Category Archives: Communication

Excerpt: The Sage and the Town That Was Dreaming and Drowning

Continuing to post selections taken out of context from large amounts of unfinished material collected for The Constellation of Man, a work of literature planned for three volumes. All selections were written by me since 2010. Some are unrepresentative. All remain in development, subject to change. —CPB


A sage who offered the greatest of gifts walked through a town of worries, and spoke to the townspeople.

kandahar_city_during_1839-42

lithograph of Kandahar, 1847

Some listened. He told them not what they wanted to hear, but what would solve their problems.

One onlooker, a merchant from another town who revered the wisdom of the itinerant sage, was surprised to see most of these townspeople turn from the sage, spit on the ground, or even slap him in the face. Finally, a group of men threatened the sage, and knocked him down when he continued to speak.

“What awful ingratitude!” the merchant exclaimed, helping the sage to his feet. “And how foolish they are. You came to help, and they reject it thoughtlessly.”

The sage shook his head. “For all their contempt, they are not telling me they reject the knowledge I offer. They are not even telling me I am wrong, although they say so. They are telling me: ‘I did not hear it in the right way.’ My words were not what they expected.”

“Surely, it should not matter what words you used. A drowning man would not refuse a rough hand grabbing him. And I think a man who is dreaming of what he wants will not make rude objections to the djinni who can grant his wish, no matter the surprise to the man, or the manner of the djinni.”

The sage smiled. “Truly, the townsfolk are both dreaming, and drowning. But they must save themselves, and grant their own wishes. I told them so, but they do not realize they are dreaming and drowning. Therefore, they do not know the importance of recognizing that predicament. They do not await hearing knowledge they could use to help themselves. They only hear that I have made demands of them, and consider themselves rudely put upon.”

“I see,” said the merchant slowly. “Wisdom offers a horse to those who have packed a cart ready to hitch. But those who have been trying to drag cargo behind them only feel that they are being goaded to go faster like a beast of burden. Besides, if they knew what you do, that they are stuck, they might already have less need to hear it. They might have found their own horse. I see. Very good.”

The merchant was satisfied to learn how it could be that the value of a sagacious perspective to save and change lives does not prevent its rejection.

“But how,” he added, “supposing you are right… realization must come before accepting knowledge. But without acquiring knowledge, how will they come to realization? How could you tell them what they need to hear in some way that would get around their obstinacy?”

“They must go forward in their backbreaking journey until they realize they have need of my horse. Walking the hard road may teach what hard words do not. They cannot avoid it so easily as they can close their ears to being told where they are and what they are doing. Let us wish them a short journey to preparation, for the way can be painful.”

“What a shame! But that means your visit to this town has been a wasted one.”

“Not at all. I will continue to try. Some ears might be open, and I would spare them hardship. Indeed I will think harder about how I speak to them. How they will hear it is more important than what I say.”

The merchant bade farewell to the sage. He stood and watched him as he walked into the distance. He wondered about the people who drag weight behind them and refuse a means of relief. He thought about those who keep getting stuck in the road, and curse those who pass. “Perhaps,” he thought, “they should be left to figure out their situation for themselves. It might be better for learning if they have to search for a horse to draw their cart.”

But at length, he marveled at their suffering, the suffering of the men and women of the town. He realized how few would manage to raise themselves up off the hard road and out of its potholes and mud before they were broken by the bitter labors of fools and beasts.

He looked into the distance, in the direction the sage had gone, and nodded.

The Ruling System of Moralistic Cliches

There are some political cliches that are—or have become—virtually meaningless except for emotional cant (e.g. “liberal”).

There are some that serve as shibboleths for a faction (e.g. “social justice”).

And there are some that signify immediately that a person has no idea how the real world works, at all—perhaps because they forgot their proper cynicism about the rent-seekers who swarm all over politics, or perhaps because they were always too ignorant about some relevant and necessary subject (political science, economics, law, journalism, diplomacy, strategy, technology, etc.).

A great many cliches manage all three failures of political language, like “shipping jobs overseas” or the supposed “invasion of our borders.”

This is how people, possibly well-meaning people, habitually think and supposedly communicate when they engage in politics. And yet many expect to solve human social problems this way, instead of adding to them. Which is precisely what happens; rather than alleviating inequality or liberating people (or whatever people imagine they’re doing), such invested, balkanized ignorance is deeply useful to those who seek power or to capitalize on a position of power.

At best, largely powerless people experience a vicarious, illusory and temporary sense of power from crowing or venting their spleen.

Disappointment with the outcome is really ridiculous—absurd even. It’s obvious enough, should one stop to think about it. Repeating the same mistake over and over is not a formula for success.

Just imagine, say, taking the same moralistic, hierarchical, jabbering group approach to something practical, like building a house,* baking a cake,* balancing an account,* curing a diseased patient,* starting a business,* or writing a book*—all far simpler than meeting the needs of human society—and you may begin to get the picture.

Politics defined as mass problem-solving is a deeply foolish endeavor.

* Yes, all references intentional.

On not fitting in a nutshell

Well, it has been quite some time since my last appearance on this blog, hasn’t it? All I can offer at the moment is a brief reflection. I’m trying to focus on substantial books as much as possible, and much less on talking online about doing that work, or offering interesting asides. There is not enough time and energy for everything a person could do, and my books demand protracted focus—sometimes more than I can manage. My publishing intentions have also been obliged to move from screen to paper over recent years. Sorry, internet!

There are a number of disadvantages to not having a short phrase or word that adequately communicates what I do, and secondarily what I write. I’ve long thought about the baggage associated with the word “philosophy,” which I’ve never been able to correct satisfactorily by supplying various modifiers like “underground” or “humanist.” To illustrate just one sort of baggage surrounding the word, imagine if “musician” generally meant “musical theorist.”

I have sometimes wondered if I should prefer “psychology.” My ancestor-in-spirit Nietzsche, and many psychologists who followed him, asserted that philosophical problems (including social thought) were fundamentally psychological in nature and fresh progress depended on psychological insights, models, and understanding, sometimes down to the physiological body, or the unique and specific person. As my books in progress have reflected consciousness of that even more, it looms larger. But if I were to say that I write “psychology,” I would inherit another set of baggage and misunderstanding instead. If I were to say something like “psychological philosophy,” I don’t think anyone would understand that either, and they would probably file it under “pretentiously long phrase” and not bother to decode it.

I like the term “naturalist” as well; in a number of ways it fits my attitude towards psychology/philosophy—e.g. emphases on observation, evolution, physicality, complex systems, epoché, etc.—though I’m not really sure what to do with that angle. Combine it with “humanism” —another possible angle, but another one fraught with baggage—and you could get “human naturalist” or the like.

As usual, I still have no conclusion I’m happy with, and I really don’t know what to say to people who ask what I do without going into it. Usually I mention that I wrote a novel, because I did, and they think they can relate to the normalcy of that to an extent. (Little do they know how foreign that process was from normalcy.) If I say the novel was “philosophical” though, it will usually become obvious that saying so did not help them to know what I mean.

Maybe I should just begin mischievously experimenting on people by saying things like “I write books of secret knowledge.”

Reformations are needed; admitting we don’t understand ourselves is the beginning

Adapted from a comment I made in a discussion about reforming politics, philosophy, and psychology:

Our various and numerous failures constructed on the premises of understanding ourselves sufficiently will repeat until we admit the basic failure of presuming we understand ourselves (and others; humans) better than we do. This covers philosophy, politics, psychology, neuroscience, and much, much more.

Thus, reformations are needed to incorporate optimized knowledge of “human nature” (universals), and important human variations, from any quarter. So, not only complacency within fields of study is an issue, although it certainly is in many of the blasé treatments of fundamental assumptions, but isolated specialization of fields of study, as I argued in the essay Rising in Walls. For instance, even those involved in some of the best of politics, economics, or history retain the most simplistic knowledge and appreciation of what some of the best of psychology, mythology, evolutionary theory or cultural anthropology can tell them about people—and really see no particular relevance in exploring them.

Both problems come together, for example, in the sorts of neo-evolutionary fields Stephen Jay Gould used to criticize, in which it’s just assumed that complex systems like culture and mind are thoroughly analogous to computers or algorithms or Darwinian inheritance (or whatever the model may be) without nearly enough justification. When 1) nobody’s interested in what different approaches and perspectives can correct, and 2) they affirm their own theoretical models too readily, you get reductionism instead of elegance in your descriptions of humanity.

My focus has shifted considerably to projects explicitly re-examining and re-constructing fundamental assumptions about human beings through a cross-pollinated synthesis, because I can’t see that attempts to work around and with Man (as we must) can have any hope of success if serious errors in conceptualizing humanity are preserved.

In terms of those of us trying to change things, we’re all doing everything the hard way without a more robust synthesis to utilize and to promote, to replace lopsided ones with a wad of selective detail supplemented by a lot of hand-waving and folk notions (probably a more than fair description of what people or a person will typically “look like,” through our own eyes).

R.A. Wilson was one example of a thinker who made an attempt at a cross-pollinated model to slice through some of the nonsense clinging to our ideas about ourselves, but I didn’t consider it adequately informed or theoretically sound—particularly when it deviated from the overall spirit of naturalism inspired by his knowledge of ethology to become too speculative and teleological. There were many problems with it, as well as several advantages (which can be said of all the more interesting personality theories and typologies, and models of the mind I have studied for the past 17 years). He himself expected his models to be obsoleted, so… I think perhaps he would be pleased with what I’ve been working on.

In short, at whatever level of sophistication and complexity, we need a better set of stories to tell ourselves about ourselves—not only less selective, but less superficial, more refined and more intensely questioned, and better informed by descriptions, analogies and metaphors from across promising frontiers of knowledge.

“Not that, not that,” or, Writing about distractions from meaning

An observation from today’s writing (delving into aspects of self, self-interest, self-expression, and similar abstractions):

Most of the task of conveying meaning in philosophy can be accomplished by pruning back insignificant things we habitually take as meaningful and hold forth as though we have found something important.

For example: the renaming or restatement of abstractions as though impressive new things have been realized, discovered, or created by words—and then, by the reactions we have to our “new” categories or images, which ideas now enjoy an attributed essential meaning of their own.

Like the stamping of a name on an object’s surface, the object may not change much, but we do notice the impression and sometimes to the exclusion of the rest. The impression of an idea itself “becomes” an object, because it takes on a real set of physiological experiences which are appreciable to us as mental phenomena. These phenomena are like a sort of secondary, epiphenomenal ripple or echo from what we were trying to talk about in the first place!

The philosopher’s pruning of this sort of distraction involves a process of retraining his/our perspective and expectation of substance from superficial verbiage (or the impressions it makes) to what makes reference to phenomena with more original sensory evidence (not excluding internal and subjective evidence, but not epiphenomenal ripples or echoes, either).

In the process of retraining, the philosopher must repeatedly ask himself, “are we really talking about what we think we are, or are we talking about feelings about previous talking?” (This isn’t helped by inheriting quite a bit of talking, some of which has acquired some deep impressions over time.)

Once we do find the phenomena we actually want to talk about in the whole mess, we have a chance to utilize a more phenomenal vocabulary in talking about it; in our talking about the subject, we can recognize experiences we have already had, including immediate and visceral sense experiences. We can therefore relate it to things that fall within our experience (or at least constructions building upon these foundations) instead of interacting with removed abstractions that transform nothing, and primarily reference themselves. We can experience a transformation, a reconnection to our experiences that will inform future encounters with relatable things.

It is the task of responsible philosophers—those who want to achieve something meaningful—to look at our looking-for-meaning (a resounding internal phenomenon) and point out, “no, that bit is make-believe, and that is saying nothing or very little, and it is leading us astray from finding what we are looking for,” far more often than they get to point and say, “Eureka!”

NB: if the reader has made it this far, he or she should observe that—barring a good deal of relatable experience with the challenges of conveying ideas when writing philosophy and/or readings in phenomenology—his difficulty with understanding the above will probably have been considerable. Furthermore, only my turns of phrase that emphasized sensory analogies and departed from abstraction will have been relatively easy to read, and made my meaning easier to comprehend at that moment. This illustrates the power of phenomenally-grounded philosophical writing, and the reader’s relative disappointment at having to slog through the more abstract sort, in which it is extremely easy to get lost.

Vox

Later today, if my vision holds out, I’ll finally get the chance to get back to editing a sweeping piece of work I’m trying to finish this year: it’s my latest take on a magnum opus to bring together my philosophical investigations to date. Unlike the last, very different “grand tour” attempt in the book Rising in Words, I intend to publish this one on the internet, for the intellectuals there with patience, curiosity, thoughtfulness, a sincere interest in personal development, and attentive reading comprehension skills. All twelve should really enjoy it. I kid, I kid. There must be at least fourteen.

But in all seriousness, for the first time I am also strongly leaning towards recording an audio version, as well. Not only because so few like focusing on reading anymore, and especially not online, but because the human voice is persuasive to many more people than the written word, and more evocative to most (with the obvious exception of my deaf friends).

Published book version? Maybe. Frankly it was an awful lot of work last time, even with some extraordinary volunteer help with type and layout.

A Key Without a Door (work in progress)

Last year, I wrote quite a bit of poetry but only published a couple of the poems on this blog. This year I’d like to clean up and show more of the poetry I write. Last year’s many leftovers seem like a good place to start.

I was working on this one last year. I tried adding a fourth stanza tonight, but I wasn’t as satisfied with it. Nonetheless, there’s something I like about what I have so far and I decided to put it up regardless.

A Key Without a Door

If I could write words to dance on finger tips
And acrobatic letters to unfold you,
Would you come to me alive and speak new words,
Not echoes?

If I could carve magic signs for the golems in your mind,
Could you write a new truth on your skin of clay and dust
Casting ecstasy in form?

If I could draw lines to chart chthonic power,
Could you exhume your burial of umbrage
And from the barrow grow?