An overview of “practical philosophical communities” (i.e., “non-esoteric religious communities”)

(The following contains most of the second section of Chapter 6 of Part I of my “Against the Lie” essay.  It provides a conceptual overview of “practical philosophical communities” or “non-esoteric religious communities,” which I believe ought to replace the esoteric, i.e. “traditional,” form of religious community.)

In the type of non-esoteric religious communities that I believe we desperately need, a person would effectively be required to take responsibility for assenting to or rejecting any proposition that claimed authority in that person’s life; but, of course, this could only happen if the person were first allowed to understand what the proposition even was—something that esotericist forms of religion (to the extent, that is, that the beliefs of the religion have their source in esoteric writings) effectively make impossible.  In short, members of non-esoteric religions would be encouraged to think more like philosophers—in the best and widest sense of that word.

However, for a person to truly “assent to” or “reject” the type of proposition that I have in mind, he would have to choose whether or not to integrate it into his life and actions:  I do not consider a person who claims to have “accepted” a certain philosophical proposition, but then fails to live his life in accordance with it, or advocate that his social institutions be designed in accordance with it, to have truly accepted it.  So philosophical or theoretical discussion that did not ultimately and finally result in the putting into practice of the theoretical propositions that had been developed would not involve propositions that had ever actually been “assented to,” since there would have been no positive commitment made with regard to those propositions.  And I consider discussion of philosophical propositions that are not capable of being either “assented to” or “rejected” in this practical sense, to be—at best—a waste of time.

I believe that to establish a society suffused with meaning requires the existence of numerous practical philosophical communities, communities in which the virtues of honesty and the sincere and impassioned search for truth, and practical usefulness, and would be assigned equally high value:  the type of communities which, amazingly to me, our society does not currently have.  What we now generally find is that academic philosophy and scholarship is not seriously interested in making itself practically useful, and esoteric religion is not seriously interested in honesty and clear thinking.  A split currently exists between two sets of values or goals:  on the one hand, those of scholarship, intellectuality, honesty, clarity and precision of thought and expression, and the desire to seek out truth and knowledge; and, on the other hand, those of practical usefulness, the sharing of a sense of common meaning and purpose, the giving of life guidance, and the giving of mutual support and protection.  This split can no longer be maintained.  In fact, I think there is a close relation between the historical legacy of esoteric religion and the sterility of much of academic philosophy and scholarship in its current state (such that modern-day academicians might well be considered the “secularized” successors of the “holy class” found in traditional religious societies—but if anything, showing even less interest in their work being of practical benefit to the “laity” than their predecessors showed).  The kinds of esotericism found both in traditional religion and in modern academia are expressions of the same basic lack of a spirit of commitment, the same unwillingness to first make a rational and socially useful decision, whether through personal reflection or through discussion with others, and then to take action in conformity with that decision; and both are also expressions of the same fundamental split between “the inner” and “the outer,” between theory and practice—the overcoming of which split I believe constitutes the central concern of the New Testament (albeit one often presented in implicit and obscure form).

I think a major reason why this split now exists is that currently there are few opportunities to put a theoretical decision directly into practice within a functioning community, doing so in such a way that it took into account the welfare of the whole community (at the same time as that of the larger society, to the extent that individuals were able to attain an understanding of what would further it).  Because of the lack of such opportunities, people’s actions get “siphoned off” or “rechanneled” in such a way that the split between theory and action, between “inner” and “outer,” becomes self-perpetuating, as people come to no longer even expect that such opportunities ought to be available to them to directly put theory into practice within a functioning community—and, at the same time, opportunities to develop or study theory in such a way that it was always done first and foremost with an eye toward practice within a person’s community and toward the benefit of the community—and so they do not insist on access to such opportunities.  Instead, they become accustomed to believe that—to the extent theory has any usefulness at all—its usefulness must always be made manifest indirectly, either through state action (accompanied by political activism), or through profit-seeking or individually acquisitive action—either of which type of action is effectively premised on a blind faith that some vague abstraction, whether it go by the name of “the democratic process” or “the market process,” can be relied upon to automatically attend to the needs of the whole without any individual human being ever needing to do so consciously.

As an alternative to this state of affairs, the members of non-esoteric religious communities would, while being generally dedicated to the development of theory, make a point of directly working theoretical insights and understandings into the actual functioning of their own religious communities; indeed, they would make this their chief focus in life, giving it a higher priority than any matter with which the mass media or any other remote social institution might prefer that people concern themselves.  Those who were developing theory at the more abstract and holistic levels of thinking would thus be expected to take responsibility for ensuring that their theoretical insights were actually realized in the social systems and institutions of whichever community they chose to affiliate with; and also to take responsibility for the effective dissemination of the theoretical knowledge and information within their possession to those individual members of their community who were expected to especially benefit from and be in need of that specific knowledge or information. This would replace the current widespread assumption that it is the sole responsibility of the individual person (even, increasingly, the individual child) to find the information and knowledge that he needs in order to protect himself from harm and to succeed in life.  It would thus replace the “caveat emptor” and “not my problem” attitudes that now characterize, not just the business marketplace, but to a large extent our entire society.  There is a sense in which these new, non-esoteric religious communities would, by interposing themselves as a barrier or shield between their individual members and business corporations or the state, do what the Christian churches used to do for their religious communities, but no longer seem able to do in the modern world—which is especially unfortunate given the fact that now, in the age of the massive state and the massive business corporation (the two of which are frequently interwoven), there is greater need than ever for just such a type of “barrier” or “shield” to protect individuals from predation and manipulation by power- and control-hungry bureaucratic organizations that are effectively governed by no overarching moral framework that characterizes them as organizations.[1]

The basic purpose of a non-esoteric religious community would be to provide each of its members with an overall world-view, to help them understand how the world works, and to tell them how they ought to go about succeeding in that world, in view of the religion’s own ideas about what “success” means.  And, beyond merely telling them how to succeed, they would also help give them the tools, skills, information, tutoring, direction, and guidance that would actually enable them to succeed.  For such “practical philosophical communities” or “non-esoteric religious communities” to carry out their missions, it seems to me that their entire general memberships would have to concern themselves primarily with the following subject areas (in no particular order):  philosophy (including metaphysics and logic); psychology and psychotherapy (considered as a subject matter, that is:  I am not necessarily advocating that large numbers of people take part in individual psychotherapy); grammar and communication skills; parenting skills; and education, of both children and adults—that is, to the extent that education can be considered distinct from these other subject areas—or, for that matter, from the fundamental mission of the community itself.  An interest in any one of these subject areas would be considered valueless without understanding its relevance to all of the other areas.  The primary goal of such a community would not be to produce “scholars” in these areas, but to be effective at diffusing and communicating existing knowledge in these areas (as well as others) among an entire community of ordinary non-specialists so that the knowledge could be put to its best possible use.  More specialized areas of knowledge might be pursued, but these would be considered to be of value to a community only after these more fundamental areas of concern had been properly attended to—by which I mean, attended to in a holistic and integrated way, and in accordance with the overall shared religious world-view that defined the community as a community.  It is implied in the foregoing that the division that is now generally made between education and religion, and the sort of sharp divisions made between specialties within academia, would have to be rejected, at least in certain areas and to a certain extent.  A community of such kind would of course require the knowledge of scholars who were also members of the particular community (at least some of whom would serve in a “ministerial” role in the community); but none of the scholars affiliated with any particular community could be permitted to be indifferent to the practical effect (or lack of practical effect) that their own scholarship had, either directly or indirectly, on the life of the community with which they were affiliated.[2]

For example, a successful practical philosophical community would not award Ph.D.s in logic so that some small group of highly “logical” people could serve as the entire general society’s designated “specialists” in logic, allowing a majority of people to be as illogical as they pleased, on the assumption that “thinking logically” was the primary concern of “those logic people,” and that “those logic people” would be sure to attend to it on everyone else’s behalf, and the fruits of their mysterious labor could be counted on to indirectly find their way to everyone else.  For academic logicians to think that such an arrangement is socially sustainable itself demonstrates an inability to think in an even minimally logical manner—and then take action accordingly—regarding the problems that need to be addressed most urgently.  (And again, trying to find rational solutions to problems that actually matter to an actual community of people, and then taking action in accordance with the conclusions that have been reached, would invariably be the approach taken by all members of a practical philosophical community, even its more theoretically inclined members.)  Or, to take another example, for a psychotherapist to think that personality disorders or mental illnesses can be corrected or treated in the absence of logical and honest thinking—in an individual, and in a family, and in a community or society—is similarly myopic.  But logical and honest thinking cannot be promoted if an individual—or fellow members of a family, or fellow members of a community or society—are indifferent to the importance of grammar and of clear and precise expression, whether written or spoken, as well as that of cultivating the ability to listen to others.



[1] As such, one might describe each of these non-esoteric religious communities as eventually incorporating the functions (among others) of a church, a consumer advocate, a psychotherapist, a media institution, and an adult education program.

[2] I do not mean to suggest that such a scheme ought to be imposed upon any religious community by those who were not members of it; only that it seems to me that the chances for the successful functioning of any religious community would be maximized if its members chose to follow the approach that I have laid out.