Working Within and Between Ideologies by Dropping One’s Own


Think about global warming from the point of view of someone who grew up taking Ayn Rand seriously, believing that the untrammeled pursuit of self-interest is always good and that government is always the problem, never the solution. Along come some scientists declaring that unrestricted pursuit of self-interest will destroy the world, and that government intervention is the only answer. It doesn’t matter how market-friendly you make the proposed intervention; this is a direct challenge to the libertarian worldview.

And the natural reaction is denial — angry denial. Read or watch any extended debate over climate policy and you’ll be struck by the venom, the sheer rage, of the denialists.

– Paul Krugman, Economist

The interesting thing is that the reaction, in this case from Ayn Rand influenced right wing ideologues who cannot conceive of abandoning their belief that self-interest is the only sensible worldview, is precisely the same as the reaction naïve theists take to any questioning of their worldviews. The anger and vehemence is in fact most common precisely with people who have expended the least personal effort in determining their own worldview. How do we become so dependent on a set of assumptions and beliefs that we had so little to do with choosing in the first place? How is this a ‘natural’ reaction? And if it is a dependency, as it appears to be on initial observation, what about us is dependent on something that in many if not most cases has no significant material impact on our lives?

Those who are pro-science display similar behavior when their assumptions are challenged and fail to question what is at stake for themselves, never mind try to understand what is really at stake for those they criticize. Part of this failure is intrinsic to rationalist assumptions themselves. The assumption that a worldview is a set or system of propositions that can be dealt with as such via deductive and inductive argument misses the phenomenal evidence that those who hold various worldviews most often themselves cannot even express those worldviews in propositional terms.

So the real obstacle, as we try to confront global warming, is economic ideology reinforced by hostility to science. In some ways this makes the task easier: we do not, in fact, have to force people to accept large monetary losses. But we do have to overcome pride and willful ignorance, which is hard indeed.

– Paul Krugman

I have myself been accused of being hostile to science, and while I am critical of belief in science beyond the specific area of human experience where it has its validity, I don’t deny that it is a valid area of human experience. I am also critical of attempting to use a methodology unsuited to studies of complex, systemic matters, when the pressure to do so itself arises out of invalid assumptions introduced into science during the period when it began to refer to itself as ‘modern’. That the methodology in question is more fictitious than believers in science tend to claim, even within the sciences most associated with its adoption, though, may be a clue as to in what the dependency we are looking for consists.

A fairly recent neologism provides a further clue. In anthropological studies the term ‘enskilment’ has become remarkably common, considering the first known usage was only 11 years ago. From the perspective of a reader of Heidegger the similarity to various Heideggerean neologisms produced via the German prefix ‘er’, which has essentially the same effect as ‘en’ in English, and particularly to the one Heidegger himself placed the most importance on – ‘Ereignis’, is an obvious draw towards looking at why the word was coined. ‘En’ in English (and ’em’) generally adds something along one or more of the following lines to the root : put into, make, provide with, surround with. Enable is perhaps the archetypal word, since it is precisely a type of en-abling that ‘en’ or ’em’ adds to many of the root words it is used to modify.

If we use this simple way of understanding the effect of the prefix for the sake of comprehensibility, we can see that the immediate effect of the word on first view does correspond rather closely to ‘enabling skill’, but skill as an appropriated mode of being, which of course returns us to Heidegger’s ‘Ereignis’ that has been variously translated as ‘enowning’, ‘event’, ‘event of appropriation’, ‘ownmost event’, all with sufficient justification to be considered correct and even necessary as part of understanding what he is getting at, yet none exhausting the full potential of the word. The second attempt at translating the volume titled ‘Contributions to Philosophy (vom Ereignis)’ without the neologism of enowning, simply using event or the event, doesn’t intrinsically improve the comprehensibility, since an understanding that ‘event’ within the volume always also means what is intended by enowning, event of appropriation, and ownmost event is the only means by which the simple word ‘event’ can carry the wealth of meaning necessary to ‘get’ any of its specific usages.

Skill, of course, in most societies is part of getting along as what one is, or as what one is to be, functionally, within that society. That a rationalist view is more in keeping with the necessary skills in a complex modern urban environment than a simpler, more rural environment is intuitively rather obvious. However simply opposing ‘developed’ urban society with ‘undeveloped’ rural society doesn’t account for more than a marginal difference in average tendencies.

The term modified by the ‘er’ or ‘en’ prefix (in German and English respectively) in Heidegger’s Ereignis, eigen, means ‘own’ in both its English senses (to own as well as one’s own or ownmost), as well as ‘appropriate’ in both its English senses (take as well as ‘proper’ or ‘suitable). In German the word is modified in spelling and pronunciation in its various uses, but English tends to use the same word with a simple assumption of different meanings depending on context. It may seem like doing violence to an anthropological term to introduce a Heideggerean interpretation, but the impulse that generated both neologisms, for me, has a similar source. Particularly in the simpler social milieus that ‘enskilment’ was initially coined for, such as fishermen in remote Icelandic fishing villages, being enskilled as a fisherman, which simultaneously is the most immediate defining aspect of who one is, the enskilment is simultaneously a binding to what is proper or appropriate for a fisherman. That the enskilment of the kind of shared praxes common in religious or scientific communities, for example, is not a pragmatic enskilment, but one that defines the community as a particular community, appears initially to be a significant difference, but in terms of religious communities such as the Irish or Italian Catholics, a shared ritual practice such as prayer is not in a real sense expected to be effectual. The idea that these people somehow ‘expect’ God or Jesus to actually intervene on behalf of the person or situation prayed for is at least questionable, given that in both groups the believed-in beings that would have that kind of ability are far down the list of those prayed to. Catholics in both societies pray to minor local saints, obscure angels and other believed in beings far more than to any member of the trinity, precisely because no actual effect is expected, it is a more a means of expressing concern in a communal manner when effectual action is not available. Similarly scientists, despite their often loud protestations to the contrary, rarely actually repeat an experiment under identical conditions, because it’s not a particularly effective manner of proceeding with research, which is the real praxis they are involved in, not the largely mythical shared praxis of ‘scientific methodology’. These largely ritualistic or at least pragmatically ineffective shared praxes do have a non-pragmatic effect that is of key importance, however, which is to reinforce the non-propositional worldview via meaning-producing behavior that is always already interpreted on the terms of that very worldview.

A further counterintuitive correlation between the sciences and religious belief, and of course also found in political, ethical and economic worldviews, is that the more effort is put in by a given individual in examining his or her beliefs and assumptions, the less vehemence and anger generally present when those are challenged. It’s counterintuitive because one would expect that a challenge to something that someone has spent a good deal of time and effort on would be less well taken than a challenge to something one has expended very little time and effort on. i.e. to those who in an active sense their beliefs and assumptions matter the most are simultaneously those who are most open to them being questioned.

This can be seen in the sciences where a physicalist worldview and a trust in mathematical projection and description as the ‘most certain’ would be expected to be strongest in the sciences that deal with the physical on the most basic levels, and where as a result of the relative simplicity of their subject matter, mathematical description and prediction has proven relatively successful, such as physics and chemistry. As we move towards sciences whose subject matter is inherently more complex, more difficult to account-for via simple physicalist notions, and difficult to impossible to either describe or predict mathematically, one would expect less attachment to the physicalist view of reality and less trust in mathematical certainty. Yet the opposite is evidentially true: eastern thinkers are constantly amazed that physicists are very open to their very non-physicalist ideas, while those whose topics deal with more complex phenomena, such as biologists, neurologists, psychologists and sociologists are far more vehement in their defense of physicalism and mathematical certainty, and become angry at any suggestion that their worldview and tools are not especially well suited for their subject matter.

Similarly within religious communities (and I am sticking primarily with the Catholic, since I know the most about it personally), the average Catholic who has not particular studied even rudimentary theology, dogmatics or Christology is generally the quickest to take offense at any questioning of notions that even on the surface are difficult to reconcile with reason, such as the Trinity, or the statement from the Council of Trent that Jesus was ‘fully human and fully divine’, i.e. not one or the other, nor partly one and partly the other. By contrast theologians are much more open to the difficulties inherent, and theologians that specialize in dogmatics and Christology (really a specialized area of dogmatics) are the least dogmatic about their notions and beliefs, and most willing to question how in any way such beliefs can be reconciled with reason, at least to the degree that if they cannot be demonstrated as being rational, they can at least be demonstrated as not being irrational.

Within economics, those who have spent a good deal of effort and study of economics, similarly, are the most open to the idea that accepted ‘obvious’ economic notions may be intrinsically faulty. By comparison ideologically motivated policy makers and lobbyists have generally spent little time in actual study of economics, yet they are much quicker to behave as though there was a direct material dependency on their specific ideology and any possible functional economic reality.

This brings us back to the notion of dependency, and combined with the notion of the binding nature of enskilment as appropriating people to their proper sense of being their ownmost self, we can begin to move towards a tentative understanding of where the experienced dependency, when no obvious exterior material dependency exists, first arises and is reinforced by the daily routine of getting by in a given community. The specific manner in which enskilment is enacted during our development into the adults we have become produces a meaningful way of being someone, but that being-someone as what one functionally does is dependent on the community in which it both projects and already finds its meaning, which in turn is defined by the meaning-producing, though materially ineffectual, shared praxes that define it as the community it is. The mattering is not a causally effective mattering, but a meaningful mattering, without which any causally effective mattering or materializing would simultaneously be meaningless and unsatisfying.

Krugman’s original point in the quotes above was that from the perspective of materially mattering, the significance economically of making the kinds of changes ecologists are recommending is far too minor to be the origin of the vehemence and anger of the right wing at any mention of the isssue. While I may have used the comments as springboard to discuss belief, particularly ideological (systemic) beliefs, we can go back to his actual topic and it becomes obvious that just as evolutionists’ attempts to syllogistically undermine creationist beliefs simply made the creationists more precise and more rigid both in their beliefs and their expression along with angrier and more vehement, providing evidence, particularly as a syllogistic set of propositions, is likely to produce the same counterproductive effect on right wing ideologues, who unfortunately have significant input into the policies of most of the world’s governments. Instead the arguments need to be couched in the terms and demonstrated as not only compatible with the worldviews of policy makers, but in fact implied by those worldviews. This is not, in point of fact, all that difficult. Those with the self-centered worldview put forward in its extreme form by Rand in a pragmatic sense enjoy their islands, their waterfront property, their ability to enjoy the things their self-centered pursuit of wealth above anything else affords them. But these things are also among the first things that are liable to be affected by global warming. Ecologists need to step outside their own worldview and look at the situation within the parameters that those that need convincing will work within.

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