A Parable About Hammers and Nails

After my comment yesterday about the utilitarian ethos and its origins — as informing our understanding of the contemporary “common sense” — I thought I would expand upon that here. The old adage that runs: “if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail”, is actually quite rich in meaning.

That adage is, of course, an observation about the overspecialisation of one function of consciousness or one mode of perception, and it reflects pretty well what the cultural historian Jean Gebser means by deficient perspectivism, or the point-of-view-line-of-thought consciousness structure that has been pursued since the discovery of the third dimension of space in the European Renaissance. That’s pretty much the entire meaning of men like Petrarch, da Vinci, Copernicus, Galileo, Alberti, or Dürer and their successors. The “Age of Discovery” was, in effect, the attempt to master, intellectually and physically, the third dimension of space and the irruption of the infinite into the very finite vaulted and domed world of the Middle Ages. It was the opening up of space to perception.

And for that reason, too, calculation displaced contemplation as the mind’s mode of relation to Nature, which is its contemporary bias. And when we speak of “Age of Reason” versus “Age of Faith”, it means really that — thinking became calculation rather than contemplation. Perspectivisation and calculation became “the new normal” in those terms, and so too did “having”, in the sense of “grasping” or taking possession, come to displace “being”. There was also a rage for mirrors, and for autobiography and self-portrait because simultaneously with the discovery of infinity was the discovery of the ego as this very same “point-of-view”, which became formalised as Descartes’ famous formula “I think, therefore I am”.

Everything that we call “Modern” is the logical development from this attempt to master the third dimension by calculation, and even “rational” itself came to be conceived in terms of a ratio of spaces conceived or grasped in three dimensions — length, breadth, depth, and in parallel terms of the dialectics of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. This tripartite logic takes the shape of the pyramid, and conforms to the perspectivising “point-of-view” consciousness structure made famous as the symbol of the so-called Illuminati (“the Enlightened”), as discussed in previous posts. The calculating mind set about making sure that everything in the world conformed to this new calculus of coordinative geometries. The utilitarian ethos was simply a logical development from that.

What got lost and ignored in all this space-obsessed activity of consciousness, until very recently, was time and the meaning of time. And certain consequences of that followed logically also. For one thing, society became obsessed by means at the expense of ends. I believe it was Crane Brinton who described the meaning of “Modern” as “the invention of a system for creating systems”, and that’s as good a definition as any I’ve come across. It’s an obsession with means — media or techne. A how, but without a why. Science, and calculating mind, can explain and describe the how of things. But it cannot explain or describe the why of things, which was the topic of the contemplative mind, and that is because calculating mind cannot account for the phenomenon of time.

This is a BIG problem.

Thinking, in terms of calculating mind, is only one of the functions of consciousness. There is also feeling, willing, sensing. Jung referred to these as “psychological types” but they are, in effect, different functions of consciousness. You can consider them as part of your toolkit. The bias of the Modern structure of consciousness has been on the thinking function, to the virtual neglect of these other functions of consciousness, so that its description of reality is woefully incomplete and in some sense merely one-dimensional in those terms. It is this bias that informs the adage “if the only tool you have is a hammer, then everything begins to look like a nail”.

The bias on either thinking, or feeling, or willing or sensing functions gives you different structures of consciousness — different types of human civilisation. Those were, in Gebser’s terms, the archaic, the magical, the mythical and the mental-rational civilisational types. Each of them had their efficient as well as their eventual deficient (or decadent) mode of functioning. But it was precisely because they were overspecialisations that they eventually stumbled and fell. The “efficient-deficient” stages correspond to what we call “rise and fall”.

And if, today, we are speaking of “Late Modernity” or “post-modernity”, it is because the mental-rational structure of consciousness is also failing, and has entered into its “deficient” (or decadent) mode of functioning. And this was also owing to an exaggerated overspecialisation of one consciousness function in the context of the irruption into reality of the very thing that calculating mind could not have or possess or “grasp” or turn into a mere means — time. The deficiency of our response, here, is that we are trying to treat of time as a fourth dimension of space. Time is pressing. It has become a real pressure or stress. But it remains an enigma for us because we have over-specialised in the objectivising or perspectivising mode of consciousness, which is calculating rationality.

Rosenstock-Huessy once remarked (probably taking the story of Noah’s Ark as his template) that it is the mandate of the revolutionary to build a new boat in an emergency, when the old boat has foundered upon the rocks. But what do you do if the only tool you have in your toolkit is a hammer? A hammer probably seemed sufficient as long as the old boat appeared seaworthy and wasn’t disintegrating. But to build a new boat in an emergency you need more tools in your toolkit than a hammer and a few nails. It really doesn’t do you much good if you are expert in the handling of hammers, but actually need a saw.

These are what the functions of consciousness are — elements of your toolkit for navigating and manoeuvring time and space, and even for arranging times and spaces in their proper order, because it’s not accidental that Jung’s four functions of consciousness happen to correspond to a fourfold cosmos of two times (past and future) and two spaces (inner and outer).

The trouble with the utilitarian ethos and creed is that it has elevated means over ends. The so-called “free market” is a prime example of that, too. A market is only a means, but it has come to be treated as being an end in itself. That’s the tautology of calculating mind that is also contained in Brinton’s definition of modernity as a “system for creating systems” — a means for creating more means, in other words. And that’s the degenerate situation that William Blake foresaw when he wrote

If it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic Character the Philosophic & Experimental would soon be at the ratio of all things, and stand still, unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again.

A “system for creating systems” interminably is that same dull round of mind fatally trapped in a tautology and unable to escape or transcend itself. That’s the narcissistic condition. And, again, it is no accident that Blake has four “characters” here — the Poetic, the Prophetic, the Philosophic and the Experimental. They correspond to his fourfold vision and the four Zoas of his fourfold vision. And they correspond also to the four functions of consciousness mapped by Jung as being thinking, feeling, willing, and sensing — equally the quadrilateral logic of Rosenstock-Huessy’s “grammatical method” and “cross of reality”.



16 responses to “A Parable About Hammers and Nails”

  1. donsalmon says :

    I was particularly taken by your description of thinking. I’m guessing this is probably semantics, but I would have thought that it’s a matter of different “kinds” of thinking. Rudolf Steiner has emphasized this; I think Owen Barfield refers to “Alpha” thinking and “Beta” thinking, one being (If i recall correctly) closer to calculating and the other more contemplative (not sure if that’s the right definition of those terms, but I do know that both Barfield and Steiner make that larger distinction).

    Arthur Zajonc has been teaching contemplative thinking at the elementary, high school and college levels for a number of years (Zajonc was past president of the Anthroposophical society, the main body for Steiner’s teachings). Heidegger, of course, also makes the distinction between calculative thinking and understanding.

    Iain McGilchrist has a very interesting distinction between “left mode” (mediated by the left hemisphere) and “right mode” (right hemisphere) thinking. In “The Master and his Emissary”, McGilchrist has an amazing analysis of modernity in terms of the overwhelming bias toward left mode (linear, rationalist, calculating, dividing everything into parts, obsessed with means and unable to deal with holistic “ends”), etc.

    In the title, McGilchrist is communicating his values; namely, that the right hemisphere “should” be the master but the left, the emissary, has – in modern times – taken over, much like the sorcerer’s apprentice.

    Your point about the free market becoming an end in itself (much like the explanation of evolution as being for the purpose of “survival”) was particularly apt, now that libertarian “free market” cultists (particularly the Catholics among them) are becoming apoplectic at the idea of a very popular Pope not only accepting climate change but criticizing Capitalism!

    • Scott Preston says :

      I was just leaving for a medical appointment in the city when you’re comment arrived, so I couldn’t get to it right away.

      yes, I suppose it could be said that there are different “kinds of thinking”, just as there are different “kinds of feeling”. Contemplative thinking is what I tend to associate with symbolic thinking, where even number can serve as symbol (Pythagorean number or sacred geometry, etc) and not simply as sign. I think that might be serve as the distinction — signification or symbolisation. And both approaches are really quite necessary (particularly the case if they are associated with different hemispheres of the whole brain). The attempt to reduce all symbolic forms into signs belongs to that general reductionism and fundamentalism we’ve been discussing as “devaluation of values” (attempts to make language more like mathematics — logical positivism — which would certainly have had Blake, for one, turning in his grave).

      On the market as end, rather than means — this was the topic, too, of Tom Frank’s book One Market Under God, in which he characterised the contemporary market as having become an “altar” to the “Invisible Hand”. That seems a pretty good way of describing it.

    • Scott Preston says :

      I’ve ordered McGilchrist’s book, by the way, after your mention of it.

  2. Risto says :

    Ps. sorry if I’ve been bombing you with the same comment, my phone wouldn’t let me know if I had sent message or not…

  3. Risto says :

    Ok, this went through so you didn’t get the other ones. Oh well *sigh*

    It went roughly like this:

    I found this interesting article in The Dark Mountain Projects blog about comedy and tragedy. (The name of the article is “At Play in the Comedy of Survival: An Appreciation of Joseph Meeker”. I won’t put the link if that’s the reason why my previous comments didn’t go through…)

    I studied the relation of humour and religion in my master’s thesis and in my opinion the lighter aspects should be considered also when one thinks about the stuff from the deep end.

    If tradegy is the hammer, could comedy be the saw?

    • Scott Preston says :

      That would be a very interesting master’s thesis. I’ll look up the article you recommend and see whether the “hammer and saw” could be considered to be parallel to the tragical and the comedic. Might be an interesting approach.

      • Risto says :

        Yeah, it seems humour and religion is quite uncharted territory in academic discussions. Huizinga rings a bell, but I haven’t read the book. Have to check it out, Burke too.

    • Scott Preston says :

      I found a commentary on Meeker’s Comedic approach at Dissident Voice. It sounds quite interesting. There is an historical line of thought that has pursued that notion of “play” beginning, I think, with Johan Huizinga, who wrote a book (you may know it) called Homo Ludens, and continues through Kenneth Burke and his “dramatism” and theory of symbolic action. I’ve always wanted to study Burke, but have never found the time to dive into him.

      “Maya” is the theory of life as “play” or drama, too, and “ludens” is connected to the word “illusion”, in the sense of a play. So, Meeker’s approach may very well complement these others.

  4. LittleBigMan says :

    “A market is only a means, but it has come to be treated as being an end in itself.”

    Perfect! That’s what my senior business oriented colleagues are into: just discussing, playing and predicting the market as an end itself. A number of them who are wealthy and pushing 70 years old still keep following the stupid market and the economy as if these are what minutes and seconds of life are all about. I don’t mean to sound self-righteous about these people, but I’m often puzzled as to how distorted their focus on life matters are. I often ask myself and wonder when did this happen to them? I mean the lack of spirituality and the focus on material things.

    • donsalmon says :

      LBM: I loved that comment to, the market as end rather than means. I suspect it’s not just wealthy business people – look even at school administrations, and heck, look at ourselves – how often do we catch ourselves focusing on the economics of a situation, our own, or just something we’re reading about.

      Conditioning is intense and subtle.

      • LittleBigMan says :

        “Conditioning is intense and subtle.”

        That nails it, Donsalmon. That conditioning (i.e. “foreign installation” or “perception management”) worked very well on me, too, during a time in my life when I was excited and curious about markets.

        Then, one day, I had a moment of looking at myself in the mirror so to speak, and I didn’t like what I saw at all. It wasn’t the dent in my bank account that bothered me so much, but that I saw how fixated on the ebb and flow of the markets my mind had become. I noticed that I was committing a crime against myself and the precious moments of life I had been given on this planet. I stopped right then, and even the prospects of lucrative profits didn’t push me back in.

    • Scott Preston says :

      I don’t know if anyone has interpreted the “free market” as being a fetish. Tom Frank pointed out the religiosity associated with it in “One Market Under God” but I’m not sure if he ever described it as a fetish (he compared it to an “altar”). Of course, we all know about “commodity fetishism”. But the market fetish (ie, treating of means as ends in themselves) would make for an interesting study.

      • LittleBigMan says :

        ““One Market Under God” made book number 444 on my list 🙂

        A long time ago, and for a few years, I did have what can be described as “market fetish.” It was pure hell! It was a crime against self.

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