Posts Tagged ‘attention’

The sufficient moment

May 17, 2013

In 1870 a young and previously-irresolute William James confided to his diary,

“I think that yesterday was a crisis in my life. I finished the first part of Renouvier’s second Essais and see no reason why his definition of free will — ‘the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts’ — need be the definition of an illusion. At any rate, I will assume for the present — until next year — that it is no illusion. My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.”

Within the decade, the vacillating, self-doubting, despairing young man had given way to the confident philosopher who would vigorously defend “the sentiment of rationality,” a diverting phrase that was really his own masked synonym for happiness.

When enjoying plenary freedom either in the way of motion or of thought, we are in a sort of anaesthetic state in which we might say with Walt Whitman, if we cared to say anything about ourselves at such times, “I am sufficient as I am.” This feeling of the sufficiency of the present moment, of its absoluteness,–this absence of all need to explain it, account for it, or justify it,–is what I call the Sentiment of Rationality.

Just as I am, sufficient unto the moment: it’s a condition and a state of mind an honest and ambitious person can’t reasonably hope to sustain indefinitely, but James learned and taught that it can be recaptured frequently and regularly throughout a lifetime. Different strategies serve different people. One of mine, like James, is to walk.

Free attention

May 16, 2013

The Philosopher’s Walk in Kyoto, Japan commemorates the Japanese Jamesian Kitaro Nishida.

File:Path of philosophy.jpg

And so does San Francisco’s Philosopher’s Way, in McLaren Park.

A virtual walk engages the imagination but not the senses, and not that vital sense of the ever-fleeting “nick of time” that Thoreau toed. So, it’s no substitute for the real thing. But this is still terrific. I’m going to SF, as soon as I can. It’s been too many years since my last Giants game anyway.

Meanwhile, I’m adding Nishida and his philosophy of attention to my stable of pedestrian philosophers. His “musing” plaque in the park, if you missed it:

Thinking has its own laws. It functions of its own accord and does not follow our will. To merge with the act of thought – that is, to direct one’s attention to it – is voluntary, but I think perception is the same in this respect: we are able to see what we want to see by freely turning our attention towards it.

Increasingly I am persuaded that controlled attention may be as close to the secret of life as we’ll ever come.

“How Proust can change your life”

December 21, 2012

That was Alain de Botton’s breakout book, back in ’97, followed by the British docudrama with Ralph Fiennes I enjoyed last night.

(Happy Mayapocalyse, btw. We’re fortunate indeed, to have lives to change.)

So, how can he change my life? By reminding me to do what William James and others had already encouraged: pay attention, day in and day out, to the personal perceptual details of life.

Great advice, especially if we then turn our attention to acting in healthy ways that reflect what we’ve attended to. Great, if we’re then encouraged to write À la Recherche Du Temps Perdu. Greater still, if it propels us to act in ways that address not only our own perceptions and compulsions but also the interest and well-being of our fellow humans.

If I decide to spend more time with Monsieur Proust, these will be my working questions: was he ultimately concerned to turn his attention to humanity and its destiny, to what life might make of itself in the great unfolding of time still to come? Or was he mainly preoccupied with time past and lost? Is he an enduring voice and a reliable guide in the salutary search to transcend narrow egoism? Or was he just another self-indulgent parlor aesthete, albeit the one who wrote those magnificent books?

Whatever the answer, I’m pleased with the way the story ended last night, Proust declaring that books and words will carry us only so far. “Reading is at the threshold of the spiritual life; it can introduce us to it. It does not constitute it.” Don’t throw away your books, but also don’t join them on the shelf.

Another of his lines I like, although I still prefer *Goober’s way of putting it:

One cannot change, become a different person, while continuing to acquiesce to the feeling of the person one has ceased to be. [*”If a man’s hisself, how can he change?”]

But the out-of-context, probably out-of-character (for MP) quote I like the most is:

May you always see a blue sky overhead, my young friend; and then, even when the time comes, as it has come for me now, when the woods are black, when night is fast falling, you will be able to console yourself, as I do, by looking up at the sky.

I suppose he meant a figurative blue sky, since you can’t see much of the real sky from a cork-lined sarcophagus. I prefer the sky that lights our walks, myself.

Good and Evil

April 10, 2012

“There may be nothing more important than human cooperation.” So begins Sam Harris’s second chapter in Moral LandscapeEthics is all about devising the rules, habits, and practices that will optimize cooperation built on

kindness, reciprocity, trust, openness to argument, respect for evidence, intuitions of fairness, impulse control, the mitigation of aggression…

But does that mean science can really determine our values? It’s going to be important to clarify not only what he means by science, but what he means by “determine” too. Probably nothing so rigid as his critics will suppose. He’s just looking for guidelines and broad parameters at the terrain’s edge. He seems committed to pluralism.

Our genes may be “selfish” but our societies need to be collaborative  and our instincts need to be trained for altruism and fellow-feeling. David Hume knew that, sharing a strange finger fetish with his pal Adam Smith. Hume, I never tire of telling my Intro students, said it “would not be against reason to prefer the destruction of half the world to the pricking of [my] little finger.”

Smith echoed the thought, imagining a “man of humanity” in Europe who’d lose sleep over his finger but not over the poor victims of an earthquake in China. But sleep aside, he presumably wouldn’t choose to sacrifice them for his own comfort. “But what makes this difference?” Empathy, sentiment, mutual care and concern, the suppression of selfishness. And reason? Yes, but not “pure” or narrow reason. The sentiments can be educated, emotions can be intelligent and self-correcting.

Is Sam speaking ironically when he invokes “an angel of beneficence” to account for the desire most of us feel for justice, fairness, and progress? No, he’s just being literary and Lincolnesque.

The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature. 1st inaugural, March 1861

He’s also declaring his moral realism and consequentialism. “Without potential consequences at the level of experience- happiness, suffering, joy, despair- all talk of value is empty.” Our “oughts” reflect of the facts of life, and the “maximizing of well-being in this world.” But the facts aren’t all in, and they’re not all self-evident.  The conversation must continue.

Our assessment of consequences in the moral domain must proceed as it does in all others: under the shadow of uncertainty, guided by theory, data, and honest conversation. The fact that it may often be difficult, or even impossible to know what the consequences of our thoughts and actions will be does not mean that there is some other basis for human values that is worth worrying about.

Jonathan Haidt, whose recent and compelling TED Talk does not quite persuade that liberals and conservatives are correspondingly blind to one another’s legitimate commitments, thinks we make moral decisions on the basis of relatively un-reasoned emotion which we rationalize after the fact. [His 2008 TED Talk on “moral roots” advanced the same thesis.]

Our differences in politics and religion, Haidt argues, tend to reflect temperamental biases and habitual preferences more than any deep truths about the world. It’s not that one side is right and the other wrong, but that liberals fixated on fairness and justice are incapable of acknowledging conservatives’ loyalty and respect for authority (and vice versa). Each side possesses its own slice of rectitude, but neither can see the other.

But Sam finds this all too relativistic. “Many people are simply wrong about morality,” social conservatives are often hypocritical (“louche”), and many probably suffer damaged medial prefrontal cortexes that prevent their knowing how “to behave appropriately toward others.”

They probably don’t know how to resolve the trolley problem either. [YouTPhilosophyExperiments]

And then there are the psychopaths. I had to shower after reading about them on p. 96. Sam apparently has immersed himself in this literature and assures us it’s a lot worse. I’m taking his word for it.

The chapter concludes with a chunk on free will, which Sam considers (as a good neuroscientist should, apparently) an illusion. “Science has a problem with free will,” Richard Dawkins’ Oxford successor explains.

So we’re all just damned lucky not to have drawn the psychopath cards (genes, memes).  (But I think Sam made a free choice to spin this section out into a more lucrative ebook.)

It means nothing to say that a person would have done otherwise had he chosen to do otherwise, because a person’s “choices” merely appear in his mental stream as though sprung from the void… you are not more responsible for the next thing you think (and therefore do) than you are for the fact that you were born into this world.

Some of us may find this view comforting, terrifying, or even irrelevant. I’d just like Sam to address the two uneasily-yoked Jamesian views: one, that our bodies often (always?) do in fact get out in front of our conscious wills and precede them into action; and two, that we nonetheless retain a capacity for directed attention that secures the frame of mind we’re free to think of as our free wills. Sam speaks of attention at chapter’s end, but not quite in James’s sense.

Our sense of our own freedom results from our not paying attention to what it is actually like to be what we are. The moment we do pay attention, we begin to see that free will is nowhere to be found, and our subjectivity is perfectly compatible with this truth.

James on percpetion, emotion, and consciousness:

My theory … is that the bodily changes follow directly the perception of the exciting fact, and that our feeling of the same changes as they occur is the emotion. Common sense says, we lose our fortune, are sorry and weep; we meet a bear, are frightened and run; we are insulted by a rival, are angry and strike. The hypothesis here to be defended says that this order of sequence is incorrect … and that the more rational statement is that we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble … Without the bodily states following on the perception, the latter would be purely cognitive in form, pale, colorless, destitute of emotional warmth. We might then see the bear, and judge it best to run, receive the insult and deem it right to strike, but we should not actually feel afraid or angry.

James on attention:

Everyone knows what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought…It implies withdrawl from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state. [WJ’s 1870 diary entry on Renouvier, attention, & free will]

But these questions, fascinating though they are to those of us who are fascinated by them, are peripheral to the central claim of chapter two: we humans are capable of doing just about everything on the spectrum between good and evil. We’re also capable of learning more about the conditions (including brain-states) under which these behaviors are most likely to be expressed, and of acting to improve the net ratio of well-being. We may be determined, but so long as we can act intelligently we’re not fated or doomed. As Dan Dennett says: freedom evolves. [Dennett at CalTech]

We can understand how our freedom is greater than that of other creatures, and see how this heightened capacity carries moral implications: noblesse oblige. We are in the best position to decide what to do next, because we have the broadest knowledge and hence the best perspective on the future. What that future holds in store for our planet is up to all of us, reasoning together.

And really, is Sam finally wanting to say anything different? The conversation continues.

“up again, old heart”

January 3, 2012

So it’s 2012, and today’s a school-day. “Up again, old heart”: time to gather some fresh experience, to summon what Winifred Gallagher has called “the old-fashioned quality of grit,” which

may be a better predictor of real-world performance. Attention’s mechanics ensure that when you lock on your objective, you enhance that aspiration and suppress things which compete with it, which helps you to stay focused.

How quickly reliable habits and routines withdraw, when we relax our grit and unlock our focus. This morning I locked on the objective of escaping those seductive flannel sheets before dawn’s early light. Mission difficult, but accomplished – and immediately rewarded with the pleasure of a still and peaceful world all to myself for a few delicious pre-dawn minutes. Must do it again tomorrow, and tomorrow. The pace only becomes petty when those minutes are taken for granted or forgotten. Must not misplace that precious ticket again.

In life’s best moments we wake up.

Coda: happiness today

December 20, 2011

Grades in. Time to exhale.

Soon as I pushed the “submit” button yesterday, I received a query from one of our public information officers:

Since you taught a class on “The Philosophy of Happiness,” would you have a moment to respond to this reporter? His deadline is 1 p.m. Central Dec. 21.

The reporter’s questions:

What constitutes happiness today? It used to be about the American Dream, but that concept is slipping away. Are we happier today than we were? Why or why not? How is happiness sought after differently today than, say, 50 years ago? Why are we less happy?

My off-the-cuff reply:

I teach a course on the philosophy of happiness at Middle Tennessee State University. For what it’s worth, my impression is that students increasingly pursue happiness as an inner transformation, an adjustment of aspiration away from success defined strictly in material terms (what philosopher William James called the old American worship of the “Bitch-goddess Success”) and towards a greater appreciation of the transience and fragility of life. I detect a shift of values, a heightened interest in pursuing work and relationships that are personally meaningful.  Students in my classes exhibit more interest in a spiritual search for enlightenment (Buddhism is hot, especially in the hands of western converts like Matthieu Ricard), and I detect new receptivity to the perspective of a Bertrand Russell in his 1930 book (way ahead of its time in some ways)  “The Conquest of Happiness.” Russell pointed out that happiness can be conquered if we’ll acknowledge how indifferent the large universe is to our small everyday concerns; then, and only then, can we hope to rise abo ve them.

I don’t know if we’re less happy now, but I’m pretty sure we’re less glib about the meaning of happiness than those earlier generations for whom it was imagined to be readily available for a price. The old line about fools who know the price-tag of everything but  the value of nothing definitely applies.

I guess that’s as good a coda for “Happiness & the Secret of Life” as I’m likely to produce.

Now what? Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi and Winifred Gallagher say it’s as important to devote purposive forethought to our leisure, as to our work. So I’m turning my serious attention today to finishing The Art of Fielding. Then, The Swerve. Then, ho-ho-ho, it’ll be time for some serious last-minute holiday shopping.


Long reading in an age of short attention

August 23, 2011

For all practical purposes summer’s over. My daily trek to Murfreesboro begins in a couple of days, and in the meantime I’m the uncompensated taxi driver for my overscheduled girls. Three 20″ trips to their school yesterday, plus extra-curriculars later. They have no sympathy, having long since laid their own summers to rest.

Must find a few more minutes to wrestle with my syllabi today. As usual, as Opening Day approaches I feel I’ve been too ambitious and must decide what to leave out, what not to require. It’s harder these days to put together a syllabus students will take seriously. We routinely hear that kids don’t like to read long assignments.

Or just don’t like to read what they’ve been required to read. “Back in my day,” as we old-timers say, professors didn’t lose any sleep over lengthy reading assignments. They’d have laughed if we complained. Guess I’m too nice. I’ll have to work on that.

But what’s “long,” anyway, in the Twitter Age? Attention span’s never been shorter. Reading entire essays, never mind books, is exceptional. “Long Reads” are treated as something exotic and rare.

So what do we teachers do, hoist the white flag and wax nostalgic for the reading equivalent of the cliched five-mile slog through rain and sleet that we had to endure while lowering present expectations and doling out dinky single-digit assignments?

No, I won’t do that. A long read in college is not to be thought of mainly as a test of endurance, it’s more  an opportunity to exercise your curiosity, expand your commitment, and develop your capacity for focus and self-discipline.

And the payoff couldn’t be bigger: a wider sensibility, a deeper reservoir of knowledge, greater self-confidence. Whatever else is on your college transcript, that’s really what you matriculate for.  It’s what we should be teaching, all across the curriculum.

Then again, time is short. Some of it needs to be left free for exploring. The solution, easy to say and harder to strike: a moderately ambitious schedule of required reading, with supplemental recommendations on the side, and constant encouragement to students to stretch themselves. Your reach should always exceed your grasp, etc. Dare to be extraordinary. Become who you are. Don’t sell yourself short.

The best teachers are motivators, not just content-providers. That’s the lesson I need to remember, as I nail down those syllabi.

Attention must be paid

August 4, 2011

TED continues to astonish. I watched Julian Treasure’s talk [transcript] about paying closer attention to the sounds of our lives the other morning before walking in my neighborhood…

…and found myself distinguishing more levels of aural complexity than I’d noticed in a long time. It’s too easy to surrender to the blooming buzzing confusion.

But then something even more delightful happened. I noticed that, having re-awakened to sound,  I was also attending more closely to all the other information streams on my perceptual horizon. I’m not a “visual person” normally, but this day’s shafts and beams of light caught my eye and I snapped this picture.

The moral, of course, which I have to keep re-learning: pay attention. When you “lose your listening,” and your seeing and feeling et al, you really do lose access to the world. You sacrifice experience on the altar of speed and efficiency, or “practicality,” or something. We must retrain ourselves to see, hear, and enjoy what’s all too frequently missed. The simplest perceptual acts can be founts of joy and delight, and as Robert Louis Stevenson said: to miss the joy is to miss all.

Treasure’s right, this should not be extracurricular.


January 11, 2011

My calendar wants me to know that this rare date is the birthday of Mary J. Blige and Amanda Peet. I think it’s far more important to commemorate the natal debut of philosopher William James, in 1842. We marked the centenary of his death, my friends in the William James Society and I, back in August. But birthdays are better.

He proposed an operational understanding of free will as the ability to direct and control one’s own attention, to think about one thing when inclination or obsession would drag your mind to another. That’s a contribution to humanity worth lighting candles for, as good a sanity-saver and happiness-maker as I’ve found.

He gets Garrison Keillor’s full attention on Writer’s Almanac today, but Keillor’s staff evidently lacks a feeling for free will. WJ emphatically did not “point out that there was no clear practical difference between having free will and believing in determinism.” Quite the reverse.

But I accept their gloss of how WJ’s “radical empiricism” moved well beyond John Locke and David Hume: “James said that experience could also include metaphysical ideas, religion, or anything at all that was part of our experience as human beings.” Could and did. Does. Good, bad, horrid, tragic, delightful experiences are all in the mix.

William’s kid brother Henry, the famous novelist, said something about his brother’s youthful discussion group, chronicled at length by Louis Menand, that always makes me smile:

My brother and various other long-headed youths have combined to form a metaphysical club, where they wrangle grimly and stick to the question. It gives me a headache merely to know of it.

I know exactly what you mean, Henry. One of the great things about William James is that he did, too.

WJ is one of those colloquial geniuses whose popularly-attributed quotes exceed his actually-documented statements.

They’re usually very good quotes, though, whether they’re precisely his or not. What he supposedly said about friends is a good, ubiquitous example.

This is also the birthday of my best friend, too– my wife. I’d better think, right now, about that.

priced to move

October 2, 2010

On a day I’d intended to devote full attention to finishing a paper on that very subject itself– attention– I found myself driven (and driving) to distraction instead. That’s life, isn’t it, the thing that happens while you’re making other plans?

They were good and rewarding distractions, but spaced just close enough to prevent serious attention to attention. A parent-teacher conference, very re-assuring and affirming. (But, do teachers ever not tell parents to “keep doing whatever you’re doing”?) An appointment in Green Hills, another a couple of hours later on Music Row. Then, a stint working the school book sale fundraiser. Finally, the long wait for the kids to get tired of the Fall Fest fun & games followed by the outdoor screening of “Horton Hears a Who.” Thank goodness for the proximity of Panera and Starbucks.

But I shouldn’t complain. On this chilly morning after, I’m warmed by the thought of the young High Schooler who literally emptied her purse for two huge stacks of sale books and came up a couple dollars short, obviously crestfallen to think she’d have to relinquish Pilgrim at Tinker Creek or Unbearable Lightness of Being or some other lucky treasure… then delighted when the bookseller bent the rules and corrected himself. Turns out she’d had exactly the right amount.

What were the odds of that? Well, they were actually pretty good. He’d been in that position himself, dependent on the kindness of strangers but not always accorded appropriate empathy.

Then there was another shopper, an older lady who came up short of funds for just  two old volumes and desperately insisted she wasn’t poor, just poorly prepared. I wasn’t about to let her walk away disappointed either.

The sale organizers may not ask me back to work again next year, if they read this. But I’ll bet they will, they understand the bond between readers and books. A school has an obligation to its community, after all.

When my shift behind the cash register ended and it was my turn to shop, I surprised myself by finally putting down and walking away from my own little stack– it included a volume of the century’s best short stories edited by John Updike in 1999, a pristine edition of Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian marred only by someone’s curiously-irrelevant marginal objection to “Gore’s Christianity” (?), and a hardcover of Jonathan Haidt’s Happiness Hypothesis. I already have heavily marked copies of Russell and Haidt, and Updike has an entire shelf in my personal library. Maybe I’ve finally broken my bound biblio-addiction, as I find myself doing more and more e-reading. But I still have unresolved mixed feelings about that.

So no one had to sacrifice any books, on my watch. Except me.

But another heroic sacrifice deserves mention. Younger Daughter tossed a ball and  won a goldfish, in a plastic baggie. She really wanted to bring it home. Mom really didn’t. (Just as she didn’t want me to bring home any more old books.) Guess who won.

Right. Now, time to turn my attention to grading. Where are the good distractions when you really need them?