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.