A Little Bit of Philosophy Goes a Long Way.

early-human

This corruption of the familiar phrase about the power of kindness is, perhaps, even more relevant to coping with unsustainability and the continuing deterioration of both human and natural systems. What I mean by philosophy here is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with reality, existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language (from Wikipedia). This list is not at all inclusive. I would make the definition more general by defining philosophy as the study of any serious, pervasive (in time and space), life-nurturing or the opposite issue, perplexing problem.

I am careful in avoiding the use of solving because solving, that is, making the symptoms disappear, is generally only a temporary condition. Permanently getting rid of (some say dissolving) the problem can be done only after we understand what is causing it and, for the class of problems I have just mentioned, it takes some philosophical work to prepare us for the dissolving process. If we can solve a problem simply by applying a method, then that problem is likely not to be pervasive and does not need much, if any, study of its origins. Philosophizing, working through the great problems, always requires reflection, the ability to remove yourself from the midst of the mundane, the ongoing action, in order to step outside of the mental constraints that are always present in the course of action. The pervasiveness of the important problems comes in part, maybe entirely, from failures to do just that—to step outside of the mental models that have been guiding your action.

Many people avoid the use of the word, philosophize, because, for them, it carries an elite, academic, sometimes arrogant, sense. On the other hand, it seems more and more educators and others are calling for “critical thinking.” There is no semantic difference here, both refer to a reflective ability to step outside of the immediate, analytic context of whatever problem is being faced. More practically, systems thinking generally refers to the same thing, putting a problem in a broader context in which the root causes begin to show up. No matter what you call it, big problems, like unsustainability, cannot be effectively addressed without doing it. Critical thinkers cannot merely invoke some method to get at the core. Methods are always some representation of a fixed way of thinking about the world. If we are so lucky that the problem arises from the same context as the method, we may be able to use it to find a way out of wherever we do not want to be. Unsustainability is definitely one of those kinds.

With this preface, I am going to engage in a little philosophizing so that the core arguments I have been making about the quest for flourishing and the related, but very different problem, of ending unsustainability, may make more sense against the prevailing belief structure of modern societies.

Imagine the arrival of our species on the Earth about 200-300,000 years ago. Early humans had many characteristics that have remained a part of our species, but, at best, possessed a primitive, way of communicating, including body and vocal gestures. Language, as we know it, came along a lot later. But even early humans had to be engaged in the world in the same fundamental way we still must today. They needed to interact with the world successfully in terms of survival, and those that did could be said to flourish. Humans were social creatures, which means they possessed some means of coordinating their actions: early on perhaps, by domination with a proverbial two-by-four and, as they evolved, with forms of vocal language. They needed to make the world around them distinct in order to coordinate actions, inventing signs for objects of importance (nouns), for primary actions (verbs), and for orientation (prepositions). If we could propel ourselves back in time and observe them, we might well say, in our vastly richer language, that they are going about taking care of their world.

Care, here, being a word to describe actions stemming from a consciousness of the world and acting, within that consciousness, to create some felicitous outcome, which in their case was simple survival. Everything they knew (retained in their consciousness) about the world was unique because they lacked the ability to create concepts and universals. If they did understand anything meaningful meaning about what they observed, it was only because they could recognize their functions in practice over time.

This is probably not the same story that Heidegger used in developing his ontological description of human being as care, but I believe it gets one to the same place much more directly. He put it into the context of today by arguing that human beings are thrown into the world compressing a 100,000 years of evolution into a single lifetime, and that their coping within that world forms their meaningful existence as human beings. What separates humans from other species, even primates, is that they care, that is, meaningfully interact with the world. Early language probably had signs pointing both to actions to do and to avoid. With the expansion of language, cultures could and did become more complex. At some point, language began to have words that were conceptual in nature; they pointed to distinctions that were not embodied in the world of action.

I am not a student of language so all this is my relatively crude way of thinking about it. I often wonder when and how interrogatives came to be. How did “why” arise? Without why or how, it is hard to imagine how immaterial words arose. Once words could point to immaterial distinctions, it became possible to discover or posit the existence of universals (concepts) and add them to the vocabulary of normal actions. Human being could and did expand beyond merely caring for the material world. We started acting out toward reaching the “good” and similar concepts.

Fast forward to the present. Our actions today are largely shaped by cultural norms that have grown far, far from those that gave human beings their distinctiveness as a species. Our caring, that is, actions characterized by interactions with the world that maintains existence, have been submerged by actions governed by cultural concepts: wealth, status, power, and so on. In that process, we have lost sight of our basic humanness and no longer care about much at all. Fromm, whom I often quote, spoke about being transformed from being to having creatures. Interactions, meaning actions reflecting both the actor and object of the actions, are now only meaningless transactions. There is little or no care present. The focus has shifted almost entirely backwards to the actor with pathological consequences. No one is taking care of the Earth and it is deteriorating. No one is taking care of the myriads of suffering humans on the planet. Many are not even taking care of their own bodies.

It is impossible to predict exactly what would happen if, all of a sudden, people started to care and institutions were redesigned to enable care, but it is essential to begin to do just that. Each new born is the same as every other one. At birth, our babies are exactly as equipped to deal with the world as those of early humans. They are thrown into a more complex world, for sure, but begin life by being cared for. That’s where the comparison ends. Our modern way is to stop caring as soon as we can and begin to rely on technology or other human beings to do the coping for us. Care will not solve our problems by itself, but without the consciousness and connectedness that comes with caring, I believe strongly that we will continue down the path of increasing unsustainability. Money and technology cannot stop the trajectory, but caring just might do the trick.

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