Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Some points to ponder in Inuktitut education (part iii)

There is beauty everywhere. There is pittiarniq everywhere. The human mind is a world of words, of ideas, of that which brings and gives meaning to our lives.

There is a saying that "knowledge is power". I never really believed in it - at least not in the sense of having power over other people and things, for this type of power is mere illusion to me much like the platitude that glorifies it. If anything has "power" it is understanding and not knowledge alone. Knowledge cannot be cultivated; understanding can so be acquired. Knowledge is external; understanding, internal.

One of the ideas that concerned Socrates, and a great majority of thinkers of substance, was the distinction between the "universal" and the "particular"; well-formedness and ill-formedness; pittiarniq and pittiannginniq (ill-formedness). In short, it was the "pursuit of happiness" in the great American consitution - not the emotion but a state of being. In this sense "happiness" really is a universal.

Frederick Copleston, S.J., in his book: A History of Philosophy (Book I), says

"Some thinkers have maintained that the universal concept is purely subjective, but it is very difficult to see how we could form such universal notions, and why we should be compelled to form them, unless there was a foundation for them in fact... ...let it suffice at present to point out that the universal concept or definition presents us with something constant and abiding that stands out, through its possession of these characteristics, from the world of perishing particulars... ...we speak of things as being more or less beautiful, implying that they approach the standard of Beauty in a greater or less degree, a standard which does not vary or change like the beautiful objects of our experience, but remains constant and 'rules', as it were, all particular beautiful objects... ...Mathematicians speak of and define the line, the circle, etc. Now, the perfect line and the perfect circle are not found among the objects of our experience: there are at best only approximations to the definitions of the line or the circle".

He goes on to speak of Socrates' concern with defining and distinguishing between the "universal" and the "particular" precisely because the universal definition's importance comes into play and responds to the Sophist relativistic doctrines regarding ethics, justice, pittiarniq, and meaning to "a good life":

"...If we can at once attain to a universal definition of justice, which expresses the innermost nature of justice and holds good for all men, then we have something sure to go upon, and we can judge not only individual actions, but also the moral codes of different states, in so far as they embody or recede from the universal definition of justice". (Frederick Copleston, S.J.)

Now, some people would point out that the writers of the American Constitution were slave owners and men of higher socio-economic class with little concern for their lessers, or that Socrates existed in a world which practiced infanticide, misogyny, etc. But that is to miss the point. The point is that they spoke of these noble ideas and ideals, they dared to imagine a world greater than their own, and contributed to the discourse of human progress regardless of their relative ignorance of what that greater world entails but which nonetheless would not be possible without the ideas they spoke of.

I speak of this "universal" concept in light of the notion of "culture", specifically Inuit culture, and the notion of pittiarniq - the good, the beautiful - as a universal definition that Inuit culture can and must strive toward. It is not up to us to construct this definition, this ideal. It is a concept to found the discourse itself, to allow it to evolve and be added to by those who will come after us.

Again, Frederick Copleston, S.J.: "Plato in the Apology relates the profession of Socrates at  his trial, that he went where he could do the greatest good to anyone, seeking 'to persuade every man among you that he must look to himself, and seek virtue and wisdom before he looks to his private interests, and look to the State before he looks to the interests of the State; and that this should be the order which he observes in all his actions.' This was the mission of Socrates, which he regarded as having been imposed upon him by the god of Delphi, to stimulate men to care for their greatest possession, their soul, through the acquisition of wisdom and virtue. He was no mere pedantic logician, no mere destructive critic, but a man with a mission. If he criticised and exposed superficial views and easy-going assumptions, this was not due to a frivolous desire to display his own superior dialectic acumen, but a desire to promote the good of his interlocutors and to learn himself".

This beauty (this pittiarniq) I spoke of in the beginning of this blog entry, which I truly believe is everywhere, is not my own truism: it is an ancient wisdom that is a universal constant in all cultures and in all times in all their varieties, the mathematics of being human.

It is ineffable but can be found and known if mostly in retrospect during the discourse and discussion and inform our futures, as William S Burroughs captures so well in his own incorrigible, quirky way from his book, my education: A Book of Dreams:

"There are no innocent bystanders. What are they doing there in the first place? Like the woman who was hit and killed by a fragment from the helicopter that fell over on its side on top of the Pan Am building. Friends are urging me to use this helicopter, but I have a bad feeling about it. Hell of a location. Suppose it crashes right onto the evening rush at Grand Central Station? And I quote: 'Be not the first by whom the new is tried, nor yet the last to lay the old aside.' And sure as shit and taxes this accident happens a week later. The copter has landed and then falls onto its side and kills a nineteen-year-old youth on his way back somewhere. And a woman walking along Madison Avenue was hit and killed by a piece of the propeller.
  Rilke said: 'Give every man his own death.' This seems far as possible fom any tailor-made death. She was walking down or up Madison Avenue, after eating in a cafeteria, before eating or shopping. Works there, doesn't work there, way out of orbit there, and suddenly two pounds of metal hits her in the back of the head. What were her last thoughts? The last words in her mind? No one will ever know.
  And on my birthday, years ago in New York, someone suggested we go to the Blue Angel nightclub. I remember my first wife, Ilse, said about the proprietor: 'He is such a piece of slime.' Any case, I had a bad feeling about the Blue Angel, so we didn't go. It was about ten days later, there was a fire in the Blue Angel and something like twenty-three casualties." (William S Burroughs)


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