You’ll find none of the comfort of received opinion here. No claim to truth, let alone Truth (that capital T always makes me nervous). None of that astounding confidence (aka hubris) that cloaks ignorance and prejudice. The aim is to question, to explore, to keep my mind — and yours — open, raise some sparks, and see what happens.
I wrote that eight months ago by way of introducing myself in ‘Who is the AT?’ Perhaps you thought I didn’t really mean it. If so, you’ll likely hit the Escape button in about one minute from now, because most of us, myself included, hate it when people challenge what we take for granted. We have, each of us, established certain fundamental principles by which we live our lives or see the world (the word ‘fundamental’ used deliberately), and these are our ‘last-ditch’ positions – our sacred principles, and sometimes our sacred cows. They’re the base from which we sally forth to do battle in the ever-expanding world of ideas, even as we insist that it is not expanding, and that certain verities – truths – are universal or eternal.
I am talking about what we often call “the obvious.” The big O, if you like. Here and there, it has been making an appearance in comments posted on this blog, along with its close cousin, the big S – simplicity. “It’s obvious that…” “It’s really quite simple…” Such comments make me feel like I’m being preached at – always an excellent way to get me to stop listening – but my real problem with them is that they cling to simplistic certainties in a complex and uncertain world. I am an advocate of uncertainty, of doubt, of inquiry — a lover of paradox and of the ironies that seem to me inherent in human existence. Simplicity might be all very well as a life style, but as a mind style, I find it stifling.
The Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing, hero of the ‘anti-psychiatry’ or ‘existential psychiatry’ movement of the 1960s and 1970s, once said this about the obvious:
To state the obvious is to share with you what (in your view) my misconceptions might be. The obvious can be dangerous. The deluded man frequently finds his delusions so obvious that he can hardly credit the good faith of those who do not share them… The obvious is literally that which stands in one’s way.”
Or, he summed up,
“One man’s revolution is another man’s platitude.” *
I’m not sure if Laing meant it this way (you couldn’t always be sure of anything Laing said – I once interviewed him at his home near Hampstead Heath in London, and came away after a couple of hours none the wiser), but what I take from this is that the obvious is what prevents us from thinking. It stands like a brick wall between what we already think and what we might think if we allowed ourselves to inquire further. In other words, once we decide that something is obvious, we stop thinking about it. We accept it as a given: sometimes as a sacred given – “Torah from Sinai,” as they say in Hebrew – sometimes as a scientific one, sometimes simply as an unquestionable assertion. We take it for granted, and lose patience with those who don’t.
That, I think, is what Laing meant by the obvious being dangerous. While we see it as a matter of fact, it is in fact one of faith, which becomes clearer when you consider how deeply attached we are to it. Fact requires no emotional investment; faith does.
Though I lack it myself, I see great courage in faith. My image of faith is of a person walking out on a limb – a real limb of a real tree, reaching far out into the air — in full awareness that the limb might break and that they might fall and break one of their own limbs, but in the faith – trusting — that this will not happen.
This kind of faith I admire. It’s certainty that repels me. Religious certainty, atheist certainty, scientific certainty, political certainty, moral certainty: the absolute conviction that you are right and that “they” – fill in the blank for whichever “they” most concerns you right now – are wrong.
If we can let go of what increasingly seems to me the pernicious idea of the obvious – the idea that we are somehow in possession of “the” truth, that “we” are the enlightened ones while “they” are living in delusion and darkness – perhaps then we might begin to be able to move toward something that could honorably be called knowledge.
Just please, don’t ask me to walk out on the same limb with you. We live in a huge forest of trees, and I’m more interested in the forest itself than in any particular tree, let alone any particular limb. Besides, I discovered as a child that I was no good at climbing trees. Either I’d get halfway up and get stuck, afraid to go higher and equally afraid to climb back down, or I’d fall. And yes, I have the scars to show for it.
* The Laing quotes are from a speech reprinted in The Dialectics of Liberation, ed. David Cooper, which also includes speeches given at the same event in 1967 by Gregory Bateson, Paul Goodman, Stokely Carmichael, and Herbert Marcuse. The book is out of print.