject Comte's hypothesis that they represent a progressive process. I see them as not only ever-present in human sensibility, but as constantly swirling and intertwining in a manner that itself expresses something very significant about the way our We-I relationship with ourselves and everything else is in constant flux. Each Comtean "phase" is characterized by a different fundamental attribution of who or what is responsible for an overall "purpose." Comte believed that humankind had pretty much transcended the tendency to go for large-scale attribution of purpose to God, or god-like forces; just as it also was on the verge of transcending the attribution of purpose to hypostatized entities (as discussed below.) . . . I'll defer discussion of the character of his third hypothesized phase until a later post (It would at the moment pose more difficulty than I am yet ready to confront.)
The critical factor, I believe, as I've mentioned specifically in recent posts, and more generally in earlier ones, is what we fundamentally believe about both our own power to influence events in the short term (and thus to feel meaningful as effective human beings) and also our effectiveness as agents in the long term (that is, as meaningful in the context of the universe itself).
It is in this light that I feel strongly critical of any formulation that denigrates our power as human beings to affect our future history. I'm afraid that in this respect sociology has itself contributed to our sense of potential powerlessness, in that its formulations have frequently taken the form that Comte characterized as "metaphysical" . . . that is, as attributing to "personified reifications" the power to bend us to their own purposes. (Some readers may recall that I have an aversion to using the word "meme", as it now seems increasingly fashionable to do, since our defining simple ideas as such endows them with the character of having will and intent, much as Richard Dawkins did previously with "selfish genes".) Sociologists' contribution to this state of affairs is apparent in the way in which large postulated "entities" such as "capitalism", "communism", "consumerism", "class", "the market", "government", and so on are treated as if it is they that ineluctably determine and limit our freedom of action. Rather usefully, Zygmunt Bauman has himself commented on the phenomenon, in his comparative discussion of the contrast between the ideas of Nietzsche and Emmanuel Lévinas in The Art of Life. (A lovely book, incidentally, published by Polity in 2008 . . ISBN 978-0-7456-4326-7 in pb.)
The tendency to think in such a "metaphysical" way (a potentially very misleading term for it, I think) is also unfortunately encouraged by Norbert Elias's proposing that the controlling by nations of expressions of violence within their populations depends on the hegemony of the state, rather than the ability of their subjects to foster harmonious relationships amongst themselves. Possibly this is indeed a necessary phase in the evolution of civilization, but as a hypothesis it leaves completely untouched the issue (identified in the last section of The Society of Individuals) of what it will take for humankind to come to terms with itself. Surely there is something beyond the kind of assumptions about our own responsibilities and potential that were taken as givens by Thomas Hobbes?
More to come!