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Rorty, non-foundationalism, and story telling: possibilities and problems

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A Conversation

Begun by Paul Grobstein and Bharath Vallabha starting with Paths to Story Telling as Life: Fellow Travelling with Richard Rorty.  Others are warmly invited to chime in in the forum area at the end.

Bharath, 12 May 2009
I read your post on Rorty and found it very interesting and thought provoking. One question it raises for me is:
What is the difference between a person (the realist) who says, "There is universal truth, but given our limitations we might never find it and so we should be as open to as many alternate stories as possible" and a person (the anti-realist) who says "Let us give up the very notion of truth, since it only makes us search for and be content with some presumed unwobbling pivot, and instead revel in the contingency and finitude of our understanding and stories"? Is there in fact a difference?
If there is no difference between the realist and the anti-realist, then I take your (and Rorty's) position to be one of a humane skepticism, an embrace of a posture of not knowing so that various, less previlaged viewpoints are not suppressed under the rubric of falsity. This is a position I can understand and am sympathetic to. But it doesn't involve any radical sounding claim such as that we can/should give up on facts/truth/reality.

If there is a difference between the realist and the anti-realist, then it seems the difference would be an obtuse, metaphysical one having to do with the nature of reality (one saying "there is truth!" and the other saying "let us give up truth!"). I take it you would find this disagreement banal and counter-productive, a typical instance of the unproductive, metaphysical and partisan posturing which you and Rorty (and I) are trying to get beyond.

All this leads to the following idea. I don't understand what you and Rorty mean by "let us forget truth and focus on story telling." What you mean is either (a) something not metaphysical but simply a call to openness in our thinking to new perspectives or (b) a metaphysical claim about whether there is in fact a true world which would be the source of the unwobbling pivot. If you mean (a), you are not really giving up on truth but only all the bad things people do in the name of truth. And if you mean (b), then you seem to be involved in precisely the kind of dispute you are trying to get beyond.

Note that my point here is not that Rorty's position is inconsistent, that his kind of view is obviously self-refuting; this kind of knee jerk response doesn't appreciate the richness of Rorty's position.

My point though is that Rorty's position tends to be or to become UNPRODUCTIVE; that after a while it inhibits a flowering of stories. This is because, taken by itself, one (or at least I) don't know what to do with it; it just seems confusing. "Be open to other's perspectives!", "Question your assumptions!", "Embrace your finitude!", "Don't rest content with easy supposed truths!" -- These are statements I can process and which motivate and excite me to be part of human kind's wonderfully colorful dialogues. But these help just because they are clear and simple, and don't presume to be up turning tradition or common ways of thinking.

I never understand why Rorty felt that these kinds of statements weren't enough and that he had to seek a foundation for such sentiments by giving up truth/facts/reality. If he had just been a champion of pursuing and being open to alternate perspectives, I think his influence would have been much greater and much more productive. Perhaps he felt that simply championing a vigilance towards being open to alternate perspectives wouldn't be intellectual enough, since any kind and generous person who acknowledge that much. But this I think is what led him astray. In our contemporary world we don't need engaged and open INTELLECTUALS. We just need engaged, open and kind PEOPLE. I believe that the primary temptation and sin of academics is to seek to talk constantly as academics and intellectuals, as people who somehow see more into the nature of the world than non-academics. For all of Rorty's criticism of traditional philosophy, he was still beholden, it seems to me, to the fetish of the intellectual hero -- of the hero who, even if he doesn't bring back fire or truth to the community from his intellectual struggles, contributes a more interesting story or parable.

If we give up the fetishism of the intellectual, then there is no need to get beyond humdrum statements such as "Be open to all perspectives!". Following this statement is hard because living a good life is hard. But trying to provide a foundation for such a statement by giving up truth doesn't make it any easier to follow it in our lives. It might make it easier for some people, given the particular contingencies of their lives (say, Rorty's and yours). But I don't see how that would make it easier for people to come together and affirm being open to all perspectives.

The irony of Rorty is that there were in fact two Rorty's. The one who struggled to be inter-disciplinary, who didn't worry about whether the person he was talking to was a philosopher or what department he was in, and who thereby was a wonderful EXAMPLE of what being an open thinker looks like; in this he was completely successful. But the other Rorty was the one who was still beholden to his intellectual upbringing and who kept writing as an intellectual and philosopher and humanist, and so felt that his stance as an open thinker had to have an intellectual justification; this was the controversial, irascible Rorty who seemed like a provocatour and gad fly, and who I think never found the peace of convincing his first collegues in the philosophy departments; and this Rorty, led by the frustration of not being free of the profession in which he grew up, made things more confusing and made it seem as if in order to be an open thinker one had to espouse questionable metaphysical views.

I wish that in all of us the second Rorty finds peaces and lies down in a deep sleep, and just the first Rorty flourishes without feeling the need for any intellectual foundation for being kind and open to alternate views.

Paul, 15 May 2009
What indeed is the difference between the realist and the anti-realist, as you define them?  It must be a difference that makes a difference, or there is no difference, as the pragmatists assert.  And yet, as you point out, it can't be a metaphysical dispute, of the kind that they/you/I would like to see the world get beyond.  So no difference, and no metaphysical argument, but instead .... ?

Maybe a way to get at the difference is via your two Rortys concern.  That resonates strongly for me; there are almost certainly two Paul's.  So why?  Why indeed not be content with "a call to openness in our thinking" and demonstrations of that humane posture?  Yes, the issue is largely to get over "all the bad things people do in the name of truth."  Couldn't one do that though by ignoring entirely the issue of "truth" and simply going about one's personal business without it?  Was Rorty, am I, trapped by our own intellectual commitments/upbringing into pursuing a mission that doesn't in fact need to be pursued?  One that, in the end, "inhibits a flowering of stories" because "one doesn't know what to do with it"?

The "trapped by our own intellectual commitments" challenge is not unlike your earlier questioning of the need/desirability of writing a grant to support conversations that can perfectly well go on without it, and is equally worth taking seriously.  Yes, one can have conversations without a structure and, yes, one can live a humane life without making a point of the underpinnings of it.  There is, though, a practical problem in both cases: the need to work in a world that by and large pays serious attention (unduly or not) to underpinnings, to stories.  And this is not at all restricted to the academic/intellectual world.  It is a characteristic of human society/culture in general that one is evaluated (and so given access to various resources, including interpersonal ones) as much by one's underpinnings/stories as by one's actions.  If one attempts to work without underpinnings/stories one not only pays a price in access to resources but also risks having one's underpinning/stories imposed on one by others.  I couldn't agree more about the "temptation and sin of academics" and the need to resist the occupational hazard of believing that one needs to be compelling to academics but, even correcting for that, there remains a need for underpinnings/stories.  In fact, I would argue that that need is not only a "reality" of modern human culture but an inevitability given how human brains are organized.  We act, and we reflect (conceive underpinnings/stories) and it is the interplay between the two that is the core of humanness.  So the issue isn't only "practical" but also conceptual.

The argument here, basically, is that some story/underpinning is not only necessary but desirable, but that doesn't distinguish between a realist and non-realist underpinning, nor say establish a practical difference between the two.  It does though set a context for distinguishing them in terms of practical differences.  The realist position treats stories as approximations to an underlying reality common to all humans and defines the task of inquiry as bringing all humans to a common understanding of that "objective" reality.  The anti-realist position begins with an irreducible subjectivity as the only inevitably common characteristic of human beings, and poses the question of how proceeds given that starting point.  

At a minimum, for me at least, the anti-realist position has three attractive features that follow from this acceptance of irreducible subjectivity.  One is that it is a constant useful reminder to myself that no position, this one included, is unchallengeable.  A second is that it represents what is, at the moment, a novel kind of story that I think has the potential to to lessen the constraints on exploration/story telling/creativity among humans in general and so discourage hostile conflict and encourage more generative exchange in the interpersonal/social/cultural arena (though not, perhaps, within that of academic philosophy).

The third, and perhaps most important, thing that attracts me to the anti-realist/non-foundationalist position is that it opens new directions for thinking about the task of inquiry (and human life generally). For a realist, stories may be amusing/entertaining/instructive, but the serious work is to figure out how things are.  For an anti-realist/non-foundationalist, the stories are what we have to work with, and the task is less to figure out what things are than to conceive/bring into existence what hasn't been but might be.  There is, I think, a future possibilities orientation here that is lacking in the realist perspective, an excitement about surprise and one's one capability to contribute to it.  So, no metaphysical dispute, but yes a practical difference.  By giving up reality one gains potentiality and a role in its expansion.  One chooses to focus on things that could contribute to ongoing evolution rather than on answers/solutions.  And encourages others so inclined to do so as well, with, as a result, much less distinction between "intellectuals" and "people."

I don't know for sure, but my guess is that Rorty would have made a similar argument, that his interest wasn't so much to establish an "intellectual foundation" as to offer an alternative story.  Anyhow, that's how I think of it.  Enhancing, rather than inhibiting the "flowering of stories"?  

Bharath, 17 May 2009
You want to say that there are practical, though not metaphysical, differences between the realist and the anti-realist. And the practical differences are:
A) it emphasizes that no position is unchallengible
B) it lesses conflict and encourages conversation, and
C) it highlights that the aim of inquiry is not just to represent human-independent facts but to actually create such facts; this is the future possibilities point.
I am sympathetic to all three points. Though I wonder how much they highlight a real practical difference with the realist. Consider, for instance, the realist focused on searching for truth and who says that he prefers realism to anti-realism for the following three reasons:
1) It shows that no position is unchallengible. For given any position, we can ask, “is it true?” and “what justifies it?” With a focus on truth, we never have to take anything based on authority, custom or power.
2) It lessens conflict and encourages conversation. Searching for truth is a form of transcendence; it pulls us out of our habits and prejudices. If I am a Hindu and I ask myself, “is what I believe true?”, I have thereby gained an ability to take on the perspective of someone not in my position. Focusing on truth in this way engenders sympathy for others and an ability to appreciate other perspectives.
3) Since truth is the absolute fact, and since we are fallible, limited creatures, focusing on truth is an engine for transformation. For anything we believe and do, we can ask ourselves, “is that right?” and almost always there is some scope for further inquiry (and frequently, much need for further thought). This very recognition of our limitedness with respect to truth makes possible an emphasis on creating future possibilities.
As (1)-(3) suggest, I don’t think that only the anti-realist can lay claim to openness of inquiry. But as (A)-(C) suggest, I don’t think the realist can claim a superior practical value for his position either.

If both the realist and the anti-realist can highlight practical advantages of their view, what then is the practical difference here that makes a difference? I am inclined to say: there is no real difference between the realist and the anti-realist.  What matters is the fostering of
(i) questioning views,
(ii) fostering conversation and
(iii) self and communal transformation.
(A)-(C) are (i)-(iii) colored through the anti-realist’s perspective, and (1)-(3) are (i)-(iii) colored through the realist’s perspective. I would suggest that we factor out the realist/anti-realist debate altogether, and just focus on (i)-(iii). This then leaves us not with any big, grand metaphysical views, but with the ordinary virtues of compassion, openness, humility, courage, perseverance and resiliance. Thus I think that we should focus more on cultivating these virtues than on realism or anti-realism (representationalism or pragmatism).

In our ordinary lives virtues like humility, courage and compassion are simultaneously truth-focused and action-orienting. When I feel ruffled by a view I don’t like and I try to tell myself, “Be calm and try to understand where this person is coming from”, that is at the same time a way of telling myself that I don’t know the truth (since I might be missing an insight in the view I am annoyed at) and a way of orienting myself and acting such that I am more open to alternate viewpoints.

Here is a way to put my point: conversation, truth and transformation are all inseparable features of our everyday lives. No one of these concepts are more important than the other, and none can stand without the others. Therefore I disagree with the realist that truth can be separated from transformation, and I diagree with the anti-realist that transformation can be separated from truth.

Where then is the realist/anti-realist debate coming from? Here I think we have to look to history and especially the rise of academia. I said that in ordinary life conversation-truth-practice are inseparable. But as academia started to become its own entity, by standing apart from the ebb and flow of the passions of everyday life (this both in its monastic form in the middle ages and its secular form since the enlightenment), academia started to represent something other than truth in the humdrum, everyday sense. It started to represent Truth (with a capital T), as something beyond the everyday world of action which only the special, few are initiated into. So what happened, it seems to me, is that “truth” in conversation-truth-practice was abstracted out, and started to appear as if there was a special Truth beyond our everyday lives. This Truth which used to be the provence of the priests got converted, at least to some extent, to the provence of the secular academics. This is the development and crystallization of the realist position. Rorty, among others, was I think brilliant in underlining this phase of history, especially in modern thought.

This idea of Truth, however, started to be questioned from within academia. A Truth which was separate from transformation was at first experienced as freedom, as something which liberated one from the out dated patterns of a community. But with time a focus on Truth also started to seem like an oppression. For a Truth disconnected from practice not only sets aside horrible practices such as religious wars and everyday prejudice, but also practices essential to humanity such as art, literature, religion and so on. Romanticism and Post-Modernism were reactions to this oppresive feature of Truth, reactions which were first felt as the ideal of Truth repressing and stunting the growth of a person. This repression takes the form of who gets what education, which education leads to material security and prestige, which is seen as a continutation of Humanity and which seen as trivial and confused, and so on. The great value of post-modernism, it seems to me, consists in, first, highlighting these power dynamics, and second, creating movements which fostered practice and human activities, which it seems like Truth was suppressing. And one way the post-Modernists did this was by focusing on Practice (with a capital P). That is, if the modernists told a meta-story involving Truth, the post-modernists started to tell a counter meta-story involving Practice, someone disconnected from Truth. Whereas the modernist said that Truth was above and more refined than Practice, the post-modernist aimed to get back and make room for practice by saying that Truth was just another Practice.

The main contemporary cultural battles are therefore the open wounds left by these past battles. Battles between different versions of Truth: Religious Truth vs. Scientific Truth, Eastern Truth vs. Western Truth, etc. And battles over Truth itself: Truth vs. Practice, Sciences vs. Humanities.

This historical perspective helps to see, I think, the faultlines in Rorty’s view. Rorty became famous as a thinker raised in analytic philosophy who came to give up it corner-stones of Truth and Reason. In this he stood out, and still stands out, as a exemplar of the dedication and the effort it takes to question and move beyond one’s own background. He was treated as a hero by post-modernists and for the most part as a Benedict Arnold by his profession. My point is that in 1979, when Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature came out, he exemplified new possibilities, of charting a new terrain of openness and limitless dialogue. But by the end of his career he came to be not someone who broke out of tired, old lines but as just one of the latest installements of it; he became one more person who took the side of Practice over Truth, one who wasn’t open to every conversation because he was standing across in battle from those who took Truth to be all important.

This raises the question: how can we retain the enthusiasm and openness fueling the early Rorty and avoid the sense of partisianship which the later Rorty came to exemplify? To put this in terms of the two Rortys: How do we keep the inter-disciplinary Rorty and avoid just the humanist Rorty?

The answer I think is to give up the debate between Truth and Practice, and to embrace the ordinary essential connection between conversation-truth-practice. That is, the answer is to give up battling anyone (including the people and institutions which seem to not hear us, or with which we grew up and seek their approval).

What defines a person is not what they believe (Truth or Practice) or even what they do (lazying around or helping the Revolution), but how they are, what is their being. The realism/anti-realism debate, as with many academic disputes, is an intellectual version of physical war, with all the same kinds of psychological turmoil and frustration. The only thing that can help is to stop engaging in intellectual battles or war of any kind.

Let us call this mode of being intellectual ahimsa (‘ahimsa’ is sanskrit for avoiding violence and was the foundation of Ghandhi’s non-violent resistance). I think what you and I and many people now share is a desire for being an academic without engaging in any intellectual violence towards another view, idea or person. This is hard because the practices of intellectual violence are so much a part of our lives, just as enjoying gladiator shows was a part of Roman life. In the sciences and the humanities, it seems to me, academia is driven by the desperate need of creating works of genius, or over turning tradition, or finding hidden gems, or at the very least arguing that X is wrong. No wonder then that academia is not helping to solve the problems in the world; for it itself manifests the wrong doing to each other which keeps us from living a peaceful life.

How can we foster intellectual ahimsa? One tempting way is by being a relativist, or even stronger, giving up the notion of truth. My sense is that this is what motives you, Rorty, Derrida, et al. to give up truth. The hope is that if we forget about truth, a sense that there is one way of being which is the right way, then we can practice intellectual ahimsa and let everyone tell their story and to grow as they might.

But I am doubtful about this path. Intellectual ahimsa is not a view but a way of being, a mode of conduct. Saying or espousing a particular view about the nature of truth doesn’t mean that one is actually practicising ahimsa. The only way to do it is to actually do it, or to keep trying to do it. In fact, espousing a particular over-arching view (such as “there is truth” or “there is no one truth”) is a sure way of not practicing ahimsa because it continues the creation of boundaries which separate us from each other.

Now, it is true that we need an over-arching story. As you say, it is essential for social interaction. But a story such as “Practicing intellectual ahimsa is wonderful” is much better as a meta-story than “there is no truth”. First, it doesn’t have the air of paradox to it, and it doesn’t suggest that most people right now, who hold dearly to truth in one form or another, are seriously confused. Second, it doesn’t continue or take sides in the debates of the last five hundred years about Truth and Practice, but offers a chance for us to see what is important in that debate, but to also then set it aside. It offers us an oppurunity to really get beyond that debate rather than get sucked into it. This, I think, is the way to follow the inter-disciplinary, positive Rorty while avoiding the critical, frustrated, warrior Rorty.

Paul, 26 May 2009
Your point that the "realist" may in many practical terms be the "non-realist" (and vice versa) is well taken. And an historical perspective, as you offer, is important.  It is certainly true that the realist position was significant in helping people get beyond "authority, custom, or power" and there remains a need for something of that kind.  The realist position was also important insofar as it "pulls us out of our habits and prejudices" and contributes to "sympathy for others and an ability to appreciate other perspectives."  Here too, of course, the need for something to fill this function remains.

I'm less comfortable with "our limitedness with respect to truth makes possible an emphasis on creating future possibilities" and the associated "we are fallible."  Here too "truth talk" may have historically contributed to a desirable sense of humility but the claim to be aspiring to truth certainly at this point carries an air of arrogance rather than humility.  More importantly, the incentive for humility, ie "fallibility," derives from a starting premise that holds infallibility out as a goal to be worked towards. 

It is, perhaps, here that one might further pursue a "practical" difference between the realist and non-realist postures.  The starting premise means nothing to the non-realist, who instead treats humans not as "fallible" but rather as creative.  Humility derives in this case not from what one has failed to do but from an awareness of the enormity of the space of possibilities yet to be conceived and explored.  One evaluates both oneself and others not in terms of their failings in terms of existing standards (eternal or transient) but rather in terms of their successes at bringing new things into the world.

All that said, I am sympathetic to your larger historical point. The recent problem has indeed been Truth (capital T) divorced from Practice, rather than truth in the pragmatic sense, in what you call the practice-truth-conversation cycle, and what I'd call the observation/story/story sharing/story revision cycle.  What one means by truth in this context is for me a summary of observations yet to be shown by a future observation to be inadequate.  In these terms, "truth" is a context-dependent and inevitably transient property of stories.  And, importantly, it is non-exclusionary: at any given time, several different conflicting stories may be equally "true." I'm perfectly comfortable with this sense of "truth" (though wish we could, for historical reasons, find a better word) and fully agree that we don't want "to continue or take sides in the debates of the last five hundred years."  The task as I see it (whether Rorty did or not) is instead to come up with something new that in turn opens further new possibilities.

Your (i)-(iii) synopsis seems to me useful move in that direction, though I might rephrase and add a bit so it would read

What matters is the fostering of
(i) observation
(ii) telling stories to make sense of observations
(iii) sharing observations and stories
(iv) using discordances of observations and stories to motivate new observations and stories
(v) enjoyment of the ongoing process of change in oneself, others, the world

Your suggested commitment to "intellectual ahimsa" is also an intriguing move in the new possibilities direction. And one that perhaps connects in interesting ways to another conversation, The Empirical Non-Foundationalist and the Phenomenologue.   In it, Davey Tomlinson, then a college senior majoring in philosophy, wrote

"philosophy practiced as if it can comprehend everything, as if it can get around what it encounters and grasp it, close it in neat, persistent totalities and distribute its sense without limit, is both loveless and the most dangerous sort of violence"

"Is there a coming community in which we might exist with our selves / with each other in (whatever sort of) peace? Is there an "ontology" we might create that ... makes sense of this question and of the concepts it contains ("community"/"we", "existence", "whatever", "peace", ... ), that originarily makes room for this questioning and lets it take place, that - if it has enough sense, if it's tactful - might affect the thoughts of those it meets on this page, my own thoughts and yours? ...  with this writing I hope to create a philosophy ... that will experiment with the complexities of this question, searching through its folds and pushing up against its boundaries."

I am sympathetic to the idea of intellectual ahimsa, and to Davey's notion of philosophy as  "love, a relationship with an excess, with others, with ourselves, and one that preserves its own bewilderment in the face of this overflowing." And to Rorty's notion of "a community in which everybody thinks that it is human solidarity, rather than knowledge of something not merely human, that really matters."  I too would certainly like to see more humane human communities but I'm less confident that simply encouraging "humility, courage, and compassion" or "peace" and "love" is an adequate grounding for continuing inquiry.  Or even for non-violence.   

The problem, as I see it, is two fold.  One is that ahimsa and Christian charity and non-violence are stories that have been around for some time and, while compelling for some people in some contexts, haven't been particularly appealing to others.  My second, perhaps related, concern is the issue of how to avoid what I called in the Rorty essay "abject relativism."   As Ghandi understood, it is not conflict per se that is to be avoided.  Nor is it the possibility of disturbance of oneself or of other living things.  Both conflict and associated disturbances are essential components of the ongoing process of change. So maybe we need a clearer definition of "non-violence" (and of peace and love).  What is the "violence" that one is committed to avoiding?

Perhaps the "violence" that you, Davey, and I all seek to avoid (as have others before us) is specifically that associated with "trying to achieve "neat persistant totalities" and "denying limitations"?  But we want to do so in a  that leaves "room for ... questioning and lets it take place," that "acknowledges there is no 'answer' but nonetheless "pursues the search for one" ... in a "tactful" way?

There might seem to be a bit of a conflict here, but perhaps, as per Ghandi, that's not a bad thing, and perhaps even a good one.  As I wrote in the exchange with Davey

"the root of the conflict [is] the wish to achieve something meaningful/useful that does not make the mistake of denying its limitations and so become itself an act of violence. That place is where the existentialists in the middle part of the twentieth century were. Camus called that place the "absurd;" it is where one finds oneself when one knows there is no "answer" but knows equally that one must nonetheless pursue the search for one."

For Camus, this conflict was the essence of the human condition, and the starting point for all philosophy (academic and otherwise).  Perhaps Camus' suggestion that one must find ways of thinking that don't deny either of the apparently conflicting wishes provides an opening for a new story, one that would usefully reconceive non-violence as well as peace, love, and "answers" in a way that allows one to pursue the latter with "tact"?  I tried to begin sketching such a story in the exchange with Davey ...

"The key, for me, is to step back a bit and take not humanity but current understandings of biological evolution (perhaps even cosmic evolution) as a starting point ...  From this perspective, the task of inquiry (and perhaps of philosophy?) is not to come up with something "right" (or "True") nor to come up with a better human community but rather to come up with something of any kind that is .... "less wrong", ie something that is different from what has existed before and that doesn't obviously present any of the problems that already existing things have."

"Getting it less wrong" is obviously a different objective from Rorty's. One advantage I claim for it (a "less wrong" feature) is that it provides a clearer statement of how to proceed: look around, find a problem with something, fix it in a way that hasn't been tried before. A second advantage I claim is that one needn't depend on "the tolerance and decency of your fellow human beings", nor commit oneself to having to measure one's success by achieving "consensus". I believe in and value human relationships, but I'm strongly disinclined to take "consensus" as a measure of success in what I believe is a creative process as much dependent on difference as on agreement. And I'm too aware of the multiplicity of human motivations to be comfortable with relying solely on human "tolerance and decency".

At the same time, my objective shares with Rorty and others an inbuilt protection: there is no "edifice" being built. One is only acting locally, creating in the present something new that may (or may not) prove useful in the future. And one is doing it as a human, in full awareness of one's distinctive perspectives and inevitable limitations. Finally, I'm comfortable a strong argument can be made that while human interactions don't receive in my treatment quite the priority they do in Rorty's they would in fact be enriched by a consistent developed and applied "less wrong" philosophy. 

Could one in fact develop "a strong argument that ... human interactions ... would in fact be enriched" along these lines?  Maybe that's a direction to pursue in writing a more general and generally appealing story about amhisa, about inquiry with tact?  My sense is that such a story would start neither with "Truth" or reality, nor with love or community, but rather with a common wish of humans to make sense of their experiences and an inevitability of their doing so in different ways.  Transient "truths" would emerge from an observation/story/story sharing cycle.  So too would  love and community, understood not as starting points but rather as a recognition of the contributions to making sense of the world that derive as much from our differences as from our similarities.  In such a story, conflict would be valued, rather than avoided, as a contribution to the generation of new ways of making sense of the world.  And non-violence would be understood not as the avoidance of conflict and associated disruption, but rather as a commitment to the nurturing of new understandings/stories, individually and collectively.     

Might that be the beginning of a way to build on "the inter-disciplinary, positive Rorty while avoiding the critical, frustrated, warrior Rorty"?

Bharath, 28 May 2009
In contrast to the compassion approach, you suggest the absurdist approach (akin to Rorty’s emphasis on irony). According to this (a la Camus): we know there is no truth but we have to nonetheless pursue the search for one (this is the Sisyphusian task).

This is a very interesting turn to our conversation. The realism vs. anti-realism debate has turned into an issue of the mood of our being: compassionate vs. absurdist. (This is similar I think to our discussion in person about village and non-village lives.)

The compassionate (such as Jesus, Ghandi, Mother Teresa) are non-absurdist in that their relations of compassion to others and to themselves go hand in hand with a firm and unshakable foundation of truth and certainty. For them all this is God. A secular compassion, such as that of Locke or Russell, also takes compassion as rooted in a recognition of the nature of the world.

The absurdist (such as Camus, Rorty, perhaps Hume and the ancient skeptics) worries though that a non-absurdist compassion can turn into domination—that the very sense of foundation which might lead to compassionate acts towards others can also lead to being critical and unresponsive to other views.

This, then, seems to be the situation. To the absurdist, the compassionate (in the techinical sense from above) seems liable to bring down the sledge hammer of certainty at some point and so undercut other avenues. And to the compassionate, the absurdist seems so worried about the sledge hammer that he never lives in the first place and experiences the rootedness crucial to thriving.

Where do we go from here? We seem to have come to another impasse, now out in terms of moods as worldviews.

Perhaps the sense of a disagreement here is illusory. When I read your last post, I never thought, “I disagree with this.” I had a sense of disagreement, a sense that I ought to disagree. If I felt more compelled by this sense, I am sure I could have focused on something to bring out or even to create a disagreement. But when I thought about it, there was nothing that I felt I disagreed with. There is much I admired in what you wrote and some things I might put slightly differently – but I don’t disagree.

Surprisingly, this is not the same as saying that I agree and would myself like to take up the absurdist path. For me, at this point in my life, I find the absurdist position unsatisfying. I seek a grounding. And more than that, I sense a grounding which I experience as a revelation and a place for growth, and I would like to pursue this further in my life.

This is where I resonated with Alice’s point, especially in her last paragraph. There does seem to be a pull between the openness of kindness and the fortifying of boundaries involved in ownership. As a person one isn’t simply openness to others, nor is one simply closed off within oneself. Both are happening constantly and there is a constant negotiation between the two.

This seems linked to the compassion and absurdity point in the following way. I am open Paul to your mode of life and to absurdity, and I find growth for myself in this openness. But I also sense that if I were to be completely open to your perspective, then some parts of the edifice of my life would crumble and I am not ok with that (thus I am committed and would like to be committed to these boundaries of my life). Moreover, I imagine that you yourself would not be ok with these boundaries crumbling, since they are what you are interested in in being open towards me.

So perhaps it is like this. Each person is constantly negotiating two parts of themselves: the openness and the boundaries. The absurdist/anti-realist worries that if we focused only on the boundaries, we would lose an essential part of ourselves. The non-absurdist/realist worries that if we focused only on the openness, we would lose an essential part of ourselves.

The realist and the anit-realist then are reminders for the two parts of ourselves. They are like billboards on the highway of life: big signs telling us not to forget the openness or the boundaries. It is just that because the billboards are put up by different people, we might be fooled into thinking that we have to choose to follow one or the other billboard.

Ultimately, perhaps the point isn’t to choose one but to navigate through both. And that is a journey without end, both individually and socially.

Paul, 31 May 2009 
The switch from realist vs anti-realist to compassionate vs absurdist, from  matters of philosophy to matters of the "mood of our being," is  a seriously interesting "move" (in the jargon of philosophy).  Its one that I think Rorty would have enjoyed.  And one that like, like the "village and non-village lives" (to be returned to) relates closely to our last in person discussion.  Rorty's core assertion was that all philosophical arguments (perhaps all meaningful human arguments?) ultimately resolve into a disagreement about "first principles which were incompatible" and "There seemed to be nothing like a neutral standpoint from which these alternative first principles could be evaluated."   That would indeed seem to create an uncomfortable "impasse" in conversations (to say nothing of creating, as it did, a serious challenge to first principles of western analytic philosophy).

What occurred to me during our in person discussion was a way out of the conversation problem (and, perhaps, a constructive philosophical response to the analytic challenge as well ).  "First principles," to a neurobiologist (at least this particular one), can perhaps be equated with "unconscious" or "tacit" knowledge: things we know/feel/believe without knowing how we know them ("the mood of our being").  From this perspective, much of conversation (and western analytic philosophy) can be thought of as a useful working out of the consequences of knowing/feeling/believing in particular ways, but one that, less usefully, also usually involves as well trying to justify what we know/feel/believe (cf The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tale, pdf here).

One thought, then, is that we could learn to keep the "useful working out" but separate it from "trying to justify."  Indeed we might learn to do away with the latter altogether since, following Rorty, there is (cannot be?) any "neutral standpoint from which these alternative first principles ["things we know/feel/believe without knowing how we know them"] can be evaluated."

While this might be a useful contribution to better understanding "non-violence" (more on this below),  it doesn't  by itself get us out of the "impasse" (either conversational or philosophical).  It does however seem to me to point a direction for doing so.  If "first principles" are nothing more (and nothing less) than unconscious/tacit understandings/feelings/beliefs then they lose any metaphysical significance and hence are as subject to change as are our more conscious understandings/feelings/beliefs.  Yes, there is no "neutral standpoint" for evaluating them but that is not to say there is no basis for doing so.  Indeed our unconscious understandings/feelings/beliefs are constantly being tested and reshaped by our interactions with the world around us, including with each other. 

Ergo, conversation (and philosophy) does not, Rorty notwithstanding, end at "impasses."  Instead, conversation arguably begins most meaningfully there.  What we can get from others is the incentive and wherewithal to discover and potentially revise things about ourselves that it would be difficult or impossible to get to on our own.  Perhaps this offers an opening for western analytic philosophy as well?  It too should learn to mine not only conscious but unconscious disagreement as a source of new understandings?

Proceeding along those lines, I am indeed both an absurdist and an anti-realist, for the moment at least.  And I do indeed worry that "the very sense of foundation which might lead to compassionate acts towards others can also lead to being critical and unresponsive to other views."  My guess, though, is that many of the compassionate actually worry about that as well.  And that many absurdists (myself included) are not insensitive to potential charms of "rootedness" (or villages).  Among the things that is interesting about the unconscious is that it is actually a "society of minds," a diverse community,  and so much more accepting of inconsistency and ambiguity than is the conscious.  This creates some problems (though not fatal ones) for analytical philosophy moving into the unconscious.  On the flip side, it means that what seem impassable chasms to the conscious may be quite bridgeable in the unconscious.  An experience that boosts the absurdist element just a little bit (or lessens the rootedness element a tad) may be enough to switch one from being a realist to being an anti-realist (and conversely).   We are all full, whether we know it or not, of what Rorty called "orchidaceous extras," with nothing to assure they all go together at any particular time in any particular way.  The upshot is that we all have both the potential and the wherewithal to change, not only consciously but in the "mood of our being' as well.

Is there an "essential part of ourselves" that we need to fear losing?  The foregoing suggests not, that we are an ongoing process of losing, adding, and realigning parts, none of which are our "essence" (see Buddhist Meditation and Personal Construct Psychology for two other paths to a similar conclusion).  Like a river, no part of ourselves is fixed and there is no pre-ordained path to be taken.  We are instead ongoing change, an exploration of the possible beings that could be given the constraints of particular sets of circumstances, themselves also always in flux. 

A river cannot, so far as I know, reflect on itself, objectify its current "mood of being," conceive alternatives to that, and act to alter it.  Consciousness, the story telling part of our brains, gives us some capabilities along those lines.  We can notice our "mood of being" - absurdist, compassionate - and elect to nudge it, or at least suggest it might be nudged, in alternative directions.  The billboards might be "put up by different people" or may come from within ourselves.  In either case, we don't so much "choose to follow one or the other" as engage in a negotiation within ourselves.  Out of the negotiation comes, ideally, neither "victory" nor "defeat" (Kipling ... "treat those imposters just the same") but new possibilities (qua Hegel?).

All this bears directly on your thought that "If I want a community of peace, I should ... live and be in a way that I am not torn by an internal war."  I too am attracted by the notion that "the personal and the political are the same thing" but phrased the point slightly differently:

"One cannot conceive of, nor act to bring about, a non-hierarchical culture without being able to refuse hierarchy within oneself ... Conversely, having refused hierarchy within onself, one cannot but become subversive of hierarchy, of all kinds, in the social and political realm."

By "refuse hierarchy" I meant proceed on the assumption that there is no "authority" that can be counted on to resolve conflict (conscious or otherwise), that one should instead "regard as generative apparently incompatible things" both within oneself and between people.  "War" is a particular approach to conflict, one that seeks to destroy one or another of what seem to be "incompatible" things.  "Peace," in these terms, is not the opposite of war but rather a different approach to conflict.  It seeks not to eliminate one or another incompatible thing but instead values conflict, both internal and external, as the grist from which new ways of being, individually and collectively, are created.  One reaches "peace," internally and interpersonally, not by eliminating conflict but by accepting its generative role, and hence refusing the "violence" of trying to resolve it by destroying one or another of the incompatible things.  "Non-violence would then "be understood not as the avoidance of conflict and associated disruption, but rather as a commitment to the nurturing of new understandings/stories, individually and collectively.

Perhaps this is another way of getting to "the best way we find out about our own tensions is through our interactions with others, and moreover, the best way we discover how to deal with those tensions is also by trying out subtle alterations in our interactions with others" as well as within ourselves"?   And to "a communal space where we can see and feel how each of us is vulnerable and strong"? 

And perhaps this way of getting there sheds some light as well on some related issues, including "being a person doesn't make sense"?    Perhaps, the "language of assertion" need not be heard as the "language of war" , but rather as an effort to engage others in productive, ongoing conversation?  To contribute to "changeability of personal, interpersonal, and universal scale"?  Perhaps all this is "spiritual" rather than "ethical" or "good" because it focuses on "transcendence"  (self and other) and hence derives from a concern for expansive change rather than a fixed set of values?   Perhaps "an individual is both bounded and not, an agent of both limitation and transcendence" precisely because we have both multitudes within us an a desire to make sense of things as best we can at any given time?  And then perhaps the thing to be aware of is not "boundary-fortification in and of itself ... but ... its tendency to becomes self-justifying"?  If so, we are indeed talking about "a journey without end"  but with some useful guideposts

  • be open to everything available (unconscious, conscious, interpersonal, other living and non-living things); don't take any one too seriously
  • be comfortable with conflict; treat it as the wherewithal to conceive new possibilities; do not try and relieve conflict by destroying things
  • do not try and defend one's understandings at any given time; offer them with tact as a potential contribution to changing the understandings of others, and to elicit from them understandings that could change one's own; the goal is not "common ground" but rather the continual evolution of understandings, individual and collective 

Bharath, 1 June 2009 
I agree very much  – though the agreement hopefully will not thwart continual further exploration of the unconscious! I hadn’t thought of things in the way you put it, and I find your way of putting things very interesting.

There are two points in particular that I find insightful and generative for further thought: one about thinking and the other about peace.

First, thinking. According to what we can call The Conscious View of thinking, the aim of thinking would be something as follows: a) acquire a conscious belief, or b) defend a conscious belief, or, c) convince another person of a conscious belief, or d) reason with another person about possible conscious beliefs. Thus the conscious view takes a conscious belief as the standard and the basic element of thinking. A conscious belief is something one might think to oneself or say to another, such as “Truth is relative”, “There is God”, “The Phillies are great”, etc.

According to your what I will call The Unconscious View of thinking, the aim of thinking isn’t centered on conscious beliefs. To the contrary, all conscious thinking is in some sense rooted in the unconscious, and the aim of thinking isn’t just to acquire conscious beliefs but to push through the conscious beliefs in order to give further expression to the unconscious. The aim of thinking therefore isn’t just to represent the world (to thus reach some ideal conscious belief one might hold) but to keep generating ever newer expressions of the unconscious. Similarly, the aim of thinking isn’t to reach an ideal conscious belief which coheres with one’s unconscious, since the unconscious isn’t a set of beliefs which are merely hidden, but the base of our being with a whirlwind of motivations, trajectories and potentialities which go in many different directions.

Following your train of thought, here is why the unconscious view seems right to me. Suppose two people disagree on something, say whether abortion is wrong.  If both the pro-choice and pro-life persons accept the conscious view, then once they come to their disagreement there is no place to go. One says “abortion is murder” and the other that “abortion respects women’s rights” and for each person their statement is the summation of their reflection; it is the conscious thought they are committed to. And given that they don’t seem to agree on much else regarding this topic, the discussion between them will only be a butting of the heads.

The unconscious view avoids this situation. If both people came to the conversation thinking that their view is not a final statement of an eternal truth, but that any statement or thought is an expression of the deeper unconscious, and that the aim of thinking is to explore their unconscious together, then they can talk to each other and share their views without the pressure that in fact only one of them is the winner. Furthermore, within this space, their conversation is intrisically a space for transformation. For as they talk to each other and explore what ‘abortion’, ‘rights’, ‘choice’, ‘murder’ and so on mean for both of them, they create bonds with each other which might actually change the way in which each of them understands these concepts. Thus the unconscious view avoids the obsessive focus on the question, “is abortion wrong?” which makes us come back to the same, stale answers as ideal endpoints, and frees us to engage with a person who has a conscious belief different from ours. And the upshot of that engagement is that both our conceptions of abortion might change. We might then not come to think of abortion in the same way, but perhaps at least in less opposed or contrastive a way. (I think this is what has been happening with our discussion of anti-realism.)

Now, we get to the second point about peace. According to what we can call The No Conflict view of peace, peace is a state of no conflict, no disagreement, no tension. Peace between two people means that they believe roughly the same thing and perhaps act in roughly the same ways. On this view, peace in an intellectual sense is like peace in a physical war sense. Just like with the latter peace is a matter of ceasing to fight and agreeing to some common boundaries, so too with the former having peace is a matter of getting onto the same page and having two worldviews merge. So on this view, there will be peace with, say, the abortion question, if both sides come to agree on a common view, a single statement which both sides can accept.

You suggest instead what we can all The Acceptance of Conflict view of peace. On this view, peace isn’t a matter of their being no conflict. Rather, it is a matter of relating to the conflict and difference in a particular way. Instead of relating to the conflict as something to be overcome, to set aside, to get over, to annihilate, on your view we relate to the conflict as a space for opening further dialogue and engaging mutually in transformation, though ultimately the transformation might not get the two people to the same place.

On the no conlict view, intellectual peace is kind of like a treaty or a cease firing. On the acceptance of conflict view, peace is like sparring in boxing; it is not actually boxing and knocking each other senseless, but going through the movements of boxing in a controlled way to further develop ourselves. Someone calling for peace in the no conflict sense is like a referee ending a fight by saying, “Enough! Both of you go to your corners!” Someone calling for peace in the acceptance of conflict sense is like a trainer telling to boxers who are practicing, “Watch it! The aim is to learn control and fine tune the technique, and to grow, not to win.”

I have always thought of peace only in the no conflict way. And I think I now see that this way of thinking of peace never actually helped me to be at peace. Instead, it fostered pressure to find the magical conscious beliefs which can bring an end to the suffering caused by the disagreement between seemingly irreconcilable positions. I felt that my task as an intellectual and as person committed to peace is to negotiate between people and find the hidden beliefs both parties share in order to get them to see that they really agree with each other. But the more I pursued this form of peace, the greater was my sense of frustration and anxiety because it seemed like no progress was actually happening.

This is related to the point about recognizing the tensions one brings to a conversation. In seeking a peace with no conflict I was myself bringing to the table an inability to accept conflict. I was not at peace with conflict, and any conversation I entered had a prerequisite that it had to head in the direction of an end of no conflict at all. And this made any exploration with another person hard, because I was constantly and unconsciously guiding the conversation towars what seemed to me as the place of no conflict. This meant I was not really open to the other person nor even to myself, for the fear of conflict was stiffling growth. I can now see that I do this often as a teacher as well and am myself inhibiting a peaceful atmosphere in the classroom.

The conscious view of thinking and the no conflict view of peace seem to go together. And they did go together for me. Peace meant no conflict, and no conflict meant that me and the other person should espouse the same conscious beliefs. I say “A” and they say “A”. But I felt afraid that if I say “A” and the other person says “not A” or “X”, then there would be a disagreement. Interestingly, I have tried to avoid disagreeing with people with the same fervor that one might try to avoid getting into physical fights. And I prided myself on this, and in my ability to walk away from arguments (including some academic arguments) as if I were walking away from real fights.

But now I wonder if I have gone far enough. Perhaps the point isn’t to avoid arguments until one can find magical conscious beliefs (as the realist might think). Nor might the point be to just avoid arguments by just expressing feelings (as I always thought the anti-realist would say). Rather, perhaps it is best to engage in the acts of arguing and discussion and seeking the truth, but to do so with an awareness of the contingences of the discussion itself and of how the discussion is only the surface of deeper yet to be explored unconscious realms. Maybe this is seeking truth with a sense of absurdity or irony.

Paul, 1 June 2009
Interesting issue, the concern that agreement might "thwart continual further exploration of the unconscious."  My sense of the brain is that that is not a serious problem.  The unconscious is both too rich and too fluid for agreement to be either complete or permanent.  At the same time, its suddenly occurring to me that there is an additional mode of change oriented inquiry that is less dependent on conflict.  Having used conflict to find a new, open space, one can, individually and jointly, spend some time simply exploring the new space, seeing what its good for and, ultimately, what its limits are (Kuhn's "normal science"?).  Perhaps we could do that for a while?  Given "The Unconscious View of Thinking" and the "Acceptance of Conflict View of Peace" how might we think differently about, for example, classrooms?  Or villages?  Or about "mental health"?  Or about religion?  Or about form/meaning/esthetics?  Or about ....  And about how that might in turn lead to new and in turn generative conflicts? 

To be continued ...


alesnick's picture

change-oriented inquiry via non-oppositional process

Greetings --

I'm writing here in hopes of further discussion of the role of non-conflictual modes of exploration and interaction in learning/thinking/change.  While I agree that conflict is essential, recursive, and at least potentially generative (to dialogue, growth, learning from others, change), I don't see the need to identify it as the primary source of meaning-creation.  To my mind, to base an entire theory (or pedagogy) of change on conflict is needlessly patriarchal -- that is, it sets opposition up as too primary, and singular, a motive for inquiry/change/freedom.  Why not admit both conflict and something like "harmonic association" as both primary in the work of inquiry? 

Also, in relation to the consideration of the "unconscious view of thinking," my sense is that while the purpose of thinking and representing ideas is to foster new relationships between people, and within individuals' conscious and unconscious minds, this goes forward as a process of opening new, two (at least)-way channels between and within people.  The trouble is that in a dominance framework, these channels are never able to get going for long before someone claims (or concedes) a win.  Then ownership has taken over, and so it goes.


Anne Dalke's picture

a way out?

I am enchanted both by Bharath's paired concepts of The Unconscious View of Thinking and The Acceptance of Conflict view of peace, and by Alice's invocation of "harmonic association." What puzzles me, though, are two different directions in which and cause-and-effect seem to be operating in this discussion;  maybe my question has to do with which is means, which ends.

Bharath said, first, that "the aim of thinking is to keep generating ever newer expressions of the unconscious," while Alice said, in her response, that "the purpose of thinking and representing ideas is to foster new relationships between people." In Bharath's terms (if I understand them aright), one enters into relationships in order to generate new thoughts (i.e. uses others as means to an end).  In Alice's terms (again, if I understand them), the reverse takes place: one thinks in order to generate new relationships (i.e. uses thinking as a means, an occasion for creating new friendships). Is there a danger that working in this latter way--towards the end of creating new friends--might bring the new thinking to a standstill (if we think-and-feel that we have to agree---this was the dynamic Bharath described imagining himself out of--in order to preserve the friendship)? But working in the other direction--towards the end of making new thoughts--might mean a different danger, that of outgrowing a friend/ship?

A few years ago, I was involved in an interesting discussion, with a group of social workers,  about Arthur Miller's book: Einstein, Picasso: Space, Time and the Beauty That Causes Havoc. All of the social workers were troubled by the possibility that Einstein’s and Picasso’s phenomenal intellectual accomplishments were earned @ the expense of their human relationships, and @ least one of them was not convinced that the cost was "worth it." One asked whether geniuses "needed to make other people suffer," another whether a "failed social fabric" was an essential condition for the production of work of genius. Last month, when I was involved in another discussion, with a different group of people, on Nancy Horan's novel, Loving Frank (about the astonishing working and disastrous loving relationships of Frank Lloyd Wright), the same question was raised again: whether the production of great works of industry, science, and art require havoc/the destruction of the lives of those who surround the acomplished. Putting friendship first, in other words, might inhibit the growth or accomplishment of genius; putting new ideas first, on the other hand, might destroy friendship. Ideally, of course, one grows along with--and with the help of one's friends, but actually that isn't always (often?) the case.

Is there some way out of these two bleak alternatives?


alesnick's picture

space of love

Anne asks us to reconsider what we are saying about the purpose, specifically how inquiry positions us in relation to/friendship with other people (as means or ends?).  Paul suggests that relationships with others are not as central to the purpose of inquiry as I said they were.  Does it make sense for me to de-center, or draw a much bigger circle around, human relationships in my way of thinking about things?  (This also connects with the contrast between Bharath’s use of the term “spiritual” and my use of “ethical.”)

In exploring this space we have opened, I wonder who and what are in it, and how big it is.  Here again a question of scale is at issue.  This reminds me of lines of Rilke: “For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us . . . it is a high inducement for the individual to ripen, to become something in himself, to become world, to become world in himself for the sake of the other person; it is a great, demanding claim on him, something that chooses him and calls him to vast distances.” 

And of a line in Busman’s Honeymoon, Dorothy Sayers’ novel about Harriet Vane’s and Lord Peter Wimsey’s wedding and wedding trip, during which Harriet recognizes with joy, as Peter accepts so easily the parson’s invitation to a concert in the little town where they are staying, that in marrying him, “she had married England.”  In both of these passages, the impersonal is part of a most personal connection.  The impersonal, and non-human, are in the space of love, and marriage. 

My sense is a friendship’s failure to grow with the individuals or to support individuals’ growth may be owing to the sacrifice of brilliance for comfort/familiarity/expectation (or the other way around); but it may be that loyalty can lead to a kind of ripening – and demands a span of time, waiting, uncertainty, and struggle – not easily stood for, but necessary.  I don’t think that the difficulties we encounter in friendship are signs that we shouldn’t trust too much to it; rather, I see them as part of the challenges of continuously becoming a self with other people and the non-human world.





Anne Dalke's picture


I've been thinking some more about Alice's suggestion that this conversation has, so far, set up "opposition up as too primary" in the processes of thinking and creating, and her proposal that we add "something like 'harmonic association'" as equally primary in the work of inquiry. I've actually just finished a pretty sharp challenge to that idea in a book I'm previewing for my fall Balch Seminar on choice-making: Jonah Lehrer's How We Decide argues that “the human brain is defined by its functional partitions, by the friction of all these different perspectives.” Lehrer’s Chapter 7 (entitled "The Brain Is An Argument") is filled w/ the language of conflict and war: the brain's decisions, he says,

are actually reached only after a series of sharp internal disagreements. While the cortex struggles to make a decision, rival bits of tissue are contradicting one another….Sometimes this fierce argument is largely emotional, and the distinct parts of the limbic system debate one another....all those mental components stuffed inside the head are constantly fighting for influence and attention….the mind is an extended argument …arguing with itself...

…this "argument"…is a defining feature of the decision-making process. Even the most mundane choices emerge from a vigorous cortical debate....We like to believe that our decisions reflect a clear cortical consensus, that the entire mind agrees on what we should do. And yet, that serene self-image has little basis in reality....The default state of the brain is indecisive  disagreement. The dilemma, of course, is how to reconcile the argument. If the brain is always disagreeing with itself, then how can a person ever make a decision?....

Lehrer goes on to give lots of advice, about keeping both emotion and reason, the unconscious and conscious aspects of the brain in play, using them as checks and balances to one another, and encouraging both inner and outer dissonance as a means of making better decisions. That all seems sound, and pretty non-controversial, to me. What I’m unsure of, though—and the question I’m asking here now--is about his description of what goes on in the brain as “argumentation.” Is that simply projection—a sort of pathetic fallacy, using the language of (antagonistic) human social interaction to describe neural processes? Is it accurate to think of the various parts of our brain as primarily in conflict w/ one another? Or as searching for commonality? Or rather as simply responding to different inputs differently?—refraining, in other words, from using the language either of conflict or harmony to identify either process as “primary”?

Bharath Vallabha's picture

Thinking with Friends

I think that the question, raised in Anne’s post, about how real critical thinking with friends is possible is very important. Here is another way to put the worry, as I understand it.

Being friends (or collegial, etc.) requires a certain cohesiveness with other people. Cohesiveness with others means being able to understand things from other people’s perspectives and so not just pursuing your perspective at any cost. And curtailing your perspective to understand others’ perspectives seems to imply that one doesn’t transgress the boundaries of one’s communal interactions as much. And that suggests that one isn’t going to be a path blazer and explore new territories as much. Thus, the worry goes, being friendly or collegial or community oriented means not generating new thoughts as much. And this idea continues, this is why people of genius are usually so harsh with those around them; it is because they are more interested in their perspective than in others.

This line of thought suggests that real, critical, path-breaking thinking – the kind which is freeing and helps us pursue new avenues personally and socially – is in tension with a focus on inter-personal relationships. If this line of thought is correct, it seems to me that there can be no peaceful thinking – a mode of inquiry which is prefaced on thinking without polarities such as winner/loser, genius/ordinary, brilliant/stupid. In order to counter this line of thought and make space for peaceful thinking, I think the distinction between conscious and unconscious thinking really does help.

It seems to me that normally when we think of a genius, it is because we are focused on conscious beliefs. We say, “Ah, Einstein was great because he showed that Newton was not really correct” or “Picasso was a genius because he showed the limitations of traditional, modern art.” When we think of a genius in this way, we seem to focus on a product (the theory of special relativity, one of Picasso’s paintings) and say that the person is a great because the product he produced is great. We look at the end product and think, “Wow! They must have really thought hard or seen something deep to produce that!”

It is striking that on the idea that thinking is an exploration of the unconscious, this kind of highlighting and focusing on products is not very compelling. On the unconscious view of thinking, there is no special product which intellectuals or artists are in the business of producing. Instead, they like all people are only in business—that of growing and maturing as people. Any thought one espouses or any product one creates has meaning only in so far as it sheds light on some aspect of the past and it creates new possibilities for the future.

If we take off the emphasis on products or conscious beliefs and see thinking and making things as a mode of exploring the unconscious, then the important questions aren’t, “Who are the genuiuses to read? What are the topics to write about? What activities should we pursue?” Rather, the important questions are: “Which books, people, communities, issues, projects call out to me? How am I, others and the world transformed when I pursue what really calls out to me? What issues call out to the person next to me, and what can I learn from what calls out to them?”

By making products the end of human thought and enquiry, the conscious view fetishizes objects and beliefs and ultimately makes the objects more important than the relations and community of the inquirer herself. On the conscious view, therefore, power and inquiry can never come apart, because highlighting some objects or beliefs as the desired ones imply a status quo which is to be maintained at the cost of suppressing others.

The real importance of Picasso, Einstein, Kant or whoever, it seems to me, doesn’t come from their products as such. Rather, it comes from the fact that these people, in some parts of their lives, actively pursued the inquiry into the deep unconscious. In this they might be no different from a postman or a stay at home parent or a lawyer or doctor, who has dedicated their life to exploring their unconscious without producing an object or a belief. What is great in Picasso, et al., then, is not what is unique to them or their products, but what is great in each person. What calls us to great people, as to great works, is the spirit behind them and not the brute material itself.

This raises the question: how can I best embody this spirit in my life? It can’t be by trying to just produce a great product of my own, for then instead of delving into the unconscious I am just obsessing over products I grew up on. A better alternative is to embody the spirit in my life – to have each of my interactions with people be as mind-blowing as Plato’s dialogues, or to have how I lead my life be as inspiring as Beethoven’s 9th.

I don’t know whether a Picasso or a Nietzsche or a Rousseau would have produced the same works if they put more of their energies into getting along with the people next to them or finding peace within themselves. It is possible that thinking about others or seeking peace might have dispersed their energies in a way detrimental to their art. But, I do think that if they had pursed that other path of peaceful conversation, then they would have lived a life of equal or greater genius, and their lives then would have been as awe-inspiring as the products they left behind.

So, back to our question: can critical thinking with friends be possible? I think no if we construe thinking as just the production of ideas and objects; that mode of thinking is intrinsically alienating and competitive. But I think the answer is yes, if we construe thinking differently as the exploration of the individual and communal unconscious. If we construe thinking in this alternate, unconscious mode, then not only can thinking happen with friends, but actually it can happen only with friends.

Paul Grobstein's picture

disentangling inquiry from power?

Interesting set of issues.  Perhaps though we could usefully disentangle them from a gender concern (and perhaps from some other problems as well)?  In my experience, at least, conflict, perhaps differently expressed, is as much a characteristic of matriarchies as it is of patriarchies, and an interest in "harmonic assocation" is similarly characteristic of both. 

As per my last above, I'm more than willing to agree that "to base an entire theory (or pedagogy) of change on conflict is ... too singular ...  a motive for inquiry/change/freedom."  Clearly change can occur for multiple reasons, including both attraction ("harmonic association"?) and randomness.  But I have the feeling you're expressing a somewhat different concern, something about not just change generally but human "inquiry" in particular and, even more specifically, its relation to "dominance frameworks." 

I like the idea of inquiry as the process of "opening new, two (at least)-way channels between and within people."   What I'm less sure about is the idea that the purpose of inquiry (""thinking and representing ideas") is "to foster new relationships between people" and how all this relates to "someone claims (or concedes) a win" and "ownership."  If possible, I'd like to distinguish "conflict" (or some other word) not only from "violence"  but also from "power struggle" (the context in which one needs to claim or concede a win).  For me, "conflict" means only difference and difference means no more (and no less) than the wherewithal/motivation to come up with new ways of being, ways that derive from but are different from those involved in the orginal conflict.  Hence there is no winner, no loser, and no individual ownership.  And may or may not, at any given time, "foster new relationships" between any two particular people.

I don't at all mean to dismiss concerns about power, and winning/losing/ownership, or the value of particular relationships, as important elements in human life as it is lived day to day all around us.  I am, I suspect, as concerned about the negative impact of such things as you are (and as aware of the possible positive ones).  My inclination though is to to think that none of these are inherent in either conflict or inquiry per se, that they arise instead in other ways involving additional considerations.  By disentangling them from both conflict and inquiry, we might perhaps be better able to finds ways to lessen their negative impacts and enhance their positive ones?  


Paul Grobstein's picture

Rorty and beyond, ctd.

For continuing discussion, informed by thoughts here, see BV28may08, PG31may09, and BV1june09
alesnick's picture

Hey, Anne – When I

Hey, Anne –

When I wrote that being a person doesn’t make sense, I was thinking about my friend in graduate school who, rather than use “the child” as the unit of analysis in her study of early elementary school readers and writers, used “the child-in-literacy-activity.”  Clunky, but the idea was that in interpretive educational research oriented to learning as situated, social process, the individual doesn’t make sense as a unit of analysis. 

Also, it doesn’t make sense to me (in the sense of present as comprehensible) that a person participates in/with so many things beyond the conscious self, things both known and unknown (and changeably so), ours and others’: ancestors, intimates, and progeny; the unconscious mind; language; music; institutional roles and relationships; and so on.  It doesn’t make sense to me that or how an individual is both bounded and not, an agent of both limitation and transcendence (or revision, or translation, as you like).  A poem by Howard Nemerov defines a person as one whose life makes of the world an apple, and forces him to eat.  I’ve always liked this poem.

When you write about moving between extension and withdrawal as what makes us human, I think about how, in my sense of it, boundary-fortification can also a form of extension, not of withdrawal.  And it’s also, or it can be, a form of creativity, and of kindness.  (In fact, the Breaking project we’ve both worked on/in is about this.)  I guess my concern is not with boundary-fortification in and of itself (though certainly some kinds are more generative than others), but with its tendency to become self-justifying, and to gain ever-increasing strength and legitimacy in social life, such that to be viable at all, people have to (or believe they have to) be about it and give into it in narrowing ways.   I usually see this tendency as tragic, rather than generative, though I’m trying, all the time, to recast this.  To me, it doesn’t make sense that a person’s life is so often oriented to control, rather than to being or becoming – and that, at the same time, in order to live as a person, not only as part of a mob, one must be ever open to changing.


Paul Grobstein's picture

boundary formation and justification

Not sure about boundary "fortification" but agree that boundary "formation" can be a "form of extension."  In fact, I think forming "categories" (and hence boundaries) is inherent in both making and revising understandings by all organisms.  And very much agree that the hazard is thinking of them as something more than temporarily useful and "justifying" them.  See PG31may09
Bharath's picture

Spirituality and Peace

I am intrigued by Marianne Moore's comment in Anne's presentation at Bluffton. I take the gist of Moore's comment to be: finding a language/community of peace is inseparable from a person's struggle to not be at war within oneself.

Here is the message I take from this: If I want a community of peace, I should focus on the war within myself, and live and be in such a way that I am not torn by an internal war. That is, first and foremost, I should focus my energy on brining peace to the internal conversation which is the monologue of my life. By "a spiritual life" I understand a sustained attempt to do precisely this.

In order to lead a spiritual life in this sense, it seems to me that I have to put the aim to quiet the tension within myself above all other aims, including have a peaceful classroom, academia or world. If I first try to focus on having a peaceful classroom, then I myself will undercut that because the tensions within myself will be a disruptive force in the classroom.

If this is correct, I think it has a interesting consequence, namely: all conversation between people about peace is in an important sense "indirect". If I am talking to someone else (say, someone named John) then I can't come to the conversation with John expecting and hoping that it will help create a public community of peace and that that in turn will help me achieve peace. For if I do this, then I would be bringing pressure to the conversation with John and this would inhibit my being properly open to John, which is what is required to have a peaceful conversation in the first place.

Here then, it seems to me, are three things which are required to best facilitate conversations regarding peaceful dialogue and community:

A) Independent of and prior to the conversation with others, I have to be completely committed to and actively working at finding peace within myself.
B) I come to the conversation not as a break from my struggle within myself, but as another instance of it. I have to recognize that the conversation (no matter whether it is with a friend, an acquaintance or a stranger) will raise up a dust storm of tensions within me, and that my main aim in the conversation should be to not be thrown around by those tensions.
C) I come to the conversation recognizing that this is the situation for the other person as well, and so I have to be kind and open in order to let that person deal with the tensions which arise for her.

If I don't do (A), then no matter how kind or open I am in conversations, the root of my being will be in tension and at war, and this will make it hard to actually be open in conversations.

If I don't do (B), then though I might be kind to another person, I won't be kind to myself. And it will be as if I were flagellating myself unduely and being critical of myself in an unhealthy and unproductive way.

If I don't do (C), then my effort to be a peaceful person, no matter how well intentioned, will be in vain for I would not be peaceful and open to another precisely when it is needed.

If the above line of thinking is correct, I wonder if a prerequisite to having a peaceful conversation would be for each person in the conversation making explicit what their inner tensions are so that we can make that explicit and shared. Then we can be with each other in a communal space where we can see and feel how each of us is vulnerable and strong.

alesnick's picture

The idea

of working to "be with each other in a communal space where we can see and feel how each of us is vulnerable and strong" is powerful, and powerfully stated here, for me.  The way of living you set forth makes sense to me.  But I don't know about how it is "spiritual" rather than "ethical" or "good."  Would you say something about that?  Also, I am not sure I follow your point about the sequencing of peace-making -- from within the self, then between selves. Maybe sometimes working on or towards a peaceful classroom is a way for me to work on or towards myself?  And maybe the "dust storm of tensions within me" is continuous, at least some of the time, with other people?
Bharath Vallabha's picture

Self and Others

I think that in this context "spiritual" might be interchangeable with "ethical" or "good". The reason I focus on spiritual is because of the focus on self-transcendence. "Spiritual" sounds to me more like it accepts the struggle involved in oneself more truly being open to other people, whereas "ethical" or "good" seems to suggest simply a set of actions which we ought to perform towards others (such as, "be nice", "don't lie", etc.). But I am inclined to think that perhaps this distinction between the spiritual and the ethical is just terminological and that in a deeper sense they are the same.

You are also right, it seems to me, that the way I put the point about the sequence of peace-making is not quite right. The way I put it earlier makes it sound as if really there are only my tensions within myself and that is what I have to focus on whether I am by myself or with others.

A better way to put the point might be as follows. Whether I am by myself or with others, there are tensions which I feel. Perhaps creating a peaceful community requires being very aware of and attuned to the tensions one feels, whether in oneself or when interacting with others. For being aware of the tensions brings out that always the tensions are not independent of me and what I am thinking about or doing in response to the tensions. What is not true and should be avoided, it seems to me, is that idea that the tensions are the results simply of the world impinging upon me; that I am simply a victim of the tensions because the world is crummy in someway, and that the way to deal with the tensions is to simply change the world.

The difference here can be seen in two ways in which, to use your example, working towards a peaceful classroom can help towards being peaceful with oneself. The first and problematic way is to treat having a peaceful classroom as a condition and requirement for being at peace with myself. This is problematic because (a) the person herself then brings a lot of stress and tension into the classroom (there is some way that the class has to be and one evaluates others based on this), and (b) there is the egoistic presumption that the root of the tensions are in other people (the students don’t really understand or the society is problematic) and that I myself am pristine and perfectly peaceful. What I was trying to say last time is that this way of conceiving the peaceful classroom or a conversation is unsatisfying because it doesn’t take into account the role one plays in the situation.

The second way of having a peaceful classroom is for the teacher herself to try to be peaceful in the classroom and to see that this is in fact the most the teacher can do to create a peaceful classroom. If the teacher starts with herself in the sense that what she can really control are the tensions which she feels in the classroom (and the tensions in relation to her job or with respect to academia), then that might create a space for the students to enage with themselves and each other in the same peaceful way. Unlike the first way, this way doesn’t guarantee that there will in fact be a peaceful classroom. The teacher trying to be peaceful doesn’t guarantee that the students will be peaceful or experience the class as amazing or brilliant; but, for all that, I think this makes the greatest progress towards a peaceful classroom. This way the teacher also models for the students how they can participate and help create a peaceful classroom or conversations. And that is by the students themselves trying to be more peaceful with respect to the tensions that they feel in the classroom or when engaging with others.

So my point last time about the sequence of the self and others was not that engaging with others is always secondary to engaging with oneself. That sounds a bit too solipsistic, as if each of us was only stuck in our own heads. The point rather was that when we are engaging with others, creating a peaceful space requires a person to focus on the tensions and conflicts they are bringing to the classroom or conversation. Here there is no temporal priority of the self to others, since often the best way we find out about our own tensions is through our interactions with others, and moreover, the best way we discover how to deal with those tensions is also by trying out subtle alterations in our interactions with others. The point is that each person has to be take responsibilty for their role in there being unpeaceful spaces and try to change that, and that ultimately this is the most and best one can do.

Paul Grobstein's picture

transcending self-transcendence

To be even less "solipsistic" maybe, as in PG31may09, focus on "transcendence" rather than "self-transcendence"?  
Anne Dalke's picture

on being human

Alice--I'm so struck by your saying that "being a person doesn’t make sense," given the tensions and inconsistencies between "our involvement with life forces such as kindness and creativity" and those of "ownership and the safeguarding and fortifying of one’s boundaries." I'd really like to understand more what you mean. To me, those two poles are always in balance--okay, always out-of-balance, but--functioning as checks and balances to one another: we reach out--and are injured, or exhausted, by the exchange so we retreat--and are diminished, or lonely, or feel needy, so we reach out again...the swing from extension to withdrawal, from making combinations to dissolving them, seems to me (counter to your claim) precisely what makes us human. But you are seeing this relationship very differently, and I'd like to understand that better....

It is in that context, too, that I want to speak to Bharath's and Paul's conversation about non-violent intellectual work, about what I'm seeing as a tension between the sort of peace Bharath is seeking for us all, and the sort of conflict that Paul claims is essential to the generation of newness. That discussion puts me very much in mind of one I hosted a few years ago, @ a conference on "nonviolence and the liberal arts curriculum," about "finding the language of peace." One of the distinctions made during that conversation had to do with the "conflict aversive" mode of Quakers, and the (more troubling?) "violent peace" of our governmental structures, schools and homes. It was my claim, @ the time, that the language of war is the language of assertion, and the language of peace the language of questioning, which refuses the clarity of a single right answer. But I've also been told many times by resistent students and recalcitrant family members that my insistent question-asking feels violent to them, a violation of that which they want to keep to themselves.

So maybe what's key here is tonality...the way in which we ask, the goals we have in mind as we question one another: are we looking toward some common ground beyond the point on which each of us stands, willing to move off the place that feels most steady, on to something new and untried...? And I wonder if the Buddhist philosophy Davey gestures towards might help us find that way of asking? Anyone have any leads in that direction?
Paul Grobstein's picture

peace and tonality

"insistent question-asking" might also be uncomfortable because it encourages making conscious what one is not yet ready to tell a story about?  More on languages of peace and war at PG31may09.  Check for tonality?  
Alice Lesnick's picture

Greetings, Bharath and

Greetings, Bharath and Paul,

I am following your exchange with interest and appreciation. Thank you.
Attending another college commencement this past weekend, I realized that the words “grateful,” “congratulations,” gratis,” and “gratuitous” have the same root. They center around something given, unpaid for, and acknowledged joyfully on behalf of self or another. Life itself has the quality of being gratuitous in this sense: exceeding the inputs, unearned, undeserved (whether in the sense of happiness or suffering not betokening a person’s merit).

Kindness is also gratuitous. As crucial as it is, it doesn’t pay, definitionally. You can’t make living by it, and if you try it ceases to be kindness. It is a strength, but a responsive kind, like tact, curiosity, or breathing. (I read once that it would be more accurate to say that we “are breathed” than that we breathe.)

It is difficult to reconcile our involvement with life forces such as kindness and creativity with the claims (are they also life forces?) of ownership and the safeguarding and fortifying of one’s boundaries (familial, financial, professional, tribal, discursive). In this way, it seems to me that being a person doesn’t make sense. Still, everyday life allows for all kinds of slippages (cracks, breaks) here, and, as Leonard Cohen, the Canadian singer-songwriter says, “everybody knows” it (certainly not exclusively intellectuals). We embody more, and less, than there is to us, including as concerns this conflict. That everybody knows this is generative, sometimes. Maybe we could study and live in ways that help us better imagine this changeability of personal, interpersonal, and universal scale, and this would be productive?

Paul Grobstein's picture

kindness = deep play? = meaning creation?

From Clifford Geertz, Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight

"Bentham's concept of "deep play" is found in his The Theory of Legislation. By it he means play in which the stakes are so high that it is, from his utilitarian standpoint, irrational for men to engage in it at all ...

It is in large part because the marginal disutility of loss is so great at the higher levels of betting that to engage in such betting is to lay one's public self, allusively and metaphorically, through the medium of one's cock, on the line. And though to a Benthamite this might seem merely to increase the irrationality of the enterprise that much further, to the Balinese what it mainly increases is the meaningfulness of it all. And as (to follow Weber rather than Bentham) the imposition of meaning on life is the major end and primary condition of human existence, that access of significance more than compensates for the economic costs involved."