In virtually every major field of thought today, Westerners are advocating conflicting paradigms concerning change. In some areas, there is a dogmatic insistence on infinite fluidity. In other areas, there is an equally dogmatic insistence on inflexible fixity. This indicates that we moderns have not thought much about change at all.
All of Western philosophy—all of world philosophy, for that matter—can be reduced to one problem: change. The Eleatics, such as Parmenides and Zeno, and the Platonists, the Aristotelians, the Pythagoreans, the Augustinians, the Thomists, the Nominalists, the Cartesians, the Kantians, and the Phenomenologists after them, have all grappled with the confounding impermanence of the world around.
The mind needs order, which amounts to continuity. But the universe keeps changing even as we try to describe it. Philosophers want to figure out how one becomes many, how many can still be one. What throws these speculations for a loop is that everything is always in flux. The Ship of Theseus, the river of Heraclitus. Don’t blink because, whatever it is, you’ll miss it.
Buddhists focus on impermanence, too, for a very good reason: It’s everywhere. Anyone who sits down and starts to think seriously about reality will have to confront head-on the problem of change. This honest facing-up to the problem marks mature philosophies everywhere.
I am not here to adjudicate which philosophers, if any, found the right answers to the question. My message is simply that, over millennia and in places as different as Arabia, Africa, the Mayan world, East Asia, and the Indian subcontinent, to name just a few, thinkers have had to think through lability. It’s the basic fact of human life.
What strikes me on this perhaps grossly over-simplified glossing of world philosophical history is how poorly our own age and place has taken on the perennial challenge of making sense of change. A confusion bordering on the schizophrenic marks so much of our modern Western engagement with the world and the people who inhabit it. In virtually every major field of thought today, Westerners are insisting on clearly conflicting paradigms concerning change. In some areas, there is a dogmatic insistence on infinite fluidity. In other areas, there is an equally dogmatic insistence on inflexible fixity. This indicates that we moderns have not really thought much about change at all. If anything, we’ve given up trying to understand it. Instead, we have taken to issuing fiats to the cosmos and to human nature, a list of demands that these things stop changing and these other things change without end.
Take the climate, for example. The phrase “climate change” or one of its variants has become perhaps the most ubiquitous term in every major language in the world. People from China to Peru are talking about climate change. The tone has shifted these past few decades from interest to concern, and then from there to alarm, and finally now to despair. Today the discourse surrounding climate change is tinged with bitter recrimination. We did too little, and now it’s too late. If only the obfuscators had been rebutted sooner. And if only the scientists had clamored more. The climate is changing, we are told, but the enthymeme of the complaint is that the climate should not change. We desperately want to stop it from changing. It is as though the puny human race were being mocked by the big old sky, by the atmosphere above us heating up despite our best efforts to make it stop.
But at the same time there are the transhumanists. Transhumanism is a movement which seeks to go beyond the confines of the human person. Some transhumanists seek a “singularity” between mind and machine. Others want to overturn the anthropocentrism of our kind and turn the world over to the birds and the fishes and the creatures walking and slithering across the ground. This is really a kind of boutique Darwinism, if you think about it. It’s a tacit acknowledgement that natural selection is the mechanism of evolution, but also a tacit wish that natural selection will work to edit us polluting and consuming humans out of the natural world and restore the Edenic pristineness that was before we homo sapiens fouled everything up.
Taken together, these two positions are an odd pair. On the one hand, the climate is changing and we want to stop it from doing so. On the other hand, humans are changing and we want to speed it up. Perhaps it makes sense when viewed from a position of radical ecology. But even then, the problem of change is not really solved, or even taken up. The combination of climate change rhetoric and transhumanist rhetoric produces, at best, an ecological Zen. What is the meaning of change on the planet when there are no people around to experience it? I confess I do not know. Maybe that’s the point. And so when you press people over the philosophy of climate and transhumanism, often the only thing that really ends up changing is the subject. Suddenly we are talking about neo-liberalism, which is posited as the dynamo of the weird climate change-transhumanism dialectic. It’s all sixes and sevens to me.
Sex and gender are seemingly at odds, too. The transgender juggernaut which has been building this past ten years or so is, at root, a function of the irresolvable tension between gender and sex as currently defined. You all know the Judith Butler routine: Sex is biological, gender is ideological. The two are sometimes aligned (cis-genderism), but very often not (giving us all the varieties of gender which have been dreamed up lately). We are all like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. We are ontologically split, Sybils in anguish, birds which cannot perch on either the sex or the gender limb.
What is troubling is this very indecision, the notion that we are apparently unable to decide which of the two, sex or gender, we want to follow. If we really believe that gender is fluid, as we are now told by our soi-disant elites, then sex should not matter. The spirit listeth whither it wilt. But if we really believe that sex is biological, then gender should know a physical boundary. Sex and gender would not be divorceable under this dispensation. Either you’re a man or a woman, and that’s about it.
People have tried every way they know how to make the two halves of the equation line up, but mostly what’s been produced is human misery and suffering. There are hormone treatments for children, for example, which try to force a sex to match a gender. There are even more extreme operations when the hormones don’t work. But isn’t this really all a silent, screaming affirmation that we don’t know how to understand the body and its changes, or the mind and its varying ideas? We pit, in a Dantean way, one lost crew against the other—“Why do you waste?” “Why do you hoard?”—but this battle rages within a single human person, and the dissonance of un-overcome change produces tidal forces which psychologically tear that person apart. Maybe we don’t quite have change figured out as well as we thought we did.
One could multiply examples of this tension between fluidity and fixity ad libitum. I remember a conversation I once had with an historian who, a la Hayden White, informed me that history was a house that we build from our minds, with but a passing reference to “what really happened.” I, being of the “what really happened” school, pointed out that this way of doing history sounded more like novel-writing than Thucydides, but the gulf between our approaches proved unbridgeable. He of the Solipsistic-Platonists, the Clio-Kantians, making history up from within. I of the Humble Gatherers and Scribblers Workshop, finding scraps of truth from the past and assembling them as faithfully as I can to match “what really happened” in times gone by. I think that the past does not change, and he thinks that there is no past to change in the first place. We clearly have not come to terms on the meaning of change over time.
And so on and so forth. We are told by university professors that borders are bad and that all must be welcome, but at those same universities students are increasingly segregated along every cross-section of race, class, and gender imaginable. Some things must change, others must be changeless. If someone in the future were to label our woozy age, he might say that we were living in the Time of the Moving Goalposts. Everywhere you go, nothing and everything is the same.
I would suggest that the spate of hysterics that we are now calling “cancel culture” is yet another attempt—an immature one, to be sure—to get a handle on change, to try to impose some sort of order on swirling chaos. “Racism!” is the most frequent charge of the Cancelists, but it seems to be that their cries of the heart have really nothing to do with race at all. Consider the Teen Vogue editors who engaged in an online Shootout at the Cancel Corral a few weeks ago. Editor A helped cancel Editor B, accused of being a hidebound racist, and crowed in triumph when Editor B was shown the door. Not long after that, Editor A was also exposed as a racist and duly cancelled. In the season of blanket Robespierreanism, nobody, but nobody, is pure.
There was never a sillier episode of Spy vs. Spy, but never mind. What is important I think is that the evidence for the alleged racism came from tweets from years ago. Here’s the clue. Make one tweet, and get defined by it forever. The world is awash in useless information pouring out of a billion and one social media accounts in every time zone. Everything is so in flux that we can’t even figure out which platform is which anymore. But, at the same time, we seize on one forgotten utterance from what, in Twitter Years, is the equivalent of the Dark Ages, and pin that on our quarry as though that, and that alone, were all there would ever be to say about the Horrible Racist In Our Midst. We’ve simply brought back the pillory, the old stocks in the churchyard, although now we do our public shaming with blue check marks instead of with splintery wood and primitive padlocks. We simply cannot get enough of humiliating the accused. The Scarlet Letter—that might very well have been written about America in 2021.
In truth, though, and despite our penchant for public shaming, people change. This is what is meant by the words, “I’m sorry.” I sorrow over what I did, because now I think that I should not have done it. I wish I could undo it, but I can’t. So I will try to change going forward. This is who we are as human beings. Homo sorrius. Whoops. Please give me another chance. A chance to change.
There is none of this in our modern world, though, or precious little of it. People grovel when they get canceled, beg for their jobs and their reputations. We harden our hearts as yet another deviant separates from the herd. We speak of tolerance, but what we really mean is zero tolerance. (Have you noticed, by the way, that the most ostensibly tolerant are the first to call for zero tolerance?) We speak of “living authentically,” but what that really seems to mean is conforming to whatever the majority opinion is, an opinion which, contradictorily, is both absolutely fixed—unquestionable—and also ever changing, always in need of being enthusiastically reaffirmed. Living authentically. This seems to mean, I align my will with the crowd, but at the same time everything is all about me.
Cancel culture is dominant now, but just wait. Change is the overriding force of the universe. There will come a day when people will have tired of not knowing what change is and will seek some deeper, more satisfying answer than dogmatics. That day may not be here just yet, but if the history of philosophy is any indication, it is already on its way.
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