Tag Archives: Dialectic

Maxim: Don’t try to reason with a “happy drunk!”

Happy Drunk

Here are a few cautionary maxims for today’s Socratic Gadflies who have no plans to drink hemlock.

Don’t try to reason with a happy drunk. He’ll hate and despise you for it.

Don’t try to wake up one who insists on sleeping. He’s likely to slap you.

Don’t try to convince someone who believes without any doubts that he has found “The Truth” and therefore that there cannot be other great truths, or that his understanding of “truth” may be limited and partial rather than total and comprehensive.

Don’t try to reason with a man who is committed in principle and practice to irrationality and absurdity, especially if he cloaks his irrationality behind a veil of rationalism and rationalization. Nothing is more crazy-making than using critical reason to deny reason and rationality, or denying the primal experience of subjectivity and consciousness, along with our experiences of narrative, aesthetics and intersubjectivity to deny the fundamental reality of subjectivity and consciousness. If “matter and the void” is all there is, that who is it that is speaking? How does an irreducibly conscious and relational being know that these subjective and inter-subjective experiences are not “really real” but merely the ghost in the machine, the epiphenomen of originally dead and mindless matter? Has one not used “rationality” to argue for the fundamentally irrationality of our minds?

Don’t try to convince anyone whose “final vocabulary” is a dogmatic,  ideological and exclusive commitment to any single intellectual discourse and language-game, whether it happens to be that of science or religion, philosophy or literature, history or mythology, psychology or sociology, economics or politics. Any of these intellectual domains can become a fixation and fetish that undermine the rich and diverse ecology of mind. Our educational system today is increasingly based on narrow academic and technical specialization. Many educators and scholars live in bunkered silos that isolate them from the culture-at-large.

Don’t try to reason and dialogue with those who prefer to live exclusively in only one intellectual discipline and have an ideological axe to grind. They will not see the point in cultivating other intellectual disciplines and critical perspectives since they’ve already made up their minds and are committed to “brand loyalty.”

Don’t try to get a “One Note Charlie” to play all the notes, chords and harmonies and dissonances of the musical scale, and to play many genres of music in a wide variety of keys and registers.

Don’t try to reason with those who are absolutely  committed to the dogma of exclusive bottom-up causality, of matter influencing mind but mind having no causative agency since it is a mere epiphenomenon of matter.

Don’t try to reason with those who are absolutely committed to the dogma of exclusive top-down causality, of mind influencing matter, but matter being merely an illusion of universal mind.

Don’t try to reason with those who are absolutely committed to the dogma that the mental and physical dimensions of experience are two entirely separate and non-overlapping realities.

Don’t try to broaden the perspective of anyone who has fallen insanely in love with one and only one explanatory principle that he applies mechanistically to all domains of knowledge and realms of life experience. Sometimes “multiple explanatory dimensions and levels” may be more helpful than forcing a single descriptive explanation upon all phenomena of experience.

Don’t try to convince those who are content spending all their free time watching TV and listening to the radio that reading good books and articles that invite them think more deeply about life may be a better and more rewarding use of their time. Those who prefer to be zoned out and have made this the habit of their lives will resent those who try to get them to think about anything at all.

Don’t try to explain to those who are content to live “unexamined lives” that “it is better to be Socrates discontent than a pig content.” They will tell you that “the examined life” is  over-rated. Instead, they will explain that what matters is to live instinctively and sensuously in our appetites and egos as noble savages. They will tell us “to stop thinking and have a good time.” Their hedonistic counsel is “to eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”

When does it occur to either the “rationalist” or the “sensualist” that it is possible to integrate the entire ecology of our being, including the natural, sensuous, emotive, imaginative, cognitive, volitional, ethical, intuitive and spiritual dimensions of our lives?

Don’t try to broaden and expand the sensibilities and tastes of the exclusively  partisan purveyors of “high-brow” classical culture who are contemptuous and condescending toward “middle-brow” bourgeois pop culture and “low-brow” bohemian folk culture, or of those who exclusively identify themselves with either of these two other cultural levels of experience and expression. Each has his own “elective affinity” with different sensibilities and tastes.

When does it occur the partisan purveyors of high-brow culture, middle-brow culture and low-brow culture that each speaks in its own distinct idioms and dialects, and that each “cultural brow” has something unique to contribute to the greater ecology of being?

Today’s “Socratic gadfly” who values “the examined life” encounters as many intellectual, cultural, civic and social “mind-fields” as Socrates did in his day. What we have today that was not available to Socrates is a better understanding of the role that biological genes and culture memes play in the formation of different metaphysical assumptions. It would seem that these are rooted in pre-verbal feeling and in what Michael Polanyi calls the “tacit dimension” of “personal knowledge”, and are only secondarily cognitive and empirical. We have a genetic and psychological predisposition as well as cultural and societal preference for holding a particular set of metaphysical and epistemological beliefs, as well as aesthetic tastes, ethical norms, economic interests and political values.

Today’s “Socratic gadfly” who would avoid the hemlock experience had better be prepared to encounter these irreducible differences between individual persons and fiduciary communities. He had better recognize the common tendency of human nature to see and interpret everything through the lens of one’s own predispositions, assumptions, beliefs, values, loyalties and commitments. There is no neutral and independent “view from nowhere.” All human knowledge and experience is physiologically conditioned, psychologically influenced, historically situated and linguistically expressed. It is precisely this humbling knowledge of our ignorance and limitations that makes the Socratic gadfly so irritating and perplexing, especially to those who are content to live “unexamined lives” of metaphysical and epistemological slumber. Once we begin to ask the fundamental questions of life we realize that we stand in the presence of Great Mysteries in which there are no easy answers. Here are the Socratic Questions: What is the nature of prime reality and the phenomenal world in which we live? What can we know and how can we know it? How are subjective introspective experience, intersubjective relationships, and knowledge through rational theory and empirical observation related? What are the further reaches of human nature? How ought we to live? What is our vision of the good society? What is our potential for transformation and renewal? For what can we strive and hope?

Here are a few positive maxims:

Cultivate the examined life, even if those around you prefer to remain unconscious, medicated and asleep.

Stay open to the primacy of “immediate experience” in all its paradoxical radiance and pre-linguistic plenitude where the gifts of silence, contemplation, music and art “speak” in the ineffable language of the soul that like the Tao must remain unspoken.

Seek to make meaningful and creative connections between all the vital domains of human knowledge and life experience that constitute the rich and diverse ecology of being.

Learn to speak with at least minimal fluency in all the liberal disciplines rather than putting all your eggs in one basket.

Master at least two intellectual disciplines, preferably one that is right-brain dominant such as music and arts, and another that is left-brain dominant, such as the physical and natural sciences.

Try to give “equal time” to the intellectual and creative disciplines of philosophy and literature, to ideas and narratives, concepts and conversations, theories and stories, paradigms and metaphors, principles and personalities.

Become  conversant in the cultural paradigms of the primal, traditional, romantic, modern, post-modern, and trans-modern perspectives. Include the intuitive and perceptive, authoritative and fiduciary, idealistic and aesthetic, rational and scientific, eclectic and ironic, pluralistic and integrative.

Develop a healthy respect for intuition and sensation, feeling and thinking, introspection and observation, perception and judgment.

Appreciate the perennial human dialectic of pluralistic and integrative impulses, that is, the movement “outward” from the One to the Many, and the counter-movement “inward” from the Many to the One.

Finally, become a Socratic Gadfly if you must, but remember that drinking hemlock is bad for one’s health.

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Who Are Your People?

people_of_the_world_2_by_kirsty_mercer88-d32dago“People of the World”

In his book, “Hymns to an Unknown God,” Sam Keen poses a variety of “Perennial Mythic Questions.” Keen asks the great questions pertaining to reality and existence, life and death, meaning and purpose, identity and belonging, knowledge, ignorance, suffering and evil, wonder and joy, love and hate, hope and despair. One of his questions is “Who Are Your People?” I have asked myself that question countless times throughout my life and often find the question itself problematic. What if I don’t have a single group of people with whom I identity but rather find myself among multiple groups that live in entirely different worlds? Has this been your experience too?

Like many people I have associated and affiliated with many different organizations and groups throughout my life.  Frequently these different organizations and groups seemed to co-exist with little or no knowledge of each other, and even less interest in getting to know each other. The same is true of various individuals I’ve known along the way. While there have been natural attractions and elective affinities between some of them, many have lived in incommensurable worlds. I find the word “incommensurable” to be a word I’m using a lot these days. And I’ve learned that “the post-modern condition” is one of living in many incommensurable worlds with their different meanings, beliefs, values, loyalties and commitments. There is jangle, perplexity, complexity and dissonance in such an experience, but also perhaps great beauty and opportunity. Beyond the post-modern world of “incommensurability” may lie the “trans-modern” possibility of a complexly hyphenated identity — the fusion of multiple and divergent horizons, the first step toward pluralistic integration. No doubt this hope of pluralistic integration or at least of creative dialectic has something to do with why I’ve been drawn to facilitating conversational salons for so many years.

In the Modern Age of the Rational-Scientific Enlightenment Project, a key assumption has been that there is one right answer to every question, and that one can know that answer to be objectively factual and true. In the “Postmodern turn” in our culture a new paradigm has emerged, a paradigm that says that there may be many “right answers” to some kinds of questions, and that what we actually do is to “try out” those various answers to see if they are relationally “fit” for different kinds of useful purposes. This has led to a “pluralistic,” “hyphenated”  and even “oxymoronic” sense of identity and belonging. We are “many selves” and we belong to many different communities of discourse, or hermeneutical circles.

So who are my people? My people are the inhabitants of multiple cultures, traditions, thought-worlds and life-styles. My people are not ideological purists living in one exclusive world but are eclectic pragmatists, having joined the horizons of divergent intellectual and cultural traditions in creative dialogue. We have decided that “both-and” is sometimes more profound and fruitful than “either-or.” But neither are we ideologically attached to “both-and” in every circumstance, for sometimes a choice must be made between “either-or.” Sometimes there are multiple human and social ends that cannot all be fulfilled at the same time.

Many of us have decided that words alone cannot fully capture the mystery of reality in a net, that there is always more to life than we can say, a “surplus of meaning.” We are inclined to think that there are times when Silence, Music, Art and Poetry, along with Symbols, Rituals, Stories and Dance may do a better job than discursive prose of evoking and honoring if not naming and capturing the Ineffable Mystery in which we live and move and have our being. We respect the rational and empirical ways of knowing, but we also reverence the visionary and ecstatic, the sacred and the sublime.

So who are my people?

Metaphysically, my people include religious, spiritual, humanistic and secular folks of all types, and those who make no such claims at all. But more to the point, they include hyphenated  “sacred-secularists” and “secular-sacramentalists.” They include a “dialogical dialogue” between the archetypal ways of the Existentialist, Sage, Shaman, Prophet, Evangelist and Mystic, and between their respective ideals of Beauty, Goodness, Healing, Justice, Reconciliation and Unity. My people nonor an eclectic and integral combination of principles and ideals as diverse as Beauty, Goodness, and Truth;  Justice, Mercy, and Peace; Faith, Hope, and Love; Gentleness, Strength, and Harmony; Life, Liberty and Happiness. Today in the global age one’s core principles and ideals may include Hellenistic, Hebrew, Christian, Taoist, Pagan and Democratic influences, among others. The world’s living wisdom traditions are not oppositional to each other. Their relationship is mutual and symbiotic. That is a lesson that many are still learning, and others have yet to learn.

Of course there are negating and destructive ideologies and value systems that are implicitly or explicitly committed to perpetuating fear, hatred, envy, jealousy, arrogance, greed, conflict, violence, alienation, war, conquest and cruelty as a perpetual way of life. A liberal democratic  society that is committed to such progressive ideals of freedom, dignity, justice and peace is not compatible with any fascist plutocracy, whether in socialist or capitalist, anarchist or totalitarian guises.

Philosophically, my people include Platonists and Aristotelians, Stoics and Epicureans, Rationalists and Empiricists, Existentialists and Pragmatists. But more to the point, they include those who hold to a provisional view that multiple philosophical movements may each be “partly right,” useful cultural constructs that seek to solve different theoretical problems and serve different purposes.

Educationally, my people include Literati and Philosophers, Mythologists and Historians, Psychologists and Sociologists, Artists and Scientists. But more to the point, they include those who have “transgressed the boundaries” between these liberal academic disciplines in order to appreciate their diverse domains, questions, problems, methodologies, exemplars, schools and styles of inquiry.

My people do not insist that any one academic discipline is “king of the mountain.” They do not need to subordinate one discipline and method of discourse to another — as if it alone where the true and final “vocabulary” that all men must speak or be deemed ignorant fools.

In the Philosophy of Language there is a continuing debate between those who insist on the primacy of: (1) Objective Correspondence and Coherence, (2) Subjective Imagination and Expressiveness, (3) Relational Symbols and Metaphors, and (4) Pragmatic Uses and Consequences, as if every use of language ought to employ the same theoretical tools.  My people suspect that each linguistic theory may be “partly right” and so we will attempt to negotiate between all four of these epistemological language games rather than choose only one theory to serve our needs on all occasions.

Culturally, my people enjoy “the epicurean life” of good books, music, art, theatre, cinema, nature, health, beauty, gardening, food, drink, stories, travel, conversations and friends. They value the life of their minds as much as the pleasure of their senses. They combine the functions of introspection and observation, sensibility and practicality, affection and reflection, perception and judgment into a heightened awareness and creative way of life.

Politically, my people include liberals, conservatives, communitarians and libertarians. But more to the point, they include Principled Pragmatists and Radical Centrists who seek to negotiate reconciliation and peace between opposing parochial ideologies and entrenched narrow interests that wish to play the barbaric game of “winner takes all.” Politically, my people are looking for common ground and the middle way. But at the same time they know that there will always be a struggle between those who seek a world that advances the greater good of all, and a world that rewards only the lucky and ambitious few while abandoning and exploiting the many. My people are “radical centrists” and “passionate moderates” who seek to balance and reconcile the complementary principles of the individual and community, tradition and progress, rights and responsibilities, enterprise and ecology.

Well, these are my people, but obviously not in any possessive sense. These are people who seek to broaden and deepen their complex humanity, to live in harmony and respect for nature, and to seek a transcendent horizon of meaning, purpose, serenity and hope through a constructive dialogue with the world’s living wisdom traditions.