Political Pathology And The Inability To Accept Love

In a post on ‘the underestimation of the capacity to love‘ I wrote of its converse, ‘the inability to accept love’:

That inability, that lowered view of oneself, the judgment that one is unworthy of the love, caring and commitment that is sent our way by our lovers, parents, children, and friends, leads many to reject the intimacy and caring of long-term relationships, the kind that require sacrifice and commitment. It causes the pushing away of partners, the cringing from their touch, the turning away. Those who do so suffer from impostor syndrome: If only the truth about me were to be known, no one would love me, least of all the ones professing their undying love for me.

This inability has a political dimension to it, which is alluded to in my original post: those suffering from it–that is, most of us–render themselves susceptible to political pathology. We cannot imagine ourselves the subjects of a state underwritten by benevolence; we do not imagine ourselves worthy of such an arrangement, part of a community founded on the desire to work toward a common, shared good; instead, we cast ourselves adrift, sometimes seeking the fool’s gold of ‘liberal’ political goods like ‘self-determination,’ ‘individuality,’ ‘independence,’ and ‘autonomy.’ Because we think we are unworthy of care and affection directed at us by others, we valorize instead the solitary, turning a self-imposed necessity into a virtue.

And because we imagine ourselves unworthy of ‘political love’ we are afraid to ask for what is our due; we accept all too readily the abuse of those who govern us. We imagine we deserve no better; we are sinners, always begging for forgiveness; we dare not ask–or fight–for our rights. We accept the handouts sent our way, the grudging political pittances that we imagine are our actual dues. Authoritarian and totalitarian regimes are sometimes surprised by the ready acquiescence of those they seek to rule; their rule is underwritten and facilitated by this kind of ready acceptance of their peremptory commands.  Rule us; for we are unworthy of anything else. We will not even ask for the satisfaction of our most basic human wants: a roof over our heads, clothing, shelter, and care of us when we are sick and infirm. The political subject who imagines himself unworthy of the love of his fellow citizens is all too ready to be possessed of a vengeful, retributive, spirit; he is all too ready to believe tales of the wickedness that surrounds him. I am fallen among the fallen; do with what you will; like me, they are unworthy of love, of giving or receiving it. The political self-abnegation here is complete.

Note: The political and psychological phenomena described above are exceedingly familiar. Humanist criticism of religion and the state begins from such standpoint; it urges us to view ourselves in a more kindly light, to accept ourselves more readily as a preliminary to letting our fellow political and social subjects into our homes and hearts.

William James on the Selectivity of Consciousness According to Human Interests

A couple of days ago, I noted humanism‘s affinities with pragmatism, and quoted William James to cement that claim. Today, I want to point to James’ treatment of consciousness to show how fundamental human interests are in his philosophy of mind. (This post is cribbed from Patrick Kiaran Dooley‘s Pragmatism as Humanism: The Philosophy of Willam James, Nelson-Hall Publishing, Chicago, 1974, pp. 42-52. All James quotes below are taken from Dooley’s citations from Principles of Psychology.)

For James, our consciousness influences our behavior and our actions by selection from data presented to it (via attention); what guides and regulates this selection and attention are our practical, aesthetic, religious and ethical interests. We first become aware of the world via sensational contact with it (these sensations are already knowledge for James). This data of awareness of the world around us is then enriched by differentiating it and noticing relationships among its different aspects. But these relationships that we notice, the aspects we attend to, are not just those that are presented to us most frequently; they ‘stand out’ because they are of interest to us. We perceive that which we attend to and we attend to that which interests us. In sensory attention:

The only things we commonly see are those which we preperceive and the only things we preperceive are those which have been labeled for us, and the labels stamped on our mind.

In perceiving, consciousness is selective in isolating a group of sensible qualities which, because ‘they are most constant, interesting or practically important, we regard as the most essential constituents of the thing.’ It also selects among these to appoint some as typical or ‘correct’ representatives of the object in question:

Out of all the visual magnitudes of each known object we have selected one as the real one  to think of and degraded all the others to serve as its signs. This ‘real’ magnitude is determined by aesthetic and practical interests.

Some representations are promoted to the status of ‘true’; others to that of ‘signs.’ This follows simply from the fact that ‘true representations’ are perceived from the most practically advantageous positions.

For James there is no such thing as a pure sensation; all is interpreted first. We do not experience the world passively but actively act on the data available to us. Our attention does a great deal of work: by settling again and again on the most ‘useful’ presentations it turns them into ‘experience.’ But it is driven by our interests, which determine the how and the what of our experiences.

And this then further leads to our construction of what is real, of what we consider reality – the ‘common sense world.’ Here objects appear of interest and importance to us. To call an object ‘real’ is merely to indicate a reference to ourselves because our cognitive relationship to the world is ‘affective’, not dispassionately objective:

[We] give what seems to us a still higher degree of reality to whatever things we select and emphasize and turn to with a will.

The affective component of our selves thus determines what we consider ‘real’: the objects of our beliefs are related to our interests. This extends to all levels, so that even the most ‘basic’ entities of the world are those that bear an acute relation to our interests, ranging from the most practical to the most sublime. In our conceptions of the world, we are constantly selecting and rejecting according to these:

Whichever one of these aspects of its being I temporarily classify it under, makes me unjust to other aspects. But as I am always classing it under one aspect or another, I am always unjust, always partial, always exclusive. My excuse is necessity–the necessity which my finite and practical nature lays upon me.

   Our purposes determine our conceptions of the world, its so-called ‘essential properties’ but:

Reality overflows these purposes at every core. Our usual purpose with it, our commonest title for it, and the properties which this title suggests, have in reality nothing sacramental. They characterize us more than they characterize things. 

Thus even in the most basic sizing up of the world, in our determinations of ‘what is,’ we cannot eliminate the human. We are mixed up in the cement of the universe.

Beware the Easily Defined Philosophical Term

Over the course of my philosophy career, I’ve come to realize I sometimes use technical philosophical terms without an exceedingly determinate conception of their precise meaning. But I do, however, know how to use them in a particular philosophical context that will make sense to an interlocutor–reader, discussant, student–who has a background similar to mine. (Perhaps this is all that is required with just about any word? What more could be required after all? But I digress.) Thus, I muddle through, talking about philosophy, writing on it, teaching it, debating it. Heck, I’ve made a career out of it.

A classic example of an ambiguous, yet useful and widely used term is ‘humanism.’ I made heavy use of it in the first paper I wrote in graduate school, in a paper on Marx and Feuerbach‘s views on religion. I described Marx and Feuerbach (and possibly Hegel) as humanists, referred to the Young Marx as an arch-humanist in distinguishing him from the Later ‘Das Kapital‘ Marx, and so on. Over the years though, I’ve come to sense that I don’t have a real handle on the term other than to say it refers to ‘human-centered philosophies.’ When asked to explicate that term, I launch into various examples: early Marxism, existentialism, secularism–stress its affinities–philosophical naturalism, for instance–and point to other schools of thought that employ the term, like, say, renaissance humanism. Within the context of these examples, I am then able to try to clarify what is meant by ‘human-centered.’ This past fall, when introducing students to existentialism via Sartre–besides the obvious import of the slogan that ‘(human) existence precedes (human) essence’–I stressed his claim that Sartrean existentialism is humanism because it emphasizes, centrally, the human freedom and ability to make choices. And as I’ve mentioned affinities above, it is worth mentioning humanism’s affinities with pragmatism. In particular, William James, who took ‘humanism’ to describe his pragmatism, offers us some wonderful characterizations of it:

[I]t is impossible to strip the human element out from even our most abstract theorizing

[T]o an unascertainable extent our truths are man-made products.

The ambiguity of philosophical terms should not be too shocking: many philosophical terms have been employed in a wide variety of disciplinary contexts; they have extensive histories of usage and thus resist precise definition (as Nietzsche usefully pointed out a long time ago); they are used to clarify, extend, and resolve philosophical debates in more than one arena of disputation; sometimes, they are drawn from different languages and then encountered in translation; they often enjoy extensive deployment in non-philosophical contexts, and thus create ambiguities between antecedent and  current usage. Furthermore, philosophical traditions that stress conceptual analysis can sometimes exacerbate the confusion: by emphasizing necessary and sufficient conditions for usage, they risk smoothing out, by force and fiat, the rough, serrated edges of meaning that make the term as useful and ubiquitous as it has been.

A philosophical term that is all too easily defined should make us just a little suspicious about its  usefulness.