Golden Age Culture Studies
In pre-modern times, when a cyclical conception of history was normal, people had the idea of a golden age, far in the past, when human society and knowledge were closer to authentic origins, sources, and general truths, and consequently nearly perfect in justice, happiness, and relations to nature and the cosmos. The human story was understood to be a gradual but inexorable corruption and decline from that original high point to the present. People now are generally aware that there is no evidence for, and plenty of evidence against, such a view of history, but there are still living vestiges of golden age mythology. Those vestiges are apparent in attitudes of reverence toward the spiritual attitudes and practices of ancient civilizations and aboriginal cultures. However, no human culture has ever made the essential philosophical breakthrough to get beyond fear of projections of the universally imprinted parent, and so no philosophical or spiritual breakthrough is possible from studying pre-modern cultures, tribal cultures, folk cultures, ancient civilizations, different civilizations, high cultures, nomadic cultures, aboriginal cultures. What is interesting spiritually and philosophically is not some exotic culture or set of beliefs but what there is to any person which was there before she had any culture and always remains unspoiled by culture.
According to Jonathan I. Israel, in Democratic Enlightenment: Philosophy, Revolution, and Human Rights 1750-1790, the political revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which effectively put an end to the oppressive Old Regime in Europe, would have been inconceivable without previous innovations in philosophy, in fact a prior revolution of ideas which provided a ground from which the pervasive social dominance of military aristocracy and Christian Churches could be challenged. Specifically, it was seventeenth century rationalism and especially the materialist monism articulated by Benedict de Spinoza (1632-77) which provided the crucial ideas. This is not to say that Spinoza invented those ideas, because he did not. However, Spinoza presented an important selection of ancient (especially Stoic) ideas in the innovative form of geometric proofs, stunningly persuasive to the rising rationalism of his time.
The change to modernity brought about by the European Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was an entirely novel transformation in the history of adult mentality and the human interconnectedness, but the result remains unsatisfactory and unsustainable. It would be sadly parochial to believe that humanity is finished developing social and institutional improvements. In fact, the Enlightenment accomplished only a half-assed job because it had only single substance monism, materialist monism, the (half-assed) philosophy pitched by Spinoza. All along it was declared that materialist monism required complete determinism. Such a philosophical position was adequate in the ideological quarrel with religiously based authority institutionalized in Christianity and aristocracy, but it provided no grounding for a serious confrontation with the rising wave of purely secular inequality. Although materialist monism, including strict determinism, helped historically with dislodging beliefs in divine control of world affairs, especially through sovereign power and religious authority, it is clear that determinism and monism can’t be a long-term foundation for pluralist individual freedom. Consequently, the Enlightenment failed to have much effect on the systems of subordination that now structure secular inequality. Another set of innovations in philosophy, something far more pluralist than Spinoza, will be required to advance the culture of interconnectedness and adult mentality to the next stage of improvement. It is still possible that the best days of the human interconnectedness are to come, and that they will be more dramatically different from the current status quo than we are from Christendom.
Begin Where You Are
Science is the great intellectual edifice built from materialist monism, so much so that modernity manifests something close to an ideological dictatorship of science. However, under the scientific model of explanation everything is just immutable causal chains. There is never any real novelty or freedom conceivable with science, making it a philosophical dead end. The revolutions of the Enlightenment were attempts to dislodge forms of top-down human-on-human parasitism, but they were only minimally successful. The most fundamental mechanism of human parasitism, of sustaining systems of subordination, is cultural control of the criteria of individual self-identification, self-worth, self-definition. The rewards offered by the capitalist politico-economic system are all external to the individual and as such are controlled externally and work by diverting individuals from authentic self-recognition. Urgings to “dream big” and “live your dreams” look like a celebration of individual freedom, but the kinds of personal orientation which count as “dreams” for this are all constructs of transferable properties such as jets, yachts, corner offices, or vacation properties: controlled, commodified, commercialized, all depending on what money can buy and how money can be procured. Institutions which control the flow of those rewards take advantage of mass dependence on systems of subordination, such as employment hierarchies, to skim off a parasitic revenue stream to preserve structures of inequality in favour of a controlling ownership faction. Scientific ideology provides nothing useful in getting beyond that cultural control, and actually supports it, and so it becomes necessary to reconsider what philosophical thinking might offer.
The Question of the Gaze
The human outward gaze beholds beauties and wonders but often fails to notice itself, the gaze itself, the beholding, as remarkable, as what is most remarkable about the wonders beheld. It doesn’t have an appearance, isn’t part of the scene beheld, and yet there is much to notice about the gaze: it has a direction, and not just a direction but a questioning directed-ness. The questioning in the gaze is fleeting, accumulating, ephemeral, building toward some new questioning, with a sense of coming from a particular prior questioning and going toward a larger, still partly indefinite, subsequent questioning, of being incomplete and renewing. To notice that the gaze has a particularity of direction, of questioning directed-ness, is to notice it editing, contributing context and interpretation to, constructing what is beheld.
The questioning gaze that edits itself into a blind spot is science. Venturing into that blind spot, the contemplation of questioning itself, of being in a life in the world, is philosophical. The philosophical impulse has sometimes taken the form of wondering if the beauties and wonders beheld are somehow deceptive or misleading, hiding something more fundamental or profound ‘behind’ or ‘below’ them, a substrate of eternal reality. Such speculations of a metaphysical substrate mis-express an intuition of the importance of the gaze itself in constructing what is beheld. The intelligence of the gaze is the formative force which is not an item among appearances. The tendency for intelligence to self-efface or self-alienate in this way is the reason for saying that each intelligence exists in its own blind-spot.
As observed many times in postings to this blog, intelligences can’t be part of nature because nature consists of strict actualities, the totality of the categorically actual (being), but we intelligences orient and define ourselves (live our lives) in a structure of time (becoming) which is a fabric of non-actuality, almost entirely beyond what is actual; for example constructing a directionality always exiting a non-actual past and with a heading or bearing structured in terms of increasingly improbable possibilities for a non-actual future. It isn’t that intelligences just make imperfect wild guesses at things that really exist in some actuality, because past and future really have no actual existence. They are creations of intelligences. Nature does not accumulate. It gains nothing and loses nothing: the law of conservation. Each intelligence, however, accumulates experience, invents, and learns. That orientation-complex of non-actuality defines ‘the interiority of an intelligence’ as outside the actuality of nature, and it is a unique creation by every individual intelligence. There is no reason or requirement for, or benefit from, postulating some separate super-intelligence as the source or origin of individual intelligences, initiating their agency, or unifying them. Such a universal in addition to all the individual intelligences would be a gratuitous violation of Ockham’s Razor.
Ordinary activity is already consciousness of creative agency in the gaze itself, of ‘interior’ construction processes. There is so much subjective involvement in every instance of action and thinking, editing and identification of surroundings via sensations, including an ever-developing emotional condition which contributes much to engagement with the surroundings; so much re-constructing of personal orientation within developing events, that it is impossible not to be somewhat conscious of subjective mental processes the whole time of active engagement with the environment. No special introspective faculty or technique of awareness is necessarily involved in that consciousness. We are aware of it because we are doing it, living a basic characteristic of agency. It is not as if the ‘interiority’ of intelligence is removed or distant, not as if you have to roll your eyes back into your head, locate and direct your gaze into some mysterious obscurity. However, it has been noted that intelligence does show a tendency to edit out its own creative presence from the beauties and wonders it gazes upon. That is, it has a tendency to self-efface or make itself unidentified in that operation of perception.
Philosophical skepticism is an example of a technique used as a ‘mirror’ of the extra-natural interiority or semi-blind-spot which intelligences tend to structure into their gazing. The most celebrated and familiar presentation of that process, probably, is in Meditations on First Philosophy by Rene Descartes (1596-1650). Descartes uses age-old philosophical observations on the nearly complete unreliability of sense-perception as a revelation of whatever might be objective and ‘out there’ in the strict actuality of nature. By applying such ways of questioning all systems of belief or knowledge, Descartes clears a way to a direct experience of his intelligence-as-such in its state of innocence, which he reports in something like the following language: “I am thinking (specifically questioning or doubting), therefore I exist!” (That is reminiscent of Aristotle’s “Thought that (in this case suddenly) thinks itself”.) The emphasis tends to go to the fact of finding something that cannot be doubted, but it should go to what it is that cannot be doubted. It is the questioning gaze in action which turns out to be indubitable, in spite of its being so self-effacing. What makes this especially striking is that the questioning intelligence of the gaze is entirely unlike the beauties and wonders beheld by the gaze, unlike and far more wondrous than anything in nature. At the same time, it is noteworthy that the undeniable self-existence discovered by Descartes is just an ordinary operation of active engagement with surroundings, namely questioning, and not a glimpse into any dark mysterious place.
Another crucial moment of skepticism in modernizing philosophy, similarly founded on heroic doubting, (prior to and clearly inspirational for Descartes’ self-discovery) belongs to Martin Luther (1483-1546), who, from an education in Hellenistic philosophy including skepticism, fully confronted doubt in his contemplation of (what he considered to be) the truths of Christianity. In recognizing that the doctrines of Christianity could never be known with certainty, Luther arrived in anguish at unmitigated doubt and uncertainty about the grounding of his personal existence, and in that skeptical extremity he discovered an unexpected grounding for his existence, namely the inward freedom and power to take a creative leap, which in his situation was a leap of faith. Martin Luther was pretty clearly the original (uncredited) existentialist, the breakthrough philosopher of freedom in the modernizing cultural system of Europe. It was Soren Kierkegaard (1813-55) contemplating Luther’s discovery, a couple of centuries after Descartes, which occasioned the beginnings of self-identified Existentialism, a contemplation of individual freedom with a Romantic tendency to overstate the futility of that freedom.
Existentialism: The Interior is Empty
Existentialism, in an authentic development of only certain aspects of the Lutheran experience, places complete emphasis on the individual freedom of intelligences, but sometimes goes so far as to claim there is nothing identifiable as a subjective interior, resulting in inescapable anguish at total uncertainty about personal existence and identity, and a sense of the absurdity of all existence. On that view what is exceptional about intelligences is that we exist inside-out in a total blind-spot, aware of only what is not-ourselves, since there is nothing interior except the freedom (and limited power) to create some outward expression, mark, or declaration of personal existence. In that condition, intelligence is entirely and categorically outward-looking, existence without an essence (apologies to Sartre), burdened with inescapable freedom in the form of a need to project markers of an interior character which remains entirely indefinite (and so free in a particular way). This interpretation of Existentialism is certainly individualistic and pluralistic, but it fails to recognize Descartes’ discovery. Such an Existentialism over-states the hidden nature of the interiority of intelligence, completely discounting the unavoidable (and identifiable) interiority of a rich personal orientation in a time-structure of non-actuality. A very elaborated directionality or orientation is certainly “in here”, along with (even in existentialism) the distress around consciousness of uncertainty, and a force of questioning and creativity. That’s quite a bit of existential interiority.
Given the religious culture of the age in which they lived, it is remarkable that neither Luther nor Descartes discerned any channeling of a unifying super-intelligence in their discoveries of their own individual intelligences. Both contributed powerfully to philosophical individualism and so pluralism. Between them the western tradition gained cultural pointers for individual creative freedom and self-recognized interior agency in re-orientation, thinking. In fact Descartes’ questioning agency and Luther’s leap of creativity bring to light that there is lots for intelligence to encounter other than objects or words. Individuals have a rich innocent subjectivity, an effortless gusher of curiosities, questions, and creative impulses to change things in specifically meaningful ways. This is not a matter of interpreting words or the meaning of words. The interior gusher isn’t something that can be known adequately from any kind of description but it can be known by discovering ways to de-efface its activities. There is an innocent, extra-linguistic, experience to be de-effaced and brought into a new relationship with the questioning directed-ness as a whole. It isn’t knowledge that fountains up from subjectivity but rather what might be called inspiration, questing. Action does result and skepticism does not apply.
When intelligences undertake to communicate with one another about their innocent experience of being intelligences, their philosophical experience, the effort necessarily takes a cultural form, and that form is going to be local, provisional, circumstantial, originally used for something else, limited, and ephemeral. Cultural infrastructure such as language has lots of limitations. However, intelligence-as-such is not limited to the circumstances of its cultural setting and, contrary to some claims, culture is not the entirety of any individual’s knowledge, specifically not the entirety of self-knowledge as illustrated by Descartes and Luther. There is the pre-cultural or innocent self-knowledge of any intelligence as an intelligence (unfortunately somewhat alienable by culture in addition to being somewhat self-effacing). Innocent experiences are foundational and entirely without the imitative nature of cultural expressions. I mention innocence and the cultural expression passes quickly but inspires a re-orientation which can be noticed as such.
Skepticism, as a rejection of all knowledge, is a version of the philosophical quest for self-discovery through innocence. The aspiration of all rigorous skepticism must be either the calm passivity of surrender to utter nihilist futility, or the freedom of personal innocence, because those are the only possibilities when you destroy the foundations of all knowledge claims or systems of belief; and, sure enough, as just illustrated by Luther and Descartes, there is something interesting left when such a program of destruction is finished, namely intelligence in action, questioning and projecting creativity. Admiration for personal innocence as a self-deliberative condition of intelligence must be a feature of all authentic skepticism, but skeptics can’t make claims about innocence because such claims look like claims of knowledge about some object-of-knowledge. Luckily, nothing has to be claimed about intelligence-in-innocence because direct self-experience as intelligence-as-such is the point of the exercise and available to anyone at every moment.
Values and Gratifications: Philosophical Innovation
Given that the most fundamental mechanism of human parasitism is control of the criteria of self-identification, self-worth, self-definition, it is important that here in the familiar philosophical archive is the pointer to an alternative ground of self-recognition quite beyond parasitic control. It is an example of how external parasitic control can be resisted and overcome by philosophical thinking and by developing an orientation toward an individual process of creation, curiosity, and expression.
There are many deceptions in the mainstream belief system identifying human fulfillment in terms of levels of dignity/ love/ support/ money/ power/ honour. The pitch from the hierarchical alpha-structure is that you don’t need much in the way of inward self-awareness to enjoy perfect freedom. All you need is an unregulated commercial market which produces some choice of consumer products for self-definition by shopping (including belief and value packages from religions and political brands) and a personal chance to compete for the scarce goods and treasures of life. It is crucial to that alpha-story that the goods and treasures of life are scarce, and progressively scarcer as their value increases, so only the most worthy, divinely endowed celebrities, achieve the holy grails. It is such a beautiful story. The problem is that the greatest treasures of life are subjective intelligence and its expressive voice, powers freely intrinsic to everybody, and so the alpha-pitch is a deception, a control mechanism, even though the managers of the incentive-and-reward systems are themselves completely deceived (zombified) by it.
Language is full of legitimations of top-down parasitism. Sidestepping those prejudices requires thinking elementally, thinking without language. Intelligence has a thinking ‘voice’ prior to language. The primal, elemental, innocent voice is the sustained developing directionality of personal curiosity, pre-linguistic questioning, and the impulses that express it.
Democratic Enlightenment: Philosophy, Revolution, and Human Rights 1750-1790, written by Jonathan I. Israel, published by Oxford University Press (2011), ISBN 978-0-19-954820-0.
Kierkegaard: A Biography, written by Alastair Hannay, Published by Cambridge University Press (2001), ISBN-10: 0521560772, ISBN-13: 978-0521560771.
Martin Luther, written by Martin Marty, A Penguin Life, Published by the Penguin Group (Viking) (2004), ISBN 0-670-03272-7.
Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose, written by Kenneth Burke, published by The Bobbs-Merrill Company Inc. (1935, second revised edition 1954, second printing 1965), Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 64-66067. This is the source of the idea of orientation in my thinking.
Copyright © 2014 Sandy MacDonald.