Home » The Modern Values of Midpointery: A Plea for Conversation

The Modern Values of Midpointery: A Plea for Conversation

When you first started me thinking about this project, there were so many different possibilities I could have followed. The writings of Kierkegaard inspired and moved me in ways that I hope no college student ever graduates without, and I wanted to write you something that included them all. As I say this however, I sense a familiar lunacy with which I seem to approach many of my academic endeavors. As I began to plot it out, I was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task, though this did not necessarily stand as a reason for it not to be pursued.

In the midst of it owever, I noticed that all of my potentially inspirational discussions were hinged upon a common contingency, namely, the posture we take when approaching such conversations. I found that you and I could not begin to discuss all that moved me, all that was crucial to your and my existence, without the awareness of our relation to the words being spoken. Naturally, the format of the essay underwent some change, so as to hopefully provide such an opportunity.

The conversation of the present age, while we may pat our backs with pride at the level of diversity and open-mindedness within it, does not reflect hat we are aware of (let alone concerned with) the appropriateness of our posture toward the existence in which we all participate, when our relatedness to a given concept is as crucially valuable as the conversation itself. A right relatedness determines our outlook on the rest of life. It determines how we treat ourselves and our fellow man.

Existence, Truth, Knowledge, Love, Faith, etc. , our relationship to these and more is reflected in our lifestyles, and our relationship to them is indicative of what we believe about them and what will become of us. On the surface this ay not seem like such a pressing issue. There may be nothing wrong with our posture toward these things. As anyone could observe however, the habits of lifestyle often grow unnoticed, and it is this assumed habitual living that I am concerned with.

In many ways, our world has become a very innovative and ambitious place. We have come a long way in just over half a millennium when people lived stagnant and unquestioning lives, back before the rumors of progress and modernity had begun to trickle through the civilizations of the world. Where those of the Dark Ages lived in a famine of ignorance, we now swim in eas of information, presumably unimaginable to the people of earlier centuries.

Where life before was an oppressive burden for many, today it is a golden opportunity, and while it is easy to say that these distinctions are qualitative improvements in the history of humanity, the possibility for impropriety has by no means escaped these advancements, and certain habits formed during the augment of modernity are incapacitating to the present age. In this age of golden opportunity, objectivity is the assumed posture of our collective lifestyles.

Figuratively speaking, prior to modernity, an was an object of life’s oppressions; conversely, in the present age, life has been reduced to the object while man risen as its authority. We did not breathe life into ourselves yet we act as if we did, treating our existence as if we were self-made beings. These statements may seem melodramatic, taken from the beer-coated breath of a downtown tinker. Nevertheless, this is the posture we have shown in our activities.

This posture of objectivism-or to be expressed by its negative, reductionism-is primarily a development of the modern era. Rather than accept established mores and beliefs, individuals began to question the tatus quo and found that through empirical efforts they were able to clarify what had only commonly been accepted as truth. The principles of reductionism were key to what has come out of this era of modernity, and is largely responsible for what we now refer to as the scientific method. [ Reductionism can basically be understood as a method of breaking things down into smaller, more comprehendible constituents for the purpose of understanding better, the larger picture from whence they came.

Essayist Wendell Berry says, Reductionism. has uses that are appropriate, and it also can be used inappropriately. It is appropriately used as a way (one way) of understanding what is empirically known or empirically knowable. When it becomes merely an intellectual “position” confronting what is not empirically known or knowable, then if becomes absurd, and also grossly desensitizing and false. s an article of belief, it causes trouble. [ ]

Though this method of understanding has rendered considerable advancements not limited to the field of science, it has also at the same time facilitated a particular disposition of being above or outside our own humanity, (relatable to the Socratic disposition found in Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments, to be explained later). In this present age, the assumed postures of differing spheres of understanding have become too inflated to legitimately participate in any real transcendent conversation.

Dr. Edward Wilson, considered one of the greatest scientists and visionaries of the 20th century, in 1998, wrote Homo sapiens, the first truly free species, is about to decommission natural selection, the force that made us. There is no genetic destiny outside our fee will, no lodestar provided by which we can set course. Evolution, including genetic progress in human nature and uman capacity, will be from now on increasingly the domain of science and technology tempered by ethics and political choice.

We have reached this point down a long road of travail and self-deception. Soon we must look deep within ourselves and decide what we wish to become. [ ] Here Wilson contends, rather candidly, that mankind possesses the power to take hold of the future as something wielded rather than experienced. He suggests that today we are “exempt from the iron laws of ecology” and that a new species is emerging. Where we were once called Homo sapiens-or “wise an”-he proposes we be called Homo proteus-or “shapechanger man. ”

Says Wilson, The legacy of the Enlightenment is the belief that entirely on our own we can know, and in knowing, understand, and in understanding choose wisely… we now better understand where humanity came from, and what it is. Homo sapiens, like the rest of life, was self-assembled. Human autonomy have thus been recognized, we should now feel more disposed to reflect on where we wish to go. [ ] Whether or not Wilson is being completely literal in his rhetoric, his basic claim that mankind has risen above that which made him possible is idiculous.

Moreover, this notion that we are “self-made” beings, is not even supported by the accepted theories of Originality. Unless one believes that humanity has no origin at all, mankind was the result of something. If one were to go the route of Special Creation, life is the result of Divine intervention; with Extraterrestrial Origin, meteors or cosmic dust from another planet or star with life already on it, infected our planet resulting in life; with Spontaneous Origin it was changing molecules uniting with time and chance which initiated the evolutionary process.

In each incident there is a contingency that man has no power over, in the same way a machine with never have the capacity of its maker, mankind cannot rise above the Divine; he cannot rise above whatever force caused life on the distant star; and in the case of Spontaneous Origin, although we may possess the power to manipulate molecules, he has not, to this day, displayed power over time and chance. This exposition on the sphere of science has been large, but is so due to the authority modernity invests into it.

Galileo was considered a natural philosopher until the word science was literally invented due to he definitive interests of Galileo and others like him. It has become a measure for the modern world, the most trusted way to discover the truth about our existence. Where prior to modernity, religion was the vehicle in which people percieved truth, in the present age, it is Science which holds that authority. Furthermore, there may be some quibble as to whether all this talk of modernity is really relevant being that we are supposedly in a post-modern society.

To that I would say that while we may have some presentiments of post-modernity, I believe that before we can consider ourselves living in a ost-modern world, Science will have to undergo some kind of change in the public eye-perhaps as religion did in the Middle Ages-because of its integral participation in the shift to modernity; something must happen to its authority over our society. Related to the sphere of Science, Psychology has also been an influential trend throughout the rise of modernity.

While I am largely unaware of the specific activity of experimental psychology, it is more so the pedestrian manifestations of it that I wish to criticize for their ‘humanitarian'[ ] reduction of mind and behavior. The persona of sychologist presented in the public sphere is one of a behavioral guru, one in possession of the keys to the mysteries of the human mind, providing a name and explanation for every case he or she come across.

Granted the public has been known to exaggerate from time to time, but nevertheless, with an increasing TV-educated public, this exaggeration does not stand to be realized as such, and the chance for a right relatedness towards the mysteries of human nature is once again waned. Unfortunately there is little difference in its literary representation. Bookstores now devote entire sections to Self-help; books with kamikazmic quations guaranteed to find the right partner in ten days, to providing a blueprint for sorrow-free lives, and to tell you how to be the person you never were but always wanted to be.

These claims and the doctors who write them, like Wilson are unabashedly declaring their position outside of the ‘traditional’ human experience. Like Wilson, their language treats humanity as if they too were once human as well. “People, after all, are just extremely complicated machines,” says Wilson, “why shouldn’t their behavior and social institutions conform to certain still-undefined natural laws “[ ] Sacred professions, conform to this posture as well.

Usually not far from the self-help book is a shelf entitled ‘Inspirational,’ in which religious authors objectify with spiritual clout what life is all about. A recent and extremely popular publication makes this statement in its opening paragraph, “By the end of this journey you will know God’s purpose for you life and will understand the big picture-how all the pieces of your life fit together. “[Italic added][ ] As far as I know, not even Jesus himself told his disciples they would understand how all the pieces of their life would fit together, yet 2000 years later, a pastor from

California lays claim to that information and presents it in a for-all- ages, 334 page, #1 New York Times Best Seller. This rich and promising language, whether religious or secular, literal or figurative, unfortunately only cheapens conversations to come. Then again, perhaps it is just a marketing technique. Which brings us to another sphere of perspective: Economics. Similar to the word science, economy (or for our purposes, expressed more accurately as Economics), gained its importance with the modern era.

Economics: the study dedicated to the movement of money throughout the world. The reduction lies within Economics’ tendency to step outside its appropriate sphere of proficiency, translating too much of life in terms of market value; that because all things have value at one time or another, all things, naturally, have a price. What is unfortunate, is that while the public may be aware of such deviances (every child who has learned how to purchase something has also been told that money can’t buy happiness), there is too often a blind eye turned to these fabrications.

To echo again Mr. Berry, Economics ‘has uses that are appropriate, and it also can be used inappropriately. s an article of belief, it causes trouble. ‘[ ] In a subsection under Economics, it is also wise to note the inflated claims of its biggest fan: Marketing: satisfaction through beefy cars, bouncy hair, and bigger boobs. Whether or not if accosted, marketers would admit to the reality of their ads (lest we forget the indictment of Big Tobacco), one is hard pressed to deny the outrageous (yet publicly inoffensive) declarations made by Marketing in this present age.

Here, reductionism is manifested in the suggested containment (amputation) of contentment within something as tangible as a Hemi. It is an absurdity of paradoxical proportions that man would find capacious contentment in an object he created. What is more absurd though, is the people who buy them expecting this very thing. With that said, the last sphere of understanding lands on the culture itself-Pop-culture.

With virtually no disputation, one could easily make the observation that once again modernity is responsible for the significance of the individual. Where truth and meaning were once determined by an established agency, the rise of the modern age has turned that power over to the individual. The account of Martin Luther carries he weight it does because his actions were a shining example of courage for the yet emerging idea of the individual. In the present age, the banner under which Pop-culture marches is individualism.

This is strongly manifested in the exaltation of two things: loose ethical relativism which absolves persons of any responsibility to answer to anyone but themselves (and not even that if so inclined); and consumerism, whose the-customer-is- always-right mantra stands as a cornerstone for individualism[ ]. Though I try and avoid sounding trite with semantics, this is different than ndividuality which acknowledges one’s particularity as a human being; individualism translates that particularity as entitling ultimate authority.

Do not mistake me, I am not advocating for feudal reinstatement, rather trying to illustrate the offense of the individual gone awry. On a very specific level, the same arrogance with which Wilson declared the “decommission” of mankind from the laws of evolution, is seen here with a ‘decommission’ of the individual from humanity (though at the same time entitling every other human to the same basic human right, as if veryone was endowed with their own private island).

The reduction here is clearly seen in the individual’s possession of their own truth; life is confined to our own distinct understandings, and though this may not seem like a point well made (for it is our tolerance that is the ‘crowning achievement’ of our age) it provides an ideal entry point for the relation of Kierkegaard to all that has been said, and thus may become clearer to you in the paragraphs to come.

The way in which reductionism is reflected in Kierkegaard’s writing, can be found in his dialectic exposition of the Socratic[ . “Can the truth be learned,” he begins, “Socrates thinks through the difficulty by means [of the principle] that all learning and seeking are but recollecting. the truth is not introduced into him but was in him”[ ][brackets his]. Says Socrates, Thus the soul, since it is immortal and has been born many times, and has seen all things both here and in the other world, has learned everything that is.

So we need not be surprised if it can recall the knowledge of virtue or anything else which, as we see, it once possessed. All nature is akin, and the soul has learned everything, o that when a man has recalled a single piece of knowledge-learned it, in ordinary language-there is no reason why he should not find out all the rest, if he keeps a stout heart and does not grow weary of the search, for seeking and learning are in fact nothing but recollection. [ Before we continue, it must be noted that both Socrates and Kierkegaard argue on the basis that the soul is immortal, though they may view this immortality in very different ways, as we shall see.

Whether or not one accepts the immortality of the soul, makes little difference to the point I m trying to make, but this I will also return to later. With the Socratic view, the individual references truth as something within themselves, “every human being is himself the midpoint, and the whole world focuses only on him because his self-knowledge is God-knowledge. [ ] If truth is within the individual, then nothing outside the individual has any significance in which to bring them to the understanding of truth; because it is recollected, everything outside of the individual has potential only to be a memory stimulant, an occasion for remembering what one already possessed. Viewed Socratically, any point of departure in time is eo ipso something accidental, a vanishing point, an occasion. “[ ] The most a teacher can do is help to ‘jog’ the individual’s memory of truth by asking questions.

This is the profession to which Socrates dedicated his life; he believed that midwifery as he called it, was the best a human could do, and that “the ultimate idea in all questioning is that the person asked must himself possess the truth and acquire it by himself. The temporal point of departure,” then, “is a nothing, because in the same moment I discover that I have know the truth rom eternity without knowing it, in the same instant that moment is hidden in the eternal.

To relate it to the spheres of understanding discussed earlier, this treatment or posture towards truth and time is reductionistic. Time for instance, is not something that mankind can step outside of. It is not an object of our manipulation. To claim that the individual is her own reference point for eternity, is to deny the significance of any other moment in time but the immediate-in other words, every individual brings eternity into time; however, to eradicate the significance of the time, is o deny essential humanity.

If it is to be otherwise, if time is to have “such decisive significance that for no moment will I be able to forget it,”[ ] then the individual can have no pre-possession of truth, so much so that “the seeker up until that moment must not have possessed the truth”[ ][Italics added]. If the truth is to be removed from the individual’s possession then “he has to be defined as being outside the truth. or as untruth. “[ ] The question remains though, can truth be learned[ for, “a person cannot possibly seek what he knows, and, just as impossibly, he cannot seek what e does not know,” observes Kierkegaard, “for what he knows he cannot seek, since he knows it, and what he does not know he cannot seek, because, after all, he does not even know what he is supposed to seek. “[ ]

It is the teacher then, that not only provides the learner with the understanding, but also the “condition for understanding it. “[ Previously, in the description of the Socratic, I did not speak of the teacher for the very reason that ‘the teacher,’ as will be discussed here, does not exist within a Socratic paradigm, only the midwife: an occasion. But because the time has decisive significance, and the learner is outside f truth (untruth), then midwife becomes teacher, being that he must give birth to new understanding (truth) within the learner. The individual-or learner-cannot provide herself with the condition for understanding, because “then he merely needs to recollect, because the condition for understanding the truth is like being able to ask about it. [ ]

Thus if the learner is to understand any sort of truth, it rests in the mercy of the teacher to provide it. In light of this, I would like to return to the established spheres of existence, though aware that I am at risk of coming this far only to oint out the obvious. Which is to say (as if I have not talked in grand enough terms already), that in the grand sphere of human existence, spontaneous creation is not of its nature.

“[I]nasmuch as the learner exists,” observes Kierkegaard, “he is indeed created,”[ and despite what word one chooses to describe the origin of their existence, whether it be created, evolved, infected, etc. , it still owes itself to another force; in other words, humanity is unavoidably at the mercy of higher forces. That is why it does not matter what one may believe about the immortality of the soul. In some scientific communities, the concept of an immortal soul may be considered an evolutionary adaptation of the human species.

While this claim may figuratively weaken the significance of immortality and the soul, it does not put Homo sapiens above their humanity, for we still are subject to the evolutionary process. To put it another way: the condition is to the teacher, what time and chance are to evolution. The learner/individual of Kierkegaard’s dialectic, is directly analogous to Individualist of Pop-culture; as well as to the Marketer, the Economist, the Inspirationalist, Armchair Psychologist, and Scientist.

As embers of humanity, of time and space, of a community, we cannot continually be striving to abstract ourselves from it (figurative as it is); this is directly relatable to the Socratic concept of ‘midpointery’ discussed previously. If it is to be otherwise then, as humans and individuals we must acknowledge our being subjective to the life in which we unavoidably participate. We must take on a posture of humility; realizing that we are not self-made, nor self-sustained. This is very contrary to the triumphs of modernity, but our carelessness with these triumphs has brought us to a dangerous place.

A place in which there is ittle accountability for our actions; where people through our objective removal are forming virtual desert islands where “the parties like rivals in a game watch each other instead of relating to each other, and count, as it is said, each other’s verbal avowals of relation as a substitute for resolute mutual giving in the relation. “[ ] In our continual striving to understand, we are ignorantly encroaching upon our essential humanity by reducing life to a level we can comprehend and thusly control. In a man-made world though, people do not act like men but machines.

How can we expect anything different, for what lse can man make Wilson was right to say that “soon we must look deep within ourselves and decide what we wish to become,”[ ] more right than I doubt he knew. As this age of modernity seems to be on the cusp of an evolution, we must decide what posture we will take with this new era. No matter what the sphere of understanding, our lives are not as objectifyable as the examples listed above; and the denial of that, whether direct or indirect-conscious or unconscious, is obstructing some much needed conversations; conversations of humanity, conversations of progress, of transcendence, of life.

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