And fear the silence is the voice of God

19 09 2009

Legos or coins—which are you?

What, you don’t get what I’m referencing? Oh, that’s right, you weren’t in class this past Thursday.

As I’ve mentioned, I teach political science at a CUNY school, an endeavor which doesn’t pay much (or not at all: see previous post), but which I enjoy. Most of what I teach is pretty basic—100- and 200-level stuff (with occasional forays into the 300s)—which means I don’t usually get much of a chance to toss mind-blowing stuff at my students.

Except. . . except for the one lecture near the beginning of this particular 200-level course. I tell the students this will help them make sense of the readings, and I’m not lying, but, honestly, they could get by without this. I spend 60 or 75 minutes on this stuff because I dig it.

I begin by writing on the chalkboard the following:

The Good




(Because I’m html-illiterate, I’m unable to show the arrows running up and down between the levels. Luckily, the chalkboard doesn’t require html.)

I like to explain this spatially: epistemology is deep in the ground, ontology is in the middle layers, the practical-reflective on the surface, and the Good out in the sky.

After the requisite this-would-not-pass-muster-in-a-philosophy-class disclaimer, I dive into epistemology, or, How do you know what you know. The stuff of late night conversations, drug trips, or too many viewings of The Matrix. It’s tricky, I note, not least because any answer you give can be parried with a ‘. . . but how do you know that?’ and lead to endless regress.

Above that is ontology, which I define existentially: as a matter of Being-in-the-world. The key question here, I note, is Who are you? How do you understand yourself, your relationship to others, and to existence itself.

The practical-reflective: this is where most of us live, with the main question What to do? The use of the practical often stands in for pragmatic, but in this case I use it in terms of practice, as in the practices in which we engage, of how we order the doings of our lives. These aren’t merely banal issues: what to do can involve questions of love, work, where to live, whether to have children, etc.—hence, the reflective part. (And, as I tell the class, it’s also the level of politics, of how to arrange ourselves vis-a-vis one another and any authority we choose to install over and above ourselves.)

Before ascending to the Good, I pause and note that at times of crisis the ontological may crack open, and people may question who they are and what they’re doing with their lives. (More rarely, they may tumble into the epistemological abyss, a place more mind-blowing than any intoxicant, and one best scrambled out of as quickly as possible. Voluntary spelunking in the epistemological is to be discouraged, especially if unaccompanied by a guide.) In any case, while most people don’t think of their lives in terms of ontology, the questions which arise from it are not unfamiliar. I then point out that while most of our work for the course will deal with the practical-reflective, we will occasionally bounce down to the ontological—or up to the Good.

Finally, then, the Good. This term is taken from Plato, and denotes an eternal, fixed, reality—the Really Real, the True. Given that most people on the planet are religious, I point out, the Good is often understood in terms of God or gods*. It is that around which people orient themselves, or seek, or toward which they aim. Understandably, then, contemplation of the Good can affect how one approaches the questions at the other levels as well as how one acts.

(*The main secular competitor to god/s may be nationalism, with very strong versions allowing the nation to stand in for the god/s; less common would be an utter devotion to science and methodological naturalism. There are likely other ideological permutations as well.)

At this point, I gesture toward the arrows running along side of this little chart. One happens at one level can affect what happens at other levels, both up and down, but not necessarily so.

And thus, the Lego-vs-coin question.

For some people, the four levels are locked tightly together, as if they were Lego blocks. Knowing the Good can tell you how to act in the world, how to understand yourself in that world, and how you know anything at all. It is a comprehensive vision.

I’ll give at this point the example of the devout Christian who has a very strong sense of God, who tries to live her life according to her understanding of God, who thinks of herself as in this world but not of it, and who knows what she knows because God allows her to know. Even if her understanding is imperfect or she is occasionally confused, she nonetheless allows for very little light between the levels.

For others of us, however, the relationship between the levels is less certain; we have at best partial visions. I’m an epistemological skeptic, I’ll admit, and am not sure if we can know anything, not even, against Descartes, whether we exist. This past Thursday I analogized the levels to lumps in a bag, shifting and bumping against one another, but I think the better analogy is that of coins. Yeah, I can stack them on top of one another, but they don’t lock in, and they can be fairly easily scattered.

I didn’t go so far as to state that followers of the Good are all Lego-folk, and agnostics, coin collectors—and not just because that would  have taken me away from the point of this exercise (which was to tie it all back into political analysis). I think the predisposition to Legos or coins is a temperamental one, and that this temperament has no necessary relation to belief or skepticism.

(Okay, so dogmatic skepticism is difficult to square, but it’s also clear that devout believers may  carry a doubt or a humility great enough to prevent any lockdown. In any case, if it is temperamental, it’s not clear how much it can be changed.)

The students are popping in with questions and comments all throughout this exercise, and when we finish with the Good, usually one student will ask But what if we don’t all have the same Good?

Yesss! This leads rather nicely to a discussion of the theory we’ll be examining for the next month or two, and how it seeks to create framework for development which allows individuals to choose their own versions of the Good, and which discourages the imposition of any, one, version. Onward to politics!

This is all very nice, you might say, but I’m not your student, so why are you telling me this?

Because I’ve been preoccupied of late with matters which, I realize, are related to Legos and coins, and I don’t know that I could have approached them in this blog without sketching out the underpinnings of that approach.

Of course, now that I’ve so sketched them, it’ll probably be awhile before I bother with the matters themselves.

What can I say? My coins have scattered.