Concrete or Casuistry?

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casuistry (kazjʊɪstri) noun: the resolving of moral problems by the application of theoretical rules.

As I continue my voyage through Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, I also continue to be astonished by the man. Limpid paragraphs of dense and pure meaning, sweeping historical context – and tub thumping Christianity. A heady mix.

But the page which stuck with me this week describes the challenges of Christian ethics; but also the constant challenge of modern organisational life:

“The attempt to define that which is good once and for all has always ended in failure. Either the proposition was asserted in such general and formal terms that it retained no significance as regards its contents, or else one tried to include in it and elaborate the whole immense range of conceivable contents, and thus say in advance what would be good in every single case; this led to a casuistic system so unmanageable that it could satisfy the demands neither of general validity nor of concreteness.”

Pretty much every strategy exercise or major organisational change programme I’ve ever worked on has wrestled with this. As Bonhoeffer puts it, the conflict between the ‘good’ and the ‘real’.

Bonhoeffer argues for concrete not casuistry. Not a bad place to go, not least given how bad things were in his times. But I go with Aristotle’s ‘golden mean’; the ‘good’ is always somewhere in the difficult and constantly contested place in between.


Obscurantism

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I congratulated a colleague yesterday on some lovely prose. His concise, interesting and informative writing made me happily read about 80 Moments which changed history – learning a lot in the process.

This morning, I read another piece of quasi-Academic writing; but which was much more of a slog. It was saying some important things, but in a rather portentous – even pretentious style. The few key points, could have been made a lot more simply.

Then, by happenstance I moved onto to a super article on ‘Obscurantism’ in the equally super Philosophy Now magazine. The question it poses is: when is being complex and hard to decode legitimate, useful; even necessary – and when is it plain unhelpful.

Here’s some of what Siobhan Lyons has to say:

‘Obscurantism’ can indeed be an effective manoeuvre, provoking greater thought-processes and intellectual investigation.

This couldn’t be illustrated more clearly than in Rembrandt’s The Holy Family with a Curtain (1646). I am less concerned with the religious meanings of this painting than I am about the curtain itself; a seemingly innocuous, pointless part of the work, and yet it provokes the viewer to wonder what lies behind it.

The curtain, blood red and purposefully pulled partly to the side, teases the viewer, offering not even a partial glimpse of what it completely obscures. The Virgin is plainly seen; and there is Joseph, semi-obscured in the background, near the curtain; but whatever is behind the curtain itself is left unanswered.

The painting thus features three forms of creative depiction: the Virgin’s clear visibility, Joseph’s semi-obscured form, and the curtain itself, a symbol of obscurantism, or rather, of the ability of obscurity to be creative, by emphasising the ambiguity that so often confronts us, which may however be the source of great art, and indeed philosophy.

For the greatest philosophies are aware of their own limits – aware of when they cannot answer the questions their philosophers ask. As Wittgenstein stated, language must be beset by certain limits.

So obscurity in language can be seen as not always self-defeating, but, ironically, as sometimes illuminating. Moreover, if language were a purely functional tool for communication, we would cease to have literature as we understand it.

If all curtains in all art were pulled completely aside to expose what lies behind them, then the need for imagination would deteriorate. This also explains why good writers are those who not only have a masterful grasp of language, but who also know how to pull it apart and put it back together in different ways.

Nicely put. Not everything in life, thought or Art can be expressed simply; and some things can’t be expressed at all. The art is in knowing which. But also, I think, in having a try. Only practice makes more perfect.