A Cartesian Education

Recently I attended a political meeting. As we all know, I think, political meetings are purely pro forma these days — ritualistic and ceremonial. Probably everyone feels that way about political meetings but are too polite to say so — not to be taken seriously, but not to be taken as comedy and farce either. “Earnest” might be the right word. Everyone is expected to be earnest. It’s theatre.

In the course of the meeting, a man of very conservative views (in fact, I’ld say they were fascistic) stood up to make his opinion known — something about “entitlements”. What came out of his mouth was so absurd, so full of self-contradiction, that I felt I had to respond by pointing out that what he had said was unreasonable, was contrary to evidence and experience, and ended in an absurdity.

The man was quite astonished, even offended, that I would call him to account for what he had just said. “Don’t you understand that it’s my opinion?” he replied, emphasising the word “opinion” very strongly. In other words, didn’t I understand that this was a political meeting and so, nothing was supposed to be taken as sincere or serious? I had no right to question his opinion or to call him to account for it because he had the right of free speech.

So, it was my turn to be astonished. I looked at that man and thought, “there standing right in front of me is the End of the World”.

I reflected on that exchange and on the political meeting itself for some time afterwards. That man wasn’t exactly a one-off. Everyone is expected to “have an opinion” these days, and I realised that the man was simply a product of a pernicious Cartesian education and pedagogy. “Opinion” wasn’t a tentative hypothesis to be tested against experience, evidence, and reason, but “self-expression” and therefore all tangled up with the identity and self-image. “Opinion” had become sanctified as private property, inviolable, and in questioning his opinion, I had violated not only his private property rights, but had challenged his very identity. What I had not understood, or so he seemed to say, was that political meetings such as this weren’t arranged to come to a shared truth or understanding about some issue. They were simply forums for “self-expression” and for the assertion of a property right — the right to an opinion, regardless of how demented that opinion really is or how ineffective it was.

No doubt, this man of very conservative inclinations attended Church on Sunday and probably really believed that the essence of the spiritual life was regular attendance at Church and in obeying the ten commandments. He was very self-righteous. In fact, I’ld say he was the bastard offspring of the union of Self-Pity and Self-Righteousness — a kind of hybrid of these two. Perhaps he had never even read The New Testament at all, and so had missed the bit about “Not that which entereth the mouth, defileth a man; but that which proceedeth from the mouth, that defileth a man.” (Matt, 15:11).

Count me old-fashioned, if you will, but I had always thought that an opinion, and the expression of an opinion, was part of the process of arriving at a shared and common truth, and that an opinion had to be tested against reason and experience. “Don’t you understand that it’s my opinion?” has nothing to do with a shared truth, but more as an opportunity for “self-expression” and the assertion of a property right. This is acquisitive individualism run amok and into degeneracy. In questioning the veracity of his opinion I had violated his property rights. Obviously, I was a communist.

This man was the spitting image of everything that has gone terrible wrong at our “end of history”. He was the very avatar of William Blake’s “cavern’d” man: “For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern“. He’s not all that unusual in that respect, but in looking at him and hearing his speech I really did feel I was seeing the End of the World incarnate.

Quite obviously, if we hold that our opinion and its expression as “free speech” is a private property right, we will never form a viable “we” in such circumstances, and so political meetings will be just pro forma and a farce — nothing to be taken too seriously or with the requisite degree of sincerity. And I realised that implicit in that man’s “Don’t you understand that it’s my opinion?” was the climax of Descartes’ cogito, ergo sum — I think, therefore I am, and of the “culture of narcissism”. His opinion was his very being, and to contradict it was to question his very existence.

This is going to be a tough nut to crack.


5 responses to “A Cartesian Education”

  1. flowerinthegrass says :

    I’ve only commented here once, but I’ve been reading your blog since 2011 when I stumbled upon it looking up a quote by Jean Gebser or the like that was posted by an online friend (My memory of this may not be accurate, but I have read and treasured your blog ever since). Anyhow, i’m enmeshed in my own political battles as of late. I’m not a politician, just an average citizen who has decided to take action locally on trying to work with local politicians to convince our town to use renewable energy sources, etc etc and after a year and realizing that they aren’t interested in anything the community has to say unless you’re special interests with deep pockets, I decided to help with efforts to recall a councilman. I’ve since learned that the world of politics is the final frontier of the wild west and have been followed, intimidated, threatened, received veiled threats from specific policemen when trying to report incidents. All of this to protect an “opinion” of a councilman and his property of an “opinion” and expression of such. It’s insanity, a circus. Now his online posse is trying to frame me as part of a “nefarious organization”. I’m amazed at the lengths politicians will go and yet I’m also fearful. All i want is a more just way to consume energy, one that is more in line with a give and take of life and to consider the surrounding ecology and wholeness of what we do within a living framework of this lifecycle. I can see why people steer clear of truly trying to make a difference. If you’re effective at all, i guess this is the reward. I wonder when we’ll move past this cartesian mindset and hopefully this is the outward signs of an end of this empire of thought. Anyhow, sorry to share too much. It just felt relevant. I love your thoughts on opinions here and i had never thought about them as in line with the thinking on “private property” and suddenly this all makes more sense to me now.

    • Scott Preston says :

      Wonderful comment! Tough nut to crack, isn’t it? Your anecdote does reflect what Gebser wrote about the dichotomy of Being and Having, and by extention these are reflected in Iain McGilchrist’s research on the divided brain presently at war with itself, “Being” is associated with the right-hemisphere’s mode of attention, and “Having” with the left-hemisphere’s mode of attention. Somehow, we have to persuade the left-hemisphere’s mode of attention that “having” is not “being”, which is the problem of “letting go” more generally.

      I’m just preparing another post on that — an incident in Vancouver that has caught my attention and which seems quite exemplary, and also consonant with your own experience. But I think it is, like your own experience, something that mirrors a much broader issue.

      Thanks for the comment.

      • flowerinthegrass says :

        The post on developers vs ecologically-minded is spot-on. This seems to be such a core issue. It seems as though there is a focus on economic interest over the public or common good. And i think we’ve lost our way in this. The interest of the community is for the public good: clean air, clean water, healthy environment, monies towards parks, libraries walking and biking paths, etc: all things that make a community a decent place to live with ecologically-sound plans. The will of the councilmen is toward economics at the expense of the common good with almost no concern at all for health or ecology. It’s a repeating pattern everywhere. As a matter of fact, one of the councilmen in my city is actually the CEO of the largest real estate firm in town and he brokers almost all of the land deals being pushed through the council. It’s a problem. This same man recently felt threatened by citizens who pointed this out as a problem and decided to request McCarthy-style investigation on citizens who are involved in trying to participate in the process. I can’t make this stuff up. He called us all “anarchists”. Some are, most aren’t. I don’t really know how i label myself or what these labels mean anymore. Maybe i should consider myself an anarchist. I happen to be sitting on a secret that once released, will send shockwaves through to the very core of Oil & Gas. I’m worried about chaos, so I’m sitting on it and waiting for the proper timing. I’m also afraid because in this time of “the developer”, i’m scared that there will be more of a clamp-down than a release of rule. I wonder how we can move forward an ecological framework, and bring this forth in a kind and peaceful manner without pushing those with fascist tendencies to clamp-down moreso? How do we do this?

        • Scott Preston says :

          Sorry to be long in responding. “How do we do this?” is a big question. I don’t think there’s a formula for it. More like “performance art”, I suppose. A formula becomes predictable, and then you can be co-opted and pre-empted. Spontaneity is meritorious, and also unpredictable.

          there’s certainly a problem when a councilman uses his office for purposes of self-enrichment and self-aggrandisement, if that is indeed the case. The use of a public office for private purposes is quite duplicitous. Under the circumstances all you can do is make your case to mayor and council, and to the public, for the priorities of the commonwealth as thorough as possible.

          People seem to have forgotten that much of their well-being, economic or otherwise, they owe to the security of the commonwealth. When they calculate their net wealth, for example, the almost always fail to include their share in the commonwealth as a huge portion of that private net wealth.

          Overall, it requires a change in the ethos and the mythos of society. That’s the role of the artist, really — to articulate a different mythos and ethos. Artists have always led the way in that respect.

  2. abdulmonem says :

    Life is a tough nut that need to be cracked carefully and wisely. Truth never gets old,it is like god ageless. Earnest as an active noun is defined as something of value given by one person to another to bind in understanding, despite the refusal of the other to understand or acceptance to move from the enclosed I to the spacious we. It is important that you have sown your seed, the question of its growth or death is another matter. The first act is yours the second is divine. Understanding this interplay saves us a lot of trouble.

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