Subjunctivism ...
Subjunctivism ...
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... the greatest threat facing humankind. 


The great threat to this world is not global warming. Neither is it terrorism. It is not religious fundamentalism or unrestrained nationalism. It is not poverty, crime, or pollution or hatred or ignorance, or greed or fear. It is not racism and it is not sexism. It is not even overpopulation. The great threat to this world is Subjunctivism.

What is Subjunctivism?

Albert Einstein’s oft quoted: Imagination is more important than knowledge is a good example of Subjunctivism. Unfortunately, he was promoting the idea. The fact that he was talking about art and is almost always taken out of context is irrelevant. This six-word quotation has been misapplied to every aspect of life and now represents the world’s dominant (if unrecognized) philosophy. It is also an invitation to intellectual anarchy, justification for all of the world’s chaos, and possibly the most dangerous phenomenon in history of civilization. It is behind every problem faced by our planet and every problem faced by ourselves.

Imagination is more important than knowledge. It is a powerful idea, full of promise and wisdom. Use your imagination, we are told, and anything is possible, anything from perfect happiness to world peace. The answers are right there, within each one of us.

Albert Einstein may have had one of the greatest scientific minds in history; may have been the finest pure intellect of the last century; may have broadened our understanding of the universe more than any other human but in this case, he got it backwards. Take it literally: Imagination is more important than knowledge - and the folly of it becomes obvious.

It isn’t difficult to see the danger in the thought process behind this statement. Imagination springs from knowledge and does so naturally, just as form springs naturally from function, as wildflowers sprout from a fertile meadow, as more questions are inherent in all true answers. Knowledge, after all, is truth, (or truth understood), and when imagination is not grounded in truth, it is indefinable, unreliable, uncontrollable, without ethics, often pathological, and in the end, destructive, not creative.

One might think that anything not based on truth would be benign, doomed to fade and die for lack of substance. Subjunctivism, however, has developed a life of its own, and has given imagination precedence over truth. It is self-generating, self-justifying and self-promoting. It is, essentially perfect, - because it is not real hence its appeal.

It would be bad enough if this phenomenon limited its influence to artists, or even scientists, who are for the most part restrained from extravagance by their training in the scientific method, but  it has been adopted almost as an anthem by almost everyone with more than a secondary school education. Educators, philosophers, intellectuals, businessmen, politicians, students, parents, artists of every persuasion, and the media in its entirety accept it as a basic premise of hope for the world’s future. It is not.

Einstein is not to blame of course. (He also said The only source of knowledge is experience and If I had my life to live over again, I'd be a plumber”) He didn’t invent Subjunctivism. He simply, in one strange moment where his genius fell into step with his ignorance, reduced it to one simple, single, declarative phrase.

When he uttered that phrase over 80 years ago, Subjunctivism wasn’t the problem it is today. It wasn’t as widespread or deeply inculcated in so many people. It has been growing in the mind of mankind even as our brains have grown, but in the last couple of decades or so, the technological revolution has enabled it to grow exponentially.

What is Subjunctivism? It is part idealism and part intellectualism, part projection and part denial, part wishful thinking and part self-justification. It is ignorance posing as wisdom, ineptitude masquerading as excellence and fear exhibiting itself as bravado. It values attitude over aptitude, style over substance, intention over outcome, belief over behavior, opinion over fact, and fantasy over reality. It is an illusory end justifying the dismissal of means. It is life imitating art. It is the mother of moral relativism and the father of nihilism. It is the bliss of ignorance.

It is not only the big lie, it is the biggest lie, because it says that life itself is not real; it says that how one lives is of no consequence. It says that, in the end, nothing has any greater value or more meaning than what someone imagines it has, and it has elevated the imaginary to the dominant place in everyday perception. Any common ground for understanding life - and even beginning to address the world’s problems - disappears in an explosion of wishful, self-justifying thought.

There are several problems with exposing Subjunctivism. For one, the world’s now dominant urban cultures are immersed in it. For another, the Subjunctivist will not admit to any facts; he will simply use his imagination to create another interpretation more in line with his vision. To the Subjunctivist, vision is everything; truth is nothing. The Subjunctivist has an invented answer for everything, and every answer is completely and profoundly fulfilling and self-justifying.

Subjunctivism has taken many forms, and subjunctive thinking is difficult to avoid. The media and marketplace have surrendered to it. Business and politics pay homage to it. The University promotes it. The art-world worships it. We are all under the influence of its intoxicating effects, and it is spreading like a disease to the farthest reaches of the planet.

It is also being imported, particularly with the widespread interest in Eastern philosophy. The astonishing growth, in the Western World, of Eastern philosophies in all of their permutations is based mostly upon their reliance upon subjunctive thinking. Martial arts, Feng-shui, Yoga, Zen, and other pursuits are predominantly subjunctive in nature. This is not to say that much cannot be learned from understanding Eastern philosophy, or that there is some limited benefit in some of its practices: various relaxation techniques as in Yoga, for example, or understanding the essential nature of things as a goal of Zen, and the general tendency in Eastern Philosophy toward increased self-awareness, not to mention the sense of balance and harmony that has been all but lost in the West. The problem is that they all eventually overemphasize the metaphysical, forget the lessons of the physical, and lead away from truth.

Curiously, this is not something that Eastern philosophers totally disagree with. The awareness and advancement of things metaphysical is a basic precept of Eastern thought, and Spiritual growth is, in the West and the East, generally accepted as profoundly important and necessary to personal development. Nonetheless, it is the idea that real, organic, hands-on, physical life- experience in the natural world is not necessary for understanding truth that makes Eastern philosophy such a pure expression of the Subjunctive mind. This has profound implications for the practitioner.

The classic example is the age old, but now ubiquitous quest for enlightenment using Eastern practices. No longer must one accomplish anything to develop a sense of self-worth; no longer must one experience anything to become wise; no longer must one know anything at all to be all-knowing.

Serenity, enlightenment, satori and nirvana can all be accessed with little effort and minimal achievement. A martial art, a spiritual practice, even a breathing technique can provide personal growth or wisdom previously unknown and, more importantly, preferable and superior to any benefit one might get from participation in life. This is extreme, but no longer uncommon, and there are indications of this philosophy throughout the world. This is the great personal tragedy of Subjunctivism, that it is a philosophy of non-participation. Why live in a real world with all of its risks and imperfections when one can live in an imaginary world that seems perfect.

There is a simple reason for this. As the West has moved, over the past 2000 years, inexorably in the direction of personal freedom, the Eastern world has, for that long and longer, clung steadfastly to traditions that discourage individuality and deny personal freedom. Without personal freedom and the resulting individuation, self-discovery is impossible. Without self-discovery, a reliable personal reality can never develop. The mystical, metaphysical, surreal or imaginary become not only acceptable, but inevitable.

However, Subjunctivism is not exclusively an Eastern phenomenon. When Socrates wrote that the unexamined life is not worth living”, he got it backwards too; a life unlived is not worth examining. Western culture has its own versions and variations on the Subjunctive.

In philosophy, art and architecture, Subjunctive thought has found a home in Post-modernism and the further a work is removed from reality the more it is lauded. In politics, it is “Political Correctness”, and political rhetoric is collapsing under the weight of Subjunctivism into a cacophony of illogical, illusory and counterproductive demands by activists of every persuasion. Amongst the subjunctivist constituency of the electorate, the ability of a candidate to Articulate a Vision is often all that is required for serious consideration; all other qualifications being subordinate.

The environmental community has developed an almost purely Subjunctive mentality. After years of documenting mankind’s destruction of the environment, they have gradually adopted the view that mankind and the natural world should be mutually exclusive. The natural world must be protected and isolated from people. The average urbanite, already preoccupied with subjunctive pursuits, gladly accepts this view; a perspective which dovetails neatly with his lifestyle anyway. His only relationship with nature is as a spectator or to use its resources for the pursuit of some abstract sport. Any organic, holistic, utile relationship with the natural world is increasingly regarded as a threat to the environment, and of no value anyway.

Even the supposedly objective world of journalism is not exempt. The news media long ago started down the road to Subjunctivism when it decided that Man bites dog was News (and therefore important), a philosophy that, though pure nonsense, has become a generally accepted benchmark for what is acceptable as journalism. Inherent in this philosophy is the idea that the latest event, no matter how absurd or remote (or inspirational, for that matter), is more important than your life, and that collectively, the consciousness of the world should focus on the most recent aberration, rather than the value inherent in tradition, or the lessons of life, or the lessons of history or any lessons, for that matter. In short, living, in-and-of-itself, is just too boring and there is little to be learned from the experience. The important things are the new, unusual, and bizarre. With every edition, the news media, in effect, dismiss the entire history of civilization as "Yesterday's news".

In academia, abstract thinking has now displaced organic thinking. Theoretical Physicists imagine parallel universes, dimensions in double digits and a Theory of Everything totally detached from observation and experiment. Social Scientists strive to redefine human nature in accordance with their own contrived ideals. Formulas, theories, paradigms, postulates and hypotheticals have displaced practicalities to the extent that activities which take place outside the University are often recognized only to the extent that they fail to live up to their perceived potential. This promotes the teaching of idealism in the place of historic record, and allows for the revision of history to conform to a contemporary (and imaginary) standard. History itself is being rewritten as fast as one can imagine how it might have been different - its heroes turned into villains.

Heroes, in fact, play a large and necessary part in the Subjunctive world. Even amongst serious intellectuals, highly trained professionals and brilliant academics, the nature of the “Hero” has changed. For a Subjunctive Hero, courage, character and accomplishment are neither necessary nor desirable. The primary characteristic of the Subjunctive Hero is the ability to stimulate the mind or emotions. Scientific theories, finely articulated political rhetoric; visions of personal or social utopia; works of fiction, music and art, feats of athletic prowess; anything that strikes an emotional chord; anything that leaves one in a state of wonder.

Anything that fuels the imagination.

This limits the candidates to theorists, performers, critics, abstractionists, imaginary characters, revisionists, and others who have, for the most part, never actually accomplished anything substantive. Their acts, while at times extraordinary, are representational, speculative, analytical, hypothetical, purely entertainment or pure fantasy.

Leno and Letterman, Stewart and Colbert; Big Bird, Beyonce, Bono and Barney the Dinosaur; Donald Trump, Donald Duck, Snoop Dog and Snoopy; Mickey Mantle, Mickey Mouse, Michael Jordan and Michael Phelps; Babe Ruth, Billy Elliot, Bruce Lee and Justin Bieber; Stephen King, Stephen Spielberg, Dr. Seuss and Superman; Paris Hilton, Pablo Picasso, Harry Potter and Walt Disney; Hulk Hogan, James Joyce and Jackson Pollock and Tiger Woods; Oprah, Elvis, Kobe, Cher, Adele, Pink, Psy, Lady Gaga, Marilyn Monroe, the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills – and, of course, _________ (enter your own media/celebrity/hero here).

Actors and athletes and musicians, comedians and entertainers, intellectuals, activists and artists, even scientists and politicians, celebrities of every stripe perform and declaim in a make believe world that has taken precedence over the real world. Passionately, their fans talk, dress, act and aspire to be like these contrived personas and imaginary characters. Anything not wildly entertaining or superficially perfect is subject to immediate dismissal, if not ridicule. The Subjunctive mind is impatient, after all, and has no time for anything that is not programmed, scripted, formatted, choreographed, and guaranteed to turn out right.

Subjunctivism has taken many forms and some are not so harmless as to make people dress badly or claim enlightenment; things of little consequence and certainly not the great threat to this world. But consider: it was pure Subjunctive thinking that fueled Bin Laden, the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Further back, Marx and Engels were both Subjunctive thinkers, though Jefferson and Adams were not. It was Subjunctive thinking that incited the wild speculation in the stock market during the internet bubble of the 1990s, and Subjunctive thinking was as much a factor as greed in the collapse of Enron, WorldCom, and the financial and housing crises. Credit-

Default-Swaps, Synthetic-Collateralized-Debt-Obligations, and Pro-Forma-Earnings; all derivatives are manifestations of Subjunctivism. Yet even these events and artificial constructs, though of great impact, are often anomalies, and only the tip of the iceberg. There are deeper, more widespread effects of Subjunctivism.

Virtually every major problem facing humankind is now given widespread media attention. War, poverty, disease, crime, hunger, pollution, and other problems are presented daily to an increasingly concerned public. Billions are spent as prodigious attempts are made to correct them. Yet they continue to worsen. Indeed, there is often a direct positive correlation between the amount of money spent on a problem and the rate at which the situation deteriorates, rather than improves; the more money spent, the worse things get. Compounding the problem is the fact that the failed solutions often go unquestioned. Increasingly frantic and costly efforts are made to impose a Subjunctive solution on a Sequitorian problem.

Einstein’s Imagination is more important quote first appeared in the October 26, 1929 edition of the Saturday Evening Post. Three days later, on “Black Tuesday”, the stock market crashed, ending the “Roaring 20’s” era of Economic Subjunctivism, only to reappear 70 years later. Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan called its reemergence the result of Irrational Exuberance - as good a description of Subjunctivism as Einstein's, and in that case, properly applied. 

No, Albert, imagination is not more important than knowledge. Not in art, not in business, not in politics, and not in life.

So, Subjunctivism is not uncommon, and not limited to the simple-minded sports fan, abstract artist, political activist, spiritual visionary, or brilliantly evil terrorist. In fact, it is a part of the human condition. We are all, to some extent, Subjunctive thinkers. That, in-and-of-itself, is not bad, or even undesirable. After all, imagination does have its place. What, though, of the growing numbers of people who have little or no access to life-experience other than through their imaginations? This class, “The Ignoscenti” has been deprived of the very life that it was born into - first by circumstance, later by choice.

They have rejected engagement with the natural world in favor of devotion to an unnatural, abstract and imaginary world: The Subjunctive - and are often unable to distinguish between the two. They have replaced the potential completeness of the human life experience with an endless quest for distractions and amusements. They have replaced self-improvement and character-building with self-acceptance of personal pathologies. Ignorant of both motive and outcome, their actions are destructive to themselves, to others, and to the planet. Imagine that.

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Note: In Latin grammar, the subjunctive mood is a verb mood that typically expresses wishes, commands, emotion, possibility, judgment, necessity, and statements that are contrary to fact at present. Usage of the subjunctive mood includes discussing hypothetical or unlikely events, expressing opinions or emotions, or making a request. Details of subjunctive use vary from language to language.


©2000 The Sequitorian Society (rev. 2013)