Tag Archives: William James

An ‘Integrated Affair’: William James, Sigmund Freud, and Analysis vs. Synthesis in Academic Discourse

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I’ve been having a fascinating conversation with Dr. Andreas Sommer of Cambridge University (http://forbiddenhistories.wordpress.com/) in the comments of my earlier post “Affect and Rationality in William James” about whether Freud’s concept of “the return of the repressed” can viably be marshaled in relation to James’ ideas. I think Dr. Sommer is right that his approach as an historian is probably different from my approach as a philosopher and cultural theorist with a doctorate in English. But I also think he’s perpetuating a fallacy that’s fairly pervasive in contemporary academia, exemplified by the poststructuralist “incredulity towards metanarratives,” imposing an excessively critical analysis of conceptual wholes into their constituent parts. This primarily critical mode seems to miss the proverbial forest for the trees, which I believe is fundamentally counter to the integrative character of James’ philosophy. Indeed, James addresses this very issue extensively in his work. For instance, he writes in Pragmatism:

The pragmatic method is primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable. . . . Theories thus become instruments, not answers to enigmas, in which we can rest.  We don’t lie back upon them, we move forward, and, on occasion, make nature over again by their aid. Pragmatism unstiffens all our theories, limbers them up and sets each one at work. . . . New truth is always a go-between, a smoother-over of transitions. It marries old opinion to new fact. . . . ‘To be true’ means only to perform this marriage-function. . . . Loosely speaking, and in general, it may be said that all things cohere and adhere to each other somehow, and that the universe exists practically in reticulated or concatenated forms which make of it a continuous or ‘integrated’ affair. . . . Everything makes strongly for the view that our world is incompletely unified teleologically and is still trying to get its unification better organized. (18-54)

The theoretical mode James consistently articulates is one in which diverse, and often contradictory theories, modes of thought, and thinkers can be brought into relation, their “metaphysical disputes” “settled” by the pragmatic “marriage-function,” which strives to unify, integrate, and reconcile seemingly incommensurable entities. This integrative impulse seems eminently applicable to the relation between the ideas of Freud and James himself, who, in the larger cultural context in which they are embedded, are more alike than they are different, not least in that they both spent their lives attempting to understand the same subject: the human mind in relation to the world.

Henri Bergson (with whom James was friends) also addresses the frequent modern academic preference for analysis over synthesis in Creative Evolution (to which James intended to write a laudatory preface for the English edition before he died):

Intellect therefore instinctively selects in a given situation whatever is like something already known; it seeks this out, in order that it may apply its principle that ‘like produces like.’ . . . Like ordinary knowledge, in dealing with things science is concerned only with the aspect of repetition. Though the whole be original, science will always manage to analyze it into elements or aspects which are approximately a reproduction of the past. Science can work only on what is supposed to repeat itself—that is to say, on what is withdrawn, by hypothesis, from the action of real time. Anything that is irreducible and irreversible in the successive moments of a history eludes science. To get a notion of this irreducibility and irreversibility, we must break with scientific habits which are adapted to the fundamental requirements of thought, we must do violence to the mind, go counter to the natural bent of the intellect. But that is just the function of philosophy. (24-25)

The mode of thought that Dr. Sommer is employing in apparently denying the possibility of finding complementary conceptual elements in James and Freud seems to me essentially complicit with the methods of reductive materialist science, which continue implicitly to dominate the humanities despite frequent protestations to the contrary. While I think the kind of critical, historical contextualization Dr. Sommer prefers is valid in its own right, it oversteps its domain of validity when it denies the impulse to produce emergent wholes through the synthesis of different thinkers’ ideas.

This pragmatic approach is concisely expressed by John Stuart Mill (whom James thought would have been a leader of pragmatism had he still been alive) in his essay “Coleridge”:

All students of man and society who possess that first requisite for so difficult a study, a due sense of its difficulties, are aware that the besetting danger is not so much of embracing falsehood for truth, as of mistaking part of the truth for the whole. It might be plausibly maintained that in almost every one of the leading controversies, past or present, in social philosophy, both sides were in the right in what they affirmed, though wrong in what they denied; and that if either could have been made to take the other’s views in addition to its own, little more would have been needed to make its doctrine correct.

Dr. Sommer seems to want to reify the “controversy” between James and Freud as metaphysically fundamental. I agree that Freud and James were very different thinkers, a point I allude to when I write that “James perhaps goes farther than Freud,” particularly in that James affirmed the validity of formal and final causation in addition to material and efficient causation, whereas Freud was a materialist, only affirming the latter two causal modes. However, I believe that critical negation (which Alfred North Whitehead terms “the peak of mentality”) of the possibility of synthesis, as Dr. Sommer seems to call for, should be relegated back to its appropriate place in the scholarly armamentarium, so that we can again begin to see apparently disparate modes of thought as complementary “in what they affirm.” In fact, as James asserts in a footnote to The Varieties of Religious Experience (444), this “inextricably mixed” quality of all kinds of “distinctions” was the predominant mode of thought prior to the seventeenth century. While I agree that critical, analytical, historical contextualization is a vitally necessary and important activity, one that has required the last few centuries for its individuation, this impulse is only half of a dialectical process. As Whitehead (who calls James “that adorable genius”) writes in Adventures of Ideas:

The difference between the two, namely the Hellenic and the Hellenistic types of mentality, may be roughly described as that between speculation and scholarship. For progress, both are necessary.  But, in fact, on the stage of history they are apt to appear as antagonists. Speculation, by entertaining alternative theories, is superficially skeptical, disturbing to established modes of prejudice. But it obtains its urge from a deep ultimate faith, that through and through the nature of things is penetrable by reason. Scholarship, by its strict attention to accepted methodologies, is superficially conservative of belief. But its tone of mind leans towards a fundamental negation. For scholars the reasonable topics in the world are penned in isolated regions, this subject-matter or that subject-matter. (108)

Despite Dr. Sommer’s assertion that “it’s of course fine that you make it your task to synthesize ideas,” he appears to contradict this affirmation in the rest of his response. He seems, along with much of current academia, to take an essentially Hellenistic rather than Hellenic approach to the production of knowledge, almost purely scholarly and analytic rather than speculative and synthetic. While I fully acknowledge the validity of tracing the direct influence on James of less well-remembered figures like Frederic W. H. MyersThéodore Flournoy, and Pierre Janet, I prefer a mode of thought which synthesizes the scholarly and speculative modes, asserting that, because James and Freud were perhaps the two primary psychologists who mediated the founding of psychology as a viable discipline, it is not only our right, but even our duty given a century of perspective, to bring their respective positive content into relation if we hope to generate novel understanding. Rather than a “forced marriage,” as Dr. Sommer terms it, I see this activity as a hieros gamos, a “sacred marriage” of opposites for the conception of discursive transformation via teleological concrescence.

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“That Slightest Change of Tone Which Yet Makes All the Difference”: Science and Bodily Knowledge in Alfred North Whitehead

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Alfred North Whitehead observes in Modes of Thought: “the current philosophic doctrines, mostly derived from Hume, are defective by reason of their neglect of bodily reference” (153), based explicitly on the privileging of science which, as Whitehead subsequently notes, “only deals with half the evidence provided by human experience” (154). Whitehead continues: “if we wish to understand the relation of our personal experience to the activities of nature, the proper procedure is to examine the dependence of our personal experiences upon our personal bodies” (159), for “the whole complexity of mental experience is either derived or modified by such [bodily] functioning. Also our basic feeling is this sense of derivation, which leads to our claim for unity, body and mind” (160). Thus, Whitehead sees the fundamental problems articulated so profoundly by modern philosophy to be resolvable by attention to “our personal bodies.”  By leaving out this whole domain of experience, Whitehead suggests, rational intellect has come to focus primarily on the negative, for as he writes in Process and Reality: “The negative judgment is the peak of mentality” (5).

Furthermore, in Adventures of Ideas, Whitehead observes that humanity “is now in one of its rare moods of shifting its outlook” (99), proclaiming that “transitions to new fruitfulness of understanding are achieved by recurrence to the utmost depths of intuition for the refreshment of imagination” (159). Thus, for Whitehead as for Henri Bergson, intuition appears to mean conscious attention to affective experience.  In Whitehead’s view, when intellect becomes static and locked into a fixed symbolic system as it has in the intellectual privileging of modernity, it is necessary to literally get “out of one’s head” and descend into the “depths” of the body that have been repressed and rendered unconscious since the Cartesian philosophical revolution, exemplified in the cogito’s equation of thought with human being in general. As illustration, Whitehead discusses several other historical moments when a similar static fixation has taken place. As he writes: “Modern scholarship and modern science reproduce the same limitations as dominated the bygone Hellenistic epoch, and the bygone Scholastic epoch. They canalize thought and observation within predetermined limits, based upon inadequate metaphysical assumptions dogmatically assumed” (118). However, though he sees the era of late modernity as bearing some deep similarities to these two older epochs, roughly ancient Rome and medieval Christianity, Whitehead seems to believe that our era has taken the focus on rationality and the concomitant exclusion of bodily reference to its most extreme conclusion. Indeed, as Whitehead contends, the focus solely on intellect denies conscious access to the more fundamental kinds of meaning that rational thought can structure, analyze, and critique, but cannot engender for, as he writes: “Knowledge is always accompanied with accessories of emotion and purpose” (4).

Whitehead demonstrates that the privileging of an intellectual epistemology over other modes is perhaps the primary fallacy of modern thought for, as he puts it: “Each mode of consideration is a sort of searchlight elucidating some of the facts, and retreating the remainder into an omitted background” (43). In Whitehead’s view, intellectual and intuitive ways of knowing reveal different, but equally valid information about experience. And Whitehead, like Bergson and William James, explicitly calls for the integration of these two modes, going so far as to nominate this epistemological synthesis “Wisdom.”  As he writes: “To some extent, to understand is always to exclude a background of intellectual incoherence. But Wisdom is persistent pursuit of the deeper understanding, ever confronting intellectual system with the importance of its omissions” (47). While this kind of “wisdom” as an integration of intellect and intuition is no doubt something that individuals have achieved in our culture, Whitehead seems to believe that intuitive knowledge has generally been excluded from consideration in an academia in which scientific objectivity and rational logic are the implicit ideals, even in the humanities. While in our personal lives we may recognize the efficacy of intuitive modes, Whitehead seems to suggest that as long as these modes are “omitted” from open commerce with our explicit intellectual understanding, our culture will never attain “Wisdom” on a mass scale, but only rational knowledge, an unbalanced situation that seems to have played a large part in producing the ecological, economic, social, and political crises in which we now find ourselves.

Whitehead finds precedent for this more expansive way of thinking in Plato for, as Whitehead writes of the father of philosophy: “In his view, the entertainment of ideas is intrinsically associated with inward ferment, an activity of subjective feeling, which is at once immediate enjoyment, and also an appetition which melts into action. This is Plato’s Eros” (148). However, this acceptance of “subjective feeling” as a valid and indispensable tool in the process of cognition appears often to have been suppressed in our own era. As Whitehead writes in Science and the Modern World:

Each age has its dominant preoccupations; and, during the three centuries in question, the cosmology derived from science has been asserting itself at the expense of older points of view with their origins elsewhere. Men can be provincial in time, as well as in place. We may ask ourselves whether the scientific mentality of the modern world in the immediate past is not a successful example of such provincial limitation (vii).

Thus, according to Whitehead, the broader Platonic cosmology, having evolved through many permutations over the centuries, was effectively repressed by Cartesianism in favor of the pure equation of thought with being so concisely expressed in the cogito. For a view of the world based on the Cartesian dualism of mind and body, subject and object, Whitehead explains that “Nature is a dull affair, soundless, scentless, colourless; merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly . . . However you disguise it, this is the practical outcome of the characteristic scientific philosophy which closed the seventeenth century” (54).  In Whitehead’s view, this is not the only way to approach immediate experience, for the world can appear radically different based on different fundamental premises about the nature of reality, particularly when those premises are held for centuries, worked out through countless lives to their inevitable conclusions. As Whitehead explains:

This quiet growth of science has practically recoloured our mentality so that modes of thought which in former times were exceptional are now broadly spread through the educated world. . . . It has altered the metaphysical presuppositions and the imaginative contents of our minds; so that now the old stimuli provoke new response . . . that slightest change of tone which yet makes all the difference (2).

We live in a radically different world than that inhabited by people of earlier ages because of the radically different assumptions that we hold and through which we cognize that world by means of collective attention and discourse. In Science and the Modern World, Whitehead critiques the “fundamental duality” of “mind” and “material” instituted by science. As he writes: “In between there lie the concepts of life, organism, function, instantaneous reality, interaction, order of nature, which collectively form the Achilles heel of the whole system” (57). This domain of “instantaneous reality” is apparently coextensive with the Bergsonian durational affectivity of lived experience that has been repressed by the predominance of scientific rationality, but which seems to have been slowly reemerging in the twentieth century through various artistic media such as popular music, painting, dance, and cinema, as well as in depth psychology perhaps more than the main streams of philosophy, excepting those exemplified by James, Bergson, Whitehead, and their conceptual progeny.

Furthermore, Whitehead sees William James as the initiator, much like Descartes, of a qualitatively new mode of thought still in the process of emerging from the previously dominant Cartesian philosophy:

The scientific materialism and the Cartesian Ego were both challenged at the same moment, one by science and the other by philosophy, as represented by William James with his psychological antecedents; and the double challenge marks the end of a period which lasted for about two hundred and fifty years. . . . The reason why I have put Descartes and James in close juxtaposition is now evident. Neither philosopher finished an epoch by a final solution of a problem. Their great merit is of the opposite sort. They each of them open an epoch by their clear formulation of terms in which thought could profitably express itself at particular stages of knowledge, one for the seventeenth century, the other for the twentieth century (143-47).

Thus, Whitehead suggests that while the seventeenth century was a period of transition from the static orthodoxy of medieval scholasticism to the liberating rationality of the Enlightenment, the twentieth century initiated a similar moment of transition from Enlightenment rationalism, which had itself developed into a static orthodoxy, to a new way of approaching experience that integrates the rational capacities developed particularly over the last few centuries with the older capacities that had been developed in premodernity, which Whitehead describes, along with Bergson, as “intuition.”

Ultimately, none of these three philosophers, James, Bergson, and Whitehead, wish to place intuition above intellect, but merely to redress the imbalanced emphasis of these two primary ways of knowing the world. And to be sure, this imbalance did not go unnoticed in modernity, for various strains of literature, Romanticism and its issue in particular, have been vocal in their objections to the privileging of rationality, which Blake, for but one early instance, memorably referred to as “single vision and Newton’s sleep.” To this point, Whitehead writes: “the literature of the nineteenth century, especially its English poetic literature, is a witness to the discord between the aesthetic intuitions of mankind and the mechanism of science” (87). However, despite this literary awareness, the primacy of science as the governing metaphor for the production of knowledge still seems to have come to dominate even the study of literature in the academy, though the deconstructions of the last few decades have amended this imbalance to some extent, and the current widespread interest in affect perhaps suggests that a shift in the modes of thought considered acceptable in academia is now underway. Indeed, as Whitehead presaged this emerging mode of thought, intuition and affect may become ways of knowing the world considered equally valid to scientific calculability and repeatability:

The make-weight which balances the thoroughness of the specialist intellectual training should be of a radically different kind from purely intellectual analytical knowledge . . . This professional training can only touch one side of education. Its centre of gravity lies in the intellect, and its chief tool is the printed book. The centre of gravity of the other side of training should lie in intuition without an analytical divorce from the total environment (198).

Whitehead seems to suggest here that, in order for true knowledge to be attained in the academy, as elsewhere, we must pursue a more complete kind of education in which scientific rationality is balanced and mediated by training in intuitive modes, though what this intuitive education might entail is probably the project of generations to determine. However, one suspects that those schools which have begun to integrate primarily Eastern and indigenous meditative, contemplative, yogic, and shamanic practices with the curriculum more traditional in the West are taking significant strides in this direction, experimenting with activities that may gradually find their way into the curricula of more orthodox institutions of higher learning to produce a more comprehensive kind of knowledge.

References:

Blake, William. “Letter to Thomas Butt.” 22 November, 1802. The Letters of William Blake. Ed.

Geoffrey Keynes. Charleston, SC: Nabu Press, 2011.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Adventures of Ideas. New York: The Free Press, 1967.

Whitehead. Alfred North. Modes of Thought. New York: The Free Press, 1968.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality: Corrected Edition. Ed. David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne. New York: The Free Press, 1985.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Science and the Modern World. New York: The Free Press, 1967.

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Intellect and Intuition in Henri Bergson

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As Bergson writes of the evolution of human intellect in Creative Evolution: “On other paths, divergent from it, other forms of consciousness have been developed, which have not been able to free themselves from external constraints or to regain control over themselves, as the human intellect has done, but which none the less, also express something that is immanent and essential in the evolutionary movement” (Bergson xxii). Bergson sees these “other forms of consciousness” (his French words translated into precisely the same phrase used by William James in his Varieties of Religious Experience) as struggling to become conscious in a modern humanity that has often literally defined humanness as homologous with intellect (as exemplified in the Cartesian cogito). These other modes are the forms of consciousness that we have come to associate almost exclusively with animality, often forgetting, in theory if not always in practice, that beneath our late-developed rational minds, we too are animals, and that animals often have instinctual and somatic capacities that modern humans generally do not possess. And Bergson, like James, gestures toward the integration of intellect and these unconscious, repressed, intuitive modes when he writes: “Suppose these other forms of consciousness brought together and amalgamated with intellect: would not the result be a consciousness as wide as life?” (Bergson xxii). According to Bergson, intellect is a mode of thought that can only analyze and reduce emergent qualities to their constituent parts. As Bergson presents it, intellect alone, with science as its ultimate expression, cannot comprehend the emergence of anything genuinely novel. He shows that the emergence of life itself, or of human consciousness, both radically emergent properties, appear to pure intellect as merely recombinations of existing elements. While this supposition is perhaps partially true from a rationalist and materialist standpoint, it completely misses the internal, subjective, relational meaningfulness characteristic of organismic process.

Furthermore, Bergson shows that this internal quality of process has to do with the conception of time: where science sees time as a linear, static, quantitative medium, Bergson shows that duration, the lived experience of time, can also be conceived as qualitative, each moment possessing a quality particular to it: “Concentrated on that which repeats, solely preoccupied in welding the same to the same, intellect turns away from the vision of time. . . . We do not think real time.  But we live it, because life transcends intellect.” This “inner movement of life,” the “indistinct fringe” surrounding the “bright nucleus” (Bergson 24-25) of that which is comprehensible to egoic consciousness, is only accessible, Bergson suggests, to intuitive forms of engaging experience. Intellect provides access to what is already known, to what has already been described in symbolic systems like language and mathematics, while intuition is a name for the mode of perception that can directly know that which exceeds the current grasp of our language, and which Bergson sees as the duty of philosophy to explore and express verbally.

Until there is language to describe an experience, that experience is not conscious for our culture which, as has often been noted, is profoundly logocentric, privileging the word, particularly in its written form, and repressing anything that does not fit into our current language games. For Bergson, genuine novelty is that which “could not have been foreseen” by intellect, for it is driven by modes of relation to experience that exceed pure intellect involving “the whole of our person” (Bergson 39), our somatic, affective, and intuitive capacities. However, although perhaps seemingly apparent when articulated in this way, it is an insight that has often been lost in the myopic rationalism of modernity for, as Bergson notes: “Our reason, incorrigibly presumptuous, imagines itself possessed, by right of birth or by right of conquest, innate or acquired, of all the essential elements of the knowledge of truth” (Bergson 39). Thus, as James also understood, truth is not something that exists ready-made to be found by intellect.  Rather, truth seems to be a quality of experience that emerges from the negotiation between affective and intellectual epistemologies. As Bergson emphatically sums up this relationship: “There are things that intelligence alone is able to seek, but which, by itself, it will never find. These things instinct alone could find; but it will never seek them” (Bergson 124). Ultimately, Bergson believes that “intelligence” and “instinct” are both indispensable ways of knowing the world and that, although this may seem obvious in practice, particularly in an early twenty-first century context when affect has become a primary academic concern, the academic presuppositions of the last few centuries have explicitly and in many ways rendered intuitive modes as inferior to intellect, a privileging that has been concretized in class distinctions and various institutional hierarchies, not least in the field of education.

However, Bergson sees intelligence and instinct as forming an opposition that must be deconstructed if we are fully to move beyond the deepest implicit prejudices of modernity. For Bergson, “instinct” is the unconscious form of the “inner knowledge” that he traces, while “intuition” is instinct become conscious in what amounts to a kind of phenomenological empiricism that can exceed verbal formulation. Bergson believes that this mode of consciousness is indispensable for the production of genuine novelty in both thought and action as it is the appropriate mode for comprehending the “most intimate secrets of life” (Bergson 135), that which we can feel in the depths of our internal process, but have not yet found the means to express. As he puts it: “By intuition I mean instinct that has become disinterested, self-conscious, capable of reflecting upon its object and of enlarging it indefinitely” (Bergson 145). As Bergson sees it, this repression of intuition in favor of intellect has been a “sacrifice” (Bergson 220) of other ways of relating to experience so that the materialist, mechanistic, intellectual habit of mind could be individuated and developed to its highest degree in science and rationalist philosophy. However, for Bergson as for James, this individuation of intellect has not been an end in itself, but has apparently been leading toward a reintegration of affectivity and rationality in an emergent domain of process.

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Affect and Rationality in William James

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William James writes in his Varieties of Religious Experience: “Each emotion obeys a logic of its own, and makes deductions which no other logic can draw. Piety and charity live in a different universe from worldly lusts and fears, and form another centre of energy altogether” (Varieties 298). James suggests that affective knowing, the focus on emotional or bodily information for the interpretation of experience, seems to illuminate domains that are inaccessible to the usual connotations of the word “logic,” as opposed to the more expansive derivation of the “Logos” of Greek philosophy in which sense James appears to be employing the term. As he describes it, being “inside” certain affective modes, including those accompanying rationality, constructs bodily experience of the world in radically different ways, forming different energetic centers that fundamentally color one’s perception of the world. Indeed, as James writes in Pragmatism: “The philosophy which is so important in each of us is not a technical matter; it is our more or less dumb sense of what life honestly and deeply means.  It is only partly got from books; it is our individual way of just seeing and feeling the total push and pressure of the cosmos” (Pragmatism 1). James contends that bodily experience is prior to any theoretical system that one may hold. As he makes clear, affective intuition determines the type of philosophy that one is drawn to, though because of the pervasive repression of feeling modes in favor of rational thought in modernity, this knowledge is often unconsciously acted out as if we are driven primarily by rational considerations.

James suggests that educated people in the modern West often think that we believe things for rational reasons when, in fact, we almost always use rationality as an instrument for justifying what we feel for, as he writes, “our passions or our mystical intuitions fix our beliefs beforehand.” He continues, philosophy “finds arguments for our conviction, for indeed it has to find them. It amplifies and defines our faith, and dignifies it and lends it words and plausibility. It hardly ever engenders it; it cannot now secure it” (Varieties 391-92). Although this view might appear anti-intellectual at first glance, to even undercut the very basis of reason, this does not appear to be James’ intention.  Rather, James demonstrates that intellectual rationality is but one way of knowing the world applicable to certain domains of experience more than others, and that, for complex historical reasons, the West has, for the last few centuries, pervasively and systematically privileged “logical reason” over what he terms “feeling” and “intuition.” As James notes: “Until the seventeenth century this mode of thought prevailed” (Varieties 443-44), particularly until the widespread acceptance of the Cartesian equation of thought with human being in general as codified in the cogito: “I think, therefore I am.” However, before Descartes and the epochal shift in philosophy that he enacted and represented, “such distinctions . . . between the impersonal and the personal aspects of existence, were hardly suspected or conceived” (Varieties 443-44). Thus, James suggests that the domains accessible to intellect and affect were not yet individuated in premodernity as they are in the experience of late modernity, visible in the radical Kantian separation of subject and object, which assumes that one can never directly perceive the world outside of oneself, so the only way to obtain real knowledge is through mathematics, formal logic, and empirical testing.

Contrary to this Cartesian-Kantian conclusion, the foundation on which the privileging of scientific rationality rests, James contends that intellectual rationality is but one valid and productive way of constructing experience and, thus, of knowing the world. This approach refocuses attention on bodily experience which, as James suggests, can provide just as much real information as rationality, though of a radically different kind. However, while modernity has often constructed these two epistemological domains as fundamentally discontinuous and incommensurable, James posits that, just as they were combined in premodernity in a generally naïve, unconscious way, it seems that the way to attain a more complete understanding of lived experience lies in the intentional integration of these experiential domains. And this integration appears to be constituted primarily in a consciousness of where one’s attention is directed, and of which mode one emphasizes at any given moment. James writes:

Now however fixed these elements of reality may be, we still have a certain freedom in our dealing with them. Take our sensations. That they are is undoubtedly beyond our control; but which we attend to, note, and make emphatic in our conclusions depends on our own interests; and, according as we lay the emphasis here or there, quite different formulations of truth result. We read the same facts differently (Pragmatism 94-5).

Ultimately, James sees freedom not as a triumph of rationality over mute feeling as the case has often been constructed in modernity, but as the freedom to emphasize whichever domains of process one finds most appropriate to illuminate one’s experience at any particular moment. Thus, by becoming conscious of repressed bodily knowledge, one becomes more able to participate in the “formulation” of “truth” than if one is conscious only of one’s verbal, conceptual rationality, but unconsciously driven by one’s neuroses: the non-verbal affective and intuitive modes of engagement returning as compensatory Freudian symptoms. “Experience, as we know,” James writes, “has ways of boiling over, and making us correct our present formulas” (Pragmatism 86), a statement that bears a strong resemblance to Freud’s description of the process through which neurotic symptoms are produced. However, James perhaps goes farther than Freud to see these symptoms as impelling the psyche towards greater integration rather than simply cathexis, which Freud describes as leading to regression, anti-cathexis, or sublimation, none of which seem to have the potential for the psychic conciliation that James implies. According to James, by paying attention to intimate bodily feelings and not just to rational logic, one can apparently participate in what James would later term a “radical empiricism.” James writes:

Our acts, our turning-places, where we seem to ourselves to make ourselves and grow, are the parts of the world to which we are closest, the parts of which our knowledge is the most intimate and complete. Why should we not take them at their face-value?  Why may they not be the actual turning-places and growing-places which they seem to be, of the world—why not the workshop of being, where we catch fact in the making, so that nowhere may the world grow in any other kind of way than this? (Pragmatism 111).

In James’ view, attention to intimate experience is the primary locus for the growth and transformation, not only of the individual, but of the world, for the deepest premises that we hold about the nature of reality fundamentally condition the type of meaning that we can elicit from immediate experience. In turn, the meaning that we cull from the raw data of our senses determines what kind of world we collectively co-create.

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Refining the Teleological Vision: A Response to Thomas Nagel’s “Mind and Cosmos”

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I’ve just finished reading Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, published in 2012, which is one of the best new books by an unfamiliar thinker I’ve read in a long time. It’s not often that I come across a text that I feel belongs in my own private canon, but Nagel’s book seems to me of sufficient quality for such consideration (despite the hysterically negative reaction from some scientists, philosophers, and reviewers). In fact, it fits snugly in a subcategory of that canon, which also includes William JamesPragmatism and Thomas Khun‘s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, all very short books that clearly, compellingly, and compactly argue for a startlingly novel concept. In the case of James, this concept is that the premises we bring to bear on our interpretation of reality condition the kind of meaning that we can elicit from the felt reality of immediate experience. Furthermore, James shows that the premises we choose to hold are affectively driven. Finally, he submits that truth is not something waiting to be found ready-made, but a process that creates its own verification. In the case of Kuhn, the concept is that scientific revolutions (and possibly revolutions in other cultural domains) are relatively sudden reorganizations of the conceptual system impelled by an anomaly or set of anomalies that force the scientific community to reevaluate their fundamental premises. And like James, Kuhn suggests that these reorganizations of the system’s rules are caused by affective impulses that themselves exceed the capability of scientific explanation.

To my mind, Nagel has convincingly demonstrated that pure materialist reductionism cannot provide a satisfying explanation for the totality of phenomena, including both material interactions and agential consciousness, so we must admit teleology in some form if we hope fully to understand the nature of our world (a point which James also suggests). However, Nagel argues that materialist reductionism cannot explain these phenomena without recourse to teleology, and while his argument is subtle and convincing, I would like to suggest that this may even still be too radical a hypothesis, or perhaps not radical enough. What if the mind can be explained by the mere combination of material factors, but this is not the only valid and productive way to explain the existence of consciousness? In this possibility, for which I suggested the figure of the “teleological incline” in an earlier post, materialism and teleology do not require one another for internal coherence—both scientific materialism and teleological modes of thought would be perfectly coherent world views—but they may require one another for explanatory completeness. The evolutionary process would then be seen as susceptible to both modes of interpretation, both yielding real, though partial truths about the cosmos. They would each be complementary modes of thought valid within their domains of significance, which have very little, if any overlap, though I do think that holding these two hypotheses in tension together can produce a third, emergent, integral mode of thought in which both materialist reductionism and teleology are tools, inherently partial but highly useful human inventions appropriate for specific purposes.

In this hypothesis, materialist modes perhaps provide a sufficient explanation for the structure of process, while teleological modes can provide an explanation for the purposeful, meaningful, and directional flow of temporality in which we are undeniably immersed as conscious beings. This may sound like Cartesian dualism, but I would argue that it’s really a monism with dual points of access, different parts of the elephant, as it were, because these conceptual systems are each describing one aspect of a much larger whole. This is very close to what Nagel suggests in Mind and Cosmos, though the slight difference is that he does not think it likely that life, consciousness, and reason were able to evolve purely by the process of random natural selection, a belief which suggests that teleology must have guided this emergent process in some way. As he writes:

Natural teleology would require . . . that the nonteleological and timeless laws of physics—those governing the ultimate elements of the physical universe, whatever they are—are not fully deterministic. Given the physical state of the universe at any moment, the laws of physics would have to leave open a range of alternative successor states, presumably with a probability distribution over them. (92)

While I’m deeply sympathetic to Nagel’s view, and I believe he very well may be correct, my suggestion here is only very slightly different, which is that all we can say is that this processual emergence is susceptible to both modes of explanation, the materialist and the teleological, and that they both have pragmatic value and also limitations of explanatory scope. We may never know for certain if a purely materialist reductionism could have produced us because we would have to calculate the trajectory of every particle for the whole history of the universe to be sure, which seems an impossible task. But there is no evidence directly to contravene this belief except our intuition that there is “something more,” as James puts it. However, the sword cuts both ways, and so there is also no way empirically to contravene the belief that teleology has informed the evolution of process, which, belief in purely materialist reductionism notwithstanding, seems self-evidently to be the case. Thus, reductive materialism and finalism are both valid but incomplete explanations.

Furthermore, I would suggest that the third, emergent mode described above is one that is not committed to any particular view of reality other than that reality is multivalent and that these often seemingly incommensurable modes can be integrated by pushing through the paradoxical line dividing these modes from one another to birth an emergent conceptual entity. Unlike the deconstructive forms of postmodernism, which generally posit that no mode can be privileged while implicitly and unconsciously privileging its own deconstructive mode, the “integral” mode of thought acknowledges that it privileges the mode which integrates the others. Thus, “integration” is precisely the positive inverse of negative “deconstruction”; integration is deconstruction turned on its head (to appropriate what Marx said about Hegel—actually, he said “I have stood Marx on his feet,” which makes more sense because Marx sees himself as correcting Hegel, but this phrase simply doesn’t sound as good as the one so often misquoted). The integral mode fundamentally employs the same insight as postmodernism, that the world is radically multivalent, but the deconstructive forms of postmodernism generally interpret this to mean that the world is devoid of real meaning, while integral thought takes this multivalence to be evidence that the world is filled with meaning, an instance of Whitehead’s “slightest change of tone which yet makes all the difference.”

In a fractal reiteration of this operation, while postmodern modes of thought generally reject the idea that certain individuals can exemplify and embody the larger movements of culture as a fallacious “great man” approach to understanding the evolution of consciousness, this emergent integral mode posits that individuals do in fact embody the collective, but only at the will of the collective. Through a process of negotiation along constantly shifting discursive networks, certain individuals are elevated to cultural prominence because they perfectly express the collective needs of that moment. Thus, Bob Dylan or Barack Obama, or Thomas Nagel for that matter, can validly be seen as emergent beings, in some sense specially elected by the many (literally in Obama’s case) to perform and catalyze the integration of disparate processual streams within themselves. Even if they ultimately fail in the full realization of the ideal, and they almost always do, they leave us with a “more perfect union.” And this is the way cultural process evolves, by lifting individuals to speak for the whole in our constant drive towards novelty through integration of apparently incommensurable entities.

One more thing about Nagel: He seems possibly to be influenced by Richard Tarnas, the most influential contemporary philosopher on my own work, not only in that his book is named Mind and Cosmos while Tarnas’ 2006 book is called Cosmos and Psyche, but in that Nagel writes that “each of our lives is a part of the lengthy process of the universe gradually waking up and becoming aware of itself” (85), while Tarnas writes in 1991’s The Passion of the Western Mind that “the human mind is ultimately the organ of the world’s own self-revelation” (434). These coincidences, while not conclusive evidence of Tarnas’ influence on Nagel, at least show a strong sympathy between the two thinkers, and may be suggestive of a direct connection between them.

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