Conclusion as New Beginning

Those of us who philosophize exhort on some level with the message that the meaning of my world would also work for you and that things would work better all around if we had certain things in common. In this Declaration it is from our largest and always discoverable being and to our continually best relationship--great, oppositional or non-existent--that I extend an invitation to you–friend, foe or font of containment--to meet in exquisite encounters. Criticizing and deconstructing our foundations of religion and of philosophy particularly over the last decades has been insightful and important, but it has been done to exhaustion. Instead, I have tried to construct something entirely different as a positive alternative. In some respects it is new, but in many ways it is based on other thinkers and even on changes in our attitudes that are already taking place. Readers might have noticed debts to, among others, the relational thinking of psychology, systems theory and cybernetics, feminist epistemologists, communication studies, ecological economics, dispersed theories of mind, cognitive science and notions of embodiment, Pragmatism and the writings of the anthropologist Gregory Bateson and of many, many others. As a “Declaration” and as a construction for something new it is intended first of all as an entry to discussion. The messages are “Let’s build,” “Here’s a starting point” and even “Look what our new insights reveal when pulled all together.”

This gesture of dialogue is not a quirk of politeness. The philosophy envisaged here is fundamentally an interpersonal endeavor. In order to succeed and offer a chance for social change it must be employed cooperatively. This is in distinct contrast to philosophies of either universal values or of individual aspirations to perfection. The power from the society philosophy approach comes from harnessing the quality of interactions and the identities of the cooperative groups we belong to. The world we encounter is always foreign with the possibilities of novelty and is always culturally plain and simple with the interpersonal relationships we are joined in. Openness to creativity and acceptance of our cultural existence are the twin directions to mutually enhance our interpersonally maintained world (what I have called conceptscape).

The fulcrum of the argument turns on the primary relation of mutuality–that of knowledge to its object. The argument is that we are not disembodied minds infamously a la Descartes and that we are not only embodied but that embodied has an extreme conclusion where we are literally one with the objects of our knowing. It is more like the training of, say, a skier who is advised to not just know how to ski but to be “at one” with the skis and the mountain. Taking such a seemingly radical step and facing its conclusion--that we are the sum of all we know, that our meaning binds everything we know into an interacting whole, that this whole is actual and existing irrespective of its “rightness” and that we face the world as residents of our meaning rather than as imperialists or as colonists (of someone else’s meaning)--is a simple but radical step that could give impetus to a different way of life. [See point 8 of Outline if you have normative concerns for epistemology or meaning anarchy.]

If mutuality is the avenue of reform and if a many-tentacled view of knowledge is the characteristic of subjects, then the everyday world must be framed differently than the Cartesian flatworld of rigid, semantic uniformity. We are the beavers of meaning ceaselessly building and undoing the structural houses we find significant. This work is messy from the anarchy of our meaning-making; it is an additional layer that we have woven into the world; and it has produced this now vast web of meaning. And the recognition of this sphere of actual meaning needs a name for us to understand that we meet in a sea of meanings much richer than we can address or even be aware of. The web of meaning is descriptive, but the explicit name suggested here is lifescape, the landscape of our relations with the external world however tiny, however “wrong” and however conscious. Naming the lifescape and pointing to the the trans-conscious web of meaning is a step of humility and openness that seems sorely needed.

But our interpersonal worlds of this friendship and that group of friends and this shared understanding of the war against Iraq and so on is a more substantial construction than the lifescape. These interpersonal constructions are the hardened meanings that we are largely aware of and have often made explicit or firmly tacit from habit. This is the realm of everyday meaning that more firmly ties us into our mutual expectations. This realm too needs a recognition and a name, and the conceptscape is a suggestion. It is the realm of shared meaning even if the sharing is only done with ourselves as an inner dialogue to hold it visible. But the conceptscape is hardly a reduction back to flatland. Rather the rich conceptscape focuses on the visible portion of meaning that humans have added to the environment and then separates this visible meaning into who shares what with whom and how. The sharing of meaning defines a community, a social body. And shared meaning constellates in patterns of ideologies, beliefs, those defined by common experiences and so on. The conceptscape then contains collective bodies like organisms in an ecology where meaning circulates one way within these bodies and different ways between them.

Together the key concepts presented here–knowledge as alliances, things/subjects as societies, the web of meaning, conceptscape, conceiving life and meaning interactionally–frame a positive alternative of how philosophy can be renewed. At the very least they frame a point of dialogue in a contemporary endeavor to revision our foundational beliefs. I hope that they are appealing, visible as continuous with others’ work and rousing.

Beyond the ideas themselves, which can seem like so much talk about subtleties on the edge of nothing, I would hope that you could keep in mind what the application of such an interactional strategy promises. It is subtlety that can turn into interactional pleasures. It is subtlety that can make the this-worldly spiritual side of life more exciting than the material side. It is subtlety that can roll up into firestorms of new possibilities and ease into relationship formations of calm satisfactions. All of this can be summed up as a promise of vitality and confidence from the public sphere which has too often been a boring and awful place under the ecology of flatland.

One basic goal of my approach is to, at the very least, present meaning as an area from where important solutions could be found. In this sense the postmodernists and academics in general have done a disservice to all of us in treating the subtleties of meaning as interesting chiefly as questions of accuracy, as flourishes of virtuosity such as from the semioticians or as defenses for restricted political goals such as from feminist epistemologists. All of these efforts have been extremely helpful–to me personally, but they only present the tip of an iceberg. If only one thing comes across from my efforts, I would hope that it would be the sense of the incredible social potential from mastering living in the realm of meaning as distinct from what passes today as knowledge. The central point is that meaning is not something that exhausts itself in being explicated; it is an alliance, a tentative action, an active change in the world’s patterns of possibilities. It is the source of liveliness for humans.

There is another idea in this thesis that is presented softly because it is troubling. And this is point 18, the necessity of death. It would be possible, but irresponsible, to present the ideas about meaning without addressing death. Ideal philosophies were able to mentally quarantine death and, in some ways, appear to have stretched towards the atemporal in life as well as in concept. But the actuality of meaning as distinct from the ideal of truth forces a recognition of both its fertility and its mortality. And as soon as one looks at death’s ubiquity–that everything passes away with time–it appears obvious. Everything changes over enough time, and all change entails loss. We are big changers; therefore, we are responsible for a lot of death. But we are able to hide this by making changes that benefit us, the top predator, while ignoring the changes elsewhere. As the reach of human societies expands, as the conceptscape grows, the losses will more often be internal to human interests. The external is disappearing. Another avoidance technique has been to approach the losses that occur from our changes as positive choices in the framework of non-zero games where the gains outweigh the losses. The economics of growth speaks from this argument. This is fine as long as we have the tools to see the losses and weigh them rather than let our bulldozing ideals run amuck. Expanding our ideal philosophies into the richer terrain of all actual meaning fosters a genuine dialogue with the potential losses and, at the same time, offers a better form of communication with which to do it.

But the simple and helpful rule of thumb is that every change involves a loss and that knowing itself carries the force of preference from its alliance and as such contains a relation of denial. Knowing kills as well as creates. From the perspective of the living world this is not a surprise. The good news is that recognizing death in our lives and even in our knowing should be beneficial in that it will help us from, as now, destroying so unwittingly and so against our interests.

So much philosophical talk. Although a good help for thought reconstruction, abstract thought is not a help for everyday life and problems. Does all this talk about reality as society help anything? “Yo, I’m a society, what about you?” does not cut much sympathy right off the bat. But then each of us carries our attitudes, our personalities with their demands on others, our aptitudes, our friends and so forth. We are a bundle of interactional biases. Doesn’t that make each of us a kind of octopus, a many-tentacled, unique being? Try it on. Many people already do. Some try to live in their “bodies” for health reasons. Some try to live with as much of their emotional life intact in their daily life for their mental health. Some think that local communities are the source of meaning and rewarding economies. Some think that morality and aesthetics are sources of passion with their neighbors, other creatures and their surroundings. Some think that the shape and strength of their love and loves are the sources of salvation. Some think that making relationships all they can be is the greatest touch of the miraculous. Some think that community events and even a revival of experimentation with the rituals of life, where key events are celebrated in rehearsed but open ways, are the stuff as life is made of. And so forth. Each of you in different ways probably already have adapted practices that push the envelope of where our collective society is headed. As such the introduction of society philosophy is meant as a vehicle to help make mutual sense of our efforts.

Another way to first approach a new philosophy is to what or to whom it is opposed. In this case the “bad guys” are fundamentalists and disembodied thinkers. It tries to do in fundamentalists by not just draining any foundational type water from our mental environment but also by constructing a web of interests. Even though in secular quarters it is generally considered that the foundational epistemological program is discredited and even though we have absorbed the lessons of the Uncertainty Principle and logic’s incompleteness, our general thinking retains the absolutist flavor that remains from religions, methods of proof and a faith in truth. The strategy of society philosophy against fundamentalists is not to play the foundation-attacking games associated with postmodernism nor to get caught in pluralism’s fecklessness vis a vis the intolerance of others but to show a countermyth of the active formation of meaning coalitions where there are no trumping truth proofs available other than a general health of those in the coalition’s group. To Pragmatists this will seem very similar to Dewey among others. The differences are in the added ingredients of actively showing and monitoring societies or coalitions everywhere including the personal and in validating the coalitions formed as worthy of their own life of creation and destruction including opposing other coalitions.

What is “disembodied thinking” and why and how to oppose it? Have you ever seen someone go on and on talking when he was just trying to impress others? That’s an example. And then there are those who waste our time or deceive us and themselves out of envy, revenge, quest for power, manipulation and so on. In fact we waste a lot of time with such confusion. It’s more than time though; it is our friendships and even ourselves who are made hollow by such empty diversions. The historic decoupling of truth from the knower as human knowledge expanded into the planet and overreached their bodies’ truths leaves each of us as little towers of Babel chasing thoughts that have unknown connections to the roots of our being. There is the professor who does all to protect her turf from another, the businessman who exploits others to make himself look rich enough to his neighbors, et cetera. This danger is all too personal to me, and it is all too ubiquitous in certain cultures even where many already enjoy the calming effects of various therapies. What society philosophy offers to this problem is the direct connection of our mental sphere as a facet of our body and the invocation to find satisfaction directly in the life of this body rather than just in its dreams. It would pull our mental involvements out of the sky of reason but not down to a philosophy of now but into an involvement with the ambit of our cares. These cares are interactional and they are our loves. Sure, the mind is a future organ of the body digesting possibilities into its plans and its expectations of its external allies, but it is also in the mind body that we must live on the way and after we arrive.

What does this Declaration ask of you? On a tentative level it asks for your best dialogue, open and critical, of what philosophy and practices we want to use to confront today’s looming challenges. This is an overture and asks your best response. On a less tentative level it asks for you to know yourself as your own best mind and to meet me, and the next person, bringing that satisfaction and open to the best dance we can muster. A society can also be an orchestra, a party.


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