That subtle knot, which makes us man…
John Donne, The Ecstasy
With these dozen or so words the sixteenth century British metaphysical poet, preacher, and elegist, John Donne, foreshadowed the core challenge haunting our late post-modern world, while at roughly the same time a French philosopher and mathematician, Rene Descartes, was busy laying its oft-heralded foundations. Today we are heirs to the one and, like our forebear Descartes, skeptical of the other.
Our current, hyper-rational post-industrial culture is indebted to Cartesian doubt, along with its skeptical bifurcation of subject and object, mind and body, self and world. But this foundation itself rests upon prior constructions laid down by Aristotle and before him by the Greek Stoics. And even the categories of these ancients germinated in soils hearkening back yet further in human history, to the earliest divisions of labor and specializations that emerged with the burgeoning of urban life and the pre-reflective creation of institutional hierarchies six millennia ago. These several historical layers have left us with a diminished conception of thinking, dominated by Aristotle’s syllogistic, and with a diminished conception of community, the post-modern state.
With the enforced separation of an objective, externalized universe, presumably independent of the knowing and contemplating subject, scientific hypothesis formation was able to provide us with an ever-expanding toolbox allowing us to manipulate and finally control that external environment. Such a set of tools would eventually be applied not only to objective nature, so conceived, and to those wild creatures populating the natural world, but to human beings as well. So our control and manipulation would finally extend to the very “soul of those who were by nature our own equals… our fellow men” (Augustine, de Doctrina Christiana).
It was not until early in the twentieth century, with the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, another French philosopher, that the wrong turn initiated by Descartes was made clearly evident to trained philosophers. An earnest student of phenomenology and psychology, and with an uncanny commitment to the primacy of perception, Merleau-Ponty was able to disclose the fleshy “intertwining” of the sentient subject and the earthly sensuous, in short, the “body-subject (le corps-sujet), and the world-as-lived-by-the-body. It is this philosophical recollection of the inter-animation of body and world that may assist us in understanding the roots of our current crisis today – the crisis of Western civilization.
We “first-worlders” tend to believe that our sciences and our technologies represent the best human ingenuity has to offer, that they demonstrate our unquestionable historical advancement and justify our global supremacy. We feel that we have overcome the more primitive and undeveloped aspects of the origins of our species, which, not in the least, is demonstrated through our increasing mastery over nature. In his Introduction to Metaphysics, Martin Heidegger challenges this very assumption of the modern temperament.
The fundamental error that underlies [modern sciences, natural and human] is the opinion that the inception…is primitive and backward, clumsy and weak. The opposite is true. The inception is what is most uncanny and mightiest. What follows is not a development but flattening down as mere widening out… a perversion of what is great, into greatness and extension purely in the sense of number and mass. The uncanniest is what it is because it harbors such an inception in which, from over-abundance, everything breaks out at once into what is overwhelming…. (165)
Here Heidegger overturns, as he frequently does, the commonly accepted view of things. This world of ours, the product of modern science, rather than representing a development is really a regression – a truncation, abbreviation, and reduction of the original richness and fullness of existence to mere numerical coefficients, mere extensions in space-time. The world has become emptied out by modern consciousness, reduced in simplest terms to a set of mathematical equations or legalistic syllogisms.
In all his later work, Heidegger was possessed with this state of affairs and with the curious relationship obtaining between thinking, being, and truth. He came to see that the original nature of human dwelling, of our being-in-the-world, was covered over by the not-so-artful constructs of modern consciousness, and that the truth of being lay hidden in our collective forgetfulness. In fact, he came to rely increasingly upon the concept of truth as unconcealment or disclosedness, seeking to articulate the original intertwining of thinking and dwelling – a condition of openness that he termed Gelassenheit. He recovered the concept of truth from its ancient roots in Greek myth, deriving rather circuitously from the word lethe, the river of forgetfulness, one of the five rivers of the underworld in Greek mythology. The term lethe in classical Greek literally meant “oblivion,” “forgetfulness,” or “concealment.” The word for “truth” on the other hand, from whence Heidegger rescues our own concept, is aletheia (ἀλήθεια), meaning un-forgetfulness, un-concealment, or disclosedness. The event of truth would be exposing that which had been essentially concealed or hidden and letting it again shine-forth.
It is this condition of forgetfulness that Heidegger wants so desperately to reverse in his final writings; he wants to let-shine-forth what was forgotten and covered-over at the origins of modern thought even prior to Aristotle. It is for this reason that he looks to Greek mythology and to the pre-Socratics to help excavate the ground of this forgetting, and begin to uncover the rich origins of human dwelling, and our primal openness (Gelassenheit) to the mystery of Dasein or Being-there.
But it was with Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s work that the locus of human dwelling was finally rediscovered philosophically, recovered from the oblivion of Western rationalism, scientism and metaphysics. It was his relentless focus on le corps sujet (the body-subject) that broke open that mysterious chiasm, the foundational “intertwining” of my body with the world-as-lived (my flesh, the flesh of the world), affording the very possibility of sentient experience — of touching and being touched, of seeing and being seen, of hearing and being heard, of smelling and being smelled, of tasting and being tasted (The Visible and the Invisible).
More important yet was his analysis of the problematic of unidirectional time, helping to break the spell of historical consciousness that had been cast like a pall over humanity for nearly six millennia. No longer were we to be chained to the treadmill of clock time’s forward march. As he wrote in The Phenomenology of Perception:
We say that time passes or flows by. We speak of the course of time. The water that I see rolling by was made ready a few days ago in the mountains, with the melting glacier… If time is similar to a river, it flows from the past towards the present and the future. The present is the consequence of the past, and the future of the present. But this often repeated metaphor is in reality extremely confused. For, looking at the things themselves, the melting snows and what results from this are not successive events, or rather the very notion of event has no place in the objective world… if I consider the world itself, there is simply one indivisible and changeless being in it… The objective world is too much a plenum for there to be time. (411-412)
“…Too much a plenum for there to be time?” More than a challenging metaphor, this statement appears to be an indictment of Enlightenment hypothesizing and post-Enlightenment reasoning. Perhaps a not so indirect allusion to Descartes and Newton (De Gravitatione), Merleau-Ponty’s words here suggest a fundamental overturning of our now commonsense view, while recollecting the pre-reflective nature of human dwelling within the fullness (plenus) of the lived-body-world, what he later calls “the thickness of the pre-objective present, in which we find our bodily being, our social being, and the pre-existence of the world.” (421, italics mine)
Merleau-Ponty seemed aware that there is something hidden or forgotten underlying our mundane experience of this reconstituted and modified environment; something linking us to the earth we inhabit and enlivening our presence here — something more primal than the hypotheticals of space and time generated by our scientists and our specialists.
Heidegger understood that the emergence of scientific hypotheses concerning pure extension and temporal duration, and so our commonsense conceptions of space and time, represented abstractions, transformations and perversions of a more primal and overwhelming experience of Being — perhaps what the Pacific Islanders referred to as “mana.” For the Islanders, there was apparently no such thing as empty space or simple, objective material extension, as was the documented case among many other pre-urban tribes and hunter-gatherer societies; their world was filled with living, animate, sentient and powerful subjectivities lurking everywhere and residing almost anywhere – in the wind, the water, the stone, or the bush. (We first-worlders called it, condescendingly, animism.) So too, there is good reason to suggest that indigenous tribes had no genuine concept of pure linear duration either, no time, as we have come to know it, flowing from past to future (see Dorothy D. Lee, Freedom and Culture). The natural cyclicality of life breathed around, through, and within them: the rising and setting of the sun, the lunar cycle, seasonal changes, the repetition of ritual archetypal behavior. In Heidegger’s terms what happened with the emergence of thought from these auspicious and pregnant beginnings was a “flattening out” of an originally uncanny and overwhelming primal moment.
To this day there are some excellent studies that correctly point to the spread of agriculture and the birth of cities as the principal focus of our changed material relations with the world. Yet even these analyses typically make the underlying and pre-thematic assumption that the perceptions and consciousness of our preliterate, pre-civilized predecessors were roughly identical to our own; that we perceive the same world and experience our place therein as did our “primitive” forebears. But to infer that primal humans reasoned and conceptualized as we do today would be an unsustainable inference (see Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances). Indeed, the opposite assumption is more likely the case; that they reflected quite differently on the plenum and on themselves than we do, and that this was in large measure a result of how differently they perceived and felt themselves within the world. There is certainly nothing in the anthropological, paleontological, or ethnographic record that would contradict such an assumption. In fact, there may be much, both in mythology and ethnography, to recommend it (see Mircea Eliade, Cosmos and History, Daniel Everett, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes).
Specifically, our conceptions of pure extension and duration, of mere materiality and unidirectional time, themselves conceptually linked to a reification and radicalization of an objective and internalized sense of self – removed from the world and observing it from afar – locked us into a specific place in history and to our own unique histories; this is a large part of that difference, and this is largely responsible not only for the emergence of civilization, but for the evolving crisis we now face. It is to this primeval transformation of consciousness that we must look for the inchoate but emergent beginnings of our crisis, even at the misty origins of Western civilization.
There appears now to be a fork in the road we are traveling; but since, as we have suggested, the present is all we really have, there is not much sense in talking about having passed the point of no return. So, while the culture itself may appear to be locked in a self-inflicted death spiral, each of us still has a choice. Let’s briefly consider the options.
On the one hand, we could simply do nothing at all and allow calendrical time, the relentless march of civilized history, to define us and continue its course unabated. In other words, we can maintain our commitment to this ancient trajectory that was set in motion as far back as Sumer, codified later by Aristotle, and more fully articulated in the Enlightenment and beyond; or we can personally choose to minimize or even terminate our participation in the unfolding spectacle, and find a more compelling way of being-in-the-world.
This brings us to the second option – recollection. We can each personally make an effort to recollect that genetic memory trace, recalling from within the hiddenness and forgetfulness of our own isolated egos the “subtle knot” that grounds our primal intertwining with the world-as-lived-by-the-body. In this way we might experience again that feral openness which first made the earthly sensuous and our own sentience possible.
The bigger challenge is for the collective, and the footprint we have made as a civilization. There have been global reverberations from this change of perception and consciousness that were set in motion so many millennia ago. There has been ecological, social, psychological, and economic fallout. How do we find a footpath back from those hypotheses, both social and natural scientific, that have led us to this point and continue to bind us collectively to this spectacle? It seems to me that Merleau-Ponty’s reflections, while necessary for understanding the specific gravity of our situated presence, may not be sufficient for overcoming our current dilemma and slowing down or reversing its momentum or its negative effects. But, perhaps with some effort we can yet find something that will at least reduce this cold tyranny of reason and its brainchildren – the syllogism and the modern state.
State is the name of the coldest of all cold monsters… State, where the slow suicide of all – is called ‘life.’ (Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, The New Idol)