The Narrow and Broad Views

Having taken a brief pause from posting new material in order to focus on the completion of my last book, which now is indeed complete, I should like to follow up on my last post, which was a defense of Judeo-Christianity, and use that as a springboard for discussing the matter of the broad and narrow views.

When I argued that although I myself do not at all believe in god but that I do not wish for Judeo-Christianity to disappear, since it fulfills a useful function within our society, I took the narrow view and the broad view of the matter. There are two ways of looking at every single thing, one narrow and emotional, and one broad and logical. It is the obligation of the philosopher to be able to hold both views at the same time, and to give each of them its due. Whoever can hold only one of them – and it is usually the narrow perspective – is not a thinker. The philosophical perspective is to assess a particular thing for its worth, as well as to examine its causes and thereby to predict its long-term consequences. Often, the latter perspective will yield very different results from the first regarding the merits of the object in view. The examination of the causes of things often induces a sort of melancholia, because we come to see not only why the thing happened, but why, in fact, it had to happen. Virgil’s statement, in his Georgics (2.49), presumably in reference to Lucretius, that felix qui rerum potuit cognoscere causas (happy is he who could know the causes of things) is rather off the mark, as Virgil was indeed usually off the mark, since to understand the causes and thereby the consequences of things gives us as much cause for pessimism as optimism. It is a pessimism of a Greek sort, one that sees beauty everywhere, but that understands that this beauty always has a price.

To take two fairly simple examples to which most people can easily relate: One might ridicule a zealous American patriot with a flag on each corner of his car, who thinks America should rule the world forever and ever, and who believes Americans are politically and morally superior to everyone else. This is the narrow way of looking at that tasteless patriot. The broader view of him will, among other things, acknowledge his usefulness, because it understands that American hegemony is by and large a positive thing for the world. This is so because a balance of power between states has never assured peace, since any one side would always jump at the opportunity whenever the other side committed a mistake, as invariably happens. Only overwhelming power ensures peace – the evidence of history is absolutely clear in this regard. It is therefore a perfectly reasonable position to support American hegemony out of a desire to have less war in the world, not more, as I promise any skeptical reader will be the case once American power disappears. In the second example, the narrow view is pleased that feminism has brought about more justice for half of humanity, that women, who are really more mature and at least marginally more intelligent than men, are able to realize their full potential, or at least more so than was previously the case. This view will be grateful that a better qualified woman may be the boss of a less qualified man. The broader view will place feminism in the constant struggle of interest groups against the state and will understand, among other things, that the more the state acquiesces to such interest groups, the more it abandons its proper function and starts enacting laws whose purpose is purely therapeutic, and that one negative side effect of feminism is the infantilization of men that has taken place over the last several decades. It will understand that this result is not surprising: Once feminism was a given, the infantilization of men had to happen.

Neither the narrow nor the broad view should completely conquer the other; it requires insight and strength to hold them both conjointly. But it does often render a person more melancholic.

The San in Namibia. How this dance appeared to me, and how it appeared to the dancers themselves, both offer their share of truth.

These two ways of viewing the same object find a larger philosophical connection in the distinction between the world of science and what Edmund Husserl, the great founder of phenomenology, has called the Lebenswelt, the “life-world” (introduced in 1936 in his Die Krisis der europäischen Wissenschaften und die transzendentale Phänomenologie). The life-world contains what is evident, that which impinges more or less immediately upon our senses and understanding. It is the world of experience. The scientific world, on the other hand, takes the objective and distanced view in explaining phenomena. Whereas some phenomenologists, including perhaps to some extent Husserl himself, have argued that the life-world may be sufficient to achieve a higher truth of things, since it is based on empirical knowledge, I believe that both worlds are necessary for the full understanding of any phenomenon. In an example I borrow from the contemporary philosopher Roger Scruton, an anthropologist observes the war dance of an indigenous tribe. The anthropologist argues that the tribesmen are right to dance because this activity fortifies their courage and reinforces a sense of solidarity among the members in a time of crisis. The tribesmen themselves, however, think they are dancing in obedience to their god of war. If they thought of their dance the way the anthropologist thinks of it, they would soon lose interest in dancing. So these two viewpoints seem to exclude one another, but each one, I say, is correct in its own way (and as a purely logical matter, they are clearly not mutually exclusive). If one is able to give each its due, which is impossible for the tribesman bracing himself for battle, and for the scientific anthropologist who scoffs at any sort of superstition, then one truly understands the dance, both mentally and emotionally. The ancient war between poetry and philosophy will come to an end.

What is a dealer in ritual spit? The dealer himself would say one thing, the anthropologist another. Since I am neither a dealer nor an anthropologist, I still don't know what it is.

It should be easy to understand why holding the narrow and broad views concurrently may produce a certain melancholia. But it can sometimes lead to joy and even euphoria. And so, lest I seem too pessimistic, I conclude by quoting myself (a rather tasteless thing to do, I admit, but the passage in question does fit into the context), namely from the memoir I just finished on my time as a volunteer in Africa (the book mentioned at the beginning of this post). The following are feelings that came into my mind as I was walking and then swimming on top of the Victoria Falls, on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, in the company of another volunteer (“D.”) and a Zambian soldier who had blocked our path due to stampeding elephants but whom I had just bribed to let us continue:

Elephants and flowers by the Victoria Falls

“Another one of those very rare feelings of overwhelming joy sweeps at me over the brown mossy rocks and the blue water made brilliant by the sun. As our small company slowly makes its way by the chasm separating this country from Zimbabwe, the cliff that is the edge and end of Zambia dropping deliciously straight down, with nothing at all to hold on to should one fall, with a rainbow stretching from the bottom of the gorge up toward the red and blue wildflowers growing further up on the mountainside, there is nothing at all across the whole stage that I would change. It is almost sexually arousing to see how quickly and certainly death could come. As I wade into the water, removing only my shoes and socks but not my hat or any of my other clothes, D. stands pensively by the edge of the cliff, looking out over the whole world. The water is relatively peaceful at this point, the current being hemmed by a few rocks that allow a person to swim without being sucked over the edge. One becomes a child of nature – where the water’s embrace ends, the sun’s caresses take over. And they warm and cool in perfect unison as I gently swim to and fro, letting my body drift now toward the edge, now toward the tall papyrus growing inland. And in the water on top of the ravine is a dazzling variety of species, and yet another different group of them in the river below, and my part of eternity lies with them. It is a raised state of consciousness, the vision of the philosopher and of the poet. When we contemplate an object, we see the causal nexus behind it, the waltz of energy constantly moving in it and through it, the molecules composing it bouncing off each other, the states through which it has passed and will pass, the millions of proud worlds it contains. This contemplation will eventually drive a person insane, because it is a vision of the endlessness of time, something the human mind is not designed to comprehend. Rather than seeing simply a rock, or a bird, we see the thousands of years that made them what they are. It is not the existence of this stream and straw, but the joy of finding them here, and not the sight and scene of these serene stones themselves, but the joy that they survived through the millennia to be with us today. They bring the good news of the constant renewal and tenacity of nature, which human agency is powerless to change. They are like that cloud in the sky which, before being hunted down by the massive gray, sends the first signal of refreshing rain.”