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
Comparisons of logos and dao have more often than not resulted in understanding both notions as transcendental or metaphysical principles. In religious studies, such comparisons or translations of dao as logos or even as ‘God’ are commonplace, since they both seem to have to do with the word bringing order, and with a higher transcendent being or guiding principle having provided the word. Such comparisons have overflowed to comparative philosophy, thus reinforcing and perpetuating the idea that Daoism is about some transcendental metaphysical entity or principle inadequately named dao.
One may say that Heidegger was trying to think in a non-metaphysical way in reaction to the dominant metaphysical tradition of Western philosophy, but the fact that Zhuangzi was thinking in a non-metaphysical way did not arise out of a genuine need to overcome a metaphysical opponent. Both thinkers are after a way of thought that is squarely located in this world, opposed to dualism, and that has no need for metaphysical principles. Heidegger argues that Heraclitus was not a metaphysical thinker in the first place, since the particular form of metaphysics that we are discussing did not arise until Plato.
There is nothing other than continuous transformation, and humans are no exception to this transformation; neither are humans somewhere outside this process, nor is there an overarching principle behind it all. The regularity in the process is not something other than the process. The Alpha-to-Omega teleology typical of Western thinking and conducive to an invention of a ‘First Cause’ or ‘origin’ that would see logos as a metaphysical principle that can be ‘counted on’ is absent in most classical Chinese thought, but especially in Daoism, because dao as the process itself does not aim at anything, and its ‘constancy’ is nothing more than constant change.
Logos and dao are discourse, and both are impermanent structures that we need and live by. Dao is guiding discourse; it is speaking, signaling, leading. Both notions convey the idea that we are actively participating in the construal of the world and our place in it. As Heidegger says: “Thinking cuts furrows into the soil of Being”. Both the Daoists and Heidegger are extremely aware of the shortcomings of their respective societies’ current views of language, and both try to redirect us toward a different understanding of language that would take us closer to our world.
Both Heidegger’s Heraclitus and Daoists, then, suggest an attunement to what is larger than mere beings, without that larger ‘thing’ becoming a metaphysical principle, and they consequently advocate some way of thinking that accords rather than imposes. Such a form of responsiveness that Heidegger and Zhuangzi proclaim is not devoid of meaning, but is ultimately a form of responsibility: to follow the injunctions to let things be as they inherently are.
There is no real creator entity in classical Chinese thought, and metaphysical notions of ‘Being’ and ‘Nothing’ are largely absent as well. The assumed equivalents you and wu rather mean ‘present’ and ‘absent’, or ‘having’ and ‘not-having’. Most of the classical Chinese assumptions fit in more with a process-oriented worldview than with one that is based on a metaphysical and onto-theological one. As such, we would be well off to be more careful when interpreting concepts such as dao in familiar metaphysical ways. Maybe a non-metaphysical reading is more relevant to classical Chinese philosophy, and such considerations can also lead us, like Heidegger, to reassess our own most important notions, like logos, and, equally important, might give us resources to understand better the Chinese philosophical tradition, which is generally conceived as non-metaphysical.
Burik, Steven. Logos and Dao Revisited: A Non-Metaphysical Interpretation
(Philosophy East and West, Volume 68, Number 1, January 2018, pp. 23-41)
Read the whole article here
It is no accident that ancient Greece, the place where symbolic money originated, also gave birth to the modern conception of the individual, to the notions of logic and reason, and to the philosophical underpinnings of the modern mind. In his scholarly masterpiece Money and the Ancient Greek Mind, classics professor Richard Seaford explores the impact of money on Greek society and thought, illuminating the characteristics that make money unique. Among them are that it is both concrete and abstract, that it is homogeneous, impersonal, a universal aim, and a universal means, and that it is unlimited. The entrance of this new, unique power into the world had profound consequences, many of which are now so deeply woven into our beliefs and culture, psyche and society, that we can barely perceive them, let alone question them.
Money is homogeneous in that regardless of any physical differences among coins, coins qua money are identical (if they are of the same denomination). New or old, worn or smooth, all one drachma coins are equal. This was something new in the sixth century BCE. Whereas in archaic times, Seaford observes, power was conferred by unique talismanic objects (e.g., a scepter said to be handed down from Zeus), money is the opposite: its power is conferred by a standard sign that wipes out variations in purity and weight. Quality is not important, only quantity. Because money is convertible into all other things, it infects them with the same feature, turning them into commodities— objects that, as long as they meet certain criteria, are seen as identical. All that matters is how many or how much. Money, says Seaford, “promotes a sense of homogeneity among things in general.” All things are equal, because they can be sold for money, which can in turn be used to buy any other thing.
In the commodity world, things are equal to the money that can replace them. Their primary attribute is their “value”—an abstraction. I feel a distancing, a letdown, in the phrase, “You can always buy another one.” Can you see how this promotes an anti-materialism, a detachment from the physical world in which each person, place, and thing is special, unique? No wonder Greek philosophers of this era began elevating the abstract over the real, culminating in Plato’s invention of a world of perfect forms more real than the world of the senses. No wonder to this day we treat the physical world so cavalierly. No wonder, after two thousand years’ immersion in the mentality of money, we have become so used to the replaceability of all things that we behave as if we could, if we wrecked the planet, simply buy a new one.
I named this chapter “Money and the Mind.” Very much like the fiduciary value of money, mind is an abstraction riding a physical vehicle. Like monetary fiduciarity, the idea of mind as a separate, non-material essence of being developed over thousands of years, leading to the modern concept of an immaterial consciousness, a disembodied spirit. Tellingly, in both secular and religious thought, this abstraction has become more important than the physical vehicle, just as the “value” of a thing is more important than its physical attributes.
One manifestation of this spirit-matter split that gives primacy to the former is the idea, “Sure, economic reform is a worthy cause, but what is much more important is a transformation of human consciousness.” I think this view is mistaken, for it is based on a false dichotomy of consciousness and action, and ultimately of spirit and matter. On a deep level, money and consciousness are intertwined. Each is bound up in the other.
The development of monetary abstraction fits into a vast meta-historical context. Money could not have developed without a foundation of abstraction in the form of words and numbers. Already, number and label distance us from the real world and prime our minds to think abstractly. To use a noun already implies an identity among the many things so named; to say there are five of a thing makes each a unit. We begin to think of objects as representatives of a category, and not unique beings in themselves. So, while standard, generic categories didn’t begin with money, money vastly accelerated their conceptual dominance. Moreover, the homogeneity of money accompanied the rapid development of standardized commodity goods for trade. Such standardization was crude in pre-industrial times, but today manufactured objects are so nearly identical as to make the lie of money into the truth.
Money as a universal aim is embedded in our language. We speak of “capitalizing” on our ideas and use “gratuitous,” which literally means received with thanks (and not payment), as a synonym for unnecessary. It is embedded in economics to be sure, in the assumption that human beings seek to maximize a self-interest that is equivalent to money. It is even embedded in science, where it is a cipher for reproductive self-interest. Here, too, the notion of a universal aim has taken hold.
That there is even such a thing as a universal aim to life (be it money or something else) is not at all obvious. This idea apparently arose at about the same time money did; perhaps it was money that suggested it to philosophers. Socrates used a money metaphor explicitly in proposing intelligence as universal aim: “There is only one right currency for which we ought to exchange all these other things [pleasures and pains]—intelligence.” In religion this corresponds to the pursuit of an ultimate aim, such as salvation or enlightenment, from which all other good things flow. How like the unlimited aim of money! I wonder what the effect would be on our spirituality if we gave up on the pursuit of a unitary, abstract goal that we believe to be the key to everything else. How would it feel to release the endless campaign to improve ourselves, to make progress toward a goal? What would it be like just to play instead, just to be? Like wealth, enlightenment is a goal that knows no limit, and in both cases the pursuit of it can enslave. In both cases, I think that the object of the pursuit is a spurious substitute for a diversity of things that people really want.
In a fully monetized society, in which nearly everything is a good or a service, money converts the multiplicity of the world into a unity, a “single thing that is the measure of, and exchangeable with, almost anything else.” The apeiron, the logos, and similar conceptions were all versions of an underlying unity that gives birth to all things. It is that from which all things arise and to which all things return. As such it is nearly identical with the ancient Chinese conception of the Tao, which gives birth to yin and yang, and then to the ten thousand things. Interestingly, the semi-legendary preceptor of Taoism, Lao Tzu, lived at approximately the same time as the pre-Socratic philosophers —which is also more or less the time of the first Chinese coinage. In any event, today it is still money that gives birth to the ten thousand things. Whatever you want to build in this world, you start with an investment, with money. And then, when you have finished your project, it is time to sell it. All things come from money; all things return to money.
Unlike physical goods, the abstraction of money allows us, in principle, to possess unlimited quantities of it. Thus it is easy for economists to believe in the possibility of endless exponential growth, where a mere number represents the size of the economy. The sum total of all goods and services is a number, and what limit is there on the growth of a number? Lost in abstraction, we ignore the limits of nature and culture to accommodate our growth. Following Plato, we make the abstraction more real than the reality, fixing Wall Street while the real economy languishes. The monetary essence of things is called “value,” which, as an abstracted, uniform essence, reduces the plurality of the world. All things are reduced to what they are worth. This gives the illusion that the world is as limitless as numbers are. For a price, you can buy anything.
Charles Eisenstein, Sacred Economics: Money, Gift and Society in the Age of Transition
Nature is that which has always been there. This is the thinking of Heraclitus. In his eyes, it has always been made up of the world (cosmos) as what “was, is and will be.” This is to make Nature finite, to diminish its power. Nature did not create itself, that is to say permanently structure itself into the world, but unceasingly and tirelessly builds itself and becomes finite by forming itself into a multiplicity of worlds. This means that it breaks up into innumerable worlds that are not at all eternal, but are born and perish. It is like a perpetual laboratory of endless and multiple trials because it is not only one order (cosmos) that is born of Nature, but all systems of the order are born of it at one time or another.
By his cosmology, Heraclitus is the ancestor of Plato’s followers. However, by his panta rhei, “everything flows,” he is the prime example of all the philosophies of movement, from Montaigne to Bergson, before and after. Furthermore, what is the Tao, according to Lao Tzu, but “perpetual mutability itself,” that is to say Heraclitus’s river? Yet it must be added: with certain characteristics of Anaximander’s Phusis, because the “Path” (Tao), which is infinite in that it is unqualified, undetermined, and conceptually incomprehensible, is also the source and principle of birth and growth for individual beings: differentiating themselves and becoming finite, it thus deploys a generative force, Te – a word which is generally translated as “Virtue.” Nothing prevents this “Virtue” from showing itself in innumerable worlds.
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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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: their vision.
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 not just been pulled back, but entirely torn from the frame? A cacophony of bewilderment and confusion. Given the ability to connect, we find the opposite: rival factions forming even within so-called liberal and humanitarian endeavours. True, beneath the media hype circus and informing every echo-chamber is a series of seemingly incomprehensible yet profound events. To make sense of these events we cling to the narrative structures that reinforce our own belief systems (even those who claim to be free of them entirely). But what we see is that these narratives, constructed in a context of individualism, serve to divide us further.
As well as the political and global turmoil, twenty-sixteen has, for various reasons, been a trying year for me personally and those around me with whom I am lucky enough to share a more intimate relationship. It is not my intention to emphasise either a positive or negative interpretation of trying. About midway through the year I discovered the writings of Charles Eisenstein whose philosophy has subsequently resonated with me profoundly: pulling together various paths of thought that I had been unable to do so alone. All ideology is narrative. Humanity has been driven by a story of separation, the self as a discrete entity. Science, politics, art, education, religion, economics &c. are all ideologies constructed to make sense of the world. All of these ideologies have failed because they are predicated on a falsehood (the story of separation).
What follows is my review of the past twelve months. It is necessarily my own perspective. A chronologically driven (linear and cyclical) second-person narrative, this story is one-part diary (personal and political), one-part consumption (books and music) and one-part philosophical exegesis (bildungsroman). Depending on your proximity: in jokes, pop-philosophy, bad puns, scholarly intent, juvenilia, paradox, pretension and/or pith. Anything underlined is hyperlinked to the source of the reference (music, words, obituaries &c.). Direct quotes are underlined and the reference is hyperlinked from the (Author, Date) notation to where the quote exists in its full context elsewhere on my blog. Before writing I set myself the following rules: Each entry must a) refer to the events of that month, both internal and external b) include a quote from every book I read that month that can be as seamlessly as possible woven into the overarching narrative c) contain a reference to some music I had on repeat that month, and d) reflect the nature and personal development of my philosophical enquiry. There follows a full bibliography and an appendix. Ma gavte la nata.
Adam John Miller
20th December, 2016