by Simon Smith
Part 5: In which Philosophical Psychology puts on a mask (kinky!) and dresses up as Cosmological Intuition (ooh, nasty!)
It is, perhaps, well-known that the derivation of the word “person” lies in the Latin persona, meaning “an actor’s mask”; a vital metaphor this: agent and alter-ego in one. The metaphysical hint is unmistakable. Oscar Wilde once quipped, give someone a mask and they reveal their true selves; and in revealing, we add, so they become. As consciousness is bodied forth by an other, so it is embodied in the “self”. Theirs is the mask we wear, the persona we appropriate and transform into a “self”, a conscious, personal reality, commissioned by the other. Thus does ‘[m]ind… everywhere flow into mind’ I learn to play my part in the dialectical exchange of perspectives on my self-enactment. Our first performance, then, is no monologue but a dialogue with the other. In such transactions are we made to be self-making.
The essence of consciousness, of “personhood”, is fragmentary; consolidated by exchanged perspectives. This is a commonplace of post-modern theories of identity as well as Farrer’s metaphysical personalism. The “unity” we call a “self” is actually a function of that primary dialectic of perspectives, the love-relationships into which we are born. In this way, those who had and held me have inexorably bound themselves, their image, into my every experience of consciousness. We are who we are by their grace and gift; wherein, St. Paul reminds us, works the grace of God. Others give us the tools with which to make or ‘mend’ ourselves (as Eugene O’Neill suggests) using that same grace as ‘glue’. They give us the language, the symbols, in which we think our thoughts and live our lives.
Such transactions are not only of philosophical psychology, however. ‘Otherness’ is a feature of cosmological schematics and social semantics. The cosmos is not made of ontologically independent units. It is primitively social or interpersonal; not just there, but given to us. And being given, it wears the mask of living process (as Whitehead and, more recently, Brian Cox analogically averred); so becomes a manifold energised by the quickening of a consciousness which constructs itself by passing itself through images of otherness.
Behind all this lurks an old Freudian tale. From deep within the fissures of fragmented psyche, comes the siren-call of cosmological metaphor; the self sings softly to itself of limitation and aspiration, of the wholeness which forever haunts its partial state. So consciousness goes in search of firmer ground, where such transcendent consummations may be found.
Ancient cosmologists wore their contingency on their sleeve so yearned to embrace The Necessary. Such speculations seemed both psychologically and metaphysically unavoidable, even undeniable; for only they could offer our ‘flickering, unstable, semi-transparent moment-to-moment “being”’ (as Sartre dubbed it) the chance to claim “real being”. So the guttering candlelight of consciousness craved the ‘solid, opaque, inert “in-themselves-ness” of things which simply are what they are’.
That too is an old story and the ending is well-known. Desperate to participate in the self-sustaining ontologicality of “real being”, those anciene métaphysique conceived consciousness as a desire for the impossible. To live such a project, cast oneself in ‘a condition of perfect stability and completion’, is what existentialists call ‘bad faith’: mauvaise foi. So the flame went out and consciousness discovered it was nothing but a shadow all along; ‘emptiness poised between two totalities’.
So much for ancient cosmologists. Modern ones have, of course, escaped the metaphysical mire in which philosophy and theology have long sought to drown one another. Striving after, not Necessary Being, but universal law, they preferred to go with their GUTs, Grand Unified Theories, that is. Such constructs are themselves reflections of a fragmentary consciousness, expressions of the self-same “aspiration-to-wholeness”; expressions which, it turns out, may also be doomed to failure.
Einstein, it seems, was right again: ‘[t]he most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible’. For the unity needed to make the cosmic manifold a manifold, and the laws according to which it operates universal, is notably absent. The sciences themselves tell us so. We should not mistake the ‘unimaginable free-for-all of numerous bits of organism, system, process’ for coherent unity or ‘world-pattern’. Not a pattern nor an organism; no more, as Farrer held against the Whiteheadians, than ‘a superorganism , nor, indeed, a totality which exists as such at all’. The universe is ‘a million million million bits of system, interacting as they can and largely with irrelevance to one another’. Faced by such mutual indifference, one might better designate those allegedly universal laws as “local customs”.
Such a universe - if it can be so called - is a most inhospitable place; no consciousness could take root there and no knowledge blossom. As go the laws so goes predictability; practically anything might happen. How, then, could we even begin to make sense of the universe when there is, to the best of our knowledge, no sense to be found there?
Sense in a senseless universe? Now that is HOT! Don’t forget to tune in next time for what very well maybe the CLIMAX of our philosophical bump ‘n’ grind. Oh yeah! We can always hope! It has to end sometime! And maybe bad faith will finally get what it deserves in…
Bad Faith, Naughty Faith!
Mirror of the Cosmos: Farrerian Reflections on Mind and Nature
 Farrer, ‘You Want to Pray?’ in A Celebration of Faith, , ed. Leslie Houlden (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1970), 143.
 King James Bible, 1 Corinthians 15:10: ‘But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.’
 Eugene O’Neill, The Great God Brown and Lazarus Laughed (London: Jonathan Cape, 1960), 101: ‘Man is born broken. He lives by mending. The grace of God is glue!’.
 Rees, M. From Here to Infinity: Scientific Horizons (London: Profile Books, 2011), 80.
 Farrer, ‘Transcendence and “Radical Theology”’ in Reflective Faith, ed. Charles Conti (London: SPCK, 1972), 173.
 Farrer, Faith and Speculation, 150.
 Farrer, ‘The Prior Actuality of God’ in Reflective Faith, ed. Charles Conti (London: SPCK, 1972), 187-8.