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On Insight and its Significance for Science, Education and Values


by David Bohm - 1979

The author begins by considering how insight takes place within the discipline of scientific research with which he is the most familiar. He then discusses the relationship of insight to reason, and from there goes on to more general areas, first to that of education, and then to the whole question of values, which is so important for the overall order of our lives. In all of this we shall see the ultimate inadequacy of the attempt to proceed solely from the necessarily limited field of the known, and we shall indicate the sort of insight that is needed to go beyond such limitation.

The major part of our systematic thinking consists generally of an attempt to solve problems. Such an attempt arises when something has happened that cannot properly be dealt with by means of the knowledge and thought that are ready to hand. One may begin by searching one's memory to see if an answer can be found there. If not, one may ask someone else if he knows the answer or else one may engage in a search of the relevant literature. If this does not work, one may try through reasoning to "figure out" an answer, by drawing conclusions logically from what is already known. And if none of this works, one's mind is still in a state of readiness, waiting for an answer, perhaps suggested by an intuitive intimation of knowledge that is "unconscious," or by a happy chance combination of ideas that have been buried in the background of one's mind.

Although this whole process is evidently both necessary and useful, indeed indispensable, for any sort of practical activity, there is an important respect in which it is inadequate for meeting the challenge of life as a whole. For however far it goes, it cannot get beyond the field of all that happens to be known at a given moment, along with what can be developed from this field by principles and methods that are already known, as well as with what may be implied and intimated in a looser and more general way. From time to time, however, challenges arise that require a creative and original response, going beyond the entire field of the known. One who is incapable of meeting this challenge will be like a person who is tethered to a fence post by a rope. He will think he is free to go as far as may be necessary in any given situation, but when he tries, he eventually feels the jerk of the rope and can go no further.

What is it that is required to be free of the limitations of the field of the known? In this article, I shall propose that what is needed is a certain insight, which is (as the word indicates) inward perception. As outward perception (i.e., through the senses) may bring us into contact with new kinds of actual facts that have never been known before, so inward perception (i.e., through the mind as a whole) may bring us into contact with new forms and areas of reason that have never been known before.

In this article, we shall begin by considering bow insight takes place within the discipline of scientific research with which I am the most familiar. We shall then discuss the relationship of insight to reason, and from there go on to more general areas, first to that of education, and then to the whole question of values, which is so important for the overall order of our lives. In all of this we shall see the ultimate inadequacy of the attempt to proceed solely from the necessarily limited field of the known, and we shall indicate the sort of insight that is needed to go beyond such limitation.

INSIGHT IN SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH

One of the clearest ways to see what insight means is to look at those scientific theories that aim to provide universal laws that would be of fundamental significance for the totality of matter, independently of the conditions of time and space. As far as we know, the notion that theories of this kind could be proposed and discussed freely began with the ancient Greeks. (Before that, such theories had generally been incorporated into systems of religious beliefs, so that there were strong psychological and social pressures that interfered with this sort of freedom.) And indeed, as is well known, Greek philosophers proposed and discussed with great passion a wide range of fundamental, universal theories, including, for example, the notion that all is fire, all is water, all is air in various degrees of condensation, and so forth.

In these discussions, there emerged a certain basic notion of universal order, which turned out to be important for later developments because it was carried along by the Scholastics to the beginnings of the modern era. This is that between earth and the heavens there is an order of in-creasing perfection (going on up through the seven crystal spheres). The perfection of celestial matter was supposed to express itself through mo-tion in the most perfect and beautiful of orbits, which was considered to be that of a circle. By contrast, the imperfection of earthly matter expressed itself in the complicated disorderly and ugly motions that so fre- quently take place in this lowest of spheres.

The Greeks engaged in fairly extensive astronomical observations, which led them to the discovery that the planets do not actually move in circular orbits. This did not, however, bring about the abandonment of their notion of a universal order of increasing degrees of perfection from earth to the heavens. Rather, the observed fact was accommodated by the further proposal that actual orbits consisted of a set of epicycles (i.e., circles superimposed on circles). In this way, they were able to fit the facts while in essence retaining their general notions of order.

The idea of epicycles turned out to be quite useful, both for navigational and for astrological calculations. Nevertheless, it is clear that in a deeper sense it served as a means of evading a challenge to the prevailing basic notions of order, since almost anything that might be found in astronomical observations could be made to fit by introducing a sufficiently complicated set of epicycles. Such evasion of challenges is indeed one of the principal impediments to insight (as we shall bring out in more detail throughout this article).

Now, for the ancient Greeks, reason was generally taken as the highest value. As has been seen, they did, of course, engage in a certain amount of observation. But for the most part, they tended to take such evidence of the senses as at best a kind of supplement to reason, which latter was regarded as the sole vehicle of truth. (This is perhaps in part why astronomical observations did not lead them to abandon their rationally expressed principle of universal order of degrees of perfection.) Toward the end of the Middle Ages, however, there arose a revolutionary new approach, first indicated by Roger Bacon, who suggested that observation and experience (extended later to experiment) have to be given a value at least as high as that of reason. This was, of course, the germ of the modern scientific approach, in which what is actually observed and is perceived may be taken as a fundamental challenge to ideas that have thus far appeared to be reasonable.

As this new approach began to take hold, observations and experience accumulated that implied that celestial matter is not actually fundamentally different in quality from earthly matter. Thus, Copernicus indicated that one could fit the facts in a simpler way by supposing that the sun, and not the earth, was at the center of the planetary system. Kepler showed that the actual orbits were ellipses for which the notion of the perfection of the circle had no significance. Later observations with the telescope showed that the moon had highly irregular mountains, as "imperfect" as any to be found in the earth. Also, other planets had satellites, so that the earth was not unique, not even in this regard. In short, it was implied that all matter is basically the same in nature, independent of its place relative to the earth.

By the time of Newton, such knowledge coming from observation and experience was available to the scientific community and was present as a sort of background that was perhaps hardly noticed. People were, however, generally not aware that this knowledge implied a question that constituted a fundamental challenge to the prevailing ideas about the nature of matter. It was Newton who sensed this question, and faced the challenge. How it happened is that he saw the apple falling, and asked himself, "Why doesn't the moon fall?" His answer was that the moon is falling (but that, because of its motion in a curved orbit, it is continually being accelerated in such a way that it never reaches the surface of the earth). Since all matter is basically of the same nature, it follows that each body attracts all others through a universal force of the same kind as the gravitation experienced on the surface of the earth.

The next stage in Newton's work arose out of the need to make some hypothesis as to how the gravitational force falls off with the distance. What probably happened was that he took up the already known idea that light intensity falls off as the square of the distance from the source, and extended this by analogy to the intensity of the gravitational force. By a happy coincidence, this turned out to work (i.e., to give numerically correct predictions for the orbit of the moon, and for the planets more generally). But if this hypothesis had not worked, he could have tried another, and another, until he found one that was suitable. This entire procedure of searching for a suitable hypothesis would evidently have consisted of operations within the overall field of the known, as delineated earlier in this article.

Newton's original discovery of universal gravitation was, however, not a hypothesis. Rather, it was (for Newton at that time) an inward perception, or insight. As has already been pointed out, what was generally available when Newton did his work was the fairly well confirmed idea in the background of scientific thought that celestial matter is not basically different from earthly matter. What Newton saw, in a flash, is that if this is so, then universal gravitation must follow.

Newton's ability to have such perceptions was an indication of a certain quality of genius that is not at all common. This quality involves in an essential way an intensity of interest in questioning what is commonly accepted that amounts to genuine passion. When this sort of passion is absent, the mind is working in a state of low energy in which it cannot go beyond certain habitual frames of thought, in which it feels comfortable, safe, secure, respectable. It therefore cannot properly face the challenge that requires questioning basic notions, of which it is at best only dimly conscious.

Thus, in Newton's time, though it was commonly known by scientists that celestial and earthly matter are basically similar, the general mode of thought was to put this into one compartment, which was not allowed to disturb another compartment. In this other compartment was the idea that there is really no problem, and that, in fact, the moon does not fall because, of course, its celestial nature makes it stay in the heavens where it belongs.

Such rigid compartmentalization is, like carrying adaptation of existing ideas too far, another way of evading fundamental challenges. It was the intense energy and passion in Newton's inquiry that dissolved these compartments and opened the way for his new discovery. What is being proposed here is that the germ of insight is this energy, which in effect perceives the subtle and yet powerful forces in the mind-emotional, social, and still others that are beyond description- that hold it in rigid compartmentalization of functions and ideas.

This perception is essentially of a nature that cannot be put into words. But when it happens, reason is then free to move in appropriate ways, to lead to new notions. Thus, once Newton was free of the prevailing, largely unconscious compartmentalization of earthly and heavenly matter, it was just good reasoning to say that if all matter is the same, the moon must be falling. Many scientists of his time were as good at such reasoning as Newton was, but few had that quality of passion which makes possible an act of creative and fresh insight.

The theoretical ideas flowing out of Newton's many insights (of which the notion of universal gravitation was only one) continued to dominate physics until early in the twentieth century. Einstein brought about the first set of fundamental challenges to these ideas. Even when he was only fifteen years old, be was already asking himself the question: "What would happen if an observer were moving at the speed of light, and he tried to look at himself in a mirror?" It is clear that the light would never leave his face, so that he would see nothing.

The deeper meaning of this question can only be appreciated when we consider a certain Newtonian conception prevailing at that time, which was that any velocity, however great, can in principle be reached, and in-deed overtaken, by a material object if it is given enough acceleration. For example, it is now common experience that an airplane can catch up with and overtake the speed of sound. It was implied in Einstein's question, however, that there was an essential difference between the speed of light and any other speed (such as that of sound). For if we were to reach the speed of light, some of the basic relationships common to all matter would cease to make sense.

One can bring this out even more sharply by noting that all matter is assumed to consist of atoms, held together by electromagnetic forces, to make up stable arrangements that constitute large-scale bodies as we know them. If a material body were to go faster than light, the electromagnetic forces would be "left behind" as shock waves are left behind in the air when an airplane exceeds the speed of sound. And as a result, there would no longer be forces between the atoms. They would drift apart, and such a material object would simply disintegrate. Since an observer is such an object, there can be no observer who exceeds (or even reaches) the speed of light.

So Einstein's question "What would happen to an observer reaching the speed of light" has a simple answer. This is that no material body can ever reach the speed of light. Rather, the latter is like a horizon that recedes indefinitely no matter how one tries to reach it. This was already the essentially new notion underlying the special theory of relativity. In the next ten years or so, Einstein worked out hypotheses that put this notion into a definite mathematical form that was indeed confirmed by experiment and observation. However, it is clear that the germ of all this was in the original insight he had at the age of fifteen.

Those who knew Einstein will agree that his work was permeated by great passion. It was the perception growing out of such passion that could dissolve mental barriers. In the case of special relativity, one of these barriers was the idea that because they had worked so well for several centuries, all of Newton's basic concepts were absolute truths that it would be pointless to question. Such an idea evidently constitutes yet another impediment to insight.

Few scientists had the energy of mind needed to question ideas with such great prestige, and, yet, Einstein did not mean to disparage Newton in doing so. Rather he said that if he saw further than Newton, it was because he stood on Newton's shoulders. Newton himself revealed a similar humility when he said that he felt like one walking on the shores of a vast ocean of truth, who had picked up a few pebbles that seemed particularly interesting. The essential point here is perhaps that the ordinary state of mind tends to be one of hubris, in which each person is inclined to think that his basic notions are some kind of final truth. This may well be one of the greatest barriers of all to insight. Only when such hubris is absent can the mind flow freely in new directions that allow reason to develop in original ways.

INSIGHT AND REASON

To sum up what has been said so far, insight is an act, permeated by intense passion, that makes possible great clarity in the sense that it perceives and dissolves subtle but strong emotional, social, linguistic, and intellectual pressures tending to hold the mind in rigid grooves and fixed compartments, in which fundamental challenges are avoided. From this germ can unfold a further perception that is not contained in the entire previously existent field of the known, within the structure of which such grooves and compartments had hitherto been an inseparable constituent for all those who had been working in the field. This perception includes new orders and forms of reason that are expressed in the medium of thought and language.

Let us now go on to discuss further what the essential nature of this unfoldment is.

First, it is often useful to go to the roots of words, which may show a deeper and more universal meaning that has been lost in the routine usage of the word that has developed out of tradition and habit. The word reason is based on the Latin ratio, which in turn comes from ratus, the past participle of reri, meaning "to think." This has been further traced back, though somewhat speculatively, to Latin, Greek, and Indo-European roots meaning "to fit in a harmonious way." With all these pro-posed meanings in mind, let us consider the word "ratio." Of course, one may have a numerical ratio or proportion expressed as

A = C
B D
And it was quite common in ancient times to relate harmony, order, and beauty to such ratios (e.g., in music and in art). But ratio actually has a much more general qualitative meaning, which can be put as: A is related to B as C is related to D, which can in turn be more succinctly ex-pressed as A:B::C:D.

It takes only a little reflection to see that such ratio permeates the whole of our thinking. Consider, for example, a sequence of similar objects, or points--A1, A2, A3, A4, and so forth, that are ordered along a line, or else appear in time as an order of succession. The essence of the quality of sequentiality is that each element is related to the next one as the next one is to the one that follows, and SO on. Thus we may write A1:A2::A2:A3::A3:A 4, and so forth.

But now, we can carry this notion of ratios much further. Thus, consider a different sequence, represented by B1, B2, B3, B4 and so forth. It is evident that these two sequences are basically similar, in that An:An-1::Bn:Bn-1 (where n stands for any number). Indeed, all sequences are similar in this way, and the quality of sequentiality is expressed its purest form by the sequence of the numbers (the integers), so that every sequence can faithfully and accurately be denoted by a set of numbers. Thus we have come to an example of universal ratio: that is, that ratio which expresses the essence Of any and every sequence.

The notion of sequence contains implicitly and in principle ""limited hierarchy of further development. Thus, consider any straight line, regarded as made up of a sequence of small equal segments, A1, A2,...An. Then, because it is straight, each segment is to the next as the one that follows. Or A1:A2::A2:A3::A3:A 4, and so forth. Let us denote this whole relationship or ratio by R1. Now consider another line, perpendicular to the first one, with segments, B1, B2,...Bn, whose corresponding relationships are denoted by S1. But it is clear that now any pair of perpendicular lines is related in the same way. Thus, if R2 and S2 are the respective ratios defining a second pair of perpendicular lines, it follows that R1:S1::R2:S2. And so we obtain a ratio of ratios, Or a relationship of relationships. Such a notion is capable of indefinite development and unfoldment to give rise to a vast and ever-growing harmonious and orderly totality of relationship in the form of arithmetic, algebra, and various other kinds of mathematics.

This totality of ratio is not restricted to thought and language. Thus, the ratio of sequences that is expressed above can be directly perceived by the senses, for example, in a row of objects, such as trees or houses. So ratio is a content that may pass freely from reason to the senses and back again, Indeed, ratio is to be perceived also in the emotions. Thus we may sense that a certain emotional response is, or is not, in proportion to the actual occasion that provoked it. It is thus clear that ratio in its totality (i.e.,reason) may be universal, not merely in the area of thought and language, but, more generally, in that it permeates every phase of experience.

As an example in the field of science, let us consider once again Newton's discovery of universal gravitation. The ancient Greek notion of the cosmos implied that the fundamental ratio was that between different degrees of perfection. Newton, however, perceived that the fundamental ratio was in the sequence of positions covered by a material body in successive moments of its motion, and in the strengths of the forces suffered by this body as it underwent these movements. This was stated as a law of motion. Such a law is an expression of ratio, which is considered to be both universal and necessary, in the sense that anything other than this form of ratio is not thought to be actually possible.

However, such necessity has always been found in fact to be limited, and not absolute. As indicated earlier, Einstein (and later still others) showed that some of Newton's ideas were only approximations, and that new laws were needed, containing those of Newton as simplifications, as special and limiting cases. Thus, whereas Newton had, for example, considered space and time to be separate, each independent of the other, Einstein introduced the notion of a fundamental ratio or relationship between space and time. (This is indeed what is meant by the term "theory of relativity.")

What is indicated by this kind of development (which has in fact occurred in all the sciences) is that there is no fixed and final form to the totality of ratio, but that it is capable of continual unfoldment. And as we have seen, the germ of this unfoldment is the act of insight, This is an overall perception that penetrates inwardly very deep, not only in the sense that it is not restricted or confined to certain fields, but also in that it permeates the very roots of consciousness and mental activity in general. This perception then branches out into various particular media, which include the senses, the emotions, and thought (i.e., the intellect). It may thus be said that reason is perception of new order of relationship in the medium of thought. But, as we have pointed out, though its conditions are determined by the medium of thought, its implications go through the other areas of experience.

As the expression of reason in thought and language is repeated, it tends to become relatively fixed in terms of what may be called "formal logic." It is this that constitutes the main core of our ordinary thinking. Such thinking is, as we have said earlier, both necessary and useful in practical life. However, it has to be noted that it also tends to combine with fixed emotional and social responses to produce rigid grooves and closed compartments, with an attendant hubris that attributes final truth to whatever may be the prevailing general notions. And thus the formal logical approach, developed into habit and routine, has generally become a major barrier to further insight.

INSIGHT AND EDUCATION

To go on with seeing some of the implications of what has thus far been developed, it will be useful first to ask what is essential to education. We shall suggest here that this is to be found by considering the deeper significance of the verb "to teach." The root of this word is in a group of Greek and Latin verbs meaning "to show." This implies that true education consists in showing the student something that he can then see for himself, or explore and discover for himself. Such an approach is, of course, not compatible with one in which the main object is to convey a certain content to the student. give him a certain set of facts and principles to learn, skills to accumulate, and so forth.

A striking example of education in the sense of showing is afforded by considering the well-known case of Helen Keller, who became blind and deaf at an early age and was thus unable, also, to develop the use of language. When her teacher Anne Sullivan first met the child, she perceived a "wild animal" who could not communicate or engage in any significant relationship with other people. However, she had a strong feeling of love for the child, and this gave her the energy and passion needed to face the apparently insurmountable difficulties of teaching someone with whom she had so little contact.

After some discouraging attempts, Anne Sullivan discovered a promising approach. She began to bring the child into touch contact with various objects, and to scratch the name of each object on the palm of her hand. As Helen Keller herself later commented, she regarded all this as a game. Through this kind of game there was established in her mind a connection between a considerable variety of objects and the patterns of scratches on the palm of her hand that were to be associated with them. Then, as she says, one morning she was put in contact with water in a glass. This was puzzling, because it was not clear whether what was meant was the solid glass or its nonsolid contents. Later, in the afternoon, she was exposed to water from the pump ( which was, of course, not solid at all). When the same name was scratched on her palm, she had a sudden flash of perception whose meaning was "everything has a name." This was the germ of a very far-reaching transformation of her whole life. For she began to learn words rapidly, and in a day or two could begin to exchange sentences with her teacher. From here on, she ceased to be a wild animal and developed rapidly into an affectionate child, with a lively intelligent mind, who was eager to learn and to communicate, and who was thus capable of close relationship with other people.

It is worthwhile to go a bit more carefully into the nature of Helen Keller's perception. If we let N1 stand for the name of a certain general class of objects O1, N2 for the class 02, and so forth, what she saw was the universal ratio N1:O1::N2:02::N3:O 3, and so forth, that is, the relationship of name to the class of objects of which it is the name as universal. Moreover, if we let N stand for the word "name," we can express a yet deeper perception implied in her statement as
N: (N1:O1::N2:O2::N3:O 3, ect.): :N1:O1::N2:O2, and so forth.
That is to say the word "name" is to the general relationship involved in naming as the name of any class of objects is to the objects in that class. But, of course, she did not know the word name at that time. It is thus evident that she must have had a nonverbal perception of the naming relationship, along with the implication that this too must have a name. So, what she saw was the germ of a vast hierarchy of universal ratio, which did indeed begin to unfold immediately and to develop very rapidly from that moment on.

A little further reflection will show that this perception could not have come from a state of low mental energy. Rather, there must have been great passion, which was capable of dissolving all the older modes of thinking built up from very early in her life. So we are justified in calling what happened an insight, in the sense in which we have been using the word. The teacher, Anne Sullivan, must likewise have had an insight to have discovered (also mainly nonverbally) the key significance for linguistic communication of the fact that each general class of objects or relationships has a name.

What happened with Helen Keller shows clearly that reason is not restricted to being a technico-practical instrument, useful mainly to order our daily activities, to organize society, and to increase the productivity of industry. Rather, it has also a much deeper and more inward significance in the sense that totalities of ratio (such as that perceived by Helen Keller in the instance cited above) permeate the whole of what we are, so thoroughly indeed that we would be hardly human without them. And here we are especially emphasizing that what plays this part is not so much the ordinary process of reasoning through formal logic, hut, much more, that perceptive reason which emerges from the great energy and passion involved in insight.

With all this in mind, let us now go on to consider education as it is generally carried out throughout the world. It requires hardly a glance to see that, with perhaps a few notable exceptions, little or no attention is given to insight in this field. Rather, what is generally regarded as most important is to have the student accumulate certain kinds of knowledge and skill that, it is hoped, will enable him to adapt to the society in which he will grow up and will perhaps be useful for that society, Few teachers are likely to have passion and insight of the kind shown by Anne Sullivan, and few pupils would be able to respond as Helen Keller did. Yet, one can see that such insight is crucial if mankind is ever to get Out of mental grooves and compartments that hold it prisoner and force it to go on repeating patterns of thought and behavior that lead to fragmentation into conflicting races, nations, classes, groups, and to the endless continuation of practices that destroy nature through overpopulation, pollution, ruthless exploitation of the environment, and so forth.

How can this challenge be met in education today? One might propose that serious attention be given to the teaching of insight in schools. But evidently, this would require that the teacher showthe student what insight is. and (as happened with Anne Sullivan) to do this is possible only when the teacher is already capable of such insight. Who is going to teach the teacher? Evidently, he has to discover for himself what insight is and how he can have it.

A good point at which we can start in doing this is to ask what the main factors tending to prevent insight are. A little reflection shows that one of these factors is that insight is generally given little value, not only in our schools, but in society as a whole. Rather, as has already been indicated, there is a very strong tendency to give the highest value not to having the student discover for himself what the teacher is showing, but rather to having the student conform to what the teacher asks of him; and this, in turn, arises because in society in general, such conformity is given a very high value while insight is either regarded as of little importance or, at best, something that might occasionally be useful if applied to the existing body of knowledge and generally accepted practices. But this attitude is in itself enough to prevent insight. For example, if Helen Keller had regarded language as nothing more than a useful adjunct to her previous more or less solitary life, this would have negated the basic significance of her insight, and, even more, would have got in the way of the dissolution of mental grooves and compartments that is the very essence of insight.

We see then that the question of values is crucial in this context. We will never give energy and passionate attention to something that has for us little or no value. Insight can come about only if insight is itself seen as having a very high value, beyond that of accumulating useful knowledge and indeed beyond that of adapting to the existing values in society. But here, of course, we have to be very careful, since a revolt or rebellion, arising out of a mere reaction against such values, has no more significance than that of the conformist attitude of accepting them. Rather, as shown in the many examples given in this paper, insight re-quires a quality of energy that can dissolve any fixed or habitually adopted set of grooves or compartments, and to do this is, of course, not compatible with jumping from one set of values to an opposing set.

INSIGHT IN SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH

It is clear from what has been said so far that we now have to go more deeply into the question of values. As a first step, let us consider the derivation of the word from the Latin root valere meaning "to be strong and vigorous" (the words "valiant" and "valor" have the same root). At this rate, to be of value is to have a certain virtue, that is, the power to do some specific thing. It is the value of a thing or an idea that makes it desirable or useful to us and that can give rise to an urgent demand for us to have it or to realize it. As indicated earlier, we have little care for an interest in something that we regard as having no great value. People can love only whatever is dear to them (i.e., of very high value), and only what is felt to be of high value can give rise to the energy of passion.

Clearly, then, our values permeate the whole of OUT existence and are a major factor in determining what sort of human beings we are and how we will behave. It is particularly important in this connection to notice what actually happens when we make value judgments. In effect, these are conclusions concerning what is and what is not of value, and such conclusions are, of course, imprinted in memory as presuppositions. We then act immediately from this kind of presupposition, generally with little or no conscious awareness that this is what is actually happening.

Presuppositions are indeed common in every phase of life, and are not restricted to being the results of value judgments. For example, if we are walking on a level path, the conclusion that it is level becomes a largely unconscious presupposition, determining how the various functions of the whole body are "set" so as to respond to what is assumed to be a "level path." But if one suddenly encounters an unseen pothole, the body is not properly disposed to meet it, so that one trips. Similarly, conclusions concerning values can be fixed, often very early in life, and these become presuppositions from which we unconsciously "evaluate" each new situation. Quite often, these fixed values turn out to be inappropriate, and our response to new situations is then disorganized and confused (i.e., our "wrong" values can be said to "trip us up"). Unfortunately, it is much harder to be aware of such inappropriate values than it is to be aware of holes in the road. Indeed, we tend to avoid such awareness by blaming our confused response on something else that can be seen, rather than on presuppositions concerning values, of which we have little or no consciousness.

By the time a person has grown up he has absorbed from parents, friends, school, and society in general an enormous range of such presuppositions about values. And when he sees evidence of something wrong with these values, he tends to adopt instead an opposing set of value judgments, leading to contrary presuppositions. implying the need to struggle against the first set. But, of course, these are not basically different in nature from those that he wants to give up. Both are inadequate in that they are too fixed and static and cannot respond properly to the ever new and changing reality in which each person finds himself from moment to moment.

It takes only a glance to see how pervasive such systems of presuppositions concerning values actually are. For example, it is (and has always been) common to value material security and comfort very highly. Along with this goes a tendency to give very high value to the need to be thought well of by others and to conform to what they expect of one's behavior and general responses. And, indeed, such values do have their place, at least up to a point. The trouble is that we tend to give disproportionately high value to these requirements, in the sense that we often act as if we believe that they should always prevail, no matter what happens. In short, these values have generally become largely unconscious presuppositions from which we are inclined to react almost automatically and mechanically.

Seeing that these kinds of material and social values have widely led to confusion, chaos, and even to disaster, many have concluded in favor of an opposing set of values, which always puts principles first, gives supreme importance to spiritual factors, and rates one's own personal convictions as generally having priority over the consensus of society. But, of course, these values are as fixed, as mechanical and unintelligent, as are those to which they are opposed. This has indeed long been well known, as indicated by the common notion that carrying the "good" to extremes will lead ultimately to the same end as will the "evil" that one is opposing.

How can we then determine an appropriate set of values? This is perhaps a bit like Einstein's question: "What would happen if we reached the speed of light?" Einstein's answer was that matter could never actually reach the speed of light. Our answer here is that there is no way once and for all to determine an appropriate set of values. Any fixed conclusions concerning values leads to a corresponding presupposition from which confused action will in general eventually flow. What is needed is an intelligent perception, from moment to moment, of what the right values are for the actual situation at that moment. That is to say, we have to be sufficiently free of attachment to past conclusions so that we are able to see each thing, each idea, each emotional response, each action, each relationship, at its proper value, without any persistent tendency toward bias and distortion (recalling also that the value of something is its strength as virtue, i.e., what it is actually good for, both in itself and in relationship to everything else). If we can do this, then our action may be orderly, harmonious, and generally appropriate. But, as has been indicated above, if our values are so fixed that they cannot change fundamentally, this will be impossible.

We cannot, however, allow the matter to rest at this point. For if we stop here, there will be a genuine danger of just trying to let our values "float freely," and the likely eventual result would be a complete breakdown of private morality and public order. The reason for this is basically that nothing that has been said or done thus far has been sufficient to bring about a significant change in our general conditioning to an overall set of conclusions and presuppositions concerning values. These will therefore continue to act habitually and automatically, and since they are often incompatibly different for different individuals and different groups, as well as within each individual, there is bound to be a general conflict of basic values, leading eventually to violence and destruction. Indeed, the widespread tendency to try to fix values common to all is in essence an attempt to avoid such conflict, which is, however, as we have seen, almost certain to fail because fixed values cannot intelligently meet new situations that are always arising.

Here it is important to emphasize that conclusions and presuppositions about values are not just intellectual activities. Rather, what we value is what we desire, what we regard as necessary, what we feel we need urgently, what we will to do, and so forth, and, as has already been indicated, from the presuppositions underlying all these responses there generally arises immediate activity, without an opportunity to reflect, to weigh, or to ponder on the appropriateness of what is happening. (E.g., consider prejudice, which is in essence a prejudgment of low value for particular groups of human beings.) Such unintelligent reactions are in-deed the basic root of our motives, which mechanically arouse desire and incite the will toward certain ends that are felt to be of very high value. And what is particularly confusing is that we are usually not even aware that this is happening, but are inclined to believe that we have "voluntarily chosen" to do what our conditioned values have actually compelled us to do. Because of such strong reactions, intelligent perception of what is actually valuable in a given situation is seriously impeded and becomes very difficult.

What then is to be done? A helpful clue can be obtained by noting that the presuppositions about values act in a way that is basically similar to that of the emotional, social, linguistic, and intellectual pressures, tending to hold the mind in rigid grooves and compartments, which, as we have seen, prevent new discoveries in science and in other fields, Indeed, as a little reflection shows, these pressures are themselves the outcome of fixed values that have ceased to be appropriate (e.g., the extremely high value generally given to other people's opinion of one's work, etc.). ft seems reasonable, then, to consider the proposal that to clear up our general confusion about values we need here the same quality of insight that has been able (for example, in scientific research and in Helen Keller's discovery of language) to dissolve rigid grooving and compartmentalization of the mind. This will allow reason to flow freely in new ways, so that it can give rise continually to fresh perceptions concerning value.

To bring such insight to bear on our whole system of values, which tend to dominate US both individually and socially, is no easy task. Indeed, it requires an energy, a passion, a seriousness, beyond even that needed to make creative and original discoveries in science, in art, or in other such fields. One may readily feel daunted by the prospect of so difficult an undertaking. Yet it is clear that unless mankind begins to engage in this work, very little that anyone does can have any real meaning, at least not in the long run. Perhaps, then, some who perceive the very high value of insight, particularly into what is tending to interfere with clarity in all our values will feel a sufficient sense of urgency to begin to inquire in a creative and original way into those subtle pressures that trap us in our fixed systems of values.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 80 Number 3, 1979, p. 403-418
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1065, Date Accessed: 10/17/2021 9:34:53 AM

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