Skip to content

Against Human Flourishing?

A few notes about a difficult essay

Photo by Einar Storsul / Unsplash

The accomplished Paul J. Griffiths criticized the notion of human flourishing in Issue 21 of The Lamp.

He's an erudite and impressive man, but I found the essay surprisingly dense and redundant. If I understand his point correctly, he doesn't like the notion of "flourishing" because it sets up a binary: a dualism, a type of Manicheaism in human affairs. I think this excerpt captures his point:

[T]his way of talking about what is good for us brings with it unanticipated, unintended, and often invisible damage. It malforms our imaginations by leading us to see what we do and what is done to us in terms of a dualism which is often crude: a sharp division between damage, which detracts from our flourishing, and repair, which supports it. The many particular patterns, events, and undertakings apparent in human lives are then allotted to just one of the two categories. If the former, they are to be removed or minimized wherever possible. If the latter, they are to be sought and nurtured wherever possible. More repair, more flourishing; more damage, less flourishing. The task is to place what we do and what is done to us in one category or the other, and act accordingly. Paul J. Griffiths

I agree with all that. If we say some things help us "flourish," we, by implication, say some things don't help us flourish: some activities are conducive to flourishing and others are conducive to non-flourishing.

I don't understand why the point needed a few thousand words of elucidation.

Much of the essay focuses on death. The valid point: If flourishing is the focus, death becomes a great evil. Fair enough. Our culture is far too afraid of death, and such inordinate fear is no doubt related to its burgeoning infatuation with flourishing.

But I still don't see a profound point.

The Hemisphere Hypothesis Explains the Point Better

I do, however, see another instance of the hemisphere hypothesis in action (to the man with a hammer . . . ).

Modern culture is left-hemispheric culture. The left hemisphere craves certainty. It therefore likes categories: clear divisions among things, so it can count, quantify, and calculate. The clearest categorization? The binary. Everything is either-or. Modern culture, therefore, is binary culture.

Which means it's dualistic.

Which means it's Manichaeistic.

These are bad things.

But they're still things. Categories exist. They're just not precise. There's a lot of Venn--overlapping, blurred lines, things that shift from one category to the next and then out again.

But that doesn't mean there's nothing discernible within the binaries.

Just because knowledge can't be divided into binaries, doesn't mean there's nothing to know, and just because it's not always clear what helps us flourish and what doesn't, that doesn't mean we can't flourish and ought not to try.

"Knowledge of something that is by its nature not precise will itself have to be imprecise, if it is to be accurate." Iain McGilchrist

Postmodernism and the Hemispheres

The problem with many forms of postmodernism (e.g., Derrida's deconstructionism) is that, once they deconstruct the modern world of binaries, they conclude that there is no world, period. They use rationality to destroy rationality, then say there is no reason.

To frame it in the words of the hemisphere hypothesis: Postmodernists show that the left hemisphere is ridiculously wrongheaded when it acts by itself and then conclude that reality is ridiculous (non-existent). They never cross the corpus callosum to the right hemisphere and see what insight it might add.

The Lamp Magazine | Against Human Flourishing
On a dualistic mode of thought.