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Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

27 AUGUST, 2015

Hegel on Knowledge, Impatience, the Peril of Fixed Opinions, and the True Task of the Human Mind

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“Impatience asks for the impossible, wants to reach the goal without the means of getting there.”

I frequently lament a particularly prevalent pathology of our time — our extreme impatience with the dynamic process of attaining knowledge and transmuting it into wisdom. We want to have the knowledge, as if it were a static object, but we don’t want to do the work of claiming it — and so we reach for simulacra that compress complex ideas into listicles and two-minute animated explainers.

Two centuries before our era of informational impatience, the great German idealist philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (August 27, 1770–November 14, 1831), who influenced such fertile minds as Nietzsche and Simone de Beauvoir, addressed the elements of this pathology in a section of his masterwork The Phenomenology of Mind (public library).

Hegel writes:

The goal to be reached is the mind’s insight into what knowing is. Impatience asks for the impossible, wants to reach the goal without the means of getting there. The length of the journey has to be borne with, for every moment is necessary; and again we must halt at every stage, for each is itself a complete individual form, and is fully and finally considered only so far as its determinate character is taken and dealt with as a rounded and concrete whole, or only so far as the whole is looked at in the light of the special and peculiar character which this determination gives it. Because the substance of individual mind, nay, more, because the universal mind at work in the world (Weltgeist), has had the patience to go through these forms in the long stretch of time’s extent, and to take upon itself the prodigious labour of the world’s history, where it bodied forth in each form the entire content of itself, as each is capable of presenting it; and because by nothing less could that all-pervading mind ever manage to become conscious of what itself is — for that reason, the individual mind … cannot expect by less toil to grasp what its own substance contains.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for Robert Graves's little-known children's book. Click image for more.

Our mistaken conception of knowledge as a static object is also the root of our perilous self-righteousness and the tyranny of opinions. (“When you come right down to it,” Borges observed, “opinions are the most superficial things about anyone.”) Knowledge, Hegel argues, isn’t a matter of owning a truth by making it familiar and then asserting its ideal presentation, but quite the opposite — an eternal tango with the unfamiliar:

The form of an ideal presentation … is something familiar to us, something “well-known,’ something which the existent mind has finished and done with, and hence takes no more to do with and no further interest in. While [this] is itself merely the process of the particular mind, of mind which is not comprehending itself, on the other hand, knowledge is directed against this ideal presentation which has hereby arisen, against this “being familiar” and “well-known;” it is an action of universal mind, the concern of thought.

What is “familiarly known” is not properly known, just for the reason that it is “familiar.” When engaged in the process of knowledge, it is the commonest form of self-deception, and a deception of other people as well, to assume something to be familiar, to give assent to it on that very account.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Errol Morris’s magnificent New York Times essay series on the anosognostic’s dilemma, Hegel adds:

Knowledge of that sort, with all its talk, never gets from the spot but has no idea that this is the case. Subject and object, and so on, God, nature, understanding, sensibility, etc., are uncritically presupposed as familiar and something valid, and become fixed points from which to start and to which to return. The process of knowing flits between these secure points, and in consequence goes merely along the surface. Apprehending and proving consist similarly in seeing whether everyone finds what is said corresponding to his idea too, whether it is familiar and seems to him so and so or not.

True understanding, Hegel argues, requires that we demolish the familiar, overcome what psychologists have since termed the “backfire effect,” and cease clinging to the fixed points of our opinions:

The force of Understanding [is] the most astonishing and great of all powers, or rather the absolute power.

[…]

The life of the mind is not one that shuns death, and keeps clear of destruction; it endures death and in death maintains its being. It only wins to its truth when it finds itself utterly torn asunder.

The Phenomenology of Mind remains one of the most mind-stretching treatises ever written. Complement this particular passage with E.F. Schumacher on the art of adaequatio and how we now what we know and Hannah Arendt, who was heavily influenced by Hegel, on the life of the mind.

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24 AUGUST, 2015

Simone Weil on the Paradox of Friendship and Separation

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“It is a fault to wish to be understood before we have made ourselves clear to ourselves.”

Friendship is one of life’s greatest graces, and yet we hardly understand the gossamer threads of sympathy and love by which it binds us together. C.S. Lewis likened it to philosophy, art, and the universe itself in that “it has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.” Aristotle saw it as a mirror we hold up to one another. For Emerson, it was the product of truth and tenderness. John O’Donohue found its essence in the ancient Celtic notion of anam cara. For David Whyte, it is “a mirror to presence and a testament to forgiveness.”

One of the most profound meditations on friendship comes from French philosopher Simone Weil (February 3, 1909–August 24, 1943), a woman of immense insight on such complexities as how to make use of our suffering and what it takes to be a complete human being.

In the indispensable Gravity and Grace (public library) — which also gave us Weil on attention as a form of prayer — she writes:

It is a fault to wish to be understood before we have made ourselves clear to ourselves.

[…]

To desire friendship is a great fault. Friendship should be a gratuitous joy like those afforded by art or life. We must refuse it so that we may be worthy to receive it; it is of the order of grace. It is one of those things which are added unto us. Every dream of friendship deserves to be shattered… Friendship is not to be sought, not to be dreamed, not to be desired; it is to be exercised (it is a virtue).

[…]

Friendship cannot be separated from reality any more than the beautiful. It is a miracle, like the beautiful. And the miracle consists simply in the fact that it exists.

In keeping with this Zen-like notion, Weil argues that the sympathetic communion of friendship is a complement, not a counterpoint, to our essential capacity for solitude:

Keep your solitude… When you are given true affection there will be no opposition between interior solitude and friendship, quite the reverse.

But Weil’s most striking stance of friendship bridged the philosophical with the practical — the very survival of her ideas is the direct product of friendship.

In June of 1941, when the antisemitic laws of the Nazi administration barred her from teaching philosophy at the University, Weil decided to work on a farm in the country for the same reason she had labored incognito at a car factory some years earlier — to better understand the human experience and its most trying dimensions. A friend of Weil’s introduced her to a farmer named Gustave Thibon, six years her senior, who she hoped would take her on as a worker. (“Farm work is one of the best jobs for getting to know people as they really are,” young Sylvia Plath wrote just a few years later.)

Gustave Thibon

In the introduction to Gravity and Grace, Thibon — who eventually became a philosopher himself and lived to be ninety-seven, outliving Weil by nearly six decades — recounts his initial skepticism:

I am a little suspicious of graduates in philosophy, and so for intellectuals who want to return to the land, I am well enough acquainted with them to know that, with a few rare exceptions, they belong to that order of ranks whose undertakings generally come to a bad end. My first impulse was therefore to refuse.

Still, he relented and took a chance on this earnest young woman. The relationship, Thibon writes, was “friendly but uncomfortable” at first and the two “disagreed on practically everything.” But he soon came to see that Weil was indeed one of those rare exceptions — her combination of sincerity, goodwill, and genius won him over and the two developed a deep friendship that outlasted Weil’s weeks on the farm.

In 1942, as the Nazi occupation drove Weil out of her homeland and she reluctantly headed to New York, Thibon met her at the train station. She handed him a giant portfolio of her papers with the instruction of taking care of them during her exile. And so he did, binding them with the thread of friendship into a lasting volume of ideas that continue to ennoble and illuminate long after Weil’s untimely death — Thibon curated her writings for posterity, in the truest sense of the word, which has its roots in the Latin cura, “to care for.”

In a letter to Thibon, included in his book Simone Weil as We Knew Her, Weil writes from America:

The joy of meeting and the sorrow of separation … we should welcome these gifts … with our whole soul, and experience to the full, and with the same gratitude, all the sweetness or bitterness as the case may be. Meeting and separation are two forms of friendship that contain the same good, in the one case through pleasure and in the other through sorrow… Soon there will be distance between us. Let us love this distance which is wholly woven of friendship, for those who do not love each other are not separated.

In the introduction to Gravity and Grace, Thibon shares another 1942 letter from Weil, which further speaks to her idealism about friendship:

Dear Friend,

It seems as though the time has now really come for us to say goodbye to each other… Human existence is so fragile a thing and exposed to such dangers that I cannot love without trembling.

[…]

I also like to think that after the slight shock of separation you will not feel any sorrow … and that if you should sometimes happen to think of me you will do so as one thinks of a book one read in childhood. I do not want ever to occupy a different place from that in the hearts of those I love, because then I can be sure of never causing them any unhappiness.

A few months later, Weil left for England, where she died on August 24, 1943, at the age of only thirty-four. Her ideas, collected in Gravity and Grace, endure as the book one is always reading in childhood — that is, in the sincerest, truest, most ennobled part of the psyche.

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21 AUGUST, 2015

Buckminster Fuller’s Brilliant Metaphor for the Greatest Key to Transformation and Growth

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“What you do with yourself, just the little things you do yourself, these are the things that count.”

“The only transformation that interests me is a total transformation — however minute,” Susan Sontag wrote in her diary. It’s a sentiment both paradoxical and profound — we tend to think of the total and the minute as polarities, and yet any total transformation is the product of a series of minute, purposeful shifts. That, after all, is the transformative power of habit.

No one has articulated the machinery of transformation more succinctly and powerfully than architect, inventor, and philosopher Buckminster Fuller (July 12, 1895–July 1, 1983) — a man of timeless wisdom and prescience so extraordinary that he envisioned online education, TED, and Pandora decades before these ideas became a reality.

Buckminster Fuller, 1978 (Photograph: Fred Blocher courtesy of Stanford Libraries)

Fuller, who served in the U.S. Navy during WWI, offers a brilliant naval metaphor for how we transmute the minute into the momentous in transformation and growth, both as individuals and as a society. In an altogether fantastic 1972 Playboy interview, Fuller introduces the “trim tab” — a small mechanism that helps stabilize an enormous ship or aircraft — which would became a central metaphor in his philosophy.

In response to the interviewer’s question about how we can live with “a sense of the individual’s impotence to affect events, to improve or even influence our own welfare, let alone that of society,” Fuller offers his magnificent metaphor:

Something hit me very hard once, thinking about what one little man could do. Think of the Queen Elizabeth — the whole ship goes by and then comes the rudder. And there’s a tiny thing at the edge of the rudder called a trim tab. It’s a miniature rudder. Just moving the little trim tab builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder around. Takes almost no effort at all. So I said that the little individual can be a trim tab. Society thinks it’s going right by you, that it’s left you altogether. But if you’re doing dynamic things mentally, the fact is that you can just put your foot out like that and the whole big ship of state is going to go. So I said, “Call me Trim Tab.”

The truth is that you get the low pressure to do things, rather than getting on the other side and trying to push the bow of the ship around. And you build that low pressure by getting rid of a little nonsense, getting rid of things that don’t work and aren’t true until you start to get that trim-tab motion. It works every time. That’s the grand strategy you’re going for. So I’m positive that what you do with yourself, just the little things you do yourself, these are the things that count. To be a real trim tab, you’ve got to start with yourself, and soon you’ll feel that low pressure, and suddenly things begin to work in a beautiful way. Of course, they happen only when you’re dealing with really great integrity.

When Fuller died a decade later, this ethos was inscribed into his gravestone.

Buckminster Fuller's gravestone at the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts

The trim tab metaphor was subsequently appropriated (regrettably, without attribution to Fuller) by Stephen R. Covey in one of his books and expanded upon (with proper attribution) by Rabbi Rami Shapiro in his book Recovery: The Sacred Art (public library).

Complement with Emerson on our resistance to change and the key to personal growth, then revisit Fuller’s scientific revision of the Lord’s Prayer and his manifesto for the genius of generalists.

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20 AUGUST, 2015

The Genes of the Soul: Amin Maalouf on Belonging, Conflict, and How We Inhabit Our Identity

By:

“A person’s identity … is like a pattern drawn on a tightly stretched parchment. Touch just one part of it, just one allegiance, and the whole person will react, the whole drum will sound.”

As a teenager in Bulgaria, the great joy of turning sixteen was finally qualifying for a passport. But this long-awaited event also marked my first brush with the violence of bureaucracy. One Friday morning, I stepped into a municipal office to apply for the coveted certificate of identity and lined up behind — or, rather, herded with, as is customary in Eastern Europe — a large lot of my fellow humans also in need of some government document. Across the mass of dejected strangers, resigned to countless hours at the mercilessness of bureaucrats, I spotted a boy from my high school. “It takes a lot to wrest identity out of nothing,” James Baldwin told Margaret Mead in their extraordinary conversation on identity and belonging, and yet wrest we do when we must: The boy and I locked eyes in relieved recognition of affinity amid alienating otherness. Although we had never talked or otherwise acknowledged each other’s existence in the two years of sharing a campus, we suddenly felt that we belonged to the same tribe, united along this slim axis of affiliation as we faced a shared Other in the municipal bureaucrats and surrounding strangers.

As philosopher David Whyte aptly observed, “our sense of slight woundedness around not belonging is actually one of our core competencies.”

We spent the remainder of the day — Eastern European bureaucracy, for those fortunate enough not to have experienced it, operates on a wholly different time-scale — as the best of friends, talking about everything under the setting sun.

Illustration from 'Pool' by JiHyeon Lee, a parable of how kindred spirits find one another. Click image for more.

Upon returning to school on Monday, we never saw or spoke to each other again — we had both resumed our respective tribal affinity amid the larger nation of the school. As the sameness of our shared predicament dissolved, each was once again an Other to the other.

Almost everyone has experienced some form of such disposable affinity — with an airplane seat mate, with a fellow patient at the dentist’s waiting room, with the other stray Dresden Dolls fan at a science conference. But the strange psychology undergirding our morphing sense of belonging is also the root of the destructive impulses that Tolstoy and Gandhi contemplated in exploring why we hurt each other. All violence requires an Other as its target, and the shifting boundaries of our own identity are what contours that otherness.

We each live with what pioneering psychologist Jerome Bruner called an “internal clamor of identities,” out of which spring both the bonds of belonging and the violence of difference, inflicted upon those whom we perceive as a threat to any one of our multiple identities of gender, race, religion, nationality, class, political affiliation, favorite sports team, and so forth.

Illustration by Olivier Tallec from 'Waterloo and Trafalgar.' Click image for more.

These fascinating, shape-shifting complexities of personhood are what Lebanese-born French writer Amin Maalouf explores in the superb 1996 book In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong (public library), translated by Barbara Bray — an immensely insightful exploration of difference, allegiance, and the underlying commonalities of the human experience, timelier than ever in our culture of divisive Otherness. What emerges is a reminder that only by acknowledging the multiplicity of our identity can we begin to simultaneously own our uniqueness and fully inhabit our ties to our fellow human beings.

Maalouf, who carries a number of such clamoring belongings within himself — born in Lebanon to Christian parents and raised with Arabic as his mother tongue, he emigrated to France in his twenties — writes:

Each individual’s identity is made up of a number of elements and these are clearly not restricted to the particulars set down in official records. Of course, for the great majority these factors include allegiance to a religious tradition; to a nationality — sometimes two; to a profession, an institution, or a particular social milieu. But the list is much longer than that; it is virtually unlimited.

[…]

Not all these allegiances are equally strong, at least at any given moment. But none is entirely insignificant, either. All are components of personality — we might almost call them “genes of the soul” so long as we remember that most of them are not innate.

While each of these elements may be found separately in many individuals, the same combination of them is never encountered in different people, and it’s this that gives every individual richness and value and makes each human being unique and irreplaceable.

Illustration by Mimmo Paladino for a rare edition of James Joyce's Ulysses. Click image for more.

To underscore that identity is a dynamic interaction with life mores so than a static trait passed down from our ancestors, Maalouf adds:

It can happen that some incident, a fortunate or unfortunate accident, even a chance encounter, influences our sense of identity more strongly than any ancient affiliation.

In fact, he admonishes, adhering to a static and absolute framework of identity is the seedbed of trouble:

In every age there have been people who considered that an individual had one overriding affiliation so much more important in every circumstance to all others that it might legitimately be called his “identity.” For some it was the nation, for others religion or class. But one has only to look at the various conflicts being fought out all over the world today to realize that no one allegiance has absolute superiority.

[…]

While there is always a certain hierarchy among the elements that go to make up individual identities, that hierarchy is not immutable; it changes with time, and in so doing brings about fundamental changes in behavior.

Illustration from 'The Sea' by Marianne Dubuc. Click image for more.

Reflecting on his own belonging to a minority as a Christian Arab, Maalouf considers the dance between uniqueness and shared belonging:

I sometimes find myself “examining my identity” as other people examine their conscience. As you may imagine, my object is not to discover within myself some “essential” allegiance in which I may recognize myself. Rather the opposite: I scour my memory to find as many ingredients of my identity as I can. I then assemble and arrange them. I don’t deny any of them.

[…]

Any person of goodwill trying to carry out his or her own “examination of identity” would soon, like me, discover that that identity is a special case. Mankind itself is made up of special cases. Life is a creator of differences… Every individual without exception possesses a composite identity.

Maalouf emphasizes this point as an important antidote to the perilous and prevalent attitude that demands of us to declare our identity along a single dimension — say, female or Bulgarian or queer or yogi — which becomes a violent constriction of our expansiveness. To further complicate the equation, personal identity changes over the course of life, and it is this enigmatic evolution that seeds the mystery of what makes you and your childhood self the same person.

Maalouf writes:

Identity isn’t given once and for all: it is built up and changes throughout a person’s lifetime… Not many of the elements that go to make up our identity are already in us at birth. A few physical characteristics of course — sex, color and so on. And even at this point not everything is innate. Although, obviously, social environment doesn’t determine sex, it does determine its significance. To be born a girl is not the same in Kabul as it is in Oslo; the condition of being a woman, like every other factor in a person’s identity, is experienced differently in the two places.

The same could be said of color. To be born black is a different matter according to whether you come in to the world in New York, Lagos, Pretoria or Luanda… For an infant who first sees the light of day in Nigeria, the operative factor as regards his identity is not whether he is black rather than white, but whether he is Yoruba, say, rather than Hausa… In the United States it’s of no consequence whether you have a Yoruba rather than a Hausa ancestor: it’s chiefly among the whites — the Italians, the English, the Irish and the rest — that ethnic origin has a determining effect on identity.

[…]

I mention these examples only to underline the fact that even color and sex are not “absolute” ingredients of identity. That being so, all the other ingredients are even more relative.

Photograph by Martine Franck, 1965

Maalouf considers the crucible of our identity:

What determines a person’s affiliation to a given group is essentially the influence of others: the influence of those about him — relatives, fellow-countrymen, co-religionists — who try to make him one of them; together with the influence of those on the other side, who do their best to exclude him. Each one of us has to make his way while choosing between the paths that are urged upon him and those that are forbidden or strewn with obstacles. He is not himself from the outset; nor does he just “grow aware” of what he is; he becomes what he is. He doesn’t merely “grow aware” of his identity; he acquires it step by step.

[…]

But it is just as necessary to emphasize that identity is also singular, something that we experience as a complete whole. A person’s identity is not an assemblage of separate affiliations, nor a kind of loose patchwork; it is like a pattern drawn on a tightly stretched parchment. Touch just one part of it, just one allegiance, and the whole person will react, the whole drum will sound.

Only by understanding the complexities of identity can we begin to understand what transforms this drum from a celebratory beat of belonging into a menacing rhythm that powers militant marches of violence. Echoing Margaret Mead’s assertion that “we’ve started to worry about identity since people began losing it,” Maalouf writes:

People often see themselves in terms of whichever one of their allegiances is most under attack. And sometimes, when a person doesn’t have the strength to defend that allegiance, he hides it. Then it remains buried deep down in the dark, awaiting its revenge. But whether he accepts or conceals it, proclaims it discreetly or flaunts it, it is with that allegiance that the person concerned identifies. And then, whether it relates to color, religion, language or class, it invades the person’s whole identity. Other people who share the same allegiance sympathize; they all gather together, join forces, encourage one another, challenge “the other side.” For them, “asserting their identity” inevitably becomes an act of courage, of liberation.

In the midst of any community that has been wounded agitators naturally arise… The scene is now set and the war can begin. Whatever happens “the others” will have deserved it.

[…]

What we conveniently call “murderous folly” is the propensity of our fellow-creatures to turn into butchers when they suspect that their “tribe” is being threatened. The emotions of fear or insecurity don’t always obey rational considerations. They may be exaggerated or even paranoid; but once a whole population is afraid, we are dealing with the reality of the fear rather than the reality of the threat.

Such complex problems, Maalouf is careful to point out, merit only befittingly nuanced solutions:

I no more believe in simplistic solutions than I do in simplistic identities. The world is a complex machine that can’t be dismantled with a screwdriver. But that shouldn’t prevent us from observing, from trying to understand, from discussing, and sometimes suggesting a subject for reflection.

That’s precisely what Maalouf goes on to do in the remainder of the wholly excellent, urgently relevant In the Name of Identity. Complement it with Margaret Mead and James Baldwin’s forgotten conversation about identity and Rebecca Goldstein on the mystery of personhood.

Thanks, Jacqueline

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