Wednesday 20 July 2016

There is no such thing as communication, only participation/ identification (or not) - More from Owen Barfield and Rudolf Steiner

For several years in the early 2000s I was working on Niklas Luhmann's Systems Theory, publishing dozens of papers, articles and a book from that perspective - its central tenet was that communications are primary. I now understand that communications don't actually exist - and indeed, that is the conclusion of Systems Theory - although self-awareness of the fact is obscured by paradox.

Systems Theory is a formalisation of the usual view of science - for example that we know about the world via senses which detect signals. The things 'out there' are detected by light, sound (etc.) communications; and in response to these communications our minds make 'representations' of the things.

Systems theory clarifies that communications cannot actually communicate - and our 'knowledge' of things is actually a representation which arises in the mind - and which indirectly interacts with the environment. By this account, we never actually know things, but only our models of things; and these 'internal' models are never more than un-disproven in our interactions with (what we cannot help but regard as) the outside world.

This Systems Theory may sound excessively abstract, but it is merely a formalisation of normal modern Western consciousness - in which modern Man has become paralysed and demotivated by the 'fact' that his communications are unreliable. So, the Bible cannot guide us anymore, nor can the instructions of The Church; because we believe that all communications are partial, biased and prone to misinterpretation without any possible way of achieving objectivity.


For instance, we may believe we have understood a communication, but how do we know for sure? - The answer is only by further communications. But each further communication - intended to clarify the first one - is itself equally ambiguous, uncertain...

So we conclude (correctly) that later communications cannot ever (in principle) clarify the meaning of previous communications. All that happens is we get more and more communications!

In other words, once we have accepted the metaphysical scheme that communications are the way we attain knowledge, we realise that communications cannot - in fact - lead to knowledge; but only back to ourselves.

Apparently, we are trapped in our own minds and can never know what lies outside them. In fact it is worse than that because we cannot consciously know even our own minds! - since conscious knowledge is itself a communication about the mind - and therefore prone to all the uncertainties and ambiguities of any other communication.


The way 'out' from this is to return to the original understanding that when we know something we do so by participating in it, or by identifying with it - in a literal sense. So when we know another person's mind, or understand the behaviour of an animal, or the properties of a rock, or the lay of a landscape... this is because we share the being of that thing.

So we do not make an inference about the thoughts of another person, but we actually think the same thoughts as that other person - we share in the exact same (and to us both available) thoughts.

Or we understand the animal we are hunting by becoming that animal - not by thinking a copy of that animal's thinking, nor by stopping being ourselves and becoming the animal - but by both the animal and our-self sharing the exact same thinking.

This is (seemingly) the spontaneous and untheorised way that young children think (you may remember thinking this way yourself), and also hunter-gatherers and Men in less complex, more aboriginal societies. They just think this way - to the extent that they do not have the same intuition of separateness - they live 'in' their environment - identified with it. They do not observe their environment, they participate in it, un-self-consciously.

Indeed, their selves are substantially a product of that environment - they do not set their conscious selves against the environment, do not separate their personal purposes from the purposes of the environment.

(This state is what Owen Barfield calls Original Participation.)


Now this metaphysical scheme has become very difficult to modern Man because we have a powerful intuition that we ourselves are separate from everything else - that we are cut-off from everything else, that we are observers of the rest of the world and lack direct access to it.

Trapped in the alienated state of our own consciousness, many modern people yearn to return to that state of Original Participation of childhood, or of tribal Man - yet this yearning has been evident form more than 200 years (since the Romantic Movement, especially) and we are further from the goal than ever - clearly we cannot do this, even if it was the right thing to do.

Two centuries of failure to return to Original Participation, and the same period of profound alienation and nihilism as reinforced by the focus on the primacy 'communication' and its implication of the impossibility of communication; is evidence that we can only go forward not back.

It seems that alienation can only be alleviated by a different kind of participation - by a metaphsyic and experience which allows for genuine participation/ identification in a context of the self-aware consciousness. That is, we remain self-aware, we remain located inside our minds - but acknowledge  the possibility and actuality of identification with the environment.

In modern man, identification is no longer the un-self-conscious and spontaneous and uncontrolled thing it was in childhood or tribal Man; but instead identification happens in conscious, self-aware thinking. In other words, when we are thinking - purposively, consciously, in the normal way - we may achieve (and we aim to achieve) an identification with the reality of our environment, and the things in that environment. So that our own thinking is a sharing in the thinking of the environment - the identification is at the level of thinking, not of being.

This is (even if regarded as false) understandable in the case of people - we understand how we might conceivably share the thoughts of another person. But if there is to be a possibility of real knowledge (and not merely of our own 'models' of reality) this must also apply to everything else - not just to people, but to animals and plants, rocks and hills, water and chemicals...

To be crystal clear, we must be able to share the thoughts of animals, plants, rocks, hills, water, chemicals and everything else; which means that (in the first place) these things must have thoughts in order that we may be able to share them.

This explains the necessity for our basic assumptions, our metaphysical framework of reality, to be animistic - if we want to really know about reality, we need not only to regard the whole world as alive, but also as thinking.

If this principle is accepted, then we can move forward to Final Participation; we can cure alienation, can really know about reality, can have human relationships based on truth not illusion, and can feel and be 'at home in the universe'.


Of course the secondary question is concerned with how we know when we have achieved Final Participation, and identification of thinking - and are not merely fooling ourselves, or making an error?

Well, that is a secondary question - it does have answers, but such answers themselves depend on the acknowledgement of the possibility of direct participation.

For as long as we persist in regarding everything as communication, we shall always be uncertain about everything, and will only have more and more communications - each as fundamentally uncertain as every other.

So there can be no answers unless and until we move forwards to a metaphysical system, and personal experience, of direct participation, actual identification of thinking - sharing in the thinking of other entities.

At which point we can understand the answers to questions about error, self-deception and accuracy. But from the perspective of Modern Man's current detachment from, alienation from, the world and from his own mind - there are no answers to anything.

We first need to live-by a new metaphysics.


Luqman said...

This is critical to understanding why paganism cannot practically succeed in modern times while at the same time affirming its goodness. A real pagan tranplanted to the modern world would likely feel sick, but probably fairly quickly fall.

Anonymous said...

Tangential (but possibly relevant) question: have you happened to read the book Gnostic Wars or anything else by Stefan Rossbach? He started as a Niklas Luhmann enthusiast, and developed a critical stance (which involved interest in the work of Eric Voegelin: I enjoyed his paper (sketching Gnostic Wars), and talking to him at the 1997 Voegelin conference in Manchester, but have never managed to catch up with the book, yet).

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - No I haven't read that.