Saturday, March 03, 2007

Radiance, pessimism, and hope

Only recently have I come to better appreciate the wisdom of the late Charles West Churchman, formerly a professor at the University of California at Berkeley. He once said:

"The design of my philosophical life is based on an examination of the following question: is it possible to secure improvement in the human condition by means of the human intellect? The verb 'to secure' is (for me) terribly important, because problem solving often appears to produce improvement, but the so-called 'solution' often makes matters worse in the larger system (e.g., the many food programs of the last quarter century may well have made world-wide starvation even worse than no food programs would have done.) The verb 'to secure' means that in the larger system over time the improvement persists."

Source: Churchman, C. West. Thought and Wisdom. Intersystems Publications, Seaside, Calif., 1982, p. 19f.

Churchman also offered an insight on hope and radiance, which I have come to recognize as being of seminal importance:

'It is tempting to define hope psychologically, as strong belief in and desire for a future without any perceivable evidence for its occurrence.... But something crucial is missing, because a man could engage in a risky gamble or adventure on the grounds that his gain, if he is successful, would be very great.

The word I want is "radiance." The Latin word claritas can be translated into "clearness," meaning "precise," as in Descartes or later in symbolic logic. But it can also mean "light" or "brilliance." Thus, one way to talk about aesthetics is to say that it is the variety of expressions of radiance, including the dark. But it is not merely "black and white," for radiance includes the colours, and sounds, and aromas, and touches.

Back to "hope." It means belief in the desirable without perceived evidence, but it also means radiant belief. I don't know what this means, but I can imagine it easily enough. When I say, "I hope that humanity will succeed in using its intellect to improve the human condition," and someone says, "How can you hope anything of the kind, given the way humans exploit humans?"—then there is no argument: he is trying to destroy the radiance, to put out the light, and I must do my best to preserve the radiance despite his cynicism.

And, of course, radiance includes humour, because hope is a motley, which includes its own absurdity. Hope is always both serious and ridiculous. Only there is no lesson to be learned, no rational conclusion to be drawn, from saying, "Hope is absurd." The rational mind wants to say, "Hope is ridiculous and therefore..." It's like someone saying, "What's the point of Hamlet after all?"'

Source: Churchman, C. West. The Systems Approach and its Enemies. New York: Basic Books, 1979, pp. 191-192.

To me personally, this means that even as we develop and articulate a deep awareness of the profound injustice and violence found in our world, we must at the same time embody a positive vision for the present and the future, and recognize the many positives in our pasts. We need to be radiant. This is not always easy, but it is often highly important.

Consider the act of criticism, for instance. When people are being critics of something—a film, or the actions of another person—they are often making observations on the character, conduct and perhaps consciousness of other people, or perhaps their works of art or commerce or activism. Sometimes people are overwhelmingly negative in their criticisms. There are some genuinely bad things in life, of course, but oftentimes there is good and bad mixed together. None of us are perfect—we all make mistakes, big and small. Yet when criticizing others, some people tend to focus only on the negative, forgetting the positive aspects of people and their efforts.

This is not a call for merely being "balanced"; rather, it is to draw attention to the interwoven roles of pessimism and hopefulness. In his remarkable book "The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace", John Paul Lederach refers to the "gift of pessimism". Lederach asks "What do people who live in settings that are moving from war to peace teach us about the challenge of understanding the nature of genuine constructive social change?" He says:

"First, in deep-rooted conflict, people locate themselves and change and gauge authenticity with an expansive view of time and an intuitive sense of complexity. These create a cautious approach to promises that constructive social change will happen in a short period of time, independent of the historical context in which the violence has evolved. In short, there is a prevailing ethos of pessimism. This does not mean that desired changes are not hoped for or possible, even in the short term. But pessimism provides a point of departure for understanding the nature of change. Very simply it says this: Gauging whether the change process is genuine requires serious engagement with the complexity of the situation and a long-term view. If simple answers are reached as if complexity did not exist, then just as Oliver Wendell Holmes suggests, they are not worth a fig."

Source: Lederach, John Paul. 2005. The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace: Oxford University Press, USA.

This has a sound philosophical basis, as witnessed by a couple of thousand years of Indian philosophical pondering:

"The attitude of mind which looks at the dark side of things is known as pessimism. Indian philosophy has often been characterized as pessimistic and, therefore, pernicious in its influence on practical life. . . . Indian philosophy is pessimistic in the sense that it works under a sense of discomfort and disquiet at the existing order of things. It discovers and strongly asserts that life, as it has been thoughtlessly led, is a mere sport of blind impulses and unquenchable desires; it inevitably ends in and prolongs misery. But no Indian system stops with this picture of life as a tragedy. It perhaps possesses more than a significance that even an ancient Indian drama rarely ends as a tragedy. If Indian philosophy points relentlessly to the miseries that we suffer through short-sightedness, it also discovers a message of hope. The essence of the Buddha's enlightenment—the four noble truths—sums up and voices the real view of every Indian school in this respect; namely: There is suffering.—There is a cause of suffering.—There is cessation of suffering.—There is a way to attain it. Pessimism in the Indian systems is only initial and not final."

Source: Chatterjee, Satischandra, and Dhirendra Mohan Datta. 1984. An introduction to Indian philosophy. 8th ed. Calcutta: University of Calcutta, pp. 13-14.

In these points, there is much crossover in the philosophy of Churchman, Lederach and India's philosophical traditions. For instance, Churchman abhors short-term solutions that ignore the complexity of the systems in which problems are embedded, a point also made by Lederach.

Yet finally, in the midst of complexity and an awareness of suffering, radiance is an indispensable condition for long-term well-being.

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