Friday, 22 August 2014

Six Principles

Last summer I wrote about how I sometimes try to understand a worldview by mentally outlining an epic espousing its attitudes and assumptions. This forces me to ask specific questions about it, ones which I might not otherwise think to ask: what characteristics would the protagonist need to exhibit if he or she were to embody the community's values? which major event in history would be most appropriate as the epics subject?  what would its underworld look like, and what would it mean to descend there? if the worldview does not have gods which might intervene, what would be analogous to divine intervention in this epic? what contemporary discoveries or discourses would the epic mention? and so on. I also discussed how choosing the best genre for a worldview entailed asking similar questions: is this worldview more interested in individuals, communities, or nations? is this worldview especially interested in the sort of origin-stories that epics tend to be? is this worldview interested in the ways social order can be breached and repaired, as mysteries tend to show? and so on.

Well, I've been trying a similar thought exercise for understanding worldviews, which I'm calling the Six Principles approach. Basically, I'm trying to boil a position down to six principles, and while those principles do tend to have multiple clauses I try for some semblance of brevity. There are two points to this severe summary: the first is to try to shuck off a lot of the unnecessary details, and the second is to try to collapse multiple elements into one. Collapsing multiple elements into one principle forces me to figure out how different elements relate to one another (for example, satire and decorum in neoclassicism).

What I've found is that the Six Principles approach works far better when I'm trying to figure out things like intellectual movements rather than specific positions. For example, Romanticism and Neoclassicism were easier than Existentialism; Existentialism was easier (and likely more valid) than Quasi-Platonism; Quasi-Platonism was just barely possible while something like Marxism probably wouldn't have worked at all. Trying to describe a particular person's position is far harder. Movements, however, consist mostly of the overlap between different thinkers' views, which makes them easier to summarize. Further, it's easier to render attitudes rather than theories this way (though, of course, the distinction between the two isn't fine and clear).

Of course, I'm including a suppressed criterion for this exercise I haven't mentioned yet. See, I came up with the exercise while imagining a world-building machine which had limited granularity: for instance, you could designate what climate a nation had, and what sapient species populated it, but you couldn't get right in there and write their culture from the ground up. So you'd have to define cultural trends for the machine and give them names so you can apply them to nations (for instance, Nation A is temperate and wet, populated by humans and gorons, and is mostly Romantic with a minority Neoclassic culture). It's something I might use in a novel or similar project some day. Anyway, I wanted to see if I could actually define movements in a limited set of principles for the purposes of said possible novel, and it would have to be legible to the world-building machine and therefore couldn't depend on references to specific historical events (ie. romanticism is in part a reaction to increasing urbanization and industrialization in Europe).

Here are some of my attempts:

Neoclassicism (you saw this the other day)
  1. Reason and judgement are the most admirable human faculties.
  2. Decorum is paramount.
  3. The best way to learn the rules is to study the classical authors.
  4. Communities have an obligation to establish and preserve social order, balance, and correctness.
  5. Invention is good in moderation.
  6. Satire is a useful corrective for unreasonable action, poor judgement, and breaches of decorum.


  1. Spontaneity of thought, action, and expression is healthier than the alternative.
  2. A natural or primitive way of life is superior to artificial and urban ways of life.
  3. A subjective engagement with the natural world leads to an understanding of oneself and of humanity in general.
  4. Imagination is among the most important human faculties.
  5. An individual's free personal expression is necessary for a flourishing society and a flourishing individual.
  6. Reactionary thought or behaviour results in moral and social corruption.


  1. Individuals have no destiny and are obliged to choose freely what they become.
  2. The freedom to choose is contingent on and restricted by the situation in which the individual exists, both physically and in the social order.
  3. Authenticity means the ability to assume consciously both radical freedom and the situation that limits it.
  4. Individuals are responsible for how they use their freedom.
  5. Individuals have no access to a pre-determined set of values with which to give meaning to their actions, but rather must create their own.
  6. Humans are uniquely capable of existing for themselves, rather than merely existing, and of perceiving the ways they exist for others rather than for themselves.

Humanism (that is, Renaissance humanism, though its current secular homonym has some overlap)

  1. It is important to perfect and enrich the present, worldly life rather than or as well as preparing for a future or otherworldly life.
  2. Revival of the literature and history of the past will help enrich the present, worldly life.
  3. Education, especially in the arts, will improve the talents of individuals.
  4. Humans can improve upon nature through invention.
  5. Humanity is the pinnacle of creation.
  6. Individuals can improve themselves and thus improve their position in society.


  1. No perfect access to truth is possible.
  2. Simulations can become the reality in which one lives.
  3. No overarching explanation of theory for all experiences (called metanarratives) is likely to be true.
  4. Suspicion of metanarratives leads to tolerance of differing opinions, which in turns welcomes people who are different in some way from the majority.
  5. Individuals do not consist of a single, unified self, but rather consist of diverse thoughts, habits, expectations, memories, etc., which can differ according to social interactions and cultural expectations.
  6. Uncertainty and doubt about the meanings one's culture generates are to be expected and accepted, not denied of villainized.

Nerdfighterism (referring more to what John and Hank Green say than what their fans espouse)

  1. Curiosity, the urge to collaborate, and empathy are the greatest human attributes.
  2. Truth resists simplicity.
  3. Knowledge of the physical universe, gained through study and empirical research, is valuable.
  4. Individuals and communities have an obligation to increase that which makes life enjoyable for others (called awesome) and decrease oppression, inequality, violence, disease, and environmental destruction (called worldsuck).
  5. Optimism is more reasonable and productive than pessimism.
  6. Artistic expression and appreciation spark curiosity, collaboration, and empathy.

Quasi-Buddhism ("quasi-" because I make no mention of Buddha or specific Buddhists practices, as per the thought experiment)

  1. Suffering exists because of human wants and desires.
  2. The way to end suffering is discipline of both thought and action, especially right understanding, detachment, kindness, compassion, and mindfulness.
  3. Nothing is permanent and everything depends on something else for existence.
  4. Meditation frees the mind from passion, aggression, ignorance, jealousy, and pride, and thus allows wisdom to develop.
  5. Individuals do not have a basic self, but are composed of thoughts, impressions, memories, desires, etc.
  6. Individuals and communities can get help on their path to the end of suffering by following those who have preceded them on that path.

Quasi-Platonism ("quasi-" again because I do not refer to Plato and try to generalize somewhat, but this is still pretty close to Plato rather than, say, the neo-Platonists)

  1. All things in the physical world, including people, are imperfect versions of the ideal form of themselves.
  2. Knowledge is the apprehension of the ideal forms of things using reason.
  3. Individuals consist of reason, passion, and appetite.
  4. It is best to subordinate passion and appetite to reason, even though passion and appetite are not in themselves bad.
  5. Those who are ruled by reason ought to be in charge of society.
  6. It is best if things in the physical world, including people, act or are used in accordance with their ideal form.

Charistmaticism (as elucidated here)

  1. An individual or community open to the unexpected will receive surprising gifts.
  2. The natural world is enchanted, and what some may call the supernatural is merely the intensification of embedded creative (or corrupting) forces already present in a particular place or experience.
  3. Deliverance from evil entails satisfaction of both bodily and spiritual needs.
  4. Emotional and embodied experiences of the world are prior to intellectual engagement, which is dependent on the former.
  5. Right affection and right action require training in gratitude.
  6. Truth is best spoken by the poor and marginalized.

I'd be interested in seeing other attempts, if anyone would like to try their hand at it.

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