Archive for December, 2010


The constant gardener

No not the movie. Philosophy only posts are boring to most people so I’ll try to expand the point, but what I want to talk about here is building theories. How do we do that? Well the most important thing to do is to go for the weird cases; situations where our theory goes wrong or where the circumstances are very unusual.

For example, in this post I discussed solitary confinement, and its a very fruitful thing to examine because it gets away from the normal way things go to expose the workings of when things go wrong. Many early social scientists took this approach toward society at large, looking, for example, at crime. The idea was to find out about society by looking at what happens when people ignore its dictates. Freud also thought he could understand society and human life by looking at what happens when our psyche breakdowns.

So, what is the job of a philosopher. As I see it, the good philosopher nourishes examples from everyday life. The philosopher grows these examples over the course of often very long periods of time, tending to the example, finding ways to express it and just generally nursing it along.

Here’s an example. I’m writing a paper on weakness of the will, and the example is simple. You decide to do something, but don’t do it. You don’t change your mind or anything, you really do think you should do x, but you just don’t it. Instead, you do something else instead.

This single example basically underlies an entire area of philosophy known as action theory. Why doesn’t our best judgment work to get us to act? Of course, there is a psychological reason, that is not in dispute. But the issue is that we can act intentionally event against our best judgment. We can judge in favor of working and then go meet a friend. But if we can act intentionally (its not an accident that I go see my friend) then our best judgment is not a necessary component of intentional action.

Ok you say, intentional action is unrelated to judgment, but its not hard to see what it is: it’s just a desire. We have a stronger desire to meet our friend then we do to work. That may be true, but this raises problems in itself. Doesn’t it seem like there should be a connection about what we judge we should do and what we ACTUALLY do.

Also, and worse, a desire can’t be what underlies intentional action, and here’s why (this is a very famous example). Say I’m holding a rope while climbing with a friend and I suddenly have a desire to drop the rope. The thought of this cowardly desire so unnerves me that I drop the rope, out of shock. This is not intentional. The desire made my body MOVE, but I did not ACT.

What this example shows is that desires cannot be what underlies intentional action (you have a desire but no action, therefore desires are not SUFFICIENT for action. Something else is needed. What is that something else?) A whole area of philosophy takes off from just that problem and that is how all philosophy is: one example sets off a chain reaction of issues and complications. There is no easy answer and so someone has to think deeply about what it means to act.

To do philosophy, one must always be taking little instances of things that may seem totally innocuous and grow them; one must be a constant gardener of the everyday.


Sociality and solitary confinement

I had a lot of work for Ph.D. applications and I disappeared from the world. The applications are not done and in fact I probably have to write a new paper in 10 days, but class work is over and I feel optimistic, so I took the time to write this.

I read this excellent article in the New Yorker on solitary confinement, and I thought it fit with many of my typical concerns on this blog.

The point of the article is pretty simple. A variety of psychological experiments on humans and monkeys as well as an avalanche of anecdotal evidence shows that solitary confinement is really bad for people. Depression and eventually complete psychosis are the results.

The leading hypothesis for what causes these results is that humans need to socialize with other people in order to remain psychologically healthy.

I’ve often talked on this blog about how people are pretty good at reading other humans and that most people, famous serial killers excluded, can read facial expressions and other social cues. Most people can tell when someone doesn’t want to talk to them, and further, I think most people have a pretty good idea when people are lying to them. I can’t prove any of this, but there is a skill at comprehending other humans on an extremely intuitive level, and some CIA interrogators hone this skill to its highest level (I have had personal contact with some interrogation experts (not the abusive type) who are just extremely skilled at drawing information out of people and seeing if they are responding truthfully and whatnot).

Cliches are just the verbal expression of this ability. We can be “on the same wavelength” as someone, and when we’re not, we can sometimes bridge the gap with cliches which are like little packets of synchronized thinking. They get a bad rap because they are trivial and often tinged with various prejudices or inaccuracies, but they are also a snippet of complete thinking-togetherness. No wonder there are images of two business executives struggling to close a deal or two diplomats trying to resolve a conflict and the thing that moves the situation along is the connection over a phrase or an idea. My dad is a a lawyer and I’ve heard him on the phone talking with clients and one of his greatest skills is the ability to make his clients understand complicated strategic and economic considerations with his awe-shucks midwestern approach to communication.

Anyway, back to the point, which it that humans learn to hone in on what other people are thinking and feeling (I feel your pain) and this is a skill that apparently, can decay in solitary confinement. Prisoners talk about how gestures that their lawyers made no longer made sense or some people having a nervous breakdown because communication became too hard.

This is heavy philosophical stuff, because philosophy tries to draw out assumptions that are always present, but can only be seen in certain circumstances. Freud is one example of this methodology: a freudian slip is a small, almost unnoticeable yet distinctively anomalous window into someone’s psyche. Philosophy applies this lesson to all things, and in this case, the point is that socialization is a hidden foundation for acting and thinking.

This is the point that Hannah Arendt makes in her writing about democracy. I love her writing and one of its themes is that we don’t know what to think without being in a dialogue with others. This too has been confirmed with studies. Many people do not have specific view on various political questions UNTIL they have been exposed to a situation where they had to defend or talk about the issue in a situation with others. Deliberation with others is not just how we tell each other what we’re thinking, but HOW we come to decide questions at all. We are quite literally THINKING IN CONCERT, when we deliberate with others. This is probably why I have to talk to myself when I’m thinking about something, to simulate the back and forth and perhaps to activate the part of the brain that talks. Also think of phrases like “lets talk through it.” These phrases have significance on the theory I’m trying to briefly elaborate.

This is welcome news for me, because I love to talk and have long thought that their something unique about talking with other people, something transcendental or fully human about it.

A last point though, I think this article really overstates things. The assumption is that people in solitary confinement need other people, but people in solitary confinement are missing a lot of things that might be important to mental health, like the ability to MOVE around.

Think of any survival story involving prolonged periods without other people. People don’t go insane as a result of lack of human contact (well, I guess some do) and the reason might be because they are exercising a different but closely related cognitive muscle, which is that of planning and acting. Catching food, making things, creating a livelihood and a home.

This would connect closer to a more Marxist analysis (someone Arendt criticizes) that treats humans as essentially making or building animals. Arendt calls this conception of human life that of HOMO FABER (from the root for fabrication, or “to build”).

All I’m trying to say here is that solitary confinement tells us something special about what makes us human, but its not very clear what it is, since being put in a small cell with no other people is bound to interfere with a bunch of aspects of human nature that various philosophers have treated as central.