In my view, one of the most important, and often unrecognized, distinctions philosophy is between compromise and synthesis. A compromise merely finds a middle ground between two other positions; it can easily be a bad middle ground, one that takes the worst from each of the two extremes. But a synthesis, by definition, takes the best. I’d like to take the next couple weeks clarifying how synthesis is possible.
Compromise is not necessarily bad. It is essential in practical politics – in attempting to achieve positive outcomes when genuine agreement is not possible. But, I would argue, it has no role to play in philosophy, where the goal is truth.
By contrast, I find synthesis crucial to the work of cross-cultural philosophy. There are countless philosophical positions that have been taken, and contrary to perennialist views, they do not all agree. There are many perennial questions that recur throughout the history of human thought. But not only do humans continue to produce different answers to them, those different answers each get revered and enshrined. The immortal soul so essential to Christianity is denied by the Buddhists. I have always been struck by the truths to be found in radically different traditions.
But truth cannot contradict truth. If there is truth to be found everywhere – a controversial premise, I admit – then I submit that some sort of synthesis is necessary. And how may we go about finding it? As far as I can tell, the appropriate method to find synthesis is dialectic. Dialectic is an approach that allows us to find the truth in two seemingly contradictory views – and that is what makes for a synthesis.
Looking back on my previous posts about dialectic, I don’t think I have expressed my thoughts very clearly – no doubt in part because the thoughts themselves have not yet been very clear. Perhaps they still aren’t, as the topic is so difficult, but I’m hoping to make more progress toward clarity.
What dialectic does is often expressed with Hegel’s German term aufheben or Aufhebung, which is difficult to translate. It’s sometimes rendered with the awkward and opaque word “sublate”; a better one-word translation is “supersede”. I think Ken Wilber does a particularly good job of catching its nuances, though, when he frequently uses the phrase transcend and include. To transcend and include is what one needs to do with the different and opposing philosophical positions that one may encounter.
Transcending and including is a double movement, one that pulls in two complementary directions simultaneously but necessarily. When you are engaged with an opposing philosophical viewpoint, to transcend that viewpoint means to identify what’s wrong with its conclusion – and thereby include what’s right in your own position. To include means to identify what’s right in its premises or assumptions – which, in turn, is likely to help you transcend what’s wrong in your own position.
It is for this latter reason that it’s so important in philosophy to look for coherent authorship. What seems absurd to you, certainly in the work of a major or important thinker but perhaps even in the ideas of someone you speak to on the street, is still there for a reason, and what makes that position seem absurd (as opposed to merely wrong) is that you don’t know what that reason is. But the person you’re reading or speaking to may not know it either; it’s an assumption, and one that may well be unthought and unsaid. What’s obviously false to you may be obviously true to the person you’re reading or speaking to, and need no justification in their eyes. It’s when you figure out why it needs no justification to them that you’re likeliest to find the truth in their position, which needs to be included in yours even as you transcend what is false.
More on this topic next week.