Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: understanding

Words are Like Maps

Words are like maps. Their meaning shifts as our we find our own position upon the map, as we identify the journey we’ve travelled and our plans for future travels. We may use the same map, but in radically different ways and with radically different meanings.

Action is the Pointer of the Balance

Action is the pointer of the balance. We must not touch the pointer but the weight.
Exactly the same rule applies to opinions.
If we fail to observe it there is either confusion or suffering.

Simone Weil from Gravity and Grace

This thought may seem hard to grasp, but I think its really important.

Weil understands that our actions or our opinions are the fruit of our will and our understanding.

If people do things that we think are wrong, or express views that we think are mistaken, then we can try to change those things directly:

  • We can ignore them, move our attention elsewhere, or
  • We can disadvantage them, make things more difficult for them, or
  • We can punish people, inflict pain upon them, or
  • We can create laws which threaten punishment

To put the matter like this is not to imply that any of these options is inherently wrong – systems of law and codes of behaviour are necessary frameworks for human beings. But all of these measures are acting on the action – they don’t touch the heart of the matter.

The same is even more obviously true with opinion. You can make it wrong, immoral or politically incorrect for me to say what I think; but you have not changed what I think. Moreover you risk twisting my unsayable thought into something worse. My unpalatable opinion may then become the means by which I confuse myself or the means by which I could lose faith in you.

My opinions, at least my honestly expressed opinions, are the fruit of my understanding. This is not just a matter of knowledge. My understanding is the picture I have the world in all its fullness. It is changed by logic, by knowledge and by the human will itself – that is by our heart’s awareness of things.

If we want to change someone else’s opinion then we must change their understanding; and if we are to do this then we must engage honestly in debate. We cannot expect to take the field by storm. We may find in fact that we must change – that we have something to learn – that our heart too has been misplaced.

Genuine change is inner change – and nobody should be in a position to dictate that change.

It is for this reason that I have always found the notion of ‘values training’, in all its forms, somewhat suspect. It is all too easy for it to slip into a kind of subtle bullying or an attempt to teach people a different language, a new kind of cynicism.

I remember spending several says running values training for leaders within Lennox Castle Hospital, a dreadful institution north of Glasgow. We offered people all sorts of ways of rethinking what they were doing; we tried to show them the way in which prejudice was generated, the injustice of institutionalisation and the many opportunities for positive community lives for people with intellectual disabilities in the community.

On the face of it the training was a success.

But some months later I returned to ‘The Castle’ to begin the process of helping people escape back to the community by means of the organisation I’d set up called Inclusion Glasgow. And so I met again many of the ward managers and staff that I’d met at the values training events.

Nothing in practice was different, except that now the staff were inoculated against the change. They knew the language and they had worked out how to rationalise what they were doing now inside the institution in a ‘new language’. Too often this is what happens when we only operate at the level of language and apparent values.

Partly this problem was made greater because the values training was completely disconnected with any real opportunities to live those values – to work differently and to see the fruit of that work. This is part of what makes for genuine and inner change.

As the great Dr Bill Schwab said: the treatment for attitude is experience

We must avoid trying to change attitudes by only attending to the surface of things. The weight is in the heart and the proper means to touch the heart is only with truth and love.

If Our Minds are Limited…

Our lives as well as our minds are limited. To try and understand that which is unlimited is foolish and dangerous. To do this and consider it knowledge is even more foolish and dangerous. 

Chuang Tzu from the Tao Te Ching

Paradoxically materialists, the dominant philosophers of our time, should be particularly conscious of this problem because they are confident that thought, mind and the understanding are all just physical events, elements of a reality that is much greater than them.

Our thoughts about the whole can only be elements within the whole – they cannot comprehend that whole.

But if that is so then what is the status of materialism itself? “Thought is just some event in the universe, reference and truth are illusions…” but what is the status of this thought?

Of course, those of us who believe in rationality cannot escape our limitations; but at least our awareness of those limitations is not itself self-contradictory. Humility brings with it some truth (if only partial).

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