Reflections on Totalizing

Reflections on Totalizing

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We interact with the world on several planes and in different modes: the psychological, the spiritual, the emotional, the rational, and the sensual.  These are not fully separable aspects of our being, and we all of us have a minimum of each of these potentials.  During life’s experiences, depending on the context, one or more of these come to play a more expressive role than others.

Also, in each of us, due to our genetic make-up, upbringing and external influences, and also as a result of influences we may be unaware of, some of dimensions dominate the personality/nature much more than the others.

Undergirding our more meaningful attitudes and actions, there is an implicit framework of beliefs and worldviews.  In a sophisticated, discursive context we formulate these in terms of certain broad generalizations.  This approach is reflective, often insightful and fruitful in its results.  But sometimes it also leads to a mindset which has been called totalizing.  By this term one means two things.

 (a) The system of ideas is regarded as the only correct view (orthodoxy) with such conviction that even others who subscribe to it  are kicked out of the group of adherents if they were to suggest any variations or changes in it..

 (b) A system of ideas comes to be treated by its adherents as the ultimate and absolute truth to a sufficient degree that those who disagree with them are vilified, dismissed, or actively oppressed.

Totalizing it is a fairly universal phenomenon, and has been present all through human history.  Unless one recognizes that Truth is a function of one’s own perspective, which in turn is molded by countless inputs into one’s intellectual/emotional framework, it is difficult to avoid falling victim to totalizing, especially in epistemological, religious, social, and political contexts.  There are, in fact, different types of totalizing which I am listing below:

(a) Methodological: According to this, a particular methodology for the acquisition of knowledge is the only valid one.  In our own times, scientific methodology tends to be totalizing.  But mystics and religionists have also totalized their modes in other contexts.  Even within the scientific community, there are differences as to which discipline is more fundamental.

(b) Criteria for Truth: The rival claimants which spell out their own criteria for truth are: logical consistency, empirical verifiability, utility, emotional satisfaction, scriptural compatibility, etc.

(c) Transcendental: This is characteristic of most religions which claim that their particular visions of the divine (or God) are the only correct ones.

(d) Socio-economic: This is the conviction that one’s prescriptions for solving societal and economic problems are the only right ones.  Political parties and platforms tend to be totalizing.

There may be several causes for totalizing.  Some have maintained that economic or political self-interests are the primary ones, others that they result from hidden sexual drives, yet others that the thirst for power or the fear of persecution is at the root of it all, and so on.  Whatever the subtle cause, the totalizing attitude is a deeply felt conviction, a state of mind which results from a genuine belief that one has the keys to the kingdom and others don’t.  It is more common among people who think and reflect on issues than crass politicians and business-people, or even the common folk.  It is a reflection of a profound belief in one’s own (often one’s group’s) intellectual and moral superiority vis-à-vis others, and may not be associated with any intent to exploit or oppress others.

There are two elements in ancient Indic thought which may serve as insightful antidotes to totalizing. One is in a verse in the Rig Veda which says:

Ekam sad vipra bahudha vadanti


Truth is one, and the learned call it in different ways.

The idea is that no matter what the greatest and ultimate truth is, human beings will always formulate it in different ways.  Note that this is not a prescriptive, but a descriptive statement.  Thus, it avoids becoming totalizing itself.

The other is in a Jaina philosophical doctrine known as anekanta-vada or many-perspectives-thesis which expresses the notion slightly differently.  According to this, truth and reality are too complex to be apprehended in their totality from a single perspective.  It is important to recognize that only facets of the truth can be recognized each time, and even these may strike different people differently, depending on the framework from which one analyzes the issue.

A very strong argument against totalizing is that it makes everything relative, and denies absolutes.  Thus, for example, terrorists see truth differently from most others.  Are the two equivalent?  Should not one take a totalizing stand to the effect that all terrorism is wrong and evil?  If we deny absolute good and absolute evil, how can we act against terrorism, persecution, violation of human rights, oppression of women, etc.?

I would answer this valid criticism by saying that we must distinguish between the recognition of totalizing as a framework for attitudes and action on the one hand, and its adoption in a given context.  Sure enough, there are instances when totalizing is effective, appropriate, even commendable.  And one may legitimately and morally adopt them.  But even these are only in terms of particular perspectives.  Then again, there are situations when totalizing can be hurtful and harmful to many.  In other words, what is important is to be aware of one’s totalizing framework in complex situations.  It does not follow that one should not adopt it in particular situations.