Discovering the Real “Real” World


After much deliberation and hesitation, I have decided to write another book about the same concerns I have expressed in both of my earlier ones: the failure of our present culture to produce flourishing. My reasons are (1) the message still needs to be put out there, and (2) I believe I have come to a much clearer and more powerful way of expressing it. Like all good engineers, I continually am searching for structure to attach ideas that pop up, to make the links among them explicit, to bring them alive. With no apologies for what I have already written, I believe I have come up with such a skeleton that brings coherence to the separate core concept in my books. It is the real world, the world out there, the world into which we are thrown, the world we never quite get to know, the unique worlds of experiences.

The key concepts in Flourishing are not surprisingly, flourishing, plus complexity, care, being, pragmatism, and in the background, phenomenology and existentialism. I see all of them as related now. As I was driving to physical therapy today, (my back has been bothering me lately), the meaning of Alfred North Whitehead’s famous concept, the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, leapt out at me. I made some notes on the scraps I keep in the car before going into the PT office. (I had another quite different realization; I could do the same by using the dictation feature of my iPhone.)

I taught a course using Whitehead’s text, Science in the Modern World, to my senior peers a few years ago in hopes to understand his ideas better. I did have a sense of what he meant, but not fully. He was commenting on the limits of scientific knowledge to fully capture the richness and uniqueness of the “real” world. Simplistically, this has been described by saying, “The map is not the territory,” or “The menu is not the meal.” All abstractions, no matter how they are derived, fail to describe the concreteness of any encounter with the world.

Well, life is nothing but a continuous encounter with the world. Using Whitehead’s words, it is a fallacy, an error, to be unaware of the concrete world that surrounds us, assuming that our models and beliefs give us a true picture on which we can construct our lives. Something is always missing. Being is missing. Being is living with as close a connection to the world as it is, not as it comes to us through our presuppositions. That’s the connection to phenomenology, which argues that we have to get rid of our presuppositions if we wish to see things as they are. Authentic Being is acting from within, basing our actions on the world as we have experienced it, not as it has been described by science or other social norms.

Early humans had no other choice but to Be; they lacked tools (language, methodologies) to abstract their experience into some form of expression. Inauthentic life crept in only when they developed symbols to correspond to the world. The symbols, like science, were only abstractions of the world. I am using world to describe the milieu in which we exist, the medium which surrounds us as does water for a fish. Inauthenticity has been likened to conformism, acting out of the world that is perceived via cultural signals, rather through than direct experience. Children always Be until they learn to act like others.

Flourishing is simply another expression for Being! Erich Fromm wrote that, “Being refers to experience (emphasis in the original), and human experience is in principle not describable.” Perhaps that’s why it has been so difficult to write about it. We cannot Be all the time in a busy social world. We have to conform to social norms and beliefs if we are to have any relationships with others. But we can guide our life from within and create the self we choose to be (and can change it to fit the cares we are attending to), and capture periods of authenticity.

And that gets me to the link with existentialism. While few, if any but Heidegger, existentialists use Being explicitly, they all are writing about existence, the particular human way of Being that distinguishes us from all other beings. Heidegger wrote:

The being that exists is man. Man alone exists. Rocks are, but they do not exist. Trees are, but they do not exist. Horses are, but they do not exist. Angels are, but they do not exist. God is, but does not exist.

Being is existing, living, experiencing life without any abstractions; it is interacting with the world directly. Reality, unmodified by method, can show up only through Being. Being clears the way to an understanding of the world. Hubert Dreyfus, a Heidegger scholar writes, “things show up in the light of our understanding of Being.” (If you understand this, please send me an email.)

Care is Heidegger’s description of how Being shows up in the world. Being is a contextual notion, as Dreyfus says, and is observed only through the acts we perform. Without action (doing things intentionally, we are just like every other being. [Being with a capital B refers to the ground of human existence; being with a small b refers to objects, things that appear in our consciousness.) Care entails all the actions we perform in the context of Being; caring actions constitute authenticity. We care when action arises out of our connection to the world and out of our own self, the one we choose to be at the moment.

Choice is critical to authenticity, and is a, perhaps the, main theme in existentialism. Freedom follows from being able to make the choice of who we shall Be. Choosing our self, within the noise and clatter of life around us, is very hard and anxiety-producing as all of us know. Sartre wrote, “Man is condemned to be free.” We cannot but make the choices that make us free. Existential freedom is also another expression for flourishing. Nelson Mandela is often pointed to as the epitome of Being. He chose to be free while imprisoned, to live an authentic life, choosing not to conform to social norms with he could not accept. I would say he flourished, in spite of his enclosed life. So have others. He wrote in 1975, “Incidentally, you may find that the cell is an ideal place to learn to know yourself, to search realistically and regularly the process of your own mind and feelings,.” His Being provided a clearing to the possibility of flourishing for his oppressed countrymen.

The last words in my list are pragmatism and complexity. Complexity describes worlds that cannot be reduced to abstractions by applying scientific methodology. Every real situation, outside of the laboratory, is unique. If we are to understand or manipulate complex systems, we must use a different way of knowing how it works, pragmatism. Pragmatism is a method to reveal the “truth” about complex systems; to get to understand them. Do not be put off by the techie sound of this word. Every real situation in life is complex. Describing real situations as complex would scare lots of people away, but they are the same thing.

Pragmatism was devised as an alternative to the scientific method, which produces generalized truths and theories. Science relies on isolating a situation, shutting it off from its context, and extracting some general “essence.” Pragmatism examines, using rigorous means, the problematic situation, but including its worldly context. If done properly, pragmatic inquiry involves a group that cares (interesting!) about the problem and the outcome. (Scientists are supposed to be be the opposite, being neutral about their work.) This pragmatic characteristic of focusing on the concrete parallels the central notion of existentialism.

Human beings cannot be generalized without losing something, any more than the world can. Every life experience is unique. There is no essence of human nature to be found. Sartre produced another great saying about existentialism, “existence comes before essence.” (If you get this, you have saved yourself a huge job of delving into the existentialist literature.)

I know I haven’t elaborated these ideas fully here, but there is enough to signal what what I will be writing about. Most of these concepts were included, implicitly or explicitly, in my past work, but not attached to a common skeleton. If these ideas are present in our culture today, they exist only as academic curiosities and subjects for philosophizing. Their absence is a result of modernity shouldering them aside. Oops, I see I am starting to write my book here, but that’s not what the blog is for. I use it as a place to try out new and to clarify old thinking. More to come when I get into a bind and have to work it out here. Sorry for the length, but I really got going.