Tag Archives: Paul Ricœur

Post-modernism and Consciousness

Hamlet lamented in a famous soliloquy, “Thus conscience (i.e. consciousness) doeth make cowards of us all.” Shakespeare demonstrated in his plays and sonnets a profound grasp of the human condition and beautifully illustrated our foibles in various characters such as the Prince of Denmark.  Hamlet, as well as many Shakespearean characters, portray for us a soul tortured by consciousness and Hamlet noted in this same soliloquy that such “awareness” can stymie one into inaction.  In clinical lore of recent decades, I have often run across the “Hamlet Syndrome,” the plague of many young men…usually not women…who are so conflicted they have trouble making decisions, thus their many dreams and fancies, “lose the name of action.”

Another theme of Shakespeare was madness and his understanding of this common human malady was not unrelated to his insights about consciousness.  For, there is a “common-sense” consciousness that one is given by his community and one’s lot is to be immersed in it fully; and to step outside of this comfort zone for even a moment and become aware of “consciousness” is not unrelated to madness. Asking one to take this meta-cognitive leap is like asking a fish to see water. For this leap into meta-cognition for someone who has never doubted his way of looking at the world, i.e. his conscious grasp of the world, will find the sudden dawn of a perspective on his perspective frightening.  As philosopher Paul Ricoeur noted, “To have a perspective on one’s perspective is to somehow escape it” and this escape, or even its temptation is terrifying.  The terror of this leap is so threatening that most people live their entire life comfortably ensconced in the narrow view of the world they were given by their tribe, usually deemed as decreed valid by the gods/God.

But, awareness of this issue does not relieve one from the onslaught of unconscious influences. Consciousness flows from the depths of the heart and to be conscious is to realize that the depths of the heart are endless so that one can never bask in the comfort of thinking he has arrived with a wholly “conscious” grasp of the world.  The best one hope of doing is to own a very skewed view of the world and hope that as he continues to age his “skewing” might be more amenable to other viewpoints, leaving one free of the hubris of “objectivity.”

But damn it, it was so much easier in my youth when I mindlessly and dutifully imbibed of what the Apostle Paul described as “the wisdom of this world.”  Yes, in my case doubt was always there nagging at me but I always returned to my script and just doubled-down on unexamined truth, not yet willing to acknowledge that I was merely demonstrating the “bad faith” noted by Jean Paul Sartre. But this post-modern view of the world is, and will continue to be, totally incomprehensible to those who are still comfortably ensconced in a linear view of the world.  I grew up in that linear world and remember viewing askance what was then labeled as “relativism”, often affirming brazenly, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”

But most of the people who still live in that mind-set are not bad people nor is their view of the world.  I’m sure an equal number of “bad people” see the world as I do.  “Badness” is not a function of our world view but of how much we are under its tyranny.  The more rigidly certain that our way is the “right way” the more liberty will we feel that to impose our will upon other people, even under the name of God!

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Shakespeare and Consciousness

Hamlet lamented in a famous soliloquy, “Thus conscience (i.e. consciousness) doeth make cowards of us all.” Shakespeare demonstrated in his plays and sonnets a profound grasp of the human condition and beautifully illustrated our foibles in various characters such as Hamlet.  Hamlet, as well as many literary figures, portrays for us a soul tortured by consciousness and Hamlet noted in this same soliloquy that such “awareness” can stymie one into inaction.  In clinical lore of recent decades I have often run across the “Hamlet Syndrome”, the plague of many young men who are so conflicted they have trouble making decisions, thus their many dreams and fancies, “lose the name of action.”  (And this “syndrome” usually captures only males…but not exclusively.)

Another theme of Shakespeare was madness and his understanding of this common human malady was not unrelated to his insights about consciousness.  For, consciousness is a phenomenon one is to be immersed in and to step outside for even a moment and become aware of “consciousness” is not unrelated to madness.  For this leap into meta-cognition for someone who has never doubted his way of looking at the world, i.e. his conscious grasp of the world, will find the sudden dawn of a perspective on his perspective frightening.  As philosopher Paul Ricoeur noted, “To have a perspective on one’s perspective is to somehow escape it.”  The terror of this meta-cognitive leap is so threatening that most people live their entire life comfortably ensconced in the narrow view of the world they were given by their tribe, usually deemed as decreed valid by the gods/God.

By discoursing here on this matter I am giving the impression that I’m in the camp of the “conscious” ones and in some sense I do feel I am.  BUT, consciousness flows from the depths of the heart and to be conscious is to realize that the depths of the heart are endless so that one can never bask in the comfort of thinking he has arrived with a wholly “conscious” grasp of the world.  The best I can personally ever hope of doing is to own my very skewed view of the world and hope that as I continue to age my “skewing” might be increasingly open to other viewpoints, leaving me always without accomplishing “objectivity.”

But damn it, it was so much easier in my youth when I mindlessly and dutifully imbibed of what the Apostle Paul described as “the wisdom of this world.”  Yes, in my case doubt was always there nagging at me but I always returned to my script and just doubled-down on unexamined truth, not yet willing to acknowledge that I was merely demonstrating the “bad faith” noted by Jean Paul Sartre.

Thinking “Outside of the Box”

“Thinking outside of the box” is popular rhetoric for looking at things differently.  But, the task asks for more than is often realized–realizing that you are “boxed” already and have a built-in, ego based aversion for escaping that narrow view of the world.  And though you might bounce around the notion of “thinking outside of the box,” just be aware that you are not likely to do it beyond a comfort zone and that getting beyond that “comfort zone” is where the action is.  Getting beyond one’s comfort zone is the essence of “spirituality,” a term I use to refer to getting down into the “foul and ragged bone shop of the heart” where we actually live.  I will readily admit that the spirituality of my life has usually been designed to avoid this “catastrophe”;  and it is “catastrophic” when we begin to step outside of the comfort zone our box has provided us and begin to delve into the heart.

Another way to approach “thinking outside of the box” is paradigm shifting.  But, once again, you can’t begin to “paradigm shift” until you have the honesty and self-awareness to acknowledge that you are confined by a paradigm.  And we all are.  It is called “being human.”  But I’ve spent my life avoiding my human-ness, remaining in the comfort zone of my preconceptions and biases, i.e. my “box.”  And my Christian faith has been the most important dimension of my “box” and I am only now beginning to explore this matter.  And this is not to diminish the teachings of Jesus but merely to recognize that His teachings always come to an individual in a cultural context; and, try as we may, we cannot fail to consider the impact of the cultural context on our interpretations of His teachings and on the interpretation of every dimension of life.

The particular cultural context that I was born into offered me a spirituality that solved this “dilemma” by teaching that “cultural context” did not have any role in spirituality, that it came to us directly from on high without any interference by little difficulties like preconceptions and biases.  And that “solution” was the very heart of the problems which I’m beginning to explore and is very relevant to the lunacy so very apparent today in evangelical Christianity in my country.

A closing thought from the philosopher Paul Ricoeur, “You can’t have a perspective on your perspective without somehow escaping it.”