Embodiment of Truth

I am writing this after going through Books VI and VII of the Confessions of St. Augustine. I think various parts of the Confessions could be understood and connected in light of understanding what it means for a truth to be embodied or personified. The parts I have in mind include (a) several episodes where other people make an impression on Augustine and (b) Augustine’s appeal to Christ (toward the end of Book VII) as the embodiment of Truth, as he moves out of a Platonist phase.

Alternative phrases to “embodiment of truth” could be “embodiment of a principle,” or “personification of a principle,” but I hope the writing is clear enough to render this matter relatively minor.

Embodiment of an Idea

In general, what does it mean for an idea to be embodied? What does it mean, for example, to embody justice, truth, hope, love, charity, or loyalty?

Embodying an idea differs from defining the idea with language. By defining something, we place its representation in front of us, within a shared field that isn’t associated with any individual. By contrast, when someone embodies an idea, they bring it to life through action. Moreover, we aren’t talking about only a single action in one occasion, but about a series of actual/potential actions. These actions must be intentional, they must show consistency and reliability through time, and they must not easily yield to external pressure. In other words, the actions must come from a solid place, and we can call that solid place the person’s character (Aristotle).

To embody an idea, therefore, is to bring out the idea-in-action to life in encountering particular human situations. Once again, the supposed wellspring of the idea-in-action is the person’s character. An idea-in-action doesn’t become detached from the person, and from the person’s goal-directedness. The person shows the idea, not by giving a general definition of it, but by living and striving according to the idea (Laruelle). It makes sense to say that embodying an idea is done by walking along a particular path. If we want to be presented with the living manifestation of the idea, the idea-in-action, then we ought to know the person and their character/path. To know this person (more/less) means, in part, to know the idea (more/less).

Grasping the idea from the idea-in-action isn’t a straightforward matter. It requires time and a trained eye. Even after knowing what Julia does in a Situations A, B, & C, observers might still make different predictions about what she would do in Situation D. That is because the idea-in-action, being anchored to the situations at hand, gives a partial and incomplete view of the idea. This shortcoming is also present–though better hidden–in definitions of an idea, because there are implicit situations that shape the idea’s general, impersonal representation.

One advantage of embodying an idea, assuming that it is truly embodied by someone(s), is that the person or group now becomes an infinite source of knowing for others. If someone has truly embodied the idea of justice or truth, then trying to understand them, as they move through different situations, gives us a chance to understand the idea through its various instantiations (get the idea from the series of idea-in-action). Perhaps after enough observations, we could even generalize the idea–how it would be instantiated–to situations we have not yet encountered. People do this when they try to simulate the presence of a person in a given situation by asking questions that take the form, “What would Jesus do?”.

There is another, and I think more important, advantage of embodying an idea over having a definition of it. By being alive, present, and responsive to change, a characters that is the wellspring of ideas-in-action can prevent the dominance of definitional, frozen, and ideological definitions of the idea over people. It is the person who has to give life to the idea, rather than the idea enforcing “Life” upon the person (Laruelle).

Examples from Augustine

An important example in Confessions comes in Book VI (6), where Augustine remembers seeing a beggar on the street. The beggar seems cheerful and happy. He has had some food and drink and he is laughing with others. Comparing himself with the beggar, Augustine notices how his own life is characterized by an intense and perpetual striving toward a contentment that seems out of reach, whereas the beggar is content without any such striving. He asks himself two questions: (1) Would I have preferred to be happy? (2) Would I have chosen to switch places with the beggar? To (1) he responds “Yes”, but to (2) he responds “No.” Looking at the two answers together, we could say Augustine doesn’t wants happiness simply as a quality of experience, but a path, a striving–a character. His reflections on how happiness is embodied in the beggar makes him more aware of the idea of happiness and how he would want to embody happiness himself.

Another example comes from the discussion of Alypius (Book VI: 10), one of Augustine’s close friends. Alypius embodies the idea of justice by refusing bribes and by refusing to yield to blackmail. Through his actions, he shows himself to be a wellspring of the idea of justice and he shows the idea of justice by embodying it.

These reflections on Alypius differ, for example, from the brief reference to Nebridius (and his refutation of Manichaeism). The counter-Manichaeism ideas of Nebridius need not be embodied by him in the same way that justice is embodied by Alypius. In the case of Nebridius, it might seem as if he stumbled upon something that could have be found and used by anyone else. But in the case of Alypius, his character isn’t separable from the way in which he shows/embodies the idea of justice. The difference is in how close the idea is to the person’s own telos.

Through embodying an idea, the human person reveals her own character at the same time that she signifies the idea/principle through her actions. Being a moving principle of action (Aristotle) means the person can be responsive, to what is unique to any given situation, rather than following previously established formulae and definitions.

Platonism & Christianity

This line of thinking, I believe, is crucial in understanding why Augustine separates himself from the Platonists in favor of Christianity. Whereas Platonism attended to the idea of Truth (separated from bodies, persons, activities), Christianity attended to the figure of Christ as the embodiment (personification) of Truth. Attending to truth-in-person (idea-in-action) means we have a mediator between what is abstract (idea/principle) and what is concrete (isolated actions). We can relate to this “mediator” (the complete person; Book VII: 19) if we want to be in touch with the principle (Book VII: 18).

Finally, the body carries a passion that is missing in abstract propositions of Platonism (Book VII: 21). Truth without passion is cold and indifferent. Truth-embodied is not only relatable, but itself carries the desire to relate. When we talk about the embodiment of Truth, therefore, we are necessarily referring to an instantiation of an idea that is intermixed with the desire to connect and be connected.

Augustine himself embodies such a desire throughout the Confessions. He does not recount the events of his life in a cold and indifferent manner. On the contrary, his acts of remembering are interweaved with (and moved by) a constantly-surfacing desire to connect, to join, and to-be-one-with.

Three Teachers

I have been lucky to have had many great teachers during my academic life and mentors who continue to enrich my intellectual pursuits. In this post, I want to write about only three of them.

The first is Graham Fulton. When I first met him, he was a psychology professor at University College Sedaya International (UCSI), Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I was a student there from January 2006 till July 2007, though I never had a chance to take a class with Graham. Soon after my arrival, he moved to a different school. Because he had made a very positive impression on me during a brief conversation, I reached out to him via email, after which he invited me for coffee and we started meeting regularly on weekends.

In our conversations, Graham was always delightful. He was so alive and in the here-and-now, present, and responsive. I cannot imagine or remember him without a smile. With a big heart and a generous spirit, he never said (or implied) that our meetings were a favor to me, even though they absolutely were. During our meetings, he casually taught me about social constructionism, George Herbert Mead, the often-neglected role of culture in how we (ought to) think (about psychology), and other issues. He told me about his doctoral research, which was about grief. Assuming that I still remember correctly, he had return to school in his 40s to complete a PhD.

He didn’t stay in Malaysia much after I left (he consistently got into conflict with university administrators, and I believe he eventually left academia). I learned about his return to Australia later on through our email exchanges. Having lived a life prior to getting a PhD gave Graham a sense of freedom, something that couldn’t be taken away from him.

The second teacher is Rory Coughlan (1952-2019), whom I met at Trent University. Again, I didn’t get a chance to take any classes with him. But I emailed him soon after my arrival at Trent after reading his research interests on his webpage. We met in his office. It was the Fall of 2007 and I was about to experience my first cold Canadian winter. But Rory’s office was full of warmth and soul. With endless cheerfulness and passion, he talked about psychology and especially about real concrete human problems. He was the only (?) qualitative researcher in the department. And he talked and wrote about people and their problems. I must admit that I didn’t appreciate that at the time. But he planted a seed, which eventually began to grow during my graduate studies. Rory also mentioned G. H. Mead, J. J. Gibson, and recommended John Russon’s (2003) short book, Human Experience.

At the time, I was still a smoker and–like several other fellow students–I occasionally shared smoking breaks with Rory (he had a special spot, mostly protected from cold winds, near his office). I also attended one of his lectures as a guest. Afterward, when I complimented him on his exceptionally engaging style, he told me that it all came from his earlier career as a stage musician. Having lived a different life prior to becoming a university professor gave Rory a sense of freedom, which he embodied in an inspiring and unforgettable way.

I met Romin Tafarodi a few days before I left Toronto in 2015. Some might say it was a late discovery. Perhaps too late. I had spent the whole five years at University of Toronto without ever having talked with Romin. The department was a big elaborate complex and we were in different parts of it. I had heard about him from an undergraduate student who participated in his informal reading group. I also had gained a deep respect for him based on the type of professors who disliked him. Even before meeting him I knew that, like Graham and Rory, Romin is a free spirit. The moment we began talking, I sensed his freedom, a freedom that can fill the space of an office, a freedom that impacts the way an office is furnished. He had a comfortable chair and a diverse office library. Unlike most conversation partners I had in that department, Romin had no rush to get to the point. He didn’t want to have a use for me or be useful to me. It was an idle encounter, which is to say a truly human encounter. There was a rich silence in the background of whatever we said. And if there is a “point” to our conversation, it had to do with attention to that silence. We talked for about 45 minutes. And I still consider Romin one of the great teachers I met at University of Toronto.

Being a great teacher doesn’t require a classroom. It doesn’t necessarily involve taking a “course”, doing homework, and receiving a grade. It doesn’t require a formal relationship to a “supervisor”. It doesn’t require algorithmic instructions–to be followed by the student–as much as it involves embodying a human freedom that could be perceived, understood, (or modeled) by the student. Great teaching requires recognition, perhaps, on the part of the student. It requires presence and availability, on the part of the teacher. From both sides, it requires participation.

A Science of/for Human Beings

Reflecting on the title of the book, Psychology as the Science of Human Being: The Yokohama Manifesto, it occurred to me that we can read the title in two different ways. First, psychology can be, and should be, a science that is responsive to human beings, to the messiness and ambiguities of our reality. According to this first meaning, we should be mindful that the target of psychological science, and practice it in a way that is appropriate to its target.

Psychology as the Science of Human Being: The Yokohama manifesto. Edited by
Valsiner, Marsico, Chaudhary, Sato, Dazzani (2016)

Second, psychology can be, and should be, a science for human being (for being human). That is, psychological inquiry should challenge and change the person, i.e., the psychologist, who is pursuing psychological inquiry. According to this second meaning, we should be mindful of the role of psychological science in the development of the character of psychologists (sensitivities, habits of attention, and modes of participation), which is to say we should regard psychology as a branch of virtue ethics.

How does this work? By paying attention to psychological phenomena, a psychologist becomes mindful of possibilities. By becoming more mindful of possibilities, the psychologist can practice appropriate participation with the aim of bringing about desirable possibilities.

Let’s use an example. By paying close attention to how we interpret each other in communication, a psychologist can become more sensitive to the possibilities in communication. What possibilities? Errors, discoveries, insights, creativity, exaggerations, neglect, bad faith, charity, prejudice, open-mindedness, so on and so forth. With regard to the aims of communication–of building a beautiful, shared, and inclusive human world together–we would notice that some of these possibilities are desirable and others are undesirable. By being mindful and sensitive to possibilities, by practicing appropriate modes of participation in different situations of communication, psychologist–with all of their flaws and shortcomings–can at least enter a path that is oriented toward a virtuous character.

What better aim for psychologists than discovering and practicing a more responsible way of being who/what we are?

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