The Border Studies eBook Primer

Acting on a Level Field

Copyright © 2009 Border Studies Associates. Amsterdam, Netherlands. All right reserved.


  1. Knowledge on a Level Playing Field
        1. The baseline of social science and religious participation
        2. The difficulty for religious ventures in accepting parity
        3. The difficulty for secularists in accepting candid religion
  2. The Value of a Level Playing Field
        1. The need to accept “the social construction of reality”
              1. “Weaves of Meaning”
              2. “Theories of Everything”
        2. The need for reasoning, emotional analysis and timing
              1. Deconstructing and Reconstructing
              2. Scoping, Casting and Positioning roles
        3. The need for the Aesthetics of Cultural life
              1. the Ethics of Political Life the Ethics of Economic Life
  3. The Implications of a Level Playing Field
        1. Public Discourse
        2. Private Motivation, Consolation and Satisfaction
        3. The Interplay of Public and Private


In mid-1969 two carloads of students left Johnston College in the University of Redlands, California, and drove to San Francisco in search of a way to have a more individualized learning environment. They hoped for a broader range of options for study than even an experimental venture of a conventional school seemed to provide. They negotiated with a group that was soon to be incorporated into the University of San Francisco.  Johnston College continued as the Johnston Center for Integrative Studies, which held its 40th anniversary in February 2009.

Unable to work out an arrangement, the group, together with a couple of parents, became the nucleus of the “University Without Walls/Berkeley” (UWW/B). This was the first UWW that was a free-standing enterprise rather than part of an established residential school. It did operate under the auspices of Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, but it was [otherwise?] quite autonomous. What the participants learned and discovered was that American higher education in the 1960’s was much more open and amenable to experimentation than they had realized.

Even so, the UWW/B venture came to a close and its “child” emerged as “The Berkeley Institute for Advanced Inquiry.” The quest for new options led to a deeper effort at tackling issues intrinsic to the academic venture, as it met everyday life. [nonseq??] By mid-1973, the institute divided into two further ventures. One is a still vibrant common cause that provides a current directory of alternative resources and services for adult growth. The other was known as "Paideia", an appropriation of a Greek term used by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle to characterize ideal(s) of education and culture, in the same axial period when persons throughout the world were pressing what it means to be human.  Its purpose was to illumine perspectives on responsibility with the assistance of emerging technologies.

Paideia refers to education looked upon as a lifelong transformation of the human personality in which every aspect of life plays a part.  Unlike education in the traditional sense, paideia does not limit itself to the conscious learning processes or to inducting the young into the social heritage of the community.  By considering character formation and the appreciation of values of equal importance as the acquisition of knowledge, it becomes the task of giving form to the act of living itself: treating every occasion of life as a means of self-fabrication and as part of a larger process of converting facts into values, processes into purposes, hopes and plans into consummations and realizations.  Paideia evolved into “The Adjacent Schools” and its related undertakings.

“Adjacent education” takes place wherever you are, including your access to resources, services and networks from anywhere. Adjacent education presupposes that you learn where you are using resources and services available to you there. The hypothesis is "that what drives us to act is our values interacting with all the other sets of values, and that these values, particularly our own, are subject to various levels of authenticity which may make them uniquely our own". This is what may considered to be truly human - if we are acting with some fidelity on values we have consciously sculpted with aware choices. An aspect of Adjacent education questioning how authenticity is defined. The the time it takes to examine, deconstruct, and reassemble our values within the context of what we consider to be truly authentic is a worthwhile endeavor. Many forces are arrayed to counter these efforts to "wake up". We want to clearly identify these forces, their nature, their history, their methods, and their consequences. This is a worthwhile though extremely difficult endeavor.

The adjacent education task is to learn and demonstrate that you are learning by contributing what you discover, invent, and come to know. The assumption was that this could be presented on the web and that it have three components: (1) your view of the your locale and how topics and positions provide a common culture; (2) your view on how dialogue in your locale tracks themes comparable to our own; and (3) your view of how the specialties operating in your locale, with majore reference in your own specialty.

“Border Studies” are your disciplined inquiries into how and what you know, why and with whom you intend to act on what you know, and where and when you act accordingly.  From now on we will all be engaged in blended education, mixing what we can learn directly in our own locale with the deluge of representations available in such a variety of forms from everywhere.  It would be a shame to think of those who “know a little bit about a lot of things…” as merely impertinent or “jacks of all trades and masters of none.”  The Adjacent Schools are based in Amsterdam and belong to the Association for Adjacent Education in Geneva.  They follow the spirit of the Bologna Process developed in the last ten years to make European—and now global—education more functional and more easily comparable.

Gaining amateur status is no mean undertaking, especially if you cannot easily go to an Oxford or Stanford or the University of Beijing.  With the advent of the massive array of media, you can go.


Constructing our Consciousness

In 18th Century Britain, two thinkers suggested we approach understanding what we know as if we were beginning with a blank slate. David Hume and John Locke both began a portion of what we now think of as psychology; within the social sciences, though, they were philosophers. Their philosophical approach was echoed at the beginning of the 20th Century by several American thinkers, including John Dewey and William James.

We borrow this approach in proposing that we each extract from our day-by-day experience certain kinds of knowledge and belief. For the purposes of this discussion, let us focus on three:

1) Ordinary Knowledge

2) Extraordinary Knowledge

3) Expert-Mediated Knowledge

These three provide much of the knowledge we use to carry out what we need to do. There is ordinary experience itself, like standing around waiting for an event to happen; there is the transforming experience of being within the powerful symbols that the media, the arts and politics all provide; and there is the expert-mediated knowledge, such as your doctor telling you that your symptoms add up to something you had better pay attention to—or else.

How we know produces a textured set of representations that let us get on with life.

Building Ordinary Knowledge


What happens from reading the papers or a post-print equivalent (watching blogs and listening to You Tube and tracing Facebook and Twitter) is the forming of a montage of events, places and persons that flows on and on from day-to-day. We share in building an implicit frame of reference behind what we read and watch and hear, alternating between being a citizen journalist and an independent scholar.

Of course, we are flying almost alone much of the time, with no one vetting the material for expert opinion, giving peer review, or doing research beyond either the source’s wisdom or the perception of how the viewer assimilates the material. This is not to say that the past was devoid of problems. It is just that we have new ones, too.

The world is complex and interesting and fearful and funny and encouraging.

All at once.

Sometimes the flow of images seems to dramatize and personalize and simplify too much. Sometimes it seems to analyze and complicate too much. For example, the Los Angeles Times coverage of the winter of 2009 award season that culminated in the Academy Awards was fascinating to mere [??] Northern Californians. By ordinary adult standards, the inside story on aspects of the races and the participants was out of a storybook. The sophistication and the referencing to the past hundred years of film made one [??who] feel like a complete neophyte. [There is a switch between ‘one’ and ‘you’ ... who is referenced and why the switch??] 

Or again, the general press and media coverage of the U.S. election process was a vista into unknowable nuances and secrets one could never have gotten a hold of alone. There has been a tendency to turn the action into “just a story” with minimal reflection, but the total impact has captured the imagination and the emotions. One would be tempted to accept the invitation of the six o’clock news programs that invite you to perceive reality on their terms. That often means fires, chases, scandals and sundry other vignettes of the passing scene. The presumption that this is ‘all there is’ makes one suspect it is far from ‘all there is.’

President-Elect [??before the inauguration??] Obama’s introduction of his security team combines with recent books to suggest that the United States must adjust to a multi-polar world. China, India, Brazil, Europe, and Russia all share in the exercise of power. The moment has passed when it is useful to think of the United States being able to rule unilaterally. Furthermore, elections in the Southern Hemisphere dramatize the need for a global model of events and trends.

Grounded Social Theory

Journalism is a remarkable tool for expanding what we know far beyond the range and expertise of what any of us can do alone. [some now disagree if by this you mean traditional journalism] The social scientists in anthropology, psychology and sociology can go much further and produce images that represent many different realities that we experience.

We do not need to wait for professionals to build theory for us. We can do it ourselves out of our immediate cultural, political and economic life. We can refer to our own life as data, we can build a “heuristic” model from that data, and we can be content that it is improvised and accept that that is good enough. Anselm Straus of the University of California in San Francisco called this sort of social theory “grounded.”

The Social Sciences

We began by referring to Hume and Locke and the dawn of our modern and eventually postmodern ways of looking at ourselves and human beings. As psychology has penetrated our psyches and sociology has discovered patterns in our social relations, anthropology has been able to profit from the lingering existence of the societies previously untouched by the West and its culture. There is great merit in letting these three social sciences work as a complementary team of persons building our understanding of different aspect of our humanity. [??who sez??or why??] 


So, at every turn:

How we know constructs what we know.

Another way of knowing—one akin to journalism and grounded social theory—also begins with everyday life. The difference proposed here is that something happens to the moment or the object or the person within everyday life that transports us into a special space and then the moment or object or person becomes different from what was so in everyday life.

Usually [why usually?? why equivocal here?? is not metaphor a crucial aspect of this project??] what is created is a metaphor or a narrative.

A metaphor is “a term transferred from the object it ordinarily designates to an object it may designate only by implicit comparison or analogy…” (American Heritage Dictionary). A narrative is essentially the same as a metaphor. [again, this equivocation is troublesome.]

For Arthur Danto, retired professor at Columbia University and art critic of The Nation magazine, this is the heart of what art does. He uses the concept of “transfiguration” to characterize the change. Author Victor Turner another author, and his follower Richard Schechner, a professor at New York University, use the idea of transporting or transforming to describe the process. Again, how we know constructs what we know.


Doctors, lawyers and technical specialists have one thing is common: they are all share an evidence-based in their professional approach.

A doctor’s visit involves collecting evidence: an interview and examination are conducted to assess a problem, which are combined with additional tests and data—such as pulse and temperature—to develop a diagnosis and plan of treatment. and  When you go to the doctor she or he collects evidence from you as to your problem. Additional tests and other data are collected, such as taking your temperature and pulse. A diagnosis is made and a plan of treatment is developed.

Likewise, a lawyer may draw up a contract for the client or even get the client out of jail. Your lawyer does the same thing with a contract you need drawn up or even getting you out of jail. The facts of the matter are discovered and then a plan of action is proposed.

The Your friendly computer call center in India or Manila is intended to perform a similar function. does the same thing. You The client recounts the evidence and observations—what programs were running or what actions were being taken when the computer failed was going on when your computer crashed—and the technician forms a model of the problem and suggests a course of action to solve it. your problem.

How we know constructs what we know

Two additional ways of knowing and kinds of knowledge are crucial to our consideration. They will be treated only tangentially here because the ordinary, extraordinary and expert-mediated knowledge carry the thread of the our discussion.

Personal, social and privileged knowledge  and Social Knowledge and Privileged Knowledge are essential for a thorough understanding of the Sources>Knowledge>Intent>Action model. [This model and its notation have not yet been presented, nor have the personal, social and privileged been defined.]

A Line of Argument

Since the 1960s, our conversations have shown the difficulty of religious persons accepting social science, critical studies, philosophical perspectives, and deconstruction of their experience and its substance.  The conversations have shown that there is a certain sensitivity to critically evaluating one's acquired and accepted belief systems, with this sensitivity typically precluding a closer look at them if one has invested one's identity in religion.  If, as we perceive religionsists to do, one commits to a somewhat immutable belief system, particularly if it is rooted in otherworldly domains, engagement with the world revolves around belief.  It has been discerned that looking for and finding an anchor with immutability is more comforting and reassuring than other modalities, particularly those that might raise questions which are less sanguine about the authenticity of a singular source defining truth, goodness, and beauty for instance.  Our experience has been that religionists also On the same score, they have difficulty in respecting, trusting and respecting the non-religionists.

Media coverage of religion over this two thirds of a century has complicated matters.  The media coverage of religion tends to reinforce the idea that the perception of the religionists is reality oriented, just like the weather and traffic and sports.  Reporters tend to give religionists the benefit of the doubt and the average reporter seems careless in reporting events as the perception of the religionists versus the actual interventions in human affairs by entities not apparent to the nonbeliever.  The description of whatever happened on a given occasion, leaves one with the impression that what happened was as the religionists perceived it.  Bedside miracles or lost persons being found or turns of affairs for a person having hard luck are routinely attributed to unusual circumstances.  Nonbelievers are very patient about this, for whatever reason, so the confusion is allowed to fester.

There is a gentle accretion of perception in the reality-generating systems of the society.  It is like our conviction that the mere presence of a TV truck at any scene makes what is caught by the camera's eye real, by definition.  When it appears on the evening news, that clinches the matter.

At the same time,  We [??who?? Or do you mean that it has been so observed or noted by someone] have also experienced the difficulty of secular persons accepting the legitimacy of the views of religionists, however candid the religionists appear in terms of accepting the perspectives of the social sciences, critical studies, philosophy or deconstruction.  This skepticism may be a by-product of how the religionist perspective has historically manifested itself in all levels of politics affecting human relations and quality of life.  We have also been struck with how hard it is for secularists to accept a social science, critical studies, philosophical or deconstruction approach to their own inevitable metaphors, rituals and cultic alliances.

[edited this far 11/6/09]

I have given a good deal of thought as to why religionists I have known are so reluctant to allow deconstruction of their experience and the aura of story, action and being "an exclusive group of persons sharing an esoteric interest"-- the American Heritage Dictionary definition of cult.  Following the work of Victor Turner, the anthropologist from Virginia, I cannot but conclude that they view themselves as permanently on stage in a cosmic drama.  Turner and his major living exponent, Richard Shechner of New York University, think we all move back and forth between the "liminal" or borderline of ordinary consciousness, and the everyday.

Religionists seem to non-religionists like they are staying in the liminal state, rather than alternating back and forth.  If one were in a play, one would get caught up in one's role and the story and whatever was happening would seem like a full blown reality, whether it was falling in love or being overwhelmed by a catastrophe or dying.  However, if one is attending a play, you do leave afterwards. Even the actors leave and return to the same work-a-day world as the audience.

Across the world, in the early 21st Century, the religionists are appealing to many people, particularly in the face of perilous times.  Better to stay on stage, than to tackle the exigencies of complex financial systems or unnecessary wars or mediocre health care and education or abject poverty in the face of obscene wealth.

One would not want to advance the case that religionists are less caring than non-religionists. The good works performed across the planet by persons of religious faith obviously deserve all of the praise and appreciation we can muster.

That is not the problem.

The problem is that the religious perspective is intrinsically private and privileged.  When religionists readily admit to that, there is no problem.  They join the rest of us in the public arena to tackle our common problems.

The obverse problem is that the non-religionists tend to ignore the view developed in the mid-20th Century by persons like Langer, Cassirer and Auerbach that proposes the appropriateness of the experience and language voicing the reality of story, significant action, and cult.  At the same time, the non-religionists confuse matters by tending to ignore the way the social sciences, critical studies, a philosophical stance and, especially deconstruction, illumines their own stories, significant actions and cult tendancies.

The question of how non-religionists muster a working equivalent to the perception of the action of the gods in the believer's experience, is worth more sustained attention than it gets. Religionists tend to denigrate the quality of non-religionists' experience and imply that they are not enjoying the benefits of the religionist's faith.

This line of argument seems to get nowhere. It does not enhance the effort of the religionist to convert the non-religionist since it does not sew the seeds of readiness on the part of the non-religionist. There is a veiled implication of superiority on the part of the religionist. This is, in turn, matched with a veiled implication of superiority on the part of the non-religionist, who feels she or he seeks and speaks for truth in a special way.

Which opens an option that may or may not have much of a future.

What does it take for religionists to trust and respect non-religionists enough to admit the comparability of their experience and the story, action and cult setting of that experience?


What does it take for the non-religonists to trust and respect religionists enough to admit that they are using an appropriate method for knowing about the stories, actions and cult memberships that give meaning to their lives?


What does it take for both religionists and non-religionists to allow the work of the social sciences, critical studies, philosophy and deconstruction to illumine their own approach as well as the approach of others?

I have spent parts of the last six winters in the Hollywood area. I have not found that the practitioners and proponents of the story generating process being enacted there, are much different than the priests and teachers and publishers and administrators I have known in the religious system.

In particular, they seem just as reluctant to deconstruct what they are doing, and its implications for the rest of us; as any other priesthood or religious hierarchy.  True enough, a group like the 20 faculty in Critical Studies at the California Institute of the Arts, constitute a critical mass of scholarship that invites one to look twice at one's experience.  Still, my personal impression is that West Los Angeles is not a community preoccupied with dissecting itself to the degree that its impact on the global culture warrants.

So, how might a declaration of "honest" religion, that refused to propose that the wider public embrace its privileged, private point of view mesh with an "honest" secular approach that felt it had achieved a functional equivalent to the religious experience of wholeness or an acceptable melange, in the face of a complex and ambiguous wider reality and was willing to subject that collage to the scrutiny of the social sciences, critical studies, philosophy and deconstruction?

Let us examine step by step how the secularist builds her or his weave of meaning, set within the social and natural sciences and other ways of knowing and a critique of that knowledge.

  1. Accept the Social Sciences' View of Human Nature

The social sciences of psychology, anthropology and psychology have developed a degree of consensus over the past couple of hundred years to the effect that our social reality is constructed. We are obviously shaped by our biological inheritance and our natural and social surroundings, but beyond that, through learning, inventing and organizing ourselves; we have constructed our social reality.

Sometimes these processes work so slowly and without our conscious awareness that we do not realize we are products of the social systems we inhabit. The very experience of realizing that condition is itself of tremendous importance in developing an "honest" secular or religious way of viewing our realities. It is important in parenting, in teaching and in therapy, to recognize that we can hinder or facilitate the moments in which persons see through the veil of culture in their roles, in their norms, and in their perception of themselves and others.

These moments can be occasions for disbelief, for anxiety and for hostility. The German sociologist, Karl Mannheim, at the turn of the 19th to 20th Centuries, put it well--"the most unbearable thing in the world is to live with your unconscious uncovered." We are carefully programmed to take for granted that our class position, all of the privileges that go with it and all of the advantages that it entails, are given. The notion that there is an arbitrary or capricious quality to that state of affairs is, literally, quite unbearable. This holds for whether we ultimately realize we are "high" or "low" in the system.

A good deal of our sense of potency and agency and urgency in proposing to change our lot or the lot of others, hinges upon our realization of how we came by our lot.

  2. Adopt a Weave of Meaning of our Own Devising within our Networks

Throughout our lives and at any given moment in our lives, we are inundated by a deluge of images that purport to help us represent our realities, in order to create the weave of meaning of our lives.  It is our job to sort these images out and act accordingly.

As we proceed to act within our cultural, political and economic life, we need to take into account the contexts of the sciences, other ways of knowing, our own critique of the emotional, conceptual and timing of our proposed actions, our craft-like deconstruction and reconstruction of what, otherwise, appears to us obvious.  These steps let us clarify the scope of the roles we are about to play, the way we are cast in those roles and the positioning we occupy as we play.

The deluge of images that provide the raw material for our weaving the meaning of our lives, now include an assortment beyond the imagining of any previous generations. There are the obvious images of popular culture from the movies and the Internet and sports to the classical images of opera, ballet and symphony. There is the wealth of literature and drama and then the visual pictures and sculpture and architecture. The auditory impact of music in all its forms, as Suzanne Langer put it, "makes us jump."

What are we to make of it?

First of all, it does remind the secularist of the appeal of religion with its more limited set of images. One need not question or evaluate or sort out a deluge.  This is very attractive in a time of troubles and uncertainty.  But that does not shed much light on the challenge left to the secularist. Where to begin and how to begin?  Some things are known at a rather crass level, like young people have witnessed on the order of 15,000 murders.  This makes both murder and violence as a method of conflict resolution seem more legitimate.

Whether there is any causal connection between that readiness to accept violence and the willingness to engage in an unnecessary war is not directly knowable. What is known is that we are what we perceive and what we make of it. Our task is to accept the responsibility for who we are.

"The unexamined life is not worth living."

Two illustrations get at the issue at stake.

First of all, by deconstructing our experience we are able to see what is at stake in our internalization of what we perceive.  For example, the analysts of popular culture seem in agreement that the sports metaphor, ritual-and-cult approach is a direct reenactment of the value system of capitalism.  The notion that the winner is free to take all in the sport's arena is extrapolated into the everyday work and investment world.

By whatever criteria, like what justified the 50, billion-a-year hedge fund executives' incomes in 2008, the underlying rationale is winner take all. If that money could have been part of the return on investment of the nonprofits who staked their claim to the hedge fund, that is an unaskable question. The myth and ritual and cult surrounding the investment process was designed to mimic the myth and ritual and cult system of the sports world. Further than that, the MBA programs and the supporting training of lawyers and accountants facilitated that mesh of sports<>financial systems. And the priesthood-like additional supporters of the system, such as bankers, financial advisers and investment firm employees (say the standard $600,000 a year incomes for everyone in at least one organization) were directly party to diverting monies that could have gone back to organizations such at Elie Wiesel's work for tolerance.

One feature of these facts is that we are supposed to quickly forget what we have personally experienced. Myth, ritual and cult provide a natural system for achieving that sort of corporate amnesia. Whether new financial regulations that encourage transparency and oversight, are put in place in the United States, like they already are in Canada, is an open question, as Americans forget and forget to encourage their lawmakers to forestall history unnecessarily repeating itself.

Another illustrative aspect of the matter is the texture of the movies we watch. At the beginning of 2009, as we moved away from the award prospects to the midyear film repertoire; the films divided into three broad groups: horror, escape and realism. The horror movies represent some method of catharsis that works on a model like-- "I survived that, so I should be able to survive everyday life."

The escape movies just take you away from the difficulties of everyday life. The realistic movies have an effect somewhat like the horror movies--"things are tough, but we are going to make it." The point is, we can build our own approach to the difficulties of the moment by pretending we survived even worse or we escaped or we are energized to get on with making everyday life work. It us up to us to decide which course of experience we want to build into our lives, just as it is up to us to decide whether winner take all does justice to our own value system of care and justice.

  3. Interweaving Ordinary Knowledge and our Weave of Meaning

The line of thought we are pursuing leads to our assuming responsibility for what we know and what we intend to do about it.  Up to this point, there is not enough of a mix of ways of knowing to provide a critical mass of models and metaphors.  By models, I mean the sum total of tested and workable hypotheses generated by the social sciences and by ourselves as our own grounded theories of human nature.  By metaphor, I mean "a figure of speech in which a term is transferred from the object it ordinarily designates to an object it may designate only by implicit comparison or analogy." (American Heritage Dictionary).

Now we can propose that the social construction of reality, as a model, meets our weave of meaning.  It might look like a collage of movies, pictures, pieces of music and a series of evocative objects, such as a special sunset or mountain-- all of which can also be metaphors.

The arts provide catharsis and inspiration.

The social sciences and our own grounded theory embed in our view of ourselves and our realities. We can accept our predicament and we can accept whatever ways forward that present themselves as workable for us.

The arts, usually through their metaphors, give us our charge and the social sciences and our own grounded theory give us the map or course of action.

  4. "Theories of Everything Else"

Whether it is auto mechanics or dentistry or rocket science, the natural science approach of testing hypotheses has developed an impressive array of tested hypotheses over the past 500 years, built on early science back at least another 2,000 years. We do not seem to have much alternative but accept this aspect of human achievement.

Which is not to say there are no problems.  In mid-2009, the Pakistani situation reminds one that just knowing how to build nuclear weapons may only aggravate problems in a region or around an issue.  The same can be said for building cars in America or for allowing pollution to destroy the planet as we know it.

The task of each of us is to appropriate the fruits of the natural sciences wherever they are of use to us in light of our values and strategies.

Critiquing our knowledge prior to acting on it

Constructing our conscience

Reasoning, emotional analysis and timing


The enormity of things that happen to us, like the Great Recession of 2008, and the poignancy of their effect on individuals, like lost jobs and homes; remind us that thinking things through is much to our advantage. The millennia of effort at learning to think carefully about our fate and our prospects must be taken advantage of, if we are to do all we can to thrive together.

Arthur Danto, a retired professor at Columbia University and the art critic of The Nation magazine, provides useful clues as to how to use the results of the efforts at careful thought developed in the past and present. In Connections to the World he proposes that we be very careful about how we distinguish ourselves, our representations of the world and the world itself. He also admonishes us to be clear about how we intend to act in the world, on the basis of what we know.

This philosophical framework of self and its sources, our representations, the world and our intent to act on what we know in the world; provides a useful way of looking back at what we have already discussed. Our assertion that we take the social sciences seriously and engage in a process of building grounded theory for ourselves out of our own experience, provides a basis for further thought, intent and action. We need not be the victim of the latest pundit to the left or right, who provides us with a full blown analysis of their own devising. We may feel a bit pretentious in accepting our own framework, just because we lack confidence in ourselves, but we can stand against the well meaning pressures we are under to adopt the views of others.

Even well-intentioned Public Television and Radio can be reexamined critically.  The stable of gurus in the new neuroscience, how to be happy and how to be wealthy; complement our favorite old movies and remarkable reviews of the culture of our own past century, but they still have a point of view.  It is designed to sell Public Television and Radio and much of it is wonderful, but we do have a right to question it.

One point that Danto is particularly helpful about, needs to be brought to our attention.  He has written widely on many aspects of the relation of what we know and how we know and what we intend to do about it. He focuses on what he calls The Transfiguration of the Commonplace.  He wants to help us be clear about how we use metaphors, in particular, to make ordinary knowledge into extraordinary knowledge.  The idea that religionists and non-religionists use similar processes to house their meanings in metaphors can be helpful in our learning to communicate with each other better.  Like the social scientists, he sees much commonality in how we humans operate.

Emotional Analysis

The Twentieth Century was marked by a new willingness on the part of many to look with greater candor at how their emotions affect how they think, what they intend to do, and what they actually do. Freud opened the eyes of many to the manner in which the less than conscious parts of our perception affect us. Proust illustrated this with great care from his own childhood. Marx made it clear that society plays an active role in how we look at life and how we feel about it. Darwin more than suggested we are in continuity with the other animals in how we perceive and process life. Einstein went so far as to revolutionize our very understanding of the universe itself and how we feel about our part in it.

Small wonder that as many as a third of Americans would like to skip the last couple of hundred years of the development of thought.  Unfortunately, this time span includes the whole founding process of the American experiment and convergent developments all over the world.  If we can get to the point of "but the thing I am afraid of is…" we are well on our way to living in the 21st Century.  If we cannot articulate those feelings, then we may be forced to live in a very constrained world of our own and others' devising.

In Treatment, a half hour program each night on HBO television in 2009, takes us into the process of therapy as a way of better understanding how our emotions affect us.  There is no snappy way of summarizing that process except to say that we can learn to take apart our recollections and examine some explanations that are more than just the obvious.  Freud's classical illustration was that we tend to confuse our relation to our fathers and mothers and identify with one or the other in a dysfunctional way.  How many dysfunctions there are in each of us may or may not make that much difference, but learning to see how our emotions affect us may make a world of difference.


A remarkable historian named Stavrionis pointed out that the ancient civilizations of about 2,400 years ago - from China to Greece, went through a revolutionary process of starting to reflect on what it means to be human.  He joins others in calling this an "axial period".  He felt we are in another such moment.

Whether one is a religionist or a nonreligionist, it may be important to seize this moment. A hundred years ago, the Buddhist community set about modernizing itself, so that its approach could be of more use to non-Asians in particular.  In the 20th Century as many as a million former Episcopalians may have become Buddhists, partly in response to this effort. The whole "mindfulness" movement, which proposes we live more fully in the moment, has been widely adopted in medical circles to encourage a more viable life for many, averting falls and minimizing stress.

The Obama election, along with an American Democratic House and Senate, bodes for the possibility of change that affects not only the United States, but the world. Convergent developments elsewhere suggest that the time may have come to reevaluate Free Market Capitalism as it has been sold around the world. The degree of change will disappoint many progressives and alarm many conservatives, but change is in the air.

"Timing is everything" is not quite true, but it is true enough to be taken seriously.

As one pulls together one's concepts and theories from the social sciences and one's own grounded theory and mixes them with one's weave of meaning from the arts and history, one is left with the question of when to do what and why. "Striking while the iron is hot" catches the spirit of "rising to the occasion".

A long period in which action is felt to be futile takes away one's inspiration and feeling of potency and agency. The conservative effort of the past 30 or 40 years at playing down what we are entitled to do together on our own behalf has unnerved everyone who would like to get on with it.

Deconstruction and Reconstruction

Having gotten this far in proposing how we can use a level playing field to think through some aspects of what we are experiencing, it seems like an odd time to then talk about taking everything apart and then putting it back together. Americans, as distinct from the French, have had trouble with this whole idea of "deconstruction".

Perhaps the trouble is that Americans may not realize the extent to which the French have never intended to throw out the baby with the bath when they critique some part of their culture, like a novel or a political event. Their culture is so cohesive and so deeply rooted, it does not even occur to them to question but what they will put back together whatever they take apart. In the Spring of 2009, the French are debating whether to let a fast train track run through Cezanne's view of Mt. San Victoire. We can rest assured that they will find a way to save the view and the train track.

To deconstruct your knowledge and what you intend to do about it requires doubting the social sciences and your grounded theories of human nature, your given weave of meaning as of this moment, your faith in the natural sciences view of nature, and your own historical and philosophical critique.  You will object that "little old me" is not up to this big a task and it should be left to those who loudly proclaim their willingness to do it on your behalf.

You would be wise to suspect that those who want to perform deconstruction on your behalf are also doing it on their behalf.  How far you want to go in questioning motives is your business, but you would be wise to, at least, suspect yourself of naïveté if you just step aside from the task due its difficulty and risk.

How elaborate an agenda and what tools you need to adequately deconstruct your own views of human nature, your weave of meaning, you views of nature and your sense of your reasoning, your emotional analysis and your timing; is your business. Some clues have come down through the years, that may be of use to you:

1) Question your social class position as an arbitrary source of your point of view.

2) Question your upbringing as another arbitrary source of your point of view.

3) Question your most deeply held convictions as affecting everything else.

4) Question your authorities, especially if you find them congenial.

5) Question your peers - remember you probably chose them to agree with you.

6) Question your estimate of what you can accomplish.

7) Question your sense of your time and place and options.

This is tough stuff.  No one has ever found it easy.

Putting it Back Together

You must not take this piece as an answer as to how to put it back together.  As a reader and user you are as vulnerable to these comments as any other.

What can be done, is to point out to you that the approach proposed here is a way of thinking through how to put it back together. There are other ways. Some of them are very expensive, time consuming, and quite controversial.  For example, classical psychoanalysis took several years and cost thousands of dollars.  It just may be what it costs to get someone to sit and listen to you hour after hour.

Notice that the framework of this approach is an offshoot of Arthur Danto's approach to philosophy, with a gross simplification of the matter of:

1) How do you know?

2) What do you know?

3) Why do you intend to act on what you know?

4) Where and when do you act accordingly?

What you know is focused just on what you know about human nature, your weave of meaning and nature. What you intend to do about what you know is focused on your reasoning, emotional analysis and timing; this process of deconstruction and reconstruction and the subsequent section on the roles you play.  What you do focuses just on your cultural life, your political life and your economic life.

We propose that how you know results in your ordinary knowledge of human nature, your extraordinary knowledge of your weave of meaning and your expert-mediated knowledge of nature.

This is an exaggeration and simplification of all of the issues around playing on a level field.  This intentional focus seemed useful, but you will want to question it.

Scoping, Casting and Positioning the Roles We Play

The approach presented here has its own assumptions and presuppositions. By the time you get to this point in the presentation, you must have unearthed most of them to your own satisfaction. In any event, we should review them as the preface to talking about the way you go about preparing to play out your roles in keeping with your knowledge and intent.

What you know and how you came to know it matters.

What you intend to do about what you know matters.

What you do matters.

In most of the world, these assumptions seem to be taken for granted by many. In the United States, recent developments suggest many simply ignore these assumptions, with dire consequences for the rest of us. You are at liberty to restrict what you know, to what is to your advantage; you are free to intend to act in such a way that others will be unnecessarily hurt and you can do as you like, anyway.

Scope of Role

The medical professions lead the way in our understanding of scope of role. A California heart doctor has 5 pages of permissions as to what she or he can do. Anything else, they cannot do. For example, unless specified, they cannot assist a liver or kidney doctor open up the lower body of a patient, even though they have more experience and expertise in performing that act.

As one ages in a large medical facility, you become more and more aware of how each professional or technical person you deal with has very detailed limitations on what they can say to you or call to your attention. No one is in a position to look at you as a total person in a total life situation. Your personal physician can come close to this scope of role, but even she or he is severely limited in what they can do and say.

All of us are in the same situation throughout our daily life. Part of our scope of role is defined for us by a job or by our education or by the expectations of those about us. Another part of our scope of role is defined by us.

In this discussion, we are particularly concerned with how you exercise your scope of role as fully as possible where it is defined and how you exercise you scope of role where you have the primary responsibility for the definitions. In a medical situation, a mid-level technician may not have the right to give you information, but they may be able to tell you "the results are the same as last time."

Across the range of our roles, from dealing with the professions and trades, to dealing with educators and therapists, to dealing with officials in government and business; it behooves us to play out the scope of our roles as imaginatively and even courageously, as possible. As simple a matter as getting a driver's license or registering a car can be a chance to demonstrate that we are not just victims of nonhuman technology.

In our day and age, we live in a vague fear that the expert has something on us, hidden in the bowls of his or her computer databases. Even if they do, it will probably come out any way, so we might as well be a full-scale human while we are at it. Maybe you are discouraged from applying for the loan because of some technicality, rather than because of your credit rating or that the bank has no money.

The context of what is known in a situation, what is intended by one and all in the situation and what everyone in the situation is doing, determines the ultimate scope of the roles everyone is playing. Intimidation, obfuscation, belittling in one form or another; are techniques we all use. We each have to decide how best to present ourselves and how best to cope with how the other(s) present themselves.

The striking opportunities come where we have initiative in defining scope of role.

Cultural life and political life are two areas where this is particularly important. In a post….. (whatever) time, the traditional constraints on cultural and political life have largely gone away. We do not have to be at the church on time and we do not have to vote. We can carve out our scope of roles to our own devising. In our cultural life, we can, to some degree, shape the moments and the scenes and the texture of what we experience. We can decide whether we want to add to the 15,000 murders we saw on television growing up. We can decide between horror movies and escape movies and realistic movies.

The social scientists seem to be in some agreement that our cultural life does shape how we weave the meaning of our lives. The critics in the arts seem to be in some agreement that the meaning housed in the metaphors we share in drama or literature or visual and musical arts affect us deeply.

We do alternate between the limimal and the everyday. The meaning of the everyday Is embedded from the liminal exposure to the arts. It is the coming and the going that captures the imaginations and the emotions of both the religionist and the secularist.  Scott Sherman reminds us that Marc Chagall, the Russian born French painter, was willing to be quite outspoken about art and religion being profoundly similar. The alternation of the liminal and the everyday affects everything in the everyday. The political is particularly relevant, because it easily drifts into metaphor and a kind of rhetoric that can easily destabilize the confrontation of genuine issues. Perhaps we need to be more disciplined about realizing we are in the liminal cultural world and then we are in the everyday political and economic world. THIS is a place where deconstruction can really be of service to us in maximizing the power of our metaphor in the setting of the realities of our use of power and money.


Scope of role defines in broad strokes how our roles will be played.

The specific casting of our roles is much more precise. Again, there is a split between the roles we play that are largely defined for us, like our job; and the roles we play that have greater flexibility, where we can construct our part in keeping with our own knowledge and intent.

Even the job roles, may well have a much more creative edge than we sometimes realize. As we deal with others through the course of a day, we notice a great deal of difference between those who play it very straight and those who introduce a bit of flex. Humor is not the only index of which way a person plays it out, but it can be a good clue as to whether we are dealing with someone who takes themselves very literally or someone who takes you and they, as caught in a drama hardly just of our own making.

It is in roles like the cultural and political that we can best recast ourselves.  In a consumer-oriented society, going to cultural events as an attendee and seeing the political process as just another set of services delivered to us, like the mail; greatly limits the potential of what can be a realization of our weave of meaning.  We need to approach the roles as expressions of who we are in the fullest sense of the word.  What we know and all we intend to do accordingly, can pour into our cultural and political life.

Sadly enough, the purveyors of both cultural and political content, tend to act as if we are consumers of products and services, rather than participants in processes in which we have a stake far more crucial than mere consumption.

Positioning Ourselves

The positions we take are the fulcrums of the levers of power and influence we use to change the world. While some of the neatness of the old idea of the right and left side of the aisle in legislatures, has gotten blurred; there still is a liberal-conservative distinction.

In the United States, in the Spring of 2009, the conservatives seem preoccupied with solving political and economic problems by lowering taxes and reducing the role of government. Liberals, on the other hand, seem essentially of one mind when it comes to the potential for government to play a part in solving common problems.

Being a liberal or a conservative is more complex than it once was. Issues, like health, education and energy have nuances and subtleties that it is difficult for the amateur to track. The media are able to fill the gap of information and a framework, but only to a degree.

Being a liberal implies taking into account all that is known about human nature and nature, within our overlapping weaves of meaning. Liberals presuppose that social change is possible and that the ravages of the widening class distinctions can be ameliorated by realistic programs. They assume that the 200 years of work in the social sciences have produced a body of knowledge that can directly affect the way we operate in creating more just societies throughout the world.

This is not warmed over progress theory. The degree of sophistication in our social knowledge is going up all the time. Horrors, like the tragedies of the 20th Century, cannot blind us to the fact that we are learning and discovering more and more about human beings. Just ignoring that knowledge does not prove anything, except something about those who remain unwilling to pay attention.

If liberalism is about to have a new day in court, those who incline in that direction in taking a position, need to do more than just stand on the sidelines. Part of being a liberal is getting into the fray. You do not need certainty-just the courage of your convictions.

Conservatives, who have humane values, need to see the present and the future in fresh terms. Just saying "no", is not enough.

Here is a summary approach to what we have been talking about:

What we know about Health, Education and Energy


Ordinary Knowledge

It is common knowledge that health is due to a combination of several factors:

1) Heredity

2) Childhood care and nutrition-enough of the right food and water

3) Adult practices-especially diet, exercise and stress management

4) One's setting for living, working, playing

5) One's engagement in adequate social memberships and activities

6) One's access to care

7) One's social class position as a filter for most of the above

Extraordinary Knowledge

There is some overlapping consensus to the effect that "the unexamined life is not worth living".

1) Items 4 and 5 above seem to reflect the meaning one attaches to one's life and its effect

2) Claims are made for a variety of practices derived from one's extraordinary knowledge

    a) "Light" Buddhism suggests that "mindfulness" or close attention, promotes health

    b) Christianity claims that some of its practices, like prayer, promote health

    c) Hinduism claims that yoga practice promotes health

3) The groups to which one belongs that reflect one's beliefs (like AA) are said to promote

Expert-mediated Knowledge

All industrial countries, except the United States, have universal health care. The United States spends more and gets less results for health care than (almost) any country United States health care is linked to "Extraordinary Knowledge" about Capitalism and health .


Ordinary Knowledge

The function of the institutional education system in the United States, stretching from Kindergarten, or even earlier, to Professional and Graduate School (K-20!), is to transmit the culture to the next generation and share in the creation of new culture, through research and scholarship. In the United States, as somewhat distinct from Europe and Asian, the goal with individuals is more than mere transmission of culture. Great effort is made to give to the student opportunities and encouragement to be creative and develop fresh ways of viewing how and what we know and what we intend to do about it-are actually and pragmatically done.

Extraordinary Knowledge

For over a hundred years, there has been great difficulty in handling ordinary and extraordinary knowledge in our education system. We all use watches to tell time and thermometers to tell the temperature, but a substantial portion of us cannot make a similar distinction between ordinary knowledge, housed in hypotheses and models; and extraordinary knowledge, usually housed in metaphor. Why this is so and what can be done about it and how we can cope with the consequences in our ordinary adult life, are deep and demanding puzzles.

Expert-mediated Knowledge

Education as an expert mediated system proves very complex and difficult to conjure about. The advent of technology that can complement and, at times, replace the human expert, greatly complicates matters. Modern humans can live in environments where technical aids do all sorts of things for them. The United States has just lived through an experience where some specialists have taken other peoples' monies and reinvested them in complex ways that ultimately collapsed. The moral of this is, in part, that we may have no option but to use technology, but it is very risky.


Ordinary Knowledge

As of mid 2009 almost everyone seems ready to get aboard the Green Revolution. The facts of the matter seem clear enough and the consequences of failing to act seem clear enough.

Extraordinary Knowledge

Now the issue seems to be whether we have the will to act, based upon our weaves of meaning.

Expert-mediated Knowledge

While there are some holdouts, especially those representing vested interests who think they will suffer if drastic action is taken, most experts seem to be pushing for us to do all we can as quickly as possible. The problem seems to be translating that wisdom into corporate action in politics and economic life and personal action in daily habits and perceptions.

Health, Education and Energy and our Intent to act on what we know

Timing, Reasoning and Feeling

President Obama's position is that all three of these concerns and their connection to prosperity, are related.  Timing is quite literally of the essence as far as energy is concerned. The accelerating impact of global warming forces all of us individually and collectively to act.  The various practices we engage in that are the cause of the warming and the source of its consequences, are practices we can change and must.

Reasoning has been elaborated upon going back to Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" and now Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth".  If reason can prompt us to act, then we have ample reason at our disposal.

Feeling seems more the heart of the matter. We linger with our feelings about bigger houses, bigger cars, bigger travel plans, bigger Second Homes and more of everything, as a support for our identity. The drive of advertising continues to shape our psyches. Our sense of our worth as persons is attached to a replication of being a 18th Century French monarch in style and in design. We all live at Versailles.

Deconstructing and Reconstructing

Until we are willing to take apart the value system that drives us, even when so much of the system collapses in recession, we will be victims of the changes that become inevitable. The French have had it right in learning since World War II, to think through what it means to take everything apart.  Of course, the French also put it back together, as best they could.


It is hard to say that somehow the issues around Health, Education and Energy are truly related to whether you are a liberal or conservative.  In the months ahead in Mid-2009 it will be very important to speak to the best in each of us.

It does seem that the burden of proof now rests with those who propose to do nothing.

Acting: Do Something Now

Engagement is an important concept and it is a dynamic one.  The issues of Mid 2009 have to do with action now.  The United States Congress can proceed with the legislation required to move forward in health, education and energy.  The United States Administration can also proceed with alliances and programs that implement new values. 

And each of us can start to do little things.

Last modified: Friday, February 26, 2010, 10:26 PM