Apples, Oranges, and Four Stones of Common Grace

In “The Right Questions” Max De Pree asks: “How are we in our organized life to find common ground in this new [rapidly changing] context? Do we share a vision?” — Let me start with vision and suggest “Still Life with Apples and Oranges.” Cézanne was a master of finding common ground between disparate objects; in this painting common elements recur throughout the composition to the effect that hard boundaries between objects soften. The same colors, textures, and contours of apples inhere in oranges, and vice-versa. Cézanne, a devout Catholic, sought truths in material unities between objects in themselves and between objects and their representation in art: “When I judge art, I take my painting and put it next to a God-made object like a tree or flower. If it clashes, it is not art.”

Cézanne, "Still Life with Apples and Oranges" (circa 1899)

Cézanne, “Still Life with Apples and Oranges” (circa 1899)

While it takes genius to produce art that can imitate life, producing a life that imitates art is, in this case, likewise no easy task. Finding common ground with work associates can be difficult. He is [political party]; she is [atheist/agnostic]; the overseas partner is [religion]; the consultant, just arrived from [faraway land], is new to the company. Following De Pree, how to proceed? Here Cézanne’s emphasis on material unifiers may be instructive. The mind sciences are slowly revealing the material structures of mind that inform our shared human nature, and here I would flag current research suggesting that all human minds possess four cognitive mechanisms generative of four universal touchstones of moral reasoning.

But first, a tired antithesis: people of radically different cultural backgrounds are radically different entities than yourself. As an anthropology graduate student at Oxford in the aughts I was made to trudge through the waning embers of 20th century paradigms that emphasized and naturalized difference. Top theorists made spectacular claims about deep divides in human cognition. Emotional capacities vary by culture – Group A has “anger”; Group B does not. Ocular resolution varies by culture – Group C constituents perceive defined boundaries between objects; for Group D constituents, boundaries flux. And so on. There are often elements of truth to these claims, but they mislead us to think of others as so radically “other” – as proverbial apples and oranges – that no significant materials for common ground exist.

Yet those materials do, of course, exist. New York University psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s work on “moral foundations” suggests all naturally developing human minds possess cognitive mechanisms–think of them as little CPUs (an oversimplification, to be sure) in your mind–dedicated to: (1) caring for vulnerable kin; (2) assessing fairness on a “tit-for-tat” template; (3) detecting and responding to authority; and (4) motivating adhesion/submission to group priorities. In other words, the peson sitting at the opposite end of the conference table likely wants to protect and remove suffering from someone or something, wants to see certain asymmetrical exchanges balanced, and so on.

These are basic but surely precious points of convergence. According to this state of the art and like Cézanne’s apples and oranges, we humans, too, are made of the same stuff. And perhaps, like Cézanne, we can engage that stuff to a softening of hard interpersonal boundaries.