Thinking cuts furrows into the soil of being. (Heidegger)
Where can I find a man who has forgotten words, so I can talk with him? (Zhuangzi)
To say we have gone further down the rabbit hole the past few years is to measure the present against some vision of normality. It certainly seems as though there is some level of absurdity underpinning events within the modern global culture. Metrics tell us we have never been better off, whilst other metrics tell us we are on the brink of catastrophe. It is within this context that I have been trying to make some sense of what the hell is going on, for some time now but with an earnest over the past few years. This has lead me down several rabbit holes, forcing me to confront my own vision of normality. This year I have read several profound books which have helped me further clarify what I think might describe how things have come to be the way they are. It is not a case of what we think, but how. This is such a simple statement to make, but a much harder one to fully comprehend the significance of.
I started this year by reading Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary and everything fell into place. Building on and clarifying an intuition that had been growing, this book set the tone for what I would read and think about this year. McGilchrist says, “certainty is the greatest of all illusions: whatever kind of fundamentalism it may underwrite, that of religion or of science, it is what the ancients meant by hubris. The only certainty, it seems to me, is that those who believe they are certainly right are certainly wrong,” adding that, “none of us actually lives as though there were no truth. Our problem is more with the notion of a single, unchanging truth.” And this, it seems to me, is where we are at today. Politics aside, no one seems to have illustrated this global predicament more this year than Jordan Peterson. I read Maps of Meaning after The Master and his Emissary, at the suggestion that Peterson’s ideas mapped somewhat onto McGilchrist’s. It is perhaps this that has occupied my academic enquiry the most this year.
The other two books that most occupied me this year were Charles Eisenstein’s Sacred Economics and George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh. Whilst quite different to McGilchrist and Peterson, I have found a common thread underpinning these four books, illuminated along the way by returning to Heraclitus, and a new (to me) philosophical translation of the Daodejing by Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall. The implications of this leave no aspect of ourselves and our relationships with each other and our environment untouched, and an appreciation of which could lead the way to a more harmonious way of life. Eisenstein says:
Under the sway of dualism, we have essentially sought to divide the world into two parts, one infinite and the other finite, and then to live wholly in the latter which, because it is finite, is amenable to control. Our lordship over nature is at heart an egregious self-deception, because its first step is to attempt nature’s precipitous reduction, which is equally a reduction of life, a reduction of experience, a reduction of feeling, and a reduction of being: a true Faustian exchange of the infinite for the finite. This reduction comes in many guises and goes by many names. It is the domestication of the wild; it is the measuring and quantification of nature; it is the conversion of cultural, natural, social, and spiritual wealth into money. Because it is a reduction of life, violence is its inevitable accompaniment; hence the rising crescendo of violence that has bled our civilisation for thousands of years and approaches its feverish apogee as we conclude the present wholesale destruction of entire species, oceans, ecosystems, languages, cultures, and peoples.
What follows is my analysis of a way of thinking that has been influenced this year by these books. A few disclaimers: I have done my best to eschew the ‘poeticism’ of my previous years in review and write as clearly and succinctly as possible. It is of course impossible and pointless for me to summarise large academic texts, so I would refer you to the books themselves for the full extrapolation. Rather, I have taken sections from each to build up a picture of how various seemingly different ideas are implicitly interlinked. Despite my intentions, this is not an academic essay and therefore I am well aware that, whilst I have tried hard not to, I may seem to contradict myself in places and to use some terminology confusingly. My hope is that, if you are interested in thinking about the world, you may want to engage with these ideas in constructive discussion. I certainly would not confess to having things figured out, but I feel comfortable, perhaps for the first time in my life, with my narrative.
Adam John Miller
20th December 2018
More from Danny Shine.
Preface. Various factors this year have necessitated a leaner Annual Review. There follows excerpts from books I have read this year that have influenced my philosophical enquiry, a digest of my favourite songs that have come out in twenty seventeen, and the sections in italics are musings cribbed directly from my notebook for the year, here and there slightly edited, elsewhere slightly embellished. Caveat: Do not be drawn in by the dozen sections. I employed neither linear chronology nor hierarchy in the construction of this review. Rather, I attempted a spontaneous and holistic approach to writing and compiling.
Adam John Miller, 20th December 2017.
Like all genuine questions, the question about identity will never die. Such questions do not have answers, in the sense of a single definitive statement that eliminates the need to ask the question again. Yet that does not mean that talking about such questions is an endless and meaningless game, merely going back and forth over the same positions, more cleverly expressed. Instead, at crucial moments in this long conversation, something emerges that reveals a new truth, perhaps implicit in what has gone before but only now expressed. Because of that insight, everything appears in a new light. Such questions and conversations are living things; they are fascinating because, at any moment, something so compelling may emerge that nothing will be the same again.
Peter Pesic, Seeing Double: Shared Identities in Physics, Philosophy, and Literature
Vagabon, The Embers
I saw it happen as it was happening to me. Non-participation an idle fantasy, ultimately impossible. The bottomless depths and unfathomable heights are signposts, as natural as night and day. Content provision. Flicking through the dream diary I catch myself and wince at the opulent naivety: Please wake up now, it says, stopping short. Perplexed, unsubstantiated. An elaboration of protocol and rule. Olive branches, javelins. The metaphors of mind are the world it perceives. Downsize your expectations. An open invitation to the vinegar tasting goes unanswered. This nearly didn’t happen at all, but the field is more inviting than the stands whilst we wait for the whistle. Keep it succinct.
At the very roots of Chinese thinking and feeling there lies the principle of polarity, which is not to be confused with the ideas of opposition or conflict. In the metaphors of other cultures, light is at war with darkness, life with death, good with evil, and the positive with the negative, and thus an idealism to cultivate the former and be rid of the latter flourishes throughout much of the world.
To the traditional way of Chinese thinking this is as incomprehensible as an electric current without both positive and negative poles, for polarity is the principle that plus and minus, north and south, are different aspects of one and the same system, and that the disappearance of either one of them would be the disappearance of the system.
People who have been brought up in the aura of Christian and Hebrew aspirations find this frustrating, because it seems to deny any possibility of progress, an ideal which flows from their linear (as distinct from cyclic) view of time and history. Indeed, the whole enterprise of Western technology is “to make the world a better place” – to have pleasure without pain, wealth without poverty, and health without sickness.
But, as is now becoming obvious, our violent efforts to achieve this ideal with such weapons as DDT, penicillin, nuclear energy, automotive transportation, computers, industrial farming, damming, and compelling everyone, by law, to be superficially “good and healthy” are creating more problems than they solve.
We have been interfering with a complex system of relationships which we do not understand, and the more we study its details, the more it eludes us by revealing still more details to study. As we try to comprehend and control the world it runs away – from us. Instead of chafing at this situation, a Taoist would ask what it means. What is that which always retreats when pursued? Answer: yourself.
Idealists (in the moral sense of the word) regard the universe as different and separate from themselves- that is, as a system of external objects which needs to be subjugated. Taoists view the universe as the same as, or inseparable from, themselves so that Lao-tzu could say, “Without leaving my house, I know the whole universe.”
This implies that the art of life is more like navigation than warfare, for what is important is to understand the winds, the tides, the currents, the seasons, and the principles of growth and decay, so that one’s actions may use them and not fight them.
In this sense, the Taoist attitude is not opposed to technology per se. Indeed, the Chuang-tzu writings are full of references to crafts and skills perfected by this very principle of “going with the grain.” The point is therefore that technology is destructive only in the hands of people who do not realize that they are one and the same process as the universe.
Our overspecialization in conscious attention and linear thinking has led to neglect, or ignore-ance, of the basic principles and rhythms of this process, of which the foremost is polarity.
In Chinese the two poles of cosmic energy are yang (positive) and yin (negative), associated with the masculine and the feminine, the firm and the yielding, the strong and the weak, the light and the dark, the rising and the falling, heaven and earth, and they are even recognized in such everyday matters as cooking as the spicy and the bland.
Thus the art of life is not seen as holding to yang and banishing yin, but as keeping the two in balance, because there cannot be one without the other.
When regarding them as the masculine and the feminine, the reference is not so much to male and female individuals as to characteristics which are dominant in, but not confined to, each of the two sexes. The male individual must not neglect his female component, nor the female her male. Thus Lao-tzu says:
Knowing the male but keeping the female, one becomes a universal stream. Becoming a universal stream, one is not separated from eternal virtue.
The yang and the yin are principles, not men and women, so that there can be no true relationship between the affectedly tough male and the affectedly flimsy female. The key to the relationship between yang and yin is called hsiang sheng, mutual arising or inseparability. As Lao-tzu puts it:
When everyone knows beauty as beautiful,
there is already ugliness;
When everyone knows good as goodness,
there is already evil.
“To be” and “not to be” arise mutually;
Difficult and easy are mutually realized;
Long and short are mutually contrasted;
High and low are mutually posited;
Before and after are in mutual sequence.
They are thus like the different, but inseparable, sides of a coin, the poles of a magnet, or pulse and interval in any vibration. There is never the ultimate possibility that either one will win over the other, for they are more like lovers wrestling than enemies fighting.
It is difficult in our logic to see that being and non-being are mutually generative and mutually supportive, for it is the great and imaginary terror of Western man that nothingness will be the permanent universe. We do not easily grasp the point that the void is creative, and that being comes from non-being as sound from silence and light from space.
Thirty spokes unite at the wheel’s hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut out doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore profit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.
This space is not “just nothing” as we commonly use that expression, for I cannot get away from the sense that space and my awareness of the universe are the same, and call to mind the words of the Chan (Zen) Patriarch Hui-neng, writing eleven centuries after Lao-tzu:
The capacity of mind is broad and huge, like the vast sky. Do not sit with a mind fixed on emptiness. If you do you will fall into a neutral kind of emptiness. Emptiness includes the sun, moon, stars, and planets, the great earth, mountains and rivers, all trees and grasses, bad men and good men, bad things and good things, heaven and hell; they are all in the midst of emptiness. The emptiness of human nature is also like this.
Thus the yin-yang principle is that the somethings and the nothings, the ons and the offs, the solids and the spaces, as well as the wakings and the sleepings and the alternations of existing and not existing, are mutually necessary.
Author’s Note: The provenance of the phrase history is written by the victorious is disputed. But what can attribution achieve in this instance? The sentence (or sentiment) must surely have been uttered or thought by many prior to the origin we seek, and also ex post facto by many unaware of their plagiarism. The point remains that the marginalised have, historically, been denied a voice. When you are dead or imprisoned, uneducated or denied access, putting forward your version of events becomes problematic. Once something has been destroyed, only those left standing can rebuild, and do so with the only tools available to them: theirvision.
It could be said that, to some extent, in the real-time networked world we have awoken in this side of the millennium, more people than ever have the ability to make themselves heard. But what do we find now that the curtain has…
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