For new science, new philosophy, new directions
(essential ingredients for a meta-method)
Essential Ingredients for a Meta-Method
Theory and practice, in my view, are two different aspects of one complex engagement - with whatever it is we are dealing with. There is no such thing as theory, or practice, in isolation one from the other. Of course we recognize some occasions where theory and practice appear to be leading separate lives - such as would lead a person to complain:
For example, theory can be indulged in as an active avoidance of practical involvement. Or there might be one or more hidden agendas - such as can bring conflicting theories or practices into play at the same time; or there could be some other basic incoherence which needs to be uncovered (for instance, where one mistakes an imaginary object for something that is actually there, and starts to base real actions upon an imaginary scenario).
When I assert the essential continuity of theory and practice, I am following the great twentieth-century philosopher John Dewey, who always insisted on this point. Dewey's claim was that - amongst philosophers and other elite groups down the centuries - there had been a resolute downgrading of the practical life since the time of Plato and Aristotle. Dewey thought this was a persisting echo of the class divisions of Ancient Greece, where the philosophising class sincerely believed that practical activity was beneath them - a lower form of life, in effect.
The term "lived experience" is pivotal to my approach to life and the universe, but it has generally been the preserve of specialists(2), in the past. It refers to life as it is consciously lived in real time by identifiable individuals(3). In other words, this is what we are doing already.
The reason it counts as a major ingredient for us, is that I am insisting upon lived experience as the bedrock of our present exploration - and therefore I want to give it a more finely tuned attention than we may be accustomed to. Furthermore, lived experience will always be our point of departure - and should also be our point of return - whenever we make our habitual flights into domains of fantasy, memory, conjecture, theory or mathematics (to name just a few of the strange places we humans regularly float off to). Lived experience also provides the tool for continuous-access quality control. In other words it is the arena where we find ways to measure our success or failure in practice, as we go along.
In the chapters which follow I shall often depict lived experience as a kind of landscape, and one whose geography is made up of elements which appear to us in diverse forms: as fact (either perceived, or thought), as feeling, and as the actions which we initiate within this landscape. Thus I will often refer to "the landscape of fact, feeling and action" as a synonym for "lived experience".
Lived experience itself has many strands, and not all of these are open to scrutiny in clear consciousness. If we stop and think about it, we see there is no clear boundary anyway, between what is conscious and what is implied in consciousness. (I look into the face of a dear friend, and a throng of intimate memories gathers at the fringes of my awareness: a rich entanglement of memories, associations and feelings, implied but not focused upon.) Every element in the landscape of fact, feeling and action has this same quality, of being complexly entangled with other layers and levels of our bio-social(4) being.
My emphasis on lived experience, and the weight I give to each person's own perspective on our common situation, puts me at a slight angle from the universe as it is depicted by much present day philosophy, neuro-science and even by what often passes for "common sense". Time and again we see the individual point of view being marginalised - placed in brackets - dismissed as "conditioning", as "just one person's experience" or as "merely subjective". This is often taken to imply that there is an objective reality that can be meaningfully talked about - but which is distinct from what you or I make of reality in our engagement with life and with one another.
We shall take care that we do not float "objective reality" off into a separate place from "subjective experience". My starting assumption is that life is a rich intricacy of subjective and objective elements. Also, in speaking of "the landscape of fact, feeling and action", I am not allocating a unique private landscape to each individual. Instead, I assume that all of us are grappling with the same complex reality, each in our different way. So the landscape of lived experience is one landscape - in which each of us is engaged: at our own location, in our different fashion, and perhaps with access to a varying range of perspectives or dimensions within it.
There will be a major section of this work, addressing the basic principles of "system" - and how this way of thinking and understanding our situation can help us in our project of realigning ourselves in this troubled universe of ours.
The "systems" that I am interested in, are essentially the systems of life, sociality and culture that we dwell within - but which also dwell within us. There is also a bird's eye view that attempts to map "systems" as if from somewhere outside the domain of action - but this is only of interest to me if it can provide me with new handles, on the complex situations I am trying to live with.
We should note that, in this latter context, the relevant system is most often invisible or semi-visible to me; it is essentially taking care of itself - yet it is providing reliable goods, services, (and sometimes threats) to my own personal projects in the world.
Another issue, which will come to the fore when we consider the practical application of these principles, is that every functioning systems has its own limits of operational stability. This means that its effective functioning depends upon the right conditions existing in its environment. Outside the range of acceptable conditions, the system turns out to be fragile: its functioning is delicate and liable to fail.
In the case of living systems this is completely obvious, since we know we are in danger of death if we do not have sufficient warmth, food, oxygen, and protection from fast-moving objects. When we come to explore this in a practical context, however, there is an important set of issues we must always remain on the alert for: we shall need to consider circumstances in which the functioning becomes strained (in other words, the onset of some difficulty that is not necessarily the prelude to failure), and distinguish this from actual jeopardy (which means serious failure is becoming increasingly likely), and from the condition of being severely compromised or spoiled.
All the relevant principles are evident in our simple everyday situations - for instance in the prosaic relationship I have with my motor-car. On the average journey, I am consciously engaged with the following system: road, traffic, intended destination, route, road-signs and so forth. Consider what happens, however, when I decide to make a right turn along the way; in response to this conscious decision, a largely unconscious physical collaboration comes into play, between two systems whose operation is largely automatic. On the one hand, there is my own physiology: (eye, brain, nerve, muscle and skeleton), and on the other, there is the designed and engineered system of the motor-car.
Now we have brought the physiological link into focus, we shall remind ourselves of a more intimate connection that I have with the car - which exists at, or just below, the level of conscious awareness. This is my connection through direct feel: I make continuous adjustments to the steering wheel by applying pressure with my hands, I push on the accelerator, clutch and brake with my feet; I see and anticipate my way through traffic by an almost automatic connection between eye, mind and body. Ever since those early very awkward, conscious struggles when I was first learning to drive the car, my skill has operated mainly outside the range of my conscious thinking. Thus we can recognize the operation of an unconscious system which enables the activity which my conscious intention takes for granted - but a system that I am implicitly depending upon. (My conscious intention, by the way, is to drive to Stansted Airport to meet my friend off the plane.)
Our broad systems sensibility also makes us aware of the fact that, like it or not, my engagement with the actual situation exists in layers: there is the layer where I am consciously engaged, and there are other layers where significant supporting actions are being managed outside my immediate awareness. This is another important aspect of the "systems" principle: that lots of things are going on, right now, which I don't have to worry about because they are taking care of themselves. In my journey in the motor car I have a simple part to play: which is to decide which way I want to go in my car. I also have to know how to engage those other systems: the physiological, and the mechanical system of the automobile; we should note that in the main this is a physical, felt, unconscious knowing how - rather than some clever kind of knowing in my head.
4.The Interplay of Perspectives
In the following section I shall begin sketching out a practical method which draws extensively on the fact of perspective, within the texture and fabric of our lived reality. There are quirks and twists in this fabric, which the notion of perspective makes it much easier for us to reckon with. This can improve both our navigation, and our performance.
We need to understand, firstly, the inter-dependence of these two elements: our actual engagement in the processes of life, and the perspective that forms the background organisation of this engagement. In a later section of this study, we shall analyse the texture of the living moment as a sequence or series of "beats". Each beat is a moment of decision, a moment in which something is received, shown, asserted or put into effect. Our analysis will show that each of these moments has a unique relationship with its own perspective.
The perspective itself is a complex thing. It includes the set of personal dispositions, commitments and desires (which we bring with us into every encounter) and also the human and material context within which the encounter takes place. All of these are elements in the background that - in the general run of things - tend to escape our notice. We are essentially aware of what our present-time arousal is pointing us towards - it requires a separate act of attention, to bring the background elements into conscious awareness.
So we are going to cultivate a special kind of agility, with regard to perspective: a more agile awareness of it and a more flexible way to navigate it. Of course there are times when it is better to just keep involved with the present flow of action and attention; but at other times, we need to be able to step back and consider the perspective that this flow is an expression of. In our further study, we shall see that both aspects are in a continuous process of mutual influence: the perspective continuously gives shape to our awareness (also to our judgments and our utterances), but these moments of awareness, judgment and utterance may also contribute to re-defining and re-shaping the perspective itself.
Perspective is a key factor also, in the self-steering of complex systems - such as a living organism or a human being. This steering function is largely brought about by perspectival maps of the expected terrain. We have our definitions of the situation compiled in advance, fashioned from elements of our personal, our species' and our cultural history. These definitions generally incorporate strong pointers towards what we can expect, within this situation. And so, though the details of the immediate situation may well be novel, we are always already steering according to pre-conceived definitions and expectations.
I can illustrate the broad pattern of influence which comes out of the background perspective, by looking at our relationship with a seemingly "simple thing" (namely, an apple) - and noticing how its meaning changes according to the perspective that is current in the moment. Consider my everyday act of reaching out to pick and eat an apple from the tree in my garden. Then we have in play, from the first moment, my own perspective, and also the perspective of the apple tree. We can legitimately ask: what is the apple to me? And what is the theft of the apple, to the tree?
The first question opens us to an array of perspectives, to do with hunger, appetite, the delight of the sharp, tangy flavour, and the physiology of digestion. There are other dimensions of our engagement: symbological connotations which reach deeply into the cultural realm: resonances of original sin, Country Pie, romping in the apple orchard at Cold Comfort Farm, and perhaps thoughts of the Wicked Queen's apple which poisoned Snow White.
And what of the second set of perspectives? You may wonder if the picking of an apple can rightly be regarded as theft? Yes, in the sense that those sugars, those vitamins and that life-giving moisture were assembled by the plant within its own biological economy - in relation to which I am a stranger and a trespasser. (At best, I am the recipient of a gift I did not ask permission for).
Another way to think about this relationship, perhaps less contentious than the accusation of theft, is this: every act of consumption is also an act of trust. As I contentedly chomp on my apple, I am trusting, mindlessly, that the earth can replenish and replace the thing I have taken for myself. The entire ecological process: the tree in relationship to sunshine, rain and innumerable commensal living species - the bringing forth of an apple by ramifying mysterious tree-physiology - all of this is radically beyond my ability to do for myself. I depend upon the apple tree, as on the wheat-field, the chicken-run and the herb garden.
This is a fundamental principle that governs all of life: whatever autonomy I may have - as a living person endowed with choices and intelligent foresight - it has to be fed by a range of intricate systems, each with its own perspectival organisation. My dependence goes beyond the simple fact that nature must provide me with nutrients; I also depend upon human and animal society to provide the materials which make up my cultural perspective. Thus we can recognize that every choice I make in the world is poised at the edge of an intricate confluence of perspectives.
We now have a complement of four components, in the working ensemble which will be the vehicle for our radical revision of the way we live now. From here, we have four essential directions which arise out of the foregoing argument. Each of these directions effectively interacts with all the others, so that a linear reading of the text will always be, in some respects, the wrong order. Here, we are greatly helped by the web link facility - which enables us to track multiple pathways through the body of this, or any other body of text. Four likely directions follow from the place we have arrived at this point:-
NOTES TO THIS SECTION
1. This view is scattered through John Dewey's extensive output. See for instance Experience and Nature (1929) and The Quest for
Certainty (1929). The polarisation of theory and practice is of a piece with other false dichotomies which Dewey dismisses with admirable
brevity: "Oppositions of mind and body, soul and matter, spirit and flesh all have their origin, fundamentally, in fear of what life may bring
forth" (Art as Experience, 1934)
2. The phrase "lived experience" was coined in the last century, and is most commonly associated with the
existentialist and phenomenological schools of philosophy.
3. We will be discovering that the life of fictional individuals is also important to us, in other sections of this site.
2. The phrase "lived experience" was coined in the last century, and is most commonly associated with the existentialist and phenomenological schools of philosophy.
3. We will be discovering that the life of fictional individuals is also important to us, in other sections of this site.
© all content: copyright reserved, Michael Roth, January 2004