Thursday, April 05, 2012

How Did I -- Of All Things -- Get Here?

I have exactly 35 minutes to my nameless. Maybe I can manage this time-squeeze I'm under if I just speed-type my spontaneous bobservations without pausing to reflect.

Let's do this thing. Go!

About that comment yesterday to the effect that there is more difference between a man and a monkey than between a monkey and an inanimate object. I would go even further and say that there is sometimes more difference between men than between men and animals.

One needs to be cautious here, because by no means does it imply that every person isn't of infinite value. But I was thinking of JWN Sullivan's remark to the effect that -- musically speaking, of course -- there is a greater distance between Beethoven and the average man than between the average man and a dog.

There are indeed a handful of men who tower above the rest, whether saints, or scientists, or novelists, poets and painters. Why is this?

I believe that it is essentially a necessary consequence of the ontological category of "man," who contains within himself all the hierarchical degrees of being, and spans the entire cosmos in both space and time, vertically and horizontally.

That being the case... Put it this way: it is analogous to the biosphere, in which there are no gaps whatsoever.

In other words, wherever one goes on the planet, from the deepest depths of the ocean, to the north pole, to the hottest desert, to the wastelands of MSNBC, there is some form of primitive life that has found a way to adapt itself to environmental conditions. It has found its niche.

But there is also a vertical space uniquely inhabited by man. This space too is populated wherever one travels within it. Indeed, one can go to hell and back -- Dante proved this -- but one will always find footprints of our predecessors and/or contemporaries (and occasionally descendants from the "future").

Even if one regards "hell" as a metaphor of the Freudian unconscious, this dimension was well-traveled even before Freud came along. It's just that he demythologized it and attempted to fit it into a scientific/mechanistic paradigm. But that is impossible, for the same reason religion cannot be so contained.

In fact, religion as such bears upon the ultimate container, not the contained. To imagine that one could ever be the former is to 1) misunderstand religion, and 2) create a narcissistic monster. Science becomes scientism -- and evolution evolutionism and politics religion -- when it presumes to be a self-sufficient explanation.

Back to the Beethoven-man-dog thingy, the point is that vertical space is densely populated, with some people near the top, others closer to the bottom.

But man possesses such protean gifts, that almost everyone has something that places him near the top, even if it is only -- only! -- kindness, or mothering, or decency, or sincerity. For example, although Beethoven was in the stratosphere musically, his interpersonal skills were evidently closer to a junkyard dog.

More generally, saints are not usually sages, scientists are not philosophers, celebrities are not political scientists, community organizers are not statesmen, etc.

Interesting, however, that someone like Thomas Aquinas was indeed both saint and sage, and at the highest levels. In his case, this convergence was necessary, because there is a kind of personal purity needed to disclose the realities he touches upon.

I think I have mentioned in the past that the ultimate question motivating my book was: how is it that I am possible? And I don't necessarily mean that in any special way, rather, just the naked fact of the most unexpected thing one could possibly imagine in a cosmos.

It turns out that in order to answer the question, you can't just say, for example, "my parents just happened to stumble upon one another, and you know the rest."

Yes there's that, but there's also cosmology, history, anthropology, linguistics, etc., etc., etc. It turns out that Purcell is motivated by that same question -- the very Question that defines man:

"What led me back to philosophy from psychology was a sense that, as a human being, I myself wasn't really, at least not exclusively, 'an object,' the kind of a thing a science could wholly encompass [read: contain] and explain."

Rather, "I realized I'm something other than a world-immanent thing -- a subject -- and that there's an inexhaustibility to the within-ness that marks me out as a human being as distinct from a galaxy, an ecosystem, or an animal."

Same here. In my case, I-

STOP! Please lay down your pencil, return to time, and prepare for work.

9 Comments:

Blogger mushroom said...

"What led me back to philosophy from psychology was a sense that, as a human being, I myself wasn't really, at least not exclusively, 'an object,' the kind of a thing a science could wholly encompass [read: contain] and explain."

I think, when I first opened a psychology textbook and began to read, this is something like what I expected. I thought that psychology would necessarily be philosophy since it was, after all, the study of the soul.

You do not even have to imagine my disappointment.

4/05/2012 08:54:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

This meshes quite nicely with the first chapter of Tomberg's Lazarus, Come Forth (pp. 28-31, for anyone playing at home), where he discusses hierarchy in terms of sun, moon and stars.

4/05/2012 08:59:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

Mushroom: yeah, not so much studying of souls as studying of mechanisms, imperfectly understood. At least at the level of psych class I took in college. I had an entire semester of "Psychology of Motivation," which ended with a gigantic asterisk noting that almost none of the material covered pertained to females. It was an interesting class, but I don't know that I'd call it particularly insightful, and there was nothing like wisdom presented (although of course the wise person would still take away some valuable lessons).

4/05/2012 09:05:00 AM  
Blogger Van said...

"I think I have mentioned in the past that the ultimate question motivating my book was: how is it that I am possible? And I don't necessarily mean that in any special way, rather, just the naked fact of the most unexpected thing one could possibly imagine in a cosmos."

Yep. The most surprising thing to find in the Cosmos... is you. It's like coming on the Mall Map, finding the "You are HERE" arrow, and on touching your finger to that point, looking up and discovering that your finger is about to tap you.

It's a shocker. There's the map, You are there, and sure enough, I am. So to speak.

4/05/2012 09:34:00 AM  
Blogger Van said...

"Same here. In my case, I-

STOP! Please lay down your pencil, return to time, and prepare for work."

Argh. Alarm clocks. Ptooey.

4/05/2012 09:39:00 AM  
Blogger mushroom said...

...almost none of the material covered pertained to females ...

Nobody understands women. :)

The more I think about the analogy with the biosphere, the more I like it. That really explains a lot in the spiritual realm.

You have your eagles and your hummingbirds, your wild geese and your wild turkeys. Then you have your chickens in the barnyard picking corn out of the cow manure.

4/05/2012 09:47:00 AM  
Blogger John Lien said...

Yeah, it's tough to be honestly self-aware of one's limitations. Well, I suppose the best you can hope to do is to optimize within the parameter space. That'll keep you busy.

4/05/2012 10:53:00 AM  
Blogger Magister said...

Mall Map -- nice one, Van.

Another Tomberg book! -- thanks, Julie.

One of the things so deeply disappointing about tenured philosophy is that it's tenured.

During that tenure, one is evidently supposed to "engage" in "conversations" between other professional philosophers -- at least until you make "full professor" -- and it is these professional conversations that circumscribe your philosophical activity during your tenure. Evidence of your participation in those conversations is what's rewarded. Why would you do anything without an attached reward?

I recognize that this is how the game is played, and if you want to play that game, there ya go. But it fundamentally pens you into very small-scale, tightly-bound conversations in which the horizon is bound by a reward system, not by the exigence or importance of a given question.

This is why it is much more satisfying to stand on some farmland with a man who home-schools his kids and wants to talk about Aquinas or Adam Smith (eg) while you help him transport an abandoned kids' playhouse down the road which he wants to use as a chicken coop.

There, all questions are rooted to a spot where they can grow in all directions toward an answer that answers personal needs.

As for "genius," the concept makes me wary. Bach was a genius, but he would've shrugged and gotten on with the next cantata. He was motivated by a need to praise God and a need to provide a scientific musical foundation for his family. A phenomenal workman. 50,000 hours of practice, easy. He had nothing else, and people didn't live very long. Plus, and most important, he had faith in what his musical explorations meant. Many of those conditions are hard to come by these days.

Knights of faith. Those who don't look from side to side. Those who are in the Zoe-ne 24/7.

Also hard to come by.

4/05/2012 10:59:00 AM  
Blogger ge said...

current read, enjoying a re-entry to the woild of Tibetan Dude-ism:

Longchenpa

y'all 'been through' this kind of material? Pinnacle Dzogchen. Padmasambhava. the 'Shortest Path': goal is here/now or never-nowhere...
some of it has never seen light of English til this century

-Too 'Kantian'? Lacking in Tombergian love?

Mind = All;
Rigpa = Gnosis;
aint nothing there but passing pure mental ineffability, miraculously compassionate in action and mysteriously blissful in tone

4/06/2012 04:29:00 AM  

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