On Conceptualization and Noisy Buffoons (2/7/15)

I would argue that because the general concept is bound to be less complex, subtle, and comprehensive than the elusive phenomenon it is employed to represent, an excessive reliance upon abstract concepts results in a relatively shallow, diluted form of consciousness. A useful way to illustrate the enormous qualitative difference between merely conceptual representation of a phenomenon and a much deeper engagement with that same phenomenon is to contemplate the difference between a thoroughly scientific analysis of something and an equally thorough rendering of that subject by a first-rate poet. Keats’ ‘Grecian Urn’ or Wallace Stevens’ ‘The Snow Man’ can come to our assistance here. It is precisely because of what the scientist is obliged to leave out of his reductive analysis of the urn or the snow man that his version may be called ‘objective,’ ‘unbiased,’ ‘clear and distinct.’ The fact that Keats’ urn and Stevens’ ‘snow man’ are used as powerful metaphors that open up into larger cultural, philosophical, and existential questions or problems is, itself, regarded as ‘problematic’ from the rigorous rational-conceptual standpoint. Here, we are afforded a glimpse into the tacit, unadvertised will of the conceptual-system-lover: it is to ‘nail things down’ in self-consistent terms—in effect, to reduce phenomena to such terms for the sake of gaining (remote) intellectual control over them. And, of course, such a ‘will’ or ‘agenda’ is by no means ‘disinterested’ or ‘unbiased’ at its core. If such a method behaves in an unbiased manner in its treatment of actual phenomena, it is only after the fact that the will to subdue the phenomena to its own rigorous and exclusive terms has already been tacitly accepted.

Science shares with all rational systems and schemes this implicit will to reduce phenomena to its terms in order to gain intellectual and/or practical mastery over all that it surveys with interest. As such, the methods and aims of science, like those of all rational systems, are inevitably reductive—and therefore, to some extent, deforming and distorting—with respect to the phenomena they purport to represent in an unbiased manner. The basic process of abstracting, which is essential to rational conceptualization, is selective by its very nature. In isolating and then reconfiguring those intellectually manageable features of the phenomena that he ‘treats,’ the rational conceptualizer turns away from and tacitly rejects all those features and qualities of the phenomenon (as well as the resonances and associations which are likely to arise in the educated imagination of the unconstrained beholder) that are irrelevant or disruptive to his power (practical?) concerns.

What this amounts to, from one angle, is a kind of cartography. The rational conceptualizer first selects those features of the territory that he wants to map and then, after isolating those features, evaluates the territory in terms of the map and its legend. Thus, the order of rank between map and territory is subtly inverted—or perverted, as the case may be. Those elements or features of the larger and more foundational territory which cannot be conveniently or effectively mapped are tacitly discredited and devalued—even though the proud map-maker’s indifference or contempt for these territorial elements does nothing to eliminate them from existence—any more than averting our gaze from actual insanity, disease, and our complicity in corporate or political corruption does anything to abolish them from existence. A close and unsentimental examination of all fervent rational-conceptualizers will eventually expose an ostrich-head buried in the sand.

No one can dispute the fact that many short-term material gains have been won for us by science’s superficial understanding and control of select regions of the vast and ultimately unfathomable territory that is Life—inner and outer. But fewer, it seems, are as willing to acknowledge the catastrophic short-sightedness that made these short-term gains possible in the first place. As it turns out, precisely those moral, poetical, and spiritual riches and resources (that might have sharpened and extended our vision of what we were collectively unleashing when Pandora’s Box was opened by modern ‘rational’ science) were implicitly disparaged and discredited by the rational system that now desperately needs the wisdom they provide in order to manage systemic crises facing us on multiple fronts. Precisely those who have become most dependent upon the short-term gains won by this (morally and spiritually blind) power of modern science and technology are the persons (or nations) that have become the most crippled and weakened by this mental infirmity—the least capable of tapping into and utilizing the inner and outer resources that the unmapped territory always contains. And the perverse irony of this deplorable situation is that these morally and spiritually blind believers in the superior authority of science and rational-conceptual maps also believe that traditional, pre-scientific and non-rational cultures are the true and only ‘barbarians.’ Thus, the one thing that these anti-traditional, superficial, ‘superior’ rationalists cannot conceive of is that—in alienating themselves from the sanity-restoring territory that science has selectively mapped—they have become the most insidious and pernicious barbarians of all!

It is no wonder that all the traditional territory-respecting peoples of the earth who remain unafflicted by the spreading cancer of reductive rational-materialism are duly suspicious of the promises and enticements held out by the profit-hungry, culture-destroying purveyors of globalization and consumerism. But, of course, many of us regard such people as backwards, ignorant ‘enemies of progress’—mere ‘children’ who must be compelled, if necessary, to ‘grow up’ and ‘get with the program.’


Might I humbly suggest that persons who believe in the supreme authority of science are every bit as mentally deranged as Fundamentalist Christians who believe in the supreme authority of an anthropomorphic deity called ‘Yahweh’? The noisy battle between these two camps of believers is a battle between two kinds of spiritual-philosophical juveniles (or ‘juvenile delinquents’) and anyone with a modicum of genuine wisdom will steer clear of such irresponsible loudmouths. This ongoing ‘civil war’ between culturally-spiritually infantile Americans is as petty, stupid, sterile, and wasteful as the ongoing congressional gridlock between bullheaded Republicans and Democrats, even if it is a teensy-weensy bit subtler.

If there is a Supreme Being, is there even the remotest chance whatsoever that ‘the Heart of Being’ would eternally bind and limit itself to the role of an insignificant desert people’s tribal deity—a god who lacks sufficient adaptive skills to ‘transition’ out of that desert and the antiquated ethos that suited a long-outgrown way of life? And is there a snow man’s chance in hell of ‘scientific wisdom’ (a blatant oxymoron) guiding us through the spiritual-philosophical-cultural conundrum that we are in the midst of? These opposed camps have no rightful place at the un-public table where such serious matters are to be addressed. The sooner both blinkered groups are politely escorted out of the debate hall, the sooner a truly qualified group of thinkers, poets, and wise counselors can begin to receive the respect they justly deserve.


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