Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Part 10: (Whose Project; Does the Individual Exist?): Dialogues on a Philosophy for the Individual

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2015)

With this post Flora Sapio and I (and friends from time to time) continue an experiment in collaborative dialogue. The object is to approach the issue of philosophical inquiry from another, and perhaps more fundamentally ancient, manner. We begin, with this post, to develop a philosophy for the individual that itself is grounded on the negation of the isolated self as a basis for thought, and for elaboration. This conversation, like many of its kind, will develop naturally, in fits and starts. Your participation is encouraged. For ease of reading Flora Sapio is identified as (FS), and Larry Catá Backer as (LCB).

We continue with the discussion among Flora Sapio Larry Catá Backer, Paul Van Fleet and Betita Horn Pepulim in which Paul van Fleet considers the problem of liberation of individuals even within their societal cage.

Contents: HERE
(PVF)  I wanted to comment and excuse the length, the subject being a response to "the liberation of the individual even within the cage of social, economic and political realities."

In my opinion, such "cages" are:

"In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear..."
- William Blake, "London."

Perhaps we do live in a reality in which it is difficult to think about the development of the individual with the onset of political repression, economic hardship, and social constructs. And yet the individual persists anyway, the individual still "becomes" in spite of the constructs in front of them. To think that hardship retards the "becoming" process, is a misnomer; the individual realizes themselves in accord with, and in spite of, the conditions under which they are placed. Just because an individual in the political, social, or economic cage may not be the same as an individual in a relatively "free" state, does not mean that the individuals are not going through the same process of becoming.

I believe that it is too early in our inquiry to consider the individual in a social, political, or economic sense until we derive the true nature of the individual. This must necessarily come from an understanding of mind. Not the mind, or the brain, but the nature of mind, from a collective sense as reflected in the vessel of the individual. Mind is, first and foremost, the first aspect of reality to which we are introduced, and, in my opinion, mind "meets" reality from our first perceptions.

I am reminded of the poem by Dogen:

"Enlightenment is like the moon reflected on the water.
The moon does not get wet, nor is the water broken.
Although its light is wide and great,
The moon is reflected even in a puddle an inch wide.
The whole moon and the entire sky
Are reflected in one dewdrop on the grass."

The nature of the individual, in Dogen's view, is in perfect reflection - reflection of the other, of the self, and of their surroundings. To regard such surroundings or conditions as a "cage" seems to be to be completely antithetical to the idea of liberation. We are liberated upon realizing that we are one with the times in which we live, and that we "become" in relation to those times. If we start from the illusion of separation, and see how our current social constructs reflect that separation, we are at an appropriate starting point to consider a system of personal liberation.

Is there, then, "stuff" of the individual? Only reflection - the individual brings life to the world, and the world inspiration to the individual. Causality must. therefore, be an illusion - in a Humean sense and a Zen sense. We cannot prove chains of causality, we only have a sense of them because of an impulse to control a world that never needed control. There is no first cause, only a constant defining and redefining of an individual and a world that make no sense without each other. There is no chicken and the egg dilemma here - the chicken and the egg validate each other. So we can see the individual as intermeshed with the world, and the world intermeshed with the individual. Neither has primacy, so long as the nature of mind reflects clearly in the individual.

As such, telos (as we understand it via Aristotle) is a myth. This type of purpose is a key ingredient of separation - it tells us what we believe we should be doing in the world, without a focus, as Flora brings up, on what we are doing right now. "When hungry, eat. When tired, sleep." If there is no separation between us and the world, as I have theorized here, then there is no separating "purpose." Now, "purpose" is a varied term, and if we characterize purpose not as a self-imposition, but see it as something that we cannot help but do, it becomes equal to the aforementioned process of becoming. Action and conception unify, and Flora's rightly asked question concerning the primacy of conception and action becomes more and more of a moot point upon reflection. 
(LCB) What is most striking, Paul, is that the poets, not the philosophers (much less the theorists of law, politics, economics, society, etc.) appear to understand the  essence of the problem.But that has been remarked before--by the very philosophers and moralists who then ignore their own words as they plod forward toward . . . . a false though palatable certainty.  And indeed, are we distracted to try to discern some sort of reality within and among individuals?  That, again, takes us back to the original problem of the project.  And thus the problem I have been posing in a number of ways--the problem of generalization (abstraction in this century) of a matter that is both intimate and unique, and that must/may/ought to liberate itself from. . . . . what?


Betita Horn said...

I'll re-read it a few times what Paul wrote, and the observation of Larry. To discuss, among others, the question of the cage.

Flora Sapio said...

Thinking she was on a different vawelenght, Betita wanted to leave the discussion. However, the four of us are just speaking different 'dialects' of the same 'language', and while different dialects may use a different vocabulary they are still mutually intelligible. Three shared points have emerged this far, thanks to the differences among us, our backgrounds and worldviews:

(1) Theory has its perils, which can be avoided by relying on non-rational, non-theoretical modes of knowing: experience (Betita), and the language of poetry (Paul). These all are signposts along the path. (2) We need to remain closely focussed on reality (Betita), realize that reality poses constraints to theoretical possibility (Larry), and work within them. (3) Some emotional states, as a sense of duty, may be imposed upon us (Larry), but there are also authentic emotional states – the duty to act as a transmitter of change (Betita), and no one can control this duty or impose it upon us, because it comes from our most true selves.

We are slowly moving towards understanding the individual. Regardless of whether we use Paul's or Betita's code of communication (Dasein, nature of the mind, systems theory) now we are realizing that:

There is no separation between ourselves and the world.
We live in our times and we become in relation to our times.
The world never needed any control.
There are social constructs that introduce a separation in us, between us and our times, between us and our environment.
These social constructs, as they exist here and now in relation to us, are to be indentified and neutralized.

We may already have found one such social construct – education - and a way to neutralize it.

Does knowing a bunch of facts or theories count as education? Does having a PhD automatically make you better than those who can only read and write? Larry played the skeptic's role, saying that education only allows us to succeed within the structures of society, and if we remain within these structures then we are not liberated. Those who can barely read and write may forever remain content with drinking beer, watching soccer and finding their liberty in the Social Contract. But, the same can be true of those who have a PhD after their name.

Betita instead observed how education can be liberating, and I am with her on this. Betita, I was lucky enough not to experience war and revolution, but I too had to start work at a very young age, had to fight to get education – a right that often exists in abstract only – and during my stints in Italy I have done similar work with African “refugee” (the word refugee is another construct!) children.

The kind of education one does with these persons is much more than showing them how to read, write or speak the local language. One tries to overcome the social constructs that separate us from our environment and our community, to disprove to others several ideas: the idea that these persons are “black”; the idea that they are dangerous, dirty, “difficult”, worthless and so on. As you said, this process involves acquiring, sharing and exchanging tangible and intangible goods. It involves making knowledge and know-hows circulate within and among individuals and communities. Systems theory can be used to capture and model this and similar processes, but only experience allows to understand them. A broad set of mental, intellectual, rational, emotional social and physical abilities is needed to transcend the structures of society, deactivate social constructs and open up a space of freedom. Only the right kind of education can contribute to developing those abilities in us and in others, and this kind of education cannot be bought or sold.