Self

The Cofounders

Prithi and Carlos

Image courtesy Sajjad Hussain M

Meta-systematicity manifests as the forefront of all domains of meaning, including in personal psychology, rational understanding, social organization, and culture. Observing meta-systematicity across these domains reveals structural parallels, so that insight from each domain illuminates the others.

This page braids together three purposes:

  • It casts light on meta-systematicity in general by showing its dynamics specifically in self-understanding and in relationships;
  • It illustrates meta-systematicity in relationships with an example of tech startup cofounders;
  • It gives a glimpse of meta-systematic social organization through the case of technology companies; by analogy with meta-systematic relationships; and by application of the understanding of meta-systematicity in general.

Rejecting rationality, reinventing religion, reconfiguring the self

Pentecostal snake handlers
Pentecostal snake handlers (Mark 16:17-18)

Rejecting rationality was the central conceptual move of both countercultures. Rationality was a foundation of the systematic mode. When the systematic mode conclusively failed, rationality got the blame.

Both countercultures explicitly abandoned rationality and adopted anti-rational religions: “Eastern” and “New Age” on the monist side; fundamentalist and charismatic on the dualist one. All these new religious movements discarded traditional social norms in favor of inner transformations supposedly wrought by “spiritual” practices.

Renegotiating self and society

Christians against greed: protest rally
Image courtesy Ben Cumming

The failure of social and psychological systems propelled the 1960s-80s countercultures. Societies had required selves to conform to modern, unnatural systems of employment, government, and religion. These arrangements were invented and imposed with little regard for individuals or local communities.

They were founded on economic, political, and theological theories that were mainly abstract and rationalistic. They ignored innate human needs, desires, and proclivities. It’s a wonder they worked for as long as they did.

The toxic power dynamics of Oneness

The Guru Papers

The title is misleading. Kramer and Alstad started writing a book about problems in guru-disciple relationships. However, they realized two things: such problems are partly due to common “spiritual” misunderstandings of meaningness; and guru-disciple power dynamics are similar to other relationships of authority, with many of the same problems.

So they wound up writing a brilliant analysis of popular spirituality, which comes to many of the same conclusions as Meaningness. Their book also has many insights into authority in general. They intended to expand those into a much larger work titled Control; but it got out of control and they abandoned it.

In the 1970s, young Americans were naive about gurus. They also deliberately suspended disbelief, because they were desperate for solutions to the disintegration of the Western systematic mode of meaning. By now—probably even by 1991 when The Guru Papers was published—everyone understood at least the basics of the power issues in the guru-disciple relationship; so maybe the title aspect of the book is no longer as relevant. Mind you, gurus keep blowing up in sex/power/money scandals, which still seem to take many people by surprise, so maybe not. Anyway, the book is pretty good on guru problems, but that’s not the reason I got it.

I got it because it contains the best discussion I’ve encountered of contemporary American spiritual monism (“All Is One!”). A large chunk of that is available online, and I recommend it highly. But the book turned out to be relevant and interesting on lots of other topics, and I recommend reading the whole thing.

Selfness

“Selfie”

(CC) Clauds Claudio

We are awash in ideological crazy-talk about “the self”:

  • Moralists say we have to overcome our selves because they are selfish

  • Psychotherapists say most people’s aren’t working well, and need tune-ups using their expert understanding of how selves should work

  • Spiritual teachers say we have somehow misplaced and forgotten our true selves, and must go on quests to find them

  • Most implausibly, Buddhists say the self does not exist—and, worse, many pop science writers agree!

Unfortunately, we cannot ignore these discordant voices, because questions of self are inseparable from questions of meaning: purpose, ethics, authority, and personal value.

Uneasily, we apply bits of all these stories about “self” in different circumstances. We might study one theory or many in detail, trying to make sense of our selves. Mostly, though, we try not to think to much about questions of self; it is anxiety-provoking, and experience shows it usually doesn’t lead anywhere useful.

Confused stances rest on an unnoticed, mistaken metaphysical assumption: that “the self,” if any, must be a durable, separate, continuous, well-defined thing. Then these stances claim that there is such a thing (but maybe you have the wrong sort); or that there isn’t one (and you are stupid and doomed if you disagree); or that there ought to be one (so you need to create or find it); or that there ought not to be one (so you need to get rid of yours).

“Self” contrasts with “other”; between them, there must be a boundary. The last chapter explained how boundaries are always nebulous: vague, changeable, and purpose-dependent. This is especially true of the self/other boundary. Where we draw it varies according to what we are doing—and rightly so. The same applies to boundaries between different parts of the self (insofar as it is meaningful to speak of “parts of the self” at all).

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General explanation: Meaningness is a hypertext book. Start with an appetizer, or the table of contents. Its “metablog” includes additional essays, not part the book.

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