What Value Do the Humanities Have?

Stanley Fish has yet another piece on the value of the humanities. Fish argues that we shouldn’t defend the humanities on any sort of utilitarian argument–that by having students take humanities classes, they will learn how to think, how to write, to become better people, etc.–but rather that we should argue that they have an inherent value in and of themselves. He points out that if we justify the humanities in relation to something else, we are playing by another game’s rules, and we’re not likely to do well by doing so.

While I think Fish is a little too apt to reject any sort of justification of the humanities in the creation of well-rounded humans (perhaps because he’s being a bit elitist himself in his definition of what constitutes the humanities), and while I think he doesn’t actually understand the real value of the digital humanities (something to which I contributed in my dissertation in a chapter titled Introduction to the Fractal Distribution of Words in a Text back in 2004), I do think there is something to his Oakeschottian defense of the humanities. And I think that he would have made an even stronger argument had he understood the spontaneous orders argument underlying Oakeschott’s point.

Science is not justified by its contribution to the creation of technology nor to the improvement of health care. I would go farther and say that science has made almost no contribution to the creation of technology, and has rather come along most of the time to explain the technological advances being made. That’s certainly what happened with the steam engine–the science of thermodynamics was developed to explain the working of the engine; the engine wasn’t invented after we understood thermodynamics. While that may be changing with biotechnology, the overwhelming majority of science throughout the overwhelming majority of the history of science has worked this way. Science is self-justified. We learned why the steam engine works because of curiosity, not to make a steam engine.

The same is true of math. Developments in math have come about because people wanted to solve mathematical problems. That is all. The fact that some math has proven useful to understanding some aspect of the world have been fortunate, but there’s a lot of math out there that has no correlation in the real world.

Math and science are two different spontaneous orders. That is, they are epistemic ecosystems. Mathematical developments are made for their own sake, not for the sake of anything else–not even science. Yet, some of those developments in math have proven useful in understanding the world insofar as they are integrated with science. Equally, scientific investigations are designed to help someone learn something they are curious about, and literally for no other reason. Sometimes those discoveries lead to a practical advancement, but very few people are doing science to make technological breakthroughs. Those who are primarily interested in solving technological problems are working in their own spontaneous order. They may draw on the work of scientists, but often they are doing nothing of the sort.

The humanities–as well as the arts–are similarly epistemic ecosystems. People participate in them not for any “practical” purpose, but because they want to solve some sort of problem, to discover or create new knowledge (or, in the arts, to solve an artistic problem). While it’s theoretically possible for someone like Steve Jobs to take a calligraphy course and be inspired to offer different fonts on his word processor on his computers, I don’t think anyone can truly justify the teaching of calligraphy on the off chance that something like that is ever going to happen.

If we take a broader view of the arts and humanities and include TV and film, visual rhetoric, communications, etc., we can perhaps begin to understand the degree to which the arts and humanities touch literally everyone on earth. Few may read Dante’s Divine Comedy, but reading and understanding it can help one to understand the degree to which those ideas have permeated Western culture and even world culture, permeated our stories and the ways in which we think. That is something which I find worth knowing, but which others may not. And that’s okay. But it should be okay among those who don’t find it personally worthwhile for me to do so. A little less dismissive snobbery from both camps might be in order.

The fact is the humanities help us to understand our social world. Those who enjoy TV and film ought to be among the first to defend the study of works of great literature and the visual arts, because TV and film are always drawing on the past great stories that have lasted for decades, centuries, and even millennia, and they are always drawing on the visuals created over that same period of time. Most of our common cliches were first coined by people like Shakespeare. There are pop songs that directly reference Romeo and Juliet. How many songs in recent years have referenced Nietzsche’s dictum that whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger?

The humanities are self-justified as an epistemic ecosystem. Science is self-justified as an epistemic ecosystem. The free market is self-justified as an epistemic ecosystem. Math is self-justified as an epistemic ecosystem. Technological innovation is self-justified as an epistemic ecosystem. The arts are self-justified as an epistemic ecosystem. So is philosophy, religion, philanthropy, democracy, the social sciences, and any number of other spontaneous orders. They are justified by people simply being interested in doing those things.

Of course, the reason people want to justify what they do is because they need to pay the bills. How do we get people to pay us to do what we love doing? Often we have to argue that there is some value beyond our own interest and the interest of a handful of others. The sciences, the arts, the humanities, the social sciences, and math, among others, are luxuries only those with leisure time can dedicate themselves to creating. At the same time, the universality of things like storytelling suggests there is a necessary element to some of these things.

We spend way too much time and energy in storytelling–myth-making, gossiping, reading novels and poems, listening to songs, watching TV, watching movies, etc.–for it to just be a luxury. There has to be some kind of selective advantage for humans to do something so energy-intensive so often. I do believe we need to spend some time and energy learning why this is. Of course, that too is a self-justifying argument. We don’t have to know these things to keep telling and enjoying stories. But we might want to know it for the sake of knowing it–and if knowing that happens to help justify some money being freed up for the humanities, all the better.

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On Boredom and the Arts

I believe that artistic production, including literary production, is a spontaneous order. That means artistic production is an epistemic ecosystem–it creates knowledge. Artists all attempt to solve artistic/aesthetic problems within the artistic ecosystem and create artistic knowledge as a consequence. The one objection–which isn’t a small objection–is what regulates this process?

In the system of trade–properly called the catallaxy, but more commonly mis-labeled the economy (which is a complex system that includes the spontaneous orders of money and technological innovation)–it is profit and loss that (primarily) regulates the order. It is reputation which regulates the scientific order. In technology, it’s simply “does it work?” But what may it be in the arts?

I want to suggest that it’s a combination of boredom and interest. “Boredom” is one of the self-correcting aspects of the artistic order. Enough people get bored, and nobody listens/reads/views the work any more. A work that continues to stimulate people to producing more work–that maintains “interest”–continues to be heard/read/viewed.

Of course, this regulatory process is a slower one than you find happening in the catallaxy, technology, or even the sciences. But speed is no objection. Scientific ideas can lie untapped for decades or longer. Reputations of long-dead scientists can rise and fall. The fact that a poet may have little influence on several generations of poets, then be re-discovered and influence later poets doesn’t mean the process isn’t a spontaneous order.

In fact, we would expect a power law of influence/boredom if it is a spontaneous order. We would expect a few poets to have longevity, or even to be rediscovered long after they were seemingly forgotten, while we would expect the overwhelming majority of poets to be mostly unread in the lifetimes of the poets and for pretty much the entirety of the time anyone anywhere will read poetry. And there will be a medium number of poets with a moderate amount of influence. It’s entirely possible for a poet to have immediate influence and no long-term influence, except through the influence they had on the more important poets they influenced.

The fact is that most art produced by most artists is boring. Most works are uninteresting, uninspired, and uninspiring. They don’t help us see things in a new way or remind of of aspects of being we have forgotten and keep forgetting (Kundera). Or, they may help us see something in a new way that then becomes so widely adopted and “obvious” that the work becomes cliched after the fact and people lose interest. I would think, as an artist, there would have to be fewer worse fates than that–to show the world something that’s so obvious once you’ve shown it to them that its truth is from that point obvious and your work becomes kitsch.

Regardless, such is the rise and fall of artistic influence, of the discovery and promulgation of artistic problems and solutions. No matter what the reason, the worst sin you can commit as an artist is to be boring. Whether or not your work remains boring, though, only time will tell. The same is true of interest–if you create it, you’re golden, while if you lose it, you’re lost. And how do you create interest? By solving artistic problems–and in solving them, creating new ones.

The Cult of Self-Expression

Perhaps nothing has been less fruitful, less artistic, less interesting than the cult of self-expression in the arts. The arts are not and have never been about self-expression. Unfortunately, most people believe that art is almost exclusively about self-expression. But to the extent that an artist or writer believes this, that person is not engaged in an aesthetic enterprise. Their work is anti-artistic, and the degree to which they are engaging in self-expression actually undermines the work as a work of art.

What does it mean to “engage in self-expression”? I’ve seen its most extreme version in creative writing classes with students who would say things like, “I don’t read poetry because I don’t want to be influenced by anyone else in the way I write or what I write about.” The funny thing is that every single poem by every single person who ever said something like this all sounded exactly the same. Somehow, the “self” they were all trying to “express” was identical in nature.

Your pure, unadulterated “self” is pretty much identical to everyone else’s. In other words, you’re not all that interesting or even unique. To become interesting and unique, you have to have experiences with other people, which includes reading a great deal of poetry if you plan to be a poet. Your poetic voice will never emerge by avoiding poetry any more than your actual voice will ever emerge without hearing anyone speak. Your poetic voice can only ever emerge if you immerse yourself in poetry, read poetry obsessively, try to emulate your favorite poets, adopt forms and styles, write in meter and use rhyme, consonance, assonance, and other poetic elements.

The choices forced on you by meter and rhyme, for example, force you to make different choices than what you would have made “naturally.” More often, better and more interesting choices. The choices you would have made without the restrictions of meter and rhyme are your “self-expression,” and most of the time they aren’t as interesting as the forced choices. Now, to what degree can “forced choices” be “self-expression” if they have been imposed from the outside?

If you read about the great artists, you won’t find a lot about their self-expression. What you will find is a great deal about whatever artistic problems they were trying to solve. The Renaissance artists were interested in solving artistic problems around the emergent idea of point perspective. The Impressionists were trying to solve problems with capturing light in different ways. The cubists too were trying to solve artistic problems in trying to capture movement and in trying to render unseen portions as seen in a 2D painting.

Shakespeare wasn’t trying to express himself (thank God!) in his plays, or even in his series of sonnets (there was an artistic problem he was trying to solve in creating a coherent set of sonnets without a narrative holding them together). Shakespeare to varying degrees expressed his society, culture, etc. in his plays, transforming works by Roman playwrights into Elizabethan stories, and sometimes Shakespeare reinforced that world view, and sometimes he challenged that world view, but he always did so through the portrayal of his characters, who spoke with their own voices, who only expressed themselves rather than being avatars for Shakespeare.

Today’s movies are very popular in no small part because the massively collaborative nature of film making makes self-expression nearly impossible. We can always tell when a film has self-expression, because we tend not to like them for being so self-indulgent. And that’s what everyone says about your work when you engage in self-expression: they say that it’s self-indulgent. And self-indulgent work is egotistical and boring.

Of course, much poetry especially is egotistical and boring. Poetry is especially prone to this because there are few market forces working to keep poets honest. Nobody’s paying for poetry anyway, so why not drivel on about your boring self? If nobody is paying, nobody cares, right? But that’s not necessarily true. People are paying–in time. When you write a poem, you are supposed to be trying to communicate with that person. Have you ever had to sit with someone who droned on and on and on about themselves and nothing else? If your poetry reads like that, don’t be surprised if nobody wants to read it. Probably nobody wants to sit with you, either.

I’m certainly not saying I haven’t written poems about myself. I have. Most poets have. But hopefully I’m trying to communicate something to you that goes well beyond self-expression, and in fact has nothing whatsoever to do with self-expression. I’m trying to communicate my experiences in a way that they are universal and universalized in their particularity. My very best poems have been those where I have avoided self-expression entirely. If I have communicated to you beauty, that’s enough. If I have made you think, contemplate, meditate, or want to turn a line or two into a mantra or a koan, all the better. If I have helped you see something you’ve never seen before, or something you have seen before in a new way, I’ve done my job as an artist. But none of those things require self-expression. More, self-expression is the surest way to get in the way of accomplishing these things.

Matt Ridley has recently talked about “ideas having sex.” A true artist’s brain is the bed where these ideas are having sex. For a poet, all of the poems you have read, all of the ideas you have read, all of the facts filling your head are having sex and reproducing in the form of new poems. Your artwork will have the DNA of all the forms, ideas, and so on of everything you have read, experienced, and seen. Self-expression, on the other hand, involves only yourself–and its outcome is sterile and only of interest to the person involved in that self-expression. Art, like sex, is only interesting to others if more than yourself is involved.

The best thing that could happen to the arts would be for everyone to do away with the self-indulgent cult of self-expression. Go out and solve some artistic problems. That’s the one and only way to be any kind of artist at all.

Ridiculous

When someone is laughing at us, it seems cruel –- if we take ourselves seriously. But people who laugh at themselves cannot hate others. Hatred of others come more from taking ourselves seriously as children take themselves seriously than from anything else. There is no one more serious than a child –- and no one is more easily hurt by others.

Mature people know not to take much seriously, and that not all things should be taken equally seriously at all times. Adults know that not every action done by others involves them or that, if an action turns out to be harmful or hurtful to them, that the person doing it did not necessarily always mean it that way. Adults are aware that not everything is meaningful, and that not everything is as it may at first appear. In other words, adults are aware of irony. Only children do not understand irony. And those who find meaning in everything are of a totalitarian spirit.

People who laugh with each other about each other do not want to kill each other. They do not even want to hate each other. Laughter dissolves meaning in a meaningful way, so we do not take each other so seriously we see each other as a threat. And when people do not take us seriously this way, we should not be offended –- they are learning to love us through laughter. But only if we laugh along with them. If we choose to get offended when people laugh at us we in turn show them that we are contemptible, that we do not or can not have a sense of humor. If we are perceived not to have a sense of humor, we will be taken seriously –- and if we are taken seriously, we are in danger of being hated.

However, we want people to laugh with us, not at us. All laughter is aimed at folly –- when we are acting good, we cannot be laughed at. Self-deprecating humor fits here too: people laugh with us as we laugh at our own shortcomings. Good people see the world as serious, but funny (as Aristotle says, serious people don’t take much seriously –- and know when to take something seriously). Good people laugh the most. Beware of the humorless -– even they know they are not good people.

Let me make a serious suggestion. How do we recognize a bad law? Can it be laughed at? Can we make a joke about it? If so, it is a bad law. Who jokes about the laws against murder, theft, or rape? You cannot vilify the good. You can only ridicule the ridiculous.

Interdisciplinary Education for an Interdisciplinary World

Part of the problem with education is students do not know what relevance many topics they study have for them.

I remember throughout grade and high school that I thought math to be utterly unimportant and irrelevant to anything I was ever going to do. And throughout most of my early years I had wanted to be a scientist. How could teachers have allowed me to think that math was not important? I did not really learn math was important until I took chemistry in high school. It was only then that I truly understood fractions for the first time.

And, even though I loved to read, I thought literature pointless (it did not help that in high schools they seem to go out of their way to find the most boring literature available –- I learned how wonderful literature was in college, when we were made to read books and stories that were actually interesting). Literature had nothing to do with biology, after all, and that was what I was going to go into. This attitude is not unique to me or to high school –- it prevails in most students, and through college.

It was only later, after I had decided to pursue literature and especially after I started working on my Ph.D. that I began to see how interconnected everything was. For my dissertation, I was able to use my biology (after all, I wrote a dissertation titled Evolutionary Aesthetics), and I further discovered that it would have been a much, much, much better dissertation if I had known a great deal more math (fractal geometry and statistics in particular) and had learned to program (I actually needed to learn how to program much, much earlier than my Ph.D. dissertation, for my first attempt at grad school, but after I dropped out of my Master’s in biology, I didn’t think I needed to learn the programming I had needed to learn to finish my Master’s thesis–wrong again!).

I learned as I progressed through grad school that I actually needed many more tools from many more disciplines to do the work I wanted to do. For my dissertation, I needed to know social psychology, evolutionary psychology, sociobiology, economics, linguistics, neurobiology, molecular biology, mathematics, chaos theory and fractal geometry, programming, literature, and philosophy. And I didn’t know the math or programming I needed. I found a programmer, fortunately, but even then it would have been much better if I could have done it, and I couldn’t do the math I needed to do certain analyses to more definitively prove my thesis.

The disciplinary approach to teaching is breaking down. Students are siphoned into what they enjoy, and these same students then ignore everything else, complaining about anything that intrudes on the one thing they want to learn. This kind of hyper-specialized education is fine if all you want to produce is worker bees. But if you want creative thinkers, those who can come up with new things –- the kind of people who will make more wealth and produce more value in and for the world –- then disciplinary-only educations will not work.

What we need is a truly interdisciplinary education. We need interdisciplinary thinking, interdisciplinary classes, and interdisciplinary education. Only an interdisciplinary education will allow students to see how disciplines are interrelated. Only an interdisciplinary education will create interdisciplinary thinkers who can create more value in and for the world. We need chemists who love Bach, biologists who love Goethe, businessmen who love Aristotle. We need philosophers who love biology and business and artists who love physics and economics. Only with an interdisciplinary education will we have people who think this way, across the disciplines, through the disciplines, complexifying their thought so new things can be thought. What would the world be like if our politicians actually knew and understood the economics of Ludwig von Mises, the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, the plays of Sophocles, the linguistics of Chomsky and Pinker, the novels of Kafka, chaos theory, systems theory, evolutionary theory, the poetry of William Blake, and ancient Greek history? Could interdisciplinary thinking finally give the country great statesmen instead of demagogues? Could an interdisciplinary education create more ethical businessmen, since they would understand that there is not a conflict between ethical action and profit? Imagine a businessman who knew the value of a dollar, of his workers, and of a van Gogh. Imagine what an interdisciplinary education would do for teachers. Wouldn’t it make them – teachers? How can teachers teach when they know nothing? Teachers more than anyone should be interdisciplinary. They should know and understand the reason for having an interdisciplinary education, to understand and know the connections between the disciplines, and be able to help their students understand the importance of all the disciplines for understanding any one of the disciplines.

What is interdisciplinarity? It is not multidisciplinarity, where we have just a hodgepodge. It is not having students doing writing exercises in math class, or quadratic equations in literature class. That does not show students how the disciplines are interrelated. To have an interdisciplinary education, students need to know the value of each of the disciplines, how they relate to each other, the history of the disciplines. Students do not know how modern science arose out of natural philosophy and religion. Misunderstandings of ideas such as entropy make people reject evolution on the argument that more complexity could not arise in an entropic universe, where everything is becoming more random (this is, incidentally, not quite what entropy is about). We need to teach students about systems and complexity and information, so they can see how all disciplines relate to one another. This will give students an interdisciplinary education. And they will need an interdisciplinary education if they want to have an edge in this increasingly interdisciplinary world.

A Brief History of Western Ideas from an Emergent Complexity Perspective

I. Introduction

Complex systems theory shows that the more elements there are in a given system, the more complex the system’s behavior. New rules evolve that govern the behavior of the system, helping to coordinate activities and make the system work in a better and more complex manner. Further, when complex systems contain different hierarchical levels, such systems act in even more complex ways – fluid hierarchies increase complexity of behavior, while rigid hierarchies and flattened hierarchies decrease the complexity of a system’s behavior. This is true in quantum systems giving rise to chemical/Newtonian physical systems, to chemical systems giving rise to life, to neurons in the brain giving rise to thought and intelligence in animals, including humans, and even to the interactions of human societies.

Claire Graves, Don Beck, and Christopher Cowan theorize that both human thought and human societies develop in a particular way, and in a hierarchical fashion. If we start with animal survivalism, we move into tribalism, and from tribalism into a heroic culture (i.e. Achilles, and the Greek and Roman gods), from heroic culture into aristocratic/theocratic culture, from aristocratic culture to capitalist/scientific culture, from scientific culture into statist culture, and even now a move from all of these into ideas of world confederacy, and even into more complex, more holistic ideas. Thought also follows these patterns: mere survivalism leading to tribalistic thinking leading to conquering, heroic leaders leading to belief in order, law, regulations, and discipline to build character (typically “religious” thinking) leading to belief in the virtue of competition and progress and knowledge leading to egalitarian thinking leading to time-bound, hierarchical, pluralistic thinking leading to holistic thinking. The thinking always precedes the social development, but the thinking itself cannot jump levels any more than can societies, or than biology can leap suddenly out of quantum physics, skipping the chemical level. In other words, to move from tribalism to a culture led by heroic conquering leaders, we have to have people who begin to think in the new way while the culture itself remains in the old form of organization. It is this phenomenon I wish to investigate here, so we can understand why different thinkers were thinking as they were, and what value they have for the present day, and in the future.

We have to recognize, too, that each culture contains elements of the levels below, including people who continue to think this way. The first thing that we should note is that to say a culture or a person is in one of the lower levels is not to say that it or they are inferior to a higher level. We need the lower levels to help hold up the higher levels – this is how nested hierarchies such as emergent reality and evolving cultures can exist at all. If we take capitalist, scientific culture, for example, we can see that it can and should continue to have religious elements to it, that it will continue to have heroic people, such as athletes, in it, and that it will continue to have tribalistic elements in it –- primarily as families, friends and clubs. This is most important to point out to those levels that most tend toward communitarian thinking, including tribalism, religious thinking, and secular egalitarian statism, which evolve in reaction to the more individualistic levels (heroic, capitalist/scientific), since the heroic and the capitalist levels consider the communitarian levels below them to still be important. Further, higher level communitarian thinking also tends to reject lower level communitarian thinking -– secular egalitarian thinking tends to consider religious thinking as ignorant and something that is best done away with (consider the French attitude toward religion now, starting with the French Revolution). In the worst cases, communitarian thinking is racist and exclusionary -– tribes exclude other tribes, religions exclude other religions, communists must eliminate all non-communists or anyone else who does not fit into the world they are trying to create. So it is important that we be aware of this danger, and do what we can to avoid and prevent it.

Overall, the communitarian forms of thinking and social organization tend to be, regardless of the level of complexity, community-minded and, thus, order-oriented, interested in stability, ethics, faith and truth, are fundamentally religious in outlook, centralized and rigidly hierarchical (today, bureaucratic), and have a belief that time is circular, or eternal, and that it will become this way at the end of history, where all progress will end. The individualistic forms of thinking and social organization tend to be, regardless of the level of complexity, individualistic, libertarian, able to deal with change and chaos, pragmatic, fact- and science-oriented, decentralized, and embracing of time and change, having a fundamental belief in some sort of continual progress. As stated above, the communitarians tend to dislike the individualists, but the individualists tend to work to protect the immediately lower level of communitarian thinking and society, while seeing emergent levels of communitarianism as a threat.

We need to move beyond this way of thinking, and into more complex ways of thinking. The way to do this is to understand all the levels, what their values are, and integrate them. That will get us into the next level of thinking and social organization. And from there, we must next understand everything as being part of a single, dynamic system – more than just pluralist, but unified as well, with unity in its variety. In doing so, we must not forget that lower levels simply cannot understand the ideas of higher levels -– for example, someone who is a religious thinker would find egalitarian thinking, especially late egalitarian thinking, like postmodernism, to be completely incomprehensible –- confusing nonsense in the extreme. To get such a person to the level of the postmoderns, one would have to get that person to first be thinking as a capitalist/scientific thinker, and then move the person into early egalitarian thinking before moving them into postmodernism. Part of the role of the integrationist and holistic thinkers is to help to move all people and cultures into more complex levels, and to integrate the elements of lower complexity into an even more complex whole.

II. The Levels and their Thinkers

All of this is necessary in order to understand the evolution of thought and the history of ideas in their proper context –- past and present. It seems that tribalism is associated with pre-literate times, and that the first writing evolved during heroic culture – the oldest story we have is Gilgamesh, and it is a story of heroism. With Homer, we have a heroic thinker in a heroic time. Achilles is an archetypical hero of this sort.

The movement from heroic culture into the next level begins in the Greek culture with the pre-Socratics, who are beginning to think in more orderly, purposeful ways while living in heroic culture -– this is typically seen as the beginnings of the movement from archaic into median culture. We have with the Greek tragedies an art form designed to move Greek culture safely and non-violently into the next level –- each tragedy starts with a heroic individual who must be destroyed in order for a new level of organization to come into being. The Greek tragedies are art forms that indicate that the culture is going through an emergence into a new level of complexity. Tragedies are how a culture gets safely initiated into a new level of complexity. This is why Nietzsche identified tragedy as being simultaneously Dionysian and Apollonian –- Socrates in Plato’s Phaedrus identifies Dionysus as the god associated with the madness of initiation and Apollo as the god associated with the madness of prophesy -– and Greek tragedies aided in the initiation ritual into a new level of complexity of thinking while prophesying what that new level would be like. Sophocles prophesies the emergence of the emergent median way of Greek thinking, while Shakespeare prophesies the emergence of the scientific/capitalist age to come, though he was writing during a time when Medieval/religious thinking was still going strong. After the initiation into the new level of thinking in ancient Greece, we get both Plato and Aristotle arising as the greatest thinkers within this level of complexity.

But emergence into new levels of complexity is not certain. In the West, we get a backward movement with the rise of the Romans –- the Roman Republic and Empire was a heroic culture, and was exemplified by people such as Julius Caesar (consider how similar in character he is to Achilles). With the rise of Christianity, we see the Roman Empire moving into the next level –- Jesus was a religious thinker during a heroic time. The Christian Romans and Christian medieval Europe was clearly organized in a rigid religious hierarchy, with the hierarchical Catholic Church and the hierarchical forms of government in serfdom, monarchy, and aristocracy, all supported by the Church. The Christian thinkers St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas found such a strong connection with Plato and Aristotle, respectively, because they recognized in them thinkers on the same level of complexity.

The Renaissance helped move Europe into the next level of complexity –- the capitalist/scientific level. We see in Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo some of the first, transitionary scientific thinkers. And the work of Machiavelli and Shakespeare both helped set the stage for capitalism and science. Newton and Descartes moved the West even more into this realm of complexity – and the height of such thinking occurs in people such as Voltaire, John Locke, Adam Smith, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, G. W. F. Hegel, and the American Transcendentalists such as Emerson and Thoreau. All material and scientific progress occurred precisely because this level of thinking and social organization arose. We also see the abolition of slavery for the first time in human history precisely during this time (it is no coincidence that slavery still exists in regions of the world that have yet to enter this level of complexity). The United States’ form of government is the exemplary of the form of government that arises in and through this way of thinking – which makes it all the more ironic that it was the last of the Western countries to abolish slavery. That is, until you realize that the American South was one of the last places in the West where religious/authority thinking remained (and still remains) strongest. Because the next level was forced on them, the South has taken over a century to recover and get caught up with the rest of the United States -– becoming scientific/capitalist just as the Northeast has become egalitarian in its world view. But the religious way of thinking is still strong -– which is why the creationism-evolution (and its latest variant, Intelligent Design) debate still goes strong in the United States, particularly in Southern and Midwestern states.

With Rousseau, we get the first of the egalitarian thinkers –- and it is his ideas that led, more than anyone else’s, to the French Revolution, which was the first example of the modern State (while it is true that the idea of independent nations arose with the Enlightenment, after the Renaissance, the peculiar institution of the modern State as typically found in Europe arose with the French Revolution). It was based on secularism and egalitarianism, and this example, along with the ideas of Marx, led to the rise of the Soviet Union and other communist states, which combined this way of thinking with religious/authority thinking, while tending to throw in a heroic leader for good measure. Nazi Germany was yet another example of this kind of state, though they combined it with tribalist ideas, leading to the atrocities of WWII. Of course, the Soviet Union’s avoidance of tribalism did not prevent them from killing even more people – the difference simply being that the U.S.S.R was more personal in its murders, while the Nazis liked to kill people in groups. But both are based on the same way of thinking, and were reactions against Enlightenment thinking. This helps us to understand why people who think this way tend to support communist and fascist dictatorships, and cannot see the difference between them and democratic republics (in an egalitarian world, all forms of government are equal –- equally bad, and equally good). Further, the tendency to see people of lower levels -– especially those still stuck in tribal or heroic thinking and societies –- as victims, and modern-day environmentalism are also based on this way of thinking, and the latter is distinguished by the idea of nature as unchanging –- notions of the eternal, the end of history, etc. being part of communitarian thinking, both religious and secular. This is why much secular communitarian thinking, like environmentalism and communism, closely resemble religious thinking. But these are not the only forms of egalitarian thinking. Darwin introduced an even more fundamental form of egalitarianism when he suggested that humans evolved from apes, and that all animals were fundamentally related to one another. Thus, humans and animals were put on the same plane of existence – and it is this that creationists object to. The hierarchy between humans and animals, placing humans in a place definitively above animals, was flattened by Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Among the more recent thinkers in this more recent egalitarian tradition include Heidegger (who was, not coincidentally, a Nazi), Sartre (a communist), and various Marxist and postmodern thinkers, including Derrida. Some of these latter, the postmoderns, have come in toward the end of egalitarian, statist thinking, and have thus begun the move into the next level of thinking. This is perhaps because they claim a great deal of influence from Nietzsche, who was perhaps the first thinker in this tradition, in reaction to the German State and socialism. Since most of the philosophers and theorists influenced by Nietzsche have in fact been egalitarian, statist thinkers, they have mostly misunderstood Nietzsche’s ideas. One can understand clearly levels below oneself, but there is difficulty in understanding levels above oneself, unless one is trying to move into that next level oneself. As for societal organization, since this next level of thinking is new, there seems to be but a few societies based on this thinking, including the present-day United States and Great Britain, having gone through a lot of statist thinking, while retaining the essential form of the previous level, making it possible to be more pluralistic and hierarchical and inclusive), with organizations like the U.N., the W.T.O., and the World Bank acting to coordinate the world’s governments in a very loose confederacy. Perhaps because the U.S. and Britain were more solidly democratic republics than other Western countries, which attempted to create egalitarian States, this new form of more complex thinking appears to be most common in these two places, and less so in continental Europe. It is all-inclusive, and considers all the lower levels to be important constituents of society as a whole. It believes that there is a basic human nature, and that humans can nonetheless adapt and evolve in extremely complex ways -– that we have instincts, but also highly plastic brains, which allow us to have highly complex ways of thinking. Further, this new level of thinking has so far occurred less often among philosophers, and more often among scientists, such as Victor Turner, E.O. Wilson, Steven Pinker, Jeff Hawkins, Benoit Mandelbrot, and Ilya Prigogine.

The next level, the holistic level, is very new, and includes very few thinkers in it – the only one I know of being the poet-philosopher Frederick Turner. We have yet to see what possible form of social organization will come out of such thinking. Even though we have learned that other communitarian forms of social and government organization have been dictatorial every time, it seems likely, since this is a much more complex level of thinking, that it will be some sort of world federalist democratic republican form of government, where individuals are encouraged to be communitarian thinkers, while the government does not get in the way of people self-organizing into communities of their choice.

III. Implications for Understanding Philosophy and Philosophers

As we can see, there can end up some overlap in thinkers. Just because an egalitarian, communitarian thinker comes along, that does not mean that capitalist/scientific thinkers go away – and most scientists and business people are in fact still thinking this way. And not just the average person, but philosophers and scholars as well. Most of the clergy of the Catholic Church are clearly thinkers in the religious tradition – as well they should be. The Pope should only be a religious thinker, and should not have moved into the capitalist/scientific way of thinking (even if his thinking begins to play on the borderlands, his thinking should mostly be firmly rooted in religious thinking). Do we really want a Pope who is interested in profit? And certainly we should not have a Pope who is a secular humanist. Yet, it has profited the Church considerably to integrate in scientific understandings of the universe, rather than continuing to oppose them. Thus, the Church performs its proper role in maintaining truly religious thinking – and in maintaining it in its best traditions, rather than its worst (which we should have learned from, and learned to avoid, by now).

I am certain, in making these identifications, that I have stepped on some toes regarding peoples’ favorite thinkers and philosophers. We do not like to think that Plato and Aristotle are less complex thinkers than some people are nowadays – or even are less complex thinkers than, say, Machiavelli. Such objections will undoubtedly be made, but they are made precisely because of two errors in thinking: 1) we project our own thinking on the thinkers of the past, and read our own complexities into those past thinkers, and 2) there are inevitably those who themselves think at the level of, say, Plato and Aristotle, and thus consider, say, Machiavelli, to be a highly complex thinker, precisely because their own thinking is only just now becoming as complex as Machiavelli’s was. For these people, someone like Derrida is for all intents and purposes incomprehensible in what they are trying to communicate.

The important thing we must remember is this: Plato is not a thinker. Aristotle is not a thinker. Machiavelli is not a thinker. They were thinkers. They were thinkers of their time, place, and complexity. This does not mean they do not have their values now, in our more complex times, because those levels of thinking still exist, are still relevant, are the base on which higher levels of complexity are built. Machiavelli could not have thought what he thought had Plato and Aristotle not thought what they thought. Machiavelli could not have moved us into a culture and society of capitalism and science from the Platonic/Aristotlean world view without this world view to move from. And each of these thinkers provide excellent basic models from which to build new, more complex self-similar levels. But we must not mistake any of these thinkers from the past for who they are not. They are not present-day thinkers, thinking in present-day complexities – they are thinkers from the past, thinking in their own levels of complexity. Oftentimes we forget this when we talk about them or read them. When we read them, we must remember that, and we must remember that we read into them, we don’t read them for what they meant at the times when they were writing. We interpret them over and over (individually and socially) into the present, making and keeping them relevant for today and the future. The same must be remembered of present-day thinkers. Should I be read in the future, you must remember not to mistake me for someone else. I am a thinker now; I will have been a thinker at some future time. And my thoughts will be relevant for the hierarchical level of thinking I am presently in, which will exist as a lower level in the nested hierarchy of some future level of complexity. I will seem relevant to future scholars who think at my present level of complexity; a mere source and spur of thinking for future thinkers, who will recognize too the relative simplicity of my thoughts compared to theirs, though it occurs as a spur to each higher level that is self-similar to my own.

There are a few things we must remember when considering the history of ideas in this way: 1) each higher level of complexity necessarily needs the lower levels on which to build and rest, while the lower levels do not need the higher levels in the least (this does not mean, however, that within a person, the lower levels are not affected by their own higher levels – family for a tribal thinker is different than family for religious thinker, which is different than family for a capitalist/scientific thinker, or even an egalitarian thinker, though the family unit remains at the same level of complexity-thinking for each) , 2) each level has its own values, benefits, and shortcomings, and 3) there is no upper limit of complexity. Let us consider these in order.

In this model, each of the levels must be traversed in order to reach upper levels. In this, Marx was correct in identifying different levels societies go through, and in realizing one must necessarily go through each lower level to reach upper levels. For example, countries like Germany and France have extensive welfare states that are based on the egalitarian world view. Since these welfare states were built on a solid foundation of capitalism, they have lasted quite a long time without extensive or severe human rights violations (though when Germany adopted a different version of this level in Nazism, they clearly did commit severe human rights violations, as has egalitarian France in is former colonies). If those welfare states are currently on the decline, as they indeed are, it is because those societies have for the most part rejected the levels below them – they are knocking the foundation out from under themselves. But this is a different problem from level-jumping. When the egalitarian/communitarian world view was imposed on an aristocratic society in Russia, we got Soviet-style communism, and thus a mixture of aristocracy and communitarianism, without a capitalist/scientific level (the Soviet rejection of science can be most clearly seen in their acceptance of Lysenko’s biological theories). Thus, a true egalitarian/communitarian society was not reached, while places like France and Germany came closest to accomplishing such a goal. However, one of the problems with each of these levels up to the egalitarian world view is that each also tries to reject the other levels, and the egalitarian world view seems most keen on getting rid of both the capitalist/scientific and religious world views (mostly just capitalism and religion, since it does have its own brand of science in systems science, relativism and probablistic science). When lower levels are rejected, the effect is, as said above, to try to kick the foundation out from under oneself. One of the benefits of those levels above the communitarian level is the recognition of the value of each of the levels, and even the holistic integration of them all. The reason we need the lower levels is the same reason we need lower levels of reality. Atoms give rise to chemicals which give rise to cells which give rise to complex organisms, one of which is humans, with our complex thinking. We can destroy cells without destroying chemicals, and we can destroy chemicals without destroying atoms, but we cannot destroy an atom while keeping the chemical around. The atom, though at the lowest level of complexity, is the vital foundation of each of the emergent levels above it. In the same way, the noosphere, the sphere of emergent human thought, contains the biosphere within it, since the biosphere can get along just fine without humans or human thought, while humans cannot get along without the biosphere (this idea is Ken Wilbur’s, from A Theory of Everything, 98). The relationship may in fact be a more complex feedback loop than even Wilbur admits, since one could also point out that other organisms that are clearly less complex than the biosphere as a whole could also be wiped out, without any real effect on the biosphere as a whole. The important thing here is that human thought is more complex than biology, including the entire biosphere. And more complex levels contain less complex levels, not vice versa. Thus, nature is a part of us even more than we are a part of nature. But I have gone through this to point out that levels of human complexity are also nested hierarchies, self-similar to the nested hierarchies of nature itself. Like atoms to molecules, the higher levels require the lower levels to exist at all.

Thus, we have to remember too that each level has its benefits –- as well as its shortcomings. The lowest level is the level of pure existence. We cannot deny our needs for food, drink, sleep, and sex if we are to survive as a species. But this is what animals do, and we are more than mere animals in our cognitive abilities and social organization. Thus, the first fully human level is tribal. This is the level of family and family ritual and, in the present day West, athletic teams. However, this level is fundamentally racist –- anything non-self is considered bad by those who stay in this level. The next level, the heroic, is associated with Homer’s heroes, the Greek and Roman gods, and Roman emperors. Here we also find athletic superstars. However, this level is extremely egocentric and can be very destructive (again, consider our athletic superstars). The next level is authoritarian and theocratic. What we now think of as religion -– exemplified by Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc. –- with its emphasis on giving life meaning, direction, and purpose, and a world that is well-ordered by God. However, these codes are so strictly enforced that they result in things like the Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials. The backlash to such extreme measures gave rise to the next level, the capitalist/scientific level, which “seeks truth and meaning in individualistic terms” (Wilbur, 10), is rational, believes that the world is knowable through science, gave rise to immense material gains through capitalism, abolished slavery, and developed ideas of human rights. However, due to the fact that this level needed lots of resources, there was perceived exploitation of lower classes both within and without capitalist societies, and Newtonian physics was coming up against quite a few contradictions, both of which led to the next level. The egalitarian/communitarian level insists on the equality of all people, sees the world as a system, and encourages ecological thinking and pluralism. However, this level, even more than the rest, seems determined to destroy every level below it. This is in part due to its opposition to hierarchy and its extreme form of equality. As we can see, each of these levels comes with its own set of benefits –- benefits which we need to both acknowledge and embrace. We need stronger families, a healthy sense of self, lives with meaning, direction, and purpose, but with material well-being and a scientific understanding of the world and how its works, and respect for all people regardless of religion, race, or color. Family, heroism, religion, science, economic and ecological thinking, and pluralism all have their place. And should.

Teleological thinking is something humans commonly engage in. In fact, one could go so far as to identify it as one of the human universals. Thus, we should not be surprised if and when people use it with a model such as this. There is no highest level in this model. The holistic level, the highest level of thinking we currently have, is not the highest. Whatever the next level will look like will have to wait until the integrative and even the holistic levels become realized more in social organization. We cannot know exactly what it will look like, only that it will have a family resemblance to the other individualistic levels, since it comes after the communitarian level of holism. And there will be a communitarian level after it, etc. This is another reason why we should not mistake thinkers from the past for being more complex thinkers than they were. It is unlikely that a higher-level thinker will in fact mistake a lower-level thinker for thinking as he or she does, but there are those who may be on the same level as a past thinker, who may mistakenly think, just because he is in a more complex culture, that his thinking is also necessarily of the most complex form, and therefore think that a past thinker –- say, Plato, who is an aristocratic thinker –- is, say, a holistic thinker. This is particularly true among those who think that holism is necessarily the highest form of thinking possible (it is not –- it is only one more rung on the emergent ladder).

Thus, if we take the integrative and holistic approaches, we can begin to see the importance of knowing thinkers from each of the levels of complexity. Plato and Aristotle have their places in helping to give our lives meaning and direction, and to provide an ethical basis for action. They can inform the way we think these issues even today – since it is a level that is necessary for us to live meaningful, ethical lives. The next level, the capitalist/scientific level, allowed us to individualize those ethics, to consider the origins of ethics and the justification for them, and develop ideas of individual rights and personal responsibility. At the same time, the pluralism of the egalitarian level allows us to apply those ethics to more and more people in our ever-expanding tribe. This is admittedly a utilitarian approach to understanding the great thinkers of the past – but if we are honest with ourselves, we are already utilitarian with them, studying them to write essays and to develop our own philosophies for our own times. In the latter case, we have to know where we’ve been in order to know what’s already been done, and what still needs to be done. And for the integrationist and holistic world views, knowing each level is vital to understanding how each level should relate to each other, and be used to develop more complex levels of thinking and social organization. As we become more and more self-aware (the dictum to “know yourself” applied in a larger and larger sense), we will come to understand how important it is to integrate the levels and to appreciate and affirm each level for the benefits they bestow –- for both the development of new levels, and scholarship to understand each of the levels, particularly in how they relate to one another, and lead into new levels.

Another way we can come to understand these levels is suggested by Ken Wilbur: I-we-it-its. He talks about how we need to integrate all these aspects together –- but we can also come to understand each of the levels through these four aspects. The tribalist level contains none of these in any real sense. There is not yet a real sense of individual identity, or the difference between individual and group – and technology is very primitive, and is not seen as really separate from the tribe. With the development of heroic culture, we get “I” culture. With the development of the authoritarian culture of Plato and Aristotle, Christianity and Islam, we get “we” culture. With the development of capitalist/scientific culture, we get “it” culture. And with the development of egalitarian culture, we get “its” culture (with systems theory, etc.). Wilbur argues that I-we-it also corresponds to beauty(aesthetics)-ethics-truth. Thus we can begin to understand what is happening when Aristotle says ethics aims at to kalon, which can be translated as either “the beautiful” or “the good,” since Aristotle has an ethical “we” philosophy that is also strongly “I”. Also, we can begin to understand John Keats’ equation: “beauty is truth –- truth, beauty,” since Keats is an individualist living in scientific culture (romanticism was an attempt to recover aspects of heroic culture). And we can also begin, with more integrationist thinking, to understand that beauty, the good, and truth are all one and the same thing – and with the systems science of “its,” we can also begin to really understand for the first time how deeply embedded all of these are in time. And if we include the idea developed by J. T. Fraser of time as a nested hierarchy, we can begin to understand more and more deeply how everything is related.

IV. Conclusion

Obviously these ideas need to be further expanded -– but that is the topic of a full-length book, not an essay introducing the idea. With the idea of emergent complexity that contains the lower levels in a nested hierarchy, we can include too the I-we-it-its as well. We get a new idea of “I” when we move into the “we” of the authoritarian level, and a new idea of each as we move into both the “it” and “its” levels as well. And each of these aspects will change as we move into the intregrationist and holistic levels –- change, while at the same time containing their original meanings. The “I” investigated by Homer and Socrates influenced Freud, but the “I” developed by Freud is clearly of a different kind, emergent and more complex. And the “we” developed by Plato and Aristotle influenced Heidegger, but the “we” of Heidegger is clearly of a different kind as well –- influencing the “we” of postmodernism, including its worst aspects, such as political correctness. And while the ancient Greeks did have science and technology, it is clear that the science and technology of the scientific culture is of a different kind, emergent and more complex. And the highly complex systems science that has since developed and become more dominant had its origins in some of the thoughts of Goethe, and even Aristotle.

One might ask, “If Aristotle were alive today, would he still be an authority thinker?” Naturally, this is impossible to say. That may have been his natural disposition to such an extent that it would still be his disposition today. However, it is also just as likely that Aristotle, being the genius he was, and the most complex thinker of his day, would be among the most complex thinkers of today. There is nothing in Aristotle that makes him inherently incapable of our level of complex thinking –- what made him incapable of it was his living and thinking in the time and culture in which he actually lived. In fact, every person living today, no matter what level they may currently be in, can also think in each of these levels –- though if they are at a lower level, they would of course have to move through each level, in order. Level jumps in complexity of thought are just as impossible as atoms skipping molecules to create life.

Jazz and Spontaneous Orders

Today my piece with Kevin Currie-Wright on the ways in which jazz is a spontaneous order, and the relationship of jazz to the extended mind and biological self-organization came out. It is published in Cosmos + Taxis, which is a great place to keep up with the latest spontaneous order research. I have actually published a few things through both them and their predecessor, Studies in Emergent Order.

In C+T I also have a book review of Matt Ridley’s The Evolution of Everything.

In Studies in Emergent Order, I have pieces on The Spontaneous Orders of the Arts and on theaters as organizations in overlapping spontaneous orders. I also published a piece with Euel Elliott, as assistant dean at UT-Dallas, titled Innovation, Complex Systems, and Computation: Technological Space and Speculations on the Future.

Those interested in seeing my more developed ideas should find these works of interest.