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.