Symbolism In Reality
What essentially defines the modern man and his neurotic self-obsession is a self-destructive worship of a symbolic reality. This phenomenon is however not new; as a philosophical problem it can be traced back to the ancient Greeks and their struggle to understand the nature of reality and how we as human beings relate to it. Although the geniuses were always in basic agreement on the issue, mass revolts led to an overthrow of aristocratic knowledge and later spawned the destructive, ignorant outlook on life that we rightly call "modernity."
As established by Immanuel Kant, and subsequently by most the German idealists, there are essentially two aspects to the transcendental knowledge of reality: 1) the objects we perceive and 2) how we perceive the objects. An idea traditionally attributed to the pre-Socratic thinker Thales, who claimed the world was purely made out of water and any qualitative change in the world was simply an illusion, this distinction is crucial because it assumes the world in itself is not necessarily the same as how it appears to us. For that reason we've got two layers to probe into when discussing the nature of reality.
Why is this? Idealist philosophers like Arthur Schopenhauer stressed that we study the nature of ideas and not the material. This is because our world operates like a gigantic, cosmic mind, and because we cannot go beyond our perceptions (Kant would add: "categorical") of the world, it ultimately becomes more important for us to study the cognitive nature of our mind and its thoughts, rather than the objects of our attention. Kant was the first philosopher to make this discovery and it was for that reason that he claimed to begin a "Copernican revolution;" like Copernicus before him, who asserted that the Earth was circulating around the Sun and not the opposite, Kant brought the focus of philosophy away from the objects of reality to how we acquire this knowledge.
This definition implies something we call structuralism; the study of structure or design. Since we essentially have two existing "worlds;" that of the thing-in-itself and that of how the thing-in-itself appears to us, this means structure is parallel in form. To clarify, think of any DIY product you've brought home from IKEA or elsewhere. To build the desk, chair or table, you need to understand its inherent design. What makes a chair a chair? Well, it normally has got four legs, a plate on top and a chair back. If you want to build a chair, you'll study the design, using the material as a method for your aim. In other words, you need knowledge of both the world of material and the world of your mind to build anything.
So structure is parallel; the object contains or reflects a design that we perceive inside our mind. Whether that design actually exists by itself as Plato originally asserted (but later revised) or whether it's only a construct due to the nature of our mind as Kant claimed, is ultimately of less importance. We perceive the world by interpreting these structures. Here's the pitfall: what happens if we make an absolute distinction between what we perceive and how we perceive it? The answer: we deconstruct the mechanism by which our human mind operates and begin focusing only on ourselves.
As Plato displayed in his allegory of the cave, slaves mistake their representation of the world for the world in itself. Instead of realizing that structure is the product of the mind perceiving the empirical reality, slaves attempt to impose a constructed design upon the empirical reality, which leads to perhaps one the single most destructive mistakes in Western metaphysics: absolute dualism. In Plato's cave we are no longer able to discern truth, as it has become a mere subjective fantasy that doesn't correlate to reality. This is how ludicrous constructs such as the Abrahamistic "Heaven" come to life: slaves dreaming up a "better" world than the actual empirical reality that is here and now. It's a metaphysical dualism that contrasts the objective reality against a purely subjective illusion, all possible thanks to the actual way we interpret the world around us.
What Plato and Kant had to say about this was the reverse: yes, what we perceive is indeed only a representation of the mind, but even though it meets the objective criteria of being "true" for all of us, it is not a world in itself and is still based upon the strict nature of our mind. There's no way to live in Heaven unless you've created it yourself and it's never going to be "real" outside of your own self. This is why geniuses like Goethe and Blake chose to place Heaven and Hell inside our world; they rocked the foundation to the metaphysical dualism represented by Christianity and wanted us to return to a cosmic idealist view of reality. Heaven and Hell became states of mind or metaphysical layers of our empirical world.
In fact, most of the great Western literature includes two parallel layers that reflect this idea:
- The exoteric: the narrative framework; can be read and seen as merely an entertaining story. Most people read books this way and judge them by how interesting or captivating the plot is.
- The esoteric: the symbolism behind the narrative; what the story tries to express through its characters, events and aesthetics. Philosophers and intelligent people in general usually approach books this way. This doesn't mean they neglect the exoteric layer of the book but they recognize the depth of this layer and try to reach to the core of what's actually being communicated.
The esoteric reader is a philosopher in action. He studies the design behind what he perceives, just like we look for a manual when we try to piece together an IKEA desk. Materialists, people who worship the exoteric and mistake that for the design, are usually the ones sitting with the parts for days without figuring out what goes where. Despite the frustration it's a comforting position to take because it doesn't require the mental power and clarity to look beyond things as they immediately appear to us. Unfortunately, these are also the people who eventually end up becoming slaves; chained to the cave they've turned into their very own reality, worshipping the shadows of a world they're not yet aware of. Nihilism is the gateway to become aware of that world and even though it's always here with us, the impact of discovering it must not be underestimated, for therein alone, truth and beauty await in their pale, naked form.
March 18, 2008
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