Category Archives: worldview

Inconclusive Conclusions: Living with Montaigne’s Mentality

Appropriate a “worldview” to have an impostor’s point of view.

Or, develop a point of view that allows for the broadest range of possibilities.

I think I’m onto something with the second option.

Creative Nonfiction and Inconclusiveness

In MFA programs, some writers of creative nonfiction attempt to tell personal stories about traumas and crises.

Even the best memoirs can fail to answer fundamental questions about those personal stories.

But I wholeheartedly support those attempts.

“We read to know we’re not alone,” said playwright William Nicholson (who placed those words in C.S. Lewis’s mouth in Shadowlands, a fictitious account of the Narnia creator’s life).

Someone out there needs to hear he or she is not the only one who has been through a particular situation, or even just a particular feeling.

Written works, if not abandoned, have conclusions — but creative nonfiction is not always conclusive. That might seem self-contradictory for a genre of writing identified by its focus on the factual.

But it’s not self-contradictory.

A certain species of written work sets out to pursue the answer to questions, often unanswerable questions, like the question one of my friends pursued in her creative nonfiction thesis for her MFA: why did her grandfather jump to his death? Why did he commit suicide?

An ultimate, conclusive answer is not possible. But the meditation and speculation on the man’s heartbreaking act might just help bring about some emotional closure.

More importantly, the writer needs to wrestle with the emotion and experience that’s haunting her. For the writer, the wrestling and expressing have to happen. She pursues the question by telling her story.

And sometimes, people have to tell their stories again and again and again because they can’t quite make sense of what has happened.

Some of them are not writers, who at least have a creative outlet for their turmoil. That means non-writers tell their stories again and again and again to anyone who will listen. Their social circles tend to shrink. Their need for answers tends to expand.

Montaigne & Friends

A lack of conclusiveness in some nonfiction is hardly a postmodernist head trip or a morally relativistic innovation. The French writer Montaigne, who lived 1533-1592, was the granddaddy of the contemporary essay, and in his native tongue, essai essentially means to try.

Essays, in other words, were born as tries, as written attempts to grasp an issue, topic, emotion, or experience.

As I’ve been reading through Sarah Bakewell’s outstanding biography of Montaigne, and as I’ve been reading Montaigne’s essays in English translation, I’ve noticed an essayist’s mind roams and meanders and circumambulates.

An essay, in the literary tradition of Montaigne, is more like a tour through the layers and associations of the essayist’s mind than a definitive exposition of a given subject. (Alan Lightman deserves credit for this line of thinking; see his intro to Best American Essays 2000.)

The person’s interaction with the subject matter — that’s the point of the essay. Like I told a creative writing class recently, the relationship between the writer and “the subject” is the real subject of the essay.

And sometimes, people just don’t know what to think.

Essays are great places for saying, directly and indirectly, “Well, it seems like… but then, on the other hand…”

The essayist sets out to make a try, an attempt, at understanding something, and the reader ought to be as interested in the person writing about the subject matter as the subject matter itself. (Lightman again.)

Inconsistencies are welcome. Backtracking is cool. Indecisiveness is not par for the course; it is the course. Back-pedaling is to be expected.

That might seem like a horrible mode for the life of one’s mind, but for Montaigne, in a time of political ferment and religious wars among Jesus’s self-identified favorite children, withholding judgment (as Bakewell notes) and weighing all options and even leaving things unresolved seemed less like being squishy and more like being sane.

Kind of like in our time.

Neil Peart put it this way in a song that might have fit some of Montaigne’s moods: “Everyone knows everything / And no one’s ever wrong / Until later.”

Look—making oneself the sole authority is much, much different from insisting that others take responsibility for the violent results of their opinions and their allegiances. Accusations of individualistic rationalism and solipsism originate from the person covering-up a multitude of sins.

Arranging the Facts for Someone Else’s Conclusiveness

Sometimes the best thing a person can do, as Soren Kierkegaard once said (not in Concluding Unscientific Postscript, but if memory serves, in either Judge for Yourself or For Self-Examination), is to arrange the facts and leave the room so another person may arrive at his own conclusion. The arrangement might be motivated by an agenda. But to merely arrange the facts and leave—that might look inconclusive, and it might be inconclusive.

That probably doesn’t matter. In such a mode, the essayist’s righteousness is probably not the issue. The essayist seems to be operating in a self-deprecating mode: Sure, I’m a clown, but I’m dancing around this issue because it seems kind of important.

Of course, the inconclusive essayist—or dilettante blogger (guilty!)—risks as much by being inconclusive as he does by being confessional.

The better part of anyone’s social life depends upon agreement, unity, and mutuality. That seems both normal and tribal. But if the essayist wants to state an honest appreciation for a not-so-socially-acceptable perspective, the social circle might be less than accommodating to a departure from received doctrine.

So what? The essayist will just have to decide what’s more important—pursuing that uncertainty, that question, in a public fashion, or maintaining social respectability within the given framework.

I suspect no one would have appreciated such trade-offs quite like Montaigne.

Context for the humanities: quotations recently discovered inside a book

AAAAA Quotations AAA

Perception Is Prediction

I think the following look at perception has everything to do with several areas of our daily lives: relationships, work, management, leadership, psychological insight, creativity, fine arts, and many more.

darth adorno

Here are four features of perception to consider:

1. Perception is transactional: perceptions can only be studied in terms of the transactions in which they can be observed.   There is no separate, divisible event of perception; the act of perception occurs within transactions between humans and humans, humans and objects and objects and humans.  Context is everything.

2. Perception is rooted in a personal behavioral center: perceiving is always done by a particular person from her own unique position in space and time and with her own combination of experiences, needs and set of transactions.  For example what does the perceiver want or need from the perceived event?  Perception is rooted in desire.

3. Perception is an externalization: each of us, through perceiving, creates a psychological environment which we believe exists independent of the experience.

4. Perception is more about controlling the environment than taking in sense stimuli.  Perception is most…

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The small things mean everything: Luke 16:10 and Chesterton explain the real crisis

“One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much.” — Luke 16:10, English Standard Version

“He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much; and he who is unrighteous in a very little thing is unrighteous also in much.” — Luke 16:10, New American Standard Version

“If I am asked, as a purely intellectual question, why I believe in Christianity, I can only answer, ‘For the same reason than an intelligent agnostic disbelieves Christianity.’ I believe in it quite rationally upon the evidence. But the evidence in my case, as in that of the intelligent agnostic, is not really in this or that alleged demonstration, it is in an enormous accumulation of small but unanimous facts. In fact the secularist is not to be blamed because his objections to Christianity are miscellaneous and even scrappy; it is precisely such scrappy evidence that does convince the mind. I mean that a man may well be less convinced of a philosophy from four books than from one book, one battle, one landscape and one old friend. The very fact that the things are of different kinds increases the importance of the fact that they all point to one conclusion.” — G.K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy

One thing we can draw from these very different quotations is the realization that big things are built upon small things. To be responsible for much, first be responsible for a little. To understand faith or lack of faith, look at all the small details informing the point of view.

I think there’s a natural order to the way people think. In the courtroom, little pieces of evidence can add up to big murder convictions.

What happens when someone spends all his time trying to get the big things right but neglects the little things? The value of having the big things right probably won’t have any traction in the workaday world, which depends upon innumerable little things.

Here’s a similar point:

“Now, in the Bible, what we see are numerous discrepencies in lower-order arenas. For whatever reasons, the Biblical texts we have today do not always give a consistent picture of the facts of important events — events important enough, evangelicals and Reformed folks assume, to be part of God’s revelation. I think many, many people are not willing to believe the higher-order, theological and doctrinal, claims of the Bible because the lower-order issues are problematic. Again, many people will say, ‘If you can’t get your facts right, why should I listen to you about anything else?'” (this very blog, on April 9, 2012)

Better minds understand that higher-order concerns are built upon solid lower-order concerns. For example, listening to people more than talking at them, or exemplifying any number of values and manners that Christians don’t exemplify. Unfortunately, “…the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.” — Luke 16:8, King James Version (Cambridge ed.)

What is the basis for ‘world view’?

The basis for “world view” is language: “Every language is a special way of looking at the world and interpreting experience…. One sees and hears what the grammatical system of one’s language has made one sensitive to, has trained one to look for in experience.” — C. Kluckhohn, quoted by Neil Postman in Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future

Could part of Ayn Rand’s philosophy be compatible with the Judeo-Christian worldview?

Consider this passage from Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal by Ayn Rand:

“The objective theory holds that the good is an aspect of reality in relation to man — and that it must be discovered, not invented, by man. Fundamental to an objective theory of values is the question: Of value to whom and for what? An objective theory does not permit context-dropping or ‘concept-stealing’; it does not permit the separation of ‘value’ from ‘purpose,’ of the good from beneficiaries, and of man’s actions from reason.”

At least this much is interesting: “reality…must be discovered, not invented, by man” and the objective theory “does not permit the separation of ‘value’ from ‘purpose’.”

A sacramental world view

Tons in what follows to affirm for our faith and our culture:

“What distinguishes Judeo-Christianity in general from other world religions is its emphasis on the value of the individual person, its view of man as a creature in trouble, seeking to get out of it, and accordingly on the move. Add to this anthropology the special marks of the Catholic Church: the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, which, whatever else they do, confer the highest significance upon the ordinary things of this world, bread, wine, water, touch, breath, words, talking, listening — and what do you have? You have a man in a predicament and on the move in a real world of real things, a world which is a sacrament and a mystery; a pilgrim whose life is a searching and a finding.”

— Walker Percy, “The Holiness of the Ordinary,” in Signposts in a Strange Land