In The Postmodern Condition, Lyotard (“leo-TAR”) argues that all cultures, ancient and modern, legitimate themselves through the telling and retelling of narratives, stories that give cultures purpose and meaning. The story of the European Enlightenment and the Age of Reason separating the West from the rest of humanity remains the metanarrative of today, central to the creation of meaning in our culture, the big story on which countless smaller stories are stacked. The heroic West, it is said, brings freedom to the world through democracy and reason to the world through science. Lyotard compares this story of “salvation for all” to the similar metanarratives of Christianity and Marxism.
Without faith and trust in the metanarrative, retelling and rebinding ourselves and others to it, many would have little idea what their lives or our culture mean. Because so many have stacked their own story and the meaning of their lives on top of the dominant story and meaning, if you question the way of the ancestors and poke the bear spirit, if you doubt that our practices of democracy and science are bringing freedom and well being to everyone, to many you are an outsider, a dangerous deviant who threatens the safety of the tribe.
Unfortunately for the metanarrative, the horrors of WWII and the manufactured genocide at Auschwitz spawned the countercultural attacks of the fifties, sixties and seventies. Counterculturals began asking out loud if the story of Western progress is also a mask for brutality and if the West is much like the rest, ignorant and authoritarian.
Jack Kerouac wrote of the “beat generation”, the beatnik youth of the fifties who turned from American conformity, tired and doubtful of consumerism and the Korean War. The Civil Rights Movement of the sixties called for revolutionary changes to American democracy, which openly excluded many due to race and gender, at the same time protesting the Vietnam War.
Lyotard argues that Postmodernism is a playful engagement with many conflicting micronarratives, alternatives that have emerged in the space created by the questioning of the grand metanarrative. While critics argued that Postmodernism and the end of the metanarrative is itself a new metanarrative, Lyotard countered that the metanarrative of the progress of the West is far from dead, merely resisted here and there by a variety of countercultures. For many, the dominance of wealthy nations, the environmental impact of technology on the world’s poor and the supremacist nature of the Western metanarrative is unquestioned, either out of ignorance or with regret that has no faith in an alternative.
Critics of Lyotard and Postmodernism continue to ask whether this is a cure for the condition or merely another symptom. Is Postmodernism, like the narrative of modernity, genuine liberation, or is it merely a safety valve to accommodate counterculturals, scholars and gallery goers who are disenchanted but still require entertainment?
Philosophy literally means “Love of Wisdom”. What is wisdom? Gathering knowledge is good, but being wise is more than simply having knowledge. It is one thing to memorize books and facts. It is another to use this knowledge wisely. Boxing up concepts is good, but the ability to think outside the box is greater.
We all use our minds to understand ourselves and our world. Often, these understandings are wrong or incomplete, and we must reason, interpreting and reinterpreting our situation. When things are known, set and steady, we have beliefs and answers, understanding and knowledge. When things are unknown, changing and unsteady, we have doubt and questions and need to reason and re-reason. The ability to question and reason well, to think critically when things are unknown, is wisdom. As life is always somewhat unknown, wisdom is always useful and valuable.
Across ancient and modern cultures, we generally speak of knowledge and understanding as grasping, as if we are holding ideas set and steady with our hands, and speak of wisdom and reason as seeking, as if we are searching and exploring a space with our eyes. While we hold on to what we have, it is wise to look down the road and see what changes are coming.
All of us experience tragedy, loss and pain in life. Sometimes this leads us to be close-minded and self-centered. At other times we are inspired to be open-minded and compassionate. Across human cultures, we generally think those who are close-minded and self-centered to be foolish, and those who are open-minded and compassionate to be wise. The foolish take the short term view of what they themselves desire at that moment, while the wise take the long term view of what is best for themselves and others overall.
Over four thousand years ago in ancient Egypt, Phah-hotep, vizier to the Pharaoh, wrote, “Do not be proud of what you know, nor boast that you are wise. Talk to the foolish as well as the wise, for there is no limit to where wisdom can be found. Good speech is rare like a precious jewel, yet wisdom is found amongst the maidens at the grindstone”.
The Buddhists of ancient India considered wisdom as the highest of the five virtues, symbolizing it with the lion, considered the king and most courageous of the animals.
In ancient China, Confucius said that the wise consider the whole rather than the parts, while fools consider the parts rather than the whole.
In ancient Greece, Socrates argued that his awareness of his own ignorance was the greatest wisdom in all of Athens. Because he showed others that they were unaware of their ignorance, and only partly know what they claim to know, he was executed.
In the Americas, the Aztecs said that the wise sage is a torch without smoke, the one who puts a mirror in front of others, who looks outside and within. The greedy and foolish were compared to turkeys, small and weak in heart.
While all cultures value wisdom, as individuals we are insecure and have trouble questioning ourselves and our beliefs. If we open up and learn from each other, living life as an adventure rather than anxiety, each of us can grow in wisdom, reason and compassion for the rest of our lives, if we are courageous enough to try.
Nietzsche, the great mustachioed one, said that if we want to be great individual, revolutionary thinkers, we each must take an individual stand between the twin dangers of morality and nihilism.
Morality, the dogmatism, laws, traditions, and rules of the cultures that surround us, can prevent us from thinking critically and improving ourselves and our culture. However, if we question everything, this can lead to excessive skepticism and doubt, nihilism, such that we believe in nothing and do not have the courage and passion to take an individual stand and create new meaning and truth.
In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche uses the symbol of the tightrope walker to stand for the individual who balances between opposite sides. We must have the courage to learn from the morals, rules and dogmas, as well as question them freely and critically, taking from them what we each individually choose for ourselves. We can each use dogmatism and skepticism as we want to to create new truth and meaning, transforming the old. This became central to Existentialism, and then later Poststructuralism and Postmodernism.
All new thinking is dangerous and risky, but if we are afraid to think for ourselves, we do not take the risk that could pay off and be revolutionary. The history of religion, law, philosophy and science is made by great individuals who take the leaps that inspire everyone else. Those who think outside the box are the ones who get to change the box.
Nietzsche inspired other great thinkers to question reality. Heidegger said we can be boxed up by our use of time and technology. Sartre said we can be boxed up by social roles and social class. Fanon said that we can be boxed up by racism, institutional and internalized. Foucault said we can be boxed up by institutions that divide the normal from the abnormal, the criminal from the legal, and the sane from the insane.
By learning from these skeptical thinkers, we do not get a recipe or rulebook as to how we should be great individuals or what we should choose to do. Instead, we see how we are boxed up, so that we can think outside the box and about the box, to choose how to think and how to live.