Summer Reading

veil

Habit and routine are great veils over our existence. As long as they remain securely in place, we need not consider what life means; its meaning seems sufficiently incarnate in the triumph of the daily habit.

Now that I am fully relocated from Lexington to Maine for the elusive summer, I can get into my summer routines and habits. Two predominate: fishing and reading. The fish haven’t migrated far enough North yet, so I am largely relegated to reading. I brought up more than I usually can get through, but this year I have limited the subjects to two, so maybe I will go back with a sense of completion, usually missing. The two subjects are pretty heavy, but ones I have been nibbling about the edges for some time: existentialism and consciousness. I have this nagging sense of incompletion about my writing and hope to close the gap a little coming out of these topics. I also am thinking of giving a course on existentialism at my Institute for Learning in Retirement (HILR).

The quote at the top comes from a book I am reading currently, Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy, by William Barrett. Written in 1962, it is still timely. As I begin to read in this topic, I increasingly realize that the central themes of my books on sustainability and flourishing have their roots here. My path has not followed a formal philosophical route, but it is very reassuring whenever I find the same arguments located there. As most of the works I have been reading say, there is no single definition of existentialism. It may be better thought about as a reaction to the rationalism that began with Plato and was amplified during the Enlightenment and still continues to dominate our modern Western world.

Simplifying the arguments I make in my writings, I claim that the sad state of the unsustainable world today is due to a mistaken view of what it means to be human and a related error in trying to describe the complex world through reductionist science. The modern scientistic view of the world out there provides the dominant view of human being. Individual human experience and development are subservient to the same kind of abstraction that works so well in explaining how sound waves work or why an apple falls from the tree. But it hollows out human existence and hides our most basic features from us. Modern rationalism seeks to find order in everything, expressing meaning by formulas and mathematical expression. But such meaning is emptied of the real human experience which, as Heidegger expressed, comes though language, not numbers. Language is the medium that carries the historic, sedimented experience of our species, not the abstract laws of science.

I would add another result that routine and habit veil from us. We are blind to all sorts of unintended consequences that are happening out of sight. We not only fail to ask ourselves fundamental questions about who we are as human beings, but also fail to reflect on those consequences of our habits that lie outside of our veils. Modern optimism in science and technology to deal with whatever untoward situations arise in the world keeps the blinders on.

As many others do, I strongly believe that these unintended consequences are growing so large that they are overwhelming the intended results of our habits and routines. Unless we pull back the veil, we will keep on doing exactly what we have been doing. Cultural life is conservative by nature. Our habits become evermore entrenched as we enact them. What a dilemma for us! How can we begin to turn around this trajectory?

Two possibilities immediately come to mind. We can do nothing until the system collapses, driven by either a natural upset (climate change, perhaps) or a human spasm (inequality, perhaps). Then we will have to find a new set of habits and routines that match the new world. Given that, at least in the modern world, we have invested so much in our current technological routines, we will have a hard time time coming up with new alternatives.

The second possibility is vastly different. In place of a sudden, traumatic lifting of the veil, we can slowly make it transparent by individual reflection. Start to question the validity of our habits, not from some theory, but simply because they no longer work. Does this process sound familiar? It means that each of us has to become a philosopher because reflection and questioning is what philosophers do. Existential philosophy seems particularly important here. The questions of greatest importance when the world stops working relate to what am I doing; what kind of existence am I experiencing. Is there something peculiar to being human that has been escaping me?

I am confident that such questioning will make a huge difference, because I already think I know where this line of inquiry will lead. It is to the place that is central to my work and explicitly exposed in Flourishing. We are human beings, as opposed to all other beings because we care about the question of what is is to be human and because our existence rests on care for the world. We have forgotten this in the hurly-burly, high-speed modern era. Care is what it takes to live in the world because to live in the world implies a connection to everything, but a particular kind of connection that sustains the system. When we lose the ethical responsibility that being connected implies, we leave the responsibility for maintaining the system up in the air, floating without an anchor.

So, by the end of the summer I hope to be much more articulate and convincing about what it takes to flourish. Barrett’s book is proving to be a great start. I used another of his books in a course I taught at HILR a few years ago. I am just getting to the part where he discusses a number individual existentialists that have contributed to the subject. So far he has taken great pains to situate the emergence of this branch of philosophy in the history of ideas.

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