The two essays offered by Boyd on his recent posts raise questions that have important connections to concerns in the philosophy of science as well as aesthetics. The following observations are offered only to outline some ideas put forward by philosophers that support Boyd’s assertions. I am not a therapist. I cannot directly speak to those concerns. But I can offer some insights I have found useful from the work of a couple of contemporary American philosophers, Joseph Margolis and Richard Rorty. Part of the effort here is to briefly explore the phenomenon of contingency. The points that Boyd makes bring contingency into focus in ways that show that many of our efforts to construct more stable theoretical foundations and develop a more “professional” and “clinical” approach to patients (students, colleagues, and practice in general), can be deleterious to the very outcomes we believe we are pursuing.
If there seems to be interest in further discussion, I would be humbled and very happy to share in further interactions. I would also add that none of these ideas will be entirely new to most readers who would be attracted to this blog. I am simply trying to lay out a general perspective which I have found useful in thinking about the ideas Boyd and I have discussed, and that Boyd offers here.
American philosopher Joseph Margolis offers the following distillation of forty years of philosophical thought: He argues that the “structure of reality and the structure of human thought are inextricably symbiotized.” They are not independent entities, standing somehow separate from each other. The final, linking term for Margolis is not perhaps the expected one. Rather than synthesis, Margolis calls the relationship between mind and world symbiotic. The term synthesis is commonly associated by many of us with ideas or concepts, is also a prominent thesis in biology, implying that two different ideas or phenomena are somehow united into one. In most syntheses, both elements (or, each member of the collection of elements involved in the synthesis, should there be more than two) must give up significant aspects of their particularity in order to produce the synthesis—the synthesis is, in some ways, both significantly more and less than the individual entities incorporated into it.
Symbiosis is a term closely associated with nature, with the biological, although like the term synthesis, it has become a term utilized in several fields. There are types of symbiosis in the world (and in our own bodies) that are not only parasitic, but mutually beneficial. In many symbiotic relations, neither side of the relationship sacrifices the essentials of its particularity to take part in the union. Margolis’ use of the metaphor of symbiosis is, therefore, very apt, since it captures this mediation between mind and world in a manner that shows neither side as consistently dominant. There is, in fact, a kind of play between the two.
Margolis continues: “there is no principled means by which to ascertain what it is that mind contributes to what we take to be the world’s structure, or what the ‘brute’ world contributes to our sense of the world.” One could go further than Margolis here, saying that the line between the two, or the relative percentages supplied by either cognition or the world, change; those percentages may be radically different in different circumstances. Richard Rorty’s comments present us with something of the huge question that language opens up when we consider that the vast percentage of our world view is a linguistic construct. Rorty produced what are perhaps the most straightforward, comprehensive, and compact articulations of complexities attendant to the way in which humans use language, relate to each other and the world, and come to grips with their own uncanniness.
According to Rorty, we all fashion over time a personal or “final vocabulary” that we use to describe the world to ourselves and ourselves to the world. This is not necessarily final in the sense of “last,” but rather in the sense of a mature linguistic practice reflecting the accumulated values and insights of an individual living in a particular sociocultural world–subject of course to alteration and revision over time, for no such vocabulary remains stagnant without serious repercussions for the one who practices it. Rorty argues that the final vocabulary of each person is as far as that person can go with language at any point in time. If others cast doubt on the usefulness or value of some aspect of that vocabulary, the person who is using it has no immediate recourse in rebuttal except to remain internal to that vocabulary, using the terms of the vocabulary to justify their ideas and emotional responses, thus producing a circular argument. Going outside of one’s final vocabulary–that is, to just “temporarily” using part of a different vocabulary in response to an inhospitable question–cannot, on its own, serve as a viable solution. To respond in such a manner, one would have to undertake a fundamental restructuring of one’s entire final vocabulary to accommodate inevitable conflicts new material would cause within that person’s final vocabulary. In this negative sense, we see that the final vocabulary embraces an entire world-view–a commitment to a certain world perspective–any change, as we have already noted, will require sensitive and often extensive revisions, and, indeed, concomitant changes in perspective.
An “ironist” is someone who, according to Rorty, has an honest and straightforward relationship with her final vocabulary. She believes that no vocabulary (including her own) successfully meets what might be termed the “gold” standard of describing “reality on its own terms.” Nor does she believe that there is a “meta-vocabulary” that stands objectively outside these various personal final vocabularies that we can use to arbitrate which vocabulary is “true.” There exists no “yardstick,” “standard,” or criterion which brings us into the presence of “truth.” The ironist would therefore be genuinely concerned about the limitations of her own vocabulary. The fact that she also has been impressed with others’ final vocabularies serves only to deepen this concern. She knows, due to the circularity and inherent incompleteness of her final vocabulary, that her–or anyone else’s–vocabulary can ever, no matter how meticulously revised and re-envisioned, reconcile these misgivings.
One of the central metaphors that Rorty uses is that of the “strong poet,” a term he borrowed from Harold Bloome. It lies at the core of Rorty’s confidence in an aesthetic vision of the world that can ameliorate and even perhaps transcend the many pitfalls attendant to our attempts to reduce the world (solely) to rational discourse. What Rorty says regarding the strong poet is as follows: “…the conscious need of the strong poet [is] to come to terms with the blind impress which chance has given him, to make a self for himself by re-describing that impress in terms which are, if only marginally, his own.”
I offer these two examples because I have found them very helpful in my own understanding of contingency or chance. Three things have emerged for me as centrally important: 1.) recognizing relativism as a fundamental aspect of life and thought is dangerous and is fraught with difficulties that seem to proliferate explosively, suffocating our will to move on, 2.) moving on is the only game in town, 3.) Rorty (via Harold Bloome) offers us an apt and very useful metaphor to hold on to in that effort: the strong poet. The strong poet is faced with the “blind impress,” of chance–that is, our DNA, our sociocultural situations of origin, and the evolution of those effects over time, etc., things over which we had little or no control during our maturation. Many humans do not step far beyond the constraints of their origins or of their mature “vocabularies” beyond a few (grudging) tweaks. The “strong poet,” as jointly envisioned by Bloome and Rorty, is not bound by these constraints, in fact, the strong poet actively critiques virtually all the vocabularies she comes across during her life–certainly none more thoroughly than her own. But the strong poet is also a creator of new metaphors, of new vocabularies that re-describe the world in terms that provide both new perspectives on the world and, through these new perspectives, insights into how one might navigate the swirling rapids of life. Obviously then, Nietzsche, Beckett, Schoenberg, Rorty, Sophocles, John Cage, Einstein, Martha Nussbaum, Newton, Tom Waits, Adorno, and many others, many of whom are not strictly “poets,” have contributed to this process of a radically transformative rearticulation of the world. I think this model can be utilized by all of us—in our own lives, our own study and writing, our practice and for our students and patients. One does not need to be a Poet, nor does anyone need to even write, as in journaling, or fiction, or op-eds. I read something recently about a person working with a therapist who discovered that the world could be something of interest, something to be thought about, and that those thoughts could be shared with others. It never occurred to me that such a thing could never occur to anyone!
Finally, I would like to re-emphasize that the therapist or teacher is not the strong poet—he/she may be, in fact, far from it. The point is, that both participants in the therapeutic experience should gain by being in pursuit of his/her own emergence as a strong poet. There is an important observation related to this, one which is my own: In the performance world, many actors have noted the sense that, as well as being immersed in the action of the drama, there is a part of them that “hovers” over it, bringing to the situation a critical awareness of the aesthetic effect of the scene and their part in it. For many years, I thought that the “hoverer” was the actor. Now I believe the hoverer must be the character. The exact nature of the relationship between the idea of the strong poet and the hovering character, I’ll leave to your own consideration.