Wednesday, May 12, 2010

What Constitutes an Entity? Saul I

I've been surprised by the difficulty I'm encountering in trying to transition to a more formal discussion of Saul's ideas, and I think I just figured out why. John Ralston Saul, to his credit, writes his book in a way that follows his own sense of things: He himself is frustrated by recipeic approaches to living, so doesn't want his ideas to be construed as just another recipe; and he succeeds. Following Saul through the forests of our Humannness is pleasurable as he lets you see things yourself, and lets you develop your own felt sense of things. But I can't reprint the book here, so I think I have to provide some "handles" to better grasp his world view. And hopefully, you'll read the book yourself, because you'll be engaged in a worthwhile dialog with him; it's that kind of book.

To get at a possible handle, let me ask you, "what constitutes an entity"?

Referring back to the grizzly bear of a couple of posts back, and we ask what constitutes one, we would point primarily to biological stuff and habitat stuff. How about an entity like the United States of America, what constitutes this? Why the constitution of course. But wait- the "Constitution" is merely a document made of vellum. On this vellum however, are written a set of Ideas; so it's actually a set of ideas that constitute the USA: change the set of Ideas, and you constitute a different country- right? So now, what constitutes the entity we call Human Being? would we point to biological stuff? ideation stuff? Or is there some other stuff? Yes; yes; and yes. What I'm referring to here as the "other stuff," which we could consider as fundamentally constituting Human Being, Saul calls Qualities. And the quality we are most familiar with in our culture is Reason. In other words, we easily note that the one quality which distinguishes the human animal from all other species, is the quality of Reason.

We don't usually give much thought to this distinction, that's been in place since the Enlightenment: Saul however does. Not so much on whether or not animals can think or not, but on whether or not Reason should be considered as our sole quality that constitutes Human Being. As I asked in my last post for instance, "what about Imagination?" Is Imagination merely a subset of Reason, or is Imagination another Quality that serves a constituting role as much as Reason does? Saul, in answering such a question, doesn't limit his list to two Qualities however. No- he comes up with six! six qualities that constitute our very humanness, and he lists them thusly in alphabetical order: Common Sense, Ethics (Ethicality if this were a word), Imagination, Intuition, Memory, and finally Reason.

If I may paraphrase him, Saul asks, what qualities constitutes the Humanness of Human Being? and answers with his list of six- which exist together equally (as opposed to existing in hierarchy) in a dynamic tension together. Reason is removed from a throne and takes its place with our other qualities which are each just as vital in constituting our Humanness.

Two things He'd want you to know about his list: First, the list is not conclusive; he's not out to make another recipe, another system, another vehicle of sorts that takes us out of living and puts us into a management of forms. Secondly, he derives this particular list of Qualities from all the past attempts by thinkers who sought to consider the qualities that constitute humanness; Saul's list is a distilled representation of them.

A third thing Saul would want us to know about, is his use of the word Quality. And I think this is pretty cool: While we share in things we could call characteristics, or talents, or traits, the distribution of them depend on each individual person existing in their particular time and place. Qualities on the other hand, transcend individuality, and are there to be participated in by any Human Being. We could say that characteristics play a role in constituting an Individual. It is our Qualities though that constitute our very Humanness.

And I'll end here with another part of the question I asked earlier: What does it take for a bear to be more bear? and contrast that with the question, "What does it take for Human Being to become more Human? And of course, ask these in the context of the question, "What constitutes an entity?"

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Finally, John Ralston Saul! well- at least a start...

Living the Human life is innately elusive. For instance, we can know everything there is to know as to how everything about human being works- yet to actually live ourselves into the world requires something else than such knowledge. Knowing about consciousness and brains and the like, helps me understand more of my ability to consider, but when I face the incessant stream of fresh moments that keep marching through me, it is I who have to consider them- not my knowledge of my I. And the same goes for you. What makes this a little more elusive, is that you and I can be standing shoulder to shoulder, and the incessant stream of new moments will be experienced differently and uniquely by each of us.

What I called the Incessant Stream, John Ralston Saul calls the Swirling Uncertainty. Both aptly name the real situation of Human life as well as the true nature of the environment in which we get to experience our powers of consideration. wuhoo!(?) We love considering when we get to consider the flavors of our favorite beverages and such. When we have to lean our selves into the swirling uncertainty though, we reconsider how much of a gift this considering thing is!

The swirling uncertainty is no small thing. I would point out, that at the time of Christ, the Pharisees dealt with it by reducing living to a myriad of codes to follow; for this Jesus confronted them: (notice his confrontations don't center on morality, but on something more like maturity, as the Pharisee's strategy in effect, stunted their considering muscles) .

Though he doesn't say it this explicitly, Saul in our day, looks at our Human situation and notes it as one where we have to consider our way into Swirling Uncertainty. We can try to stop the Swirling, (the Incessant Flow) or, we can develop our ability to consider. Since the Enlightenment project has had as one of its goals, the stopping of the swirling without success, maybe we should switch strategies and become more competent. Towards this, he writes his fantastic book, "On Equilibrium"; a title which will make sense in a bit. (Equilibrium here is used the way economists use it, not the way the rest of science uses it. In economics, equilibrium describes things existing in equalized dynamic movement, where as in science, equilibrium means that change has stopped. Two very different conditions, and as Saul has little respect for a lot of economist thinking, I think he's making use of this to be ironic.)

Some quick biographical back ground. Saul, grew up in a Canadian military family where his dad was an officer, went to McGill University and then Cambridge for his PhD where he studied French History or something like that. But more, he's run a multi-national oil company, and his wife was a Governor in Canada a while ago. He looks to be in his sixties now and through his lifetime, he's had some rather interesting perches from which to do his own considering. Of course, just google John Ralston Saul (note, there is a John Saul who is another novelist.) If you want a more professional bio.

I'll end here with one of Saul's beginning premises. Since the Enlightenment, Reason has been king. But reason is only one of our "tools" with which we can use in our considering. What about Imagination? Is this just a subset of Reason, or is Imagination something that exists with as much autonomy as Reason? Are there other "tools" as well? tools that are also autonomous but have existed under the dictatorship of Reason over the last four centuries? What could be the implications here? Saul raises some interesting ones, and we'll delve more formally into them in the next post.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Alchemy of Toast and Human Being

Really, I am making my way into the ideas of John Ralston Saul. Toward that goal, let me ask you a question to ponder:

Both bears and humans exist as selfs. (For an idea of self see Ursala Goodenough's piece,

So, for a bear to be more bear, what needs to happen? Likewise, for a human to be more of a human self, what needs to happen?

I just posted this as a comment over at 13.7 and I think it fits our dialog here as well; I hope you like it!

The allure of toasters is the toast they make. What is the allure of toast then? After listing everybody's response we would be able to sort them into two categories: physical/thermodynamic and non-physical/meaning. In a word, I would offer that toast's complex allure, could be understood in the word "alchemy".

To begin, the heart of the engineer behind the toaster, is wed to the heart of the bread maker; and all of us who eat toast become part of the wedding as well... such alchemy happens daily in a gazillion ways!

The question before us in our day, is "how does our shared alchemy result in something closer to gold than to lead?

Our current answer seems to stem from an idea that if we can make the right schematic, and everyone follows it, then we'll be in "working order". If successful alchemy were a matter of Physics alone, then schematics would have worked by now. It seems that alchemy requires a catalyst, and I would argue that for the human life, that catalyst is Meaning.

In terms of thermodynamics, work gets something done that is measurable. If a person feels a deep sense of Meaning behind there working though, something immeasurable emerges; what is that? Certainly something along the lines of alchemy, as well as something closer to gold than lead.

We can weld handles to things like metal pots. But Meaning doesn't lend itself to such easy handling. It squirms away from our grasps that try to bottle it, or make it formulaic.

Thus, in our world of Human Actuality, Technology and Meaning can interact with each other, and ultimately need each other. But neither can replace the other.

Humanness itself is essentially an Alchemy; remove the reality of either the physical or the non-physical, and the Alchemy fails to lead. Which for the human life
is not a fail safe, but a failure.

So when I as a thinker, utilize "religious" insight along with "science" insight, it's because I recognize the reality that has its basis in Alchemy, rather than in technology or spirituality alone.

Ursala, I think this is why I'm so in love with the last line of your post. How can Human Alchemy even begin without insight?