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An exhortation to eschew “right answers”

“‘That is a Matisse,’
I say!”
I say,
meaning to say
the painting was painted
by Henri Matisse,

but unsure
what are the factors
inherent there to be perceived
which suggest
it was certainly he
who painted it,
I mean to suggest
perhaps it is a Matisse,

or, perhaps, having no knowledge
of Matisse
beyond his mere name
(nor this moment
recalling Corot's)
I am making a statement
which underneath its skirts
means, “I must always pretend
to know everything
whether I know anything
or not,
(so please
don't contradict me
too overtly).”

Let us suppose someone else walks into this gallery with you and me now, a bearded Frenchman who has been bitten by an enchanting frog, rendering him inhumanly honest.  This hypothetical interloper must say how he feels, must tell what he knows, and must admit his every ignorance.  I shall interview him––you, listen.

"Comment vous appellez-vous?"

"Pardon.  I'm sorry, I don't understand you."

"What is your name?"

"Oh, sure.  I am Henri Matisse."

"This painting.  It is a Matisse, isn't it?"

"I, sir, am a Matisse!"

"But this painting, monsieur, is the work of Matisse?"

"This is bizarre!  I have always been present when Matisse has worked, because I am he.  This is a good painting, but I am not certain if it is the work of Matisse.  Each work of art stands on its own, apart from all others.  When we draw similarities we abstract (stretch out, stretch thin) the truly created work itself, or abandon its trueness altogether.  I cannot group with others the thing which is unique, whose meaning or beauty is intrinsic.  Will this painting be more beautiful as a Corot?"


This is just a sketch, not a large or elaborate major work ample to fill an entire wall of MOMA, within which (out of love I warn you now) I shall approximately prove the above poem/dialogue/scenario shows:

1)  Logic is not rational;
2)  Truths are many;
3)  They contradict each other,
4)  But no truth is destroyed;
5)  The manyness of truths strengthens each of them
(not in spite of their contradictions of each other, but because of them); and
6)  Ignorance can be wisdom.

If we are used to seeking a "right answer" we will be disturbed to nausea to consider it is the plurality of answers (rather than the singleness thereof) which reinforces the realness of truth, which justifies faith in the universe and trust of each other, and which validates our perceptions and thoughts.

I shall show you that I cannot so well approach the truth without you, that even if we have conflicts between us it will be better for us to see we share those conflicts and share the turf upon which we are toe to toe, that these same "conflicts" can become bonds between us.  I shall show myself that commitments between us need not always be feared, that accepting both differences and commitments allows freedom to grow.

The popular ugly term "codependence" implies in no positive manner either co-operation or dependence of relationship.  Beyond mere words, many of us seek something which is beyond codependence, "human being" which is fluid active relating, acknowledging the otherness of the other, the (laughable) limitations of myself.  Living fully human, then, means acknowledging difference (individuation), conflict (otherness) and humility (imperfection and mortality).  These must be acted, not merely spoken.  Living free is living in relation to all others "authentically," and although that does not mean meeting all their "needs," it does indeed necessitate commitment to them, acknowledging in action their individual existence, otherness, imperfection and mortality, at the same time acknowledging their sentience of their own being mortal and their feelings toward this human existence (Fear and Frustration often—“all F’d up”).

The paradoxical grey area between approach and avoidance is solved hypothetically by the idea of "ego boundaries," but discriminations in living (in real color) are not very clear-cut.  We are crabby little crabs at the seashore, scuttling between the surf and the sand, the cold heavy ocean and the warm thin air, but we can thrive despite uncertainness of boundaries because even though our world is ever-changing we also are constantly moving in relation to it in some form of harmony.

What is harmony?  It is distinct tones sounded together so that what results to be perceived or apprehended has a character different from any one of the tones.  Over time, notes sounded sustained or changing, together produce what I call music.  Harmony:  Many tones changing in relation to each other.  Community:  Many persons living and changing in relation to each other (never leaving one another completely, always bearing traces of their relatedness even at great distance of time and space).


There is no right answer.  Every answer has its own sort of rightness.  Plurality of "answers" reinforces the reality of truth:  If there is no "right" answer, there may be rightness in each response to the question, whether it is stated (explicit) or implied in the circumstance.

There are right questions.  Our most productive work is done refining questions.  It is only when we have some idea what sort of thing we seek we can find anything.  (Does this validate induction or deduction?)  The universe is full, more than any of us in her or his lifetime can consume.  We can more likely find what we care about when we know a bit more than we did previously who we are, what are our values, in relation to whom and what we really live, our affinities, our ignorances.  (This shows the importance of knowing what are our basic assumptions.)  Ignorance is the only prerequisite of learning.  (This shows the importance of having no assumptions.)  Without finding the sorts of things we miss we cannot come to get them.  (We must know that we do not know, or must we know what we do not know?)  Sharpening questions is worth the effort.  Coming up with answers can be pretty unimportant in the long run.  ("This year the questions are the same, but the answers have been changed.")

The assumption that the right answers are hidden in the back of the teacher's copy of the textbook obstructs our way to any truth.  We are acculturated (chopped down to a very small size like carefully trimmed little bonsai trees) in classrooms where we are graded for reproducing the teacher's answers without (having been caught at) looking in the teacher's book.  We are chopped down by a checkmark in the box "Does not respect authority."  Each of us is chopped down no matter how the box has been checked on her or his report card.  We are chopped down by virtue of living in the same world with such a chilling idea as the rightness of authority (an idea which crystallizes, polarizes everyone, everything).

On the other hand, such ideas as "the right answer" and "does/does not respect authority" can be useful.  I have just used them––productively, I hope.  We don't need polarities like Good versus Bad, Right versus Wrong.  We can live, grow, learn, share, love, rejoice and everything else without unidimensional polarizations.

Aristotle said something like, "Of all that is, they are by nature or they are not..." (Physics, Book II).  In this and whole books on logic and rhetoric he did not intend the dichotomous effect for which he has been praised (blamed).  Here he meant to study nature, whose coherence he believed but whose logic he did not know.  He meant to say the works of man may have different logics (or rationales, if we use the Latin root) from the logoV (logos) of the Creator.

Through many levels of perception it is difficult enough to apprehend what is; it must be impossible (despite our convictions to the contrary) to comprehend reality through any one of our biased perspectives (the seven blind men and the elephant).  We know kindergartners playing "Gossip" will giggle at the discrepancies between what was whispered at the beginning and what has been produced when the "rumor" has come full circle.  Our perspectives differ not only between us, but within each one of us at different times and places and moods.  To agree about what is "true" we are repeatedly coerced by reality into accommodating alternatives.  We have usually tried to narrow the alternatives to a single one.  What will happen if instead we open out an ever-expanding spectrum of responses, an endless flood of energy?

Okay, it seems it won't work, merely because it is too overwhelming for our small minds, and fuse-popping for our pitiful electronic gadgets.  So we simplify things because we need simplicity.  But that doesn't mean we must deny that forcing a "right" answer is wrong, or that opening up (instead of funneling ourselves through the eye of the needle) will be stimulating and productive.


I promised me I would show you a) logic is not rational, b) truths are many, g) they contradict each other d) but no truth is destroyed, e) the manyness of truths strengthens each of them (not in spite of their contradictions of each other, but because of them), and z) ignorance can be wisdom (our knowledge of our ignorance can save us from being stupid, and the conviction that we know something can keep us ignorant).

λογος(logos) means "word," and its meaning is extended to imply conscious thought or idea (or the infrastructure thereof).  "Logic" has come to mean some tightly formulated pattern of statement through which propositions can be called true or false.  "Rational" (on the other hand) means something like "logical" in that the root means (approximately, as all fruitful primitive etymological roots do, some even meaning something and at the same time the opposite of that something, or related sounds or spellings come to be reversed) "measure" which extends to "comparison" and to "understanding."  I feel the likeness of “logical” and “rational” as I weigh the words themselves, their extended meanings.  It goes something like:  "word" > "idea" > "understanding" :: "measure" > "comparison" > "understanding".

If you do not make sense to me (if I do not understand you for any reason), you are not being logical.  If you do not understand what is happening (including if you do not understand me for any reason) you are not rational (or sane or intelligent).  If there is a misunderstanding between us, one of us is illogical and irrational.  Guess who.  The rule of “the right answer” or the rule of “the right understanding” (literally “orthodoxy” or “catholicism”) will tyrannize us away from disagreement, but at the same time will make it impossible for us to agree.  None of the blind men could be honest and at the same time agree with another, for each of their data were different.  “The right answer” guarantees that we will have no true answer.

Logic is not rational.  (Provocative statement, eh?)  A tightly formulated mechanism for labeling (libeling?) propositions (statements, "words") as true or false logic  is incoherent (incommensurate) with the attitude of questioning I taste in the underlying meaning of ratio.  One (Greek) word seems to say "I say!" and another (Latin) word seems to mean "I guess, I wonder."  If you will (wish to) make some different emphasis, good!  Our conversation will be richer for it.

To be logical tends to lead to a "right answer."  To be rational seems to mean to be willing to be realistic, to accommodate or compromise with the multifactorial world around you.  (To be sane is to be whole or healthy.)  To be rational can imply perceptiveness, flexibility and consideration of others.

That (unkind) narrow use of "logic" serves a narrow conventionalism.  But communication can occur only in mutualism, recognition of each other's idiosyncrasies.  Conventionalism demands we speak and act and appear the same.  We cannot indeed feel and perceive the same, so we can hardly think the same.  Okay, we can appear to feel and perceive and think the same, if by convention we agree not to feel, not to perceive and not to think, but always to appear.

Acceptance of the other may be implied in convention (literally, coming together), but usually convention is exercised by the assumption that only one answer can be right, that there must be a winner and a loser, that one of us must be rejected.  We are usually blind to the reality that there are not two alternatives but innumerable facets of reality, each reflecting somewhat differently the truth we need.

It is by valuing our differences we can communicate, share humanness, not by the same-look and the same-speak through which we compete to appear better than the other.  Trying to be better at being the same may be what underlies all human competition, killing and international warfare.  It may be "logical" but it is not logical, rational, sane nor intelligent.


There is no single truth, just as there is no single wholeness, no single view, no single relationship.  The whole ocean has no clear boundary; it shifts, evaporates, accumulates––and none of these all over all at once (clearly bounded in space and time), but all of these always all over.  (English translation:  You cannot step into the same river twice because its waters are ever-flowing.––Heracleitus)  Nothing can be seen (or otherwise perceived) totally; even holograms do not allow us to do better than walk around (or through?) an image to see some of it at a time, nor can we see or measure or know anything completely, even though it is knowable.  If we are in relation to each other, the relationship is more than the each of us or than the both of us (Buber?), but even though we imagine we may know the whole of the hypothetical (unreal) simple relationship between you and me, each of us also is in so many other states and relationships that we cannot describe them in a single statement; and if pseudo-Newtonian billiard balls seem more simple, let us ask an honest physicist if she actually can write the who-they-are and the what-their-relationship-is in a single mathematical statement on a single blackboard, not omitting the rest of the universe within which they restlessly roll.

The tight logic which seeks a right answer is not realistic, perceptive, compromising in relationship or flexible to changing conditions, nor at all ethical enough to measure, compare, prioritize values and shift those priorities realistically in harmony with the ever-shifting ocean within which we live and dance, we very real scuttling little crabs.

Ignorance is wisdom, i.e. knowing that we do not know helps us to acknowledge that the multiform universe is beyond our mastery.  To know that we do not know all perceptions and all hypotheses, but that each of them has strength and relevance, allows us the freedom always to go further in serious study.  Ignorance is the one prerequisite of learning.  Freedom and respect for ourselves and others come not from established authority, but from the acknowledgement of our ignorance.  Our relationships as persons in colleges, taverns and the world of largeness and complexness (international politics, extraterrestrial travel, et alii) depends on whether we seek secure authority or joyful free ignorance (to be free to consider absolutely anything because anything may be so, to respect our own perceptions as worthy, to accept our convictions as valid but tentative working hypotheses).

So, truths are many.  If we are still stuck one foot in the mire of "the truth" we will say, "But if there is more than one truth, each of the truths will contradict the other!"  We will experience fear in the face of uncertainty, imagine chaos will flood and overwhelm us.  There is nothing real to fear.  To contradict (from Latin) is to say differently, speak against what has been established.  Each variation of perspective, of interest, of relationship, of life history produces a different statement in response to the question as we say it and live it.  Who is afraid of words?  What if the words are not the same?  What if the meaning is not the same?  So, what?  Are ideas (words) the sorts of things which can be destroyed?  Does that hurt?  Whom?  Are we afraid of mental violence between us if we seem to disagree?  Perhaps we are afraid of physical violence between us.  Perhaps we are afraid of relational violence, which makes us feel bad (afraid, angry, inadequate, unloved).  Perhaps we are afraid of the internal violence each of us might feel––conflict, confusion, uncertainty, injured self-esteem, madness.

Truths are many.  They speak differently, say different things, but they do no violence to each other.  The truth of one statement is not diminished by the proposal of a different idea.  We may choose to prioritize them, to use one at one time and a different one at another.  We may value one statement more highly than another.  We may (as I have above) use a statement because of its seeming (comparative) untruth, but we really mean we do not choose this one at this time, and unchoose it with dramatic feeling. 


If we are able to shift our biases and blindnesses to see that truths are many, then we can begin to see that their plurality strengthens them.  If the seven blind men begin to “see” that they all perceive the elephant––not each, but all––then they welcome each other, compare and share without conflict.

If we begin to understand that we use different ideas differently, that they help us dance more nimbly in living, we come to know freedom.  We can change and choose without the compulsion of convention.  In fact we do not ever keep a truth (perhaps our minds are not firm enough to hold them).  We discover and make use of ideas anew each moment.  Our recalling what had some time before seemed valuable to us may help us form repetitions which seem reliable, but of course these also can become ruts to trap us.  (Is learning conditioning?  Is memory the wearing or etching of paths between or within neurons, membranes?)  Even when I reminisce I do not seek what is old, but what new light my memory can shed on this present moment, and what new thrill I can enjoy in reminiscing now.

If we see all is truth, all truth in flux, relative, ephemeral, we may worry that there are no eternal truths.  Eternal truth is, is what it is, and is not what we are now discussing.  Eternal truth is in touch with us and is beyond us, beyond our comprehension.  (When we reason by logic that the nature of God is to be Other, Nameless, Faceless and Ineffable, when we define God as the indefinable, we will be silly  then to treat such serious statements by further manipulation of words.  It will be satisfactory just to live with Her.)


I said I would show that I cannot so well approach the truth without you.  I mean it.  I have kept you in my mind and heart with every word I have written here.  I don't know how to have meaning without you, without what you mean to me.  I call that sort of idea harmony (which is nourished by the differences between us), community (which requires sharing some sort of sameness), human being, communication, et cetera.

Pluralism in thinking can be valid, useful, "uncontradictory" (i.e., leading to varying harmonious truths) only if it can be integrated within the reality of an actual individual.  That seems necessary.  It also is actual between two individuals, or among three (in relationship, in community).  (How is the difference between “Freudian” and “Jungian” the difference between individual soul and community soul?)

We may be more convinced if we can "measure" what it is in the testimony of one.  I do not "internalize" your feeling or the idea or thought to which it is attached, but I experience my own feelings, ideas, et cetera which regard you and your ideas.  Because I have regard for you I can hold close together my own ideas and those I hold regarding you and your ideas (two differing but non-conflicting sets of ideas).

Perhaps this should be called "existential humanism," a view which a) considers the individual in his experiences real, even though they may seem absurd (existential, individualistic) in relation to convention, and b) finds a way to bridge the solipsistic gap between "windowless monads" by allowing them to have regard for and communication with each other (humanistic, communal).

Perhaps we can refine and elaborate these ideas to show a valid basis for learning and teaching and culture and cooperation without convention or conflict or competition.  Perhaps, if you, so different from me and at the same time the same, can join me in a harmony...1


1Thinkers mentioned directly or indirectly herein who continue to participate in this choir of infinite dimensions:
Matisse, Corot, Anna Freud, Douglas Hofstadter, Euclid, Socrates, Aristotle, Heracleitus, Martin Buber, Isaac Newton, Sigmund Freud, Carl Gustav Jung, Leibniz.et alii

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