The Landscape of Fact, Feeling and Action
Here we are going to look more closely at how the systems layers are actually in play, in our day to day experience. We must also consider the question of what it means, to be engaging with the real world on many different levels at once.
The systems layers are so much taken for granted in our everyday activity, that we are barely conscious of them. Just like the curve of our eyebrows and the profile of our nose - always present and available to be seen at the fringes of our visual field, yet rarely focused upon in conscious awareness - the systems layers are always right in front of us and rarely taken notice of(1). As a result these are things we do not usually talk about. We need to talk about them now, however, as part of our orientation for an emotionally informed systems approach.
Some of our most maddening and insoluble problems are created by our relative blindness to different systems layers. The solution is often perfectly simple, but located on a different systems level from where our attention is focused. This is how it was for Antipholus and Angelo, in the climax of their mutual misunderstanding in The Comedy of Errors. They were victims, to be sure, of an improbable plot device: identical twin brothers, identically dressed and roaming the same small town unbeknown to one another. Yet however odd and unlikely this situation may be, it illustrates this important general truth: the solution to our problem - or the resolution to our intractable pain - may be at a different level of system from the one we are consciously struggling with.
The next step in our exploration is to start to make ourselves more familiar with the multiple systems layers as they are built in to our everyday experience. To do this we need to make a deliberate departure from the kind of thing we normally pay attention to. Most of the time there is some thing in the foreground of my attention: a jam puff, a feeling of hunger, the dirty look you just gave me, an attractive person whom I am watching walking down the street, a worrying ordeal I have to face this afternoon... or what you will. Here instead, we are shifting our attention to an unfamiliar place, using language to describe things in a non-habitual way, so as to focus on the general way that things hang together through time(2).
Firstly we shall look at four fundamental system layers which make up everyday human reality. These are: the material world, the living world, the social (or cultural) world and the personal world. Each of them is basic to our everyday understanding but, as I have already explained, we tend to take them for granted in the normal round of events. Most important, few of us recognize them as distinct layers of reality, each having its own distinctive logic of operation and characteristic patterns of event.
1. The Material World
The material world is that which meets my senses: I feel it, see it, hear it, taste it and smell it. It makes its strongest impact upon my awareness when I am expending effort against a more-or-less compliant, more-or-less resistant matter. Thus when I push open a heavy door on rusted hinges, clamber up a tree to reach the fruit on a high branch, or run uphill on uneven ground - I am also aware of the precise push and pull of my physical action in the material world.
My relationship with the world at this level is a practical one. It is structured in terms of what I need, and what I have to do - though I can also engage, carefree, in exuberant action for its own sake. In all these engagements the flow of time is an essential feature - I am involved in a process unfolding through time, a process which calls for my physical participation in the present moment.
We can imagine it otherwise - a world where we simply contemplate what is, as if our sole relationship with the process unfolding around us is that of witness. We can also try to imagine what it might be like to be a rock or a tree - massively existing, but without any conscious engagement of any kind with surrounding reality.
2. The Living World
The relationship I just described, structured in terms of what I need, and what I have to do, ascribes the active role in the relationship to me, as a living being endowed with animal hungers and needs. The world I live in, however, is active in its own right - partly by virtue of the myriad plant and animal organisms it contains. In my relationship with these other life forms I may choose to treat them on a purely material level, subject to the push and pull of my practical intelligence, or I may enter into relationship at a more sensitive level, harmonising my life rhythms with theirs. The living world seems to operate at both these levels, offering us a double face: there is the intricate fluttering, buzzing dance of life, and there are the statistically governed clashes of competing forces and the drift of disorder and decay.
The use of force in relation to the living environment - treating it as if it were the lower-level, material domain - can seem to be intelligent and productive in the short run - as in the intensive cultivation of crops, of forest clearance for purposes of raising cattle, for urban development, or in the destruction of land for open-cast mining. Following a century and a half of progressive environmental damage, however, humankind is beginning to rediscover a wisdom which resonates with our age-old instincts and with ancient tribal lore. We are acknowledging once again, the importance of taking the trouble to read the intentions, the wishes or just the habits of our fellow creatures. This, surely, is the only way we can build a pattern of life of mutual enrichment with the life around us which is sustainable in the long term.
We can safely assume that an innate sensitivity to other life forms is also written in to our structural coupling(3) with the living environment - thus it will be operative at deep instinctual levels of our physiology. Our rational intelligence, however, is capable of over-riding our instinctive impulses and fears. This is sometimes to our advantage and sometimes (as in the case of environmental degradation) a major long-term hazard. In any case our instinctive reactions are never far from reach; our rational intelligence can over-ride them, but it cannot obliterate them.
2. A Social World
We are born completely helpless: from the start we need to interact with another human being for our very survival. Thus we are living out our needs, desires and unfolding intentions in terms of our relationship with other people. Like it or not we are being initiated, at every moment, into the ways of a community. This intimate interweaving of our lives with the lives of other humans entails definite expectations we have of one another: rules have been imposed, promises made, or it is simply understood without being said, that we are expected to behave in a certain way.
This may seem to imply our lives are governed by fear - we feel that if we transgress the boundary of the expected, dreadful consequences may ensue - but there is a deeper level than fear, which has to do with the spontaneous desire for happy relationships with others. Other things being equal(4), there is a real pleasure in joining in the call-and-response of each other's expectations and desires. We want to be happy together, and we willingly constrain our behaviour to satisfy this end. Effective team-work, also, is a precondition for practical success in almost every area.
Much of the rhythm of personal interchange enfolds us at an unconscious and instinctive level. It is the routine of companionship or of work in common; it is the exchange of phrases ("Particularly nasty weather!","Leeds United are looking a bit shaky this season!") which affirms human connection without conveying decisive information. This interaction is not so different from the life of any other social animal.
We need to think of it as a distinct layer(5) of organisation - in which we function not as an individual person but as a representative of our species, of our tribe, our particular social position or functional role. We are a father, a grandmother, a husband, a sister, a warrior, a farm-hand, a machine operative, or a foreman.
It is noteworthy that those feelings and impulses of ours which stem from this social domain often present themselves to us as compulsions and inevitabilities. They may appear as deeply held beliefs about who we are and what our lives are about. Usually they are tendencies that we do not think about much, and which we do not imagine ourselves having much choice about.
This layer of our functioning represents a major disputed territory in the collective understanding of twentieth and twenty-first century humanity. It falls between (and often disappears in the cracks between) the specialist fields of ethology, psychology, sociology and cultural theory. To further confuse the picture there is a wealth of spiritual and religious theories which claim to define the relationship of human life to society and to God - but which invite no genuine questioning or discussion of the matter. The academic disciplines can be just as closed-minded, when they insist on their own concepts and terminology and refuse dialogue with other disciplines. This is clearly unsatisfactory, since in effect each belief system is demanding unconditional loyalty including the refusal to entertain alternative accounts(6).
One thing is clear: we do not have a form of knowledge available to us at present which offers us very much hope of moving towards a meaningful concensus. The field has remained in a state of muddle, and free for takeover bids by such pseudo-disciplines as Freudian psychology and Marxist political economy(7) - disciplines which in retrospect have confused us considerably more than they have enlightened us.
Later in this study we shall need to take up these questions in more detail. At present I simply want to note two of the characteristically human qualities of our social existence. Firstly, that the social roles we occupy are strongly determined by the cultural group into which we were born. (These roles may have deeper pan-human archetypal roots, but the detail of them is learned through a slow process of culturally specific initiation.) Secondly, we have an inbuilt possibility - which is more strongly encouraged in some cultures than in others - of re-negotiating our social position. Whether we can manage to make use of it or not, we have the potential to learn or to create new and different social roles. This may offer us a real chance of taking on a new and different social identity. Our potential for re-negotiation is closely related to the sense we have of being a unique, individual person(8), one who recognizes themself as a person in relation to other persons.
4. An Interpersonal World
Thus we come to the higher level of strictly personal relationship, in which we make ourselves known as one unique person - inter-dependent and answerable to the others - within the web of personal contacts which forms the natural environment for a human being. Here is the site of the human dialogue of fact, feeling and action, which has been the major topic of our earlier discussion.
This is the place where we take our personal stand, where we we ask questions, we give answers, we make commitments, forge bonds of loyalty and compassion, and we bring one another to account. For reasons that will emerge later in this study, we must hold this interpersonal world to be the true ground for subjective experience (or, as I prefer to call it, the landscape of fact, feeling and action). At the social level we may travel this landscape; but it is only at the inter-personal level that we, in company with our trusted co-respondents, are able to navigate and explore it(9).
These four systems layers - the material, the living, the social and the personal - are not distinguished sharply in the flow of our experience. Rather, they make up the background of assumptions which gives shape to our experience. We find ourselves engaged in a world already structured in terms of material need, practical cause and effect, of the to and fro of social interplay, and the call and response of dialogue.
Another set of layers:
the signification of reality
Now I have to draw your attention to another series of layers, quite independent of these, equally subtle in their interweaving, which it would be useful for us to define and understand more clearly at this stage. When we consider them as concepts, it may seem to us that action, experience and language are domains of our reality that are completely distinct from one another. The situation as we find it, however, is that these are mutually entangled in such a way that we are not usually aware of any clear dividing line where one ends and another begins.
Consider the following: I am telling you about something I did yesterday - I dug up your herb garden in order to plant a bed of rhubarb in its place. Here we have an account in words; we have, also, an experience and a feeling evoked in you; and we have a material situation - either a herb garden or a bed of rhubarb - (this depends upon whether I was telling you the truth or making up a story; for I may in truth be the sort of person who likes to "wind people up", trying to get them to believe silly stories which I have designed for the purpose of upsetting them).
The relationship I want to focus our attention on here, is that of "being about something" - that subtle complicity which is the relationship of a map with its territory. The words we share between us are about our experiences, and our experiences are about the world. There is a discontinuity - in principle at least - between the words and the experience, and between experience and actuality. And yet, as we have seen repeatedly in this study, these discontinuities are easily overlooked in practice.
This is because in practice, in the act of reading (which comes to the same thing as reading and trusting in a map) the map disappears from my focus, and I feel myself to be in relation to the territory itself. Thus, in practice, you will be equally angry in response to my words: "Oh dear, you mean those straggly old plants I cleared away were actually a herb garden?" - just as if you had discovered the outrage for yourself, out there in the garden. Our mind slips from words, to experience, to actuality, as if there were no material difference between one and another.
Every time we depend upon a map, however, we risk having to find out later that it was mistaken after all. It might be that the territory has changed since the time when the map was drawn; it might be that the map was drawn for some specific purpose in the past, which is different from our present purpose - so therefore we need a different kind of detail now, from what is available on the map (...the river looks easy enough to swim across - the original map-maker was not concerned with the fact that it is infested with crocodiles). It is also possible that the map may have been faulty in the first place.
From these examples we can extract a general rule for the general situation: anything that can be asserted is at risk of being falsified by the actual arrangement of the things the assertion is about. By extension of the same principle, anything that can be experienced in actuality can also be experienced with equal vividness as a delusion, a memory or a dream.
Our everyday experience, in any case, is not made up of clearly defined maps which refer to clearly defined territories. The normal situation is a cascading interplay of mutual reference between the fields of actuality, experience and language. In further illustration I turn again to the world of literature, in the following extract from Virginia Woolf. (Orlando is standing in the attic, bathed in the multi-coloured stained-glass light of the family coat of arms):-
When he put his hand on the window-sill to push the window open, it was instantly coloured red, blue, and yellow like a butterfly's wing. Thus, those who like symbols, and have a turn for the deciphering of them, might observe that though the shapely legs, the handsome body, and the well-set shoulders were all of them decorated with various tints of heraldic light, Orlando's face, as he threw the window open, was lit solely by the sun itself. A more candid, sullen face it would be impossible to find. Happy the mother who bears, happier still the biographer who records the life of such a one! Never need she vex herself, nor he invoke the help of novelist or poet. From deed to deed, from glory to glory, from office to office he must go, his scribe following after, till they reach whatever seat it may be that is the height of their desire(10).
Here Virginia Woolf is pretending to try to capture the richness of an actual life, with the grappling-irons of language as her only tool. In fact she is evoking a fictitious life; her self-referential asides are yet another turn of her fantasy-generating machine. By her nonchalant reference to the biographer's concerns and feelings she heightens this sense of parallel worlds (the description, the experience which is described and the experience of describing). She affects to draw our attention to the artifice of language, yet, through this means of mimicking the entanglement of actuality, experience and language, I believe that she succeeds in heightening the illusion of reality.
Putting the layers together:
Anchoring ourselves to the real
If our human reality actually consists of three distinct layers and if we are fundamentally incapable of drawing clear practical lines between these, this is something deeply disturbing to our sense of knowing where we are. We should not be surprised to find the history of philosophy littered with false resolutions(11) to the paradox. I do not claim to any definitive answer, but I can point to two lines of integration which can help to restore a sense of there being solid ground somewhere in the general region of our feet - in spite of the slippage between the different layers of reality.
Firstly, we can think of our entire perspective on the real world as being grounded in human relationship. Because our lives are so intimately bound up with significant other people (family, friends, mentors, lovers) we are immersed in a continuous and intense signalling of mutual feeling which includes messages about what the world is like for us. This is an integral element in our moment-by-moment experience. It is also the matrix for our sense that there is a common, objective reality within which we make our stand, and connect with one another.
If we decide to take our personal experience as primary, then, we can recognize that the realm of actual existing things is captured through our person-to-person intercourse; it is not merely "a construct"(12), or a subjective delusion. We can also recognize the world of descriptions as being the medium we create through this personal intercourse, the vehicle through which all our information - both subjective and objective - is conveyed. This includes not only our entire written and spoken language, but also the realms of practical action and of symbolic, artistic, ritual and gestural communication. It is through all of these, that the sense of a shared and meaningful reality is generated.
So, starting from our experience of communication, we can see how all three realms - actuality, experience and communication - come to be a part of our lives. We can, alternatively, start from the web of significations, and consider how it is that objective reality and personal relationship are able to emerge from a world of signs.
This approach was pioneered by the philosopher Charles S. Peirce(13) who speaks of "unlimited semiosis" - by which he means the chain of meanings which refer endlessly on from sign to sign. To clarify this term, let us take an example from everyday life. The word "tree" stands for a tree, but when I hear this word I think of the oak tree at the bottom of the lane, which for me stands for the patience and indomitable strength of the world of nature... and of the community of living forms (oak trees are host to over two hundred commensal species, plant and animal, who have learned to share in its ecological common-wealth)... and of that moonlit night when we stood there, when the circle of my life suddenly felt complete, when I held your hand and you smiled into my eyes...
It is a mistake to pigeon-hole this never-ending chain of signs as being nothing more than a "psychological" phenomenon, or as a reflection of how our brains work. It is both of these, but a thoughtful reader of Peirce will come to recognize that the phenomenon of semiosis also belongs to the logic of life and to the continuously unfolding process of material reality(14). The chain of semiosis is, after all, mediated through physical things like trees, kisses, smells, and written inscriptions just as much as it is through mental images. Signs are as much in the world as they are in our heads; we are "reading the signs" but we are only able to do this because the signs are there to be read. Nevertheless we must give some thought to the all-important question: how can the endless slippage from sign to sign provide an anchor in the real world?
How a domain of signs can be anchored in a material world
There are two ways this anchoring takes place. Firstly, whenever the chain of semiosis converges upon a material act we have made an indelible entry into the domain of material events. In the moment of action, our intention becomes a stubborn fact in the world - and our action is an objective event in the lives of other people. (This is true even though the act we perform is never precisely the act we intended(15), and may indeed deviate quite radically from our intention.)
Criminals often like to deny the objectivity of their actions, and may even persuade themselves that a crime undetected actually has no real consequences - as if it never really happened. Myra Hindley was deeply upset, and she expected the Home Secretary to understand and to feel sorry for her, when incriminating evidence she thought had been destroyed forever turned out to have been left in the "Left Luggage" at Manchester Central Railway Station(16). Her actions suddenly became for her undeniable objective facts in the world; but of course they had been irrevocable facts in the real world from the moment that she participated in the crimes.
An important point we have to bear in mind is that our actions do not arise in isolation from one another, but out of strong dispositions: to act in a certain way, under certain conditions. Our actions are an expression of our habits of mind. So it is that our personal chains of semiosis are regularly expressed in the world; they make our mark there and enter into the chains of meanings which everyone around us is also constructing. This also points to the second form of anchorage for our system of sign-chains: those moments of mutual recognition and understanding which occur regularly between us and other people. When you understand me, and I feel understood by you, there is the closure in a circuit of meaning - a tangible sense in both of us, that a real meeting has taken place.
This sense can of course be in error; there may be a failure in our mutual understanding. In addition, error is deliberately created every time one of us tells a lie. Thus the existence of understanding - as a real event in the world - is shadowed by the permanent possibility of mis-understanding. This, however, does not make the fact of understanding, when it occurs, any less real. The existence of lies cannot remove the absolute boundary between the act of truth-telling and the act of lying, which is a boundary similar to that between fact and fiction. Myra Hindley was deluded in her belief that by having the evidence destroyed, she could be destroying the facts themselves.
Elsewhere on these pages I have argued that all human enterprise is built upon our ability to share our understandings with one another; the fact of mutual recognition is the beginning of culture, thus also the beginning of the massive impact which our species has had upon the world at large. Better communication (in the service of which this study is dedicated) can help us greatly towards restoring and maintaining the good things in our various cultures, and also to start making good our collective impact upon the world.
I have now completed the exploratory sketch of two fundamental, and distinct, sets of systems layers (material/living/social/personal and action/experience/description). It is important that we recognize how all these layers are operative and alive in every moment of our waking consciousness. They are an integral part of the many-dimensional texture of the landscape of fact and feeling. Understanding them, their simultaneity and their mutual implication, is a necessary grounding for our practical project - which is to learn how to use emotional intelligence to improve our navigation of the landscape of fact, feeling and action. If we can do this, it must surely lead to a better life, and to a better world for our children and theirs.
We are almost ready to move towards developing the practical applications, but first there is one other essential aspect of emotional intelligence we need to explore. All biological activity, from the simplest organisms to the most complex, entails the property of self-regulation. This is an important factor in the generation of that powerful impression of intelligence and foresight that steals over us when we observe the organisation and behaviour of living creatures and the awe-inspiring eco-systems they co-create.
This pervasive pattern of animal intelligence strongly suggests that there ought to be a resource of wisdom and intelligence which should be available to us from within the patterns of our own organisation - and from within the ecology of our own life-space - if only we knew how to draw upon it effectively. This would be another central pillar for a practical theory of emotional intelligence, and we are going to look for it in the place where it stands out most clearly - in a brief study of the functioning of life-forms at the simplest possible level.
NOTES TO THIS SECTION
1. Compare Charles S. Peirce: "metaphysics... really rests on observations... upon kinds of phenomena with which every man's experience is so saturated that he usually pays no particular attention to them. (Quoted in BUCHLER, J.(1939), P.151)
2. This is a return to the method of "phenomenology" previously mentioned in note 6 to chapter 3.
3. The concept of structural coupling will be developed more fully in the following chapter.
4. There is a whole range of situations in which other complicating factors come into play, for instance situations of emergency, competition or mutual threat .
5. In a later chapter we will find it necessary to subdivide this into a bio-social and a cultural layer - but this division would be an unnecessary complication of the present argument, which is merely establishing the prevalence of distinct layers of organisation within our everyday experience.
6. Ironically, this closing up of minds is an enactment of exactly the sort of tribal behaviour which, in my view, we should be seeking to understand and to reach beyond.
7. Freudianism and Marxism are examples of an interesting nineteenth and twentieth century phenomenon - in which a discipline claims to afford an explanatory principle for those hidden forces which operate human beings outside our awareness and comprehension. Complaints have been made from many quarters (notably K. Popper The Open Society and its Enemies, and also several illuminating works by Ernest Gellner.) that these disciplines have incorporated intellectual tricks which seek to undermine and invalidate any criticism that may be made of them - an invalidation which is offered in the terms of the disputed theory itself. This is clearly an intellectual dishonesty, and while both Freudianism and Marxism have claimed to be sciences in their own right, it is probably more true to describe them as self-validating cults.
I am certainly not denying that there are hidden forces which underly and often do actually steer both our personal experience of the world and our practical decision-making. The present study is attempting to locate the domains in which these forces are operating - precisely: at the lower (and higher) systems levels than where our conscious attention is engaged. These include those levels we are discussing presently - the organic and the social. I am not offering explanatory theories, however, but simply outlining the domains in relation to which our theories need to be conceived, tested and applied.
8. The domain of the personal - elaborated in later chapters, below - is also explored and surveyed in an illuminating study by Professor John McMurray in two volumes of the Gifford Lectures under the heading of The Form of the Personal: 1. The Self as Agent; 2. Persons in Relation, and in his earlier Reason and Emotion.
9. This is explored more fully in the section: "from the organic to the personal"; for the dependence of an objective point of view on the inter-personal domain, see especially note 3 to this section.
10. Orlando (1928) Wordsworth Edition 1995, pp1-2.
11. Benedetto Croce, in his 3-volume study "The Philosophy of the Spirit" gives a thorough and fair-minded account of a very wide range of these philosophical "fudges". I must warn, however, that Croce's style does not sit comfortably with anyone not sharing in his post-Hegelian tradition; this work will be satisfying only to the most dedicated reader. It did have a significant following in Britain before 1914.
12. The idea that "we construct our own reality" is a favourite of new age gurus, but is also the position espoused by a group of philosophers and cognitive scientists called, appropriately enough, constructivists.
13. For completeness' sake I should also mention A.N.Whitehead, and the entire phenomenological school: Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Derrida and Ricoeur. All of these have contributed to a detailed reconstruction of how signs and symbols are an integral part of the texture of reality.
14. For this aspect, see especially A.N.Whitehead (1929, Corrected Edition 1978) Process and Reality. Macmillan, London and New York
15. See Peirce (1931) Collected Papers Vol. 1, Section 1.341, for a deliciously clear and painstaking account of the difference between the apple pie intended, and the apple pie actually baked.
16. "Believing that the things (tape and photos) had been destroyed and that therefore some of the guilt about the event had been somewhat assuaged, I did my utmost to force the memory of that evening out of my mind....
....a bunch of photographs were spilled out on the table in front of me, photographs I hadn't dreamed still existed, which I had never wanted to see again, and as the first spasms of shock and horror hit me, a scream suddenly rent the air....
....That my connection with that child had been for less than an hour, that she was alive and well when I last saw her, and that the criminal connection with her had, to my knowledge and belief, been destroyed on the same night as she left, meant nothing to the police, I know." she wrote to the Home Secretary. (my italics). Quoted in "The Devil and Miss Jones" by Janie Jones, Smith Gryphon publishers, London.
© all content: copyright reserved, Michael Roth, January 2004