Monday, September 23, 2013

Archetypes and Stereotypes

Archetypes and Stereotypes

Joseph Kosuth (Art As Idea As Idea, 1966)

It is a commonly held opinion that what used to be signified in the past by philosophy is, as far as the daily struggles go, something that is of limited use today. It is quite often assumed, with some justification of course, that philosophers tend to go about with their heads in the clouds, as opposed to the “practical” ones who actually get things done. Even a casual survey of the past three centuries up to the late 1800’s shows that ideas which led to tremendous upheavals, such as Descartes’ emphasis on thinking, Bacon’s development of “Natural Philosophy”, or even Marx’s works on Communism, no longer have an equal comparison with ideas of today. Natural philosophy, or scientific method as it is otherwise called, was the last truly penetrating upheaval of philosophy that occurred, after which in place of philosophical upheavals, we mainly have technological upheavals. Hardly anyone can miss the fact that technology is affecting our lives, down to the most intimate details, far more than genuinely new ideas… in fact it is also being concluded that “ideas for innovate technologies” is the main pursuit.

How can one make sense of this situation? How did science and technology affect philosophy? This will require some effort “in the clouds” before getting down to earth, so let us start by looking in this way… When we look at the effects of this attitude in present life, it can be understood how pursuit of the question “why?” is allowed full reign with respect to physical objects, while being restricted in others, as brought out in a previous article (Flight from Meaning). In that discussion, it was pointed out how asking “why?” about personal likes and dislikes, emotions or even the meaning of our life activities, was in a way restricted. From the other side (see Doors of Privacy), when present-day logical thinking attempts to grasp the nature of living beings, it runs into trouble almost immediately as it is unable to define the processes in any clear fashion. Boundaries of inanimate matter and living beings required entirely different modes of thinking. Hence, in the first place, it is difficult to ask those questions, and secondly, it is difficult to answer them accurately too. If questions and answers become doubly difficult like this, is it any wonder that philosophy has little role to play in practical life? This confused state of affairs needs to be untangled before we try to apply anything, so please bear with me as I attempt to follow it.

“To question or not to question, that is the question.”

Take a simple example… let us say Mr. A suddenly leaped from his chair, while at home. Why? What is the scientifically verifiable truth of the matter? One can see a series of chemical changes in the neurons, a series of contractions of the muscles, and an expenditure of energy. Let us take this seriously, really seriously, and actually arrange our view according to it. If our idea of scientific truth is the only one having any bearing, then asking for any other explanation is foolishness. Any other idea HAS to be reducible to a combination of those physical and chemical changes, because they are the only changes currently said to be objectively real. That means, once given this answer, you must be satisfied, and cease to ask further. Theoretically, you must rest assured that there is no more meaning there, that the full explanation is given by the scientific data, and it can be proved that he moved because of those chemical changes and that’s that. That, however, does not in any way tally with our real experience – theory might say it that way, but practical answers are something else. We seek to know the answer to “Why?” once more, at a different, independent, and distinct level… why did Mr. A jump up? Is he responding to something he read, or a memory? Or did he just think of something new? Let us say that we find out that he just received an email on the computer, which strongly excited him, made him happy. We can observe that our question is now better answered, but we still pursue with “Why, what was so exciting?” And when the answer to that question gets answered, only then can we say that there is some level of satisfaction in our inquiries. So we have a situation where according to practical science, we ought to have rested content with the explanation provided about the energy expenditures, as that should have explained the emotions and the motivations, but that does not happen according to practical life. We nevertheless keep questioning, looking for facts of emotional life on their own basis, and facts of life motives again on their own basis. Thus, either we all are collectively delusional, looking for meaning where there is none, or our assumptions about the extent of objective reality is flawed, and physico-chemical changes do not constitute the full reality. It has to be one or the other.

First, let’s say that we senselessly ask questions about meanings where they don’t really factor in. Perhaps we are mistaken in asking those questions; perhaps the emotions and motives are really a result solely of chemical potentials and forces, such as hormones. The conclusion is therefore: questions about the meaning for life and for emotions are meaningless questions, subjective at best, dead ends for objective thought, they do not lead to any objective reality. Or, in a condensed form: “Emotions are the products of a chemical factory in the body, and emotions (e.g. happiness) determine life’s motives”. Now, is that true?

We again require a context, so let us take the occurrence of a person who, due to some upsetting situation, sheds tears. The tears are secreted side by side with the emotion of sadness. The question that comes up is: Did the tears cause the sadness? Or did the sadness cause the tears? Tears are visible outside and serve as a visible reference, but the same question holds good for all the hormones and neuron firing that are associated with an emotion. Do the emotions cause the nerve firing and hormones, or do the hormones cause the emotions?  Let us take a parallel situation, where someone inhales a lot of nitrous oxide. He might be rolling on the floor laughing, but is his happiness caused by the nitrous oxide, or is he sensitive to nitrous oxide because he is happy? In this we find the crux of the situation, to which real life experience answers: Both. It is possible for hormones (physical and chemical forces) to cause emotions, and at the same time, the reverse is also equally true. Emotions can cause physical and chemical changes.

Now, we can identify what is the route current science can take, and that is the route from hormones to emotions, but NEVER the route from emotions to hormones, as no independent reality is ascribed in the scientific viewpoint to the emotions. One can never analyze happiness or sadness under a microscope, hence, science has taken the stance that “hormones->emotion” is true, “emotion->hormones” is false. But what about the answer reality provides, where the process is a two-way street, and not one-way? The correct relation is “emotion<->hormones”. There is a second direction, which is valid, true and real. That question is not addressed by current science, due to the limitation set for itself, of the assumption made that what is seen is real, and the unperceived is subjective. It is this assumption that blocks the way to the answer from the scientific perspective.

So, in the first place, we observe the fact that there is no satisfaction forthcoming in the answers given to human life activities solely due to physical and chemical changes. We tend to question “why?” again. Secondly, it is also seen that the question is not answered from the side of current logic and scientific thought, as it blocks one of the ways of the two-way street, by definition. So, there is a good justification to question this, and pursue it, and we can say “Yes, to question!” to the title of this section. We have focused on feelings and emotions here, but a similar argument is extended to the thought process as well. We can see all the neural activity and logically conclude things from it, but can we see “logic” anywhere in the physical world, at all, under any microscope? If thoughts are caused by neurons, isn’t it also true that we have identified “neurons”, “firing” and “this is caused by that” due to thoughts? If we refuse to acknowledge the two-way street mentioned, we end up in this situation:

That also parallels the process in our minds when we look at the image at the beginning of this article, of trying to give the meaning of meaning. We can also try to escape the whole question by saying “Oh, there is no such thing as objective scientific reality after all, everything is subjective”. If that is so, what about the previous sentence in quotes? What is the reality of a sentence that proclaims that there is no reality? In this instance, we end up in a situation like this:

By observing these knots, it clearly points the way to a form of understanding, from a different side, which reaches beyond traditional logic, and any attempt to avoid it causes the logic to loop back upon itself in strange ways. By following up the processes of life in their full sense, we can see that there is an independent reality to the life of feeling, and to the life of thought, just as there is an independent reality to the physical forces. The logic that we use requires a modification, creating “permeable” concepts as brought out in the discussion about organic thought, and simultaneously, objective reality also has to be given to things that were thought to be vague, woolly and subjective, such as the life of feelings and the life of thought itself… hence, taking the meaning of life seriously and objectively. This is the direction that philosophy takes, when we pursue it ahead from natural science, and try to break down those roadblocks set up due to assumptions. It would bring it down from the clouds, and then begin to enter the real world. We can also see, in the same breath, why philosophy has been steamrollered by an objective science and technology… it was because philosophy was given up too quickly.


In the examples we have been observing, we require some terminology to address things. The emotions, or the realities which do not have a direct counterpart in the physical world, what can we address them as? We cannot say they are “objects”, “stuff” or even “things” as those words are already used for the traditional observable reality with clear boundaries and rigid logic. Here we make use of the word that has been characterized in its real sense for over two hundred years but not commonly given its true significance: archetype. When we perceive feelings, or living cells, or life activities and differences, we do not observe “objects”, but we observe “archetypes”. So what is the nature of this archetype?

Firstly, it belongs to the independent reality of the life of feelings and thoughts mentioned before, so it is real, as real as the object “chair” on which one sits. Secondly, it cannot be defined once and for all with a strict logical definition and a checklist of characters or a numerical quantity. But it can still be determined not as what it IS, but since it is a two-way street, as what it BECOMES. Its true reality and clarity lies there. As an example, let us take someone who expresses a particular feeling in a drama or a movie, there you will notice the nature of the archetype. It can be outlined as say, the character of Dumbledore, but every actor expresses the “Dumbledore archetype” in his own unique way, and hence it cannot be logically defined in a dictionary or with a checklist. There is no fixed boundary to be drawn either, as the actor gains the attributes of the character, and the character gains the attributes of the actor, and each BECOMES the other in the activity. Hence, one can passively knock on an object of wood, but one does not perceive archetypes in the same way, they can only be perceived in the activity, in the becoming. They are perceived through participation, hence require an audience. This is the reason a natural scientist can slave away alone at his desk, but a “feeling” scientist, or an artist, can only work through participation. That is the nature of the archetype.

It will come as no surprise to anyone that this sort of language is similar to that used by artists for ages, however that is not the important point, the essence is that the language can now point to a reality, and not only to a subjective fantasy, or a mental state conditioned by hormones or chemicals. And also, we can work with this sort of reality not with ordinary thinking, and not with vague and unclear moods, but with an organic thinking activity that operates at a different level, as described so far.

Now finally, we can observe the intersection of philosophy with real life, and the unexpectedly turbulent effect that ensues if the philosophy is inadequate, and is restricted to a philosophy of physics. When the two-way street mentioned in the case of physical and chemical changes on the life of feeling is not recognized, that gives rise to people using the very same physical substances or hormones to affect their emotional life i.e. use of psychoactive drugs. All sorts of agitation and protesting and slogan-writing for or against drug use does not address the real issue, or even whether or not there is an issue... the root situation is that a person thinks his or her emotions are solely a product of some chemicals, and this idea exists in the deepest part of the minds of most of the people both for and against drug use. It can be asked “After all, if all emotional states are just variations in endorphins, oxytocin and so on, why shouldn’t one utilize them for that? What is the difference between drug use and abuse?” The difference is enormous, but it cannot be arrived at by mere logic, and cannot also be addressed by referring to innumerable scientific studies, because at the base of all the studies is still the “one-way” logic.

We can also understand why it is those whose life-work involves working with archetypes, predominantly in the field of art, remain primarily affected (on the negative side) by both substance abuse and emotional immaturity. When the independent reality of the life of feeling is not recognized, there is no thorough confidence in their ideas about developing emotions and feelings on their own basis, as one is never sure if they are real or not. Since one cannot, according to current thought, develop an emotional stability in the same thoroughly real, objective way as one can undergo a scientific training, failures in this development can have catastrophic results.

The results in a different area of life, that of trying to understand the characters of our fellow humans, falls into a similar trap. As with the example of the Dumbledore archetype, every living feature and character of a person forms an archetype, and not an object. What is seen as the “character” of a person cannot be written down like the list of ingredients of a jar of jam in the supermarket. The character of a person is to be identified by participating, and these very real characteristics are in the process of changing, and the nature of changing is where the reality lies. This holds true whether we characterize a person based on skin color (also an attribute of the living being), culture or even behavior, and it is necessary to keep the thoughts flexible and strong in order to understand the person. When thinking becomes lazy, and fails to be active, then it drops back into the ordinary logic, and the archetype becomes a stereotype. A lot of “definitions” can be given of archetypes and stereotypes, but their real difference lies in fully independent domains of understanding, and a stereotype is nothing but mistaking a living archetypal character for a rigid, unchangeable permanent character of a person. Just think of the number of mishaps caused today due to stereotyping. People even stereotype themselves, with phrases like “I am not made that way” (just like any other factory made object), and this two-fold flaw is knocking on our lives from every direction. It is about time the correction is made at the root level, a correction that has a good basis and is real and effective, a correction of thought itself. If the slogan for the scientific and technological worlds has been the right tool for the job, the approach for many of the current crises lies in getting the right thoughts for the situation”. Only then can philosophy do its  much-needed share for daily human life.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Doors of Privacy

“… there must be unity without confusion and distinction without separation.
Vladimir Solovyov, The Justification of the Good

Following closely on the previous article on meaning, let us try to apply our thinking to one situation blowing up in the world today. A quick survey shows that Edward Snowden’s flight across the globe is being followed by many, while Wikileaks and the Right to Information Acts have been opening up closets all over the globe. The chances of the governments, corporations and the public getting to know one’s specific details are higher than ever, via technology. Simultaneously, there is a demand for transparency and privacy. The paparazzi phenomenon and gossip columns have created a virtual industry by themselves, detailing every move taken by a celebrity or a public figure. The trial of Bradley Manning has shown how he was caught between guarding secrets and making them transparent. If one can clear out this thicket of publicized debates and arguments on security, the scandals and gossip columns, public and private information, the hacking of passwords and the withholding of information on product labels, if one can keep the mind off all those branches, in the very midst of them lies The Question, the elephant in the room which has been shrunk to the size of a dog, which raises it trunk and trumpets meekly “If I may ask, what IS privacy?” Yes, indeed, what is privacy, what is the point of it, and how does it relate to secrecy? 

It is not that the question is not addressed, but it is talked about, assumed, referred to, discussed, elaborated, argued… basically everything except providing a real answer. And there are good reasons for this hesitation, as normally, the answer is elusive… most often, one relies on an inner “comfort sense” to decide on questions of privacy. It is quite impossible to think about questions of privacy without thinking of the effects of spilling one’s own secrets to the world… and hence it is much easier to allow that inner sense to rule, to tell us when to keep quiet and when to disclose, when to be outraged by an invasion and when to demand information. And hence, relying on this sense, we run our lives, and the law-makers have drafted a maze of laws, of what is legal and what is not. So on the one hand we look outwards to what is legal, (resulting from an ‘average’ of the comfort sense of the law-makers) and on the other, inwards to our own inner sense of comfort to help us decide what is what regarding privacy.

However, this situation cannot be sustained… for one thing, not everyone’s inner sense is the same. Every culture has a different inner sense compared to the others, and also varying laws. In one culture, asking about one’s family can be seen as invasive, in another, questioning one’s superior can be seen as probing. In one culture, sexuality might be kept under wraps, while in another, mental trouble can remain unacknowledged. Similarly, by scanning its historical development, one can see that notions of privacy have undergone tremendous upheaval in the times gone by, depending a lot on the century and even the decade. In other words, with such widely varying answers given by this ‘comfort sense’ of privacy, how can we make sense of it? Today, people of every cultural background and personality encounter one another on a daily basis. Do we just throw up our hands, let the different “senses” average themselves out, and then be satisfied with the outcome? Is what we deem private something that is up for a public vote? What is to become of our own inner sense, if what we thought was private suddenly becomes public, or vice versa? That is precisely the situation being faced by individuals at the present moment, and that is the direction for our journey of understanding.

Hence, from different sides, one can see that it is necessary to get to the bottom of it, to identify some clear foundation for our thinking, about what privacy actually is, and what its role is. It will involve some discomfort as we poke and prod our sense of comfort, the sense that is generally not dislodged as we flip between public and private every day.

First off, if we attempt to define privacy with respect to the individual in some way, there are immediate obstacles. For instance, if we say that a private matter is whatever a person does that does not negatively affect others, we will have to specify what does NOT affect the persons around us, and what is negative. Is it possible for one to be isolated and not affect the surroundings? Being in a society, our innermost judgments and feelings, sympathies and antipathies have an effect that passes over into daily life. A private indulgence, say, one obtained by purchasing a diamond or fur, can have repercussions in Africa or Indonesia. Even a single hostile feeling, which we hold in our “private” minds, can have massive repercussions, be it the effect on a child who can directly sense it, be it the extra aggression at the wheel, or the beggar whom we ignore on our way to work, or the shade of bias that tilts the scale in a murder case. For every definition we provide for privacy, reality will provide an exception, and for every reason we can consider a human being as isolated from his environment, reality will give a way in which that isolation is seen not to be absolute. 

On the other hand, the same reasoning also works in the opposite fashion. For every reason that we can provide to prove that a person is the NOT distinct from his environment, that he is merged with it, there is an opposition as well. Every genius born in the midst of war and poverty, every person who has raised himself or herself above circumstances which have discouraged others, every teenager opposing the house rules, every twin that has a single different feeling from the other twin is living proof that a person is not just the stereotype of his origins or his environment. So, in trying to establish the boundary of a human being, to determine privacy, we have two opposing ideas. One says that the individual is isolated, and there is a clear boundary. The other says, that the individual is not separated, but simply a part of the collective. Both appear to be true and both appear to be false. This is a logical contradiction, and we are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Since the reality is what it is, it makes no sense to find fault in it, we can only question our logic. Our search for the boundary of a human being has brought us to a boundary of logic itself, at least as old as Aristotle. No wonder that this aspect is generally passed on to our inner sense, and also no wonder that debates, all based on this logic, continue to rage. Hence, pictorially or conceptually we can never draw a static diagram like this:

At this point, we must ask, is there a way of really grasping a concept in without the above form? Does this mean that our concepts have to be illogical and irrational? On the contrary, it means that we must associate the right reality with the right concept, for example, the above diagram would work very well for anything in the mineral world. One can keep a stone in vacuum, and the boundary will not disintegrate. That is the hint about the perfect suitability of Aristotlean logic to solid objects with defined shapes.

What is the next level of thinking that is possible? Here is where the key provided by Solovyov in the opening quote is so valuable, it is a form of thinking that is capable of keeping things united without confusion and distinct without separation. To anyone steeped in mathematics and the natural sciences, those words might appear gibberish or completely abstract. But what is being described is a form of organic thinking, indeed a thinking that is in agreement with living organisms. Centuries ago, zen koans and many other scriptures had precisely this sort of content, to enable the mind to grasp life. Take the simplest cell, and it is indeed at one with its environment (unity), as it constantly circulates matter in and out of it, and yet it is distinct from the environment, as a cell. The boundary is not absolute and not blurred, but semi-permeable, fluid and mobile. Just as exact logical thinking works very well with rocks and mechanics, at the very least an equally exact organic thinking will be necessary to understand the living world, of which humans are a part.

It should be noted that there is a vital difference here, between thinking about the organic world and thinking organically. One can still define, describe and elaborate all sorts of functions in the biological world using straightforward mechanical logic, such as the DNA structure, chemical reactions, nutrient intake, or bone densities. Even the contradictory concept of “open system” can be juggled with. But it is impossible to apply this line of thought to really describe the process of life itself; hence due to this form of thought, life has always remained enigmatic to scientific understanding.

So now, only by adopting this living idea of thinking, can we come back to the enigma of the individual within the society, and hence of privacy. An individual is by no means isolated, nor a stereotype of his surroundings, but unique and distinct. There is a unique “point”-- the conscious individual -- that can never be diagrammed but is present nevertheless. This distinct individual concerns himself or herself with the likes and dislikes, and the deep inner drives for acting in the outside world, which forms the sphere of influence, or “body” of this private world. The only door of entry and exit for accessing this private world, is the conscious individual, and all that proceeds from the person to the outside world, as a transformation of these impulses, is the “public domain”. For an inaccurate visual (all the boundaries are intrinsically false), we can use the following image:

By studying this concept, and working with it, we can derive the answers in a living fashion to the questions raised at the beginning of this article. We can understand the private domain of an individual as the portion of passions, drives and feelings which the person is working with, and organizing into something that is of use to all, and reaches the public domain. We can also understand the work of the society to nourish the individual, and to provide the right impulses from outside. Both must exist simultaneously, when individuals are not sufficiently interested in each other’s well being (no external nourishment) or when the individual does not interest himself or herself with anything in the public domain but resides solely in one’s likes and dislikes, the “cell” breaks down and starts dying.

From this aspect, we can observe that the analysis of the lives of people by others can accurately be described as dissection, when done without permission. This is particularly true with respect to those in artistic fields, who reach deepest down into their impulses and perturb their private world a lot, leading to perturbed private lives. The responsibility of society is to protect and nourish such individuals, as opposed to the paparazzi nature of dissection, or the spying undertaken of individual data. Both these actions cruelly rip open the private being of the individual, one due to curiosity and one due to a misplaced sense of justice. Transparency in the public domain, and privacy of the personal domain, with the conscious mutual interworking of both would be necessary for law to exist. It is on this basis that laws can be drawn up, otherwise any law that rests on the isolated side or the publicity side alone will only work harm.

Taking this further, just as individuals are unique, every collection of individuals is also unique; hence the cultural variations in privacy can be understood. Cultures vary in the level of interest of the community in the individual, AND the individual’s capacity and natural desire to work for the entire community. With time, both the individual and the community have to evolve, and as cultures and traditions derive from earlier forms of community, we can identify how the two are balanced within every culture, and how it varies within a single culture over a time period. The balance and regulation that exists in the organic world has to penetrate our thought processes, and proceed to regulate the private and the public world. This appears to be the vital prerequisite to cease the endless debates and open the door to more useful work.

Knock knock.