Culture and Possibility

Greek Temple

In the past, we lived with the idea of truth, the idea that human culture and spirituality is the result of the attempt to reach the truth, either the truth concerning the whole world, or only the truth concerning the human being. However, for more than a century this understanding of truth has been changed.

In fact, as early as the 19th century, Marx and Nietzsche, the most prominent names among many others, denied the existence of ‘truth’ and tried to replace philosophy with a new way of thinking about reality.

Marx wanted ideology to replace philosophy, and Nietzsche aimed at a philosophy closer to art. Both understood that philosophical discourse could no longer be a mechanical photograph of the whole of reality, but rather it was similar to a painting in which the painter presented the viewer with a perspective of the artistic object that spoke more about the artist than the object and tried to persuade the viewer to share the ideas presented by that artist. 

The immense critical work performed in modernity in every cultural domain has increased the awareness that every intellectual achievement is a creation of a perspectival understanding of reality rather than a true or faithful reflection of reality. Modernity ignited in us the idea that culture is a domain of possibility and not of reality. As a consequence, post-modernity developed a very intense feeling that we must cease to take anything as truth but rather as a game in a pure ludic mood. 

We might say that ‘everything goes’ could be called the slogan of post-modernity. However, the recent war in Ukraine, as well as the massive presence in the market of artificial intelligence, seems to contradict this post-history feeling. Post-modernity developed in the space of a relatively secure society, where few factors threatened human life.

This is why post-modernists thought that man could avoid or even give up making decisions, and nurtured a sort of view that things work somehow by themselves without any commitment, a view which, anyway, could not be taken seriously since the perspectival dimension undermines it.

Recent events, like climate change, Ukraine war, or the emergence of artificial intelligence (much more frightening than any other technological development), show us that there are moments when we must make decisions despite the fact that we do not know the truth. To some extent, we resemble politicians who are constantly forced to make decisions about the future without having any certainty about the results of their decisions – which could be beneficial as well as detrimental – and therefore risk their political careers at every step. 

This shows us that despite the fact that human culture is a domain of possibility, where nothing is absolutely true, and everything is only possible – where today’s theories are replaced tomorrow, falling thus into oblivion and desuetude – the human being is ultimately not a being hovering forever in the realm of possibility but must constantly descend into the middle of the most disagreeable contradictions, which, despite the fact that, at the level of possibility, they have the same logical legitimacy, at the level of reality, exclude each other, forcing man to side with one of them. 

Post-modernists could say that even at this level, one could continue to practice indecision and let things happen. However, such an attitude is purely individualistic. If you take into account only yourself, it’s easy to think, ‘après moi, le déluge!’ But if you are a parent, then such an attitude (indeed, not for all, but I think, we can agree, for most humans) is excluded: you do not want to throw your children into the flood when it is in your power to save and protect them.

In this case, the reasons why I want to save my children are insignificant: it can be a moral or a purely biologically-based decision, the results are the same. I, as a human, do not want to be the murderer of my own children. 

It seems we deal here with an instantaneous decision. This is not true. Or, expressed more accurately, the act of deciding is instantaneous, but the preparation of that act has a long history behind it. And, in fact, it is not exactly a preparation of the act but the development of your whole personality that forces you, at the moment of decision, to opt for one way or another. 

Now, of course, again, we could argue that even such a preparation is socially conditioned, and it could be conditioned in many other ways, as well. We could also dispute the idea that your present-day personality is not something metaphysically given, but the result of a historically loaded series of social decisions, which only accidentally have generated you as you are and think of yourself right now.

In the same way, one could continue to argue that the next generations can be raised and educated with many other values, making them insensitive to any parentship, among other things. I wonder what politician could propose such ideas in their political platform while hoping to be voted in. 

What does this mean? It means that humanity constantly has a set of features that, as a matter of fact, cannot be changed, at least not until all the members of society are raised not by families but by the state. Speaking of the personality of those new human beings is useless because whatever we might imagine about them is naivety.

Thus, the reality from which we must start in making any decisions is the human being as we know it today, which is the result of history. Yes, we have to create theories about anything, but then, go back to the facts: those facts that hurt and, due to this pain, are the true features of reality. It is unnecessary to wait for the pain to assert itself; we can imagine our reaction to different situations and thus know beforehand what we prefer and what not.

This is how all courageous decisions have been made in the past: people thought or imagined that if an enemy managed to subdue them, they would necessarily have to suffer, and therefore they concluded or decided that it was better for them to fight for their freedom, whatever price this might demand. 

Real culture is thus not a matter of pure possibility but a matter of possibility that constantly has to be related to what we think is painful or attractive to us. We simply must clarify in our minds what we prefer with regard to any given possibility.

Of course, to some extent, this is a pragmatic way of thinking, or, if one wants, we can go back to the ancient theory of Epicurus. However, there might be a difference in that we take into account the conditions of the present-moment decisions. When a parent decides now that he wants to protect his child, during the previous preparation of that decision, he must start with something that allows him to make the least painful decision.

What should the relationship be between me and myself, on the one hand, and me and my child, on the other, so that I can be happy with my future decisions? Yes, I must create a story, or perhaps even a fairy tale, so that any future psychological suffering can be removed or at least diminished as much as possible. 

Thus, the human being is not simply determined by what he thinks but as much also by what he feels. And our feelings are very powerful criteria that must accompany our theoretical reasonings that otherwise slip into a realm of possibilities devoid of consistency which afterwards forces us into an abominable reality. 

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