Chapter XI :: February :: Moving Forward Backwards Towards Tetrationality in Public Affairs

February 2021. Initiated January 29th.

In Chapter XII I laid out a framework of Recommendations into which I was led by the pursuit of a Tetrational approach to the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, a problem which I self-inherited from Stephen Leacock. He, you will perhaps remember, viewed public affairs and education (although not everything he wrote about) through a tetrad lens. At some risk of repetition I remind you that his Tetrad was Knowledge + Imagination + Compassion + Humour. In the previous chapters to be written in the coming months of 2021 I will present a becoming array of tetrads useful to my purpose. The universe of tetrads is much larger, of course, and of immense antiquity. I imagine my aboriginal ancestor sitting around the winter campfire brooding on Hot + Cold + Light + Dark, trying to make sense of their simultaneous presence and importance, and to decide what to do about it. That is what Tetrationality is all about.

N.B.: In speaking of an aboriginal ancestor I am not indulging in that reprehensible practice of suggesting Indigenous Canadian ancestry when I don’t have any, or at least don’t know that I have any. One strand of my ancestry goes back a long way in this land; not all of its ramifications are remembered. My aboriginal ancestors hunted and gathered in the forests of what are now called northern Europe and the British Isles. Their even more aboriginal ancestors presumably came out of Africa.

I have become convinced that it will be easier to talk about tetratiocination, the technique of thinking in tetrads, if I relate the practice to some other practice that human beings of my time and place use habitually. I draw your attention, therefore to the functioning of the human eye, an organ which the vast majority of us use all the time and without thinking about it very much. In preparing for the practical recommendations presented in Chaper XII last month, I am going to suggest that the movement and functioning of the mind when engaged in tetratiocination is parallel to the movement and functioning of the eye when engaged in looking.

As we go through this exposition, you and I, we must remember the admonitions of William Blake, that the “ratio”, that which we can perceive with our natural organs, be they sensory or intellectual, is not the whole of what is accessible to us. We also have access to “the Poetic or Prophetic character”, the power to leap beyond our “natural or organic thoughts” and the perceptions behind them, although we may have to cultivate it both individually and collectively. The Leacock Tetrad starts with Knowledge which is immediately and integrally joined by Imagination, tuned with Compassion, and leavened with Humour, to achieve a True Understanding of what needs to be done. I submit, however, that this is not a solo piece, flourishing in solitarity, but an ensemble, a conversation, arising from a sense of solidarity, a sense of the Common Good we ought to be pursuing deliberately.

But on with the eyes. Let us begin with an article called “Types of Eye Movement and Their Functions” from the second edition of Neuroscience, and found at, which begins: “There are four basic types of eye movements: saccades, smooth pursuit movements, vergence movements, and vestibulo-ocular movements.” For the purpose of tetratiocination, I think we ought to be particularly interested in saccades, which are, I am told, observed not only in the vision of eyes human and otherwise, but in the touch of star-nosed moles, and the hearing or sonar of bats.

“Saccades are rapid, ballistic movements of the eyes that abruptly change the point of fixation. … Saccades can be elicited voluntarily, but occur reflexively whenever the eyes are open, even when fixated on a target.” In other words, if I understand the idea properly, as we look at a scene our eyeballs jump around both under and out of our conscious control to allow us to take in the whole of the scene, to comprehend it in an holistic way. We also have the capacity at the same time, through the other kinds of movements, to focus on particular objects or segments of the scene, to shift focus, and in general to scan the depth, width, and height of it while keeping the whole in view. We take it for granted, of course, as we do many of our natural functions. The marvel of it emerges when we think about it, and about the possibility that we can cultivate the capacity and thus grow it.

I think it entirely possible, although I cannot do it myself, that with training we can achieve the same capacity with our hearing. The ability of choral conductors to hear both the separate parts and the whole harmony never ceases to amaze me. I have known chefs and connoisseurs who could do something comparable with taste and smell. I am not sure about touch, which is usually so very up-close and focussed. Perhaps something of the same thing can occur when we are in direct and intimate contact with something or someone who is diversely tactile.

This capacity to gather together diverse data to create an holistic impression that includes impressions of individual details or sets of details creates, I believe, the capacity for “true understanding” or , and is what I am going to call, expanding on William Blake’s fourfold, threefold, and twofold visions, Multifold Comprehension. Blake asks God to “keep us from Single vision …”, which I believe to be a prayer highly relevant to our time.

If our five “natural and organic” senses can work that way, then why not our minds?

It is clear, however, that our contemporary minds are strongly disinclined to work that way, that Single Vision has become our instinctive recourse when presented with a multifold situation. For example, the name of US President Bill Clinton has become associated with the slogan, “It’s the Economy, stupid!” How many of us know, or care, that the actual governing instructions for his campaign were threefold: the Need for Change, the Economy, and Health Care. The association of the second with stupidity might well result from a concern that it would be neglected.

Our own Federal Government, in its recent Throne Speech, laid out a tetrad of needs for attention in the months ahead: Health, the Economy, Equality, and the Environment. If I had written this speech I would have added a fifth imperative, which is to keep all the other functions of government running smoothly. If the real challenge we face, as well we might, is the urgent necessity to act on all these at the same time and with the same emphasis, to apply Fourfold Vision to these five imperatives and act thereon, then how are we doing?

Before I address that question, if I do in this column, I will ask whether our contemporary tendency to side-slide into Single Vision, which we see and hear all around us in the public media and political discourse,—the actual reality may be far more complicated than it appears,—whether it is natural to us as human beings with human minds, or something cultural which has recently evolved. I want to suggest that it has evolved, for reasons we can observe, that there are forces pushing it to evolve in the same direction with further intensity, and that we need to encourage it to evolve in a new direction, not back to something that may have existed in the past, when life was simpler, but forward into something suited to contemporary complexities.

For reasons having to do with a sick cat and a damaged license plate I must suspend the flow for the time being, but will return, when I will contrast the simplicities of the past when our casts of mind evolved with the complexities of the present and future, for which they must adapt. I will draw attention to the awesome power of specialization in thought and initiative and the trap it has set for us, and to the cast of mind that led to the recommendations outlined in Chapter XII. I believe that Fourfold Vision can be taught and cultivated, although of course before that happens the need must be recognized. We do recognize it practically in public affairs, but not nearly well enough in discourse. And because we are a democracy our discourse has the capacity to pull our public affairs in its direction. This tendency is hazardous to our health in many directions.

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