Metaphysics Matters


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Posting 101

Tags: spiritual life, thinking, pragmatic metaphysics, social pragmatism, far horizons, individual rights, human dignity

The mental condition of social pragmatism is devotion to personally fitting into the existing economic and social systems you find in the surroundings, choosing among the incentives and rewards to join arrangements that are already “just there”. It is a very concrete and practical focus. However, in the shadows all around such social pragmatism is a certain kind of metaphysics, the Metaphysics of Far Horizons. It is the tendency to scan the farthest horizons of thought for a universal caring with a cosmic plan such that things happen for a reason, including total moral ledger-keeping in preparation for justice in an ultimate reckoning, and the layering of all Being as a great hierarchical stack or food-chain with messages coded in by which the universal caring reveals itself to the most worthy. In the metaphysics of far horizons the universal caring is a supernatural-provider to fear, and yet be grateful to and for. The provider shares the spirituality of caring with human beings but in us the power is flawed, tainted, ineffectual, and so we are low on the food-chain of Being, and, in our awareness of being thus flawed and chained low, we accept being controlled by unremitting moral ledger-keeping for that ultimate day of reckoning.

Part of that package of ideas is a general reverence for, and the presumption of superiority and legitimacy in, high abstractions like sovereignty, tradition, culture, institutions of authority, and civilization, all supposed to be founded on the cosmic plan as recognized by geniuses of the past. However, this metaphysics of the human situation within socially pragmatic ideology is howlingly ill founded, and metaphysics matters. Immersion in a cult of misconceived metaphysics is not a charming, quaint, or harmless tradition or legacy, and our cultural traditions harbour within them denials and oppressions of individual creative power, expressed in a negative attitude about thinking itself. In supporting a presumption of legitimate superiority in sovereignty, tradition, culture, and civilization, and all the lesser authorities licensed by the high ones, the metaphysics of far horizons discourages and limits original thinking in the present and literally issues a license to kill to agents of violent sub-cultures that are very imperfectly understood by the pragmatic public. The expectation and presumption of agency at the level of far horizons specifically denigrates and obscures the spiritual power of personal agency and creativity in everyone, indeed placing it in a blind spot. It is doubtful that there ever was an appropriate appreciation of the individuality of spirituality, one that was institutionalized and supported by a community culture. Humanity is on a spiritual journey to somewhere entirely new, and philosophical thinking is a motor for that journey.

Social pragmatism places emphasis on the concrete and practical, but with a justification like this: since no one knows or can know the truth of metaphysical matters, since there is no way to discover a coherent alternative, the safest and rationally pragmatic thing to do is to accept some version of the traditional metaphysics of far horizons on faith, faith in the long enduring wisdom of tradition and collective genius. However, that claim is profoundly false. You don’t have to take anything on faith, or decode cryptic messages in events, because you can turn your curiosity, your questioning attention, to personally getting from one moment to the next to find the spirituality of your own thinking. Such phenomenological questioning is precisely philosophical. To live a spiritual life is to be aware of the thoroughness of spirituality in the temporal depth from which you perceive and conceive the world, out of which you live, and the embodied self-possession of that personal spirituality. Philosophical thinking is a way of being spiritual and of living a spiritual life without all the bogus metaphysics of far horizons. Transcendence and spirituality do not cease to exist without the far horizons, but they are very different: local, multiple, and horizontal as opposed to hierarchical. Political consequences arise from having negated the presumption of legitimacy in high abstractions like tradition, sovereignty, culture, and civilization.

The spirituality of thinking is not difficult to describe. The portal is time. Past and future simply do not exist in the brute actuality of nature. The only current existence of past and future is as non-actuality, spiritually interior to individual people as a personal force of bearing or directionality. The very concepts of immateriality and transcendence are always some abstraction from the non-actuality of subjective orientation, of a person’s directionality in teleological time, and so essentially an abstraction from the immateriality of time as a subjective construct. Any removal from tangible materiality is some kind of invocation, projection, or allegory of the non-actuality of subjective interiority which is extraordinary in that it evades particularity without ceasing to exist! It exists precisely by remaining always unfinished, indefinite, in self-creative flight.

Consistent with the general tendency to scan far horizons for the cosmic plan, philosophy itself has left the impression of being speculations on some transcendence so remote that its only possible interest could be for mindful inactivity, passive contemplation or meditation, removing the personal bit of supposedly flawed human nature from its participation in the inevitable strife, anxiety, panic, and ephemerality of ordinary life, to rest for a while in ideality, the idea of eternity, and perhaps to ‘elevate’ your bit of human nature in doing so. Platonic and Hegelian metaphysics fit that impression very well, and the question of transcendence is certainly central to philosophizing from a broad historical sweep. The view that philosophy is mindful inactivity goes with a Platonic view of eternal forms, and it made sense in ancient times as a way of achieving a kind of freedom from the lower regions of human nature which were considered to be irredeemably bestial. However, such speculation on the most remote transcendence is a philosophical dead end, a false trail, although the question of transcendence as such is not. In that light, philosophy can be described as arranging acquaintance with transcendence in the most local and immediate personal activity.

Philosophy is not an endless or shapeless journey. The destination is a raw encounter with transcendent spirituality, the personal spirituality of thinking here and now, departing from the distortions of orientation and perception drilled into us in early life, all grounded in the Metaphysics of Far Horizons. The philosophical purpose of thinking, of a critique of orientation within a culturally provided conception of reality, is to experience the personal transcendence of spirituality directly, rather than the more typical academic plodding through intellectual puzzles looking for a theoretical “way forward” within social pragmatism. An academic life is focused on ideality without being a spiritual life because there is no recognition of the transcendent creativity of individual thinking. The purpose of philosophy as a gateway to spirituality is not to relieve the guilty or heal the sick, but to enable everyone to value personal spirituality appropriately, as the whole reality of spirituality, distinct from concepts of remote spirituality typical of cultural communities.

What is a Spiritual Life?

So, this philosophical thinking is off-grid by completely negating the tendency to scan the metaphysical horizon for a cosmic plan. Having made the raw encounter with transcendent spirituality at the most personal and immediate level, with bogus metaphysics all forgotten, including the human flaw and the cosmic chain, the task of thinking changes. You have left behind a world that was fundamentally formed and furnished with (Lego blocks) particular instances of ideal forms, and entered one that is incomplete and still being created at every moment, locally by your creative interventions. Here, time is the incompleteness of the world as well as of embodied intelligences, both being created, or self-creating, at every moment. Such is the setting of a spiritual life. In doing that, you have opened up a space of disjunction, of discordance, between your state of orientation and that of anyone still immersed in the far horizons and concrete grid-ways of economic incentives and rewards. So, one immediate project becomes to devise communications to clarify that disjunction and enable a broader sharing of the new orientation. A great deal of philosophical writing falls into that category, which accounts for some of the frequent difficulties of making sense of it. Language is a public transit system. The orientation of spirituality goes far beyond language, as geography goes beyond the streetcar tracks. You are now beyond the tracks and so in a position to help construct a public portal from there to here. Reading and interpreting the archive of recognized philosophical writing is one way to approach that project.


Withdrawing from the conceptual system of social pragmatism includes negating the tags of individual identity derived from ambient culture. When you strip away from all personal definition everything except bedrock creative spirituality (and you can), you escape the prejudicial tags used within cultures to mark out the pageantry of superiority and inferiority, tags such as race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, abled-ness, body-shape, size, strength, wealth, extroversion, and so on. Those tags are cultivated specifically to obstruct universal empathy derived from recognition of profound spiritual equality. This is another iteration of the Enlightenment assertion of universal human dignity at the level of the individual, sometimes expressed formally as individual rights.

Copyright © 2016 Sandy MacDonald.

What’s Spiritual about Thinking?


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Posting 100

Tags: philosophy, humanism, spirituality, transcendence, thinking, time metaphysics, social pragmatism, religion, science, equality, enlightenment

An Unheralded Rivalry

There is a long history of rivalry between alternative conceptions of human spirituality, which may come as a surprise to anyone who takes for granted that religion owns the patents on spirituality. From ancient times philosophy was an alternative discourse of spirituality that tended toward emphasizing the primacy of the embodied individual, the thinker of questions. Humanist rationalism was (and can be) a guide to transcendent spirituality in startling contrast to religious conceptions. Perhaps especially as conceived by Epicureans, it was a personal, and so bottom-up spirituality, recognizing spirituality as an individual power.

In this age of science, spirituality is an elephant in the room. Most scientists as individuals have to put up with a certain discourse of spirituality because it is deeply entangled with conceptions of respectability, of morality and conventional respect for law and the social order, involving a degree of peer pressure to practice some antique religion as a personal declaration of social orthodoxy, of pragmatic support for the social contract. Spirituality is supposed to be the heart of the antique religions, but any discourse of spirituality is strictly incompatible with science. (There are large cash prizes on offer for people who help reduce this awkwardness by making plausible suggestions for reconciling science and religion.) Personal spirituality is identified as a sense of wonder and connection with the awesome scale of the cosmos, somehow connected to moral debt, guilt, and moral sentiment, and is commonly thought of as a portal to acquaintance with higher reality, deity, the awesomely sacred, first and divine things, at least to the extent that such acquaintance is possible for us flawed and meagre humans. Perhaps it is surprising that the discourse of spirituality can be separated from its entanglement with grand scale divinity, morality, law, and social order, without disappearing, but it can be, even though for both science and the great antique religions, such a metaphysics is inconceivable.

What is Thinking?

The fundamental question of the relevant philosophy here is “What is thinking?” from an intuition that personal thinking operations are the whole reality of spirituality. Such philosophy is an exploration of the spirituality of thinking, both in getting from moment to moment in life and in questioning assumptions that pave the familiar thought-paths of socially pragmatic life and expectation. The most ordinary orientation or bearing from this moment to the next is a thinking operation. It is a spiritual creation of freedom through the personal construction of a temporal path into a mutable future of possibilities and increasingly remote probabilities that have no actual existence as such. Past and future do not exist in the brute actuality of nature. They exist only, but emphatically, within the orientation of individual persons. There is an ongoing accumulation of complexity in a person’s bearing or vector of orientation, as curiosity, questioning, and inspiration engage and grapple with nature, culture, and other intelligences. There is always the inward quest to sustain a life, holding and modifying a bearing of flight in building that life. Re-orienting toward the next moment is done, therefore, with reference to the whole past of an embodied life, which does not exist in the actuality of nature, and so with reference to much more than outward markers.

The way-of-being of the spiritual self is to evade a final particularity of itself (evading thingness), to project self-creation continually into a not-yet of futurity. In that way spirituality is inseparable from time, and both have the same immateriality or ‘metaphysical’ quality, without appearance. The self is a no-thing-ness, neither a thing nor a structure of things, but instead is a flight expressive of an interiority of non-actuality, time, and creative freedom. What time as a personal past and future shows is exactly spirituality. The immateriality of the spiritual is precisely the same as the immateriality of time in lessons learned, aspirations, and anticipations. Time is not an appearance (does not appear), but instead is the orientation (spirituality) of an intelligence engaging with, intervening in, brute actuality, living its particular life and imposing that life onto brute actuality. An individual’s aspirations and lessons learned are present as shaping forces in this moment of engagement with the surroundings, but they are not perceived or perceivable. They are not “backstage” as images or symbols somehow pushing. They are present only in the non-appearing directionality (orientation) itself.

So what is Spiritual about Thinking? Is it Transcendent enough?

The essential identity of everyone as an individual is an active process of creative orientation, a personal interiority of spiritual non-actuality, as just described, intervening continuously in brute actuality as a particular embodiment. The non-actuality of the particular temporal depth in which any individual is oriented, what has often been called inwardness or interiority, grounds the meaning of spirituality here, but there is much more. The crucial spiritual reality is the freedom-within-an-unfinished-world which is created by that play of non-actuality, and the personally fulfilling creative power it manifests. So, these features, non-actuality, creative power creating a life, freedom, and mutability within an otherwise determined and determinate nature, cash out as transcendent spirituality. Even though this spirituality is separated from entanglements with grand scale divinity, and divinely dictated morality, law, guilt, and social order, the transcendence does not disappear.

Elemental Embodiment and Spirituality

In our spirituality we have: the subjective non-actualities of anticipation, aspiration, and evaluation, modelling futurity as an openness; a personal force of aspirational directionality, bearing, or ever-rebuilding orientation; the freedom of newness and incompleteness; empathic recognition of separate spiritual beings and a resulting sociability. We have the gusher of questions, curiosity, impulses to mark the environment and construct interconnections with others.

In the sociability of spirituality we have: empathy, recognition of the opportunity to multiply the openness of spirituality by co-operative bonding, community, conversation, the comfort of companionship and sharing.

In our experience of elemental embodiment we have: the personal identity of individual shape and placement; mobility, mobilization and shaping of other objects; gesturing, posturing and vocalizing, often in exchanges with other embodied spiritualities; ingestion, experience of kinaesthetic-metabolic energy depletion and restoration which models nature as a cost-shape of effortful and effective work.

Thinking Off-Grid: Leaving the Metaphysics of Social Pragmatism

What normally stands in the way of discovering this reality of spirituality in personal thinking operations is a certain culturally supplied roadmap of thinking, a trained orientation into social pragmatism, which effectively prevents us from questioning much of anything. Social pragmatism, into which every child is trained in school, is a roadmap of thinking, packaged in a judgment from crypto-metaphysics that you, as an individual, are incapable of thinking critically about the justifications or origins of social authority because you are flawed by unworthy intentions, and also low on nature’s food chain due to inherently limited competence. (“Who do you think you are?”) At the boundary of the socially pragmatic roadmap of thinking is the warning: “Here be Dragons”. The message is that questioning the framework of social authority is pure futility because there is no coherent alternative to arrangements as you find them, so that nothing can come of such thinking but an abyss of nihilism and despair. Part of social pragmatism is the assertion that “the good” is conferred entirely by the social arrangements of the status quo: you merit the amount of goods (including freedom) you win in competitions within the economic system, and so no good can come of thinking critically about the justifications of social and cultural authority. With that context, social pragmatism is not only a roadmap of thinking, but also a restricting conception of thinking itself as pragmatic logic, collecting data for solving the menu of problems intrinsic to the place you occupy on the economic food chain. However, from the initial condition of social pragmatism, there are experiences which occasion the discovery of the creative thinking involved with re-conceptualization, questioning fundamental assumptions, a kind of thinking more often identified as philosophical. A person goes from ordinary thinking within a socially pragmatic framework, designing and executing interventions into social actuality, to questioning the fundamental metaphysics of the framework itself. Somehow a line is crossed, the line formed by assumptions of not being competent to think and of belonging at a certain place on the hierarchical food chain. Somehow the metaphysics of inherent human flaw and inevitable cosmic chain becomes questionable and inoperative. This metaphysics of being flawed and chained is left behind and there is a crossing out into a condition of thinking which is not even supposed to be there, where the metaphysics of flaw and chain is completely absent, but where discovering creative freedom in the personal spirituality of thinking refutes entirely the prediction of nihilism and incoherence. The whole reality of spirituality and metaphysics is in this thinking. There is a fountain of good here, the spontaneous creation from within of curiosity, questioning, and inspiration, the gusher of impulses to shape the environment and construct interconnections with others.

Oddly then, the only way to truly or fully embrace spirituality is to recognize the strict and inescapable individuality of subjective embodiment. The non-particularity of the thinking self is the non-particularity of freedom. Spirituality is nothing other than freedom and freedom is actualized in gestures of the body.


Thinking as creative re-conceptualization was described in two previous postings:

97, July 19, 2016, What is Thinking?

98, August 17, 2016, Philosophy with a Whiff of Mysticism

Other relevant postings include:

32, May 17, 2012, Subjective Embodiment: Intelligence as a Particular

54, February 6, 2013, Freedom and Time

Some passages in the present posting were iterated in:

88, December 15, 2015, Philosophical Liberation: Sociability, Embodiment, Spirituality

89, January 9, 2016, Basics of a Liberation Philosophy

Copyright © 2016 Sandy MacDonald.

What is Patriarchy?


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This is dedicated to the happy memory of Weldon Matthews, scholar, artist, actor, teacher, playwright, producer, director, creative collaborator, friend.

Tags: patriarchy, history, politics, gender cultures, ideality culture, anarchic interconnection, dominance, symbols and pageantry of dominance, nurture, first-language acquisition, literacy, Renaissance, interior individualism, Cogito ergo sum.

History can be sketched as the career of relations among certain distinct cultural engines or streams, but three especially are comprehensively important. These three culture streams have very different values, models of relationship, and concepts of personal identity, and so endure an uneasy coexistence. One is a female managed, child-nurture-focused culture in which all human beings learn our first language and most other culture. This is the ongoing conversation between childhood innocence and adult sophistication. Adult sophistication is often morphing into something new, but childhood innocence is always basically ecstatic, curious, and eager to engage. This first-language-nurture culture is mainly female, thrives by cultivating collective support and sociability, emphasizing language and recognition of individual voices. Separate from that but vastly parasitic on it is a competitive alpha-trophy culture of dominance which developed into military and corporate culture and into sovereign states. Alpha culture is mainly male and worships and celebrates competition for dominance and the benefits of dominance. The key benefit of dominance is top-down human macro-parasitism, from which other benefits flow. Many such benefits are the symbols and pageantry of dominance, trophies, for example in the scale of property possession and in relationships marked by hierarchical inequality (master/slave). Money culture, market wealth, is a branch of dominance culture because the scale of property possession is crucial in the pageantry and symbolism of dominance. Part of alpha-trophy culture is denigration of alternative culture streams, defining them as inferior to and dependent on itself, and maintaining a sense of urgency about keeping them in some degree of dishonour and disgrace. The third stream is a spin-off from the cultural importance of language and conversation, namely scribal culture, the culture of literacy and literature, intellectual culture. Scribal schools, libraries, universities, and commercial publishing have cultivated this distinct culture of collective intelligence that features individual voices expressing a reading/writing persona as distinct from a strictly social persona. This culture cultivates a personally interior thinking life of interpretive and critical reading, writing, and long deliberation, is essentially androgynous and often celebrates originality, which is to say, anarchy, even though it is often cultivated by and within hierarchical organizations. Separate from all of these is every individual’s subjective innocence, which the immersion in culture and history can never smother completely. The essential identity of everyone as an individual is an active process of creative orientation, a personal interiority of spiritual non-actuality, intervening continuously in brute actuality as a particular embodiment. Individuals get deeply immersed in pre-existing streams of culture early in life, but creative thinking, reconceptualization, is performed entirely at the level of the individual.

Why Religions Don’t Count

Religions are also important culture streams, conservatories of a certain kind of metaphysical ideology. In general, religions counsel their flocks to seek refuge and tranquility in the promise of an eternal and other-worldly transcendence to be actualized in a distant future, and so to disengage from concerns about power and wealth in the empires of this world. By this token, religions universally advance a top-down cosmic orientation that depicts normal individuals at the bottom of a metaphysical chain of command, a placement that lacks both power and rights-meriting status. That places religions perfectly to serve as the “ministry of mystical justification” for alpha-trophy dominance culture, and they frequently partner with imperial organizations in pacification and control of the low-status masses. Religions have often placed high value on scribal culture as the guardian and interpreter of holy texts and codes of law elaborated from such texts. However, religions do not merit inclusion with the three culture streams sketched above because the hierarchy they model in their ideology and organization is derived wholesale from the culture of dominance, and the ethics of care and nurture they occasionally encourage is derived wholesale from the culture of nurture. As for scribal culture, although there was a very early association of writing with supernatural powers and magic, and with imperial organization, scribal culture developed in a way that makes it independently relevant wherever language-based ways of learning and understanding are involved, and ultimately cultivates the inscribing of individual voices, beyond the reach of other streams of culture. Intrinsic to scribal culture, although often uncredited, is an experience of spirituality that is completely at odds with the top-down centralized hierarchy typical in religions and traditional military-based institutions of sovereignty.

Why Class Struggle Doesn’t Count

The economic and political overclass, the class of patricians, the most dominant operators of dominance culture, oriented within old and highly developed ideologies sanctifying macro-parasitism in the patrician way of life, is certainly class conscious as a distinct social entity, but there is no equivalent but distinct worldview for a proletariat, a working or plebeian class. In fact, the culturally supplied conceptual reality within which working people orient ourselves is pervaded by the patrician ideology, the top-down metaphysical (religious) chain of command which sanctifies the existence of subordination. There is nothing intrinsic to the cultural legacies from “folk cultures” to seriously discredit the hierarchical metaphysics that anchors the patrician worldview. The conservatism of the privileged has often found an ally in proletarian conservatism. Proletarian males are carriers of alpha-trophy dominance culture just as much as males everywhere, because it represents the cultural ideals of masculinity. To the extent that proletarian class values are represented by socialism, they are derived wholesale from nurture culture. In any case, nobody but patricians wants there to be an enduring and culturally distinct proletarian class. The conclusion is that, in terms of historical political developments, the class of proletarians is not an autonomous engine. The opposition to competitive dominance culture has come from nurture culture and the literary culture of interior individualism.

The Three Streams

The three culture streams that are autonomous engines-of-community are all very ancient. The stream of scholarship goes back to the invention of writing from something like 5,000 years ago, plausibly in ancient Mesopotamian Sumer. Mastering the craft of literacy tends to form social bonds among its devotees. The alpha-trophy dominance culture found its ideal form in the conquering outpourings from the Great Eurasian Steppe, fountain of macro-parasitic herding culture. However, the first-language-nurture culture is surely the oldest, from the first human development of language between mother and child. Although these culture streams are autonomous to an important extent, having maintained their separate operations for thousands of years, they also survive by using, tolerating, and intermingling with each other. For example, dominance culture became the ideal of masculinity and so has a strong influence wherever there are men, especially men in groups devoted to physical strength, death-defying fearlessness, and kinetic action. Scholarly culture was a male preserve through most of its existence, and so the influence of the power-adulating culture of masculinity can be recognized in most intellectual work. For example, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) represents a number of philosophers who were childless and single privileged men immersed in a minority culture of alpha-male competition for dominance in the pageantry of seventeenth century Europe. It is not surprising that scholars or intellectuals in that setting grasped human nature as little more than egoism and a war of all against all, because that represents their ideal of masculinity. The parochial narrowness of their experience institutionalized a crucially distorted conception of human nature which is still plaguing us. In ancient times Plato and, much later, Augustine also were embedded in privileged male culture-pods. Those philosophers believed human attachment to be brittle and possible only as a gift from awe-inspiring power, requiring submission to power. Like Hobbes, they glorified the state as the greatest human achievement. The modern state was conceived and put into practice in the cultural matrix which made life interesting and fun for competitive alpha males. The other gender-based worldview, the realm of child-nurture, managed and cultivated by women, was effectively unknown, ignored, and despised by men from time out of mind, a cultured policy of willful blindness. The alpha-trophy culture claims the exclusive distinction of authentically expressing nature, but that claim is a ridiculous bias. The female cultivated culture of first-language-nurture has every bit as legitimate a claim to express nature (and a greater claim to intelligence), and points toward a social organization much different from the dominance pageantry of capitalism. When the value of nurturing children enters the picture, what is natural is co-operation, play, sharing, and love.

First-Language-Nurture Culture

That there is more than egoism motivating intelligences is illustrated most spectacularly in first-language-nurture collectives. Women and children do the work of connecting, caring, nurturing. Undefeated by all the macro-parasitism imposed on them by powerful collectives and individuals, a majority of women persist in their work of building connection with new human arrivals, engaging face to face through innumerable hours of an infant’s learning the ways of human interconnectedness and especially language. Mothers in that situation also find one another and share in building the culture of nurture and caring support. What parents, especially mothers, enjoy doing for their children, for each other, for other people’s children, for their parents, siblings, and friends is a conspicuous example of non-egoistic human interconnectedness. The first-language-nurture culture is robust and ancient, providing parenting, belonging within personal interconnectedness, language skills, and mutual adult support. The fact that the first-language-nurture culture and operations are not recognized as the foundation of social order reveals that nasty political forces are at work. That the common distribution of nurture has been ignored so consistently by social and economic philosophers, such as Hobbes and Adam Smith, who insisted that egoism alone is dominant in individuals, shows that the intended audience of such authors was the collective of privileged males enjoying benefits from acting out the egoistic alpha-trophy ideology of masculinity. There are two very distinct and contrasting gender-based world-views in the human community, and the one focused on the value of dominance recognizes the other (often unconsciously) as an existential threat.

The most pervasive motivational narrative in modern culture, the official meaning of modern life, could be described as self-definition through competition in the market economy. However, the dominance of such a view is another instance of a cultured contempt for the female-managed and child-centred value matrix, because the conversation with children and the social life which surrounds it have been more rewarding and meaningful all along and everywhere. As a force for social stability, the most undervalued asset is children. People continue to have children not because children are cute, or from brute instinct to continue the species, but because children are contributors to the vitality of the human conversation, crucial interlocutors for adults. The innocent curiosity, love of honest attachment, and delight in questioning and discovery characteristic of children is valuable in itself and not just as a stage to be rushed through on the way to adult mentality. Couples often reach a point of wanting to part company, but it is very rare for anyone to want to separate from their children. Even parents who become alienated from adult children reach out again when grandchildren appear. The bond with children is the strongest in human experience. (Children also keep re-inventing language instead of just passively learning it.) As a social foundation, then, we retain a focus on arrangements around the conversation with our children and the innocent love and playfulness they offer. That includes the reality and force of first-language-nurture culture, authentic attachment, elemental bonding, and sharing awareness between individual voices. Children still count as the focus of meaning for all classes, largely a nihilism-free zone. The imperative to nurture children ties people to stability in production and consumption, but not to any particular ideology or metaphysical assumptions.

Social Order

Hobbes failed to recognize or imagine that there is another common experience of human interconnectedness, namely from within the culture of intense personal engagement with newborns, infants, and toddlers for the project of initiating them into the connection of intelligences through language, shared culture, caring, and nurture generally. From that alternative ‘state of nature’ the interconnectedness develops without a social contract or a law-giver from above. The fact that women carry on with their nurture culture is what actually accounts for the stability of human interconnectedness. The guarantor and binding mechanism of social order and human communication networks is not the sovereign authority of the star-system meritocracy, nor its police forces, armies, guns, or prisons. Sovereignty is not the source of social stability. Social order and interconnectedness are products of the informal non-family collectives which groups of mothers form with their children to have the children play together and learn to speak the communal language. Such groups tend to ignore family separations and instead create informal collectives pragmatically with any willing mothers in the vicinity. They build on and extend accomplishments from the countless hours that mothers spend engaged with their children, face to face, voice to voice, enjoying the elemental pleasure and mutual inspiration that particular intelligences experience in connecting with each other.

Nurture and War

The extended nexus of first-language acquisition is in some ways a conservative force since stability is necessary for nurturing children. However, it doesn’t value wars, gambling, or radical inequality, some of the worst plagues on humanity, which are treasured by the alpha-structure. Nurture culture has an intrinsic tendency toward promoting equality because it is common knowledge within that culture that huge investments of loving care, personal attachment, energy, strategy, and work go into the survival and linguistic engagement of every human being, and it is bestial and criminal to waste any single one. The main reason to avoid violence is that violence disrespects not only its victims but all the sacred investment of nurture that supported their survival. First-language-nurture groups create the interconnectedness in the first place and work on it day in and day out, so when the interconnectedness is poisoned there is bound to be some alienation and rage among people working to keep it vital. It adds another layer to the rage and alienation from having the work and persons of females disrespected almost universally, a situation that is made difficult to correct because of the immediate demands of nurturing work. The point is not that women are uniquely able or impelled to nurture, but that a fundamental sociability in human spirituality is revealed in nurturing activity, that such widespread devotion reveals the depth of sociability in human spirituality generally. There is no justification here or anywhere for the ghettoization of nurture or of women’s choice of work.

Dominance Culture

The alpha-structure devises an economic and political agenda so that wars can still be fought, transferrable wealth funnelled upward and concentrated, the gambling addiction of the finance industry celebrated, money from corporate crime laundered, and the privileges and pleasures of unlimited wealth can be undisturbed. It accepts that the commonality of people are more usable, compliant, obedient, and manageable when kept in a vulnerable psychological state and guided within certain boundaries of experience. The alpha-structure craves the macro-parasitic fruits of economic and political control, and psychological manipulation is simply an essential aspect of that control. Part of that is a requirement to trivialize and denigrate the vital importance of the first-language-nurture culture which is actually the source of stability in the human interconnectedness. The core ethos of the alpha-trophy faction is full-spectrum dominance and the elimination of competition from alternative visions, by kinetic violence if necessary. It is not possible for people high on that Kool-Aid to do anything other than ridicule any generalization of the value of nurture. Under dominance culture, the political marginalization of the first-language-nurture culture is so extreme that the arrival of a continuous stream of new persons, linguistically and socially equipped and competent, is passed over as an event of brute nature, a given like minerals in the ground. Women doing the work of building fundamental attachments among separate intelligences are discounted as fauna, operating under biological compulsions, “maternal instinct”.

Scribal Culture

Just as the nurture of children (and community) by mothers reveals an aspect of humanity beyond the conception and comfort zone of social theories like Hobbes’, the same is true of the personal experience of, and a certain chain of political interventions by, literary culture. Even though literary arts were and are sponsored and exploited by alpha-families and religious cults as supports for intimidating dominance, the mental life of a literate person acquaints him or her with private experience of a certain freedom and self-possession. The gift of scribal culture is enrichment of personal interiority, an elaborate interior identity, direct acquaintance with ideality as secular spirituality. Individuals are gratified by such personally interior processes as questioning and creative reconceptualization and by expressing that creativity in a distinctive voice. (Personal orientation is not a structure of symbols, but rather an interior spiritual bearing of intervention within brute actuality.) The mental life of literacy occasioned a kind of thinking that came to be called “rational”, willing to evaluate different sides of an argument with no limit on time since propositions exist in objective form for any reader consider. The cultural stream of reading and writing, abstract thinking and study, critique, and interpretation, more than either of the others highlights a depth of creativity and freedom at the level of the individual, the literary voice as distinct from the social voice. It elaborated a spiritual world of ideas as a vast context for strict concreteness.

Proof of the innovative political force of literary culture is in the pudding of history. For example, essential to the European Renaissance was the confrontation of Christendom with long-gone ancient pagan culture, based on the re-discovery of ancient texts and works of art, and a re-evaluation of pagan culture to acknowledge its general superiority. The context for development of European education at that crucial stage was an urgency to benefit from the previous culture which had produced inspiring people, with inspiring literary voices and thoughts. (It wasn’t about concrete economic pragmatism.) A crucial piece of what excited Renaissance Europeans was pagan humanist individualism (Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Skepticism), an excitement that launched a philosophical de-stabilization of the Christian ideology around the spirituality and destiny of the human individual. There was also a technological innovation, the printing press, which accelerated the pre-existing movement for universal literacy. The great western spiral of revolt that started in the time of John Wycliffe (1331-1384) and the Oxford Lollards was associated with Wycliffe’s movement to promote proletarian literacy in vernacular languages, especially by translation of the Bible, a clear case of political intervention by the scribal culture stream. The Church of Rome was strongly against unauthorized Bible reading. Subsequent Protestant piety required universal literacy in vernacular languages so every individual could read and interpret holy scripture, an accomplishment that conferred on every individual a new kind of spiritual dignity.

Throughout the earlier medieval period, aristocracy had been a kind of junior partner to the Church in the sovereign supervision of Christendom, but the Renaissance involved an assertion of independence by aristocracy and monarchy. Church, monarchy, and aristocracy were the overt structures of sovereign power, institutions of the alpha-trophy culture of dominance. However, the Renaissance also featured a momentous, if less conspicuous, cultural movement, namely a sharp increase in the prestige of literacy, bookishness, and scholarly contemplative culture (including philosophy) which become an alternative model of virtue and accomplishment, a way to authority and accomplishment also available, even then, to some women. Qualities respected in aristocratic culture were distinctly masculine, military, and formally social, quite different from qualities cultivated by scholarship. It was around those historical events that the operators of dominance culture came to recognize the anarchic impulse intrinsic to the culture of ideality and thinking. Academic freedom, freedom of expression, freedom of thought, freedom of the press, have all been hotly contested political issues, as the recurring theme of book-burning illustrates. Censorship and the banning of books have been common acts of dominance culture. Universal literacy and education enabled a new kind of individualism, a kind established by personally interior cultivation and not in combat over scarce trophies. Entrepreneurship in literary culture eventually constructed the Republic of Letters outside the control of institutions, enabling the Enlightenment and new ideas of human rights and freedoms. Descartes’ declaration: “I am thinking, so I must exist!” truly expresses the potential of modern subjective individualism, a kind of individualism that manifests in the creative authenticity of utterance, of a voice that engages in conversation, instead of in hoards of concrete possessions. The republic of letters is a forum for multitudes of distinctive literary voices.

So, What is Patriarchy?

Patriarchy is the political and economic institutionalization, in the structure of social relationships within a state, of dominance culture at the expense of the appropriate influence and recognition of both nurture culture and the literary culture of ideality. Patriarchy is immersion in the metaphysical ideology of dominance culture, the conviction that social order depends on an edifice of control, power, hierarchy, force, supervision, rules, and contracts. This nearly exclusive institutionalization of the dominance culture is sanctified by a simplified (materialist-friendly) metaphysics of human nature, the Hobbesian view of human ego-gratification, comfortably incorporating a modernized version of the Christian dogma of original sin which asserts that individuals benefit from a system of domination, and that domination is pre-determined by God or nature. Such a competitive materialist view of human nature, the socially pragmatic view, is patriarchal ideology pure and simple, asserting a false metaphysics and a false conception of spirituality. Patriarchal ideology has convinced everybody that some sort of “…archy” is needed to keep us missiles of atomized egoism in check, but neither of the two alternative culture streams tends toward formation of any kind of “…archy”, and that is their strength. They each tend toward strong but less brittle interconnectedness, in fact, anarchic interconnectedness.


Tensions among the three cultures identified here can be recognized in the essay:

Ur-Fascism, by Umberto Eco, published by The New York Review of Books, June 22, 1995 issue. (A link to this essay was posted on Episyllogism Blog, WordPress, August 11, 2016.) Based on his experience growing up under fascism in Italy in the 1930’s, Eco presents core characteristics of fascism.

Some points in this posting were introduced previously:

Posting 9, October 25, 2011, Political Considerations

Posting 35, July 6, 2012, Transcendental Humanism

Posting 36, July 12, 2012, First Language Nurture

Posting 37, July 26, 2012, Sharing Awareness

Copyright © 2016 Sandy MacDonald.

Philosophy with a Whiff of Mysticism


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Tags: thinking, creativity, freedom, philosophy, spirituality, transcendence, mysticism, logic, history of philosophy

The School of Athens

In the centre of the fresco “The School of Athens” (by Italian Renaissance artist Raphael, painted between 1509 and 1511 in the Vatican, Apostolic Palace) Plato on the left and Aristotle on the right are gesturing their disagreement, each pointing to what he takes to be the most important focus of philosophical curiosity and thinking, and in doing so setting the agenda of western thinking generally for a couple of thousand years. Plato points skyward, asserting his metaphysics, which features the cosmic dominance of otherworldly and timeless Ideal Forms, anticipating Christian spirituality. Aristotle has his hand extended horizontally, palm open and facing downward, indicating that it is more important to understand the concrete world as encountered in ordinary living, anticipating science. Regrettably, they were both wrong. The focus revealed in the key question What is thinking? is the power of spirituality on a strictly personal-scale.

The intense spiritual effort known as mysticism is based on a conviction that there are profound spiritual features of the human situation which remain generally unrecognized either because they are metaphysically remote from the ordinary circumstances of human living (as in the metaphysics of Plato, for example), or else they are somehow hidden in plain sight, occupying an unidentified blind spot in human perception, especially as that perception is guided by normal cultural influences. Part of the claim and program of any mysticism, of course, is that those unrecognized features can (and should!) be disclosed and explored with certain special techniques. In the case of philosophical thinking on the question What is thinking?, the techniques available are familiar enough: questioning, self-questioning, and re-conceptualization. However, even such philosophical thinking can carry a whiff of mysticism in acknowledging a shocking strangeness lurking within the ordinary, a strangeness concerning human spirituality, and that appropriate acquaintance with spirituality has a transforming effect on experience generally.


To say that spirituality is personally ‘interior’ is to say nothing more than that it is not an actuality among things, but is still the marker of what is most local for any particular person. In the work of Martin Luther, such subjective interiority was called inwardness. In Stoicism, as well as in the work of Luther and Immanuel Kant, freedom was recognized as an important reality but entirely limited to that personal inwardness, and everything overt and public was conceived as completely pre-determined either by divine plan (logos for Stoics) or by material cause/ effect, so by God or nature. However, all of those ways of thinking were guided in what they conceived by ideas of cosmic hierarchy, in which the power of the almighty eternal was so comprehensive that no ephemeral and finite force could divert it in any way. Such ideas of cosmic hierarchy are unjustified.

The creative freedom that is personal spirituality is not a formless nothing, and is much more than passive consciousness ‘of’ something. It is teleological time: an interventionist bearing into actuality conceived as open futurity shaped by the personal specifics of anticipation, aspiration, and evaluation, including pre-actual anticipations of alternative discretionary interventions. Freedom has the form of time as open futurity constructed of non-actual and increasingly remote possibilities and probabilities, incorporating lessons learned, all in continuity with the most local actuality of embodiment. That the actuality of the present state of affairs categorically and specifically excludes and negates the actuality of all other states of affairs (temporal discontinuity), means that the existence of other states, which is required for the existence of time, can only be existence as non-actualities ‘interior to’ some living person. This spiritual ‘interiority’ is an individual’s ever-present embodied orientation in a time-structure of non-actuality (the non-actual future, the non-actual past). As freedom-empowering non-actuality, teleological time is the form of transcendent spirituality. A very elaborated orientation and directionality of interventionist bearing is certainly ‘in here’, continuously self-building with a streaming force of original questioning, creativity, and basic sociability, along with variably intense anxiety, desperation, and gratification. Power is not something that originates from the barrel of a gun, nor is it created by institutional customs and habits of stratification, authority, and subordination. Power originates in this spirituality at the level of the embodied individual.

That Whiff of Mysticism

The idea of metaphysical transcendence (effective non-actuality or immateriality), of course, contains a whiff of mysticism, suggesting ideas about what is supernatural, typically conceived as divinity, and about how humans should bring ourselves into an appropriate relationship to the supernatural. However, what is encountered in recognizing the personally interior non-actualities in freedom and time, although transcendent, is emphatically embodied, not all-knowing or all-powerful, and certainly lacks universal jurisdiction, so is not divine in any usual sense. This transcendence suggests a scattered multitude of equals instead of “something than which nothing can be greater”. Here there is nothing to be known about how to evade oppressive astral powers on the path up to divinity, no divine messages or powers in letters, words, numbers, events or images, nor anything else that could be cultish. This is transcendent spirituality without the dissolving of personal individuality which is typical of mysticism. There are no glimpses here of an almighty provider, legislator, and enforcer. This transcendence involves no debt, and so no guilt or gratitude, and has no involvement of any kind with disembodied intelligent entities. This transcendence is without the “all is one” or cosmic consciousness, without the supreme-source or cosmic moral ledger keeping and final day of reckoning. There is only this whiff of personal creative freedom which is not a thing. Perhaps the surprise is that spirituality and transcendence are still recognizable as such without the more grandiose features of mysticism.

Still, the personal use of thinking (on the question: What is thinking?) as a gateway to the experience of spirituality carries a distinct whiff of mysticism. For one thing, there is the recognition that working up a theory of spirituality is insufficient. In this thinking, the task at hand is not the construction of conceptual or abstract knowledge, but instead a personal experience, an encounter with and recognition of ‘interior’ non-actuality as transcendent spirituality. It is more a re-orientation to a grounding in that transcendence than any word-based knowledge or model-building. This is a personal and practical re-orientation as opposed to critiquing and tweaking the logic of theories and intervening in theoretical puzzles, which quite properly make up the important substance of academic work. This is personal in ways that theory never is. Nobody does this for money, but for intrinsic value, just as with mysticism. This alone is enough to put such thinking at the outer fringe of philosophy, where it should be unable to cast an unwelcome light on institutional philosophy, already considered fringy enough with respect to scientific knowledge.

Thinking and Time

To think is, sometimes, to question (doubt) in a way that is profoundly different from requesting information from a catalogue, such as people do with internet search engines or in the student – teacher interaction. This different kind of questioning or curiosity is not something with definite linguistic form. It is to have personal orientation progress outside previously habitual markers, categories, rules, and boundaries. It is a sense of unknowing and vigilant curiosity which specifically rejects established patterns. Questioning is a dissolving or failing of previously stable elements of subjective orientation: expectations of identities and relationships. They dissolve frequently in the process of an individual’s developing orientation. To think is to be vigilant to that dissolving, and so to unleash the gushing interior stream of alternative possible reconstructions: new and incompatible ‘propositions’ to be considered. This thinking as the movement between questioning and re-conceptualization is done in the context of both a person’s interventionist bearing, and the simultaneously expanding overall orientation at this moment of flight into actuality toward the openness of futurity. So, thinking is re-making the provisional stability of futurity, the personal specifics of anticipating, aspiring, evaluating, planning and executing interventions: re-conceptualization. There is no modelling or representation of this mental operation in logic theory, neither in inductive or deductive logic. The whole spirit of formal logic is to be coldly rule-governed and determinate, but re-conceptualization is indeterminate and warm, which is to say, creative. The active presence of a scattered multiplicity of embodied spiritualities, intervening as individuals into local actuality, makes the whole world indefinite, indeterminate, not yet a completed particular. Time is the incompleteness of everything. Thinking is a way of being in an indeterminate world, a world of possibility, a way of making such a world. This isn’t psychology, but rather the metaphysics of time.

Descartes was Right

If there is to be an event of questioning (thinking on the way to re-conceptualization) there must be an oriented bearing of intervention, anticipation, aspiration, evaluation, and so a thinking subject in flight between past and future. The inseparable combination of the temporality of thinking and the subjectivity of time establishes that Descartes was right about “Cogito, ergo sum.”.

Missing Spirituality

In an era when the decline of spiritual ideologies from antique religions is no longer seriously lamented, potentially clearing the field for better guides, the vacuum was filled instead by the modern ideology of competitive materialism, celebrated relentlessly in mass media and aided and encouraged by science in its role as dominant intellectual discourse. Thoroughly secular people still inclined to have spirituality in their lives, and there are many, often do so by involvement with the arts, cultivating appreciation of art and beauty. It is a positive thing that there are still so many determined to keep a sense of spirituality alive. However, ascribing spirituality to beauty directs attention outward toward some eternally mysterious source, remote and unattainable. Contemplation and appreciation of art and beauty, as a way of being spiritual, invokes a kind of Platonic idealism in which beauty represents a transcendent world which is otherwise inaccessible, almost perfectly alien to individuals. In such a context, the human connection to spirituality is occasional, passive, unreliable, and dependent on treasured properties for possession of which the most wealthy compete. This is a misconception of transcendence. The top-down metaphysical orientation re-enforces the hierarchy that is typical of arts culture, largely overlapping the hierarchy of competitive materialism.

The promise of philosophy reclaiming the metaphysical question of transcendence as its historically essential issue, even with its whiff of mysticism, is to open a more appropriate experience and discourse of spirituality. Regrettably, reputable philosophy has made itself as science-like and un-spiritual as possible, and so unavailable as a source of spiritual discourse. However, there is plenty of spiritual discourse in the history of philosophy, some of it cited above. Spiritually relevant philosophy comes of personally making something important of the question: What is thinking? What thinks is spirituality, a flight of creativity and so of indeterminacy, projecting creativity into actuality. Such a conception of spirituality upsets the Platonic-scientific sense of the world (including the social world) as a rigidly furnished bundle of structures waiting to be discovered, with all essences already finished and in place, and so where everything is as it must always be. As an act of creation, thinking is the reality of freedom at the level of the embodied individual, and keeps open the indeterminacy and incompleteness of the self and the world. Emphasizing thinking as spiritual power also shifts the sense of human wellbeing in a way that upsets the ideology of competitive materialism. Thinking itself is the best and essential achievement, self-conferred. Tapping the personally interior gusher of spirituality (intelligence), and bringing creations into the world is the way to fulfillment for both individuals and collectives.


* Some observations in this posting are responses to points made in:

What is Existenz Philosophy, written by Hannah Arendt, published in Partisan Review 8/1 (Winter 1946): pp. 34-56.

Copyright © 2016 Sandy MacDonald.

What is Thinking?


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Tags: philosophy, thinking, questioning, wonder, spirituality, freedom, transcendence, moral reckoning, phenomenology, intentionality, Aristotle, Martin Heidegger, Sarah Bakewell, Pierre Hadot.

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) wrote* that philosophy is grounded in a specific question (What is Being?), and guided by a related question (What are beings?). For Heidegger, then, philosophy is a matter of those particular questions, a matter of specific questioning. However, Heidegger’s grounding and guiding questions express the “thing” or object bias of phenomenology (“To the things!”), which was based on a claim known as the principle of intentionality: consciousness is always “of something”. As a gateway into philosophy, phenomenology has an exceptionally good thing about it: it is a program of personal thinking, rather than theory that you have to remember. In doing phenomenology, you don’t have to remember anything but that you are re-evaluating your experience by practicing a novel mindfulness (initially non-verbal), eventually writing about the process. It begins with an effort to clear out of perception all the clutter of previously learned assumptions, conceptions, and theories. Phenomenology does not claim to pass on knowledge of eternal reality. The question of objective reality is suspended, bracketed off. What seems to happen is itself the object of interest. However, a problem with phenomenology is the conception of human spirituality or intelligence as “consciousness”. Consciousness, by definition, is passive and nothing but receptive. To assert the classic claim of intentionality – consciousness is always “of something” – just asserts the definition of consciousness. However, consciousness is not a stand-alone autonomous event, but rather is an aspect of a more complex spiritual flight and engagement. The more fundamental questions that ground and guide philosophy concern spirituality rather than phenomenological “things”.

To paraphrase Aristotle, philosophy is spirituality thinking about spirituality, dissatisfied with the imperfection of its self-possession, doing what it can to re-conceptualize the transcendence of its existence as spirituality, its freedom and non-actuality. Seen this way, philosophy is a specific spiritual quest, an embodied spirituality questing to overcome the self-alienation that is peculiarly typical of spirituality (of Existenz), with intent to arrive at a new but still primordial self-acquaintance. So, maybe Heidegger got the philosophical questions wrong. A strong candidate for the grounding and guiding question of philosophy might be: What is thinking?

The Blind-Spot is Spirituality

In an age of science, spirituality is the blind-spot. The philosophical identification of spirituality is different, but not entirely different, from the religious. Moral reckoning is not as central to spirituality as conceived philosophically: mechanisms of moral ledgering and payout as retribution or reward can be absent completely. The philosophical sense of spirituality is the engagement with brute actuality of non-actualities such as anticipation, evaluation, aspiration, and deliberation over pre-actual alternative possible interventions in actuality. The philosophical response to recognizing the transcendent freedom of spirituality (accomplished by its power of creating those non-actualities) is not gratitude or any other kind of answerability, as if to a top-down super-provider, but instead is creative curiosity, questioning, a wondering that is an active bearing into actuality. When that curiosity expresses itself, or could be fairly represented, as the question “What is thinking?”, then this spirituality bears toward self-acquaintance. In aid of self-acquaintance it can abandon common and familiar categories and boundaries designating itself and go on without them, before trial-applying some novel fixations of a new orientation to this spiritual force-point of non-actuality, and of this spiritual self to its surroundings things.

So, thinking is an exercise of elemental spirituality. It is a readiness, inside the bearing of an actively enlarging orientation, to evade familiar concepts, categories and boundaries, to dissolve them with questioning, and to form a novel, more inclusive, synthesis of experience from within and outside those boundaries and categories. Questioning is always some degree of a dissolving force against previously fixed categories and boundaries. To conceptualize is to place and posture yourself within an opening with some particularity of shape, arrangement of contents, and inclusion of remote presences. Thinking includes creating novel conceptualizations and re-orienting within novel conceptualizations. Thinking is vigilance inside a question, inside the innocent unknowing of curiosity, listening with the ear of curiosity, so to speak, but with not just an ear but a radar which projects a stream of novel possible orientations, to find what might work as a newly shaped opening.

Anyone encountering philosophy confronts the question: do I have to learn the theories of every philosopher in history to get it? The quick answer is: certainly not! Philosophy is a way of being spiritual, of thinking (as in phenomenology), rather than some collection of words-of-wisdom or nuggets-of-knowledge. It is not the secrets of eternity passed personally from teacher to student like a mantra, preserved by being hidden from the common crowd in obscure terminology. Philosophy is the exact opposite of anything cultish because it insists on personal autonomy of thinking. However, university programs do a poor job of coaching thinking. In the academic context, thinking is limited to (misrepresented as) formal logic, learning to evaluate the validity of arguments. In the Anglo-empiricist tradition thinking is inseparable from language and so the only way to think about thinking is to study the formalities and rules of language, and especially the rules of logic embedded within language. You study the current debate on certain issues, or the history of debate on traditional issues: the ideas, claims, and arguments of noteworthy and influential philosophers from the past, things you have to remember so that your memory can be tested and declared worthy or unworthy in yet another moral reckoning. However, it soon becomes apparent that the core of philosophy is not the conceptual system of any particular tradition, or of all taken together, but is instead some mental process accessible to anyone more or less spontaneously, and not well represented by formal logic. There is no indispensable philosopher, or any other reliable introduction, when it comes to the mental process peculiar to philosophy.


*Nietzsche, Volumes One and Two, written by Martin Heidegger (Volume One: The Will to Power as Art, Volume Two: The Eternal Recurrence of the Same), Translated from German by David Farrell Krell, Published by Harper One, An imprint of Harper Collins Publishers (1991), (Reprint. Originally published: San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979-87) ISBN 978-0-06-063841-2. (See the question on p. 68, Volume One).

At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails, written by Sarah Bakewell, published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada (2016), ISBN 978-0-345-81095-3.
This is an up-to-date and absorbing introduction to the ideas and historical milieu of existentialism and phenomenology.

What Is Ancient Philosophy?, written by Pierre Hadot, translated by Michael Chase, published by Belknap Press; (2002), ISBN: 0674007336.
This is an especially approachable gateway into philosophy, moving emphasis to how thinking was cultivated as a spiritual way of life.

Copyright © 2016 Sandy MacDonald.

Anarchist vs Libertarian


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Varieties of Individualism

Tags: spirituality, individualism, freedom, power, anarchism, creativity, competitive materialism, property rights, meritocracy, libertarianism, capitalism

There are two conflicting concepts of individualism, one with a material focus called libertarianism, and the other with a spiritual focus called anarchism. The spiritualist orientation conceives the individual as a gusher of inventive creativity, a fountain from which good things flow. On this view, power is not something that originates from the barrel of a gun, nor is it created by institutional customs and habits of stratification, authority, and subordination. Power originates in the creative freedom of individual spirituality. Emphasis on this spirituality creates a picture in which you want as much originality and sharing as possible, and the best political system is one which enables and enhances that power at the individual level. Tapping into the personally interior gusher of spirituality (intelligence), and bringing spontaneous creations into the world from personal interiority is identified as the way to fulfillment for both individuals and human collectives.

Spirituality, Sociability, Interconnectedness, Equality

Anarchism is an assertion of individual autonomy founded on a vision of human equality. It comes from a history of anti-oppression, and grows organically from the radical enlightenment in European history. Anarchism does not denigrate the importance of human interconnectedness, but makes an effort to remove injustice and top-down human-on-human macro-parasitism from relationships. It is espoused mainly by people who have little property and who live with a history of top-down authoritarian oppression. Anarchism is an assertion of autonomy as a counterforce to lethal violence from historically entrenched factions practicing exploitative repression in the name of some supposedly sovereign community or transcendent civilization.

Competitive Materialism

In the contrasting, and far more common, materialist orientation the individual is conceived as a hollow pit, a kind of black hole, which inherently strives to fill itself by sucking in, taking possession of, and consuming as much as possible of the goods from its environment. Such activity inevitably brings it into conflict with the other black holes in its vicinity. The sucking and the conflict determine the essential character of human existence on the competitive materialist view, which is the matrix of American libertarianism. Libertarians embrace the myth of the free market: competitive self-interest as fundamental and unalterable human nature. On this materialist interpretation of individualism, life is pervasively and inescapably competitive because human nature glimpses fulfillment only by continuous consumption and by winning the conflicts necessary to take the most desirable consumables. Competitions inevitably produce inequality, hierarchy, subordination, and macro-parasitism. The concept “meritocracy” reveals how apparent individualism is meant to morph into an institutionalized power structure, a mechanism of top-down supervision and control. People who win a lot of trophies for themselves are somehow supposed to have shown by that activity that others should be subordinate to them. It is a short slide from libertarianism to fascism.

Given its conception of human nature and motivation, the worldview of American-style libertarians is focused on property rights and ownership of property. The libertarian stance is a declaration of self-identification in terms of trophy-properties and the personal determination to exercise with jealous possessiveness any and all advantages that arise from ownership of property and wealth. It is a rejection of any empathic (ethical) impulse to bond and share, especially with people of colour, again expressing a stratified conception of human relations which is perfectly compatible with racism and xenophobia. This competitive materialism of capitalist free-market libertarianism is a vision of human inequality as essentially good (matrix of magnificent accumulators and their spectacular accumulations), generally espoused by persons who expect to be among those who have plenty. However, embedded in this conception is also an urgent justification for human nature to be controlled because, as an aggressively competitive sucking pit, it is innately unstable and de-stabilizing for social relationships. Since no person is actually viable in complete isolation, even a libertarian expects to have some enduring human relationships. As an expression of political conservatism, the expected relationships of libertarians are hardly matters of speculation, they will be hierarchical and privileging to the masculine as traditionally conceived in the alpha-trophy-looting culture of masculinity.

What makes the possession of property so vital is that it enables living from ownership rather than from labour, which is to say, it enables living on the labour of others. The normal picture of libertarian autonomy assumes ownership of sufficient property to support a profound self-sufficiency. Only a scant few can ever really have such a concentration of resources. Libertarian assumptions are an idealized and sanitized nostalgia for the autonomy of medieval crime family estate owners. Because of that materialist value focus, libertarians are not, and can never be, against strong government (in spite of claims to the contrary). It was those antique medieval versions of libertarians, people dedicated to the strategy of living from property ownership rather than from labour, who conceived and established sovereign governments in the first place, even though they also kept private armies. Owners of property always want the most powerful protection possible against any risk of losing their property, which means they depend on the machinery of armed violence in the form of personal weapons, police, and military organizations, as much of it as can be arranged. Protection of property absolutely requires the “right hand” of sovereign government, the power that comes from the barrel of a gun: armed forces, spies, assassins, and a sovereign who represents property owners, as traditional sovereigns always do. Such sovereignty implies the whole apparatus of class macro-parasitism, and a general culture of top-down orientation, the mass subordination to sovereign power. The propertied minority did not seriously want to restrict sovereign power until governments began to be influenced by people who make a living by labour. Conservative emphasis on the limitation of government became prominent when sovereign governments became, to some extent, an expression of popular choice, chosen by elections with broad enfranchisement.

The Romantic Idealism of Conservative Morality

When individual spirituality is defined as inherently competitive then empathy is ruled out as the basis of morality, since it would always be overridden by anti-other impulses. Without empathy, morality has to be based on the primacy and enforcement of top-down commandments, rules, edicts, proclamations, sometimes presented as metaphysical principles. Right-wing morality is conceived as obedience to a proclaimed list of such virtues and duties: the code of honour, hard work, and self-reliance. (Accepting charity is a moral failing on that view.) Normally, conservative ideology ridicules idealism and conflates it with romanticism as unrealistic and impractical, a cowardly evasion of realism. However, nothing is more romantic and idealistic than promoting authoritarian society based on the ideal of the masculine hero, combined with the idealism of metaphysical virtues and duties. If social arrangements are not constructed on the basis of empathy then they have to be based on enforcement of such metaphysics, and supposing that anyone is qualified to police the commandments requires pure romantic hero romanticism.

Although the purest form of American libertarianism is officially rejected by political parties in the ideological ‘centre’ during election campaigns, some degree of this attitude pervades American culture and capitalist culture generally, so when people like Barack Obama, George Bush, or Ronald Reagan (Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, or David Cameron in the UK), use the word “freedom”, they don’t mean anarchism, they mean the freedom of people with great accumulations to do whatever they like with the vast majority of that wealth, no matter how much publicly created goods such as roads, general literacy, and norms of civility and security of person have contributed to the possibility and production of that wealth. They mean American libertarianism, a freedom for the investor class. That’s all that freedom can mean in capitalism. Other than in anarchism, the political left has no coherent model of an alternative to capitalism nor a philosophically bottom-up or horizontal system of reality, and so, no conception of how to advance beyond capitalism.

Recommended source on anarchism:

The Spanish Anarchists: The Heroic Years 1868-1936, written by Murray Bookchin, published by AK Press (1998), ISBN 1-873176-04-X.

Copyright © 2016 Sandy MacDonald.

Fringe Philosophy: Thinking Transcendence


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tags: subjectivity, transcendence, spirituality, existentialism, Kierkegaard, Sartre, The Matrix, reorientation, freedom, time

What is often too close and pervasive to even notice is not so much “the matrix”* which controls us, but instead the exact opposite of the matrix idea, namely our own transcendent spirituality. That is to say, it is our inherent personal freedom and power we fail to recognize instead of the subtle prison of cultural influences. Ultimately, the cultural matrix only works as a confinement by keeping us distracted from the transcendence that is personal spirituality. Reorienting to a grounding in that transcendence is the only reliable way to render “the matrix” ineffective. So, fringe philosophy is the revolution.

Without a personally lived grounding in transcendence we inhabit a restricted, hard-surfaced, and (except for the conversation with children) disenchanted world of rigid social norms and forms in which we raise our hungry beaks like baby birds to be given regurgitated material (or worse) to consume from masters and authorities. Rigid institutions recruit, groom, and present those authorities who always act in the interests of a faction projecting a culture inherited from title bearing crime families of medieval Europe, in control of great wealth, and using their dominant position for nothing better than to protect their macro-parasitic advantages. Scientific nearly-nihilism is so widely embraced that we live with either a secular dissociation from all transcendence, a dissociation we praise as realism, normally combined with a perfunctory glorification of art and architecture as the expression of some profound life-mystery of which we cannot speak directly; or we participate in pageants of obedient celebration of fantastic antique gods and demons and call those things transcendent, crediting them with founding and sustaining our institutions. It is often claimed that it was better in antiquity, when the fear of gods and demons was shared more completely and fervently, and when such fantasies enchanted everyone’s existence and their whole world, but it was not better in the past. Even then, there were brutal masters enforcing social categories, fresher and more personal fear of masters, and, oh yes, it was enchantment with a completely bogus transcendence.

Existenz Philosophy

That our own transcendent spirituality is difficult to recognize as such is the central point of Kierkegaard’s idea of “existence” as the peculiar inside-out way of being of subjective entities such as ourselves, entities of spirituality or intelligence. Kierkegaard’s conception of ‘existence” was a conceptual breakthrough for the philosophy of freedom without which the whole of phenomenology and existentialism would have been impossible. The description of subjectivity as “being-in-the-world” is one way of expressing the observation that the being of intelligences is inside-out. On that view, what is exceptional about us as beings is not merely our being sensitive and responsive to surroundings, but that we are aware of only what is not-ourselves. We are exquisitely sensitive to objects outside and surrounding us, but weirdly insensitive to personal self-nature because we have no definite self-nature. There is nothing to our interior except the freedom (and limited power) to create some outward expression, mark, or declaration of our being present among the other things. In that condition, intelligence is entirely and categorically outward-looking, existing without an essence (apologies to Sartre), and as such burdened with inescapable freedom in the form of the opportunity to create from scratch some placeholder for a personal essence, to construct and project an external mask or icon to represent an interior character which always eludes identification (and so remains free in a particular way).

Embodied Spirituality as a Grounding in Transcendence

Existentialism rests on the claim that there is nothing identifiable as a subjective interior, resulting in inescapable anguish at total uncertainty about personal identity and a sense of the absurdity of that existence. However, the freedom that is spirituality is not a formless nothing after all. It has a particular form: time as open futurity constructed of non-actual and increasingly remote possibilities and probabilities. Teleological time is the form of spirituality’s freedom, and so the form of transcendence. The existentialist interpretation of spiritual existence is properly individualistic and pluralistic, but fails to recognize Descartes’ discovery that questioning itself is a profound marker of spiritual existence, even though it is not a phenomenon. Asserting the nothingness of the interiority of intelligence completely misses the ever-present (and identifiable) rich personal orientation in a time-structure of non-actuality. A very elaborated directionality or orientation is certainly “in here”, along with (even in existentialism) the anxiety around consciousness of uncertainty, and a force of questioning and creativity. That’s quite a bit of existential interiority.

What follows from a person’s grounding in the transcendence of spiritual self-recognition is a profound re-orientation. This transcendence is not a message from anything or about anything, and yet it accomplishes a reorientation to a world which is unfinished, indefinite, always in process of being created by individuals in spiritual flight. Instead of living in a world of hard surfaces and definable appearances, we live in a world of possibilities. Nothing is in a final state or condition, and the fountains of creation are the many ordinary individual people. The world is constantly pushed off its line-of-fall by the original acts of individual people. Everything can be re-conceptualized, re-oriented, reconsidered. Social forms and categories do not have to be the way they are. Institutions are mutable, having been constructed by ordinary minds confronting specific situations from specific perspectives. Every individual has access to spiritual self-possession, and neither institutions nor individuals can own anyone. Nobody is (or could be) competent or qualified to exercise the institutionalized ownership inherent in sovereignty. The effect of all this could be described as de-cult-ing, something like what used to be called deprogramming. An important part is recognizing other people as autonomous and equivalent embodied spiritualities, each a creative fountain of original futurity instead of a consuming hollow of hungers. Nihilism is everything being already finished, leaving only endless consuming in the doomed attempt to fill the interior emptiness, but the world has to be created now by every person.


* The Matrix, movie released in 1999, written and directed by The Wachowski Brothers, starring Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, and Joe Pantoliano; produced by Joel Silver, Village Roadshow Pictures (and others), distributed by Warner Bros.. In this iconic movie, “the matrix” is a virtual construct of human experience created by a super-system of artificial intelligence devoted to solving the problems of humans by controlling everything about their experience of life, actually injecting a real time life experience for each person through a cable plugged into the brain stem. It is a metaphor for the control of masses of human beings by strategically crafted messages from an unidentified institutional entity.

At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails, written by Sarah Bakewell, published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada (2016), ISBN 978-0-345-81095-3.
This is an up-to-date and absorbing introduction to the ideas and historical milieu of existentialism and phenomenology.

Copyright © 2016 Sandy MacDonald.


Individualism and Transcendence


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Tags: Spirituality, freedom, transcendence, individuality.

There is an essential connection between individuality and freedom that follows from ordinary embodiment. There is also an essential connection between freedom and transcendent spirituality. The creativity of freedom means that it eludes final particularity without ceasing to exist! Involvement with that spirituality of freedom is what makes something transcendent. Classical conceptions of transcendence, as illustrated in the work of Plato, were mainly anti-individualist, conceiving transcendence as located outside and beyond individuals, as remote, eternal, and divine all-encompassing singularities. In that tradition, official systems of reality all stipulate some transcendence exterior to, and imposing strict uniformity on, the spirituality of all individual persons, making such systems uncomfortable with the idea of individual freedom. Since there is an essential connection between individuality and freedom, and between freedom and transcendence, the problem has been one of conceiving individuality, in the sense of free agency, as the original and sufficient transcendence.

One approach comes from ancient Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Scepticism, parts of which are something like the eternal alternative to Platonic philosophy, namely their focus on what any individual as such can control, personal interiority. The most important common ground among philosophical positions may be engaging the personally interior spiritual process called thinking. Faith in occult knowledge or special revelation is not part of the thinking process. This thinking is a questioning mindfulness combined with innocent curiosity, and when it thinks itself, may try a personal phenomenology, but spirituality is not a phenomenon. Every phenomenon is complete, with identifiable boundaries that can be described, but the essential thing about spirituality is its lack of boundaries, always new and always incomplete. Spirituality is exactly freedom, as Luther recognized. Philosophy can be the project to clarify transcendence, the self-recognition of personal spirituality (freedom), but it is not possible for freedom to be a phenomenon. Phenomenology is too much like describing “sense-data”, “impressions and ideas”, which always misses the blind spot in which personal orientation (questioning) is cumulatively re-constructing itself in interior non-actuality, eluding any final particularity. From within its perspective of embodiment, in a life in the world, individual spirituality self-originates its own continuous newness and open incompleteness, and that is its transcendence.

Copyright © 2016 Sandy MacDonald.

The Misconception of Spirituality in Platonism


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tags: Platonism, idealism, spirituality, metaphysics, mathematics, PHI, beauty, eternity, hierarchy, embodiment, time, freedom, Christianity, knowledge, Sartre, existentialism, individuality

Ideal Forms, Ideas, are at the core of Platonic metaphysics. The Ideal Forms are archetypal objects and structures: immaterial, profoundly static, eternal, removed from the space/ time and materiality of the mundane world, and so, easily associated with (the interiority of) some divine super-intelligence. In Platonism, the association of eternally static Ideal Forms with transcendent (immaterial) spirituality or intelligence is far removed from the capricious personality of ordinary subjectivity, and yet that association is there, as discussed below. The Ideal Forms occupy a position near the top of the metaphysical world-structure, a hierarchy of descent from a divine One-ness-of-all-beings at the highest level of reality down to a churning multiplicity of ephemeral appearances at the level of embodied human experience. Each increment of that descent from divine One-ness is a kind of imperfect self-portrait created by the stage immediately higher, a self re-creation that is progressively reduced in perfection, distorted at each step by the loss of some stability and accuracy, so that, where we live at the bottom, reality is unrecognizable, represented by utter illusions, flickering shadows of sketchy models of reality (the Cave parable in Republic). That structure of descent taken altogether is the primal hierarchy, as each successive stage down is defined as completely dependent on the power of the stage above, and the structure as a whole is eternally unchanging, as are the archetypes of objects and the divine One-ness at the top.

This may seem a slightly cartoonish presentation of Platonism, tilting to the NeoPlatonic or even Orphic end of Platonic visions of reality, but it has the virtue of presenting in a brief and straightforward way the features of Platonism which are enduringly influential and most problematic: absolute sanctification of what remains eternally unchanged, assertion of the sovereign power of that eternal Being in determining a rigidly top-down hierarchy, and finally, disparagement of ordinary human embodiment. This conception of reality, ruled by the sacred eternal (stasis, stillness, immutability), stands as a core counter-force to any philosophy of freedom, regardless of the rationalist features in Platonism.

Mathematical Idealism

Plato’s type of top-down grand scale metaphysical idealism emerges from a mathematical inspiration. Mathematics has been one of the most powerful inspirations for philosophy, and especially for metaphysical idealism and rationalism. Philosophy has attracted a lot of mathematicians who admire changeless abstractions, and their opinions have had decisive influence: Pythagoras, Al-Kindi, Descartes, Leibniz, Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell. Mathematics suggests a set of perfect and eternally stable objects: geometrical forms, numbers (the number PHI)*, functions, and operators, which are recognized in a multitude of different structures and situations, in a way that suggests their existence separate from, prior to, and far more permanent than, any particular instance. Mathematics shares that quality with experiences of beauty. Beauty has a force of impression that suggests an invisible higher world where beautiful forms exists forever in radiant glory. The normal world is a place of continual change, of brief novelty and passing away rather than eternity, but beauty (often associated with works of art) seems to raise an object above the ephemeral material stratum and giving it the look of eternity, perhaps because it is especially memorable and inspires a wish that it last forever just as it is. Also, there are direct overlaps of math and beauty in the mathematics of musical harmony, for example, and the mathematics of architectural beauty, and of course in what was called the music of the spheres. Language as an impersonal structure of rules has also inspired speculation about this mathematical mode of being. Objects of mathematical knowledge and the forms of beauty seem to have a pristine, crystalline existence that is immaterial, revealing some mode of being beyond the laws and forces of material existence. In philosophical thinking, mathematics, logical forms, linguistic forms, and instances of beauty have all been interpreted as glimpses of transcendence and immateriality. (* For an introduction to PHI, see Chapter 20 of The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown.)

Christian Platonism

The dominance of the hierarchical force of Platonism was sanctified and made legally mandatory by Christianity as it became the state religion of the Roman Empire in 324, because the previously developed and widely familiar language of Greek philosophy had been used to construct the Christian message. The process continued after the Romans abandoned their western provinces, and Christian institutions had to re-launch within the ruins, a patchwork of rural baronial turf holdings, eventually becoming powerful enough to re-claim the old imperial domain as western Christendom from around 800. (The deeply Christianized trunk of the Roman Empire continued uninterrupted in the eastern provinces, where Greek culture, including Platonic ideas, had been dominant for centuries.) In that second coming of organized Christianity to the west, the crucial interpretation of doctrine by Augustine (354-430), Bishop of Hippo, was a Christianized version of NeoPlatonic metaphysics. Having thus established from ancient times its dominance in the European system of cultural reality, Platonism has been the most important metaphysical vision by far, and the inescapable form of idealism. Before Christian Platonism and NeoPlatonism, there was pre-Platonic Orphic metaphysics with a similar vision of divine cosmic hierarchy. The conceptual system of reality embraced by medieval alchemists had the same sources: ancient Greek Orphic mythology and the philosophical work of Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle. Nineteenth century Romantics still mused on a variant of the same vision.

As an illustration of how Platonic metaphysics applied in practice, the medieval theory of social order identified three functional groups which combined in a sort of human pyramid. Those higher in the pyramid controlled and supervised (often owned) those below, by divine design. Muscle-power workers formed the most numerous and lowest stratum. Baronial fighters formed the next level up and were much fewer than workers. The barons held formal possession of land and natural resources, and maintained a culture of armed violence (chivalry, armed men on horses) to enforce the effectiveness of that possession. Priests and their organization, the Church of Rome, formed the highest point of the pyramid. This is a clear application of Plato’s Republic. The medieval agricultural peasants were Plato’s appetite driven workers. The military baronage were Plato’s spirited fighters. The priestly clergy were supposed to be Plato’s contemplative, highly educated, other-worldly ruling class. Orientation to that kind of social hierarchy is still familiar.

The nature and meaning of knowledge was also conceived in terms of Platonism. The official Christian doctrine on knowledge was NeoPlatonic via Augustine: God wills a special illumination within human minds which enables those minds to recognize instances of Ideal Forms. So, knowledge is enabled by a special act of illumination by God in the revelation of something like a universal form, an uncovering of the universal character of what is sensed at a particular time and place. The ultimate object of knowledge is an eternal permanence, the Ideal Form. There was speculation that God created the world by uttering the names of the Ideal Forms, bring them into being, and making language intrinsic to knowledge and to the structure of reality.

On those foundations, Platonic metaphysics looms as a central conceptual pillar in the reality construct of Euro-American culture, foundational even now in the orientation of modern people. It isn’t often recognized as such, but Platonism is there in a mathematical eternity to the conception of the world as a rigidly furnished bundle of things waiting to be discovered. Although the more mystical features might seem alien to modern people, Platonism reveals its ongoing presence as a privileging of stability and fixed structures in the general notion of, and the cultural value projected onto, abstract knowledge as a human accomplishment, a privileging of the perspective of eternity. In addition, not all of the mystical features are alien. For example, Platonism is our source of an assumption that an invisible power is the source of the world we inhabit, that there are super-sensible origins, sources, and explanations for objects and situations we deal with, and so, on that supernatural basis, that creative power, agency, greatness, authority, and legitimacy flow from above and beyond us, from high abstractions. This orientation inspires and provides legitimacy for a striving after hierarchical centralization, for imperialism, in social, economic, and political arrangements. This is how imperialism became, through cultural assimilation, the basic and largely unconscious shape of expectation and aspiration even in modernity.

Separating Spirituality from Embodiment

Platonic metaphysics was an attempt to understand transcendence, and, as such, it is the inescapable idealism, a model of the incongruity between spirituality and embodiment. In Platonism, the transcendence of human spirituality is defined as a mental grasp on what is eternal, based on a sensed affinity or essential sameness of ordinary human intellect or mentality with the immateriality of eternal Being. At the same time, it is an attempt to explain transcendence by appeal to something (eternity) outside normal experience, because normal experience is so emphatically embodied, and bodies never stop changing, and all their changes soon bring them to the end of their brief existence, to death. According to Plato, the body is a tomb, and what Plato wanted from transcendent spirituality was a decisive exit from the tomb. (For Augustine also, the body is the problem.) That is the context of the Platonic attempt to understand transcendence by appeal to eternity. The Platonic hierarchy is a way of constructing both an elaborate separation and a slippery connection between pure spirituality at the top and material body at the bottom, presenting individuals with a picture of the consequences of choosing to concentrate their energies in one direction or the other.

Platonic Heaven, the Immaterial Stratum

The mathematical inspiration of Platonic metaphysics can obscure the fact that even this idealism is a model of spirituality. Ideal Forms are spiritual objects, forms in a divine, higher order, mind, or projections from such a mind. The very concept of immateriality is always some abstraction from the non-actuality of subjective orientation, of a person’s directionality in teleological time, and so essentially an abstraction from the immateriality of time itself. Any removal from tangible materiality is some kind of invocation, projection, or allegory of the non-actuality of subjective interiority. (The only current existence of past and future is as a non-actuality, interior to individual spiritualities as a force of bearing or directionality.) The mathematical perspective of eternity suppresses the temporality of spirituality and so creates the (false) impression of a kind of static spirituality, a simple and pure consciousness or being, and then goes on to assert that such a mythical being is somehow more elevated than, and superior to, ordinary spirituality which is the ongoing construction of futurity, of temporality. The appeal to eternity is a way of editing spirituality (time) out of reality without recognizing what was done, by imagining ordinary objects with the spiritual quality of immateriality, which is only encountered experientially in the always-new and always-incomplete openness of personal spirituality. The perspective of eternity sucks temporality out of ultimate reality, and so sucks out the life. In the ideal world of mathematical abstractions there are no free agents, only objects with complete-destiny-included. It is a world where everything is already finished, with all changes both external and internal to objects simultaneously present in the transcendent object-set. Nothing is happening or being created in the perspective of eternity, and so the spirituality presented, typically presented as transcendent and divine, is really impoverished and effectively dead, fully furnished and complete. There is no exit from mortality here.

Freedom and Time

Metaphysics as an account of spiritual transcendence does not have to seek the perspective of eternity. Freedom is the essential issue of metaphysics, and recoiling from mortality to an imaginary eternity is exactly the wrong way to understand transcendence, spirituality, and freedom. It isn’t a grasp on eternity that makes us transcendently free, but instead our continual and discretionary re-construction of our force of bearing into an indeterminable future. It is exactly our engagement with time, our projecting and imposing teleological time onto nature, which is our freedom, and that force of engagement is inseparable from personal embodiment. Plato’s whole package of eternity, hierarchy, and disparagement of embodiment was wrongheaded and self-defeating.

Sartre’s existentialist description of individual personhood as “existence before essence”, or, to go one better, existence without essence, is a pretty good definition of personal spirituality. Time is the clearest case of existence without essence. Existential non-appearance applies to personal orientation, but that non-appearance is a gusher of creativity. The only way something can exist without essence is by being something other than an actuality, by being an ever reconstructing (re-inventing) bearing out of a no-longer-actual past and into a not-yet-actual future.

The transcendence of spirituality is not found in timeless eternity, but in its creating the non-actuality of time, and by doing so evading the brute and final particularity of actuality, of nature. Far from being a mere illusion or simply trivial in a description of ultimate reality, temporality (change, continual re-orientation) is the most fundamental spiritual reality. Spirituality or transcendence is exactly an attenuation of the particularity of actuality, a flight into increasingly remote possibilities and probabilities: living in time. The point of life is transcendence, but not an imaginary transcendence of lifeless, uncreative, eternity, but instead the transcendence of existence without essence. The point of life is life itself, the flight that is spirituality.

Platonism is not the necessary form of idealism. Any recognition that spirituality as such has to be included in the survey of reality is some kind of idealism. In Platonism, a conception of transcendent spirituality that depends on and follows from disparagement and rejection of normal human embodiment inspires a rigidly top-down hierarchical orientation because the source or matrix of spirituality is removed from individuals and placed in a remote central unity above everything. That limits the conception of freedom to an escape into the stasis and non-agency of the elevated spiritual unity. However, that purported freedom is complete unfreedom. The perspective of particular embodiment is exactly the condition of effective freedom in teleological agency. The force of a spiritual bearing that holds and projects the transcendent non-actualities of time and creativity just disappears without the perspective of embodiment. There is no hidden oneness of all spirituality, because embodiment defines and grounds the plurality and essential separateness, and the spirituality, of human individuals. The individual embodiment of a multitude of separate instances of spirituality, every one granted an essential place in our survey of reality, results in an idealism with a new horizontal configuration. Without privileging the eternal, transcendence reverts to the level of individual embodied spirituality, where the freedom of time and non-actuality are constructed. That completely eliminates the primal metaphysical hierarchy. Without eternity as the source and origin, the anchor of hierarchy disappears. Spirituality is a horizontal multiplicity: any spirituality is, by embodiment, a peculiarly separated individual among a multitude of others. We build interconnections, but we have to connect via our specific embodiment.

Selected Sources and References

The Republic of Plato, translated, with notes, an interpretive essay, and an introduction by Allan Bloom, published by BasicBooks, a subsidiary of Perseus Books, L.L.C., (second edition, 1991), ISBN 0-465-06934-7.

Aristotle and Other Platonists, written by Lloyd P. Gerson, published by Cornell University Press (2005), ISBN-10: 0801441641, ISBN-13: 978-0801441646. (Especially see Chapter One: What is Platonism?, pp. 24-46; and p. 32 for observations on “bottom-up” materialist atomism.)

Schopenhauer and the Wild Years of Philosophy, written by Rudiger Safranski, translated from German by Ewald Osers, published by Harvard University Press (1991), ISBN-10: 0674792769, ISBN-13: 978-0674792760. (Especially see Chapter Sixteen: The Great No, pp. 223-237, and specifically p. 224 for Plato: the body is a tomb.)

What Is Ancient Philosophy?, written by Pierre Hadot, translated by Michael Chase, published by Belknap Press; (2002), ISBN: 0674007336.

The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies, written by Thomas C. McEvilley, published by Allworth Press (2001), ISBN-10: 1581152035, ISBN-13: 978-1581152036. (Especially see Chapter Seven: Plato, Orphics, and Jains, pp. 197-204.)

Copyright © 2016 Sandy MacDonald.

A Pitch for Horizontal Idealism


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topics: spirituality, embodiment, knowledge, freedom, orientation, time, caring, self-possession, culture, European imperialism, genocide, politics, realism, idealism, empiricism, rationalism, Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Roy Bhaskar, Immanuel Kant


Imperialist Culture and Self-Possession

If you are trying to replace one culture with another, then you are engaged in a culture war or possibly even cultural genocide, as attempted, for example, by the Canadian program of residential schools for children of indigenous communities, which, for more than a century, institutionalized a fierce effort to replace First Nations culture with imperialist European culture. (The December 2015 report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada identified the residential schools, officially, as a program of cultural genocide.) However, if, as an individual, you develop the mental skill of moving beyond the influence of all cultures (because they all carry forms of imperialism), the skill of moving into the self-possession of elemental embodiment and spirituality, then that is philosophical or spiritual self-possession. Unmediated acquaintance with embodied spirituality is not an ideology, but it certainly displaces whatever ideology was imposed by ambient culture as its sanctioned orientation within certain pillars of reality: conceptions of nature, transcendence, community, and individual subjectivity. Self-possession is the issue because communities such as sovereign nations, religions, schools, sport teams, and families regularly claim rights of possession over individuals, including the right to define a person’s identity and value; to enforce obedience, reverence, and a suspension of distrust; and even the right to decide an individual’s life and death. In that way communities express a human-on-human macro-parasite culture which sanctifies the pre-conditioning of individuals to accept exploitation. Imperialism is always macro-parasitism. The cultural genocide perpetrated by European imperialism (not just in Canada) is an especially obvious expression of such culture. There is in capitalism, offspring of European global imperialism, an intrinsically oppressively macro-parasitism and a continuous stream of propaganda to justify itself. Ideological pillars of reality are crucial parts of the pre-conditioning by which macro-parasite culture is preserved. Social conformity requirements in every community limit the opportunities for individual creativity just as much as laws of nature do. The counter-movement of spiritual self-possession first re-orients the sense of subjectivity as a personally transcendent interiority, and in doing that transforms an individual’s sense of community and of nature too, especially time. The embodied spirituality discoverable by re-orienting to innocent personal experience is not the guilt-ridden permanent child-nature declared by culture-bound Christianity and other religions, for example. There is no inherent subordination.

It Isn’t a Question of Knowledge

The personal movement outside culture, into the elemental self-possession of embodied spirituality, is not about knowledge. ‘Knowledge’ is a concept most comfortable in the company of realists, and is normally conceived as a perfect imprint, projection, or constructed model of objective reality, of nature. The idea “knowledge” assumes a rigidity and finality of objects (on the model of Platonic Ideas!), including social and political arrangements, because only a rigidly structured world could be known definitively. Such realism is a denial of the contribution of spiritual freedom and creativity in the world, a dismissal of individual (Stoic) interiority. Realism is an assertion that spirituality, the creative construction by an intelligence of its own teleological orientation, can be excluded from a description of reality without distorting the representation of reality. (For example, Roy Bhaskar’s Critical Realism declares that ontology is independent of epistemology.) There is an affinity between philosophical realism and empiricism because empiricists, still expressing the influence of anti-individualism in historical British Calvinism, intend to minimize the creative contributions of spirituality in the personal construction of orientation, and consequently they take “sense data” to be a direct representation or imprint of rigidly real objects. There is a corresponding affinity between rationalism and idealism, because idealism privileges effective spirituality, as rationalism does. Somewhat ironically, the most influential rationalists were materialists, exploring materialism as a politically bottom-up metaphysics in the context of their crucial recognition that conceptions of reality are political to the core. Rationalism has a tradition of expressing a primary interest in freedom, which is unavoidably political. That includes a tradition of being anti-authoritarian, in contrast to the technically non-political conservatism of empiricism.

Knowledge, Orientation, and Personal Incompleteness (Freedom)

The importance of philosophy as a spiritual quest is eliminated when the goal and object is knowledge. Since pragmatism, the aspiration and accomplishment of philosophical thinking is not limited by ideas of knowledge, and in this blog the emphasis is on self-directed re-orientation, on cultivating a personal orientation more supportive and empowering of freedom and self-creation. The point is to occupy the living incompleteness and newness that is spirituality, the personal bearing into an indeterminate and non-actual futurity. This is urgent as the only way to move decisively beyond the power of human macro-parasites and their pre-conditioning of individuals to be defined and exploited as belongings and creatures of hierarchical collectives. It is the only way to be rid of toxic misconceptions embedded in culture, and, consequently, the way to relate to other individual spiritualities on the basis of empathy and mutual recognition instead of through arbitrary and artificial rules, judgments, and ideals mysteriously cloud-sourced from on-high.

Knowledge is impersonal, but orientation and its spiritual quest is the most personal questioning. Orientation is unavoidably dual, unavoidably subjective. As soon as an individual recognizes personal spirituality, orientation becomes more important than knowledge, because ever-mutating orientation is the being of spiritual interiority. Theory of knowledge, epistemology, used to be the centrepiece of modern philosophy because knowledge (lately science) was pitched as humanity’s great prize, even sometimes as a special achievement of philosophical thinking (from Plato’s Ideal Forms as the objects of true knowledge). Knowledge nuggets were conceived as timeless and eternal jewels to be hoarded and guarded by hierarchies of robed and hooded initiates, trophies of conquest over the mysteries of life and nature’s darkness. In modernity, knowledge is capital, a commodity, intellectual property to be hoarded and branded, licensed and marketed to the highest bidder. It is controlled and controlling.

Horizontal Idealism, with Homage to Kantian Idealism

Religions are not the only cultural constructs with a primary focus on spirituality, because idealist metaphysics has, all along, described versions of spirituality. Idealism privileges effective spirituality, although that could easily be missed from an exclusive consideration of Platonic or Hegelian idealism, which seek the perspective of eternity. The problem is that in the ideal world of eternity there are no free agents, only objects with complete-destiny-included. Nothing is happening or being created in the perspective of eternity, and so the spirituality presented, typically presented as elevated and divine, is impoverished and effectively dead. On a richer and more living vision of spirituality, suggested in the work of Immanuel Kant, for example, spirituality is recognized as effective at the level of the individual person in ordinary life. Ever-mutating orientation is the being of spiritual interiority in that perspective. The “horizontal” in “horizontal idealism” is a recognition that there is no essential connection joining spirituality to divinity or deity, nor between spirituality and religion of any kind. It is also a recognition that no spirituality is all-encompassing. Individual eruptions of spirituality, such as yours now engaged with these words, are really separate, all at the same level, and must construct interconnection with others (which truly can enlarge the power of spirituality) using powers of embodiment. In that way, transcendence occurs as a scattered multitude of distinct individuals, each personally entangled in the duality of physics and spirituality, but with an orientation conditioned from early life by socialization into some cultural system of reality. The way to encounter transcendence is to look out horizontally to other embodied spiritual beings as into a mirror.

Spirituality: Time is a Structure of Caring

Every moment of life is the encounter of personal spirituality with manifest actuality via the particularities of embodiment. The descent from culturally imposed conceptions of reality into the elements of personal experience is mainly about acquaintance with a spirituality that is inseparable from particular embodiment. In our elemental embodiment we have the personal individuality of shape and placement, and we have arcs of kinaesthetic-metabolic energy depletion and restoration which model nature as a cost-shape of effortful mobility and mobilization and shaping of other objects. With embodiment we also have ingestion, gesturing, posturing and vocalizing, usually in exchanges with other embodied spiritualities. In contrast to embodiment, spirituality is elusive as only a sense of newness and incompleteness in the form of an openness and a directionality of flight into that openness. The experience of world-openness itself is a creative non-actuality, a construct and projection of cost-shape experiences carrying an increasingly remote past that does not actually exist.

This openness of being alive, as we humans are alive, is exactly our spirituality. A spirituality’s self-awareness takes the form of a particular bearing into a semi-obscure openness of futurity, including a structure of increasingly remote probabilities and possibilities, a structure of anticipation, evaluation, and aspiration, and so, overall, of caring, an expression of spirituality. Personal acts of caring both express and keep constructing the most personal newness and incompleteness. In that way time is a structure of caring which uses impressions of entropy physics (of embodiment and its working: muscle memory and kinaesthetic-metabolic memory) in a construction of expectation and directionality. Each spirituality is characterized by its own interiority of such temporally structured non-actuality, bearing into the openness and freedom of an indeterminate future with the force of curiosity, questioning, accumulated discoveries, an impulse to self-declare, to make a personal mark, and of sociability and empathy.

Idealist metaphysics is more or less always about the incongruence between spirituality and embodiment, or, in other words, between the supra-actuality of spiritual transcendence and apparent actuality. The freedom and creativity of an intelligence is in transcending the vanishing particularity of embodiment in nature, transcending its own particularity by always tilting into an indefinite beyond-itself, projecting active construction and expression from interior non-actuality. Nothing defies particularity outside spiritual creativity, and the peculiarity of spirituality is in being both particular and utterly beyond particularity. Evading particularity means asserting spirituality, making sure that a manifest expression is actualized, enacted, but of a kind that includes an ever-constructing incompleteness, an openness for surprise and newness. Self-creation is never self-completion.

Copyright © 2016 Sandy MacDonald.