The Fundamentals of Education

A Socratic Perspective on
the Cultivation of Humanity

by Max Maxwell and Melete

Page 33

PART III: The Fundamentals
of The Human Condition

"The bastard form of mass culture is humiliated repetition: content, ideological schema, the blurring of contradictions—these are repeated, but the superficial forms are varied: always new books, new programs, new films, news items, but always the same meaning."
                   -Roland Barthes

(NOTE: If you got here through a link from the "How to Use the Socratic Method" research summary, it is highly recommended that you read Part I of this essay to get the full semantic context on the theme of the academic study of the arts and read Part II to see how that theme is connected to Socratic dialogue in order to fully understand this section of the essay.)

What Does it Mean To be Human?
Part III of this essay will discuss what is fundamental to the human condition as relevant to living an examined life. I will describe how key dynamics in the structure of the human condition relate to the human quest for meaning and their function in the structure of Socratic dialogue. The idea for Part III came up in a conversation with Melete while I was summarizing the kinds of questions Socrates would ask. Melete has lived a richly contemplative life. She has not spent a great deal of time directly considering the structure of the Socratic method or Socratic philosophy. Yet, she able to give me the best summary of Socratic life I have ever heard. She said that "the only real goal of Socratic questions is to find out what it means to be human, then learn to do it well."

I embraced Melete's summary of Socratic life as the working platform for what follows. I propose that the Socratic philosophy of conversation as articulated in this essay and the basic structure of Socratic dialogue is fundamental to all human living, not just to education. To conceptualize the Socratic method as a technique of teaching, a style of discourse, or a philosophy of human interaction has use, but understanding its relationship to the human condition in the most fundamental sense will shed light on the importance of its centrality to successful human living and the human quest for meaning. I will illustrate how the basic structure of Socratic dialogue shares a likeness with a fundamental structure of human existence. The essential structure of Socratic dialogue is part of the human condition with or without Socrates.

First, we need to ask, "What is does it mean to be human?". This is different from asking, "What is a human?" The history of human thought is filled with attempts to describe and define objects and associations of objects. However, there are no singular objects and our habit of reducing the motions of the universe to static "things" are inadequate. Every single thing is the composite of a multiplicity and everything is always in motion. The truth is we live in a universe that is filled with constellations of verbs doing impersonations of nouns. The dynamics of movement are a useful source of understanding. It is the processes, not the imagination of objects that gives us our most insightful understanding on the meaning of living as a human being. This inquiry will run beneath the objective description level to seek an understanding of the most fundamental processes of human existence that are necessary for all possible definitions of human existence insofar as they affect our understanding of the task of living well. This will in no way constitute a full or adequate definition of humanity or the human condition, but will usefully highlight the most fundamentally encompassing dynamics of our process of living.

What does it mean to be human? The underlying question, which has a broader scope of application and is therefore more fundamental, is "What does it mean to be?" The minimum consideration is that to exist need nothing more than to persist from one moment to the next. There cannot be any pragmatically useful concept of human existence that does not in some way directly incorporate, or assume as a presupposition, the idea of persistence through time. I do not suggest that persisting through time in any way constitutes a full or adequate definition of being. I see it as a fundamental perquisite for any definition of being that has use in the ordinary scope of our living. It is the nature of the energy medium out of which we are composed. Yet, this is also true of a rock. Since we are inquiring into human existence, we must add something more to our consideration than persistence through time.

When considering a statement about what is fundamental about the human condition, I will take small steps. Remaining with the idea of basic processes, let us stay close to what we have already. If persistence through time is a fundamental of the human condition, this idea invokes the inevitable concept of repetition. For anything, whether object or process to persist in time, we are faced in some way with the idea of repetition. Repeating objects, patterns, rhythms, cycles, actions, and cognitive functions are inextricable from our human process.

The usefulness of the truth of repetition in understanding the human condition requires one additional consideration, which is that nothing repeats in a clean and perfect way. There is variation. Nothing persists in its exactly original state. There is no physical object that remains exactly the same from one moment to the next. There is no repetition of human thought or experience, no matter how similar to what came before, who's context of realization and experience is identical to any prior moment. The human condition is embedded in and woven out of a process that creates variation over time.

Repetition creating variation is a structure that is as finitely expressible as it is infinitely unwieldy in its resulting possibilities. Finite expressibility in relation to an infinity of possibilities is the key dynamic in the relationship between repetition and variation. It is also a dynamic that is fundamental to understanding the human condition as a process. There is not one moment of our lives in which we are not faced with a myriad of variations. Even if we do not take notice, we are constantly responding to many variations both subtle and gross. This is always happening. Unless we sleep all day without dreaming, there is not one day of our existence in which we are not confronted with a great many variations. Facing change is a fundamental constant of life and a great universal truth of all humanity. Whatever the human condition is, the most persistent and immensely saturating truth of our human being is the truth of facing change. In any definition of what it means to live well, that definition must also tell us something about what it means to face change well.

Variation, and its connotation of the human subjective of facing change, are woven into the very fabric of our living. In terms of human existence, the verb "to be" must evoke the connotation of facing change. There is not one second of our life in which variation is completely absent. If it were possible to stop all variation (even at the subatomic level), such an event would also stop, at least in regard to conceptions useful to human living concerns, all motion, all time, and all being. The human condition is more usefully described in terms of a process of variation over time rather than as a static object. Without variation, there is no useful concept of either being or time. A Socratic interpretation of being as a process focuses on the structure of the human recognition of variations, which can also be expressed as our recognition of differences.

{Socrates interrupts the essay}
SOCRATES: A Socratic interpretation of being as a process? By Zeus Max! Surely one of the gods is beginning to take exception to your constant use of my name in connection with things I do not understand!
Max: Don't worry Socrates. You may find relief soon.
SOCRATES: I hope so. Otherwise we will have to break out of this little essay and have a real talk about it.