Sunday, June 12, 2011

Beaches And Minds

Today I went to Alki beach. Sure was a nice place. Burnt my tongue on some fish and chips. Read a book on the beach. Got my feet wet with cold water. Got sand all over me. It was a really nice time. The weather was super nice.

At the beach I continued to read Roger Smith's Being Human. I"m finding it quite compelling. It is slow going, a difficult read. He is dealing with very large disciplinary divides and making a lot of sense. I am so interested in how the bulk of the references are historical. The book, in many ways, is a history of epistemological beliefs in the natural and human sciences. Really enjoying it.

It is really the perfect thing for me to be reading right now. Especially with this new writing that I'm going to be doing. I am pleased because I think that what I'm really doing is picking up on a line of thought that I first began developing in my essay on the 'genealogy of the modern mind'. In that essay I was trying to explain how theory of mind had to become a historically informed project. To speak of a mind in the abstract, without a context, is inadequate. Not that it isn't useful. In fact, the scientific and philosophical analysis of minds in the abstract, like Alvin Goldman's work, is essential. But I don't think that it goes far enough. It doesn't offer us a way of changing our minds, working with our minds. It just describes minds for the sake of description. I think that if this type of theory of mind would be of much greater practical use if it were augmented by historical knowledge.

Smith's work is taking significant steps in this direction. His analysis of the idea of 'reflexive knowledge' seems pretty important. The idea is that we cannot propound any knowledge of 'human nature' without augmenting the way that people behave in the real world. The study of humans as an object makes real changes in the constitution of humans as subjects. Knowledge of humans is reflexive, the process of studying us changes us.

At the end of my essay on the genealogy of the modern mind I concluded that the project would have to result in us actively working to transform ourselves. How to do this, however, was not clear to me. So my new essay on relationships will be addressing that issue. How to use historical study to augment theory of mind so as to make it useful in actively transforming people's minds and worlds.

That is why the essay will move from the issue of minds, to the issue of habits, to the issue of mediums, to the solutions contained in a historically oriented theory of mind. What I'll be getting at is that we can't understand our own minds with a simple theory of mind. That we have to reckon with our minds at the level of habit. And that means we have to reckon with the question of the mediums that influence and create our habits. And to reckon with mediums is to reckon with culture, and thus to reckon with history.

I also think that the new essay in someways is about developing a philosophical defense of compassion. Because I believe that one of the implications of the historical approach to the mind is that we have to work a lot harder at compassion. I'm not sure how state this concisely right now. But it seems to be that if we begin thinking about the way our behavioral patterns are historically constituted, then we have to work harder to explain actions we find deplorable. It is what Collingwood calls absolute ethics: "The agent is now conscious of himself as absolute mind, and of every other agent, whether in agreement with himself or not, as coequal with himself. This means that he ceases to regard himself or his country or his party as in the right and everybody else in the wrong, but he regards all actions as manifestations of a will which is always and necessarily rational even when 'in the wrong', and therefore never wholly in the wrong. He thus sympathizes even with his opponents, and in proportion as he becomes truly rational he ceases to regard any one as an unmitigated opponent, but sees in every one a fellow-worker with himself in the cause of the good.... In absolute ethics the agent identifies himself with the entire world of fact, and in coming to understand this world prepares himself for the action appropriate to the unique situation" (304-5, my italics).

I look forward to finishing Smith's book. I also look forward to reading Elaine Scarry. I look forward to writing my new essay on relationships and history.

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