A reflection on the fragments of Anaxagoras of Clazomenae
In my previous reflections I have attempted to map out the spectrum of opinion and belief when it comes to the nature of reality (see on Assumptions) and the good life (see on Worldview). In both these projects, I have highlighted the underpinning and often unstated beliefs of individuals as key to understanding the theory of ethics/politics that they use to govern their lives. However, I would posit that these beliefs do much more than merely mechanistically determining our code of conduct – they define who we are as individuals. As such, I will examine the role of belief in individuality – first by revisiting the divide between conditioning and consciousness, and then by looking at how we can consider belief as the basis of commonality between minds.
In a previous reflection, I examined the difference between the instinctual drivers of the mind, the societal and cultural conditioning that we undergo and the small aspect of consciousness, the will, which the nucleus of the self (see on Consciousness). I would posit that belief cannot be understood as conditioning – which is the unconscious acceptance of norms of behaviour. Beliefs are, instead, those aspects of our mental furniture that we accept through an act of will – and thus become the markers by which we define our individuality. It is in this sense that our cultural, social, linguistic and religious backgrounds cannot be the seed from which the concept of me is derived. It is when we begin to examine this conditioning and choose to accept or reject it that we begin the process of individualisation.
This is not to suggest that the self and belief are created ex nihilo – quite the contrary. Even if we reject our conditioning, or accept a belief structure outside our tradition, we are defined within the framework of those who went before us – either as believers, sceptics, proselytisers, heretics or apostates. The more you struggle to separate yourself from these traditions in the search for some form of ‘authenticity,’ the more you are defined by your rejection of tradition and culture – and how bitter the taste of irony. Thus, even the most ‘original’ of thought can only be understood as coming into being through the interplay of accepting, rejecting, reforming and mutating tradition.
Noting the above, we should attempt to thrive in the mixture of ideas and self-creation which is part and parcel of becoming an individual – but also recognise the dependent nature of our individuality. We are only individual because of the traditions and cultures through which we define ourselves – and it is in search of individuality that we can find true connections with others that are not predicated on the unconscious conditioning of our intellectual youth. In this sense, conscious belief is the great unifier – where we find our individuality but also our greater similarity with the rest of humanity.
George Goodwin Kilburne, Penning A Letter, <1924