The power of contemplative thinking

The modern viewpoint tries to do away with obfuscation, so it tells us that reason has to do with things that are clear, distinct and verifiable. To know is to know such things, and everything else is fantasy that is not to be trusted. That view is often presented quite forcefully, and it’s led to great advances in the physical sciences, so it must be taken seriously and dealt with.

If the modern view is true, it tells us that we should only pay attention to things that measure up to the standards of evidence it imposes. To do otherwise would be irrational and wrong. In particular, the clearest, most distinct and most verifiable considerations relating to action are what we want, what our resources are, and how to use those resources to achieve our goals. Those considerations are enough to guide action, or so it seems, so the modern view tells us that we should base social order and morality on them and make them technological: a matter of pure means/ends reasoning, with maybe some formal requirements like equality thrown in. Anything else would be hateful and oppressive, since it would oppose some things and force people to do others without reasonable cause.

In spite of its strong social support, the view’s got some obvious problems, and in my recent posts I’ve been going on about how it’s the source of all modern evils. In any case, what reason is there to suppose it’s right? Why think that everything that matters has to be clear, distinct and verifiable? Shouldn’t we have some way of dealing with things that are obscure and even unknowable, since on the face of it such things might be the most important of all? The modern technological view has no way of dealing with such issues, so it’s not good sense to accept it.

Still, we have to do more than complain: we need an alternative. I’ve suggested here and there that acceptance of tradition is part of the answer. If there’s something that’s important to us, but we can’t quite put our finger on what it is or what to do about it, then it can still come into focus and become practically available to us through the growth of symbols and habits that order life in a way to which people attach themselves. Another part of the answer is the orientation toward the transcendent that is normally part of tradition, since the transcendent by definition includes those things that matter deeply but exceed our grasp.

Still, tradition and the transcendent aren’t always self-sustaining today, because the modern impulse is to push them aside as unfounded and contrary to the great goal of getting what we want. Our attention to them must therefore be justified explicitly and the things themselves and our relation to them made as clear as possible, within the limits of what, from our point of view, is their intrinsic obscurity.

To do so will require a renewed and explicit emphasis on contemplation as superior to action. Modern thought has no place for contemplation, since contemplation has to do with what things really are and modern thought rejects ultimate realities in favor of predictions about what we can see and measure. Contemplation thus requires openness to things that go beyond what we can observe, describe numerically, and predict. It directs our attention to the implicit setting that places phenomena in a comprehensible order, and so orients them and makes them part of a world we can regard as rational and real.

But what is contemplation? At bottom, it is the attempt to understand things as they are, which means without special reference to us and the purposes we happen to have. It’s disinterested interest in what is not ourselves. It’s usually discussed in connection with religion, since religion is concerned with final realities, but you can equally well contemplate nature, art or other people. It does not depend on what is contemplated but on letting what is contemplated be what it is and seeing it as such. What something is can, of course, include its relations to other things, including what is good, what is bad, and ourselves, as long as our view of those relations is also contemplative and not subservient to our goals.

Emphasizing contemplation may seem a weak response to the immense power and activity of technological society. Still, that form of society cannot sustain itself because of its irrationality. Contemplation is essential to reason because it is concerned with what is real and reason makes sense only when it deals with realilties. The point, then, is not to meet technological society on its own ground of spin and pragmatic force but to maintain a way of life and ordered system of understandings that can debunk, outlive and eventually bury it.

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