Saturday, 9 June 2018

on symbolisation, take two

There are 2 theories of psychological symbolism and psychological symbolisation which interest me at the moment. One we owe primarily to Freud, the other primarily to Langer.

Freud's is a substitutive theory. It parallels our understanding of conventional (non-psychological) symbolism - in which one extant thing (the substitute) stands for some other extant thing (an intolerable wish or fear, for example) - except, in the substitutive psychological case, the relation (created by a 'mechanism' of displacement) is causally rather than intentionally constructed. (This makes it capable of being unconscious.) The intolerable wish/fear can now be avoided by a focus on the tolerable substitute which focus is invested with the affective charge proper to the intolerable wish/fear.

Langer's is a non-substitutive, expressive, theory. It offers 'symbolisation' as the name of the natural process of (let's-call-it) the animal soul whereby confounding experience is metabolised through its various expressions, or whereby the joyous exuberance of the individual bodies forth in spontaneous creativity. Symbolisation, that is, is the largely non-conscious expressive metabolism of such predicaments as we are sunk into, or of the ecstatic creation of new meaning in play and art. Without it the engine of the animal soul seizes up and we become flung along or frozen by life's vicissitudes. These expressions may include conventional expressions (e.g. linguistic representations that mention an intentional object of the now fully-fledged wish or fear) but may include non-conventional expressions. Yet any expressive shape may do the job: gestures, song lyrics, singing expressively without words, play scenarios, visual-artistic productions, rational emotionally-alive thoughts about the situation one is in, the imaginative self-talk of young children.

So an important difference between the two models is how much each relies on defences as the defining motors of symbolisation, and how much each relies on the idea of an extant representation being repressed and transformed. Substitutive theories rely on a notion of an already extant representation being worked over by a defence which leads, by psychologically real 'primary processes' which themselves may not be motivationally driven (i.e. they may just characterise 'the unconscious'), to the creation of a substitutive symbol. The symbol here really does take the place of something which already obtained, if only 'in the unconscious'. This 'taking the place of' is part of what characterises the particular meaning of 'symbol' at play here.

In the expressive theory we have instead emotional experience striving for whatever expressive form it may take. From the point of view of emotional experience, as it were, it doesn't really matter whether such expressive forms take on the shape of what can form the content of true statements about what is expressed. What matters is that life - the fluid movement (the 'externalisation' a la Hegel) of the animal soul - goes on. To think that it naturally takes the form of what can constitute the content of a judgement is to impose on it a model which really only fits one quite particular region of the soul.

There are various significant and obvious benefits, at times, of operating within this region - i.e. of finding an expressive outlet for a feeling which outlet also constitutes a truthful self-ascription of that very feeling. Yet there appear to be disbenefits as well when that mode takes over (think of those rather annoyingly poised 'well-analysed' people who only tend to express their feelings through well-controlled self-ascriptions), disbenefits such as creative deficits, lack of real playfulness, lack of inspiring passion - in short, disbenefits that seem to amount to a lack of full humanity since one part of the soul has here hijacked its other parts. It seems to me that the substitutive model also fosters that unhealthy 'hermeneutic of suspicion' that can underlie a certain kind of psychoanalytic vision: a vision which risks inexorably imposing a normative model of the 'actual intentional object' onto others' expressive projects which are seen now as inexorably defensively motivated. To be sure, we do well to take note of, and issue with, those who unfairly take out their feelings on others. Yet many a work of, say, visual art may express feelings toward objects which are not depicted on the canvas without their creation itself being motivated defensively.

One of the risks of using self-ascription and descriptive object reference ('I am angry - with her for hurting my friend') to articulate feeling is that it can quickly become affectless. We risk falling into 'intellectualisation', i.e. into situations in which - however much one's words may count as true descriptions of situations and relationships, and as true self-ascriptions of feelings towards those situations - one's self-ascriptive words no longer count as expressions because they do not express the feelings in question. (Here I follow Finkelstein who describes unconscious states as those which cannot themselves be expressed by means of true self-ascriptions.) Situations in which, I'd say, the words no longer convey an understanding or show a knowledge of the described situations, since true understanding and knowledge do not reside merely in words but rather propagate right through, and take their shape within, the lived body's reactive dispositions - reactive dispositions which here are lacking. (A pseudo-mature person 'knows' that one ought to save drowning men (knows to say 'one ought to save a drowning man' and to draw apt inferences about such situations) but yet on encountering one walks on by: such a person does not, I think we should want to say, really enjoy moral understanding or embody moral knowledge.) Situations of quiet affect yet truthful judgement which are mistaken for genuinely coming to terms with one's predicaments.

So we (these unreflective selves who are us) often do better to express our feelings in a variety of creative and, relative to truthful self-ascription, oblique ways. This keeps us inwardly alive and prevents us from falling into a cul-de-sac of affectless (non-expressive) true self-ascriptions. Our unconsciousness (or at least: our not here expressing our feelings through self-ascriptions) is now not a problem. All that really matters is that we express ourselves creatively and don't take our feelings out on undeserving others. Relatedly we will do well, too, to not allow our rites and rituals to become too instrumentally intelligible, for this will corrode their true function for us. Our gods, too, ought not to become the objects of intelligible predications, for they surely die once that happens (caught in the Enlightenment's spotlight, for example). And whilst we need our theologians to be self-conscious of when they're issuing intelligible pronouncements and when they're talking nonsense, it would be devastating for the meaning of our faiths if they tried to substitute the former for the latter.

Sunday, 3 June 2018


What's a psychological symbol? What is psychological symbolisation?

Freud provides an answer which makes ready use of entitative and correlative epistemic metaphors: we have an emotionally disturbing wish, but it's too unbearable, so an inner censor doesn't allow it's representational content to rise to inner consciousness, so we don't know we have the wish in question. It resides in the unconscious, but by a primary process mechanism called 'displacement' the emotionally alive wish is transferred onto a substitute object. This substitute is what we call the 'symbol'. The desires are enacted freely with regards the symbolic substitute. The substitutive gratification quells the wish for a time. The substitute action or object may be a symptom e.g. an obsession and compulsion, it may amount to a sublimation, it may be a dream image, a pet dog who is a stand-in for a non-existant lover, etc. Petocz tells this story well.

The cogency of Freud's answer depends upon whether the story still seems to us to have legs once we've cashed out the spatial and epistemic metaphors, once we remind ourselves that our relationship with our conscious feelings isn't perceptual, introspective, or awareness-invoking, once we remind ourselves that the 'censor' is just a theorist's metaphorical concoction, once we question the coherence of form-content dualism when it comes to emotion and desire (the energy and the representational content of an emotion), once we remind ourselves that emotions aren't, in any normal senses of the words, sensibly to be counted as entities or processes. My own opinion is that it's rather a mythology, and that it fails to provide enough by way of criteria of identity for the unconscious wish for us to credit it with cogency. In short, the criteria would seem to reduce either to the fact of the symbol itself (which thereby collapses the explanatory power of the theory), or reduce to what the symboliser later acknowledges (Wittgenstein suggests something like this. However when is it that we take someone to be in a position to own their previously unconscious wishes? We can hardly say 'when the repression is lifted' or 'when they become conscious' and expect to be taken seriously - for that goes round in a circle), or to be whatever is wished when the symbol fades away (but many things may be wished at this time...)).

So what's the alternative? Well, the existential phenomenologists have already given us a different conception of the unconscious, and effectively, too, of the motor of (a process worth calling) symbolisation. The unconscious for the phenomenologist is not what we don't inwardly apprehend, since apprehension isn't relevant here, but is instead what we're too close to to bring into focus. The unconscious is so close to us that it's our very flesh. When we do come to have feelings about our predicaments, we've managed to extricate ourself enough from our predicaments to bring them into our purview. We are now not simply sunk into them, not simply of a piece with them, fused with them. We may here make use of Bollas' 'unthought known': we 'know' our predicament in the sense of 'are of a piece with it', but we can't 'think' it - can't bring it into view because instead we share flesh with it. The unconscious is part of the seeing eye, not something we're blind to. Something we are primally seduced into (Laplanche). The presence of imaginative a prioris (Lear). Tacit enframing assumptions we take in unquestioned, unnoticed, with mother's milk which yet go against the bent of our flourishing.

Take a child's unconsciousness of the miserable emotions which saturate the atmosphere in his family. He inhabits this atmosphere, it is part of the 'from where' of his experience, it is the uninterrogated invisible background against which various thoughts are formed. A pervasive mood which runs right through him. It runs through him like the customs and habits of his culture which he has absorbed - customs and habits which he knows not that he has. It's part of his manner of interacting, and not something itself interacted with.

On such a conception, making the unconscious conscious can involve something like turning a mood into one or more feelings. This process involves a disidentification from the embedding mood, an Hegelian 'externalising' of what was previously part of the flesh of the self, so that now there arises a comprehending relation (rather than identification) between (the now separate) self and object, which intentional relation is what we call an emotional experience. The growth of the self, the achievement of self-possession rather than remaining possessed by the habitual dynamics, is a matter of the ongoing disidentification from such atmospheres as one is sunk into, a condensing out of that inhabited atmosphere into liquid or solid particulates which can now be apprehended rather than unwittingly inhaled. The very act is freeing, and it makes the as-yet unthought known thinkable.

Now a striking thing about this disidentificatory, self-possession-creating, process is that it runs along by itself, naturally, autochthonously, and is found in dreams and spontaneous imaginative creations of other sorts. The young child plays with her dolls and dinosaurs and spontaneously acts out a scene as to what is going on in the family. She doesn't know she's doing this. But what she's doing is starting to make thought and feeling about her family situation possible. She's unwittingly preparing the grounds. In this process of birthing meaning through disidentification/externalisation, an aspect of the ground of the self's 'form' morphs into the figure of one of the self's 'content' (it's now-possible intentional relations with its objects), and this now enables predicaments to be grappled with rather than leaving them as invisible contexts against which anything must show up.

Why is it that dreaming and playing and free associating tend to make disidentificatory predicamental thought possible through coming up with contents other than those which could be developed for the primary predicaments? (I'm looking, recall, for an answer that doesn't involve knowing and repressing knowing, doesn't take an epistemic attitude to the unconscious, doesn't see it as contingently hidden extant figure but instead sees it as necessarily blind enframing, doesn't invoke putative mechanisms like displacement but instead sees that as a useful theorists' fiction.)  In other words, if the successful disidentification involves the externalising of some aspect of (in our example) the family's latent enframing predicament so that it can now be thought about, why is this not always the dreaming mind's first choice of figure? Why do we have 'substitute' figures (substitutes for the as-yet mere res potentia (rather than hidden res actualis, as the traditional epistemic conception of the unconscious would have it)) rather than the real deal?

The first thing to note is that whilst externalisation is, at least in a reasonably healthy individual, somewhat inexorable, it is yet blind. It doesn't know where it is going. It is not teleological. (How could it be, on pain of Sartrean contradiction?) This freeing up of the ground so that it may transmute and dehisce in various ways, this free play by the animal soul with its own structure, obtains at a diffuse affective association-drifting level, so perhaps any old thematically congruent content will do. The mind, here, is, remember, dreaming. Second, it is sometimes, perhaps most often, the case that the unconscious becomes conscious in a more straightforward way. One dehisces rather precisely from the actual predicament and thoughts and feelings thereby becomes possible about that very predicament. It is only when we start talking about symbolism that we ask the question as to why the original content is not directly thematised. Third, I suggest it is simply easier for the animal soul to develop the requisite dehiscence when not dealing directly with our actual predicaments. And this simply because we are more entrenched in our actual predicaments than with their thematic cousins.

Might we say that the little girl blithely intently passionately unknowingly acting out her family drama with her dolls is substituting the dolls for what she unconsciously knows is the real object? Might we say that she does have an unconscious feeling toward her mother and father which is being expressed here? Well, what I'm suggesting is that a) we don't have to say that, and b) that if we do we mustn't confuse res potentia for realia. For, remember, it is only on the basis that such an unconscious feeling would in this situation be a valid feeling to have consciously, and on the basis of the thematic content of the play, and perhaps retrospectively on the basis of her later conscious feeling, that we ascribe the unconscious affect in question. Unless I'm missing some other criterion (please tell me if you think of it!). But yes, by all means, call being in just that configuration 'having an unconscious emotion' if you like. (Just remember, if you want to say you are doing so as an inference to the best explanation, to please not forget to give criteria for the identity of the unconscious emotion in question.)

So: the externalisation develops, the self now becoming progressively separated from its predicaments, which predicaments are now affectively thinkable. We observers, theorists, or post-fact symbolisers may say: ah, this relationship with this dream figure symbolises this actual relationship with this actual person. We can if we wish avoid turning these res potentia into realia - the unconscious thought or feeling was just a potential thought or feeling, one that, one could say, needed to develop if freedom and coping are to be maintained or achieved. And the dream symbol for it was but a way-station. We may take it as a representative of that affective thought which would, we believe, be the apt thematisation of the predicamental situation.

Now what about the idea that symbols may be the kinds of substitutes which prevent the 'true' feeling from becoming conscious? So that one is instead satisfied with compulsively acting on the obsession; petting the pooch; remaining in the psychotic delusion. Isn't this the import of the Freudian thought that the affective energy is detached from the representation and redirected onto the symbolic substitute? Well, how can we tell that the symbolic act is here preventing reality from being emotionally contacted? Imagine: perhaps if the symbol were not found the person would become catatonic or depressed. Nothing in the story suggests that the person who has a dream which organises those feelings as are not yet more finely directed at what, post-disidentification, will become acknowledged as their real predicament, need yet have the requisite ego capacity for the latter emotional achievement. But consider too that often enough the true emotional realisation is not troubling. The new reality might take some getting used to. But, in my experience at least, the main accessory feeling - aside from the emotional understanding in question, that is - which arises on the condensing out of the atmosphere is relief. And yet the fact of the reality of the feeling of relief doesn't put into question the status as symbolic of the dream or play images.

Let's try an example. So, in March of this year I dreamed that I found myself, after selling a house, staying for two years in an expensive hotel until the next house came on the market. In the dream I was shocked at how I hadn't thought about the expense of the hotel stay and the effect of this on my future house-buying plans. When I awoke I asked myself what this was about. Now, in reality, at the beginning of the year I started a two year sabbatical from my clinical work to focus on writing rather than earning. I started out the year mindful of my spending habits, living as simply as I could on my savings. Yet by March I'd started to drift unreflectively into spending in the way I did when earning. I wasn't really aware of this, although my mood was not straightforward - I felt somehow blocked. What I needed to do was to become anxious about my predicament, to take it in hand, and develop a clear spending plan. Yet at that moment I was unaware of this discrepancy - I was simply sunk into my habits without any liberating self-consciousness. Here we can say that the two years between houses symbolises the two years off work, and the hotel bills symbolised my shopping bills. The dream was a gift 'from my unconscious' as we might say: through thinking on it I could see what what my predicament was and what I needed to do to get a handle on it. The mood, the diffuse anxiety, lifted - a specific object emerges takes shape and can now be handled clearly.

A simple traditional Freudian account would be: I had actual worries about my spending, I didn't want to have these so I repressed them in the service of the palliative pleasures of spending, the feelings were then displaced onto an imagined predicament about hotel bills, I developed a low mood as a result of the repression. The revised reading I'm offering is: I'd become (yes, conveniently) mindless about my situation and so was left needing to develop some decent thoughts and feelings about it. The dream works towards dehiscence of self and predicament through developing the requisite feelings. The ball-park feelings are directed toward whatever imagined objects comes to mind (think of how often the dreaming mind reuses the same imagery - the school exam one suddenly finds oneself sitting aged 44, etc.). When asleep we don't have the distractions of the day, the teloi which keep us busy, to divert our attention. Dreaming occurs as a natural process - it's the unconscious mind finding (or at least seeking) its own level again, i.e. 'aiming' for maximal coherence amongst its projects (amongst its ego ideals, its extant interests, its knowledge and desires).

That royal road to the unconscious which is dream interpretation is one which is already begun by the dream itself. But the destination - it itself is work in progress.

Sunday, 27 May 2018

delusional reason

Psychologists tell us that Jaspers was wrong about 'primary' or 'true' delusions being a different kind of creature than 'delusion-like ideas'. Much of the psychological literature - one of the considerably more interesting examples of which is Peter Chadwick's Borderline - characterises the alleged unintelligibility of the primary delusion in terms of its rapid arrival: the idea of 'primary' delusion is, they suggest, to be understood in terms of its not being the product of efforts at reasoning or understanding. Yet, they continue, it's na├»ve to imagine that what the psychiatrist might experience as her patient's suddenly-arrived-at delusions really do arrive so autochthonously in her patient's mind. Might not the mark of true delusion rather be a marker of a psychiatric failure of inquisitiveness? Might not this patient in fact be arriving at his apparently out-of-the-blue delusion through normal processes of sense-making which are as yet undisclosed to his psychiatrist? In short and by way of upshot, the psychologist invites us to forget all about the idea of a distinction between primary delusion and delusion-like idea. Which is, as-it-were, all rather convenient for her project of using psychological enquiry to try to achieve what those old-school psychiatrists told us was impossible - namely a genuine understanding of what is nevertheless as worthy of the designation of 'delusion' as anything else.

I'm not here concerned to resurrect the concept of primary delusion, but am instead concerned to tease apart matters epistemological and psychological which matters often get run together in the psychological literature and which in the process make for the appearance of psychology rescuing the patient in her intelligibility from the inattention of psychiatry. In the last paragraph, for example, I talked blithely of 'normal processes of sense-making' as if we all already knew perfectly well what is meant by talking in that way - as if it were straightforward to assume that 'reasoning' and 'inference-making' and 'understanding', for example, are helpfully understood as names of mental processes. As if we can know whether or not understanding is to be met with, for example, by considering whether a certain information-transmuting temporally-extended mental event or sequence of such events is here going on. The slip from talk of understanding as personal ability or capacity or epistemic achievement to talk of understanding as mental process may look innocuous, but what I'm developing here is the idea that it obscures the fundamental matter at stake for Jaspers, in treating of delusion, which is whether or not we, anyone, can really find his comprehending, empathic, sense-grasping feet with the psychotic subject when he is in his delusion, or whether delusion as such repels comprehension.

Let's first remind ourselves that, despite the calumnies of contemporary psychologists, Jaspers is happy to concede that there are senses of 'understand' - perhaps those closer to 'explain' for those who like to keep their understanding and their explanation in separate conceptual categories - which are appropriately deployed in talk of a true understanding of true delusion. We may for example understand the causal genesis of a delusion in terms of the motivational work it does for the delusional subject. We may understand perfectly well why someone could be motivated - in terms of not simply boosting their morale or self-esteem, but in terms of making life bearable at all - to maintain that they are the Archduke Ferdinand. And drawing on psychodynamic forms of explanation we may turn this question of motive into an answer not about intention but about causation: the delusion was formed and sustained because of the way it makes life more bearable. This can be true not only of grandiose but also of paranoid delusions: it's more bearable to believe that the Vatican has it in for you because of their hatred of what you think they allege are your sexual desires than it is to experience the dissolution of your mind under the aegis of an as-yet-un-split-off,-as-yet-un-projected ego-destructive superego and as-yet-un-integrated sexual desires. Jaspers was no big fan of psychoanalysis, but even he was happy to go along with such causal-motivational understandings of various bona fide delusions. (Jaspers: ... ‘understandable connections do [indeed] play a part … in psychoses so far as content is concerned’. .... We ‘may well understand from the context how a delusional belief liberates an individual from something unbearable, seems to deliver him from reality and lends a peculiar satisfaction which may well be the ground [would motive be a better translation?] for why it is so tenaciously held.’)

The sense of 'understand' we are after, however, has as I said not to do with psychology but with epistemology. We may understand why someone is motivated to believe that they are the Archduke Ferdinand, yet still not at all be able to take being Archduke Ferdinand as an intelligible, thinkable, thought. How can someone who knows where he was born and who is parents are and what year it is and so on yet believe that? Isn't that the kind of thing you'd 'have to be mad to believe?' Laing asks somewhere who is the madder person: the girl who thinks that there's a nuclear bomb inside her stomach, or a prime minister who's got his finger on the nuclear button? The answer, I think, is the former: the sense in which Hiroshima was unthinkable is rather different from the sense in which taking something large to be fitted inside something small is unthinkable.

Let's even concede that when a sane and grounded person is arriving at her beliefs and when a delusional person is arriving at her delusions they may both have something like the same processes going on inside their heads. They both have one thought after another, all the thoughts associatively give rise to further thoughts, and so on. Let's imagine, what is surely often-enough true, that the delusional person is even more busy than normal trying to 'make sense of' what's going on, and that if you asked him carefully he might offer his delusions as explanations for certain rather strange experiences he has. What none of this shows, though, is that he really does make sense of the strange experiences, rather than arriving at those illusions of sense we call 'delusions'. For... if one's feet aren't on the ground then it doesn't matter what goes on in your head: crank the normal associative mechanisms as hard and rigorously as you like, and you still won't get a sane output. Sure, delusional thinking may often be a valiant attempt to make sense of crazy experiences. Sure, the inferences involved in the delusional thought may be no less logical than the motley that make up the reasoning of the sane subject. Still, if you start from there then, try as hard as you might, you'll never get to somewhere called 'reason'.

Pierre-Simon Laplace
Let us imagine that the delusional person has largely intact inferential abilities, that he is biased in his thinking in similar self-serving ways that non-delusional people are, that delusions are the result of trying to fathom strange experiences, etc. None of this makes delusions into cogent explanations of experiences. They remain, rather, mad explanations of mad experiences. Their madness does not consist, however, in something that is awry with the psychological performance of the delusional subject. (Why would we ever have imagined that it did? Did we really think that psychology, of all disciplines, would tell us what it is to be in touch with reality?) The madness of the delusional subject does not consist in his deploying different reasoning standards; as Lisa Bortolotti has argued, his 'procedural, epistemic and agential' rationality may be as intact as the next person's. The difference is that the next person has the good fortune of being in touch with reality - has by grace of nature been left with her feet on the ground so she can set her reasoning off on the right foot.

In his 1812 Philosophical Essay on Probabilities Laplace offered that “the more extraordinary the event, the greater the need of its being supported by strong proofs”. What in one context may count as a reasonable degree of evidence provision or a reasonable degree of care in reasoning will not count as such in another context. It's not the maxim - which perhaps doesn't apply here - but rather the moral - that reasonableness is not guaranteed by mere quotient of reasoning - to which I'm here drawing attention.

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

imaginary friends

It's easy to knock the imaginary friend (IF). The knocking takes its lead from the idea of the value of the IF as providing but a wish-fulfilling substitutive pseudo-satisfaction. This IF fills a gap but through desire's self-deceiving palliation rather than through desire's genuine satisfaction. It takes us further away from reality; it entrenches a self-deception. This IF doesn't help us accommodate, doesn't help us face the world in an honest way, doesn't help us tackle our loneliness, but encourages a drifting away into the pallid shades of faery.

What that critique of the IF misses is a deeper understanding of loneliness as existential state. What if what we are really at risk of is not the pain of missing actual others, or the painful longing for friendship one doesn't have, but a loss in one's sense of self as lovable, an unwitting voiding of that inner echo chamber where the You and the I may hear one another, where both meeting and missing take place? An unexperienced loss of warmth, of sense of inner warmth and inner value, an unwittingly traversed loveless wasteland?

On this more fundamental understanding, the function of the IF isn't to conjure an imaginary companion for such wanderings in the void. It's rather to keep alive the axis of relatedness in our inner life, an axis which provides warmth to our heart and opens us to meaning and value in our relations. Such an IF, far from being a salve for everyday loneliness, may even function as its condition of possibility. What I mean is that without that axis being energised by the relationality cultivated by the IF, perhaps we might lose relationality altogether, and thereby lose the possibility of enjoying or missing the company of others.

Might God - the God of love, that is - be the supreme IF? And, if so, might He fulfil a function really quite other than any mere wish-fulfilment? Might praying to Him keep us alive to relatedness at times when otherwise we may drift off into depression's drifting void? Perhaps such prayer not only staves melancholy or apathy but also, through keeping us alive to what is met with in relatedness - through disclosing the other to us in her otherness under the aspect of love - keep us on the moral ball. Keep in check our centripetal disposition to self-centredness; keep alive our centrifugal disposition to caring connection.


Theological afterword: I'd be disappointed to be read as implying that God is an imaginary as opposed to a real Being! Whilst I know what it is to distinguish between a real childhood friend and an imaginary childhood friend, I don't think I know what it is to distinguish between (to pick a common understanding of God) a Ground of Being which is Love that is real and one that is imaginary. Do many of our concepts of 'God' really make room for an imaginary/real contrast - any more than, say, those of 'space' or 'time' do? We may ask whether a certain space is real or imagined, but space itself? (It's not as if the concepts of 'space' or 'God' do their work by 'referring to' or by 'picking out' something.) What notions of 'real' and of 'God' are we working with if we ask whether or not God is but an imaginary being or instead has a real existence? (They don't seem to be the ones met with in religious texts. So why use them?)

Monday, 19 March 2018

changing to stay the same

There's a strange passage in Wittgenstein's Zettel:
37. (At the beginning of a piece of music it says crotchet = 88, written there by the composer. But in order to play it right nowadays it must be played crotchet = 94: which is the tempo intended by the composer?)
I find it hard to know quite what Wittgenstein here had in mind. But perhaps (to recall some suggestions from members of my reading group) it no longer sounds right at that speed on modern instruments. Or perhaps the cultural times have changed - 'speeded up' as we might put it - in such a way that the emotional experience of this music played at 88 just would now feel lugubrious when before it wouldn't have. (The remark is, incidentally, in parentheses.) I suspect that the important work the remark does it to open up the question, to get us thinking about what doing justice over time to an original meaning consists in.

There are easier examples. Currency inflation makes for a rather obvious case: in order for a house to remain the same value it must increase in price. Or, to take a simpler musical example: if you change the key of a piece of music, to now sing the right note at the start of the fourth bar you must sing not what was originally written, a C sharp, but a D sharp. Yet such examples may be rather too easy in that with them we can appeal to a singular criterion to justify our choice of revision, and I suspect all the interesting cases are ones in which that won't be available. 

There's a kind of cultural illness we often meet with which pretends to be a friend of conservativism - conservativism in the sense of: valuing the preservation of what is of deep value in our cultural and environmental legacy - yet which betrays itself by insisting that in order to remain the same you just gotta remain the same. The idiocy of this position shows itself in how it never stops to ask what it is to remain the same when so much around is changing. The result is a fetishising rather than a preservation of the past. The past no longer lives in this tradition, but instead merely serves the function of quelling current obsessional anxieties. ('We'll be ok so long as we keep on doing just what they used to do.') When the world has changed key we find this faux conservative coming in with the C sharp, a C sharp which now but clangs.

The effects are striking when we turn to religion. Orthodox practitioners are perhaps the most often guilty of practices which corrupt the original meaning of belief and ritual by keeping it 'the same' despite the new context. The Word now risks being reduced to an idol. The faux conservative wants to substitute the grasp we have of the meaning of scripture which comes from something like the application of a criterion for the grasp we enjoy which comes from our living faith. In non-scientific ages it was natural for faith to be expressed in ways which to us now seem almost incomprehensible (e.g. that we always have an angel standing over us; I don't deny the fact but ask what today, given our best understandings of how the world works, it could even mean to assert this). When the range of conceptual distinctions available to us was not so great - for example, in times before reflective thought was even alive to the conceptual/empirical distinction - it made sense to simply proclaim all sorts of beliefs which now, said like that, are surely just incredible.

Which is the tempo intended by the composer? What would the Christ or Prophet have us do today? What is it now for that spirit to live? In answering this you can't read the scripture the way one reads an instruction manual. For the scripture might say 'play it at 88 Joe' whilst today, to really hear The Word, you gotta play it at 94. And how do you know that 94 is the right tempo? Through prayer; through listening to your heart; through talking it over with others; through weeding out the egoism of fetishistic idolatry within oneself; through imagination. What, you wanted it easy? What, you'd forgotten that the whole point was to encounter not the world but the living spirit? You really thought that to be informed by The Word you could just comprehend the words? Really?