A Bigger Pasture

Do you remember your transition from grade school to high school?  His very first day of school, when his mom left him in a classroom with some thirty other six-year olds he’d never seen before, was his first introduction to the world beyond the walls of home.

Home was claustrophobic.  His dad, the baby of his family, was born in that house in 1923.  Dad’s parents lived in the back half of the house, while mom and dad and (eventually) ten kids lived in the front.  He was fourteen years old, average height, overweight.  Smart as a whip, shy as a mouse.  He had a small circle of friends, and a sincere desire to become a Catholic priest – at least, he thought he did.  He was looking forward to a new start in a high school some 400 miles away.

The high school seminary did not have individual rooms.  About eighty-five students all slept on the same floor, freshmen and sophomores on the west end of the third floor, junior and seniors on the east end.  Each seminarian had their own twin size bed.  The metal bed frame included a couple of large metal drawers tucked away under the foot end of the bed.  Each also had their own dorm locker, about five feet tall and maybe two feet wide.

The lockers were lined up down the middle of the 70 foot wide floor, dividing the 140 foot length equally into north and south.  Because there were many more freshmen than sophomores, juniors or seniors, the upper classmen enjoyed slightly larger personal living spaces.  The older students, sophomores on the west side and seniors on the east side, occupied positions nearest the windows; freshmen and juniors were assigned the interior spaces.

Now if you had your own bedroom back home in Detroit or St. Louis or Chicago or Grand Rapids or Kansas City or wherever else in the Midwest you happened to come from, you might have wondered how the hell you were going to manage any degree of personal dignity living with a herd of teenagers not unlike the herds of cows well within sight of the high school.  But if you had shared a bedroom with at least four other brothers for the first fourteen years of your life – in his case, two or three of those years were shared in the same twin size bed with his younger brother – you could not begin to believe your good fortune.  His personal space had gone from something like thirty square feet to a hundred – with his own drawers and his own closet (locker) that belonged to him, that no one else (well, no one other than the fathers, of course) could access.  Yes, he was now part of a larger herd – and this pasture was a whole hell of a lot bigger than his last one.

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.

Toys R Us

The recent demise of the beloved toy store chain reminded me of a story I read back in the 80’s about the company’s research and development department.  At least I think I read this somewhere …

“It started out like any other day in the Toys R Us experimental labs.  The toy makers had a rigorous yet startlingly simply approach to finding new toy ideas:  put one child in a plain, open white room and give them an ordinary, everyday household item subject to the child’s whims of fancy.

“There was an occasional problem, of course.  For example:  have you ever wondered why those large plastic dry cleaning bags and other similar items now carry the warning ‘this is not a toy’?  Let’s just say that one awful morning in the lab has gone on to save tens of thousands of children from parents who sincerely believed the shiny, smooth clear things would calm and entertain their loved ones for hours.

“Anyway … the Toys R Us labs had become so hugely successful that the marketing department struck on the handsome notion of coupling the lab work with public tours, a kind of research-themed amusement park.  Those curious enough to want to peek in on the imagination process could observe the lab by standing outside and looking through a one-way mirror.

“‘Won’t the monsoon conditions deter people from coming?’ asked one naïve toy scientist.  A few marketers admitted they hadn’t really thought about that, but no worries – some complimentary corn dogs and chips could be included and increase the park admission ticket price.

“Now you think you’d have a difficult time attracting curious looky-loos to pay good money to covertly observe children playing with mundane objects while they stood eating in the pouring rain.  And in most corners of the world, you’d be right.  But Toys R Us had the good fortune to partner with mega-retailer *******, which was always on the lookout for new ways of attracting more customers to its stores in tens of thousands of rural locations across the country.

“No amount of rain-soaked corn dogs would ever get in the way of the possibility of horrific child accidents and the consolation to be found within the huge white spaces that encompass every discount item imaginable.  Toys included.”

That “More-Than-Me” Feeling

It happened one day on the bus coming home from work.  We’re barreling northbound on Lake Shore Drive, a pleasant spring day, a mass of eighty folks give or take, sitting, standing, or otherwise occupying the crowded articulated bus.

While not diagnosed as “borderline autistic,” I am intensely introverted; it feels like I’m imprisoned within myself every waking moment of my existence.  It doesn’t help that I don’t have a lot of folks to interact with, but even when I do, often I’m still overly self-conscious, unable to let my guard down enough for other individuals to register upon my awareness.

On this particular ride I was standing fairly close to the very back of the bus, for the longest time just looking west out the window, at the parks and the buildings rushing by.  I was bound up solely within my own awareness – had you been in my head, you wouldn’t have known that anyone was anywhere in any direction – that’s just how tunnel-like my awareness usually is.

For some reason, I recalled a conversation I had a long time ago with one of my grad school mentors, a very likeable, gregarious individual, an extrovert’s extrovert, with the capacity to relate to others not so gifted in the social graces.  I was preparing to teach my first class the following term, going over strategies of how to keep students’ attention for seventy-five minutes at a time twice a week.

I was irked that we spent any time talking about this.  It’s the student’s job to pay attention – entirely up to them, not me.  Whereupon my mentor offered this small but memorable nugget of truth:  “each of us is the star of our own show.”  This gave me a lifeline to get out of my own head; I knew that I was the star of my show – but it had never occurred to me that the exact same thing is going on again and again and again, with every single person on the planet:  each one of us living our lives, each one of us the lead actor on the stage of our own conscious awareness.

“Each of us is the star of our own show.”  I shifted my glance northward, looking up the long aisle of riders, and seeing – everyone, experienced all at once, each bound up in their own show, and now a seamless, single piece of cloth, an “all-at-once” that I never experienced before.  And it wasn’t a “we” or an “us” feeling – any sense of selves, singular, plural, or otherwise, just wasn’t part of the experience.

It was a “more-than-me” feeling.

Reframing for Revelation

A friend wanted to know what I thought about the concept of “reframing.”  I asked her what she meant.  She replied that, in trying to come to terms with some of the more painful experiences in her life, her therapist asked her to “reframe” those experiences, to see whether anything positive might be extracted from them.  But she couldn’t shake the feeling that reimagining these experiences in this way felt inauthentic, that the meanings of those experiences were inextricably tied to their original “framework.”

Now I can see why being told to “reframe” an experience seems somewhat false, fake, maybe even dishonest.  But many people may think the opposite – for them, “going with the best truth” or “looking on the bright side” seems false, contrived, even naïve.  “Reframing” may seem false because it lacks content – it only tries to “reassemble” the event or issue.  By contrast, “looking on the bright side” may seem more authentic because it brings out content – albeit in a “predetermined” way.

The difference between “looking on the bright side” and “reframing the issue” concerns whether meaning (content, reality, truth – it goes by a bunch of different [yet similar] names) is a matter of definition (“reframing”) or of intuition (“looking on the bright side”).  If “reframing” seems false compared with “going with the best truth,” then meaning is a matter of intuition; if “reframing” seems more true than “going with the best truth,” then meaning is a matter of definition.

But this isn’t an “either/or” matter – meaning requires both intuition and definition.  A famous line from the history of philosophy captures the idea quite well: “Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind.”  In other words, if all you have is definition (and no intuition), you don’t really have anything worth having (“empty”), and if all you have is an intuition (and no definition), you have content but without any direction (“blind”).

Long story short:  “reframing” is bogus if it only reshuffles the pieces of the experience puzzle.  But, if reframing reveals some new meaning or content or information ABOUT the experience not previously realized, then the concept will have some practical value.