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.

Be an Owl

Do others’ feelings keep us from getting things done?  If we measure our success by the number of tasks we complete, but hurt others in the process, that’s not success – that’s pathology.  We may need professional help, but we CAN be as passionate about our relationships with one another as we are about “getting things done.”  Goals and relationships are not an either/or proposition; if we are to be truly successful, we have to do both.

I’ve often taken the “turtle” approach to dealing with confrontation:  avoid, withdraw, retreat.  When someone tells me to fight for my goals at the expense of others, my gut reaction is to punch them in the face.  This person doesn’t understand who I am – they want me to be someone other than myself.  For better or worse, I am a shy person – and for some reason, the people I am closest to don’t understand why I just don’t come out of my shell and be like them.  You never really know how alone you are until you realize how disconnected the world is from you, and you from it.

You can’t be anything other than who you are, no matter how much you may try.  I can only be who I am – to me, both thinking and feeling matter.  It’s not a matter of either/or – if you don’t have both, you’re doomed.  I’m not a turtle anymore – I will not avoid conflict.  But I’m not a lion, either – lions care only about getting things done and (when necessary) will hurt others.

I’m an owl.  Owls collaborate.  They place a high value on both their goals and their relationships.  They take a problem solving approach to conflicts and work to find a solution that achieves both their own goals and the goals of the other person in the conflict.  Owls recognize that when handled effectively, conflicts can improve relationships by reducing the tension between people.  They try to begin a discussion that identifies the issues that are creating the conflict.

Owls look for solutions that will satisfy both themselves and the other person, thereby preserving the integrity of the relationship.  They will work diligently and are not satisfied until a solution is found that achieves their own goals and those of the other person.  This also includes working at the conflict until all of the tension and negative feelings have been fully resolved.

Yes, we have to do this over and over and over again.  I still believe that collaboration is the best way of dealing with conflict and confrontation.  But lately all I see in this world are craploads of lions and turtles, and no owls.

Be who you are.  Care about your relationships with others as much as you are about what you want to accomplish.  Collaborate with others, and you’ll be amazed at what you will achieve.

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.

Seven Big Questions

I’m a philosopher.  It doesn’t pay well – it doesn’t pay at all – but, for me anyway, it’s a very satisfying pursuit.  If you’ve ever been curious about “the big questions,” have a look at these.  I guarantee that, if nothing else, you’ll know within thirty seconds of starting a conversation with any of these questions whether people admire or despise you – there will be NO in between …

Why is there something rather than nothing?  Ordinarily we take our everyday existence for granted — but every once in a while we’re jostled out of that into a profound state of existential awareness.  Why is there all this stuff in the universe, and why is it governed by such exquisitely precise laws?  Why should anything exist at all?

Is the universe real?  Alternative:  how do we know that what we see around us is real, and not the grand illusion of an unseen force?  (Think of Descartes’s dream and evil demon arguments.)

Do we have free will?  Are our actions controlled by a causal chain of preceding events (a.k.a. determinism), or do we make free choices that make differences in the world?

Does God exist?  From a purely logical / definitional point of view, whether you’re a believer or an atheist, you’re wrong.  The agnostic, who maintains the question is unanswerable in principle, gets it.

Is there life after death?  There’s more than a few of us who are psychologically comforted by the notion that life need not end with death.  Unfortunately, we don’t have any concrete evidence to support this claim – and we’re left wondering what happens next.

Can you really experience anything objectively?  Is there ever any real sense in which we can know things independently how we experience them?  As embodied minds, we connect with the world by way of sensation and thought.

What is morality?  What makes an action “right” or “wrong”?  Isn’t life just too complicated for there to be anything like a universal morality or an absolutist ethics?  History is strewn with answers to this question.

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.