Friday, May 7, 2021

The Emotional Difficulty of Writing, and the Relationship Between 'General Psychology' and Ontology

I produced five full length 'academic' papers in the last 6 months or so. I had intended to try and publish a few of them, but found myself profoundly frustrated with the process.

Showing my writing to others, in particular, occasioned challenging conversations, and feelings of alienation. I am inclined to alienation, so this is not altogether surprising. 

Yesterday I spent time with a friend (a pleasure) and spoke with him about my frustrations. 

I fear that I was irritable at the time, as I was expressing my irritation with how my writing is often met. "My writing," I said to him, "is the answer to a question and the solution to a problem." "How Collingwoodian of you," he humorously replied, as we just read R.G. Collingwood's Essay on Metaphysics together. Collingwood defines thinking as a series of questions and answers, and encourages other to write, not about him, but about the problems that he is addressing.

I want my problems to be shared. "I show people my writing and everyone takes issues with my formulations. 'This isn't clear...'. 'This metaphor doesn't quite work...'. 'This is ambiguous...'. These are proper critiques of my writing, and I want to learn to engage in the craft of writing, editing, considering audience. But I also get frustrated when I feel I am told that I am inventing problems, asking the wrong questions, or otherwise misguided.

I want to feel like I perceive reasonable problems in the world, and that my problems can be shared. But it is difficult when there is a lack of agreement in what problem,  what situation, we are even dealing with.

I have recently decided to not pursue a PhD, and to attempt to write beyond academia. I have also recently outlined a project of substantial length. 

There are a variety of to frame the project, but one is to discuss the relationship between 'general psychology' and ontology. 

I have recently been reading Niels Engelsted's book Catching up with Aristotle, an attempt to articulate a 'general psychology' that could offer greater unity to the fractured discipline of psychology. Engelsted argues that the Soviet psychologist Aleksei Leontiev and Aristotle shared a four-part scheme to capture the meaning of 'psyche', or soul, as they appear in the world: sentience (in basic life), intentionality (in conscious life), mind (in animals with locomotion), and human consciousness (in animals with a social debt economy). 

I am highly attracted to the project of general psychology because it is identical with the question, 'What is life?'

The question of general psychology cannot be raised without asking about the general nature of things, or the question of ontology or being. 'What is life?' cannot be asked without also asking 'What is the world?'

The fusion of general psychology and ontology is a feature of our present situation. I said to my friend, 'Behaviorism as a general psychology is predicated upon or consonant with materialism as a general ontology'. He asked me to repeat this. It felt like one of those simple and crystal clear formulations, obviously oversimplified, that I should hold onto. 

My friend was pointing out the theoretical extremes of my political analysis; my insistence on the significance of 'local teleology' for psychology and philosophy, my desire to attack materialist, crude 'empiricism', and the like. 

I understand this sentiment, and am also surprised by it. Pre-reflective experience is so theoretically intricate, so implicitly theoreitcal. Our entire situation feels so materialist, so behaviorist. 

How could we possibly approach general psychology differently without rethinking ourselves ontologically? 

And, yet, I speak so often of the impotence of philosophical analysis.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

To Speak Twice of Density

 In the first, we speak

Of cakes and earth, and

No one has to die.

In the second, we speak

Of people and their brutality,


and many have to die.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Shame and Story

I have been experiencing shame, as I have often throughout my life.

I began a new writing project on shame. I produced 10 pages in one day. I have not touched it since.

I wrote a short story for a group of friends that I occasionally write stories with. I post it here, as I have not posted much else here. I have been busy and tired. Two papers have been sent to places. Two more papers remain to be sent to places.

A Brief Story: "To Understand a Face"

She looked and saw the familiar rows of faces on either side of her, always vanishing into the gray distance, always behind the thin thread. She found herself always checking, always looking for slight differences in feature, but one was yet to be seen. The expressions shifted, the eyes followed, but the faces stayed the same. The process was less urgent now that it had been going on for so long. But it was still unnerving.

The last thing she remembered from the old world was the argument she’d had with Allan that last morning she awoke in their apartment. “Kate, I can’t do this unless I feel you can start to trust me again…. I’m trying so hard...” Kate was unable to forgive him or forget about it.

The night before she’d dreamt of endless rows of faces judging him, scowling as he walked through an endless gray void. Two thin pieces of twine, stretched tautly along thin torches, ran parallel and disappeared into the gray horizon. Each face was identical. They did not move and their mouths did not move but everything in them said Shame.

“I’m trying so hard…” She twinged with pleasure at this desperate confession. She’d always wanted to see him feeling small, afraid; for once he was the one afraid that she was going to leave.

She felt that pleasure and felt that power and blinked and found herself in the gray dream. She looked at the faces on either side of her. She saw them seeing her and she knew she had to walk so she started walking. Shame, and she set out; Shame, and she moved her body; Shame, and she did not belong.

She hoped that Allan would be there when she got to where the faces vanished and life appeared. She hoped that he would be different and that she could be different and that things might be different.

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Clausewitz and a General Theory of Human Things

 Reading Carl von Clausewitz's On War was without doubt the decisive experience of my undergraduate education.


Over the course of a semester, Sumida led us through large portions of On War, Guy Claxton's wonderful book Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: How Intelligence Increases When you Think Less, as well as historical studies of Napoleon's invasion of Prussia in 1806, and some of Sumida's writing from his Decoding Clausewitz, which was in press at the time. I remember when I acquired my copy of his book sometime later that year, I believe.


I recently pulled Claxton off the shelf for his work on time and 'the speed of thought,' and have similarly been inclined to think about Clausewitz again.


It was from Clausewitz that I first began to understand the core of my philosophical desires: To develop a general theory of human things. At the time I was very confused and pained by the prospect of my history degree being economically worthless, while my peers in computer science stood to (and did) make a lot of money in the tech world. The divorce between the sciences and humanities, in other words, was a practical dilemma for me during undergrad.


My reading and writing from 2009-2012 shows a lot of concern with this divide. It still concerns me. But I now have greater resources for thinking of it beyond those terms. The divide between the sciences and humanities, after all, is the divide between nature and history. Such a divide, I think, is fundamentally based on an inadequate definition of nature: i.e. mechanical, physical, predictable nature. This is only part of nature. The 'humanities' or 'language' or 'history' is also a part of nature.

I now favor a basically Platonic-Aristotelian alternative. Nature, for them, was not mechanical, but alive and full of beings with natural ends. 

I suspect Clausewitz still has a ton to offer. It seems clearer to me, actually, that the structure of Clausewitzian theory is similar to Plato: a staunch refusal to separate abstraction from concrete situation. Plato, of course, is credited with the view of an 'pure world of abstract forms', but I believe this to be a highly cartoonish Plato. The dialogues themselves, I think, are concrete instantiations of this fusion. 

Plato did not give us a theory of the forms. Plato gave us a dialogue in which Socrates articulates the forms in different ways, in different times and places, in situations that have different social and political pressures.

The forms are still a very real problem, and they are at the heart of Plato's views on intelligibility. But they are not such a cartoonish problem. 

Perhaps I will pick up on some of the threads in the recent writing, pursue Clausewitz and Plato. Some have made the connection. I will have to return to the text of On War in a significant way. I don't know that the time is right for this.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Expletive and Intricacy: 'Swear' Words as Direct Referents

I tend to use curse words. This is true whether I am with family, discussing philosophy with friends, and when I work as a therapist. Another therapist told me that they thought expletive was an important part of being real with clients, and that they "didn't even think about it anymore." I found this reassuring, as it is a part of who I am that I have been reticent to bring into the role. 


I fear that the role needs to be proper, demure, restrained. 

I also wonder about what I wear. 

It seems to me that expletive is actually a philosophically interesting question because it demonstrates the highly contextual nature of language. 


 The idea I'm sussing out is that expletives can be thought of as 'direct referents', or words that are used in highly situated and embodied ways. Words like 'this' and 'that' only gain meaning in relation to an embodied context of intelligible action.  Expletives are notoriously flexible, having dozens of meanings depending on the context. Because expletives are so context-dependent, they are an interesting starting point for reflecting on language more broadly. I am seeing what is the overlap between expletives and direct reference. 


My friend is currently teaching Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations (sup bro) and I have been reminded of how deeply that work explores these issues. Wittgenstein was able to notice the way that the word 'slab,' for example, could mean 20 different things depending on the situation and tone in which it was spoken. The word, as a form, is only a vessel or path for something more. The situation, in other words, has a meaning that exceeds the what can be captured by words.

Eugene Gendlin says that this situational 'excess' is an embodied meaning that is always present. Words only acquire meaning in relation to the embodied processes of our lives that are inherently meaningful prior to their being spoken of or symbolized. These embodied processes, moreover, are a form of speech (or logos) and 'speech' in the sense of spoken word is derivative of them (embodied process) and not the other way around. Gendlin's book Thinking Beyond Patterns is subtitled Body, Language, and Situations. One major upshot of the book is that the claim that body, language, and situation are mutually implying terms, and, moreover, form a central weave of experience. To be a body is to be in a situation, and to be in a situation is already to be possessed of language, or, better yet, possessed by language. To speak of any of these terms also implies the existence of others who are also embodied, situated beings, possessed of language.

The three words body, language, and situation could be reformulated in myriad ways to show their dependence on one another: to have language means to have a body; to be in a situation means to be working with language. 


The three words, in a technical sense, are tautological. To say one is already to imply the others.


We all use language in these highly embodied and situated ways. We approach a friend in the park and we say 'what is that?' perhaps indicating a direction or object with a hand or a nod. The word 'that' only gains sense in light of the embodied situation where one can understand what it is referring to.


The situated-embodied character of language implies the existence of 'direct referents', that is, words that try to refer to something directly: 'this', 'that', 'it'. This is most obvious in the case of objects in space. I say, what is 'this/that/it' as I indicate spatially or bodily.


Direct reference can also be made to things happening internally: we may refer to an invisible psychic process (feeling, thinking, everything in-between) as 'this' or 'that' or 'it'. When we are trying to remember someone's name, for example, we may say "ah, I've almost got it..." or "I can feel it right there..." This is known, of course, as the 'tip of the tongue' phenomenon.


This happens quite often, I think: we encounter some feeling of perplexity or stuckness, but we don't know exactly what it is. But something in our bodies or minds tells us something is up. We can feel it. I'm having to do this as I write. I keep writing about 'this' happening, or trying to understand how 'that' happens. I imagine we often are 'wrestling with fog', vaguely perturbed by our problems. Collingwood spoke, for example, of the early stages of work on a philosophical problem as vague perturbations, vague agitation with something. It is not until the problem is already quite far to being solved, he says, that he becomes aware of what he is thinking about.

This is a fundamental fact about our experience: Our total organism is intelligent, and not just our conscious mind. At an embodied level we are constantly grappling with the nuances of what is happening to us. Tolerating the 'vague perturbations' and 'wrestling with fog' means being in touch with this embodied process of understanding, simultaneously vague and precise, elusive and close, present and absent. 

Direct referents are the words that we use to try and speak to and/or from that murky embodied business (that Gendlin always describes so well). We say, 'what is it that I'm working out?' or 'why did they have to go there with it...' 

All this can be well summarized by a lyric from the band Why?: 'My body knows more than I can form with my brain.' The totality of meaning is in our embodied engagement with our situations. Embodied engagement in a situation is already enough to be called 'language'. I walk up to a barista, I point at donuts, and I raise 2 fingers. I have communicated, I have done something, I have made my presence, intelligence, and goals understood by a being that finds my comportion intelligible. A minimal definition of language: 'embodied relational comportion'. 'Language', in a more proper sense of symbol, image, rhetoric, or other more complex manifestations of language, are all derivative from language in this fundamental and primordial sense of 'embodied relational comportion'.

Expletives or swear words are direct referents. They are words that we use in highly diverse and situated ways to convey a variety of meanings. Their flexibility is evidence of their situation-nearness, and by implication life-nearness

It is strange to me that 'curse words' are also called 'swear words'. I looked up the definition of expletive and it said 'an oath or swear word'. The word 'swear', of course, first means a promise, and second a bad or offensive word.

Perhaps in using expletive I am vowing to be close to life. That would be the conclusion I would like to draw from all this.

Yet my desire to draw that conclusion is something I can feel in my chest, not something I have thought through at this point. If I dwelt on that feeling in my chest, I have no doubt, I would find the right questions to raise and the right order to raise them.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Reason, Reality, and Love

I found myself wondering about the notion of 'challenging thoughts' that I hear about in the context of CBT. I was thinking that if I am challenging a thought I am presumably offering a better alternative way of thinking. It's not some willy-nilly challenge, but a challenge to be more reasonable, reality based, and loving.


These three terms, reason, reality, and love, seem to form an important triad. 

Reason is the basis by which human beings make their way in the world. All action is 'reasonable' in the sense that all action is done for reasons. When we say that an action seems 'reasonable' or 'rational' we really mean that there are good and intelligible reasons for doing it. When we call someone 'unreasonable' or 'irrational' we really mean they are acting for bad reasons, or reasons that we cannot perceive or understand. 

Good reasons generally are reasons that are in touch with 'reality'. This certainly means the reality of how things are laid out in the physical world: i.e. it is reasonable to not jump off a cliff, because that cliff is really there, and I will really die. But acting in accordance with reality also means acting in relation to 'real' imperatives that we can experience in our bodily felt-sense of our situations. I am describing a process that is both thinking and feeling, in which we are able to make contact with our sense of what is right or true for ourselves in that moment. 'No, I do not want to take that job after all' or 'Yes, I do need to move.' This does not mean we will not be ambivalent or conflicted over our feelings. But it means that we are not infinitely malleable, capable of imposing on ourselves whatever form we please. We need to learn to listen to ourselves, our bodies, and our sense of what is called for in a given situation. 


This is reality: the full bodied engagement with intelligible situations involving things and others unfolding in time. 

This way of being-in-reality is best facilitated through love. I can find many instances in 'wisdom traditions' regarding the relationship between seeing clearly and love. I can find evidence in music and art. I could think of MLK speaking of how love is the key to the higher reality, or, better yet, love is the higher reality.

But a case could also be made for the relationship between love and reality through polyvagal theory. We now understand that if a human being is feeling unsafe, they become activated in primordial ways that dis-attune them from the intricacies and nuances of reality. When we feel threatened reality becomes radically simple. This makes sense, because in moments of threat we are answering very simple questions: Do I need to run / kill / freeze / fawn right now? In these moments we are (neurologically and phenomenologically) less able to formulate words and distinguish voices, we re more inclined to interpret faces as hostile, and are generally stripped of our capacity for nuanced or careful engagement.

Love, compassion, care, these are of the essence of safety. And unless we feel safe, we are physiologically incapable of thinking clearly. Love is therefore a necessary part of thinking and feeling in ways that are reality-near.

I have said a single thing:

For life to move from crude reasons to real reasons requires the work of love and safety.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Law and Excess

 Oh my what the world is right now.

I almost wrote the title here as 'law and order', but thought better, given the situation. 

I want to document some brief thoughts here that concern the meaning of 'law' or 'rules'. I want to understand this word both politically and ontologically. It is one of our important words that does heavy lifting in both of these heavy territories. 

Understanding law politically means looking first at institutions, and then individuals.

Politically, the meaning of law is more obvious. Every society we have ever seen has rules of some kind. Often these rules are unwritten, constituting the embodied field of 'culture'. All of us are undergoing significant reworkings in our unwritten rules around how close we stand to one another. Then of course there is written law. The documents, the procedures, the hard written prescriptive stuff. When person does 'X' then 'Y' follows. Simple!

One of the lessons of the Trump era is that functional political process relies on a host of norms and unwritten rules. How could it be otherwise? The whole thing is governed by flesh and blood human being who have attractions and aversions unique to their nature and cultivation. Laws and rules are always guides. When they are imposed with violence it is called 'Draconian', after a particularly brutal lawmaker of ancient Athens. 

Politically, there is always reality that is in excess to what the law describes. Laws and rules are by nature general. But human situations are always particular. Thus we have judges that hopefully wisely preside over the nuances and exceptions in the law. 

The politics of individual experience is tightly captured in the notion of 'role'. A role is a socially designated, recognizable, public appearance that one occupies. The occupation of roles fills the entirety of a human life. In the morning I prepare to go to work, I am in the process of fulfilling that role. Simultaneously, I am a partner, a friend, a sibling, and son. All of those roles are implicit in my sense of my life. When I walk out the door I am a pedestrian and likely a customer (god bless America). When I arrive at work I am there, in that 'capacity', one might say. 

The filling of a role, however, just like law, is always enacted with excess: i.e. it is always this particular person who happens to be filling this general role at this time. The role only describes a highly specific feature of my reality. I remember finding it painful to work as a barista because I felt my spirit, or excess, to be so obscured or wounded by the general role. The general role allowed people to talk over me; to thrust empty cups in my face and bark harshly; to mistreat my coworkers over petty things. But people find ways to allow the excess to live. Coworkers have fun while doing the things they have to do (hopefully). Some customers are fun and the day can be a pleasure.

Different roles allow different potential paths through life, and harsher rules and constrictions. This includes the familiar gambit of privilege: race, class, gender, sexuality, disability. Then down to particular workplaces where certain roles are more 'mechanical', and others more 'creative' or free. Individual relationships, too, all have different sets of roles that offer different constraints. Put tightly, different roles have different sacrifices, some better than others for each person and in general.

Nothing in the foregoing analysis should be taken as disparaging of the existence of roles. Roles, and I think even hierarchy, are necessary for human life. Any serious conversation about justice has to do with the various roles that are available, and what are sacrifices demanded by those roles. I.e. is our system forcing poor and POC families to sacrifice education for the sake of survival? Is our society creating conditions in which someone in an abusive situation has to sacrifice their safety for the sake of shelter? Sacrifice and roles are of the essence of the political dilemma. 

The relationship between sacrifice and role is the relationship between excess and rule: for it is the 'excesses' of our being that we 'sacrifice' to the role. I.e. I sacrifice taking a vacation, or resting, or going to the bathroom, because of my professional role. I hope the point is clear.

I want to suggest that the relationship between law and excess can be applied as a general ontological principle. We know that the world contains efficient or mechanical elements: we can apparently map them and predict them with great precision through mathematics.Yet it also seems as if there are more 'excessive' processes at play: i.e. the messy business of living, where idiosyncratic being accomplish general tasks in always idiosyncratic ways. The living beings, the many plants and animals, stretch out into the world with gratuitous diversity. Such diversity seems hard to explain in terms of efficient causation.

Therefore there seems to be more at work in nature than simply efficient causation. If we cannot fill our roles with perfect precision, i.e. we cannot become law-governed machines, then why would we expect the natural world to have a simply 'efficient' structure?

This otherwise than 'efficient' causation I'll call 'teleology', a clumsy word that means causation in terms of ends, reasons, or goals.An example will help.

Suppose that a biologist is given a dish with a single living cell in it. They are asked, 'what is this?' At that moment they can certainly truthfully answer 'a single cell'. But suppose the cell immediately starts dividing. What do we answer then? We see 'a single cell in the process of development.' At what point can our biologist now answer the question, 'what is this?' Say it is a familiar species that has been cloned in a lab, and it is a sheep. We could perhaps recognize that it was a sheep in an embryonic or fetal stage. If not, certainly after birth. But say that it is a new species. At what point is the biologist able to sufficiently  say 'it is this sort of critter'? Do they need to witness the entire life cycle of the being? Perhaps it is an insect that goes through several stages? A caterpillar-not-yet-butterfly. 

The point is this: it is not fair to say that you understand or have knowledge of a living thing unless you have witnessed the entirety of its life. I would say, moreover, that you don't know a living things nature until you have seen a healthy or thriving version of that thing. I.e. only seeing abused and exhausted tigers is not the same as knowing tigers in an environment that is conducive to their sustained thriving for a lifetime. This is what I mean by 'teleology', right here and now: this sense of 'wholeness' without which life is not intelligible. 


This means that value is a real feature of the world that arises naturally out of an organisms relationship with its environment. I see no reason to suppose that this value or goodness is somehow illusory or secondary compared to some 'more real' material or efficient reality. That layer of gratuity (I dislike the word) is just as real as the efficient layer. Why would it not be?

Teleology is thus understanding the relations of value that constitute a beings whole passage through the world, from birth to death. Teleological analysis, in other words, fundamentally concerns itself with developmental psychology (psuche). For developmental psychology (in the broadest sense) must concern itself with the conditions of growth unique to each species. Environmentalism largely concerns our reaction to our own destruction of the conditions whereby other beings can reach their natural teloi.

Teleology as a feature of nature establishes the validity of non-reductive analyses of human analysis. For the last several hundred years there have been grand plans to radically reformulate the sciences along positivist lines. All will be revealed to be efficient, determined business. The social sciences are an attempt to make good on these promises by adopting the quantitative and physicalist practices of the natural sciences. Behaviorism and its cousins are one of the obvious outgrowths of this. The reductive project has not gone well. But if we understand nature as teleological, we see that each organism, each species, has unique features whereby it thrives. Therefore each species presents a unique set of criteria, a new framework, by which we have to analyze its well being. I would never ask 'why is this crab suffering under these conditions that are so good for an elephant?' The thought literally makes me smile and want to laugh. So then why would I try to answer the question of human value in terms of other animals? There are lessons, no doubt. It is useful to see that there are other social creatures and that they navigate hierarchy in different ways. We may learn something from observing them. But there are uniquely human problems.

Teleology, in the sense I have discussed it here, therefore provides a rational basis for a nonreductive approach to human affairs. I perceive myriad implications in this for psychology, psychotherapy, philosophy, and other places. 


(I must note, it seems to me that this account of teleology is connected to but distinct from a cosmic teleology. I am confident that the cell can not be known until its life cycle has been completed. But I am not sure of the extreme implication, i.e. that the universe cannot be known until it has reached its 'conclusion'. It does seem reasonable to follow Nagel and say, however, that the big bang and consequent material process need to be understood in light of the generation of life; i.e. it may be possible that there is a cosmic telos towards life [that does not imply a creator]. It seems to me that discreet structures and processes can be verified within reasonable times and distances. I.e. you could give a history of Rhode Island that is relatively self-sufficient, although it will tacitly be a history of America, and tacitly a history of many other things. Similarly, you could talk about a certain period of time, say 5 days or 5 years, as intelligible in their own right, even though they are implicitly part of a larger whole life. It is legitimate to abstract from parts of the whole; this is a necessary way we understand. But how could we speak to the whole thing? I've lost myself here)


To conclude:


Both human affairs and nature at large seem to possess a structure of law and excess. In the human world we are familiar with our roles; but we know how our experience and nature exceeds those roles. We always fill roles in unique ways. Similarly, the world of nature seems to consist both of efficient process that is rigid and predictable, as well as growthful biological processes that are less predictable. These growthful processes, moreover, need to be understood teleologically, i.e. in terms of the whole life and possibility of a being's flourishing. 

We are a particularly intense manifestation of this natural structure of law and excess. All beings must make sacrifices. But we are stuck with a particularity difficult instance of this natural variety, sacrifice, or a concept that is implicit in sacrifice, dilemma.

The quintessentially human dilemma is the problem of justice. Justice is a problem that arises from the fact that all human affairs are conducted jointly. Very few of us are self-sufficient as individuals. Taking up action in concert means inventing roles. For work in concert will require different work to be combined into a unified total work (i.e. I'll fix this boat if you go deliver this message). Human nature, in other words, demand that we be highly bound up with artifice; for the invention of a role is really the creation of a type of artifice or structure in the mind. When I say 'go deliver the message' I create a psychological imperative that shapes action and has a peculiar binding quality. This is part of the magic and mystery of human language.


All I'm trying to offer here is an analysis of nature that should allow for a more frank reckoning with what I see as constitutive political dilemmas. We are not some anomaly. We are part of the large meaningful churning of a natural world that, like ourselves, possesses a structure of law and excess, which is not the same as, but is related to, surface and depth.


That's all. I'm tired.