William James and Philosophy

There are at least two things you should know about William James’s philosophical views.  The first concerns his so-called “thoroughgoing dualism” in the Principles of Psychology.  At times James is an epistemological dualist, with the aim of psychology to explain the cognitive relation between a knower and what it knows.  But at other times James appears to be a metaphysical dualist, with psychology aiming to explain the causal relation between physical things and mental (brain) states.  The Stream of Thought chapter from the Principles, the best example of how contrary James’s observations of consciousness run against positivism, makes much more sense in the context of epistemological, and not metaphysical, dualism.  To understand the Principles you need to understand how psychology-as-epistemology differs from psychology-as-metaphysics.

Secondly, does James regard psychology as an exclusively “person-centered” science?  Now it’s only in maybe the past fifty years that philosophers began to widen their view of consciousness beyond its purely “cognitive” content by recognizing emotions, desires, etc.  James, quite purposely I think, blurred the usual distinctions between thoughts and feelings, so that we might not identify “thought” solely with the cognitive, or “feeling” with the noncognitive, aspects of conscious awareness.  We have cognitive feelings, too – feelings of ‘if,’ of ‘and,’ of ‘with’ – not unlike our sensory awareness of, say, a patch of blue.  So it’s important to not misconstrue James’s term “feeling” in an exclusively emotive way.  Consider what sort of notion of person is at work in the Principles.  Clearly, any adequate science must be “subjective” or “personal” to believe in its hypotheses, at least enough if for no other reason than to be able to test them.  But to what extent?  The “cure,” if you will, is not simply to give ourselves over to the subjective pole of experience once and for all, but to provide an account that accommodates both subject and object poles of experience.  James’s radical empiricism sets out to do precisely this.  If the intent of a “person-centered” science is only to discard one pole of experience for the other, then it makes the same mistake positivism makes – just in the opposite direction.

The Ugly Celibate

In “Existentialism is a Humanism,” Jean-Paul Sartre tells a story of a young man who became a Jesuit priest.  As a young man, the fellow had had a number of bad breaks:  he grew up in poverty; his father died at an early age; he felt like a charity case; and he botched every romantic relationship he ever had.  For all intents and purposes, he was a loser’s loser, a cautionary tale for the rest of us.  Strangely, though, instead of being bitter or depressed, he looked upon all these events as signs that he was meant to live a sacred life, not a secular one – no doubt “for the greater glory of God.”

Sartre asks, why interpret the signs this way?  Other interpretations were possible:  he might dedicate himself to carpentry, or become a revolutionary.  In all of this, it’s clear that the events or signs had no “content” in and of themselves; it was the young man who gave those signs their meaning.

There’s a conundrum tied into this story, something I like to call “the problem of the ugly celibate.”  Imagine that this young Jesuit was born horribly disfigured, without hope of changing his appearance.  Suppose further that it never really dawns on the young man that this horrible disfigurement may be at the root of all his subsequent bad breaks – too ugly for human connection.  And still, with all of this, the young man says yes, I take the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, all for God’s greater glory.

Here’s the problem:  can you say you are living a chaste life if, in fact, there was never any chance that you would ever get laid?  It’s the good-looking celibate (male or female) whose vow of celibacy embraces a real sacrifice – or “such a waste,” as I remember those from either gender comment upon the news that a classmate wanted to enter the religious life.

In conjunction with Sartre’s take on humanity as the source of all meaning, it comes to this:  Is the ugly celibate only deceiving himself?  Or does he in fact affirm humanity’s ability to give meaning, no matter how seemingly illusory, to ordinary, everyday existence?  An aphorism from Nietzsche helps:  “No price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”  If an individual is aware of the conditions in which she lives, and still says “yes,” that’s not self-deception – that’s affirmation, of both self and world.

Fall ’71 – Conclusion

That fall, Father, oh, let’s call him W, and Father Bob were the high school sub-directors.  They oversaw the daily operations of the place, organized and assigned the students’ work schedules, and generally managed to keep chaos in check.  Father W was originally from Holy Redeemer.  Most of the students admired and respected him.  He tended to favor jocks; I don’t think he was all that fond of me.

Both he and Father Bob coached the school’s soccer teams:  Father W was the varsity coach; Father Bob, the JV.  I’ve always kind of thought that Bob was the antithesis of W.  W was, not guarded, but chose his words carefully, nuanced so that you couldn’t really be sure what it was he had in mind.  By contrast, Bob was very direct, very forthright, and never shy about letting you know exactly where you stood.  He ruffled feathers (definitely not W’s style) and didn’t care – especially if he thought things needed to change.  At least one of his sayings (“Rompin’ Robert” comes back to mind – Bob was a combination of Gene Autry, Gary Cooper and John Wayne) was:  “Don’t want it.  Don’t need it.  Get rid of it.”

Father Bob is one of the finest people I’ve ever known.  He’s shown me great kindness over many years, from the time I cried in front of him and a couple of my classmates when the rector’s brother scolded me over the phone in Bob’s office that I was telling Edgerton prospects not to go to the seminary – a misunderstanding ultimately, but still hurt like hell – and other high school traumas, to his time stationed in Chicago at St. Michael’s (circa 2007) as part of the Redemptorist Mission Team, where we’d talk about philosophy, theology, social justice, and just life at large.  Good times …

What Is Your Intention?

When I meditate, I’m asked to notice sensation (“what is your body telling you right now?”), emotion (“what feelings are you experiencing right now?”), and intention (“why are you doing this?”)

The “intention” question strikes at the heart of my Catholic-upbringing, seminary-reinforced idea of meditation.  Within that context, meditation is solely a spiritual exercise, a practice one develops to recognize the larger world oozing and overflowing with God’s joy, love and happiness.

Since then I’ve re-imagined meditation in more exclusively “secular” or “humanistic” ways.  Spiritual meditation is a whole lot like secular “meditation,” although the latter is probably better cast under the term “reflection.”

Reflection, I believe, is a common arena shared by this world and the more-than-this world, where the immanent and the transcendent picnic together, get to know one another.  My move from seminary to philosophy shifted my attention from what it must be like for the other-world picnickers to what it’s like for the picnickers here and now.

But the reflection involved in critical analysis aims to be a purely cognitive activity; noncognitive elements such as joy, pain, suffering, passion, and love are impurities that contaminate thinking.  You could recognize them as variables, but only as other phenomena or experience to bracket, to set aside, so that the horse of reason has full throttle of your investigations.

Daily meditations have allowed me to accept these other aspects of my experience, to value them as much as thinking.  One of meditation’s key assumptions is that the mind tends to be so agitated, so intent on ignoring the emotional AND the physical, that we lose contact with these other core parts of being human.

The person leading the meditations said, “Keep in mind the others in your life; your intention will help you that much more when you want to do this not only for yourself but also for them.”  But not in another “self” way, as if you’re there for a bunch of selves.  What you’re there for is to become more aware of the connections between those selves, between you and your friend, between that friend and her husband, between that husband and his job, between … again and again and again.

The aim to be more mindful of these connections (rather than who or what they connect) for me proved to be a huge help in coping with, dealing with, managing my existence just a little better.

The other caveat I picked up from meditation is that, in becoming more mindful of these connections, it helps to not see yourself at the center of this vast network of connections.  Think of the solar system in relation to the Milky Way galaxy – it’s not at the center of things:  it’s a tiny dot among billions of tiny dots of a starfish swirling around a center defined by the collection of the dots.

That’s what I visualize when I’m asked, “what is your intention?”  My intention, I tell myself, is to become more mindful of the connections that make up this huge galaxy of awareness, human and more than human, me a dot among billions and billions of dots that make the swirling starfish possible in the first place.

Hope v. Wish v. Expectation

To hear it from my therapist’s point of view, I have a lifelong pattern of pursuing unavailable women.  This goes all the way back to, yes, you guessed it, my relationship with my mother.

I may have been seven or eight, when, for some long forgotten reason, I was standing at my mother’s side, probably pulling on her in some way, asking, begging, pleading with her to give me a moment of time, to listen to whatever cataclysmic need was about to overwhelm me.  The way I remember it, she didn’t even respond, or if she did, it was something along the lines of, “stop it, not now, quit bothering me, can’t you see I’m busy right now?”

It was at exactly that moment that I told myself, “okay, that’s it, it’s over, I get it.  We’re done, we’re through, we’re finished.  I’m going to shut up, sit on my feelings, and never, ever bother you with anything ever again.”  At the time I really believed she would sooner or later notice that I had gone quiet, that something must be terribly wrong that I wasn’t talking to her anymore, that she finally realized just how unimportant, lonely, invisible I was feeling, and that she would hug me, tell me how sorry she was, and that she would pay more attention to me.

That never happened.  If anything, things just got worse.  The only attention I ever got from her was for being quiet, not causing trouble, not making a nuisance of myself.  “I like you when you don’t bother me,” was the message I was hearing, and since crappy attention was better than no attention at all, I said, okay – I want you to love me, so I won’t bother you.

She’s been dead for over thirty years now, this all happened well over fifty years ago, and apparently I’m still not over it.  I’ve pretty much concluded that I’ll never be loved the way I want to be loved – which, of course, is different from concluding that I’m not worth anyone’s love.  I can try to reason my way through it, tell myself that all kinds of people love me in their own way, just not the way I want them to love me.  But I can’t talk myself out of feeling ignored, belittled, push aside, dismissed.