The Wisdom of Intimacy

Edward Abbey – he of Desert Solitaire, one of the classics questioning the values of our modern world – wrote a short and scathing essay of a laboratory scientist intent on studying dog behaviour because “no one had done it before.”  In a lab of course.  Perhaps it would have its very own cage … with a blanket.  Abbey doesn’t bother to demonstrate his knowledge of dog behaviour by his interaction with dogs, he simply states that any 10 year old boy will know more from having a dog as a loved companion and playmate, than any lab scientist will ever know.  Sometimes we take the myth of objectivity a little too far.  Abbey’s essay woke me up a bit.  I realised that I had been doing similar things by looking at land through a particular lens.

It makes you think about what it is to ‘know’.  F David Peat – a nuclear physicist – discusses this in Blackfoot Physics in which he examines an alternative Indigenous worldview where the whole idea of an outside objective view is incomprehensible – the world into which quantum physics is taking us as well.  The Blackfoot have a concept of ‘coming to knowing’ which is only achieved by not just doing, but being – the gaining of implicit knowing of a huge complex rather than the specific facts of some single things outside a context.  It is more than a hunter learning to be a hunter by hunting, it is coming to knowing through some broad set of senses – the net effect being they expect a young person to survive and find their way home from hundreds of miles away.  This is intimate knowing.

Intimate knowing is what Aristotle referred to with Phronesis – practical wisdom – his “queen of the intellectual virtues.”  You do not get it in the classroom, because that has no context.  You do not get it by learning a technique through doing – riding a horse perhaps, working in a lab.  You get it by experiencing the complex, particular and shifting contexts.  You get it by being inside something.

And that is a challenge to our current world view – that intimacy is more vital than objectivity.

In order to know – I mean really know, to have wisdom, to understand, to ken (“D’ya ken, laddie? No ye dae-ye-kenwee counting instrrrument therre laddie, but rreally ken”) – you need intimacy – an intimate relationship with a thing, a space where you lose yourself in being at one with the new whole that is you and that thing (the actor, the act, and the stage)- without one reference at all to an explicit thought.  You know and act, because you are wrapped up within and around that thing – the implicit dominates the explicit.  You don’t Ken Meaning.pngthink, you just feel and do, because you just know.

You see this when artists get into a zone.  You can reach the sublime.  At a dinner party once when discussing the incredible intimacy you get when you allow your emotions to channel through you, our host suddenly rose and returned with a painting she had done in a burst of emotion when a lover had left her life; a naked form wrapped up in its own limbs – profound and beautiful in despair.  No words were needed to describe how she felt.

You see it with a great sportsperson whose 10,000 hours of doing allows them to just be within something.  The intuition of the expert of this particular place.  There is beauty here as well.  Miranda Leek - the mystery.pngSo much beauty.  The chef who can bring tastes together in some new complex which a food technologist could never do with all their chemistry.  The musicians creating something essentially indescribable outside of bearing witness to the experience.  Or a man and a dog working a flock where one slow step to the right can make the whole thing change. You see it when a nurse or paramedic just act with a lightness of being, where intuition supplants the procedural rules.  You see magic created not by the machine of ordered parts, but by the organic, feeling, intuitive thing.  They have moved beyond the measures and procedures and manuals to another world where lies creativity and art.

Call it being in the zone, or Zen and the Art of Archery, the-hitter-and-the-hitor channelling, or whatever. But it’s real.

Have we forgotten that truth in our rush to dissect and murder with value-laden measures we call ‘objective’?  Do the politicians and Treasury economists who think the world a machine have any idea what they are doing when they not only dismiss the inherent wisdom and intimacy of local democracy, but make the appalling judgment to emphasise the STEM subjects over the Arts and Humanities.  Back to the novice rules where there is no room to hold more than one function in your mind at the same time – so all we will be told to see is grass growth, or milk units, or trees but no forests.

Does objectivity – which I would argue is a complete myth – have a higher place than intimacy in our pursuit of better knowing and judging?   I think that is an epistemological fallacy.

And part of the myth is the arrogance that so often resides within the most myopic and irrelevant of spreadsheets.  I know them well.  All well and good as guides – sometimes you can laugh and do the opposite.  Dangerous as unthinkingly followed guide-dogs, leading those who dare not think outside the box, for fear of having a quantitatively unsubstantiated view – and technocrats are not good at questioning deeply buried assumptions.  Or is it professional ego?  The biggest fears (or egos) have the smallest ears.  The biggest egos are never vulnerable enough, nor curious enough, to listen and learn from the gentler folk, or the land.  The biggest egos must do and can never be content to just be.  Their love of mechanical order and dissection – and never mind all the metaphysical assumptions with that view – results in the imposition of hierarchical command, the dis-integration of meaning, the alienation of thought and reflection.  It results in separation, because it believes with the most ardent faith in separation, in the very opposite of intimacy.

Have we assigned a false status of ‘knowing’ to technocratic hierarchies where the least intimate, the least connected, those who least understand this thing, this complex, in this place, in this time, with these ever-shifting conditions in play, with these contingencies?

Some of these least intimate deign not to listen to the people “hefted” to this place; they think that being disconnected provides a hefted-meaningposition of better knowing.

Have we forgotten what it is to “heft” to land and place and community?  Why have quanta and presumed universal mechanical order been afforded a higher status than the shifting qualities of life as a murmuration of starlings?  What metaphors we live by.

Our world is more integrated system (think a parent-child or person-land or bird-bird-landscape complex) than it ever is a machine (think a factory with hard, obedient, single function and obedient cogs).

Start with this: our world is not a machine, however much they wish it so.

This world of ours; this world of people, landscapes, ecology, community, and economy is a soft system: complex, shifting and adaptive, and defined by relationships and place.

Look at those things through the eyes of a narrow machine operator of life, and you will always get it wrong.  You can destroy the promise in pursuit of a single function ‘efficiency’: turn the stream in all its beauty and constant creativity into a drain; turn a street where people meet and walk and talk, creating happiness, ideas, initiatives and play …. into a grey and foreboding place where all those unmeasured ‘inefficient’ things are destroyed in pursuit of more cars; without thought, without ken, without acknowledgment, without any concept of their own hubris and sin.  The totalitarian spirit-crushing, idea-killing, dialogue-silencing, unseeing and fragile world of Fascism, Soviet Communism and Mega-Corporate hierarchical madness.

You have to be hefted to a place to realise what can be lost when hierarchies of dull professionalism trump the potential they cannot see, and make a machine out of a work of art.  To realise the magic we can create requires intimacy within a thing – “the hitter and the hit as one reality.”

Our world is in a conflict with two comprehensive world views.  You can call them by all the names of spurious and confusing worth – Modernity or Indigenous perhaps – but what they really amount to is summed up by the relationships they encourage and discourage.  We are stuck – for the moment – in a comprehensive world view that encourages distance and discourages intimacy…..

… at a time when we need more than ever connection and intimacy.

Chris Perley

Chris Perley is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability with a philosophy, governance, research, management and policy background in provincial economies, rural sociology and natural systems.

Donation to Thoughtscapes Blog

Donations are welcomed with my sincere thanks. You can simply click the multiples of $5 donations, then click on the Paypal or any of the Credit or Debit Card symbols. It also allows me to get rid of the pesky advertisements! And it’s a nice way to say thank you. So thank you 🙂


This entry was posted in Land Use, Thought Pieces, Ways of Seeing. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Wisdom of Intimacy

  1. Kris NZ says:

    Another excellent thoughtscape!

  2. petichinin says:

    Hi Chris, nice one. Brings to my mind the view of the Transactionalists – Dewey, Phillips – that being human means that we are constantly transacting with others and our environment to get our needs met and, in the process, we are altered by those transactions. It is not simply us, ‘doing’ an interaction or making a change in our surroundings. We and whatever we transact with are changed in that moment of engagement…it is an ongoing process of ‘dance’ and adjustment through all forms of ‘intimacy’.

    Warm regards, Phyllis

    Phyllis Tichinin
    CEO and Founder
    True Health Ltd.
    64 – 06 874 7897 or 027 465 1906
    PO Box 8055 Havelock North NZ 4157

    • cjkperley says:

      Thanks Phyllis. “.. an ongoing dance and adjustment through all forms of intimacy..” is exactly it. Love that whole metaphorical alternative between dancing through life, and marching. In our dance in life we accept intimacy with our surroundings, and adapt to the uncertainties and the surprises and inherent uncontrollability of where you will exactly be on the dance floor at any one time – who will bump you, what your partner will do – a couple as an intimate relationship, the rest of the dance floor as another – a murmuration of life. In contrast whose who choose the march perhaps have a desire for certainty and control by marching across the floor without any attempt at intimacy – alone, ‘objective’, who will never feel the joy, and when surprise inevitably happens they will retreat into what they know rather than grow.

  3. cjkperley says:

    Reblogged this on Chris Perley's Blog and commented:

    I’m reposting this because I am working on something that shifts perspective from a place. We move from the intimacy of the field to the office and make our decisions there. We presume objectivity. We put more weight on the number than the shifting patterns. We simplify the complexity and discard so much of what was there, in order to be – as we were taught – ‘professional’.

    Why am I so sensitive to this point? I grew up on land, loving land, as a child my brother Andrew and I would be gone, making mischief with an Agee jar and wolf spiders in the woodland duff, chasing eels amongst the rocks. Patterns were everywhere. From a windy knob to a boggy hollow, to the smell of old pine and wariness of the bloody dive-bombing magpies in spring. Patterns when you look at where the stock move, and when. Patterns in mustering and our quiet unconsidered admiration for a man working seven dogs and knowing exactly what he is doing because he feels all the patterns. I once had an argument when someone who felt that ‘knowing’ was about the office, and I remembered an old forester referring to the “slipper foresters”, who don’t need boots to walk the land between the coffee pot and the computer.

    I’m sensitive because the loss of the use of legs highlights the point. What is it to know?

    And after years of studying botany and forest ecology and then more in the field, I ‘got it’ one day. I got forest ecology. I got that it wasn’t the stratification of indigenous vegetation association over 1000s of hectares that mattered. It wasn’t collecting all the stats from across the transect lines trudged over ridges and gullies and aspects, and then putting them into a melting pot – a mince maker – to come up with various quanta.
    What mattered was that everything changed from one world to the next within literally a few metres. Here in this place the combinations and associations were this, and these particular histories and variables made it what it was. Shift to another place and it was another set. Shifting mosaics in time. Dynamic and complex. Change in time and place, one minute to the next, one metre.

    It was brilliant, awe-inspiring.

    And all our models tended to simplify these complexities. And then get things wrong where we used them as guide-dogs and not just guides to those who retain the intimacy with place. I believe in simple models, so you can know that here – where this particular history and set of key variables are different than the model assumptions – you can use your own judgment.

    And I wondered why when dealing with policy and seeing universal prescriptions that there wasn’t the same sensitivity to that essentially ecological sense. A great deal of the economics so ascendent in the 1990s (and, let’s face it, today) was the sense that the world was this universal machine defined by a reduction of things to cogs working on simple assumptions. Newtonian economics.

    And it was so different from my own experiences of the complexity of nature in the field. And I knew humanity was complex as well. And so for economics to work, to be in any way useful, it followed that it had to work within those complexities of place and culture. It was dealing in the double complexity of integrated socio-ecological systems. But it didn’t. It sat, distant, without intimacy.

    It could not even think to use a complicated model that was blind to these patterns of place. The local knowers are far better informed. Those that are natural observers of connections and patterns. Economics – I realised – had to get over the mechanical and reductionist search for Newtonian universality.

    Ecology is that model for economics – and therefore a personal intimacy with the shifting patterns of community and a place. There are economists like Manfred Max-Neef who think and act in this way – people & place centred development. There are those that are open to the complexities, and who, rather than do the ‘objective’ thing and try to reduce and simplify for the good of the report, will embrace the system; become intimate.

    Move away from the computer, out of the office, and go and watch how a man and seven dogs brings a mob of 500 over a hill and down to that gate to the south. And then watch him take them back to a completely different place, over completely different country.

  4. Pingback: The Wisdom of Intimacy – Again! | Thoughtscapes – Reimagining

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.