THERE ARE NO THINGS, THERE ARE ONLY ACTIONS

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Everything is obscure in the idea of creation if we think of things which are created and a thing which creates, as we habitually do, as the understanding cannot help doing. It is natural to our intellect, whose function is essentially practical, made to present to us things and states rather than changes and acts. But things and states are only views, taken by our mind, of becoming. There are no things, there are only actions.

More particularly, if I consider the world in which we live, I find that the automatic and strictly determined evolution of this well-knit whole is action which is unmaking itself, and that the unforeseen forms which life cuts out in it, forms capable of being themselves prolonged into unforeseen movements, represent the action that is making itself.

Now, I have every reason to believe that the other worlds are analogous to ours, that things happen there in the same way. And I know they were not all constructed at the same time, since observation shows me, even to-day, nebulae in course of concentration. Now, if the same kind of action is going on everywhere, whether it is that which is unmaking itself or whether it is that which is striving to remake itself, I simply express this probable similitude when I speak of a centre from which worlds shoot out like rockets in a fireworks display—provided, however, that I do not present this centre as a thing, but as a continuity of shooting out.

God thus defined, has nothing of the already made; He is unceasing life, action, freedom. Creation, so conceived, is not a mystery; we experience it in ourselves when we act freely. That new things can join things already existing is absurd, no doubt, since the thing results from a solidification performed by our understanding, and there are never any things other than those that the understanding has thus constituted. To speak of things creating themselves would therefore amount to saying that the understanding presents to itself more than it presents to itself—a self-contradictory affirmation, an empty and vain idea. But that action increases as it goes on, that it creates in the measure of its advance, is what each of us finds when he watches himself act. Things are constituted by the instantaneous cut which the understanding practices, at a given moment, on a flux of this kind, and what is mysterious when we compare the cuts together becomes clear when we relate them to the flux. Indeed, the modalities of creative action, in so far as it is still going on in the organization of living forms, are much simplified when they are taken in this way. Before the complexity of an organism and the practically infinite multitude of interwoven analyses and syntheses it presupposes, our understanding recoils disconcerted. That the simple play of physical and chemical forces, left to themselves, should have worked this marvel, we find hard to believe. And if it is a profound science which is at work, how are we to understand the influence exercised on this matter without form by this form without matter? But the difficulty arises from this, that we represent statically ready-made material particles juxtaposed to one another, and, also statically, an external cause which plasters upon them a skilfully contrived organization. In reality, life is a movement, materiality is the inverse movement, and each of these two movements is simple, the matter which forms a world being an undivided flux, and undivided also the life that runs through it, cutting out in it living beings all along its track. Of these two currents the second runs counter to the first, but the first obtains, all the same, something from the second. There results between them a modus vivendi, which is organization. This organization takes, for our senses and for our intellect, the form of parts entirely external to other parts in space and in time. Not only do we shut our eyes to the unity of the impulse which, passing through generations, links individuals with individuals, species with species, and makes of the whole series of the living one single immense wave flowing over matter, but each individual itself seems to us as an aggregate, aggregate of molecules and aggregate of facts. The reason of this lies in the structure of our intellect, which is formed to act on matter from without, and which succeeds by making, in the flux of the real, instantaneous cuts, each of which becomes, in its fixity, endlessly decomposable. Perceiving, in an organism, only parts external to parts, the understanding has the choice between two systems of explanation only: either to regard the infinitely complex (and thereby infinitely well-contrived) organization as a fortuitous concatenation of atoms, or to relate it to the incomprehensible influence of an external force that has grouped its elements together. But this complexity is the work of the understanding; this incomprehensibility is also its work. Let us try to see, no longer with the eyes of the intellect alone, which grasps only the already made and which looks from the outside, but with the spirit, I mean with that faculty of seeing which is immanent in the faculty of acting and which springs up, somehow, by the twisting of the will on itself, when action is turned into knowledge, like heat, so to say, into light. To movement, then, everything will be restored, and into movement everything will be resolved. Where the understanding, working on the image supposed to be fixed of the progressing action, shows us parts infinitely manifold and an order infinitely well contrived, we catch a glimpse of a simple process, an action which is making itself across an action of the same kind which is unmaking itself, like the fiery path torn by the last rocket of a fireworks display through the black cinders of the spent rockets that are falling dead.

Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution
Read the whole book here.

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TWENTY EIGHTEEN: IN REVIEW


 

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)

 

Preface

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


Continue reading “TWENTY EIGHTEEN: IN REVIEW”

THE REMARKABLE CATEGORY OF BEING

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“Being” is, on the face of it, a very odd category indeed. In order for people to get along in life they need to be able to identify things like chairs, people, light switches, friendships, political institutions, and harmful objects. They also need to have a great deal of basic knowledge about these things, if they are going to survive and flourish. But it seems extremely odd to say that they need to identify and have knowledge of “Being.” And yet this is what metaphysics defines as our most noble philosophic task.

We have been suggesting that Being, like every other basic philosophic concept, is a human category, the very articulation of which depends on a cluster of common folk theories and conceptual metaphors. Being, regarded as the fundamental ontological category, emerged historically, as we have seen, in pre-Socratic philosophy and was given an elaborate articulation and refinement in Plato and Aristotle. We have argued that Aristotle was able to create the field of metaphysics only by adopting and adapting these shared folk theories and metaphors. The logic of Plato’s and Aristotle’s doctrines of Being, and indeed their entire philosophic positions, are significantly based on metaphorical concepts and are made possible by folk theoretical assumptions.

Many of these folk theories and conceptual metaphors are so deeply rooted in our Western philosophical tradition that they may seem to us not to be folk theories or metaphors at all. Many people, for instance, take it as a self-evident metaphysical fact that things consist of matter organized by form, or that everything has an essence that makes it the kind of thing it is, or that reality is organized in a hierarchy of categories, with the category of everything that exists at the top.

Many people think it obvious that the world must consist of basic substances that underlie the properties we experience. But there is nothing ontologically absolute about either the form/matter distinction or the idea of substance/attribute metaphysics. Many philosophers, such as Merleau-Ponty, Dewey, Whitehead, and, more recently, Rorty, have shown that the form/matter model is only one possible way of understanding things, and a mostly distorting way at that. Likewise, the idea that substance must be the ontologically basic entity is today almost totally discredited by a large number of philosophical traditions.

Nevertheless, the quest for Being goes on, and it is still regarded in many quarters as the ultimate philosophical project. The metaphysical impulse remains strong because the metaphors and folk theories defining it are so deeply embedded in our shared cultural understandings. As long as we believe that the world consists of general kinds of things defined by essences, that essences are the source of all natural behavior, that the world is intelligible, and that there is an all-inclusive category also defined by an essence, we will continue the search for Being.

The search for Being is for many people the search for God. The issues surrounding the quest for Being have always been at the center of Western theology and are still there today. God is widely regarded by theologians and laypeople alike as the ultimate causal source and sustainer of all that is, as the ultimate source of all that is good, as present in every existing thing, as having a plan that gives purpose to the world and meaning to human beings, and as being not merely all-powerful but also all-knowing. Most of these are the properties of Plato’s Idea of the Good, that is, of the essence of essence. This is no accident. Most of the medieval conceptions of, and arguments for, the existence of God stem directly from Greek metaphysics, partly from Plato’s Idea of the Good, but especially from Aristotelian views of causation and change.

The forms of thought that we saw as emerging in the pre-Socratics and finding their most sophisticated expression in Plato and Aristotle are thus anything but quaint and archaic. They exist not only in contemporary philosophy and theology, but they lie at the heart of Western science. The Folk Theory of the Intelligibility of the World is a precondition for any form of rational inquiry. The Folk Theory of General Kinds is required in order to state any generalizations at all. Otherwise, all knowledge would be utterly specific and could never be projected to new cases. The Folk Theory of Essences is commonplace in virtually every science, because science is always looking for the properties of things that make them what they are and explain their behavior. The Folk Theory of the All-Inclusive Category is present in every mode of scientific explanation that seeks ever more comprehensive explanations to cover ever greater ranges of phenomena, for example, theories of everything in physics and theories of life in biology.

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the flesh : the embodied mind and its challenge to Western thought.

DEATH & RESURRECTION

Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.

Luke 17:21, King James Bible

There are two ways of looking at the world: as a place of things, and as a forum for action. Because we are living beings, and must make our way, pragmatically, in the world, the second way of looking has to take precedence. This means that the world as a place of things is nested inside the world as a forum for action. This means that our conceptualization of the world as objective must remain subordinate to our conceptualize of the world as a place of Being.

We are, in the final analysis, neither structure nor chaos. Each of us is instead best understood as a process—as a living, dynamic process: as the very process by which what we know (what we know so insufficiently) is transformed into what could yet be. That is the process by which our continued forward movement through life is constantly and inevitably dependent. To understand that, and to welcome it: that is voluntary acceptance of the necessity of eternal transformation, as an alternative to nihilistic despair or desperate and fatal identification with the state. This is the idea enacted during the ceremony of the Christian eucharist. Incorporation of the body of Christ is the symbolic transformation of the participant—not into a believer of a set of facts, religious though those facts may appear, but into the active imitator of Christ; into the person willing to undergo whatever death is necessary to bring about the next and better state of being; into the person willing to embrace his or her confrontation with the tragedy and malevolence of life, to learn from that process of embrace and to move one step closer, in consequence, to the eternally-receding City of God.

Jordan B. Peterson, The Death and Resurrection of Christ: A Commentary in Five Parts.

Full Transcript.