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.

Romantic Idealism and the Mind of God


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This is Episode 2 of The Tragedy of Romanticism

Tags: Spirituality, Platonic idealism, Hegelian idealism, Marxism, Kantian idealism, the Kantian revolution, Johann Fichte, Romantic idealism, Martin Luther, Roy Bhaskar, the tragic sense of life, nihilism, modernity, The French Revolution, 1789, 1517, the Thirty Years War, the mind of God

Informal Romanticism

The French Revolution of 1789 expressed a primal, informal, romanticism that was an inspiration for the philosophical romanticism that developed soon after. It was a projection outward of subjective aspirations, heroically, against the teeth of practicality and realism as defined by the apparent balance of forces and probable achievements. “This is what we want. I don’t care if dreams cannot come true. This expresses my (spiritual) interiority.” The romantic attitude is the opposite of “practical” and “realistic” as ordinarily used. Plans and proposals that count as practical and realistic always expresses a normative political force. In authoritarian cultures, any kind of change in the organization of wealth, power, or status, is considered unrealistic and impractical, and so romantic. That is core conservative political rhetoric and mind-set. In the conservative lexicon “romantic” means frivolous, trivial, crazy, dangerously destructive. Informal romanticism is an assertion of the power of subjectivity against objective actuality, a willing acceptance of the creative non-actuality of subjectivity, but still asserting its value and power. In addition to privileging subjective non-actuality over brute objective actuality, informal romanticism is also a certain characterization of subjectivity, emphasizing the creative, chaotic, emotionally expressive character of dreams in subjectivity. It doesn’t have to be a denial of the reality of objective actuality, only a categorical rejection of the sovereignty and sufficiency of actuality, a resistance to claims of such a sovereignty. The romantic attitude puts emphasis on the creativity of subjectivity, on subjectivity as lawless and capricious, and so on the removal of subjectivity from the pre-determination of both nature and the normative force of cultural models. (Every individual has normative social conformity requirements in addition to the fall-line of physics to limit the possibilities of overtly manifested creativity.) That removal from pre-determination is here called the spiritual interiority of subjectivity.

There was something wildly terrible, tragic, and beautiful (romantic) about the French Revolution, the doomed efforts of age-long victims of aristocratic macro-parasitism, risking their lives and a marginally viable way of life for a slim hope of justice and dignity. By the time of that revolution, Germans had long ago attempted their revolution in the form of the Protestant Reformation, launched by Martin Luther in 1517, and which eventually brought the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), down on their heads. That history left Germans pretty well intimidated, but still substantially Protestant (in very regulated forms) by 1789. However, it could be argued that the Revolution became necessary in France because the Reformation had been so quickly and brutally repressed in the French Wars of Religion in the second half of the sixteenth century, soon after Luther launched the protestant movement. So, as a continuation of post-Reformation re-thinking of fundamental certainties and possibilities (the Enlightenment movement), the Revolution burst forth, and afterward the reactionary backlash inevitably followed, just as it had against the Reformation.

In yet another historical rebound of cultural forces, philosophical Romanticism was an interpretation of the French Revolution by the German academic, literary, and artistic class, just as the Revolution was a kind of French interpretation of the German Reformation (then more than two centuries in the past). The human interconnectedness is a medium and an echo chamber in which cultural creations get refracted by interpretations from person to person (interiority to interiority) and from group to group. In 1789 Germany was emphatically backward looking in political culture as a legacy of the Thirty Years War. German intellectuals such as Johann Fichte (1762-1814) and the artist known as Novalis (1772-1801) were both excited and repelled by the Revolution because in Germany they were immersed in a neo-medieval ideology of admiration for Christendom and its chivalrous aristocracy, even though they longed for complete freedom of thought at the same time. The young German intellectuals felt the thrill of new freedom but desperately wanted to fit it into the stability of existing (medieval) institutions in Germany. They merely wanted people like themselves to be recognized as meriting membership in the fellowship of the privileged.

Broad Effects of Philosophical Fundamentals

Those historical upheavals and catastrophes are inseparably involved with philosophical fundamentals, and especially philosophical conceptions of idealism, of which romanticism is one particular form. Idealism generally asserts that there is a category of non-actuality which is supra-actual, transcendent, and as such indispensable in any conception of reality. That category is what was described above, in relation to informal romanticism, as the spiritual interiority of subjectivity. Both of the following usages of “ideal” illustrate that special interiority. Certain politicians are described as ‘idealist’ rather than pragmatic. Idealist politicians are aspirational in the sense of striving for something not yet actual, something there is reason to believe would be better, but which might be impossible. Also, there is the sense of idealism in “idealized”, in which things are simplified and imagined in a perfected condition. The “idealized” item is distinct from any actual items, and it is commonly understood that, as such, it is interior to some or other subjectivity as an idea. In articulating the importance of a category of non-actuality, idealism goes “through the looking glass” as far as traditional social structures of all kinds are concerned, and so, much depends on the way idealism is conceived. Idealism is politically explosive because it is an affirmation and embracing of a supra-actuality, something more important than whatever nature, previous history, and the sagacious ancestors have bestowed on the current generation in terms of social norms and ways of seeing the world.

Standard Idealism: Plato and Hegel

The directionality of any human gaze is so laden with what cannot be perceived, with subjective non-actualities such as futurity, aspirations, and lessons learned, (caring, anticipation, evaluation) that it points (in addition to a region of surroundings) in a direction that can only be characterized as personally inward, to an interiority of spiritual non-actuality. Any philosophical idealism is some model of spirituality and a recognition of spirituality as elemental or non-reducible. In other words, idealism is some version of absolute recognition of the special interiority of intelligences. Recognizing the special non-actuality of spiritual interiority gives any position an aspect of idealism. A strong idealism asserts that the most fundamental character of the cosmos is intelligence or spirituality.

Romanticism is a kind of idealism, but not the only kind. For example, Plato’s idealism is quite different, and Platonic idealism has been the most influential by far, having established from ancient times a dominance in the European system of cultural reality that still has considerable force. Plato’s Ideal Forms are profoundly stable, eternal, removed from the space/ time and materiality of the mundane world, and so automatically associated with (the interiority of) some kind of divine super-intelligence. In Platonism, the Ideal Forms occupy a position near the top of a metaphysical hierarchy, a structure of descent from a divine One-ness at the highest level of reality down to a churning multiplicity of ephemeral appearances at the level of everyday experience. Their association with intelligence is far removed from ordinary subjectivity and from the capricious personality which some romantics have imagined as divine intelligence. Also, Hegelian idealism has been vastly influential, especially as it lives on in Marxism, in spite of the declared materialism of Marxism (dialectical materialism). The historical effects of Marxism are yet more consequences of the mutating conceptions of idealism. Hegel’s is clearly a mutation of Platonic idealism, a vision of cosmic history as the striving of all-encompassing universal Being toward full reality and self-recognition as Ideal Form. Hegel retains the Platonic metaphysical structure (including levels of reality not unlike those in Roy Bhaskar’s Critical Realism), but in Hegelian idealism the universal Being starts from the bottom and is striving up the “chain of ascent” to the divine One-ness at the final and highest stage of reality.

The Kantian Revolution against Platonism

Then there is the kind of idealism which occasioned philosophical romanticism, namely Kantian idealism, which maps out the necessity of personal spiritual activity in the construction of ordinary knowledge of the world, of every individual’s orientation in the world. Kantian idealism is the most personal and subjective of the philosophical visions of spirituality, especially as tweaked by Fichte. Fichte’s early work, in which he first rejects Kant’s idea of “thing-in-itself” and develops the idea of the individual subjective “I” which must posit its entire world, is the clearest alternative to top-down visions of the cosmos in the whole history of philosophy. Fichte’s vision is a re-orientation or re-conceptualization of reality as a whole, situating individual intelligence at the creative source. Such a re-orientation was implicit in Luther’s “leap of faith”, but was not fully articulated before Kant and Fichte, and there could have been no Fichte without Kant. Romantic idealism was clearly a development from Kantian idealism, although hardly a straightforward one.

Although Kant did describe his work as “a Copernican Revolution” in philosophy, it is not clear that he recognized the full bottom-up social and political implications of his personalized idealism. Kant was a social and political moderate-conservative, and as a university professor employed by the state, his livelihood depended on being seen as a supporter of the status quo, more or less. However, the spiritual entity who is the subject having experiences in Kant’s vision is self-legislating and so has no need for the Church, aristocracy, or any other social authority. Personal spirituality for Kant is almost monadic, clearly influenced by Leibniz in that way but completely free of Leibniz’s totalitarian predetermination. Kant’s personally interior idealism would logically lead to an equality of individuals based on autonomous spirituality, and so it implicitly discredited the whole social edifice of aristocracy and the hierarchy of Christendom. That qualifies Kant’s idealism as an extension of the European revolutionary movement into the matrix of ideas. That is the Kantian revolution, although it is doubtful that the early romantic philosophers understood it in that way. Nevertheless, the response in Romanticism was something altogether shocking: a declaration that philosophy as an activity should be abandoned completely and replaced by art; a call to forsake philosophical thinking, the better to seek immersion in poetry, music, stories, and images. That is why romanticism is more prominent as a literary and artistic movement than as a philosophical system. Something in their interpretation of Kantian idealism brought the romantic philosophers face to face with a vision of human tragedy from which they recoiled. The tragedy does not arise from Kantian idealism or Fichte’s absolute I. Those are not tragic visions.

The Tragedy of Romanticism

Radical French philosophers had made an attempt to construct a Plato-busting bottom-up metaphysics with their materialism (in the footsteps of ancient Epicureans), after the suppression of the reformation in France, and it had been remarkably effective up to a point, but it was not sustainable. Materialism and freedom are mutually exclusive. It was Kant’s elaboration of Luther’s idea of spiritual freedom which really accomplished (on the second attempt, so to speak) the bottom-up metaphysics. Kant’s idealism is clearly set at the level of the ordinary individual person because it is in continuous engagement with brute actualities of the ambient world within which the spirituality finds itself, entangled with effects of the “thing-in-itself”. However, the early romantics encountered Kantian idealism in their studies as Fichte’s philosophy students, and so really encountered Fichte’s interpretation of Kant, and they never took it seriously enough as a description of normal individual intelligence or spirituality with broad implications for empathy, sociability, and politics. Romantic philosophers lived in a very hierarchical culture and age. They would have taken value strata among human beings as self-evident givens. The grip of their top-down orientation was so strong that they couldn’t conceive the absence of hierarchy. So, they came to understand Fichte’s absolute “I” (so much more monadic than Kant’s because of the absence of a countervailing thing-in-itself) as a portrait of divine mind, the mind of God. Certainly it could be argued that the main effect of Fichte’s dismissal of the thing-in-itself was exactly to make his conception of spirituality less human and essentially divine.

As a vision of the divine mind, there was profound novelty about Fichte’s “absolute ego” as compared to the God of Abraham, of Maimonides, or even the purely rational God conceived by Leibniz (much closer to Fichte in cultural tradition). The Abrahamic God is bound and limited by goodness and by love for his creatures. However, the philosophy students who were on their way to developing the romantic vision, could not help but see Fichte’s divine subjectivity through the lens of their experience of the French Revolution, an intensely violent uprising completely justified by the stark contrast between the lives of the privileged in European society and the lives of the drudgery classes, gross institutionalized injustices, any change to which threatened the entire social order of their world. In that light, it was impossible to hold onto the idea of divinity limited by goodness. To the romantics, Fichte’s divine mind is absolute monadic creativity, an artist god, with no responsibility to any other and not bound or limited by anything. Fichte’s absolute ego, in its romantic interpretation, was not the slightest bit interested in morality or orderly civil society, and was nothing like perfectly rational as Leibniz’s God was. He issued no demands to humans for obedience, reverence, or worship, but also offered nothing to balance human suffering, no eternal reward, no redemption from guilt. Instead, he was a playful artist creating drama, emotional upheaval, and shocking beauty. In many ways, this was an historically novel concept, including a form of creativity that was broadly applicable to individual humans. With the absolute ego from Fichte, the emphasis is more on creativity than on command, control, reward, or punishment, and that removes some emphasis from command and control generally even in worldly social and political situations. It also recognizes creativity as the core of subjectivity. Fundamentally, it was gender neutral in conception, although in style and application it was full of male bias.

For Romantics, then, there is a single immaterial spirit with a personality and mental life quite similar to a human’s but with infinitely more power. The Romantic deity is an artist. This spirit has dreams, it indulges itself in daydreaming, and those dreams are the world that humans inhabit, ourselves being dream-things in those dreams. Whimsically, he picks certain people to be his prophets, and grants favours and inspiration to certain heroes and artists, like the gods of ancient Greece were supposed to do. Every landscape is an inner landscape for romantics, pervaded with dream code-work, disguises, and multi-layered associations, unrestricted by cultural norms or by the laws of physics. With the inner landscape, things display (obliquely) their emotional meaning in their appearance, as things do in dreams. What romantics saw in this new idealism was the artist God who toys with the world, and with the humans in the world, without any interest in justice or redemption, as proven by the spectacle of the Revolution and the light it shed on social organization and the force of history.

This conception of the divine mind meant that the Christian religion as traditionally constituted, with pledges of eternal reward and redemption, upon which the stability of the European social hierarchy and culture depended, was a lie. Earthly suffering has no meaning other than the whimsical amusement of an omnipotent daydreamer. Romantics saw the political enforcement of Christendom as a version of Plato’s “noble lie” (Republic), and they accepted the necessity of using that lie to preserve the organization of society, so that some small minority at least could devote themselves to beauty and ideal things, supporting and enjoying the arts, the work of artists, for their own immersion in transcendent beauty. The human artist became the example of the optimal, godlike, human being. However, the romantics also felt tragedy in the need to lie to repress the vain aspirations of the vast majority, in a world so made as to depend on such a lie. Privileged people don’t want social justice and can’t want it because for them the age-old forms of injustice are the price that must be paid so that some few (themselves) can live the higher life of refinement, beauty, and ideal things, a milieu enabling such contemplations as math and science, but above all artistic beauty, as close as possible to the life of the high God and as such the authentic heartbeat of their civilization.

On that worldview, we humans are dreamed just enough in God’s image to think sometimes that we have freedom and power to achieve justice, but that thought is an illusion, and so the human situation is fundamentally tragic. The immediate form of our tragedy is the squalid institutions of unalterable human inequality. We must either accept being deceived by the dirtiest of lies or else be parties to proclaiming that lie, and the problem with philosophy is that its history has brought it to the point of exposing the deception and undermining the civilization of the champions of beauty. For romantics, the only real power we have is to dream, to create our interior non-actualities. That is the romantic vision of transcendence available to humans, and they take it as our shield against glimpsing the ugliness of the broader human situation. The romantic idea of the deity is an emphatic confirmation that the social oppression they witnessed was so entrenched as to appear metaphysically decreed.

Romantic idealism, then, is yet another top-down vision of divine spirituality, a mutation of Platonism into a more modern idiom. The real implication of Kantian idealism was completely different, a sort of re-distribution of spiritual creativity and power down from on-high and into the multiplicity of agents engaging in ordinary experience. The romantic vision of tragedy arises by removing spiritual agency from every individual and ascribing it instead to a universal deity, imposing a completely inappropriate top-down orientation on Kant’s vision of interior spirituality. In doing that, philosophical romanticism seems to glorify subjectivity, but in fact trivializes it. The romantic call to leave philosophy and turn to art and culture is profoundly political and strictly conservative. Their nihilism was the angst of the unjustly privileged, an awareness of the stark and pointless contrast between their lives and the lives of the drudgery class.

The Tragic Sense of Life

We are still living with legacies of romantic idealism, for example in the commonplace declaration that “stories are all we have”. The conclusion and fulfillment of that philosophical Romanticism is a resolve to abandon thinking that goes beyond stories and instead to concentrate on moments of subjective ecstasy or rapture in the altered states inspired by poetry, tragic drama, music, and stories of magic, wonders, and heroes. “Since actuality is ugly, depressing, and utterly beyond our control, let’s achieve the transcendence of personal tranquility and joy by listening to awesome music, contemplating beautiful images, or absorbing our minds in narratives of heroism and nobility.” The romantic “elevation” of ideal things is completely idle, and the narrative sparkle and flash of tragic heroes, witches, wizards, demons, exotic locations, high drama, violent conflict, glory in battle, dangerous rescues, lost causes, fatal flaws, futile but beautiful gestures, narrative suspense and satisfying resolutions, are all merely hiding romantic nihilism. That turn of romanticism is very much like mysticism, which embraces the trances and altered states of consciousness resulting from sensory deprivation, drugs, or mortification of the flesh as if they were higher states of being.

Copyright © 2016 Sandy MacDonald.

Freedom, Surfing, and Physics


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Metaphysics occurs as a scattered multitude of distinct individual eruptions, each personally entangled in the duality of physics and spirituality. Each spirituality is self-aware as a flight (variably desperate) into a semi-obscure future as the form of the most personal incompleteness and newness. In contrast to every instance of spiritual flight, the surroundings of physics does not care, anticipate, aspire, or evaluate. It merely falls like an ocean wave utterly frozen in timeless uncaring; and we scattered eruptions of metaphysical time stand tilting fallward on the tsunami of actuality and each carve a personal mark, surfing the entropic descent.

Copyright © 2016 Sandy MacDonald.

Basics of a Liberation Philosophy


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A ‘system of reality’ is a culturally supplied collective orientation constructed from stories going around (models for tragedy and comedy, heroes and villains), sacred texts, laws, oral descriptions, warnings, exhortations, explanations, popular aspirations, as well as material culture and typical ways of acting, altogether enabling individuals to operate with a semi-stable sense of three crucial givens: nature and the supernatural, community, and individual subjective interiority. The social construction is the repeated, continually re-imitated activities in which people fit into processes of production and consumption, conversations, and crowds.

All institutional systems of reality have been top-down systems, that is, structured into metaphysical stories in which supernatural beings have decisive involvement. Systems of reality typically include a supernatural super-structure in the form of disembodied and immortal spirits, including gods and demons, or eternal metaphysical realms (heaven), invisible transcendent causes, forces, substances, or special arcane states of being. Such systems are always top-down with respect to ordinary individuals because the individual is explained as a product, result, creation, or effect of prior, larger, or higher forces and structures, often some form of omnipotent will. Whenever ideas, forms, laws, classes, or categories are considered to be prior to ordinary individuals, more real or important than individuals, for example, when language is considered as prior to voices, you have a top-down system. That orientation supports a comprehensive top-down conception of value and power, effectively blocking a true self-recognition of spirituality and stifling the autonomy, creativity, and self-possession of all individuals.

There is nothing inherently parasitic, disempowering, or repressive about human interconnectedness or about cultural forms to formalize that interconnectedness. It is our sociability (as otherwise isolated individual intelligences) which inclines us to welcome culture in as tokens of our connectedness to a collective of spiritual beings. However, culture has been made toxic by a particular historical contingency. Ancient herding groups went from preying on migratory grass-eating mammals to preying on “sedentary” grass-eating mammals which happened to be human grain-growing, grain-eating, communities. That process launched the cultural efforts to celebrate and glorify top-down human-on-human parasitism. It is the ultimate origin of capitalism, still in operation. The historically special, and historically traceable, cultural and political force of the human-on-human macro-parasite faction has eluded recognition, for example by deconstructionists, who instead blame oppression on a tragic, unalterable, flaw in humanity. ‘We are all complicit and co-conspirators in our own oppression’ is just the default rhetoric of cultures still emerging (slowly but surely) from Christendom, a repetition of its declaration of original sin, an inherent vice which turns every individual against itself. Deconstructionists got “everything is political” right, but they completely missed the criminality (perpetrators and victims) in the operation of power. Culture, something everyone depends on, under these conditions becomes critically disabling for individuals.

The systems of reality elaborated and declared by cultural institutions such as religions, economic production and exchange systems, and the military wings of sovereignty, are crucial for any individual’s orientation, and as such they top the list among bits of heritage which must be questioned in critical thinking. Anyone is able to re-orient, to engage in a process of self-directed re-orientation by which the official conceptualization of community, subjectivity, and nature (including the spiritual forces of non-earthly intelligences) are replaced with de-cultured conceptualizations recognizing that human life is played out by individuals in the encounter between the givens of nature and the myriad non-actualities of creative subjectivity, in the play of interior non-actualities against the brute actuality of nature.

The Ultimate Reality System Hack

For such a reorientation to be possible, there must be a framework of orientation that is independent of culturally supplied conceptions, and philosophical questioning (the spiritual quest, critique of orientation) brings it to light by exposing certain elemental features of experience. The elements of the philosophical frame of reference are personal embodiment, spirituality, and sociability. Sociability, the gratification each intelligence derives from engagement with others, is really part of spirituality. What enables the ultimate hack of false systems of reality is contemplation of personal embodiment because embodiment imposes needs, costs, and vulnerabilities, as well as powers and abilities, at the level of the individual. In doing that, personal embodiment defines spiritual individuality. Embodiment decrees individuality. De-cultured acquaintance with embodiment and spirituality (and with it sociability), and with the powers and vulnerabilities that come with them, situates a person for creative autonomy and a re-conceived interconnection with others.

Life for the individual person is the engagement of metaphysics with physics. There is nothing metaphysical about the natural world at large, the cosmic terrain. It is just plain old physics. Metaphysics is entirely interior to individuals, to us embodied spiritual beings. Metaphysics is our interiority, our spirituality. Conceptions of metaphysics emerge from thinking about time, and time has almost always been misconstrued in philosophy as a dimension of objects independent of intelligences. (What is to be made of temporal discontinuity: the fact that past and future do not actually exist?) Theories of a hidden mysterious substrate of material objects, such as a single infinite substance (Spinoza) which must remain the same even though objects change constantly into different objects, are an attempt to translate time (intelligence) into an occult structure of objects or substances, a way of dealing with time in terms of a ‘metaphysical’ structure within objects, separate from intelligences. However, time is the interiority of teleology, a metaphysical non-actuality. It is the dimension of individual freedom or spirituality, and can only be comprehended in terms of what is interior to intelligences, the bearings of questions, curiosity, projects, and lessons learned in any human gaze.

Religions also have a metaphysical misconception of the fabric of the cosmos, from an insistence that ethical or moral standards are inherent in it, laws based on divine decree and divine enforcement, a universal mechanism of justice: commands and judgments, record keeping, and an ultimate moral reckoning removed to some indefinite remoteness (for example, the karmic progression of reincarnation, or the final day of judgment, heaven and hell). Although even the religious conception of personal spirituality has to emphasize freedom so that moral acts and enforcement have some foundation in individual responsibility, that conception is dominated by the individual’s subordination to the universal (divine) system of moral reckoning, making the religious conception of spirituality hopelessly political: top-down, punitive, and repressive. The supposed cosmic source of our ethical sense is proposed as the essence of our spirituality, immediately locking us into unalterable subordination. It is a misconception which expresses the political agenda of the power-hoarding human parasite faction, projecting a mythical personification onto cosmic nature. Only embodied spiritual beings, ordinary persons, (not cosmic nature) make ethical judgments, and ethics is, again, entirely interior to individual intelligences. The real basis of morality in spirituality is not an occult connection to a cosmic order of justice but rather an individual power of empathy. Empathy is the moral compass. The lack of empathy is the lack of a moral compass.

Not recognizing the transcendence in personal subjective interiority (living in time) sets us up to accept all kinds of absurd superstitions about various (romantic) hidden entities, powers, or forces which are used as mechanisms of psychological manipulation to legitimate injustices of the status quo. The philosophical insight is that ordinary subjectivity itself is the miracle, and that it can be recognized as such even though it is misrepresented by official culture.

Effective Liberation

What is called Liberation Theology was inspired by a recognition of the institutionalized exploitation of indigenous people in “Latin” America, (which was a fully intended consequence of modern European imperialism) and it attempts to provide support from New Testament scripture for grass roots activism in aid of social justice. The immediate project was to restructure economic arrangements to accomplish a more equitable distribution of wealth, power, and choice, and with them dignity, and respect. Freedom was conceived as equitable distribution in the nexus of human goods. In that context, the inspiring idea of freedom cannot be realized without large-scale organizational change because it is inseparable from social structures and economic operations.

The point of posting 88, Philosophical Liberation: Sociability, Embodiment, Spirituality (December 15, 2015) is that doing something consequential and decisive, achieving self-possession, does not depend on the overthrow of the economic order or on any other environmental change. Freedom doesn’t need to wait for historical or evolutionary change in economics, biology, or culture. It can be achieved individually at any time, but even though the philosophical reorientation is first, decisive, and indispensable, perhaps it is not the end of liberation. Since sociability is so crucial in our spirituality, a withering away of the human macro-parasite faction and its culture, and of human parasitism in general, would be the practical hope and the expected effect of a broad distribution of philosophical liberation.

Note: For a closer contemplation of embodiment see posting 11, November 10, 2011, Nature: Ground and Sky

Copyright © 2016 Sandy MacDonald.


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