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Gilbert Ryle – An Oxford man who advocated “ordinary language”

Gilbert Ryle (1900-76) was an English philosopher who taught at Oxford from 1945-68. He edited the journal Mind from 1947-71.

Ryle and others like G. E. Moore developed the idea, forwarded by Wittgenstein, that philosophy is best expressed in so-called “ordinary language.” For Ryle, using abstract language is so removed from everyday experience and speech that it tends to be, for the most part, inaccurate and irrelevant.

Some philosophers are so heavily invested in their specialized language that they become blind to the ambiguities, limitations and sometimes absurdity of their claims.

A similar argument could be made about anyone who overly invests in a particular language game or symbol system, to include psychologists, biologists, physicists, economists, lawyers, environmentalists… The list goes on.

Not everyone agrees with Ryle. For a while, his views were trendy in philosophy but that didn’t last long. Today, philosophy is even more esoteric and symbolic than ever. Most modern philosophy degrees demand advanced courses in symbolic logic that, to the uninitiated, might look more like math than critical thinking.

Drawing from René Descartes' (1596-1650) in &q...

Drawing from René Descartes’ (1596-1650) in “meditations métaphysiques” explaining the function of the pineal gland. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here are some of the main points for and against the use of ordinary language in philosophy and related disciplines:

For:

  • Language is dynamic, full of ambiguous connotation and a product of culture. Meanings are always open to interpretation.
  • Specialized language cloaks bias and subtly reinforces unequal relations of power. For instance, in psychology a person is “ADD” or “Autistic.” The scientific label makes it so. End of discussion. Who cares if these people have unusual abilities that the status quo is too biased to recognize or support?
  • Ordinary language isn’t patronizing to ordinary people and may, in fact, draw them into a discussion. This could lead to new insights and benefits for all.

Against:

  • Given the potential ambiguity and fluidity of language, shouldn’t philosophers try to define their terms as precisely as possible?
  • Isn’t it valid for specialists to use specialized language? For example, do you really want your operating room surgeon to say “give me that blade over there” one day and “hand me the knife” another day instead of always using the quick and precise, “scalpel“?
  • Specialized language increases precision and facilitates greater communication, efficiency and effectiveness among specialists. Popular writers can always translate the main points to the public, later on.

It seems each of these arguments has its pros and cons.

For some, the best approach – ironically an age-old advertising and entertaining technique – is to tailor one’s expression to fit the perceived audience. Instead of speaking above people, some believe it’s better to try to connect—unless, of course, you’re in a specialized group using shared terms (e.g. A Trekkie convention).

Some hard core philosophers seem to overlook the many nuances of human interaction. So they can come off dry, abstract or irrelevant. But every now and then specialized thinkers do come up with ideas worth considering. For me, one example is Hume’s critique of causality. I love and sometimes mention that idea if I feel my audience is ready to consider its transformational potential.

But to return to Ryle, he also published a popular work in 1949, The Concept of Mind, that questioned Descartes mind/body dualism. Ryle says Descartes describes the mind as a metaphysical ghost in a material machine. And from that we have the enduring phrase, “ghost in the machine,” an idea now morphing into new meanings with the rise of AI.


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Bertrand Russell – Temporarily lost his job for advocating peace

Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell (Photo Wikipedia)

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) was a Welsh philosopher, mathematician and activist.

Russell taught at Cambridge in 1895, published Principles of Mathematics (1903) and, with A. N. Whitehead, wrote Principia Mathematica (1910-13).

He was let go from Trinity College, Cambridge in 1916 for advocating pacifism during World War I. This was scandalous even at the time because most of his Fellows opposed his firing.¹ Jailed in 1918 for six months, Russell eventually revoked his support for pacifism with the rise of Fascism.

Soon after his Fellowship was restored.

In the 1920’s he lectured and wrote widely. In 1927 he founded an experimental school with his second wife, Dora, a woman of achievement in her own right. And he toured the Soviet Union and lectured in China and America.

Russell’s best known publications are The Problems of Philosophy (1912), On Education (1926), An Enquiry into Meaning and Truth (1940), History of Western Philosophy (1945), and Human Knowledge (1948). He also wrote probing essays on a variety of topics, such as Why I am not a Christian (1927).

After World War II Russell advocated a ban on nuclear weapons and corresponded with leading politicians around the world. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950 and authored a three-volume Autobiography (1967-9).

English: Bertrand Russell and Conway Hall Behi...

Bertrand Russell and Conway Hall Behind bust of Bertrand Russell (by Marcelle Quinton 1980) in Red Lion Square the entrance to Conway Hall can be seen with Royal Mail van parked outside. (Photo: Wikipedia)

¹ Perhaps it’s fitting that I’m posting this revision on Good Friday. Seems a lot of people run into bad luck for advocating peace. †

Related » Ludwig Wittgenstein


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Rona and other myths undercut our cosmological arrogance

In Oceanic mythology Rona is a fierce female cannibal who eats her beautiful daughter’s lover.¹

Another Oceanic myth tells of a male god, Rona, who fights the moon to rescue his abducted wife.² According to this story, when the moon tires from the battle with Rona, it wanes. When the moon regains its strength, it waxes.

This is a good example of what might be called alternative logic, lateral thinking or, for some, anthropomorphism. From his fieldwork, the depth psychiatrist Carl Jung observed that archaic myths are logical and meaningful to so-called primitives, just as scientific explanations appear logical and meaningful to many so-called advanced, thinking persons.

More recently, postmodern critiques of science tend to view theories as working myths or fictions instead of facts. This makes sense if one is willing to admit bias and the limits of human understanding.

English: Karl Popper in 1990.

Karl Popper in 1990 (Photo: Wikipedia)

Take Karl Popper, for instance. He points out that scientific theories are never really proved, per se, but only supported. Also, scientific theories are subject to falsification, modification or radical change through, as T. Kuhn suggests, a paradigm shift. We know that Newton’s Laws of Motion perform well for conventional problems. But Einstein’s work is required for areas that Newton couldn’t observe and probably didn’t imagine.³

Somewhat ahead of his time, Jung says he treated so-called primitives with respect and, when interviewing local elders and tribesmen, didn’t challenge their beliefs or try to convert them to a modern scientific or, for that matter, Protestant Christian perspective.4

A considerate move on Jung’s part. Imagine if advanced extraterrestrials publicly visited Earth. Let’s say the visitors could see beyond our common view of directional time and the (apparent) solidity of matter. These beliefs are important to the functioning and psychological security of 21st century mankind. So if ETs revealed too much knowledge too fast, they’d likely blow our minds as David Bowie put it in the song “Starman.”

Likewise, had Jung tried to convince indigenous peoples that the sun’s rising did not depend on contemplation and sacrifice but, rather, the Earth’s natural rotation, he might have upset their psychological wellness.5

This raises questions about our “developed” cosmological assumptions and how they tie in to the idea of progress. Clearly this topic can go in many directions. I touch on some of these in entries on numinosity, spirituality, mysticismscience, psychiatry and scientism, among others.

¹ See http://www.sacred-texts.com/pac/om/om08.htm for the source of these and also for this Wikipedia retelling:

According to Māori legend, a Ngaio tree can be seen on the moon:

The man in the moon becomes, in Māori legend, a woman, one Rona by name. This lady, it seems, once had occasion to go by night for water to a stream. In her hand she carried an empty calabash. Stumbling in the dark over stones and the roots of trees she hurt her shoeless feet and began to abuse the moon, then hidden behind clouds, hurling at it some such epithet as “You old tattooed face, there!” But the moon-goddess heard, and reaching down caught up the insulting Rona, calabash and all, into the sky. In vain the frightened woman clutched, as she rose, the tops of a ngaio-tree. The roots gave way, and Rona with her calabash and her tree are placed in the front of the moon for ever, an awful warning to all who are tempted to mock at divinities in their haste.

English: Hand-colored photograph of Carl Jung ...

Hand-colored photograph of Carl Jung in USA, published in 1910 (Photo: Wikipedia)

² Ibid.

³ See Reddit – Ask Science.

My PhD thesis suggests that Jung thinks and behaves like a postmodern before the idea of postmodernism becomes fashionable. Jung’s father, Paul, was a Protestant minister who said Carl had to “believe.” Jung later writes that he doesn’t know how he is to find this belief. With access to his father’s theological library, the young Jung took to Latin and religious studies like a dove to water.

Jung interviewed a Hopi elder and other Native Americans who held these beliefs. See cgjungpage.org.


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Jean-Jacques Rousseau – Creative genius on the edge

Graeme Garrard traces the origin of the Counte...

Rousseau (Photo: Wikipedia)

Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) was a French speaking political writer and educator born in Geneva, Switzerland.

After taking various odd jobs this self-taught intellectual moved to Paris in 1741, meeting up with Denis Diderot and the Encyclopedists.

A kind of romantic naturalism pervades much of his work, which many equate with the idea of the “noble savage.”

Many see the noble savage as one who rejects stultifying conventions and religious promises of an afterlife in favor of spontaneous desire and worldly affections.

But this is another myth that students of Rousseau say does not apply to his work. In reference to Rousseau’s belief in stages of human development, Wikipedia notes:

Rousseau believed that the savage stage was not the first stage of human development, but the third stage. Rousseau held that this third savage stage of human societal development was an optimum, between the extreme of the state of brute animals and animal-like “ape-men” on the one hand and the extreme of decadent civilized life on the other. This has led some critics to attribute to Rousseau the invention of the idea of the noble savage, which Arthur Lovejoy conclusively showed misrepresents Rousseau’s thought.¹

Voltaire & Rousseau

Voltaire & Rousseau by Anne via Flickr

In 1754 Rousseau wrote Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Amongst Men, outlining an apparently innate sense of freedom and perfectibility in human beings, in contrast to the corrupting powers of institutions.

In Luxembourg from 1757-1762 he wrote The Social Contract, which had a significant bearing on the French revolution, as exemplified by Rousseau’s cry for ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.’ The Social Contract produced the famous line, “man is born free, but everywhere is in chains.” This work remains a cornerstone in modern political theory, but has roots in ancient Greece and Rome.

In 1762 Rousseau published the novel, Emile. Its critique of the monarchy and government bureaucracy got him into hot water with the authorities. To avoid arrest he retreated to Switzerland, ultimately to end up in England with the support of the philosopher David Hume.

Rousseau later wrote his Confessions and returned to Paris in 1767, ignoring the threat of an outstanding arrest warrant. He continued to write but became hypersensitive to perceived threats. Some of these threats may have been real and others exaggerated. For instance, he believed that Hume was conspiring against him, which may have been partly true. And Voltaire accused him of burning down the theater at Geneva in 1768.²

Devon Hollahan – Paranoid android via Flickr

Some say that Rousseau was paranoid during this period. But I prefer to think of him as confusing actual and perceived threats.

When people are threatened, possibly traumatized and lied to, and all they have is their intuition to guide them, it’s hardly surprising that they make interpretive mistakes. They sense the bad vibes from others, which are real. But unless they train themselves to treat every perceived threat as a hypothesis instead of a fact, they could become overwhelmed and see some non-threats as threats.³

Rousseau also took some heat for his views on religion, which challenged both Catholic and Calvinist teachings. Rousseau was a precursor to those Romantics who see God in natural creation and society as something other and potentially corrupting. He rejected the belief in original sin and was upset that his views gained much criticism while the religious authorities were indifferent to the atheistic philosophers of the day.4

Related » Enlightenment

The house where Rousseau was born at number 40, Grand-Rue. – Wikipedia

¹ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-Jacques_Rousseau

² Ibid. Hume had offered to filter and forward Rousseau’s more important incoming mail, to which Rousseau agreed. But there is some evidence that Hume also read Rousseau’s outgoing mail, which was not agreed upon. This only goes to show that creeps who somehow think they’re justified in violating personal privacy – just because they can – have been around for a very long time. It’s not something unique to the cyber age.

³ Of course, it’s not easy to support or reject these hypotheses because some threatening people are pathological liars and polished fakers. As for those generating the bad vibes, I believe God will deal with them – fairly – in good time.

4 This situation has been tentatively explained by the sociological “in-group / out-group” theory. According the theory, people in an in-group feel more threatened or irritated by an out-group when the out-group shares some but not all of the in-group’s views and practices. So for example, some Americans and Canadians look down on and insult one another because inhabitants share some but not all elements with the other country. But neither Americans nor Canadians become emotionally invested or insulting toward peaceful, faraway lands that are fundamentally different. Most just couldn’t care less. It’s the partial similarity that stirs up discontent between in-groups and out-groups.

 Trump and the ‘Society of the Spectacle’ (3quarksdaily.com)

  New New Left Ideology Controls the Democratic Party (americanthinker.com)

 The Concept of Facts Is Newer Than You Think (time.com)

 Scots sick and tired of Sturgeon’s independence referendum ‘rabble rousing’ (express.co.uk)

 Eurozone economy overtakes UK as France and Germany accelerate (telegraph.co.uk)

 [Nelson Lund] Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Not a nut, not a leftist and not an irresponsible intellectual (washingtonpost.com)


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Reversal – Beyond the clever machine

300-2In psychoanalytic theory, reversal is a Freudian defense mechanism.

A broader idea than turning against the self, reversal takes place when the ego converts an instinctual impulse into behavior appearing as its opposite. The miser becomes a philanthropist, the pervert a prude, the hater a lover.¹

Remember that Freud bases most everything on the instincts of life (eros) and death (thanatos). So reversal involves aspects and combinations of both waking and dreaming life:

The expression reversal into the opposite refers to the transformation of an idea, a representation, a logical figure, a dream image, a symptom, an affect, or the like into its opposite.²

Freud’s entire model is predicated on the belief that the psyche behaves like a clever machine or, in more contemporary terms, an adaptable computer program. For Freud, a variety of internal attempts are made to reduce anxiety and increase overall functioning. Sometimes the “program” works well. Other times it gets buggy (neurosis) or caught in a downward spiral where the machine crashes (psychosis), requiring a reboot.

Reversal is just another example of the clever machine trying to make things optimal, given its paradoxical life/death nature.

My main critique of this view is that all of the regulating is done within the machine. Even dreams that play with, combine or synthesize different moments in space-time are seen as originating from within the neurological system (mainly brain processes).

Compare this view to most religious and mystical traditions and it seems to fall short. A recent example, given the time of year, is how the three wise men in the New Testament are told in a dream to not return to King Herod³ after they find the Christ child. So the three wise men go home another way (Matt 2:12).

Granted, this is a religious story and we have no way of publicly demonstrating its truth. But it does suggest possibilities: Dreams could come from God or otherworldly agents beyond the clever machine. The brain could simply be reading a story, just like a media player plays a video or a radio plays a station. Not many would say a video player actually directs a movie or the radio writes the tune.4

Being a materialist atheist, Freud would not have seriously considered this perspective. And  I think that this, despite his obvious genius, was his greatest shortcoming.

¹ We see this with some religious people who talk about love but underneath harbor hateful, violent thoughts that sometimes erupt into deadly action.

² See http://www.encyclopedia.com/psychology/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/reversal-opposite

³ Beforehand, Herod lies to the wise men, saying he wants to honor instead of kill Jesus.

Freud’s student Carl Jung mentions the latter analogy, well before the idea of “channeling” becomes mainstream.


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Plato’s Republic – A far-reaching attempt to understand life and eternity

Allegory_of_the_Cave (Plato)

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave (Wikipedia)

The Republic is a political, philosophical and literary work by the ancient Greek Plato. Written in dialog form around 380 BCE, it reads more like a play than a dry treatise on philosophy, maths, political theory or the arts.

Plato writes a fictional discussion among Athenians and foreigners. The outcome of these contrived debates advances Plato’s ideas, as presented by the literary character of Socrates,  Plato’s real-life teacher.

Questions like the nature of justice, virtue, truth and beauty are examined. Also, a contrast is set up between the world of becoming (our visible world) and the world of being (an eternal world that informs our visible world).

This dialectic permeates the entire discussion. Not unlike some of the ancient Chinese sages, Plato’s eye on eternity influences how he understands society, rulers, and the arts.

For Plato, the philosopher-king is the best kind of ruler. So the Republic does not advocate democracy (Greek: strength of the people), even though democracy is an ancient Greek invention, traceable to the 6th century BCE.

Today, many take the idea of democracy as a good in itself. We hardly stop to think if there might be a better way (except for tyrants, communists and non-democratic socialists). But it is conceivable that the majority isn’t always right or best.¹ And that’s how Plato saw it.

From the House of T. Siminius Stephanus, Pompeii

Plato’s Academy – Roman mosaic from Pompeii, 1st century BCE (Wikipedia)

Just as a doctor is specially trained to heal citizens, for Plato an enlightened ruler is uniquely endowed to govern subjects. But not everyone is able to recognize the best ruler. And for Plato the vast majority of citizens are ill-suited to the task of selecting one.

The Republic groups society into four classes of gold, silver, bronze and iron. Individuals (ideally) fulfill the duties that nature has allotted to their social class.

This is reminiscent of the Indian caste system, although Hinduism traditionally legitimizes social inequality through myth and spirituality, not so much through nature.

via Vimeo

via Vimeo

Christianity too speaks of different members of one spiritual body, each having his or her own role: Hands, feet, head, heart, etc.²

On a deeper level, The Republic also presents Plato’s popular ‘cave analogy.’ This illustrates his views about a link between worldly change and eternity. The cave analogy goes as follows:

Prisoners in a cave have been there since birth. Bound to a chair, they face a wall with a fire some distance behind them. Their captors come and go, always walking between the fire and the prisoners’ backs. So the captors and the stuff they transport are always seen by the prisoners as shadows on the cave wall. The prisoners cannot see anything else so assume the shadows are reality.

If a prisoner were dragged up the slope leading to the cave entrance, his or her eyes would be temporarily blinded by the sunlight. Once their eyes adjusted, however, the free prisoner would see a far greater reality than the world of shadows.

Supposing the prisoner were to reenter the cave, they again would be temporarily blinded, this time by a lack of light. When their eyes readjusted to the darkness, the shadows would reappear. But the prisoner now knows these are mere shadows and not reality, as he or she had previously believed. And he or she would probably feel sorry for those who did not know the difference

A Renaissance manuscript Latin translation of ...

A Renaissance manuscript Latin translation of The Republic (Wikipedia)

In this analogy, the shadows represent the ever-changing world of daily life. The world above the cave entrance represents an eternal, unchanging reality that Plato calls the realm of the Forms. For Plato, only the Forms are real because our mundane world is subject to change and lacks permanence.

Toward the end of The Republic, “The Myth of Er” outlines Plato’s belief in reincarnation and the immortality of the soul.

Many see The Republic as a landmark in literature, education, philosophy, politics and theology. Influential throughout Europe in the Middles Ages, it continues to inspire in the modern age.

For me, this was one of the first ‘mind-blowing’ books that I encountered in my youth. And even though I’ve moved beyond it in my own thinking, I will always respect Plato because he provided a model, however embryonic, to help make sense of my early spiritual experiences.4

¹ Consider how the vast majority of scientists – at least, those who have received funding – maintain that climate change is bad for the planet. But what if, say, an asteroid hits which causes a deep freeze, and that extra ½º of temperature saves humanity from extinction? Far-fetched, to be sure. But like Plato’s scenario, a hypothetical example where the majority would not be correct.

² Funny how this photo has a white hand on top. A little bit racist? The Christian notion of “one body” can also be used by sexists to suggest that women and men have definite, different roles.

³ This is my retelling, partly based on philosophy lectures given by Dr. Robert Carter at Trent University. See original text: http://www.historyguide.org/intellect/allegory.html

4 A sampling of some of the topics covered in this diverse work:

pl1

(studyplace.org)

Related » Archetype, Archetypal Image, Aristotle, AtlantisSri Aurobindo, Blessed Isles, Boethius, Church Fathers, Dionysius the Areopagite, Gorgias, Meno, Neoplatonism, Plotinus, Proclus, Socrates, Skepticism, Solon, Sophists, Timeus, Universalism


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Repression – Freud’s master defense mechanism

defend-444565_640We’ve probably all heard the psychological term “repressed” without stopping to think where it comes from.

The idea of repression usually turns up in sentences like, That bible thumper is so repressed, he can’t get it on with anyone. And in other insinuations like Billy Joel’s lyric, You Catholic girls start much too late.¹

I’ll talk about these examples a bit later but first, let’s understand what Freud meant by the idea of repression.

Freud believed that repression is widespread, leading many Freudian psychoanalysts to call it the “master” defense mechanism. Repression apparently occurs when anxiety provoking impulses or ideas are banished to the unconscious by the ego or superego.

  • Primary repression takes place when instinctual impulses are blocked before they reach consciousness.
  • Secondary repression occurs when camouflaged versions of an initial impulse are relegated to the unconscious.

An example of secondary repression would be a respected religious figure’s inability to remember a dream image of himself as an axe-murderer. The image generally would represent thanatos or the death instinct and, specifically, a desire to depose a threatening object (Freud’s use of ‘object’ includes other people). This violent desire is inconsistent with the dreamer’s conscious self-image, so the dream image is repressed.

Repression can be healthy when preventing the ego from being overwhelmed by anxiety. But it becomes unhealthy when fears and neuroses are never dealt with. Unresolved neuroses contribute to psychological rigidity and, in some instances, may impair overall functioning and quality of life.²

Image via Tumblr

Image via Tumblr

That’s the theory in a nutshell. With regard to sexuality, from a theological standpoint it’s hard to know when someone is merely repressed or if they’ve been called to celibacy, a perspective Freud could not understand. Also, some geneticists and physiologists theorize that people with low to non-existent sex drives are simply put together differently.

So the next time you hear a sexual joke about that “frigid” so-and-so, maybe think again. For all we know, the so-called “repressed” person might simply be different from most and possibly operating on a level that many are too conventional to appreciate.³

¹ Billy Joel, “Only The Good Die Young” on the album The Stranger.

² Freud began as a neurologist before founding psychoanalysis. For some decades supposedly “scientific” psychologists generally discredited his views but more recently neurology is turning its gaze back to the idea of repression and other Freudian concepts. This time, instead of flatly debunking Freud’s ideas, some researchers find them at least partly compatible with modern research. See:

³ Andy Warhol and saints from different world religions come to mind.