Friday, April 8, 2016

Ideas in tension

The essayist Joseph Joubert wrote, "It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it." Sometimes the wisdom is in the debate itself, or at least in the perception of two or more alternatives. "A wise man of our own time," wrote Gilbert Highet, "was once asked what was the single greatest contribution of Greece to the world's welfare. He replied 'The greatest invention of the Greeks was men and de. For men means 'on the one hand,' and de means 'on the other hand.' Without these two balances, we cannot think."

However – or, to borrow a phrase, on the other hand – Lee Siegel warned that if we always silo ideas that are in tension and focus on the resulting dichotomies, we will never be able to make connections, find common ground, and help each other move forward. He wrote:

"Now just about every political debate comes down to one phrase: economic policy.

* * *

What we never hear about in the popular media – where intellectual discussion once took place – is debate over fundamental meanings, or essential definitions, or connections between seemingly unrelated phenomena. Those are the elements of an idea, which is the challenge consciousness makes to concrete reality. When Archimedes said, 'Give me a lever that is long enough, and I will move the world,' he was talking about how you can think your way into a new actuality.

Instead of ideas, we have 'issues,' which are the way the world tricks consciousness into believing that things never really change. Because an issue has two sides to it, both sides will still be there whichever one prevails. The 'issue' – consider abortion – never goes away. But an idea – e.g. the issue of abortion is more fundamentally about the social limits of sexual pleasure, not merely about reproductive rights – leaps beyond the two sides of an issue into the essential condition from which they spring. It makes you stop to think, instead of provoking you to start to argue. An issue is the place where ideas run out of steam.

As a result of our yapping, endlessly banal, issue-dominated culture, the intellectuals, who work with ideas the way a Realtor works with property, are out of work."

Matthew E. May presented this insight: "When U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. said generations ago that ‘I wouldn’t give a fig for simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for simplicity on the other side of complexity,’ he meant that to find elegance, you must appreciate, embrace, and then travel beyond complexity." The judge's comment favors the assumption that there is a problem to be solved. He says that a simple solution is better than a complex solution, but it would be even worse to arrive at no conclusion at all.

On the third hand, analytic philosophical inquiry itself – whether it is content to remain in a perpetually unsatisfied debate or whether it progresses toward a conclusion – may not be the best way to find truth. Robert M. Pirsig wrote:

Once it's stated that "the dialectic comes before anything else," this statement itself becomes a dialectical entity, subject to dialectical question.

Phaedrus would have asked, What evidence do we have that the dialectical question-and-answer method of arriving at truth comes before anything else? We have none whatsoever. And when the statement is isolated and itself subject to scrutiny it becomes patently ridiculous. Here is this dialectic, like Newton's law of gravity, just sitting by itself in the middle of nowhere, giving birth to the universe, hey? It's asinine.


Joseph Joubert, quoted in the Montreal Gazette. The Week, April 4, 2014, p. 15.

Gilbert Highet. Man's Unconquerable Mind. New York: Columbia University Press, 1954. p 19-20.

"The Intellectual Crash of 2009." Lee Siegel. March 25, 2009.

Matthew E. May, In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing. New York: Broadway Books, 2009. p. 25.

Robert M. Pirsig. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. (1974) New York: Bantam, 1975. p. 385.

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