The Inevitability of Appropriation

I spent my childhood watching my father struggle to make himself understood. It was not that he was handicapped in a fundamental way, but rather that he recognized that most people were terribly imprecise in their use of words. To ensure that he was able to describe precisely his methods of software design, he invented his own notation and terminology. In the end, he spoke a foreign language.

Of course, that also brought a certain power. In working with him years later, his resistance to my innovation was to assert that I hadn’t spent enough time sitting at his feet to really understand what he was doing.

Although I shared his concerns regarding imprecision in the use of words, I had no intention of following in his footsteps. Most of the creative intellectual energy of my twenties was devoted to an attempt to facilitate moral discourse by reclaiming terms of common usage. That thinking eventually surfaced back in 2005 at my first web site. There I laid out definitions for ‘love’, ‘power’ and ‘maturity’ (among others). The goal was to ensure that the use of such terms was based in clearly defined and shared expectations for the behavior of the speaker. Having faith in love and good will, I believed that the power accruing to subscribers to the philosophy would eventually manifest in the spread of its wisdom to the rest of society.

This work of reclamation was incredibly difficult. It was inspired, growing up in the ’70s, by my sense that the world was teetering on the brink of destruction, along with the shocking realization that when offering “I love you” most people actually meant “I feel good when I am around you. Let me bind you to me with this token.” In other words “I love myself.”

The corruption of the link between meaning and behavior is philosophical appropriation. In normal usage, appropriation is defined as:

the action of taking something for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission (Oxford)

In this case, we are concerned with manipulation of the consensus regarding the meaning of words to convince others that they should contribute to our benefit. The “owner” in this case is society as a whole. The “taking” is of resources meant to preserve the common good.

A topical manifestation of the struggle against philosophical appropriation is in the debate in the Democratic Party over the legitimacy of claims to a “progressive” agenda. A thorough exploration of the ambiguity in the usage of the term is offered at the Electric Agora. The nuances of the analysis rapidly evaporated into a deep cognitive dissonance as I thought back to the explanation offered in my childhood that progressives believe that “all boats rise with the tide.” This simple precept was the engine of the post-WWII Veterans Acts, the wealth generated by and for the American middle class in the ’50s and ’60s, and the Civil Rights movement. It also informs equally the choices of the partisans across the Sanders/Clinton divide – although they might dispute it.

Philosphical appropriation is driven by two forces. The first, suggested above, is simple hypocrisy. The second is more difficult to resist: it is the divergence between the original meaning of a term of social and political discourse and the mechanisms of its implementation. In religion, an early schism evolved from just such a critique. The Donatists, perceiving that priests were sometimes sinners, rejected the legitimacy of “sacraments” as administered by the Catholic Church. St. Augustine’s rebuttal was that the purpose of the Church was to reform and heal, which meant admission of sinners among the laity, and inevitably sinners among the priesthood. Augustine was concerned with the purpose of the Church as commissioned by Jesus of Nazareth; the Donatists were concerned consumers of its services.

Of course, neither the Church nor the Donatists disputed the value of the sacraments. Rather, both sides laid claim to legitimacy based upon the mechanisms of their transmission: the Church based upon the authority of Christ’s commission, which (at least in theory) established a gateway to grace that no priest could corrupt; the Donatists based upon the immediacy of Christ’s presence in the person of the administering saint. Obviously, the experience and forms of sacramental administration were different in the two societies. Eventually, those practical differences led to differences in their understanding of what was and was not a sacrament.

This is also apparent in the disputatious claims to the term “progressive.” The discussion at the Electric Agora focuses on the tension between inclusion and diversity, both  considered touch stones of the progressive program. Among some, this leads to claims of hypocrisy: how can you maintain diversity while attempting to homogenize opportunity?

Obviously, we’d like to see unity and respect in the dialog between people of good will. This seems like an ideal place for philosophical intervention.

One approach in this program of intervention is to seek to elucidate the meaning of terms in use. In both cases under discussion, unfortunately, this leads to a fracturing of meanings, with philosophical tolerance allowing legitimacy to be claimed by both sides, creating opportunities for hypocrites to profit from the divide.

The other approach is to successively refine the principle behind the term, and to elucidate the connection between that principle and implementation. This serves both to conserve and strengthen the consensus so essential to constructive social engagement, while simultaneously defending the community against hypocrites.

I find it interesting to relate this back to the original split between idealism and empiricism. The empiricist Aristotle thought that observation of the qualities of things would allow us to group them into categories. Plato, conversely, held that only in ideas could firm meaning be established, and so concrete instances in the world must be derived from ideas. The success of science leads us in the modern era to prefer the empirical approach. In sociology and politics, however, it is the ideas in our minds that determine the subject of study – which is the aggregate behavior of citizens. Here it seems that idealism – the defense of the meaning of words – is the more powerful approach. Implicitly, it is the approach that I offer to philosophers seeking to mediate political and social discourse. First defend the coherence of the statement of principle. Only then turn your attention to the practical issues of implementation.

Ideas, Ideally

I have been trying to reclaim (see 1 and 2) the philosophical tradition of ldealism that in the West was first articulated clearly by Plato. Idealism is one of two threads of discourse that attempt to explain the relationship between ideas and our experience of the world around us. The paradox for Plato was that the real world does not contain perfect representatives – no line is absolutely straight, and no horse manifests all the ideal characteristics of horses (fast and powerful, for example). Convinced that the world originated from a source of absolute good, Plato therefore held that the idea of a perfect line or perfect horse was the original, with the physical examples as imperfect manifestations.

To the scientific thinker, this assertion fails to satisfy because it does not specify a mechanism for the manifestation, and therefore cannot be disproved. The solution proposed by scriptural literalists is that the ideals did exist when the Holy will created the world, and were accessible for our appreciation during the inhabitation of Eden. It was through our selfishness and disobedience that the connection with the divine source was sundered. Not only human nature was corrupted in the Fall, but all of Creation.

Reacting against Plato’s idealism, Aristotle advanced the program of Empiricism. From our observation of the world around us, we intuitively recognize similarity between things. We might choose to call some things “dogs.” There is no ideal dog, but all dogs share certain characteristics. Through the mechanism of the syllogism, we can therefore transmit a great deal of understanding by simply designating the type of something. The most famous syllogism is “All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.” In general form, we might write “All A are B. If C is an instance of A, then C is B.”

Aristotle employed this program to a comprehensive classification of the world around him. The power of classification becomes most obvious in the physical sciences, where saying “an electron is massive and charged” allows us to apply mathematical deduction to predict its behavior. But classification is also conditional: Linnaeus, the inventor of the phylogenic scheme for categorization of living creatures, recognized only plants and animals. Modern biochemistry has demanded the addition of three new phyla, with the consequence that things once considered to be “plants” have been reclassified as “fungi,” which recognizes that all along they actually lacked some of the characteristics of “plants.”

Aristotle recognized that all ideas are abstractions, and so that when applied to a specific instance, information is lost. This should be unsettling – it means that the world is populated by exceptions to our ideas. This is consequential: If a member of a tribe asks you to care for his dog, how do you know which among the dogs is his pet ‘Akela’?

Ultimately, the pragmatic successors to Aristotle re-introduced the concept of moral good to deal with this problem. What is important is whether ideas have practical utility. This has both good and bad consequences: Darwin’s theory of natural selection was used to justify ethnic prejudice in Nazi Germany and in certain parts of America. Against that, we have housing codes that ensure that disasters do not displace entire populations, such as occurred after the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco or the great urban fires of the 19th century.

So let us now return to the larger umbrella: I hold that philosophy is the study of the operation of the intellect, which manifests as the capacity to synthesize mental states. Among the sources of mental states, I listed sensation, emotion, thoughts and spirits. Where are ideas in this categorization? They seemed to be related to thoughts, but thoughts can also be random associations without plausible manifestations, such as – Kia Soul advertising not-with-standing – “my hamster is break-dancing.”

As might be expected, the exclusion of ideas from the list of mental states is not an oversight.

I have asserted elsewhere that Idealism reflects an affinity in its adherents for soul-relation. This manifests most powerfully to the mystic as a gift of energy that suffuses moral good with joy. This is the experience that I believe informed Plato’s affiliation of ideas with “The Good.”

Where I depart from Plato is in the belief that all ideas originate from The Good, only to be expressed in corrupt form in the world around us. To me, this is the terrible deficiency of scriptural literalism. It denies us agency in moral progress in the world. In The Soul Comes First, I take this head-on, using paleontology and evolutionary biology to demonstrate that the seven days of creation and the trumpets in Revelation actually correspond to a process of uplift from primitive forms of life towards an intelligent integration that will heal the spiritual wound of selfishness.

The role offered to humanity in this process is to sort through our thoughts to identify those that empower the expression of moral good. This is “the Knowledge of Good and Evil,” and the serpent’s characterization of the Fall in Genesis is a political posture that seeks to delay the perfection of our discernment.

In re-interpreting scripture through the lens of science, I show obvious affinity for Aristotle’s empiricism. Where I depart from his formulation is in the belief that ideas are merely abstractions of experience. Thoughts are those abstractions.

In the model of physics I have offered, I understand the human mind as the interaction of soul with the empirical world through the interface of the brain. In that interaction, our thoughts are temporary modifications of our soul. An idea is a thought reinforced by multiple successful episodes that instills energy that causes the thought to bloom into the world of spirit. An important consequence of this penetration is that the thought becomes accessible to other thinkers. In other words, Plato’s Ideas do not originate from The Good, but rise into the realm of spirit most readily when they serve a moral purpose, increasing the life-time of their subscribers, and therefore gathering ever greater energy through continued application to the survival of living things.

In terms of the framework I have established, with stimulation and combination as the two types of intellectual synthesis: ideas arise from the intellect’s capacity to stimulate thoughts from sensation, and then to combine thought and spirit. Ideas do not originate from The Good, but the strength of an idea is ultimately determined by the degree to which it allows us to improve our moral discernment. When mature discernment is realized in a personality such as Jesus of Nazareth, The Good that seeks to facilitate our healing actually touches the material world, shattering all of our categorizations with consequences unimaginable to the empiricist.

I hope that in this formulation that faith and science recognize the shape of a reconciliation that can organize collaboration that will speed the development of moral discernment, fundamentally changing our relationship with reality, and liberating Life in general from our vicious cycle of angry and ineffectual claims to authority defended by reference to incompatible and ultimately meaningless standards of “truth.”