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Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Postmodern Thinking

I've designed a course and a text on thinking. It's my vocation. Thinking, that is. And a fun pastime.

Recently I began re-reading one of my mentors, Richard Rorty, Contingency, irony, and solidarity (Cambridge, 1989). And that is pushing me to review what I have written on thinking.

Most philosophers would label him a "postmodern." The modern age (though "ages" we acknowledge are fictions) began in the West with the Enlightenment and culminated in the Scientific Revolution, which has not yet ended. It is also called the Age of Reason, which probably has. Ended, that is.

(PS: this essay is also occasioned by the class we are teaching on Armstrong's Religion and Violence.)

The pre-modern age can be divided into the hunter gatherer's tribal Age of Myth, agriculture's civilizational Age of Religion, and the medieval Age of Theology. Myth had it's stories of gods and heroes to guide the tribe (think Homer's Iliad). The great religions gave coherence to the civilization by gathering tribal stories into one sacred scripture (think the Hebrew, Christian, Islamic, and Vedantic Scriptures). Empires and nation states developed big theories which combined the revelations of scripture with the knowledge and technologies they were meeting on the trade routes (think the summa theologicas of Aquinas, Maimonides, Averroes, Calvin). In all these pre-modern ages, there is an inter-weaving of the sacred and the secular, the holy and the profane.

In the modern age we see the holy (religion) separating from the profane (political economy). In some cases we see in the culture a diminishing of the sacred, which often reemerges in interesting and bizarre ways. Another way to think of these ages is to consider the symbol that represents their axis mundi (center of culture): from totem pole, to obelisk (temple), cathedral (mosque), university, corporate tower. The modern age supplants or identifies God (Ultimate Truth, Ground of Being, the Alpha and Omega, Holy of Holies) with Reason as the Foundation of culture, economics, and politics, working its way through the history of we humans understanding our world and ourselves. Think Spinoza, Leibniz, Newton, Hegel. 

The postmodern age, well represented philosophically by Derrida and Rorty, Dawkins and Dennett, is characterized by the rejection of not only a supernatural, but also a natural, foundation or principle or essence or law. I think you could point to the first phase of postmodernism in the later Wittgenstein, the Constructionists (Piaget, Goldstein), the Pragmatists (Dewey), and the Existential Phenomenologists (Merleau-Ponty), all "deconstructing" modern thought.

Rorty and the others push us beyond grand theory, beyond both theology and metaphysics. There is no "deepest level of the self" and no 'human nature." Only socialization and history, nothing below or above or outside, define what we mean by "being human." He describes himself as a "liberal ironist" which I can accept in his definitions, but will not work in my circles. For him "liberals" are persons who think that cruelty, including the humiliation of others, is the worst thing we can do. An "ironist" is one "who faces up to the contingency of his or her most central beliefs and desires" or that they "refer back to something beyond the reach of time and chance."

The reason those words would not work in my circles is that "liberal" calls up the image of an ideology, party, or faction over against conservatives, republicans, libertarians, and activists--concepts I value and want to use. And "irony" is a literary term that lots of people who have not studied literature and especially the great satirists do not understand. So what label would I substitute? Progressive skeptic? Freedom activist? Political radical? Well that's not so important, is it? 

But what is important for Rorty is the acceptance of the contingency of our language, our selfhood, and our community. No final vocabulary, no real self, no ultimate principle for community!

And yet—am I faltering?  Isn’t there a nature in our genotype naturally selected as our organism developed in adaptation with our environment with some common capacities like thinking, consciousness, and empathy? Doesn’t our genotype give us a basic structure at least in this time and place?

And when we attend to our consciousness interacting with our world, isn’t there a lived experience of our existence or presence not as an essence but as a dynamic tension in time, space, and community? Have I not argued in former essays that conscious thinking and thoughtfulness do provide a principle for knowing and a guide for behavior?

So does evolutionary biology and psychology and does phenomenology contradict the contingencies of symbolization (language), selfhood, and community? And are we pushed back into the modern age of natures, essences, truths, ultimate purposes, and immutable laws? I don’t think so. We are still becoming through the contingencies, chances, and choices of evolution and history.

And the principle for knowing and the guide for behavior is a sorta (to use Dennett’s designation) guide and behavior. It is in no way fixed or necessary and is in fact continually evolving.  Nor does it provide a grand theory to ground or unify all science and morality. And it does not resolve the tension between the private and public, the personal and the social, the past and the future, the real and the ideal, subject and object, freedom and determinism and all those other great dilemma’s in the history of thought and action. It is that tension in all its specificity and contingency.  That tension just is what we are in right here and now and with each other.

But I do agree. It is easy to fall back into a metaphysical or theological way of thinking. And I see why philosophy for Rorty is literary criticism, not grand theory. The symbolic behavior through which thoughts emerge in and between conscious organisms, i.e. thinking, while a general capacity is not a universal principle. It is not a form or transcendental of mind, a category beyond all categories.

Thinking for us postmoderns is not discovering the truth. Or maybe, better put, discovering truth is not finding the substance behind appearances, the essence in existence, the meaning to life, order in chaos, the law for the universe, a theory of everything, it is constructing them to build a world in which to live and act.

Thinking is playing with these ideas, forms, beliefs, objects, and theories. 

See if they can amuse, entertain, please, fulfill, provoke, agitate, evolve, and transcend. In other words, see if they work for you. You wont know until you design and formulate them. “Work for what?” you ask.  Well that is just the point, isn’t it? What do you want them to work for?

See if they work for others too. Again, you won’t know until you put them out there. Work for what? What do we want them to work for?

I find it fun to consider the musings and writings of thinkers and especially those in touch with science, the arts, religion, philosophy, and politics. I love to play with their ideas and see if they work for me with my own unique and developing style, questions, and vocabulary. I don’t pretend to get to the essence of their thoughts. But in playing with good players I get better at my own game, which begins by figuring out the objective. I design better equipment, change the rules, craft new plays, and try to draw others into my game. This is the delight of thinking that Nietzsche speaks of. 

(Here I can’t help recalling the very funny Monty Python sketch of the great Greek and German thinkers playing for the World Cup in philosophy. The Germans score one goal at the end of a long game in which nothing was happening because of all the thinking going on until one of them got the insight of putting the ball into the goal while the others kept thinking about it without seemingly having much fun.)

But why reject the theological or metaphysical quest to find the ultimate purpose, the real nature, the really real, Aquinas’s or Spinoza’s God? These are to be rejected because the belief in beliefs or real essences or absolute natures holds us back from self-creation and from alleviating unnecessary suffering in ourselves and others. There is no grand theory that puts together the private activity of self-creation or self-definition, i.e. who I want to be (e.g. artist, thinker, therapist) along with the public activity of widening the circle of compassion (so that the “them” or “others” become part of us). There is no great synthesis that relieves the tension we are. There is no underlying reason or explanation for abhorring cruelty. But what occasions it is my direct experience of suffering in others and myself which Rorty finds especially in literature. 

Hence solidarity is a contingent choice, not an end of Nature or the Reason of History somehow beyond us. It is the product of accepting our total contingency even in respect any ultimate or final answer and of our experience of the suffering of others so much that we care about them. We want solidarity because we choose it, because this is the world we want to live in and the person we want to be. Again, no ultimate purpose or reason out there beyond the contingencies of history.

Solidarity, should we choose it, will mean actualizing and further developing the capacity for empathy, which is a dimension of our evolved capacity to think.  Solidarity is seeing people, not only in, but also out of our circle as fellow sufferers, which is why Rorty turns to literature, especially the novel, over theology and philosophy.

But I go further—and I don’t think Rorty would object. I turn to radical politics, in its most basic sense of organizing local and global community, over theology, philosophy, and literature. Radical politics starts with the one-on-one listening of the story of the stranger to enter into the other’s feelings and concerns. The radical (Rorty says “liberal”), because she abhors cruelty, the needless suffering in herself and others, meets with individuals and groups outside her comfortable circles to actually share their sufferings and humiliations.

The radical exits her protected, defended boundaries of the gated community and walled city to risk encountering another way of experiencing life and the world. In that she is like the novelist or journalist, not the tourist who never really leaves his protected space even in other lands. But her intent is not merely to feel-with (compassion), but also to open her and her interlocutors’ boundaries by removing the obstacles, the fixed habits of thought and behavior, that hold them apart and keep them suffering, and then by co-constructing new ones that bring them together.

Because she is an “ironist” continually overcoming her own fixed boundaries, thoughts, institutions, she can invite others to overcome their own and to construct new more inclusive ones. This is the task of progressive freedom—the removing and rebuilding of the boundaries and walls of thought and action--over the search for the Truth .


It is not in any truth or system or doctrine, but in compassion, that common ground appears.


Next: Thinking and Mindfulness


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