The End of Democracy in the Breakdown of Dialectical Consciousness

In The Ever-Present Origin, Jean Gebser emphasised our disturbing contemporary penchant to think in terms of mere “dualisms” as the signal symptom of the breakdown and disintegration of the mental-rational structure of consciousness. He called this our “deficient rationality”, and thought of it as something reflecting “the inner division of contemporary man” (in the words of his interpreter, Jean Keckeis).

And despite the blowhard militant atheists and radical secularists, it was actually the Church hitherto that prevented reason from deteriorating into a mere dualistic rationality when it denounced the Manichean heresy as being contrary to revealed truth. Today, it is the Buddhist doctrine of non-duality that now serves as the corrective to Manicheanism.

It is dualism that is at the root of the present fragmentation and atomisation of the Modern Era.

A few words need to be said about dialectics before focussing on dualism as the meaning of “deficient rationality” and as the central problem of our time, for it is, as Gebser put it, “the attitude of a mentality headed for a fall”, which is to say, now in the throes of disintegration.

What Gebser calls “the mental-rational structure of consciousness” could just as well be called “dialectical consciousness”. Dialectical mind owes its origins mainly to the Greeks, principally to Socrates and “Socratic method”, which is the method of question and answer made famous in the Socratic dialogues reproduced by his student Plato. Dialectic is just another word for “dialogue” or “discourse”. Reasoning, for Socrates, was a public affair and a real world process. When Socrates wanted to do philosophy, he went to the agora — the the Athenian marketplace — where he would engage an interlocutor in the dance of the dialectic — speaking and listening, question and response. For Socrates, reasoning was a very public process and the essence of sociability conducted between two or more interlocutors as the method of question and answer.

With Rene Descartes and subsequent philosophy, the social and existential process of reasoning as public discourse becomes abstracted from its social context. The mind that puts the question is also the mind that responds or contradicts as the skeptic or doubter. In abstract dialectics, he who puts the question is now identified as “thesis”, and he who contradicts or casts doubt on the thesis forms the “anti-thesis”. This is the origin of that “inner division of contemporary man” who must represent in his thinking both the diction and the contradiction, or thesis and its anti-thesis, realised as the method of radical doubt. The happy free thinker is one who eventually resolves this inward contradiction in a “synthesis” — an agreement or consensus — that represents the “Eureka” moment. Another word for this “synthesis” is “peace of mind”. This is still the recognisable social process by which treaties are struck or alliances formed between nations, contracts concluded, or court cases adjudicated where prosecutor, advocate, and judge stand in for thesis, anti-thesis, and synthesis.

Dialectical reasoning thus has three terms (which number is not without significance itself where reality was considered to have only three dimensions of space): thesis, anti-thesis, and synthesis; or diction, contradiction, and agreement. Even these terms still point to the rootedness of thinking and reason in a real world social process of speaking, listening, and response. Only now it is largely performed in the theatre of one and the same mind. Thinking has become an inner monologue or a dialogue one conducts with one’s own mind or within one’s own imagination, and thus between one “self” and another “self” — the self-image. It thus tends towards a narcissistic tautology and the conceit of “the self-made man”.

In contrast to the “deficient” mode of the mental-rational in dualistic thinking, the “efficient” mode is one in which thesis and anti-thesis are still seen as necessary complementary poles of one process, not as being mutually antagonistic or estranged. Thesis and anti-thesis exist for, with, and through one another. In the dance of the dialectic, both interlocutors subordinate themselves to a mutual quest for truth. Their mutual love of truth overrules their narrower self-interest. Thesis and anti-thesis are partners in a mutually creative and cooperative social enterprise of truth discovery or value realisation.

This kind of reasoning is not dualistic. Dualism represents the degeneracy and decadence of the dialectic into mutually antagonistic and conflicting contradictions — a kind of Jekyll and Hyde condition — in which the victory of thesis over anti-thesis or vice versa is deemed the sole end and purpose of reason. Consequently, winning or losing, which are issues of power, come to take the place of the cooperative and mutual disclosure of truth. In place of “synthesis”, which is the realisation of a common peace, there is, at best, only “compromise” suggesting more often than not a state of mutual dissatisfaction with the outcome. A state of unreason rules in which faithfulness to reason and loyalty to truth can be sacrificed for the sake of “winning”. This was, in effect, the frightful outcome of Nietzsche’s pronouncement of “the death of God” leaving only will to power.

It is very often overlooked how much our civilisation owes to dialectical reasoning for its legal and judicial process, its concepts of democracy, political rights, and constitutionality (rule of law and reason rather than the arbitrary of men), and its values of free speech, free association, and free assembly as the realised forms and values of dialectical reason. I’m quite convinced that all these are largely derived from Socrates’ example of reason as being a shared social and public process. If Socrates is considered a saint by some, and worthy of emulation, it is not because he was “rational” but because he was the model of reasonableness. Rationality can be a wholly private affair of the mind, but being reasonable is social.

The signs of the breakdown and disintegration of dialectical consciousness into the dualism of a strictly “either/or” logic, and consequently of the degradation and debasement of society conceived as a commonwealth or convivium, are manifestly evident in the affairs of the day. It’s evident in the drive towards a “unipolar” world (“unipolar” being itself an insane Orwellian-style construct). In the political domain today, it takes the form of a emergent radical antagonism between the values of the private and the public, or individual and society (or person and community) so crucial to the well-being of a functioning democracy. Private and public are not dualisms but complementaries. When Margaret Thatcher, for example, declared “there is no such thing as society” (she said she recognised “only individuals and families”) and this was taken as the political wisdom of the day, this was already a radical departure from reasonableness for which the present United Kingdom has paid a hefty price in social malaise and political scandal, (as is presently happening in Canada, too). For, fundamentally, Thatcher was saying there is no such thing as a “public” at all. It is quite common today to read like-minded people confuse or obscure the meanings of “public” with “state” (or as deliberate, self-justifying obfuscation perhaps). Since the “public” realm is deemed a fiction or synonymous with “the state”, privatisation and the deregulation of “the pursuit of self-interest” (egoic individualism) is simply seen as the common sense and “the new normal”.

To my mind, nothing signals the self-negation of dialectical consciousness or the destructuring and fracturing of the mental-rational mind (and thus of the Modern Era itself) than this false either/or dualism and dichotomisation of private and public, individual and society, as being mutually antagonistic processes. The end result, should it proceed to its logical terminus, will be the annihilation of both, which is something we are already witnessing in some jurisdictions reflecting the inward division of the mind acting against itself, Jekyll and Hyde fashion, where the rational pursuit if self-interest, having severed all connection with the vital centre in its extremity, now becomes indistinguishable from the irrational pursuit of self-destruction. This fragmentation and atomisation of the commonwealth — the public realm — by egocentric individualism even under the cover of “privatisation” is, quite literally, a form of dissociation.

But “dissociation” is but another word for psychosis.


10 responses to “The End of Democracy in the Breakdown of Dialectical Consciousness”

  1. LittleBigMan says :

    I take away from this that the “dialectic consciousness” is the body and the private and public realms of reason are the cooperating organs of the same body.

    BTW, did you have the chance to watch the Brian Greene programs about ‘Space’ and ‘Time’? What do you think of them?

    • Scott Preston says :

      Alas, those videos are also inaccessible to me, being stamped with a big “this video is private” requiring permission of the owner to access… who ever that is.

      I am familiar with Brian Greene’s work on physics. Maybe these videos are just reproduction of his written material?

      • LittleBigMan says :

        I’m so sorry to hear that the videos are inaccessible to you. I’m very surprised by this. I thought the whole point of the internet was that it was free and accessible from anywhere in the world. I don’t understand it.

        I do have his book the “elegant universe”, which I have yet to read. I have skimmed through it a couple of times, though, and yes, what I found in his book is pretty much what I saw in his two programs. Beautiful, illuminating, wonderful stuff.

        My main reason for wanting you to see the programs is that they are scientific reification of your philsophical discussions. Science is just beginning to find out what philosophers, as Seth put it, have known for a very long time. It talks about how ‘Space’ has a fabric like quality to it and that it can be stretched, twisted, and bent. When I heard him say that, I remembered that don Juan showed us that ‘Space” can also be ripped – as a way to access other worlds, as he and his team had to do to bring back Castaneda from the other world. Seth’s prescient expressions and Greene’s scientific discussion of the nature of reality are just merging in so many ways in these programs. In one of Castaneda’s books, he talks about when don Juan talked to him about worlds where a few seconds are equal to a few years of earth time, and that there are worlds where a few seconds on earth equals several years there. Greene uses the concept of “now slice” across the entire universe that that’s a real possibility. I sure hope one day you can get the chance to watch the programs.

        • Scott Preston says :

          “Space can be ripped” — yes, interesting. When I was fourteen, I painted a picture of space being ripped. It was somewhat similar to the woodcut “Urbi et Orbi” (which, by the way, is very popular for hits on The Chrysalis… surprisingly. I don’t know why it gathers so many hits, as it is a somewhat arcane ancient woodcut, but really does represent something profound about the disjuncture between the organic and inorganic, between bios and physis, between one age and another age, between also life and death. It’s quite an amazing piece of work.

  2. Scott says :

    By coincidence, a couple of articles in The Guardian today address much the same themes raised here about the anti-social nature of privatisation or “market fundamentalism” (ie, “economism”).

    Muhammad Yunus video clip on why economists have worked from a faulty understanding of human beings

    “Privatisation” as “asset stripping” (that is, pillage and plunder of the commonwealth)

  3. LittleBigMan says :

    Would you please provide the link to woodcut “Urbi et Orbi” on Chrysalis? Many thanks!

  4. Scott Preston says :

    I was reminded this morning that this entire polarisation of “public” and “private” into strict dualistic terms is already the issue of that quote from Gebser that I’ve posted so many times already,

    “The current situation manifests on the one hand an egocentric individualism exaggerated to extremes and desirous of possessing everything, while on the other it manifests an equally extreme collectivism that promises the total fulfillment of man’s being. In the latter instance we find the utter abnegation of the individual valued merely as an object in the human aggregate; in the former a hyper-valuation of the individual who, despite his limitations, is permitted everything. This deficient; that is destructive, antithesis divides the world into two warring camps, not just politically and ideologically, but in all areas of human endeavour.

    Since these two ideologies are now pressing toward their limits we can assume that neither can prevail in the long run. When any movement tends to the extremes it leads away from the center or nucleus toward eventual destruction at the outer limits where the connections to the life giving center finally are severed. It would seem that today the connections are already broken, for it is increasingly evident that the individual is driven into isolation while the collective degenerates into mere aggregation. These two conditions, isolation and aggregation, are in fact clear indications that individualism and collectivism have now become deficient.” (p. 3, The Ever-Present Origin).

    This statement applies just as much to the “either/or” dualistic logic that sees public and private as mutually exclusive antagonistic contradictories rather than polar complementaries. In our context, of course, narcissism or “the culture of narcissism” represents the extremity of privatisation (there’s a close etymological connection between meanings of private and theft, too) which tends become anti-social. On the other hand, the notion that everything is “public” tends toward collectivisation in the other direction, and sometimes as a reaction to the excesses of narcissism and privatisation — as, for example, Germany during the Weimar Republic. The same thing, in reverse, happened in the former USSR where overcollectivisation invoked the reaction of mass privatisation that resulted in anarchy and the overnight billionaires — the oligarchs.

  5. LittleBigMan says :

    Rather clairvoyant what you drew at 14. I was also impressed by Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game” which was perhaps 50 years ahead of its time at the time it was written. What’s important, in my opinion, is that mankind’s clairvoyance is timeless. We seem to have always had this latent ability which shows itself – when “the doors of perception ” are not shut.

  6. LittleBigMan says :

    Sorry, I meant to say “insightful” rather than “clairvoyant” in my post above.

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