Monday, 1 September 2014

Genteel Humanism

I notice the word ‘humanist’ being used by Americans to refer to those that study the humanities and regard the liberal arts generally as a source of the values that form civilisation. Is it a revival of the Renaissance usage which with its opposition to Scholasticism had a secular cast? Modern British usage of the term ‘humanist’ retains this and has displaced the need to attach the qualifier ‘secular’.

Is this an American ‘genteelism’ or may we see in it the continuous attempt to banish religious values to the margins? Very likely both I think.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Owen Glendower by John Cowper Powys

I'm just starting Owen Glendower by John Cowper Powys. I may be gone for some time.

And then there fell on him “like a clap of thunder and a fall of mist” a curious cessation of all movement of time. Time stopped; and something else, another dimension altogether, took its place; and in that deep time-vacuum with an absolute naturalness – helped doubtless by the calm assumption of his horse that he was doing what he always did – he drew his crusader's sword out of its sheath and lifting it high into the air rode forward.

Powys is a jealous god. I can't read The Wife of Martin Guere by Janet Lewis along with 'Owen' though it is a precise, worthy recreation. The zany irrealism of the one turns the other into an impeccable theme park tableau which it is not of course. Time travel is pitted against reconstruction. The temporal floor gives way abetted by a chapter that is measured in breaths as our hero faces the longbowmen plucking their taut strings like tuning murderers.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

William James and Henri Bergson

Bergson and James were friendly and corresponded, the latter aiding in the English translation of Creative Evolution for which he planned to write an introduction but died a year before it came out in 1911. Matter and Memory is a complex work with idiosyncratic uses of 'representation','perception', and 'image'. In broad terms he holds to a developmental view of our conceptual schema. We start life in the midst of things, the blooming, buzzing confusion of James and gradually begin to particularise not by abstraction which is a mature procedure but by innate responses which get laid down in memory and trammelled up with perception. He therefore held that the British Empiricists attempt to account for the sort of schema we have is a sort of futile reverse engineering.

(from Principles of Psychology by William James)
The noticing of any part whatever of our object is an act of discrimination. Already on p. 404 I have described the manner in which we often spontaneously lapse into the undiscriminating state, even with regard to objects which we have already learned to distinguish. Such anæsthetics as chloroform, nitrous oxide, etc., sometimes bring about transient lapses even more total, in which numerical discrimination especially seems gone; for one sees light and hears sound, but whether one or many lights and sounds is quite impossible to tell. Where the parts of an object have already been discerned, and each made the object of a special discriminative act, we can with difficulty feel the object again in its pristine unity; and so prominent may our consciousness of its composition be, that we may hardly believe that it ever could have appeared undivided. But this is an erroneous view, the undeniable fact being that any number of impressions, from any number of sensory sources, falling simultaneously on a mind WHICH HAS NOT YET EXPERIENCED THEM SEPARATELY, will fuse into a single undivided object for that mind. The law is that all things fuse that can fuse, and nothing separates except what must. What makes impressions separate we have to study in this chapter. Although they separate easier if they come in through distinct nerves, yet distinct nerves are not an unconditional ground of their discrimination, as we shall presently see. The baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once, feels it all as one great blooming, buzzing confusion; and to the very end of life, our location of all things in one space is due to the fact that the original extents or bignesses of all the sensations which came to our notice at once, coalesced together into one and the same space. There is no other reason than this why "the hand I touch and see coincides spatially with the hand I immediately feel" 

(from Matter and Memory by Henri Bergson)
Whence arises, then, this idea of an external world constructed artificially, piece by piece, out of unextended sensations, though we can neither understand how they come to form an extended surface, nor how they are subsequently projected outside our body? Why insist, in spite of appearances, that I should go from my conscious self to my body, then (pg 45) from my body to other bodies, whereas in fact I place myself at once in the material world in general, and then gradually cut out within it the centre of action which I shall come to call my body and to distinguish from all others? - There are so many illusions gathered round this belief in the originally unextended character of our external perception; there are, in the idea that we project outside ourselves states which are purely internal, so many misconceptions, so many lame answers to badly stated questions, that we cannot hope to throw light on the whole subject at once.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Manas and Mind

Elisa Freschi reporting from a conference:
In this connection, Viktorya Lysenko aptly noted that one should be aware that manas cannot be translated as ‘mind’, since it is unconscious.

I have written about the inert mind in Advaita:

It seems to me fundamentally mistaken to deprecate the word ‘mind’ as a translation for the Sanskrit word ‘manas’ for the simple and sufficient reason that the reading of philosophy would become impossible even in the native language of the reader. We become aware after even a very short acquaintance with the subject that everything is in contention. Every possible topic seems merely a finger post directing us towards swirling fogs and quaking bogs. Does David Chalmers mean by consciousness what the Churchlands would accept, not to speak of Dennett who denies that there is such a thing. One could multiply examples ad nauseam. I submit that reading in our native language requires virtual ‘translation’ and that actual translation is analogous. The conventional translation of ‘mind’ for ‘manas’ is a finger post at one remove as it were. We must always be alert to the nuances of speaker’s meaning.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

The Server by Tim Parks

Tim Parks is living the life of a successful writer and translator in Tuscany with views of vineyards probably. The enormous tragedy of the dream in the peasant's bent shoulders, well this peasant anyway. I agree that somebody has to do it but there was a fly in the ointment; constant and severe pelvic pain. He tried everything until he came across a book that suggested that his symptoms were due to pelvic clenching. The technical term is 'tight assed'. The intensity of being an ambulant writerly brain combined with a natural propensity for tension was ruining his life. Finally he came to vipassana or insight meditation which involves a very strenuous 10 day programme of sitting for hours at a time, observing silence and eschewing the distractions of mobile phones, reading and writing. It's an ancient Therevada practice and though I have my doubts about the Annica/Annata (Momentariness/NoSelf)doctrine which underpins it I admit that, at this level of the Pre-Reflective, doctrine falls away. For Parks it was a way of engaging with his pain which cut the knot and healed him. This is the basis of his book Teach Us to Sit Still and the summary I offer is from reviews. I must read it sometime.

What has this to do with the book which I read recently called The Server (pub.2012)? It is in my view the recycling of his observations of the types that frequent those courses and his recollections of the mental states and physical torments that accompany sitting in meditation for several hours a day. The Server of the title is a young woman who after a near drowning caused by her plunging into a stormy sea stoned and drawing others after her by daring them to follow. One of them in a coma and may not survive. She, Beth Marriot, has take refuge in this meditation centre and at the time the book opens has been there for 10 months working as a server in the kitchen preparing food, cleaning the toilets doing Seva or service. For this she gets her keep and the access to the regular meditation practice in the hall or strong determination as they call it. We have the privileged access to her mind courtesy of Parks and in the best tradition of sarvasunyavada (Nihilism or the Scholiasts of the Void) it is entirely solus ipse. She was before this catastrophe a singer and guitar player in a band called 'Pocus'. She is a wild child, a free spirit, promiscuous with a taste for men the age of her father who really wanted a son and not three daughters. The dots are very close. Parks has risked a novel whose protagonist is somewhat narcissistic and therefore lacking in insight. Despite all the strenuous sitting very little karma is burnt and so her mental travelling is in tight little circles. There isn't going to be a breakthrough which is often the truth. We sense very well her flailing about because she is unripe. Start Early, Drive Slowly, Reach Safely was a motto I saw once in a Indian Ashram. Here in this centre it's Drive at speed, maybe Crash and Burn.

It's chancy presenting an unsympathetic needy character who messes with the lives of those around them. Contra the rules as a server she has access to the mens' rooms and snoops in their belongings hoping to find them also breaking the rules. One man is keeping a journal,bold boy, about his failing marriage, failing business and daughter who has taken up with a much older drunk. This retreat is to fashion an interregnum and fortify him, an escape in other words. Has no one read the words of the Buddha, approximately, 'Because I got nothing out of this enlightenment it is a surpassing enlightenment'.

Beth's to and fro this journal and her relationship to the other servers and mentors is well drawn. The novel being bounded by a single centre of action and consciousness could have failed but the boring aspects of the self-involved can be delineated without toppling into tedium itself. Parks reaches safely. Worth reading.

Monday, 18 August 2014

A.E. Taylor on Soul and Body

This citation from A.E. Taylor on The Problem of Soul and Body ( Elements of Metaphysics) is so perspicuous and stated with such clarity that I feel that it ought to be quoted in full. Henri Bergson in his Matter and Memory likewise disputes the mind/body dichotomy and with his particular usage of the concept of representation and image attempts to navigate the straits of Realism and Idealism. He's like the Mylesian Dublin tradesman when shown a Georgian dining room with its magnificent plasterwork says:
all this will have to come down, yis' are lucky if the joyces (joists) aren't rotten. His views will be treated in a further post.

I will conclude this chapter with some considerations on the bearing of our result upon the special problems of Metaphysics. We have explicitly defended Interaction as being no statement of actual experienced fact, but a working hypothesis for the convenient correlation of two scientific constructions, neither of which directly corresponds to the actualities of experience. This means, of course, that Interaction cannot possibly be the final truth for Metaphysics. It cannot ultimately be the " fact" that " mind " and " body " are things which react upon each other, because, as we have seen, neither "mind" nor "body" is an actual datum of experience; for direct experience and its social relations, the duality subsequently created by the construction of a physical order simply has no existence. Nor can it be maintained that this duality, though not directly given as a datum, is a concept which has to be assumed in order to make experience consistent with itself, and is therefore the truth. For the concept of Interaction manifestly reposes upon the logically prior conception of the physical as a rigidly mechanical system. It is because we have first constructed the notion of the " body " on rigidly mechanical lines that we have subsequently to devise the concept of " mind " or " soul" as a means of recognising and symbolising in our science the non-mechanical character of actual human life. And since we have already seen that the mechanical, as such, cannot be real, this whole scheme of a mechanical and a non-mechanical system in causal relation with one another can only be an imperfect substitute for the Reality it is intended to symbolise.
In fact, we might have drawn the same conclusion from the very fact that the psychophysical hypothesis we have adopted is couched in terms of Transeunt Causality, since we have already satisfied ourselves that all forms of the causal postulate are more or less defective appearance.
The proposition that the psychophysical theory of the " connection " of " body " and " mind " is an artificial transformation, due to the needs of empirical science, of the actual teleological unity of human experience, is sometimes expressed by the statement that mind and body are really one and the same thing. In its insistence upon the absence of the psychophysical duality from actual experience, this saying is correct enough, but it perhaps fails to express the truth with sufficient precision. For, as it stands, the saying conveys no hint of the very different levels on which the two concepts stand in respect to the degree of truth with which they reproduce the purposive teleological character of real human experience. It would perhaps be nearer the mark to say that, while the physiologist's object, the "body," and the psychologist's object, the " mind," are alike conceptual symbols, substituted, from special causes, for the single subject of actual life, and may both be therefore said to " mean " or " stand for " the same thing, their actual content is different. For what in the language of physiology I call my " body " includes only those processes of actual life which approximate to the mechanical ideal sufficiently closely to be capable of being successfully treated as merely mechanical, and therefore brought under a scheme of general" laws " of nature. Whereas what, as a psychologist, I call my "mind" or "soul," though it includes processes of an approximately mechanical type, includes them only as subordinate to the initiation of fresh individual reactions against environment which can only be adequately expressed by teleological categories. Thus, though " mind " and " body " in a sense mean the same actual thing, the one stands for a fuller and clearer view of its true nature than the other. In Dr. Stout's terminology their intent may be the same, but their content is different.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Holy Wisdom by Augustine Baker

It’s virtually like the dissolution of the monasteries; the gradual emptying of convents, seminaries, houses of retreat and novitiates as the numbers of clergy dwindle and the remnants move in strategic withdrawal their tattered banners to modest dwellings. They often sell up their libraries. Charlie Byrne must buy them by the yard. For 2 Euro I bought copies of Holy Wisdom by Augustine Baker and Abandonment to Divine Providence by De Caussade both cloth in excellent condition. ‘Abandonment’ I have previously read but not ‘Wisdom’. Together with my reading of A Serious Call I ought to be firmly invigilated.

In practical terms their knowledge of the workings of the mind in both natural and supernatural dimensions was excellent foreseeing by centuries the findings of modern depth psychology. Here Baker writes on 'Scruples’ aka O.C.D.:

3. The special kind of fear, the mortification of which we are now to treat of, is such an one as is incident more particularly to tender devout souls (especially women) that pursue the exercises of a contemplative life, the which is usually called scrupulosity, which is a mixed kind of passion, the most contrary to that peace of mind necessary in a spiritual course of any other, as being envenomed with whatsoever causes anxiety and inward torments almost in all other passions. It regards sin and hell the most abhorred and most terrible objects of all others; and it is composed of all the bitternesses that are found in fear, despair, ineffectual desires, uncertainty of judgment, jealousy, &c. ; and penetrating to the very mind and spirit, obscuring and troubling the understanding (our only director), and torturing the will, by plucking it violently contrary ways almost at the same time, it causes the most pestilent disorders that a well-meaning soul is capable of, insomuch as if it be obstinately cherished, it sometimes ends in direct frenzy, or, which is worse, a desperate forsaking of all duties of virtue and piety. And
where it is in a less degree, yet it causes images so distracting, so deeply penetrating, and so closely sticking to the mind, and by consequence is so destructive to prayer with recollectedness, that it deserves all care and prudence to be used for the preventing or expelling it
4. For which purpose I will here, according to the best light that God has given me, afford such tender souls as are upon this rack of scrupulosity the best advises I can ; and such as if they will have the courage to practice accordingly, I do not doubt, but through God's help, they will be preserved from the dangerous consequences of such a passion. I shall insist with more than an ordinary copiousness upon this subject, because this so dangerous a passion is but too ordinary among souls of the best dispositions.

He has a short aside for the likes of myself:

6. I do protest, therefore, against all extroverted livers, or any of different tempers and exercises that shall presume to apply or assume unto themselves any indulgences, &c., here not belonging to them ; for tney will but mislead themselves, and reap harm by so doing. It seldom falls out that such persons have a fear of a sin committed, or of the mortal heinousness of it, but that it is very likely that it is such an one, and has been committed; and therefore, for no difficulty of nature, nor for the avoiding of trouble of mind, ought they to expect any dispensations from due examinations of their conscience, express
confessions, &c. Whereas a thousand to one the forementioned tender souls do take those for mortal sins which are mere temptations, yea, perhaps pure mistakes ; and therefore to oblige them to such strict examinations or confessions would only nourish their most distracting anguishes of mind and furnish them with new matters of scrupulosity.

What excellent writing in style and in substance. Holy Wisdom is available in all ereader formats on Internet Archive in a fair scan.
holy wisdom