Tag Archives: meaning

The ethic is called forth.

On Hierarchy and the Reduction of Complexity in the World

“The world is, for all intents and purposes, infinitely complex. Even if there isn’t a truly infinite number of things, phenomena and facts, there is a sufficient infinity of combinations of things, categories of things, potential and real. This complexity has to be reduced to a level that is manageable at the level of moment-to-moment perception (we can only attend to one thing) and action (we can only undertake one action). That is accomplished through the cooperation and competition that is part of the general social hierarchy, which specifies through collectively-established value and through language itself what is to take priority and why.

“The hierarchy says: ‘Here’s what’s valued. Look at that (perceive that) and not something else. Pursue that (act toward those ends) and not something else.’ What the hierarchy truly specifies, therefore, is not the value of things, but the value of behaviors or perceptions that create, maintain or distribute valued things. That’s an ethic. The ethic called forth is a set of principles for acting in the world of value.”

-Jordan Peterson

The Crystal Palace Unmanned.

I came to the end of Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy, and feel that my engagement with the author and his theses has barely begun. The insights about eternal human longings down through the ages, and even small details about the lives of individual thinkers, will be rattling around in my mind for a long time to come, and I hope to refer to some of them in the future.

In the meantime, I wanted to share here a few paragraphs from the concluding Part 4, “Integral vs. Rational Man.” The goal of the existentialists is here named as integration; not irrationality, as the book’s title might have led us to think. I’m sure the title Integrated Man would not have been nearly as memorable, and unfortunately, at least a couple of existentialists have descended into such irrationality that they were certainly insane.

William Barrett

“Existentialism is the counter—Enlightenment come at last to philosophic expression; and it demonstrates beyond anything else that the ideology of the Enlightenment is thin, abstract, and therefore dangerous. (I say its “ideology,” for the practical task of the Enlightenment is still with us: In everyday life we must continue to be critics of a social order that is still based everywhere on oppression, injustice, and even savagery—such being the peculiar tension of mind that we as responsible human beings have to maintain today.)

Martin Heidegger

“The finitude of man, as established by Heidegger, is perhaps the death blow to the ideology of the Enlightenment, for to recognize this finitude is to acknowledge that man will always exist in untruth as well as truth. Utopians who still look forward to a future when all shadows will be dispersed and mankind will dwell in a resplendent Crystal Palace will find this recognition disheartening. But on second thought, it may not be such a bad thing to free ourselves once and for all from the worship of the idol of progress; for utopianism — whether the brand of Marx or of Nietzsche — by locating the meaning of man in the future leaves human beings here and now, as well as all mankind up to this point, without their own meaning.

“If man is to be given meaning, the Existentialists have shown us, it must be here and now; and to think this insight through is to recast the whole tradition of Western thought. The realization that all human truth must not only shine against an enveloping darkness, but that such truth is even shot through with its own darkness may be depressing, and not only to utopians. But it has the virtue of restoring to man his sense of the primal mystery surrounding all things, a sense of mystery from which the glittering world of his technology estranges him, but without which he is not truly human.”

-William Barrett in Irrational Man, 1958

A good portion of the book can be found: here.

To gather all the elements.

“Positivist man is a curious creature who dwells in the tiny island of light composed of what he finds scientifically ‘meaningful,’ while the whole surrounding area in which ordinary men live from day to day and have their dealings with other men is consigned to the outer darkness of the ‘meaningless.’ Positivism has simply accepted the fractured being of modern man and erected a philosophy to intensify it.

“Existentialism, whether successfully or not, has attempted instead to gather all the elements of human reality into a total picture of man. Positivist man and Existentialist man are no doubt offspring of the same parent epoch, but, somewhat as Cain and Abel were, the brothers are divided unalterably by temperament and the initial choice they make of their own being.”

-William Barrett, Irrational Man

These paragraphs are from a book I’ve had on my shelf for a couple of years, since it was highly recommended to me by one of my most philosophical Christian friends. The subtitle is A Study in Existential Philosophy. I bought a paperback copy, but probably was unconsciously put off by the size of the print and the absence of white space on the pages.

Recently I discovered that the book is on Audible, so I began yesterday on my drive  to the beach to listen to it, though I wasn’t very hopeful about being able to attend to the subject matter that way, having an “ear gate” that is extra narrow or full of obstacles or something… It’s particularly hard for me to read non-fiction when I can’t underline or take notes.

It’s a testimony to the clarity and beauty of Barrett’s writing that I was swept up into the story, as he tells it so engagingly, of the context and development of Modern Existentialism. As, in his words above, the need is for true philosophy “to gather all the elements of human reality into a total picture,” so also Barrett shows us a holistic picture by describing the interplay of cultural and historical roots of existentialism and of its effects.

Since high school I’ve had an inkling, or an awareness, that I needed to understand existentialism, but I feel that I’ve made little progress toward that goal. This book and I came into the world in the same decade, but I’ve been waiting for it my whole life!

The wave is breaking in a deep sea.

The breaking of a wave cannot explain the whole sea.
-Vladimir Nabokov

On Sunday I taught my first Zoom church school class, on St. Thomas. That was after tuning in, and trying to tune my spirit, to the streamed Divine Liturgy in the morning. In the later afternoon about twenty of us women met on Zoom to chat for an hour and to chose the next book for those of us who read together. Before sundown, I picked peas.

All day my mind was trying to pull me away from that present moment’s demands, but not totally — because it seemed to be doing that which is its natural skill, to weave the latest input from that very moment into the grid of experience and memory. I do not at all like the idea of my mind being like a computer, but the concept of fragmented files occurs to me…

Keeping the contents in a cohesive, organized fashion is a challenging project at my age, when the “files” have mushroomed, and my “processor” is trying to save a hundred bits of data every day to the most logical place. I have an astounding human mind, which sees way more connections between all those thoughts and images and stories than a simple machine could ever do. It is constantly clumping and re-clumping and arranging things, all the while thinking in sentences about its strategies.

This afternoon my godmother came through the gate to my garden, and we visited across the patio for an hour. I shared a smidgen of the last few days, and how it seemed that about five blog posts were churning in a mass in my head, trying to sort themselves out.

Since she went home, I’ve been halfheartedly applying myself to the task, but there is so much I want to write. It seems hard now, during this world pandemic, to sift through all the noise, or turn one’s back on it, in order to hear communications from reliable and helpful sources. And the Source.

In my attempts today, I came upon the idea of making use of my large store of quotes, many of which are thought provoking on many levels and might come to my aid in keeping at my blog and my writing. Even if some days I can’t write one good and pertinent sentence, I might post a quote that helps at least me, and you can make of it what you will.

It may be that my own mind is like an ocean that is too turbulent for me to see anything clearly in the water, but that’s not why I chose the quote above. It brought to mind all the many statistics and news stories, sermons and anecdotes and directives flowing all around us, by which some people I know are trying to figure out, not just how to behave today, but what is The Meaning of it all.