Tuesday, May 01, 2012

The Story So Far: Notes Toward A Medium Opus V

Last week, I saw a BBC report on the latest from the Cassini Spacecraft orbiting Saturn. I was struck almost immediately with a fit of nostalgia for that long ago summer afternoon when I first discovered human's initial close encounter with the planet. It was the awakening of a kind of curiosity inside me about the world, how we understand it, and how we may well not understand it. Over the years, I've ranged far and wide in my courses of study, prompted by concerns of the moment or long-standing interests, but at the heart of all of it is a simple desire to figure out a couple basic questions: How is it we human beings understand the world around us? Is it possible these things are connected in some way, ways perhaps that we overlook in our pursuit of different kinds of understanding? Is this understanding linked in any way that might yet prove fruitful for making our life together as over six billion people on this planet not just less hazardous, but easier for all?

So far, I've mentioned a few names, teachers I've had in class and instructors who have offered their works to the ages in print, that provide some of the clues I needed, either to understand the questions I didn't even know I had, or the information to move forward in answering the questions I was starting to understand. We'll encounter other names and ideas soon enough, as before in no particular chronological order, but always drawn together, for me, in the hopes of making sense of so disparate a phenomenon as human understanding.

I decided to start this because, after reading the stories of our latest discoveries around Saturn, I realized that something had come full circle for me. While much of what I've already written and will follow has been settled for me for quite a while, I thought a bit of self-reflection was in order, if for no other reason than to make explicit those links that, until now, had only been implicit. What better time than now? What better way than to tell the silly story of me reading a magazine one summer afternoon when I was a kid, and the surprising impact it had upon a large part of my life? I've learned a few things on the way, offered some clues as to the direction I'm heading, as well as some red herrings just to keep things interesting. Making clear why it is I have such a wide array of interests has always been something I thought I might do at some point; with the prompting I received that point has come, and moving forward I'm looking forward to making sense of it all.

At its most basic, my curiosity revolves around the related points of human understanding and human sociability. Making our world a more livable place for its inhabitants certainly involves understanding our world, yet how do we understand it? How is it possible to work together toward particular goals of common justice and humanity when it is quite possible we have no idea what we're talking about when we insist we understand all sorts of things about the world? Does that leave us without any resources for improving our common life, hoping perhaps to keep things from sucking so much (the position of Richard Rorty)?

There are keys, not the least of them being a lesson I learned, first from my father, then from life: A little humility can go a long way. Beginning with the premise that no matter how much we think we understand, (a) it might all be wrong; or (b) even if what we have so far isn't wrong, there is still ao much left to discover and learn and understand, should keep us from getting too caught up in our own wonderfulness at all the things we think we know. It is far better to expect to be wrong, if for no other reason than the happy surprise that comes with being proved right.

There is no special virtue in having a lot of stuff crammed in one's brain. I don't consider it a point of pride that my interests are broad, my reading at least somewhat more deep than the average person, and my ability to articulate my thoughts a goal toward which I work. On the contrary. Compared, say, to those who work with their hands, those who teach, or even those who work each day to improve our world just a bit through their work with and for others, being impressed with the ability to read books is hardly something one should bandy about as marking some special virtue. First of all, there are always those who read and understand those books better; second, and far more basic - who cares? The information and understanding is meaningless unless it serves a larger goal and purpose. Since this includes never resting or settling easy with the answers and solutions we have so far, closing one book inevitably leads to opening the next. And the next. And the next. No matter how much we might think we have it figured out, a point is going to come when we say, with St. Thomas when he was asked why he had given up writing his Summa Theologica: "It's all straw."

We should never become so impressed with our own accomplishments that we forget no one else is. We should never forget that most basic, important lesson that has come from a lifetime of study and work and living: None of it, not a bit of it, is about me. For that reason alone, I have little for which to be proud. I do, however, have some explaining to do.

Virtual Tin Cup

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