Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Lepore's Dilemma

In a book review in the New Yorker magazine (10/29/07), the Harvard historian Jill Lepore assesses Daniel Walker Howe’s new history, “What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848.” This review is an illustration of the theme of this blog: the nettlesome and unexamined issues of philosophy and autobiography, of objectivity and subjectivity. Lepore contrasts Howe’s progressive history with Charles Sellers’s earlier and well-known critical history of the U.S., “The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846.” From the tone of her review the reader can tell that Lepore favors Howe’s “rare and refreshing” progressive rendition of American history, but she is responsible enough to quote Sellers asserting that

“Where Howe’s assumptions suggest that I undervalue capitalism’s benefits and attractions,” Sellers continued, “my assumptions suggest that he underestimates its costs and coercions.”… Sellers attributed these “warring assumptions” not to different evidence, methods, theories, or strategies of analysis but to the two historians’ different values.

Although, after quoting Sellers’s relativizing assertions, she noncommitally says “fair enough” and leaves it at that. Lepore, despite being more aware than most, is caught in the middle of the two perspectives, still unable to bring to full consciousness the dilemma that the two major studies present. The differing histories and Lepore’s preference for Howe’s raises the issue of how we determine which history to favor. Is one more accurate than the other and so superior for that reason? Or, is the value judgment that’s placed on something as large as the course of American (or any country’s) history separate from the facts and not something that can be said to be accurate or inaccurate? What do we do with Sellers’s assertion that the cast of the two histories is caused by “the two historians’ different values”? On what basis has Lepore chosen to prefer Howe’s?

What this blog and my paper “Arguments Beyond Reason” is suggesting is that once one has gone through the process of determining which facts are validated best by the differing criteria of accuracy that discussion participants adhere to and employ, there is also the process of determining the reasons we decide to adopt one valuation scheme over another. We can examine our ideal of how we should live which informs the arrangement of the historical story – its moral – and the psychological reasons that each of us comes to adopt that vision of how humans are and how they should be. This latter process is a psychological-spiritual intellectual practice of the self in the tradition of the ancient Greek and Roman conceptions of philosophy, but reworked using contemporary therapeutic methods.

In “Arguments Beyond Reason” and in the more fully developed “A Different Path” I explain how this type of analysis is not just a curious self-interpretive practice but a way to affect truth and knowledge by altering our adherence and relationship to our rational intuitions.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

A Psychology of Reading Rorty

More than any other philosopher I keep reading Richard Rorty; its been 20 years now. What is it that draws me back to him when I don’t read any other philosopher with that consistency? Rorty himself recently said that nowadays he’s just “tweaking” what he’s already written. If it’s the same old stuff repackaged why do I keep wanting to read it? Of course the ease with which he delivers his views makes for a pleasurable read, but there wouldn’t be such a level of desire to keep reading him unless there was something I needed to get from his work. Somewhat contradictorily, I understand what he’s saying while at the same time I can’t quite grasp something and so need to keep reading.

One of Rorty's central and oft-repeated themes is anti-essentialism. That philosophy presumes that things, its objects of inquiry – knowledge, truth, the good, reality, the mind – have an essential, unchanging nature which we can grasp by thinking rigorously about them. It’s assumed that the entities of the world have a nature, are a particular way, and we can finally grasp their nature by thinking rationally about them.

Rorty asserts that this assumption of the essentialism of the objects of philosophy has created problems for philosophy and that a better understanding is that these objects are always meaningful objects that arise from language which in turn arose and arises through our social practices and interactions. Words serve useful purposes for contingent occasions and as those occasions and our needs change so too do our words and their meanings. The concept of “the soul” was a palpable reality (and still is for many), but in philosophical circles it has been replaced by the concept of “the mind” which, for many, has a palpable undeniability.

I ‘m drawn to reading Rorty saying this over and over in a variety of different ways even though I can already state the idea accurately and believe that he’s right. But if I understand the point, why not be done with him? Because there is a level at which I don’t understand it and don’t believe it. So on one level I believe it and on another I believe the opposite. What are those two levels?

On an intellectual level I’m mostly convinced and yet on a psychological level I believe the opposite. Psychologically, in my moment-to-moment, daily living, I assume and operate as if there is an objective way that the world is, objectively right things I should be doing and that it is my job to try to discern them. I live as if my true life course is objectively out there, but I don’t know it and that it is my job to fathom it. This is another example of “the pathos of distance,” the sad separation of humans from some eternal, certain, completing Other which life seems inexplicably constructed to keep us from, or make it monstrously hard to grasp. This Other has taken many forms: it is the nature of the virtues in ancient Greece, it is God in Christianity, Nature in science, the Truth in philosophy.

More specifically, I live as if the central ruling conceptual scheme of my psyche, which I wrote about in my first few blog entries: the fact of being a nobody and the corresponding desire to become a somebody, has an essential and substantive character and reality. It’s an essentialism of the psyche which rules my life, but which, upon reflection, I can see as a mutable, human creation that I needn’t be subject to. But while I can see it intellectually, just as I understand Rorty’s work intellectually, psychologically I continue to act out their dictates as if they were an essential and real polarity of life. Since this living, concrete polarity of nobody and somebody operate in my day-to-day living despite my best efforts to escape them, I gain a secondary, but never completely liberating satisfaction from reading Rorty.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Beginning Philosophy

Daniel Dennett begins his book Sweet Dreams by asking for the literal truth of consciousness as opposed to the metaphorical image of it as words and images subjectively experienced in the mind. This distinction between literal and metaphorical is not made thematic, instead taken-for-granted. It’s assumed that literal corresponds to material and so the brain while metaphorical refers to our subjective experience of our minds. But the question of the literal and the metaphorical or figurative is quite vexed with some arguing that the literal is a historically contingent category and doesn’t describe a natural kind or the real stuff of the world. That means that in some past eras what we think of as literal they thought of as metaphorical or figurative. For example, in a Christian culture God was literally real. A mechanically functioning Newtonian clockwork universe can be seen as metaphorical in relation to the literal truth of an organically interconnected, God-created world. Others argue that language itself is essentially metaphorical or figurative since it’s an analogy to a reality we don’t know in and of itself. From this perspective, Dennett’s designation of scientific naturalism and materiality as literal is dependent on the metaphorical properties of language.

From another perspective Thomas Nagel argues that Dennett has lost the data of our subjective experience of consciousness. The palpably real subjective experience isn’t figurative or metaphorical, it can be seen as realer than anything else. So Dennett hasn’t explained the data but explained it away. What’s central to know for Nagel, subjective experience, becomes in Dennett’s work an epiphenomenon. The reality of our subjective experience, so different from the third-person perspective of the natural science's examination of the brain, has been lost.

Yet if we want to understand the vivid self-evident reality of our subjective experience then the tradition of phenomenology recommends and practices a detailed examination of it using our capacity to witness it. From this approach we get the tradition originating with Husserl, and running through, among others, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre.

That phenomenological tradition and Dennett’s ahistorical scientific examination can be subject to a historically informed critique from a Marxian-inspired, Frankfurt School analysis which understands the very objects and subjects of inquiry and the methods used to understand them as socially and historically created entities which encrypt within them the conflicts and fissures of the historical era of their arising.

And yet, from another well-argued, but lesser known perspective, all of the above are seen as a problematic outgrowth of and different variations upon the dominant rationalistic inquiry of the modern era seen as the “barbarism of reason” and a result of the wrong course taken by Descartes. Donald Phillip Verene reconstitutes instead the ancient Roman and Renaissance Humanist tradition originating in Roman thought and revived in Renaissance Italy and Vico which places the human ability of conceptualization in our mythic origins and the imagination essential to figuring those myths.

If philosophy’s traditional role is to answer our questions about first things or fundamentals, how, with this diversity of conflicting views, does one even start? On what basis does one choose to do one’s philosophy when there are such fundamentally opposed approaches? To initiate the very practice of one begs the questions of the others. How could philosophy answer this question?

How do the philosophers who enact these traditions initiate their inquiries when the more fundamental question of why proceed in that way goes unanswered? Why are their traditions more convincing to them than the others whose questions they beg? What aspects of them cause them to have the alliance to their approach that they do?

As soon as one starts to do one’s philosophy, all these larger questions of how to even do philosophy have been answered without thinking.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Psychoanalysis and Science

Found Todd Dufresne’s new book Against Freud on the new book shelf. It is interviews with Freud critics, so a nice introduction and survey. These are people who are, for the most part, strongly against Freud and psychoanalysis. The most famous of the critics is Frederick Crews. One of the many problematic points he makes has always stood out. He says that psychoanalysis has not been demonstrated to be true using experimentation as in science.

Has poetry or literature been proven true in this way? Since they haven’t, should they not be sources of truth and knowledge and used as guides to living? I know Freud wanted psychoanalysis to be a science and some analysts believe in it as a social science, and it has been tested using scientific experimentation, but it doesn’t have to be thought of only in that way.

We can even acknowledge the institutional pathology of psychoanalysis and the damage caused by crude practitioners, but I think Crews would go further to say that it cannot be used well. Yet there are certainly people who have had successful, life-changing analyses. Even if it is a small minority, we’d like to know how that occurred if, as Crews says, the method is rotten.

I think the wiser perspective to take is that there are many perspectives on living that can serve as life-guides and that particular ones appeal to particular people. Various life-guides are beneficial to various people and these same life-guides that are beneficial to some people can be damaging to other people, or are simply not appealing. They each have their strengths and limitations. Generalizations can be made about how various life-guides craft people; there are types – the holy-roller, the gentle pacifist, the Type A go-getter, the reflective neurotic – none of which capture any individual, but can serve as guides to understanding which parts of a person may have been developed and which may have been neglected or are lacking.

Crews assumes there are modes of knowing that put one in touch with reality, like science. But if we think in terms of a coherence theory of truth then any way of conceiving of life for the purposes of living it successfully will be self-reinforcing. To shift from being a scientific type to a poetic type to a therapeutic type to a fundamentalist type to an astrological type, will take a conversion experience, just as Crews experienced in his move from psychoanalysis to scientific anti-psychoanalysis.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Rorty, Concepts and Things

Just learned that a fourth volume of Richard Rorty’s essays has been published. I’ve been reading him for over twenty years now and, despite the negative opinions of his work that you hear frequently from conventional philosophers, I find his characterizations of philosophy and contemporary thought illuminating and rarely in disagreement with what I’ve read.

One of Richard Rorty’s recent concerns is how we mistake concepts for things. Because we use concepts (which, we often forget, are words) like “mind,” “consciousness, “ “money,” in everyday life we mistakenly think that we can, by thinking about those concepts more rigorously, get at what the things they refer to really are, their essence. Because in everyday life we use the word “consciousness” for many practical purposes we mistakenly think that it is an objectively existing entity which has a definable essence we can grasp. We wonder and ask: What exactly is consciousness?

He’s saying that we are taking a concept that has arisen for practical social purposes and has a multiplicity of meanings – because a multiplicity of uses – and also a history of different meanings caused by different uses in different cultural contexts and mistaking it for identifying an objective entity which has a persisting nature or essence which we can pin down and, by so doing, capture an aspect of reality.

Yet, it’s objected, this thing called “consciousness” seems so palpable, present, intimate, right here. And so it is, but the movement from the experiencing to the describing need not include the idea that we are getting at a piece of the world. Is that what words are doing? Rorty would say the describing is what we do to solve practical problems and make our way in the world, they should not be thought of as mirrors of reality.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Leading a Life

While petting Rosie – a Chihuahua-Pomeranian mix - I found myself wondering how she felt her life was going. As if she could think in terms of her birth, living and death. I realized it was a projection – something we do to dogs all the time – because, of course, she doesn’t conceptualize her life like that. There’s probably no conceptualization at all.

But then I thought of my own life and how I conceptualize my life in terms of how it is going, what it’s like now and where it might and should go. But seeing the mistaken application of the idea of “leading a life” to Rosie I thought that that way of conceiving of this existence is optional. Perhaps tribal people don’t formulate their lives in terms of whether they’re accomplishing their goals and whether their goals are good ones to be trying to accomplish (but perhaps they do). Certainly a Buddhist practice, through a sustained immersion in the present moment and the gradual withering away of concern with the self, can cultivate a life lived less fixated upon “how my life’s going.”

Of course any conceptualization can be made to seem optional, but there’s still a shock when a conceptualization of life one hasn’t yet made optional is seen as optional. What’s been taken for granted as reality, the unquestioned backdrop for living, becomes one of many possibilities and so potentially revisable.

What to do with this insight? It’s not as if you can alter you’re way of being just like that. It requires a lot of sustained effort and the motivation to do it. Otherwise, it’s just an intriguing possibility to be entertained for a few moments until the attention shifts, the mood changes, a different view of existence appears and a different experiential world arises and becomes, for a short time, the way things are.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Thinking vs. Being

There’s a particular difference in me between thinking and being; what I believe versus how I operate and what I do.

I believe or am mostly convinced by the idea that everything is impermanent as the Buddhists say and some Buddhist’s experience as a moment-to-moment reality. That all our creations and any fame will evaporate. So, in a larger sense, Einstein’s fame or some lesser thinker’s fame are about the same since it all passes away. It depends on which perspective you take. If you choose the standpoint of eternity, or think in terms of the extinction of humanity, does it matter so much what you accomplished? If you take a more limited or local perspective it can matter very much. Which perspective one takes on existence at any given moment plays a part in determining how one judges how one is succeeding in leading this life.

Yet this understanding of the Great Impermanence, which seems so undeniably true, does not affect my actions and way of living. I still try to get recognition and feel it’s very important whether I do or not. The successes and failures of my intellectual creations affect me, yet are, on another level, an ultimately fruitless enterprise. It’s odd to be emotionally affected by something, that on another level, I think is meaningless. My acting and my feelings contradict my beliefs day after day.

The being yearns to get or create something lasting while the mind thinks that nothing lasts.

Buddhist practice tries to get the mind and body to witness and experience the impermanence and so get mind and being in accord. I don’t seem motivated to do that.

Psychoanalytic practice recommends understanding the roots of the yearning for eternity in - if you are Ernst Becker or Otto Rank - the denial of death or, in some other depth psychology, the frustrated need for love.

Friday, April 27, 2007

The Third Way

No, not the phony third way of Clinton and Blair from the late nineties, but a psychological third way I’m trying to carve out of my experience. My two other ways, that give the third way its thirdness, are for me: a "therapist self" who is understanding, listens well and asks good questions. The other way is a closed, withdrawn, forever-impinged-upon self who would rather not bother with other people and gets angry at my wife when she has "issues" and “problems.”

The third way is a murky experiential space in between the false, understanding self and the sullen, burdened, withdrawn self. It’s difficult to find it, but recently, on two occasions, I have in my reactions to my wife. I seem to project onto her my hopelessness of ever developing or having a progressive process. When she speaks of her problems, which I’ve heard before, I hear this as a hopeless beating a dead horse and my constricted self arises. She, while upset about the problem, also feels that sharing about it is part of changing it. When I name and then speak of the hopelessness I'm projecting onto her, there seems to be a third way of being in between falseness and withdrawal. I’m forced to bring more of my real self to the interaction.

It's an odd experience to perceive her situation as hopeless, to feel I know that in reality this is hopeless, and then shift perceptions and see that there is no objective hopelessness here, but a projection of my own hopelessness. The state of the world alters in that moment. My biography was determining my reality.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Self Narratives

It’s interesting how we can tell ourselves our life story in different ways but can’t simply choose one of those ways simply because it is a positive, beneficial life story. Sometimes I tell my story as one of hastily made crucial choices – choosing the wrong major in college and grad school and being stuck with it – and how those mistaken choices have led to my being in a life situation I don’t like. I left grad school before getting a Ph.D., but in my leisure time have continued studying academic works. I ‘d probably be happier as an academic and probably will never be.

But an alternative telling of my story is that I luckily got out of the academic system and the conforming and constraining effects of the tenure system so that I could freely find my own intellectual way and develop my own thoughts. But I rarely tell myself that story although it’s certainly available to be told. Why not tell that one? It seems our self narratives are not rationally choosable. We can’t just choose to tell ourselves the most positive plausible life story. A larger undergirding mood and worldview determines what self-narrative will hold sway.

But also, with me, an overarching, determining standard plays a role. Since I am still trying to achieve somebodyness [see the introductory post of this blog] my actions are rated according to its standard. If I were to achieve somebodyness through my intellectual work then perhaps the positive self-narrative of going my own intellectual way would rise to power and be dominant in my psyche. But if I fail and remain a nobody then the story of me as the guy who missed opportunities and made bad choices will reign.

The third alternative is to loosen the grip of the nobody-somebody spectrum and gain fulfillment by being myself, doing the things I like and evincing my uniqueness. Although, while that sounds wholesome, I can’t make that my guiding life understanding.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Buddhism and Psychotherapy

For the last two years I’ve been waking up most mornings about two hours before I need to. The same thing happens each time. As I wake up a feeling of fear lodges in my chest. It takes on different shapes and qualities, sometimes being a ball and sometimes being a piercing point of fear. Very soon after the fear arises, I start anticipating the everyday events in the near future and repeatedly rehearse and plan what will occur. Sometimes I can redirect my attention away from the obsessive thinking and just focus on the sensation of fear in my chest. If I can sustain my attention on the fear long enough, and not be distracted by the obsessive thinking, I can actually fall back asleep, but usually not, as I don’t have the power of concentration to sustain my attention on the ball of fear. The sensation of fear is used like the breath is used in meditation practices, as an object of concentration.

I think what’s happening is that I’m getting a glimpse of how my personality gets reconstructed each day. As we fall into sleep we let go of our waking self and become our unconscious self or selves. Upon waking, during those initial moments, in the passage from dream and sleep to waking life, our waking personalities are reassembled. For me, fear is the foundation and on top of it is built my self and the “normal” thinking about the day that a lot of people do, although generally not so repetitively. It’s the thinking that keeps me awake, not the fear itself.

For some reason, a few days ago, I felt that redirecting my attention away from the obsessive worry and planning and back to the sensation of fear itself would be a good psycho-spiritual practice for me. The idea is that there is nothing to fear in the future that requires all that anticipation. If that’s the case then why do I think about it so much? Because the obsessive thinking serves as a distraction from something that was really feared in my past, the nature of which is encased in the ball of fear and unknown to me.

The very convincing false reality is that I have to think a lot about what I will be doing – getting places on time, saying the right things, doing this or that errand – in order to make my day go properly and not have any failures or catastrophes. The true reality is that all of this excessive thinking is unnecessary for good functioning and is a distraction from being connected to whatever feelings are lodged in the fear. The fear is about something that occurred in the past which I falsely imagine will occur again without hyper-vigilant thinking.

So to reconnect to the foundation of my false personality I need to redirect my attention away from the obsessive thinking and back to the proximate source of it which is the fear. When I do that and tell myself that there is nothing to fear in the future and that this is all old fears from long ago, I find the importance of thinking about the future event evaporates and the ball of fear loosens somewhat and releases a little energy into my arms and releases tension held in my back and neck. The ball of fear and its tendrils hold my torso and neck in place. This is the character armor that Wilhelm Reich described and the muscular armoring that Lowen and Pierrakos’ bioenegetics tries to release.

When I use to read stories of Eastern seekers getting spiritual practices from wise masters tailored to their unique needs, I wished that someone would give me the practice just right for me. This practice of interrupting my obsessive thinking and redirecting my attention to the sensation of fear is a unique combination of the Buddhist mindfulness technique guided by a psychoanalytic understanding of the mental-emotional processes at work in me. The mindfulness is used to realize what is occurring and to redirect my attention to what’s occurring in the present moment but guided by a psychological understanding of what I need to do to enhance emotional development.

I’ve had little revelations like this many times in the past and they typically are forgotten. They are convincing at the moment and one feels inspired for awhile, but then moods and thoughts and whole perspectives change and what seemed like “it”, loses its convincingness. So I’m trying to remember Gurdjieff’s understanding that we don’t remember ourselves, that we are really at sea in the ever changing thoughts, emotions and sensations that keep arising and passing away and that without establishing a fixed point of awareness – Gurdjieff’s master “I” – we are just machines or asleep; a concatenation that has no stable self, or aware center. In psychoanalytic terms, this would be how people mostly act out their unconscious issues, their lives determined by the other unconscious self that lives within them. In Buddhism, Gurdjieff and psychoanalysis there is the attempt to liberate ourselves from a conditioning of which we are not even aware by becoming conscious of the process by which our selves are continually being reproduced.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Buddhism vs. Psychotherapy

I was working on two essays on the Arab-Israeli conflict posted at www.integralworld.net and so couldn’t post here.

A friend reminded me of the difference between Buddhist practice as a mode of self-development and psychotherapy. In the last few years, there have been people and books who have tried to integrate the two, but there is a fundamental contradiction between the two. Buddhism is interested in the form of experience and psychotherapy is interested in the content of experience. I had noticed this in the early nineties and it was one reason (not the most important) that I stopped my regular Buddhist meditation practice.

I told my friend that a Buddhist teacher I saw recently probably has a deep experience of impermanence. Knowing that everything changes on deeper and deeper levels is one way to describe the Buddhist path. There is nothing to hold on to. No person, no thing, not even your self. All that we strive for and try to attain will disappear. I told my friend that if I could appreciate that I could stop being so concerned with being a somebody and avoiding being a nobody (which I described in the early posts on this blog). He suggested that you could know about impermanence and still not know your historical process – the succession of events and experiences that, when more deeply appreciated, ground you in your present life and guide you into your future. This is what Judaism and the Kabbalah would look to as a way to live a full life. The importance of “Tradition!” and the history of one’s people as encoded in The Book. Also, the history of one’s self as reconstructed and re-appreciated as done in psychoanalysis, also created by Jews, for the most part.

Two distinct ways of living and engaging life. On the one hand, the content of your life is simply one ever-changing story whose form can be plumbed to experience the nature of all things. On the other hand, the form of you life – the arising of thoughts, feelings and sensations – isn’t meaningful without understanding the unique content of your psyche and history.

Why do we choose one path over another?

Monday, January 15, 2007

Philosophical Problems

Donald Phillip Verene writes in Philosophy and the Return to Self-Knowledge (1997) that “There comes a time not to be the interpreter, not to think about the philosophers’ doctrines, but to think about what the philosophers thought about. This is an attempt to get to the inner form of ideas. For this there is no formula. It requires us simply to use whatever ingenuity we have.” (p.xvii)

I like the idea of reaching a point where we stop reciting what others’ have said and start thinking about what we think. But the idea that we will be thinking about the same things that the philosophers thought about is problematic. There is the view associated with Rorty among others that the “eternal problems” approach to philosophy is ahistorical and illusory. The idea that we’re debating the same problems as the Greeks is created through an historical reconstruction.