Perceptive Sensemaking: Coalescing into the Many Things

My love Aleksandra Lauro has been thinking carefully about her consultancy, Perceptive Sensemaking. By ‘perceptive sensemaking,’ she means the ability to draw and reorient the viewer’s attention to an excellent way of life: to an exemplar of the contemplative life; to the qualia–that is, the inner feel, the grainy look, the general mood–of a beautiful place; to the particular kind of natural environment in which one can be attuned to nature.

In this her most recent exhibition, ‘Coalescing into the Many Things’ (Autumn 2013), she offers the viewer a simple, humble, and beautiful representation of the philosophical way of life. The demonstration is meant, above all, to be inspiriting, uplifting, edifying. From this vantage point, the artwork, the edited photos, and the overall site design all seek to draw our eyes to what is best. There is light that dazzles beyond the cave.

See also: ‘Coursing: A Day in Photos’:

http://andrewjamestaggart.com/coursing/

Philosophical horror: Making the world anew

Perceiving political disorder, religious strife, social unrest, or economic collapse, philosophers have not infrequently regarded themselves as saviors who could, from out of the resources of the mind itself, create the world anew. This, argues Stephen Toulmin in Cosmopolis, is what occurred to Descartes who, upon witnessing the Thirty Years’ War, believed that he could provide a new philosophical foundation upon which the modern world could stand firm. It is also the lure that ensnares Plato whose Republic could quite possibly have been written in response to the political debacle that led to the trial and death of Socrates.

Not refashioning the world, not an incendiary apologia for the philosophical life, but another, humbler path could have been taken and sometimes has. In Book VI of the Republic, Plato’s Socrates describes a moment when philosophers, few and rare, go into exile from the unjust city. Because they see the ‘madness of the majority,’ because philosophy is generally regarded by the majority as being useless, and in order to safeguard philosophy from corruption or dissipation,

they [go away and] lead a quiet life and do their own work. Thus, like someone who takes refuge under a little wall from a storm of dust or hail driven by the wind, the philosopher–seeing others filled with lawlessness–is satisfied if he can somehow lead his present life free from injustice and impious acts and depart from it with good hope, blameless and content.

This passage, however, reads too much like a case of sour grapes–here, philosophical resignation–and not enough like genuine humility. Daoism, though itself sometimes overly critical of political intervention and of Confucian righteousness, provides an account of quietism that sounds lovingly quieter. Fung Yu-Lan, in A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, writes that removing oneself from social conventions in order to live more quietly satisfies ‘the desires of a people living in an age of disorder and confusion.’ One’s powers are set so that they are in tune with the Dao.

At his peril, Plato passes over this moment. We know that Plato goes on to consider the philosopher’s engagement with the majority in the first instance by seeking to change its mind (this being a reform project) and in the second instance by wiping the slate clean so that the just city can be molded according to a Theoretical Model (this being the utopian project). The twentieth century philosopher Karl Popper, keying into such moments of utopian fervor, accused Plato of totalitarianism. Such, in any case, is the horror spelled in thinking that one can re-make the world and thereby save it…

Sageliness within or kingliness without

I am reading Yu-Lan Fang’s A Short History of Chinese Philosophy alongside Plato’s Republic. According to Fang, the leitmotif of Chinese philosophy is that of ‘sageliness within’ and ‘kingliness without.’ Plato speaks similarly of the Philosopher-King as being the one who, just because he has wisdom, is also fit to rule.

Years ago, I believed that the philosopher could be both a contemplative and a statesman. As I get older, however, I have come to consider this view undesirable and hubristic, if not logically impossible. From the very beginning, Confucians have been involved in ruling, yet their kingliness seems to come with a certain cost: a lack of sagacity. In contrast with Confucians, Daoists made their way into the mountains and urged that the best form of government is one in which its subjects can act as freely and as naturally as possible. Laozi believes that the wise man attends to himself and, were he to be ruler (though it is said of Chuang Tzu that it did not seek it out and actually turned it down), would in many cases do well to leave well enough alone.

The implication of this brief argument is that the philosopher, when it comes time, is most surely and acutely confronted with a radical choice for how it is that he will live: will he take care of the soul, or shall he take care of the city? If he takes care of the soul, then he cannot also be king; he can only be a teacher of pupils who come to him willingly in order to inquire of themselves. If he takes care of the city, then he cannot also be wise. For he will be involved in the messy affairs of ruling that will require deliberation, practical judgment, calculation, chess play, and compromise. A statesman who had made that wager can only hope that, by putting himself wholeheartedly in the service of the commonwealth, he can sleep at night despite his necessarily bloody hands.

Prefab lives? Prefab’s lost question

After the housing crisis, prefab homes have been making a reappearance. ‘Prefab lives!,’ Allison Arieff proclaims jubilantly. For green builders, the venture is to see whether the best of industrial design and manufacturing can be put in service of a sustainable mission. Questions soon turn technical: how to cut costs; how to use green materials; how to lessen the carbon footprint; how to scale; and so on. In all of this talk of sustainability, however, I believe the ‘first question’ of philosophy–Is such a thing good and beautiful? Does it conform to a good and beautiful life? What, to begin with, is a home for?–has been lost. Not long ago, I wrote as much to a friend.

*

Dear Friend,

Few have observed that hummingbirds are so very loud; they are, and startling so. While taking my tea after having a conversation with a conversation partner hours earlier, I could not help but pay close attention to their terrific fluttering wings and, as is natural, to their intricate, frantic beauty. Yet I could not have paid attention to this hummingbird alighting before me had it not also been the case that my desert house was a home, a place in which a good man could dwell in tune with the slow twining of the day.

My initial aesthetic response to viewing the slideshow of the Joshua Tree prefab house was that it was especially ugly. I have had no reason since to call that aesthetic judgment into question; it stands still after further consideration. To say that the house is ugly is not to say that it lacks in formal symmetry (millennia ago, Plotinus ruled out the formalist conception of beauty) but rather to say, at first blush, that it is not a dwelling that is, or could possibly be, in conformity with the life of an excellent man and also with the fecund life of the natural environment. No hummingbirds would sound loudly or gaily, not least and not just because no small gardens would flourish in such a vacation house. Surely one could live in that place, but why would a reasonable person want to?

In Book III of the Republic, Plato has Socrates say, ‘Now, one cares for what one loves.’ Socrates sets us off in the right direction concerning what it is possible for us to care for. But, when one cares for something one loves, what is it that one loves? I say it is only that which is good and beautiful (kalon). Hence, one can only ever care for what it is that is good and beautiful.

Sustainability talk has, therefore, always seemed to me to beg the question. For sustainability (along with other questions of teche: craft, know-how, etc.) is only an instrumental good (i.e., that which at best is good for the sake of some intrinsic good), not an intrinsic good itself. When I hear designers, builders, and others sing the praises of sustainability (or resilience or systems or whatever), I thus want to ask: what for? Who cares? When did we lose sight of the fact that we all shall die? And if we all shall die just as surely as our children and if the earth shall undoubtedly perish sooner or later (climate change or no climate change), then it behooves us to ask again what could make this world well worth it, what could make human life worth leading. And the only answer we could possibly find, I submit after many inquiries with myself, is that the world qua world just is good and beautiful, provided we do the lifelong philosophical work of learning to perceive it rightly and provided also that we learn how to put ourselves in tune with its goodness and beauty. No easy thing yet of vital importance. To be sure, we can find a rightful place in our vocabulary for sustainability and the like, but only after we have found reason to believe that whatever is good and beautiful is worth sustaining. We are lost in the dark night of the soul, however, so long as we put the cart in front of the horse.

This house–to return to the case at hand–is ugly, conforms only to the life of the kind of man who seeks respite from the diurnal churning of the bustling city, and thereby has no good reason for existing. Plopped down in the middle of the desert, it does a disservice to this desert here. But what goes for this house goes also for much else that is made, designed, refashioned, and repurposed today. It is time to start thinking slowly again, time to starting taking our time so that we can avoid disaster.

One hopes that certain social enterprise students–by which I mean: those who are good, earnest, direct, decent sorts–will come to see such an account in all its pregnant fullness. I have spoken with a number of these young aspirants, and I believe some to be on the path of reason: the path upon which we try to see how things hang together in the broadest possible sense of ‘things hanging together’; the path that Aquinas followed when he sought, as elegantly as ever, to synthesize Aristotelian metaphysics with Christian cosmology; the path Kant took, centuries later, when he sought to reconcile fideism, rationalism, and empiricism; and–could one be so sanguine–the path that any mature social entrepreneur would have to set foot on were he to be able to bring into the utmost, clearest, scintillating harmony art, nature, business, and human flourishing. My intuition, though I mean not to beg the question as others have before me, is that he would arrive, in the end, at goodness and beauty again.

Take care,

Andrew

Addendum: Sweetness of temper

Thus I wrote yesterday evening to my Aleksandra:

In the opening of Book I of his Meditations, Marcus gives thanks to his grandfather first and then to the biological father he never knew. In his grandfather, he sees an example of ‘sweetness of temper.’ In the father he never knew, that of modesty and manliness. Combine these three in just proportions–two virtues with a certain sweetness–and we have a manly man most certainly. Sweetly tempered indeed is the manly man who knows and uses and refrains from using his own powers. But then let us not in haste forget the raised cups: the libations, our eloquent tokens of thanksgiving.