Monday, August 06, 2012

The Answer and Its Perennial Search for Good Questioners

Next up in our threewheeling trialogue with Voegelin is an essay called Equivalences of Experience and Symbolization in History.

Wait! Don't go. It's really interesting.

The problem with Voegelin -- if I may be so impudent -- is that he seems to have been a bit isolated from normal chitchat with others. For example, although he spent his life in academia, I read somewhere that he accepted no graduate students, and instead focussed all of his time on research, writing, and the occasional lecture. I've known academics like this, and they can become so isolated that they start losing the ability to... to just GET TO THE POINT, WILL YOU!

This is distinct from the typical pseudo-intellectual masturbatory jargon that emanates from the jerk circles of the tenured. Rather, I compare it more to a musical genius such as Thelonious Monk, who penetrated so deeply into the foundations and architecture of music that he came up with a kind of private musical universe.

However, once one acclimates oneself to this new musical world, one finds that it is actually quite universal, traditional even. He may have discovered a new form of beauty, but in the end, beauty is beauty. Superficially it sounds "radical," but it's really a continuation; it is only radical in the literal sense of the term, which connotes a return to the "root" of things.

Another way of expressing it is furnished by Roger Kimball, who adduces the following quote from a Jean-François Revel: "The history of philosophy can be divided into two different periods. During the first, philosophers sought the truth; during the second, they fought against it."

FYI, we're living through the second phase.

Voegelin obviously falls into the first camp, which is why he isn't much discussed by those in the second. But since the vast majority of philosophers (and contemporary thinkers more generally) fall into the latter campf, it seems to me that he composed a lot of private music that few people have heard or take the necessary time to understand. Sure, it all makes sense to me. But the same people who dismiss Voegelin wouldn't even dismiss me, to put it moldily.

Kimball provides another helpful quote, this one from Henry Kissinger (BTW, even beyond the exceptional lucidity of thought, Kimball's essays have a wealth of brainiacal quotes and dozens of unfamiliar and sometimes even useful words such as "fustian," "minatory," and "purlieus"):

"We have entered a time of total change in human consciousness of how people look at the world. Reading books requires you to form concepts, to train your mind to relationships. You have to come to grips with who you are.... But now we learn from fragments of facts. A book is a large intellectual construction; you can't hold it all in mind easily or at once. You have to struggle mentally to internalize it. Now there is no need to internalize because each fact can be brought up on the computer." But "information is not knowledge."

So to actually assimilate someone as deep as Voegelin -- or a world as deep as this -- one must form a real and vibrant relationship with him/it, meaning that there is a kind of two-way vector extending into his psyche and ours; or between (¶) and (¶).

And it seems to me that each side limits or expands the other. In other words, we can only "come to grips" with him to the same extent that we come to grips with ourselves. This is the nature of any vertical knowledge.

Horizontal knowledge, because it is merely objective, requires no such introspection, assimilation, or transformation, because it's analogous to placing an object -- a fact or bit of knowledge -- into the space of the mind and filing it away somewhere. The type of thinking that results is similar to a computer, in that it is mainly limited by the amount and speed of memory.

Voegelin is not the first author we have treated in this manner. Others we have spent weeks or months exploring have included Tomberg, Balthasar, Pieper, Eckhart, Ratzinger, Wojtyla, and, of course, Schuon. Again, these are not mere "books" but encounters. Absent the encounter, there is no way to access what is contained in the book, because it is contained in being, not knowledge (or, it is a different type of knowledge that reaches up and down into being, i.e., [n] vs. [k]).

One more quote, this one from Chesterton: "The well-meaning person who, by merely studying the logical side of things, has decided that 'faith is nonsense,' does not know how truly he speaks; later it may come back to him in the form that nonsense is faith."

Back to the essay alluded to above. One reason it interests me is that it confronts one of the problems addressed in the bOʘk, which is to say, the equivalence of experiences that use diverse symbols to describe them. Because the symbols differ, people may be misled into believing they are describing different realities. Or, the experiences may be reflections of a larger category: one person eats an orange, another an apple, but both have experienced fruit. (Oddly enough, yesterday reader Gandalin asked a question that touches on this very issue, even though this post was mostly written on Saturday.)

Voegelin writes that "What is permanent in the history of mankind is not the symbols but man himself in search of his humanity and its order" (emphasis mine). Too often, I believe, we either conflate symbols that are distinct, or else distinguish symbols that are roughly equivalent.

For example, the Allah of whom Islamists speak is obviously not the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Conversely, Schuon maintained that Buddha had the experience of God even if he rejected the name. In a sense this is not controversial, in that every experience in O is going to be "unique" even though "universal."

How do we use symbols in such a way that they convey the universality without denying the uniqueness? Again, that's why I created my little family of pneumaticons: O, Ø, ʘ,(¶),(•),(•••),(↑),(↓), (o), (---), and all the rest. Based upon yesterday's thread, I need to come up with a symbol for vertical emissaries, i.e., angels. How about (¡). I like this, because our reaction to (¡) is often (!). I wonder if they also get a little freaked out? If so, (¿!).

You might say that there is a space element and a time element. The space element is more universal, the time element more particular. For example, one might say that the archetypal man -- Adam Kadmon -- is in "vertical space," while we each embody and elaborate the archetype in our temporal lives. Absent the latter, we have no access to the former. At the same time, Aquinas (and Augustine before him) would say that the archetype -- or idea -- is nowhere else other than in man, just as the blueprint is "in" the house and the DNA is in the cell it orders.

Voegelin criticizes the so-called philosopher who deforms himself "by adopting the belief that the truth of existence is a set of propositions" which are "demonstrably true and therefore acceptable to everybody." "In vain he will look for the one set of true propositions," for which reason we can "hardly blame him if in the end he decides that skepticism is the better part of wisdom and becomes an honest relativist and historicist."

Again, this is because, for example, if one merely examines outwardly the diverse symbols of religion -- instead of experiencing or "undergoing" them -- it is the work of a moment to dismiss them as incapable of universal assent. In reference to yesterday's thread, we might say that since people have different ideas about angels, they must not exist.

But ironically, it is the non-believer who exiles himself from any possibility of transcendent unity. For at least the believer holds passionately to the idea (or experience) of unity, even if he believes his symbol of unity is better than the other guy's symbol. Which it may well be. As in art, some works are better than others. It would be foolish on this basis to conclude that beauty doesn't exist.

That was Saturday. It is now Monday morning, and in the brief time I have left, I'd like to skip forward and add something that directly addresses yesterdays lofty thread, and illuminates my approach more generally. I'm not saying it is the right way, only that it works for me because I seem to be Built This Way. It's kind of a thread that has followed -- or organized -- me ever since my (¶) started to come on line in my mid-20s.

I don't know if I'll be able to find the exact passage I'm looking for, but in truth, it informs Voegelin's whole search for the Ground. For example, he writes that "The Logos has been operative in the world from its creation; all men who have lived according to reason, whether Greeks or barbarians, have in a sense been Christians" (Augustine said the same thing).

It all begins with O and with (?!), or with Reality and the the shocking experience thereof. Voegelin writes that "man the questioner" is prompted "to ask the questions that will lead him toward the cause of being.... in the act of questioning, man's experience of his tension toward the divine ground breaks forth in the word of inquiry as a prayer for the Word of the answer."

So, religion is already the answer to our prayers. The Torah, for example, chronicles centuries of engagement with, and experience in, O. One might say that it is the contrail of this ongoing engagement (although looked at another way, it is the vehicle itself).

"Question and answer are held together, and related to one another, by the event of the search." However, Man "can also deform his humanity by refusing to ask the questions, or by loading them with premises devised to make the search impossible.... The answer will not help the man who has lost the question."

This reminds me of something Schuon said, to the effect that there is more Light in the intelligent question than in the deficient answer. For example, there is far more light in the question, "I wonder if this is all evidence of a higher intelligence?" than in the crude answer that it's all physics and Darwin. In a way, the Answer is always in search of a good question(er), because existence is not a fact, and neither are you.

What are we, then? For Voegelin we are a kind of "non-fact," a "disturbing movement in the in-Between of ignorance and knowledge, of time and timelessness, of imperfection and perfection, of hope and fulfillment, and ultimately of life and death." Thus, "the search... imposes a form even when the substance is lost."

Which is what often saves us in spite of ourselves.

I didn't really have time to find the passage mentioned above. I don't even have time to make sure all my words are properly misspelled. Obviously, to be continued if not beaten to death...

16 Comments:

Blogger julie said...

This post and yesterday's discussion have been excellent. I wish I could add any thoughts of my own, but for the moment I'm happy just to (barely) keep up. However, this post yesterday over at Just Thomism strikes me as being relevant to the discussion. And also just a good read:

“The third reason, as I said, is a bit more obscure, but it speaks to what lies at the heart of the temptation, namely to put God to the test. To understand this, I helps to turn notice a story that recurs again and again throughout history - the basic plot is this: a man performs an experiment with his wife’s fidelity, either by pretending to be someone else and testing it or by letting someone else get in all-too-close quarters with her (variants of the story occur in the Greeks, it occurs in Don Quixote, and again in Cosi Fan Tutte). Now anyone who hears the setup knows that this will end badly – indeed it must end badly. But why do none of the husbands in the stories see this? Because they are blinded by the desire for the most definite and certain sort of evidence we can have of things: the evidence of an experimental trial. The problem is – and this is the moral of the story – that to reject the testimony of others and insist that we must see things for ourselves can destroy the very thing that we seek to see. If we will not take our wife at her word, then we will lose her altogether. If we demand that everything give us the clearest sort of evidence we can have, we will destroy the very evidence we would hope to find. This is, by the way, exactly the problem with those obscene and blasphemous “experimental trials” that seek to establish the efficacy of prayer. Such studies are ridiculous anyway, as many people have pointed out (how can we ever determine a group that isn’t being prayed for by anyone? Millions of people pray everyday for those who have no one to pray for them) but this absurdity is not what is fundamentally wrong with them. The problem is that such an experiment can only destroy the thing it would seek to give evidence for, for the same reason that a man who would experiment with his wife’s love is undermining the very thing he would seek to discover."

8/06/2012 09:21:00 AM  
Blogger mushroom said...

Horizontal knowledge, because it is merely objective, requires no such introspection, assimilation, or transformation, because it's analogous to placing an object -- a fact or bit of knowledge -- into the space of the mind and filing it away somewhere.

As a political aside, I have noticed that leftists really like to govern by micromanagment. Good bureaucrats -- that is, the ones good at making other people miserable -- focus on very small things. A "discussion" with a leftist almost always degenerates into a dozen rabbit trails of minutiae or anecdotes or minor hypotheticals. I am tempted to say that anyone who can genuinely grasp the big picture -- not just pretend to do so -- is going to be pro-liberty.

8/06/2012 11:16:00 AM  
Blogger mushroom said...

The problem is that such an experiment can only destroy the thing it would seek to give evidence for, for the same reason that a man who would experiment with his wife’s love is undermining the very thing he would seek to discover.

Kind of a quantum uncertainty principle or a wave-particle form. You can have a faithful spouse by faith or know for certain your spouse is unfaithful.

8/06/2012 11:22:00 AM  
Blogger glindfors said...

(¡) This symbol/pneumaticon you've created is truly elegant. I can see the wings, the halo, and the robe... but the face is too dazzling to see... and is represented by a plain white background.

8/06/2012 11:40:00 AM  
Blogger Anna said...

Julie quoted...

"Because they are blinded by the desire for the most definite and certain sort of evidence we can have of things..."

Great points in the whole quote. This part in particular reminded me of a friend of a friend who in essence was doubting his faith. It seemed to be this endless quest for what would help him. It occurred to me that the solution was the nature to the problem itself -- faith by nature is... faith! To cross that divide is a leap without a "guarantee" or a "proof", except as noted many times in The Book, by the evidence within and without of the Holy Spirit Himself. The problem also touched on epistemology, as the kind of knowledge he sought (a proof of the validity of his faith) was the wrong kind for the question at hand. It was like lifting up a rock that had the appearance of a mysterious question and seeing the underside -- that it was that old, known point of what the whole thing is about! It is what so much effort is spent toward making clear - the struggle to NOT have profane guarantees. Oddly, it connects to when Jesus pointed out that even when they had Him right before them in the flesh, they still didn't see Him, so... there's also that. The answer I had for the guy was: You gotta have faith! Even faith that you have faith!

8/06/2012 02:39:00 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

" "The history of philosophy can be divided into two different periods. During the first, philosophers sought the truth; during the second, they fought against it."

FYI, we're living through the second phase."

According to the rest of your post (and I agree with the rest as well), this "sought vs fought" has been going on constantly. Maybe since for evers. Or at least for the evers that matter. Faith lives there.

8/06/2012 06:51:00 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

This angel business has been the most difficult for me to get comfortable with. I believe much of that has to do with the concept or word being more saturated than the word God (at least to me). The presence become more "tangible" the more I'm able to clear my mental images of them, or borrowed images. There may be angels as they are depicted in great art and valentine cards, but I know these have been blocking off the possibilities of others there behind them. I for one welcome our new upside down exclamation points.

8/06/2012 07:03:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

I have seen philosophy gradually fade away between my skepticism and my faith. --Don Colacho

8/06/2012 07:04:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Even the person who doesn't believe in angels is very likely somebody's angel.

8/06/2012 07:08:00 PM  
Blogger mushroom said...

Amen to that.

8/06/2012 07:51:00 PM  
Blogger Van Harvey said...

"Voegelin writes that "What is permanent in the history of mankind is not the symbols but man himself in search of his humanity and its order" (emphasis mine). Too often, I believe, we either conflate symbols that are distinct, or else distinguish symbols that are roughly equivalent."


Ahhhhhhh......mmmmhhhaaahhhhhh... that felt good.

""The Logos has been operative in the world from its creation; all men who have lived according to reason, whether Greeks or barbarians, have in a sense been Christians" (Augustine said the same thing)."

You know the movie gag, where there's a bunch of gunfire and then and then the guy jumps up and does a quick body check, touching and patting to make sure all his parts are there and without holes?

Posts like this are like those internal probes from yesterday's sub-postlet,


"For me, the book is more of an experience, and I try to take advantage of the experiences that are provoked. It's like a tool or probe that pokes into one's own spiritual spaces. Once that happens, you drop the probe and check out the space."

All there.

8/06/2012 10:55:00 PM  
Blogger Van Harvey said...

... running around in the drive-by shooting of the other world view, posts like this help you pat down and confirm that you're all still there.

And more.

8/06/2012 11:07:00 PM  
Blogger USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

"Voegelin criticizes the so-called philosopher who deforms himself "by adopting the belief that the truth of existence is a set of propositions" which are "demonstrably true and therefore acceptable to everybody.""

This reminds me of those who believe that "consensus" equals truth.

Hey, if enough people believe it there's gotta be something to it, right?
Especially if they include professors, scientists, politicians, journolists and celebrities.

The collective badwagon appears more safe and it's certainly easier, since it doesn't require the individual to think for himself (indeed, individual thinking is discouraged and frowned upon).

Oh goody, there's no need to study for the test! What a relief!
And who needs tests when they know everything anyway?

And if someone questions the
con-senselessness they'll just circle the badwagons and fire.

8/07/2012 01:56:00 AM  
Blogger EbonyRaptor said...

I've been reading Bob off and on for years but have not ventured into the the Comments section until recently ... late to the party as usual. I'm happy I finally did. I arrived just in time to experience the William that Bob has mentioned in some posts and yet did not have to suffer him through what must have seemed like an eternity to the rest of you, even though he was easily useful as an foil.

That's a long winded way of saying I appreciate your commenters Bob as they not only enrich the dialogue, but also introduce me to other bloggers as Julie did yesterday with the link to Just Thomism - thanks Julie.

8/07/2012 07:06:00 AM  
Blogger River Cocytus said...

There is of course the other problematic tendency - the one to create mystery where it doesn't exactly exist. It is for instance one reason why agnosticism can be irritating -- to pretend that we just don't know or can't know about higher power(s) is in some ways absurd!

In any case, we know the right answers because they generally give rise to new questions rather than closing off the space of knowledge.

While from an agnostic position it may seem more 'open' to consider whether God exists or not to be a mystery, when one sets upon the notion - upon the experience even - of his objective existence - it definitely destroys that mystery. But it then raises a whole lot of other questions - more questions that are harder to answer - just like the acceptance of the Christ does, indeed.

8/07/2012 08:50:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

@EbonyRaptor - it's my pleasure. To be honest, I often find it difficult to follow the Thomistic arguments very closely (not sure if that's a male/female thing, or if I'm simply not bright enough), but every now and then he posts something that resonates so well that I am glad to struggle through his more challenging posts.

8/07/2012 12:25:00 PM  

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