“Your goodness must have some edge to it—else it is none.”

  • Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance


This is the sixth post in my series on Vital Philosophy, although as noted, the label is unimportant.  The first five posts in the series are:  Vital Philosophy and Global Philosophy;  Vital Philosophy—a timely series;  Life-Aims and Aimlessness;  Alien Observations;  and What Good Am I?   Interested readers will find it helpful to read, and hopefully consider, the series in this order.

Also, for those interested, I’ve left an important part of the series to the end, for a reason.  I’ll call that post ‘The ground we stand on’.  I’ll explain why I’m leaving it to the end in the post itself.

For now, however, allow me to proceed in the context of the previous posts.

Doctors—let’s think of them as people who love health and who are committed to making people healthy—have a mission that includes, centrally, cleansing and correcting human bodies of the things that diminish health.  Their mission is to do away with “errors and flaws in human health” and to do no harm in the process.  They want to rid bodies of ills.  They like it when a person’s vital signs are good, and when she is in a state of well-being.  They also understand the wisdom and efficiency of exercise, healthy nourishment, and preventative care, rather than waiting until disease takes control or until the patient is on the verge of death before playing any positive role.  Among other things, they also want to prevent viruses and other unhealthy things from spreading through entire populations and taking societal tolls.

If Philosophy involves the love of wisdom, philosophers should aim to help rid people and societies of damaging errors and flaws in thinking, and rid minds of ills of thought, especially those errors and flaws and ills that are most harmful, self-defeating, or self-destructive.  Philosophers should actively aim to help people and societies become wise, not remain foolish.  And, given that this is no easy task—and that the clock is ticking—at least many philosophers will need to practice their love of wisdom with some real edge, directly engaging and cutting away at those errors and flaws and ills that do the most harm, and that spread foolishness and not wisdom.

Philosophy and philosophers should not rest easily, figuratively speaking, or at least should not be satisfied, until the most damaging, unhealthy, and self-defeating errors and flaws in thinking—the harmful-thought viruses, the false-paradigm viruses, the bad-assumption viruses—are shown for what they are and are voluntarily and happily rejected by increasingly wise people and increasingly wise societies.  Out with the bad, in with the good, so to speak.

(I hope my point is interpreted charitably and isn’t misunderstood here.  It’s not that there is one right way or a narrow scope of ways that should be found and followed, of course.  Instead, it’s that there are some deeply flawed assumptions and related paradigms in our so-called modern society—indeed driving it—that are harmful, dangerous, and ultimately destructive and that should be corrected if we humans are going to “get through alive”, so to speak, and without wiping out nearly every other thing in our paths.)

The academy—universities and colleges, ideally and appropriately beginning with their philosophy departments (“Where might wisdom be found?”)—will have to directly engage and actively cut away at those false, harmful, damaging assumptions and paradigms if we humans are to avoid creating Hell on Earth, and if we’re to get ourselves out of the situation illustrated in my earlier post, ‘Alien Observations’.

(Granted, this might seem like a bold statement and a tall task.  But anyone who has been paying attention to the foolish escapades of the present U.S. government, to the melting Arctic, to the scientists telling us about species loss, to ever-widening income disparities, and to other global human-caused problems will find it hard to disagree, I should think.)

I began this series with two quotes, repeated here for convenience:

“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


These are statements of philosophical problems in the fullest sense—not in the “merely philosophical” or “primarily theoretical” senses, but in the whole theoretical-and-practical-and-real-and-concrete-and-consequential sense; real problems that any species that claims to have any wisdom should recognize, face, and try very hard to address.  And, addressing them will require some edge.  Is there any doubt about that?

Granted, academic philosophers often practice their craft with edge among themselves, that is, in debates with each other in a quest for Truth or at least truth.  Like football players in a football game, opposing sides are often strategic and clever, frequently crisp and brutal.  Hits are hard.  Often, intellectually speaking, no prisoners are taken.  The aim—or at least a chief one—is to win.  But also as in the case of football, the concussions and repercussions of the game don’t reach beyond the football field, beyond the field of philosophy.  Or at least, they very rarely do.  (We’ll examine this, very concretely, in my next post.)   While all of the debates, some of them practiced with edge, are had on the football field of academic philosophy, the real world outside seems largely untouched, unimpressed, unmoved.  Perhaps academic philosophy and philosophers should turn more of their “edges” away from where they seem to be presently aimed, and more (as a matter of emphasis and priority) towards addressing, and cutting away at, the major false assumptions and self-destructive paradigms upon which much of our modern society is based.

Some crucial parts of the problem and challenge can be appreciated, without the need for abstractions or debates over abstractions, by considering these three recent pieces together:

‘The Sustainability Dance’, a blog post by Graham H. Pyke of the University of Technology Sydney, on the Millennium Alliance for Humanity & the Biosphere (MAHB) blog, here: http://mahb.stanford.edu/whats-happening/the-sustainability-dance/

An earlier post in this series, ‘Alien Observations’

The book review ‘Sold Out’, by Stefan Collini, London Review of Books, 24 October 2013, here: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n20/stefan-collini/sold-out   (Thanks to David Morey for suggesting this article in a recent Global Circle post.)

Clearly, it will require some real edge to address these issues.

As always, thanks for your consideration.

Be Well,


9 thoughts on “Edge

  1. Excellent post, Jeff!

    I very much agree that “many philosophers will need to practice their love of wisdom with some real edge, directly engaging and cutting away at those errors and flaws and ills that do the most harm, and that spread foolishness and not wisdom,” and your parallel with doctors makes me feel a little less at odds to explain why I shifted my focus from medicine to philosophy.

    On this list I have taken up arms against at least four of what I have come to regard as “damaging, unhealthy, and self-defeating errors and flaws in thinking” that currently seem to be widespread within the academic community:

    1) The notion that everything that happens can somehow be “reduced” to simple, linearly causal, Newtonian-type interactions among material atoms, metaphorically envisioned as solid, massy “billiard balls” that can only interact through “external relations”; this (largely subconscious but seemingly Euro-culture-wide) belief misses the emergent phenomena that arise out of complex systems, leaving one “Life-blind,” and also quite resistant to seeing phenomena that emerge out of human groupings. Vital philosophy aims to promote the flourishing of Life, human and biospherical; it therefore must be able to apprehend the multidimensionality of that which it seeks to enhance.

    2) The refusal to grasp the fact that both continuing human population growth and continuing human co-optation of more and more planetary “resources” are impossible to sustain–even as a logical possibility, since a part of a functioning system cannot become equal to the whole with function preserved. An inverse relationship must prevail between the product of human numbers x human consumption and the numbers of nonhuman multicellular organisms and species making up “the rest of” the biosphere, which is essential to the functioning of the whole Earth system. The mathematics of exponential growth produce enormous numbers at the “end” very rapidly, before the tangent to the curve goes completely vertical; we are already on the very steep part of that curve. The “growth” paradigm, in all its areas of application, must be overturned.

    3) A persistent tendency to overlook the crucial difference between the ontologically objective–real things like living organisms, physical objects, and complex systems that actually exist, independently of our human representations of them, and the ontologically subjective–“things” that seem real because we all collectively “believe in” them, but which would cease to exist without our human beliefs/desires/expectations continually reinforcing their appearance of reality, things like dollars, debt, nation-states, and the like. The extent to which our human agency around the world is largely dictated by the global economic system, directing it into activities that are further undermining our ability to sustain ourselves and other life within the biosphere, is quite shocking when “seen” within a conceptual framework that recognizes this crucial ontological difference. Waking up to the fact that ontologically subjective entities are contingent human social constructions, and that they can be changed radically by intelligent, focused attention, could free us from the conceptual web of belief in which we currently seem to have trapped ourselves like errant flies.

    4) A failure to attend to the physics of the disintegration of the World Trade Center towers and WTC Building 7, the explanation of which requires recognition of a substantial force other than the force of gravity being operative in order to make sense of the empirical findings. This “failure to attend” can likely be attributed to the operation of emergent social forces, in part traceable to deeply embedded emotions shaped by our evolutionary past, in part the result of inhibitory feedback emanating from both hierarchical “authority” (vertical inhibition) and peer-to-peer interaction (horizontal inhibition). Engaging our right-hemisphere ability to “see” what’s going on can enable us to understand, not only the physical dynamics of what happened on 9/11/01, but also the social dynamics of emergent human group phenomena. Since this event was witnessed globally, publicly uncovering its causes at multiple levels and displaying the extent of deception and manipulation involved can provide considerable motivation for large-scale paradigm change in human organizational patterns.

    I try to address these issues while “doing no harm,” but to the extent that addressing them often challenges deeply held beliefs, just putting them on the table sometimes causes consternation–an unfortunate result of “the Edge,” as Jeff has christened it (and Emerson before him). Participants in the Global Circle, recognizing the extent of the challenges facing humanity in the twenty-first century, ought to be of sufficient mental toughness to welcome “edgy” conversations on the above and other topics. This forum offers us the opportunity to forge an “epistemic community” willing to go where similarly identified groupings of “experts,” generally shackled by professional ties, refuse to go; I thank its founders for creating it!

    Best regards,

    • Ronnie, thanks, and as usual, I agree with the large majority of what you’re saying. (I’ll comment below on one thing I’m not so sure about.) But first …

      Regarding your first three points (1, 2, and 3), very well put. I hope somehow that your comment here is put on the e-mail list, so people who don’t visit the blog will still see it. Those first three points are key points, I agree. As the blog “gets going”, hopefully, as well as the e-mail list, those three topics should be “vital” topics!

      Regarding your fourth point (4), the larger point you make (that is, about humans typically adopting and clinging to beliefs because those beliefs are comfortable or convenient; and/or because humans are very social and often defer to what their friends or authority figures say) is, of course, correct and a powerful force in today’s society. That said, regarding the specific incident in question — what happened on 9/11? — I must admit, and plead guilty, that it would take me an immense amount of time — perhaps a year, at the rate I would have to “analyze” this — to analyze that matter sufficiently to convince myself, if it were the case, that the societally-accepted assessment — the planes did it! — was incorrect. Regarding that particular matter, I’m inclined to accept the prevailing assessment, realizing of course that in no way am I “positive” that it is true. I simply haven’t done the homework, and it would take me way too long to do it, to the level I’d require of myself to object to the mainstream assessment. Part of the reason is that, without watching the detailed films from various angles and without having done the math, my own “intuition”, based on the little I’ve seen, is that the mainstream assessment is perfectly plausible. But again, I haven’t done the homework.

      That said, none of my doubt/uncertainty about your assessment of 9/11 takes away from our much larger agreements on the other matters or about the main aims having to do with Life and etc. I have more thoughts on your great points — 1, 2, and 3 — but they would be better discussed in dialogues focused on each matter, here or on the e-mail list. Please, if you would, pick one of them to start — or restart — with, and let’s see if we can get the list/blog engaged in them one at a time. Perhaps they would best be “tackled”, or at least explored, in a sensible sequence? I think the order in which you’ve listed them — 1 then 2 then 3 — makes great sense. I also think they share something in common, and I’ll try to comment on that, here, later.

      Cheers and Be Well, and thanks for your comments!


      • Ronnie, as promised, I wanted to say a couple more things about your list of items, focusing here on items 1, 2, and 3.

        One of the interesting things about those items — and very relevant to the whole point of the Global Circle — is that those matters, those problems, those issues are highly relevant to human life and to how we treat life (including all life) itself. Again — they’re relevant to life. Although they are worded as problematic beliefs, problematic paradigms, inaccurate “knowledge”, and the like, and thus to address them would seem to be a matter of knowledge acquisition and knowledge spreading, they have implications to life and to how life is understood and LIVED. And THAT is what makes them most worthy (as problems) of consideration and most in need of correction.

        And that raises a different point, but perhaps related. As a thought-provoking question, one might wonder, even in these cases (your points 1, 2, and 3), why should the “knowledge” of the correct way to understand these things; why should the “answers” to these questions; why should the Truth regarding these particular matters, matter to, and decide, the question of whether humankind should strive to be sustainable, should treat each other with dignity and respect, should respect and allow and protect the health and sustainability of the biosphere, and so forth? Put another way, although you and I would both agree that, in very important senses, the answers to the issues you raise (in other words, correcting the false paradigms) are relevant in the sense that they would very likely influence how we live our lives and how we relate to the rest of Nature, and yet … WHY would we even need them — in other words, in theory anyhow, are they even necessary for us to wisely conclude, or rather wisely choose, to treat each other with respect, to strive to be sustainable, and so forth?

        The problematic paradigms are relevant because they are causing us problems. Correcting them would seem to be a relevant and worthwhile aim — and is a relevant aim, I believe, given human psychology — but is it necessarily the case that wise human and societal choices must depend on the correction of these problematic paradigms? Put another way, is the connection a logically necessary connection — whatever that might mean, in this case — or instead, does the connection simply exist, as a matter of degree, as a result of the way human psychologies and societies happen to work? As a hypothetical question, could you imagine most humans, and society at large, choosing to live more wisely, healthfully, and sustainably even in the absence of corrections to these problematic paradigms? Perhaps it’s just a theoretical question, but we might learn something by thinking about it, at least for a little while.

        In any case, I love your list (the first three, at least), and I hope that each item becomes the basis for a whole, rich, and continuing thread on the Blog and on the List.

        Be Well,


  2. I really do agree in many ways with your call, Jeff, and for all the same reasons as you.

    With regard to the question of ‘Edge’, however, I want to point out that some of the most fundamental false assumptions that continue to be made by academic philosophers as much as and with far less excuse than anyone else, relate to incorrect definitive perceptions and representations of natural boundaries. Natural boundaries are NEVER definitive – they can’t be! Natural boundaries are intrinsically dynamic.

    Notions of ‘winning’, ‘debating’, ‘opposing’ and such like are among the most destructive of all in the discouragement of honest inquiry and dialogue that seeks to uncover and appreciate natural truth.

    There is no doubt that it takes much COURAGE and HONESTY to speak ‘truth to power’. This is the kind of ‘edge’ that is needed, not the kind that seeks to bite someone’s head off for stepping out of line.

    My essay on ‘Living with Opposite-Mindedness’ relates to this:


    • Dear Alan, thanks for your comment, and I look forward to reading the essay. I also want to apologize that I haven’t yet considered your points in your initial comment (an earlier post), but I still have that on my list. I also appreciate — and value! — your involvement here, and “philosophically speaking” I agree with what you say in your last paragraph (above), in the paragraph preceding it (regarding ‘winning’ and etc.) and also, I think, to the degree I understand it, your first paragraph, at least in the way that I would interpret it. So thanks again. Be Well, Jeff

    • Dear Alan, I’ve read your essay on ‘Living with Opposite-Mindedness’ and thoroughly enjoyed it. “Philosophically” and attitudinally speaking, I agree with you wholeheartedly. From an “intellectual” standpoint, of course, I only understood — who knows — sixty to eighty percent of it, but these things take a while to discuss and digest before people can understand what’s being said and so forth, and in any case, it’s not important that we “agree” “on all counts”, because a central point is, of course, inclusion and the embracing of each others’ similar (in many ways) but not necessarily identical perspectives. In any case …

      First, I think you should run this essay of yours as a post here, and also as an e-mail to the Global Circle e-mail list.

      Second, however it is labeled (and as you say, the label doesn’t really matter), I think that an attitude and approach (and reality) that is much more inclusive and caring and cooperative than the prevailing Opposite-Mindedness is the wise way to go, clearly. I say this not understanding everything about the view, but that’s OK; attitudinally speaking, and practically speaking, I think we agree on a lot.

      Third, in the interest of brevity here, I won’t go into the details, but I think the understood philosophical ideas of “charitable interpretation” and “insufficiently theorized agreements” are both part of, and cousins to, your attitude and philosophy of inclusiveness. Put another way, The Quest for Truth, so to speak, if It is seen as the Highest Priority (of life? of philosophy?), has a way of involving and maybe even requiring, or imposing, some sort of oppositional mindedness, … people with competing versions trying to convince each other and Win. In contrast, the development and practicing of wisdom — bringing wisdom to life, so to speak — welcomes charitable interpretations, careful listening, open-mindedness, inclusiveness, and mutually beneficial “insufficiently theorized agreements”, and the like: Love, Peace, and all those good things.

      Perhaps that’s enough for this comment. But please stick around, and thanks for your comment.

      Be Well, Jeff

      • Dear Jeff,

        I’ve only just seen this response… I’m a bit technophobic/incompetent and haven’t quite ‘got into’ how the Global Circle works. Thanks for the response. I think we are close to being on the same flowlength, if not already there. Please don’t hesitate to enquire further with or from me. I have published a huge amount (much too much) on ‘natural inclusionality’ – my sense of not having been heard/understood tends to induce an addictive cycle of ‘try, try and try again’. The essence of NI is simple. The implications far-reaching, and not so simple to put into simple language.

  3. Jeff,
    Thanks for your call to “help rid people and societies of damaging errors and flaws in thinking, and rid minds of ills of thought.”

    I believe that “purifying the knowledge stream” is an important step on the path toward wisdom.

    In his book Leaving Truth, Keith Sewell suggests that each person develop a Knowledge Selection Process to be explicit about how we decide what to believe. He presents the Knowledge Selection Process he uses to determine if a belief is justified or not. I have summarized it at: http://www.emotionalcompetency.com/theoryofk.htm#Example

    My own “Theory of knowledge” is at: http://www.emotionalcompetency.com/theoryofk.htm

    I have provided a course on this topic, called “Knowing how you know” at: https://en.wikiversity.org/wiki/Knowing_How_You_Know

    If you or other GC members have written down your own “Knowledge selection process” or “Theory of Knowledge” I would like to lean about it and link it to the gallery of examples growing at: https://en.wikiversity.org/wiki/Knowing_How_You_Know/gallery

    • Lee, thanks for your comment. I’ve visited and read the “Knowing how you know” course, and enjoyed it. Briefly, I’ll roughly explain part of how I assess things: (This may be a bit hard to interpret, but I’m trying to be brief.)

      In a sense and to varying degrees, “all is connected to and related to all else”. So my way of assessing things is to constantly compare the dots and connect them, and to remain very curious and skeptical where/when dots don’t connect or point to different answers/understanding. So, for example, it seems to me that in order for someone to talk intelligently and deeply about “sustainability” and the lack of sustainability of our present approach to economic matters, that person will probably require a fairly deep understanding of the nature of nature, so to speak, and of the natural world; the nature of humans, from an evolutionary and biological standpoint, and the associated psychological standpoints, and cultural (for example, see Ronnie’s point 3); the nature and present workings of our present “economic” assumptions and paradigms, a basic understanding of “money”, and related stuff. It is by having a reasonably good understanding of all three of these broad categories — Nature, Humans (as part of nature), and our present constructed so-called economics — that someone can enter into a credible and deep discussion of sustainability and the present problems. Put another way, assessing “truth” and plausibility is, among other things, a matter of connecting and comparing dots across (what we humans call) disciplines and sciences, and thus it is greatly facilitated by having a broad set of experiences and a broad education, although the “education” itself must be approached with a curious and skeptical attitude (because much of what is taught is a bunch of BS, sadly).

      In any case, I enjoyed reading through the course, and I agree with you that understanding how you understand (I like that, rather than “knowing how you know”) is a very important thing.

      Thanks again, Lee. Be Well, Jeff

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