The clarification of knowledge

The beginning of the work, “The Celebration of Life,” by Norman Cousins, provides a stirring definition of how we are able to gain and clarify our understanding of an idea.  Each individual approaches an idea with a different, unique perspective.  I believe this is the basic premise behind much of analytical philosophy as well, namely the idea that word usage is subjective to the individual using that particular word.  

Cousins writes (p. 1-2):

One grows into one’s philosophy.  Year by year an individual is shaped by the sights, the sounds, the ideas around him.  Consciously or not, he is forever adding to or subtracting from the sum total of his beliefs or attitudes or responses, or whatever it is we mean when we say that a person has a certain outlook on life.  I do not mean to say that clearly defined truths of religions and philosophies are inevitably subject to the interpretation of an individual according to his or her experience.  But I would like to suggest that one of the prime glories of the human mind is that the same idea or occurrence is never absorbed in precisely the same way by any two individuals who may be exposed to it.  Each of us views a sunset, reads a book, or participates in a conversation in a different way from another, and each will take from these experiences a different meaning and memory, which will enrich the common human experience. 

 In this sense, each human being is a process – a filtering process of retention or rejection, absorption or loss.  This process gives each person individuality.  It determines whether a human being justifies the gift of human life, or whether he or she lives and dies without having been affected by the beauty of wonder, and the wonder of beauty, without having had any real awareness of kinship or human fulfillment.

Can any individual recognize and define the essence of his own individuality?  Can a camera photograph itself?  It can in a mirror, but even the mirror sees only the outside of the camera.  A mind that attempts to perceive itself can use the tools of language and logic.  But the material with which it deals is beyind mere words or reason.  The marrow of human thought or personality eludes its own product – human analysis – even with the most advanced scientific instrumentation.

So, if we are to pursue our essential philosophical quest in the world – our search for integration – we need to bring together rational philosophy, spiritual belief, scientific knowledge, personal experience, and direct observation into an organic whole. 

In pursuing this integration, we turn to a device worked out more than 2,300 years ago: the Socratic dialogue.  The dialogue as a literary device goes back to Socrates.  Its function is to provide a path for the systematic exploration of ideas.  As used by the Greeks, the dialogue seemed uniquely suited to philosophical thought.  The relationship of human beings not just to each other but to the universe, the ability of people to take command of historical experience, the importance attached to abstract ideas and the need to define values and to put them to work, the reach of human beings when confronted with great challenge, the contemplation of the connection between cause and effect –  all these aspects of the human situation were central to the dialogue. 


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