The Test of the West II

This is the transcript of an extremely stimulating and insightful conversation between Alex Omidvar and philosopher John Artibello. John Artibello had taught philosophy for 22 years at Centennial, George Brown and Humber Colleges in Toronto, Canada. He did graduate work in philosophy at the University of Toronto where he met, and was inspired by Marshall McLuhan, Bernard Lonergan and Jean Vanier. His special interests are in ethics, spirituality, the psychology of meaning and ecology. Many of the writings contained at this site are attempts to synthesize ideas from a variety of sources and reflect the contributions of countless thinkers and writers engaged in the humanities and global learning. The conversation between Artibello and Alex has been divided into three chapters (I,II and III). The second chapter is as follows:

Chapter 2—the solution to the excessive chaos of post-modern ideas

John Artibello

My theology and spirituality has a lot to do with the Jesuit notion that God is directly accessible to consciousness, but we have to learn discernment - a practice involving all of our conscious agencies: feelings, imaginings, reasoning and mystical encounter to experience God’s personal call in one’s life. We all have a call, a purpose that unfolds, no matter what life brings us, good things or bad. You might think that your study habits brought you to university, but the spirit played a role as well. A Higher Power, a grace deeper than the conceptual, but integrative with thought and reason. The secular night-life, on the other hand, will leave you bored and drained, what the mystics call ‘desolation’. But where the Spirit leads you will produce the opposite effect—joy, rather than pleasure—what they call consolation. So, as a practical matter, be a pilgrim rather than a tourist. Visit sacred places: the Taize and L’ Arche communities in England and on the continent. The great cathedrals and monastic centres. Wherever you feel the deeper promptings. Discern.

Your description of the postmoderns sucking the life out of people is deeply insightful. They are psychologists not philosophers and they don’t even understand psychology all that well. Sartre’s “hell is other people’’ is based on his own narcissism in my view.  Here is freedom without responsibility to anything other than self. When he wrote Existentialism as a Humanism, there was something of the grandeur of the human. But without something other to engage with, one is thrown back on self-gazing. No wonder there are so many ‘flaneurs’ in France!

But here is where spirituality comes in. My view is that absence of God produces self-hatred. Closed in on the self, post-moderns claim this is some kind of virtue. So, individuals try desperately to attain the unattainable, falling into intellectual despair. I saw your video with your philosophy teacher who kept saying “probably there is no God”. But if that is the case, why go on repeating the phrase? I am sure that many bright people who were taken over by fundamentalism, need this revolt to regain their sanity. But revolt is just the first step. 

I am thinking about writing a paper to be called ‘Human beings: animals or icons?’ Sartre was unconsciously projecting his inner ‘hell’ onto others – hating others because he hated himself. God is what first produces self-love. It can be a struggle but I see myself as an icon reflecting transcendent beauty, and I come to see this in others, in nature, etc. 

Christian philosophers look at revelation and then see how philosophy helps deepen our understanding of the notions given in the revelation. If you want a good text, look at Joseph Owens, An Elementary Christian Metaphysics. He is from the generation that read ALL the relevant sources and can summarise them with authority and depth. So, I would encourage you to turn from reading the “flavour of the month”  (Nietzsche and friends) and find the real scholars. If anybody at Oxford is offering a course or talk on Aristotle’s metaphysics, check it out. Also, see if there is a Lonergan Centre there. 

In later scribs I can show you the philosophical problems that come from Descartes, Hume and Kant and why their false understanding of the self helped bring us to where we are today.

Alex Omidvar

The idea of discernment is very interesting, and I would like to think about it practically for the sake of it being an accessible argument for those who are not part of any community of faith. And your analysis very much reminds me of Jung’s idea of circumambulation. Indeed, this idea describes that during a person’s lifetime, there are individual meaningful phenomena that occur that points one to a fraction of his destination or ‘Being’ and the sum total of a set of significant experiences could lead one to pursue a certain path in life towards the completion of their ‘Telos’. I think your very insightful notion of discernment can be shown practically and without the requirement of any sort of faith. In short, one needs to become aware of his experiences, and also to become a master of his own self, if that person is to attain anything approximating his Telos. And the tool that allows you to become fully aware and deeply conscious of your experiences; that enables you to understand why they are happening to you, as well as that which frees you from the shackles of your own misapprehensions is discernment. And indeed, one needs a source of divine inspiration (literal or metaphorical) or divine sense of direction to discover one’s own deep Telos whilst becoming strong enough spiritually and mentally to move towards the completion of one’s essence.

Your comments on the postmodern thinkers; that they have created or at least strongly influenced the current narcissistic culture is something I strongly agree with. So far, the student committee at Oxford has tried their best to impose their ideologies onto us in the most aggressive and reprehensible manner, including a compulsory workshop on ‘Consent’ and a compulsory talk on Diversity and Inclusion which included doctrines such as micro-aggression and cultural appropriation. The very fact that they were compulsory signals to me a disease that far exceeds the narcissism of the typical kind because, to begin with, they presented their ideologies as facts and explained that anything contrary to these beliefs is morally abhorrent and will be met with consequences. So it is not only that they are narcissistic for using this sort of activism to feel virtuous or good about themselves, but that we also must do this too if we are not to be identified as the ‘other’, the unknown that lurks in the background and is nothing but a reprehensive and morally repugnant being. An important caveat is that this is not unique to this wonderful university with its rich history and amazing education but that this post-modern, resentful and tribal culture has infiltrated deeply the collective unconscious soul of the West.

And your comment that “Sartre was unconsciously projecting his inner “hell” onto others—hating others because he hated himself” is extremely insightful. This is similar to the sort of idea that you read into situations your own toxic ideas or experiences. Why? I believe the feeling of having the upper moral hand is overwhelmingly motivating and Nietzsche’s notion of resentment is also a strong possibility; that people hate those who are better than them along any dimensions (e.g. economic, social relations and status). Moreover, finding an enemy seems very much convenient as a tool to escape responsibility, but even stronger than all motivations is the one that seeks to demolish all that is noble and beautiful as an act of revenge that is morally justifiable (from their eyes) and perhaps even virtuous.

For the last section of this dialogue, can you put forward your analysis of the philosophical problems that come from Descartes, Hume and Kant and why their false understanding of the Self helped bring us to where we are today? I also think a good way to end this dialogue is to provide a practical solution to this desolated and resentful culture that is filled with narcissism, nihilism and nothing beautiful or transcendent. 

John A Artibello

Thank you Alex for your reflections. I want to begin by agreeing with you about the philosophical aspects of discernment. Consciousness, and I am speaking about particular or existential consciousness, is caught up with history. All of us know our lives will end, and so we are constantly in touch with the “arc of one’s own life”. Beginning with Socrates, we have a well thought out record of what one must do with this knowledge. The Greeks, and I am thinking of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, point to the ethical as a conscious response to this awareness of human finitude. But ethics is understood from the angle of metaphysics. These thinkers argued that our self-knowledge, and indeed our scientific knowledge is ‘going somewhere’. No need to put a lot of religious names to it. They left us with an insight. They knew that the study of the physical world is a study of mechanisms, but there was an intuitional sense that the explanation of all these mechanisms, can’t be more mechanisms. For Aristotle, the summit of meaning for humans is contemplation. This contemplation is a ‘habit of thought’ for those who practice it. This ‘habit’ is grounded in the desire of consciousness to go beyond itself. It is intuitional but not outside the intellectual activities of rational knowers. A modern Aristotelian, Andrew Beards, points to the multiple referentiality of thinking that forces us to consider some “whole” for which all this complexity tends. Metaphysics is the wisdom which develops in the pursuit of the whole.

This is the backdrop for understanding modern philosophy, and the turn to the Self that begins with Descartes and continues to challenge us today. Descartes claimed that the intuition to go beyond the self which founded Western philosophy should not be trusted. Ironically he substituted a subjectivist intuition for a realist/existential one. His intuition came from the clean lines and unambiguous concepts of geometry. However his notion of clear and distinct ideas is neither clear nor distinct. Even if I were to concede that some ideas are clearer, better, more rational than others, why should I insist that such things can prove anything about those ideas that are neither clear nor distinct? Werner Heisenberg won a Nobel Prize for proving that the foundations of the material universe are not at all clear and distinct notions; and he explains that the ‘Uncertainty Principle’ had much in common with Aristotle’s notion of ‘substantial principle’, which is both actually existing and potentially something more than it appears.

Hume is equally captivated by intuitions leading to a similar dead-end as Descartes. Perhaps the self is being controlled by cleverly constructed fictions like causality, confused notions that are psychologically grounded but not rationally defensible. I simply have a ‘feeling’ that A causes B, but this is not ‘because’ of knowledge of the material world. But we can level the same criticism here as applies to Descartes, namely, why should the ‘feeling’ that I can’t know causality be more reliable than the scientific knowledge that comes from studying the reasons behind things and their behaviour? Why is this psychological intuition more reliable than the reasons offered for saying ‘smoking causes cancer’? 

Both Hume and Kant claim that they have knowledge based on rational argument. But rational argument is based on the notion of something following from something else. And it is through judgement that we know when such connections are justified and when they are not. Hume is using the idea that something follows from something else to discredit causality (the idea that something follows from something else). Kant is claiming that we have no real knowledge beyond appearance, but this is a self-contradiction. It amounts to saying: a) All knowledge is appearance. b) Knowledge of ‘a’ is not appearance.

Needless to say, post-moderns have their own set of ‘intuitions’ that they see as somehow self-evident. Their focus on language as ultimately subjective is based on the mistake of taking a tool for studying reality, to constitute reality. I can use language to structure reality but only because I am not structured by it. Language is a tool, nothing more. 

Joseph Owens in An Elementary Christian Metaphysics points out that phenomenological studies of consciousness (forms of “know thyself”) are the source and substance of philosophy, but many phenomenologies choose to ignore one of the phenomenological givens that cannot be ignored for long—EXISTENCE. When I study the apple on my desk and attend to the course of thoughts and perceptions in this conscious activity, one very clear intuition is EXISTENCE. This apple is not just a mass of subjective impressions; actual existence is one of the biggest impressions of the exercise. It cannot be bracketed because ‘to be’ is irreducible.

If there is a practical programme for going forward, one needs to become involved in curriculum development. The ‘telos’ for all conscious activities should be ‘truth’. But truth is a historically motivated study. Curriculum must return to the historical component of self-knowledge. Humans need to re-assert the value of knowing how we have come to the place where we are today. This involves truth-telling, the vocation of ‘the witness’. The great error of the philosophers that I have criticised is their complete abandonment of history. They have taken the Self to be a non-historical psychological entity without any ontological significance. As Gabriel Marcel noted, “Thought far from being a relation with itself, is on the contrary essentially a self-transcendence.” There is more to existence than self. This fundamental intuition is the foundation of human beings. 


Alex Omidvar

Alex is a CEO at Omidvar.co.uk. Outside his job, he is a proficient writer, speaker, consultant, leader and student who studies Philosophy at the University of Oxford. He also runs ‘The Oxford Logos’ a YouTube channel designed for free discourse.

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