Negative Theology and the “True Self”

It is a commonplace of modern culture to refer to the notion of the “true self.” We often claim that we must be true to ourselves and that we need to work to express our true inner self, rather than trying to repress it. But while we talk in this way often, if we look at the notion of having a true self, it seems odd and quite implausible as the notion of the “true self” seems to suggest that there is a fundamental unified essence waiting to be fully expressed within each human being, and this seems to very out of step with the conception of what a human being is that we get from an understanding of modern biology. Modern biology tells us that humans are not true selves trying to express themselves through a bodily vessel, but beings whose core identity can be identified in the arrangement of matter that constitutes them; or put more simply our true nature is that we are bodies made up of constituent parts like brains, lungs and bones. So, there seems to be an incompatibility between the way we talk about ourselves and how we must live authentic lives, and the way we understand our identity as physical biological beings. I think we can explain this tension between our vision of the “true self” and a biological conception of humanity if we stop thinking of the self as a static object of empirical enquiry and instead think of it as Negative Theology thinks of God, and I will explain why in the argument that follows.

If I look deep within, it is hard for me to seriously suggest that I see a clear being, a “true self” waiting to be expressed. But what I can see is that I would like to develop this quality, and that quality, and that I do not want to develop other qualities. However, none of these qualities I long to have, taken independently, or in combination with the others, seems to exhaust the nature of my “true self”. My “true self” somehow seems to be indescribable in the categories of ordinary speech. In this sense, we might say that our approach should be analogous to the approach to God known as Negative Theology. Negative Theology posits awe towards God, but refuses to claim that God has specific qualities like benovelence. According to this approach we can understand what God is not, but not what God is. God can be seen to transcend any categories that can be applied to him.

Likewise we might say that the “true self” within us is not a physical object or even a collection of qualities and desires that we can point to and describe, but rather something that is beyond all linguistic description. This seems to be plausible as the notion of a “true self” is always aspirational in that when we speak of our “true self” we do not refer to an accurate description of the current state of our identity, but a sense of something admirable that we can develop into. Furthermore, this admirable thing we can develop into that is somehow “inside of us” is not something that can be grasped as a collection of properties or a single unifying property. Whenever, we develop our “true self” and think we have fully developed our self we realize that there is something that is missed in our development and our description of that development. I may have developed my capacity for courage, but something about the mode of action, is not simply courage or any other category, but something beyond, unspeakable, that I am drawn towards. We do not stand at the ready with a perfect image and description of our “true self” ready to replicate that self in life as if we were a craftsmen building a replica of an existing model. Rather the “true self” calls us to express it while at the same time all of our categories fail to fully account for what this “true self” is.

Consequently, while there seems to be cognitive dissonance between the image of ourselves as at our core biological creatures with the notion of the “true self”, a Negative Theology of the self, like the one I have loosely sketched above tends to show that this tension is not so irreconcilable. There is a sense in which human beings are physical beings with particular biological characteristics, but what applying the model of Negative Theology to the self, shows us is that any categorization of humanity, whether it is biological like that of science or normative like the categories that I have pointed to in my discussion of the self, fails to fully capture what we mean when we talk about the “true self”. In this sense the “true self” like the God of Negative Theology is something that cannot be fully grasped at once through a set of categories. Furthermore, the “true self”, in particular, is something that comes from within us and demands expression, but eludes full understanding.

I am not sure if Negative Theology is the right approach to thinking about the self, and while I am attracted to certain elements of it, I also am drawn towards the notion that a system of categories can exhaust and fully disclose the reality of something. I find a part of me whispers if we can never fully capture reality through language in some meaningful sense what is the point of thought? But one thing that is certain is that a mode of thought modeled on Negative Theology provides us with an interesting way of thinking about the self that gets at the intuition that while it may be true in some sense to say human beings are matter in motion or social, amicable being, or whatever description we find compelling, none of these descriptions fully uncovers what we are. Further, this mode of though helps us capture how at ease we are at accepting two seemingly contradictory descriptions of humanity, because if all description fail to fully describe the “true self” then there is no reason why two seemingly contradictory modes of thought could not both reveal an aspect of the truth. If this is the case we have no reason to be uneasy that two descriptions of humanity we adhere to seem incompatible or opposed.

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Agalloch, Romanticism, Wonder and Nature

One of my favourite bands is Agalloch; they are a metal band from Portland, although their music has progressive and folk elements. One interesting element of their music is that many of their albums have a significant pagan element, which expresses a strong sense of wonder towards the natural world. This sense of wonder towards the natural world can be found in much romantic art and literature. For this entry I would like to examine some of Agalloch’s lyrics to try to outline the nature of the wonder we experience towards nature. Furthermore, I will argue that the reason why we experience this wonder towards nature is that our phenomenological experience of nature is something that resists our sense of the universe as disenchanted, and because we are “porous selves” who are vulnerable to being controlled by external forces, including elements of nature.

The Agalloch piece that I will examine is “In the Shadow of our Pale Companion.” In this song the lyrics state:

“Through vast valleys I wander
To the highest peaks
On pathways through a wild forgotten landscape
In search of God, in spite of man
’til the lost forsaken endless
This is where I choose to tread”

It should be noted that in these lyrics the search for God is not something that is done through dialogue with other human beings about the natural world. Rather God is something that as isolated individuals we search out for in the natural world. Our connection to God is not mediated by our social role, or membership in a society. Rather, our relation to God is one that stands apart from society.

Furthermore, the lyrics state:

“Here at the edge of this world
Here I gaze at a pantheon of oak, a citadel of stone
If this grand panorama before me is what you call God
Then God is not dead”

It should be noted that the suggestion being put forth here is that the revealing of God is something that can occur through a vision of the panorama of nature itself. Furthermore, the allusion to Nietzsche’s notion that “God is dead” suggests that while God may seem dead as we live our everyday lives in society, that our sense of wonder towards the natural world reveals something beyond. Consequently, according to Agalloch it seems that our sense of wonder towards nature is something that consists in seeing something powerful, majestic and transcendent in nature that tends not to reveal itself through our lives within society.

While I may not believe that God exists in nature in the way that some of these lyrics suggest, I do a feel a deep sense of wonder and transcendence as I encounter certain elements of the natural world. I remember standing at the top of Mt.Pilatus in Switzerland and feeling a deep sense of wonder towards the view. I could not clearly articulate what this sense of wonder meant in terms of propositional belief, but I certainly felt something resonate deeply within me, and this sense of resonance is not something that I tend to experience as I navigate society. Consequently, Agalloch’s lyrics in this song seem to present an accurate and compelling picture of the sense of wonder that we experience towards nature.

The preceding may have clarified the nature of the sense of wonder we experience towards nature, but it has not clarified why we feel this sense of wonder towards nature. So for the remainder of this entry I will address that question. While I do believe that humans have always felt a sense of wonder towards nature, I think that for members of post-industrial societies this sense of wonder is intensified by the fact that most members of post-industrial societies, whether they believe in God or not, believe in a disenchanted universe. This belief in disenchantment states that the universe is purposeless, in and of itself, and can be best understood in terms of efficient causation. In this sense, the universe is best understood in analogy with a machine. However, while the phenomenological experience of post-industrial society reinforces this mechanistic view of the universe as everything within society seems to operate in terms of efficient causation, the phenomenological experience of nature does not. There is something mysterious and powerful about the phenomenological experience of nature that does not seem to be rendered intelligible by translation into strict efficient causation. The natural world seems to be a living place with its own meanings, rather than just an extremely complex arrangement of matter reacting in particular ways. Consequently, it seems plausible to think that one reason why contemporary people have experiences of wonder towards nature is because our experience of nature is one which suggests to us that the natural world cannot be fit into the simple disenchanted worldview that we have. Nature then appears as something that transcends the disenchanted universe and consequently we feel wonder at this seeming transcendence. It should be noted that I am not suggesting that the natural world cannot be made sense of in terms of a disenchanted view of the universe, only that our phenomenological experience of nature seems to suggest that it cannot.

One other reason for the wonder we experience towards the natural world is the fact that the natural world has a power over us such that we come to feel wonder for it without choosing to do so, or looking to nature for inspiration. Charles Taylor coined the term “buffered self” to refer to the way in which modern people see their self as invulnerable to being acted upon by the external world; this idea is encapsulated by the idea that if we try we can avoid having things get to us if we are disciplined enough. Taylor contrasts this with the notion of the “porous self” which he suggests would have been common during the middle ages in Latin Christendom, in which the self was vulnerable to being acted upon by meanings that were outside of itself; things that were a part of nature or emanations from God or Satan. These meanings could take control of us, and guide our actions for significant portions of time. To some degree our phenomenological experience of nature is one in which our nature as porous selves is revealed. My sense of the power and majesty of the mountain acts on me and I feel a sense of wonder for it. I do not choose to feel a sense of wonder towards the mountain, rather I am acted on by the mountain and come to feel a sense of awe or wonder, and there is nothing I can do about this fact. Thus, it seems plausible to think that our sense of wonder towards the natural world might be a function of the fact that, despite the self-image we possess, we are porous selves to some extent and are vulnerable to being acted upon by nature.

While there is no specific political, ethical or spiritual point that I am trying to make through this entry beyond what I have specified above, it should be noted that if we better understand our sense of wonder towards nature then we are better able to understand our spiritual predicament. And one way to best ensure that we adequately respond to this predicament is through gaining the deepest possible understanding of the situation as we can achieve.

Now listen to some Agalloch because they are absolutely wonderful.

How can we understand music? What role should it play in our lives?

For many in postindustrial societies the enjoyment of music is a central element of a well-lived life. We speak of music in different ways. In one moment we see it as a release. In another, we see it as a pleasure. In another we see it as something to be understood. It is to the issue of understanding music that I wish to turn. Furthermore, I would like to examine music without lyrical content and ask if there is any meaningful sense in which such pieces of music can be grasped or understood. It may seem obvious that music can be understood, but on further thought understanding music gives rise to difficulties that do not arise in other forms of art such as painting or poetry. Music, on its own, is divorced from the medium of language, and because thought requires language it becomes difficult to think of how a sequence of melodies or harmonies can have any inherent linguistic meaning. Furthermore, unlike painting, music is divorced from visual representation, and while visual representation itself may not have any inherent relation to language, the visual representation of object seems to more easily align itself to linguistic meaning than sound. For example, if I see a picture of a person sitting in a chair with their dog, I automatically think that at least at a superficial level, the painting is about the pleasant relation of people to their pets, and perhaps this meaning relates to the human desire for domestic comfort. However, when I listen to “Claire de Lune” by Debussy I can only sense sadness, beauty, and fragility, but these terms themselves seem to conflict so what is the overall meaning of the piece? Is there an overall meaning of the piece? If the piece has no meaning, what does it mean to have an understanding of the piece? In this entry, I will try to reveal what it means to understand a piece of music.

When I listen to a piece of music in order to get an understanding of it, of any kind, I have to clear my mind of other thoughts. If I am occupied with thoughts, even thoughts about the music, I will hear the sound, but I will not be aware of it and how it fits into the whole. This means that to understand a piece of music I cannot analyse it as I am listening to it; I must fully engage myself with the music.

While I must fully engage myself with the music to get any understanding of its meaning, there is a danger in engaging in a way in which the self is utterly lost in the experience. This occurs when we listen to a piece of music and after the piece is over we have a very incomplete sense of all of the parts of the piece, but nonetheless we have found the piece enthralling or beautiful. This may be an extraordinarily pleasant experience, but it does not allow us to understand the music, as the subject is not fully consciously aware of the musical piece as a whole.

After listening to a piece of music and avoiding the dangers that were mentioned above we may get a vague sense of the meaning of the music. We might say that the piece is melancholic, dark and there is a sense of grief in the music, but it is difficult to see how we might be able to penetrate to a more articulate core of the meaning of the music. Consequently, it seems that the meaning of a piece of non-lyrical music at most can be disclosed to the listener in general terms that do not pertain to a particular problem or issue like the angst we experience regarding the inevitability of death. Further, while a musical piece may become associated with this particular meaning in a listener, there is nothing in the musical experience that renders this particular meaning as the only legitimate meaning of the piece. For another the piece may disclose the meaning of the grieving process.

As a result of the preceding the meaning of piece of music can only be articulated in general adjectives, rather than as something that discloses a particular issue, or a particular problem. We can understand the specific meaning the piece of music has to a particular subject, whether the subject is the composer or a listener, but if divorced from its relation to any particular subject, the meaning of the piece of music is only describable in terms of basic adjectives. In this sense, music does not disclose any particular thought, although it may bring to consciousness the particular concerns of the listener.

At this point, someone may be asking why this is an important topic at all? The reason this is an important topic is that many people see music as essential to their lives, and because of this we need to understand what these people are devoting their time to.

It seems to me there are three ways of listening to music. We can listen to understand the music. We can listen and lose ourselves in the music. Or we can listen to music while analysing it. The first option allows us to understand the meaning of a piece of music, and may encourage reflection upon our own lives as we relate the feelings that a piece of music evokes in us with particular experiences or issues. The second option provides us with a pleasant experience. The third option fails to disclose the meaning of music, but exercises our capacity for analysis.

When I reflect upon how I ordinarily listen to music I realize I tend to listen through the second method, or the first. I think most others will have similar tendencies, and if this is the case we have to question how much time we spend listening to music through the second method, because while pleasure has value, the pleasurable experience of losing oneself in a piece of music, does not create lasting fulfillment or enable us to live worthwhile lives. The visceral experience of the second method is like eating chocolate; it is an immediately pleasurable experience, but not one that would realize any substantial good in one’s life. So, we need to be sure not to build our lives upon listening to music through the second method.