Posts Tagged ‘Freud’

Freud, Russell, Ayer, time

March 21, 2013

Time in CoPhi for FreudRussellAyer, and Hugh Mellor on time (he says relax, it’s not “tensed”). [Freud and Russell @dawn]

A.J. (“Freddie”) Ayer, by the way, apparently had a Near Death Experience of his own. He claimed it in no way impinged on his atheism. But an acquaintance reported that “He became so much nicer after he died… not nearly so boastful. He took an interest in other people.” But again, Freddie denied that the experience made him “religious.” [continues here]

…a sentence is factually significant to any given person, if, and only if, he knows how to verify the proposition which it purports to express — that is, if he knows what observations would lead him, under certain conditions, to accept the proposition as being true, or reject it as being false.

“Stealing money is wrong” has no factual meaning — that is, expresses no proposition which can be either true or false. It is as if I had written “Stealing money!!”

No moral system can rest solely on authority.

There is philosophy, which is about conceptual analysis — about the meaning of what we say — and there is all of this … all of life.


There isn’t a practical reason for believing what isn’t true. It it’s true you should believe it, if it isn’t you should not… it’s intellectual treachery to hold a belief because you think it’s useful and not because you think it’s true.

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser men so full of doubts.

And if there were a God, I think it very unlikely that He would have such an uneasy vanity as to be offended by those who doubt His existence.

Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.

Do you think that, if you were granted omnipotence and omniscience and millions of years in which to perfect your world, you could produce nothing better than the Ku Klux Klan or the Fascists?  [Why I Am Not a Christian… More Russell]



Freud is darker than Nietzsche… Sheer joy and sheer affirmation of life is pretty hard to find, if you’re being absolutely honest about what reality is.

As long as your ideas of what’s possible are limited by what’s actual, no other idea has a chance.

If life is a gift, then the more you partake in it, the more you show thanks.

[Susan Neiman, Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-up Idealists]


Back to the question of time: Mellor’s point is that time lacks objective tense (past, present, future), not that it is an illusion. This may take some time to grasp, for

 if you think of tense as a feature of the world, that is an illusion. [But] what is not an illusion is that we are in the world, and need to think about it, and especially about how to act in it, in terms of tense… time itself– tenseless time, what makes events earlier and later than each other– is indeed a real feature both of the world, and of our experience of it.

So does he agree with Einstein, who said ”the separation between past, present, and future is only an illusion, although a convincing one,” or not? Yes and no.
Time and again, time after time, the intersection of philosophy and physics is maddeningly inconclusive. Add history to the mix and you get logic-defying paradox. The Vulcan Science Directorate has determined (willdetermine?) that time travel is impossible. But apparently that just goes for this actual universe, at this point in time. Hmmm. Logic aside, however, it’s at least biologically impossible to go into the past and annihilate your own forebears. That should be reassuring, though of course it would destroy a lot of amusing plot-points in film and fiction (not to mention Trek).
BTW: we might want to use this topic as a springboard back to Nietzsche and his strange notion of eternal recurrence. And what about Deja Vu, all over again? Have we all been here before? Well, that would imply the real existence of tense, wouldn’t it?
Does your head hurt yet, Geordi? Or yet again?
I think Tagore’s butterfly still has the best perspective on time.

Architecture, wine, tragedy, God

November 14, 2012

We’re all doing Philosophy Bites today in CoPhi: Alain de Botton on architecture, Barry Smith on wine, Alex Neill on tragedy, and Don Cupitt on God. Connecting the dots will be interesting. Or impossible. But that’s how the world generally hangs together, isn’t it? Loosely, at best?

I’m having a harder than usual time threading the needle this morning, after spending most of yesterday immersed in job applications. and then a long negotiating session with colleagues to come up with an impossibly-sudden short list. Our department is in the rare position of hiring, and there are lots and lots of highly qualified job seekers out there. Well, at least on paper. Wish we could hire them all, especially those who got glowing recommendations with comments like “ideal colleague” or “unfailingly pleasant.” How many of us can say that?

Plus, the needle is pretty thin today. Or esoteric. I do like Alain de Botton’s thoughts on the art and beauty of great architecture, and how we’re better people when we live in beautiful surroundings. But, to draw a connection with something we spoke of Monday in EEA, functionality and efficiency are beautiful too. Windmills and solar panels are far more beautiful to me than internal combustion engines, and “earthships” more than ranch houses. The art of sustainability is beautiful.

The philosophy of wine? In vino veritas? Well, Barry Smith’s focus is even tighter. (Is “tight”still a euphemism for inebriation, btw? Along with things like pissed, sloshed, blitzed, plastered, etc.?) But he’s not interested, as William James was, in biochemically altered states of consciousness as vehicles of experience whose pursuit may be both mind-expanding and soul-destroying (and thus “tragic”).

No, Smith’s concerned with connoisseurship, the refined aesthetic splitting of hairs as to the fine phenomenological differences that can be bottled and capped and sold for outrageous sums to ostentatious self-congratulatory tipplers. What would Peter Singer say?

But ultimately, Smith’s obsession with spirits (like de Botton’s with architecture) is about the pursuit of happiness. I think Nigel’s right to wonder “what’s special about wine”? Smith’s reply does not go out of its way to recognize  the mutual inner significance of such devotions as his. How does he know someone couldn’t get as romantic and rhapsodic about orange juice as he does about his Cabernet? Our respective delights must be known at first hand to be appreciated.

Next, Alex Neill wonders how tragedy can be so pleasurable, how the painful feelings generated by the suffering of a dramatic character on stage or screen can be experienced as art. Beyond that, why do some of us enjoy horror, murder mysteries, roller coasters? Takes all kinds, is all. Or not all, but that’s about the extent of my own interest in this question. Others may differ. Bottom line is still, again, what makes you happy. That may be enough to redeem the paradoxical experience of tragedy.

Don Cupitt’s “God,” no omnipotent hegemonic universe-maker, is an anthropomorphic Jungian symbolic projection of love, perfection, bliss. He/It is an archetypal reflection of recurrent mortal human hopes and fears, and “doesn’t exist apart from from our faith in him.” That’s not what they taught me in Sunday School, but I do recall forming an early impression of a “very large human being, probably of the male sex.” Only later would I encounter New Age/New Thought notions of the omni-gendered “Father-Mother God(dess).”

For his part, Cupitt says “commitment to co-humanity has become my religion.” He’s a humanist, like (he says) Jesus. [Manifestos] And, I’ll bet, like the job applicant who says “straight edge punk is my religion” or the other one who was ready to make the sacred case for baseball. We all have our projections to bear.

Field of dreams

October 23, 2012

No, this isn’t a baseball post. But, Go Giants. They’re my second-favorite team. Honestly. (But I wasn’t watching, once the game in Boca Raton started. “Horses and bayonets“: that’s a winner!)

Freud on dreams: for some reason I find myself drawn to this topic, at this moment. Maybe it’s that nightmare, night before last, in which a solicitous stranger unexpectedly produced a weapon and began pelting me with painless coiled darts. Or maybe the repeated spousal reports of snoring, the recent incident of nocturnal laughter, etc.  Is that all supposed to mean something?

“No real progress in a definite direction is as yet discernible” in deciphering dreams and their possible meanings, wrote Freud. But he was sure they weren’t just meaningless static, either. “Dreams are often most profound when they seem the most crazy.” So the trick is to unlock the symbolic mystery. Except when the cigar is just a cigar. How to tell? Write ’em down in a journal, say the experts, and maybe you can begin to write your own lucid slumbering stories. But I agree with Sara: the great enchantment of dreaming is the element of surprise, and of promise.

So I prefer my daydreams, which for the most part involve neither snoring nor suggestive imagery. (Never mind what’s supposed to be on a man’s mind, according to Freud.) They’re about possible futures, not a troubled and traumatic past. Freud appreciated them too, when he wasn’t obsessing over stogies and caves and such. As Maria Popova notes,

[A] piece of creative writing, like a day-dream, is a continuation of, and a substitute for, what was once the play of childhood.

Or as Bobby Kennedy quoted G.B. Shaw,  “I dream things that never were and ask, why not?” That’s what dreams are really good for: expanding our comprehension of what might be possible, for playful spirits of every age.

Some worry that technology is killing our capacity to dream. Here’s a TED Talk with a different perspective on that:

“To sleep, perchance to dream”: Hamlet may have been tired of life, but the deepest dreamers dream of the life still to come. I’ll take Michael Chabon’s “Omega Glory” over T.C. Boyle’s council of doom any day. Or night. I still wish I’d said this:

If you have children, I don’t see how you can fail to do everything in your power to ensure that you win your bet, and that they, and their grandchildren, and their grandchildren’s grandchildren, will inherit a world whose perfection can never be accomplished by creatures whose imagination for perfecting it is limitless and free.

Yes, we’re dreaming. Of course we are. Maybe that’s what it really means to be alive.

Freud & friends

December 2, 2010

Frege’s linguistic turn still holds many of my peers captive to the quest for reductive, analytic clarity. Some of my best friends are analysts, though not of the Freudian kind.

From their point of view, of course, we pragmatists (among others) are the ones behind bars: in the prison-house not of language, but of fuzzy imprecision.

Russell was an atomist, though not quite like Democritus: he was trying to link atomic bits in language precisely and isomorphically to their corresponding bits in the world. That would be the ultimate analytic reduction, and its the larger project Russell and Whitehead were trying to serve by anchoring arithmetic in logic. Hegelians like Bradley, as usual, saw everything as much too interdependent to permit so decontextualized an analysis.

Edmund Husserl tried to understand consciousness from the inside, phenomenologically.  I still don’t understand how to “bracket” phenomena so as to isolate their real essences. It sounds easy enough, but then again: it sounds easy to eliminate cancer by finding a cure, too. But how to do it, exactly?

Wittgenstein’s Tractatus says sentences picture facts, and implies in its conclusion that there is meaningful experience to be had (but not described) beyond the bounds of philosophy, language, and reason.

Later, he turned therapeutic and talked about “language games” instead of sentences and propositions as the currency of thought and action. We don’t just map the world with our words, we shape it. And, we envision new worlds altogether. On this reading, Wittgenstein II is the most expansive and possibility-enlarging of philosophers.

But it was the narrow positivism his early readers thought they found in him that may be Wittgenstein’s largest and least pleasing legacy. The heirs of Alfred Jules Ayer (Language, Truth, and Logic) are still with us.

Sigmund Freud spans both pro- and anti-Enlightenment camps, as a champion of the idea of mind as brain, “analyzable in terms of neurology, energy circuits, and physics,” AND as a welter of irrational drives and instincts.

Our discontent is caused by civilization? That’s not encouraging.

[Hecht on Freud]

Max Weber said capitalism comes from Calvinism: predestination is so stressful that it drives Protestants into a frenzy of work, “working feverishly and living ascetically” to prove their cosmic worth.

I don’t actually know many frenzied Protestants myself, but I think my grandparents did.

We’ve already met Russell’s early collaborator Whitehead; his French counterpart was Henri Bergson.  They pioneered “process philosophy,” [IEP] which rejected static metaphors of eternity and timelessness and emphasized the primacy of events instead of objects.

We noted Whitehead’s affinity for James, “that adorable genius.” James, in turn, admired Bergson. It was he who led James

to renounce the intellectualist method and the current notion that logic is an adequate measure of what can or cannot be… to give up logic, squarely and irrevocably… reality, life, experience, concreteness, immediacy, use what word you will, exceeds our logic, overflows, and surrounds it. A Pluralistic Universe (1909)

Which reminds me of the time Captain Picard gave a copy of that very book to Ensign Crusher, with some terrific advice for his future studies.

The young man protests: “William James won’t be on my Starfleet exams.” Picard answers, “Nothing really important will be. Open yourself to the past, history, art, philosophy, and all of this might mean something.”

A Pluralistic Universe contains what may be the single most important statement in James’s entire corpus of published works:

I am tiring myself and you, I know, by vainly seeking to describe by concepts and words what . . . exceeds either conceptualization or verbalization. As long as one continues talking, intellectualism remains in undisturbed possession of the field. The return to life can’t come about by talking. It is an act; to make you return to life, I must set an example for your imitation, I must deafen you to talk, or to the importance of talk. . . . Or I must point, point to the mere that of life, and you by inner sympathy must fill out the what for yourselves.

This is a perplexing, disconcerting thing to read in the flat middle of a book, and might incline some readers to put it down in tired exasperation. But a footnote anticipates and defuses the mood, with a little help from James’s friend Bergson.

In using concepts of his own to discredit the theoretic claims of concepts generally, Bergson… shows us to what quarter we must practically turn if we wish to gain that completer insight into reality which he denies that they can give.

James is with Bergson on this. Fight bad concepts with better ones– the ones that admit their own limitations and point to what they cannot say, and move us past contemplation for its own sake. Another Woody Allen quote is to the point: “the brain is the most highly over-rated organ.”  The final message, then:

Don’t just sit there, Wesley. Think. Then, do something. And don’t just tweet about it, Wil.

unspent passion

April 5, 2010

First, I have to say: some of you thought Good Friday should have been a university holiday. I think today should be. It’s Opening Day! (Opening Night in Boston last night didn’t really count, though it was a terrific game– 9-7 Sox.) But, barring viral relapse, I’ll see you in class.

Today we officially finish reading– though probably not talking about– the philosophers and ideas canvassed in Passion for Wisdom. Bertrand Russell, for one. Jennifer Hecht* notes that when Russell read Mill, the scales fell. [Value of PhilosophyNot-good Fridayaction herobday]

(*NOTE TO INTRO STUDENTS: check out Hecht’s Doubt and give me your feedback. Would this be a useful supplementary text in future Intro courses?)

And Ludwig Wittgenstein. “The world is everything that is the case,” begins his portentous (pretentious?)Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. On young Wittgenstein’s view, our words should aim to picture the world semantically and structurally. What we can’t faithfully replicate of the world in words, we should shut up about. “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” He really thought he’d said it all, that is, all that could be meaningfully said. So he stopped philosophizing in public, for quite some time. But he didn’t stop thinking. Wittgenstein II would re-surface years later with the posthumous Philosophical Investigations.

And too many others to discuss adequately in a single class, including

Freud, who questioned our ability to fulfill the Socratic challenge (“Know Thyself”) without significant help from psychoanalysis and (by implication) neuroscience with his belief that the mind (brain) is analyzable in terms of neurology, energy circuits, and the language of physics (along with lots of couch-time and therapeuic delving into personal history).

Bergson, who said concepts and language are static and one-sided… we distort and deform the world when we use them to try and arrest its inexorable movement.

Whitehead, the “process philosopher” who thought too highly of Platonic, eternal ideals but who made compensatory sense by shifting to talk of events coming into being through patterns instead of eternal, unchanging objects as most real. Nature itself is continuously creative, novel, imaginative so philosophy should be correspondingly and poetically flexible.

Heidegger, linguistic innovator (Dasein, Being-in-the-World, das Man) and (it turns out) Nazi fellow-traveler who nonetheless spoke truly when he defined personal authenticity in terms of the acknowledgement not only that people die but that I will. Nothing shameful in that.

Sartre, who said it’s “bad faith” to shirk your freedom… and his friend de Beauvoir, who led a procession of feminist thinkers appalled by philosophy’s (and everyone else’s) neglect of the so-called “second sex.” Feminism raises the question: are there masculine and feminine styles and concerns? In any case, shouldn’t we all be paying more attention to family and interpersonal issues?

Camus, who said we must consider Sisyphus happy…

Finally we come to Postmodernism‘s strange claim that there is no truth, only discourse; and to New Age philosophy’s various “loony-tunes” attempts to feed a nonetheless-encouraging hunger for philosophy in our time. [What the [bleep’]The SecretOprahreviewWhy People Believe Weird ThingsShermer @TED]

Our authors get it right at the end: We need to be not more clever (or weird) but, rather, better listeners. May the conversations and the examination of life continue.

And, today: play ball!

Postscript: Mom‘s been gone for two whole years today. We miss her terribly, but no longer so painfully. Her memory glows and warms.

portable atheists

March 4, 2010

We’re officially reading the Hitchens anthology as of today in A&S, with selections from (among others):

Carl Van Doren. What they call unbelief, I call belief. Faith is a survival from an earlier stage of thinking and feeling: in short, a form of superstition. It, and not the thing I am forced to name unbelief, seems to me negative. It denies the reason. It denies the evidences in the case, in the sense that it insists upon introducing elements which come not from the facts as shown but from the imaginations and wishes of mortals. Unbelief does not deny the reason and it sticks as closely as it can to the evidences.

H.L. Mencken. The hell of dead gods is as crowded as the Presbyterian hell for babies. To doubt them was to  die, usually at the stake. Yet in the end they all withered and died. From AA to Zer-panitu, all were theoretically omnipotent, omniscient, and immortal. And all are dead.

Sigmund Freud. If religion had succeeded in making the majority of mankind happy, in comforting them, in reconciling them to life and in making them into vehicles of civilization, no one would dream of attempting to alter the existing conditions. But what do we see instead? We see that an appallingly large number of people are dissatisfied with civilization and unhappy in it, and feel it as a yoke which must be shaken off… the greater the number of men to whom the treasures of knowledge become accessible, the more widespread is the falling-away from religious belief at first only from its obsolete and objectionable trappings, but later from its fundamental postulates as well. The Americans who instituted the ‘monkey trial’ at Dayton have alone shown themselves consistent…

Albert Einstein. I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings… I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an attitude of humility… I cannot believe that God plays dice with the cosmos.

Bertrand Russell. Fear has many forms-fear of death, fear of the dark, fear of the unknown, fear of the herd, and that vague generalized fear that comes to those who conceal from themselves their more specific terrors. Until you have admitted your own fears to yourself, and have guarded yourself by a difficult effort of will against their mythmaking power, you cannot hope to think truly about many matters of great importance, especially those with which religious beliefs are concerned. Fear is the main source of superstition and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom, in the pursuit of truth as in the endeavor after a worthy manner of life.

Martin Gardner. Jerry Falwell (1933-2007) was so convinced that he would soon be raptured– caught up in the air to meet the return of Jesus– that he once said he had no plans for a burial plot. Pat Robertson once seriously considered plans to televise the Lord’s appearance in the skies. Stay tuned. For the past two thousand years individuals and sects have been setting dates for the Second Coming. When the Lord fails to show, errors are found in the calculations and new dates set…

divine command

December 15, 2009

Exam day turned into one last lively class session, yesterday morning. Before the exam there were two report presentations on morality, one on power, and one on free will. The many points of interesting overlap were too numerous to trace, in the short time that remained to us.

Shenae began, wondering what power really means. I had some fun with her Barney Fife spelling of “Frued,” and his “penis envy,” and “SuperEgo” safe sex. But her Nietzschean point was fundamentally correct: the most impressive demonstration of power is self-directed.

Nick gave us a nice report on free will and determinism, featuring John Searle talking about the problem of squaring consciousness and free will with the idea of universal causation. (“Brain Story,” BBC)

Then Yasser defended the “divine command” theory of morality, and Brian insisted– notwithstanding his own brush with armed robbery this very week-end–  that morality is subjective.

All of these topics deserve a lot of critical attention. But I have papers to grade, so I’m going to turn it over J & M. The implicit view supported by their little colloquy here: even if you think the correct values and morals are objective, you have to use your “subjective” reason to make the case. Read Plato’s Euthyphro for elaboration.

Meanings of Life

September 14, 2009

Our next chapter is “The Meaning of Life” (illustrated by “The Death of Socrates,” implying that meaning may come from noble, principled self-sacrifice… but that’s just one example).

I taught a course at Vanderbilt under this title a few years ago. It was mis-labelled. We pondered many meanings, and concluded that many meanings are exactly what accrue to life, every well-lived life. That’s so not only because different individuals and cultures value different objects and ideals, but because each of us– like Woody Allen’s character in “Manhattan”– has  a collection of  things that make life worth living:

The items on his list will not coincide with those on most of ours, but the point to notice is that he and we can make our respective lists, and in the process discover what it is in life that motivates us to get up off our figurative sofas and chase our dreams. Many of us would say that the chase itself is intrinsically meaningful.

Our authors take a different tack, focusing on four alleged sources of meaning that seem to point to something “outside of [people’s] lives” supposed to confer meaning: children, God, a supernatural afterlife, and (paradoxically) absurdity. Option #4 most obviously calls for a leap into the irrational dark, treating meaninglessness as meaningful, somehow. But all of them may defy the demand for a straightforward answer to the Big Question of meaning. All may “postpone” a satisfying response.

Children. The joys of child-rearing do indeed strike many of us as deeply meaningful, though also deeply fraught with risks and disappointments. But in order for parenthood to be meaningful for me, as a parent, it can’t simply be a vicarious hope that our children (or theirs, or Generation x+’s) will find meaning in life. Strictly future meaning is too, well, futuristic.

God. “Belief in God seems only to make the question more urgent; belief does not solve it.” Divine meaning and purpose is not obviously transferable to mortals. Some, though, do appear to be more “god-intoxicated” than others– Spinoza, Calvin, Ned Flanders…

Afterlife. What if “the rewards of [a] next life will be available only to those who live this life to the fullest?” Aren’t we back, then, to Square One?

Absurdity. “The struggle toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Easier said than swallowed. A meaningless struggle doesn’t fill my heart, though Camus’ car crash was full of poignant irony. What to say, though, about  my interest in team sports? It does often feel absurd to care so much about how it goes for  “my team,” but it also feels like a source of valuable connection to the world and other people, past, present, and future. Maybe life is a ballgame.

Freud is quoted as saying that “the goal of all life is death.” I hope that was a mis-translation. The end is death, the goal is to live. Santayana said there’s no cure for birth and death, “save to enjoy the interval.”

Nietzsche’s “eternal recurrence” idea offers an intriguing angle on this question. There’s a suggestive typo in our book ( on p. 48) that would skewer the philosopher’s intent: Nietzsche’s view was that the credible meanings of life are internal and natural, not “external” (in the sense of transcendent or other-worldly).  He wants you to ask yourself how you’d handle the supposition that “this life as you now live it and have lived it” is IT. There’s a nice dramatic rendering of this idea in the film “When Nietzsche Wept,” as the philosopher counsels his shrink– Freud’s collaborator Josef Breuer.)

And then, there’s Groundhog Day. Bill Murray returns to Punxsutawney, PA again and again, but not eternally… just till he gets it right. He learns how to live well, treat others respectfully, and  enjoy the present. Then he can leave, happily and with no regrets. That was, after all, the intent of Nietzsche’s “gift.”

So we’re back to Woody. Make your lists.


September 1, 2009

It’s time at last for Happiness (the course). The philosophers I like the most, from Aristotle to Mill to James to Russell, advocated and celebrated happiness. But plenty of philosophers have had another view.  Can you match the thinker to the thought? (Larkin, Freud, Nietzsche, Sartre, Schopenhauer, Wittgenstein… answers below*)

“The intention that man should be happy is not included in the plan of Creation.”

“The existentialist says that man is in anguish.”

“Throughout the ages the wisest of men have passed the same judgement of life: it is no good.”

“I don’t know why we are here, but I’m pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves.”

“Today it is bad, and day by day it will get worse…” [In other words: “No!”]

“Get out as early as you can, and don’t have any kids yourself.”


(*Freud, Sartre, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Schopenhauer, Larkin… from Happiness: the Science Behind Your Smile by Daniel Nettle)

It’s customary among philosophers to regard the overcoming of negativity and emotional dyspepsia as a struggle requiring the greatest effort: Nietzsche’s life-affirming personal philosophy of will (or “power”), for instance, must overcome its own pessimism. Nietzsche was in fact a young Schopenhauerian to whom the dark mood seemed stylish and romantic. My faves, as I say, don’t feel that way about it. James pities “poor Nietzsche’s antipathies,” Mill stumps for the greatest happiness, Russell says we should “conquer” our flourishing, Aristotle says it’s the one intrinsic good in the universe.

But if you want to feel good about feeling good, look at Michael Gates Gill‘s humble account of how he claimed his happiness behind the coffee bar. He’s not a deep thinker, but let’s face it: depth is not always conducive to joy.