On groundlessness and existential homelessness
I. A Dream
In a dream, you see that you’re somewhere you’ve never been before, the landscape you survey appearing unrecognizable to you. Only in the next breath, it strikes you as if, no, this landscape is all too familiar. Either way, it’s clear to you that you don’t feel at home here (wherever “here” is), and you have the intuition, one that comes and goes, that you don’t know what home is or where it is or, really, how it is.
Looking down, you’re shocked, though only slightly, as you notice that there is no ground beneath your feet. How long have you been floating here, floating and wandering? In this instant, you seize on the thought that you can’t seem to get your bearings nor do you know what “getting your bearings” even means.
“Am I losing it?” you hear yourself, or someone else, saying. The question echoes for a few beats, then fades away.
Is all of this horrifying? Terrifying? No, not quite. Something less or other.
When you wake up, the strangeness isn’t brought to an end, for you can see no difference between the dream state and the waking state. No firm ground underfoot. No home to speak of. No sense of direction.
You’re not alone. We meet you here.
II. Moral Incoherence
In his masterpiece After Virtue, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre began his inquiry into the fragmentation of our ethical life by observing what may appear, at first glance, to be simply fairly run-of-the-mill moral disagreements obtaining in three separate cases. He drew the reader’s attention to arguments concerning war, abortion, and political philosophies, showing in each case that our moral disagreements in modernity are at once interminable and shrill. His hypothesis is that their interminability and shrillness are born of a culture-wide, intractable kind of moral incoherence.
It’s now 40 years since the publication of After Virtue, and not much has changed. In mid-September 2020 as I write, massive wildfires are burning throughout Washington, Oregon, and California, and climate change scientists are arguing that this is proof, hands down, for climate change while climate change skeptics still doubt whether it’s human-caused or, if it is, to what extent.
Six months prior, George Floyd’s tragic death galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement in support, among other things, of ending police violence against Black people. The movement, in some parts of the country, on social media and behind closed doors, has met with counterclaims — sometimes loud, though often quiet — about how “all lives matter.”
And lest we forget, the coronavirus pandemic has shown us the degree to which expert and ordinary persons’ opinions diverge. In May and June, the public discussion concerning how best for the country to proceed was framed in terms of the relative weights assigned to public health and economic welfare. Conservatives, urging states to re-open their economies, were pitted against progressives, who prioritized public health over economic well-being while, for their part, libertarians regarded progressive governors’ orders to keep businesses closed as infringements on personal liberties.
What is evident here, I submit, is our groundlessness.
III. The Landscape of Hyperpluralism
To bring us to recognize the meta-crisis for what it is, I’ll need first to tack back to the Protestant Reformation. In his beautiful book The Unintended Reformation, one that owes much to MacIntyre’s After Virtue, the esteemed historian of early modern Europe Brad Gregory argues that the interminable doctrinal controversies beginning in the Protestant Reformation ultimately gave birth to the hyperpluralism we presently take for granted.
Witnessing the corruption of the Catholic church, Protestant reformers, beginning in the 1520s, attributed the cause directly to false doctrine and sought thereby to provide a new foundation for the Christian life. Sola scriptura, or “only scripture,” was to be the standard enabling them to live in accordance with the Word of God. However, the trouble became apparent almost immediately for different Protestant Reformers — magisterial as well as radical — disagreed not just with Catholics but also with one another.
As Gregory tells the story, each subsequent attempt to provide a clear, firm, solid justification for the Christian life failed. Reading the scripture while one is imbued with the Holy Spirit led to religious and political disagreements among those, at loggerheads with one another, claiming to have done just that. And following Matthew 7:16–20 — “You shall know them [that is, true Christians] by their fruits” — disclosed further conflicts as one assertion here encountered a counter-assertion there.
All of these failures opened the door, Gregory contends, to another essayed alternative: to wit, adopting the standard of reason propounded by the likes of Descartes and Spinoza as well as by nineteenth century deists. When, throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it became clear that reason was no better than faith at placing firm ground beneath our feet, what came to be taken for granted instead was the solution that we are still — awkwardly — living with today: the modern liberal state tethered to pluralism. Agnostic about the good life, the state, through the “monopoly on violence” as Max Weber put it, is said to enable each citizen to live as he or she sees fit. Meanwhile, faith is privatized and subjectivized and tolerance urged to ensure that religion doesn’t lead to anymore violence, bloodshed, animosity, or exhausting stalemates.
And here, indeed, is where the rubber hits the road: the unwitting and unintended consequence of the Protestant Reformation, some 400-plus-years later, is that pluralism keeps splintering, fragmenting, and proliferating into what Gregory terms “hyperpluralism.”
Welcome to the United States of the twenty-first century.
Need fresh evidence to corroborate Gregory’s thesis? Well, in their white paper “Memetic Tribes and Culture War 2.0” penned in 2018, Peter Limberg and Conor Barnes detail some 33 political-cultural group formations ranging from New Atheists to Antifa to street epistemologists to post-rationalists to the Christian right to Incels to Integral Theorists to Benedictines and beyond. And these, arising in the midst of the current culture war, are just cultural and political groups! If we set aside the culture war for a moment and focus on other domains of modern life, can we not see — and I say this only half-jokingly — that “anyone can start a band today”?
In short, social life today is hyperpluralism all the way down.
IV. Surrogate Conceptions of the Good Life
When I was a kid, the ESPN football analyst Lee Corso, facing an opinion with which he disagreed, used to quip: “Not so fast, my friend.” Here, he might say: “Not so fast, my friend. Is there not something that binds us all together?”
My quippy reply to Corso? Sort of.
In the teeth of hyperpluralism, I’d like to suggest that there are, in fact, surrogate — that is, derivative, ersatz, and therefore unsatisfying — conceptions of the good life that are now very much embodied in the ways that many ordinary Americans live their lives.
These include, but are not limited to:
- hedonism of all kinds — from consumption of sports and entertainment to active participation in hookup culture and porn to gourmand predilections;
- the goods life: that is, a life bound up in comforts, conveniences, safeties, and guarantees, one made possible by economic growth and by voracious consumerism;
- careerism: notice how, pre-Covid anyway, college graduates were flocking to New York City and the Bay Area with a view to achieving success, doing “meaningful work” or “fulfilling work” or something “socially impactful,” or even “having a vocation”;
- possessive, insular love: consider the diminution of the multigenerational family network, the drop in pregnancy rates in recent years, and the concomitant clinging to spouse or partner or pets or all of the above;
- and, not the least, secular spirituality, which I define as a mode of life that is “north” of secular flatland yet also well-nigh “south” of any notion of transcendence. Secular spiritualists, of which there are many today, seek — for instance — adventure, peak experiences, flow states, forms of growth, altered states of consciousness, and physical transformation.
What makes these conceptions of the good life surrogates is that they cannot possibly satisfy our deepest human longings to be in touch with the good. They are, instead, what we would expect to see in a modern, secular landscape shorn of a shared conception of the good.
V. The First Aspect of the Meta-crisis: Knowledge of Groundlessness
Put the two images together and what you get is hyperpluralism fetishizing the primacy of human agency paired with surrogate conceptions of the good life that proffer us degraded substitutes of eudaimonia. Both hide from us what is sorely missing: a shared vision of the good.
Too succinctly put, the passage to modernity coincides with the dominance and exclusiveness of human agency. In the modern world, there are, it’s widely assumed, no other powers — not divine, not angelic, not demonic, or otherwise — save for human powers, which are used with the aim of “working on” the self while transforming the surface of the globe. The troubling consequence of hyperpluralism, then, is that, in one breath, it accepts the dominance and exclusiveness of human agency while, in the next, it, together with the surrogate conceptions outlined above, rejects the starting point for Aristotle’s inquiry into the good life. Parsing Aristotle’s notion of a telos, MacIntyre writes, “Every activity, every enquiry, every practice aims at some good; for by ‘the good’ or ‘a good’ we mean that at which human beings characteristically aim.”
So, I ask: “What is that at which our lives should be characteristically and ultimately aimed? What is that?” Such a question, unasked because unheard, is therefore left unconsidered.
The stage is now set for the entrance of the first aspect of the meta-crisis. Understood in a Socratic key, it is our newfound knowledge of our groundlessness with respect to the good. For the crisis in question has to do with our inability to know on what basis we should live our lives, on our own and most especially together in the form of a We, and thus the meta-crisis only arises when we come to metacognitive awareness of this long-standing sense of groundlessness. In that moment of dizzying insight, we may feel clueless as well as routeless.
VI. The Reigning Picture of Reality
So far, I’ve written only about our living at this point in modernity without a shared vision of the good. In this sense, my essay, up to this point, has been a broadly ethical investigation. But this is not the whole story about the nature of the meta-crisis.
I’d like now to turn to a brief discussion of metaphysics, or the study of reality. I begin with the philosopher Ludvig Wittgenstein’s words: “A picture held us captive.” And what picture of reality is holding us captive, limiting our imaginations, our hearts, and our aspirations?
Ours, I submit, consists of three doctrines — physicalism, humanism, and secularism — all of which, having arisen together during the long march of modernity, form an interlocking whole.
Physicalism, also known as materialism, holds that everything is physical. That is, everything — consciousness, stars, trees, the law of gravity, subatomic particles, emotions, mass gatherings, nation-states, ideas — can, it’s asserted, be reduced to the physical. I don’t want to linger here on what the philosopher of mind David Chalmers famously called “the hard problem of consciousness”: the problem, that is, of how certain neural processes could constitute or give rise to subjective experience at all — seeing red, imagining monsoons, feeling upset. I simply want to bring into our awareness some of the more visible downstream cultural consequences of physicalism.
Notice, for instance, how we speak of “our brain hurting” when we can’t seem to understand something or when we’ve been thinking too long and too hard. But is the brain identical to the mind? Notice, too, how we readily assume that only matter is really real such that talk of the paranormal is, well, said to be paranoid, talk of the miraculous is thought to be nothing but a strained — or poetic — metaphor. Observe, within this picture, how purportedly silly or childish or superstitious it sounds for someone to say that there exists an eternal, immaterial soul or that a human being is an embodied soul. And consider how seamlessly modern individuals identify with their bodies: with fit bodies, with beautiful bodies, with enviable bodies, and, of course, with aging, sick, and ultimately perishing bodies. Physicalism, as we’ll see when we come to secularism shortly, very often generates existential anxiety.
Now come to humanism. The latter insists, in the words of the Presocratic Greek philosopher Protagoras, that “man is the measure of all things.” For humanism to take flight in the modern world, the cosmocentric model embraced by Classical Greeks as well as the theo-cosmocentric model everywhere accepted by medieval Christian Europe both had to collapse. In fact, the rise of humanism coincides — in Max Weber’s memorable words — with the “disenchantment of the world”: the wholesale displacement of anything supernatural or teleological by the purely natural. Henceforth, it would come to seem to many modern people as if science and religion must be incompatible.
To feel the shapes and textures of humanism, one needs first to come to grips with two intertwined concepts: human-agent-centered concerns and concerns about the human. To speak of your own human concerns is to take it for granted that you are an agent, that is to say, the central, animating power in your life, engaged in what are typically human-centric activities: setting goals, completing projects, fulfilling basic needs, satisfying desires, pursuing self-interests, gossiping about others, consuming resources, and so on. Truly, the key term here is activities in the plural, for the human agent is the being who persistently throws herself into activities. As such, she cannot, insofar as she is a human agent, be understood otherwise.
And now — to pivot to the second concept I mentioned above — in what arena do human-centric activities unfold? In that whose focal point is human drama. Undeniably, you care about human births, human aging, human illness, and human death. If you care about climate change, you probably care the most about the possible extinction of homo sapiens. If you care about the biosphere, you probably care about it because it’s an “environment” in which human beings dwell.
Within the bounds of humanism, therefore, it is almost inconceivable that a cosmos could be experienced as an indwelling spirit, an anima mundi, or that the sacred could evoke worshipful reverence, sublime terror, and awe.
To complete this picture of reality, see that full-blown secularism is what emerges whenever any idea of something “really real” beyond the temporal world is vanquished — or dismissed out of hand. As a direct consequence, there can be no afterlife or reincarnation or experience of transcendence because there can be no ontologically distinct world or no ontologically distinct way of being in the world that’s set apart from, or “beneath,” this temporal world. There is, it’s urged, only the “temporal world,” which is whatever is subject to chronos, or inexorable clock time.
In short, what is real is physical, what is salient is human, and what is subjectively experienced is fleeting. The existential implications of this deeply ingrained worldview could be no more evident. Here are four especially potent ones:
- (1) For us, time is and must be scarce. Thus, it occasions what I have elsewhere called “time famine.”
- (2) For us, there can be no denying, save on pain of delusion or forgetfulness, our anxiety about death, our anxiety unto death.
- (3) For us, nihilism, rarely directly spoken of, is nonetheless ever-pervasive: a general malaise, a sense of pointlessness, meaninglessness, and even helplessness, abounds.
- And (4) for us, this picture of reality is all too flat inasmuch as it lacks depth, height, breadth, and weight.
VII. The Second Aspect of the Meta-crisis: Knowledge of Homelessness
Enter the second aspect of the meta-crisis, the knowledge of which just is a knowledge of our existential homelessness. Life is fragile, too short, our actions futile, the substance of our lives pointless, and the subject of the picture in question without genuine depth. What I’m describing is a quality akin to “being stuck,” feeling “closed in,” not catching a full, easy breath, and, above all, feeling ever restless. We are homeless, at home neither in the world nor in our own skin.
We’re now in a position to join together the two aspects of the meta-crisis. We’re groundless in the specific sense in which we have no shared vision of the good as well as no way of converging upon such a shared vision. And we are homeless inasmuch as we can’t seem to come to rest in our being. Notice how these two aspects mutually reinforce each other: without a grasp of the good, I have trouble coming into immediate contact with the real; and without feeling the presence of the real, I cannot seem to orient myself with respect to the good. In a sense, I feel as if I’ve forgotten precious things just beyond recollection and thus beyond the bounds of expression.
Hence, the meta-crisis refers to our newfound knowledge of groundlessness and homelessness, and it is this Socratic understanding — as real as it is raw — that, I urge, is the humble opening we need in order to give ourselves up completely to contemplation of ultimate things as well as to living, vibrating wisdom.
In the final sections of this essay, my proposal will be that the liberal arts can help us to discover a deeper sense of being by enabling us to remember, and in consequence realign ourselves with, the good and the real.
VIII. The Liberal Arts: Fragmentation and Limitations
But first I need to say something about the current state of the liberal arts as I see it.
At most colleges in the US today, the liberal arts education unknowingly mirrors groundlessness and homelessness in at least three significant ways: namely, in respect of fragmentation, skepticism, and shadows.
During the past half-century, academia has created new liberal arts departments, new fields of studies within those departments and within already established departments, and new specialties and subspecialties within both. In so doing, it has brought within itself the fragmentation already experienced in our hyperpluralist modern society.
The unwitting consequence of this proliferating fragmentation is that domains of knowledge do not speak to one another, nor, given the widening discursive differences, can they, and thus the sense of incoherence already brought to our attention by MacIntyre and later highlighted by Gregory has grown apace.
Furthermore, the very possibility of a curriculum vitae — which originally meant a life course, even a life path, indeed a shared one — has been atomized, the outcome of which is, at least at some small colleges, a completely individualized course of study, one that appeals to what Michael Sandel once termed the “voluntarist self,” a self free of commitments and governed solely by its own autonomous will.
Just imagine an analytic philosopher who “works in philosophy of perception and foundations of neuroscience and cognitive science,” trying to carry on a conversation with an ethnic studies professor interested in “contemporary transnational art and visual culture in the Arab/Muslim world,” doing “interdisciplinary research on racial discourse, transnational gender politics, militarism, oil cultures and extractive economies in West Asia.” What picture of reality do they share? What conception of the good do they converge upon? And given that students are taking courses from professors like these, what coherent version of life will they come to by the time they graduate?
What, it seems to me, the liberal arts outside of the sciences has tacitly agreed upon is that it is worth adopting a skeptical mode of consciousness. By the latter, I mean the process of learning to step back and, at the lower end of the spectrum, to doubt the status quo and, at the higher end, to criticize it for this reason or that one. The lesson here? Whatever exists — be that socially, culturally, collectively, systemically, or institutionally — is not good, or is not good enough, or is lacking in some way.
By this means, and notwithstanding its good intentions, the liberal arts redoubles, in a more sophisticated form, the critical attitude many of us have already learned during our upbringings. “This leader is stupid,” one parent states. “That one doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Doesn’t anyone in Washington have any common sense?”
It’s not as if this skeptical mode of consciousness isn’t of any value, for surely it is. After all, we need to cultivate a disposition of not giving this or that a free pass for naivete carries hidden dangers further downstream. As Socrates enjoined, we are better off developing a keenness for examining each subject as carefully and as closely as possible.
And yet, if we remain in a skeptical mode of consciousness for good, then at some point we’ll likely feel in our hearts that we’re more alienated, more jaded, and more bitter than we had been prior to the discovery of modern skepticism. Indeed, having called into question our inherited beliefs and social values time and again, don’t we come off experiencing the groundlessness and homelessness of which I spoke earlier? Isn’t skepticism, in fact, of a piece with both even as it brings them out all the more? And as we embrace skepticism as our chief mode, don’t we feel ill will, perhaps mixed with self-righteousness or else confusion, in the depths of our hearts?
The question we hungrily need to ask is: “What is it that I, and we, do love or can love?”
Finally, the liberal arts has evinced a tendency to project, as Jung would have it, its misgivings “out there” while disavowing any suggestion that there is anything to clean up “in here.” Jung called this entire dynamic of disavowal (of some aspect of my experience) and projection (onto some other being) a “shadow.”
While it’s of great importance for us to be able to analyze cultural formulations and social systems, are we really going to conclude that all of the dis-ease bodying forth in modernity can be pinned — to take but two recent, tragic examples — on the mental health crisis and on the opioid crisis unfolding “out there” in the Midwest? For what of the inner turmoil that you and I experience daily? How shall we go about, in the deepest and most loving way, to turn fundamental questions back on ourselves with a view to truly knowing who we are?
In the past 50 years, the liberal arts has increasingly sought to justify its existence on the basis of a commitment to social justice. According to Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind, we can understand this commitment to social justice in terms of (1) a concern about harm done unto victims (and in this respect, the secular left is carrying on the legacy of Christianity), (2) care about fairness, and (3) a desire for liberty and an end of oppression.
This abiding commitment may have given many the impression that we are already grounded and at home. Yet I’d like to suggest that the aim of social justice cannot provide all those pursuing a liberal arts education either with a shared conception of the good or with a shared vision of social reality.
For unlike Christianity and Buddhism (to refer only to the two religions with which I’m most familiar), the social justice ethos is decidedly not a thoroughgoing soteriology. Accordingly, it cannot provide us with a doctrine of salvation or liberation and therefore it cannot answer, let alone pose, all of the existential questions that self-reflective persons, at some point or another in their lives, may come to be gripped by. Questions such as:
- What is the cosmos and how does it shape the inner folds of my being?
- What is death and what a good death for me and mine?
- What is the good life, and how, truly, shall I live?
- What is a good political society, and how can it be coaxed into being?
- How do I love well, and what is its significance?
- In late modernity, what room is there for friendships of virtue and for genuine communities that are bound together by a desire to realize the common good?
- Can I act courageously and, if I’m so able, how do I judge when to do so?
- What too of the virtues of trust and compassion and faith and temperance and wisdom — what are these to me?
- And how, to tie all these questions together, does all of this — so vaguely stated, so baggy and unwieldy, so seemingly incomprehensible — hang together?
Now, what I’m not saying is that social justice is not a good that some, perhaps many may wish to pursue throughout the course of their lives. What I am instead suggesting is that this ethos will never be “the glue” that holds a liberal arts education together, supplying all students with a ground, an orientation, and a sense of direction. To ask it to do so is, as I believe we have, to ask it too much.
IX. The Liberal Arts: Contemplation, Wholeness, and Living Wisdom
In light of the above diagnosis, my proposal is that the liberal arts could find its reason for being — a quite beautiful one, in fact — in three interconnected ways. First, it could teach us how to contemplate ultimate things. Second, it could help us to undertake systematic inquiries into the good and the real with the aim of demonstrating how — to borrow a term from Raimon Panikkar — a new cosmotheandric vision of the whole could be disclosed. And, third, it could help us embark on the path of living wisdom.
In this final section, I’d like to take a closer look at each claim in turn.
Contemplation, as I understand it, is a heart- and mind-open inquiry into the most basic matters of human existence in particular and of existence more generally. This definition is meant to underscore how the questioner is not merely questioning some other or object “out there” but is also, and at the same time, implicating herself in the question. I call this synthesis of “matters of ultimate concern” and of “what matters to, while implicating, me” the existential. Thus, contemplation so understood is not merely of an intellectual nature but, in truth, is existential through and through. As such, it requires our entire being, asking that we give all of ourselves over completely to the inquiry.
In Dynamics of Faith, the theologian Paul Tillich distinguishes between matters of provisional concern and matters of ultimate concern, claiming that the latter falls within the ken of religion. An example of a provisional concern would be the kind of work you do, an ultimate one being whether there is rebirth or an afterlife. I’d like to extend Tillich’s concept of “matters of ultimate concern” so that any inquiry — be it rational, directly experiential, or faith-based — that is directed at matters of ultimate concern counts as a form of contemplation.
“But why,” you might ask, “should we be concerned with contemplation now, especially given the current state of the world?” Because if my analysis of the meta-crisis is correct, then what we need most right now is to pour ourselves into the contemplation of a shared vision of the good as well as a clear conception of what is most real. In lieu of more “solutions,” which are essentially more of the same, what is truly urgent is a fundamentally new dispensation. And it just so happens that existentially-undertaken readings of important works of philosophy, religion, literature, history, sociology, and more can assist us with this existential inquiry.
Yet contemplation on its own is not enough. The late polymath, theologian, philosopher, and Catholic priest Raimon Panikkar, in The Cosmotheandric Vision, provides us with an articulation of what lies before us. To move beyond postmodern fragmentation, we must ask two questions. The first: “How is it possible to glean, and draw out, unity in multiplicity?” And the second: “Considering that the universe concept has mistakenly supplanted the cosmos model and considering too that the divine has mistakenly withdrawn from view, how can we come to a deep, unified, experiential understanding of the cosmos, the divine, and sentient life?” These two questions reveal how the results of our first-order contemplations of ultimate things need to find their proper home in a second-order unified whole. In short, what we seek is coherence.
Both contemplation and wholeness reside firmly within those who set foot on the path of living wisdom. For what has truly been missing throughout much of modernity has been a shared commitment to living wisdom. It is living wisdom that answers, in its very essence, the question: “If I wish to live best, how do I live in the world?”
By “living wisdom,” I mean virtuous conduct flowing directly from the deepest and fullest contemplative understanding of the good and the real — indeed from a cosmotheandric vision of the whole. The one who lives wisely is, by turns, perceptive, thoughtful, emotionally attuned, energetically resonant, considerate, graceful, and, above all, whole. And the path of living wisdom begins, as Socrates well knew, with loving yet persistent self-examination, with questions continually turning back around on the questioner.
“But why,” you might ask, “should I care about living wisdom? And why care about any of this stuff about groundlessness and homelessness?”
See right here, see in this expression of nihilism how modern culture exudes carelessness. Because we’ve been groundless and homeless for so long, we haven’t learned how to care deeply. For to care deeply, as Socrates shows us in Plato’s Apology, is to be willing to die for what is truly worth caring about. Living wisdom, in this sense, just is caring deeply about contemplated ultimate things with such depth, earnestness, and devotion that one’s very being finally becomes a radiant expression of, indeed the very vibration of care for all beings. If living wisdom, just insofar as it joins together the good and the real in one’s very heart, doesn’t matter, then what really could?