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Encouraging Communication Through Imagination

Shudong Chen communicates about the importance of communication.

Our need for communication coincides with our very existence. Along with our first kicks of legs and throws of arms, our first cries as newborn infants are before we can even open our eyes to figure out the world.

Rousseau emphasizes the unique function of communication in his Discourse on the Origin of Human Inequality (1754). In this essay, both human civilization and inequality begin when someone is shrewd enough to pick up a rock, use it to mark a place on the ground, and declare “This is mine!” and then find someone foolish enough to believe him. Civilization therefore starts with communication.

For Adam Smith communication also precedes commerce, because the division of labour “from which so many advantages are derived,” as Smith emphasizes at the very beginning of The Wealth of Nations (1776), is “not originally the effect of any human wisdom, which foresees and intends the general opulence to which it gives occasion,” but is instead a result of “the necessary, though very slow and gradual, consequences of a certain propensity in human nature … to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another” (p.13). But this crucial “disposition to barter [as] the cause of the division of labour” is ultimately founded upon “that principle to persuade which so much prevails in human nature” so much so as to become the “real foundation of division of labour” (Lectures on Jurisprudence, 1763, p.494, my emphasis). Smith recommends a cultivation of this natural propensity: “We ought then mainly to cultivate the power of persuasion… indeed we do so without intending it [since our] whole life is spent in the exercise of it” (ibid). If communication is what starts the division of labor, it is also, ironically, something division of labor seems to impede: according to Smith the division of labor also tends to gradually extinguish our natural desire for persuasion and for the best possible mutual understanding. For Smith the most devastating negative impact of division of labor is for humanity to be deprived of the “proper use of the intellectual faculties” in this sort of way (p.740). And for Smith, “a man without the proper use of the intellectual faculties of a man, is, if possible, more contemptible than even a coward.” So what can we do to alleviate this negative impact of the modern economic system?

Use Your Imagination

To answer that question we must go back to basics, and keep communication alive in ways that Smith might himself emphasize, that is, by means of imagination, which will enable us to sympathize as engaged and impartial spectators – the goal of Smith’s moral philosophy. Imagination can significantly improve every conceivable aspect of our lives, because neither sympathy nor impartiality can function without imagination. For Smith, “whatever judgment we can form concerning [other people’s conducts, motives, and sentiments], accordingly, must always bear some secret reference, either to what are, to what, upon a certain condition, would be, or to what we imagine ought to be the judgment of others” (p.110, emphasis added). Only in this way can we then “endeavour to examine our own conduct as we imagine any other fair and impartial spectator would examine it.”

We can undoubtedly cultivate the power of imagination by means of arts and literature. This constitutes the essential part of Smith’s untiring call for liberal and moral education – as the indispensable means to enrich our imagination. So to improve our communication, we must enrich our imagination by means of literature, especially the classics, which are an inexhaustible well of wisdom about and for humanity. Smith’s own writing, such as his Theory of Moral Sentiments, illuminates the case, because, as Charles Griswold says in Adam Smith and the Virtues of Enlightenment, Smith’s writing is often “so permeated with examples, stories, a literary reference and allusions, and images … that at times it presents the character of a novel; narrative and analysis are interwoven throughout” (pp.59-60).

The ancient Chinese philosophical classic Zhuangzi, which is about and purportedly by the eponymous sage, illustrates how having the imagination that Smith so advocates means, first and foremost, being able to think in new and original ways, with a simple flip of the mind. One day Zhuangzi hears his friend, Huizi, a logician, complaining about a huge gourd as being too big to make any use of, either as a regular water container or as water dippers after splitting it in half. Zhuangzi asks him to make canoes from it, for the wonderful experience of floating freely along the river. When Zhuangzi hears Huizi complaining of an enormous five-hundred-year-old tree as being too old and too big to use for anything, Zhuangzi advises his frustrated friend not to give up on it, but to sit under the tree and see what perfect shade and shadows he can enjoy. For Zhuangzi there is nothing wrong with the gourd or the tree. The error is in his friend’s mind, which is too narrowly focused and needs a simple flip.

In Chapter 19 of Zhuangzi, Prince Lu tries to honor his favorite bird the way he would like himself to be honored – with the best of his palace’s resources, food, and music; but in doing so he scares the bird to death. The conclusion is, the best way is to respect nature and other sentient beings on their own terms. And we can understand them on their terms by use of sympathetic imagination. Otherwise, even with our best intentions and endeavors, we may act destructively, like the prince.

Imagination can also mean keeping alive our skeptical minds by transforming artificial boundaries. The wall in the poem ‘Mending Wall’ by Robert Frost is a good metaphor here. It was not only built by Rousseau’s property-making individual, but also seems to be mended by generation after generation of those who hold it almost as a sacred relic of inalienable cultural identity. The wall also stands as an indispensable medium of social bonds, communication, and collaboration. The wall confirms social convention (“Good fences makes good neighbors”), but it also apparently promotes critical thinking. For example, the poem’s narrator asks, “What was I walling in or walling out?” This is also what we are to ask of our own minds.

The questioner may never find his answer, but finally comes to imagine for himself, and thus becomes fully human. He steps out of the shadow of tradition to live a life worth living by examining the tradition, and his life, with a skeptical mind – with creative and critical imagination – while his neighbor, so blindly embroiled in the wall-mending business, is, as Frost says, still “like an old-stone savage armed,” living in the shadows and the inertia of the wall-mending tradition. The wall thus ironically creates a common ground for people to engage one another for collaboration, despite all odds. Thus, what Frost describes is a very paradoxical condition, which nonetheless motivates human communication.

As indicated in another well-known poem by Frost with a deceptively simple theme and scenario, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’, imagination also suggests how to communicate with oneself – by means of stopping to take in the surroundings. In this poem we seem to encounter another Rousseauian lonely human who must single-handedly cope with existential problems. His brief pause amid the mysterious environment for the first time makes him fully conscious of what he is doing and where he is:

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year…
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

The silence of nature thus communicates most effectively to the soul. With this brief moment of self-consciousness the narrator becomes a self-reflective person, an autonomous individual with an awakened power of imagination. Until this very moment, he is indeed very much like the ‘savage’ neighbor in ‘Mending Wall’, because he was carried forward by the inertia of his life. Always on the go, he never slowed down to ‘smell the roses’. He might even not be able to smell roses anymore, having lost his senses and his imagination after such a long while not using them... A pause for a momentary inspection, introspection and retrospection is necessary for us to reassume our vital communicativeness, which may fall asleep under the spell of our energy-depleting lives. So this ‘simple’ poem reveals how we should not just blindly rush or push ourselves, but pause for humanity-enriching moments of communicative silence, through the mysterious, ‘magic’ mediation of nature.

Classic poetry also reveals hard-to-categorize situations which often cause miscommunication, and which sometimes drive a great mind such as Confucius to such desperation that he wants to give up speaking altogether. However, desperation also makes great minds, such as Confucius’s, become versatile and resourceful in communication. To communicate, Confucius, for instance, often makes contradictory comments. This is why he appears so consistently inconsistent on many issues, such as his definition of ‘benevolence’ (ren) – an idea which varies much from place to place, person to person. This rhetorical strategy for effective communication so characteristic of Confucius, can be further understood through Zhuangzi. One day Zhuangzi sees a fish in the Hao River and says “How happy is the fish swimming there!” His companion Huizi instantly replies, “You are not a fish, so how do you know that the fish is happy?” Zhuangzi responds “You are not me, so how do you know that I don’t know that the fish is happy?” and he adds “I know from here” – by which Zhuangzi means that he knows it on this very spot, at this very moment, in this particular circumstance.

This brief conversation reveals rich implications concerning the paradoxical nature of language, which not only facilitates but also limits human expression in the ways it allows one to speak. Even if Huizi meant to undermine Zhuangzi’s authority as someone who understands the feelings of fish, he is caught up in language which enables him only to say what he does not mean: Huizi has no choice but to format his question with the ‘how do you know?’ pattern, which automatically assumes that one knows or is capable of knowing. Huizi’s question is also ambiguous, because it can be either taken as a rhetorical question, implying that ‘there’s no way for you to know’, or as a real question with a plea for information: ‘Tell me how you know’.

The exchange underlines how language or communication is contextually, emotionally, and imaginatively ‘situated’, to use a term from Stephen Toulmin’s Return to Reason (2003). Toulmin observes that language is situated beyond any of its formal structure. For Toulmin “all kinds of speech and language are more or less situated or embedded in their occasion of use … none of them are written or spoken alone.” (p.26).

Enriching Communication

Understanding all these crucial subtly-situated and situational elements of language is particularly helpful in minimizing the negative impact of modernity, which in the name of efficiency often impoverishes communication through boxing our minds in. This is because the mindset of modernity is not only obsessed with scientific models and with standardization for the sake of clarity, purity, originality, efficiency, transparency and therefore controllability, but also has no tolerance for ambiguity and paradoxes. The term ‘modernity’, indeed, refers to a mindset that prevails through ideological indoctrination, absolutism, intolerance, and even violence, often at the expense of healthy doses of humanism, skepticism and tolerance – as Toulmin describes in Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity (1990).

Wittgenstein makes this clearer when he argues in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922) that “the whole modern conception of the world is founded on the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena… people treating them [the laws of nature] as something inviolable, just as God and Fate were treated in past ages… the modern system tries to make it look as if everything were explained” (p.143). Thus modernism is a dangerously self-righteous mindset that we must be cautiously aware of for the sake of effective cross-cultural communication.

We also need to understand and respect cultural similarities and differences. For instance, between ‘integrity orientation’, which, according to Thomas Kasulis in Intimacy or Integrity: Philosophy and Cultural Differences (2002), is Western, and based on the principle of fairness; and ‘intimacy orientation’, which is Eastern and based on the principle of responsiveness. We must also understand the limits of cultural interchangeability. Otherwise, while “trying to make a philosophical analysis without adopting a cultural orientation” we may act as if “trying to make a pun that is not in any language” (Intimacy or Integrity, p.158).

To replace our usual mindset through our awakened critical creative power of imagination we also need to heed Einstein’s emphasis on the importance of education in the humanities for cultivating well-rounded individuals. In other words, people are not ‘specially-trained dogs’, or, in a milder term from Confucius, mere ‘tools’. This is also why Adam Smith thought an education in the liberal arts indispensable, as the last line of defense against the negative impacts of the division of labour.

For communication to stay enriched, not impoverished, we need to take communication not just as data collecting and processing, but as a humanistic endeavor for knowledge, understanding, and imagination. It is not purely a matter of science, but of artistic innovation as well. Neither is it a mere issue of professional training, but a holistic experience of culture and personal improvisation. Only in this way will we never lose sight of the very basic and best in our humanity.

Thus, we should stop calling people who are different from us ‘eccentric’. Weren’t Thoreau, Socrates, even Confucius, let alone the Daoists, once (if not still) considered eccentric? Are we not as eccentric in holding on to our values wherever we are, such as our passionate love of lawns even in the most densely-populated areas with serious water-shortage problems? Just like the person in Frost’s poem questioning aloud what we ‘wall in’ and ‘wall out’ regarding so many of our habitual mindsets, should we not also ask whether there is indeed any merit in the eccentric’s stance? We may find not only the freedom indicated in poetry and literature, but also the wisdom we need to reconcile what otherwise appears utterly irreconcilable.

A good case in point is Kasulis’ reference in Intimacy or Integrity to a Japanese professor of philosophy who reconciles what seems an otherwise irreconcilable conflict with a simple flip of the mind. The professor suggests installing a rotating mirror atop a skyscraper which otherwise cuts off the sunlight to a once sunny little park in the neighborhood, causing the park to become “dark and dingy almost all day long” with “flowers dying and the pool of water overrun with scum” and “mold, mildew, and moss taking over the rocks and trees” (p.123). The rotating mirror, in closely following the sun’s motion, brings back by reflection not only the sunlight, but also life in and around the park. The professor even recommends that solar panels be placed in the park to catch some of the reflected rays, to generate electricity to light the park’s walkways at night and to run a small pump so that a little waterfall could filter and aerate the water in the park’s garden.

For the professor, emphasizes Kasulis, the entire matter was “not of doing something to penalize the irresponsible action of the developers” (p.124). Rather, both sides were bound together through effective communication amidst a revived sense of community. The situation was thus “handled by the neighbors and developers as two overlapping groups with a common problem” without attorneys involved in negotiations, but with “an ecologically moral [solution arising] out of their commonality, out of a… confrontation of opposing groups.”

Language-Using Humanity

With continuous imaginative efforts for constructive dialogue and the creative flipping of minds, we may eventually find further common values to share with one another, in ways characteristic of an engaged but impartial spectator with the power of sympathy and imagination, as Smith would have it. We can try this for many issues, such as controversial rights issues, environmental ethics, eco-critical approaches, or even to evoke the ‘environmental imagination’ that would, as Lawrence Buell suggests, enable us to see a world “more interesting… from the perspective of a wolf, a sparrow, a river, a stone” (Environmental Imagination, 1995, p.179). We can thus stay engaged in dialogue with people of very different interests and rights, not for the sole purpose of persuading them that we are right and they are wrong, but to keep the communication channel open. What we eventually gain as a result is the infinite strengthening and consolidation of the communal bonds which define our humanity – in comparison with which any issues of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ would be only trivial or accidental. We can also adjust our thinking in accordance with the common ground which inevitably emerges from time to time in the process. As we gradually learn how to sympathize with people radically different from us, we may discover that between the yards covered with asphalt and the ubiquitous lawns, there is some common ground.

All these efforts could help us communicate with one another for genuine understanding for a strengthened communal bond. As long as we understand how to communicate for communal bonds in this way, we will be in a better shape for environmental, economic, cultural and social sustainability and progress. This is indeed the wisest advice from Smith, one of the most insightful but overlooked moral philosophers of the eighteenth century, offered from behind his much-mistaken, maligned, or deified image as a capitalist economist.

© Dr Shudong Chen 2012

Shudong Chen, originally from Shanghai, took his PhD at the University of Kansas and is now Professor of Humanities at Johnson County Community College, Kansas.

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