Creating a more humane world

Illuminating the Critical Role of Fostering Imagination, Especially in Adolescents, in Creating a Humane World  (A Web Essay Examining the Thoughts of David Norton)

“If we humans hope to actualize a world in which mutual respect reigns and that maximizes personal development and social contribution, then we need to engender a renaissance in our capacity to imagine.”   Such is my summary from reading the late David Norton’s  posthumously published book, Imagination, Understanding and the Virtue of Liberality.  Norton hones in on one particular aspect of imagination (to which at times he supplements with the adjectives “moral” or “transcendental”)  whose description he attributes to John Kekes — “the internal exploration of what it would be like to realize particular possibilities, such as being very rich” (p.2).  Developing this idea further, he calls on each of us to utilize our innate ability to “lend oneself to the viewpoint of another” (p.1):

When I refer to “understanding” others I mean a direct acquaintance with the way they and their worlds appear to them….[B]y “the way they and their worlds appear to them”,  I refer to the meaning for them of whatever their experience presents to them, including themselves (and us, if we appeared to them).  To understand another person or people requires that we trade places with them by what Max Scheler called “participatory enactment” of their lives…[which] is not literal; it is imaginative.   (p.2)

 Norton believes that the reason we are able to trade perspectives is “because the personal properties that make up the actuality of the other are within each of us as possibilities”(p. 9),  and that “To be human is to contain within oneself all human possibilities.  Human beings differentiate themselves culturally and individually by actualizing different possibilities, but the possibilities that are actualized by other persons are within us as possibilities and are available for participatory enactment by transcendental imagination” (p. 4).[1]  Norton believes that comparing perspectives simply in order decide which seems superior is not the wisest method: “The point is to arrive at an understanding of other peoples and persons, as well as of ourselves….Reflexively, this provides the differentiae without which we cannot know ourselves as individuals, that is, as each a distinctive among others of our kind” (p. 6).    Later, he drives home this point:

What internal knowledge of alternatives affords is recognition that other’s commitments to course of life different to one’s own may likewise be supported by good reasons.  This … condition…, termed epistemic multiplism by Michael Krausz,…obtains when to a given question there are multiple ‘admissible’ answers, each of which is supportable by reasons that are good but not conclusive, which is to say, they do not preclude admissible alternative answers.

Norton explores Krausz’s idea later on, specifically on Krausz’s observation that different conductors can evince equally convincing interpretations of the same musical composition.  For example, one conductor might favor re-creating exactly the way the music would have sounded in the composer’s day by using instruments set up in the manner of the time period it was composed, while another conductor might embrace the advantages of better-projecting modern instruments and have genuine faith that the composer, were he/she alive today, would readily accept such adjustment as an improvement.

The heart of Norton’s argument is that adolescence is the ideal stage in life for drawing upon this crucial human potential.  Unfortunately, he notes repeatedly, far too few people understand how essential this life stage is, to the extent that parents and other adults, rather than nurturing development of imagination, stifle it in their rush to judgment that it is simply a period of immaturity.

The importance of adolescence in developing understanding of perspectives different from one’s native perspective

At the outset of the extended developmental period of childhood, maintains Norton, each child unquestioningly receives his or her particular culture’s perspective;  “Thanks to the essential dependence of childhood, [all children] must be taught what to believe before they have developed the capacity for independent thought…. Initially, a child mistakes the beliefs that it is taught for the only beliefs possible, because it knows no other” (p. 20).  The later adolescent period presents the ideal opportunity for openly reassessing and questioning the assumption of infallibility of that received perspective.  “The [adolescent] child discovers the existence of true alternatives to some of its beliefs and patterns of conduct”(p. 20).  In addition, he observes, the adolescent’s instinct for independence emerges as well as a spirit of adventurousness.

Initially, the differences the child discovers are perceived by him or her as unrelated to the self, much in the way a child observes the variety of creatures at a zoo.  The combined effect of autonomy and adventurousness is to convert disconnected ‘others’ into possibilities for the self.  Adolescence poses the unrelenting question, ‘What would it be like to be this other, and that other,’ because emerging autonomy from its beginning foreshadows the problem of eventually deciding upon one’s adult course of life. “(p. 21)

If fully supported in that developmental project by care givers, the adolescent is able to explore other values and ways of viewing the world in an imaginative process that entails substituting one’s received perspective with any number of alternate ones, ideally choosing one(s) that is already exist(s) and is/are sanctioned by one’s culture. Such a project requires what Norton describes as the virtue of “liberality.” (p. 71) In that pursuit, the child is guided by what Norton calls directional questions – what is a well-lived life, and what would be the ideal life for oneself?    He writes:

  • Facilitated exploration in adolescence is the breeding ground of the virtue of liberality because, as was noted in Chapter 1, adolescence explores possibilities by participatory enactment, perpetually posing to itself the question, ‘What would it be like to be this other, that other?’ and so on. Participatory enactment discloses truths and values in alternative courses of life. Then when one in due time answers for oneself the directional question, ‘Which truths and values shall I be responsible for?’ one is positioned to acknowledge the validity of alternative courses of life whose truths and values are comparably the responsibility of other persons…. The exploration of adolescence is among possibilities regarded as candidates for eventual commitment, while adult exploration is primarily within the various strands of the individual’s chosen course of life.[2]   But, alike, the quality of one’s relations with others and the soundness of one’s self-knowledge require exercise in adulthood of the imaginative capacity for participatory enactment that a well-lived adolescence cultivates. (p. 113)

He references R.M. Hare’s position (p. 9) that reflection on what an ideal life would be is necessary for manifesting moral conduct.  To “put ourselves imaginatively in the place of others in order to judge the effects of our prospective conduct upon them…we must imagine that we are in their circumstances, not as ourselves but as others, for otherwise we cannot learn ‘what it is like for him.’”  If the perspective that that person holds is very different than one’s personal perspective, then it can be imagined only by substituting the other’s perspective for one’s own, because the two are incompossible (a word he coined), meaning they cannot be held simultaneously.  One of his examples of this concept is trying to imagine a married bachelor.  Someone could clearly take on either role, or both in succession, but not simultaneously.   Even if one has never been married, it would be possible to imagine what it might be like to be so (repeating the phrase quoted earlier), “because the personal properties that make up the actuality of the other are within each of us as possibilities” (p. 9).  This capacity assists a person not only in understanding others better, but also in self-understanding;

Internal understanding of others…provides the differentiae that are a logical requirement of our individuation; it affords fuller understanding of our own qualities by showing us how they appear to others; and it apprises us by participatory enactment of unactualized possibilities in ourselves that others have actualized….To be an individuals is to be a  distinctive one among others of one’s kind, and knowledge of oneself as such entails knowledge of what one is not – the ‘is’ and the ‘is not’ mutually implicate one another.   (p. 16)

He distinguishes between “possibilities” and “potentialities”, relating the latter to the subset of possibilities that is fully aligned with one’s unique personality, those pursuits that are ideal for the individual in generating whole-hearted commitment through an innate/inner drive Norton describes as “moral necessity.”   He ties this to the Greek idea of daimon, or genius, understood as awakening to the pursuit, or mission, that one should pursue to simultaneously pave the way for deep personal satisfaction and valuable service to those around us.

Fortunately, we have expanded access into Norton’s thoughts on the nature of genius from another of his writings, “Japanese Buddhism and the American Renaissance,” published in 1993 by the Institute of Oriental Philosophy, Tokyo, Japan. In it, he calls attention to views of genius involving rigorous effort, including Thomas Edison’s definition of it as “ninety-nine percent perspiration and one percent inspiration,” and Isaac Newton’s answer to how he discovered the physical laws of the universe : “By thinking about it night and day.” He continues by observing that Emerson and Thoreau likewise both “thought about the problems associated with worthy living night and day” (p. 3).  From this he draws the insight that

If we have begun to close the supposed gap between extraordinary and ordinary native endowments, doubtless we have at the same time opened a gulf between persons who are keenly interested in one or all of the dimensions of the lives they live, and persons who exhibit much less interest, or perhaps none at all.  Nevertheless, there is a difference between the two gulfs, namely that the first is unbridgeable, the second is not. It is reasonable to suppose that persons who are uninterested in the lives they lead might be keenly interested in one or another of the many alternative possible courses that are accommodated with diversified societies such as Japan and the United States…. Emerson affirms the connection between genius and compelling interest by speaking of the former as a person’s ‘calling’ or ‘vocation.’  In his essay, ‘Spiritual Laws’, he says, ‘Each mans has his own vocation.  The talent is the call.  There is one direction in which all space is open to him. He has faculties silently inviting him thither to endless exertion.  He is like a ship on a river; he runs against obstructions on every side but one, on that side all obstruction is taken away and he sweeps serenely over a deepening channel into an infinite sea.’…To speak more literally than Emerson himself does in the metaphor of the ship sweeping to the sea, his point is not that when we are living aw we ought we encounter no difficulties.  Rather, he is noting the important distinction between difficulties that are thrust upon a person and are essentially alien to him, and difficulties that are chosen by him and recognized as aspects of himself in his work of becoming… The course of living that is right for each person enlists in him or her the commitment that living it well requires.  When a person is truly committed to the course of life he lives, he recognizes the inherent problems and difficulties in that course of life as genuinely his problems, and works with them willingly(pp. 3-5).

From that perspective, he seems to be indicating that the work of adolescence is to discover one’s genius, that course of life that he or she can wholeheartedly commit to.

Concerning possibilities, three types stand out, commensurable, incommensurable, and one he coins called “incompossible”, by which he does not mean sources of earning money!   He uses the example of evolutionary change to illustrate commensurability, in which “the past is preparation for the present and the future.  Any surprise ‘is contingent, because what was unanticipated was in principle anticipatable, and the disparity that shock registers is merely apparent.’ ” (p. 50) He then contrasts that with incommensurability —  “an alien possibility,” one which is “discontinuous with the existing world by virtue of the ‘closure’ of perspectival worlds.  In such a situation, it would seem impossible to imagine adopting another’s perspective “when the other’s preferences and situations are ‘so unlike those of myself and my present situation.’” (Norton quoting R.M. Hare, p. 9)  And, in his own words, “incommensurability exists between two belief systems that cannot be simultaneously accepted.” (p. 32) He notes (p. 9 again) how Hare resolves this dilemma by proposing that “ ‘Putting myself in someone else’s shoes does not involve supposing myself to have simultaneously two incompatible sets of properties; it involves …supposing I might lose one set and acquire another.’ “(p.9) Norton views this process to be one of substitution.  “”By the imaginative actualization of other possibilities within ourselves, we have the option of entering alternative perspectival worlds by setting aside our ‘home’ perspective and our accustomed self-understanding” (p. 33).   This demonstrates what Norton coins as incompossibility, which while acknowledging the inability of two perspectives to coexist in the same subject at the same time, does allow for two perspectives to exist sequentially in that person. Conversely stated, (p. 30)    “Between the existing world and an alien possibility, discontinuity is not merely apparent but real. To apprehend an alien possibility is merely to notice an anomaly,” while “To entertain an alien possibility…constitutes revolutionary exchange of discontinuous perspectives “ (p. 50).  From a Nichiren Buddhist perspective, this could be viewed in terms of the Ten Worlds, various conditions inherent in all life, but which are experienced singly and consecutively rather than simultaneously.  Norton points out that such an incongruity is also the basis for humor.  In that vein he quotes Santayana: “ ‘ Against the verbiage by which man persuades himself that he is the goal and acme of the universe, laughter is the proper defence.’” (p. 54)

Liberality: a powerful concept for humanity

Turning our attention back to the concept liberality, briefly mentioned earlier, Norton views it as the foremost trait for an individual to exhibit for creating a positive, multicultural world.  I found scanning the entire book for an in depth look at his understanding of liberality to be a worthwhile project:

  • It is “The readiness to affirm truth and value in systems of belief and patterns of conduct different from one’s own.” (p.ix) Acquiring this trait depends “upon the exercise by humans of the imaginative capacity to lend themselves to the alternate viewpoints of others.” He suggests that the reason this capacity is so frequently lacking is due to a general failure to realize the importance of fostering imagination for enabling an improved understanding of oneself and other, especially so for the sake of nurturing young people. To the extent that this essay contributes to highlighting the importance of imagination, it will have been a success.
  • Noting George Santayana’s critique of an idea originating with Plato – “that human beings will only commit themselves to truths and values that they believe to be absolute and exclusive” (p. 55) – he argues that the road to self-fulfillment does not starts with the question, “What is the truth?”, but rather, “What truths and values shall I be responsible for?” (p. 55)   Such a quest embodies the virtue of liberality. He then comments: “Liberality expresses the…proportionality of finite lives that acknowledges their finitude.” (p. 56) Continuing his examination of Santayana, he shares that that philosopher gives the name chivalry to the virtue that conjoins skepticism with commitment, and believes that moral living springs from it by virtue of “an intelligent sympathy that acknowledges the good of others as they themselves experience it.” (p. 56)
  • “By the virtue of ‘liberality’ I refer to the cultivated disposition to recognize and appreciate truths and values other than one’s own. The primary thesis of previous chapters is that where others’ truths and values are incommensurable with our own, recognition and appreciation of them as the truths and values that they represent require that we lend ourselves to the viewpoint of those whose truths and values they are – we exchange our perspectival world for theirs – by the exercise of transcendental imagination. This does not preclude criticism of others’ truths and values, either by standards internal to their perspectival world or by such external standards as their compatibility with alternative truths and values, which is a purpose of this chapter to delineate. The main purpose of this chapter [Chapter 4] is to present and defend the thesis that the virtue of liberality is essential to the human sensibility that changing conditions in the world require. …I must show that the virtue of liberality does not …. [eradicate] justification for particularized commitments by individuals and groups. “ (pp. 81-2)
  • “The cooperative interaction that is thus mandated [by the global nature of many of the problems that imperil human beings] requires the abandonment of insular notions of absolute national sovereignty and of an ‘atomic’ core of individuality that is independent of social relations. Such cooperation depends for its stability upon the recognition by nations, peoples, and individuals of the distinctive worth of the contributions by other nations, peoples and individuals….The supplanting sensibility rests in an appreciation of diversity that must be substantive, and for it to be such requires experience of the perspectival worlds in which various alternative sets of truths and values are the operative truths and values. Such experience is gained by exchanging our ‘home’ perspectival world for alternative perspectival worlds through the exercise of transcendental imagination. “ (p. 82)
  • “In the realm of thought and belief, the great enemy of a stable and appreciatively interactive diversity is dogmatic absolutism, by which I mean the claims of peoples, parties, and individuals to exclusive possession of the whole of ultimate truth and value…. The explosive charge in dogmatic absolutism is the hostility it provokes by denigrating every alternative to itself as false, misguided, perverse, or evil…. What is needed in the realm of thought and belief is a root-and-branch discrediting of dogmatic absolutism, and more generally a severance of the conceptual and psychological linkage of the notion of exclusivity to claims to the possession of truth and value…. I intend to show that … the warranted aspiration of finite individuals and groups is not possession of the whole but to aspects of truth and value. Nonexclusivity means that good reasons for the beliefs and patterns of conduct of a people or a person do not preclude the possibility that alternative beliefs and patterns of conduct are likewise supportable by good reasons.”   (p. 83)
  • “The ultimate truth about anything is the composite of alternative aspects of truth about that thing, as disclosed in complementary alternative valid perspectives upon that thing. Accordingly the pursuit of the ultimate truth is inherently a cooperative enterprise. Complementarity provides the basis for cooperation among entities in which common ground is precluded by incommensurability. It exists among alternative perspectival worlds when the betterment of each contributes indirectly to the betterment of the others, or at minimum does not detract from others’ betterment.” (83-4)


[1] (An interesting side note is a comment I heard by an author on C-SPAN’s Book TV, Martin Amis, of a novel about Hitler.  Amis stated his belief that it is not ever possible to truly understand Hitler’s perspective, that in effect he was an anomaly.)

[2] it is interested to note a perspective presented in the book Seasons of a Man’s Life, by Daniel Levinson, in which he argues that even adults continue to reflect upon their life’s direction, especially during key transitional phases, that culminate in varying “life structures” that either reaffirm prior answers to directional questions or reach new ones that result in significant changes in life direction.


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