THE FOUNDATIONS PROJECT
The Foundations Project is an extended work-in-progress which attempts to lay out an encompassing philosophical anthropology.
It is motivated by the attempt to reframe some issues of human meaning which have, in this complicated moment of great felt change, come into virtual crisis. The narratives and stories which have previously sustained our Being no longer offer or yield to us theories which frame any idea of a future in which we can see ourselves clearly.
This is a moment within the history of thought when we need to rethink who and what we are, tempting as it is also in this moment, to reclaim other stories from earlier times or outside our human experience. The overall aim of the Foundations Project is thus to address the question: what is the human; nature, condition?
Its most ambitious claim is that we can retrieve and/or invert the (Western) foundational architectonic of thought about the human without falling into limiting positions or presumptions which have captivated most thinking at least since Plato.
It is not, I think, motivated by any wish to capture the foundational idea of truth as existing somewhere beyond sophistry. Rather it aims to take seriously the puzzle stated by Protagoras as (hu)man being the measure of all things, asking critically about this human which is the experience and the shaper of its measures and measurings. In the American Pragmatist tradition, Dewey expressed it to concern the mostly unasked questions of “human agency.”
Although we are in a period of postmodernized forms of battle between rhetorical and metaphysical approaches to being, this project takes the view that some critical and/or new ideas of the human condition are available from comparative study: what I call the ethological critique of the philosophy of language.
To approach this retrieval/inversion requires various forms of long term commitment to observation – of others and of oneself; better, in the reverse order – of oneself and of others.
As well, it necessitates a comparative and developmental visioning of the human, trying to position and relocate one’s viewing from as many critical experiential perspectives as one can muster. Else, as Nietzsche teaches us, we merely refresh ancient questions within (post-modernist) themes and variations, or seek interfaces within the geographies of polar axes of the several paradoxes which rule most of our thinking to this day.
It derives from a person trained to be a comparative field-oriented linguist-anthropologist come upon philosophy and metaphysics only upon experiencing the power of a thought revolution in which foundationalism was invoked to beat down my form of scientific/scientistic investigation. Only much later – following the Chomskyan revolution in linguistics, psychology, and philosophy – did I begin to become educated to the sociology, history, and politics of ideas upon which my life and career had become impaled. This work represents my ways out, as it were, of the formalisms and idealisms which have so appealed to the vast majority of those concerned with issues of being, truth, knowledge, etc: i.e., the human condition.
Two orientations from comparative thought direct and frame this work: one is to always attempt to relook at my/our experience (the ordinary) from the (possible/likely cognitive) perspectives of the other; animals, other languages and cultures, ways of thinking, being; machines…extraterrestrial, history – to walk with others who trying to think out the world, also helped to develop the very ideas in whose terms we think (ourselves).
The second comparative re-visioning is from the Weltanschauung of other traditions in which I have lived or read: from the ethnically and religiously diverse households and companions of my youth and an ecumenical marriage, to the ways of thinking of my own culture within the perspectives of other cultures, other academic disciplines, fundamentalisms, the variety of thought modes of others and of my students over many years, and the ways of thinking of disciplines which have changed or not, over a similar span.
Within these contexts are many stories. Some of them I have tried to describe and/or virtually enter. Especially relevant in this project, is my orientation as a (sometimes) performing musician, and an ongoing examination of the body in performance: an aspect, most closely, of the engineering approach to artificial intelligence (AI), expert systems.
My biology is especially a biology of form: the question is how to see the human from the outside, then from the inside of experiencings: how does a small body become larger, develop; what and how does it know, what do we know honestly/precisely in distinguishing human from other animals? Rather than moving from the prevailing dualistic approaches to development which proceed within foundationalism – from biology to rationality – I concentrate particularly upon form and appearance, inspired by Darwin’s late works on human nature and (emotional) expression: its readings and interpretations.
This places this work, then, in a particular form of another argument which has raged for centuries, between metaphysics and rhetoric as determining the human. Here, I find myself working out the ideas of the pragmatists from Mead and Dewey backward to Peirce and forward to this project. But this is not born from any direct resistance or antagonisms, near as I can tell. Rather, it derives from the comparative knowledge that we humans are a social species, like other species. And this means that I/we are body in the world with other(s’) bodies.1
Being is, as Mead says, “emergent���…but never, I will claim, remote or born free in any Rousseauean senses. Indeed, I explore being as the human necessity or habit to create the emergent individual-person-self within ongoing cultural-social living.
Another, more temporal comparative perspective of this project, concerns this moment of the globalization of the world: especially its peoples; most especially its ideas (and food!). It presumes and attempts to consider critically many of the narratives and ideas which have informed the human condition. As the world’s theo-political traditions are now coming into mutual interaction, awareness, complementarity, contrast and competition, it is timely to gather the different perspectives which have sustained (human being). This project seeks eventually some (new) syntheses which may filter the human experience through its characterizing descriptions.
It also responds to a felt sense that this is a moment of unclarity and possible crisis as (older) ideas come into this moment of vast change, driven much by technology and the recasting of the human within sharply contrasting ideas of present and a deepening sense that futurity is no longer clearly scripted. That is, the very idea of the future is at some risk.2
In this extended work, the principal task has been to consider the global variety of lifeways, of world views, of depictions of purpose and directedness in order to (re)discover the “ordinariness” of our experience and existence. Reading and thinking across ideational traditions provides (much of) the critical expanse necessary and useful to see and probe smaller or more particular modes of thought about the human. Coming as I/we do from within Western thinking, thinking across the globe also helps to set the Western tradition in sufficient relief that we may recover a fuller and more complete sense of our own being.
More specifically, I have discovered that the various traditions – large and smaller – provide both meaning within life experience, and some sense of the power of futurity that we go on and on. While the larger (in terms of geography and populations) worldviews seems to provide a sense of utopia within or after life, a sense which can gather large groups of adherents and believers, the smaller also give meaning to being; at least within certain moments or runs of history. As we (have) come into global contact, some of these traditions gain or lose power and adherents, depending on their power to inform current understandings of, and purposes to, being; thence to futurity.
The incommonesses have to do with their referents to fairly particular aspects of life experience, namely what I will call life paradoxes; the differences have to do with how the various traditions handle some twenty or so of these paradoxes such as life/death, man/woman, sleep/wakefulness, one/many, change/permanence, and so on. Most of the global traditions attempt to resolve these paradoxes on one side or the other; others complementarize (some of) them over time and experience.
This admission of paradox will allow us to re-see Western thinking from the perspective of its favorite paradoxes and their resolutions: i.e., change/permanence, the one/many, life/death – at least during much of its Christian history. And it will urge us to expand or make more encompassing what we mean by reality, tied as its definition has been to a narrow and particularly Western set of understandings.3
More to the point of the Foundations Project, the ideas which are coming at us from the global traditions also provide a critical perspective from which to rethink Western ideas which have so far captivated our thinking and outlined the human condition. In this sense, the major attempt of this project is to invert and/or retrieve the foundational ideas of the Western tradition resting most clearly within Plato’s dialogic works, especially the Phaedo. The placing or positioning of the so-called philosopher is raised into critical requestioning and rethinking.
Rather than positioning the philosopher within the idea – that is, the idea of the viewing of the present from the afterward of death’s visionings – here the philosopher takes the position of Teacher in dialogue with her/his students; a more existential/experiential reading of Plato if we wish to remain within his metaphorical spinnings.4
The philosopher qua Teacher agrees/admits that one exists within life’s ongoingnesses of older and younger, of (Teacher’s) presents/presence and (students’) futures. Rather than banishing the changeable and fractious body from our minds’ thoughts, the being of our ideas and the ideas of our being flow within our being as bodies – finding ourselves in the world with other(s’) bodies. Within the idea of teaching as dialogue, it attempts to expand the necessity of human relationship, of a sacred within the secular; of keeping life experience within life by increasing/expanding the importance of being; and considers teaching as “touching” and “inspiring” the future.
The retrieval aspect of this study entails a positioning of the thinker just at that moment when Plato (Phaedo) banishes the body, resolving the problems of life existence within the contexts of timelessness and the presentiment of ideality: the is as what-would-be. It thus admits the presence and gendering of human being, and opens the questions of knowledge as located within all of experience, including our bodies; rather, flowing from our bodily being.
The Foundations Project thus resides within the experiences of being without the intellectual luxury of resolving a/the primary paradox of life and death as a beginning point for settling the course of human existence. It asks about the human condition by pondering the nature of our nature as a mode of inquiry, pushing us inevitably to relook more widely and inclusively at our being than ever we have before: who and what we are, how do we create and understand, what is the nature of our meaning, the movement and towardness of our ontogenesis; an anthropology of the ordinary.
This is no attempt to enter the dialectic of existence vs. essence, to solve or resolve the mind-body problematics. It does not deny the human capacities for imagination, thought, or logic. Nor is it an intellectual play between materialism and mentalism, within the structuration of being one or the other or some compromise at an interface: thus, the necessity for retrieval and/or inversion.
Rather this project admits and explores the nature of our being, urging us to observe ourselves and one another in the fullness of being terrestrial creatures moving in gravity, noting that the judgments and ideas of our being actual to ourselves and to others is a complex mesh of knowings, imagings, and imaginings.
Motivating this project is the claim that the ideas which have underlain the (Western, but now also global) examination of our being have been narrowly crafted, relying too much and too often on some notion of humans being unique as the beginning point for its exclamations (and residing often within a limited politics of a bounded city-state). Such uniqueness claims have already selected and prejudged the statements and studies of our being. We remain unable to surmount the walls of separation, nor to deconstruct them bricolagically. In effect, we in all the world�����������s traditions have discipled ourselves to particularities of approvingly or disapprovingly viewing our own viewings, less to explore being human in its fullness and ongoingness; especially as interaction with others, with the self emerging.
Study of the human within the purview of the remote or removed philosopher has focused primarily on the ideas associated with language as a defining characteristic of the human. Our (actual) bodily being and experience has been largely overlooked or cast within an oppositional mechanical depiction of the human. It is as if we only discovered the problematics of our being after we had each come to hard and certain judgments of who we are: quite late in the actualities of experiencing; already grappling with the puzzles and paradoxes of being anyone/someone in particular: oneself. This narrowness in orientation and perspective has limited study and understanding of our human nature and proclivities, and has more often than not taken some notion of human essence removed from experience and existence as the principal characterization of our being.
This project locates itself instead within the notion that our habits of thought flowing from the Platonic tradition can (need to) be restrained and reconsidered: a philosophical anthropology; but one which takes into account a consideration of the thinking in whose terms the problematics of this project arise. The locus of study, that is, needs to be set within the context of comparative thought in which we observe other species and critically (re)discover rather than presume the attributes which might distinguish the human.
In a similar critical vein, we can (need to) rethink the theories and stories which have informed our thinking about our human being: the history and politics of ideas and the sociology of knowledge as they have framed what has heretofore been almost at the level of the obvious. How to see through our own seeing? How to distinguish what we can/do know from the theories and stories which have previously informed the characterization of the philosopher who would know knowing?
As the Foundations Project is a retrieval in the sense that we enter Platonic thinking just before the moment in the Phaedo where Plato banishes the body from our being, one notes, for example, that humans love faces; that the eye of the mind developed its clear visionings within the interactive journey each of us has taken from birth to present being; that life is no metaphor for metaphysics or for any metanarrative constructed from our ideas of death; it more simply is. We need to regather being without losing any aspects of ourselves or yielding them to others’ stories.
And the Foundations Project is an inversion. The Project’s ideas and critique flow principally from some of my earlier work on language and the questions about human nature which are implicated in its various definitions. As this attempt is cast within an anthropology of the ordinary, I recognize that we only come to the questions of being after we have made many formative judgments about our being.
This means that our experience and judgment is (already, by the time of our recognition of the ongoing problematics) mediated both by experience and by the metanarratives in whose terms we construct and interpret that experience. How narrow, how comprehensive our understanding of being, have only been addressable within theories of rationality and maturity which are tradition- and age-bound.
How, the Foundations Project asks, do we see ourselves within the ordinariness of our experiencings, as we (more) truly are; e.g., body within a world of other(s’) bodies.
The dialectic of this project is calculated to unpack our (particularly Western) propensities to compare our human bodies with (the bodies of) other species, to locate the presumptive bases of our knowing. In order to do this, we must acknowledge what we know and can study from what we have been told about other species: their putative languaging and awareness is not available to us, so far at least; and to tell false or presumptuous tales about others redounds to our feeding precooked theories about being, not to see us as we are. That is to say that the ethological critique of language will lead us inevitably to seek new ways of observing/understanding the human. We have come to judgment about (inquiry into) our human being from overspecific and largely incomplete/incorrect visionings of other species. (Much of the doing and detail of this work will be laid out in The Body Journals – to appear soon.)
More directly, what I have called the Question-Response (Q-R) System in language is a way of understanding human language which clearly inverts (some of) the primary ideas of our being which have flowed from the either/or’s of metaphysical mentalism.5 Rather than language (logic, rationality, etc.) being located within each individual, Q-R shows us that most of what we call language is learned/obtained from our mothers/others: rather than each of us inventing or having languaging propensities built-in or prewired, we come to know the world principally as our parents know it. Our individuality emerges from this sociality – not the other way round as our tradition from Plato/Aristotle to Hobbes would have it (G.H. Mead).
Q-R inverts or elaborates several other puzzles about our being which have formed the foundations of our thinking about ourselves. The rethinking of these puzzles sets a principal context for this project:
1) Q-R explains, better accounts for, our ability to be symbolic/infinite without having to invoke mentalism within a dualistic dialectic. Our infinity is located within the response sets which are responses to a fairly small number of question words (Retrieval of Being) – we can conclude that there is no necessity to explain our transcendent directives by seeking agency outside of human being (The Ideal). It suggests that the universality of language we have sought is located (primarily) in the processes by which (each) language is taught/learned in the contexts of interactive ontogenesis; thence language translation (Context).
2) It shows that sociality is prior to individuality, that we (primarily) emerge from sociality, inverting the Aristotelian presumption that physics (our physical being) is prior to metaphysics (and within the ethological critique, it opens a comparative study of social species in which we can reframe questions about human nature, about meaning, transcendence, context, etc. – the various sections of the Foundations Project). And it claims that all (social( species are moral. (Morality)
3) It reframes Plato’s epistemological puzzles by obviating the need to raise the question of (our knowing) other minds – the problematics of being are, reasonably, redirected to a prior necessity of understanding ourselves/oneself…in relation to others as well as to ourselves. Individual knowledge emerges from knowing other(s’) minds. Knowing is primarily a partaking of others’ knowing/descriptions/seeings of the world.
4) It shows that language in any sense per se, is not the (sole) wellspring of meaning: the principal locus of meaning is within the larger arenas of Context. The study of meaning must derive from issues of context (indicating the necessity of studying the development of meaning in ontogenesis, rather than from the formal or other analysis only of language – words, sentences, what have we). It helps to account for the apparently rapid development of language at certain points in development. And it leads us to new ways of investigating questions of origin of our being: showing that we seem to conflate individual and species history when(ever) we come face-to-face with certain puzzles (Origin of Meaning; Identity).
5) It redirects most questions of historical development from any sense of primitive to civilized or biology to rationality – thus recasting issues of morality, politics, and so on, all of which flow from any reexamination of human nature. Within the ethological critique of language, it raises the question of human morality as morality (of the individual) within sociality; not as the morality primarily/exclusively of the (rational) individual (Morality).
6) From Q-R, it is clear that logic is an aspect of our knowing and understanding, rather than determining of it. It asks us to rethink how we think about human nature.
7) The question of human consciousness is recast in the sense of the emergent individual as a demand of m/others that we be/become propositional/responsible individuals. This understanding obviates the necessity, for example, to attempt to explain ourselves as unique either by postulating mechanical metaphors (umpteen neurones organized in parallel processings) or a primitive cognitive matrix seeking syntactic/semantic organization. As well, it opens the possibility of understanding other social species (directed) in their own terms: as raising the young to be competent adults of any species, further informing Protagoras’ idea.
8) As universality is not to be studied or found in language per se,
Q-R redirects us to study the foundational similarities (thence differences) across cultural-intellectual traditions, thence to see Western thought comparatively and more clearly. In reading and studying broadly across the various world traditions, it has become apparent to me that the most general (and most immediate) insight into various traditions is via the recognition that the differences among the traditions have principally to do with the fact that the human condition consists (especially) of a number of commonly experienced life-paradoxes; that the various traditions have chosen to concentrate and/or celebrate certain of these to the neglect of others, and to effectively resolve these on one or the other pole of our being (paradoxical): e.g., we in the West concentrate especially on paradoxical issues of the one/many, change/permanence, life/death, sleep/wakefulness, male/female, form/content by granting the status of more certain reality to the one rather than the other – but usually not both as the Confucian tradition is more wont to do, complementarily.
9) And so on…
The sensibility of this project flows, as well, from the recognition that the world is moving rapidly, into an era which seems quite distinct from its recent pasts. We in the West, at least, are in the midst of what I am calling a Crisis in Meaning. The conditions and narratives which have supported and sustained us no longer seem to provide the impetus and energy which underwrite futurity; we are moving into an unscripted time in which the temptations to hold on to past theories of our being are at war with the sense that we are moving and changing at an enormous, probably unprecedented pace.
(Some of) the technologies which have sprung from the ideas of the Enlightenment are so powerful in their effects that they are reframing the ideas of our being: especially, television, but also transportation, and the rapidly developing transformative fields including information technologies, robotics, genetic engineering…The question of the human condition demands serious reappraisal and study during this fragmenting and fragile moment.
Plato and the Unreal Real
In the dialogue Phaedo, Plato attempts to place the philosopher in the position of having effectively accepted the fact of his (sic!) own death: he would then look back at life and his life from the perspective of a forever after. One must first accept fully the idea that death is no big deal: Socrates’ death wasn’t (Apology). And, in this way we can fully and cleanly get to knowledge of the real, the ideas and the forms without the problematics of body: desire, sensory information always nearing overload, sickness…sex and the other muck of having to maintain a life which tends to overwhelm and to confuse seeing clearly with seeing the shadows of mis-perception.
We see as well, from Republic X, that the life of being before accepting fully the position of knowledge from having died, is organized hierarchically: the real which is the form and ideas of continuity and universality are the highest, life and being are themselves mere copies (Pythagoras) or, even less, merely partake in the real. Thus it is necessary to go with the mind alone (from the position of having accepted one���s bodily death) to knowledge. Granted all this, the path from ideal hierarchy to Realpolitik is very short in Aristotle’s body politic.
In the Foundations Project I reject the idea and the possibility of having fully accepted my own death and coming to experience in the as if of refusing to confuse body and (spiritual) being. I reject this notion on various grounds, each of which seems sufficient in itself, but as a group of reasons to be simply descriptive of the human condition within the contexts of identity and being (our life, as Kafka says in his Parables and Puzzles, which is the only life we have).
In my study/understanding of being, any existence or experience -within the concept of our own death – possesses, as it were, its own domain; and this is not my/our business. It is not accessible even though it may be interesting or otherwise informative. The concept of death which with we deal is from life. If this concept of death shapes or forms horizons of our lives, so be it; and this is important to understand, to critique, and to see that and what it consists in.
But our concept of death being from life, does not take us outside of bodily being, does not declare that there are two domains to our individual bodily being body and mind; nor does it declare that knowledge belongs to the mental, the imaginative. It is a philosophy of denial of existence and experience even as it takes aspects of them, narrows and particularizes being, knowledge, and existence, and expands such narrownesses to the infinitude of the universe. Granting agency to the products of this invented infinitude takes our being outside of our existence, to tell us how we are and ought to be.
Instead, I propose a different locus or removal or grounding from which we might be able to observe our selves observing ourselves – of the being of our being.
I propose that we take seriously a kind of (for lack of a better terms) as if existence which might stem from the complete acceptance of an intellectual nihilism. (Perhaps, in some kind of agreement with Plato that we need to find a locus of removal from the usual/obvious grounding of our own being, that we need a form of…death = a nihilism. Whether to agree with/co-opt Plato needs it own Foundations Project::counter-Foundations…)
What I mean by an intellectual nihilism has to do with beginning our retrieve of the body and existence from as complete as possible an acceptance that there is no meaning in the world which we can take as a given; that the world is only us humans/terrestrial creatures; that the entire human condition is as if; stories, myths. And if the world is mythical; so what?
Coming and emanating from this acceptance we now note that most peoples operate as if the world is real, has meaning, needs and wants meaning located within/without, in their bodies, imaginations, in relationships to m/others, to place, to history…to their (our) own being. (Different from Socrates, death is a tragedy, life is to be lived/celebrated…!)
I think, as well, that we are describing loci of existence which take us out of the ancient Parmenidean/Platonic paradox picked up by Heidegger in Being and Time’s reference to Plato’s Sophist, where being is placed in some dialectic with non-being. This has (always; necessarily?) led to our having an affair of love with the imaginative abilities of being human, pushing to rid ourselves of our bodies and whatever is linguistic but not symbolic (i.e., paralanguage/tone of speech).
And this re-cognition of the imaginative should ask us to ask how we both live as body and think infinitely, rather than acting as if (Plato was truly positing an as if, you see!) the body grounds our essential being, and then we can act as if this body which is our life, is somehow non-essential to actual being. I am not trying to resolve some paradox of life and death, but to focus our retrieve upon the fact that our concepts of being are from life.
As a kind of strategic position which might extend the power of the acceptance of this extreme of as if being, it seems also important to deal with a couple of other paradoxes which have captivated Western thinking, linked as they have been with Plato’s acceptance/proposed solution to the problem of death: the problematics of the one v. many; and of change v. permanence.
With respect to change, I think it important in order to remain clearly within life, to retrieve the Heraclitean position in a very strong form. This involves the acceptance of the time paradox: that life is both changing and it is/has many senses of permanence. I want to place the paradox with life experience; i.e., that the experience of the time paradox actually occurs – whether continuously in our awareness or, more likely, from time-to-time. (Any felt circularity here will be dealt with in Context and other Foundations Projects.)
The strong form of Heraclitus is that we take change to be the governing actuality from being within life. But this does not require explanation or accounting. What needs accounting is that we find much of existence to be (now, apparently) stable or continuous. Since this cannot be true (from our Heraclitean pinnacle), all such stabilities need accounting. If, that is, there are no powers continuing to support or regenerate (frequently?!) the apparent structures, they would change. So our primary questions have to with the infrastructures – intellectual, bureaucratic, etc. – which themselves structure permanence: structures, and the senses of being within such structurings in whose terms many of us calculate being.
Within the paradox of one and many, it is crucial in providing critique of the Platonic pursuit to note that the Phaedonic split of mind and body and the subsequent banishing of the body from the realm of philosophy, epistemology, and so on for us to re-cognize and accept the importance of the locus of being as the physical body. This acceptance has been surreptitious in terms of its power to define the entire Platonic enterprise, but nonetheless powerful in its defining and attracting power: in effect, then, taking us outside our bodily being to locate our being. The fact is that with this surreptitious locational move, we have accepted the body as a kind of mistaken but certain existence – only then to deny it as we then see the mind as being located/placed within the body; but not exactly of it.
We are bodies, as Nietzsche so boldly stated in Also Sprach Zarathrustha (I), and mind/soul is some story about the body. But he missed, being in the end an inescapable Platonist, the idea that we are by our nature social creatures: that we/I are body located in a universe of other bod(y)ies. He had accepted uncritically (but how could he not have, 19th century?) the notion that our objectivity – the very basis for the possibility of epistemology – that the development of human language has enabled sociality, not the other way round.
The body – located with a universe of others’ body(ies) is the scene, the setting and locus for the problematics of our being, of knowledge and identity and existence.
A Foundational Mode of Inquiry
Although it is difficult and presumptuous to approach even one’s own tradition critically and sweepingly, it is timely to attempt to re-consider the foundations of thought at this historical moment when the theo-political traditions of the entire earth come together: the great/powerful traditions as well as those which never attracted the followings of PlatoWesternJudeoChristianMuslim or Confucius, Hindu, Buddha: indigenousAmerindian, African, animist, shamanist…
This project consists of several aphoristic works which move toward the study of what I understand to be the foundations of thought. The various projects take up the modes of inquiry, the framing questions, and the directions for search which have shaped the ways in which many/most of us think about the nature of our (human) being. They attempt to approach these critically, and to extend the foundational issues so they may possibly stand somehow, somewhere outside any particular history, politics, or sociology of thought. Though obviously deriving from a particular place and moment in the sweeps of history, the Foundations Project attempts to consider thinking about the human condition from as global a set of perspectives as I can muster.
The second event-insight-critique-understanding which frames the Foundations Project, has to do with the (Western) understanding of what constitutes the human condition. It is now clear – by the late 20th century – that other species are (also) social. I have called this insight the ethological critique.6 In this context, it attempts to avoid any intellectual slippage into the earlier foundational ideas that we humans have body in common with other species. It admits, precisely, that the human (or any other species) body is how we identify ourselves and others; that the body is central to our being, intellectually and every other way. The human body (us) is what and who we are.
The ethological critique reframes in the spirit of comparative thought and inquiry much of what we think about being human. It takes us into the behavior and being of other species in the form of a fieldwork excursion, offers an immersion in the being of other forms in the world together with their conspecifics, watching what and how they do and are, how their young become adults. Then we return to our own human world, having placed new lenses upon our inward and reflective eyes seeing humans in newly critical ways. It is much the same as fieldwork among seemingly exotic human cultures: i.e., in languages and cultures which are very different from our own. It is the attempt in developing a philosophical anthropology, to do an anthropology of the ordinary. How to see our own habits of seeing and thinking, especially our thinking about ourselves?
Upon our return, we discover in this critical vein, that we have received and endlessly repeated stories about the human condition, many/most of which have assumed and believed that only humans are social. These stories have elaborated in a powerful but speculative way how humans could have become social, building upon presumptions of human uniqueness, especially language, symbolic behavior, and human knowledge (Aristotle, Hobbes, especially).
As these stories have been elevated to the potent status of theory and encapsulated in history as natural law, they have persuaded us that we know in some deep ways what it means to be human; as opposed to being other – species or suprahuman. It is precisely in this arena of presumed human uniqueness that our stories about boundaries and their maintenance have to be rethought and restudied critically.
Within the ethological critique it is clear that we are and always have been social; that we evolved to the present already as social creatures. The import of the ethological critique is to force us to rethink what we have considered to be uniquely human: language, symbolic knowledge, logic, rationality…natural law, politics, morality, being and identity, transcendence, and so on.
As well the ethological critique leads us to examine critically what has been essentially (a technical term critical of Platonic idealism) left out and omitted from our thinking about the human condition: namely, the fact that we are bodies living in the world with other(s’) bodies: most especially with our m/others. There is much about the nature of the human body whose study will prove critically interesting. And its virtual omission within the Platonic dualism of mind and body – where mind has become the principal study arena of the human condition – directs us, literally forces us, to this foundational rethinking.
The Writing: Thinkings-Out
As works-in-progress, I consider that readers will not only enter the Foundations Project as a set of limited narratives. Rather, I hope that you will enter with me into the thinking and observational self-critical positions and locations.
These projects are set within the form(s) of writing which are spare and aphoristic, leaving at least some space for readers stimulated to enter their own perorations and searches parallel to and critical of mine.
The writings are bounded and limited by their orientations within a variety of forms particularly of Western thinking to which I am heir, and whose breath I literally breathe – although with a stance which I couch and variously aggrandize as visitor, participant/observer, interviewer, student-thinker of the writings and peoples of the earth. It is also informed by reading widely into other traditions, as well as having lived for a few years in the mixed cultures of Southern Mexico, working in the Mexican Mestizo world, but especially as an anthropological-linguist with speakers of a Mayan language. As important, is my attempt to enter cognitively the thinking of various different groups with whom I have lived and studied: ethnic, gendered, generational, religious, linguistic, disciplinary/collegiate, professional…
The Foundations Project considers a variety of topics as writings-in-progress which wonder how we are as human beings and how place, history, language, and traditions both divide us and make it obvious that we are of a single strand of being. They seek for the Ursprachen of our commonesses as well as for the variety into which the vicissitudes of being human direct us. They wander upon the lines which have divided us, attempting to see and to see-through them.
Perhaps it is (yet) another mode of deconstruction for which the Foundations Project yearns; one which attempts to stand as much as possible outside of the history/culture of its tradition, so that it can reread/retrieve them as much as is possible. It surely is an apologetic of the visitor-intellectual who would live in several worlds but is not exactly at home in any: a visitor, perhaps.
The foundational aspects of the projects is that they try to discern the ancient discussions of the human condition at a most general yet penetrating level of analysis. Especially they consider to be foundational those ideas which have been able to capture thinking as virtually framing the idea of reality (Parmenides, Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle in the West). As different traditions seem to have done this differently, the comparative thought which reflects one tradition onto another reveals that the notion of reality itself has (had) various possibilities, further pushing me to explore the human condition foundationally rather than totally relativizing our being. I presume, that is, that we are!
We are most certainly physical bodies living with and within the presence of other(s’) bodies. Our knowing our bodies constitutes the groundwork of being and reality.
And we have extension. While it has been the notion of our extension beyond the physical that has excited most (especially Western) thinkers to characterize this especially as the human, I think that the physicality of our being is our being, and is much more interesting and complicated than the merely mechanical/material we have usually considered. We are – particularly our faces – mirrors of and for one another, and complicated in the dynamics of living.
An important aspect of this larger project will be to recomplementarize the mechanical-mental (spiritual) aspects of being human. In various ways it will be a kind of return to a Heraclitean holism, in which experience is not at philosophical war with materiality. These dualistic polemics have taken us to the various edges of understanding whose unpacking has no further directedness. Instead, they have blocked us from examining various questions, directing human agency away from being.
But I realize also that time and place and various personal and collective histories direct us and our thinking to frame being in marvelously different ways. At some moments life is enjoyed and celebrated; at others it is feared and lamented, occasionally cursed. Sometimes we have invented and concocted stories to explain our feelings and to move ourselves on; at other times we have looked inside our being or totally away from being to explain our feelings, or to explain them away.
Particularly in those world traditions which have become powerful – those whose heirs are presently meeting in the literal classrooms of our collective lives – some moment and character of history has expressed the nature of our being in ways so powerfully convincing that the nature of our being is to a large extent lived within the frameworks of historical-textual renderings of being. The world of any actual experience is often virtually subsumed to its textual descriptions: that is, as we are all students of existence, the text-as-world (TAW) has usually ruled over the world-as-text (WAT).
And there is the question of paradox. Apparently, for most of us, some aspects of our lives are lived – as it were, singly. Other aspects are multiple. Still others seem to us have or to develop themes which are, at once, one and another. In some traditions, for example, we try to remain fully awake and praise that as experience; in others, we find in the dreams of sleep that which we call experience. What is, for example, male is never exclusively male, nor female a way of being unto itself. Similarly with time, and with change, with life and its perorations upon death.
We humans have and continue to understand and experience the passage of time in quite different ways. Sometimes life seems viscous and slow; at other times one may effectively live two days before noon. Various traditions have attempted to stop the experience of time, or to discover ways to effectively banish time and change; others have attempted to make time cyclical, effectively containing time and change within a framework of permanence. Yet others have said (Heraclitus) that our condition is change. I add, agreeing, that we then must attempt to explain that which seems to us permanent (e.g., ourselves).
And, in the traditions to which I also am heir, many of us find the fullness of being only when we no longer exist in our bodily form. And so the Foundations Project grapples with the paradoxical aspects of being, wondering especially why paradox has so often tried to explain itself away.
This collection includes several foundational works which are variously complete (and continuing) because the meanings of our being are various and alter considerably as we move on in life. Questions about our nature, about the ways in which this nature is constructed, lived, interpreted, given and sustained in being and meaning are explored.
The problem for the thinker-about our being is to find and to occupy some critical position(s) from which to observe her/himself viewing, else get waylaid within some particularities of perspective, history, or limitations of knowing.
The common ground which they (I) attempt to occupy with some discernable consistency has to do with the facts of our human physical presence in the presence of other physical beings in relation to the ability of mutual understanding.7 Our ability to understand others irrespective of language or culture or geography, history, or preferences, teaches us that understanding is possible if not always likely. The current conceptual shrinking of the entire earth which brings us together in our being, thinking, knowing instructs us of this possibility. But we must work at such understandings.
As well as certain particularities of experience and intellectual training (much of it as an auto-didact), I rely on several simultaneous positionings in considering the human condition: 1) comparative thought (thinking across traditions, disciplines, species, and machines); 2) history of discourse/ideas; 3) politics of ideas/discourse; 4) sociology/marketplace of knowledge.
I am neither structuralist nor anti-structuralist, but do note that much of the human condition operates much of the time as if it were structural. I presume, like Heraclitus, that change is the nature and the directedness of being, but note that permanence as the antinomy of change as well as cycles of change, perforates and precludes change.
I further presume, as in the telling, that these are active principles (doings) in the human condition rather than givens. (See: The Body Journals for example and explication.) Much of the problematic of what is form and what is substance, for example, is that they often operate (as if) in some unfolding dynamic processes, rather than being in some opposition to one another.
Much of the ground of any understanding thus lies not in answers or solutions to paradox, but to the grasping of the foundational solutions of various traditions to the facts of experiential puzzlings. We are creatures who experience paradox at various moments in existence. The habits of solving/resolving apparent oppositions does not tell us much about paradox, but instead directs us toward the issues and questions and their directions for solution which various traditions have effectively adopted over the centuries, and made the basis for the computation of the very idea of reality.
These studies, then, attempt to see-through the boundaries of our being to gain new appreciation of their nature. They explore the framings and architectonics of being which have informed the stories we tell ourselves as well as of the contexts of context itself.
These studies approach the major categories of discussion as broadly as has been possible within the time of my life and life-studies. It is informed as well by the major dialogues of my life, especially with Janis Sarles and also with Philip Regal, Gerald Timian, Glenn Radde. Others with whom I have talked include Dean Oyen, Spero Manson, Jean Cameron, Stanley Williams, Mischa Penn, Wlad Godzich, Yi-Fu Tuan, Judith Martin, Burton Shapiro, Robin Brown, Richard Hruby, Ned Holle, Dan Latorre, Eric Meenk, Rod Sando…
On Human Nature
Origin of Meaning
Retrieval of Meaning
1 Darwin, Charles. “Descent of Man”; “Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.��� (1871-72)
2 Sarles, H. 2001. “Nietzsche’s Prophecy: The Crisis Meaning.” Humanity Press.
3Sarles, H. 1991 “Critical Naturalism and Cultural Relativism.” In “Cultural Relativism and Philosophy: North and Latin America. Ed., Marcelo Dascal. Leiden: E.J.Brill: 195-214.
4Sarles, H. 1993. “Teaching as Dialogue: A Teacher�������s Study.” U. Press of America.
5 Sarles, H. 1985. “Language and Human Nature.” U. of Minnesota. Chap. 12-14.
6 Sarles, H. 1995 “Ethology and the Philosophy of Language” – Handbuch Sprachphilosophie. Eds., M. Dascal, D. Gerhardus, K. Lorenz, G. Meggle. Berlin: De Gruyter: 1700-1708.
7Refs. to Kierkegaard, Buber, anti-Foundationalism.