Fit Philosophy

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Location: Stevens Point, Wisconsin, United States

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

An essay on history...

The following is the first section of an "essay on history" I'm working on...

ONE

There is no natural form of human life. Unlike the “instinctive” existence other animals lead, the lifetimes of our offspring are not identical to our own. Except for incremental evolutionary changes over long periods, the young of each species live the same lives as their parents. Not so for people. We plan or forge our own lives, within the boundaries of the place and time we’re born.

Of course lives are circumscribed and shaped by the customs and practices and limitations of the world and time and people amongst whom we find ourselves. But not entirely. We must also choose.

With our parents and teachers, friends and peers, we create and maintain a structure and network of relations and rules we both call society and experience as permanent. Even though we know it is not. 

But how do we know this?

Each and every human society devotes enormous effort to teaching the opposite. The young in every culture are told the traditions are ancient and unchangeable; that the rules of conduct are fixed; that each has a role to play.

We teach these things because we understand that if our offspring do not carry on the forms of life we ourselves have lived by, those forms will disappear. We teach them, as well, because we’ve devoted our own lives to conforming to rules and traditions. The implicit sense is that, if the next generation does not maintain these forms, my own life is revealed to be just as transient.

That’s why the constant lament of the old is about “how things are changing.” But if things like traditions and rules can change, they are clearly not the necessary and permanent things we’ve been teaching the children. So we lie to the children—and to ourselves—and we know it.

But, once again, how do we know this?

We know it because of consciousness and its companion, language.

The emergence of consciousness in some of our primate ancestors is the most remarkable of all evolutionary developments. Consciousness occasions the transformation of our kind of life from animal to human. That is, from each new generation repeating the patterns of the parent-life to the possibility of innovation: of leading a life of one’s own.

Inventiveness and variety have ever since characterized human existence. When early pre-humans discovered sharp fragments of stone might be deliberately made, the resulting knives enabled them to provide themselves more protein, which in turn accelerated the formation of brains, releasing yet more innovation. “Discovery,” after all, means looking at our surroundings for novel possibilities: we “uncover” these by seeing in one thing another use.

For the unique quality of consciousness is its reflexivity. I am able, simultaneously, to do something and to be aware of doing it. This reflex duality makes possible both my practicing to improve what I’m doing and to see that it might be done in other ways. Our language characterizes this reflex-quality as “self-consciousness.”

Self-consciousness, used positively, designates awareness of myself; used negatively, it suggests hesitation or clumsiness. They are both accurate. It is entirely owing to the dual-character of consciousness that I am able to think and to speak of myself. Yet thinking about how I’m doing something can conflict with my actually doing it smoothly and effectively. Or, more often, thinking about what I want to happen interferes with my doing what it takes to make it happen.

The great American tennis champion Serena Williams, asked what she tells herself before a match, unselfconsciously replied: “I say to myself, keep your head down, watch the ball.” This is the instruction given to every new player on the first day of tennis instruction. How could it still matter for one of the greatest tennis players in history?

Because it neatly pictures something introduced into the world by human consciousness: the sense of time.

Language creates horizons of time: the remembered past and the imagined future. The horizons of past and future reveal our lives to be temporal: each life begins with birth and ends with death.

So it is by means of language that we become conscious of time, distinguishing now from then. And ever since we became conscious of time—became able to speak of “past” and “future”—we have had to create ways of living with the knowledge of birth and death. 

This is what is called “knowledge of good and bad” in the second chapter of Genesis. At that point in the story the man and the woman are said to be living in a garden. The creator warns them that they are free, but forbidden from eating the fruit of the “tree of knowledge of good and bad.”

You can see the trouble. If the man and woman can understand this prohibition, they can already question it. And they do. The man and the woman discuss the prohibition. They talk about what “knowledge of good and bad” could mean. Perhaps eating the fruit is fatal. Or it could mean eating it will reveal something now unknown.  The chief gift of language is the ability to frame questions like this. The “serpent” represents this ability.

The man and woman then test the question by eating the forbidden fruit. What do they learn? 

They notice they are naked. In other words, what the man and the woman learn is  that knowledge arises from asking questions and making distinctions. Later, when the man emerges from the bushes to say he “hid because he was naked,” his reply reveals he has already acquired knowledge of “good and bad.” The humans have learned to make distinctions. That is, they have discovered the power of language.

So they are cursed with being turned out into the “world.” And what characterizes this world? Differences. Between pain and pleasure, between work and rest, between birth and death. In other words, the everyday world in which we live.


Fittingly, in this context, an old Jewish joke has it that “life is such trouble it would be better not to be born. But who is so lucky? Not one person in a thousand.”