Margins and Vitality

A good friend asked me a series of questions, which were meant to act as writing probes. One of them was: “Is psychology a dead-end or is it waiting to be born?”.

I decided to write an answer to it, because it is the only question on his list that bothered me. I sensed an urge to avoid it, and I was also inclined to see it as a personal attack. Notice this possible rephrase: Is what you have devoted your life to a dead end? Or is it a promise of birth? The question offers only two choices. Does it offer a false dichotomy? After all NOT {dead end} doesn’t equal {promise of birth}, and NOT {promise of birth} doesn’t equal {dead end}.

It is already apparent that I want to analyze the question, instead of answering it. I want to find a license to dismiss it, similar to how your question might be asking for a license to dismiss Psychology.

Notice the similarity in the way I perceive the question, and my own response to it. I feel that the questioner is asking for a license to dismiss Psychology. Or perhaps the questioner wants to confirm (or renew) a license he thinks he already has. And, when I entertain this judgment of the question, I am inclined to dismiss it. But I can’t.

I have to admit my thinking of this issue was extremely biased during my final two years in Toronto. And those were the days in which we regularly talked about Psychology, my doubts, and my strategies for overcoming the limits of the discipline. Context is important. Instead of University of Toronto, I could have been part of York University’s History & Theory of Psychology division. Had I been in a different place, in a different department, working with a different group of people, I might have been feeling differently about Psychology. I might have felt less frustrated, less critical, or less detached.

No, not necessarily. And this secondary, self-critical response comes from recalling Amedeo Giorgi’s analysis of his own position. In an autobiographical chapter, he argues against the idea that marginality is a choice we make after careful evaluation of our tradition (Giorgi, 2009). Instead of a choice, he paints a picture of marginality as destiny. The marginal figure is already marginal before coming to a full realization of the tradition. The disposition to resist, or fail to identify with, the mainstream is already there before one is able to consciously evaluate one’s tradition. It’s as if Giorgi says, “I see the problems, and I voice them out. But I am also aware that the drive behind my voice is probably supplied from somewhere other than seeing the problems themselves.” I’m telling you this to invite some degree of skepticism regarding how you might interpret my criticism of mainstream Psychology.

There is another, related way to re-think those last two years in Toronto. And to get into that I should first talk about another psychologist, Raymond Bergner. In one of his several under-appreciated papers, Bergner (1998) asks, what is it that makes an activity meaningful? He makes a taxonomy of three categories — An activity can be meaningful in three ways. It can be intrinsically meaningful (good for its own sake; not requiring any further justification); it can be instrumentally meaningful, i.e., it leads to some desired outcome (such as money, freedom, health, status, etc.); it can be spiritually meaningful. His concept of spirituality here isn’t supernatural, and it can be rephrased in terms of the concepts of character or integration. In the spiritual sense, an activity is meaningful if it fits the person’s broader sets of values and aims, or his/her superordinate intentions, as those values and aims have been evolving through the individual’s history.

So, those years I had became aware that what I was doing was instrumentally meaningful, and at times intrinsically meaningful, but it wasn’t spiritually meaningful. Why is that such a big problem? Why can’t I just enjoy the results of my work (status, career, etc.) like many others? We should consider the nature of marginality, once again, to make sense of my inability to be content with the instrumental meaning of my work.

Instrumental meaning, particularly the kind of instrumental meaning associated with academic success, exists only within a sub-cultural context, within a specific type of community. Academic success does not typically address any basic survival need, but is rather a kind of currency that can be appreciated only by virtue of membership in a cultural community. I claim that it is most meaningful at the mainstream of that cultural community, by individuals who most strongly identify with such meaning. The closer you feel to the mainstream, the more you can identify with the instrumental meaning (e.g., status), and the more that instrumental meaning can merge with your spiritual meaning. What about the marginal figure? It seems to me that the marginal figure, even when faced with instrumental success, cannot derive meaning from it. Again, we face Giorgi’s idea that marginality is destiny.

So far, I have avoided your question. I said I was inclined to analyze the question, but instead I have spent time analyzing my forthcoming answer (if I ever end up answering the question at all). I have spent time talking about why you should take my criticisms of Psychology with a grain of salt.

Moreover, if I were truly a marginal figure (as I sometimes think I am), would I still be irritated by your question? Would I still take your question as a personal attack?  My strong emotional reaction, despite my self-proclaimed marginality, is a demonstration that marginality is not a form of detachment, but a form of attachment. It is a form of affinity, a way to belong, a way to self-identify, a way to see oneself and one’s tradition. When Jacques Derrida said, “I never speak of what I do not admire”, he was responding to the misperception — that many, including Jordan Peterson, hold — that his lifework was a simply a destructive force against his tradition, whereas it was truly an effort to keep that tradition alive.

But Peterson himself holds that any tradition is always already dead. And the essence of marginality (or, liminality) might be the recognition of this lack of vitality, this frightening lack of vitality in a gigantic, organized machine that continues to move despite having no life. The promise of rebirth might be wishful thinking, but it might also be what constitutes the source of spiritual meaning.

I didn’t start by directly answering your question, because the context of the answer had to be prepared first. It would be reasonable to regard Psychology as (at least partially) dead, as much as it would be reasonable to see it as waiting to be (continually) re-born.

References:

Bergner, R. M. (1998). Therapeutic approaches to problems of meaninglessness. American Journal of Psychotherapy52, 72-87.

Giorgi, A. (2009). Professional marginalization in psychology: Choice or destiny? In L. P. Mos (Ed.), History of Psychology in Autobiography (pp. 131-157). Springer.

Notes in Feb 2018

What is a Choice Category within Jens Mammen’s framework? In my understanding, a Choice Category is tied to two other concepts. On one hand, it is tied to the concept of identity and, on the other hand, it is tied to self-reference. You could think of identity and self-reference as two sides of the same coin. And that coin is the category of Choice (Mammen, 2016).

“… two people are perceiving one and the same object through the manifolds of appearances that each enjoys from his own perspective. Then, one of the persons draws the attention of the other (as well as his own) to the object as a whole, in its identity. He names the object and establishes a reference, for another as well as for himself. By using a name, he sets up the object as the subject, as the thing that is going to be articulated.” (Sokolowski, 2008, p. 59)

Here is an example. A student approached me after the class to let me know that I had misspelled her name. I apologized. We both smiled and said goodbye to each other. Why is our name important to us? Could it be because it signifies that we are subjects? Could it be that it signifies that we can be “predicated” in an infinite number of ways? As Jens Mammen (2016) might say, a name signifies the fact that a person belongs to an infinite number of sense categories and that, by implication, we are more than the sum of those categories.

Jean Piaget described two kinds of same-ness (von Glasersfeld, 1995). This red ball is the same as that other red ball. He called the first kind equivalence. Two objects are equivalent, in so far as they belong to a set of common sense categories, e.g., redness, roundness, solidity. There is another kind of sameness that underlies identity. This melted chocolate is the same as the solid chocolate I put into my pocket an hour ago. Identity indicates persistence through time. It indicates a Choice Category (Mammen, 2016).

It seems, furthermore, that appreciating identity rests on a subject’s ability to track things through time. I kept track of the chocolate I put in my pocket, and I am still the same subject. The melted chocolate has preserved its reference to me (or my pocket) even though it has transformed in other ways.

References:

Mammen, J. (2016). Using a topological model in psychology: developing sense and choice categories. Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science50(2), 196-233.

Sokolowski, R. (2008). Phenomenology of the human person. Cambridge University Press.

Von Glasersfeld, E. (1995). Radical constructivism. Routledge.

Notes in Feb 2018

You might not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you. Academic politics is as unavoidable as politics in any other communal domain. Your withdrawal, your inaction, your compliance will help perpetuate existing structures, unexamined positions, and rent seekers.

academic olympics

At first glance, it may seem like the stakes are not high. Ego strokes seem to be the primary currency. But that itself is the outcome a diversion. The diversion begins when an academic sees him/herself as outside of the real world. It begins when we see ourselves as stroke accumulators. Yes, feel free to replace “stroke” with “h-index”, “citation”, or “publications”.

We ought to be more than that, but what exactly?

There is ambiguity in the identity of a scholar, and I think that ambiguity has to be embraced. If I am an agent of a specific theoretical position, e.g., responsible for defending a side in a debate, then I am a partisan. Being a partisan is relatively easy. We want to be more than that. We want to be scholars. But what is that exactly?

Forced Positions

A student stopped me on the corridor the other day, and asked: “I’m doing some research on task-switching, but I don’t know what is the relevance of this research to everyday life. How is my work relevant? How can I apply it?”

I told him, in a tone that I believed was playful and lighthearted, that there might not be any application. Basic research does not promise applicability. It’s better to accept that possibility, rather than hold on to the delusion that every experiment we conduct has a direct, important, real-life application.

Today, I saw him again. He told me he had shared my sentiment with his supervisor, and that his supervisor had strongly disagreed with my “partisan” position. Of course, he was talking about the partisan position that he had manufactured for me.

You might not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you. Your withdrawal, your inaction, your compliance might force you into positions with which you disagree. Sometimes it is necessary to take a side. Other times, it may be necessary to be able to clearly express not taking sides. It may be necessary to get out of forced positions.

Notes on Teaching Cognitive Psychology (1)

Today’s lecture was about narratives. This topic is almost never covered in Cognitive Psychology courses. We did not have it when I took the course in 2008. Even when I took Psychology of Language and Reading Processes we still did not cover narratives. And I believe my experience is representative of the majority.

Why most instructors don’t include narratives? The answer can be traced back to Ulrich Neisser’s (1967) classic textbook, which continues to be the dominant model adopted by other textbook writers. The major feature of the classical model is that it presents “lower” cognitive processes at the beginning of the course, keeping the “higher” processes for the end. By the time we reach the higher cognitive functions (Chapter 11th in the 11 Chapters in Neisser’s textbook) we have already completely severed the connection to everyday experience and to common sense.

Mind as Computer

Neisser’s syllabus very likely serves two complementary functions, one in the guidance of the research community and one in the guidance of teaching. When it comes to research, a researcher can pick up an item from Neisser’s list, e.g., working memory, attention, etc, and rest assured that his/her work fits within a coherent framework.

When it comes to teaching, the researcher zooms back and presents the overall framework to the students. The framework gives the field a sense of structure. It helps package the field for the sake of presentation to the students and interested others. Most of us teach Cognitive Psychology, in part, as a defense of why it should continue to exist. It is a way for the field to justify itself and its present form to its consumers.

“Every established order tends to produce the naturalization of its own arbitrariness.” — Pierre Bourdieu

This is why I include narratives and other less popular topics in my syllabus. I am trying to find new ways into Cognitive Psychology. I am also trying to find better ways of connecting the field the everyday experience. Finally, I try to avoid being an advertising agent for the discipline. That is why I begin the course with B.F. Skinner’s (1977) article “Why I am not a Cognitive Psychologist“. To do my job well, I must present the field’s critics, as well as its proponents. I must consider the possible future in which Cognitive Psychology, as we know it today, is no longer part of the mainstream.

Notes in Jan 2018

Everybody wants to be loved, to fit in. The fear that happens once you start swimming away from the shore, that you’re not going to find a next island, before your strength gives out. I think it’s very rational to be afraid of thinking for yourself, because you may very well find yourself at odds with the community on which you depend. And I think for some of us it’s just a compulsive behavior. It’s not even necessarily the smartest evolutionary strategy. It’s just hard to do it any other way.” — Eric Weinstein (link to the full interview)

A beautiful passage! And I’d recommend listening to the entire interview.

But, no, not everyone wants love. Few things are as irritating and unpleasant as the wrong type of love, the unwanted love, the love that is not coming from a respected source, a well-informed source, or a well-intentioned source. A love that comes with an agenda for you, placing you within and in the service of a scheme. Consider, for example, how rebellious kids say no to the love of their parents. They are not refusing love. What they are refusing is its high cost, namely control. And, that is not the only love against which we rebel. We would — or, at least, we should — also rebel against the love that is the reward of telling a lie.

When I heard Eric Weinstein, I remembered you quitting your job. And I remembered my own decision to decline the VENI. No, we are not refusing the idea of fitting in. We just want a different fit, a more truthful fit. We are not refusing a place in our community. We just want a place that is more true. Rebellious, for us, is a way of expressing I can do better than this. The present community might not have a place for that, but we hope that a future community might. We swim away from the shore, toward the hope of a future community. That “next island” is not a different place to find. It is a future to create.

Notes in Jan 2018

Let’s continue with Robert Sokolowski’s Phenomenology of the Human Person.

The fourth [philosophical layer of language use] is parasitic on the third [declarative level], and the third finds its completion in the fourth. In carrying out philosophical discourse we enhance the agency of truth that occurs on the third level, but that agency must already be there waiting to be enhanced.” (Sokolowski, 2008, p. 34)

Before addressing Sokolowski’s passage, a short side-note is in order. A useful thinking tools, formally introduced by Daniel Dennett, is the so-called sorta operator. We can say, for example:

Before there were bacteria, there were sorta bacteria, and before there were mammals, there were sorta mammals, and before there were dogs, there were sorta dogs, and so on.” (Dennett, Intuition Pumps & Other Tools for Thinking, 2013, p. 96)

So we can say, with regard to the third and fourth layers of language:

Before there were philosophical conversations, there were sorta-philosophical conversations. Let’s now proceed, with Sokolowski’s help, to identify what it is that makes some conversations sorta-philosophical or, stated differently, what gives them the features such that they become potential domain for, and potential target of, philosophical work.

What makes the sorta-philosophical conversations different from ordinary use of language is, according to Sokolowski, the capacity to refer to oneself and to take ownership over one’s language. I can say, “The Stoic philosopher will arrive next week“, but I can also say: “I am certain that the Stoic philosopher will arrive next week“, or “I am pleased that the Stoic philosopher will arrive next week“, or “Because the Stoic philosopher will arrive next week, I must soon plan a meeting with him“.

The original [red] statement in each case is embedded within another statement and the second statement brings the speaker into view in some manner. The speaker is aware of himself, or perhaps he is sorta-aware of himself, his own role in the statements, and consequently he has access to the fact that his role, point of view, and framing of the statements could change or could have been otherwise.

These are the elements of a proto-philosophical conversation, and they are grounded in a rather simple declaration of a person’s presence.

Notes in Jan 2018

The appropriate whole for language, the whole within which all the parts make sense, is the third [declarative] level, the one on which ‘we’ come to light as the ones who use the language.” — Phenomenology of the Human Person (Sokolowski, 2008, p. 33)

In this book, Sokolowski uses language as an entry point into a philosophical study of what it means to be a person. He divides different uses of language into four layers: 1. Prelinguistic, 2. ordinary use, 3. declarative, and 4. philosophical. To put it briefly, when we use language pre-linguistically, we are replacing sounds (of pleasure, excitement, pain, etc.) with words. We are doing something with words that could have been done without them. You are walking on a narrow corridor and your path is blocked by a slow walker. You say, “Excuse me”, but you could also clear your throat or announce your presence by humming a melody. Language here seems inessential.

The second layer consists of linguistic activities in which we exchange facts, commands, requests, promises, etc. The third layer can then be added above the second layer, by deflecting attention slightly from the fact and onto the agent who is delivering and framing the fact. Within the third layer, the primary emphasis is still on the fact, but now the person who is declaring the statement is in view. According to Sokolowski, if we place all the emphasis on the agent, we will end up with a fact [about the agent] and our activity falls back into the second level of language.

Finally, the fourth layer consists of a space in which we can recognize and examine the other 3 uses of language. Sokolowski warns us against regarding philosophy as a 2nd-level activity.

“… we must be careful lest what we describe now, the achievement of truth, get turned back – reduced – to a merely natural process, to one of the things described on the second level.” (ibid, p.33)

What can we say based on Sokolowski’s worries regarding the potential loss of the 3rd and 4th layers of language use? That the layers are never fully separate. The second layer is present, nested within, the two higher levels. The 3rd and 4th layer don’t require a different kind of activity, or a different set of words. They require a different way of noticing, a different way of paying attention to the same statements.

We can apply that way of noticing even to the first level. What do we accomplish when we use words to announce something pre-linguistic, such as pain, pleasure, or mere presence. We are engaging in an act of declaration — declaring ourselves as agents. What is supposedly the essential feature of the third layer is already at work at the very first level of language, at the level of language-as-sound.

Notes in Jan 2018

I should start writing again, if for no reason other than letting you know what I have been up to. It is quiet here. And there are not many points of reference against which I could keep my state of mind in check. What do I do these days? I wake up, drink coffee, read, walk to the office, read, prepare lectures, teach, read, write occasionally, come back home. What am I reading? We will get back to that.

When in solitary confinement, a person might carve lines on the wall to create a difference as the days pass by. Each day marked with a line. Each day makes its noticeable difference and passes by. I am starting to carve these lines, partly for myself, and partly for you.

Analogies, analogies. Here is another one. When someone performs a series of back-and-forth hand movements with his eyes closed, the endpoints of the movements begin to drift from their original locations (Brown et al., 2003). Controlled states require the right kind of feedback. Controlling the endpoints of the movements requires vision. What do I want to control? And what does that have to do with writing now? I am not quite sure what it is that I want to control, but I know I am quite far from the kind of feedback I need. We will get back to that, too.