Old World Mind, New World Machine

Old World Mind, New World Machine

            Yet anyone can follow the path of meditative thinking in his own manner and within his own limits. Why? Because man is a thinking, that is, a meditating being. Thus meditative thinking need by no means be ‘high-flown’. It is enough if we dwell on what lies close and meditate on what is closest; upon that which concerns us, each one of us, here and now; here, on this patch of home ground; now, in the present hour of history. (Heidegger, Discourse on Thinking, 1959, page 47).

                For many of us, thinking is itself a practical matter. It dwells upon the matters at hand, it lives only for a specific purpose. This because our society provides such ready-mades, the stuff of the collective perception that constitutes a worldview, that in fact we are seldom called upon to think at all. At the same time, perhaps most of us consider thinking to be the province of the scientist or the philosopher alone. For the preeminent thinker of the twentieth century to remind us that this is not at all the case is of great import. It is also quite correct. What the species-essence of humanity is, is thought, made manifest through consciousness. It was once only sentience, billions of years ago, as organic life separated itself from the inorganic fabric of the cosmos. It was once only instinct, when enough complexity accrued through evolutionary organicity to enact the senses protean and proprioceptive. And most recently, it was once only habit; whatever appeared to work was repeated, honed, made second nature.

            But in this very process of experiment and experience, thinking presently arose. It was, as it mostly is today, originally geared into the eminent practicality of how to practice a uniquely human life within an anonymous nature. Humans are generalists, we belong to no ecological niche, we adapt to any variable, we shun the specialization of our once closer kindred animals. Even so, thought was itself not yet present. Thinking was a thinking through, a thinking about, attending to a process or an object problem, and not a thinking-in-itself, thought for the sake of thought alone. This final aspect of consciousness as we know it is what can be called ‘meditative’ thinking. It differs from Eastern forms of meditation, wherein thinking in the Western sense is to be temporarily expunged. This more well known definition of meditation remains a healthy exercise for the mind and body alike, but it serves the futurity of our species-being only insofar as it sets up a contrast between what consciousness is when it becomes less active; outwardly more like a lower form of life – a sensory apparatus that only reacts – and inwardly perhaps more like one higher – the Gods have no need of thought as all is already known to them.

            But meditating upon an abstract problem, including the perennial ‘problem of consciousness’, an ontological puzzle, or even the ‘problem of knowledge’, an epistemological issue, is quite different than ‘meditation’ in the spiritual sense, transcendental or otherwise. It is the idea that one can have an idea that prompts the sense that I as a human being am capable of thought. Not that ‘my idea’ is prone to any singular possession. Anything we do is automatically the proof property of the species at large. Even if we tell no one, it influences our acts, our further thoughts. In a word, I am altered in my very being by having this thought, as I am created as a thrown project by having thought itself.

            Yet if thinking is not the province of the philosopher alone, why then do we have so many occasions to note its relative absence in the world? If anyone can participate, why then do we not see more interest in this regard? The most authentic challenge to thinking comes from our need to think about the world. We imagine that our ‘patch of home ground’ is indeed what is ‘closest to us’. The exhortation to ‘act locally but think globally’ is a noble one, nonetheless, it simply substitutes a smaller concern in the world for the world as a concern. Both are objects in this sense, and thus even if their scale differs, they remain quantities, things, about which we attempt to negotiate or ‘figure out’. The sense that something either works or it does not promotes a thinking that is sustainable only within the context of work, and increasingly, simple labor. Let me use the obvious contraption ‘thing-king’ to designate this kind of thought process. In thing-king, there is a beginning and an end, and both are precise enough to ingratiate a practice that may, over time, become a personal habit or yet a cultural habitus. We notice a problem, issue, challenge, or mistake. This is the start of practical thought, thinking about a thing. ‘Fixing’ the issue is the only goal. Many means may be necessary, certainly, but the end is defined at the beginning and as Heidegger’s student Arendt has cautioned, we cannot ‘justify’ separating ends and means in the trite manner of the moral chestnut simply because the ends have already delineated the means and therefore have by definition ‘justified’ them ahead of time.

            Not that this is necessarily an ethical problem pending the ends. By far most everyday challenges require no revolutionary means to achieve a desired outcome. They neither demand the radical nor the novel. They are simply part and parcel of ordinary existence and remain within a logistics of worldliness. It is in this way, even though they are deemed to be necessities of human life, that such practicalities prevent thinking from arising. That this is an authentic bracketing of thought is evidenced by the lifeworld’s insistence upon its own reproduction. We cannot think in a void. But practice – the fixing of logistical issues, the enactment of means tending toward finite goals which can be known or at least observed from a short distance – and even praxis – the sense that practical theory is itself a means to world-historical action – do not suffice, and can never suffice, for thought itself. For thinking, as opposed to thing-king, is encountered, not enacted. Its goals are undefined ahead of time, its means are diffuse and seemingly have a life of their own. Thinking is, in a word, about nothing other than thoughts and thus takes place only within the history of consciousness.

            So while it is reasonable to exclaim at this juncture that, ‘I have no time to meditate on abstractions, things that aren’t really things at all. I have to get on with it’, we must ask the question, ‘what, exactly, does getting on with things mean, suggest, imply?’ At once we have our genuine response: human life is composed chiefly of activities that from time to time need to be adjusted to practical purpose and to finite ends. Even so, the truth of this statement is only the case within a wider understanding of existence, one that includes, and indeed is originated by, our species-essential ability to think at all. Practice and praxis alike represent means only, and whatever ‘ends’ that are contained within this or that process of such thing-king are themselves but further means.

            But means to what? Meditative or contemplative thinking is its own end insofar as it is a means to itself. This may sound circular as well as pompous, but consider thinking with the understanding that thought is neither a subject alone – our thoughts are historical, factual, mythical, as well as being biographical; but then again, what is so much of our biography if not habitus made into habit? – nor is it an object – thinking is very much not a thing in the physical sense, and attempts to reduce thought to neurochemical combinations and synaptic structures only serve to place the process by which thought arises into some more precise locales. Given our human success is due to our ability to ‘think things through’, the sense that we should try to locate thought as if it were itself a thing seems counterintuitive, for our thinking mimics our wider heritage as evolutionary generalists. We are potentially unlimited as a species, even if I as an individual must meditate ‘within my limits’. This is the more profound meaning of the near and the far to be found in sudden declamations to ‘think globally, act locally’ and so on. I act and think within certain limits, many of them not my own in any individuated sense, yet I can also at least imagine thinking, if not truly acting, in a much wider way. It is that single act of imagination which allows us to encounter the essence of thinking-as-it-is.

            Yet if there is an uneasy, even somewhat suspicious relationship between practice and thought, the one still admits to the other that its practices originate in contemplative thinking. It is otherwise with the inauthentic barriers to meditative thought that our everyday world has constructed. These include the distractions of the newer lifeworld of the idolatrous thing, the fetishized commodity, but as well, the delusions of the older lifeworld’s customs and rituals, what is defined as habitus and heresy alike. Between the machine of the new and the mind of the old, human thinking is confined to a space stenochoric to the future and at once reduced to peering at a thin slice of the past. Custom represents only the most common elements of culture, no matter if this or that ritual comes once in an individual lifetime. And the technology of a culture in turn represents what is most commonly practiced by those same individuals. Both rely upon repetition, and only challenge us when the outcomes expected from them do not automatically materialize.

            Even when this is the case, ‘fixing it’ immediately becomes the end to which the means at hand are harnessed. There can be no thought outside of these circles, whether sacred or secular, whether customary or technological. But meditative thinking is neither sacred nor secular, it engages no loyalty to religion revealed or ‘civil’, and in this lies the key to our encounter with it: thinking is itself revolutionary. By this I mean that in order to engage in thinking as a species-essential gift and task, one must needs shed all loyalties to both custom and craft. One must begin to understand means and ends as artificial boundaries that impede the act of thought by reducing it to a specific point-to-point process. There is no ‘there’ to thinking, as Heidegger has implied. It is a here and now encounter with the new and with my ownmost being which is ever new. This is what is closest to us; our own being in the world as I breathe and as I am. Yes, this existence precedes an understanding of essence but it does not negate it, in the same manner as though we have historically given ourselves credit for the death of the Gods and the shattering of the illusory otherworld, does not then mean that otherness no longer exists.

            For thinking is itself other. It is other to life as we have known it, to history as it has been, to myself as I know myself and what I expect from myself. It is other to what is customary, but also to what is technical and of technique alone. It is other to the generalized otherness of the social fabric and it thus gifts us with the ongoing task of being more than we have taken ourselves to be and to once have been. The old world mind is an unthought vice of tradition alone, unchallenged and too well known to aid the human future, while the new world machine is an unthinking device which cannot know itself and thus has no future. Only human thought, meditative and contemplative, abruptly present and yet in the ever-closing presence of the future, opening us to the possibilities of consciousness in its relationship with the cosmos from which it has perhaps unexpectedly sprung, marks us as worthy of a continued existence.

            Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of fifty books in ethics, education, social theory, aesthetics, and health as well as more recently, fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

The Ethics of the Present

                                                The Ethics of the Present

            Nothing can make us be the past: it is only a spectacle before us which is there for us to question. As the questions come from us, the answers in principle cannot exhaust historical reality, since it does not depend on them for existence. (Merleau-Ponty 1973:10 [1955]).

            This ‘strange object which is ourselves’ is at once a scientific object – History ‘proper’ as a discourse and as a study – and also an objectification – a shifting ground lensed through ideology or even personal memory. We as present-day human beings can object to it, and in the ‘confrontation with the tradition’ this is in fact our collective duty, and yet we are, as Marx famously noted, subject to it. We do ‘make our own history’, and yet not entirely as we choose. Increasingly, so it appears, we often find ourselves unable to raise a metaphoric finger against the ‘forces of history’, since the present is, in this sense, only the sum total of the weight of effects which emanate yet from what was supposed to be ‘only’ the past. If we do not take the present to be either presence in the immanential sense of being-there and just there, just now, or as the presenting of the moment as some kind of disconnected exclamation of Being-present, then the present as the ongoingness of history does indeed carry all of this said weight around within it and about it. History is ourselves precisely for the reason that we ourselves are nothing other than our own respective histories, and History but a Gestalt of a gestalt.

            To think through the veil of history is part of the confrontation with what we can know of the tradition, what has come before us and yet remains within us; the unthought aspect of selfhood and at the same time also the temporally conscious sense of thrownness. This ‘veil’ is present both by the fact that much of actual human history remains unknown, and a portion of that – just so, we also do not know which proportion – forever unknowable. And it is a justifiable shock to realize how recent this other portion reaches. Lost films are a simple case in point. Much of the cinematic archive has been destroyed, irreplaceably, mainly because of the material upon which it was first recorded. In 1917, for example, an important suffragette documentary entitled ‘Birth Control’, by Margaret Sanger, was censored and banned before general release, given its then radical contention that woman must have complete control over their reproductive rights in order for them to take their place as fully human beings, both politically and existentially. No copies of this film are known to exist today; it is categorized as a ‘lost’ film. What is also lost for us is the ability to gauge the amount of maturity we have gained with regard to such a question in the intervening century. Sometimes, it seems, not much. In many regions, even within modern states, women’s reproductive rights are questioned, limited, stigmatized, denuded or co-opted. We have already noted that bio-power is certainly a factor. But the rationalizations given forth in the effort to continue to subject women to external control, and object to women’s bodies as inherently uncontrollable, rest only in a past which has yet to be fully confronted.

            Hence the great import of doing just that. We must first maintain the distinction between the ideal types analytic brought to the fore by Weber and the sense that we have living ideals, the way we would live if we could, the ‘blue sky’ of corporate forecasting, the everyday Nirvana of the ‘perfect family’ or the ‘well-adjusted child’ etc.. In Weber’s methodology, an ideal type is a non-historical model, constructed from aspects of real world cases that betray a pattern. Ideal types are not so much simulacra nor even reifications, but tend more to being expressions of the human desire to attain absolutes. Indeed, Weber’s Wertrationales Handeln – ‘rational action directed to an absolute value’ – speaks clearly of this orientation. The study of history as History also has this tendency, since, as Merleau-Ponty noted, it is we who are asking the questions of ourselves. The fact that we have progressed to the point of understanding this relation is a noteworthy first step and also a recent one, beginning with Vico in 1725. If we have kept close to our hearts the sense that we can live in an ‘ideal’ way, or even that there should be ideals at all – in James, of course, we have the ‘saint’ as a standard by which the rest of us could judge our own behaviors – it is due to the concurrent human situatedness of being perennially finite and increasingly discrete, the living equivalent of a Gaussian curve, perhaps. Beneath the center of such a distribution live the ideals of the day to day, those whose normative sensibilities and aspirations betray nothing of the larger historical apparatus around which we are encompassed, but also through which we can clamber up to the top for another point of view, a vista which would remain unknown to us if we did not first learn about the scaffolding underpinning it. The casual expression, ‘standing on the shoulders of history’, speaks not only to the sense that what is holding us up is not only not part of we ourselves, though we might mimic it in microcosm, but is also greater than ourselves. So much greater, in fact, that we must again confront the fact that much of it, perhaps most of it, will remain unknowable.

            But not unthinkable. This is the second distinction we must keep in mind, that between what cannot ever be known and that which, in spite of its mysterious or partial quality, can yet be imagined and thence thought through. What we need to avoid is the pitfall of all ideal types analysis, and that is the disconnect it makes between the pattern and the case, the model and the lived time of this or that social reality. Idealism in general is suggestive of this disconnect, and even if the superordinate benefit it brings to the analytic mindset is that of abstracted depth, leitmotif, deep structure or grammar, archiphonemic apse, or phenomenological ground, the ‘intuition of essence’, or even ‘simple’ ontology, its corresponding weakness includes a departure from lived time, and thus from Dasein itself. Abstraction in the study of history is also self-limiting in another manner: “In a word, we might say that it makes the specificity of ideological or religious organizations unthinkable. It transforms them into ‘representations’, or into ‘reflections’ of social structures. Put otherwise, it eliminates them as real factors of history: they become additions and secondary effects, precious only insofar as, through their transparency, they shed light on what instigated them.” (De Certeau 1988:119 [1975], italics the text’s). As persons, we live in a specific manner which at once, even if it is not analyzed in any objective way – ‘common sense’ reality and that scientific are also disconnected from one another in both worldview and purpose – must remain thinkable for us, and not its opposite. Life, in another word, must be both doable and thinkable; it must be able to be lived, whatever its depths of misery or blisses of joy that happen to be contained within its pulsing embrace, and what is bracketed or put to the side as ‘secondary’ or ‘additional’ is the very opposite of what ideal types analysis dockets and transcends.

            We are given to placing aside abstraction in day to day life not because we do not aspire to philosophy or because we might imagine ‘thought’, or yet the history of thought or consciousness, to be somehow beyond us, but rather because we already know what either needs to be known to do something, or we know where to look to find out. It is not the paucity of the intellect in the mundane sphere that limits human action, it is instead the list of questions that are liable to be asked. It is in the vested and invested interest of social institutions to both manufacture such lists and limit them, sometimes stringently, in order to reproduce themselves, which is ultimately the absolute value of rational organizations as Weber has discussed. If it is the case that such values and the means to attain them in principle occupy radically different spaces – the usual analogy of choosing amongst a number of closed doors and passing through this or that one – characterizing rational action directed to a finite goal, or Zweckrationales Handeln – in contrast with the metaphor of the fixed point in the heavens which can direct my action but in fact cannot itself be attained – the ‘absoluteness’ of such a value may well contain its own absolution but this as well cannot be experienced by me – then it is equally the case that historical institutions that do in fact exist or did exist are possessed of an absolute that, in a brilliant if oft disingenuous maneuver, turns the firmament of values into means.

            This is not a confrontation with tradition but rather a manipulation of it, but if we consider these two alternatives, it is clear that for social institutions, if the goal is simple reproduction and not even growth – this is characteristic of bureaucracies proper in Weber more so than say, mere for-profit companies, for instance, or ideologies over against religions, in general – manipulation is the correct choice. Not so for persons. For the individual, struck with having to both choose a door or two or three over the mortal cycle of one’s ability to so choose, and yet also being aware, even sometimes blinded by, that light hung up in the sky above, manipulating the light to show what is behind the door is clearly not an option. Instead, the groundwork for attaining different perspectives on the light from below is characteristic of our historical condition. It would appear at first, that any absolute value would forever be in the same relative position to its perceiver, but this is true only of unquestioning belief. Faith is shaken by perspective, knowledge amended, wisdom acquired. Perhaps the greatest legacy of the history that can be known is that the nature of the light itself alters over time, sometimes radically so.

            Even so, there is another horizon that in our contemporary world situation both attracts and repels us. It contains the questions both addressing ‘why have a light at all?’ and ‘what if the light is my reflection, what if I myself am the light?” in the same way that we have come to know ourselves as the ‘strange object’ of history. The first question is that borne on the critiques of the enlightenment, the key differences between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the history of modern thought. In a sense, these two questions are obverses of the same post-deistic coin; one side heralds the successor figure, humanity, the other is simply blank. Perhaps we are to imagine crossing over from one to the other, for as Nietzsche proverbially remarks, with the death of god the death of Man becomes imminent. Or it may be that what human light there is in the world develops itself into a model for its own action, through ethics and reflection both. If we are our own light, and if this thence becomes our absolute value, then such a being must desist in imagining that this light shines more upon the one than the many, we more than they, or yet the meek more than the magnanimous. If the light is a mere reflection or refraction of Dasein’s action in the world – perhaps this is the reason why it appears to follow us around so closely, since we are always where we are in some basic sense – then it can still serve as an inspiration as well as a check to note if we are still amongst the living, still alive and making our own history within either the confines of a tradition not confronted or oblique to the past, the present as a parallax and not as a mere reproduction. If the absolute value of modernity is individual freedom, then it befalls to each of us our own confrontation with every ounce of that historical weight which tethers us yet beneath the light of the world as it is.

            Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of forty-five books in ethics, education, aesthetics, health and social theory, and more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.