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.