Awakening From the Meaning Crisis by John Vervaeke, Ep. 7 — Aristotle’s World View and Erich Fromm (Summary & Notes)

“Who knows better what a chair is? Somebody who could describe a chair very well to you or somebody who could actually make a chair?”

(In case you missed it: Summary & Notes for Ep. 6:

Ep. 7— Awakening from the Meaning Crisis — Aristotle’s World View and Erich Fromm [56.09]

  • “Who knows better what a chair is? Somebody who could describe a chair very well to you or somebody who could actually make a chair?” Most people who struggle to put the answer into words but they would probably lean toward someone who could actually make a chair.
  • “If you can cause a chair to be, then you deeply understand what a chair is.” (be-cause) Aristotle says that what the chairmaker has that the good describer doesn’t have is the eidos. The chairmaker can actualize the eidos in the wood.
  • For Aristotle, when I know something there is con-formity. I share the same form as it. (this is the original meaning of the word.) My mind takes on the same structural-functional organization as the thing. This is important because by Aristotle’s definition there is no distinction (as there is with us) between knowing and being. Participatory knowing is when I shape myself in order to know the thing, and I know it by conforming to it. Different from descriptive knowing.
  • We do a series of steps before we believe something to be true: 1. are my brain/senses operating normally?, 2. environment optimal?, 3. did other people experience it? (#3 = “inter-subjective agreement”) If yes to these, then you can have confidence that you are in conformity with reality — that the pattern that’s in your mind is the pattern that’s in the world.
  • For nearly a millennia, Aristotle was the same as science. To know Aristotle is to know science. He was asking: How is the world organized? What is the structure of reality? And the answer, back in his day, was that: we’re the center (perceptually, this seemed obvious and made sense). So he had a geo-centric world view.
  • His idea was that every thing is made up of elements: earth, water, air, & fire. Things with a lot of earth in them (like, say, a pen) move down and want to be closer to the earth. Water = near the surface. Fire = moves up. Air = above. Wood, for example: you burn it, the fire moves up. Water runs to the surface as condensation. And the ash falls down. So for Aristotle earth is at the center and everything has a natural motion and moving on purpose (i.e. trying to get where they belong) — so this is analogous to people moving purposely toward their goals, etc.
  • People knew back then that the earth rotated (since Aristarchus), so if you’re standing on the surface of the earth theoretically if you drop a pen it should fall behind you. But it doesn’t, it falls straight down. Aristotle’s theory of elements tries to explain this.
  • So we have two schools of thought: Conformity Theory (knowing-being), and Geocentric Theory (world-cosmos). The former seems to support the latter. If Conformity Theory is right and I do enough rational reflection, then I see an intelligible pattern out in the world. (The Geocentric Theory would be the intelligible pattern). Which then provides evidence for Conformity Theory, so they mutually support each another in very strong bonds of plausibility. “This is how you get a world view
  • This makes the external world an arena. [note: this is a term Vervaeke and his co-authors coined]. “An arena is a place that’s organized such that you know how you can act in it. It makes sense to you.” i.e. you can conform to that place very powerfully.
  • To be an agent is to be capable of pursuing your goals. To be able to organize your cognition and your behavior so that they fit the situation and environment. So the agent and arena are coupled. Aristotle is telling you 1. how to become an agent, and 2. how the world is organized (cosmos) so you can meaningfully behave within it.
  • Agent and arena operate under co-identification. The meaning of the one dictates the meaning of the other. You assume an identity, and then you assign an identity to the things around you. This is what’s known as an existential mode: “this process by which you are co-identifying both agency and arena so that they fit together, so you get a coherent and functioning world view.”
  • These existential modes are meta-meaning relations. Which means without this relationship none of your actions have meaning. (e.g. you can’t put the tennis player into the football arena. “It’s absurd. It doesn’t make any sense.”)
  • Clifford Geertz calls this whole thing we’re seeing with Aristotle, this process of mutual reinforcement: worldview attunement. If you have a worldview without attunement then you will become like the tennis player in the football arena and view your life as absurd — it won’t make an sense to you. And this is one way the meaning crisis expresses itself in people.
  • For many of us we don’t feel this connection. We have a scientific worldview that gives us no existential guidance. It doesn’t tell us how to make our lives meaningful.
  • a nomolgical order: a system where making sense of the world also gives you a sense of meaning within it. (from ‘nomos’ = law) A cosmos with deep consonance between our ability to explain the world and live within it.
  • Shifting now from the axial age in Greece and ancient Israel → India.
  • One of the ways people are responding to the meaning crisis today is by exploring mindfulness scientifically and personally/experientially. Meditation, contemplation etc. India did the same thing.
  • Enlightenment is largely a project of trying to deal with threats of meaning in one’s life.
  • In the same way Socrates of the embodiment of the axial revolution in ancient Greece, Siddhartha Gautama is the embodiment of it in ancient India.
  • When he was born it was prophesized that he would either become a great king or an important religious figure. His father (the king) chose the former, so he removed everything that might lead his son to a religious life — he tried to give him all the benefits of the pre-axial world (power + prosperity). He rigged it so Siddhartha stayed in the palace and never saw anything distressing, was always surrounded by beautiful women, plenty of food, etc.
  • Remember, myths are attempts to engage with perrennial, ongoing patterns. So what does the palace represent? We turn to Erich Fromm’s book ‘To Have or To Be”, which suggests the palace represents a particular existential mode and attempts to get you to experience it through myth.
  • Fromm suggests two modes based on having needs and being needs. The former needs are satisfied by both categorizing things & controlling them effectively. (e.g. being able to categorize/manipulate/control, say, a cup, allows you to drink water more efficiently, and you need water.)
  • The being needs are met not by having something but by becoming something. (e.g. you need to become mature, or virtuous, etc.) These are developmental needs. Because of that, according to Fromm, they depend on a kind of meaning you’re creating for your existence. You relate to things not categorically, but expressively. (being in love, for example, is a process of reciprocal realization. You don’t relate to people you’re in love with categorically)
  • I — It relationship (having mode) vs. I — Thou relationship (being mode); Intelligence-Problem Solving vs. Reason-Make Meaning
  • To live in the palace is to try and live everything from the having mode. This is modal confusion: pursuing being needs from the having mode. e.g. flashy cars, sex… stuff you HAVE that advertisers try to convince you will make you BE something. (But remember: Siddhartha left the palace!)
  • “Notice that we talk about making love but having sex.”

Next up: Awakening From the Meaning Crisis by John Vervaeke, Ep. 8 The Buddha and “Mindfulness” (Summary & Notes):

List of Books in the Video:

  • Marcus Aurelius — Meditations
  • Karen Armstrong — The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions
  • R. G. Collingwood — The Principles of Art
  • Erich Fromm — To Have or To Be?
  • Clifford Geertz — The Interpretation of Cultures
  • Eric D. Perl — Thinking Being: Introduction to Metaphysics in the Classical Tradition

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