Life-Aims and Aimlessness

 

“Perfection of means and confusion of goals seem, in my opinion, to characterize our age.”

  • Albert Einstein

“They were like the ant, which can see small objects but not large ones.”

  • George Orwell, 1984

 

The difference and distance between intense aim-oriented focus and foggy near-aimlessness are matters of degree, of course.

If we are to accomplish much of anything here in the Global Circle, substantial mindfulness of some central shared aims will likely be necessary, or at least immensely helpful.

I’d like to offer, as a Draft Statement here on the blog, my suggestions regarding the “Defining Views” of the Global Circle, which can also be understood as some of the central views of what I’ve called Vital Philosophy and what Nick has called Global Philosophy (as I understand that):

Draft Statement of the Defining Views (for consideration and improvement) 

The Defining Views of the Global Circle can be expressed roughly as follows:

  1. The aim of philosophy has, must have, and should have something substantial to do with human flourishing and sustainability as well as the flourishing and sustainability of things upon which human flourishing and sustainability depend—importantly, the environment and non-human life.  If this, broadly and charitably understood, isn’t the overarching and comprehensive aim of philosophy, it is at the very least a crucial part of that aim.
  2. This aim is only satisfied to the degree that the world actually becomes a better place (to be and to live) and human lives are improved, in ways broadly consistent with the aim.  The aim is not satisfied merely if philosophy (as an academic discipline) flourishes even as the conditions of humankind, non-human life, and the environment deteriorate or even stagnate in their present conditions.
  3. The aim is always “in process” and subject to improved understanding, different and better ways of expressing it, and continual improvement.  That said, because of the nature of the aim, not to mention the nature of life itself, it is not the sort of aim that one must or should “perfect” before beginning to put it into serious practice.  Indeed, it’s likely that the aim can never be considered “final” and “precise”, especially as expressed in words; and it’s also likely that there are myriad different ways of expressing the aim, in whole or in part.  Thus, the aim is a bit like living life; one must do it and apply it, to the best of one’s ability, even as one learns more about it and refines it.  Understanding, expressing, improving upon, and applying the aim are parallel and interrelated processes.
  4. Furthermore, many of us see these views as crucial in helping to inform, inspire, and improve upon the aims, scope, and practice of academic philosophy, that is, the teaching and practice of philosophy in academia.  We believe that the practice of academic philosophy, and of universities themselves (academia more broadly), should play a much more direct and active role in aiming to improve the human condition as suggested by these aims.  We believe that a revitalization of philosophy in academia should, among other things, aim at a revitalization of academia itself, both aimed at making philosophy and academia more directly relevant to helping the world realize (in all senses) what is of value in life, sustainably.  We believe that the pursuit and activation of wisdom, in real life and society at large, should take on a much higher priority in both philosophy and academia, and that the pursuit of knowledge should be understood as part of, and as a means to, this higher priority.  (See for example Nicholas Maxwell’s ‘From Knowledge to Wisdom’.)
  5. The broad group of philosophers and other humans who hold these views, or something very close to them, desire to be inclusive, not exclusive.  We invite sharing of all sorts, participation of all sorts, and flavors of all sorts.  Our intention includes both understanding and practice, aimed at making substantial real progress according to these views.

 

This is all another way of saying that the aim of philosophy necessarily includes human flourishing and sustainability as well as the flourishing and sustainability of those things—other life, the biosphere, the environment—upon which human flourishing depends; and, that this aim is only satisfied to the degree that actual human flourishing and sustainability and etc. are enhanced in the real world.  In contrast, it is not satisfied if ever-increasing knowledge simply stays within people’s minds as they pursue even more knowledge, or if knowledge is put to use foolishly, in unwise ways more so than in wise ways.  (This is why Francis of Assisi, as one example, was a better philosopher than Goethe’s Faust, and why it’s wise to think carefully before opening Pandora’s Box—and sometimes not to open it at all, or at least not until one is entirely capable of managing whatever might pop out.)

The wisdom and necessity of this philosophical realignment—placing wisdom development and actualization above knowledge acquisition in the hierarchy of priorities, and treating the latter as a subset of and means to the former—should come as no surprise.  After all, philosophy means “love of wisdom”, and to love something includes wanting it to actually be fruitful in its own terms and to realize its own ends.  A wise humankind is not a “brilliant” and clever, but unjust and pain-ridden and ultimately dead humankind—a humankind that ultimately fouls its own nest and eats its own kind.  No!  A wise humankind is a flourishing and sustainable humankind that respects and cares for its nest and for each other.

Many of the greatest philosophers of antiquity understood this.  Have too many modern philosophers lost sight of it?

Elusive wisdom!  Where—and when—shall we find her?  Where—and when—shall we practice her?

Comments?

Be Well,

Jeff Huggins

 

 

 

8 thoughts on “Life-Aims and Aimlessness

  1. Pingback: Vital Philosophy—a timely series | The Global Circle

  2. An Important Plea

    Dear Ian, Lee, and everyone …

    I offer this comment as an important (in my view) contextual point to explain the role and “importance” of the points in my post above.

    When it comes to the Global Circle, Vital Philosophy, Global Philosophy, or whatever each person prefers to call “what we are up to here” and “what we are aiming for”, I DON’T think it’s necessary or important to agree on a shared, precisely worded Mission Statement, Statement of Aims, Statement of Shared Beliefs, Definition of Vital Philosophy (or Global Philosophy), label for it, or so forth. The word DON’T is important to note.

    Instead, or but, I DO think it’s helpful — helpful to conversation, helpful to understanding, helpful to cooperation, helpful to action, helpful to progress — for people to have a rough understanding (expressed any way you like it; each to her/his own) of what it is we share and believe in common, at least roughly. One person can put it one way, and another a different way, and another can put it into poetry, and another may just want to “think” it and not write it out, and so forth. Anything you like, from the standpoint of the style of expression and different flavors of what amounts to roughly the same things.

    Some people like very precise statements, and some value a great deal of brevity (even if context and explanation are sacrificed in the name of pithiness or “marketability”). Whatever.

    To me, the substance and understanding are what count. With this in mind, I wish we could get a conversation going “around” the “rough substance” of the essence of the views/beliefs we share in common here … the defining and motivating understanding(s) of what it is we believe and are trying to do and accomplish. It is to this end that I offered my post, ‘Life-Aims and Aimlessness’, and the five points it conveys.

    A crucial point (for present purposes) is this: I don’t care much — and I don’t think we should care much — about whether any particular expression of these points is more sharp or less sharp, briefer or longer, more eloquent or less eloquent, more precise or less precise, more _____ or less _____, than any other expression of roughly the same points. Indeed, there are great advantages associated with each person thinking of these points, and the essential ideas/substance they attempt to convey, in her/his own way: in her own words, in his own style, with his/her own particular emphases and so forth.

    But, aside from how they are worded and the specific style and length I’ve employed (which aren’t the important matters and are not really worth talking about, at least for present purposes), the questions for response (please) and discussion (if helpful) remain: Do people agree, in essence, with these five points (that is, the five points in the post)? And, are there any other points that we should consider to be foundational or central to what we believe and to what we are trying to accomplish, ultimately?

    To “lead with my chin”, and ask for reactions, nobody here would disagree with the first point, point (1), would they? And, nobody here would disagree with the view that progress should ultimately be measured according to the degree to which the aims are actually realized (in both senses) in the real world, as mentioned in point (2), would they? And, nobody would disagree that the aims (and their expression) should be considered tentative, always subject to improvement, always subject to different ways of expressing them, and so forth, even as we should actually pursue the aims energetically even as we continue to understand them and improve upon them, right? (This is point (3).) Skipping to point (5), nobody would disagree that we should be inviting and inclusive, right? So that leaves point (4). Point (4), perhaps, is the only point of these five regarding which some people might disagree, at least slightly, or perhaps have no opinion, or perhaps not see as crucial to the matter as a whole. That’s fine, if it’s the case. Although in my view point (4) is a crucial point given present circumstances, and given the state of academic philosophy and the state of academia as a whole, nevertheless, it is not crucial that all of us agree that it is a crucial point. Clearly, many of us do.

    So, am I correct here? Not worrying about exactly how I have attempted to state the five points, do these five points convey the essence of the matter, at least roughly speaking? From a substance standpoint, what is the degree of our agreement here? Without having some rough understanding of that — in the face of the loud silence that we are presently experiencing (admittedly, in the very early stages of what promises to be a great blog) — it is hard to know who is “out there” and what they/you are thinking.

    Comments? Responses?

    Cheers,

    Jeff

    • Jeff,
      Regarding your point #4, I am not willing to make our progress contingent on academia “seeing the light”. Instead I want to see us make progress on points 1-3 and 5 and let academia do what it will. I believe that disruptive change most often is driven from the outside rather than internally. It was Apple computer rather than Columbia records that transformed the music industry. It was amazon.com and not Barnes and Noble that transformed book retailing. We need to circumvent the guardians of the status quo rather than try to appease them.

      So let’s take on the grand challenges, let’s define the world we want, let’s develop and teach wisdom-based courses.

      Academia, government, democracy, voters, business, economic systems and much more has to change.

      Prominant computer scientist David Clark famously said:
      We reject kings, presidents, and voting.
      We believe in rough consensus and running code.

      I believe we have rough consensus, now we need to make a difference in the real world.

      Thanks,

      Lee

      • Hi Lee,

        Thanks for your comment. Yes, I see points 1-3 as crucial and point 5 as basic good practice. Regarding point 4, I agree that we shouldn’t think of our progress as being “contingent on” academia “seeing the light”. And, as mentioned, although my own sense is that point 4 represents a vital pathway — or rather, a pathway in need of very substantial change — that point need not be a “defining” point for everyone, nor even a priority for everyone. This is a battle that needs to be fought on many fronts, so to speak, and directly producing and offering education (hopefully in a whole and active sense; engaging people and society, etc.) will be an excellent and necessary pathway for some, while trying to change the halls of academia will be an excellent and necessary pathway for others. To each her/his own, when it comes to the pathways of emphasis.

        But while we are here, chatting, where are the others, and how do we enlist others into the conversation and effort and etc.? It seems that you and Ian and I are in agreement on points 1-3 and also 5 (at least in terms of the essence of the substance they are meant to convey, not necessarily the way it is conveyed in terms of specific wording, length, style, etc.); and it is fine for some of us to consider point 4 as being important, while you feel other pathways are more likely to succeed, and in truth all efforts will probably be necessary. But how do we continue to enlist others, and build the conversation and effort? We should continue to discuss that, elsewhere perhaps, in another section of the blog perhaps?

        Cheers and thanks,

        Jeff

        • Jeff,
          As a partial answer I would like to again try to rally some interest in the Question Queue. See http://www.globalcircle.org/blog/?p=58

          My intent is that members pose the most important question we should be now considering and we work toward answers. Needless to say this has yet to catch on, but perhaps you could reply to that post with your questions, pointers to answers, or why you believe the question queue is or is not a good organizing mechanism.

          Thanks,

          Lee

        • Jeff,
          With that understanding, perhaps the wording of #4 can be tuned up to include something like: as a group of philosophers, our specific expertise and direct influence is in the area of academia, so improving academia is a priority, however, we recognize that disruptive change is often driven from outside an organization, and many organizations including government, business, religion, politics, and the wisdom of the populace itself need to improve to bring about the level of change we seek.

          I am visiting out of town now away from my home computer, so I’m am working from my iPad, otherwise I would have offered a ready to paste wordsmithed version. Feel free to edit for clarity.

          Thanks,

          Lee

  3. Nice one Jeff, If I may paraphrase your 5 points, so I can respond to them overall – no criticism here, just me thinking out loud as to how we add value here: In paraphrase:

    1. Our aim is to improve the word.
    2. Our aim in 1. is to actually make a dent in the real world.
    3. Our way to approach 1 and 2 is to act. (Ready, Fire, Aim as opposed to analysis paralysis)
    4. One part of our focus is “education, education, education”.
    5. We are open and inclusive as to how we do this (because ecological diversity beats in-breeding).

    From my experience of “mission statements” and “strategic plans” in many different organisations and initiatives, the trick is going to be the balance between “motherhood” – statements no-one would disagree with, and could be applied to any organization – and finding our “distinctive voice” – what’s unique about us, our Unique Selling Point (USP) in marketing terms – what get’s our efforts noticed, as opposed to a million other campaigning organizations.

    As you say (and implied in a number of our posts so far) the focus on wisdom as living philosophy is fundamental, as is the fact that we have coalesced that idea (non-exclusively naturally) around Nick’s work.

    Be interested in other feedback on how we do this, always remembering that this is really “housekeeping” in parallel with 3. above. ie we refine this whilst acting instinctively, not before we act, or worse, as an excuse for inaction.

    (PS – Aside – that Einstein quote is part of the “scientism” thread – the “perfection” of scientific method(s) must not take any priority over recognising that value-based aims, and acting on them, need equal, parallel, imperfect effort to articulate. One reason I was pleased to see we started with Lee’s “global challenges”)

    • Thanks for your consideration and very helpful comment, Ian.

      I would only make one comment regarding the way you summarized the essence of Point 4, in which you wrote about a focus on “education, education, education”. Putting it that way, without finding a way to write a bit more about what we mean, and (also) how we think philosophy can play a vital role in revitalizing education, so to speak, runs the very real risk that someone will interpret ‘education’ as it is typically interpreted and performed these days. Captured by: “Let’s test students more to make sure they have absorbed the Knowledge that we have fed them.” That reflects ‘education’, the way many people understand the role of education these days.

      Instead, I and we presumably believe that education must and should aim more mindfully and actively at actually improving the world. ‘Education’ should not only include ‘education’ as it is presently understood, but also should include much more engagement with society and even (in a positive sense) “agitation” — that is, agitation against the mistaken and harmful assumptions and paradigms that are clearly harmful and ultimately dangerous to human well-being and sustainability. A great deal of education, wholly understood, should include engagement and even (in the sense described here) agitation. Education should be to/for wisdom, not merely to/for knowledge. As Nick has explained, From K to W.

      Your comment gives me a few other thoughts and reactions (all positive), and I’ll share them in later comments. Right now, I have to get busy with other stuff. But thanks again for your consideration and comment.

      Be Well, Jeff

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