Miscellany: On complementary modes of perception, ethics, freedom, and other topics


On “top-down” versus “bottom-up” perceptual modes:

This dichotomy seems to be another facet of the same polarity that it is possible to encounter in myriad contexts under such diverse rubrics as deduction/induction, left-brain/right-brain, and, transposed into the key of seventeenth century European Enlightenment schools, rationalism/empiricism. People tend to pit these modes of cognition as antitheses when in fact they serve to express two poles of a higher unity. A famous phenomenologist called Maurice Merleau-Ponty somewhat pithily expressed the secret complementarity between these functions:

“Empiricism cannot see that we need to know what we are looking for, otherwise we would not be looking for it, and rationalism fails to see that we need to be ignorant of what we are looking for, or equally again we should not be searching.”

In other words—and this goes for all of the pairs above—both processes are continually operative in any person with healthily functioning cognitive faculties. Hence, again, the opposition is a function not of antithesis but of polarity. Specifically, they represent different configurations of thinking or Logos (i.e. conceived as a verb or an ongoing and dynamic activity rather than as content), which is transcendental to any of its functions or contents. 

If the first member in the pairings above were not operative, we could not learn anything we did not already know and if the second were not, we could not use anything we already had learned. That being said, people seem to have a natural propensity to gravitate toward one or the other of these poles, sometimes even to the extent that their thought may become either incoherent and desultory on the one hand, or rigid and ham-fisted on the other. Hence, our potentialities for cognitive development will generally be found in the yonder pole to the one we find ourselves most inclined to inhabit. This is not a question of exalting that which we do not naturally possess, but of understanding that the healthiest cognitive state is one that can traverse with fluidity between the poles according to the exigencies and requirements of the situation at hand rather than according to foregone vagaries of our nature.

On the virtues and limitations of ethical frameworks: 

It might be taken as a good sign that a person fails to find that any of the traditional ethical frameworks entirely contain his vision of morality. These frameworks should perhaps be seen more as floors that we stand upon rather than ceilings that we accommodate ourselves to. Jesus has a pithy way of expressing this in the face of the Pharisees, who are seeking to quarrel with him according to the letter of the law: “The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath.”

How should a utilitarian regard invasive species? 

Obviously, the utilitarian approach must confront the perennial paradox of all consequentialist theories of ethics: namely, that the action must be performed before it can be evaluated and yet it is ostensibly just this evaluation (which, be reminded, cannot yet exist) which determines whether the action ought to be performed at all. 

This problem is clearly evidenced in an anecdote from a province in China, where there had been a poor crop yield in the cooperative farms. The Chinese government blamed the sparrows for the famine, believing they were eating up all the food crops. As a result, they organized an large-scale genocide of sparrows. The policymakers had failed to recognize, however, that the sparrows were actually keeping the locust population in check. Hence, following the near extinction of sparrows in 1958, the locust population predictably increased, destroying, in turn, the crops at an irrecoverable rate. This exacerbated the famine that was already present to begin with and ultimately caused a loss of human life of tragic proportions.

On the origin of ideas:

It is impossible to answer the question of whence ideas came from with the conceptual tools at hand within our current scientific paradigm. We can correlative physical and physiological processes in the brain to reported psychological and cognitive states, but it remains impossible to explain (1) how the first thing could ever give rise to the second thing and, (2) a fortiori, where the contents of the second thing could have come from to begin with. It is one thing to perceive one egg and then another egg, and moreover to perceive both eggs at once. But it is impossible to perceive the “two-ness” or the “both-ness” in the same way. “Two” is an idea and it is not possible to explain its origin or existence scientifically.

On the relation of freedom and creativity:

It has frequently been observed that naïve people think freedom means “being able to do whatever I want in the total absence of constraints.” But suppose I wish to write a coherent defense of just this view. In that case, if you I to be free of any grammatical or syntactical constraints, or constraints inherent in the digital interface, or the rules of logic, etc. I will find that I am no longer free to produce a coherent paragraph. In other words, positive freedom to accomplish something is often a function of accepting, rather than refusing, the constraints that the given context demands. Hence, while creativity is an expression of true freedom, an incoherent concept of the latter will actually obviate any attempts at creativity. 

On a tangential but related note, it may be wonder what is meant by the Biblical dictum (i.e. in Genesis) that “Man [is] made in (or towards—ad imaginem) the image of God” and how this relates to freedom and creativity. Clearly the notion of being made in the divine image does not refer to a sensory image because God per se doesn’t have a form that is perceptible to the physical senses except in Christ. But of course, Genesis was composed in a prior eon and hence it was not possible to refer directly to the Incarnation at that time. Nevertheless, it must still have meant something else it would not have been written. It might be that it is precisely in human creativity that we discover the most eminently divine element in ourselves. We might compare ourselves to animals, who operate by natural wisdom which we call “instinct.” In this respect, they are perfect, but we are free.

On the definition of gender:

I remain somewhat confused as to a definition that I have heard stipulated for gender: that it is purely a function of personal identification. This does not seem like a complete definition. Consider a more conventional definition of gender, which differnetiates it from sex: as a tomatoe can be both a fruit and a vegetable because one of these designations is botanical and the other culinary and hence are in no way exclusive, so some people distinguish between sex, as a biological category, and gender as a social one. But the proposition that gender is a social category by no means says that it is subjective. Instead, it merely states the obvious fact that the designation is mediated by societal norms. I recognize that it is somewhat fashionable to see all social norms as somewhat oppressive, and of course there is an element of truth to this. At the same time, however, every society that ever existed has had norms and in fact, the norms of a society are integral to the life and function of that society itself. Anyone who doubts this could try turning his back to people when he speaks to them, or not wearing clothes etc. Naturally, a given individual may be more or less inclined to follow the mores of his or her society, or to flout them, and some societies are more tolerant of deviations from their mores than others. I am somewhat surprised by what I take to be a common sentiment that American society is uniquely oppressive. As far as I can tell, it is one of the most tolerant societies in modern history. Any statement like this is liable to be misconstrued so I will point out that this is not the same thing as saying it is perfect. But by the same token, tolerance is only positive if it is applied in the proper degree and in respect to the proper objects. 

What is living thinking?

Living thinking describes a state of coherence in which will has become one with the act of thinking. If we attend carefully to thought, we will discover that, while thoughts often bear the traces of sense-impressions, they are the issue of an activity that does not. The latter is rather a sort of internal “eurythmy” that is movement without image. The gestures of thinking cast the forms of thought on the screen of consciousness.

On the equivocal meaning of “the American Dream”:

The phrase “American Dream” contains a remarkable double entendre, since dream can mean both fantasy and ideal. The first is lower than reality while the second is, in a sense, higher than reality insofar as it orders reality from above by serving as a coherent principle to guide human action.

Interestingly, if we admit the possibility of prophetic nighttime dreams, then the germ of both of these meanings can be seen to be contained in this phenomenon. Still, people often regard nighttime dreams as mere fantasy. MLK’s famous speech, on the other hand, departs from the second meaning of the term, since “dream” is clearly set forth as an ideal or aspiration, which, per the definition of those terms, does not exist in fact, but nevertheless serves as a point of orientation for real life. Hence it can be seen to influence the world of facts through its ability to order human actions toward the good. Cynically, on the other hand, the American Dream could be paraphrased as “The American Fantasy.”

On Rudolf Steiner’s vision of ethics:

Steiner’s theory of ethics is extremely difficult to characterize. Unlike Utilitarianism and Deontology, and to a lesser extent, Virtue Ethics, Steiner’s philosophy of freedom does not lend itself to pithy formulations or soundbites. Instead it must be perceived as a coherent gestalt in which the ethics and the philosophy are seen to harmonize in a single coherent and comprehensive vision. It is not really possible to offer blanket prescriptions for moral action in the way that some of the other theories attempt to do because neither concrete individuals nor the concrete circumstances they find themselves in, are sufficiently generic to be captured by such prescriptions. Instead, the principle of spiritual evolution toward freedom must be grasped. When it is understood, the soul will naturally orient itself toward evolving into freedom in the same way that a flower follows the sun. Recall that the opposite of freedom is, in Steiner’s view, the condition in which we are acting for reasons of which we possess neither consciousness nor understanding. Inversely, freedom is the condition in which the laws which govern our actions are also ones that we can see and hence freely will or refrain from willing. Here is an immensely pregnant passage from Steiner on the subject:

Whenever something takes place in the universe, two things must be distinguished: the external course the event follows in space and time, and the inner law ruling it. To recognize this law in the sphere of human conduct is simply a special instance of cognition. This means that the insight we have gained concerning the nature of knowledge must be applicable here also. To know oneself to be at one with one’s deeds means to possess, as knowledge, the moral concepts and ideals that correspond to the deeds. If we recognize these laws, then our deeds are also our own creations. In such instances the laws are not something given, that is, they are not outside the object in which the activity appears; they are the content of the object itself, engaged in living activity. The object in this case is our own I. If the I has really penetrated its deed with full insight, in conformity with its nature, then it also feels itself to be master. As long as this is not the case, the laws ruling the deed confront us as something foreign, they rule us; what we do is done under the compulsion they exert over us. If they are transformed from being a foreign entity into a deed completely originating within our own I, then the compulsion ceases. That which compelled us, has become our own being. The laws no longer rule over us; in us they rule over the deed issuing from our I. To carry out a deed under the influence of a law external to the person who brings the deed to realization, is a deed done in unfreedom. To carry out a deed ruled by a law that lies within the one who brings it about, is a deed done in freedom. To recognize the laws of one’s deeds, means to become conscious of one’s own freedom. Thus the process of knowledge is the process of development toward freedom.

—Steiner, Truth and Knowledge

Appendix: Here is Dante on a similar subject. In certain respects, Steiner was “re-inventing the wheel”: 

Judgment is between Apprehension and Appetite. First, a man apprehends a thing; then he judges it to be good or bad; then he pursues or avoids it accordingly. If therefore the Judgment guides the Appetite wholly, and in no way is forestalled by the Appetite, then is the Judgment free. But if the Appetite in any way at all forestalls the Judgment and guides it, then the Judgment cannot be free; it is not its own: it is captive to another power. Therefore the brute beasts cannot have freedom of Judgment; for in them the Appetite always forestalls the Judgments.—Dante Alighieri, De Monarchia

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. I agree human “modes of perception” are complementary, but while I appreciate McGilchrist’s (et alia) insights and metaphors, the notion that “the right hemisphere” is literally the “Master” (of anything) sticks in my craw like nobody’s business. We’re even seeing it used as an excuse to argue “the Left” of the political spectrum is and should be everyone’s Lord and Master. Oh my God! Does that sound familiar or what?

    Now, maybe it’s because I’m more of a “cosmic” thinker, i.e. I think in “musical” terms of pitch, vibration, harmony and dissonance. Maybe it’s because I’m a woman. Maybe it’s because I’m more introverted than extroverted. Who knows? Who even cares? Right? I certainly don’t.

    I do know that the Western “intellectual tradition” has been dominated by “male” thinkers and is still dominated by “male” thinkers. While I’m not a “feminist,” per se, it’s fairly obvious that the Divine Feminine has been neglected in the West compared to the Divine Masculine. That doesn’t mean that the Divine Femine should replace the Divine Masculine. I’m personally of the mind that a proper balance among all things is everything. (That’s why I find the Methodist creed, “moderation in all things” so appealing, btw. Isn’t that an interesting word? “Appealing?”)

    Listening and hearing are two different but complentary things; seeing and comprehending are two different but complementary things. Not going anywhere in particular with this, but just felt like sharing for some reason.

    I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
    And Mourners to and fro
    Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
    That Sense was breaking through –

    And when they all were seated,
    A Service, like a Drum –
    Kept beating – beating – till I thought
    My mind was going numb –

    And then I heard them lift a Box
    And creak across my Soul
    With those same Boots of Lead, again,
    Then Space – began to toll,

    As all the Heavens were a Bell,
    And Being, but an Ear,
    And I, and Silence, some strange Race,
    Wrecked, solitary, here –

    And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
    And I dropped down, and down –
    And hit a World, at every plunge,
    And Finished knowing – then –

    ~ Emily Dickinson

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Max Leyf says:

      Yes, IF. As usual, I think everything you have said is just right. The point of indicating the polarity is to gesture toward the power of which the categories we are familiar with are the poles.

      Liked by 1 person

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