The psychologist Carl Jung wrote of the collective unconscious, a source of deep common understanding and knowledge that every person seems to somehow draw from. I've always liked this concept, and I've often thought we could take this further and consider the concept of the collective self. While Jung's collective unconscious is present in our lives as a source of awareness and feeling, the collective self is something else: it's the source of our shared willfulness, our common motivation, our us.
I like to introduce the concept of the collective self into ethical arguments to help explain how human beings can be self-interested and concerned for the well-being of other individuals at the same time. It's often said that we are all motivated primarily by self-interest, but if we examine the goals that truly drive us in our everyday lives, the things that we care about and work hard for, we quickly see that we tend to be motivated not by private benefit but, more often, by public benefit of one kind or another.
Our concern and desire for the well-being of other members of the social groups to which we belong, or the well-being of humanity as a whole, is not a derived element, not a projection of individual self-interest mapped according to utilitarian needs onto others. Rather, our concern and desire for the well-being of numerous collective groups to which we belong is a primary instinct. We care about us. Us, it turns out, is no less a strong glue than me.
"Take what you have gathered from coincidence," Bob Dylan sang. Sometimes I'm not sure what to take, and what to leave behind.
Two mathematically improbable coincidences haunted me this Saturday, both related to current events and to this website, Literary Kicks. First, I woke up early Saturday morning and spent a calm hour sipping coffee, eating blueberry Special K and browsing through my complete Plato, intent on finding a kick-ass philosophical quote to put up as the day's blog post. I finally picked a choice snatch of dialogue from the Meno, an old favorite.
Just as this blog post was going up, a brainy, deluded and possibly schizophrenic 22-year-old creep from Tuscon, Arizona named Jared Lee Loughner was shooting six people in a shopping center. Later that day an online list of Loughner's favorite books was revealed. I was shocked to see on the list, along with titles like The Communist Manifesto and Mein Kampf, an excellent novel by Ken Kesey and two by Plato: the Republic and ... you guessed it, the Meno.
Socrates: When you speak of a person desiring fine things, do you mean it is good things he desires?
Socrates: Then do you think some people desire evil and others good? Doesn't everyone, in your opinion, desire good things?
Socrates: And would you say that the others suppose evil to be good, or do they still desire them although they recognize them as evil?
Meno: Both, I should say.
Socrates: What? Do you really think that anyone who recognizes evils for what they are, nevertheless desires them?
Socrates: Desires in what way? To possess them?
Meno: Of course.
Socrates: In the belief that evil things bring advantage to their possessor, or harm?
Meno: Some in the first belief, but some also in the second.
Socrates: And do you believe that those who suppose evil things bring advantage understand that they are evil?
Meno: No, that I can't really believe.
Socrates: Isn't it clear then that this class, who don't recognize evils for what they are, don't desire evil but what they think is good, though in fact it is evil, those who through ignorance mistake bad things for good obviously desire the good?
Meno: For them I suppose that is true.
Socrates: Now as for those whom you speak of as desiring evils in the belief that they do harm to their possessor, those presumably know that they will be injured by them?
Meno: They must.
Socrates: And don't they believe that whoever is injured is, in so far as he is injured, unhappy?
Meno: That too they must believe.
Socrates: And unfortunate?
Socrates: Well, does anybody want to be unhappy and unfortunate?
Meno: I suppose not.
Socrates: Then in not, nobody desires what is evil, for what else is unhappiness but desiring evil things and getting them?
Meno: It looks as if you are right, Socrates, and nobody desires what is evil.
Socrates: Now you have just said that virtue consists in a wish for good things plus the power to acquire them. In this definition the wish is common to everyone, and in that respect no one is better than his neighbor.
Meno: So it appears.
-- Plato, Meno
When we talk about philosophy, we should have some idea what we're aiming to achieve.
There's a popular misconception that philosophy has no purpose, other than perhaps to exercise and train the mind. If this were all it was good for, I wouldn't bother much with it. When I read or write or discuss ideas, I am always hoping for satori, an event of understanding. This Japanese word can sometimes be used to refer to a specific kind of understanding, and it can also be used to describe the sensation and experience of this understanding, which can be so sudden and surprising as to resemble a lightning bolt, or a smack in the head.
But descriptions of satori may over-emphasize its instantaneous nature, because it's actually not the quickness of satori but rather its permanence that matters most. It's a popular mistake to think that a lightning-bolt realization must be an ephemeral or elusive thing. Satori can be made of concrete, and can be a sturdy and reliable building block to place further ideas upon. The theory of evolution was Charles Darwin's great satori, and is satori as well for everyone else who learns and comes to understand the theory. Sigmund Freud's discovery of dream analysis was also satori, and Einstein's theory of relativity. Buddha's moment of enlightenent under a Bodhi tree may be the most singularly celebrated satori in history, but that's only because there is no biblical record of the specific moment when Jesus of Nazareth realized that the meek would inherit the earth, or Abraham that there is one God. Jack Kerouac once wrote a poignant novel called Satori in Paris, though this is one of his least-loved works, probably because it's about a guy who goes to Paris looking for satori rather than about a guy who finds it. Sometimes, as in this book, satori makes its presence felt most when it can't be found
But we yearn for it often, and luckily we find it often as well. What could be more depressing than an entire day without a single moment of enlightenment? We should never let that happen. When we work on crossword puzzles or sodoku games, we may think we're passing the time or training our minds, but in fact we're sustaining ourselves with little, constant doses of satori.
I've never wished for wealth. I hate shopping, luxury is not my idea of pleasure, and I don't enjoy owning a lot of stuff. I've never been able to understand why somebody would get excited about a widescreen TV or a gigantic house or an expensive car. I drive a 2001 Saturn, and I really don't know what a car could have that this one doesn't. I guess the most luxurious thing I own is my Takamine acoustic classical guitar, which I paid a thousand dollars for because I could actually hear the difference.
The only amount of money I'd ever wish for is the amount that would buy me freedom from working for a living. I've spent my adult life earning my monthly keep and supporting my kids with long, hard hours. I've rarely managed to get more than a few months ahead of my bills, and a couple of times I got a few months behind. I did have one extensive flirtation with wealth (this was one of the main subjects of my memoir) during the Internet stock boom in 1999. But a million dollars in stock options didn't buy me any freedom at all. Instead, it shackled me to my job more tightly than I'd ever been shackled before, and the crazy year that followed (before the 2000 stock market crash wiped out my "wealth") was one of the worst years of my life.
So I don't think wealth buys happiness, and nothing I've observed around me has suggested otherwise. But money sure does have a hold on the public imagination, and it sure gets people riled up. The big public debate that's taking place in the United States of America these days about taxes and budget deficits is worth studying from many different angles. As far as the battle in Congress indicates, the Democratic Party wants to cut taxes on lower and middle class Americans but wants the wealthy (those earning above $250,000 a year) to pay more, while the Republican Party wants to extend tax cuts to the wealthy.
It takes some effort to unpack the real agendas behind these stances. Why do the mass of Republican voters care so much about tax cuts for the wealthy, when Republican voters are actually no wealthier than Democratic voters? I've heard it explained that anti-tax conservatives are "voting their dreams" -- they hope to someday become wealthy, and when they finally do they don't want the government taxing their money away. This is the "Joe the Plumber" theory, and I'm sure there's something to it. But it doesn't explain enough.
I know David Foster Wallace was a brilliant writer, but I've never been able to enjoy his ponderous novels. So I looked forward to the posthumous publication of Fate, Time and Language: An Essay on Free Will, a paper he wrote to earn his philosophy degree at Amherst College in the early 1980s. I was especially excited to read this work because I was also a philosophy student in the 1980s. I figured I'd be able to relate to this work more than I ever could to his fiction.
Fate, Time and Language is getting a lot of attention, partly because it's the first book release from the acclaimed postmodernist's archives since his inexplicable suicide (another book, a novel called The Pale King, will come out in April, 2011). Because it's a philosophy text addressing the question of free will, there is an implicit hope that the book may explain something about Wallace's work, or perhaps even illuminate the tragic thought process that led him to kill himself. It's also being floated as a serious work of contemporary philosophy, even a groundbreaking one.
I think Fate, Time and Language will have a lot of sentimental value to DFW fans, and is also valuable as an earnest, carefully composed demonstration of philosophical argument, or dialectic. However, I'm sorry to say there's nothing groundbreaking about this essay. It's thoroughly the work of a smart student. While I don't disagree with Columbia University Press's decision to publish it, I do find it hard to believe that Wallace, if he were alive today, would be particularly proud of it, except as a relic from his past. And I don't think it does readers a service for anyone to hype the book as an actual advancement in its field.
This week's scary news of a sudden attack on South Korea by North Korea brought North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il into the spotlight again. But, all too often the analysis of this dangerous politician's motivation and character takes a quick dive into comic disbelief. "He's a loon." "He's out of his mind." "Kim Jong-Il is a nutjob."
This material can make good comedy -- and, listen, I don't understand the haircut either. But I sure hope nobody thinks "Kim Jong-Il is a loon" can substitute for real insight. A statement like this is, rather, a display of no insight. It signifies that some logic or explanation for Jong-Il's actions exists, and that we are blind to it. A statement like this is the opposite of insight.
We love comedy and satire in the United States of America, and we often have fun with the shrill, hysterical personalities of our military opponents. There's nothing wrong with this, unless we allow it to become a dead end for our own knowledge. When it comes to understanding North Korea here in the USA, this seems to have taken place. Kim Jong-Il is a Saturday Night Live skit, and as far as most Americans know, that's all he is.
Is Kim Jong-Il actually crazy? The evidence for this is slight, though his embattled leadership position has probably pushed his sanity towards the edges. However, we don't even have strong information about whether or not Kim Jong-Il is the prime decision-maker within the government, so it may not matter whether he is insane or not. Often in history we have misunderstood our enemy's internal workings. (For instance, during World War II it was generally believed among US and British military strategists that the Prussian military leadership was driving military strategy in Nazi Germany, when in fact this took place within Hitler's Nazi Party, a completely different organization. If we had known this during World War II, we could have helped the Prussian military clique overthrow Hitler, as it was desperately trying to do).
Like the government of every nation in the world, North Korea's is run by some kind of hive mind, and if we don't want to blunder our way through the Korean crisis (the way George W. Bush seemed to blunder through every foreign engagement for eight years) we are going to need to dig a little deeper and try to understand this hive mind. We're going to have to challenge our own intellects a little more.
Last summer I was fortunate enough to visit a remote area of Canyonlands National Park in Utah, hike into Horseshoe Canyon and view ancient rock art, pictographs and petroglyphs, in what is called The Great Gallery. Like many who visit the site I was inspired with a sense of awe and wonder. The title of a painting by Gauguin popped into my mind. It’s one of his Tahitian oils: Where Have We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?
In Notes from the Edge Times, Daniel Pinchbeck is on the trail of those same questions. The son of artist Peter Pinchbeck and writer Joyce Johnson, Pinchbeck grew up in New York and became a journalist. His previous books, Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism and 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl, gained him a reputation and following.
The folks who run a weekly radio show called Cityscape at WFUV in New York City kindly invited me to read from a piece I'd written many years ago, The Bridges of New York City, from my 1995 fictional folk-rock record album Queensboro Ballads, for an episode of their show devoted to, well, the bridges of New York City. The show aired this morning, and you can listen to the podcast here.
I was particularly glad they'd aptly dug up this old piece of mine for this show, because at the time I wrote it The Bridges of New York City represented an important step forward in the evolution of my writing. After I created Literary Kicks in 1994 I began doing a lot of writing about literature and, as the website became popular, found myself widely read for the first time in my life. But I had an urge at this point to try something different. I wanted to write about my beliefs, about the philosophy of my life; I wanted to preach.
Some readers weren't sure if I was presenting a joke or a parody last weekend when I proposed the invention of three new words. I wasn't, and I don't see why it should be strange for me to try to use this blog as the launching pad for useful new terms that could, if widely adopted, improve the precision of discussions we're already having.
As a software developer, it feels natural for me to invent new words. We developers invent words -- variables, classes, constants, properties, methods -- all the time. Good naming helps us think, and helps future developers who may later read our code.
Based on the comments last weekend, some of you out there understood what I was trying to do, and one brave commenter even tried to use the three new words I'd just invented in actual sentences. That's the spirit! Of course, it will take more than "bluth", "fruth" and "swuth" to dissolve the clumps of misunderstanding and ill intention that clog our public dialogues, and I'm going to complete the first proposal for a Pragmatist's Vocabulary today with three more terms representing three more popular varieties of quasi-truth.
Yeah, I'm going to stick with the rhyme scheme. Why not? Also, once again, there are political connotations to the misuses of "truth" that I'm targeting here, but I'm trying to cite examples equally supporting both sides of today's social/political spectrum, because a Pragmatist's Vocabulary is too valuable to be partisan. Here goes:
Three days ago my country celebrated Veteran's Day, often a tough day to navigate for committed American pacifists like me, because of course we support and love the human beings who suffer and risk their lives in US military operations, but we don't necessarily believe that these military operations actually help to make the world more free and democratic, or achieve anything good at all. Yet our country is deeply devoted to its vast military infrastructure, and many of us have friends and family members in the military, and pacifists will often find themselves bitterly shouted down if they ever dare to suggest that US military actions around the world tend to kill lots of innocent civilians for no good reasons.