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Saturday, December 26, 2015

On Transcendence


Maslow identified the highest level of his hierarchy of needs as self-actualization.  I have expanded this to, in aggregate, a concept that I call 'The Finely Crafted Life'.  This includes not just self-actualization, but also self-improvement (for Polymathicans erudition is a large portion of this), aesthetic expression, social justice and transcendence.

Maslow Hierarchy of NeedsAs incomes explode across the world, most populations will be pushed up Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.  In other words, when median household income is 500,000 2015USD, the lower level considerations of shelter, food, clothing, health care, etc. will become relatively insignificant. Everyone will have these things and people will begin to think of higher level needs.

Among the quintessential Polymathicans I have only gotten push back on transcendence.  Apparently many perceive this as code for religiosity.  While consideration of religious questions is part of transcendence, that is an inaccurate interpretation.  Transcendence, as I use it, is a relatively complex concept that actually contains its own hierarchy of meaning.

At the most basic level it means transcending the purely animal aspects of our motivations, behaviors and interests that are fairly well summarized in the lowest of Maslow's levels.  The Polymathican quest for erudition is a good example of this.  People who are functioning at the lower Maslow levels view education as a route to a job, which is a route to money, which is necessary to satisfy Physiological and Safety needs.  Polymathicans view erudition as an expression of humans' basic curiosity and consequently seek knowledge and understanding for their own sake, not as a tool to satisfy animal needs.

Transcendence also can be interpreted as a desire to externalize oneself, or to transcend self-interest, even enlightened self-interest.  Specifically, the transcendent person will be informed by ethical principles that are not based upon efficient functioning within their proximate social environment.  In this sense, transcendence stands opposite to Utilitarianism and more generally Consequentialism.  It implies that principles govern and that while the ends inform us as to the morality of the means, they do not, alone, justify them.

It has not been uncommon, in the history of Philosophy, to reify the non-animal character of humans as a soul or, alternately, the super-ego. Contemplative, reflective and synthesizing, it appears, experientially, to be in some way non-corporeal.  It is to this definition that some Polymathicans object.  In doing so, they are confusing the answer with the question.

The question is, 'To what do I refer when I refer to self?'  For some the answer may be a higher order, self-referential, manifestation of cognitive activity.  This answer does not make humans unique in their transcendence.  There is strong evidence that several other mammals are capable of recognizing themselves as individuals. However, it is an Objectivist interpretation of transcendence, not a logical repudiation of it.  In other words, it recognizes that some animals, including humans, cannot be explained entirely by describing them as 'survival optimized stimuli-response machines'.  There is something more, transcendent, about these animals.


There is a second order interpretation of transcendence that involves the contemplation of the human species' relationship to the rest of the universe. As a greater percent of the population gains sufficient affluence to focus on the higher Maslow's levels, this has become an important issue.  Some people believe that humans, in fact all species, have a moral imperative to place their well-being above the well being of other species.  Others think that humans in their ethical considerations should weigh the well-being of all species equally.

This is inherently a transcendent question.  Pure animals will pursue their own survival and well-being without any considerations of transcendent meaning. In fact, no animal, save humans, will contemplate the question at even a rudimentary level.  For that matter, only transcendent humans will.  Many, perhaps most, people spend little to no time thinking about this.

So, while I appreciate the negative connotations that the term transcendence has for many people, including some Polymathicans, I do not apologize for its inclusion.  In fact, I would argue that transcendence, in its several meanings, is above self-actualization on a modified Maslow's Pyramid.  I would also say that Polymathicans are not characterized by their answers to transcendent questions, but rather by their interest in them.  


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