This is the seventh in a planned series of posts on Worlds, as understood by Descriptive Psychologists.
“The world makes sense.”
This has been stated several times in this series to good effect in helping articulate ultimate satisfaction and its place in a person’s life. Now we need to look a little further. Let’s begin by clarifying what this statement is and what it is not.
“The world makes sense” is not a statement about what is universally true. It does not mean that the world actually makes sense to everyone all the time; the world obviously does not. “The world makes sense” is a slogan, which Ossorio reminds us “are apt for saying what you live by, and that is quite different from saying what you happen to believe or what happens to be true.”
To say a Descriptive Psychologist lives by the slogan “The world makes sense” is to say that this is the light in which we see people and their behavior. In this light, we can see whether a specific person at a given time is in fact behaving as someone whose world makes sense – or not.
We see a person behaving as someone whose world does not make sense when we recognize that they are not experiencing satisfaction in participating in their community’s practices. They are just “going through the motions”, without the satisfaction that accompanies true participation. And they are not just alienated from certain practices – there is no place within the community in which they experience satisfaction from participating. This community’s world does not make sense to them, although they may persistently attempt to play their part in it, as best they can. If life is a play, and the world a stage, then they are badly miscast.
“A significant restriction in a person’s ability to engage in the practices of their community” is how Descriptive Psychology defines pathology. Thus, a person whose world does not make sense to them is in a pathological state.
This is not to say that there is necessarily something pathological about the person per se – the state is pathological, not the person. Nor is it to imply that the state is necessarily long-lasting or enduring – states change, sometimes rapidly. We will look more closely at this later.
“The world makes sense” does not imply that there is one and only one ultimate satisfaction which everyone experiences. Every community has its own distinct world, and it makes sense in a specific, distinctive way. That it makes sense is universal; how it makes sense differs among communities. Further, not every member of the same community experiences ultimate satisfaction in the same way. Ultimate satisfaction is a strong, directly-known feeling; as such, it is specific to the individual in the same way the feeling of anger is specific to the individual. As Ossorio famously put it, the feeling of anger is what you feel when you are angry – and that particular feeling depends on the person and the circumstances. Anger and ultimate satisfaction are both direct recognitions of relationship between the person and their world – in the case of anger, recognition of having been provoked; in the case of ultimate satisfaction, recognition of being in a fitting place in a world that makes sense.
Some communities, most notably formal religions, have a codified version of how the world makes sense. This is useful for the fortunate individuals whose actual experience of their world corresponds to the canonical version; in their case, the public version serves as a good description of what they personally experience while participating in ultimate practices. For others, the doctrine is problematic: People aspire to experiencing their world as making sense in the canonical way, but the failure to achieve this can leave them anxious, depressed, ashamed and/or guilty (we will examine the specific logic of each of these reactions in a post on Pathologies of Ultimate Significance.) For some the only way out is literally out; like my friend Levi, when a person’s experience of the world does not correspond to their religion’s version of the world, leaving can be the best option.
“The world makes sense” does not imply that ultimate satisfaction is top of the list of experiences of satisfaction.
This is an easy and understandable misunderstanding. After all, if it is ultimate, that means there’s nothing greater than it, doesn’t it? Ultimate satisfaction beats everything else – sex, cocaine, winning the Super Bowl, falling on love, winning the lottery, Chateauneuf du Pape – right?
No. Sorry. While I know some spiritual folk who say the ultimate satisfaction of their world is greater than all those, that’s not what we mean here. “Ultimate” is being used in a technical Descriptive Psychology sense relating to worlds.
As Ossorio articulated in his masterful book “What Actually Happens”, a world is bounded by its ultimates – ultimate object, ultimate process, etc. An object divides into smaller, related objects; a process divides into related, sequential or parallel, smaller processes. An ultimate object in this context is simply an object that cannot be further divided within this world. In the world of chess, a pawn is an ultimate object; it does not divide into smaller objects that are still part of the world of chess. That is not to imply that we can’t further divide a pawn into smaller objects like molecules or atoms; of course we can. In doing so, however, we have left the world of chess and moved to the world of physics. Atoms have no place in the world of chess; pawns in fact are ultimate objects in that world.
Similarly, the members of every community experience satisfaction in participating in their community’s social practices. The satisfaction that accompanies participating in practices requiring recognition of how this world makes sense (“ultimate practices”) is ultimate satisfaction for that community. It bounds the world by holding it together as a whole.
“The world makes sense” does not imply that all worlds are equal.
We have previously noted that most of us have an informal sense of which worlds take precedence over which others; some people have formalized the priority into a hierarchy of worlds. Each makes sense; the sense they make differs from world to world; and the experience of ultimate satisfaction differs. In my own life, although I found the elegance of mathematics to be deeply satisfying (and I still do), I wound up finding ultimate satisfaction in other communities and other worlds which were even more fitting for me. I was never tempted to treat the life I live as if it made sense in the same way math does.
In that I was fortunate. Some others – the logicians Bertrand Russell and Georg Cantor are well-known examples – went to pathological extremes in trying to find their profession’s ultimate satisfaction in their personal relationships. And it’s not just highly educated aesthetes who do that; a common form of pathology in everyday life is captured in the status-dynamic image of “The Demon Businessman” who treats all of life as a business transaction. (“Businessman” here should be understood as a placeholder for an entire category of pathology; it might as well be Demon Logician or Empiricist or Moralist. Again, we will dig deeper into this in the upcoming “Pathologies of Ultimate Significance” post.)
“The world makes sense” is not the only experience of ultimate satisfaction.
Bear with me now, some tricky conceptual navigation lies just ahead. Whenever a person participates in a social practice, they are simultaneously acting from a particular status – a specific place in their community’s practices. That is, while participating they are simultaneously being that specific status. If their participation is accompanied by the experience of ultimate satisfaction – the powerful, direct feeling of fittingness – it may be the way of being, rather than the world itself, that is associated with the feeling. Instead of “Ah, the world makes sense!” the experience of ultimate satisfaction can be “Ah, here I am, and here I belong! What I am doing and being is right for me.”
I suspect this is the more common way ultimate satisfaction is experienced. After all, while worlds are typically as invisible to persons as water is to fish, we are very familiar with being ourselves, in all our various versions. But, as we shall see in the next post in this series, the “me-focused” experience of ultimate satisfaction can be the root of some especially difficult forms of pathology.
Next: Pathologies of Ultimate Satisfaction