The Great Muddle: Sorting Out and Cluelessness (III)

Argument Revisited

In these posts intended to make plain to me and to others what the Great Muddle is, I have been arguing that we are living in Unsettled Time, a period during which our collective way of life is slowly receding while a new way of life has yet to come into being. To live between “the was” and the “not yet” is unsettling. Next, I have suggested that unsettledness gives rise to an enigma, namely, how shall we (third-person plural) live? Finally, I have urged that the Great Muddle is our woefully inadequate response to the enigma. We don’t know how to live (call this cluelessness), and we have a sense that we’re just doing what it takes to get by (call this, rather cheeringly, sorting out).

 Trying to Get Behind the Question

Before I go any further in trying to describe this cluelessness and this penchant for just coping, I want to make sure that I’m clear about what I’m talking about. It was through personal experience–notably, years of having philosophical conversations with conversation partners and philosophical friends as well as years spent trying to lead a philosophical life–that I’ve bumped again and again into a coalescing in vocabulary. I’ve noticed, again and again, the preponderance of “sorting out,” “figuring out,” “coping,” “dealing with,” “finding out” language. I could also add talk of things “being tricky,” of things “being difficult,” of things being “overwhelming,” of things being “especially challenging,” and so on.

I need to be very clear about my desire to step behind that language. If I ask another, “When don’t you think in terms of ‘dealing with’ things?,” I don’t mean: when are you failing to deal with things properly? I’m asking rather, “When do you feel exempt from ‘dealing’ and ‘not dealing’ with things talk? When do you think in other terms?” My proposal is that rarely do we step out of sorting out language, and I surely want to know (a) when sorting out language came into being, (b) when sorting out language become preponderant or hegemonic, and (c) what begins to explain the rise of sorting out language. These are questions, though, for another occasion, and now I return to the main argument.

Argument Resumed

Undeniably, we in Europe and in North America are just muddling by. We need to start with this as a social fact. In calmer moments, we say that we’re sorting things out while in intenser moments we say that we’re just trying to cope (or keep from drowning or keep our heads above water, etc.). During more reflective times, we have some intimation of cluelessness. Let’s start here.

Perhaps I could make a distinction between theoretical knowledge and practical knowledge, though I wouldn’t want that distinction to be taken as a hard break. I just need some way of making perspicuous their difference. If the soft distinction be granted, then cluelessness would be a statement about our lack of theoretical knowledge (we just don’t know what it is to live a good life together today), and our language associated with sorting out would be a sign of our intention to keep doing what we’re doing.

For my purposes, cluelessness is an apt term because it suggests that we don’t even have a clue about how we collectively could best live. It’s not that I don’t have the foggiest about how I could live (though I may not), but it is rather that we (third-person plural) don’t have any discernible tracks showing how we could best live together. Rather than coming to a cultural florescence as occurred with the birth of direct democracy in Ancient Greece around the 6th and 5th BC, we are in the midst of cultural and political cluelessness, “way-lessness.” We don’t have a way. We just don’t know and most of us don’t know that we don’t know. If I had to make an early point (which loops back to the first post about the Great Muddle), it would be that we need to come closer to the “Socratic Moment,” the moment when we realize that we know that we don’t know.

Which brings me, as I turn to sorting out, to the sense of waiting that many feel, the sense of things being “in the meantime” or of preparing. Over and over, I have heard some say that it feels as if they were waiting for something to happen while from others I have heard that it feels as if they’re preparing themselves for something. Waiting for what? Preparing for what? Again, we don’t know. More importantly, what is it that is giving rise to waiting and preparing talk?

What we do while we wait or prepare is sort or cope. For many, life has become something to be sorted out, coped with, handled, managed, dealt with. Just as one burden is removed, so arrives another. Just as one assignment is finished or task fulfilled, so, like a hydra head, emerge two more. Implicit in this muddling is the idea that there is no end in sight, no time of fulfillment, no eschatology (so to speak). It is just more of the same, endlessly so. On the one hand, life becomes mechanical, routine, a real grind, routinized in its repetitiveness. On the other hand, only a postulate–namely, that there could come a time when things are not like this–makes it possible for people to continue to sort, figure, handle, manage, and cope. Without the postulate of there being such a time, muddling would slide into nihilism, pure and simple.

If we come to Socratic awareness concerning not just our deep theoretical ignorance but also our practical incapacity (a refusal to go on waiting or preparing), what effects would such “awakening” have on us? It’s an early question, the answer which now escapes me, a question that I put to myself as much as to everyone else.