Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Worlds in collision

Individuals are “worlds” set on what is often a collision course. In a previous post I wrote about the “diversity of individuals”, where the thought of such potential “collisions” was already latently present. In the last few days I have come across a number of things that have impressed upon me the realisation that the “diversity” in question, whether temperamental, ideological, cultural or axiological (value-related), often results in individuals — or groups of people — “colliding” in a more or less violent manner, depending on how individuals handle the differences between their own “world” and that of others.

But what does “world” mean here? Language gives one the first clue. Most people have heard the expression, “We live in different worlds”, usually intended to convey the incompatibility between one’s interests or values and those of someone else. This wisdom embedded in language is profoundly accurate. “World” does not mean the planet in a physical sense; it has to do with meanings and familiarity, contexts and extent, as is evident in the expression, “Welcome to my world”.

In the 18th century Immanuel Kant’s theory of knowledge was revolutionary, because he brought together what was valuable about the experience-oriented school of empiricism and the idea-oriented school of rationalism, demonstrating that experience or reason, taken by themselves, cannot account for knowledge, but an amalgam of the two can: reason supplies categories or concepts (the formal structure) and experience the manifold “content” of knowledge. Anything beyond this synthesis of understanding and experience (through the forms of “intuition”, space and time), could not claim the status of knowledge.

This included what Kant called “ideas”, that is, concepts without any experiential content, such as God, the world and the soul (or self). This means that, unlike perceiving a tree, or a car, and grasping these as such because of the synthesis of categories (concepts such as substance and causality) with the experiential space and time-“content” of perception, such a fusion of experience and rational understanding does not occur in the case of these three “regulative ideas”. They are “regulative” because they mark the boundaries of knowledge beyond which one cannot go.

It seems clear what Kant meant by this. One cannot experience God the way you experience a sunset, nor do you have direct experience of the soul or self, or, for that matter, of the world in its totality. People postulate the existence of God as “first cause” to put an end to causal regression (what caused what, ad infinitum); one postulates the soul or self to provide a unifying “something” to hold all one’s thoughts, experiences, feelings, etc, together (something Kant learned from Hume), and one postulates the world as the totality that encompasses all other, lesser, totalities. In other words, one cannot “know” any of these three “ideas” as legitimate objects of knowledge; they are postulated to impart some “unity” to our legitimate knowledge through their limiting function.

One might wonder how this applies to the concept of “world”. Recall that Kant called these three concepts “ideas” because they are devoid of experiential “content”. In the case of “world” one can easily test this claim by asking yourself if you can ever know “the world” directly or in its entirety. And the answer is clearly “no, you cannot”. At any given time one only knows a small portion or corner of what one supposes to be “the world” lurking behind it, but never the world as such. We just assume that it is there in the background.

In existential phenomenology one finds the suggestion that “world” amounts to this: a system of meanings, arranged in a field from near to far, with those meanings that are closest to us marking the aspects of our world that are most important and familiar to us, and those receding towards our horizon being the one’s diminishing in familiarity and importance. The metaphors of “field” and “horizon” are telling here, suggesting as they do that one can think of one’s “world” in spatial terms. This would explain why one sometimes meets people in conversation with who you get the distinct feeling that they inhabit a “different world” from the one you live in. Milan Kundera expressed this aptly in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting where he talks about some individuals being irrevocably “beyond the border” in relation to yourself.

With this sense of “world” in mind, what I mean by talking of “worlds in collision” should become clearer. One can imagine every living person embodying a “world” — a system of meanings — with the difference that a world in this sense has agency. It can initiate movement, it can act, and hence it can set out on a collision course with other “worlds” or individuals. Considering how many divergent “worlds” are represented by people today, in this postmodern, multicultural “world” that we “share” (to the degree that our personal worlds overlap), it is hardly surprising that worlds collide from time to time.

In The Clash of Civilisations (the article version of which appeared in Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993) Samuel Huntington argued that the next form of conflict in the changing global order would be cultural; that is, conflict will occur between different “civilisations”, such as, notably, between the West and Islam. Despite the fact that Huntington received all kinds of criticism for this view, there were also many who concurred with him. Contemporary developments on a global scale appear to corroborate Huntington’s diagnosis, however, and represent what is perhaps the largest instance of “worlds in collision” today, where the “worlds” in question are systems of cultural, ideological, religious and linguistic meanings shared by groups of people belonging to each distinct “civilisation”.

Just how complex the confrontation between these cultural “worlds” is today, strikes one when one reads in TIME magazine (Blowback; 7 July 2014, p. 18-22) about the many citizens of Western countries like the US, Britain and France who have joined the rebel forces in the Syrian conflict, and increasingly seem to ally themselves with Isis, the organisation intent on establishing a Muslim caliphate in greater Iraq and Syria. What is complex about this is the fact that most people in the secular West would expect such volunteer fighters to prefer the material wealth and “democratic” systems of governance of the West to an organisation that is intent on resurrecting a theocratic state under ultra-conservative sharia law. And yet, they are attracted to the latter, evidently because the “world” it represents seems to offer them something the West does not.

Recently I was in conversation with an American friend and colleague about what one might call the perceptible, if gradual, “dissolution of the social bond” in South Africa and the US, respectively. In SA it has to do with the promotion of a neoliberal economic discourse from which the majority are excluded. In the US its reasons are different, but in simple terms it concerns the irony, that a monodimensional promotion of material wealth under capitalism has an unexpected result, namely increasing disillusionment on the part of growing numbers of people (including the so-called “gutterpunks” — young people from wealthy homes who choose to live as homeless people on the streets). Instead of material wealth making their lives more meaningful, the opposite occurs.

This is not surprising if one remembers that human beings are creatures who need something to strive for, and to live for. An economic system can provide a material basis for living, but one cannot live “for” it, because it really has to do with survival, not with being the source of a meaningful life. The myth of King Midas, who got his wish, to turn everything into gold by touching it, illustrates this well through the inevitable loss of his loved ones. Small wonder that the number of “worlds” set on a collision course appear to be on the increase. And these are individuals as well as entire cultures.

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