The Big Picture

the big picture
The Blue Marble.
NASA photo from Apollo 17 in 1972.

This morning at brunch, Jerry asked me what I thought were the big philosophic problems of our time. What are the great questions and concerns? I had to take a few moments to squint at the sky and describe whatever first came to mind. (Brunch is a fun time for us.)

So far as I can see, I said to Jerry, the biggest questions fall into two distinct regions of experience: 

nature and history.

Where nature is concerned, here are some of the questions: how rightly to live in nature, preserving (and not ruining) her realm; how to comport oneself as a member of the natural order; how to be (as far as possible) healthy; how to plumb her secret springs, i.e., find out her ways and laws. The great systems of philosophy have in the past piggy-backed on the best natural sciences available. The 17th-century’s famous “quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns” reflected philosophy’s struggle to absorb the Copernican/Keplerian/Galilean findings in physics and yet try to rebuild the world in terms still meaningful to human beings. For Kepler, “God speaks the language of mathematics.” For Aristotle, whose account of nature best represented “the Ancients,” the natural order contained a hierarchy of purposes, into which we human beings, with our purposes, could be fitted quite smoothly. If you took the Aristotelian hierarchy one step higher, as for example Dante did, the natural and supernatural layers clicked into their respective places harmoniously.

Modernity is about three centuries old. It’s been a huge wrench, a backache for our species. Human beings have been trying to find the right chiropractic ever since. Its questions are still with us. Does teleology, the language of purpose, reassert itself at the most elementary physical level, where the littlest particles become definite things — depending on whether or not they are observed? Does the purposive mind return after all — to play an unexpected part in the career of these infinitesimal particles – which the moderns have (typically, up till now) conceived as mindless? And, by the way, what part do spontaneous remissions play in the modern understanding of disease? I try to stay away from doctors, because I don’t want my body acting out their horrible, supposedly-neutral predictions based on the probabilities!

We look to the East for systems of understanding that foreground proper comportment in a social order stabilized by its accommodation to nature. Would Confucianism be such a system? Or can nature itself provide methods that effect a transcendence of the natural and the social orders? Would Advaita Vedanta, or Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras show the way to that kind of transcendence of nature through nature?

Now that our planet is getting smaller, allowing members of one culture access to the theories and practices of other cultures, there is excitement compressed in the contemporary questions about how to live naturally. 

Answers and methods are on offer.  

We can but try.

The second face that reality turns toward us nowadays — the other big question it poses is — how to live in history. According to Eric Voegelin, a thinker of continuing international influence who was concerned with the meaning of history, this question is not as old as the previous one. It makes its appearance only three or four thousand years ago. The people of Israel were the ones who first explored it. What did they see? They saw the divine component at work and making a difference — not just in nature — but on the timeline linking the human past to the human future. 

For the people of Israel, the divine is not just a force in nature. It expects things of us, orders us to live a certain way, gives commands (ten big ones), orders us to remember and record the story of our interactions with the divine in real time, real space and real human cultures. The story goes forward step by step, one foot in front of the other, at times under the leadership of individuals who can hear the commands better than other people can.

So where are we now, we earnest seekers for truth, with respect to the original challenge of history? It seems that, for better or worse, we still live in “interesting times.” Unfortunately, the intrinsic interest of our times has been obscured by certain views that have been in fashion for at least the past hundred years.

If you combine the ingredients of Charles Darwin, Frederick Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud, you’ve got the recipe for obscuring history. How? Via a doctrine or hypothesis that assigns the major human purposes to the Unconscious! Here’s how it works: I tell you that I want to get from point A to point B. I tell you that this is my purpose. If you read the fashionable post-Freudian, post-modern opinion-shapers, you will tell me that I can’t know that this is what I really want. You tell me that my professed purposes merely veil unconscious ones that might well horrify me if only I could see them clear.

How do I respond? Well, since I’m a pretty brave soul, I answer that I’d like to see my real purposes, ugly or not. Ah, you tell me, quickly and condescendingly, that I never can! You and your insider friends, who possess the correct theory — which they get partly from Darwin, Nietzsche and Freud, but have updated with Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937, Italian communist who died in prison but whose Prison Notebooks everybody who is anybody is now reading), Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Jean Francois Leotard, Jacques Derrida et al — these guys can decode your Unconscious for you. And if they, or we who are justified by them, find some really filthy stuff inside your Unconscious — whose presence you’ve betrayed inadvertently — we can deconstruct and then reconstruct you on our terms.

Since you never knew who or what you represented in the power struggles of history, nor what moved you to think and act as you did before we took you apart and put you back together again on our terms, you are in no position to present yourself as the bearer of “rights.” Rights belong to inviolable individuals.

That sure ain’t you. 

If that’s the veil, the needless obscuring, of history, what must happen before we can recover our place in history and the actual problems to be discerned there? How do we get back to real history? What’s really in the way?

Well, first of all, these people don’t believe what they say. They go to the dentist when their teeth hurt. They jump out of the way of speeding motor cars. They save their money and look for bargains, just like real people.

In that case, why do they talk the way they do? Like members of a massive revolutionary movement with code words to which they alone are privy?

Let’s ask that question another way. What would it cost them to drop all this rank-pulling? Especially since it’s not clear that they actually outrank anybody I happen to know personally?

Ah, glad you asked. If you drop all this hocus pocus about the Unconscious, you will be left to face the real contours of history. That’ll be interesting, but of course difficult.

This stuff with the Unconscious is a handy way   

to postpone the hour

of that reunion

with real life.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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