The aggregation of complex systems in contemporary networked applications means that no single person ever sees the whole picture.
— Bridle, James. New Dark Age (p. 43). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.
The trouble … is that we are terrifyingly ignorant. The most learned of us are ignorant.… The acquisition of knowledge always involves the revelation of ignorance— almost is the revelation of ignorance. Our knowledge of the world instructs us first of all that the world is greater than our knowledge of it.
— Wendell Berry, writer and Kentucky farmer, as quoted by Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems (p. 86). Chelsea Green Publishing. Kindle Edition.
We denizens of the World Wide Web have access to more information than ever. The trouble is that we often try to read it faster, hoping to take in more of it, or worrying that the next thing could be more worthy of our attention than what we’re reading now, so we should get through it as fast as possible. It takes a conscious effort to slow down and give the symbols a chance to connect with the time you’re living. But i think the effort also increases the humbling awareness that the world is greater than our knowledge of it.
I’ve noticed this especially while returning my attention to the early chapters of Turning Signs. It’s been over five years since i first published it, long enough to enable me to read it again for the first time (to steal a phrase from Marcus Borg). I’ve forgotten my authorial intentions well enough to be surprised by it, for instance by how much it’s perfused with systems thinking, which i consider crucial to the transition we are living in 2021. But i’m also surprised at the number of changes (improvements, i hope) that seem to be called for. (I’ve learned a few things since 2015 and have a better sense of how ignorant i am.) I’ve now revised the first four chapters. I might have to call it a second edition, or Turning Signs 2.0.
The online chapers are always up to date, of course, but it’s also occurred to me that some people might prefer to read TS offline. I’ve made it possible now to download the whole thing as a Zip file (a little over 3 MB) which you can extract to a folder on your computer or tablet and read with your browser, regardless of platform. You’ll find the download link near the top of the Table of Contents page. I’ll have to periodically update that Zip file on my site as revision continues, but it will always be the whole book, Obverse, Reverse, Universe and all. If anyone reading this wants to try it out, let me know (by comment or email) how well it works. Especially if you run into any problems.
Since my last post, i’ve decided that a virtual reboot of the whole Turning Signs enterprise was in order. The result, so far, is a radical revision of Chapter One. It begins:
January 2021, Little Current, Ontario, Planet Earth. January, month of Janus, is a traditional time for looking back and looking ahead. For over a year now i’ve been blogging about the transition. Some have called this time ‘the Great Unravelling,’ which is less forward-looking, and indeed the future seems less predictable than ever. I had vaguely foreseen this in the first chapter of Turning Signs as published in 2015 …
The rest is here, and i’d appreciate any comments, especially about its relevance to what we’re all living through at this time. It’s a bit shorter than it was before, so it shouldn’t take too much of your time – which, as we all know, is not a renewable resource. It might even be a welcome break from news about Covid and Trump. Thanks for even considering it, and thanks to you all for subscribing to this humble blog!
In Peircean terminology, Turning Signs could be described as a hybrid of cenoscopy and synthetic philosophy. Cenoscopy, as opposed to the idioscopic or specialized sciences such as physics and psychology, investigates
phenomena that are perfectly familiar to all mankind. Because these are founded on common observation, Bentham gave them the collective designation Cenoscopy, which I adopt as expressive of my own opinion of the basis on which these sciences, which are otherwise called Philosophy, rest.
— Peirce, MS 601 (c. 1906)
Cenoscopy then ‘embraces all that positive science which rests upon familiar experience and does not search out occult or rare phenomena’; for Peirce this, rather than metaphysics, is the real “first philosophy,” or at least ‘is better entitled (except by usage) to being distinguished as philosophia prima than ontology’ (EP2:372). Synthetic philosophy, on the other hand, ‘has been called philosophia ultima’ because it ‘embraces all that truth which is derivable by collating the results of different special sciences, but which is too broad to be established by any one of them’ (EP2:372).
In other words, the philosophical inquiry reflected in Turning Signs aims at both the primary (or primal?) and the ultimate – the alpha and the omega. This makes it doubly useful in these apocalyptic or transitional times. Actually only the cenoscopic part should be called “inquiry,” or heuretic science as Peirce called it. He placed synthetic philosophy ‘at the head of the Retrospective Sciences’ (EP2:373), i.e. those which find new connections among observations previously made rather than making new observations of their own. But the reliance of cenoscopic inquiry on ‘familiar experience’ does not make it easier to practice, because it requires critical common sense.
The method of cenoscopic research presents a certain difficulty. In commencing it we are confronted with the fact that we already believe a great many things. These beliefs, or at least the more general of them, ought to be reconsidered with deliberation. This implies that it should be conducted according to a deliberate plan adopted only after the severest criticism. Indeed, nothing in cenoscopy should be embraced without criticism. Each criticism should wait to be planned, and each plan should wait for criticism. Clearly, if we are to get on at all, we must put up with imperfect procedure.
It’s pretty clear by now that a transformation of agricultural practices will be a necessary part of any just transition to a healthy Earth community. Several people and organizations engaged in this transformation have recently posted articles on resilience.org. One of them, the Land Institute, has published an open-access book called The Perennial Turn: Contemporary Essays from the Field. (You can download the free e-book from that site.)
The first article (by Wes Jackson, Aubrey Streit Krug, Bill Vitek, and Robert Jensen) takes a look at the global situation in which this ‘Perennial Turn’ is taking place. One paragraph strikes me as especially cogent:
Revolutionary change in theory and practice, not minor course corrections, are needed; we cannot assume that modifying the existing trajectory of the human species is adequate. If there is to be an ongoing large-scale human presence on Earth, the energy/resource consumption that most affluent humans take for granted—and which many non-affluent humans aspire to—cannot continue.
The time we are living makes it increasingly risky to take things for granted – even things like a steady supply of energy, food, water, clean air, health care, mobility, employment and so on. If philosophers are those who don’t take things for granted that people commonly think they know, as Merleau-Ponty says, maybe this is a good time for open-access philosophical essays like Turning Signs. —That’s about as close to self-advertising as this blog ever gets … but we can all use a bit of ‘beginner’s mind,’ whatever the time.
We are living in transformative times. The title of this blog post is the title of an essay by Richard Heinberg which is exactly what the title says. I can’t think of anything else i’ve read that says so much that is so important right now in so few words. This is truly essential reading.
The assembly of students in the hall should blend like milk and water to support the activity of the way. Although now for some period you are either guest or host, later you will be buddha ancestors equally throughout time. Therefore, you should not forget the feeling of gratitude. It is rare to meet one another and practice what is rare to practice. This is called the body and mind of buddha dharma; you will certainly become a buddha ancestor.
— Dogen, ‘Regulations for the Auxiliary Cloud Hall at the Kannondori Kosho Gokoku Monastery’ (Tanahashi 2010, 39-40)
Inkling of the day: The time has come to lower our voices, to cease imposing our mechanistic patterns on the biological processes of the earth, to resist the impulse to control, to command, to force, to oppress, and to begin quite humbly to follow the guidance of the larger community on which all life depends.
That was written 32 years ago. Is it too late now?
Outlink of the day: David Bollier has for many years been researching the commons, and the practice of commoning in many places around the world. His recent book with Silke Helfrich, Free, Fair and Alive, presents it as an alternative to the extractive capitalism which has turned out to be ecocidal and pushed global civilization to the brink of self-destruction. The book includes a glossary of terms we will need in order to shift our understanding and think like commoners. One of them is communion, an old word redefined with the help of some other key terms (rendered here in all caps):
Communion is the process through which COMMONERS participate in interdependent relationships with the more-than-human world. COMMUNION shifts a person’s understanding of human/nature relations out of the economistic framework (e.g., “resource management,” or the commodification and financialization of “nature’s services”) into one that respects the intrinsic value of the nonhuman world. This fundamental self-awareness leads to feelings of gratitude, respect, and reverence for the sacred dimensions of life in the ways that human PROVISIONING is organized.