Review of “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Masterclass on Writing, Reading, & Life” by George Saunders
Saunders’ bookcontains seven short stories in addition to his commentary on each. Out of the seven stories, three are by Anton Chekov, two by Leo Tolstoy, and the others are by Ivan Turgenev and Nikolai Gogol. The book is based on a university course on nineteenth-century Russian short stories that Saunders has been teaching for twenty years.
Comparing the number of stories included in the book to the thirty he usually assigns to his students, Saunders draws our attention — at the very outset — to the importance and necessity of decisions, anticipating a central theme in the commentaries: decisions and taking responsibility. Joining Saunders, we begin to notice how the four masters made decisions, and we begin to think about the stories and their significance in terms of those decisions. (Read the full review on Medium)
My first response, after reading Teo’s article, was an urge to share something concrete with you, a personal story, something that can ground our discussion. I think I have this urge as a result of Teo’s abstract style of writing. But I’m going to delay my storytelling, for a brief time, and begin with writing about what I liked in the article. I’d like to know if you agree with any of these points or if you think I am leaving something out that you think is important.
The article is clear, well researched, and thorough. Nobody will accuse Teo of being unreasonably selective, over-emphasizing one approach over others. His classifications identify the broad categories within the humanities: philosophical, historical, sociopolitical, cultural (including postcolonial and indigenous), artistic, and technological (concerned with science and technology). In addition to this plurality, the article is organized around a single notion: subjectivity. That is to say, the six approaches are presented as six ways of being concerned with subjectivity.
To say the humanities are concerned with subjectivity is something of a tautology and we might criticize Teo on this basis. But tautologies, especially when we recognize them, can shed light on our concepts. When we hold an object in our hands and turn it around to examine it from different sides, we are doing something akin to formulating tautologies. We can learn new things (including what we ought to do next) as long as we know we are still holding the same “object”. I think it was Brain Haig who said tautologies are often the first step in theorizing.
I wrote that Teo’s six approaches present six ways of being concerned with subjectivity, but we should revise that statement. The six approaches themselves reflect distinct forms of subjectivity. Historical study, for instance, corresponds to a form of subjectivity that can and should be distinguished from the philosophical form. That is, by the way, why reading about philosophers–which is mostly historical–isn’t the same as studying philosophy.
[M]ost people nowadays do not study philosophy itself. They study philosophers. Most so-called philosophers these days do not write or teach philosophy. They write and teach about philosophers who, once upon a time, wrote and taught philosophy.
Samuel D. Rocha (A Primer for Philosophy & Education, p. 14)
What Rocha is referring to is a confusion about–an inability to distinguish among–forms of subjectivity. This is the reason why Teo’s classifications are useful, not only in distinguishing the different approaches within the humanities, but also in distinguishing the humanist approach from the form of subjectivity that corresponds to the natural/social sciences. We should be careful not to forget, when we think about different approaches in the humanities, that we are paying attention both to their motives and to their subject-matter, both to where they come from and to where they are going, to their formation and to their problems, to their education and to their continued movement.
In the natural and social sciences (& in psychology as a natural/social science) our attention goes to the discipline’s subject-matter (not motives). We pay attention to where the discipline is going (not where it comes from), its problems (not its formation), its continued movement (not its education). That is why history of psychology often gives rise to critique.
Of course, if you ask a cognitive psychologist who studies, say, visual attention, about the motives or the formation of their research, you’ll get a justification for why they are doing what they are doing. But if you investigate further, you’ll discover that those justifications are prepackaged, designed to stop the line of questioning and redirect attention back on the subject-matter. In fact, I’d argue that if you pay close attention, psychological “science” has a constant wish to be unaware of itself (of the form of subjectivity that sustains it). By contrast, if you question someone in the humanities about their work or their discipline, they should (ideally) be as willing to talk about their origin/formation as much as they are willing to talk about their subject-matter/problems.
There is a metaphor here that might be useful. Let’s imagine being a house guest with two different hosts. One host expects you to remain within a certain acceptable range, when you’re in their home. You’re expected not to go, for example, to the basement or the bedroom. The other host welcomes you everywhere in their home. There is so much we can say about the two hosts, the difference between them is obviously not limited to that superficial level. Just to pick one, we could say that the first host is more attached to an image of their home and wants to preserve that image at the cost of limiting your movement.
Now is a good time for sharing the story I promised you. The first time I stood up in front of a group of academics and talked about a critique of psychology was during the summer of 2014. I was a guest at University of Vienna. There was an informal session, where everyone was talking about the general direction of their research, their challenges, plans, hopes, and possible collaborations. I remember the look in everyone’s eyes, when I started speaking. You could read in their faces, “Is he having an emotional breakdown?” The more they listened to me, the more that question became visible on their faces. I wasn’t. What I was saying that day was the result of many months of study. But to them it looked like an emotional breakdown, because I was going out of the acceptable range. In “scientific” psychology, certain topics come up in public conversation if, and only if, the person is having a breakdown. These topics include certain parts of an academic career, politics of science, institutional dynamics, power, doubt in the worth of your research, the (in)appropriateness of methods, the limits of psychology as a science, and so forth.
We can connect this anecdote to the psychological humanities. Now that we have read Teo’s article, you could consider this footnote to any future definition of (psychological) humanities. Humanities entail an education, as a result of which you can entertain a wide range of topics without regarding that exploration as a breakdown. To borrow the old-fashioned Lacanian terms, the humanities enable us to move away from seeing the discourse of the hysteric, as the only possible interruption to the discourse of the university, and cultivate the ability to see the discourse of the analyst. Without the humanities we overestimate the reasonableness of the natural/social sciences, which means tacitly presupposing that only an unreasonable (“hysterical” or “perverse”) voice can interrupt their discourses.
With reference to Lacan’s four discourses, one objection to Teo’s article would be that it presents itself as part of (Lacan’s) discourse of the university. This shows up not only in the body of the text, but also in the title. The hint is in the words “From … science … to … humanities”. We could read this as inviting a move from the sciences to the humanities. Or maybe even imagining that if psychological scientists continue their work, they will find themselves in the humanities. To understand why this isn’t possible, just imagine the metaphor of two hosts. Once you accept the rules of the first host (who restricts your movements), then no amount of movement within the “acceptable” range gives you the view of repressed places.
I see the rhetorical point in Teo’s presentation, and his appeal to a general theory of subjectivity is reminiscent of the unification/fragmentation discourse in psychology. Teo is trying to solve the problem of addressing unsympathetic readers, which means he is attempting to translate his ideas about psychological humanities into the language of mainstream psychology. Does this work? I’m not sure. But, in this case, even a failure can be instructive.
Setting aside the rhetorical strategy, I disagree with Teo’s characterization of the arts. At least in this article, he assigns the arts an overly specific function (namely, resistance). The attitude that seeks justification in terms of utility (Philosophy does X, History brings Y, … & the arts do Z) is the natural attitude (Husserl), and isn’t this attitude what we learn to suspend with philosophy, with the arts, and with the humanities? The more I think about this question, the more I realize that psychological humanities might itself indicate a haste, a rushing into utility rather than embodying the appropriate attitude. Do we adopt the phrase, “psychological humanities”, to promise utility? Why not simply say the humanities? What we get in return may or may not be relevant to our psychological concerns. Psychological humanities presupposes a promise of utility. When we think of narrowing down the fields of humanities and decide, “We pay attention to the psychological parts” aren’t we replicating the same problem that was created with the natural/social sciences?
If the problem is with the restriction, not with the particular field, in which we are restricted, then we should ask again: Why psychological humanities? Needless to say, our answers cannot be, “Because we are employed in departments of psychology, reading and writing in psychological journals…”
George Saunders’ (2021) recently published book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Masterclass on Writing, Reading, & Life, is a wonderful example of the humanities-oriented education. I wholeheartedly recommend the book.
Sam Rocha’s Primer, quoted in this post, is an extremely useful (and beautiful) place for thinking about education and philosophy.
Because I have already used the phrase, “psychological humanities”, and because I know I am going to use the phrase in the near future (both here and on my YouTube channel), I have decided to spend some time on introducing it. Trying to provide an introduction gives me a chance to reflect on psychological humanities. I also hope to improve my understanding with the help of your feedback.
Let’s begin with Thomas Teo’s 2017 article, where he invites psychologists to pay attention to some neglected dimensions of psychological research, questions that fall beyond the scope of natural science. These are questions toward which the humanities disciplines are presumably responsive. The non-responsiveness or pseudo-responsiveness of natural sciences could show up in the form of neglect, denial, indifference, or switch.
Teo centers his overview of psychological humanities on subjectivity, the paradigmatic and paradoxical case when it comes to the blindspot of natural-scientific psychology. To put it briefly, questions that address subjectivity ask what it means to be a subject and what it means for the world to include and be disclosed to subjects. Since I’ve already given a list of pseudo-responses that can come from the natural attitude, let’s go through each with a reference to the question of subjectivity.
Neglect. Subjectivity is neglected while we pay attention to the objects of study, treating psychological concepts in terms of third-person characteristics, and as targets of explanation, prediction, control, etc.
Denial. Attachment and attention to subjectivity is regarded as something to overcome, as lingering religious, cultural, philosophical baggage. For an example of this pseudo-response, see Skinner (1977), and after seeing Skinner’s explicit denial, it becomes easier to detect the same maneuver in more implicit cases.
Indifference. This might be verbally expressed, e.g., “Who cares about subjectivity? We are doing serious science here! Isn’t subjectivity for artists, or therapists, or philosophers, or… .” But the apathy doesn’t have to take such an overt form. It can show up as a relatively more innocent and unreflective inability to care, about which the person him- or herself might be puzzled.
Switch. Also known as bait-and-switch. “Yes, subjectivity is important! In fact, it has been important at least since ancient Greek philosophers! But those philosophers belonged to a radically different time, when the word “armchair” was not yet a dirty word. They didn’t have our advance knowledge of neuroscience and our sophisticated methods of measurement. Rather than asking what is subjectivity, we could conduct psychological experiments and investigate networks of brain cells!” In this way, the concern with subjectivity is switched with a concern about brain networks.
The concern related to subjectivity, as raised by Teo, is not merely a philosophical turn (or intervention) in Psychology. Philosophy is one of the six approaches Teo includes in describing the scope of psychological humanities. I will get to those six approaches in the near future. At this moment, I want to express what I see to be a more fundamental concern. What does it take to care about psychological humanities? What does it take to have the enabling concerns?
Can reading Teo’s article trigger interest in psychological humanities (in people who don’t already have such an interest)? Or is it more likely to draw sympathy in people who already have such concerns. If reading the article does raise sympathy, what is it exactly that happens in reading the article? My concern is part of my attempt to understand psychological humanities. Isn’t part of understanding a scholarly discipline understanding its motivation, its orientation, and its “desire” for continued movement. We understand philosophy, when we stop being indifferent to it, for instance, when we get lost in a Socratic aporia and find the desire to find our way.
Let me briefly share some relevant anecdotes. One of my mentors during my undergraduate studies received a CFI (Canada Foundation for Innovation) grant, which he then proceeded to spend on (among other things) a motion tracking device. This device included a large ball, which would create a magnetic field in the room, and sensors that research participants would wear, enabling the researchers to track limb positions and motions as people performed experimental tasks. What was surprising to me at the time was my professor’s response to having the device. Essentially, his response was: “Wow! We have this now. Let’s come up with a way to use it!” We had the technology and now we had to ask our research questions. I don’t think I have to use the cart-horse analogy here to emphasize an obvious point, although it is apparently difficult to withhold the analogy.
Later conversations I had with professors at various other universities brought up the same point. A professor applies for a grant to buy research equipment. They receive the grant, buy the equipment, and then realize they don’t have any research questions. One of my mentors at University of Toronto told me: “We now have EEG (Electroencephalography) equipment in my lab, but I don’t have any EEG questions. I just don’t think that way. I don’t think in terms of electrophysiological responses.”
The resolution, in these types of situations, is to have a doctoral student or a postdoctoral fellow bring in the new line of research that puts the new technology to use. For our present purpose, we should note that the doctoral student or postdoctoral fellow brings in the attitude necessary for the research, which entails the enabling concern with the research objectives.
Now, let me get to my main point, if the transition from doing research without a set of equipment (motion tracker, EEG, etc.) to doing research with the equipment requires some effort (so much so that in many cases it is solved by bringing in the researchers!), I think the transition from a purely natural-scientific attitude to an attitude that is responsive to psychological humanities would require even more effort. Keep in mind that beginning to conduct research with a new piece of technology isn’t just about learning new technique, it is about becoming concerned with, becoming able to care about, research questions that can be addressed with the new piece of technology. It’s about ceasing to be indifferent to a new type of questions and objectives.
Doing research with an EEG machine or a motion tracking machine requires education. Caring about research with those machines requires education. Similarly, caring about psychological humanities–to see the point in them–requires education. Something must happen with us to ask “What are the [psychological] humanities?” and something must happen with us not to dismiss the question.
With this preamble out of the way, let’s turn to Thomas Teo’s article. Feel free to read it before my next post. If you’re interested in coming along with me, with more seriousness and commitment, I would recommend that you check out: Sam Rocha’s (2015) Folk Phenomenology and Alva Noë’s (2015) Strange Tools. If you’re even more serious, you could substitute Noë’s Strange Tools with Hans-Georg Gadamer’s (1989/1960) Truth & Method.
Gadamer (1989). Truth and Method, 2nd ed. (Translated by J. Weinsheimer and D.G. Marshall). Bloomsbury. First German edition published in 1960.
Noë, A. (2015). Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature. Hill & Wang.
Rocha, S. D. (2015). Folk Phenomenology: Education, Study, and the Human Person. Wipf and Stock Publishers.
Skinner, B. F. (1977). Why I am not a cognitive psychologist. Behaviorism, 5(2), 1-10.
Teo, T. (2017). From psychological science to the psychological humanities: Building a general theory of subjectivity. Review of General Psychology, 21(4), 281-291.
Despite my general resistance against popular books of psychology, especially those that fall in the self-help genre, I decided to read the two books by Kishimi and Koga, beginning with the first, The Courage to Be Disliked. I reviewed the two books separately, and in each case, I began with what I liked about the book before moving into criticism.
To my surprise, I found The Courage to Be Dislike to be well-written and engaging. The book consists of a series of five dialogues between a young man and an old philosopher, who together examine the topic of the good life. The philosopher offers useful and counter-intuitive insights regarding trauma, emotions, and human relationships. He promotes psychological toughness, while remaining reasonable and sensitive to the young man’s counterarguments.
Unfortunately, the book fails to offer its insights as additional (and possible) ways of interpreting experience, and offers them as the only way to view experience. This is something that the careful reader can notice and overcome. Rather than reading “it is B, not A”, we could read between the lines: in addition to A, it could be B, depending on the situation at hand.
While I’d recommend The Courage to Be Disliked, especially to readers without much prior background in psychology, I couldn’t endorse the second book with the same degree of confidence.
In The Courage to be Happy, the character of the young man is created in a sloppy manner. He is designed to do too many things. Having become a mouthpiece for a wide range of concerns and viewpoints, the character has lost his coherence. He is no longer a character. Despite the fact that the two characters are fictional, there should be some realness and believability to them. The creation of fictional character is successful when we are not frequently reminded of the fact that they are fictional.
A more important source of dissatisfaction with the books, especially the second book, has to do with the way the authors handle the topic of self-reliance. They encourage us to cultivate the ability to rely on our own judgment, as opposed to relying on other people’s judgments. But they neither elaborate on why that is necessary nor on how it is practiced. Why should you choose your viewpoint over mine? If you and I aren’t essentially different from each other, if you’re a person, and I am a person, it seems arbitrary to choose any of the two and trust their opinion over the other.
To resolve this puzzle, the authors should have distinguished between the process or method of forming judgments, on one hand, and the judgments, on the other hand. It’s neither you nor I that should be the ultimate judge. Instead, we should both pursue the correct judgment (which entails pursuing the correct method of arriving at our judgments). By doing so, we can move beyond the arbitrary selection of one person’s opinion over the opinions of others. Being dogmatic is wrong, even if it is a dogmatic attachment to one’s own opinions. But could the authors accomplish this task and retain the relationship they had to (the authority of) Alfred Adler? I don’t think they could, which is why I don’t think the mishandling of the topic of self-reliance was an accident.
If you’re curious about the books, I’d suggest trying the first book, but I consider neither of the two a must-read for serious students of psychology. In both of my video reviews (toward the end of each video) I have included a list of suggested readings, in case you’re interested in exploring the topics of these books further.