Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Huw Price on Representationalism

This from philosopher Huw Price from a lecture he gave called "Two Readings of Representationalism"

The view I’m challenging can be thought of as a loosely articulated combination of two fundamental assumptions about language and thought. The first assumption (call it the Content Assumption) is that language is a medium for encoding and passing around sentence-sized packets of factual information – the contents of beliefs and assertions. The second assumption (the Correspondence Assumption) is that these packets of information are all ‘about” some aspect of the external world, in much the same way. For each sentence, and each associated packet of information, there’s an appropriately 'shaped’ aspect of the way the world is, or could be – viz., the state of affairs, or fact, that needs to obtain for the sentence to be true. The orthodox view bundles these two assumptions together (not recognising that they are distinct). Once both are in place, it is natural to regard language and thought as a medium for mirroring, or representing, these sentence-sized aspects of the external environment, and passing around the corresponding packets of information from head to head.

My proposal rests on pulling the two assumptions apart, foregrounding the Content Assumption but sidelining the Correspondence Assumption, replacing it with richer, practical and more pluralistic understanding of the role of various kinds of linguistic information in our complex interaction with our environment. The key is inferentialism, which frees the Content Assumption from the Correspondence Assumption. According to an inferentialist, the internal logical machinery of language creates packets of information, or contents, but these may be associated with many different functional relationships, in the complex interaction between language users and their physical environment.

From the inside – as ordinary language users – we don’t notice these differences between one sort of content and another. We talk about ‘facts’ of many different kinds – e.g., about tastes and colours, or right and wrong, as easily as about shape and position. The differences are only visible from a theoretical perspective, by asking about the different roles that commitments about these various matters play, in the lives of creatures like us. (Facts thus become a kind of projection of informational structures made possible by language, echoing Strawson’s famous remark that ‘if you prise the statements off the world you prise the facts off it too’ (Strawson 1950); and there is plurality in the resulting realm of facts, reflecting the underlying plurality of functions of kinds of assertoric commitments.)

Thursday, November 05, 2009

More of Part of a Worldview: Politics

The capitalist credo/arrangement of “get what you can acquire through any legal means in the market” is a primitive, animal-kingdom-like approach which humans need to transcend by taking competition out of the equation for gaining the necessities of living. Freedoms in acquiring beyond the necessities can be structured into the workings of the economy with upper limits created through taxation, regulation, etc. This allows the freedom to be entrepreneurial but not at the expense of each person’s right to the necessities of living.

An assumption is that no person deserves the necessities of life more than another person. So what there is must be distributed in such a way that all have the necessities regardless of their capability in acquiring them, assuming the society is capable of producing that level of material abundance. So the society or social group cannot have children or adults in poverty or “going hungry,” or without shelter, proper clothing, medical care or education.

People’s flourishing occurs in a political-economic organization of participatory political and workplace democracy. The laws and policies would be guided by the ideal of each person having maximal control and input in their public places of participation. This would be balanced by the needs of an organization to function through timely decision-making.

These ideals should be applied to the present state of society and see how it measures up in any given case. Unlike the conservative orientation which takes history and tradition as the guides to what can be and so is cautious about social change, my view judges the present according to its ideal and asserts where society does and does not measure up and why.

In the US money generally rules so elites with economic and political power maintain a status quo which favors their interests at the expense of the majority. This state is hidden through propaganda and pervasive mainstream assumptions about what is and is not a serious political or economic issue. The media, being large corporate institutions, have a confluence of interests with economic elites and are part of a taken-for-granted structure which promotes the interests of those on top. There is no conspiracy or cabal maintaining the status quo and the participants are mostly sincere in their ignorance of this situation. A pervasive media and political skepticism must be maintained since what is considered an issue or current event or social fact is an outcome of a system structured around maintaining an unequal and anti-democratic power structure.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Announcing a New Ultimate

I thought of a new concept for the ultimate stuff or what their really is beyond all appearances. People use varying terms for this ultimate stuff: Truth, Reality, The Real, The Absolute, God, the Tao, Nature. But I think there is a paradoxical and almost not-there quality to the ultimate stuff which is not reflected in those concepts. So we need a word that takes up that space - in our minds and on the page - but which doesn't give us much to cling to, since we really can't prove to everyone that we are the ones who've got It (the Truth, the Right way, God). So I propose that we call the ultimate stuff "The Absence". It is a word, a concept, so it is present and yet it refers to what's not there. It's pleasantly or irritatingly paradoxical since it's identifying something that is missing. Maybe the Buddhist notion of emptiness is comparable, but that has to be clarified by saying: "it really means empty/fullness" and "don't think it means nothingness." The term "The Absence" points to something that isn't there.

A drawback to this term could be that it could refer to a previous presence that is now gone because it went away, but that may be ok too.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Part of a Worldview

Mine is a pragmatic worldview. This means that I believe in using differing vocabularies or perspectives – scientific, mystical, rational, poetic, practical, religious - to engage the differing encounters we have in life. I’m mostly naturalistic in my choice of perspectives, which means that I like using science, reason and experimentation to understand things, and am suspicious of supernatural explanations. But, if in the struggle to live a good life someone believes in or has a personal experience of God, or finds astrology useful, and they do good, then they should use it. Of course, determining if anyone is using a perspective or vocabulary well is a debatable matter and one has to bring one’s array of ethical beliefs to the evaluations and debate. There is no superhuman arbiter of right and wrong, or if there is, we can’t prove to all participants that we are the ones who know it.

So while the natural and social sciences can be great tools for understanding the world, poetry is also a great vehicle for understanding and experiencing nature which science often neglects, and, in its hyper-instrumentality often hinders. While psychoanalysis fairs poorly in scientific tests of its truth, it can be used well as a means for understanding human life. And, as with most things, it can be abused and used for ill. So one must be careful to evaluate on an individual basis the various uses that people are putting their worldviews, but each worldview will be understood and evaluated according to the assumptions, beliefs and criteria of the evaluating worldview.

Because of this view, there is a great emphasis on how people interact to resolve their differences. Since there is no, non-human higher power to appeal to: whether God, the Law, Truth, Goodness, Reality, we must direct our attention not only to our vision of how things are but how the other sees things and why. In order for that discussion to be a fair one in which the best arguments prevail, the context of the argument has to be uncoerced. Jurgen Habermas describes the “ideal speech situation” in which power differentials of varying kinds are absent so the force of the better argument can win.

But what of worldviews that emphasize a practice or experience in order to know and deemphasize rational argumentation? A Buddhist practitioner could say that you have to do the practice and see for yourself. One alters one’s being then one knows. The question of what a discussion is and how to interact must be questioned.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Experimenting with Worldviews

As part of my interest in the way a person’s psychology affects their intellectual, philosophical, principled, moral beliefs, I’ve also been interested in worldviews or belief-systems or overall perspectives. Or, in Wilfred Sellars definition (of philosophy): “how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.” In a recent book by Eugene Webb, “Worldview and Mind,” he quotes Marcus Borg’s definition of worldview: “a culture or religion’s taken-for-granted understanding of reality – a root image of what is real and thus of how to live” (pp 19-20 in Borg’s “The God We Never Knew).

Mostly, philosophical writing uses abstract concepts, but I think it often neglects offering concrete examples that illustrate the concepts. And I think that often this aversion or neglect of offering concrete examples is due to a fear that when one starts going into detail about what one is talking about the problems and anomalies will show themselves. It safer and more comfortable to speak abstractly.

Regarding worldviews, I wondered if I could describe one. So I chose the Christian worldview. And, surprisingly, it was hard. To include all major Christian sects I know of I had to make the most general, bland statements: Is the Bible believed by Christians to be written by God or just the sacred book, or, depending on the definition of sacred, the main book? Is sin central, or is love central? Is Jesus God incarnate or just a prophet? Did he actually rise from the dead or are we to understand the story metaphorically? Is that rising what’s centrally important or not?

Perhaps as the subject is narrowed – Catholics instead of Christians – one can be more specific.

But, instead of taking a social group’s worldview I thought that it would be easier and more inkeeping with this blog’s project to describe an individual’s worldview. Since my own is so ready-to-hand I will describe mine. I do this not to convince anyone of it, but as a researcher into one person’s worldview.

(Although one of the characteristics of one's worldviews is, I think, that we think that everything we believe is right, or, the best we can do right now; that no one knowingly holds a wrong view. Although again, I know a guy who doesn't believe the dinosaurs really existed on earth, yet he also knows that science has demonstrated it. Rational people have unusual and contradictory beliefs, some of which beliefs haven't met each other and some which, more interestingly, have and yet are still simultaneously held. In psychology this is called "cognitive dissonance."

What would a worldview look like? How extensive is it? What’s included and what’s not? How coherent is it? Does a worldview contain specific political beliefs or does a worldview describe one’s fundamental orienting categories a la Kant. And yet, even with those basic, orienting, physical, Kantian categories such as space, time and causality, there is philosophical debate about their nature. And there’s also people who have unorthodox – for the Western scientific rationalist – views of them: Jungian synchronicity, action at a distance, astrological effects, shamanistic and psychedelic space and time alterations, etc.

Since it’s a blog, I thought I’d just start describing some aspects of my worldview and reflect upon, and organize it, later. (As opposed to my usual tendency to make it all nice and polished and presentable before anyone sees it.)

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Arational Origin of Worldviews

Here's a part of an exchange I had at http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=1198

I think it can stand alone.

There are other ways, [besides the Hindu/Advaita view] to experience existence and it's not necessarily the way things truly are (of course it may be). An alternative mystical approach, which I described, is to not have a view about how things are or what the essence of existence is or a metaphysic. One simply remains in a state of profoundly not knowing these kinds of things (but able to know many other things). One persists in the state of viewlessness. I'm partial to the view of viewlessness (so it’s obvious I’m not practicing it), but it seems contradictory to say that it is the Right Way to be.

Today I just read something apropos of our discussion. Slavoj Zizek writes in The Parallax View:

‘“anti-philosophy” – it is not surprising that Kierkegaard laid out its most concise formula: “The fact of the matter is that we must acknowledge that in the last resort there is no theory.” In all great “anti-philosophers,” from Kierkegaard and Nietzsche to the late work of Wittgenstein, the most radical authentic core of being human is perceived as a concrete practico-ethical engagement and/or choice which precedes (and grounds) every “theory,” every theoretical account of itself, and is, in this radical sense of the term, contingent (“irrational”) – it was Kant who laid the foundation for “anti-philosophy” when he asserted the primacy of practical over theoretical reason; Fichte simply spelled out its consequences when he wrote, apropos of the ultimate choice between Spinozism and the philosophy of subjective freedom: “What philosophy one chooses depends on what kind of man one is.” Thus Kant and Fichte – unexpectedly – would have agreed with Kierkegaard: in the last resort there is not theory, just a fundamental practice-ethical decision about what kind of life one wants to commit oneself to.’

So Zizek's suggesting the arational basis of the origins of our worldview.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Rorty on Mental Entities

Two quotes from Richard Rorty on how cognitive science makes a mistake in assuming that entities like “mind,” “consciousness,” “intention,” name essences or substantial entities:

“The Galilean outlook, which says that there is no a priori reason to assume that explanatorily useful terms like ‘consciousness’ and ‘intentionality’ denote properties which have intrinsic natures, or structures which empirical research can uncover.”

“From this Galilean point of view, anything is recontextualizable either into a context-independent substance or into a slice of an indefinitely wide web of relations, depending upon the need of current empirical inquiry. But there is not sense in asking the question ‘Which is it really a substance or a slice?’"

Page 398 from Folk Psychology and the Philosophy of Mind

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Changing Our Relationship to Our Selves

It's interesting that we can choose to alter our relationship to ourselves and alter our subjective experience and our outward behaviors. I use the process of working with and changing my internal state and outward behavior through the application of mindfulness/awareness, directed by both Buddhist and psychotherapeutic insights and guidance. Buddhism focuses on form not content. Buddhist mindfulness of the present moment either has no interest in the identification of internal contents – one simply experiences consciously the breath or a pain – or uses a noting procedure – “pain,” “judgment,” “hatred” – when those experiences are mindfully observed as present in the moment.

Psychotherapy focuses on content. What’s causing that emotional or physical pain? Why are you judging yourself? What is the meaning of that subjective phenomenon in terms of your unique narrative and needs? So a moment-to-moment practice of the self which combines the two modalities would have both the use of mindfulness in the moment to bring attention and raise awareness and the application of the guiding self-understandings of psychotherapy to direct the attention with an overarching purpose. In both cases we’re altering our selves by changing our relationship to ourselves.

For example, I have a tendency to delay doing things that need to get done. For years I simply acted this out unconsciously, not even knowing it was characteristic of me. Gradually I became aware that there was a pattern of delay behavior occurring in different contexts that was causing me suffering. I would have to do something before a certain date in the future. I would put off doing it because the due date wasn’t here and for whatever deeper psychological reasons that made me averse to action. I would feel anxious as the due date approached that I wasn’t getting it done and I might get into trouble if I don’t do it. Finally, I’d see that due date was upon me and scramble to get it done. Most of the time the thing got done, but if I’m going to do the thing anyway, why not do it immediately since I know it has to get done eventually and save myself all the anxiety and aggravation that I feel while I’m delaying. It didn’t make sense.

For a few years now I’ve been training myself to identify these situations as soon as they arise. For instance, I got a rebate on a new cell phone which I had to send in before June 10th. In mid-May I thought: “Oh, I have lots of time, no worry.” By June 2nd I caught myself thinking “I can wait, it doesn’t needs to be in till June 10th.” But at that moment I realized what I was doing and told myself: “No, this is one of those delay situations that’s going to cause you suffering for no good reason.” I imagined the due date coming and me finding I didn’t have some form I needed for the rebate and missing it. I then felt the resistance to sending it in immediately, the heaviness and aversion. Then I reminded myself that this is a little hurdle I can jump over and that I'd feel better once I got it done. So gathered up the forms and went to my desk and sent it in.

A small example, but illustrative of the combination of mindfulness and psychological insight required to alter a persisting, pain-inducing pattern that manifests in many areas of my life.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Interplay of Personal Psychology and Philosophy

Sublimation is when the energy from our desires, needs and emotions is repressed and finds an indirect outlet in intellectual or artistic productions. Here’s an example of how my personal psychology is connected to my philosophical interests. The particular philosophic investigations serve, in part, as a compensation for and alternative solution to unwanted psychological behaviors.

My main philosophical interest is knowledge and I’m drawn to seeing how well a contextualizing or relativizing of knowledge can be defended. So Richard Rorty’s critique of philosophy’s attempt to ground or find foundations for knowledge attracts me. I like reading those who undermine philosophical attempts at certainty, absolutes, foundations, essences, finding the Truth, etc. There is a desire and an emotional charge and payoff when reading the underminers.

Psychologically, in my everyday thinking and behavior, the opposite is the case. I want to create something permanent, be a somebody so I’m not forgotten, find what I really want to do (as if there is the one thing that’s right for me), make sure I’m doing the right thing at any given moment through various ways such as knowing what I’m feeling and wanting, and acting accordingly. All of these behaviors have the quality or the assumption of one right way, establishing something permanently, finally getting it right, getting the right answer, doing what I (objectively) should do.

I also think that this drive for establishing the right way is problematic because I don’t think there is a right way and the underlying belief that I should find the right way is done unthinkingly and not working.

Richard Rorty once said late in his career that he’s really just tweaking the main points he’s laid out years ago. I noticed that my desire to reread Rorty’s work (keep reading the tweaks) – a desire I don’t have with any other thinker – had the quality of me wanting to be convinced of something I believe intellectually but don’t live practically. I want to absorb a relativistic perspective in order to compensate for and remedy the surety-seeking in my everyday life. The philosophic reading and writing would succeed where the personal psychological work of weakening the need to find the objectively right path had failed.

Conversely, it might be the case that if, through some kind of psychological development, I let go of the need to create permanence in daily life, my desire for relativistic philosophizing and the content of my beliefs about knowledge would change.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Deciding How We Decide

There was a presentation of a new book called “How We Decide” by Jonah Lehrer on Cspan 2 It reports scientific research regarding how people make decisions. A guy in the audience asked a question. He observed how when you ask people why they do things – come to this talk by Jonah Lehrer for example – they come up with reasons that may have nothing to do with the real reasons they did what they did. So the questioner may respond to why he came to the talk: “I wanted to get out of the house.” Or “I’m really interested in the brain and how we decide.” Or “I wanted to be at this cool event to pad my ego.” So people create reasons that may have nothing to do with the real reasons for their actions.

But doesn’t this presuppose that there is a true, right reason that someone knows or could know? Who knows that reason and how? Is it the cognitive scientist who’s studied decision making? Is it the psychoanalyst who knows our unconscious motivations? Is it the common sensical observer with their no-nonsense take on things? Which way of determining motivation do we believe tells us the “real” reason? Isn’t that a contested issue? Who decides once and for all which perspective is the correct one for determining our motivations? Each commitment to a perspective on why we do things is, at some fundamental point, an existential act of allegiance.

What’s important is to know what mode of interpretation, what story of how things are we are choosing. What are the advantages and disadvantages of this or that narrative and explanatory framework? The common sense explanation: “I felt like it,” has simplicity and avoids excessive rumination, but will be limited when more complicated situations arise that don’t yield to simple explanations or when simple explanations no longer work. More complicated psychoanalytic explanations may make intuitive sense but feel speculative or not offer a practical course of action if one is needed. The cognitive scientist’s laboratory findings may or may not apply in this individual case and could be contested on procedural grounds: perhaps the experiment is open to interpretation and criticism.

So each explanatory framework will have pluses and minuses. These pluses and minuses will be determined by the application of criteria from that explanatory framework or from one outside which, because of some overlap, will make demands on the framework being adopted. For example, the common sense observer may use the concept of the brain: “my brain’s not working right today.” The neurophysiologist can ask about the brain and pursue some logical line of inquiry which the common sense thinker, because of the array of reasons they are committed to, will feel obligated to answer. Since different interpretative or explanatory frameworks share concepts and criteria they make demands on each other that they feel obligated to answer in order to maintain their coherence and integrity.

The questioner presupposes the common framework of their being a “way in which things are” or “the real reason we do something” but who or what explanatory framework uncontestedly tells us that? It’s an absolutist assumption that can’t be redeemed.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Insight and Terror

Why so often is the patient’s realization in psychotherapy simple, a cliché? Because our psychic economy, our defenses, keep us from seeing it. It’s not the complexity of the thought that keeps us from understanding it, it is the terror of feeling what it means about our life for it to be true.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Zizek and Rorty on the Real

An interesting aspect in Slavoj Zizek’s writings is the way he says something about and uses the concept of “the Real,” yet the Real he describes is similar to the reality that Rorty describes which philosophers and other beings have tried to grasp. For Rorty the real or reality is a philosophically empty concept. We have different candidates for the Real: God, Matter, What Is, Truth, Nature, Knowledge, but the debates about it are inconclusive and it seems to just serve as an unknowable ultimate justifier for our beliefs. Rorty’s pragmatic solution is to stop talking about it.

Zizek’s Real from Lacan is a gap, lack or absence, in a way not there, yet it’s incorporated into a psychoanalytical-philosophical understanding that gives it a useful role in helping us to understand ourselves and the world. The Real as a lack or absence lay at the center of our symbolic order and is why we can’t create a finished intellectual system. It is that uncanny, indefinable attractive something that causes certain objects to attract and entrance us. It is the trauma around which we construct our selves and repeat our behavioral patterns which contradictorily both offer to resolve the trauma and help us to avoid confronting it.

So Rorty says reality as the really real is not there and not a good use of our time to think about. Zizek says yes, it isn’t there in the way people want – a substantial something, a graspable bedrock – but in its absence it is there and has a determining presence which we see in its effects. He analyzes its qualities of attractiveness and repulsiveness. It’s the psychology of what ultimately isn’t there but can’t be gotten rid of.

There’s an Eastern spiritual version of this. The ultimate stuff is paradoxical: The Tao, Nirvana, Atman, the Non-Dual are ineffable and yet named. We try to grasp It or surrender to It but the very effort to know It causes It not to be known. It is beyond conceptuality. But the Eastern practices do believe there is a final attainment or resolution, whereas Zizek and Lacan don’t think there is.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Artifice and Authenticity

Just saw a movie about the life of Joe Strummer of the punk band The Clash: “The Future is Unwritten” (Great title.) It raises a knotty, disturbing set of issues for me. First, there’s my comparing myself to a great, successful, creative guy. But I’m not as prone to that issue as in the past since I now see more clearly my issues around wanting to “be a somebody” and have an escape route for it.

Second, is the painfulness of the combination of my hero’s personal failings – in this case his narcissism – and his great success in creating powerful, authentic, valuable art: The Clash’s music. The movie showed how Strummer made the decision to join the cool guys – Mick Jones and Paul Simenon - to form The Clash and abandon not only his then current band – the 101’ers – but also abandon his hippie persona and with it his hippie friends. Later, when he became moderately successful with The Clash and old friends approached him, he ignored them. They didn’t fit in with his new image. And in the home movies of the early years of The Clash and their marketing films, you can see their narcissism; the conscious creation of their superiority and their adoption of the attitude that the full-of-themselves famous exhibit. It’s remarkable how that persona infiltrates their bodies and minds so that you can see it dripping from their faces, gestures and walk.

(It was funny to see Bono of U2 in the movie talking about how great it was to see The Clash in Dublin because they weren’t like the usual rock stars driving their Rolls Royce’s into swimming pools. Maybe not, but the movie makes clear that the members of The Clash cultivated a thick and highly self-conscious image of themselves as cool, raw rockers. And yet they made a cool, raw rocking album.)

The interesting contradiction is that accompanying this conscious image-management is an artistic expression of integrity, authenticity and quality. It’s like my friend’s problem with T.S. Eliot. He loved his poetry until he found out Eliot was an anti-Semite. It ruined it for him. But should it, or must it?

Perhaps the two things – one’s personal behavior and being and one’s artistic creations – can be unrelated. And we make the mistake of thinking that they are connected. I always find it funny that people want to interview actors and read about them because they generally aren’t interesting people.

It’s our own narcissism which is the problem: we want our artistic heroes who create works that express our innermost being to personally embody those qualities. We meld their person with their art because their art touches our person. We are looking for an ego-ideal, a fully integrated image of right being and put those artistic heroes into that role of personal and artistic perfection. When their flaws show, it is a narcissistic wound for us the fan. They are the dream of our unrealized selves, realized imaginatively, and so they do great work for us and it wounds us when they fail.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

The Mechanics of Psychological Self-Awareness

Swans Commentary, the online political and literary site, accepted my review of the movie “Slumdog Millionaire.” I’ve been reading and excited about Slavoj Zizek’s writings and I’ve been trying to add to my blog more. These events caused a regression to a problematic psychological approach to living which I became conscious of and tried to change.

I described the problematic psychological approach in a couple of posts in October of 2005. I was living along a spectrum whose two poles were “being an intellectual somebody” and “being an intellectual nobody.” The desired goal was to “be an intellectual somebody” and the feared failure was to “be an intellectual nobody.” The value of my life was determined along that spectrum.

This pathological spectrum is opposed by an alternative approach to life in which I try to “be myself” through following my desires. In the former approach, I imagine an external scale of recognition and rate myself according to it, in the latter approach, I follow my inner desires, interests, and what I “feel like doing.” Instead of being a split person who projects a self-judgment outside myself and then tries to live up to it, I look inward first to find the desires in the moment and then act motivated with their energy.

Recently I found myself at the computer on a day off trying to find something to do but not knowing what to do. I wanted to write or read something but didn’t know what. I’ve had enough experience with such states to know that, when they occur, I need to stop what I’m doing and just sit and do nothing. After sitting for a moment I saw that behind the pressured search for something to do was the repeated thought: “what should I do now, what should I do now…” I realized that with the recent excitements stated above, I was getting ahead myself. The desire to do things had turned into the belief that I “should” do things and so I needed to find things to do. Instead of recognizing and following desire, I was being directed by the pressure to “keep it up,” to “find something creative to do,” to find what I “should do now.” To manufacture the kind of life that I imagined I should be living. That “should” is maintained by a distance from myself. “Should” implies a model and rule to follow, some image to live up to; a molding of myself in its image. Opposed to this is the arising from within of desire: “feeling like” doing this or that and then pursing it; having an inclination to do this or that.

Realizing this seemed interesting so I felt motivated to write it down and it became what I did next, which is this piece.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Useful Guilt and Selfish Guilt

I’ve noticed that there are two types of guilt, useful guilt and selfish guilt.

Useful guilt leads me to change my behavior so that I no longer do the guilt-inducing action because I’ve decided it’s wrong.

Selfish guilt contains all the pain of guilt, and yet, is a selfish indulgence. We feel the pain of guilt to make ourselves feel better. So it is masochistic.

How does it work? If I violate one of my moral judgments – such as, that I should devote myself to the welfare of others, or not eat meat from animals that were mistreated – I’ve done something wrong. But if I don’t want to stop the action I can restore my psychic equilibrium by punishing myself with guilt for my moral infraction. I do a bad thing, punish myself and then feel that the perpetrator has been punished and my moral world is set aright. I feel as if justice has been done or the perpetrator has been punished. I am my own police, judge, prosecutor and prison. Since I have no priest I play that role for myself and gain absolution by causing myself suffering for my transgression. The painful guilt is simultaneously a pleasure since by suffering its condemnation – paying my debt to society – I can continue breaking that moral rule in the future.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Future of the World

An online journal called “Kosmos” asked for a reaction from its readers on the following topic:

"Here is the current topic for reflection:

Many of us have been living with the knowledge that our world and its institutions are nearing collapse. We long for that time – that rare opening – when evolution takes a momentous leap forward. The election of Barack Obama aroused an explosion of spirit in the world. It seemed to be an outer symbol of an inner knowing that the tipping point from collapse to creation may well have arrived.

The slogan heard around the world is “Yes we can.” What does this mean to you?"

Here's the first draft of a response:

What does the slogan “Yes we can” mean to me? It means that another empty slogan has gained popularity. The kind of change we’d like to see occurs through social movements - collectivities of more or less ordinary people getting together to push for what they want, not through the election of an official in the most powerful country in the world. Obama is a centrist politician who may, because of the dangers in the current financial situation, make some significant changes in the way things are done, but who will also reestablish, with some modifications, the prevailing order. Better than Bush but also Bush with a human face. Obama is a symbol of the civil rights struggles of the sixties, but he is also an acceptable establishment figure who wouldn’t have gotten elected were it not for the dangerous financial and economic situation.

I’m not sure that we are “nearing collapse.” Collapse could occur, but it’s hard to imagine what it would look like. The “explosion of spirit” in reaction to the election of Obama is not an “an outer symbol of an inner knowing that the tipping point from collapse to creation may well have arrived.” It is an outer symbol of the yearning for a better life which will be realized if common people of a like mind band together to wrest power from those who control things in ways that favor the interests of the powerful.

Much more heartening is some of the change occurring in South America where massive organization has produced some structural changes. By focusing on Obama, we divert our attention from the real work of being involved with others in creating the societal changes we want. To work creatively and productively with others who share our goals requires heightened inner and outer awareness in order to know what needs to be done, how to do it and how to be the kind of person who can engage with others and act together.

Monday, January 05, 2009

The Origins of Belief

Some friends asked if I’d like to do a reading group on Michel Foucault. I said no, but that maybe we could do a group that uncovers our own beliefs and examines their origns in our own psyches. They recoiled in fear and disgust.

We each have a conscious and unconscious, consistent and inconsistent stance, perspective, or belief-system. Things we’re presented with – ideas, others’ beliefs, works of art, music, situations, current events – trigger reactions, feelings, thought, opinions and considered perspectives. Why those triggered reactions and not others? What is the psychic economy occurring at any given time, and in general over time, in this person that produces that reaction? Why does this one hate that music and that one loves it? What is it triggering in each? I contend that there is an interesting and elaborate psychological story to be told about why those immediate reactions occurred. It has to do with the person who one is.

We could come to learn how a stance, a perspective, being-disposed-to arises, is sustained and how it hangs together. And why, occasionally, conversions occur. Opinions are interesting, but they can get boring. What’s now more interesting is what caused you to hold that opinion. What psychic purpose does it serve?

While the representationality or mirroring-ability of our ideas and beliefs has been unmasked or thrown into grave doubt in contemporary philosophical discussions, we still compete for rightness – the rightness of rendering - in our discussions. Compete for who has got It right. And yet, all the while, we have no foolproof way of determining the It we are trying to get right and can legitimately doubt It’s existence. In our discussions we are trying to get a conception of reality to prevail. (Although, if we share rules for determining validity then we can often come to some agreement.)

What’s at stake in that competition?

1. How the world will look. 2. What we think we should do in it. 3. The integrity of our own beliefs and the legitimacy of the selves and lives that caused and are validated by those beliefs.