Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Monothetic and Synthetic Thinking

Recently, I read an essay by Wendell Berry entitled "The Two Minds" (in The Citizenship Papers, Counterpoint Publishers, 2004). In it, he describes two mindsets that exist in our world: the Rational Mind and the Sympathetic Mind. I won't rehearse the entirety of his argument here, but he essentially says two things:  First, the Rational Mind tries to break things down to simple problems and provides simple solutions that are widely applicable—and I think he means "simple" as "not many sided" more than "simplistic" or "facile." The Sympathetic Mind, on the other hand, recognizes complexity of systems in a particular place, and considers solutions that account for this complexity in that place, but which may not work elsewhere. The second thing he says is this: the Rational Mind is the dominant mind of politicians, businesspeople, and academics; the Sympathetic Mind is most fully realized in farmers and participants in local, regional economies.

The essay is, not unexpectedly, both jarring and encouraging. Berry characteristically points out many of the ways in which our culture continues hurtling toward its own demise, all for the sake of money or comfort or any other vice you can name. More importantly, he shows how the intellectual and social leaders of our society—and I, like Berry, am primarily talking about American society—continue to undermine the fabric and well-being of that society through their complicity in propagating the Rational Mind and its ill effects.

It should be clear that I have a great deal of respect for Berry. I take issue, however, with his choice of terms for the binary pair. While I certainly agree that rationality alone can't and won't adequately address problems either at a global or local scale, it is also true that sympathetic thinking can't tackle the issues, even at a local scale, without the aid of reason. In other words, we need a sympathetic rationality.

Let me step back a minute, though, and offer an alternative to Berry's terms (after the jump).

He criticizes (rightly) the Rational Mind for focusing too narrowly on simple problems and solutions. In this way, he resonates with Michael Pollan's argument against "nutritionism" in American diets (that we've focused not on eating right foods, but on absorbing or avoiding certain nutrients—an approach that ignores the interrelationship of nutrients in the diet, among other things). As an academic myself, and living amongst academics, I see this narrow, rational, and disconnected approach far too often. The opposite of this, however, will not get us anywhere better. In fact, the opposite of broad, emotional, and enmeshed leaves us with an unreflecting society that errs on breadth over against depth. It sees everything at once, never making connections between things. (After all, isn't that the job of scholars and politicians?)

The alternative to Berry's dialectic that I propose is the Monothetic and Synthetic Minds. "Monothetic" is a word I've made up, but which fits Berry's description. It's derived from Greek: "mono-" meaning "only, one", and "thetic" from "thesis, a statement or proposition" (from "theomai," "to see"). The Monothetic Mind sees only one thing at a time, whether that's an isolated nutritionary molecule, a single cause of greenhouse gasses, or a lone historical figure. This Mind has a helpful purpose, to explore more fully specific elements of our universe. Yet it cannot provide us with the answers required for solving our problems, and in no way is it adequate for offering solutions to problems we didn't know we had!

It's alternative is the Synthetic Mind. Now, I don't mean a mind that is fabricated or made by some factory, such as a synthetic material. I mean "Synthetic" in it's purest sense: "syn-" meaning "with" and "thetic," again, from "thesis." Another way to put it: the Synthetic Mind utilizes synthesis to think about the world, i.e., it brings things together and makes new things. It sees multiple things at once, and sees how they are related. It combines a depth of understanding about individual things with a breadth of awareness about how those things are interrelated. It recognizes, for example, that the causes of joblessness in America are related to an economy that produces primarily intangible goods (e.g., financial services) and relishes in consuming manufactured goods at the cheapest rates, i.e., those imported from countries with a lower standard of living. (Contrasted with the Monothetic assertion: "We need to create jobs now." This fundamentally ignores the way our society has come to function, and disregards the need for systemic change at the infrastructure level.)

This contrast, between the Monothetic and Synthetic Minds accomplishes, I think, what Berry is after. We've had enough of politicians, academics, and corporations pushing single-minded solutions down our throats. They simply aren't working, and are only further contributing to the disintegration of our society and environment. We've also had enough of people who are driven only by emotion and impulse, for "care" for the environment without any understanding of its systems and needs. What we need, I think, is to develop more Synthetic Minds: people with depth of understanding in many areas of life, who can see complex relationships between otherwise disconnected fields of knowledge. 

What's more, the Synthetic Mind does not exist within a single person; it comes about when a number of people, each with particular expertise and concerns, come together to discuss issues from a variety of perspectives. This will lead, of course, to occasional conflicts, but that is a reality when dealing with truly complex problems. And, finally, it does not (and cannot) ignore the role of care and compassion as part of what it means to be human. The Synthetic Mind, capable of understanding diverse issues and concerns, is necessarily compassionate, since the same capacity for respecting different fields of study manifests itself also in the capacity to respect and care for a variety of individuals and species. The Synthetic Mind, after all, reflects the same kind of coordination that occurs in nature, which contributes to the ongoing flourishing and health of all things.

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