Monday, May 12, 2014

A Cynical Argument for the Liberal Arts, Part Five

See also: [Part Zero] [Part One] [Part Two] [Part Three] [Part Four]

So far we have established the necessity of  laws and convention in the creation of civilization, and which grew in amount and sophistication due to The Enlightenment. It should be noted that many Cynical acts contributed to these advances. The progression of Copernicus to Galileo to Kepler, for example, shows the development of empirical thought by direct attack on existing epistemology.

The "coins of the realm" that comprise system signals exist not only externally, like a which side of the road to drive on or when to pay your taxes, but also internally. We noted this back in Part Two, and it's time to consider this aspect of classical Cynicism.

Kepler makes a good example. He worked from received wisdom from the ancients, particularly Aristotle, who taught that the heavenly objects were perfect, and moved in circles. This had been a problem for a while because the observations of planets did not support this view very well. Compromises were created using circles within circles (a Fourier series in modern terms), and Kepler 'approximated' orbits with ellipses even though he knew this wasn't right according to Aristotle, but it was a mathematical convenience. Eventually this internal convention was overcome, and everyone nowadays knows planets move (more or less) in ellipses. [1]

Although Diogenes of Sinope supposedly started off by literally debasing coins, after he got out of prison for that crime, he applied his craft to social conventions. But he took the principle within himself. For example, he analyzed his needs and decided that a bowl was unnecessary to have because he could cup his hands and drink. There is also no evidence that Diogenes used Cynicism like an investment banker--for self-advancement. In fact, when Alexander asked him what he would wish from the king, Diogenes insulted the ruler with "Get out of my light," which can be read as "darkness follows you." This is not just a social critique, Diogenes also reveals that his motivation is not freedom through wealth, as if to say that real freedom came from within. Since the Cynic supposedly also sold himself into slavery at one point, this must be a very potent kind of internal freedom!

Internal signals are insidious because they construct our reality. I "know" our dog is laying on some towels that were outside to dry because of the conventions buried deep in my brain. I snapped the photo below with my phone so you can play along.

Can you see the guilt-ridden expression? That's another signal, born of evolutionary psychology. We've been living in groups so long we've internalized conventions like guilt and shame and glory and many unnamed punishments and rewards for 'doing right' by the group.

Diogenes turned his sights on these internal signals as well as the external ones that critiqued society. He apparently knew no shame himself, or excised it somehow. Internal well-being is one of the two strands commonly offered up in articles about the value of higher education (the other being job-readiness), so we will consider the effects of this internal critique and then connect to the liberal arts in higher education.

Internal signals include our basic ways of knowing the world, including emotions. All of these are influenced by external conventions and constantly reinforced. A combination of social conventions and biological hard-wiring comprise the signals by which we know reality. Within this epistemological cauldron, the Cynic offers us a demonstration of how to exert control over our own respective internal worlds (what R. M. Rilke, in his First Elegy, calls "der gedeuteten Welt," the interpreted world [3]). The Cynics didn't theorize about this seeming self-debasement, they tried to live like dogs, from whence 'Cynic' comes.

So how do we control signals? We have seen some examples of external signal debasement (usually to satisfy some motivation, like taking money from other people), but what about internal signals? Let's consider the question generally first, and then apply it to mental states.

The most basic recipe for control is signal interdiction by denying its validity. If people stopped taking dollars in exchange for goods and services, it debases the coin quickly and thoroughly. This is why hyperinflation is so damaging, and why we value our credit scores. When countries don't accept each others' currency, it's a denial of reality, and money exchangers get paid to navigate between those separate worlds.

A signal only has informational value if it varies. Denying its validity debases the signal by setting it to null (a constant). Alternatively, if the signal is 'always on', it has the same effect. Runaway inflation combined with printing presses that add more zeros to denominations of bills is an example. (Read Der Schwartze Obelisk for a wonderful fictionalized account of inter-war Germany.)

Internally, these methods lead to different examples. Taking pain medication is signal interdiction. A constant euphoria produced by other kinds of drugs debases pleasure by overdoing it. That is, both pleasure and pain presumably exist for evolutionary reasons, and by attenuating or amplifying the signal we interfere with the associated control mechanisms. Football players on pain medications can happily go about damaging their bodies, and crack addicts can ignore everything in life except the next hit.

Those are both crude examples. It's much more interesting to consider an individual's internal recognition and use of a social signal like embarrassment. The Cynics apparently overcame this impediment! This line of thought suggests a liberal arts agenda:
  1. Identification, classification, and science behind internal signals. This is a vast domain, and only a fraction of it could be done in a general education curriculum. For example, what are the internal signals of citizenship? From the personal point of view, glory, patriotic zeal, and self-righteousness (opposed by shame) might be in the list, whereas external signals include formal citations (or firing squad), and social signals include fame (or notoriety). 
  2. Prioritization of signals. This is personal; the first active step to Cynicism. If you prioritize social responsibility, this is different from prioritizing a life of contentment. This comprises a conscious attenuation of some signals in preference to others. It's an existentialist project. 
  3. Creation of intentional stances for the most important signals. This is an exploration of ethics. Stoicism has much to offer for the driven social changer, whereas Epicurus might be more attractive to others. Even variations of classical Cynicism itself could be considered for a few brave souls. 
  4. Identification of behavioral change that logically follows, and acting accordingly.
The Cynics hid 1-3 within wit and ridicule, and expressed their lemmas and theorems by their acts.

Next time we examine the opportunities college and universities have to model and develop productive self-reflection. This is important for two reasons: one is that Cynicism (as I have defined it) is ubiquitous and dangerous to civilization, so understanding and controlling it is a matter of survival. The second reason is that if colleges are to help their students unlock their full potential, it should include the ability to know thyself.

Homework! For the sake of this exercise, assume that this article is factual. Analyze the use of SIM card activity. In what way is it a "coin of the realm?" How is it debased? What other external and internal signals are evident. Are there signs of them being subverted?

Next: Part Six

[1] Ferris, Timothy. "Coming of age in the Milky Way." Coming of age in the Milky Way., by Ferris, T.. Morrow, New York, NY (USA), 1988, 496


[3] Example of an English translation here: 

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