Note: I want this post to land in a caring way, and not an angry way. But maybe angry needs people to care.
I think it would be fair to say that I am currently in the deepest portion of the empathy burnout spectrum that I have previously here-to-fore inhabited. Maybe that’s why I’m considering a post comparing the types of people I’ve supported at work. I don’t think mental health workers get enough support. So let’s talk about burnout, which is what I’ve been dealing with lately.
Recently, Scott Alexander, the psychiatrist-intellectual behind Slate Star Codex has decided to delete the entirety of the blog in reaction to an NYT reporter refusing to maintain his pseudonymy in an article written about the blog.
I don’t really know how to articulate the magnitude of this loss. While it’s true that his work will remain publicly accessible through websites like The Wayback Machine– if he decides to step back from public discourse then we will have lost not just the best current writing on the internet, but maybe also the only current writing that aims to remain high quality, considered and non-partisan in an increasingly divisive and emotionally violent period of social history. Which would be a tragedy.
Sometimes I think politics is a plague. If it is, then it’s a plague in the same way that war is a plague. Not because there are no just wars, and not because there are no just political conflicts. But because the collateral damage can sometimes be more than I can stand.
That Scott decided to take his website down over the fear that his public work might alienate him from his psychiatric clients, whom he has stated run the political gamut from extreme right to extreme left, is just a sign of what a good-natured and morally practical person he is.
That he has made this decision has to be his to own, and I have to respect it. But I can still mourn the existence of a world where the smartest, brightest thing he could do is to remove all his frankly fantastic work from the public sphere to care for his clients. It seems problematic to me that we live in a world where that’s the best choice.
I don’t know who to blame. I want to blame somebody, but I think that would be contrary to the basic idea. Sometimes, things just happen. I won’t get into the whole drama of the who-saids here, because I hate recounting things like that. But maybe everyone really was out for the best here and the permanently raised stakes of cancel-world have just prompted a meltdown of the most game-theoretically unsatisfying kind.
For those of us who cared about his blog, it will be like so many other awful things that happened this year. I think we’ll just have to learn to live with it.
Luckily it’s still possible to find archives and backups of Slate Star Codex. While I heartily recommend it, I’ll leave that to you. Something feels dirty about linking to a blogger who chose to delete their blog. That being said I do want to promote it in some sense by mentioning it. Just because I value quality thinking and intellectual content.
Those are my thoughts on the matte I guess. I hope this somehow gets undone, but I have the somehow sinking dread that it won’t be.
I recently read Mark Fisher’s fantastic Capitalist Realism. It’s a short book and all, but it was so engrossing I put it down in one sitting. Here are the notes I took on each chapter. This is intended to be a summary and mixed commentary.
It’s a fantastic book, and I’d recommend anyone who is interested in the same sort of societal themes and critique that I am to look into it. My intention is for these notes to help you get more out of it, though it’s also eminently understandable.
The brutal dystopia as a cultural concept in entertainment serves to justify our increasing alienation, and the increasingly competitive and brutal economic world we find ourselves in. It idealizes the brutal individual, because this is what we are forced to become.
If we are increasingly driven to adopt the ideals of the brutal survivor in the post apocalypse, what might that say about the economic and spiritual realities we’re currently navigating?
This is, in the worst case, simply known as ‘being realistic.’
Much as per Zizek’s critique of Starbucks: do not worry, you can save the starving African children by purchasing this latte. Would you like a venti or grande?
There are tacit ontologies we take on board as a matter of course. These assumptions make their rounds on the basis of their compatibility with the dominant narrative of economic success. Namely, they are that there is no way but capitalism; that there are infinite resources for capitalism; and that there is infinite affective capacity to endure the stresses of capitalism including individualization and the privatization of stress in the absence of the sort of communities that capitalism is hostile to.
It is now ‘known’ that there is no way to get around capitalism. Once you accept this, whether it is true or not, there is only the pursuit of pleasure. Fisher calls this ‘depressive hedonia:’wherein constant distraction and stimulation is the only solution to hopelessness.
He cites his experience teaching hopeless students– Capitalism’s new illiterates. Deleuze via Fisher: ‘Capitalism is profoundly illiterate.’
Strangely, the role of the teacher is no longer the disciplinarian who uses power to impose form and function a la the sort of analysis we see in Foucault. Instead, the teacher is present to justify the exercise of sitting in a classroom without any desire to learn at all. It would be difficult to believe the students had satisfactorily consumed the knowledge in the lesson without the presence of a teacher, though much more than that is unneccessary.
One of Capitol’s most effective ploys was to orient success around motivation: this was the privatization of stress. For Fisher, this was the moment whereby winners became the most effective perpetrators of the system.
Flexibility as an idol becomes a chain for the freelance professionals that embrace it.
If schizophrenia is the disease at the edges of capitalism, as per Deleuze and Guattari, then bipolar disorder is the disease of the interior.
When workers are incentivized by the ‘freedom’ of neo-liberalism, they get chained to it too. But those chains aren’t external any more. Instead, they’re internal. The modern workplace offers pensions schemes after all, which are investments. Workers themselves become part of the market– they are psychically coupled to its cycles.
Work in both public and private sectors have ceased to be oriented towards production, and instead have become oriented towards the image of production, with a constant battery of assessments, objective statements, targets, outcomes, etc.
This in some sense is a repeat of late stage Stalinism, according to which the plan was all that mattered: a valuation of symbolic achievement over achievement.
For capitalism this can be explained in terms of the stock market, wherein the perception of success is far more important for valuation than genuine success. This, ironically, is what trickles down.
Who isn’t allowed to know how bad things really are? Why are we performing as though this were a perfectly oiled machine? Who would be upset if we admitted how dire circumstances really are?
TV’s Big Brother as a perfect paradigm case of internalization. We are Big Brother. There is no Big Orwell, there is only Big Us.
My own thought: the only way to overcome the continual deferral of the beaurocratic instinct is to willingly act where you would not be empowered to: beuro-kratos.
We are deciding to ignore this. We are complicit. ‘Life is but a dream’ and we are willing to pay for it. We are willing to forget that we have done this. The only remainders are our implicit memories– the procedures that we use to forget in the first place, and which we employ without any memory of why.
The call center as the clearest illustration of decentralization. The generation of a hatred that has no proper object, because this mess is no one person’s fault in particular.
The collective entities that in actual fact make up the capitalist structure do not have agency the way we think of it; therefore, they cannot have moral standing and cannot be responsible. This is not a problem of people. Anyone would do the same if they were a CEO or a banker.
The death of paternalism. Now, there is only the injunction to enjoy. The idea that there might be anyone who ought to tell you how to live, as if they could possibly know better than you do, is dead. This structure requires people to know what they want. Which means that nothing new can ever be made.
But consider the following: “From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.” (PP.81)
I recently came across a podcast that approaches similar issues to those that I’m concerned about like the profit motive in mental health care, the encroaching influence of the psychopharmaceutical companies, the atomization of the individual, etc.
I think it’s important to share it here, because I think it’s an important discussion to have. Note: They spend the first 8-10 minutes talking about their own backgrounds, including a bit of what I felt was signalling identity politics. I personally found that a bit much. That being said, the discussion that follows is well worth waiting for/skipping to, and I would encourage you to listen to it.
In this piece, I’ll recount the experience I’ve had with practicing contemplation or meditation, or whatever you want to call it, and the way it effected my personal and professional lives.
Update (29/05/2020):It’s worth noting that I don’t take meditation very seriously these days. At the minute, I’m questioning a lot of things. That being said, I thought it would be better to keep this up because otherwise I’d be a bit of a revisionist and those types can get annoying.
I. Note on Method.
I’m intending this piece to fit within the broad tradition of qualitative research in the phenomenological tradition. Without getting overly technical that means I intend to be as precise as possible about my own experience in the hope that it will be knowledge bearing, in the hope that it might be useful for someone else.
In our day to day lives, we are often perfectly happy to act on a piece of observational simply because the observation is interesting or relevant. The inclusion criteria of a personal observation into this discussion is simply that it seemed noteworthy to me. If you also see my observations as noteworthy, I encourage you to experiment with the ideas I present later on.
I absolutely see the epistemic status of any conclusions I draw here as: something to consider, rather than something you must absolutely accept. Come to think of it, I’m not sure what would constitute ‘something you must absolutely accept…’
II: The Basic Observations.
A. Contemplation and Skill.
Let’s get into the idea that contemplation involves some skills. But first, what do I mean by contemplation? I’ll offer you a model that is synthesized from my study of a few different traditions and my own experimentation. This is my view on contemplation.
Contemplative practice is any regularly pursued exercise that involves a posture of stillness, solitude, silence in-as-much as is possible, a bodily orientation, and calm. The aim of a contemplative practice is to still yourself to such a degree that your attention is naturally drawn towards personal content that is usually inaccessible.
However, in order to achieve the sort of calm that is required for contemplative practice, it is also important to develop the ability to focus quite cleanly. Focus is also a kind of stillness. You can learn focus in plenty of different ways. You can learn it by focusing on your breath, or by sitting perfectly still. Kierkegaard would probably call focus ‘willing one thing.’ Erich Fromm highlights the ability to will one thing as an essential part of switching into the being mode.
I think ‘willing one thing’ is probably a more important or useful way to understand the quality of samadhi than ‘focus’ is. The reason for this belief of mine is that in my own case, trying to focus is associated with a whole bunch of baggage from my time in school, etc. Focusing is something you force yourself to do. Willing one thing is something you let yourself do.
So here’s what you do in contemplation: you will one thing until you are quiet and alone enough to notice things about yourself that you’ve never been able to notice before. It sounds kind of simple, right? Well, what do you notice?
In my case, I started to build skills around my automatic emotional responses. I found that certain bodily responses were associated with emotions and thoughts, and that thoughts could lead emotions to arise, and that bodily responses could come before either in some cases. I found that certain tensions in the body were associated with certain persistent thoughts and feelings, and that a simple effort to relax the tension in the body sometimes resulted in the thought or the feeling passing away as well.
It’s difficult to describe the phenomena as if there was any sort of taxonomy I could make, or any set of if-then propositions. As far as I can see, what happens when you learn how to contemplate is that you acquire a sort of judgement about and intimate familiarity with your own thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations as well as their relations.
Beyond that, in the process of trying to learn how to contemplate, you’ll have to learn how to will one thing, which is by no means easy. There is a reason that traditional meditation teaching starts with samadhi before it moves onto vipassana or ‘insight.’ I don’t like the term insight either– I feel like it implies some sort of sudden light-bulb moment which isn’t necessarily how change will occur in you, if any does at all.
One problem with learning to will one thing is that it is incredibly powerful, and that contemplation is ultimately a morality-neutral practice. I do not have nearly enough evidence or science in order to start commenting seriously on visualization as a practice, which may be another instance of using the ability to will one thing. That being said, I have suspicions. If it’s just a coincidence, I don’t think it’s a meaningless coincidence that so many skilful athletes and artists cite visualization as a contributor to their success.
In my own practices of Tango dance and climbing, I think I can attribute a good amount of my progress in either case to visualization, and therefore to my practised ability to will one thing.
B. Skill and Outcomes.
But back to contemplation: I want to talk a little bit about how the skills I learned through the whole practice of contemplation have emerged as useful for me in my life.
I’m current pursuing an odd and difficult career in psychology. This means that I have committed to leave myself hanging in professional limbo for the period of time it will take me to gather enough relevant experience to be admitting onto the program. It also means that intend to become a trained therapist, and that I benefit from studying therapeutic literature in my day-to-day contacts with clients.
There is one quality which is very useful for the pursuit of an uncertain future, and which is very important to an honest attempt at helping someone who is suffering deeply. That is the ability to tolerate uncertainty on a bodily level.
You’ll note when you feel anxious or angry or afraid that your body might seem to be on fire. From a psychological perspective, we’d call this a state of extreme behavioural activation. Your heart rate is likely higher than normal, along with your body temperature. You may start to sweat. If you have an anxiety disorder, you may recognize these signs and fear them due to their tendency to runaway into a panic attack.
As far as I can see, the point of these emotions– in their phenomenological quality– is to demand action. This isn’t always the best idea. It’s usually a pretty terrible idea if you’re doing any sort of fine emotional work with someone else or yourself. Imagine working on a watch or a circuit-board by hand, and then suddenly suffering a violent sneeze or muscle spasm.
That whole delicate order you had been trying to preserve for your purposed would disappear in a second. Or think about playing ‘Operation!’ during an earthquake. Sensitivity requires precision and patience, and both qualities require calm.
I’m illustrating the importance of this concept with my own life, but I can make it relevant to yours, too. If you hope to do anything with your life that requires risk, then the ability to tolerate uncertainty will be an asset. If you hope to have a relationship that involves intimacy and vulnerability on your part, then the ability to tolerate uncertainty is essential.
Every life-course worth living involves risk, and I think you’d be hard pressed to find a relationship worth having that did not involve vulnerability. Your relationship to your world and your relationship to the people that are important in your life are joined by another important relationship: your relationship to yourself.
The ability to tolerate uncertainty is a consequence of your ability to tolerate your self. The psychologist Carl Rogers spoke about an important principle in the process of self-transformation: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself as I am, then I can change.”
III: Results and Interpretation.
Consider more the idea that contemplation refines the sensitivity of your instrument, and you get an idea for the range of applications of the technique: any domain that demands intellectual or emotional sensitivity will be more easily accessed if you are sharp. At the same time, any domain that benefits from a degree of non-reactivity is more easily accessed by a contemplative.
That’s just if we want to talk about the more mundane consequents of contemplative practice. But it doesn’t seem like spiritual consequents necessarily fit in this discussion, and I feel like I speak enough about them elsewhere, so I’ll leave them out for now.
One example from my own life: it is common in psychotherapy to talk about counter-transference. In the literature on borderline personality disorder, counter-transference is understood in terms of the emotional reactions, sometimes prompted by personal baggage, in the therapist toward the emotional content brought forward by the borderline client in the course of the session.
Having had my own one-on-one encounters with the emotional content of borderline clients, I can tell you without any hesitation that the ability to take a contemplative stance can save the relationship and the interaction.
This skill is by no means important just when it comes to borderline clients. Any time you are faced with exploring someone’s emotional world, you are faced with a situation where your own history and experiences might become present and obscure the reality of the person you’re faced with. In the worst case, this can end up in a complete misinterpretation of the person– with possibly disastrous consequences.
But it seems that even in the ‘best’ cases it can significantly hinder your ability to actually relate to the person. In any of these cases, the ability to ‘calm the waters’ is invaluable in getting a clear picture of what is reflected through them. Namely, the other person.
It can often be very difficult to focus your effort on setting your own emotional content aside for the purpose of understanding the person to whom you are trying to relate. In these cases, the ability to ‘will one thing’ is once again relevant. Our emotions are compelling for a reason– usually they prompt some sort of action that would be the best thing to do in a certain context. But that doesn’t mean that we should be led by them, rather they should inform us.
It is the ability to ‘will one thing’, and the ‘sensitivity of instrument’ developed by contemplative practice that allow us to do this.
IV.A Little Discussion
There is a notion that comes from Spinoza that power is not just the capacity to affect, but that it is also the capacity to be affected. In meditation, we get the ability to be sensitive from the ability to be still, and that is its own form of power. Affect and effect are interestingly different. I think the best way to distinguish them is like the difference between your heart and your hands.
When you’re meditating, you’re sitting perfectly still, which means you can’t do drugs or eat unhealthy food or hurt people or get irritated with those you love. If you meditate a lot, then you might learn how to remember what it feels like to not do all those bad things when you get the opportunity to. That might help you avoid doing them later if that’s the sort of thing you want to do.
Despite Western thought’s persistence to the effect, there are nevertheless reasons to doubt the idea that the mind comes in contact with the world through the mediation of a representation. For that matter, there are also good reasons to doubt the idea that the mind is in some way separate from the world– or that it is made of a different kind of substance.
The first idea, that the mind relates to the world via the mediation of representation is in some sense necessitated by the second idea. If the world is made of something different from the mind, then there is some uncertainty regarding the relations that the world and the mind bear towards each other, especially in terms of causation.
Representationalism, which is the idea that the world relates to the world in some cases via the mediation of representations, allows mental entities to in some way relate to entities ‘out there’ in the world. On this picture, non-representational mental contents relate to the world via relation to representations in the mind. The representations themselves are the way that mental contents gain transitive access to entities in the world. Entity x has transitive access to z if x and z either relate or are related to by some intermediary entity y.
There are two types of representationalism that are worth discussing. The first form is the strong form, where the mind relates to the world solely via the mediation of representations. The second is the weaker form, where the mind bears some relations to the world that are mediated via representation, but that it also bears some direct relations.
The problem with weak representationalism is that it is by no means clear how the mind might bear direct relation to the world. If we adopt the stance that uncertainty about the hows or the whys of some proposition motivates rejecting it, then we are unable to defensibly hold the weak representational position. When a proposition paints a picture that is uncertain or unclear in one or more features, and we say this uncertainty motivates us to reject the proposition, then we have rejected it on the grounds of the uncertainty criterion.
Is this condition similar to Descartes method of doubt? It is true that the picture painted by the weak representationalist claim is neither ‘clear’ nor ‘distinct.’ However, if we opt for strong representationalism, then we rapidly find ourselves in Cartesian sceptical territory. If we rejected weak representationalism on the grounds that its own representation of the direct relation between mental and physical entities was uncertain, where does that leave us on the nature of the representations that mediate on either side of the representationalist fence?
If we reject weak representationalism, then representations cannot be physical entities– this would imply that mental entities could relate without mediation to physical entities. Therefore, we need to make representations into a special class of mental entity for the strong representationalist position to remain tenable. They must be special, because they must bear some feature that enables them to directly relate to physical entities without violating the condition imposed by the strong representational claim.
It is not immediately clear what this special condition could be. One possibility is that representations of physical entities relate to the physical entities themselves through some form of resemblance. This would allow the representations to relate directly to the physical world in a way that is directly explicable, and which therefore does not violate the uncertainty criterion.
While it is by no means clear how the representations come to acquire their resemblance to physical entities, this is not strictly necessary in order to accept the claim that they do resemble physical entities. This move is motivated by the vacuum of any other suitable explanation for the relation between representations and physical entities.
II. The Mode of Representation.
Once we have accepted strong representationalism, and once we have accepted that strong representationalism can be explained in terms of mental entities called representations that bear a resemblance relation to the physical entities that they are supposed to represent, there is still an explanation that we must provide, which is the explanation for how that resemblance is bourne.
For strong representationalism, there is only one option, which is that mental entities resemble physical entities is that the mental representations describe similar ratios between extended magnitudes given by the physical entity that they are supposed to represent. This is why Descartes– the premier strong representationalist– referred physical entities as res extensa: the extended substance.
This means that mental entity x is resembles a physical entity y if the ratios of various quantities described by entity x are congruent with the ratios of various quantities given by physical entity y. This condition is quite strict, so we’ll say that x is a representation of y to a greater or lesser degree if x resembles y to a greater or lesser degree. This also entails that mental representations are the sorts of entities that describe sets of quantities.
It also entails that of all the properties a mental representation could describe, they are either explicable wholly in terms of quantity or else are not representative of the physical entities themselves. This leaves us in a potentially precarious position with properties such as color or taste, which are not obviously explicable in terms of extension in the same way as things like speed, texture, or pliability. It leaves us in a much more precarious position with respect to another certain set of properties.
Before describing the nature of that precarity, and the nature of the properties that we are describing so precariously, it will be necessary to describe another important feature of the Cartesian picture.
III. Entities as Independent.
If the res extensa is the entity whose properties are such that they are determined solely in terms of sets of quantities, then it is also true that every single one of its properties is intelligible without reference to any other property or quantity– each of its properties must be intelligible in isolation. To say that a property is intelligible in isolation is the same thing as saying that a mental entity could represent only that property, and no other property in one instance.
This means that for any given instance of res extensa, any singular property it bears can be represented by a mental entity without any other property borne by the physical entity needing to be represented.
This entails that every instance of res extensa is representable without reference to any other instance of res extensa. To say of something that it is intelligible in certain terms is the same as to say it is representable. This entails that every mental representation of a physical entity is intelligible as isolated from any other mental entity, and therefore that every mental representation is independent from any other mental entity.
To say that x is independent from y is to say that x would not change in itself if y were to change. X changes in itself iff one of its identity-determining properties changes. A property P is identity determining if some entity is an instance of type x iff it bears property P (1).
On the Cartesian picture, all identity determining properties are non-relational. If they were relational, then they would not be intelligible independently, and therefore could not be properties of a representation.
IV. Heidegger’s Critique of the Uncertainty Criterion.
Heidegger’s critique of Descartes’ as found in Sein und Zeit can offer us at least three good responses to the account of mental representation given in sections (I – III). One response is that it may be unwarranted to assume the uncertainty criterion. Another response is that it does not allow for the mind to represent entities that bear identity determining properties as given by the relationships that those entities bear to other entities. The third response, which builds on the first two, is that it is not clear how evaluative properties might be reduced purely to quantitative ones.
The second and third responses will need us to lay more groundwork. As such, we’ll just cover the first response in this section.
Regarding Heidegger’s response to the uncertainty criterion, we might make the following argument: in normal day to day life, we assume a mode of relating to our thoughts and experiences that seeks to deal with them on their own terms, and which does not seek to take a special perspective on them. Heidegger suggests that instead of taking our experiences as something to be interrogated beyond their context, they should instead be understood in terms of their ‘average everyday-ness.’
The fact of the matter is that you and I both manage to get along just fine in our day-to-day lives without the certainty that Descartes demands. While it might seem intuitively true that a more clinical perspective– such as the one implied by adopting the uncertainty criterion– might in some sense allow us a privileged understanding of the phenomena we seek to understand through it, it is also true that in day-to-day life, we are forced to accept as true propositions about which we are not suitably certain, and whose propositional content we cannot fully explain.
If we were to take the uncertainty criterion with complete seriousness, everyday life would not be possible– living simply requires us to believe too many uncertain claims in order to function on a daily basis.The assumption of strong representationalism over weak representationalism solely on the grounds of the uncertainty principle may not be as defensible as it seem.
Heidegger’s analysis also affords us a response to the Cartesian picture inasmuch as it requires the identity determining properties to be relationally independent. If there are some entities whose identities are such that they are not relationally independent, then we have reasons to reject the Cartesian picture.
One example of an entity which may not be relationally independent is a hill or a mountain; or a slope, more generally. To an ant, a hill which is easily surmountable within an hour’s walk for a human being is not easily surmountable. As such, given a particular slope, humans might qualify as the sort of beings which could easily surmount it while ants might not. If ease of surmountability is an identity condition for a given slope, which it may be, or if ease of surmounting a given slope is an identity condition for the type of being which surmounts slopes, then we have a reason to reject the Cartesian picture on the grounds that its independence condition cannot be satisfied.
Furthermore, if ease of surmountability is an identity determining property for entities such as slopes, then we may have an example of a case whereby the qualitative reduction condition cannot be met. In the case of a slope of certain length and incline, while we certainly can analyse the properties of the slope in terms of numerical extension and angle from horizontal, these properties tell us nothing about its surmountability unless we reference the sort of being that can or cannot surmount it.
While it may be possible in theory to offer a relational analysis of the extended properties of the mountain in relation to the extended properties of whichever being is proposed as possibly surmounting it, this would likely require deepening the base of knowledge collected via the behavioural sciences to a degree completely precluded by practicality. While it might be possible in theory to quantify the conditions required for evaluative properties like ease to obtain across cases, it is by no means clear how this could be done. As such, claims in favour of a quantative reduction can be suspended as premature, at least.
(1). In this sentence, I use the abbreviation ‘iff’ twice– this is not a typo. In analytic philosophy, ‘iff‘ is often written in place of ‘if and only if‘: ‘x iff y‘ means if y then xand if x then y.
Descartes, R., & Cottingham, J. (1986). Meditations on first philosophy: With selections from the Objections and Replies. Cambridge [Cambridgeshire: Cambridge University Press.
Heidegger, M., Macquarrie, J., & Robinson, E. (1962). Being and time. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Clark, A., 1997, Being There: Putting Brain, Body and World Together Again, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. (Cbapter 8)
I found I learned quite a lot by re-covering my work. Just the act of writing little introductions forced me to think about what I was doing. This activity gave me a better idea of what I’m interested in, too. But it wasn’t all sunshine.
One thing that stood out to me about my work thus far was how sloppy, disorganized, unclear and unsituated it was in the wider discussion regarding each of the topics I cover. This realization made me a little bit embarassed. That embarassment quickly morphed into a desire to improve.
So, in case you haven’t noticed, everything has stopped. It’s surreal. I can walk outside, and I live in the middle of a major European capital city, and I can see absolutely nobody on main street.
We’re living in some pretty odd times. But I wouldn’t say these times were bad for all perspectives. Consider the following: two weeks ago we were living at the height of world technological progress and acceleration. It was the fastest that humans have ever had to be to survive.
One time, I read this fascinating book titled ‘Metaphors We Live By‘ by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. It was recommended to me by a good buddy– who mostly guides my intellectual development by his whims, and who coincidentally suggested the title of this blog.
The central thesis of this book is what I guess you could call the central thesis of embodied cognitive science. This is the idea that cognition is inseperable from embodiment, and that therefore embodiment influences all cognition. It’s sort of like taking Plato backwards.
I won’t go into it any deeper than that. Instead, I’ll just briefly talk about why I like Lakoff and Johsnon so much by talking about my favorite example of their approach to language: their analysis of undertaking a ‘project.’
They suggest that starting a project involves projecting yourself into the future, which itself is intelligible in terms of literally throwing a personal image into a possibility space like a projectile, forwards in time.
They note that this is something only humans can really do in an embodied sense– our closest relatives, the chimps, aren’t coordinated enough to properly throw things at distance. Now that may or may not be so. But it makes a form of sense.
Anyway, I’ve been spending the last few weeks coming up with analyses like these for some concepts I found interesting. Just noting them down in my spare moments. Maybe some will tickle you. I hope they do. They’re basically pretend, but I think all of them have an interesting idea at the center.
I’ve been spending the last few weeks working through Heidegger’s Being and Time. It’s fascinating, but also super difficult to understand.
One of the reasons it’s so difficult to understand is that Heidegger insists on inventing specialist terminology. I really understand the motivation behind it, which is that language can often obfuscate the truth of Being if Being is seen only through the lens that language allows, but I also think it might be worth trying to get some of his ideas out in plain-er English.
Instead of talking about some of his ideas, it’s probably worth puzzling over the idea that language can obfuscate Being. But first, let’s see what he means by ‘Being’ as opposed to ‘being/s.’
For Heidegger, Being-with-a-big-B is something like ‘what it is to be.’ It’s something more and also something less than just ‘the sum of all the beings.’ He sees it as the main thing worth investigating, because it seems to be the thing that is always relevant to any investigation, but which has been mostly ignored since Plato’s Sophist and Aristotle’s Metaphysics.
Now, on to justifying all his weird mystical terminology.
From the perspective of cognitive theory, more specifically map theory, we get an idea of the relationship between a representation and the represented. The phrase the map is not the territory is an expression of the idea that we might potentially confuse the representation of something with the thing itself. Kant figured that we could never understand the thing in itself because the way it presented itself to us always alienated it from us. The noumenon is always separated from us by the phenomena.
For Heidegger, there’s a real worry that language will separate us from the phenomena. The language at fault is the language of an outdated Philosophy. Heidegger would claim that the ontologies of the past– the metaphysical attempts made by previous philosophers like Descartes– ran us down a track of thinking which was a sort of dead end.
It’s no secret that Philosophical terms like ‘essence’; ‘category’; etc., end up working their way into every-day language. For example, the English ‘idea’ finds its origin in the Greek ‘eidos’, which originally expressed something like ‘the view of x’ where x is whatever the eidos is of.
If that’s true, and if a particular language implies a particular mode of looking at the world, then we ought to be very careful with the language we use when we’re asking questions about really fundamental topics. The more fundamental a topic is, the less we can allow external preconceptions to influence us. Speaking metaphorically, I suppose we need more sensitive instruments to examine more fundamental topics: in the same way we need an electron microscope to examine very small objects, we need a very clean language to examine topics like Being.
But it’s not at all obvious why language needs to be especially clear in order to talk about Being. I’ll have to admit this is where my understanding starts to break down, but I’ll try and make my best argument to see what I can come up with.
As far as I can see, Heidegger emphasises language free of preconception because he’s trying to avoid invoking any particular ontological perspective. If Metaphysics asks questions like ‘how many kinds of substance are there?’, then Heidegger is asking questions that are really quite prior to that. Let’s say that there is some set of specialist vocabulary A, and some set of specialist vocabulary B, and that using either of those sets of specialist vocabulary seems to prompt you to view the world from the perspective of the group of people who originated either set.
An example of this sort of arrangement might be Marxist and Capitalist ways of viewing the world. It seems to be the case that really committing yourself to understanding Marxist concepts prompts you to view the world in a Marxist way. If we accept the Marxist definition between use-value and Capital value, for example, then we’ll start to experience the world in those terms. If we start to look at the world in terms of marginal gains, expenditures and over-heads, then we’ll start to see the world in Capitalist terms.
These is somewhat like Heidegger’s idea of handiness. For Heidegger, an object is handy if I relate to it with a particular purpose or essence involved. It’s handiness is the function it presents itself to me as having. Heidegger probably invented the ecological theory of visual perception.
Chairs are handy, and so are any people that I bear determinate relationships to. This isn’t to say I objectify people, just that I relate to them in such a way that their value to me cannot be divorced from how I experience them. Chairs are handy in that I set in them. People are handy in that they tell me good jokes and might want to share dinner with me. The potential actionality of something can’t be ignored when I relate to it, or when I relate it to someone else.
A bar of chocolate on a table is edible. That it’s edible is unavoidably part of the way it presents itself to me. If the same bar of chocolate was in an unbreakable box of transparent material, it would become some sort of odd art installation, and it would cease to present itself to me as food. But if that same box also had a hungry child in it, the same chocolate bar would present itself to me again as food, but simply for someone else. In the third case, it presented itself as food to me again because it presented itself as food to someone else. The actionality of the child affected the handiness of the food.
The language available to me affects what I can pay attention to. If you have ever studied anatomy, then you’ll know about the strange and pleasing sensations of realizing that your body is far more detailed and intricate than you ever realized. It’s quite possible that this changed your perception of yourself. Perhaps it made you more aware of the relationship between your emotions and your body, or perhaps it made you more calm in general.
If this happened, then it’s because the your body presented itself in a different way to you. If that was so, then the way the world presented itself to you differed. There is a connection, then, between the maps of reality that are entailed by our vocabularies and the way the world itself emerges.
The problem with Being is that it neither is any being, nor is directly apparent. That means to get an idea of it, we have to look at all the beings very closely and carefully. If our linguistic tools aren’t up to snuff, we’re going to miss detail in the phenomena; we’re going to have wrong ideas; or we may accidentally conflate categories that are distinct.
Now, this was my best attempt at justifying Heidegger’s odd use of language, and it strikes me as somewhat odd that I’ve done so by being simultaneously very sloppy with my language. If I’ve been able to do that, it’s probably because Heidegger’s thinking was so clear in his invented terms. It’s also worth noting that I’m stealing perspectives and arguments from Logical Positivism and Wittgenstein, who I see as taking a very similar approach towards a sort of conceptual sensitivity in language.
One interesting question for Science would be to ask whether the ways we label things actually affect the implicit predictions we make about those objects. For example, in a priming paradigm: if I convinced you that there was such a language wherein children were called ‘dogs’, would you be less amused by the child barking due to some judgement on an implicit level? Would the presence of the child in a glass box with a Frisbee change the handiness of the Frisbee?
Or another fun possible experiment, slightly less ethically dubious, and also possible less related. I’m including it because I think it would probably be interesting: we could spend a whole day teaching participants to use the wrong words for things, and then put them in time-limited situations where they had to be able to quickly reach for a particular object. For instance, we might put a knife, a lighter, a fan and a bottle of water in front of them, and then teach them to habitually use the term ‘water-bottle’ when they mean ‘lighter’ and vice versa.
I’m not sure what my hypothesis here would be. One question to examine would be whether or not it made any of the participants anxious on some level to put a water-bottle next to a big puddle of conspicuously flammable material.
If this experiment were to shine any light on Heidegger, it would probably be because I had completely misunderstood him. I’m just going to put that out there now.
But in any case, these are not questions for Philosophy; these are questions for Psychology– or perhaps, if you want to be fancy, Cognitive Science. That means trying to do hypotheticals on them is a waste of time. As it stands, nobody will give me volunteers to lie to or children to lock in glass boxes. Instead, I’ll just have to hope that someday, someone else is more able to persuade an ethics committee to let them have those things than I am.
One final note: it wouldn’t be one of my essays if I didn’t recommend an experiment at the end.
I was recently reading Impro by Keith Johnstone, which is full of interesting exercises designed to prompt you to drop the sort of overly restrictive cultural-cognitive-affective bondage that he figures school imposes on you.
The one I found most valuable was to go around for about ten seconds shouting out the wrong names for things in a room. It’s really simple. Just go around for ten seconds and call things whatever they aren’t. I called a lamp a Fishman, and a punnet of cherry tomatoes were simply ‘Sperm.’ The point isn’t to make sense. In fact, the point is probably to try and suspend sense in order to see what you can learn about it.
You will probably realize something about just how tenuously words are related to ‘reality.’ Or maybe you’ll just call a punnet of cherry tomatoes ‘Sperm’ and feel like a real wanker afterwards. Who knows?
What’s most interesting is that he claims that you’ll get a little giddy and that the colors in the world will seem somewhat brighter and more saturated at the end. In my experience, and in my partner’s experience, this was absolutely the case. I would encourage you to try it, just once or twice. He claims that he can produce this experience in his students, but then that might just be suggestion.
This sort of discussion does make you wonder whether those Zen types like Dogen were on to something when they advised us to ‘think not thinking.’