Remaining at One’s Post

Hachikō (1923-1935) was a Japanese Akita dog remembered and celebrated for his outstanding expression of loyalty. He developed the habit of picking up his master, Hidesaburō Ueno, every day at the train station after Ueno returned from work. When Ueno died, Hachi continued to wait for him at the station for the following nine years until Hachi himself died (Wikipedia).

Hachi at the train station

There is a statue of Hachikō near the Shibuya Station in Tokyo, and there are movies made about him. Hachi turned into cultural symbol of loyalty, while at the same time revealing our tendency to value loyalty.

A couple of nights struggling with insomnia led me to discover Jonny Keen on YouTube, a 66-year-old man who regularly posts videos about his life, the books he is reading and collecting, his Christian faith and his theological interests, his memories, his marriage, the diaries he has been keeping since 1978. I wondered why I was so moved by, and drawn to, his video records. And, the theme that came to my mind is related to what makes loyalty, in general, so moving and worthy of celebration. There are traces of loyalty in every single aspects of Jonny’s life.

Jonny Keen showing that he and his wife, by coincidence, picked the exact same card for each other on their wedding anniversary. (link)

To be loyal is to not leave your post. It is to preserve what you value, what you rely on as the basis for your actions, in the face of a changing and unstable world. It is to stand firm, against odds, against authority and popular opinion, and even at times against reason and counter-veiling evidence. This is why, for instance, C. S. Peirce writes:

… most of all I admire the method of tenacity for its strength, simplicity, and directness. Men who pursue it are distinguished for their decision of character […]. It is impossible not to envy the man who can dismiss reason, although we know how it must turn out at last.

Buchler’s collection of the Philosophical Writings of Peirce (1955, p. 20)

The passage is taken from Peirce’s essay The Fixation of Belief, where in light of the topic of discussion it is perhaps appropriate to contrast tenacity with rationality as two opposing methods of inquiry. But outside that topic, we cannot maintain the opposition. In fact, Peirce himself advocates a type of loyalty to rationality and to the doctrine of fallibilism (see, for example, The Scientific Attitude and Fallibilism).

Jon Snow at the “battle of the bastards”

Here is a final example. If you have read N. N. Taleb’s Black Swan, you might recall his impression of the book Il Deserto dei Tartari, which tells the story of Giovanni Drago remaining at his post–without reason or evidence–until his death. Drago and his group were assigned to guard a border against possible enemy attack, an attack which did not happen, thus depriving their post/loyalty of reason and evidence, until Drago’s last moment. After reading the book, Taleb buys boxes of it and gives a copy to “anyone who said a polite hello to him”. We seem to respond to loyalty at an instinctual, pre-rational level.

It is, of course, admirable to exercise rationality, to be responsive to reason and evidence. It is also worth remembering that the virtue of rationality is sustained by, and embedded within, another set of virtues. It is worth remembering the place and worth of complementary virtues, such as loyalty, and the sheer beauty of remaining at one’s post.

A Mystery

The first academic conference I attended was the Lake Ontario Visionary Establishment (L.O.V.E.) of 2008. It was probably the most decisive conference in my career, even though (or because) I was a 3rd-year undergraduate student. My then mentor, Michael Chan-Reynolds, was one of the organizers and he drove us (his small lab) to the conference in Niagara Falls. It was a 2-day event, so we spent the night at the conference hotel. I shared a room with my friend Shawn Douglas, a much better arrangement than my first CSBBCS attendance (also in 2008, during which I had to share a small room with four overly-enthusiastic and very loud female students. But that’s a story for another time).

I remember Shawn bringing a book called “Things and Stuff” to the trip. And I am quite sure (99% sure) the book was written by Sam Rocha. During the evening at the hotel, after returning from the conference party, the so-called “L.O.V.E. affair”, (where a drunk, close-to-retirement professor gave me a compliment for my questions, which he combined with an insult toward the “superstars”, who had given the big talks that day; this is also a story for another time) and before falling asleep, Shawn read a few paragraphs from Things & Stuff. The prose was beautiful and mystifying, perhaps partly due to the help of alcohol. “This”, I naively announced, “is phenomenology!” I loved it. The book is still, after 11 years, on my to-read list.

So, what is the mystery? The mystery is that the book was published in 2011, which makes it impossible for Shawn to have had it at that time (2008). Was it a different book? It couldn’t have been. Maybe Sam or Shawn will solve this puzzle for me someday.

I am reminded of Things & Stuff now that I have picked up another book by Sam, called “Folk Phenomenology”. Here is a teasing quote, which I am sharing with the hope of writing a review of the book later.

… we constantly find ourselves being things that we do not know. In fact, to be a human person is, in a very real sense, to not know what or who one is.

(Rocha, 2015, p. 5)

Update: Sam Rocha confirmed the publication date of Things & Stuff.

… which means Shawn’s book was something else. Could it have been this?

1997

I doubt it, because I remember Shawn had developed the habit of saying “stuff and things” every time someone asked him, “What’s new?” or “What’s up?” and I remember that phrase being on the book cover in full. I think my urge to clarify the identity of this book has something to do with preserving the bridges to the past, to those days, to Trent and to Peterborough, to those friendships, those moments (irrevocably lost) that are symbolized, for instance, by the L.O.V.E. conference in 2008. The stakes seemed so low. Everything that was present seemed so permanent and, at the time, I didn’t feel the need to keep better record of things (and stuff). I’d better get in touch with Shawn. Maybe he remembers.

Update: Shawn and I got in touch, first through Facebook and then via email. Aside from the very nice exchanges with my old friend, I also finally discovered the identity of the mystery book.

2005

One vs. Two

One more passage from Alain Badiou’s In Praise of Love

In the final analysis, religions don’t speak of love. Because they are only interested in it as a source of intensity, in the subjective state it alone can create, in order to direct that intensity towards faith and the Church and encourage this subjective state to accept the sovereignty of God. The main outcome is that Christianity substitutes devout, passive, deferential love for the combative love I am praising here, that earthly creation of the differentiated birth of a new world and a happiness won point by point. Love on bended knee is no love at all as far as I am concerned, even if love sometimes arouses passion in us that makes us yield to the loved one.

In Praise of Love (pp. 66-67)

Two kinds of responses to love, according to Badiou, include (1) the kind that ultimately absorbs difference (two-ness) into unity (one-ness), and (2) the kind that preserves the difference. The subordination of love in religions is an example of the first type of response.

Going back to religion, in our present time, as a solution to the crisis of fragmentation, meaning, lack of community, etc., is a collective move back to the Father’s house. It would involve negating already-gained insights and hard-earned distinctions. It is motivated toward a sense of safety, familiarity, and other similar promises. They say, “there is no such a thing as a free lunch”, and we should probably act fast and create a similar cliché about the cost of moving back into the Father’s basement as an adult, especially if the authoritative Father has plans for controlling the offspring’s behavior. The Father’s plans not only go beyond love, but they involve the suppression of something without which love ceases to exist–the recognition and maintenance of true alterity.

Psychology without People

In a recent general critique of Psychology, Catherine Raeff (2019) follows up on Michael Billig’s (2013) analysis, pointing out that psychological science, in its currently dominant style, is a science of things and not of people. In brief, it is a science–or a collection of sciences–in which people (supposedly the primary targets of investigation) are absent. By focusing on things, e.g., traits, scores, sub-personal cognitive or neural functions, we tend to construct a rather static image in which variables are the main players and what we discover consists of various relationships among these variables. The image gives the impression of universal regularity, but that impression is neither faithful to matters of fact (hence, e.g., the crisis of replicability) nor has anything to do with people, their activities, relationships, and development (what we might call the crisis of subject-matter).

Like Raeff, I admire Michael Billig’s work and have been influenced by him (see, for example, my 2015 interview with Billig). Moreover, consistent with Raeff’s position, I have argued against the pervasive focus on psychological building blocks, and against regarding the study of those building blocks as pre-requisite to a synthetic/holistic approach to psychology (Gozli & Deng, 2018). I have also argued for distinguishing the patterns and stabilities that result from placing people in normatively- and descriptively- fixed contexts (e.g., an experiment) from patterns and stabilities outside such contrived contexts (Gozli, 2017). Raeff’s arguments run along similar lines, though they are broader in scope, more informed by her work in developmental psychology, and more explicit about human relationships. Moreover, Raeff’s critique appears to be connected to a broader institutional critique and the current professionalization of research psychology, with its standards of evaluating success. There is already some trace of this in the article:

Contemporary psychologists typically identify themselves in terms of their particular area of specialization, and academic job advertisements typically specify a particular area of psychology.

Raeff (2019, p. 8)

Indeed, a new research hire is expected to set up a lab upon arrival and begin drilling deep into a highly specialized subfield. There is little room for exploration, risk-taking, playing with the norms and disciplinary boundaries, at least if one wishes to “succeed”! This reminds me of another article by Billig (2012), Undisciplined Beginnings…, where he describes his career path. We see there how critique of psychological research can be tied to a critique of cultural/institutional norms within the profession. Similarly, I believe what Raeff is aiming at will be even more effectively accomplished if it accompanies a discussion of what research psychologists do, the norms to which they are subjected, how those norms regulate their actions and self construal, and so forth. But, for the time being, let us return to the main premise of Raeff’s article.

Why Focus on People?

A skeptical reader might ask: Why should we focus on people? We cannot here rely on the tautological response that, “We ought to focus on people because psychology is the study of people!”, but should formulate our response in terms of some epistemic advantage that comes with taking persons-and-actions as our units of analysis.

Understanding action holistically […] permits thinking about whole people, rather than treating people in terms of fragmented bits of behavior, or as collections of fragmented variables. A whole person can be defined as someone who acts in relation to others, and whose action is made up of multiple and interrelated constitutive, psychological, and developmental processes.

Raeff (2019, p. 20)

Ultimately, a process-relational conceptualization of action can transform psychology into a science of understanding the dynamic complexities of how people act in relation to others in all corners of the world.

Raeff (2019, p. 21)

In other words, by neglecting the person, we neglect attributes and relations that are intrinsic to being a person. As a consequence, we miss the explanatory resources that come with noticing those attributes and relations. Knowing, for instance, that a person is capable of reflective and deliberate action, and that the person’s current actions is sensitive to their history of reflective and deliberate actions, enables us to recognize more potential sources of change (Smedslund, 2012).

Being mindful of persons and their activities also prevents us from seeing psychological phenomena as isolable and repeatable when in fact they are not isolable and repeatable (Mammen, 2017; Smedslund, 2016). Pressing a button might be repeatable in some relevant sense, but borrowing money from a friend or betraying someone’s trust are not repeatable.

I find Raeff’s arguments careful and compelling, though I’d like to see more concrete examples in her follow-up papers. In general, criticizing the mainstream assumptions and methods will be more effective if we anchor our abstract arguments to concrete examples from research. Unlike some of my colleagues, I don’t see the use of concrete examples from research as aggressive and confrontational, but rather as bridge-building between a given critical stance and the target of critique. Without concrete examples, it would be difficult to see the effects–the pragmatic value–of the critique.

Almost all psychological researchers would agree to these critiques in private conversation. Their continuing efforts within the natural-scientific tradition has to do with the fact that the tradition continues to yield results that are meaningful from within their paradigms. The critic’s task, in my view, is two-sided–we ought to make sense of the success of the mainstream while at the same time placing that success within a broader context of human concerns, which reveals its shortcomings and, in some cases, its misguidedness.

People vs. Objects

Before closing, let me also briefly touch on the main point of disagreement. In several places in the article, Raeff distinguishes a proper psychological scope (attention to people and their actions) from a natural-scientific scope (objects). The natural-scientific attitude is appropriate, she holds, when applied to objects but it is not appropriate when applied to people.

Analyzing objectively includes conceptualizing a phenomenon as an object that does not express individuality and that does not interpret experience subjectively. Insofar as physical objects neither experience the world subjectively nor express individuality, it makes sense to analyze natural science objects objectively.

Raeff (2019, p. 8)

I would not set up the dichotomy between objects and people. Instead, it would seems more apt to distinguish between two approaches that could be applied both to objects and to people (Mammen, 2017). Here is an example:

On my shelves I have a miniature model of the CN Tower (Toronto). It’s made of metal, has a certain size, texture, weight, etc. In short, it could be analyzed from the perspective of physical sciences, in terms of general attributes and laws. From such a perspective this model of the CN Tower is replaceable. It is equivalent to other models of the same kind.

It is also true that the CN-Tower model was given to me as a parting gift by my doctoral advisor in 2015, and that it has been accompanying me since then, during my postdoctoral days in Leiden and during my life in Macao. It represent a history, an affective bond, and a sentiment. From this perspective, the model is not replaceable. Now, it is critical to note that the psychological attributes of such an object are not private. They do not reside in my head. If I die, the model does not lose its psychological significance. Its significance, the way of viewing it that recognizes its significance, is available within a larger domain, recognizable by others. It is a domain that does not depend on any one person.

Take another example from the same shelf: Daniel Robinson’s book An Intellectual History of Psychology, which has been with me for almost a decade. Its meaning changed recently, after the author passed away, and now I usually cannot read it without thinking about his absence. Again, the psychologically significant dimensions of the book do not reside in my mind. They don’t belong to any one person. They consist of fact about the world. As Jens Mammen wrote:

Our world has a historical depth both in a personal and a societal context, and it frames our actions far beyond the objects’ “natural” qualities.

Mammen & Gozli (2019, p. 191)

This is why I have such a strong affinity with Mammen’s (2017) theoretical framework. It shows that the mistake does not begin in the moment we turn from objects to people. It begins before that point, in our regard for objects. This view, I believe, is ultimately sympathetic, and in harmony with, Raeff’s critique: We will lose sight of what is present in the psychological domain, people, their activities, their histories, etc., if we focus on replaceable building blocks of nature, things that possess universal features, devoid of historical depth. This selective regard doesn’t show up just in psychological thinking. It is a way of looking (and not-looking) at the world at large.

References

Billig, M. (2012). Undisciplined beginnings, academic success, and discursive psychology. British Journal of Social Psychology51(3), 413-424.

Billig, M. (2013). Learn to write badly: How to succeed in the social sciences. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge.

Gozli, D. G. (2017). Behaviour versus performance: the veiled commitment of experimental psychology. Theory & Psychology27(6), 741-758.

Gozli, D. G. & Deng, W. (2018). Building blocks of psychology: On remaking the unkept promises of early schools. Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science52(1), 1-24.

Mammen, J. (2017). A New Logical Foundation for Psychology. Cham, Switzerland: Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-67783-5

Mammen, J., & Gozli, D. (2019). Rebellion, theory, and dialogue: An interview with Jens Mammen. Human Arenas2(2), 186-199.

Raeff, C. (2019). From objects to acting: Repopulating psychology with people who act. Theory & Psychology, 0959354319844603.

Smedslund, J. (2012). Psycho‐logic: Some thoughts and after‐thoughts. Scandinavian journal of psychology53(4), 295-302.

Smedslund, J. (2016). Why psychology cannot be an empirical science. Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science50(2), 185-195.

No Longer Chance

Alain Badiou on Love.

In Praise of Love (Alain Badiou, w/ Nicholas Truong)

Badiou takes the recognition of difference to be an essential feature of love, the recognition of two different subjects, different points of view on reality, and the subsequent construction of a new reality based on that difference. Such a difference is, in every case, new.

That is why love that is real is always of interest to the whole of humanity, however humble, however hidden, that love might seem on the surface.

In Praise of Love (p. 36)

In every case, the difference creates something new–an idea that suggests love–or the grounds of love (the event at its narrative center)–is unpredictable. This is, I believe, captured by Peirce’s category, Secondness–the barely understood recognition of otherness, a felt resistance (to prejudice), a risk, etc., that could only be pointed at, but not fully articulated. The first encounter is a paradigm case of a chance event. Yet, declaration of love turns it into destiny. To declare one’s love is to recast the meaning of an arbitrary, contingent chance event in term of necessity.

That is the moment when chance is curbed, when you say to yourself: I must tell the other person about what happened, about the encounter and the incidents within the encounter. I will tell the other that something that commits me took place, at least as I see it. In a word: I love you.

(p. 43)