Philosophy Should Care about the Filthy, Excessive and Unclean

Thomas White | Aeon Ideas

Philosophy traditionally has been about ‘higher’ questions: what is knowledge? What is the meaning of justice? What is the nature of ultimate reality? These questions soar above the petty concerns of the everyday and reach towards a realm of pure ideas. But can the ‘unclean’ – dirt, mud, bodily wastes, the grime of existence – be relevant to the philosopher’s quest for wisdom and the truth? Philosophers don’t often discuss filth and all its disgusting variations, but investigating the unclean turns out to be as useful an exercise as examining the highest ideals of justice, morality and metaphysics.

In his dialogue Parmenides, Plato gives us an inkling of the significance of philosophising about the unclean, which he names ‘undignified objects’, such as hair, mud and dirt. The young Socrates, at this stage but an entry-level philosopher, is discussing the foundations of reality with the venerable Parmenides. While this encounter between these philosophers about ‘undignified objects’ is brief, it is profound, for it shows how insightful thinkers use digressions and marginal comments to demonstrate that not everything is as clearcut as system-builders – including even Plato – might think.

Parmenides quizzes Socrates about whether the theory of ideal forms – the argument that particular material objects have correlated ideal patterns, which are the perfect forms of the imperfect things – can include mud and dirt. Can there be a perfect form of filth? Taken aback, Socrates confesses that he is troubled by this point because it seems to lead to nonsense: ‘perfect filth’ is contradictory. Instead, Socrates prefers to return to discussing the higher ideals of ‘goodness’ and ‘beauty’. Confronted by Parmenides with the unseemly facts of mud and dirt, he takes refuge in the beautiful – unlike Antoine Roquentin, the protagonist in Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophical novel Nausea (1938), who, in confronting the ugly facticity of the world, obtains a glimpse of actual, albeit repugnant, reality.

Socrates’ puzzlement at how to explain the very lowest (dirt, mud) in terms of the very highest (ideal forms) suggests the limitations of the dualistic, two-world theory that has formed the basis of several millennia of Western thought. The unclean’s ‘undignified objects’ represent a kind of outer twilight zone – a metaphysical no-man’s land – that eludes overarching theories about the meaning of reality. The very resistance of filth’s inclusion into a master philosophical system serves as a cautionary note, and a lesson in Socratic humility, warning the ambitious and overeager intellectual to slow down. Do not try to assimilate every aspect of our diverse experience into grand explanatory narratives. The unclean’s raw existence is a great intractable that rudely interrupts a philosopher’s thinking when it fails to fit neatly into the theory of forms, thus forcing the philosopher to curb hasty, ambitious generalisations, and think even harder and more clearly. (The classicist Edith Hamilton, in her introductory notes to Parmenides, suggests that Plato attacked his own theory of Platonic ideas in order to know the truth, not to defend his own preconceived views.)

Parmenides’ concerns about the limits of the theory of forms presages the empiricist Francis Bacon. In Novum Organum (1620), he argued similarly for the limits of intellectual speculation, and about the dangers of creating idols out of promiscuously generated philosophical systems by exceeding speculative boundaries:

The understanding must also be cautioned against the intemperance of systems, so far as regards its giving or withholding its assent; for such intemperance appears to fix and perpetuate idols, so as to leave no means of removing them.

In our own day, Slavoj Žižek in his book Disparities (2016) echoes the Parmenidean point about how the unclean can disrupt our comfortable theories about reality: ‘[S]hit remains an excess which does not fit our daily reality.’ An experience of disgust in the presence of the filthy and unclean disturbs our sense of systems and order, causing a ‘disintegration’ of our metaphysical understanding of reality, ‘the very ontological coordinates which enable [us] to locate an object “out there”.’

Like Plato, Žižek uses allusions to the unclean to alert the reader to how repugnant, discordant facts can undercut a particular vision of reality. He also expands the use of the metaphor of filth to call our attention to something else closer to his heart: the failings of our modern political discourse. Bacon warned us of intellectual intemperance, but Žižek uses references to the unclean to warn us of modern political intemperance. In the cases of Plato, Bacon and Žižek, the philosophical issue raised is about boundaries and the implications of transgressing them.

In the unclean, Žižek finds the ultimate metaphor for the dumbing down of political thought and speech, a way of understanding the collapse of modern political discourse – itself an echo of Plato’s critique of the false, that is, ‘sophistical’ use of political language – in which ‘public vulgarity’ is used without shame.

He begins his argument with a scene from a surreal film from 1974 in which people at a dinner party defecate in public:

We probably all remember the scene from Luis Buñuel’s The Phantom of Liberty in which relations between eating and excreting are inverted: people sit at their toilets around the table, pleasantly talking, and when they want to eat, they silently ask the housekeeper: ‘Where is that place, you know?,’ and sneak away to a small room in the back.

Political figures today, Žižek argues, are committing the verbal equivalent of this public defecation. They are violating traditional, unwritten rules and boundaries that are used to guide public conduct by making outrageous statements that were once taboo. ‘They are a clear sign of the regression of our public sphere,’ he writes in Newsweek in 2016. ‘Accusations and ideas that were till now confined to the obscure underworld of racist obscenity are now gaining a foothold in official discourse.’ And citing Georg Hegel’s notion of Sittlichkeit – the ‘the thick background of (unwritten) rules of social life … that tell us what we can and cannot do’, Žižek further observes that ‘These [unwritten] rules are disintegrating today: what was a couple of decades ago simply unsayable in a public debate can now be pronounced with impunity.’

A discharge of verbal political filth has changed the public sphere into a kind of collective public toilet for language users – lurid speeches full of nasty ignorance, blatant vulgarity and raw prejudice. Plato and Žižek, with some tacit support from Bacon, use the notion of the unclean in similar ways to offer, implicitly, practical advice about how humans should conduct themselves: be wary of intemperately overstepping limits by chasing overweening ambitions, whether intellectual or political, which soil clear thinking and logic, and/or corrupt language, politics and ethics. Discussions of lowly filth, and all of its disgusting variations, are not merely the province of vulgarians, but seem to offer life lessons for everyone, not just philosophers.Aeon counter – do not remove


Thomas White is a Wiley Journal contributing author, whose philosophical and theological writings have appeared in print and online.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article here.

To Avoid Moral Failure, Don’t See People as Sherlock Does

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Suspicious minds; William Gillette as Sherlock Holmes (right) and Bruce McRae as Dr John Watson in the play Sherlock Holmes (c1900). Courtesy Wikimedia

Rima Basu | Aeon Ideas

If we’re the kind of people who care both about not being racist, and also about basing our beliefs on the evidence that we have, then the world presents us with a challenge. The world is pretty racist. It shouldn’t be surprising then that sometimes it seems as if the evidence is stacked in favour of some racist belief. For example, it’s racist to assume that someone’s a staff member on the basis of his skin colour. But what if it’s the case that, because of historical patterns of discrimination, the members of staff with whom you interact are predominantly of one race? When the late John Hope Franklin, professor of history at Duke University in North Carolina, hosted a dinner party at his private club in Washington, DC in 1995, he was mistaken as a member of staff. Did the woman who did so do something wrong? Yes. It was indeed racist of her, even though Franklin was, since 1962, that club’s first black member.

To begin with, we don’t relate to people in the same way that we relate to objects. Human beings are different in an important way. In the world, there are things – tables, chairs, desks and other objects that aren’t furniture – and we try our best to understand how this world works. We ask why plants grow when watered, why dogs give birth to dogs and never to cats, and so on. But when it comes to people, ‘we have a different way of going on, though it is hard to capture just what that is’, as Rae Langton, now professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge, put it so nicely in 1991.

Once you accept this general intuition, you might begin to wonder how can we capture that different way in which we ought to relate to others. To do this, first we must recognise that, as Langton goes on to write, ‘we don’t simply observe people as we might observe planets, we don’t simply treat them as things to be sought out when they can be of use to us, and avoid when they are a nuisance. We are, as [the British philosopher P F] Strawson says, involved.’

This way of being involved has been played out in many different ways, but here’s the basic thought: being involved is thinking that others’ attitudes and intentions towards us are important in a special way, and that our treatment of others should reflect that importance. We are, each of us, in virtue of being social beings, vulnerable. We depend upon others for our self-esteem and self-respect.

For example, we each think of ourselves as having a variety of more or less stable characteristics, from marginal ones such as being born on a Friday to central ones such as being a philosopher or a spouse. The more central self-descriptions are important to our sense of self-worth, to our self-understanding, and they constitute our sense of identity. When these central self-descriptions are ignored by others in favour of expectations on the basis of our race, gender or sexual orientation, we’re wronged. Perhaps our self-worth shouldn’t be based on something so fragile, but not only are we all-too-human, these self-descriptions also allow us to understand who we are and where we stand in the world.

This thought is echoed in the American sociologist and civil rights activist W E B DuBois’s concept of double consciousness. In The Souls of Black Folk (1903), DuBois notes a common feeling: ‘this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity’.

When you believe that John Hope Franklin must be a staff member rather than a club member, you’ve made predictions of him and observed him in the same way that one might observe the planets. Our private thoughts can wrong other people. When someone forms beliefs about you in this predictive way, they fail to see you, they fail to interact with you as a person. This is not only upsetting. It is a moral failing.

The English philosopher W K Clifford argued in 1877 that we were morally criticisable if our beliefs weren’t formed in the right way. He warned that we have a duty to humanity to never believe on the basis of insufficient evidence because to do so would be to put society at risk. As we look at the world around us and the epistemic crisis in which we find ourselves, we see what happens when Clifford’s imperative is ignored. And if we combine Clifford’s warning with DuBois’s and Langton’s observations, it becomes clear that, for our belief-forming practices, the stakes aren’t just high because we depend on one another for knowledge – the stakes are also high because we depend on one another for respect and dignity.

Consider how upset Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters get with Sherlock Holmes for the beliefs this fictional detective forms about them. Without fail, the people whom Holmes encounters find the way he forms beliefs about others to be insulting. Sometimes it’s because it is a negative belief. Often, however, the belief is mundane: eg, what they ate on the train or which shoe they put on first in the morning. There’s something improper about the way that Holmes relates to other human beings. Holmes’s failure to relate is not just a matter of his actions or his words (though sometimes it is also that), but what really rubs us up the wrong way is that Holmes observes us all as objects to be studied, predicted and managed. He doesn’t relate to us as human beings.

Maybe in an ideal world, what goes on inside our heads wouldn’t matter. But just as the personal is the political, our private thoughts aren’t really only our own. If a man believes of every woman he meets: ‘She’s someone I can sleep with,’ it’s no excuse that he never acts on the belief or reveals the belief to others. He has objectified her and failed to relate to her as a human being, and he has done so in a world in which women are routinely objectified and made to feel less-than.

This kind of indifference to the effect one has on others is morally criticisable. It has always struck me as odd that everyone grants that our actions and words are apt for moral critique, but once we enter the realm of thought we’re off the hook. Our beliefs about others matter. We care what others think of us.

When we mistake a person of colour for a staff member, that challenges this person’s central self-descriptions, the descriptions from which he draws his sense of self-worth. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with being a staff member, but if your reason for thinking that someone is staff is tied not only to something he has no control over (his skin colour) but also to a history of oppression (being denied access to more prestigious forms of employment), then that should give you pause.

The facts might not be racist, but the facts that we often rely on can be the result of racism, including racist institutions and policies. So when forming beliefs using evidence that is a result of racist history, we are accountable for failing to show more care and for believing so easily that someone is a staff member. Precisely what is owed can vary along a number of dimensions, but nonetheless we can recognise that some extra care with our beliefs is owed along these lines. We owe each other not only better actions and better words, but also better thoughts.Aeon counter – do not remove


Rima Basu is an assistant professor of philosophy at Claremont McKenna College in California. Her work has been published in Philosophical Studies, among others.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article here.

How the Dualism of Descartes Ruined our Mental Health

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Yard with Lunatics 1794, (detail) by Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes. Courtesy Wikimedia/Meadows Museum, Dallas

James Barnes | Aeon Ideas

Toward the end of the Renaissance period, a radical epistemological and metaphysical shift overcame the Western psyche. The advances of Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei and Francis Bacon posed a serious problem for Christian dogma and its dominion over the natural world. Following Bacon’s arguments, the natural world was now to be understood solely in terms of efficient causes (ie, external effects). Any inherent meaning or purpose to the natural world (ie, its ‘formal’ or ‘final’ causes) was deemed surplus to requirements. Insofar as it could be predicted and controlled in terms of efficient causes, not only was any notion of nature beyond this conception redundant, but God too could be effectively dispensed with.

In the 17th century, René Descartes’s dualism of matter and mind was an ingenious solution to the problem this created. ‘The ideas’ that had hitherto been understood as inhering in nature as ‘God’s thoughts’ were rescued from the advancing army of empirical science and withdrawn into the safety of a separate domain, ‘the mind’. On the one hand, this maintained a dimension proper to God, and on the other, served to ‘make the intellectual world safe for Copernicus and Galileo’, as the American philosopher Richard Rorty put it in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979). In one fell swoop, God’s substance-divinity was protected, while empirical science was given reign over nature-as-mechanism – something ungodly and therefore free game.

Nature was thereby drained of her inner life, rendered a deaf and blind apparatus of indifferent and value-free law, and humankind was faced with a world of inanimate, meaningless matter, upon which it projected its psyche – its aliveness, meaning and purpose – only in fantasy. It was this disenchanted vision of the world, at the dawn of the industrial revolution that followed, that the Romantics found so revolting, and feverishly revolted against.

The French philosopher Michel Foucault in The Order of Things (1966) termed it a shift in ‘episteme’ (roughly, a system of knowledge). The Western psyche, Foucault argued, had once been typified by ‘resemblance and similitude’. In this episteme, knowledge of the world was derived from participation and analogy (the ‘prose of the world’, as he called it), and the psyche was essentially extroverted and world-involved. But after the bifurcation of mind and nature, an episteme structured around ‘identity and difference’ came to possess the Western psyche. The episteme that now prevailed was, in Rorty’s terms, solely concerned with ‘truth as correspondence’ and ‘knowledge as accuracy of representations’. Psyche, as such, became essentially introverted and untangled from the world.

Foucault argued, however, that this move was not a supersession per se, but rather constituted an ‘othering’ of the prior experiential mode. As a result, its experiential and epistemological dimensions were not only denied validity as an experience, but became the ‘occasion of error’. Irrational experience (ie, experience inaccurately corresponding to the ‘objective’ world) then became a meaningless mistake – and disorder the perpetuation of that mistake. This is where Foucault located the beginning of the modern conception of ‘madness’.

Although Descartes’s dualism did not win the philosophical day, we in the West are still very much the children of the disenchanted bifurcation it ushered in. Our experience remains characterised by the separation of ‘mind’ and ‘nature’ instantiated by Descartes. Its present incarnation  – what we might call the empiricist-materialist position  –  not only predominates in academia, but in our everyday assumptions about ourselves and the world. This is particularly clear in the case of mental disorder.

Common notions of mental disorder remain only elaborations of ‘error’, conceived of in the language of ‘internal dysfunction’ relative to a mechanistic world devoid of any meaning and influence. These dysfunctions are either to be cured by psychopharmacology, or remedied by therapy meant to lead the patient to rediscover ‘objective truth’ of the world. To conceive of it in this way is not only simplistic, but highly biased.

While it is true that there is value in ‘normalising’ irrational experiences like this, it comes at a great cost. These interventions work (to the extent that they do) by emptying our irrational experiences of their intrinsic value or meaning. In doing so, not only are these experiences cut off from any world-meaning they might harbour, but so too from any agency and responsibility we or those around us have – they are only errors to be corrected.

In the previous episteme, before the bifurcation of mind and nature, irrational experiences were not just ‘error’ – they were speaking a language as meaningful as rational experiences, perhaps even more so. Imbued with the meaning and rhyme of nature herself, they were themselves pregnant with the amelioration of the suffering they brought. Within the world experienced this way, we had a ground, guide and container for our ‘irrationality’, but these crucial psychic presences vanished along with the withdrawal of nature’s inner life and the move to ‘identity and difference’.

In the face of an indifferent and unresponsive world that neglects to render our experience meaningful outside of our own minds  –  for nature-as-mechanism is powerless to do this  –  our minds have been left fixated on empty representations of a world that was once its source and being. All we have, if we are lucky to have them, are therapists and parents who try to take on what is, in reality, and given the magnitude of the loss, an impossible task.

But I’m not going to argue that we just need to ‘go back’ somehow. On the contrary, the bifurcation of mind and nature was at the root of immeasurable secular progress –  medical and technological advance, the rise of individual rights and social justice, to name just a few. It also protected us all from being bound up in the inherent uncertainty and flux of nature. It gave us a certain omnipotence – just as it gave science empirical control over nature – and most of us readily accept, and willingly spend, the inheritance bequeathed by it, and rightly so.

It cannot be emphasised enough, however, that this history is much less a ‘linear progress’ and much more a dialectic. Just as unified psyche-nature stunted material progress, material progress has now degenerated psyche. Perhaps, then, we might argue for a new swing in this pendulum. Given the dramatic increase in substance-use issues and recent reports of a teenage ‘mental health crisis’ and teen suicide rates rising in the US, the UK and elsewhere to name only the most conspicuous, perhaps the time is in fact overripe.

However, one might ask, by what means? There has been a resurgence of ‘pan-experiential’ and idealist-leaning theories in several disciplines, largely concerned with undoing the very knot of bifurcation and the excommunication of a living nature, and creating in its wake something afresh. This is because attempts at explaining subjective experience in empiricist-materialist terms have all but failed (principally due to what the Australian philosopher David Chalmers in 1995 termed the ‘the hard problem’ of consciousness). The notion that metaphysics is ‘dead’ would in fact be met with very significant qualification in certain quarters – indeed, the Canadian philosopher Evan Thompson et al argued along the same lines in a recent essay in Aeon.

It must be remembered that mental disorder as ‘error’ rises and falls with the empiricist-materialist metaphysics and the episteme it is a product of. Therefore, we might also think it justified to begin to reconceptualise the notion of mental disorder in the same terms as these theories. There has been a decisive shift in psychotherapeutic theory and practice away from the changing of parts or structures of the individual, and towards the idea that it is the very process of the therapeutic encounter itself that is ameliorative. Here, correct or incorrect judgments about ‘objective reality’ start to lose meaning, and psyche as open and organic starts to come back into focus, but the metaphysics remains. We ultimately need to be thinking about mental disorder on a metaphysical level, and not just within the confines of the status quo.Aeon counter – do not remove

James Barnes

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article here.

How do we Pry Apart the True and Compelling from the False and Toxic?

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Stack of CPU’s. Shawn Stutzman, Pexels

David V Johnson | Aeon Ideas

When false and malicious speech roils the body politic, when racism and violence surge, the right and role of freedom of speech in society comes into crisis. People rightly begin to wonder what are the limits, what should be the rules. It is a complicated issue, and resolving it requires care about the exact problems targeted and solutions proposed. Otherwise the risk to free speech is real.

Propaganda from Russian-funded troll farms (boosted by Facebook data breaches) might have contributed to the United Kingdom’s vote to exit the European Union and aided the United States’ election of Donald Trump as president. Conspiracy theories spread by alternative news outlets or over social media sometimes lead to outbreaks of violence. Politicians exploit the mainstream news media’s commitment to balance, to covering newsworthy public statements and their need for viewers or readers by making baseless, sensational claims.

In On Liberty (1859), John Stuart Mill offers the most compelling defence of freedom of speech, conscience and autonomy ever written. Mill argues that the only reason to restrict speech is to prevent harm to others, such as with hate speech and incitement to violence. Otherwise, all speech must be protected. Even if we know a view is false, Mill says, it is wrong to suppress it. We avoid prejudice and dogmatism, and achieve understanding, through freely discussing and defending what we believe against contrary claims.

Today, a growing number of people see these views as naive. Mill’s arguments are better suited to those who still believe in the open marketplace of ideas, where free and rational debate is the best way to settle all disputes about truth and falsity. Who could possibly believe we live in such a world anymore? Instead, what we have is a Wild West of partisanship and manipulation, where social media gurus exploit research in behavioural psychology to compel users to affirm and echo absurd claims. We have a world where people live in cognitive bubbles of the like-minded and share one another’s biases and prejudices. According to this savvy view, our brave new world is too prone to propaganda and conspiracy-mongering to rely on Mill’s optimism about free speech. To do so is to risk abetting the rise of fascist and absolutist tendencies.

In his book How Fascism Works (2018), the American philosopher Jason Stanley cites the Russian television network RT, which presents all sorts of misleading and slanted views. If Mill is right, claims Stanley, then RT and such propaganda outfits ‘should be the paradigm of knowledge production’ because they force us to scrutinise their claims. But this is a reductio ad absurdum of Mill’s argument. Similarly, Alexis Papazoglou in The New Republic questions whether Nick Clegg, the former British deputy prime minister turned Facebook’s new vice president of global affairs and communication, will be led astray by his appreciation of Mill’s On Liberty. ‘Mill seemed to believe that an open, free debate meant the truth would usually prevail, whereas under censorship, truth could end up being accidentally suppressed, along with falsehood,’ writes Papazoglou. ‘It’s a view that seems a bit archaic in the age of an online marketplace of memes and clickbait, where false stories tend to spread faster and wider than their true counterpoints.’

When important and false beliefs and theories gain traction in public conversation, Mill’s protection of speech can be frustrating. But there is nothing new about ‘fake news’, whether in Mill’s age of sensationalist newspapers or in our age of digital media. Nonetheless to seek a solution in restricting speech is foolish and counterproductive – it lends credibility to the illiberal forces you, paradoxically, seek to silence. It also betrays an elitism about engaging with those of different opinions and a cynicism about affording your fellow citizens the freedom to muddle through the morass on their own. If we want to live in a liberal democratic society, rational engagement is the only solution on offer. Rather than restricting speech, we should look to supplement Mill’s view with effective tools for dealing with bad actors and with beliefs that, although false, seem compelling to some.

Fake news and propaganda are certainly problems, as they were in Mill’s day, but the problems they raise are more serious than the falsity of their claims. After all, they are not unique in saying false things, as the latest newspaper corrections will tell you. More importantly, they involve bad actors: people and organisations who intentionally pass off false views as the truth, and hide their nature and motives. (Think Russian troll farms.) Anyone who knows that they are dealing with bad actors – people trying to mislead – ignores them, and justifiably so. It’s not worth your time to consider the claim of someone you know is trying to deceive you.

There is nothing in Mill that demands that we engage any and all false views. After all, there are too many out there and so people have to be selective. Transparency is key, helping people know with whom, or what, they are dealing. Transparency helps filter out noise and fosters accountability, so that bad actors – those who hide their identity for the purpose of misleading others – are eliminated.

Mill’s critics fail to see the truth that is mixed in with the false views that they wish to restrict, and that makes those views compelling. RT, for instance, has covered many issues, such as the US financial crisis, economic inequality and imperialism more accurately than mainstream news channels. RT also includes informed sources who are ignored by other outlets. The channel might be biased toward demeaning the US and fomenting division, but it often pursues this agenda by speaking truths that are not covered in mainstream US media. Informed news-watchers know to view RT and all news sources with skepticism, and there is no reason not to extend the same respect to the entire viewing public, unless you presume you are a better judge of what to believe than your fellow citizens.

Mill rightly thought that the typical case wasn’t one of views that are false, but views that have a mixture of true and false. It would be far more effective to try to engage with the truth in views we despise than to try to ban them for their alleged falsity. The Canadian psychologist and YouTube sensation Jordan Peterson, for example, says things that are false, misogynistic and illiberal, but one possible reason for his following is that he recognises and speaks to a deficit of meaning and values in many young men’s lives. Here, the right approach is to pry apart the true and compelling from the false and toxic, through reasoned consideration. This way, following Mill’s path, presents a better chance of winning over those who are lost to views we despise. It also helps us improve our own understanding, as Mill wisely suggests.Aeon counter – do not remove

David V Johnson

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article here.

Philosophical Writing Should Read like a Letter Written to Oneself

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Søren Kierkegaard at his high desk (1920) by Luplau Janssen. Courtesy Wikipedia

John Lysaker | Aeon Ideas

In memory of Stanley Cavell (1926-2018)

I came to philosophy bursting with things to say. Somewhere along the way, that changed. Not that I stopped talking, or, as time went on, writing. But the mood of it, the key in which it was pitched, moved. I came to feel answerable. And not just to myself or those I knew but to some broader public, some open, indefinite ‘you’. ‘Answer for yourself’ wove into ‘know thyself’.

How though does one register a key change in prose? If philosophy is bound, in part, to the feeling of being answerable, shouldn’t it have more of an epistolary feel? ‘Dear you, here is where I stand, for the time being… Yours, me.’ One ventures thoughts, accounts for them and awaits a reply, only to begin again: ‘Dear you, thank you for your response. So much (or very little) has changed since I received your letter…’

A move toward the epistolary seems right to me, at least for philosophy. Still a gadfly perhaps, but also working through having been stung, and with the vulnerability of doing so before, even for others. But how much philosophy has the feel of a letter? And when we philosophise, are we cognisant of our addressees and the varied situations in which they find us? The view from nowhere has been more or less exiled from epistemology. We know that we know in concrete, situated locales. But has philosophical writing kept pace and developed a feel for what to consider when pondering: how should I write?

Survey philosophy’s history, and the plot thickens. Philosophical writing is a varied affair. Some texts prioritise demonstration, arguing, for example, that ‘truth’ names a working touch between belief and the world. Others favour provocation, as when a dialogue concerning the nature of friendship concludes before a working definition is reached. If we want a definition, we need to generate our own, or ponder what a lack of one implies. Still other texts offer exemplification, as when Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex (1949) proves herself to be the agent-intellect that patriarchy insists she’s not. By confronting her historical fate, she shows us how wrong, how unjust that historical fate has been. And she shows us what patriarchy has kept us from.

Genre considerations intensify the question of what should organise philosophical writing: dialogue, treatise, aphorism, essay, professional article and monograph, fragment, autobiography. And if one’s sensibility is more inclusive, letters, manifestos and interviews also become possibilities. No genre is fully scripted, however, hence the need to also consider logical-rhetorical operations: modus ponens, irony, transcendental arguments, allegory, images, analogies, examples, quotations, translation, even voice, a distinctive way of being there and for the reader. So much seems to count when we answer for how we write.

Questions concerning writing sometimes arise when philosophers worry about accessibility and a broader readership. But the possibilities I have enumerated bear directly on thought itself. Writing generates discovery, and genre impacts rather than simply transfers ideas; so too logical-rhetorical operations. Francis Bacon was drawn to the aphorism because it freed observation from scholastic habits, whereas the professional article defers to its lingua franca. The treatise exhausts whatever might be said about a topic – call this the view from everywhere – whereas the essay accepts its partiality and tests its reach relative to topics such as friendship, feminine sexuality, even a fierce love for film. When writing becomes the question, more than outreach calls for consideration.

Here’s a start. How will my thought unfold through this genre and these logical-rhetorical operations? Where will the aphorism, essay or professional article take me, or an exchange of letters? And so too examples, open disagreements, quotation, the labour of translation, or irony for that matter? It is a celebrated trope of surprise and displacement. But a good deal of irony, at least when one turns to the ironist, facilitates self-preservation. It is the reader who is surprised by an encounter with some covert meaning while the author’s overt and covert meanings are fairly settled. (I thus wonder: what does irony keep safe?)

Questions regarding which possibilities to enact cannot be answered through critique, which, following Immanuel Kant, interrogates the character of our judgments and operative concepts, seeking rules that might govern their use. The discoveries that writing occasions are evidence that philosophy belongs too intimately to language to play charioteer to its steeds. Writing is a gamble and, when it’s honest, one faces unexpected results.

Facing a blank page, one might also ask: what relations will this establish with addressees? The polemic seeks converts rather than interlocutors, and at the expense of discovery. And even when an outright polemic is avoided, some schematise opponents rather than read them publicly and carefully, thereby preaching to the converted, which seems a misstep.

Unwilling to proceed dogmatically, one might favour provocation at the expense of doctrine, as some take Plato to do. But any provocation has its own commitments, beginning with the end toward which it provokes its readers. Socrates is one kind of interlocutor, Gaius Laelius quite another, and that is because Plato and Cicero approach education, the soul and their respective states differently. Strict distinctions between provocation and doctrine (or form and content, for that matter) are thus untenable.

Other operations also engage one’s addressees. Examples allow readers to review what’s on offer, something also made possible when meaningful disagreements are staged. (When authors never pause to imagine a disagreement, I feel claustrophobic and throw open a window.) And if one begins to acknowledge how varied one’s addressees could be, other habits become salient. Looking back at my citations, I know that I’ve written texts that suggest ‘whites only’ or ‘women need not apply’.

Texts and readers do not meet in a vacuum, however. I thus wonder: how does one also address prevailing contextual forces, from ethno-nationalisms to white supremacy to the commodification of higher education? It is tempting to imagine a text without footnotes, as if they were ornaments. But in a period so averse to the rigours of knowledge, and so ahistorical in its feel for the truths we have, why not underscore the contested history of a thought, if only to insist: thought is work, the results fragile, and there will be disagreements. Clarity poses another question, and a particular challenge for philosophy, which is not underwritten by experiments. Instead, its ‘results’ are won (or lost) in the presentation. Moreover, philosophical conclusions do not remain philosophical if freed from the path that led to them. ‘God exists’ says one thing in prayer and something else at the close of a proof. Experts often are asked to share their results without showing their work. But showing one’s work is very much the work of philosophy. Can one do so and reach beyond the academy?

Every reader of Plato knows that Socrates, by way of exemplification, is an image of philosophy, from his modes of interrogation to who is interrogated to his reminders that philosophy demands courage. And so too the dialogue itself – it models philosophy. But every text announces: here too is philosophy. The overall bearing of one’s writing thus merits scrutiny. Is it generous or hasty? Has it earned its ‘therefores’ or, after ripping opponents for nuanced failings, does it invoke the intuitively plausible? Does it acknowledge the full range of possible addressees or cloister itself within the narrow folds of the like-minded? Does it challenge its starting points or hide cut corners with jargon and massive generalisations?

Taking my cue from Ludwig Wittgenstein, I would say: philosophy no longer knows its way around writing. And what it does know – the professional article and monograph – is underwritten by conformity rather than philosophical reflection and commitment. Not for all. And many have led elsewhere by example. But on the whole, and thinking of the present moment, the writer’s life remains unexamined in the aspirational context of philosophy.

Looking into a garden of genres and logical-rhetorical operations, I have proposed four orienting questions. How will my thought unfold along these lines? What relationships will they establish with my varied addressees? Will my address be able to navigate the currents of our varied lives and be ‘equal to the moment’, as Walter Benjamin would ask? And finally, what, in the name of philosophy, does my text exemplify? Have I offered a compelling image? ‘Dear you, here is where I stand, for the time being… Yours, me.’Aeon counter – do not remove

John Lysaker

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article here.

To Boost your Self-esteem, Write about Chapters of your Life

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New car, 1980s. Photo by Don Pugh/Flickr

Christian Jarrett | Aeon Ideas

In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity. Writing in the 1950s, the psychologist Erik Erikson put it this way:

To be adult means among other things to see one’s own life in continuous perspective, both in retrospect and in prospect … to selectively reconstruct his past in such a way that, step for step, it seems to have planned him, or better, he seems to have planned it.

Alongside your chosen values and goals in life, and your personality traits – how sociable you are, how much of a worrier and so on – your life story as you tell it makes up the final part of what in 2015 the personality psychologist Dan P McAdams at Northwestern University in Illinois called the ‘personological trinity’.

Of course, some of us tell these stories more explicitly than others – one person’s narrative identity might be a barely formed story at the edge of their consciousness, whereas another person might literally write out their past and future in a diary or memoir.

Intriguingly, there’s some evidence that prompting people to reflect on and tell their life stories – a process called ‘life review therapy’ – could be psychologically beneficial. However, most of this work has been on older adults and people with pre-existing problems such as depression or chronic physical illnesses. It remains to be established through careful experimentation whether prompting otherwise healthy people to reflect on their lives will have any immediate benefits.

A relevant factor in this regard is the tone, complexity and mood of the stories that people tell themselves. For instance, it’s been shown that people who tell more positive stories, including referring to more instances of personal redemption, tend to enjoy higher self-esteem and greater ‘self-concept clarity’ (the confidence and lucidity in how you see yourself). Perhaps engaging in writing or talking about one’s past will have immediate benefits only for people whose stories are more positive.

In a recent paper in the Journal of Personality, Kristina L Steiner at Denison University in Ohio and her colleagues looked into these questions and reported that writing about chapters in your life does indeed lead to a modest, temporary self-esteem boost, and that in fact this benefit arises regardless of how positive your stories are. However, there were no effects on self-concept clarity, and many questions on this topic remain for future study.

Steiner’s team tested three groups of healthy American participants across three studies. The first two groups – involving more than 300 people between them – were young undergraduates, most of them female. The final group, a balanced mix of 101 men and women, was recruited from the community, and they were older, with an average age of 62.

The format was essentially the same for each study. The participants were asked to complete various questionnaires measuring their mood, self-esteem and self-concept clarity, among other things. Then half of them were allocated to write about four chapters in their lives, spending 10 minutes on each. They were instructed to be as specific and detailed as possible, and to reflect on main themes, how each chapter related to their lives as a whole, and to think about any causes and effects of the chapter on them and their lives. The other half of the participants, who acted as a control group, spent the same time writing about four famous Americans of their choosing (to make this task more intellectually comparable, they were also instructed to reflect on the links between the individuals they chose, how they became famous, and other similar questions). After the writing tasks, all the participants retook the same psychological measures they’d completed at the start.

The participants who wrote about chapters in their lives displayed small, but statistically significant, increases to their self-esteem, whereas the control-group participants did not. This self-esteem boost wasn’t explained by any changes to their mood, and – to the researchers’ surprise – it didn’t matter whether the participants rated their chapters as mostly positive or negative, nor did it depend on whether they featured themes of agency (that is, being in control) and communion (pertaining to meaningful relationships). Disappointingly, there was no effect of the life-chapter task on self-concept clarity, nor on meaning and identity.

How long do the self-esteem benefits of the life-chapter task last, and might they accumulate by repeating the exercise? Clues come from the second of the studies, which involved two life chapter-writing tasks (and two tasks writing about famous Americans for the control group), with the second task coming 48 hours after the first. The researchers wanted to see if the self-esteem boost arising from the first life-chapter task would still be apparent at the start of the second task two days later – but it wasn’t. They also wanted to see if the self-esteem benefits might accumulate over the two tasks – they didn’t (the second life-chapter task had its own self-esteem benefit, but it wasn’t cumulative with the benefits of the first).

It remains unclear exactly why the life-chapter task had the self-esteem benefits that it did. It’s possible that the task led participants to consider how they had changed in positive ways. They might also have benefited from expressing and confronting their emotional reactions to these periods of their lives – this would certainly be consistent with the well-documented benefits of expressive writing and ‘affect labelling’ (the calming effect of putting our emotions into words). Future research will need to compare different life chapter-writing instructions to tease apart these different potential beneficial mechanisms. It would also be helpful to test more diverse groups of participants and different ‘dosages’ of the writing task to see if it is at all possible for the benefits to accrue over time.

The researchers said: ‘Our findings suggest that the experience of systematically reviewing one’s life and identifying, describing and conceptually linking life chapters may serve to enhance the self, even in the absence of increased self-concept clarity and meaning.’ If you are currently lacking much confidence and feel like you could benefit from an ego boost, it could be worth giving the life-chapter task a go. It’s true that the self-esteem benefits of the exercise were small, but as Steiner’s team noted, ‘the costs are low’ too.Aeon counter – do not remove

Christian Jarrett

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article here.

Was the Real Socrates more Worldly and Amorous than We Knew?

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Detail from Socrates Dragging Alcibiades from the Embrace of Aspasia (1785) by Jean-Baptiste Regnault. Louvre, Paris. Courtesy Wikipedia

Armand D’Angour | Aeon Ideas

Socrates is widely considered to be the founding figure of Western philosophy – a thinker whose ideas, transmitted by the extensive writings of his devoted follower Plato, have shaped thinking for more than 2,000 years. ‘For better or worse,’ wrote the Classical scholar Diskin Clay in Platonic Questions (2000), ‘Plato’s Socrates is our Socrates.’ The enduring image of Socrates that comes from Plato is of a man of humble background, little education, few means and unappealing looks, who became a brilliant and disputatious philosopher married to an argumentative woman called Xanthippe. Both Plato and Xenophon, Socrates’ other principal biographer, were born c424 BCE, so they knew Socrates (born c469 BCE) only as an old man. Keen to defend his reputation from the charges of ‘introducing new kinds of gods’ and ‘corrupting young men’ on which he was eventually brought to trial and executed, they painted a picture of Socrates in late middle age as a pious teacher and unremitting ethical thinker, a man committed to shunning bodily pleasures for higher educational purposes.

Yet this clearly idealised picture of Socrates is not the whole story, and it gives us no indication of the genesis of his ideas. Plato’s pupil Aristotle and other Ancient writers provide us with correctives to the Platonic Socrates. For instance, Aristotle’s followers Aristoxenus and Clearchus of Soli preserve biographical snippets that they might have known from their teacher. From them we learn that Socrates in his teens was intimate with a distinguished older philosopher, Archelaus; that he married more than once, the first time to an aristocratic woman called Myrto, with whom he had two sons; and that he had an affair with Aspasia of Miletus, the clever and influential woman who was later to become the partner of Pericles, a leading citizen of Athens.

If these statements are to be believed, a different Socrates emerges: that of a highly placed young Athenian, whose personal experiences within an elevated milieu inspired him to embark on a new style of philosophy that was to change the way people thought ever afterwards. But can we trust these later authors? How could writers two or more generations removed from Socrates’ own time have felt entitled to contradict Plato? One answer is that Aristotle might have derived some information from Plato in person, rather than from his writings, and passed this on to his pupils; another is that, as a member of Plato’s Academy for 20 years, Aristotle might have known that Plato had elided certain facts to defend Socrates’ reputation; a third is that the later authors had access to further sources (oral and written) other than Plato, which they considered to be reliable.

Plato’s Socrates is an eccentric. Socrates claimed to have heard voices in his head from youth, and is described as standing still in public places for long stretches of time, deep in thought. Plato notes these phenomena without comment, accepting Socrates’ own description of the voices as his ‘divine sign’, and reporting on his awe-inspiring ability to meditate for hours on end. Aristotle, the son of a doctor, took a more medical approach: he suggested that Socrates (along with other thinkers) suffered from a medical condition he calls ‘melancholy’. Recent medical investigators have agreed, speculating that Socrates’ behaviour was consistent with a medical condition known as catalepsy. Such a condition might well have made Socrates feel estranged from his peers in early life, encouraging him to embark on a different kind of lifestyle.

If the received picture of Socrates’ life and personality merits reconsid­eration, what about his thought? Aristotle makes clear in his Metaphysics that Plato misrepresented Socrates regarding the so-called Theory of Forms:

Socrates concerned himself with ethics, neglecting the natural world but seeking the universal in ethical matters, and he was the first to insist on definitions. Plato took over this doctrine, but argued that what was universal applied not to objects of sense but to entities of another kind. He thought a single description could not define things that are perceived, since such things are always changing. Unchanging entities he called ‘Forms’…

Aristotle himself had little sympathy for such otherwordly views. As a biologist and scientist, he was mainly concerned with the empirical investigation of the world. In his own writings he dismissed the Forms, replacing them with a logical account of universals and their particular instantiations. For him, Socrates was also a more down-to-earth thinker than Plato sought to depict.

Sources from late antiquity, such as the 5th-century CE Christian writers Theodoret of Cyrrhus and Cyril of Alexandria, state that Socrates was, at least as a younger man, a lover of both sexes. They corroborate occasional glimpses of an earthy Socrates in Plato’s own writings, such as in the dialogue Charmides where Socrates claims to be intensely aroused by the sight of a young man’s bare chest. However, the only partner of Socrates’ whom Plato names is Xanthippe; but since she was carrying a baby in her arms when Socrates was aged 70, it is unlikely they met more than a decade or so earlier, when Socrates was already in his 50s. Plato’s failure to mention the earlier aristocratic wife Myrto might be an attempt to minimise any perception that Socrates came from a relatively wealthy background with connections to high-ranking members of his community; it was largely because Socrates was believed to be associated with the antidemocratic aristocrats who took power in Athens that he was put on trial and executed in 399 BCE.

Aristotle’s testimony, therefore, is a valuable reminder that the picture of Socrates bequeathed by Plato should not be accepted uncritically. Above all, if Socrates at some point in his early manhood became the companion of Aspasia – a woman famous as an instructor of eloquence and relationship counsellor – it potentially changes our understanding not only of Socrates’ early life, but of the formation of his philosophical ideas. He is famous for saying: ‘All I know is that I know nothing.’ But the one thing he claims, in Plato’s Symposium, that he does know about, is love, which he learned about from a clever woman. Might that woman have been Aspasia, once his beloved companion? The real Socrates must remain elusive but, in the statements of Aristotle, Aristoxenus and Clearchus of Soli, we get intriguing glimpses of a different Socrates from the one portrayed so eloquently in Plato’s writings.

For more from Armand D’Angour and his extraordinary research bringing the music of Ancient Greece to life, see this Video and read this Idea.Aeon counter – do not remove

Armand D’Angour

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article here.

Muhammad: an Anticlerical Hero of the European Enlightenment

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Thomas Jefferson’s copy of George Sale’s 1734 translation of the Quran is used in the swearing in ceremony of US Representative Keith Ellison at the United States Capitol in Washington, DC, on 4 January 2007. Photo by Getty

John Tolan | Aeon Ideas

Publishing the Quran and making it available in translation was a dangerous enterprise in the 16th century, apt to confuse or seduce the faithful Christian. This, at least, was the opinion of the Protestant city councillors of Basel in 1542, when they briefly jailed a local printer for planning to publish a Latin translation of the Muslim holy book. The Protestant reformer Martin Luther intervened to salvage the project: there was no better way to combat the Turk, he wrote, than to expose the ‘lies of Muhammad’ for all to see.

The resulting publication in 1543 made the Quran available to European intellectuals, most of whom studied it in order to better understand and combat Islam. There were others, however, who used their reading of the Quran to question Christian doctrine. The Catalonian polymath and theologian Michael Servetus found numerous Quranic arguments to employ in his anti-Trinitarian tract, Christianismi Restitutio (1553), in which he called Muhammad a true reformer who preached a return to the pure monotheism that Christian theologians had corrupted by inventing the perverse and irrational doctrine of the Trinity. After publishing these heretical ideas, Servetus was condemned by the Catholic Inquisition in Vienne, and finally burned with his own books in Calvin’s Geneva.

During the European Enlightenment, a number of authors presented Muhammad in a similar vein, as an anticlerical hero; some saw Islam as a pure form of monotheism close to philosophic Deism and the Quran as a rational paean to the Creator. In 1734, George Sale published a new English translation. In his introduction, he traced the early history of Islam and idealised the Prophet as an iconoclastic, anticlerical reformer who had banished the ‘superstitious’ beliefs and practices of early Christians – the cult of the saints, holy relics – and quashed the power of a corrupt and avaricious clergy.

Sale’s translation of the Quran was widely read and appreciated in England: for many of his readers, Muhammad had become a symbol of anticlerical republicanism. It was influential outside England too. The US founding father Thomas Jefferson bought a copy from a bookseller in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1765, which helped him conceive of a philosophical deism that surpassed confessional boundaries. (Jefferson’s copy, now in the Library of Congress, has been used for the swearing in of Muslim representatives to Congress, starting with Keith Ellison in 2007.) And in Germany, the Romantic Johann Wolfgang von Goethe read a translation of Sale’s version, which helped to colour his evolving notion of Muhammad as an inspired poet and archetypal prophet.

In France, Voltaire also cited Sale’s translation with admiration: in his world history Essai sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations (1756), he portrayed Muhammad as an inspired reformer who abolished superstitious practices and eradicated the power of corrupt clergy. By the end of the century, the English Whig Edward Gibbon (an avid reader of both Sale and Voltaire) presented the Prophet in glowing terms in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-89):

The creed of Mahomet is free from suspicion or ambiguity; and the Koran is a glorious testimony to the unity of God. The prophet of Mecca rejected the worship of idols and men, of stars and planets, on the rational principle that whatever rises must set, that whatever is born must die, that whatever is corruptible must decay and perish. In the author of the universe, his rational enthusiasm confessed and adored an infinite and eternal being, without form or place, without issue or similitude, present to our most secret thoughts, existing by the necessity of his own nature, and deriving from himself all moral and intellectual perfection … A philosophic theist might subscribe the popular creed of the Mahometans: a creed too sublime, perhaps, for our present faculties.

But it was Napoleon Bonaparte who took the Prophet most keenly to heart, styling himself a ‘new Muhammad’ after reading the French translation of the Quran that Claude-Étienne Savary produced in 1783. Savary wrote his translation in Egypt: there, surrounded by the music of the Arabic language, he sought to render into French the beauty of the Arabic text. Like Sale, Savary wrote a long introduction presenting Muhammad as a ‘great’ and ‘extraordinary’ man, a ‘genius’ on the battlefield, a man who knew how to inspire loyalty among his followers. Napoleon read this translation on the ship that took him to Egypt in 1798. Inspired by Savary’s portrait of the Prophet as a brilliant general and sage lawgiver, Napoleon sought to become a new Muhammad, and hoped that Cairo’s ulama (scholars) would accept him and his French soldiers as friends of Islam, come to liberate Egyptians from Ottoman tyranny. He even claimed that his own arrival in Egypt had been announced in the Quran.

Napoleon had an idealised, bookish, Enlightenment vision of Islam as pure monotheism: indeed, the failure of his Egyptian expedition owed partly to his idea of Islam being quite different from the religion of Cairo’s ulama. Yet Napoleon was not alone in seeing himself as a new Muhammad: Goethe enthusiastically proclaimed that the emperor was the ‘Mahomet der Welt’ (Muhammad of the world), and the French author Victor Hugo portrayed him as a ‘Mahomet d’occident’ (Muhammad of the West). Napoleon himself, at the end of his life, exiled on Saint Helena and ruminating on his defeat, wrote about Muhammad and defended his legacy as a ‘great man who changed the course of history’. Napoleon’s Muhammad, conqueror and lawgiver, persuasive and charismatic, resembles Napoleon himself – but a Napoleon who was more successful, and certainly never exiled to a cold windswept island in the South Atlantic.

The idea of Muhammad as one of the world’s great legislators persisted into the 20th century. Adolph A Weinman, a German-born American sculptor, depicted Muhammad in his 1935 frieze in the main chamber of the US Supreme Court, where the Prophet takes his place among 18 lawgivers. Various European Christians called on their churches to recognise Muhammad’s special role as prophet of the Muslims. For Catholics scholars of Islam such as Louis Massignon or Hans Küng, or for the Scottish Protestant scholar of Islam William Montgomery Watt, such recognition was the best way to promote peaceful, constructive dialogue between Christians and Muslims.

This kind of dialogue continues today, but it has been largely drowned out by the din of conflict, as extreme-Right politicians in Europe and elsewhere diabolise Muhammad to justify anti-Muslim policies. The Dutch politician Geert Wilders calls him a terrorist, paedophile and psychopath. The negative image of the Prophet is paradoxically promoted by fundamentalist Muslims who adulate him and reject all historical contextualisation of his life and teachings; meanwhile, violent extremists claim to defend Islam and its prophet from ‘insults’ through murder and terror. All the more reason, then, to step back and examine the diverse and often surprising Western portraits of the myriad faces of Muhammad.


Faces of Muhammad: Western Perceptions of the Prophet of Islam from the Middle Ages to Today by John Tolan is published via Princeton University Press.Aeon counter – do not remove

John Tolan

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article here.

A Philosophical Approach to Routines can Illuminate Who We Really Are

Elias Anttila | Aeon Ideas

There are hundreds of things we do – repeatedly, routinely – every day. We wake up, check our phones, eat our meals, brush our teeth, do our jobs, satisfy our addictions. In recent years, such habitual actions have become an arena for self-improvement: bookshelves are saturated with bestsellers about ‘life hacks’, ‘life design’ and how to ‘gamify’ our long-term projects, promising everything from enhanced productivity to a healthier diet and huge fortunes. These guides vary in scientific accuracy, but they tend to depict habits as routines that follow a repeated sequence of behaviours, into which we can intervene to set ourselves on a more desirable track.

The problem is that this account has been bleached of much of its historical richness. Today’s self-help books have in fact inherited a highly contingent version of habit – specifically, one that arises in the work of early 20th-century psychologists such as B F Skinner, Clark Hull, John B Watson and Ivan Pavlov. These thinkers are associated with behaviourism, an approach to psychology that prioritises observable, stimulus-response reactions over the role of inner feelings or thoughts. The behaviourists defined habits in a narrow, individualistic sense; they believed that people were conditioned to respond automatically to certain cues, which produced repeated cycles of action and reward.

The behaviourist image of habit has since been updated in light of contemporary neuroscience. For example, the fact that the brain is plastic and changeable allows habits to inscribe themselves in our neural wiring over time by forming privileged connections between brain regions. The influence of behaviourism has enabled researchers to study habits quantitatively and rigorously. But it has also bequeathed a flattened notion of habit that overlooks the concept’s wider philosophical implications.

Philosophers used to look at habits as ways of contemplating who we are, what it means to have faith, and why our daily routines reveal something about the world at large. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle uses the terms hexis and ethos – both translated today as ‘habit’ – to study stable qualities in people and things, especially regarding their morals and intellect. Hexis denotes the lasting characteristics of a person or thing, like the smoothness of a table or the kindness of a friend, which can guide our actions and emotions. A hexis is a characteristic, capacity or disposition that one ‘owns’; its etymology is the Greek word ekhein, the term for ownership. For Aristotle, a person’s character is ultimately a sum of their hexeis (plural).

An ethos, on the other hand, is what allows one to develop hexeis. It is both a way of life and the basic calibre of one’s personality. Ethos is what gives rise to the essential principles that help to guide moral and intellectual development. Honing hexeis out of an ethos thus takes both time and practice. This version of habit fits with the tenor of ancient Greek philosophy, which often emphasised the cultivation of virtue as a path to the ethical life.

Millennia later, in medieval Christian Europe, Aristotle’s hexis was Latinised into habitus. The translation tracks a shift away from the virtue ethics of the Ancients towards Christian morality, by which habit acquired distinctly divine connotations. In the middle ages, Christian ethics moved away from the idea of merely shaping one’s moral dispositions, and proceeded instead from the belief that ethical character was handed down by God. In this way, the desired habitus should become entwined with the exercise of Christian virtue.

The great theologian Thomas Aquinas saw habit as a vital component of spiritual life. According to his Summa Theologica (1265-1274), habitus involved a rational choice, and led the true believer to a sense of faithful freedom. By contrast, Aquinas used consuetudo to refer to the habits we acquire that inhibit this freedom: the irreligious, quotidian routines that do not actively engage with faith. Consuetudo signifies mere association and regularity, whereas habitus conveys sincere thoughtfulness and consciousness of God. Consuetudo is also where we derive the terms ‘custom’ and ‘costume’ – a lineage which suggests that the medievals considered habit to extend beyond single individuals.

For the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, these ancient and medieval interpretations of habit were far too limiting. Hume conceived of habit via what it empowers and enables us to do as human beings. He came to the conclusion that habit is the ‘cement of the universe’, which all ‘operations of the mind … depend on’. For instance, we might throw a ball in the air and watch it rise and descend to Earth. By habit, we come to associate these actions and perceptions – the movement of our limb, the trajectory of the ball – in a way that eventually lets us grasp the relationship between cause and effect. Causality, for Hume, is little more than habitual association. Likewise language, music, relationships – any skills we use to transform experiences into something that’s useful are built from habits, he believed. Habits are thus crucial instruments that enable us to navigate the world and to understand the principles by which it operates. For Hume, habit is nothing less than the ‘great guide of human life’.

It’s clear that we ought to see habits as more than mere routines, tendencies and ticks. They encompass our identities and ethics; they teach us how to practise our faiths; if Hume is to believed, they do no less than bind the world together. Seeing habits in this new-yet-old way requires a certain conceptual and historical about-face, but this U-turn offers much more than shallow self-help. It should show us that the things we do every day aren’t just routines to be hacked, but windows through which we might glimpse who we truly are.Aeon counter – do not remove

Elias Anttila

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article here.

Ibn Tufayl and the Story of the Feral Child of Philosophy

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Album folio fragment with scholar in a garden. Attributed to Muhammad Ali 1610-15. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Marwa Elshakry & Murad Idris | Aeon Ideas

Ibn Tufayl, a 12th-century Andalusian, fashioned the feral child in philosophy. His story Hayy ibn Yaqzan is the tale of a child raised by a doe on an unnamed Indian Ocean island. Hayy ibn Yaqzan (literally ‘Living Son of Awakeness’) reaches a state of perfect, ecstatic understanding of the world. A meditation on the possibilities (and pitfalls) of the quest for the good life, Hayy offers not one, but two ‘utopias’: a eutopia (εὖ ‘good’, τόπος ‘place’) of the mind in perfect isolation, and an ethical community under the rule of law. Each has a version of human happiness. Ibn Tufayl pits them against each other, but each unfolds ‘no where’ (οὐ ‘not’, τόπος ‘place’) in the world.

Ibn Tufayl begins with a vision of humanity isolated from society and politics. (Modern European political theorists who employed this literary device called it ‘the state of nature’.) He introduces Hayy by speculating about his origin. Whether Hayy was placed in a basket by his mother to sail through the waters of life (like Moses) or born by spontaneous generation on the island is irrelevant, Ibn Tufayl says. His divine station remains the same, as does much of his life, spent in the company only of animals. Later philosophers held that society elevates humanity from its natural animal state to an advanced, civilised one. Ibn Tufayl took a different view. He maintained that humans can be perfected only outside society, through a progress of the soul, not the species.

In contrast to Thomas Hobbes’s view that ‘man is a wolf to man’, Hayy’s island has no wolves. It proves easy enough for him to fend off other creatures by waving sticks at them or donning terrifying costumes of hides and feathers. For Hobbes, the fear of violent death is the origin of the social contract and the apologia for the state; but Hayy’s first encounter with fear of death is when his doe-mother dies. Desperate to revive her, Hayy dissects her heart only to find one of its chambers is empty. The coroner-turned-theologian concludes that what he loved in his mother no longer resides in her body. Death therefore was the first lesson of metaphysics, not politics.

Hayy then observes the island’s plants and animals. He meditates upon the idea of an elemental, ‘vital spirit’ upon discovering fire. Pondering the plurality of matter leads him to conclude that it must originate from a singular, non-corporeal source or First Cause. He notes the perfect motion of the celestial spheres and begins a series of ascetic exercises (such as spinning until dizzy) to emulate this hidden, universal order. By the age of 50, he retreats from the physical world, meditating in his cave until, finally, he attains a state of ecstatic illumination. Reason, for Ibn Tufayl, is thus no absolute guide to Truth.

The difference between Hayy’s ecstatic journeys of the mind and later rationalist political thought is the role of reason. Yet many later modern European commentaries or translations of Hayy confuse this by framing the allegory in terms of reason. In 1671, Edward Pococke entitled his Latin translation The Self-Taught Philosopher: In Which It Is Demonstrated How Human Reason Can Ascend from Contemplation of the Inferior to Knowledge of the Superior. In 1708, Simon Ockley’s English translation was The Improvement of Human Reason, and it too emphasised reason’s capacity to attain ‘knowledge of God’. For Ibn Tufayl, however, true knowledge of God and the world – as a eutopia for the ‘mind’ (or soul) – could come only through perfect contemplative intuition, not absolute rational thought.

This is Ibn Tufayl’s first utopia: an uninhabited island where a feral philosopher retreats to a cave to reach ecstasy through contemplation and withdrawal from the world. Friedrich Nietzsche’s Zarathustra would be impressed: ‘Flee, my friend, into your solitude!’

The rest of the allegory introduces the problem of communal life and a second utopia. After Hayy achieves his perfect condition, an ascetic is shipwrecked on his island. Hayy is surprised to discover another being who so resembles him. Curiosity leads him to befriend the wanderer, Absal. Absal teaches Hayy language, and describes the mores of his own island’s law-abiding people. The two men determine that the islanders’ religion is a lesser version of the Truth that Hayy discovered, shrouded in symbols and parables. Hayy is driven by compassion to teach them the Truth. They travel to Absal’s home.

The encounter is disastrous. Absal’s islanders feel compelled by their ethical principles of hospitality towards foreigners, friendship with Absal, and association with all people to welcome Hayy. But soon Hayy’s constant attempts to preach irritate them. Hayy realises that they are incapable of understanding. They are driven by satisfactions of the body, not the mind. There can be no perfect society because not everyone can achieve a state of perfection in their soul. Illumination is possible only for the select, in accordance with a sacred order, or a hieros archein. (This hierarchy of being and knowing is a fundamental message of neo-Platonism.) Hayy concludes that persuading people away from their ‘natural’ stations would only corrupt them further. The laws that the ‘masses’ venerate, be they revealed or reasoned, he decides, are their only chance to achieve a good life.

The islanders’ ideals – lawfulness, hospitality, friendship, association – might seem reasonable, but these too exist ‘no where’ in the world. Hence their dilemma: either they adhere to these and endure Hayy’s criticisms, or violate them by shunning him. This is a radical critique of the law and its ethical principles: they are normatively necessary for social life yet inherently contradictory and impossible. It’s a sly reproach of political life, one whose bite endures. Like the islanders, we follow principles that can undermine themselves. To be hospitable, we must be open to the stranger who violates hospitality. To be democratic, we must include those who are antidemocratic. To be worldly, our encounters with other people must be opportunities to learn from them, not just about them.

In the end, Hayy returns to his island with Absal, where they enjoy a life of ecstatic contemplation unto death. They abandon the search for a perfect society of laws. Their eutopia is the quest of the mind left unto itself, beyond the imperfections of language, law and ethics – perhaps beyond even life itself.

The islanders offer a less obvious lesson: our ideals and principles undermine themselves, but this is itself necessary for political life. For an island of pure ethics and law is an impossible utopia. Perhaps, like Ibn Tufayl, all we can say on the search for happiness is (quoting Al-Ghazali):

It was – what it was is harder to say.
Think the best, but don’t make me describe it away.

After all, we don’t know what happened to Hayy and Absal after their deaths – or to the islanders after they left.Aeon counter – do not remove

Marwa Elshakry & Murad Idris

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article here.