3rd August 2008 | Draft
Being What You Want
problematic kataphatic identity vs. potential
of apophatic identity?
- / -
Kataphatic identity -- the "positive" approach
Apophatic identity -- the "negative" approach
Definitions of identity and their unquestioning acceptance
Misappropriation of the apophatic way
Fruitful reframing: acceptance of doubt and alternatives
Potential socio-political implications
-- Jumble of categories
| DIY: Define It Yourself
Social construction of reality
-- In-the-box vs. Out-of-the-box thinking | Denial | Classifying
and shredding history
-- Problematique | Resolutique | Futures | Terrorism
vs Unbelievers | Inter-ethnic relations | Extraterrestrials
and their UFOs
-- Interpersonal relations | Human
equality | Assumptions of consensus
Expectation of resolution?
Recovering a fundamental right and freedom
Existentially paradoxical strategy of "being what one wants"
Emergence of a wisdom society?
The terms apophasis and kataphasis were first used by Aristotle to describe
categorical propositions as either affirmation or denial, saying or unsaying.
Apophasis refers to the negation and kataphasis to the affirmation. In discussing
the current significance of the apophatic and kataphatic traditions in the
20th century, David Henderson (2003) notes that the
concept of apophasis was given its radical transcendence by the Neoplatonists,
Plotinus and Proclus, and introduced into Christianity by Pseudo-Dionysius,
the 5th century Syrian monk, who brought together Greek and Jewish concepts
of the apophatic.
In reflecting on the nature of divinity, a distinction is commonly made in
some traditions between kataphatic
theology (also spelt cataphatic theology)
and apophatic theology --
between two approaches to the essentially incomprehensible, even terrifying,
nature of divinity. The former describes and defines the nature of divinity
through explicit terminology. The latter highlights the inadequacies of such
statements by stressing what deity is not. Hence the latter is also described
as negative theology and the former as positive theology. In some traditions
contemplation first focuses on the former before later focusing on the mysteries
associated with the latter.
The current cognitive challenge considered here is essentially that of
responding to complexity, uncertainty and unspeakable horror -- notably instigated
and systematically sustained by those claiming to uphold the highest human
values. Ironically it might be said to be well articulated in the words of
the appropriately named Pseudo-Dionysius
the Areopagite (The
Mystical Theology) in his effort in the 5th century
to distinguish between the apophatic and kataphatic:
The fact is that the more we take flight upward, the more our words are confined
to the ideas we are capable of forming; so that now as we plunge into that
darkness which is beyond intellect, we shall find ourselves not simply running
short of words but actually speechless and unknowing.
Aside from this theological focus, the question explored here is whether
understanding of human beings and human communities -- and the global
problematique -- might be fruitfully explored through analogous contrasting
modes. Are the conventional efforts to articulate the challenge of the 21st
century inhibiting appropriate understanding and action?
individuals more appropriately understood, if only by themselves, in terms
of what they are not rather than how it is convenient to define them by social
might be the implications -- especially where individuals currently identify
with material products, thereby inhibiting the transition to more sustainable
patterns of consumption.
The credibility of any such comparison
in any faith-based context is notably reinforced in those traditions
that recognize that individuals are made in the image of deity, or by those
who promote a recognition of the divine within each person. Such understandings
are held to be intimately associated with contemplation of the significance
of the relationship of individuals with deity, of participation in the life
of divinity and of divine participation in human life -- a focus of theosis and theoria.
Whilst there is an extensive literature on the apophatic approach, the
obscure term is perhaps indicative of the manner in which the options it
represents have been rendered obscure -- to the advantage of theologians
and philosophers who use it -- rather than being presented as an opportunity
for all, irrespective of their conventionally recognized expertise.
Kataphatic identity -- the "positive" approach
Descriptions of the nature and identity of divinity commonly use every possible
positive attribute, whether expressed in words, in images or in music. In Islamic
belief, for example, this takes special form in the 99
Perfect Names and Attributes of Allah -- all of them names of praise.
In the case of individuals, many approaches are taken to expressing and defining
identity. These may include:
- family and kinship relationships, blood lines, heritage, especially important
in relationship to heraldry
- accreditation, notably recognized in orders
- feats of strength and accomplishment, notably in sport, given focus by
sporting medals and records
- celebrity as recognized by "star systems" and celebrity lists
- academic achievements, degrees and awards, possibly supported by an array
of significant publications
- inventions, notably those protected by patent
- relative wealth, and its recognition on lists such as those of Fobes
- cultural achievements, as notably recognized in music and other arts
for contributions to human welfare, such as the Right Livelihood Award
- recognized personal qualities such as beauty (Miss Universe), or courage
(as in military and rescue action)
- property ("goods and chattels"), possibly including other
individuals (through bonded labour and slavery)
- high performance equipment
(weapons, vehicles, computers)
- profession, expertise and career, whether certified by diplomas or experience
- personal display of symbols:
- religious (cross, hijab, etc),
(national flag, poster, etc)
- team (colours, etc)
- clothes, jewellery, and other status symbols
Whilst such devices may be given greatest visibility and significance at
the global level (Olympic Games, etc), they of course have their analogues
at the national and local levels. People may be encouraged by their context
to aspire to some such recognition. Failure to do so may contribute to ensuring
that a person is instantly forgettable -- even to be defined as a "nobody".
However the kataphatic approach is more egalitarian than this argument so
far implies. Authorities are assiduous in ensuring a degree of recognition
of individuals, defining them unambiguously in far more specific ways. These
- identity numbers and profiles, related to certificates of birth, marriage
and death, increasingly focused on biometric profiles by which an individual's
identity is defined and associated with a name
- tax numbers relating to income records through which identity as a tax
payer is established
- social security numbers, notably where these substitute for other means
of establishing identity as a citizen
- residence as required for government records in many countries
- registration on the electoral role through which identity as a voter is
- official licenses for driving a vehicle, for radio/TV,
- property ownership records
- educational records
- medical records, including certification of physical and mental
- military records
- employment records
- security clearance
- criminal records, where appropriate, possibly even tattooed identification
numbers if incarcerated
- DNA records, possibly as an extension of bionic measures, and irrespective
of any criminal association
Market research necessarily devotes considerable resources to identifying
people as distinct consumer types. For example the 10
identified by Experian in its Mosaic
Global framework are: Rural Inheritance, Post Industrial Survivors,
Low Income Elders, Metropolitan Strugglers, Hard Working Blue Collar, Routine
Service Workers, Career and Family, Comfortable Retirement, Bourgeois Prosperity
and Sophisticated Singles. Within this global group classification, each country
contains its own unique typology and these have country-specific names such
as High Rise in Paris (France), Local Shop Keepers (Greece), Busy Bush and
Beach (Australia), Green Idealists (Denmark), Expats and Super Rich (Hong Kong),
Celtic Roots (Ireland), Suits and Gumboots (New Zealand) and Southern Blues
Membership societies may also be assiduous in maintaining profiles of their
members and a mean of establishing their identity. This has in recent years
been extended into the profiling in professional and social networking sites
on the web.
At the personal level, individuals define each other in terms of sets of attributes,
qualities such as "nice", "good", "helpful",
etc that echo values attributed to divinity --
necessarily on a far larger scale. Definitions of identity may however be much
simpler, offered in tangible physical terms: "tall", "short", "fat", "thin",
"strong", "weak", etc. -- and in terms of associated behaviors
and constraints. Gender and ethnicity are perhaps the most obvious.
The impersonality of many of these definitions of identity is partially compensated
by the intimate personalization associated with various forms
of personality typing. It is perhaps in this sense that the appeal of astrological
signs and horoscopes should be understood. More conventional psychological
approaches, on which employers may depend, include Myers-Briggs
Type Indicator, enneagram
types, DISC assessment,
Colour Test. Static understandings of identity may be modified by the possibility
of development through various degrees and levels as indicated by the AQAL
system, or various forms of initiation promoted by secret and esoteric
of Rebirth: distinguishing ways of being "born again",
Some of these approaches to defining identity are associated with fitting
people into teams, or assessing their performance in teams, notably the Belbin
Team Role Inventory. This highlights the issue of stereotyping and
the degree to which individuals may be miscast in roles for which others find
Apophatic identity -- the "negative" approach
The challenge for some is whether they identify adequately with the array
of attributes by which they are defined to the satisfaction of many in society.
To some degree at least, there is a sense of "I am not that". Curiously
this echoes the simplest statement of apophatic theology, the Vedic:
Neti Neti (Not this, Not that). Or, in urban jargon, "None of
the above". Or, perhaps "All of the above -- and more". The
key question is the extent to which individuals identify with the identities
through which others prefer to know them.
Apophasis was originally and more broadly a method of logical reasoning or
argument by denial, a way of telling what something is by telling what it is
not, a way of talking about something by talking about
what it is not. This sense is frequently overlooked, other than in negative
theology. But if it is appropriate through apophatic theology to understand
divinity as ineffable and beyond description, is there not a case for recognizing
the extent to which individual identity -- especially if held to be a reflection
of the divine -- transcends the immanence implied by kataphatic description.
Denys Turner (The Darkness of God: Negativity in
1995) suggests that there is a difference between an apophasis that presupposes
the inadequacy of language and one that discovers the failure of language,
where language exhausts itself. Apophasis is not a "naïve
pre-critical ignorance", but "a strategy and practice of unknowing".
Beyond the theological focus, Michael Sells (Mystical
Languages of Unsaying, 1994) highlights the manner in which apophatic
discourse embraces the impossibility of naming something that is ineffable
by continually turning back upon its own propositions and names. He reviews
its use in Greek, Christian, Jewish and Islamic
texts, providing a critical account of how apophatic
language works, the conventions, logic, and paradoxes it employs, and the
dilemmas encountered in any attempt to analyze it. The study establishes
the relevance of classical apophasis to
contemporary languages of the unsayable. It notably challenges characterizations
of apophasis among deconstructionists.
|Gentlemen – and the texts they live by -- are straightforward guides. They educate through cataphasis: positive statements about the Good and the True. Jesters, by contrast, educate through apophasis, literally un-saying. Instead of statements, riddles; instead of commandments, questions. The gentleman supplies positive content, exemplary behaviour, a stable landing place for the student’s understanding, whereas the jester actively undermines the student’s ability to stabilise herself, providing content that is framed by an explicit or implicit negation: a raised eyebrow, a snicker, a punchline. If the preferred rhetorical form of the gentleman is the example, the preferred rhetorical form of the jester is the mystery, or perhaps the practical joke. (Alan Jay Levinovitz, Zhuang Zhi: a funhouse mirror for the soul, Aeon)
Definitions of identity and their unquestioning acceptance
The examples cited in the kataphatic case are reinforced at the most fundamental
- common usage through which people are known and identified by name
- legal definitions of identity
- philosophical definitions of identity
- religious definitions of identity
Who or what is it that accepts and buys into these formulations?
More intriguing is whether there are any alternatives to the acceptance of
such formulations and packaging -- to which one is expected to conform in order
to interact appropriately in society. Much is made, for example, of the
contrast between individualism (typical of the West) and communalism (typical
of other cultures), whereby one may be primarily defined by one's relationship
to a community.
Using the apophatic method however, to what extent are people encouraged to
explore the meaning that might be associated with not being defined by conventional
This brings into focus the process and significance of definition itself.
In classical philosophy this was held to a statement of the essence of a thing
and therefore, in the case, of an individual. Aristotle held that
an object's essential attributes form its "essential
nature", and that a definition of the object must include these essential
attributes. For the individual, the question is whether they accept such external
identification of attributes held, by some means, to be "essential". This preoccupation
with essence is no longer popular in most modern philosophy -- held by Bertrand
Russell to be "a hopelessly muddle-headed
Wikipedia offers a useful summary of the limitations
of definition, noting those philosophers who have held that individuals
cannot be defined.
It would seem that there are degrees of freedom that suggest that an individual
might best be understood apophatically rather than kataphatically -- if only
by those that do not have some instrumental, operational need for a simplistic
definition -- but especially by the "individual".
Misappropriation of the apophatic way
Although the term is obscure to most, arguments for an apophatic approach
are variously recognized and cultivated:
- theology, religion and mysticism: there is a very extensive
literature focusing on apophatic theology and stressing the importance of
an apophatic approach to mystical experience. However, so extensive is this
literature that it may readily be assumed that an apophatic approach has
no other relevance than in the relationship to divinity. It might even be
said that theology has appropriated apophatic reflection, possibly with the
requirement that it only be considered following considerable training in
an approved kataphatic approach. In this sense it is only open to those who
receive the benediction of some tradition. Especially problematic is the
extent to which particular religions may sanction individuals for either
being "unbelievers", or "lacking faith",or -- worse still
-- for "breaking
faith" or "losing faith". Given the propensity to define and
assess people in a kataphatic mode, any such dissociation is readily considered
dangerously problematic -- especially since from a religious perspective
it is necessarily difficult to distinguish such existential shifts in apophatic
terms. Especially problematic categories, in kataphatic terms, arise from
the extent to which an individual can be identified as "agnostic" or "atheist" --
given the difficulty in interpreting the associated existential worldview.
One of the ironies of spiritual typing, as a kataphatic exercise, is its
identification of an "apophatic type".
- philosophy: a further range of literature has extended
insight into the apophatic approach, explicitly dissociating itself from
immediate association with the theological variant. Most evident in this
respect is the work of Jacques
Derrida and his followers on deconstruction.
However the context within which this academic approach has developed has
resulted in its being "identified" with a particular school of
thought and marginalized to some degree for that reason. The subtlety of
the complex, unusual argumentation necessarily implies the need for appropriate
academic preparation before any understanding of apophatic thinking can be
considered credible. Again, given the propensity to define and assess people
in a kataphatic mode, any such dissociation is readily considered dangerously
Deconstruction, as promoted by Derrida, has been identified
philosophical clarity, and intentional
obfuscation. Such accusations necessarily follow from any commitment
to the kataphatic mode. In commenting on Derrida and apophaticism,
Ivana Noble (Apophatic Elements
in Derrida's Deconstruction) recognizes the extremes of Derrida's
condemnation of that tradition as "rhetoric
of negative determination" strengthening claims of for the possibility of
grasping the divine essence, reinstating that which it questions -- aprocess
he labels hyperessential theology. He argues that what is based in a negative
determiner still attempts to give an identity (non-entity) to who we are
and what we do and how we relate to one another and our world and to God.
Thus, it remains a "negative" mirror
image of the positive determination. The other extreme is
to consider Derrida a proponent of apophaticism too readily -- depsite the
overlapping themes in Derrida's deconstruction and in the apophatic tradition.
- psychoanalysis: the work of psychoanalyst Carl Jung explored
the insights of apophatic thinking in theology as they applied to the individuation
process -- the search for self in an alienating context of uncertainty about
For Jung (Two Essays on Analytical Psychology):
Individuation means becoming a single,
homogenous being and, in so far as 'in-dividuality' embraces
our innermost, last and incomparable uniqueness, it also implies becoming
one's own self. We could therefore translate individuation as 'coming
to selfhood' or 'self-realization.'
Jung equated his theory of individuation with gnosis and endeavoured to explain
a psychological standpoint. However in comparing Jung's work with the theology
of Thomas Merton, David Henderson (Carl
Jung and Thomas Merton: apophatic and kataphatic traditions in the 20th Century. Studies
2003) considers the former as representing the kataphatic and the
latter the apophatic tradition. The much admired synthesis of Ken
Wilber (Integral Psychology: Consciousness, Spirit,
2000; Integral Spirituality: A Startling New Role for
Religion in the Modern and Postmodern World, 2006), might also be understood
as exemplifying the kataphatic method.
Curiously the implication in these cases is that individuals need special
qualifications, attributed in a kataphatic context, before legitimately engaging
in apophatic reflection -- about their own identity.
Especially unfortunate in these contexts is the condemnation of thinking which
is not distinguished by categories appropriately ordered, and approved, from
a kataphatic perspective. Hence the reference by Bertrand Russell to essence
as "a hopelessly muddle-headed notion" and the views of such as Richard
God Delusion, 2006) and Christopher
is not Great: protesting too much, 2007).
the supposed clarity they recommend is also characterized by such "hopelessly
fragmentation and professional strife (as noted below), that it is not surprising
that real people worldwide make extensive use of narcotics, alcohol and other
substances -- or of religion as an opiate -- to engage in alternative relationships
to the kataphatic reality on offer. Ironically Dawkins and Hitchins could be
understood as highlighting what divinity is not, although -- whatever "its"
nature -- it is certain that "it" is in no way dependent on any certification
of authenticity by such authorities.
More intriguing in any approach to apophatic identity
is however the implication of the classic Zen
contrarian answer to the question "What is Buddha" -- the answer,
famously given by Master Yun-men, being "Kanshiketsu" namely "Dried
Given the high degree of controversy aroused by such blasphemy in a kataphatic
mode, perhaps the apophatic mode could be usefully understood methodologically
as "scientific blasphemy". Although, since many now specifically identify
those whom they do not appreciate by an abridged version of the Zen descriptor
of the Buddha, whether it is to be considered as exemplifying widespread intuitive
use of the apophatic mode calls for further reflection. Australian parliamentary
use of "bastard" offers a different instance, especially given its use in self-description
by the Australian Prime Minister -- a Mandardin speaker (Tom Bentley, A
pretty determined bastard,
New Statesman, 16 August 2007).
This is not to deny the value of the extensive literature on the apophatic
way and the effort it represents at clarifying possibilities. Many subtle pointers
have been proposed for consideration -- for those who care to explore them.
But, ironically, that literature may also be usefully interpreted from an apophatic
perspective. Indeed the distinctions affirmed there may themselves be considered
as indicative of what the apophatic approach is not.
The challenge of that literature, and its complex distinctions, is that it
is effectively used as a device by some to define (yet again) how individuals
should approach options that are presumably a birth right (if not a God-given
right). This then effectively deprives them of the right to make up their own
minds -- which they are supposedly free to do (cf Universal
Declaration of Human Rights as discussed below).
Fruitful reframing: acceptance of doubt and alternatives
The technical abstruseness of articulated insights into the apophatic way,
and associated assertions, obscures the significance of less assertive statements
of which the following are examples:
John Keats: As a poet, John
Keats articulated (in 1817) the
concept of negative
capability: "being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts,
without any irritable reaching after fact and reason". Robert French ('Negative
Capability', 'Dispersal' and the Containment of Emotion) explains
it in psychoanalytic terms as a quality of attention:
This state of mind depends on our 'Negative Capability', that is, on our
capacity for thinking and feeling, for learning and containment, for abstention
and indifference. Without the quality of attention made possible by this
'capability', any amount of insight 'from a psychoanalytic perspective' is
in danger of remaining irritatingly indigestible or aridly intellectual.
Sallie McFague: As a theologian and feminist, Sallie McFague
of God: theology for an ecological, nuclear age, 1987; Life
Abundant: rethinking theology and economy for a planet in peril, 2000)
argues for a different way of knowing, exemplified in her case by its implications
for knowing divinity. In particular she argues for the individual freedom to
engage in metaphoric reframing of God according to different circumstances
-- rather than being dependent on particular models (Metaphorical Theology:
models of God in religious language,
1982). McFague that we can produce metaphors which
by taking into account the nuclear ecological crisis are better than those
which do not.
Kenneth Boulding: As an economist and mystic, Kenneth
Boulding (Ecodynamics; a new theory of societal
evolution, 1978) offers the following insight into the relevance of
Our consciousness of the unity of self in the middle of a vast complexity
of images or material structures is at least a suitable metaphor for the
unity of group, organization, department, discipline or science. If personification
is a metaphor, let us not despise metaphors -- we might be one ourselves.
Each of these authors responds creatively to doubt -- and the lack
of the clarity that is such a definitional requisite of the kataphatic mode.
A conclusion, from a theological perspective, is highlighted by Janet Williams
Judgement: an apophatic approach, Theology
Jan 2002) cites Carol Zaleski (The Life of the World
to Come: Near-Death Experience and Christian Hope,
We should bear in mind that the archaism of symbols
is part of their appeal, that some symbols may go into retirement only to return
in full vigour at a future time, and that religious traditions are better served
by a plurality of symbols than by forced consistency.
For Zaleski, where we cannot
speak accurately but nevertheless need to speak, the best
strategy is one of "imaginative proliferation" in which a multiplicity
of images, including mutually sublating contradictories such as eternal damnation
of sinners and universal salvation, both articulate and challenge our best
efforts to make present the reign of God on earth -- "thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven." As Williams notes, Zaleski's insight, that
the simultaneous play of mutually incompatible and affirmed-and-denied images
is the work of imagination rather than cognition, may prompt comparison with
the theological interest in the phenomenon of Christian hope and its special
role with regard to faith.
Whether from a theological perspective or not, clearly individuals are
freed from a degree of "kataphatic claustrophobia" by the use of
a plurality of imaginative metaphors with which to reframe their experience.
Such possibilities have been extensively explored by the philosopher Paul
of Abundance: a tale of abstraction versus the richness of being. 1999; Against
Method: outline of an anarchistic theory of knowledge. 1975). It is appropriate
to note that both McFague and Feyerabend refer to the experience of abundance
-- with Feyerabend specifically pointing to the manner in which it is "conquered"
by categorical abstractions (characteristic of the kataphatic mode).
Potential socio-political implications
Jumble of categories: It is curious that anyone interested
in understanding who or what they are -- or might be -- is confronted by a
vast array of religions, disciplines, philosophies, ideologies, worldviews
and authoritative criteria asserting an answer or a royal route to obtaining
one. These are all configured such that the "individual" is faced either with
the confusion arising from their lack of coherence, the challenge of each
to "buy into" the perspective offered, or the threat of possibly dire
consequences should the individual fail to do so.
The interaction is such that
it is implied that only the foolish would question the authoritative insight
of what is proposed -- irrespective of the fact that each proposal in all probability
contradicts or questions that of its neighbour -- from whom it is claimed it
would be even more foolhardy to seek a response. Curiously some of the products
on offer come with ironclad guarantees, whether by a discipline or a religion.
In the latter case the guarantee may not only be "life-long" but "for eternity".
The situation may be very appropriately compared to a bazaar. It does not
even have the degree of order of a supermarket. However, in those cases the
individual has some degree of freedom in interacting with the range of products
on offer. With respect to the existential challenge for the individual
of obtaining responses to who, why and what -- the interaction is far more
invasive and manipulative in ways that would be highly questionable in any
modern commercial relationship. Arguably all claims to provide a response could
be questioned as "misrepresentation" under any "trading practices" legislation.
Some claimants may engage in a degree of threat, some may deliberately engage
in negative representation of their competitors, or offer contracts with obligations
articulated in what is effectively illegible small print.
Curiously those that have bought into any given framework see it as what is
best described metaphorically as a transcendent temple or cathedral -- appropriately
separated from the mundanities of the bazaar in which so many products of dubious
value are on offer. Such transcendent worldviews typically claim to be global
and comprehensive to a significant degree, even it means treating as insignificant
that which it is considered better to exclude from such understanding. Each
may be fruitfully understood as a gated community (Dynamically
Gated Conceptual Communities: emergent patterns of isolation within knowledge
The contrast between
the dynamics of the cathedral and those of the bazaar have been usefully analyzed
in relation to the open source software movement by Eric
S Raymond (The
Cathedral and the Bazaar, 1997). The relation between allopathic and "alternative"
approaches to health care provides a valuable metaphor of this. In the case
of religions, rather than mortal danger to the body of unauthorized products,
it is the danger to one's soul that is presented as a threat.
Whereas there may be no significant order to the array of products offered
to the questing individual, the kataphatic mode offers another device emerging
from the discipline of classification of the information sciences -- namely
the catalog or, more recently, the web search engine. But such tools merely
turn the question back on the questor -- "for what are you searching"?
Typically multiple answers are available for any question, with each answer
implicitly challenged from any other perspective so catalogued. The individual
may feel fully justified in declaring "Not this, Not that".
Whilst the situation may be defined as analogous to that of a bazaar, of greater
interest is the possibility that it is the pattern of relationships between
proponents of worldviews that is a more fundamental pattern -- engendering
and sustaining that which is so tangibly evident in a bazaar. Subtler forms
of order have not become apparent in either case -- or are dependent on their
exclusion of less subtle forms of order.
DIY: Define It Yourself? One common response on the part
of individuals is to "pick and mix", namely to select approaches to identity
from the range of frameworks and methods proposed by authorities of different
kinds. This approach is strongly deprecated by most such authorities. Clearly
it does both question and undermine the integrity and coherence of the particular
framework or approach of which they are advocates.
Religious authorities are especially articulate in arguing against any form
of "pick and mix". These arguments are notably to be found with regards
to the condemnation of syncretism.
This said, most authorities are totally challenged in addressing the fragmentation
of worldviews and understandings of identity. It is a topic that is systematically
avoided -- leaving it up to the individual to either adopt a particular framework
or to take responsibility for defining identity for themselves in a DIY ("Define
It Yourself") approach. Curiously it might be argued that the reasons DIY (as
"Do It Yourself") has been adopted so successfully in home construction are
quite analogous to those justifying such an approach with respect to understanding
Social construction of reality: The theme of constructivism
has been extensively studied (Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann. The
Social Construction of Reality: a treatise in the sociology of knowledge, 1967;
Paul Watzlawick, Invented Reality: How Do We Know What We
Believe We Know? 1984). The emphasis however is on how some degree of conventional
consensus is reached -- sufficient to enable coherent functioning of social life.
Where there is unfortunate fragmentation between worldviews the consensus may
then be understood as operational within cognitively gated communities within
a particular sense of reality is coherently constructed and sustained (Dynamically
Gated Conceptual Communities: emergent patterns of isolation within knowledge
The challenge for the individual, once again, as with which such community
to associate. Or, more interesting, how to travel from one such community
to another -- developing the capacity to "translate" between their
worldviews. Ironically it is then left to the individual to become a kind of Rosetta
coherence between communities unable to reconcile their worldviews in any meaningful
for Critical Dialogue between Worldviews, 2006; Avoiding
Dialogue with Alternative Worldviews at any Cost, 2005).
In-the-box vs. Out-of-the-box thinking: These terms are a
recognition of the inherent limitations to envisaging creative strategic responses
to perceived challenges. In this sense, for any individual, what one knows
-- with which one identifies and by which one defines oneself -- is the fundamental
constraint inhibiting more adequate response. In-the-box thinking exemplifies
the kataphatic mode.
Collective expressions of in-the-box thinking focus attention -- affirming
collective identity -- on strategies that are inherently comprehensible in
the light of past thinking within the known operating framework. This leads
to consequences that have been expressed through the much-cited quote: "For
every human problem there is a solution that is quick, simple, inexpensive
-- and wrong".
This is evident in the advocated responses to most major social problems --
including current preoccupation with global warming. As noted by Simon Tisdall
(Weapon of choice in the fight for moral supremacy, The
Guardian, 7 Auguat
2008) in commenting on a UK Foreign Office report (Engagement:
Public Diplomacy in a Globalised World, 2008):
Look at today's biggest global issues -- climate change,
pandemics, energy security, terrorism and other 'shadow sides' of
globalisation -- and it's striking that the challenges governments
find it hardest to deal with are highly diffuse, involving the actions and
beliefs of millions (if not billions) of people.
Hence the focus on high tech solutions, as a comfortable product of exsisting
business models, whose problematic impact only becomes evident long after
profits have been made and the responsible government has changed. Apophatic
thinking, as the out-of-the-box mode that questions reliance on "the box",
clearly merits attention.
Denial: Denial is now the preferred means
by which discomforting knowledge is rejected. In the case of the individual
it has been extensively studied in psychoanalysis. It is the method by which
relevance is typically clarified in the kataphatic mode. It is increasingly
blatant at the collective level, as practiced by government:
- at the time of writing, the Chinese government and the International Olympic
Committee have declared that the evident haze in Beijing was merely humidity
rather than particulate
at 250 units) -- far above the WHO standard of 50
units) that had been set as the target for the event.
- at the time of the "mad
cow" disease in the UK, the chief veterinary officer
of neighbouring Belgium stated publicly -- "we have that too, but we call
it vitamin deficiency".
- any evidence of problematic actions by security forces is typically denied,
at least initially
There is a paradox to the apophatic mode in that through questioning conventional
knowledge, as reinforced by recognizable patterns of information, it employs
a process that may be difficult to distinguish from what others reject as "being
in denial". Hence the challenge for "believers" in divinity
when dealing with
"unbelievers" (as discussed below). Radical denial in the apophatic
mode, especially in the case of theology, is the recognition that understanding
of fundamentals cannot be constrained to any conventional views which may constitute
merely an instance or facet of the complexity to which comprehension is called
The more general challenge in a faith-based context is handling the distinctions
between denial by fundamentalists, denial of fundamentalist beliefs, and radical
denial of the cognitive rigidity associated with both. These challenges call
for exploration -- to a far greater extent than responding militarily to the
violence and "terrorism" that they engender in the "battle for hearts and minds",
as discussed elsewhere (Thinking
in Terror: Refocusing the interreligious challenge from "Thinking after
Classifying and shredding history: Recent
decades have made evident the extent to which information, supposedly vital
to the future of humanity, is "classified" by authorities -- namely treated
as secret, possibly with its very existence denied. With the simultaneous development
of news management ("spin") beyond earlier forms of propaganda, it could be
argued that, unsuspected by most, apophatic strategies are already
being deployed in the "unsaying of reality" by authorities. The most concrete
manifestation of this is the extent to which official archives are "lost" or
This unmaking of the past -- of the unknown dimensions of secret history
-- is accompanied by a reformulation of the historical context of reality,
as noted by Gary Younge (Never
mind the truth. The Guardian, 31 May 2004):
Politics has, to an extent, always been about the triumph of symbols
over substance and assertion over actuality. But in the case of Iraq this trend
seems to have reached its apogee, as though statements by themselves can fashion
reality by the force of their own will and judgment. Declaration and proclamation
have become everything. The question of whether they bear any relation to the
world we actually live in seems like an unpleasant and occasionally embarrassing
intrusion. The motto of the day both in Downing Street and the White House
seems to be: "To say it is so is to make it so." These people are rewriting
history before the ink on the first draft is even dry.
If such is indeed the case, then all are presumably free to reframe history
-- as they find it convenient to understand it as a context for their own identity.
Problematique: Much has been made of
the complex of world problems, named by the Club of Rome as the world problematique.
It is the crisis of crises as foreseen by John Platt (What We Must Do,
Science, 166, November 1969), As a network of over 50,000 world problems, it
has been articulated in the Encyclopedia
of World Problems and Human Potential (1976-2000). In reviewing there
how problems were defined, emphasis was placed on their nebulous nature as
subjective, fuzzily defined, boundary phenomena, in which solutions might be
understood as problems (World Problems Project: Definitions).
However it is clear
that society is much challenged to come cognitively to grips with this "reality"
as "socially constructed" with all its unspeakable horrors (as noted
Many assertions are made about its nature and as many denials are made in response.
Climate change denial is but a current example. More intriguing is the manner
in which features of that reality are cognitively "shunned" (Institutionalized
Shunning of Overpopulation Challenge: incommunicability of fundamentally inconvenient
truth, 2008) in preference for more convenient conventional explanations.
Understood as the most complex and intimate subtlety into which humanity claims
some form of insight, the challenge of understanding divinity might be considered
analogous to that of comprehending appropriately the significance to humanity
of the complexity of the problematique. The
most popular approach to deeper understanding of divinity -- the kataphatic
way -- is through appreciative
imagery, symbols, words and other symbolic forms of experience. It may usefully
be compared with positive thinking. But given the complexity of that problematique,
and the cognitive and strategic challenge it implies, consideration of an alternative
approach would seem to merit attention. [The widely acclaimed merits of "positive
thinking" have been usefully challenged by Barbara
Ehrenreich, whose book (Bright-Sided:
how the relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America,
2009) is reviewed by
Emily Wilson (see also Carole Cadwalladr, Welcome
to the Bright New World of Positive Living, The Observer,
11 October 2009)].
Is there a case therefore for recognizing that more appropriate understanding
of what the problematique implies for humanity -- and especially for individuals
-- can only be understood in some apophatic manner. Is there a case for some
form of "negative problemology" by analogy to negative
theology? This approach would give refreshing legitimacy to "not knowing"
the nature of the problematique, rather than asserting particular understandings
from particular worldviews -- and denying other understandings of it from other
Resolutique: The Club of Rome has also postulated the need
for a "resolutique" through which to respond strategically to the problematique. Again
many assertions are made with regard to the need for "global action plans"
articulated authoritatively by particular frameworks. However it is quite evident
that the coherence of such global initiatives is severely undermined by the
unresolved challenges between them and by their remarkable track record in
failing to deliver on commitments made. Most are significant primarily as
exercises in tokenism and wishful thinking -- although such assessments would
necessarily be contested from particular framework, as well as being affirmed
The question raised by the apophatic approach is the possibility that appropriate
humility might be a necessary cognitive precursor for more appropriate
creativity -- if the much acclaimed human ingenuity is expected to respond
appropriately to the problematique. Recognition of not knowing is a first step
in more fruitful approaches to social organization in response to crisis.
Is there a case for Structuring
around unknowing in a learning society?
Given the embarrassment of people who claim to know collectively and authoritatively,
how should the individual then understand any personal engagement with that
dynamic in what may, or may not, be appropriately understood as crises?
Futures: In considering both the problematique and the resolutique,
much is made of the human capacity for creatively envisaging the future of
human civilization -- and responding to its challenges. Indeed, with nature
now declared to be "dead", it has now been formally announced that humans have
"taken charge" in a new "anthropocene
Curiously again, there is almost no humility, or confession of ignorance,
in articulating future human potential (In
Quest of Optimism Beyond the Edge -- through avoidance of the answering process,
2007). This is in marked contrast to the personal experience of many -- including
the increasing numbers suffering from some form of depression. Utopian visions
systematically ignore dystopian possibilities (whether or not articulated
by authorities) and the challenge for the individual in engaging with any personal
understanding of the future. Also curious is the failure to take account of
analyses of the longer-term possibilities of collapse (Jared M. Diamond. Collapse:
How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, 2005) and the requirements for
adaptation and resilience if there is to be any renewal (Thomas Homer-Dixon, The
Upside of Down: catastrophe, creativity, and the renewal of civilization,
Given its apparent inaccessibility, surely there is a case for an apophatic
approach to the future to compensate for the plethora of kataphatic assertions
through which the future is systematically colonised -- possibly as a desperate
unconscious attempt to ward off its inevitable emergence and the degree
of impact of its surprises (Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The
Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable, 2007). These may
even be agreeable -- as foretold by authorities on "end times" scenarios.
In terms of any precautionary principle, as apophatic approach might well be
assumed to be the most healthy approach for the individual.
This possibility is partially explored in contrasting the essentially kataphatic
approach of the AQAL-based "integral futures," inspired by the work of Ken
Wilber, with the potential l of more open approaches (Self-reflexive
Challenges of Integrative Futures, 2008).
Terrorism: As what has been framed as
the most fundamental crisis to civilization, what does an apophatic approach
suggest with respect to events since 9/11 and recognition of the extent of
of Terrorism: extended to the experience of the terrorized,
It could be argued that the cognitive response to these events,
as they have informed military strategy and democratic nation building, is
above all characterized by conceptual closure. This may be described as tunnel
vision, silo thinking or groupthink -- by the best and the brightest that
money could buy (Cui
Bono: Groupthink vs Thinking the Unthinkable? Reframing the suffocating consensus
in response to 7/7, 2005; Transforming
the Encounter with Terrorism, 2002).
The evident and costly failures of that thinking -- perhaps
to be recognized by the future as historically unprecedented -- have been
repeatedly characterized by the ready assumption of the relevance of conventional
expertise and technology. It is only after nearly a decade of such failure
that a degree of recognition has been accorded to the possibility that other
neglected and deprecated insights might be relevant to understanding how groups
of tribes people, in one of the most backward areas of the world, could successfully
defy use of the most sophisticated military technology produced by human civilization.
Hence the announcement by the Pentagon
of a Minerva
Research Initiative (MRI) -- a US Department of Defense sponsored, university
based, social science research program initiated in 2008.
Curiously this recognition is framed by two complementary understandings:
Ironically it might be argued that these both reflect the emergence of an
apophatic strategic approach. This might be
understood as framing psycho-social organization for the coming century -- as
was the ambition of the Project for
the New American Century. But its implications are highly dependent on how
"we" is defined, or defines itself -- and on how "we" decides
is as exemplifying uncreative stasis. It effectively indicates the radical freedom
which any "we" has to create its own reality -- a freedom which has
been an appeal of American articulations of democracy.
It frames a dynamic situation
in which reality can be recreated continuously -- rather than the very static
framing it has been given in the past. In this respect it also highlights the
disempowering disengagement characteristic of conventional approaches to reality
-- notably the manner in which it is "judiciously" studied and accredited
by academic. administrative and religious authorities. Of course the challenge
is that this radical possibility has been fully grasped by unconventional groups
like Al-Qaida -- seemingly unrecognized by those who have so judiciously studied
them in their war against terrorism.
More curious, and perhaps to be considered the strategic triumph of "Al-Qaida",
is the extent to which the response by security counter-measures has severly
inhibited human freedom in democrativ countries. This has notably implied invasive
challenges to the validity of individual identity, notably the requirment for
considerably enhanced biometric descriptors so that the security services
know "who" you are. Ironically, following the cognitive failure of military
strategy, these measures have been accompanied by what is described as much
"heart searching" at the failure to win the "battle
for hearts and minds"
amongst those in remote tribal areas (or urban slums) whose identity has not
Believers vs Unbelievers: The vital importance
from any fundamentalist perspective of the distinction between "believers" and "unbelievers" is directly
related to the kataphatic mode. Divinity as understood in particular, authoritatively
specified, ways is held to be a mark of belief. Failure to understand divinity
in this way is held to be a characteristic of an "unbeliever" to which specified
actions are enjoined by "believers".
The question is whether the apophatic mode is acceptable to
fundamentalists, notably those with a mystical tradition in their religion.
If so then the characteristic of a "believer" is open to a variety of understandings
consequent open both mystical insights and what is distinguished as divinity
-- for example, in the light of reflections such as those of Sallie McFague
Given the manner in which violence against unbelievers is driven by kataphatic
understandings of believers, the apophatic mode offers a way of reframing such
Inter-ethnic relations: As with the relations between "believers"
and "unbelievers", similar considerations apply to the stereotyping
of people of different ethnicity -- and the consequences arising from definitive
The apophatic mode is especially interesting in considering the alternative
knowledge systems of indigenous peoples as extensively documented by Darrell
A. Posey (Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity, 1999).
Extraterrestrials and their UFOs: By extension of the arguments
applicable to inter-ethnic relationships, the approach to any understanding
of extraterrestrial life and culture could considerably benefit from an apophatic
mode of reflection as argued elsewhere (Self-reflective
Embodiment of Transdisciplinary Integration (SETI): the universal criterion
of species maturity? 2008; Communicating
with Aliens: the psychological dimension of dialogue. 2000). This
necessarily applies to any understanding of the technology that may be represented
by UFOs -- notably in the light of
Arthur C. Clarke (Profiles
of The Future, 1961): Any sufficiently advanced
technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Interpersonal relations: More generally, and more specifically,
whereas the apophatic mode offers the possibility of many questions and alternative
ways of wondering about who one is (Am
I Question or Answer? -- problem or (re)solution? 2006), it is especially
relevant to the understanding of any "other", notably Goethe's "Elective
This has been remarkably explored by Martin
and Thou, 1923). One speculative example relates to the notion of extraterrestrials
as Stargates: an alternative perspective on human relationships in space-time,
The challenge of the "other", as recognized by philosophy and psychoanalysis,
is now evoking increasing attention -- as discussed elsewhere (Existential
challenge of "The Other", 2007; "Human
with Nature" and "Intercourse with the Other", 2007).
Human equality: It is curious that so
much emphasis has been placed on kataphatic assertions of human "equality" in
the face of every variety of difference in form, competence and disposition.
Such simplistic assertions continue to be made in the face of the tragically
evident disparities in quality of life and access to resources. David Rothkopf
identifies one extreme as a "superclass", numbering 6,000 on a planet
of 6 billion (Superclass:
the global power elite and the world they are making, 2008). Who is kidding
It is the kataphatic mode, par excellence,
which affirms with such certitude the distinctions and commonalities between
species -- despite considerable technical challenges to such categorization
and attribution. To what extent is it appropriate to understand "human equality"
as a product of kataphatic thinking -- a form of fig leaf to obscure other
dimensions of reality that social convention prefers not to face?
The apophatic mode might make it more fruitful to explore "human
from a psycho-social perspective -- avoiding the traps of social
darwinism -- in order to frame the range of senses of identity in a richer
context. Different possibilities are, for example, suggested by David Abram
Spell of the Sensuous: perception and language in a more-than-human world,
1997) and Ron Atkin (Multi-Dimensional
Man: can man live in 3 dimensional space? 1981). Such
freedom to explore the many dimensions, unrecognized in the dominant kataphatic
mode, might give credibility to new modes of identity to which people may anyway
be obliged to have recourse in order to avoid fatal exposure to
those who might be fruitfully identified as dinosaurs. The latter may perhaps
be caricatured as the dominant "species" in the Jurassic economic and financial
system artificially currently sustained for their benefit and for that of other
"species" dependent on their leavings.
Assumptions of consensus: Despite issues
highlighted in the previous paragraphs, there is a prevailing assumption that
agreement can be reached on the basis of appropriate argument amongst reasonable
people -- with respect to appropriate collective action for the future. This
assumption is increasingly questionable in the light of past difficulties in
reaching consensus on non-trivial matters or other than in the ineffectual
form of tokenism and lipservice. It might be argued that the expectation of
consensus is the fantasy cultivated in the kataphatic mode. It empowers campaigns
of persuasion and is a feature of the justification for forceful persuasion
The apophatic mode requirs an appreciation of the mystery of inexplicable
and incommensurable difference -- as experienced in any clash of civilizations
or cultures. In the light of astrophysical speculation, it is the recognition
of the probable existence of parallel universes. Such a metaphor highlights
the merit of reflection on the possibility of "extraterrestrials" -- given
that in a society characterized by alienation it is indeed with "aliens" that
it will be necessary to come to terms. The apophatic mode enables radical differences
in worldview but also enables radically different possibilities of association
between seeming incompatible worldviews. It will enable more creative and fruitful
approaches to disagreement -- avoiding vain expectations of agreement and the
procrastination they justify.
Expectation of resolution?
In the current chaotic confusion -- simply to be defined as a mess -- it would
be foolish for the "individual" to expect any meaningful resolution
"others" in the present time.
In the case of insight offered by philosophy, this is evident from the inquiry
of Nicholas Rescher (The Strife of Systems: an essay on the grounds and
implications of philosophical diversity, 1985) into the disagreement inherent
in the relationships between schools of philosophy precluding any prospect
of agreement (from his perspective). Given the manner in which philosophy and
epistemology underpin the methodology of scientific inquiry, this would suggest
the need for more radical explorations of the possibility of structures built
on incommensurability (Beyond
Method: engaging opposition in psycho-social organization, 1981; Using
Disagreements for Superordinate Frame Configuration, 1992). Given
the conflicts to which they give rise, the pathetic incapacity of religions
to process their disagreements confirms the inadequacy of approaches dependent
on "coalescence". A similar point might be made with regard to the natural
and social sciences and the manner in which various "sciences" are marginalized,
as noted above in the exploration of Paul
Method: outline of an anarchistic theory of knowledge, 1975).
Most striking, with respect to enabling the individual to act "radically"
regarding personal identity, is the concluding comment of Nicholas Rescher:
For centuries, most philosophers who have reflected on the matter have been
intimidated by the strife of systems. But the time has come to put this behind
us -- not the strife, that is, which is ineliminable, but the felt need to
somehow end it rather than simply accept it and take it in stride. To reemphasize
the salient point: it would be bizarre to think that philosophy is not of
value because philosophical positions are bound to reflect the particular
values we hold.
This said however, Rescher's argument does not necessarily preclude the possibility
of new ways to take the strife "in stride". Indeed it has been argued elsewhere
that new forms of transdisciplinarity may effectively emerge from "striding" (Transcending
Duality as the Conceptual Equivalent of Learning to Walk, 1994; Walking
Elven Pathways: enactivating the pattern that connects, 2007).
a fundamental right and freedom
The points above make it clear that the "individual" -- however such is understood
by the person in question -- is confronted by a range of frameworks. Many of
these are effectively both aggressive and invasive -- when they are not seductive
-- in furtherance of unknown agendas.
Those responsible for individual frameworks take no responsibility for their
relationship -- or lack of relationship -- to other frameworks. They freely
deprecate any frameworks other than their own. This leaves the "individual"
in deep quandary in endeavouring to arrive at some degree of coherence in comprehending
who or what it is possible to be.
The individual might then legitimately ask to what extent any understanding
of identity is "misappropriated" -- a form of "identity
theft" in modern parlance.
In conventional terms, it it therefore instructive to note the basic affirmation
of freedom of belief in the preamble of the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights, and specifically in Article 18:
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion;
this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom,
either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest
its belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance;
However, given the unresolved challenges to the nature of individuality, it
is unclear how anyone is to understand who "everyone" is in those
terms. Further possibilities are highlighted through an experimental extension
of the format of that declaration to the rights of disciplines and other
collective modes of thought and activity, as well as to
personal rights, namely the rights a person should permit their own roles and
all their own modes of thought and activity (Universal
Declaration of the Rights of Human Organization an experimental extension
of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1971).
Especially intriguing in the case of Declaration (and of its experimental
extension) is Article 30:
Nothing in this Declaration may he interpreted
as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity
or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms
set forth herein.
It might be inferred that the "individual" is free to engage in
any form of reframing of identity or sense of reality provided this does not
impact on "others".
In the reality of a world characterized by a high degree of disaffection,
alienation and unrest, "individuals" are already reframing themselves
and their world in unusual ways beyond any collective understanding. People "reinvent"
themselves and their public persona. This may be done temporarily with the
assistance of drugs. Whilst their right to do so is implied by the Declaration,
it is a right that "individuals" have to seize for themselves --
carpe diem. It is not something that can be given.
Curiously, however, the rapid increase in invasive biometric identification
(in parallel with the "battle for hearts and minds" to protect democracy),
is accompanied by a rapid decrease in the "availability" of those identified
-- "I am not available". This may be exacerbated by the degree of media violence
by which children are now deliberately nourished (Anthony Horowitz,
The Dark Knight tells us more about adults than it does
about children, The
Guardian, 9 August 2008).
With respect to framing individual identity, there is a curious parallel to
the historical territorial phenomenon of the enclosure
of the commons whereby a piece of land owned by one person, but over which
other people could exercise certain traditional rights (such as allowing their
livestock to graze upon it), was fenced (enclosed) and deeded or entitled
to one or more private owners, who would then enjoy the possession and fruits
of the land to the exclusion of all others. In this sense aspects of a person's
identity have been kataphatically "fenced off" by right of certain
authorities, restricting or forbidding any other understanding of it.
Such considerations relate to the tragedy
of the commons, to be understood as a psychosocial trap associated with
conflict over finite resources between the interests of the "individual" and
those of the conventionally defined common good. To what extent does the
capacity of the "individual" to reframe social reality (as suggested
above) structurally doom the collective resource through over-exploitation?
Existentially paradoxical strategy of "being what one wants"
By being what one "wants", as suggested in the title of this exploration
-- and knowing what one wants -- the possibility of being otherwise is seriously
inhibited. Potential options are closed off -- "fenced off" as suggested
above. Identity is constrained to what can be articulated in terms of tangibles
-- with all that implies for patterns of consumption. The strategic need to "change
patterns of consumption" must
then be understood in terms of the challenge of changing identity.
These seemingly obscure issues are brought sharply into focus as a consequence
of the kataphatic tendency of individuals and groups to identify with tangibles
that they have been induced to "want". Marketing necessarily promotes
such identification -- with a house, an automobile, clothing, accessories or
other products that are held to define the identity of the person. This is
effectively an exercise in misplaced concreteness. One is encouraged by
convention to recognize one's identity, and that of others, through such possessions
-- through conspicuous
consumption. Patterns of consumption, and the challenge they constitute
in any transition to sustainability, are then more fruitfully understood in
terms of sustaining and "consuming" identity (Anup Shah, Behind
Consumption and Consumerism,
2001). By contrast, an apophatic approach is consistent with dematerialization and
the association of identity with subtler and more dynamic patterns -- through
refining and complexifying the nature of what is "wanted" (Emergence
of Cyclical Psycho-social Identity Sustainability as "psyclically" defined,
As noted above, from the theological perspective highlighted
by Janet Williams (Judging
Judgement: an apophatic approach, Theology Today, Jan 2002),
in citing Carol Zaleski (The Life of the World to Come: Near-Death
Experience and Christian Hope, 1996), the best strategy is one of "imaginative
proliferation" in which a multiplicity of images, including mutually sublating
contradictories such as eternal damnation of sinners and universal salvation,
both articulate and challenge the best efforts at coherence. It is this
simultaneous play of mutually incompatible and affirmed-and-denied images that
is the work of imagination rather than cognition. This implies an essentially
self-reflexive process as Williams argues:
It would seem that Christian speech on judgment will have to be an apophatic
speech, an uroboric talking about judgment that both posits and displaces itself,
mediating new life to the extent that it is crucified with the Logos whose
judgment it proclaims.
An interesting example of collective use of imagination is offered by intentional
Zones: experimenting with the intentional significance of the Damanhur community,
Education: game playing, science fiction, language, art and world-making,
Self-reflexive Global Initiatives: Renaissance zones, complex adaptive systems,
and third order organizations, 2007). Arguably the identity of collectivities
may be fruitfully
reframed in an analogous manner (Experimental
Articulation of Collective Identity through a dynamic system of metaphors,
1991) -- notably in the case of Europe,
East and the United
Valuable philosophical explorations of the implications of such imaginative
possibilities, notably hypoessentialism and hyperessentialism,
have been made by Saul
1980) -- as discussed in relation to identity by Christopher Hughes (Kripke:
Names, Necessity, and Identity, 2004).
Faced with these possibilities of the neglected "abundance" highlighted
by Feyerabend and McFague, the challenge lies in the strategic dilemmas of
"being what you want". If the individual is in some way free
imaginatively to elaborate both a sense of identity and the nature of contextual
reality, what are the implications of any "want" in relation to any
emergent sense of "being" and identity -- of who is doing the wanting?
Operationally the "want" can
be expressed kataphatically by defining, more or less rigidly, identity and
the sense of being. Alternatively the "want" may be expressed apophatically
by withholding such definition (as unwanted premature closure), or "dancing" between
alternative definitions, doffing and donning various identities.
Perhaps more intriguing is the extent to which neither extreme is felt to
be satisfactory and instead a form of "middle way" is sought. In
this sense it is worth noting the work of Kinhide Mushakoji (Scientific
revolution and interparadigmatic dialogue, 1978; Global Issues
and Interparadigmatic Dialogue, 1988) who distinguishes from Eastern traditions
four modalities through which the human mind grasps reality:
- Affirmation: Leading to affirmative action in the form
of support, commitment, initiative, proposition, cooperation, consensus formation,
- Negation: Leading to negative action in the form of sanction,
withdrawal (of support), denial, disassociation, delimitation, criticism,
opposition, promotion of dissent, disempowering, "closing".
- Affirmation and negation: Leading to ambiguous action, non-violent
resistance, "dumb insolence", "giving with one hand and taking with the other", "double
dealing", "stick and carrot tactics", the "yes but no" response of the frustrated
- Non-affirmation and Non-negation: Leading to action in the
form of indifference, indecision, non-action (in the oriental sense), "neither confirm
nor deny", "opening and closing".
The first two correspond to the kataphatic and apophatic modes. It is the
sense in which individuals may dance between all four modes -- in response
to different circumstances -- that is a challenge to further reflection. Although
seemingly abstract, the familiarity of many with all four modes is evident
in the challenge of interpersonal relations, especially those associated with
the mysteries, dynamics and uncertainties of being in love.
Emergence of a wisdom society?
Much is now made of the emergence of an information-based global "knowledge
society" as characteristic of the 21st century. However in the 220 pages of
the UNESCO World Report Towards
Knowledge Societies: UNESCO World Report (2005) only a single
reference is made to wisdom, despite its apparent significance for the future:
Young people are bound to play a major role because they are often among
the first to use new technologies and to help establish them as familiar
features of everyday life. But older people also have an important part to
play. They possess the experience required to offset the relative superficiality
of 'real-time' communication
and remind us that knowledge is but a road to wisdom.
In the light of the above arguments, however, it might be asked whether a
"knowledge society" will only become a "wisdom society" when it develops the
"negative capability" described by the poet John Keats -- to become a "society
of unknowing", capable of acting from a space of unknowing. Unfortunately the
UNESCO World Report, in all its references to "negative", as contrasted with
"positive", completely fails to draw attention to the significance traditionally
attached to apophatic thinking by thinkers of the highest quality in many cultures
across the centuries -- confirming the trap of the kataphatic mode in this
above, there is a difference to be recognized between an apophasis that presupposes
the inadequacy of language and one that discovers the failure of language,
where language exhausts itself. Apophasis is not a "naïve pre-critical
ignorance", but "a strategy and practice of unknowing".
Despite the seeming obscurity of "apophasis", it is fortunate that poets of
every culture continue implicitly to give credibility to its significance.
It is not surprising that poetry is an inspiration to the creative strategic
thinking vital to the resilience, emphasized by Homer-Dixon
(2006), that is required for the survival of human civilization (Ensuring
Strategic Resilience through Haiku Patterns: reframing the scope of the "martial
response to strategic threats, 2006). Is the relationship between
apophatic thinking and kataphatic thinking then to be fruitfully compared to
that of "Beauty" and the "Beast" (Poetry
making and Policy making: arranging a marriage between Beauty and the Beast,
Human life is driven forward by its dim
apprehension of notions too general for its existing language. Alfred
Naming engenders ten thousand things....Thirty spokes share the wheel's
hub. It is the centre hole that makes it useful...Therefore profit comes
from what is there; usefulness from what is not there. Lao Tzu
In contrast with what is commonly assumed, a description, when carefully
inspected, reveals the properties of the observer. We, observers, distinguish
ourselves precisely by distinguishing what we apparently are not, the
Behind the misty wall of words, the diverse, even contradictory, interpretations,
motivations and utilisations are an indication of fundamental divisions
concerning values. In particular, the most basic human rights are more
frequently invoked as a weapon of attack or defence against some party,
rather than recognized as the royal road to a positive relationship between
individuals and groups in an objective form of fraternity. René Maheu,
When men understand only one of a pair of opposites, or concentrate
only on a partial aspect of being, then clear expression also becomes
muddled by mere word play, affirming this one aspect and denying all
the rest....The wise man therefore sees that on both sides of every argument
there Is both right and wrong. Chuang Tzu
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