In the winter semester of 2009, I took Philosophy of Mind, an undergraduate course, with the late Prof. Bernard Hodgson (1946-2009) at Trent University. Prof. Hodgson sadly passed away very soon after delivering the final lecture for the course. He was a very pleasant and engaging speaker and after his general outline of the course, which he gave during the first lecture, I was sure I was going to stay in the class until the end. What was remarkable, and why I am now driven to remember that class, was that we never really got passed that first lecture. Every lecture that followed resembled that very first one, which is to say the course was stuck in one place, over one major issue, and we could not get passed it.
When someone is at rest in one place, we don’t call it stuck. If I am motionless and want to be motionless, I don’t think of myself as stuck. Being stuck comes from wanting to move, or knowing that one is supposed to be moving, or trying to move, but remaining in one place. In that Philosophy of Mind course, we couldn’t get passed the divide between reductionistic and non-reductionistic approaches to studying the mind. Every time the professor introduced a concept, like intentionality, or qualia, or emergent properties, or subjectivity, or … we could not get very far. A gravitational force seemed to keep pulling us back to (neuro-)reductionism and its clash with those concepts.
Could we identify a general pattern according to which unpopular positions get stuck in their clash with conventions? Imagine someone joining a party and disliking the music. They voice out their dislike of the music… to no effect! They voice out their dislike again, and again, and again… after a while, they might reflect that they have been repeating the same act for longer than they had planned. “I don’t like the music!” Stuck in repeat. Stuck in an opposition. Unable to move past one preliminary disagreement. You are more than your dislike of the music, even though your role in that social gathering was primarily centered around that fact.
We didn’t get make much progress in that course. I remember Prof. Hodgson telling us about his son, who was at the time quite enamored by neuro-philosophy (Represented by Paul and Patricia Churchland). Much of his discontent might have been rooted in the irresolvable family disagreements at the dinner table. “Let’s talk about qualia…”, I imagine this thought quickly interrupted by another: “But people disagree… My son disagrees. They don’t want to hear about qualia, intentionality, or subjectivity.”
Let’s cut and fast-forward to 2016 in Leiden, where it was slowly dawning on me that I was stuck. My being stuck followed a similar pattern. Once a week we had a guest speaker either from our own unit or from other universities. And once a week I would leave one of those talks feeling frustrated, alone, and stuck. With a few exceptions, my disagreement with the speakers was so fundamental, and so early in the talk, that I couldn’t really count myself as being in the audience. I remember looking around and looking desperately for another uneasy face in the lecture room! For a skeptical look, a raised eyebrow, a question being suppressed effortfully.
How could they feel so at ease? How could they be so comfortable with all these claims? All these decisions?
Being stuck, I am tempted to say, is rooted in a mistake about what is possible. It is, moreover, rooted in an unwillingness to be more responsive to what is actually going on. I do not want to dismiss radical acts, revolutionary acts, though we ought to recognize that being radical and revolutionary isn’t achieved by being stuck.
When I was in Leiden, I intuitively arrived at this conclusion. I didn’t want to be the one who kept saying, “I don’t like the music.” I became quiet and I eventually “left the party”. I failed to do anything radical or revolutionary, but I became sufficiently unstuck to write a couple of counter-conventional articles and eventually my book (Experimental Psychology and Human Agency). Not-being-stuck needs continual work. It requires continual questioning: Am I in the right discourse? Am I paying attention to what is going on around me?
Being stuck comes from wanting to join a conversation with which you fundamentally disagree. The individual who is stuck doesn’t want to joke around (though s/he perhaps should), make fun of the conversation, or dismiss it. S/he wants to be a serious participant and wishes the conversation to go in a fundamentally different direction. Being stuck is rooted in a mistake about what is generally possible. If I don’t like the music and cannot persuade others to try what I like, it might be better to either leave or learn to appreciate the music that is playing.
I really think that not being stuck requires continuously asking: Am I in the right discourse? Am I paying attention to what is going on around me? Do I understand what is going on? And how can I best respond?
Let’s go back to Prof. Hodgson’s class and ask him to either move into neuro-philosophy (rigorously and critically), with attention to details, or leave them aside for a while and teach us about Brentano and Merleau-Ponty. Likewise, if I don’t like to read the most recent papers on the neuroscience of judgment and decision making, the most cutting-edge research on how people evaluate truth in statements, I could leave that aside from a while and go study Anselm’s dialogue On Truth.
You are more than your dislike of the “music”, even if your role in a particular social gathering suggests otherwise.