The Fine Grain

Thursday December 18, 2008


It’s the fine grain of things that matters; and it is this that is the easiest to overlook. Philosophical ethics often busies itself with abstractions, with thought experiments involving runaway trains and cars stuck on the tracks and organ harvesting and unspeakably evil terrorists chuckling malignly over ticking bombs ; and it may be – who knows? – that such thought experiments have some value. But it is easy, when caught up in such abstractions and fictions, to forget that ethics requires, above all else, the close practice of attention to the fleeting, the momentary. The fine grain. As Aristotle writes, whilst theoretical wisdom is concerned with moving that which is general, when it comes to practical wisdom, to the question of how we are to act in the world, how we are to navigate, that which is particular matters.

Yet having said this, we cannot just stay with the fine grain. The mind loves – and, no doubt, needs – shortcuts. The world is simply too complex, there is too much information (and there is more of it streaming in all of the time) for us to become utterly absorbed in the fine grain. I remember on a meditation retreat years back just staring at a pear in a fruit bowl, suddenly aware of the astonishing vibrancy of the green, mottled fruit, the moment-by-moment revelation of its peariness, the particularity of the pear, the endless, multiple flows of experience. Such a relationship with the world, however, is all very well when you haven’t got work to be getting on with, but given that we do have work to be getting on with, it is no way to live the entirety of one’s life… Different mental states serve different ends. If we waited until all the data was in before we decided to act, then we would wait forever, and we still would not have acted.

So we need to judge. We need to make the best of it, and to act without having all the data in. Our judgements, even though they are not absolute and have no certain grounding, help us navigate. But judgement is a curious business, and it is easy for us to fall under the spell of our judgements, believing them to have more substance than they actually do. There’s a wonderful passage in the collection of essays by Michel Foucault published under the title of Ethics which talks of judgement:

It seems that [the 19th century painter] Courbet had a friend who used to wake up in the night yelling: “I want to judge, I want to judge.” It’s amazing how people like judging. Judgement is being passed everywhere, all the time. Perhaps it’s one of the simplest things mankind has been given to do. And you know very well that the last man, when radiation has finally reduced his last enemy to ashes, will sit down behind some rickety table and begin the trial of the individual responsible. [pg. 323]

The problem is not with judgement, but with the forgetting that our judgements are provisional. It is then that judgements become dogmas, in which we forget that they are contingent and fragile, that they are not final destinations, but merely staging-posts. To recognise that our judgements are provisional in this fashion, of course, is not a kind of relativism. It is not the case that we have to choose between absolute certainty, and an anything-goes relativistic free-for-all. Between these two abstract positions there is entirety of the vast territory in which we live and act. There are, that is to say, better and worse judgements; and the worst judgements, it seems to me, are often precisely those that are underpinned by the conviction of absolute certainty. Such judgements are bad not just ethically (although they may be), but also epistemologically. They are bad because once they are made, they seduce us into the conviction that we need no more information from the world, that we can close down our senses to the world.

So we return to the fine grain, testing our judgements against, asking if they are really true, if the story that we are telling is really supported by the evidence. To renounce such stories altogether is to renounce any useful thought or action; but to forget their provisional nature is to forget the world and the evidence of the world in favour of a fiction of the world.

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#1 · Pman

19 December 2008

Excellent post!
It is amazing to see every day the incredible self serving attitude of most judgements.
I believe these are strongly linked to the general tendency of a person to take themselves too importantly and thus see their momentary conviction as the only possible truth, no matter how objectively inaccurate it may be.
That is in my eyes the most important lesson Buddhism and Meditation have to offer. The understanding of the self’s relative unimportance and the arrogance with which it normally tries to assert its will on the world around it.
Understanding and realising the difference between the “truth” in relation to the given objective arguments and the “truth” of one’s own subjective opinion, is as I believe the most important stepping stone to being successful at anything in life. And even more so in order to be succesfull in LIFE itself.

#2 · zensquared

19 December 2008

Wonderful! Asking “if the story that we are telling is really supported by the evidence.” This is especially important in light of the changing nature of everything. That is, perhaps you judged correctly at the time you made the judgment. But … now some time has passed. Is the situation still the same?

Similarly, we are always basing our judgments on our assumptions. This is necessary, for the reasons you have stated so well here. But our assumptions (especially about other people) might be completely in error!

We see a man begging on a street corner. We never know his life story. We know in general a story that brings a lot of people to his position, his situation. But what about HIM? That ONE. He is an individual, and his story just might be completely different.

#3 · Marilyn Elie

3 January 2009

I will share this with my friends and colleagues in our anti nuclear group. None of us will change our position and we will all keep working to close the reactors at Indian Point but upon reflection we may be able to do it a little more graciously and with a more open mind for dialog with those who want it relicensed. Thank you. This is a fine piece of polished writing.

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