Non-reciprocating Relations

Back in 1992, as Thomas Langan’s major work, Being and Truth, was starting to take its final form, he added a section to the book which I had written on the subject of non-reciprocating relations.

Of late, I have been given cause to think again on this whole concept, and I find that there is practically nothing I would unsay from that work of twenty years ago: to be truthful, I think this to be a fundamental philosophic change worthy of further exploration.

Briefly, the idea is this. Relations — between things, between people, and between people and things — are real forces operating in the world. Some of these are reciprocal: each acts upon the other. A much larger number are non-reciprocal: one acts, the other may not even know it. These, though, operate as well in the world.

The notion of the non-reciprocating relation came back into focus last year, when I was following the process of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way in producing morning pages.

The journals I filled with my daily writing of three pages in longhand turned from a “what on earth do I do with this blank page” into a regular working-out of long-held thoughts. They also became a vehicle for gearing up my writing, doing more of it, and more regularly, and an enjoyable raison du jour each day.

Indeed, what I write has become almost the equivalent of a “friend”, in that I write to speak out loud quite as much as I do to communicate to an audience.

The idea that relations are real, and that almost all of them are launched into the world without reciprocation, was one of my two major contributions to Tom’s work (other than the editing of it).

It is certainly the one I am most proud of, despite the resounding silence with which the philosophic world greeted it (although, to be fair, I did not follow it up with a string of papers, either; we must make choices as to our use of time, and, rightly or wrongly chosen, we must accept the consequences these unfold).

Today, I do not typically read the philosophic literature, and do not therefore know if I had in fact simply fallen into a re-invented long-held idea, or onto a path long- prepared, but, as with Ms. Ann Elk of Monty Python fame, “it it a theory and it is mine” for all of that.

All of my writing on the Internet, in fact, is an example of the non-reciprocal: from a comment given to someone’s article or blog posting, to my own blogs, to my paid work for the Beacons (now) or Computerworld a few years ago, all of my words go out into the bitisphere and may possibly find a reader — or not — who is bored by it, angered by it, or possibly even sympathetique.

This is just as with my morning pages: the moving pen writes, and the words never seen again. In the case of the morning pages, of course, the intended recipient is my later self, someone who does not yet fully exist when the words are written.

Then there are personal non-reciprocating relations, intentional yet unable to be responded to for the most part.

Walter Kaufmann has been gone for 32 years; George Grant for 24; and yet in both cases I have a non-reciprocal response not just to their words in their works, but to them as individuals (in part and in profile, they are “people”).

(It is as I used to say, “Pierre Trudeau is good for only one thing: to be the provocateur at dinner”: I certainly never suffered from Trudeaumania and remain convinced he was a disaster as Prime Minister, weaving a web of dangers and warps to this country’s fabric we are nowhere near done recovering from, but even that represents a relation toward a man I never met and never really wanted to meet.)

In fact, the hallmark of the non-reciprocating relation is “intention toward” — a pro-jection, to use Tom Langan’s formulation — whether that is to cross ‘space’ between roughly contemporaneous beings, as with blogging, or to cross ‘time’, as with writing for my future self, or in trying to reach the person behind an oeuvre even after they have died.

(The reciprocal relation, on the other hand, is a pair of intentions directed between two entities.)

In any event, intention matters. That which I have no intention toward holds no relevance for me.

It can be right here, right now, and I will neither really perceive it nor care about it, unless I am forced into reciprocity with it. Tripping over a rock or root in the forest, I am engaged in reciprocity by its original ‘intention’ to maintain its own integrity as a time-space entity when faced with my foot.

(Had I been a better student of my Tai Chi, of course, I would have “stepped empty” – a non-reciprocal act – and not have tripped even when my toe nudged said object.)

Tai Chi itself is a mix of reciprocal (push hands, certainly, but also in keeping in step with a group), conjoined non-reciprocal (equal and opposite forces at work) and univocal non-reciprocal (stepping empty) relations worthy of prolonged reflection.

Some may well say that I make too much of all of this, but, unless one wants to fall into an implicit or explicit Platonism, there really is no recourse.

None of our loves, for instance, are real in the sense of being self-standing entities in the world.

We can point to a collection of blood-related and marriage-bonded people and say “the X family”, but what a family really is is expressed in a mass of intentional relations past, present and future-directed.

So — to follow George Grant — as our loves widen from me-you to family to community to nation and so on to love of the good in itself (and the beautiful and the true), for each this is intention-toward, or non-reciprocal.

Was “God” invented in the minds of people to be a response to that intention? — There are many who “use” God in precisely this way.

But — if one is a Platonist — there is an objective Form of the Good; reciprocation is possible. If not, we are intending toward … not a thing, but a projection of purified attribute found and emergent from the experience of the real entities of our life.

We intend, we pro-ject, we name the result. We are left needing to intend, when faced with something; to call it a name or a class is also to make an intention.

Thus all our abstractions are a web of intention, built on the real ground of concrete interactions and intentions toward real things.

Look around you: how many non-reciprocal relations can you find? How many have you engaged in?

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One Comment

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  1. William F. Spaulding 28/03/2012 — 12:08

    Good reading Mr. Stewart.

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