Leafy says that the Biblical commandment to welcome the stranger includes welcoming the stranger in people we know or even love.
That of other people we can deduce from who we believe they are is not them, but a part of ourselves. It is when our expectations are defied that we encounter otherness most starkly.
Politics is about creating alliances between people with common interests. What is unique is politically useless: it lacks the numbers to make its will felt. Only liberal politics protects uniqueness by viewing the protection of uniqueness a common interest and building large alliances around none-of-the-above.
Those who dread what is unique in themselves and others will insist that the personal is political, and see to it that it remains only political.
It is hard to be honest if don’t know how to think thoughts that are true to our experience.
What I have been looking for is a vision of liberalism that justifies personhood (individuality) as our best access to God, because 1) it is only as a person that we encounter God as God, 2) it is only in interaction with fellow persons willing to accept and share personal uniqueness that we encounter God in others, and 3) it is through authentically personal and interpersonal encounters with reality in its myriadfold being that humankind cultivates living, sustaining communities.
Such person-founded communities help people 1) intuitively and spontaneously feel the value of life because the value of life flows into it from what surrounds and exceeds it, 2) to act effectively to create, preserve, repair and strengthen the necessary conditions for community in which personhood flourishes and 3) to share, preserve and honor these understanding through clear, demonstrable and inspiring accounts of truth, but truth that is sharply aware that it is only a part of reality, a mediating surface — a person-reality interface — not a container for reality, and certainly not a substitute.
Truth is especially not a container or substitute for any person. This is the crux of liberalism.
Where we try to substitute truth for reality and most of all the reality of others, we suffer the fate of King Midas. Everything and everyone we touch turns to cold, hard truth, and the world becomes a lonely, pointless and oppressive place.
I’m very slowly reading Wahl’s Human Existence and Transcendence. I have come the final section of the book, reading comments from the philosophers who attended Wahl’s 1937 “famous lecture” that is the nucleus of this book, and I’m noticing an interesting and important theme I want to give a name.
First, much of the discussion revolves around differences between existential philosophies and philosophies of existence, the difference being whether the philosophy itself is an existential act or if the philosophy focuses on questions about existence. The same basic form occurs around other questions, including transcendence (thought that is an act of transcendence versus thinking about what transcends us), religion (thought that is religious in nature vs theories about religion), and so on.
This is a very interesting move, and for me it is especially important because it features in my Geometric Meditations. I suggest that intuitions of what, how and why can be both acts of intuition as well as objects of intuition, and that we often confuse them along these lines. I offer some names for different combinations of ways of intuiting with different kinds of intuitive objects, less for the sake of designing a taxonomy than as a distinction sensitization exercise.
Before I can continue this thought I will need to provide some clarity on my unusual (and if I may say so, extremely useful) conception of subjectivity. I prefer to base it, not on our common subject-object distinction, which most serious thinkers have recognized to be irreparably flawed, and instead base it on academic subjects. An academic subject is a distinct style of approaching, encountering, understanding, communicating and generating knowledge in some domain of reality which can partially or entirely overlap with other subjects. I think human subjects and subjectivity in general are best understood in this sense of subject.
This means that the theme I noticed in Wahl — the tendency to confuse of the understanding subjectivity and the understood object — could be viewed as a subject-object ambiguity, or what I will (until something better or more established comes along) call ambijectivity.
Thomas Kuhn gave me (at first via three other writers) my foundational personal myth, what he called the structure of scientific revolutions, which theologians have realized is the structure of religious conversion and philosophers recognize as the hermeneutic circle.
Hannah Arendt taught me that what we call “politics” is in fact the betrayal of politics, and that political life both presupposes and pursues the plurality of persons — (as she put it, it is human beings, not humankind, who live in the world together) — and that if we aspire to be authentically political we must resist indulging that damnable solipsistic urge to reduce our fellow human beings to abstract categories we ourselves have imagined living out grand political dramas we ourselves have scripted, and instead encounter and contend with them as the stubbornly real beings with their own stories, self-conceptions, and worldviews.
William James taught me the impossibly elegant (and deeply American!) Pragmatic Maxim — which I like to think of as instructions for the Pragmatic Move, which goes like this: when attempting to understand the meaning of an assertion, rather than focus in on the assertion itself, instead expand out the practical consequences (what James crassly called the “cash value”) of the assertion’s truth, and this synthesis will give you the assertion’s meaning much faster and more reliably than analysis can.
Emmanuel Levinas gave me the perfect distinction, totality and infinity, in whose tension religious life flourishes, dies or kills.
Martin Heidegger taught me the difference between an emotion and a mood — that is, the difference between a feeling toward an object versus a feeling of a totality — and, in particular, that mood called anxiety which is the feeling of nullified totality, a mood toward subjective nothingness — which Heidegger associated with death, but which I see as the mortal response to infinity in any its myriad forms.
Eric Voegelin showed me an image of time, of past and future dropping away into inexperienceable darkness dropping away into inexperienceable darkness in two directions, and gave me my first clear understanding of metaphysics (to which I have added dimensions of space and awareness in my own model of metaphysical situatedness in my spark symbol in the pamphlet I’m preparing to get printed).
Clifford Geertz helped me see that understanding (or, empathy) is not an act of directly experiencing what another person experiences (which renders understanding impossible, if not essentially absurd), but rather the ability to participate in their symbol system, so that we can understand a proverb, a poem or a joke — or, as I like to add, design something for them that they love with head, hand and heart.
Ludwig Wittgenstein gave me my best conception of philosophy when he said “the structure of a philosophical problem is ‘here I do not know how to move around.’”
Richard J. Bernstein taught me how to think about and talk about philosophical experience and to see it everywhere, including in scientific activity and in design.
Frithjof Shuon taught me that infinity is not an infinite quantity, and, in fact, is not a quantitative concept at all.
Friedrich Nietzsche taught me that interrogating my own beloved root moral assumptions beyond the limits of permissible questions can transfigure life in unimaginable ways.
Bruno Latour taught me that material realities are also transcendent, and that they, like all other realities, are immanent in interaction, most of all in resistance to interaction.
Chantal Mouffe taught me the concept of agonism: that conflict among adversaries is an essential feature of liberal democratic life, and that the attempt to suppress such conflict and to treat our adversaries as enemies is the root of illiberalism.
Martin Buber taught me that every person is a potential encounter with God if we are willing to relate to the other as a unique, surprising Thou (what he calls the I-Thou relationship), as opposed to an “it.”
Richard Rorty taught me that progress can be assessed in terms of distance away from negative goals, even when we are unclear of ultimate positive goals we are trying to progress toward.
I’ve contacted some letterpress printers about making my pamphlet, which used to be titled The 10,000 Everythings, but has been sobered up into Geometric Meditations, which is a more precise description of how I use the content of the book.
One printer has responded so far, and suggested some changes that seems to have improved it. I looked at the book again this morning, and I am still happy with it, so it must really be ready. There is only one word in the book that I’m not sure about.
I am producing it as a chapbook, sewn together with red thread, signifying both Ariadne’s thread as well as the Kabbalistic custom of typing a red thread around one’s left wrist to protect from the evil eye. Both are intensely relevant to this project. I have to remember how much I use these diagrams to generate understandings and to keep myself oriented. It is the red thread that connects all my thoughts. So the utility and value of the ideas is beyond doubt. It is true that the form does look and sound somewhat pompous, but it is the best (prettiest and most durable) form for these concepts, so I have to ignore my anxiety about scorn and ridicule from folks who know too little or two much (a.k.a. “evil eye”). At least one angle of understanding yields value, and hermeneutical decency requires that it be read from that angle.
I am incredibly nervous about putting this book out there. I am guessing I’ll just box all the copies up and hide them with my Tend the Root posters.