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Enlightenment – The Dialectical and Merging Horizons

Just because we’ve been through a period of time in Western human civilization called “The Age of Enlightenment,” does not necessarily mean that we, as the current generation of Western human civilization, have by default obtained it. If ever, it seems much more likely that our journey toward understanding and applying the various different elements of enlightenment have vacillated and become increasingly complex. Further, it seems that there exists some type of direct relationship between time and it’s ceaselessness, and the volume of human activities, in the form of the significant historical events and ideas, that continue to accumulate over time. Simply put, time and human activity do not stop… given this, how can we hope to ever catch up.

Thus, with each passing day we have to expend more and more time and energy in studying and researching global history and global ideas so that we can gain the best possible understanding of the world for ourselves. And even though this seems like a perilous pursuit, I believe it is the single most important endeavor that we could be engaging in as humans. Why? I believe that a constant striving toward enlightenment will enable us to maximize the efficacies of our tactical decision making in the present moments as well as our strategies for living the highest quality of life in the future.

So, What is Enlightenment?

Immanuel Kant (German philosopher, 1724-1804) wrote a famous essay answering the question that was posed during the European Age of Enlightenment (~18th century) entitled, “What is Enlightenment?” [This is of course optional, but I think it has the potential to benefit the entire philosophical spectrum of novice-expert level readers:)].

Taken from a small portion of his essay, Kant states, “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance.” Further, “Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why such a large part of mankind gladly remain minors all their lives, long after nature has freed them from external guidance. They are the reasons why it is so easy for others to set themselves up as guardians. It is so comfortable to be a minor. If I have a book that thinks for me, a pastor who acts as my conscience, a physician who prescribes my diet, and so on–then I have no need to exert myself. I have no need to think, if only I can pay; others will take care of that disagreeable business for me.”

Hmmm… this was written ~237 years ago in 1784, remarkably around the same time as the Declaration of Independence was written in 1776. Crazy to think… and yet, there are some astoundingly exquisite aspects within Kant’s essay that seem to be as relevant today, to a number of our current adversities as a now global technologically driven human civilization, as they were during Kant’s time of the Industrial Revolution (~1760-1840).

Yet, I can simultaneously envision the skeptic posing the rightful logical question of, “Even if this is exquisite, it is ~250 years old, shouldn’t we at least consider a minor tune-up to modernize it?” Yes, I hear you and I’m with you… if we are living in the middle of a hyper technological age with giant tech companies like Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon having the financial strength of entire countries, this definitely does present a different set of challenges.

I equate the heart of the essay as developing a dual driving force to think for ourselves consisting of one part courage (as opposed to cowardice) and one part passionate determination (as opposed to laziness). If we think about what this sentiment means from the perspective of comparing Kant’s time vs. our current time, I believe we have a truly fascinating dichotomy on our hands. Smartphones. With just one word, one that would’ve been foreign just 30 years ago, let alone in the time of Kant, we can easily envision our current world as vastly different from Kant’s… and this is just one of many examples.

True, our smartphones give us the capability to find out any bit of information that we want within seconds, as well as the ability to call/text/email and more in terms of communicating with others within seconds. Awesome power, truly… probably the invention of the 20th century. However, also due to smartphones, we now have the unforeseen consequences of severe human psychological / sociological damage on a global scale. Hence, we have more than enough information at our fingertips, of which one could argue tends to make us rather lazy (or excessively comfortable), and we also have the unforeseen consequence of wide scale human related emotional damage, of which one could argue tends to make us also rather weak (deficiency of courage).

Like the great Persian Empire of old, a fascinating people and culture, have we begun our gradual decline via the path of decadence, slipping into those warm and cozy silk slippers? This is really nothing new, most everyone is at least to some degree aware of this possibility (this video, although quite alarming, captures some of our proclivities toward excessiveness as a result of our highly technological age). Yet, awareness of this is only half the battle. Thus, I believe that with each passing moment we need to increase our sense of urgency in striving for enlightenment.

Let us begin the process by adding and/or refining a series of useful tools to our toolbox as we are going to be engaging with a lot of information and we need to cultivate methods that will enable us to try to maximize our understanding and ultimate usage of this information.

The Dialectic Strategy

In my daily grind to strive for enlightenment, I will be attempting to utilize the framework of a famous philosophical concept associated with another German philosopher Hegel (Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, 1770-1831) called, “The Dialectic.” Essentially we assume that change is constant in all things. I know, we start all of this by making an assumption. Looking through the skeptical lens once again, perhaps one could argue, “Isn’t death, at the very least, a certainty?” It seems to me that, as with most things, it ultimately depends on how you look at it.

Well, we ultimately have to start somewhere and assuming some form of constant change in the world has been a recurring theme since the ancients of both Western (example, one of many, from the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus ~535-475 B.C. who stated that, “You cannot step twice into the same river, for other waters are ever flowing onto you”) and Eastern (example, again one of many, of Hinduism and theirbeliefs in impermanence and that change continues beyond even death via reincarnation and the perpetual cycle of Samsara) civilizations.

So, we assume that change is constant. Great, what’s next? Examining the process of change. For Hegel, our ideas, thoughts, and knowledge start off in a state of “thesis” wherein something(s) are thought to be known, in terms of a level of truth. Until an antithesis is presented and confronts the knowledge that has been accrued up until the point of the most recent thesis. Then, once the thesis and antithesis ideas have engaged with one another, a new basis of knowledge is established via the process of synthesis.

This synthesis then evolves into the next level of thesis… whereby it should be noted that this is not always marked by progress in a straight-forward / linear fashion (recall the smartphone example with unforeseen challenges in addition to the originally intended benefits), which is key as part of Hegel’s intentions were to help capture and explain scientific processes. I hope to use this process for a better understanding of source texts, and also for periodic self-evaluation to examine if I believe that my methods are enabling me to sustain a consistent level of growth along my path toward enlightenment. And if not, maintaining an open mind to try new methods:)

Further, for Hegel all of this would eventually lead up to a final endpoint, some type of ultimate understanding of the world and/or self. Unfortunately, this final understanding endpoint is also one of the most misunderstood and controversial parts of Hegel’s philosophy. Was he referring to a spiritual / religious type of enlightenment, or was it more of a clarity of mind / thought? For me, I’m more of the mindset that, if there is any truth within this world then it would seem more likely to be within the path(s) that we choose to take in life, rather than at some final endpoint. Regardless, this is part of the reason why I started this blog… to explore the various uniquely genius approaches to questions such as this:)

One example of Hegel’s philosophy regarding the dialectic is depicted by the conflict that occurred in Greek Antiquity between Greek cultural norms (the thesis) and Socrates via his persistent challenging of these norms (the antithesis) ultimately resulting, over time, in various new ways of more accepted philosophical thinking (the synthesis via Plato and Aristotle, Stoicism, Epicureanism, Skepticism, Cynicism, etc.; which would then become the new thesis…and so on it goes). Further, Hegel believes that the Greeks were right to have Socrates killed for corrupting the youth because, at this particular point in time, it was considered to be a crime in their society. He thought, you can’t blame them for not yet knowing better… how could they know for sure.

Hermeneutics – Prejudices within the Art of Interpretation – Merging Horizons

This is an excellent point, one that brings forth the subject of hermeneutics. And since I am advocating forstudying and researching global history and global ideas as a means to help us gain the best possible understanding of the world and ourselves, it is quintessential. Hermeneutics is widely held to be the “art of interpretation,” and more specifically, it critically examines the ways in which we, as readers, will be engaging with older source texts (as well as more modern formats such as film / videos, podcasts and even communications that we’ve had in our past wherein our role may shift to viewer and/or listener).

Since, at this time, we are mainly engaging with historical, philosophical, and religious / spiritual texts, it seems prudent to begin to enrich our understanding of hermeneutics through the German philosopher Gadamer (Hans-Georg Gadamer, 1900-2002).

Ok, cool, so we know that hermeneutics is the “art of interpretation,” and that it can involve multiple types or modes of communication. This includes reading wherein the text is essentially speaking to us, and as the reader we take on the active process of trying to understand or interpret the meaning of the text. Through this active process we can also then begin to see a vital element within hermeneutics, the prejudice(s) of the reader.

Some have thought that a method could be established to help the reader overcome this obstacle in that one could put their prejudices and biases aside and objectively read the text so that they could come to some understanding regardless of the historical / cultural time in which the text was written. However, Gadamer says that this type of “historicism” is not possible. We cannot simply factor out our own subjectivity, we cannot just snap our fingers or flip a switch and enter into a new modus operandi wherein we can identify with a mindset from another time and/or place.

Instead, Gadamer believes that when we come into contact with information we begin from a place of our own horizon, which includes our prejudices and biases. From here, our objective should then be to try to bridge our horizon with the horizon in which the information came from. In so doing, we then have a chance to find some common ground, or a horizon merger, that will result in a history that is effective and can be useful to us as we engage with the present moment and develop strategies for the future.

I’m not ashamed to admit that the first time I read Kant’s essay on, “What is Enlightenment?”, I had to look up the word nonage. Sure, I could circle my way around within the text to try to infer some meaning, but I had to look up the word to get the exact meaning (the period of immaturity or youth) so that I could complete my own horizon merger with the text:)

Although this may seem quite minuscule, it is rather significant in that if one did not complete this horizon merger it could result in misinterpretation, or what Gadamer calls “bad prejudice,” which is essentially assuming that you understand the meaning of a text when you do not. Note, this is opposed to Gadamer’s “good prejudice” wherein we bring an accurate understanding to the table of a word or phrase the first time we read through a text and do not need to engage in a horizon merger. One of our goals as we strive toward enlightenment then will be to achieve lots of horizon mergers and “good prejudices.”

Although Gadamer’s focus is on simpler issues such as the one above, it is possible to extend this issue onto a grander scale. For example, take the issue of trying to come to an understanding of a translated version of a source text versus the source text in its originally written language. Hegel was German and wrote his seminal work “Phenomenology of Spirit” in German. Yet, I can only read English. Further, there are certain words in German that do not translate their intended meaning as clearly or easily into English. This is the case with Hegel’s usage of the term “Zeitgeist” which is commonly thought now to imply, “the spirit of the times.” However, in German, geist can also mean ghost or mind instead of simply spirit, and zeit can also mean age or period instead of time.

This presents a deeper hermeneutical problem for readers and may take a bit more research to overcome depending on the situation, but a horizon merger can still be completed. And although this may seem like an insurmountable hurdle in terms of additional time and effort, I believe this is one of the key areas to focus on in terms of experiencing the greatest amount of growth in our path toward enlightenment.

There is much more to delve into regarding the theories related to hermeneutics, but for now and for our purposes of primarily studying and researching historical, philosophical, and religious / spiritual texts, I think this will at the very least give us a foot in the right direction.

Next Steps…

Nice! So we now have an idea of what enlightenment is via Kant, as well as the dialectical method to help us more firmly grasp the concept of change via Hegel, and the hermeneutical idea of the horizon merger via Gadamer to help us understand our role as the reader when engaging with source texts. I believe the combination of these elements will be profoundly significant in our ongoing efforts of striving toward enlightenment.

With this blog post we have set the bar of where we are aiming to be, however as with any epic enterprise, we have to begin with extreme preparations. By preparations we are chiefly concerned with organization and trying to develop a preliminary process of refinement. A process that will hopefully help us sharpen the various tools of our minds including widening our general knowledge base, increasing our historical awareness and understanding, and learning to challenge the values and beliefs that we hold most true before we launch into the outer orbit of reading source texts.

Thank you for joining me on this philosophic journey!

Onward to Phase I – Contextual Overview

Next blog post: Enlightenment – Cultural Binaries & Contextual Origins

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