Tag Archives: Eclecticism

Frames of Mind: Comparing Eight Habits of Thought

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There can be little doubt that different persons are endowed with different frames of mind. In considering any topic under the sun different individuals will reveal that they operate according different instinctive habits of thought. I would like to identify eight frames of mind that  pre-condition how a particular person naturally approaches any subject that is of vital interest to them, and especially how they engage in “big conversation” with other minds. These eight frames of mind are the Exclusive, Inclusive, Monistic, Dualistic, Dialectical, Eclectic, Integral and Pluralistic. Some persons will attempt to selectively employ several different assumptive and presupposional approaches on different occasions and within different cultural contexts, but there will tend to be a dominant and secondary approach, with the others in either a tertiary role or even oppositional role.

1. The Exclusive Frame of Mind: All beliefs, ideas, norms and values are assumed to be mutually exclusive, with one view being exclusively right and all others be absolutely wrong. It’s black and white. There’s no room for compromise with falsehood and evil.

2. The Inclusive Cast of Mind: Some beliefs, ideas, norms and values are assumed to be inclusive or assimilative of others, much like an enormously large circle that contains many small circles. One may thus regard one’s one beliefs, ideas, norms and values as ultimately and absolutely True and other beliefs, ideas, norms and values as penultimately and relatively true.

3. The Monistic Frame of Mind: Philosophically there have been two kinds of metaphysical monism. They are known as Idealism and Materialism. Idealism assumes that Matter is an emanation of Mind (Essence or Spirit). Materialism assumes that Mind (Essence or Spirit) is an epiphenomenon of Matter. Absolute forms of Monism can take on the character of Exclusivism, whereas qualified forms of Monism will take on the character of Inclusivism.

4. The Dualistic Frame of Mind: In matters of metaphysics it is assumed that there are two separate realities that have little or nothing to do with each other, or else they are entangled in an eternal cosmic struggle. In matters of ethics and politics it is assumed that there is an irreducible conflict between two and only two points of view. “He who is not for me is against me.” No third point of view is allowed. If one attempts to construct a third point of view, the dualists will attack from both sides. There can be no middle ground. The Aristotelian “Golden Mean” is categorically excluded. One is either for proposition A or proposition B. It is assumed that all propositions are oppositional and antagonistic in nature.

5. The Dialectical Frame of Mind: Thesis and Anti-thesis are unified in a “dialectical synthesis” that is “non-dual” rather than either monistic or dualistic. The relationship involves push and pull, attraction and repulsion, each necessary to the dynamic nature of the relationship. The Yin and the Yang within the Tao serves as a symbol of the dialectical relationship, with the Yin containing the Yang and the Yang containing the Yin. The whole that is greater than the sum of its two parts. Philosophically, the two most well-known forms of dialectical thinking are Hegel’s dialectical idealism and Marx’s dialectical materialism. Dialectical thinkers believe that the opposite of a Great Truth may be another Great Truth. They attempt to integrate binocular (double) vision with a combinational view of the incompassing whole.

6. The Eclectic Frame of Mind: In considering different beliefs, ideas, values, norms the eclectic cast of mind will attempt to toss many of them together like mosaic tiles of many different colors and shapes into a large container, empty them out upon a large surface, and then artfully arrange them in various imaginative, ironic and idiosyncratic ways. This is the post-modern attraction to brick-a-brack. No attempt is made to organize or arrange them into a comprehensive and coherent gestalt. Bits and pieces of multiple traditions are represented, but how they connect to each other is left unstated. It may be assumed that in our informational and culturally saturated world that any attempt at a comprehensive vision or “theory of everything” is futile. What we have are many unrelated but interesting pieces of several different jig-saw puzzles that don’t fit together. They belong to different puzzles but it’s fun to display them artfully in their incommensurable diversity.

7. The Integral Frame of Mind: Some people feel compelled to  integrate the variety of human beliefs, ideas, norms and values, as well as historical epochs, cultural traditions, intellectual domains and life practices into a comprehensive and coherent whole. Integral thinkers construct maps, models and paradigms that attempt to re-present the full spectrum of consciousness and culture across the ages. Historically, this may be expressed as encompassing the primal, ancient, medieval, modern, post-modern and trans-modern ages of man. Developmentally, this may be expressed as stages in the unfolding of being, the evolution of matter, and the awakening of the Universal Human. Of course various integral thinkers have different myths, maps, models and paradigms of reality (“what is”) and they dispute with those who are equally committed to different myths, maps, models and paradigms. It is easy here to forget that “the map is not the territory.” Some integral thinkers who grasp this concept in the abstraction resist it when their own model comes under criticism from those who are passionately beholden to a different “theory of everything.”

8. The Pluralist Cast of Mind: The philosophical pluralist is a pragmatist who seeks an encompassing and coherent view of prime reality and the world in which we live, but without any exclusivist or absolutist assumptions. Pluralists recognize that there are many unique and distinct, complex and creative ways of being human and of constructing rich cultures and great civilizations. Unlike eclectics they prefer to understand each complex and creative individual and culture within its own highly nuanced and “thick” context, rather than to lift it “a-historically” out of its larger symbolic and functional context for purposes of commercial kitsch. Intellectual and cultural historians tend to exist on a spectrum between ideological dualists and pragmatic pluralists. The monistic and dualistic ideologues tend to reduce the story of history to a single Idea or to an ideological struggle between opposing forces that reiterates itself in different language and symbols from age to age. This translates into the conflict model of human history. This approach is the home of the proverbial Hedgehog who has found One Big Idea.

The pluralist pragmatists tend to view the story of history as a complex multi-dimensional movement between multiple forces that all interact with each other in patterned but unpredictable ways. This approach is the home of the proverbial Foxes who has Many Small Ideas rather than One Big One.

Pluralistic Pragmatists prefer to give each realm of knowledge and domain of life “its proper due” but to limit the tendency of each realm and domain to over-reach in its ambition to apply its methods to everything under the sun.  They appreciate the distinction Pascal made between the esprit de geometrie and the esprit de finesse. Neither esprit is higher or deeper or better than the other.

As Jacques Barzun, himself a cultural historian and pragmatic pluralist puts it, Science-Technology (geometrie) and Humanities-Arts (finesse) belong to radically divergent modes of conceiving and working with reality. In Science-Technology the elements and defintions are clear, abstract, and unchangable, but stand outside the ordinary ways of thought and speech. In the opposite realm of Intuitive-Aesthetic thought, the elements come out of the common stock and are know by common names, which elude definition. Thus it is hard to reason justly about them because they are so numerous, mixed, and confusing: there is no method.

The spirit of Pluralistic Pragmatism seeks to honor both sensibilities or casts of mind but without allowing the former to become hardened or reified as scientism and mechanism and the latter to become reified as intellectualism and aestheticism. Pragmatism cares about the consequential “cash value” of ideas for human fulfillment, cultural literacy, civil society and a sustainable world.

In his introduction to the anthology, “A Jaques Barzun Reader,” Michael Murray puts it this way: “The pragmatic cultural historian “deals with ideas, but with ideas as they flourish in the marketplace–some derived from the sytems and no longer pure, other from the minds of reformers, politicians, artists, and indeed anybody. It’s limits are fixed by the breadth of the practitioner’s knowledge, eloquence, and wit.”

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After Nihilism: “Tending the Soul & Repairing the World”

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What are we to make of nihilism? Some think it is the major problem of our times. Others think it is the normal human condition. Some think it is “the spirit of our age.” Some think it is an attitude and life stance to be passionately embraced, whether pessimistically or gleefully. Others think it is a critical challenge to be confronted and overcome.

Still others have never given it a second thought. Some may even be “banal nihilists” who have never even heard of the word and yet their entire worldview and way of life is unconsciously nihilistic. Some may be “card-carrying nihilists” who ironically find “meaning” in telling others with evangelistic zeal that “life is meaningless.” Finally, some have used philosophical and ethical nihilism as a cover to justify crime, vice, corruption, mayhem, madness and murder.

What is nihilism? The question of definition exposes the problem in formulating a coherent and consistence response to it. Bing’s dictionary offers three different meanings:

  1. total rejection of social mores: the general rejection of established social conventions and beliefs, especially of morality and religion
  2. belief that nothing is worthwhile: a belief that life is pointless and human values are worthless
  3. disbelief in objective truth: the belief that there is no objective basis for truth
Wikipedia offers a good introduction to the idea of nihilism:

Nihilism (/ˈn.ɨlɪzəm/ or /ˈn.ɨlɪzəm/; from the Latin nihil, nothing) is the philosophical doctrine suggesting the negation of one or more putatively meaningful aspects of life. Most commonly, nihilism is presented in the form of existential nihilism, which argues that life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value.[1] Moral nihilists assert that morality does not inherently exist, and that any established moral values are abstractly contrived. Nihilism can also take epistemological or ontological/metaphysical forms, meaning respectively that, in some aspect, knowledge is not possible, or that reality does not actually exist.

The term is sometimes used in association with anomie to explain the general mood of despair at a perceived pointlessness of existence that one may develop upon realising there are no necessary norms, rules, or laws.[2] Movements such as Futurism and deconstruction,[3] among others, have been identified by commentators as “nihilistic” at various times in various contexts.

Nihilism is also a characteristic that has been ascribed to time periods: for example, Jean Baudrillard and others have called postmodernity a nihilistic epoch,[4] and some Christian theologians and figures of religious authority have asserted that postmodernity[5] and many aspects of modernity[3] represent a rejection of theism, and that such rejection of their theistic doctrine entails nihilism.

The Wikipedia article distinguishes between different forms of nihilism, including metaphysical, epistemological, mereological (or compositional), existential, moral, and political nihilism. It presents a brief history of nihilism and its critics, including Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, along with the views of post-modernism, transcendental nihilism, methodological naturalism and scientific reductionism. Finally, it identifies the influence of nihilism in culture, including Dada, literature, music and film.

If one turns to Amazon Books one will discover a variety of scholarly expositions of nihilism. One book titled Nihilism by Freydis has this provocative lead-in:

“Nihilism represents the greatest existential challenge in human history, and no matter how hard you may try you cannot avoid it! Yet despite this importance rarely has a critical concept been more widely misunderstood, largely because so many lack the words and ideas needed to visualize and describe what is in fact a remarkably widespread sentiment. And now one iconoclastic author and radical thinker delivers what may be the most revolutionary book in print since Darwin’s The Origin of Species.”

Here we are being told that nihilism is the greatest existential challenge of our time, that it is more pervasive than most people realize, and that it is a concept that is widely misunderstood. If all this is true then it appears that nihilism is a complex idea, a perplexing condition and a cultural phenomena to which we had better give greater attention.

One response to nihilism is expressed in a book entitled “F**k it.” This response seems to be saying that nihilism is the way of nature, the human condition, the ethos of modernity, and the state of the world, so if you can’t beat um, join um. Just don’t care and don’t give a damn what other people think. Go your own way and do your own thing because in the end none of it matters anyway. We’re just “dust in the wind.”

Another response to nihilism says that nihilism is a condition to be confronted and overcome. Nietzsche advocates the way of self-overcoming and the will to power. Sartre advocates existential courage to live authentically and without “bad faith” in the face of meaningless futility. Camus advocates the hero of the absurd, “imagining Sisyphus smiling.” Heidegger and Tillich advocate the courage to be and the encounter with the Eternal Now after the shaking of the foundations. Pascal and Kierkegaard advocate the existential wager and theistic leap of faith. Michael Polanyi advocates the realization of “tacit knowledge and the personal dimension” that is ontologically transcendent and epistemologically prior to Cartesian substance extension, rational theory and scientific empiricism. John Haught advocates the spiritual implications of man’s “critical intelligence” (which includes affectivity, intersubjectivity, metaphors, aesthetics and theoria). David Ray Griffin and Christian de Quincey advocate process panpsychism. Emerson, influenced by neo-platonism, Hindu Vedanta, Kantian transcendental idealism and English Romanticism advocates transcendentalism; Loren Eiseley and Ursula Goodenough advocate poetically and quasi-spiritually enriched approaches to the sciences of paleontology and biology. Karl Jaspers and Ken Wilber advocate philosophical visions of Encompassing and Integral Reality; Terry Eagleton advocates a transcendence of nihilism through literary and social criticism, including a Marxist apologetic and critique of Capitalism. William James advocates  the pragmatic “the will to believe” in human values and spiritual transcendence in the midst of an ambiguous and pluralistic universe. Richard Rorty advocates a neo-pragmatic post-modern commitment to the values of “contingency, irony, and solidarity” without appeal either metaphysical or empirical claims such as religion and science, tradition or progress.

My point here is that there are all kinds of ways in which different persons have attempted to confronte and overcome the challenge of nihilism. Of course there are disagreements among those who have taken different paths, and some will accuse others of either evading the issue or falling short in their attempt to transcend emptiness, futility, meaninglessness and despair.

Others have been content to accept nihilism as the universal human condition and the final word on the subject. However, among card-carrying nihilists we can distinguish between three types: (1) deconstructive anarchists to say “to hell with everybody and everything;” (2) unconscious and assimilated players who take nihilism for granted and don’t think it’s a big deal. They might say “Sure, life sucks and then you die, but what are you gonna do about it? Just have a good time, life and let die.” (3) constructivist and transcendental nihilists who believe that since life has no intrinsic meaning we are radically free to construct our own subjective and personally satisfying meanings, or “immortality projects” as Ernest Becker called them.

A nihilistic constructivist might say, “In the end we all still die, but along the way we can enjoy “the illusions of meaning” and the useful fictions that we have constructed to give temporary shape and purpose to our shapeless and purposeless universe. We build our sand-castles along the seashore, knowing that soon the sea will come to wipe out our creative projects. But that’s OK because it is our instinctivenature to enjoy “lucid play” even in the face of its nihilistic negation. And who knows, maybe even if we cannot have what we really want, which is personal immortality, we can achieve a kind of ‘symbolic immortality’ in creating beautiful and useful things, and advancing the pursuit of knowledge, the care of the earth and the betterment of society during our objectively absurd but subjectively meaningful sojourn.”

I do believe that nihilism (and responses to it) represents one of the important challenges of our modern secular age, that its influence is more pervasive and banal than most people realize, that it is largely operating below our personal and collective radar, and that it is seriously misunderstood. My own response to the challenge of nihilism is a conviction that after we have faced up to and passed through the Dark Night of nihilism that we can come out the other side to begin the work of healing our souls and repairing our world. For me “giving up” and surrendering in defeat to meaninglessness, normlessness, futility and despair is not a viable option. Nor is shaking our fist in angry rage a real solution. The questions I ask of all philosophies and sciences, arts and letters, economics and politics, trades and technologies is this: What are you doing to heal the soul and repair the world? Do you have an “immortality project” or at least a “mortality project” that gives your life meaning and purpose beyond mere survival, security, diversion and amusement? If so, what is it? In what ways do you seek to realize your creative  potential and to make a caring difference in your world? If you are committed to caring and creativity, to moral courage and conscious living then you are not a nihilist. You are saying a profound “yes” to life.

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.