Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Taking a break from everything

One of the main advantages of taking an intellectual holiday is that it can remove you completely from the concerns and worries of the mundane world that you normally occupy. And, more importantly, it can disperse some of the prejudices that cloud up your thinking and trap you into negative patterns of behaviour.

When you return, you will not have a sun tan, but the influx of fresh ideas may have changed your whole perspective on life.

Many things are likely to seem different - less burdensome or intrusive, more interesting, perhaps more enchanting. Some of the changes might be quite subtle, especially those involving the values you attach to things. Of course, these psychological benefits are intimately connected with the knowledge that you gain while away - but it is probably best not to aim for them directly.

What if you want to take a break from everything?

To do this, you need to be in the company of some of the most radical philosophers who ever lived: the Madhyamika Buddhists. For these thinkers challenged the very basis of all that we are inclined to believe about the nature of the mind and the existence of things in our everyday world

In my previous intellectual holiday package suggestion, the mind travel arrangements were very ad hoc. You were invited to spend as much or as little time with Greek philosophers as you want, and to do so whenever you feel like it.

If you really want to take time out from everything with the Madhyamikas, then you need to be a bit more disciplined. Some constraints are necessary. I recommend shacking up alone for a couple of days or so with some primary texts, and, if at all possible, no outside interference (TV, telephone, e-mail, etc). It's a good idea to get away from your usual surroundings (this helps with the habitual distractions). A cabin deep in the heart of a natural wilderness would be ideal.

Just kidding! That would be nice. But actually, the venue doesn't matter too much - anything that provides Coleridge's "Solitude which suits abstruser musings". A room in the cheapest motel will do. If you do not already have something of a Madhyamika outlook on it, nature itself can be a distraction.

Spend as much of your time as you can reading and ruminating on these texts - they will include commentary to help guide your reflections. But, you need to absorb them slowly, to really chew them over. Speed reading is off the menu. Then, after this first intensive session, you can take a more relaxed approach, spending time with the texts, and following up on others, whenever you get the chance.

What texts? There are many excellent translations available, but the two that I would start with are:

The Fundamental Wisdom of The Middle Way: Nagarjuna's Mulmamadhyamakakarika


Ocean of Reasoning: A Great Commentary on Nagarjuna's Mulmamahyamakakarika

These introduce you to Nagarjuna, the founder of Madhyamika philosophy, and Je Tsongkhapa, the monumental Tibetan commentator and thinker. Both texts are available on Amazon. They are translated by Jay Garfield (the second with the help of Geshe Ngawang).

At the heart of the Madhyamika outlook, is the notion of 'emptiness'. This has often been wrongly interpreted in terms of 'the void' or 'nothingness', as if it is entirely nihilistic.

To see why this is mistaken, take a simple example. The wooden table in front of you, is that empty on this outlook? Yes. But empty of what? Well, not existence as such - it is not that it does not exist (the nihilistic interpretation).

It is empty of a certain kind of existence; namely, independent existence, existence in its own right or, as the Tibetans like to put it, existence from its own side. All existence is contextual - things cannot exist in isolation. This includes you! When you try to throw a lasso around your self and rope it in to defend it against the big bad world outside, you are wasting your time. You don't actually exist in a manner that will make that project feasible.

If you have been reading other posts here, you will see how this links up with Pragmatism, with its scepticism about metaphysical notions of an independent reality. The Madhyamika take on things is thoroughly holistic.

Further reading

Self, Reality and Reason in Tibetan Philosophy: Tsongkhapa's
Quest for the Middle Way, Thupten Jinpa
Buddhist Philosophy: Essential Readings, Jay Garfield and William Edelgass (eds)
Empty Words: Buddhist Philosophy and Cross-Cultural
Interpretation, Jay Garfield
The Emptiness of Emptiness, C.W.Huntington, Jr.
'Frost at Midnight', The Collected Poems, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The thinking at the end of the tunnel

In a previous post I suggested reading 'The Last Days of Socrates' by way of preparation for an intellectual holiday to ancient Greece.

To take the actual vacation, why not start off by reading Pierre Hadot's What is Ancient Philosophy?. This will give you a feel for the notion of philosophy as a way of life rather than a mode of theorising about it. The Greeks are particularly interesting to spend some time with because they are both very strange and very familiar - though given the widespread educational neglect of the classics, the 'strangeness' is liable to dominate your first perceptions of them.

You can set your own agenda and timetable. As you dig deeper, by reading works by particular philosophers from time to time (Hadot describes many of the most important ones), you may then sense some affinity. For most of us are emerging from an intellectual tunnel of ideas created by Christianity and only made longer by those great figures, like Marx and Freud, who appeared to be set on dismantling it.

In the writings of the Greeks, we can see a form of thinking about the fundamental problems of life that has not been bent out of shape by the forces within this tunnel. For that reason alone, such thinking can be useful to us - even though we cannot simply transplant it into our own historical situation.

What to pack for the mind-beach.

For a lighthearted general introduction: It's All Greek To Me, Charlotte Higgens

For something more serious that is designed to cater for political correctness and other aspects of modern theorising about identity: The Greeks: A Portrait of Self and Others, Paul Cartledge

As a small child, I found The Greeks by H.D.Kitto endlessly fascinating - though I presumptuously thought I could do better, and wrote to Penguin to tell them so. They replied with a charming hand-written letter saying that although they were sure my book would be very good, they were unable, for legal reasons to offer a contact to someone of such a tender age. I came across The Greeks in a second-hand book shop recently - it has not aged well, but precisely because it did not have to navigate through the mine fields of modern political preconceptions, it throws out some colourful ideas.

Key Works by the two most famous Greek Philosophers
Republic and/or Symposium and The Death of Socrates, Plato
Ethics, Aristotle (I prefer Roger Crisp's translation (Cambridge University Press))

Other books I have found use in this connection
Care of the Self, Michel Foucault
Shame and Necessity, Bernard Williams
The Art of Living, Alexander Nehamas

Monday, June 1, 2009

One of Psychology's big mistakes

I recently wandered into the foyer of a top five-star hotel, The Arabella Western Cape Hotel and Spa, only to find it invaded by biological psychiatrists. In fact, they had taken over the whole place for a few days to hold a conference on, you guessed it, 'Biological Psychiatry'.

Two things imediately made me sceptical, suspicious even. And, they were interlinked. First, the awkward name tag. And, second the huge amount of financial backing manifestly in evidence.

What's wrong with the name? Why is it awkward? Well, it seems to bind together two incomensurable disciplines - one associated with the body (biology) and the other associated with the mind (psychiatry). Now I can hear you thinking "Surely as a Pragmatist, you don't fall for all that old mind/body dichotomy stuff?"

Well, I don't. And clearly one of philosophy's most interesting and ambitious goals is to naturalise things non-reductively (e.g. bring the mind down from the metaphysical ether into the field of nature without sawing off its intriguing features in order to do so). But, I was sceptical as to whether the psychiatrists present had worked all this through. Had they really come up with an ingenious way of pulling together two disparate vocabularies, one involving intentions, desires, beliefs and so on and the other referring to physical causation and the behaviour of matter?

Of course, assimilating a discipline of dubious empirical merit to science is an effective way of both hiding that defect and paving the way for awards, grants, and research resources.

The money factor increased my doubts. It is far more likely, I thought, that money brought these two disciplines together than some intellectual innovation that hitched mind-talk into creative communicative harmony with body talk. What better way for the drug companies to peddle their expensive stuff than to sponsor a discipline that by its very name suggests a direct route from body to mind (the very route followed by their wares)? The impact of this factor is serious. Commercial corruption in medicine has become a huge problem (check out what has been happening at Harvard Medical School - see The New York Review of Books (recent archives)).

Stumped by the dim prospect of stemming the tide here, I started to reflect on psychology in general. (By the way, I think there are prima facie grounds scepticism about a profession
that cannot find a manageable name, that leaves the public to find its own way through a very confusing maize of terminology.
Think of: 'psycholanalysts', 'psychiatrists', 'psychologists', 'clinical psychologists', 'cognitive psychologists', 'behavioural psychologists', and zillions of types of therapists. I am just going to use the blanket term 'psychology'.)

The kind of psychology I grew up with, that shaped my thinking and my cultural ethos - Freudian psychology, no longer strikes me as remotely plausible. And, nothing else represents much of an improvement. I began to believe in the unconscious pretty early in life, and soon decided it was a good thing to make friends with. That seemed a better deal than treating it like a demon that had to be caged if I couldn't tame it.

I refined my understanding by taking on board some of Marcuse's nifty ideas ('surplus repression', 'polymorphous perversity', etc.), but later the whole Freudian schema, refined or otherwise, made little sense. It wasn't that it had been refuted, it just fell by the wayside.

Freud himself began to look less like the scientist he aspired to be and more like someone who spawned some fascinating fantasies about the life of the mind, fantasies that turned out to have a hidden shelf life. However, 'Civilisation and its Discontents' is still on my list of must read books. But, it's now in the fiction category.

As Pragmatism got a stronger grip on me, I began to take a very different view of the mind, one that didn't fit together very well with anything I saw psychologists doing and saying. In the first, and most extreme instance, I even had trouble isolating the mind from its environment. With holism's map in my back pocket, everything seemed to be connected to everything else and the sharp divisions between things morphed into conventions backed by pragmatic pay-offs.

A handy slogan for this view is "The Mind is everywhere if it is anywhere". My hunch is that this links up with what the Zen Buddhists call "Big Mind", and I further conjecture that in the 60s, the hippie/counter culture movement simply got it wrong when they brazenly cashed all this out in terms of expanded awareness. Hence, a second slogan: "Mind is more than my awareness".

An important practical benefit of this outlook could be that the prospect of death becomes less daunting. If I identify with, and attach value to, things outside my head, say, my work, my friends and family, artitfacts I have produced, and so on, then there is a sense in which I can live on after my death. I find this consoling as I pour more of myself into my writing and my children. Whether I should be so consoled given how the universe is likely to end (see previous post on this topic) is nevertheless still a tricky question.

Of course, if we can only identify with a certain locus of awareness, if we can't stop believing that there is some special boundary around this awareness that makes us who we essentially are, that we need to be hemmed in to exist, then the prospect of that awareness being obliterated is quite scarey by comparison. But, this is a huge topic. Let me narrow things down to a particular example.

Consider emotions. On the holistic view, once again, these are not psychological atoms drifting around in the mind, they are linked up to all sorts of things in all sorts of ways. They do not hang suspended in psychological space playing their own tunes quite separately from rational concerns. For instance: they consort with beliefs. The ancient Stoics had a good line on this. By themselves, emotions are boring. It is only when beliefs and judgements enter the picture that they become interesting - and, if we do not take responsibility for what what we bring to the party, problematic.

Emotions even have a history, and not just their own.

Many psychologists seem to make a big mistake in their general approach to, and handling of, emotions. Especially those whose methods involve dredging up past emotions or focusing on particular ones in order to somehow improve a person's present psychological state (and/or future behaviour).

Think of someone who is often fearful, timid, and totally lacking in confidence. Surely such a person must have felt confident (and hence neither fearful nor timid) at some point in their lives? What if we get them to concentrate on one such feeling of confidence that they once experienced? Won't that help them to positively reorientate their inner state? Although this is example is simplistic, it is typical of psychological approaches to the emotions. And, it gets just about everything wrong.

There is no such thing as a feeling of confidence as such (for a start, it isn't an emotion). But, let us allow that kind of talk just to get things started. On the view that feelings are not psychological atoms, the confidence that I experience at a particular time is linked up, in complex ways, to the whole situation I am in. To later bring the feeling component of it forward, out of context, to play a therapeutic role is to misunderstand its nature and to mystify its causal significance.

To focus on a past feeling of confidence in order to instil confidence now, is to get things the wrong way round causally speaking. Confidence is an effect of acting in certain ways (and/or being acted towards). It can generate further feelings of confidence under its own (affective) steam, but these are inappropriate (and can be pathological) by themselves - that is, independently of the circumstances, both social and personal, that make confidence appropriate (I have heard psychologists blithely say that 'appropriateness' should not be predicated of feelings, as if they just exist and the links we are alluding to are merely incidental).

To get a fix on how New Age therapy fads frequently misconstrue things, run this example through substituting "happiness' for 'confidence'.

In itself, happiness is inconsequential, and hence not worth pursuiing.

Upshot? Chasing past feelings for present purposes, as psychologists are often inclined to do, is disasterous. It ignores the subtle ecology of the mind within which everything has its time and place.

Pouring chemicals into that ecology, as I suspect the biological pychiatrists (and their sponsors)are keen on doing is an even more daunting prospect. And, it is likely to do even more damage.

End Notes: (1) Alert readers will notice that some of what I say is still couched in non-Pragmatist terms - I talk about emotions as if they have a nature, and so on. But, this talk rests, in the end, on Pragmatic considerations: things work out better if they are treated in this way (at least until we find better descriptions, etc.). Furthermore, no Pragmatist is going to hold that disparate vocabularies must be kept apart because of their inherent features. It's simply that, like different tools, they are suited to different tasks. If someone finds a useful way of combining scalpels with lawnmowers, that's fine. I just don't think that biological psychiatrists have performed the equivalent of that feat. (2) If you are not a philosopher, and you find all this baffling, here is some background reading that might help. For illumination on why it is a mistake to circle the wagons around inner states (on grounds that they are private, known only to the person in question, and, indeed, 'inner') see Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations , Sellars' Empiricism and The Philosophy of Mind , and Putnam's work on the question as to whether meanings are in the head. For more on Holism, start with James' great classic Pragmatism. For a rejoinder to my dismissive treatment of Freud by an excellent philosopher and fully trained psycho-something-or-other, check out Jonathan Lear's Freud.