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Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

14 OCTOBER, 2014

Hannah Arendt on Memory, the Elasticity of Time, and What Free Will Really Means

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“Before we raise such questions as What is happiness, what is justice, what is knowledge, and so on, we must have seen happy and unhappy people, witnessed just and unjust deeds, experienced the desire to know and its fulfillment or frustration.”

Since 1888, the annual Gifford Lectures series has aimed “to promote and diffuse the study of natural theology in the widest sense of the term” by bringing together influential thinkers across science, philosophy, and spirituality — luminaries like William James, Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, and Carl Sagan (whose 1985 lecture was later published as the fantastic posthumous volume Varieties of Scientific Experience). But for nearly a century, the Gifford Lectures remained a bona fide boys’ club. It wasn’t until 1973 that German-American political theorist Hannah Arendt (October 14, 1906–December 4, 1975) became the first woman to speak at the prestigious event. Her exquisite lecture was later expanded and published as The Life of the Mind (public library) — an intensely intelligent and stimulating exploration of such seemingly simple, immeasurably complex questions as how we think, why our inner lives eclipse the world of appearances, and what it really means to live with freedom.

The volume is divided into two parts: the first, titled Thinking, explores the crucial difference between truth and meaning; the second, Willing, is an investigation of “the nature of the willing capability and its function in the life of the mind” — in other words, that eternal question of what it means to have free will in a universe of fixed laws.

Hannah Arendt by Fred Stein, 1944 (Photograph courtesy of the Fred Stein Archive)

Through the lens of free will, Arendt defines willed acts as “acts about which I know that I could as well have left them undone.” But before we can begin to untangle why we do what we do, we must first understand how we know what we know. Arendt writes:

Not sense perception, in which we experience things directly and close at hand, but imagination, coming after it, prepares the objects of our thought. Before we raise such questions as What is happiness, what is justice, what is knowledge, and so on, we must have seen happy and unhappy people, witnessed just and unjust deeds, experienced the desire to know and its fulfillment or frustration. Furthermore, we must repeat the direct experience in our minds after leaving the scene where it took place. To say it again, every thought is an after-thought. By repeating in imagination, we de-sense whatever had been given to our senses.

For the Ancient Greeks, Arendt points out, this notion was built into their very vocabulary — eidenai, “to know,” is derived from idein, “to see,” thus implying that knowing is having seen. But this is where the Greeks lead us astray in the question of free will. Arendt argues that Socrates, Plato, and even Aristotle (whom she anoints, not without reason, “the most sober of the great thinkers”), didn’t seem to be even aware of the notion of the Will, particularly “as an organ for the future, as memory is an organ for the past” — and yet that’s precisely what it is. Arendt considers the crucial role of time — that astoundingly elastic concept — and memory — that centerpiece of human creativity — in understanding free will from the perspective of the thinking ego:

Memory, the mind’s power of having present what is irrevocably past and thus absent from the senses, has always been the most plausible paradigmatic example of the mind’s power to make invisibles present. By virtue of this power, the mind seems to be even stronger than reality; it pits its strength against the inherent futility of everything that is subject to change; it collects and re-collects what otherwise would be doomed to ruin and oblivion. The time region in which this salvage takes place is the Present of the thinking ego, a kind of lasting “todayness” … the “standing now” (nunc stans) of medieval meditation, an “enduring present” ([Henri] Bergson’s présent qui dure), or “the gap between past and future,” as we called it in explicating Kafka’s time parable. But only if we accept the medieval interpretation of that time experience as an intimation of divine eternity are we forced to conclude that not just spatiality but also temporality is provisionally suspended in mental activities. Such an interpretation shrouds our whole mental life in an aura of mysticism and strangely overlooks the very ordinariness of the experience itself.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger from 'Alice in Wonderland.' Click image for more.

Instead, Arendt argues by quoting from Nobel laureate Henri Bergson’s indispensable The Creative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics, the dynamic interaction that constitutes our experience of the present is anything but mystical:

The constitution of an “enduring present” is “the habitual, normal, banal act of our intellect,” performed in every kind of reflection, whether its subject matter is ordinary day-to-day occurrences or whether the attention is focused on things forever invisible and outside the sphere of human power. The activity of the mind always creates for itself un présent qui dure, a “gap between past and future.”

[...]

The chain of “nows” rolls on relentlessly, so that the present is understood as precariously binding past and future together: the moment we try to pin it down, it is either a “no more” or a “not yet.” From that perspective, the enduring present looks like an extended “now” — a contradiction in terms — as though the thinking ego were capable of stretching the moment out and thus producing a kind of spatial habitat for itself. But this seeming spatiality of a temporal phenomenon is an error, caused by the metaphors we traditionally use in terminology dealing with the phenomenon of Time.

The Histomap by John Sparks (1931) from 'Cartographies of Time.' Click image for details.

The reason we tend to make sense of time using spatial metaphors and visual maps, Arendt argues, is fairly obvious — in our everyday life, we need measurements of time and can only measure it using spatial distances. Even the notion of temporal succession suggests a linearity, and a line is essentially extended space. And yet this impulse to make the invisible visible is precisely where the problem of free will arises:

The Will, if it exists at all — and an uncomfortably large number of great philosophers who never doubted the existence of reason or mind held that the Will was nothing but an illusion — is as obviously our mental organ for the future as memory is our mental organ for the past. (The strange ambivalence of the English language, in which “will” as an auxiliary designates the future whereas the verb “to will” indicates volitions, properly speaking, testifies to our uncertainties in these matters.) In our context, the basic trouble with the Will is that it deals not merely with things that are absent from the senses and need to be made present through the mind’s power of re-presentation, but with things, visibles and invisibles, that have never existed at all.

The conundrum is deepened by our essential discomfort with uncertainty even though uncertainty is how we come to know ourselves and the world, and perhaps most of all by our longing for permanence in a universe of constant change. Arendt probes the paradox:

The moment we turn our mind to the future, we are no longer concerned with “objects” but with projects, and it is not decisive whether they are formed spontaneously or as anticipated reactions to future circumstances. And just as the past always presents itself to the mind in the guise of certainty, the future’s main characteristic is its basic uncertainty, no matter how high a degree of probability prediction may attain. In other words, we are dealing with matters that never were, that are not yet, and that may well never be. Our Last Will and Testament, providing for the only future of which we can be reasonably certain, namely our own death, shows that the Will’s need to will is no less strong than Reason’s need to think; in both instances the mind transcends its own natural limitations, either by asking unanswerable questions or by projecting itself into a future which, for the willing subject, will never be.

In a framing that calls to mind Rebecca Solnit’s beautiful meditation on reading and writing“The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed.” — Arendt revisits the Ancient Greeks’ paltry understanding of free will through their relationship with time:

The human product, this “compound of matter and form” — for instance, a house made of wood according to a form pre-existing in the craftsman’s mind (rums) — clearly was not made out of nothing, and so was understood by Aristotle to pre-exist “potentially” before it was actualized by human hands. This notion was derived from the mode of being peculiar to the nature of living things, where everything that appears grows out of something that contains the finished product potentially, as the oak exists potentially in the acorn and the animal in the semen.

The view that everything real must be preceded by a potentiality as one of its causes implicitly denies the future as an authentic tense: the future is nothing but a consequence of the past, and the difference between natural and man-made things is merely between those whose potentialities necessarily grow into actualities and those that may or may not be actualized.

Under these circumstances, any notion of the Will as an organ for the future, as memory is an organ for the past, was entirely superfluous; Aristotle did not have to be aware of the Will’s existence.

Discus chronologicus (1720s) from Cartographies of Time. Click image for details.

What made the contemplation of free will inevitable, Arendt argues, was a reframing of time not as a linear but as a cyclical concept, something that occurred in parallel in various ancient cultures:

No matter what historical origins and influences — Babylonian, Persian, Egyptian — we may be able to trace for the cyclical time concept, its emergence was logically almost inevitable once the philosophers had discovered an everlasting Being, birthless and deathless, within whose framework they then had to explain movement, change, the constant coming and going of living beings.

In the remainder of the essay, Arendt goes on to trace how our evolving relationship with time changed our understanding of free will across human history, from medieval mysticism to the Hebrew-Christian credo to Nietzsche — just one of the innumerable threads of genius that make The Life of the Mind a necessary read for every thinking human. Sample it further with Arendt on the difference between thinking and knowing, then revisit her increasingly timely reflection on how bureaucracy fuels violence.

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13 OCTOBER, 2014

Why Haters Hate: Kierkegaard Explains the Psychology of Bullying and Online Trolling in 1847

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“All it amounts to is play-acting. But how invaluably interesting to have one’s knowledge of human psychology enriched in this way.”

Celebrated as the first true existentialist philosopher, Danish writer and thinker Søren Kierkegaard (May 5, 1813–November 11, 1855) may have only lived a short life, but it was a deep one and its impact radiated widely outward, far across the centuries and disciplines and schools of thought. He was also among the multitude of famous writers who benefited from keeping a diary and nowhere does his paradoxical blend of melancholy and idealism, of despair about the human condition and optimism about the purpose of life, shine more brilliantly than in The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard (public library) — a compendium of Kierkegaard’s frequently intense, always astoundingly thoughtful reflections on everything from happiness and melancholy to writing and literature to self-doubt and public opinion.

In an immeasurably insightful entry from 1847, 34-year-old Kierkegaard observes a pervasive pathology of our fallible humanity, explaining the same basic psychology that lurks behind contemporary phenomena like bullying, trolling, and the general assaults of the web’s self-appointed critics, colloquially and rather appropriately known as haters.

Kierkegaard writes:

There is a form of envy of which I frequently have seen examples, in which an individual tries to obtain something by bullying. If, for instance, I enter a place where many are gathered, it often happens that one or another right away takes up arms against me by beginning to laugh; presumably he feels that he is being a tool of public opinion. But lo and behold, if I then make a casual remark to him, that same person becomes infinitely pliable and obliging. Essentially it shows that he regards me as something great, maybe even greater than I am: but if he can’t be admitted as a participant in my greatness, at least he will laugh at me. But as soon as he becomes a participant, as it were, he brags about my greatness.

That is what comes of living in a petty community.

It is unlikely that Kierkegaard was aware of what would become known as the Benjamin Franklin Effect — the Founding Father formulated his famous reverse-psychology trick for handling haters — and yet he goes on to relay an anecdote that embodies it perfectly. He recounts coming upon three young men outside his gate who, upon seeing him, “began to grin and altogether initiated the whole gamut of insolence.” As he approached them, Kierkegaard noticed that they were smoking cigars and turned to one of them, asking for a light. Suddenly, the men’s attitude took a dramatic U-turn — the seemingly simple exchange had provided precisely that invitation for participation in greatness:

Instantly, all three doffed their hats and it would seem I had done them a service by asking for a light. Ergo: the same people would be happy to cry bravo for me if I merely addressed a friendly, let alone, flattering word to them; as it is, they cry pereat [he shall perish!] and are defiant… All it amounts to is play-acting. But how invaluably interesting to have one’s knowledge of human psychology enriched in this way.

The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard may be short in both pages and lifetime covered, but it is a treasure trove of equally penetrating insights into the human experience. Complement it with Kierkegaard on our greatest source of unhappiness, then revisit Anne Lamott’s brilliant modern manifesto for handling haters.

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13 OCTOBER, 2014

A Book Is a Heart That Only Beats in the Chest of Another: Rebecca Solnit on the Solitary Intimacy of Reading and Writing

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“The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed.”

“Learning how to be a good reader is what makes you a writer,” the magnificent Zadie Smith told the audience at the 15th annual New Yorker Festival on a late Friday night, echoing Susan Sontag’s assertion that fruitful writing is born out of fruitful reading, out of a “book-drunken life.” This osmotic relationship between reading and writing has been extolled in forms as piercingly poetic as Kafka’s letter on the purpose of books and as scientifically grounded as the work of Harvard psycholinguist Steven Pinker, but hardly anyone has expressed it more lyrically and with more shimmering aliveness than another of our era’s greatest essayists, Rebecca Solnit, in The Faraway Nearby (public library) — the equally, if differently, rewarding follow-up to her spectacular essay collection A Field Guide to Getting Lost.

In the fourth of the book’s thirteen extraordinary essays, titled “Flight,” Solnit writes:

Like many others who turned into writers, I disappeared into books when I was very young, disappeared into them like someone running into the woods. What surprised and still surprises me is that there was another side to the forest of stories and the solitude, that I came out that other side and met people there. Writers are solitaries by vocation and necessity. I sometimes think the test is not so much talent, which is not as rare as people think, but purpose or vocation, which manifests in part as the ability to endure a lot of solitude and keep working. Before writers are writers they are readers, living in books, through books, in the lives of others that are also the heads of others, in that act that is so intimate and yet so alone.

Solnit recounts how, as a child, she “took up imaginative residence for many years” in C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia — one of the most beloved children’s books of all time, the enduring appeal of which is, perhaps paradoxically, a testament to Lewis’s own assertion that there is actually no such thing as writing “for children.” Indeed, Solnit affirms Lewis’s point obliquely, elegantly, by seeing in his classic, as in children’s books in general, a sandbox for precisely the solitary intimacy that all reading requires:

These vanishing acts are a staple of children’s books, which often tell of adventures that are magical because they travel between levels and kinds of reality, and the crossing over is often an initiation into power and into responsibility. They are in a sense allegories first for the act of reading, of entering an imaginary world, and then of the way that the world we actually inhabit is made up of stories, images, collective beliefs, all the immaterial appurtences we call ideology and culture, the pictures we wander in and out of all the time.

It seems almost vulgar to strip Solnit’s writing of its lyrical specificity, to excerpt only the resounding wisdom of her universals, at which she arrives through the intricate observation of particulars — palpable childhood memories, meticulously chosen vignettes from history, allegorical anecdotes. So with the caveat that one ought to read her complete essay, the entire anthology even, to fully devour the fruits of her exceptional mind, I return nonetheless to Solnit’s masterful articulation of the universal:

The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the symphony resounds, the seed germinates. A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another. The child I once was read constantly and hardly spoke, because she was ambivalent about the merits of communication, about the risks of being mocked or punished or exposed. The idea of being understood and encouraged, of recognizing herself in another, of affirmation, had hardly occurred to her and neither had the idea that she had something to give others. So she read, taking in words in huge quantities, a children’s and then an adult’s novel a day for many years, seven books a week or so, gorging on books, fasting on speech, carrying piles of books home from the library.

In a poetic counterpoint to Susan Sontag, who famously read for eight to ten hours a day for the majority of her life and who once observed that “one can never be alone enough to write,” Solnit considers a different aspect of the relationship between writing and the silence of solitude:

Writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone. Or rather writing is saying to the no one who may eventually be the reader those things one has no someone to whom to say them. Matters that are so subtle, so personal, so obscure that I ordinarily can’t imagine saying them to the people to whom I’m closest. Every once in a while I try to say them aloud and find that what turns to mush in my mouth or falls short of their ears can be written down for total strangers. Said to total strangers in the silence of writing that is recuperated and heard in the solitude of reading. Is it the shared solitude of writing, is it that separately we all reside in a place deeper than society, even the society of two? Is it that the tongue fails where the fingers succeed, in telling truths so lengthy and nuanced that they are almost impossible aloud?

I had started out in silence, written as quietly as I had read, and then eventually people read some of what I had written, and some of the readers entered my world or drew me into theirs. I started out in silence and traveled until I arrived at a voice that was heard far away — first the silent voice that can only be read, and then I was asked to speak aloud and to read aloud. When I began to read aloud another voice, once I hardly recognized, emerged from my mouth. Maybe it was more relaxed, because writing is speaking to no one, and even when you’re reading to a crowd, you’re still in that conversation with the absent, the faraway, the not-yet-born, the unknown and the long-gone for whom writers write, the crowd of the absent who hover all around the desk.

The Faraway Nearby is an infinitely rewarding — unsummarizably so. Complement it with this wonderful animated essay on what books do for the soul, then revisit Solnit on how we find ourselves and the color of distance and desire.

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