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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Music and Truth

ausomeawestin posted a really interesting entry on his blog last week that made me think about the nature of music and whether it can be understood as something that discloses truths. This is a question that I have struggled with for a long time, but I would like to give a preliminary sketch of how I think music reveals truths about the world and what we are. While my approach differs from ausomeawestin’s I would strongly recommend that anybody interested in this subject read his entry; as he makes a very interesting argument that is quite plausible.

As ausomeawstin points out music is not something that represents concrete objects in the world.  It is hard to think of what a musical equivalent of a man sitting at a desk writing a blog would be. Simply put, music does not present us with a concrete picture of the world. But if this is the case is music able to disclose any truth?

To describe how music might disclose truths we must first distinguish different ways of listening to music. Typically when we listen to music we either have it on as background music, and pay little attention to it or find ourselves completely engrossed and absorbed in the music, such that it is the only thing we are conscious of. In the former case we are failing to pay attention to the music and so it cannot disclose or reveal anything to us, while the latter affords this opportunity because we are fully caught up in the music.

In addition, we might listen to music as a biologist dissects a fetal pig. In this approach to listening we listen to the music but not as an active participant absorbed in the music, but as an analyst who is breaking down the piece and trying to understand its constituent parts.  Let us call this “analytical listening,” and call the the approach to listening that involves being absorbed in the music “engaged listening.”Analytical listening can help us understand the nature of order and disorder and the place of these concepts in the world. On the other hand engaged listening can help to disclose a more fundamental fact about the nature of the self and so better help us understand our relation to independent objects in general.

When we listen to music analytically we are able to parse out and analyse the individual elements of music such as melody, harmony, rhythm and dynamics. While all of these elements of music can reveal order and disorder, for the sake of this entry I will focus on harmony.

Dissonance and consonance are the fundamental basis of harmony. To explain the concepts of consonance and dissonance in a perhaps overly simple way consonant harmonies sound stable, at peace and pleasant, while dissonant harmonies sound unstable, ill at ease and primal. While a particular chord may not convey a particular emotion, the sound of the chord will typically either embody order or disorder. When I play C major chord on my guitar there is no sense from the sound that anything is out of order. Everything appears to be constant and is in its right place. On the contrary when I play a Cmin6 or better yet a C diminished chord it embodies disorder, and when I hear the sound of such chords it is as if the universe is breaking up while at once longing for reintegration. Consequently, through its use of dissonance and consonance music embodies order and disorder.

Consequently, analytically listening to music allows us to better understand order and disorder  as when we hear dissonance and consonance this further reinforces our understanding of order and disorder outside of music. For example, when we hear a minor chord calling out for resolution we  see the way in which reality is built between an interplay between disordered forces calling out for resolution, and ordered forces that tend to stabilize this disorder. Furthermore, as the listener begins to ponder order and disorder as fundamental constituents of reality they will see that just as the disordered diminished chord reaches out to resolve itself, so too do the disordered elements of the self reach out to find a form of unity or integration. My conflicting desires embody the reality of the dissonant harmony, as both conflict with one another, but yet somehow call for resolution.  As a result when we listen to music we gain a deeper understanding of order, and disorder and can better see how this conceptual distinction relates to the world and ourselves. Music thus illuminates and further enhances our understanding of order and disorder.

To move on to engaged listening, in some cases with this form of listening we transcend our sense of self, and so achieve a kind of union with the rest of reality. When I listen to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Mingus’ Black Saint and the Sinner Lady or Agalloch’s The Mantle, I am not a listener detached from the music observing it as a science observes the processes of nature. Instead I am so caught up in the music that I am listening to that I lose track of my sense of self. In this state I am not a differentiated subject who stands apart from the rest of reality, but an unconscious, or perhaps pre-conscious participant in the unfolding of reality; in this context I am reunified with everything outside of myself.

When we analyse this experience of engaged listening it may seem that all we have here is a visceral experience of release or escape, but at the same time this experience shows us something important about ourselves and our relation to reality. What it shows us is that while we typically experience ourselves as independent subjects who stand over and opposed objects, that in another sense seeing ourselves as independent subjects does not tell the whole story. Instead this experience shows us that while from a certain perspective we may appear as purely independent subject we are also not wholly distinct parts of a singular reality in which every seemingly independent thing is integrated with everything else.  Consequently, through engaged listening we are able to see a different aspect of our relation to reality.

My analysis has only begun to scratch the surface of what music discloses and my thoughts may be entirely confused, but hopefully I have

Transcendence, Disenchantment and Unbelief

Talking about transcendence within a society that tends to see the universe as disenchanted and purposeless may seem odd, as anything transcendent seems to have little place in such a universe, but yet many of us have experiences that are best described as transcendent. Consequently, it seems to me that even those, like myself, who lack religious belief may require the concept of transcendence to understand their own experiences, so it is not a concept we can do without. I will examine two types of experience that I have had that I can only understand as transcendent to try to clarify why I think this.

The first experience is that of coming into contact with nature while one is alone. When I hike through a quiet trail alone somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, nature does not appear as merely a collection of matter arranged in a particular way, rather it is as if there is something behind the appearances of the landscape that I am connected with. This other thing that I feel connected with is not something that I can easily describe, but it appears to me as I hear the rustling of the leaves and the howling of the wind, and feel the uneven ground under my feet as I walk through this quiet path; it is at once something that is ever present through these walks, but yet indescribable in particular terms. In this context I do not feel like an ordinary self with ordinary human purposes, rather I feel connected with something beyond ordinary experience .The cause of this experience is not something that I understand, but the experience does seem to be best described as transcendent, as the experience is not simply beautiful, purifying or pleasant; it is all of these things, but it is more as it involves a sense of connection with something beyond the ordinary.

The other transcendent experience I wish to discuss involves creative musical inspiration. As a struggling musician I often find myself trying to force certain musical ideas which tends to only lead to frustration, but once in a while I will be playing my instrument and something will take over me, as if I were captured by something other than myself. In the moments of the creation of the composition I am not a self in the ordinary sense of a being that can disengage and reflect, but rather I am connected with something beyond myself which takes me out of my ordinary selfhood and drives me to create something wonderful and beautiful. It is hard to find an adjective to describe this kind of experience, but I do think transcendence fits, because in this kind of experience it as if something beyond our ordinary understanding peers in and grabs us and reveals what it is that we wanted to create, but could not describe before we had created it. Once again, the actual underlying cause of this experience is not clear to me, but the experience seems to not be one of ordinary immanent existence, but something transcendent.

So, it seems to me that transcendent is a category that is necessary to make sense of our experiences, as I would hazard a guess that many others have similar experiences and have an equally difficult time describing them in other terms. What is responsible for this sense of connection with something beyond the ordinary that we experience in creative musical inspiration, or quiet walks through nature, or other experiences, is not clear to me, but the category of the transcendent is still required to make sense of these experience and so even though we may believe in a disenchanted, purposeless universe, this does not mean that we have no use for the concept of the transcendent.