SHADOWS
 

UNDERSTANDING IN CONTEXT

by Gordon L. Ziniewicz

1. We live in a world. This world includes people, human products and institutions (including language and culture), and our non-human natural environment (including the earth and non-human living beings, such as plants and animals). Our world-view, our perspective based upon our experience and knowledge of this world, is worked out or constructed by means of our interactions with people and things that occupy that world. The world teaches us about itself, and we in turn effect change in that world. The give and take of being in a world is both passive and active. Views that make up our "world-view" grow out of diverse experiences; and views in turn influence, enhance, diminish, or change in some way both the world and the way we experience it. What or how we experience and the way we think are interdependent. Even divorcing thought from action or experience, or separating inner mental life from outer practical life can be linked to self-made personal presuppositions or inherited cultural presuppositions, views we did not arrive at on our own, but have adopted without criticism from human collective experience.
Question: What are some cultural presuppositions that strongly affect our interaction with the world?

2. Views or presuppositions (beliefs or "opinions") pertain to all sorts of things and experiences. We have opinions about ourselves, about other people, about our natural environment, about human products and institutions. In addition, we have opinions about our "relationship" to or "interaction" with persons and things in our world. For example, we have views of how government ought to function, how people ought to regulate their conduct, whether people have too little or too much compassion, whether the whales ought to be saved, whether war is thinkable, how children ought to be raised, what we are now and what we wish to become in the future, whether we are genuinely loved or cynically manipulated, whether life is worth living at all, whether altruism counts, whether technologies are beneficial or harmful.

3. If we would try to map in simple form our basic relationships, it might look something like this:

Within this framework, many interactions and relationships are imaginable. We can interact differently with each person or thing in our world. These interactions can have both positive and negative qualities. Our relations with persons and things can go well or badly: We can feel success or disappointment in our work, pleasure or pain with friends or family, unity or disunity in everyday situations. Through all of this, we acquire individualized habits of relating to people, artifacts, and nature. These habits are enduring attitudes or dispositions or "conditioned responses" (virtues or vices from an ethical point of view). We have preferences and biases; we like some things and people more than others. We are selective. Disappointment with human beings may lead us to prefer animals to people. Personal greed may lead us to prefer money (artificial means of exchange) to human and non-human living beings. The sum total of our interactions and their qualities constitute a complex network. In general, what we believe or how we "see things" is influenced by experienced likes and dislikes, our being "schooled by" positive and negative encounters with actual conditions. Our theories, principles (hypotheses), and presuppositions (including prejudices and unwarranted generalizations) reflect the lessons we have learned and the attitude or "disposition" we have created in interaction and interdependence with a real world.

4. Our environment is what surrounds us, what environs or encircles us. It is also what lies above us and beneath us. We belong to a world that we share with other beings, both living and non-living. If we are "humanists," we concern ourselves primarily with human beings and human affairs. But even humanists must pay attention to the broader and deeper context of our non-human natural environment. What we make of ourselves as human beings is dependent upon a dynamic interaction with our environment; we are not merely a passive "product" of our environment. Experience is a two way street; we both act and are acted upon. Interaction is two-sided; it is both impressive and expressive (incoming and outgoing, undergoing and doing). The impressive side of experience is the manner and degree to which we are affected, changed, or influenced by what surrounds us. The expressive side of experience is the way we affect, change, and influence what surrounds us. The ratio of impression and expression in this "give and take" transaction with the world varies with each individual attitude or disposition. In sum, we are not isolated outsiders with regard to our environment; we are organically attached to it. The world and the individual are, as it were, "dancing partners" within human experience.

Question: How do human institutions affect our lives? How do we in turn affect human institutions?
Question: How does non-human nature affect us? How do we affect non-human nature?

5. In general, how we relate to what surrounds us is affected by the following:

(1) Values: Values refer to what is important to us and what is not, what is more important and what is less important. More or less important indicate our priorities -- our arrangement or ranking of things we experience according to comparative worth.

(2) Principles: These are guidelines that help us determine what kinds of action are appropriate or inappropriate, likely to work out well or likely to fail. They advise us how best to relate to people and things. In general, they are hypotheses, derived from experience and used to guide experience.

(3) Ends: These are projected purposes or goals. They are desirable consequences we strive for, positive outcomes that show us the way in thinking about what to do.

(4) Ideals: Ideals are more general and more inclusive than ends. Like ends, they are views of the way things ought to be, as opposed to the way they are. Ideals are more remote than ordinary ends, and they include thoughts of perfect order, justice, goodness, beauty, truth, and peace. They function as means that inspire overall human conduct.

(5) Means: These are things or conditions we believe can be used to bring about desirable consequences. These include raw materials, wealth, skills, and even people. An attitude of exploitation is an attitude that regards everything other than the self as a means.

6. We are not simply the way we think or believe. We are also the way we perceive and feel. Each of us has emotions, predispositions, and an individualized "fundamental attitude" or way of relating to, handling, adjusting to our world. Both temperament and experience have a role in forming this attitude. This attitude, bearing, or disposition has several basic forms or qualities -- the aesthetic, the artistic, the intellectual, the practical, and the productive.

7. The aesthetic or "perception" is our fundamental way of immediate contact with the environment. It is the way we touch it and the way it touches us. Aisthesis means "touch" in Greek. The sense of touch is our most basic sense, but all five senses are ways of touching our environment and being touched by it in return. Aesthetic perception is our attachment to and attunement with an environment. As music is not simply in the instrument or in the ear, but in the interaction that includes both instrument and ear -- so seeing, hearing, and touching are ways of "moving with" and "vibrating with" the world. This amounts to a kind of attunement, fine tuning, oneness with the world, or "dancing" with the world. The more acute and finely developed our perception, the more harmoniously we move with the movement of things in our environment. Through mood and emotion, we feel the feelings of what surrounds us. Empathy is the ability to feel the feelings of others, to be moved by their emotion. Their joy becomes our joy, and their suffering becomes our suffering. We say that we have had a "moving" experience. What we mean is that we have felt the movement of things outside of us and we participate in that movement.

8. The more objective (and external) side of our aesthetic attachment to the world is conveyed by our five senses. The more subjective (and internal) side of our aesthetic attachment to the environment is reflected in our emotions or in our overall mood. Mood is a quality that permeates experience. Our primary emotions are feelings of suffering (pain and disturbance) and joy (pleasure and harmony). Love and hate are emotions; interestingly enough, they are both modes of attachment. An object of hate is something we cannot let go of. One can become so dominated by a highly developed sensory apparatus that one becomes an aesthete, a highly sensitive individual who experiences concrete things so acutely that he or she becomes an instrument that the world plays and uses to reveal its movements and moods. This type of sensitivity can be the source of the greatest pain, as well as the greatest joy, since the individual cannot separate himself or herself from the sufferings and the joys of others. This binding with the all is the essence of "nature mysticism," but it is also found in the simple and playful intimacy of a child with its environment. Perception is the "grasping" of concrete particular things, of individuals as individuals, not as members of a class. It is appreciation of individual beings as unique and sui generis. When the aesthetic tendency dominates intellectual and practical aspects, its way of dealing with problematic situations and suffering is limited to "going with the flow" of things or acceptance of things as they are. For this attitude, all of life, with all of its ups and downs, pleasures and pains, harmony and disharmony, is to be embraced and accepted for what it is. The goal is not to eliminate suffering, for suffering is a part of life and is fundamentally inseparable from its opposite happiness. When self-centered, this sensitivity can lead to neurotic hypersensitivity. When un-self-centered, it can lead to expressive dimensions of artistic creation.

Question: Describe an aesthetic attunement with a blade of grass, with the sound of rain on the roof, with a person speaking to you.
9. Perception is both impressive and expressive. It has expressive quality because, to some extent, our perceptions are consciously selective: We see what we choose to see, and we "focus." For example, we see and hear loved ones more intently than we see and hear strangers. Secondly, perceptions are structured by our presuppositions and our world-view: We anticipate and predict what we will see and how we will see it. We see through the filters of individual perspective, and perceptions are tinted by previous experience. Nevertheless, the more interpretation, the less authentic perception; the more expression, the less impression; the more subjective noise we make, the less able we are to hear the "music" of the environment. Aesthetic perception, in its purest form, is impressionability -- being "all ears." Anything else is a distraction and gets in the way. What is required is to be fully attentive and to let the person, thing or world tell us its story, without our butting in, and to be attuned and receptive to the variety of forms and sounds that impinge upon us. The aesthetic is the felt "symphony" of our hold on the world and the hold that the world has on us.
Question: I have lost my job. What happens to the blade of grass? The sound of the rain? The person speaking to me?
10. We can respond in a number of ways to the impression the world makes on us. Artistic expression is one possible response to the way we are affected by concrete impressions. Having felt the concrete thrust of particular people and things, we attempt to image, to fabricate a unique concrete individual thing of our own. Having heard the symphony of the world, we sing our own song. Our creative response can take the form of words, sounds, gestures, pictures, artifacts, whistling, dancing, and other similar expressions. The point is, being "moved" (emotion) by what surrounds us, we in turn try to move what surrounds us. Aesthetic attunement, or letting particular things affect us, seeing individual things as they really are, is the prerequisite not only of artistic expression, but also of intellectual or scientific observation and practical or moral action, as we shall see later. The basis of human life is attachment and quality of attachment. Without attachment, there is no life.
Question: Is "artistic expression" limited to "artists?"

11. In Western Philosophy, certain thinkers have espoused what could be called an aesthetic and artistic orientation. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus and the nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche are two such examples. In the Oriental tradition, Lao-Tzu, the founder of Taoism, stands out as one who would follow the rhythm of the natural universe, with its polar opposites of yin and yang.

12. A second possible expressive response to the story that the world tells us is the intellectual or scientific, which attempts to generalize, to convert concrete experience into concepts and abstractions. The intellectual approach stands back and distances itself from concrete particulars in order to classify, analyze, and generalize about them. To this extent, it "detaches" itself from direct contact with particular things and thereby strips them of their unique individuality. It stands back and detaches itself in order to see the "bigger picture." It gives things a name and labels things. It groups individuals and considers what they have in common. In this process, it withdraws to a kind of mental space of ideas. In effect, it turns its attention away from the concrete world itself and towards a world of concepts and definitions that catalogue the common and not unique characteristics of things. The botanist turns away from this birch tree to reflect upon and to understand birch trees in general. The psychologist turns away from this patient to think about symptoms, personality traits, and therapies. The "unique individual" becomes one of many of the "same kind." Thinking about things is the process of talking to ourselves about individuals (in third person general terms); it is a process of temporary disengagement from direct attachment or "first person to second person" relation. Intellectual reflection is the replacement of direct attention "to" by third person speech "about." It withdraws from particular objects to a mental world of ideas. It stands back from the tree to see the forest. The scientific mentality begins with the concrete but finds its fulfillment with the general (concepts, hypotheses, laws, and the like). We joke about the absent-minded professor or the detached scientist who has forgotten to tie his shoes. We speak also of people who tend to live "inside of their heads." Such "detached ones" often see the real environment as so much opportunity for investigation and study, as so much raw material to be converted into ideas and theories. Nonetheless, we all have within us this tendency, desire, and need to think -- to stand back (detach ourselves from immediacy) for the moment in order to evaluate, assess, and generalize. A pure "thinker," to the extent that one exists, is one who has devoted one's entire life to developing the intellectual capacity of human experience, perhaps to the detriment of impressionability, as well as other types of expression.

13. Summary of the Intellectual: The intellectual is the ability to back away, to stand back, to detach oneself, to see the whole picture as opposed to remaining attached to a single part, to reduce the hold of immediate feeling and involvement in order to make sense of the situation, to think about things, to deliberate. It is the spectator or observer's habit of distancing oneself in order to be objective. When used by the intellectual, the feeling of the aesthetic bond is transformed into cool-headed observation, analysis, and reflection. Like seeing things in a mirror, the intellectual no longer sees things directly, but only as reflected in the conscious mind. Reflection, thinking about things, takes place in a kind of mental mirror. The intellectual suspends the mood and emotions of the aesthetic; it calms the storm of emotions with objectivity and detachment. Whereas the aesthetic implies feeling attachment, the intellectual means cool detachment. Every interest in generalities indicates a loosening and a lessening of interest in the concrete particular. Intellectuals study many cases or individuals (as Freud studied many neurotic persons), but, as observers, they are more attached to theories than to the people or things they study. If one develops the intellectual attitude over other tendencies, one may become a detached intellectual, who, in relation to the environment, is a bystander, an onlooker, a spectator, whose concern is more with contemplation of truth (logical order and harmony) than with appreciation of beauty (overt order and harmony). No one can be completely detached and disinterested, however. Human existence presupposes both interest and participation. Even "pure contemplation" proceeds according to some interest, even if that interest happens to be a desire to escape from trouble caused by being in the world.

Question: Explain how science is bought at the expense of the aesthetic.
Question: What happens when attachment causes pain? Could intellectual detachment become a means of escape and pain avoidance?

14. A third possible response to the way things present themselves is the practical attitude: The practical attitude does not stop at "experiencing" things as they are or understanding them "in general," but strives further to do something about them. Whereas the artistic is more concerned with recreating in unique form some aspect of experience and the intellectual is concerned primarily with ideas and theories, the practical is concerned with deeds, with conduct. The practical attitude is impatient with the poetizers and the thinkers, who leave things pretty much as they are. The practical wants to change actual conditions in accordance with some ideal, some plan, some goal, some project. The practical views the real situation as deficient, as needing work, as requiring readjustment. Whereas the aesthetic embraces things as they are (what is is good as it is), the practical believes that the real and the good are different; it sees reality as falling short of what it should be. It judges the present condition in the light of some ideal conception. Thus, the practical attitude (1) begins with aesthetic perception of individual things and situations as they are (facts), (2) stands back to assess (generalize) (3) and conceive of a better order -- things as they ought to be (ideal), (4) compares real perception and ideal conception, (5) deliberates alternative courses of action that might bridge the gap between reality and ideal, that might lead to realization of the ideal, (6) chooses one such course of action, and (7) acts, thereby (8) changing for good or for ill the real world that surrounds. In theory, "ideal" practice would require perfect appreciation of individuals and things as they are (the aesthetic), as well as complete objectivity (the intellectual); but actual practice sees the urgency to act in the situation, where postponement would be counterproductive. It does not wait for perfect aesthetic perception or complete scientific analysis of the situation. Just as a doctor does not have a complete acquaintance with the history of an individual patient and does not have a perfect grasp of medical science, so the practical person acts with incomplete grasp of the situation and thereby risks making mistakes.

15. The practical attitude seeks to change things (even oneself, for the self is seen as falling short of an ideal), to rearrange experience in the light of a plan, a blueprint, or an ideal. The practical attitude therefore requires a highly developed sensitivity and appreciation of individual persons and things as they are (empathy) and a highly developed intellectual capability of generalizing and envisioning things in their most logical or orderly form. It also requires attachment as interest, concern (heart). If interest and love are exclusively self-directed, we call that attitude self-centered, exploitative, manipulative, selfish. The self-centered person prioritizes in this way: He puts himself first and makes himself the end; from this perspective, all other persons and things are considered means to that end. This type of attitude uses what surrounds itself, even uses itself, to bring about what appears to be good for the self, what seems to amount to favorable consequences. But if the good of the individual is inextricably linked to the environment, then damaging the environment (persons and things) is self-defeating. An exploitative attitude erodes the very interactive tie with the environment that makes life -- even exploitative life -- possible. An attitude that disorders depends upon some degree of preexisting order. Selfishness is then, from a practical point of view, apparently successful in the short run, but actually doomed in the long run. In addition, the self-centered person eventually loses his ability to manipulate because he pays so much attention to himself that he fails to see things as they really are and fails to think clearly. Even "exploitation" depends, curiously enough, upon appreciation of what is outside of the self, i.e., the environment. The ethically motivated individual, on the other hand, sees the improvement of self and environment as interlocked and interdependent. He sees that the world and the self stand or fall together. Thus, he is not self-effacing, but he knows his place. He is equally concerned with all niches of the environment, including his own. He understands that the reform of the world cannot be undertaken by putting off his own reform. The world includes the individual who poses such questions, and the world itself is enhanced or diminished a bit if even the smallest part of it is enhanced or diminished.

16. Summary of the practical: The practical can be ethical (unselfish and other-centered) or unethical (exploitative and self-centered). The practical attitude is neither resigned attunement with nor aloof analysis of an environment. It is engaged with things as they are, but has an interest in changing things, in solving problems. In the ethical practical attitude, there is an urge to bring harmony to a discordant situation, replace suffering with joy, order what is disordered, make things better rather than worse. The practical attitude is dissatisfied with the way things are and wishes to change them. From this point of view, things need improvement. There is a tendency to leap ahead, to act, to do something. One sees conflict and attempts to resolve it. Life is a problem to be solved, not a fate to be accepted. The emphasis is upon participation and doing something. For its success, the ethical practical presupposes aesthetic acumen and intellectual competence. It requires (1) attachment (compassion, love, and empathy), appreciation of the particular situation in all its concrete and individual aspects; (2) detachment, standing back and judging the situation, thinking about it, analyzing it, generalizing about it, seeing it in the light of general principles; and finally, (3) reattachment, returning to the real situation to work on it and to release its positive possibilities. It includes the yes of aesthetic affirmation and the yes/no dialectic of intellectual questioning, negation, distancing, and deliberation.

Question: You are having lunch with a close friend, who announces she is about to commit suicide and goes into great detail to explain why. Describe how the aesthetic, the intellectual, and the practical come into play in this situation. Describe a merely aesthetic or merely intellectual response to such a situation.

17. Western Philosophy has ethical proponents, such as Plato, Kant, and Dewey. Confucianism is an important Chinese or Eastern ethical/humanistic philosophy.

18. Productive attitude: This attitude combines both artistic and practical aspects and depends on both knowledge of universal concepts and grasp of particulars as particular. It aims at "making," or reordering "raw material" (from non-human nature) according to some blueprint. Unlike the artistic, the productive does not aim at the creation of unique new particulars, but makes many artificial products of the same kind according to a general "blueprint" or design. The "technological," which will be examined later in the course, is a special form of the productive attitude.

19. What we are is a composite and configuration of these tendencies in an arrangement peculiar to ourselves. One of these attitudes usually ranks ahead of the others. Each of these attitudes is capable of "selfishness or unselfishness," depending upon whether it takes more from the world than it gives back, in response to the gift it has received from the environment.

20. Fundamental attitude: Our fundamental attitude is our basic way of being in the world, our basic disposition constituted by interpenetration and priority of basic human ways of acting upon the world and being acted upon by it. This fundamental attitude is developed by a combination of personal initiative and social interaction, as well as interaction with our natural environment. The aesthetic, intellectual, and practical are interdependent components of our fundamental attitude. Standing back sometimes has moral consequences. The urgency of moral action often cuts short perception and deliberation. Everything we do changes our attitude somewhat. Thinking, which has its source in attitude (we think a certain way with a certain slant), in turn can modify attitude.

Question: Which orientation best characterizes American thought and action? Discuss the importance of pragmatism for American life? What is meant by pragmatism? Do some research and compare what you find with what you thought you would find. Who are the leading American pragmatic philosophers?
Question: What are some of the dangers of an overly pragmatic orientation? Explain.
Question: Explain how both the practical and the scientific are bought at the expense of the aesthetic. Must perception and feeling be sacrificed in order to think clearly (objectively) and act resolutely (decisively)?
Question: Is it dangerous to think too much? Does this apply to all types of thinking?
Question: How might thinking be useful when feeling seems out of control? Why and how does thinking create distance?

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Copyright © 1995 - 2013 Gordon L. Ziniewicz

Please note: These philosophical commentaries, though still in process, are the intellectual property of Gordon L. Ziniewicz. They may be downloaded and freely distributed in electronic form only, provided no alterations are made to the original text. One print copy may be made for personal use, but further reproduction and distribution of printed copies are prohibited without the permission of the author.