Category: Culture

THE ONE AND THE MANY

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“It is not the arm that is unjust, but the weapon that is too heavy for the human hand.”
Benjamin Constant

***

One belief, more than any other, is responsible for the slaughter of individuals on the altars of the great historical ideals — justice or progress or the happiness of future generations, or the sacred mission of emancipation of a nation or race or class, or even liberty itself, which demands the sacrifice of individuals for the freedom of society. This is the belief that somewhere, in the past or in the future, in divine revelation or in the mind of an individual thinker, in the pronouncements of history or science, or in the simple heart of an uncorrupted good man, there is a final solution. This ancient faith rests on the conviction that all the positive values in which men have believed must, in the end, be compatible, and perhaps even entail one another. “Nature binds truth, happiness, and virtue together as by an indissoluble chain,” said one of the best men who ever lived, and spoke in similar terms of liberty, equality, and justice. But is this true? It is a commonplace that neither political equality nor efficient organization nor social justice is compatible with more than a modicum of individual liberty, and certainly not with unrestricted laissez-faire; that justice and generosity, public and private loyalties, the demands of genius and the claims of society, can conflict violently with each other. And it is no great way from that to the generalization that not all good things are compatible, still less all the ideals of mankind. But somewhere, we shall be told, and in some way, it must be possible for all these values to live together, for unless this is so, the universe is not a cosmos, not a harmony; unless this is so, conflicts of values may be an intrinsic, irremovable element in human life. To admit that the fulfillment of some of our ideals may in principle make the fulfillment of others impossible is to say that the notion of total human fulfillment is a formal contradiction, a metaphysical chimaera. For every rationalist metaphysician, from Plato to the last disciples of Hegel or Marx, this abandonment of the notion of a final harmony in which all riddles are solved, all contradictions reconciled, is a piece of crude empiricism, abdication before brute facts, intolerable bankruptcy of reason before things as they are, failure to explain and to justify, to reduce everything to a system, which “reason” indignantly rejects. But if we are not armed with an a priori guarantee of the proposition that a total harmony of true values is somewhere to be found — perhaps in some ideal realm the characteristics of which we can, in our finite state, not so much as conceive — we must fall back on the ordinary resources of empirical observation and ordinary human knowledge. And these certainly give us no warrant for supposing (or even understanding what would be meant by saying) that all good things, or all bad things for that matter, are reconcilable with each other. The world that we encounter in ordinary experience is one in which we are faced with choices between ends equally ultimate, and claims equally absolute, the realization of some of which must inevitably involve the sacrifice of others. Indeed, it is because this is their situation that men place such immense value upon the freedom to choose; for if they had assurance that in some perfect state, realizable by men on earth, no ends pursued by them would ever be in conflict, the necessity and agony of choice would disappear, and with it the central importance of the freedom to choose. Any method of bringing this final state nearer would then seem fully justified, no matter how much freedom were sacrificed to forward its advance. It is, I have no doubt, some such dogmatic certainty that has been responsible for the deep, serene, unshakeable conviction in the minds of some of the most merciless tyrants and persecutors in history that what they did was fully justified by its purpose. I do not say that the ideal of self-perfection — whether for individuals or nations or churches or classes — is to be condemned in itself, or that the language which was used in its defence was in all cases the result of a confused or fraudulent use of words, or of moral or intellectual perversity. Indeed, I have tried to show that it is the notion of freedom in its “positive” sense that is at the heart of the demands for national or social self-direction which animate the most powerful and morally just public movements of our time, and that not to recognize this is to misunderstand the most vital facts and ideas of our age. But equally it seems to me that the belief that some single formula can in principle be found whereby all the diverse ends of men can be harmoniously realized is demonstrably false. If, as I believe, the ends of men are many, and not all of them are in principle compatible with each other, then the possibility of conflict — and of tragedy — can never wholly be eliminated from human life, either personal or social. The necessity of choosing between absolute claims is then an inescapable characteristic of the human condition. This gives its value to freedom as Acton had conceived of it — as an end in itself, and not as a temporary need, arising out of our confused notions and irrational and disordered lives, a predicament which a panacea could one day put right.

I do not wish to say that individual freedom is, even in the most liberal societies, the sole, or even the dominant, criterion of social action. We compel children to be educated, and we forbid public executions. These are certainly curbs to freedom. We justify them on the ground that ignorance, or a barbarian upbringing, or cruel pleasures and excitements are worse for us than the amount of restraint needed to repress them. This judgment in turn depends on how we determine good and evil, that is to say, on our moral, religious, intellectual, economic, and aesthetic values; which are, in their turn, bound up with our conception of man, and of the basic demands of his nature. In other words, our solution of such problems is based on our vision, by which we are consciously or unconsciously guided, of what constitutes a fulfilled human life, as contrasted with Mill’s “cramped and warped,” “pinched and hidebound” natures. To protest against the laws governing censorship or personal morals as intolerable infringements of personal liberty presupposes a belief that the activities which such laws forbid are fundamental needs of men as men, in a good (or, indeed, any) society. To defend such laws is to hold that these needs are not essential, or that they cannot be satisfied without sacrificing other values which come higher — satisfy deeper needs — than individual freedom, determined by some standard that is not merely subjective, a standard for which some objective status — empirical or a priori — is claimed.

The extent of a man’s, or a people’s, liberty to choose to live as they desire must be weighed against the claims of many other values, of which equality, or justice, or happiness, or security, or public order are perhaps the most obvious examples. For this reason, it cannot be unlimited. We are rightly reminded by R. H. Tawney that the liberty of the strong, whether their strength is physical or economic, must be restrained. This maxim claims respect, not as a consequence of some a priori rule, whereby the respect for the liberty of one man logically entails respect for the liberty of others like him but simply because respect for the principles of justice, or shame at gross inequality of treatment, is as basic in men as the desire for liberty. That we cannot have everything is a necessary, not a contingent, truth. Burke’s plea for the constant need to compensate, to reconcile, to balance; Mill’s plea for novel “experiments in living” with their permanent possibility of error, the knowledge that it is not merely in practice but in principle impossible to reach clear-cut and certain answers, even in an ideal world of wholly good and rational men and wholly clear ideas — may madden those who seek for final solutions and single, all-embracing systems, guaranteed to be eternal. Nevertheless, it is a conclusion that cannot be escaped by those who, with Kant, have learnt the truth that out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.

There is little need to stress the fact that monism, and faith in a single criterion, has always proved a deep source of satisfaction both to the intellect and to the emotions. Whether the standard of judgment derives from the vision of some future perfection, as in the minds of the philosophes in the eighteenth century and their technocratic successors in our own day, or is rooted in the past — la terre et les morts — as maintained by German historicists or French theocrats, or neo-Conservatives in English-speaking countries, it is bound, provided it is inflexible enough, to encounter some unforeseen and unforeseeable human development, which it will not fit; and will then be used to justify the a priori barbarities of Procrustes — the vivisection of actual human societies into some fixed pattern dictated by our fallible understanding of a largely imaginary past or a wholly imaginary future. To preserve our absolute categories or ideals at the expense of human lives offends equally against the principles of science and of history; it is an attitude found in equal measure on the right and left wings in our days, and is not reconcilable with the principles accepted by those who respect the facts.

Pluralism, with the measure of “negative” liberty that it entails, seems to me a truer and more humane ideal than the goals of those who seek in the great, disciplined, authoritarian structures the ideal of “positive” self-mastery by classes, or peoples, or the whole of mankind. It is truer, because it does, at least, recognize the fact that human goals are many, not all of them commensurable, and in perpetual rivalry with one another. To assume that all values can be graded on one scale, so that it is a mere matter of inspection to determine the highest, seems to me to falsify our knowledge that men are free agents, to represent moral decision as an operation which a slide rule could, in principle, perform. To say that in some ultimate, all-reconciling, yet realizable synthesis, duty is interest, or individual freedom is pure democracy or an authoritarian state, is to throw a metaphysical blanket over either self-deceit or deliberate hypocrisy. It is more humane because it does not (as the system builders do) deprive men, in the name of some remote, or incoherent, ideal, of much that they have found to be indispensable to their life as unpredictably self-transforming human beings. In the end, men choose between ultimate values; they choose as they do, because their life and thought are determined by fundamental moral categories and concepts that are, at any rate over large stretches of time and space, a part of their being and thought and sense of their own identity; part of what makes them human.

It may be that the ideal of freedom to choose ends without claiming eternal validity for them, and the pluralism of values connected with this, is only the late fruit of our declining capitalist civilization: an ideal which remote ages and primitive societies have not recognized, and one which posterity will regard with curiosity, even sympathy, but little comprehension. This may be so; but no sceptical conclusions seem to me to follow. Principles are not less sacred because their duration cannot be guaranteed. Indeed, the very desire for guarantees that our values are eternal and secure in some objective heaven is perhaps only a craving or the certainties of childhood or the absolute values of our primitive past. “To realize the relative validity of one’s convictions,” said an admirable writer of our time, “and yet stand for them unflinchingly, is what distinguishes a civilized man from a barbarian.” To demand more than this is perhaps a deep and incurable metaphysical need; but to allow it to determine one’s practice is a symptom of an equally deep, and more dangerous, moral and political immaturity.

Isaiah Berlin, The One and The Many from ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’
Read the whole thing here.

 

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RAINFOREST

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There is no nature, only Nature – an imaginary state of man’s own invention, a realm of concept and language. That is man’s place and it is nowhere except inside his head; a mirror image of a distorted fantasy he calls Mankind.  A distortion of a distortion, exponentially phantasmagorical.  Nature is a conceit: a man-made garden in which we wander to relax and preen, as we nod to one another in passing, and congratulate ourselves on being us.  We created Nature so that we might take pride in how far we have ventured beyond it.

Man has no place in nature because there is no nature: only what he makes.  He is therefore beyond nothing.  He is merely self-deceived.  Forever trapped inside his self-inflated dream of what he is.  A pathetic child imagining himself in the world, when, in reality, he is confined by the four walls of his playroom.  His ‘world’ being nothing more than the arrangement of his diminutive models and playthings.

Man is exiled from the real world, from nature, by language.  He is the willing prisoner of words.  All his high-mindedness, his ideals, morality, stemming merely from the necessity of language.  True nature cares for nothing, neither life nor death.  It is simply in a perpetual motion of growth and decay, beyond value or morality.  Lacking the curse of consciousness and the petty ethics that entails, the natural world lives and dies blindly, without intention, regenerates or doesn’t.  There is no system, only a multiplicity of life cycles; parts that remain seperate, that never add up to a whole.  Nature does not do arithmetic.  Man is one of a myriad of dissociated parts, not outside observer of an illusory unity.

If he tears down the forests or fights for their preservation, he does it for himself.  It is of no consequence to nature, whose disparate parts survive or don’t, without sensibility.  The ‘ecosystem’ is man’s vision of where he is and, in reality, no system at all.  The environment is his own orderly invention, his realm, but the environment cares neither for its own death nor man’s.  Nor does it care for man’s care for it.  Man makes a lapdog of a planet in which he is merely a passing formulation of life: the current arrangement of molecules.  His continued existence, and that of the planet itself, is of no importance to anything other than a few temporary particles that are our species.

Jenny Diski, Rainforest.

ACTING IN CONSTRUCTED WORLDS

We are living through bewildering times where the conduct of education is concerned. There are deep problems that stem from many origins – principally from a changing society whose future shape we cannot foresee and for which it is difficult to prepare a new generation. My topic, the language of education, may seem remote from the bewildering problems that rapid and turbulent change in our society have produced. But I shall try to show before I am done that it is not really so, that it is not so much scholarly fiddling while Rome burns to try to find a key to this crisis in the language of education. For at the heart of any social change one often finds fundamental changes in regard to our conceptions of knowledge and thought and learning, changes whose fulfillment is impeded and distorted by the way in which we talk about the world and think about it in the coin of that talk. My hope is that we may uncover some vexing issues of immediate and practical concern.

I shall begin with a premise that is already familiar: that the medium of exchange in which education is conducted – language – can never be neutral, that it imposes a point of view not only about the world to which it refers but toward the use of mind in respect of this world. Language necessarily imposes a perspective in which things are viewed and a stance toward what we view. It is not just, in the shopworn phrase, that the medium is the message. The message itself may create the reality that the message embodies and predispose those who hear it to think about it in a particular mode. If I had to choose a motto for what I have to say, it would be that one from Francis Bacon, used by Vygotsky, proclaiming that neither mind alone nor hand alone can accomplish much without the aids and tools that perfect them. And principal among those aids and tools are language and the canons of its use.

Most of our encounters with the world are not, as we have seen, direct encounters. Even our direct experiences, so called, are assigned for interpretation to ideas about cause and consequence, and the world that emerges for us is a conceptual world. When we are puzzled about what we encounter, we renegotiate its meaning in a manner that is concordant with what those around us believe.

If this is the basis for our understanding of the physical and biological worlds, how milch truer it is of the social world in which we live. For, to sound another familiar theme, the “realities” of the society and of social life are themselves most often products of linguistic use as represented in such speech acts as promising, abjuring, legitimizing, christening, and so on. Once one takes the view that a culture itself comprises an ambiguous text that is constantly in need of interpretation by those who participate in it, then the constitutive role of language in creating social reality becomes a topic of practical concern.

So if one asks the question, where is the meaning of social concepts – in the world, in the meaner’s head, or in interpersonal negotiation – one is compelled to answer that it is the last of these. Meaning is what we can agree upon or at least accept as a working basis for seeking agreement about the concept at hand. If one is arguing about social “realities” like democracy or equity or even gross national product, the reality is not the thing, not in the head, but in the act of arguing and negotiating about the meaning of such concepts. Social realities are not bricks that we trip over or bruise ourselves on when we kick at them, but the meanings that we achieve by the sharing of human cognitions. 

Jerome Bruner, Actual Minds, Possible Worlds.

WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES

So many problems, however infinitely varied they first appear, turn out to be matters of money.  I can’t tell you how much this offends me.  The value of money is a scam perpetrated by those who have it over those who don’t;  It’s the Emperor’s New Clothes gone global.  If chimps used money and we didn’t, we wouldn’t admire it.  We’d find it irrational and primitive.  Delusional.  And why gold?  Chimps barter with meat.  The value of meat is self-evident.

The world runs on the fuel of this endless, fathomless misery.  People know it, but they don’t mind that they don’t see.  Make them look and they mind, but you’re the one they hate, because you’re the one that made them look.

Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.

VISION AND REFLECTION

There have always been two predominant and rival views of man and his position or predicament. Tough and tender-minded come to mind, as do cyclic and linear, hawk and dove. Blake saw our ambivalence in terms of biblical vision and Greek reflection. Reflection, relying on material things, ends in the dead inertia of the rock as the only real, the mind as the unreal. Vision is creative imagination using the eyes as windows to see with actively and not through passively.

Vision sees life as an “eternal existence in one divine man.” Reflection sees life as a series of cycles in nature. Northrop Frye says we vacillate our life away between the two notions, never fully conscious of either. Reflection is Blake’s Diabolos, the nihilistic impulse of self-doubt reminding us of our helpless frailty and increasing our dependence on the current priesthoods. If the fire-walker listened to this side of his nature, he would never walk fire. As Blake said, “If the sun and moon should doubt, they would immediately go out.”

The victory of the cyclic theory becomes the view of a fallen, deadlocked world, a mechanical horror. In Eastern terms this world is a cosmic error to be overcome, from which to escape back into an undifferentiated continuum. In Western terms the universe is a monstrous necessity, grinding itself out in a great entropic road to folly and nothingness. Frye points out that we are incapable of accepting this view as objective fact. The moral and emotional implications of it become mental cancers breeding cynical indifference, short-range vision, selfish pursuit of expediency, and “all the other diseases of selfhood.”

Reflection inverts the “eternal mental life of God and Man, the Wheel of Life,” into a dead cycle. Wonder, joy, imagination, ecstasy, even love, are smugly diagnosed by these cyclic destroyers, who test the blood count, analyze the temperature, the oxygen content, the background of the subjects, and learnedly dismiss as aberrations the highest capacities life has yet produced. All free actions are held in ridicule, only reactions are left. The belly and groin are made supreme, the only point of realness, and the strings by which the vulture-priests think to make the Naked Ape dance to their grindings. But the ape is not controlled thereby, he merely goes mad and dies or destroys.

Saturation with images of violence creates violence, and saturation with ideologies of reflective thinking creates suicidal despair. We need an image, a mythos, representing a way upward and outward where creative longing can be released and not denied. But reflective thinking seizes the insight given by vision and turns it into a dogma that makes for reliably ineffective, lifeless supporters of the world, in that world and hopelessly of it.

The cyclic religious view loves to speak of “God’s plan” for mankind. We are a theatrical group, they say, our roles preordained according to some shadowy script. As free actors we do not follow the prescribed actions, as interpreted by the ruling hierarchy of those who know. Or there is “God’s great symphony” spread out for all to play, if we would just follow the notes properly and watch the beat of that great-baton-up-yonder, a pulse which synchronizes strangely with the heartbeat of the current powers that feast on fools.

Science has only a small shift to turn this preordaining god into an inflexible and other-to-us Nature, with all the universe laid out on a grand economy of laws. To discover these laws is the Promethean goal, the religious duty in new vestments. And cultures are crushed, the young gods are condemned to years of a madness-producing attempt at metanoia called education, and whole civilizations are whipped into line to serve the new god.

We are not involved with a preset script on a preset stage. We are a magnificent and terrible improvisation in which we must be spontaneous playwrights, actors, critics, and audiences. There is no orchestral score up there with every note assigned and waiting. We are, at best, an aleatoric performance. Cacophony and discord are inevitable, yet infinite combinations await us. We err and are bound to err in this open system, yet we are never bound to our errors, as an infinite ability to correct these errors is built in.

We long for an ultimate and our longing is itself the ultimate. Our need is the universal, that with which we satisfy is the particular and never sacrosanct. There is no absolute “out there” of logic, reason, love, goodness, or perfection. Nature is amoral, indifferent, operating by profusion. Needing these things we can only become them by boldly beholding them as our rightful due. Life creates myth and then strives to fill it by imitation.

Susanne Langer warned that our losses to science should not be taken lightly. And what we have lost is our psyche, our very soul. Mass psychosis, sickness of soul, is the price we are paying for letting a product become our absolute, letting a tool become master. The young rebel lashes out blindly at this living death to which he is condemned and which he must support, for which he must fight. The tragedy is that by the time he senses a deadly trap he has become, by the very process of reality formation, that against which he instinctively rebels. The only logical tools with which he can fight create the very situation he hates. As don Juan said, “When you find the path you are on has no heart, and try to leave that path, it is ready to kill you.” Very few men, he observed, can stop to deliberate at that point, and leave the path.

Any path we choose is arbitrary, but in our choice we shape the world as it is for us. Cohen felt that whatever reality is, we will never know it. I have claimed that reality is what we do know, that the world as it is for us is one we represent to ourselves for our own response. So it is with nature, God, “ultimate matter,” and so on. We can never get at these as such. Everything we say about them, our sciences, dogmas and creeds, are only representations we seem fated to make and to which we are fated to respond. God, as surely as “Nature,” is a concept shot through and through with the mind of man.

And yet, who for a minute believes that nature is only a projection of man’s mind? Nature is something of which I am a part, and which I must represent to myself. But it is also something which I am not. My thinking and that nature thought about create an event, but they are not identical. Man is not God or nature because he projects gods and natures for his life. Projection is not the whole mechanism even though it shapes the ground on which we stand. There is always more than this.

Joseph Chilton Pearce, The Crack in the Cosmic Egg.