Vibe Shifts and Inarticulate Knowledge
A Short Reflection on Intuitive Knowledge and Decision-Making
First, a reminder that you’re invited to a Zoom event that I am hosting with Byrne Hobart this Thursday, June 9, from 6-7pm EST, on his paper ‘Manias and Mimesis: Applying René Girard’s Mimetic Theory to Financial Bubbles’. You can sign-up here. (Premium Subscribers—you will find your code at the bottom of this page, which makes your cost zero.)
Ratio and Intellectus
The podcast I recorded with Shane Parrish on The Knowledge Project is now out. We discussed the difference between various kinds of ‘knowing’ (including the concept of inarticulate, or tacit, knowledge—more on that shortly), as well as the preconditions for good decision-making—in other words, the idea that most decisions are only as good as the soil (context) out of which they grew.
There is a kind of stage-setting that needs to happen in order to maximize of our chances of making a good choice. (Anyone who has tried to kick a vice for even a day knows how true this is.)
But as we all know, not all decision-making can be done under optimal circumstances. Almost none of it, in fact. Life comes at us hard and fast. Most of us have to do the best we can to make difficult choices in the circumstances in which we find ourselves.
The military teaches shortcuts for decision-making under extremely adverse conditions to the point that they become hard-wired or instinctual. Soldiers don’t have the luxury of taking a day of silence to discern the right course of action. They must act. And to do so, they have to draw on a reserve of learning and training that has been internalized.
It’s one thing to educate the mind; another thing to train the will. And the will is where mimetic desire lives and moves.
I lament sometimes that in ‘teaching’ my students I can’t take them off-site for a day or two and actually do real training (in non-response, in affective discernment, in developing the capacity for real leisure—which, properly understood, is not a passive activity but a kind of spiritual faculty that allows one to contemplate the world while at rest….which is why so many who lack that faculty find it utterly impossible to rest, and vacations seem like palliative care rather than true renewal.) There is a physicality involved in growth, and the environment matters.
And I believe that when it comes to the will, a kind of deeply internalized tacit knowledge about what mimetic desire feels like is the only thing even remotely resembling inoculation against inadvertent infection.
What I called ‘inarticulate knowledge’ on Shane’s podcast describes the vast majority of life.
Almost everyone tells me, for instance, that they had some kind of inarticulate knowledge about ‘mimetic desire’ prior to learning about it formally. And that intuitive knowledge is where all of the pathways to deeper understanding lie.
In this article on tacit knowledge by Chandra Mukerji (UC San Diego), she writes:
Tacit knowledge, or knowledge that is inarticulate or unarticulated, lies at the heart of all cultural life, and is exercised in dull and repetitive activities that constitute the heart of daily existence. It seems without much character or importance, but this is precisely why tacit knowledge can be the unruly trickster in culture. Inarticulate actions based on tacit understandings of cultural possibilities can bypass discursive reality, trouble cultural categories and elaborate cultural imaginaries that are not captured in words. It is knowledge that is never quite enough, always addressing emergent problems that are not finally solved but worked around. We know from the social construction of reality that social actions are not set in stone and can be transformative, but we also know that thought can be constrained within regimes of discursive common sense.
She follows up with this: “Participants respond to political ideas that feel wrong or dishonest by exploring practices of participation that feel right.”
Doesn’t that sound a bit like the (over-used, but deeply relevant) term ‘vibe shift’?
People have a tacit knowledge of what other people really do or do not want, and this is where our energy is directed and where we want to move. Recognizing that tacit knowledge in ourselves—and developing a healthy awareness of (and response to) it—is what the journey entails.
I’d like to take this one step further now, though, and I’ll try to concretize it a bit.
I have had this strange feeling for quite a while that something is a little ‘off’ with the current podcasting craze (even though this feeling—this thing I believe I know—remains a kind of inarticulate knowledge. I’m still trying to put my finger on it.)
Please don’t get me wrong. I think there are some excellent podcasts, and they can serve a very valuable function for individuals and for society. But I’m more interested in the clear mimetic shift (the vibe shift, in this case) to greater orality in culture —and specifically the obsession or exclusive focus on discursive knowledge, which I believe podcasts largely represent.
The answer may have something to do with a Kantian (and also Gnostic) conception of ‘knowledge’—that is, the more difficult certain knowledge is to acquire, the more valuable we think it must then be. Scientology is practically built on this misconception, but a large proportion of our society—including many people who would laugh at Scientology—behaves as if it were true.
This explains a bit of the posturing around ‘expertise’ and the hours and hours of reading and prep that go into discussions on most of these shows. We (the listeners) are given, it seems, a kind of gratuitous gift of other people’s work or knowledge.
(This idea of equating effort with worth is also a general theme of Kantian ethics: a good act deserves more merit to the extent that it was harder to perform. Which is the exact opposite of what the Scholastics said about virtue.)
If we apply this to the world of knowledge acquisition, a similar dynamic is at play. In listening to an intellectual podcast, there is a strange dynamic between work and leisure at play.
In his masterpiece, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper reminds us that the philosophers of the Middle Ages drew an important distinction between understanding as ratio (acquired through discursive reasoning) and understanding as intellectus (acquired through seeing). He says:
Ratio is the power of discursive, logical thought, of searching and of examination, of abstraction, of definition and drawing conclusions. Intellectus, on the other hand, is the name for the understanding in so far as it is the capacity of simplex intuitus, of that simple vision to which truth offers itself like a landscape to the eye.
Ratio is uniquely human, and it is a kind of work; intellectus, on the other hand, is a kind of supernatural participation in a higher order, more proper to meditation or prayer. It is the kind of ‘knowing’ that comes from contemplation. Philosophers from Plato to Aquinas typically associated it with the highest form of life and the more excellent form of knowing.
The interesting thing to me about both TED Talks and podcasts (and all of the other forms of discursive ‘knowledge’ paths today, including twitter) is that they masquerade as ratio when they are very often more like entertainment, designed to 'hold people’s attention—and there is a healthy amount of rhetoric thrown in. (This was particularly apparent to me when listening to Clubhouse rooms last year.)
For listeners, these experiences can function as a kind of counterfeit contemplation—a type of passive experience that gives us the illusion that we are arriving at important truths on our own while we may have been sitting on the toilet or out for a run, uncritically receiving information as if by download.
At best, we may have come to understand something nominally—but not real-ly.
I don’t know. Perhaps that’s just the conceit of all knowledge acquisition. I enjoy the process, too.
But when all knowledge has become Content, will there be any intellectus left on earth?
I have been fascinated by the idea of an Anti-Content Experience for some time now. I didn’t arrive at the conviction that it’s important by thinking a lot about it; I arrived at the conviction by doing it.
There is some knowledge in life which starts with the simple invitation “Come and see.”