All posts by worldsmany2

I'm passionately engaged in exploring the great questions of life. These questions encompass all the humanities, arts and science, as well as all the vital domains of life, including personal wholeness, human relationships, cultural literacy and civil society.

Five Kinds of “Ignorance” We Ought Not to “Ignore”

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It is customary to employ the word “ignorance” as if it were a simple and singular idea, but actually the word has at least five distinct meanings, probably more. It is helpful to differentiate them.

First, there is Innocent Ignorance. This is the innocent of children and of the simple-minded who have had limited experience of life and  exposure to general knowledge of the world. We tend to look at such ignorance as quaint, naive and charming.

Second, there is Willful Ignorance. This is the ignorance that stubbornly and deliberately persists even in the face of many opportunities to attain new knowledge and experience. This ignorance prefers to cocoon in an ideological ghetto or cultural enclave that is closed off to outside information and ideas rather than risk exposing its mind to what Emerson called “the wide-wide world.” It is the kind of ignorance that choosed to “ignore” rather than question, explore, investigate and engage what is going on in the larger natural, intellectual, cultural and social environment beyond its own immediate survival, safety and security needs.

Third, there is Arrogant Ignorance. This is the ignorance that confuses partial knowledge with total knowledge, and presumes to know all things. It is the pretentious “know-it-all” who looks down contemptuously upon others who do not know what he knows, or thinks he knows, and who is arrogantly ignorant of what he does not truly know and understand but assumes he knows.

Fourth, there is Domain Ignorance. This is the ignorance that is specialized in nature. There are persons who are knowledgable in one or more domains of knowledge but are ignorant of many others. It is tempting to assume that because we may have worked hard to attain a broad knowledge and deep understanding of particular domains of knowledge that we must automatically possess a broad and deep comprehension of other domains that we have investigated to nearly the same degree of inquiry as we have given to our intellectual specialties. Others may also falsely assume that because we have knowledge of one domain that we must possess an equally in-depth and refined knowledge of other domains of which we remain largely ignorance or merely rudimentary in our understanding.

Fifth, there is Enlightened Ignorance. This is the kind of ignorance that we may become aware that we possess after a lifetime of intensive and extensive study and reflection, whether of a particular domain of knowledge and dimension of  experience, or of all of them together. This is what we mean by Socratic Ignorance. It is a knowledge humbled of what we do not know, and perhaps of what we cannot know in our finitude and limitations as fallible human beings. The idea has resonances Nicolas of Cusa’s idea of Learned Ignorance , of  Keat’s idea of Negative Capability and of Rilke’s advice to a young poet to “live the questions.” Enlightened Ignorance brings us “full circle” to the Sense of Wonder that launched us upon our journey in the first place.

A knowledge of our ignorance, and of the different kinds of ignorance, is the beginning of wisdom.

Why Listen to Classical Music?

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Any thoughtful and intelligent response to this question could easily expand into an entire book-length exposition. As a life-long lover of classical art music in an age when this great tradition is being lost, especially among the young, I feel compelled to say something, anything, as a partisan enthusiast. Listening to classical music will change you as a person! There, I’ve said it! Yes, it’s that simple. IT WILL CHANGE YOU! We live in a superficial society and trivial pop culture of music and art that has a shelf-life of fifteen minutes, the proverbial “fifteen minutes of fame.” By contrast, the great works symphonic art music have endured the test of time and belong to the ages. If we would live rich and full lives that are receptive to the soaring heights and profound depths, swelling grandeur and subtile nuances of the human spirit, listening to classical music, along with exploring the great works of art and literature, will provide an excellent “sentimental education,” that is, a cultivation and refinement of  our “sense and sensibility.”

I find that actively listening to the great composers and their masterpieces of classical music, whether medieval, renaissance, baroque, classical, romantic or modern, not only synchronizes my physical, emotional, intellectual and intuitive faculties, but sometimes leads to what Kurt Leland in his book Music and the Soul calls “Transcendent Musical Experience. Music is obviously a source of aesthetic pleasure. It can also be a mode of therapy, as Barbara Crowe indicates in her book, “Music and Soulmaking.”

Most passionate music lovers enjoy all kinds of music — including jazz, blues, soul, folk, rock, pop, ethnic and world music. I’m no different. But symphonic art music is special. It has a rich complexity that simultaneously engages our sensory, emotive, cognitive and intuitive centers of perception and awareness in an incredibly complex way that seems to speak to the whole person and to the totality of the human experience across time and beyond time.

OK. I’ll say it again. Listening to Classical Music will change you. Don’t just take it from me. Try it for yourself. Make it a regular part of your life. Read about the great composers, their personal struggles, their masterworks, and the times in which they lived. I recommend “The Lives of the Great Composers,” by Harold Schonberg. Or to learn more about the various historical and stylistic developments in classical music, read “A History of Western Music,” by Burkholder, Grout and Palisca.

In addition to your own CD collection and “tunes” on your I-Pod, for a few dollars a month you can subscribe to Rhapsody or Spotify to listen to all the great music in all musical genres — without commercial interruptions.

Let music change your life. But especially, make friends with the great composers — with Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Grieg, Chopin, Debussy, Ravel, and all the rest. Discover how different kinds of classical music speak to you at different times and in different ways. Let them reveal the many sides of your innermost being through an ineffable language beyond words. Let them stimulate your intelligence and inspire your creativity. Let their great music become a beautiful, sublime, heroic  and picturesque soundtrack for your life.

Mapping the Possible Relations between “Religious,” “Spiritual,” “Humanistic” and “Secular” Sensibilities

four points of view

Today it is a truism that we live in a pluralist society and global age. The significance of this fact is that we live in an increasingly interconnected and interdependent natural and social environment in which individuals and groups with widely different values, beliefs, interests and commitments must find a way to co-exist but cooperate together for common good, even while they continue to compete with each other in various ways and to live across their differences.

One way to map or model the spectrum of consciousness and culture today is to talk about the continuum that connects the religious, spiritual (but not necessarily religious), humanistic (but not necessarily religious or spiritual) and secular ( but not necessarily religious, spiritual or humanistic) sensibilities. Further, there are those who religion is not necessarily hostile or indifferent to the spiritual, humanistic and secular dimensions of life.

What this map or model provides is a way to think about each of the four points on the spectrum as possessing several possible options. Each point can be either absolutely exclusive, tolerantly inclusive, ambiguously equivocating or  dialectically related.

The Absolutely Exclusive Dogmatic Approach takes the position that “he who is not for me is against me.” Militant religious fundamentalism and equally militant secular fundamentalism can adopt this approach, and of course these are the partisan extremists that make the headlines.

The Tolerantly Inclusive Hierarchical Approach takes the position that there may be some relative value in each point but that one of the points represents the consummate position of superior relation. This approach says “Our party is  ‘king of the mountain’ but we’ll let the rest of you play on our mountain in the hope that eventually you’ll find your way to the top like we have. You have some truth but we have the Supreme Truth.”

The Ambiguously Equivocating Linguistic Approach takes the position that words like religious, spiritual, humanistic and secular are each polysemic ideas that cannot be reduced to monolithic meanings, and therefore that it is probably not helpful to reify any of these abstract ideas into concrete objects as if they corresponded some objective reality. This approach says, “Well, what do you really mean by religious, spiritual, humanistic and secular? Are you aware that each of these words has a whole range of possible meanings and associations, and that the presumably objective denotative meanings are all but silenced by a cacophony of various subjective connotative meanings. Therefore, any meaningful and constructive dialogue between persons who have front-loaded their own experiential associations and interpretative evaluations of these words make real communication all but impossible.

The Dialectically Related  Mutual Approach takes the position that words like religious, spiritual, humanistic, and secular need not necessarily be construded as either absolutely exclusive, tolerantly inclusive, or impossibly ambiguous. Instead, they are words that suggest different psychological temperaments and casts of mind, as well as fluxuating moods within a single individual across a period of time. Our relationship to these words may be more aesthetic and metaphorical than scientistic and metaphysical. By way of analogy we may resonate with and enjoy many different kinds of music…in historical era, compositional genre, emotional mood, and artistic style. This approach says, “Well, I suppose such words as religious, spiritual, humanistic, and secular do not necessarily exclude each other, or require an elitist hierarchial ranking. I do not doubt that we do mean “something” when we use these abstract polysemic words, but that “something” must be made more clear since others will use the same words to symbolize or signify something quite different from what we intend it to mean. Most people are linguistic realists who tend to regard abstract ideational words with either affinity, hostility or indifference, and to treat them as if there were a concrete objective things. When these kinds of polysemic words are segregated from each other to create island worlds of sectarian cabals, or when they are used to fuel a culture war, then they have become reduced to rigid ideologies that diminish the fullness of our complex and many-sided humanity.”

Why I am a Radical Centrist & Principled Pragmatist

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It is taken for granted today in our ideologically and politically polarized society that one is EITHER a Liberal OR one is a Conservative, that the two ideas are categorically exclusive of each other. Yet any serious philosophical study of the abstract ideas of Liberal and Conservative or of their various meanings in historical development will suggest that the ideas are both polysemic, that is, containing a variety of meanings, and that they are not mutually exclusive.

I am liberal in the sense that I value progressive change when the status quo is unjust, oppressive, self-serving and stultifying. I am a liberal who is committed to the principles of social justice and equality before the law.

I am a “conservative” in the sense that I value the conservation of nature and the protection of vulnerable and unprotected life. I am a “cultural conservative” in the sense that I value the preservation and cultivation of historical knowledge of our western civilization’s intellectual and cultural traditions.  I am a “conservative” in the sense that I am committed to the principles of personal excellence and what Emerson called “self-reliance.” This commitment does not contradict an equally important commitment to the preservation of “the commons.”

Are the principles of Liberal and Conservative mutually exclusive, as the mass-media and political machines would have us believe? Must one choose between excellence and equality, continuity and change? It all depends on how you spin it. What is needed today is something else besides the overwhelming preponderance of narrowly polarized ideologues and power-driven opportunists on both the right/ left divide. What is needed today are “radical centrists” and “principled pragmatists” who know how to build a collaborative relationships the foster “the middle way” between ideological extremes. Our entire social, economic and political discourse would change if we could get beyond our dualistic binary thinking that only cares about perpetuating the polarity of point/counterpoint. Lots of people live in “the radical center” but in today’s extremely sectarian media-driven environment their voices are becoming fewer and harder to hear.

Having said all this, the highest liberal and conservative ideals, which may not be mutually exclusive but rather a dialectical tension that are required for a healthy democratic republic, and both be subverted by those who would exploit and pervert these ideals. There is a shadow-side to human nature, and we should not be surprised that this distortion and perversion of values would reveal itself on the public stage of political and social discourse. When the liberal tradition is reduced to an ideology of resentment and the conservative tradition is reduced to an ideology of greed, then both traditions have betrayed what is best within them. One humorous political quip reads: “Democrats see the cup as half empty. Republicans see the cup as all theirs.” We can do better.

I have not said anything about “Libertarian” and “Communitarian” ideologies, and of those with these ideologies who remain largely marginalized on the sidelines of cultural and social discourse, but whose ideas and values are also important. Again, it is customary to set them up alongside each other as mutually exclusive matter, and to conflate the distorted shadow-side of each ideology with what it potentially represents at its best.

Today we need to rekindle our moral imaginations in such a way that conservatives, liberals, libertarians and communitarians can continue to hold to their particular ideals and values and at the same time find some common ground in our shared humanity and mutual interests at the radical center where all the lines converge on a truth that is larger than any narrow ideology and fathom.

How to Live, or A Life of Montaigne

Montaigne

In her insightful biography of the great Renaissance essayist Michel de Montaigne, Sarah Bakewell draws from Montaigne a variety of practical guidelines for graceful and authentic living. I have embellished her summary of his counsel and hope you will find the timeless wisdom of Montaigne inspiring:

Don’t worry about death; you won’t be there anyway. It’s good to reflect upon our mortality from time to time but not to be so obsessed with it that we fail to live our life fully and freely each day. The knowledge of our own death may even motivate us to seize the day since we do not know how long we will be traveling upon this earthly sojourn. Who knows whether perhaps we can leave some small legacy that will continue to enrich the lives of others? And even if not, we can do little better to savor and cherish the gift of life, letting that be our example for others to follow.

Pay attention. Cultivate a sense of wonder. Notice small things that others tend to overlook.

Be born. Well, think about it. What an extraordinary luck of the draw that you get to be here for a while to experience life in all its ineffable mystery and in all its wild and crazy diversity.

Read a lot. Forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted. Practice second naiveté.  Read widely rather than in narrow trenches. Make connections between what you read. Don’t confuse reading with  lived experience. Both are valuable in different ways.

Survive love and loss. Don’t let these experiences break your spirit or kill your soul. Let them deepen you and give your experience a richer and darker hue.

Use little tricks. Find ways to get yourself out of a royal funk. Stay engaged in life and savor the simple pleasures that you find most delightful and fulfilling.

Question everything. Don’t by ruled by the conventional thinking and conformist habits of others. March to your own drumbeat. Dare to ask the questions that no one wants to talk about. Point out the elephant standing in the living room. Stay curious about life, even if others are not. Cultivate an active imagination and find new ways to solve old problems.

Keep a private room behind the shop. Take time for silence, solitude, contemplation and reflection. Know how to enjoy spending time alone with yourself. Don’t run away from yourself by keeping perpetually busy or distracting yourself with superficial amusements. In your  times of solitude seek to listen to the deepest part of yourself and overhear the inner dialogue that may be the voice of wisdom. Don’t be worried about mere appearances and impression management. Be as real and authentic as you can possibly be.

Be convivial: live with others. Seek out opportunities for friendship, camaraderie, conversation and dialogue. Have a good sense of human and learn how to tell an amusing story. Get along with others and make friends easily.

Wake from the sleep of habit. Realize that while we need habits to regulate our daily routines that this can lead to mindless complacency and a loss of self-awareness. Ask yourself what you are doing at this moment any why, and whether this is really what your life to be about.

Live temperately. Avoid excesses that lead to addiction. Moderate your pleasures. Learn to enjoy life’s many delights without craving and grasping. Think temperately. Free your mind from excessive, manic, obsessive and compulsive thoughts. Remain open and receptive to counter-balance points of view. Maintain some critical distance from your own pet ideas.

Guard your humanity. Don’t let others terrify or manipulate you. Recognize propaganda in its many guises. Question authority. Challenge those who would do your thinking for you and force you to conform to rigid dogmas and ideologies.

Do something no one has done before. Find your own unique voice.

See the world. Appreciate cultural diversity. Travel widely. Meet people from different parts of the world. Practice hospitality with strangers. Learn from everyone you meet.

Do a good job, but not too good a job or you’ll never have a moment of peace to follow your bliss.

Philosophize but only by accident, or else be an organic intellectual who stays close to the plurality, ambiguity, ironies and paradoxes of lived experience rather than obsessing like a professional academic over abstract systematic consistency.

Reflect on everything; regret nothing; everything you experience in life is a potential learning experiences, including disappointments, defeats, humiliations and failures.

Give up control; you never really had it anyway since life is contingent to circumstances that are beyond your control.

Be ordinary and imperfect; give up on needing to prove yourself to be extraordinary and perfect since the world consists of ordinary people who sometimes surprise us by doing extraordinary things.

Let life be its own answer rather than having the whole thing figured out in advance. live the questions. Learn to be happily at ease in the presence of Mystery and uncertainties, without irratability, rather than needing to “know it all.” Remember that the more knowlege increases the more Mystery abounds.

Two Casts of Mind: Ideologues and Pragmatists

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Anyone who has led group discussions or facilitated conversational salon has probably discovered that there are among people two casts of mind, ideologues and pragmatists. Ideologues believe in the exclusive claims of particular assumptions, beliefs, values and commitments that tend to either subordinate or exclude other claims.

By contrast, Pragmatists believe in the procedural principle and often the philosophical claim that there may be many useful truths and values that have practical consequences for living, and that this is the primary basis upon which we should evaluate them. The tendency of Ideology is to move toward debate on the assumption that one of us, and only one of us, is right, and that the purpose of the debate is to decide upon a victor. The tendency of pragmatism is to move toward dialogue on the assumption that many of us, or even all of us, may be, if not objectively right (since truth for the pragmatist is as much constructed as discovered), than relationally relevant, with something valuable to contribute to the dialogue.

In addition to Ideologues and Pragmatists, there are Ideologue-Pragmatist hybrid types who attempt to straddle the fence between these two approaches. They may have a qualified and conditional ideological commitment, such as to traditionalism, progressivism, libertarianism or communitarianism in matters of social, economic and political theory, but they hold it relatively and with an open hand rather than absolutely and with an iron fist. They will argue and make their case for their preferred ideological point of view, but at the same time they are ready to entertain the possibility that there may be at least some relative ontological truth or existential value in other ideological perspectives.

Richard Rorty, the neo-pragmatist, offered a variation on the idea of Ideologues and Pragmatists with his notion of Metaphysicians and Ironists. Metaphysicians believe that the world exists in a certain and unequivocably way and that with our abstract ideological worlds correspond with that world or they do not.

Metaphysicans believe that the human mind is a mirror of nature, and that particular words and ideas correpond to real objective things. There is nothing ambiguous and polyvalent about them, not are they compatible with other words and ideas that affirm oppositional meanings. Language and therefore reality is implicitly assumed to be dualistic and oppositional. If one abstract word, idea or value is true and worthwhile then all others must be categorically false and worthless. This is axiomatic for the dogmatic metaphysician, no matter what the particular belief system happens to be.

Ironists, on the other hand, believe that abstract words, ideas and values are ambiguous and polyvalent human constructs that possess, at best, an indirect and proximate relation to reality; that there  are multiple abstract words, ideas and values that each constitute a different language game that exists as self-validating, creating its own final vocabulary and hermeneutical circle.

Moreover, ironists view words, ideas and values as eventually developing whole families of diverse symbolic and signal reference, and even of generating their opposite. For this reason those who use particular words in one generation or linguistic-cultural context may eventually come to be seen as meaning something quite different than those who use the same words to express their ideas and values in a later generation or linguistic-cultural context. Words and texts only have meaning with within contexts.

For example, the word “realism” means something entirely different to the philosophical Platonist, a modern  novelist, and a scientific naturalist, yet we use the same word for all of these. Likewise, the word “humanist” means something quite different to the Hellenistic Greeks, the Renaissance Catholics, and the Enlightenment Rationalists and the 20th Century Existentialists. This polysemic, ambiguous and ironic feature is characteristic of all the abstract “power words” in religion, philosophy, politics and culture. Some words simply have a surplus of meaning, can mean more than one thing, can mean many complementary things, and can even come to mean mutually exclusive things. The relation between language, especially abstract and symbolic language, is therefore an ambiguous and problematic one.

Again, there are those who attempt to straddle the fence, to hold a middle position between the absolutism of the ideologues and metaphysicians on the one side and the pragmatists and ironists on the other. But in the flow of dialogue and the fray of debate it is fascinating to watch people gradually reveal their true colors, and the degree to which their ideological loyalties are absolute and dogmatic, relative and normless, or somewhere in between, principled and pragmatic.

In addition to words having meaning only within particular contexts, there are also those who use words primarily as a “pretext”, namely, for the purpose of promoting a dogma, antigonizing others, taking sides, polarizing conflict, and picking a fight. Words have meaning not only within linguistic and cultural contexts but also by reference to the motives and agendas of those who use them. These motives and agendas are often unstated. Indeed, they are often unknown and unclear even to those who employ them. Sometimes abstract words are used to carry a grudge and to vent hostilities. This is why it is important in conversational salons and other forums for sharing various options, values, commitments and beliefs to ask such questions is: Who is speaking? Where is she coming from? What experiences, memories, hopes and fears have informed her ideas? What are her fundamental motives and intentions, whether covertly or overtly expressed. Who are her mentors and exemplars? How does she deal with difference? Is there any room in her thinking for finding common ground amidst real differences?

We will probably always have ideologues and pragmatists, metaphysicians and ironists, as well as those who attempt to build a bridge between them. This is why dialogue matters.

The Expressive Freedom to Create and Play

Free Spirit fine art contemporary modern dance oil painting of Sabrina Souilah

In a complementary relationship to Lionel Trilling‘s ideal of “the moral obligation to be intelligent” is “the expressive freedom of creative  play.” It is the spirit of pluralism to affirm a variety of fulfilling human ends. Trilling’s type of pluralism focused primarily on bringing the “critical intelligence and “moral imagination” to bear upon the reading of literature , the liberal arts and and the university world where he spent his career.

But there is another kind of pluralism that celebrates the epicurean joys of nature and beauty, friendship and community, food and travel, handcrafts and hobbies, arts and entertainment, music and dance. A fully human life will surely find room for the sensory, aesthetic, creative and inter-personal joys of primary experience as well as the intellectual and moral life of the mind. The intellectual moralist who is perpetually serious and austere is taking himself too seriously and missing out on the charms and delights of daily life, the simple pleasures that come along the way. If most people tend to “under-think” life, the neurosis of intellectuals is to “over-think” life. There is a “middle way” that integrates the life of the body and the mind, the emotions and the intellect, the ethical life and the aesthetic life, the inquiring mind and enchanted soul. It must be our business to find the middle way that leads to human flourishing on all the levels of our being.