The following paper was presented at Telos in Europe: The L’Aquila Conference, held on September 7-9, 2012, in L’Aquila, Italy.
I offer you that kernel of myself that I have saved, somehow, the central heart that deals not in words, traffics not with dreams, and is untouched by time, by joy, by adversities.
—Jorge Luis Borges
When we ask, once again, about the sense and origin of the West, we are led to a spatial relation of meaning that humans have with the world and with themselves. The essence of this act is based on the fundamental values of this era, which define the borderlines of the present’s symbolic extension: the human being, as a spatial-being, is also temporal. In fact, spatial differences are not more that multiple fields of temporal states of being. In short, what brings us together today is the polemic signification of the space-time limit of the occidental man and, as such, of the factual possibility of being in the world.
This question is, in fact, a statement. We start preliminarily considering the existence of the West. To recognize ourselves as western people implies a specific relation with the world, as well as the awareness of our condition: it is the irreducible possibility of reality´s opening before our eyes, from the particular factual disposition we live in.
In this paper, I intend to trace the origins of the West from its horizon of significance. For this purpose, I suggest a route and a horizon. First, our route will be the occidental turning point over the source of creation of meaning (understanding this meaning as reason of being), from the world toward mankind. Second, our horizon will be the eminently occidental reunion of consciousness and its creation; in other words, the self-recognition of reason in its own work: the being who is self-transformed as denial and statement of himself.
“Sculpting reality” intends to discuss and suggest the idea of an active restlessness, which acts as the specificity of the occidental man, rather than establish it definitely. “Sculpting reality” is divided accordingly to the concepts of route and horizon previously mentioned: (1) The Opening and (2) The Reflection.
1. The Opening
Where does sense come from? Can we create it, or at least modify it? The expectation grows as we observe the brutal development of our ability to transform reality. The contemporary astonishment produced by the technique may only be compared with the absolute explicative domination that historical religions have exerted over humanity. In the words of Carl Schmitt: “The spirit of technicality . . . is the conviction of an active metaphysic, with limitless power and control of man over nature, even over human physis, in an unending “regression of natural barriers,” with infinite possibilities of change and happiness of natural human existence within this world” (Schmitt, 1998: 120).
The conquest of space, the genetic manipulation and the possibility of creation of matter, radicalize the technical-scientific project of total control of reality. The human becomes the incarnation of the supreme sovereignty of fundamental creation, and casts himself as his most complete concretion. Far from any value or possible qualification of the world, this automaton rises as his self-encoder, and thus of his cosmic substance: there is a colossal internalization of human exteriority.
We could say that man has moved throughout three stages: the suffering, the knowing, and the transforming of existence. The “know thy-self” inscribed in the pronaos of the temple of Apollo at Delphi represents the revolutionary opening of the new sense that existence acquired, as well as the origin of man as the measure of all things. This period can be thought as a bridge between that of the human crash against the factum of nature and that where man creates new possibilities of existence with authentic material transgression of his limits.
The first contact with the world in our history was, undoubtedly, violent. The unleashed forces of nature subjugated life: it was the savage who was saved. Therefore, desperately carrying danger on his back, man started the survival battle. As a result, man superseded his original condition and acquired a basic knowledge of the constants of nature. Facing this being thrown into the world, the question for the principles or the arché of all things was an act of necessity for the human being.
It is not important if the arché of all things was air, fire, or water; what mattered at this stage was that the source for the explanation of becoming facts was external to man. In other words, the key to understanding the cosmic dynamics did not rely on our will as such. The sense radiated from the world toward us. Starting from this omnipotent reality and the universal laws involved, wisdom was the disclosure of cosmic order. Until the controversy of fare nomination of reality was destroyed by the Socratic tragedy.
The human nomos lost its harmony when it allowed the judgment and death of Socrates. His execution reveled that: “the common man is everyone, no matter how high or low he is situated, as long as he doesn’t gains access to the wisdom of self-consciousness” (Nicol, 1977: 394). The Socratic revolution brought to light the fundamental anomie (or normlessness) of cosmos: the political-being of man, who generates community and nomos, creates the order; the sense of the Being emanates from men through the logos.
The column of the Greek harmony was overthrown and the logos emerged as the source of the dispute. In this context we may quote the philosopher Eduardo Nicol: “The implicit fact, then, is that sense depends on ourselves: to have sense is to give sense, and this implies the possibility of more than one sense. For the Greek, the need to give sense to life, presented itself as a revelation. Suddenly he discovered that he had to live from his words. This liberation was distressing. The discovery of freedom brought the conviction that life means trouble; and the anxiety of being a free man would not be resolved, as long as individuals do not make sense with a common and unifying word: that of the wise and the poets, the one of legislators and philosophers” (Nicol, 1977: 179).
Following that, the active inquiry of comprehension and transformation of reality, acquires its occidental archetype. What started as a concern before the world became an inquietude of the thy-self, who creates and is the measure of reality. Here’s the epicenter of every transformation of life conditions, thought and significance of the West, before the opening of men as a symbol. In an unforeseen fashion, the disclosure of man before himself finally derived in the establishment of his self-idea as the origin of his transformation. The man is a being who needs to express in order to be, and the idea that he has of himself modifies, fundamentally, his existence.
Socrates disrupted the outer search for meaning and made it explode within the human being. This way, man became the beginning and the end of the polemical measure of the world, while the community of language was situated at the center of the representation of the cosmos: the dialectic was established as the declarative form of the sense of the universal order.
Summarizing, we could say that the West is singular on the centrality of its genuine concern for understanding, as an active element that transforms reality. Prometheus, who stole the fire of knowledge from the gods and delivered it to mankind, is the inaugural and mythic image with which the disclosure of our cognitive possibilities bursts on the senses. Therefore, this distinctive element of the West is the mise-en-scène of human self-creation, placing the human being as the sculptor of his own reality and conditionings: the know thyself points out the opening of the world within ourselves.
This only happens through time, which is possibility and closure. Within time, man will find his finitude and will receive the bitter courage for finding his transcendence. With agony, he will find in his temporal self-projection the overcoming of his limits: freedom. History will be the heroic deed of his freedom. For Cornelius Castoriadis: “L’histoire est essentiellement poièsis, et non pas poésie imitative, mais création et genèse ontologique dans et par le faire et le représenter/dire des hommes” (Castoriadis, 1975: 8).
The active inquiry of the western man took him from the unstoppable search for the sense of things to the self-recognition of his display on time. This great journey sets the basis of the first sciences and, above all, of a special human temper before the cosmos. We could say that this is a return to the origin but, more particularly, it is a continuous inquiry for the principles, which give content to existence, starting from the awareness of the constant relation we have with a world mediated by ourselves. In other words, every phenomenological hermeneutic must insert man as factuality and symbol, to explain a world that has become too human.
Strictu sensu, the active inquiry creates its own referents of exteriority. That such inquiry considers itself as a part of the elements that interact to create the world, is the acknowledgement that the source of sense emanates from us. Just as Hegel established: “To recognize reason as the rose in the cross of the present and to find delight in it is a rational insight which implies reconciliation with reality” (Hegel, 1986: 35).
2. The Reflection
Now, the western route of active inquiry allows us to observe on the horizon the reunion between reason and its work as an act of freedom, where this inquiry projects itself toward the realm of existence. The human inner-world, as a consequence of itself, transforms the outer world until it inhabits its own creation: culture is poiésis.
The return to the origin is an ontological affirmation. From here, western society re-codifies the existence as both affirmation and denial of itself. The other, the beyond and the impossible, are included in our meaning spectrum as the otherness that limits the idea of man in continuous construction. This cognitive borderline still contains the ontological transformation.
The techno-scientific radicalization of our times pretends to exceed our own meaning spectrum, by means of the artificial design of the physis of matter and life: it is the ab-solute creation of existence. In such a way, Heidegger’s anecdotic question about the need of men for the existence of ontology, since a new beginning is drawn for a thinking automaton free from the constraints of necessity. The present is reinforced as a transcendence act.
The traditional idea of man is a cultural production where he is reflected. These days, the difference is that man seeks to design himself artificially beyond a historical contingence. However, what kind of history could exist for a limitless being? There has been a growing divergence between the possibilities to transform reality trough technique and the auto-reflexive knowledge of man. The danger that has been unleashed by the human forces is not just the impossible unification of knowledge, but also the display of a world without necessity and self-consciousness.
In short, the cultural representation of life is dramatically destroyed by the division between the contingent existence and the artificial one: the technical reason serves the most complete possibility of being independent of the causal flow of matter. “The creation out of nothingness, breaking the ontological-temporal continuity, would be by man’s hand a creation without determinants . . . : it would be an absolute gratuitous act and, thus, absurd and senseless” (Nicol, 1997: 331).
The active inquiry rules man’s transformation it is the driving force of history. It is meaningless to judge the flow that the occidental singularity may take: it will follow its own path, as it always has. If there’s any coincidence between the predicative attribution given here to the occidental man, and that of any other culture, is because while talking about the particulars of a way of existing, all the other factual possibilities of being are also implied. This way the alert implicit in this text gains further clarity about the dangers of a rupture between the creational forces and the self-awareness capabilities.
1. In what follows, I will use the terms of “being” and “sense” as in philosophy of existence: “being” as form of existence, and “sense” as the reason for being.
Castoriadis, Cornelius. L’institution imaginaire de la société. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1975.
Hegel, G. F. Filosofía del derecho. México: Juan Pablos, 1986.
Nicol, Eduardo. La vocación humana. México: CONACULTA, 1997.
———. La idea del hombre. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1997.
Schmitt, Carl. El concepto de lo politico. Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1998.