Martin Buber. The Knowledge of Man

I was moved by Martin Buber’s book ‘I and Thou’, which was read and discussed by the Philosophy of Education Reading Network in August 2021, so I was looking forward to reading more by Buber. The Knowledge of Man was the choice of the reading network for discussion in June this year (2022) and I managed to secure a second-hand copy of the book, in very good condition, from Abe Books, my go to site for books to be read with this group. I prefer to have a hard copy than read these books online or on Kindle. So, I was prepared and enthused at the thought of discussing this book, but life and personal circumstances got in the way. Not only was I not able to read much of the book, but, due to many distractions, what little time I did have to devote to the book ended up as largely fruitless. Ultimately, I was only able to skim read a couple of chapters, in this distracted state, and I was not able to attend the zoom meeting when the book was discussed. The time was just not right for me to engage with this book.

But maybe it wasn’t only my personal circumstances that led to my failure to get to grips with this book. Whenever I find a book difficult, I hunt around for secondary sources, to learn from people who have appeared to understand the work, before launching into it myself. This time this did not yield much fruit. Unlike Buber’s ‘I and Thou’ which has been written about and discussed by many, many others (there are countless secondary sources on the web), I could find scarcely any secondary sources for The Knowledge of Man. Perhaps I was looking in the wrong place, or perhaps others, like me, have also found the book challenging.

The Knowledge of Man consists of six essays, plus an introductory essay by Maurice Friedman, and an Appendix – Dialogue between Martin Buber and Carl R. Rogers.

The six essays are:

  1. Distance and Relation
  2. Elements of the Interhuman
  3. What Is Common to All
  4. The Word That is Spoken
  5. Guilt and Guilt Feelings
  6. Man and His Image-Work

Each essay is quite short; between 20 and 30 pages long, so this is not a long book. I was able to spend a bit of time on the first two chapters and hope to return to the rest of the book at another time.

Distance and Relation

In this essay Buber considers the tension between distance and relation. On page 60, he writes:

‘.. the principle of human life is not simple but twofold, being built up in a twofold movement which is of such kind that the one movement is the presupposition of the other. I propose to call the first movement ‘the primal setting at a distance’ and the second ‘entering into relation’. That the first movement is the presupposition of the other is plain from the fact that one can enter into relation only with being which has been set at a distance, more precisely, has become an independent opposite. And it is only for man that an independent opposite exists.’

It makes sense to me that relation depends on and is compatible with distance. Relation and distance are necessary for one another. People in successful marriages know this, as do parents of growing children. As is written in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ‘… without the form of otherness there can be no confirmation of self insofar as the confirmation of the I is always mediated by the other who confirms me, both at a distance and in relation, or rather in the distance that is relation and the relation that is difference.’

My understanding from this chapter is that I-Thou relation is only possible if we recognise distance as integral to relation.

‘Man, as man, sets man at a distance and makes him independent; he lets the life of men like himself go on round about him, and so he, and he alone, is able to enter into relation, in his own individual status, with those like himself. The basis of man’s life with man is twofold, and it is one – the wish of every man to be confirmed as what he is, even as what he can become, by men; and the innate capacity in man to confirm his fellow men in this way.’ (p.67, 68)

‘Genuine conversation, and therefore every actual fulfilment of relation between men, means acceptance of otherness. When two men inform one another of their basically different views about an object, each aiming to convince the other of the rightness of his own way of looking at the matter, everything depends so far as human life is concerned on whether each thinks of the other as the one he is, whether each, that is, with all his desire to influence the other, nevertheless unreservedly accepts and confirms him in his being this man and in his being made in this particular way. The strictness and depth of human individuation, the elemental otherness of the other, is then not merely noted as the necessary starting point, but is affirmed from the one being to the other. The desire to influence the other then does not mean the effort to change the other, to inject one’s own ‘rightness’ into him; but it means the effort to let that which is recognized as right, as just, as true (and for that very reason must also be established there, in the substance of the other) through one’s influence take seed and grow in the form suited to individuation. Opposed to this effort is the lust to make use of men by which the manipulator of ‘propaganda’ and ‘suggestion’ is possessed, in his relation to men remaining as in a relation to things, to things, moreover, with which he will never enter into relation, which he is indeed eager to rob of their distance and independence.’ (p.69)

Elements of the Interhuman

In this essay, Buber continues to develop his ideas about how we communicate and develop I-Thou relationships, where we perceive the ‘other’ in his wholeness and are fully aware of him.

‘But what does it mean to be ‘aware’ of a man in the exact sense in which I use the word? To be aware of a thing or a being means, in quite general terms, to experience it as a whole and yet at the same time without reduction or abstraction, in all its concreteness…Such an awareness is impossible, however, if and so long as the other is the separated object of my contemplation or even observation…. [Such an awareness] is only possible when I step into an elemental relation with the other, that is, when he becomes present to me….An effort is being made today radically to destroy the mystery between man and man. The personal life, the ever near mystery, once the source of the stillest enthusiasm, is leveled down.’ (p. 80-81)

Buber distinguishes this interhuman communication between men from social communication within a group. Communication within groups does not necessarily involve existential relation between one man and another. Interhuman relations go well beyond casual encounters.

Buber writes that two things can prevent men from communicating on this level; ‘the invasion of seeming and the inadequacy of perception.’ (p.82) Genuine dialogue cannot be arranged beforehand; it cannot be achieved when thinking about the impression made on the other. Genuine dialogue is constituted by the authenticity of being. In the interhuman realm, men communicate with one another as they are, and accept one another as they are.

Not only ‘seeming’ and the ‘inadequacy of perception’ prevent genuine dialogue. It is also impeded by trying to impose opinions on another. This is the role of propaganda, but education seeks to affect another’s views and release potential through ‘existential communication between someone that is in actual being and someone that is in a process of becoming’. (p.82) Unlike the propagandist, the educator is interested in individuals. The educator doesn’t impose but unfolds. These two approaches to communication, that of the propagandist and that of the educator are present in all of us to a greater or lesser degree.

‘Man exists anthropologically not in his isolation, but in the completeness of the relation between man and man; what humanity is can be properly grasped only in vital reciprocity. For the proper existence of the interhuman it is necessary …. that the semblance not intervene to spoil the relation of personal being to personal being. It is further necessary …. that each one means and makes present the other in his personal being. That neither should wish to impose himself on the other is the third basic presupposition of the interhuman. These presuppositions do not include the demand that one should influence the other in his unfolding; this is, however, an element that is suited to lead to a higher stage of the interhuman.’ (p.84)

I have included a number of long quotes from The Knowledge of Man in this post. Buber is a beautiful writer. His writing speaks for itself.

As I mentioned above, I was not able to attend the Philosophy of Education Reading Network’s zoom meeting, but the session was introduced by Dr Sam Rocha, Associate Professor of Philosophy of Education at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, who posed the following ideas and questions for the group to think about.

A concern for the ideas at stake in the following questions indicate we can read Buber’s The Knowledge of Man as an explicit philosophy of education. In other words, insofar as (1) appearance, mind, and life, (2) knowledge, and (3) philosophical anthropology are at stake, we do not need to translate the text indirectly into philosophy of education so much as to understand it as directly as possible.

  1. What are the phenomenological, psychological (psychoanalysis included), and pastoral dimensions of this text?
  2. What kind of knowledge is Buber proposing and seeking?
  3. What kind of anthropology does Buber present, i.e., what does he mean by ‘man’ or what is his notion of the human person?

References

Martin Buber (1965) The Knowledge of Man. Selected Essays. Harper Torchbooks. Harper & Row.

The Matter With Things. Chapter 6. Emotional and Social Intelligence

It is unsurprising that emotional and social intelligence is regarded by Iain McGilchrist as one of the ‘means to truth’. Both forms of intelligence are thought to be important aspects of education and learning, at least in the West, and many educators will know of Daniel Goleman’s work on this, not that McGilchrist mentions education. McGilchrist’s focus is on the role of the hemispheres in understanding the human world.

McGilchrist starts this chapter (p.193) with a nice quote (see below) from Johann Gottfried Herder, 1828, so clearly the role of emotional and social intelligence in our understanding of the world is not a new idea.

‘Anyone who wants to be all head is as much a monster as one who wants to be all heart’.

McGilchrist tells us that emotional and social understanding are central to understanding all human situations. Social and emotional intelligence are required for being able to judge what is real and what is not. Experience of the world is an encounter, a relationship, a process; it is not a static thing. Relations are of key importance in social and emotional intelligence. Everything exists as a relationship. How to understand people and see another person’s point of view involves emotional and social intelligence and our grasp of reality.

It is the right hemisphere that has a grip on reality. It’s ‘mode of attention, capacity for pragmatic understanding and communication, superior perceptual integration, and ability to shift belief appropriately in the light of new evidence’ (p.193) all make this possible. It understands how context changes meaning. Damage to the right hemisphere leads to a diminished sense of reality and emotional disconnectedness, whereas damage to the left hemisphere can lead to an increased intensity of experience. This was experienced by Jill Bolte Taylor following her left hemisphere stroke. The undamaged left hemisphere is less in touch with the body and the implicit than the right hemisphere, jumps to conclusion, is unable to shift mindset and does not ‘get’ the emotional import of human behaviour.

But all this does not mean that the right hemisphere is ‘emotional’ and the left hemisphere is ‘cool’ and rational. Both hemispheres can underwrite emotions. Anger, irritability, and disgust are all lateralised to the left hemisphere. Sadness, melancholy, and depression are more associated with the right hemisphere. So, there are differences in the emotional capacities of the two hemispheres.

Theory of mind – the capacity to put yourself in someone else’s position, see what they see, and feel some of what they feel (empathy) – is highly dependent on the right hemisphere. Right hemisphere damaged people (as in schizophrenia and autism) lose the ability to read faces, understand metaphor, sarcasm, and tone of voice. They become literalistic in the ways they interpret things, and ‘may show a ‘blanket disregard’ for the feelings, needs and expectations of others’. (p. 201) Following left hemisphere damage patients become better at understanding implicit metaphorical meanings.

Metaphor is not an addition or ornament at the top level; it is the bedrock of language, making connection between symbol and experience. Metaphor means to carry over. Whenever we use language, we are using metaphor, but we have become so familiar with many of them that they no longer act as metaphors. We have to distinguish between dead clichéd and live metaphors. The left hemisphere deals with cliches. Live metaphor is dependent on the right hemisphere.

The word ‘intelligence’ is derived from two words in Latin, inter (meaning between) and legere (meaning choose) (see https://www.universal.org/en/renato-cardoso/do-you-know-the-meaning-of-the-word-intelligence/).  And the original meaning of the word ‘understand’ was to stand in the midst of, since ‘under’ did not mean ‘beneath’, but rather ‘among’ or ‘between’. So social and emotional intelligence through which we understand people, their motivations (‘why’ they behave in the way they do) and our world, depend on relations. The right hemisphere is dominant and superior for all forms of emotional receptivity and expressivity (p.204)

‘… emotion is a critical part of capacity to comprehend the world at all, the ability to understand and interact with other living things. Without it we are foolish, however much we may know, and we are only alive in a diminished sense of the word.’ (p.224) The right hemisphere is critical for this understanding.

There is far more in this chapter than I have written about here. For a discussion about the chapter between Iain McGilchrist and Alex Gomez-Marin watch this video

References

McGilchrist, I. (2021). The Matter With Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World. Perspectiva Press.

The Matter With Things. Chapter 5. Apprehension

This fifth chapter of Iain McGilchrist’s latest book, The Matter With Things, is short; only 10 pages long, compared to some chapters which are almost book length; for example, Chapter 28 is more than 100 pages long.

In Chapter 5 McGilchrist takes a different approach to that taken in preceding chapters in that instead of examining what happens after right hemisphere damage, here he focusses on what happens after left hemisphere damage. This is in relation to the left hemisphere’s propensity to manipulate the world by grasping or holding on to it, i.e., to apprehend it, as opposed to the right hemisphere’s propensity to encounter the world, explore it and hold things together, i.e., to comprehend it.

McGilchrist doesn’t explain why he took this different approach. Perhaps there is more evidence of what happens after left hemisphere damage, but I found myself wondering how the chapter might have been different had it been titled Comprehension instead of Apprehension.

As ever, McGilchrist shares his understanding of the etymology of the two words.

Ap-prehending, from Latin ad + prehendere, to hold onto – manipulating

Com-prehending, from Latin cum + prehendere, to hold together – understanding

I always find McGilchrist’s explanations of the origins of words helpful in understanding how he interprets and represents them. So, from this, the left hemisphere apprehends and the right hemisphere comprehends. When there is damage to the left hemisphere the world is still there and comprehensible, but it can no longer easily utilise the world or represent it. The simple act of utilisation is lost. We see this in left hemisphere stroke patients whose right arm and right hand function is impaired. McGilchrist uses further patient vignettes to illustrate this point that left hemisphere damage leaves the patient unable to use simple tools such as a key or a toothbrush.

The right hemisphere explores with the left hand. This behaviour can be seen in the great apes that use the right hand to grasp something, but the left hand for making contact with others. Right hemisphere damage rarely results in an inability to use tools, but instead affects the patient’s ability to perform a sequence of tasks to achieve an end, for example, make a cup of coffee.

When the left hemisphere is damaged, as in a stroke, not only is the patient’s right arm and hand function impaired, but also their use of language. McGilchrist suggests that the left hemisphere uses language to map the world, i.e., it uses language to manipulate the world and maps the territory through the use of a system of symbols. But a map leaves most of the world out. ‘In the left hemisphere’s world words are seen as arbitrary signs: in the right hemisphere’s world they are seen as to some extent fused with the aspect of reality they represent.’ (p.185).  The right hemisphere sees the reality of the terrain it maps. In the left hemisphere signs are substituted for experience, but the aspects of language that tether it to the lived world, and the body, metaphor, prosody (the inflection of the voice, the sound of the word and the meaning conveyed), and pragmatics (understanding utterances in context) are right hemisphere dependent.

Left hemisphere damage doesn’t alter reality; the world is still there but a left hemisphere damaged patient can’t use it. Damage to the right hemisphere causes alterations in reality.

The purpose of the left hemisphere is to become powerful, not to understand reality. Damage to the left hemisphere results in loss of this power to utilise and manipulate the world through the right hand and language, but reality remains largely unaltered.

For a discussion about this chapter between Iain McGilchrist and Alex Gomez-Marin watch this video

References

McGilchrist, I. (2021). The Matter With Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World. Perspectiva Press.

The Matter With Things. Chapter 4. Judgment

In Part 1 of his most recent book, The Matter With Things. Our Brain, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World, Iain McGilchrist discusses The Hemispheres and the Means to Truth. Currently I am reading and discussing the nine chapters that make up this first part of the book with a group from Channel McGilchrist, who meet once a month to discuss one or two chapters at a time. To date we have met and discussed Chapters 2 and 3:

The Matter With Things. Chapter 2: Attention

The Matter With Things. Chapter 3: Perception

In Chapter 4 McGilchrist discusses Judgment as a means to truth and asks the question, what roles do the hemispheres play in reaching beliefs and making judgments?

In Chapter 4 McGilchrist notes the difference but also overlap between hallucinations which result from perceptual distortions associated with right hemisphere dysfunction, and delusions (distorted reality judgments) which also result from right hemisphere dysfunction. He writes (p.135)

‘Distinguishing delusions (distorted reality judgments) from hallucinations (distorted perceptions) is to some degree arbitrary, since misperceptions can give rise to misbeliefs, and misbeliefs give rise to misperceptions. Added to which, all perceptions involve a judgment undertaken before we are aware of it. We don’t see a shape, a texture, a bunch of colours, and only then deduce ‘a tree’. We see the tree whole and immediately, because somewhere way below consciousness we are discriminating what fits best in the context in which we find ourselves.’

Altered perceptions are treated separately from altered judgments in psychiatry, but it is artificial to separate them as they might affect each other. Altered perceptions result in things like hallucinations; altered judgments result in thinking bizarre things or delusions. The question is, how much can we trust the testimony of the left and right hemispheres? On its own the left hemisphere tends to delusion.

The thrust of this chapter is summed up on p.180, where McGilchrist writes that ‘Virtually all delusional syndromes are more commonly the result of right hemisphere than left hemisphere dysfunction;  ….’ And ‘Overall, in general it is the judgments on reality made by the right hemisphere that are more reliable.’

In the preceding 45 pages, McGilchrist presents an extensive synthesis of the research into hemispheric difference in pathologies of judgment (e.g., delusional misidentification, paranoia, Othello syndrome and more) and altered role of the body (e.g., Phantom limb, xenomelia and more). To be honest, I found this chapter tedious. Perhaps this is because after 10 years or so of reading and re-reading The Master and His Emissary, I don’t need further scientific research to convince me that we are living in a world dominated by the left hemisphere. I am more interested in what the implications are for how we live our lives.

Some of the ideas in this chapter that might implicitly inform how we live our lives relate to:

Pessimism, optimism and realism (p.150)

  • the left hemisphere is .. unreliable in daily life: it has a tendency to jump to conclusions, to become entrenched, to be unwilling to see other points of view and, frankly, to make stuff up, if it needs to, in order to maintain its point of view. It has a desperate need for certainty. (p.154)
  • Optimism is related to denial by the left hemisphere.
  • Insight is very largely right hemisphere dependent. (p.150)
  • Although relatively speaking the right hemisphere takes a more pessimistic view of the self, it is also more realistic about it. (p.150)
  • … depression has repeatedly been shown to be associated with greater realism – provided the depression is not too severe. (p.150) Depressed patients make better judgments.
  • The evidence is … that.… up to a point, being depressed gives you insight. (p.150)
  • Insight into yourself and your own illness is dependent on the right hemisphere.
  • The right hemisphere is important for reality testing.

False ‘memories’ and confabulation (p.155)

  • … the left hemisphere just is not reliable about the self. And since, in a sense, the self is all we know directly, that’s got to be a handicap.’ (p.158)

Magical thinking (p.158)

  • Magical thinking is associated with creativity. (p.158)
  • … ‘magical ideation’ is by definition not in itself delusional, though it may be on a continuum with delusion. It simply suggests a greater willingness to consider connexions, some of which are no doubt non-existent, but some of which may simply not be recognised in the current Western standard model. (p.1610
  • … to be ‘totally “unmagical” is very unhealthy’, and reduces one’s capacity to appreciate value and to take enjoyment in life. (p.162)
  • Most people engage in magical thinking. There are certain truths that can only be understood through a myth. Deep truths can’t be encompassed in words.

Judgments formed on intuition (p.162)

  • There are differences between men and women. There is more specialisation in each hemisphere in men, and more overlap between the hemispheres in women.
  • In normal adults, sex differences in functional cerebral asymmetries have been reported in a wide range of areas, including decision-making …. but extending to areas such as language, working memory, spatial orientation, spatial attention, face perception, verbal and musical creativity tasks, emotional ‘processing’ and appreciation of beauty. Except in the case of language, males have generally been found in every one of these areas to be more reliant on the right hemisphere than females. (p.163)

The role of reasoning in forming judgments (p.167)

  • both hemispheres contribute to reasoning. (p.167)
  • the old dichotomy – left hemisphere rational, right hemisphere emotional – is profoundly mistaken, on both counts; not to mention the fact that reason and emotion are never entirely separable. (p.167)
  • the tendency of the left hemisphere is to treat things as more certain than they are. (p.169)
  • Induction is associated with the left hemisphere. Induction is based on an assumption of the normal and expectable (p.169). The left hemisphere tends to reach hasty conclusions on the basis of what seems likely. (p.170)
  • The left hemisphere is more likely to act on its theory as though it represented reality. (p.179)
  • Deduction  … is seeing something is implied by what one knows, and is latent or implicit in it …
  • … the right hemisphere is our bullshit detector. (p.172)
  • … unlike the left hemisphere, the right hemisphere can operate with several types of uncertainties: inexactness, incompleteness, probabilities, fuzziness, observer error and so on. (p.174)

So, as McGilchrist writes in the summary to this chapter (p.180)

‘Both hemispheres play a part in reasoning, and when the situation is relatively simple, completely specified and the outcome in accord with expectation, the left hemisphere plays the key role; when any of these conditions does not apply, the right hemisphere is more reliable and veridical.’

As on the previous zoom calls, although the discussion was interesting and enjoyable, I did not feel any the wiser at the end of it. More questions were raised than answered, such as:

  • In a non-clinical setting, is it possible to be able to identify predominantly left hemisphere individuals? If so, could two of the identifying traits be blanket cynicism and fragmentation?
  • Is it possible that hemisphere specialization or preference could lead to the evolution of two distinct human species? Homo Machine/Bureaucrat v Homo??
  • How do we use this work to understand early childhood development?
  • What are McGilchrist’s genuinely helpful contributions to neuroscience or philosophy? How do we best judge the value of his work?
  • What is belief? How does this differ from world view? Where does emotion or pre/unconscious fit into belief? Is personal investigation the best way to find truth?

Thanks to Laura Thomas for collating these questions.

The next meeting of this reading group will be on Friday 8th July at 4.00 pm UK time, to discuss Chapters 5 (Apprehension) and 6 (Emotional and Social Intelligence) of The Matter With Things.

References

McGilchrist, I. (2021). The Matter With Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World. Perspectiva Press.

McGilchrist, I. (2009). The Master and his Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

Epistemic Injustice by Miranda Fricker (some brief comments)

This is an important idea, developed by author Miranda Fricker, Reader in Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London. It is something many of us will have experienced, i.e., we have been wronged specifically in our capacity as knower.

This happens all the time to my husband who has been a quadriplegic for 57 years and as such uses a wheelchair. Despite this, he had a successful academic career. However, this did not and does not prevent many people from assuming that being in a wheelchair equates to lack of intelligence, or the capacity to speak knowledgeably. For example, he often experiences people directing answers to his questions to me over the top of his head. According to Miranda Fricker, this is an example of ‘testimonial injustice’.

‘Testimonial injustice occurs when prejudice causes a hearer to give a deflated level of credibility to a speaker’s word.’ (p.1).

 ‘Epistemic Injustice. Power and the Ethics of Knowing’, was the book discussed by the Philosophy of Education Reading Network last month. The discussion was introduced by Dr Alison MacKenzie @QUBelfast. I have to admit that I didn’t read the book. Perhaps it was simply the wrong time for me to try. At the time I just didn’t have the energy or motivation to engage with the academic style of writing, but I did look for secondary sources (see list below) and found a couple of videos and a few articles which helped and meant that I did feel that I could still attend the reading network zoom call.

Much of the discussion in the online meeting focussed on testimonial injustice. Most people had examples from personal experience that they could recount. Less time was spent ‘hermeneutic injustice’ which is the second form of injustice that Fricker writes about.

‘Hermeneutic injustice occurs at a prior stage, when a gap in collective interpretive resources puts someone at an unfair disadvantage when it comes to making sense of their social experiences.’ (p.1)

‘An example of the first [testimonial injustice] might be that the police do not believe you because you are black; an example of the second (hermeneutic injustice) might be that you suffer sexual harassment in a culture that still lacks that critical concept.‘ (p.1)

Despite not having read the book, I enjoyed the zoom call and left it rather wishing I had read the book. I think if I had persevered, I probably would have got a lot from it. Dr Alison MacKenzie raised these questions for us to discuss:

  1. What are the merits of Fricker’s work? And does it speak to your own experiences of either testimonial or hermeneutical injustice?
  2. What are we to make of Fricker’s claim that Joe (Enduring Love) merely experiences incidental hermeneutic injustice when the police fail to take his claims seriously that he’s being stalked (p.158)
  3. Relatedly, do you find anything problematic in the claim that a person who experiences a medical condition about which little is known merely experiences ‘circumstantial epistemic bad luck’? (152)
  4. Could Fricker be accused of structural gaslighting because of her failure to engage with the work of black feminist philosophers? (This is the argument of Nora Berenstain, 2020, Hypatia, 35/4)

As ever, the reading network group went its own way and didn’t directly address the speaker’s questions, but the questions are always useful for future reference.

And also, despite not having read the book, I wanted to mark here the idea of Epistemic Injustice, which once you know about it, you can see all round you, not least in yourself, or at least that is my experience.

Here is the list of secondary sources I accessed:

Philosophy Bites. Miranda Fricker on Epistemic Injustice (13 mins)

Miranda Fricker on testimony and the power of words (6 mins)

Huzeyfe Demirtas (July 2020) Epistemic Injustice

University of Bristol Epistemic injustice resource page

Epistemic Injustice Community Engagement Project

Miranda Fricker – Epistemic Equality? (41 mins)

The next meeting of the Philosophy of Education Reading Network will be on June 21st, when the group will discuss Martin Buber’s The Knowledge of Man. The book will be introduced by Prof Sam Rocha. This is already proving to be an even more challenging read, but since it consists of selected essays, I hope to have read at least some of them before the meeting.

The Philosophy of Education Reading Network is an open group which anyone can attend. Details of how to join the zoom call are usually posted on Twitter a few days ahead of the meeting. See @PhilofEd

The Matter With Things. Chapter 3. Perception

To repeat: don’t think, but look! (Ludwig Wittgenstein, 1976)

The Channel McGilchrist reading group met again yesterday to discuss the third chapter, Perception, of Iain McGilchrist’s new book, The Matter With Things. The discussion was quite wide-ranging, and not always on topic, but nevertheless interesting. For example, there was a discussion about whether we can trust McGilchrist’s interpretation of the research papers he has read and referenced in support of his overarching argument that ‘the right hemisphere is a more important guide and more reliable one to the nature of reality’. The question was asked, how many readers will actually seek out and read the papers that McGilchrist references to check whether or not we agree with his interpretation, and if we do not, then how can we be sure that his interpretations are correct? I wasn’t sure that everyone grasped the significance and importance of this question, and I haven’t quite sorted out in my own head, how relevant it is to discussions of McGilchrist’s book, but it is easy to recognise that McGilchrist’s work attracts people who have already bought into his key hypothesis, that we live in a world increasingly dominated by the left hemisphere, and therefore it is quite difficult to engage in critical discussion. But one person did say that we don’t necessarily have to read McGilchrist’s work and engage with his ideas by standing outside it and analysing it objectively. We can wear it like a garment and dance around in it, until we no longer need it. This reading group is only just getting going, and I hope it won’t shy away from more challenging discussions.

My interpretation of the discussion around perception was that no-one had really got to grips with it. Compared to other chapters in the book, this is quite a short chapter – 30 pages, and McGilchrist sticks to discussing perception in relation to the hemispheres, considering hemispheric differences in normal perception, and the hemispheres and pathologies of perception. So, he does not mention philosophy of mind, although questions about the relationship between mind and body, and brain and body, and how we can know whether what we perceive is real or not, seem to me to be implicit in the writing. In his book The Master and His Emissary, McGilchrist does briefly mention ‘the mind-brain question’, although he says that it is not the subject of the book and that he does not have the skill or space to address the topic at any length (McGilchrist, 2009, p.19). He seems to have taken the same approach in this book, The Matter With Things.

McGilchrist starts Chapter 3 by writing:

‘Perception is not the same as attention, and not at all the same as thinking. But the world we choose to attend to, indeed choose whether and how to attend to, is nothing without perception.’ (p.105, The Matter With Things). It is worth remembering at this point that Part 1 of The Matter With Things, which includes Chapter 3 on Perception, is about the hemispheres and the means to truth. So along with Attention (Chapter 2), which we discussed in our first meeting and which I have already written about, McGilchrist considers perception to be a means to truth.

McGilchrist defines perception as follows:

‘Perception is the act whereby we reach out from our cage of mental construct to taste, smell, touch, hear and see the living world.’ (p.105. The Matter With Things) and ‘To be good at perceiving is to be good at integrating information.’ (p.106 The Matter With Things). 

There was some discussion in the group about the difference between sense and sensation, and the role of emotions and feelings in relation to perception, but we didn’t come to a clear understanding of this, and McGilchrist doesn’t explicitly address this in the chapter. Perhaps the nearest McGilchrist comes to addressing this is when he tells us that Merleau-Ponty saw perception as a reciprocal encounter.

“Experience is a sensorimotor – and intuitive – participation, a fusion of one’s own awareness with awareness of the world. Speaking of his perception of the blue sky, Merleau-Ponty wrote that ‘I abandon myself to it and plunge into this mystery, it “thinks itself within me”… Perception is not passive reception, but participation.” (p.106 The Matter With Things). Perception is an active process, bound up with motion. We see something as an opportunity to act. When we see things, our whole body is engaged in perception; perception is embodied.

In this chapter McGilchrist looks in some depth at the left and right hemispheres’ roles in visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, tactile, local and global perception. He also discusses what happens to perception if the left or right hemisphere is damaged, writing at some length about visual hallucinations and distortions, auditory, olfactory, gustatory and tactile hallucinations, and concluding from examining a wide range of scientific evidence that hallucinations are more often due to right hemisphere damage than left hemisphere dysfunction. I am not going to repeat the details of the evidence that McGilchrist provides here. They are all in the chapter, and you can listen to McGilchrist talking to Alex Gomez-Marin about this chapter in this YouTube video:

Lastly, one of the questions we considered was, if we agree with McGilchrist that the right hemisphere is a more important guide and a more reliable one to the nature of reality (because of its pattern recognition ability, its ability to deal with incomplete information and its ability to see the whole), then can we train ourselves to make more and better use of our right hemisphere and be less dominated by the left hemisphere (which tends to objectify and jump to quick conclusions, seeing things out of context, seeing the map rather than reality)?

McGilchrist has suggested that practising mindfulness or meditation is one method, but also spending more time in nature, looking at art, and listening to music.

Another method is to think about optical illusions. McGilchrist uses the image of Schroeder’s stairs (p.114 The Matter With Things).

He writes:  ‘While the left hemisphere underwrites local attention, the right hemisphere underwrites global attention – and the ability to switch between them.’ This ‘… inevitably makes a difference to the world we perceive. What it means is that both to perceive the form of something as a whole, and to see it differently to the way you are accustomed to see it, depends on the way of taking in the world that is underwritten by the right hemisphere of the brain. If you think and adopt the way of being of the left hemisphere world, not only will you struggle to see the overall shape, but you won’t be able so easily to switch – or even be aware that you can. If someone else tells you they see something quite different there, you might well, sincerely but wrongly, believe that they must be mistaken.’

Members of the reading group provided further links to interesting illusions for us to think about:

https://www.upworthy.com/people-are-freaking-out-over-this-rotating-cube-illusion

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-4493744/Video-shows-car-driving-WITHOUT-wheels-rotating.html

And finally, here is an exercise suggested by Cynthia Ford in the comments under McGilchrist’s video,  which might be interesting to try out.

There’s a writing exercise in which you walk somewhere deeply familiar, that you know so well that you hardly see it, and you notice and write down only one color, every instance of that color. Or, following the Oulipo school, you notice only the unnoticed, the trash, or detritus, or signs, the unaesthetic. You can actually feel the perceptual shift from the left brain to the right brain as the place changes and becomes new.

Our next reading group meeting will take place on Friday 3rd June at 4.00 pm UK time, when we will discuss Chapter 4. Judgment (as a means to truth).

References

McGilchrist, I. (2021). The Matter With Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World. Perspectiva Press.

McGilchrist, I. (2009). The Master and his Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

The Matter With Things. Chapter 2: Attention

I have joined a new online reading group, which will meet once a month to discuss chapters of Iain McGilchrist’s latest book, The Matter With Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World. This has been organised by Laura Thomas and Elspeth Crawford, two members of Channel McGilchrist. Many thanks to them for taking this initiative, as The Matter With Things is an overwhelmingly long book, over 1500 pages, and I suspect I am not alone in wanting some help in reading it. Unlike some of the others in the group, I have not yet read the whole book, and what I have read has been selective, i.e. I haven’t started at the beginning but have so far read the chapters that appeared to me to be potentially the most interesting. I have written some posts about them. I have also written about the overall structure of book before, so I won’t repeat that here.

So far the group has met on zoom once, to discuss Chapter 2 on Attention, although necessarily quite a bit of time was spent on ‘getting to know each other’ and administrative issues.

McGilchrist starts Chapter 2 by writing, ‘Who we are determines how we see. And how we see determines what we find. …. Attention brings the world into being’. Not only this, but how we attend changes who we are. What we mean by reality depends on attention from the word go. We are in a reciprocal relationship with the world. There is a back and forth between the attending person and what is attended to.

Those who are familiar with McGilchrist’s work will know that everything he writes is based on the premise that the two hemispheres of the brain attend to the world differently. The right hemisphere’s attention is broad, sustained and vigilant. It attends to the whole. The left hemisphere’s attention is narrow and focussed. We need both kinds of attention. In the Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, McGilchrist explained this in terms of a bird having to focus on the grit in the ground to find the seed to eat, whilst at the same time keeping an open eye out on the whole surroundings for a predator.

            “ In order to stay alive, birds have to solve a conundrum: they need to be able to feed and watch out for predators simultaneously. How are you to focus closely on what you are doing when you are trying to pick out that grain of seed from the grit on which it lies while, at the same time, keeping the broadest possible open attention to whatever may be, in order to avoid being eaten? It’s a bit like trying to pat your head while rubbing your stomach at the same time – only worse, because it is impossible. What we know is that the difference in attention between the hemispheres makes the apparently impossible possible. Birds pay narrowly focused attention with their right eye (left hemisphere) to what they are eating, while keeping their left eye (right hemisphere) open for predators.” (McGilchrist, 2019, p.13)

But we are not birds and we do not have eyes on the sides of our heads. Are we humans able to use our left hemisphere to focus attention whilst at the same time using our right hemisphere to attend to the whole? McGilchrist argues that whilst these two kinds of attention are mutually incompatible, ‘we need to be able to employ both simultaneously.’ (McGilchrist, 2019, p.14). His argument is that we now live in a world where we are losing the ability to see the whole and are increasingly attending to the world from the perspective of the left hemisphere, with a narrow, focussed gaze.

There are at least two significant problems with this increased reliance on the left hemisphere for attention. First, the left hemisphere’s focussed attention makes it blind to everything else. There are a number of videos that neatly illustrate this point.

The Invisible Gorilla: https://youtu.be/vJG698U2Mvo

If you have seen this video before it won’t come as a surprise, but if you are watching it for the first time, it will probably be an eye-opener!

And second, not only is the left hemisphere blind to what it is not attending to, but what is not seen completely ceases to exist for the left hemisphere. This is starkly illustrated by the following video in which a woman with damage to her right hemisphere and therefore reliant on her left hemisphere, is unaware of anything on her left side (hemineglect). The left hemisphere only attends to half a world.

In addition, because the left hemisphere does not know what it does not know, when there are obvious gaps in its knowledge and understanding it confabulates. It invents stories to fill the gaps and blind spots and is ‘quite confident it is right’. So, a patient with right hemisphere damage will deny the existence of their left arm, and if asked to look at the left arm and say who it belongs to, will claim it belongs to another person. Whilst we do not all have physical damage to our right hemispheres, you don’t have to look very far in modern society to see behaviours that mirror those observed in people with right hemisphere damage, and it is quite concerning to realise how easily these behaviours can be induced through right hemisphere damage or split brain experiments.

McGilchrist argues that it is the right hemisphere that is more in touch with reality. It’s attention to the world is more open and receptive, and without preconceptions. The left hemisphere has an impoverished, devitalised view of the world, which lacks depth of space, time and motion. It re-presents the visual world as flattened, abstract and schematic, like a two-dimensional map, rather than in three dimensions. In The Matter With Things, McGilchrist references a large body of research (184 references in this chapter) to substantiate the differences between the left and right hemisphere’s ways of attending. Much of this research focuses on what happens to patients who experience right hemisphere damage, and their experience of attending to the world through the left hemisphere. In the final chapter of a small book he published in 2019, ‘Ways of Attending’, McGilchrist conducts a thought experiment. ‘What would it look like if the left hemisphere came to be the sole purveyor of our reality? The picture he paints is not a happy one. As is written on the back cover of this book:

‘Attention is not just receptive, but actively creative of the world we inhabit. How we attend makes all the difference to the world we experience. And nowadays in the West we generally attend in a rather unusual way: generated by the narrowly focussed, target-drive left hemisphere of the brain.’

In the first meeting of the Channel McGilchrist online reading group, a few people expressed the desire to find pragmatic responses to the problems of a left-hemisphere dominated world. Serendipitously, at around the same time as these thoughts were being discussed in the reading group, Matthias Melcher wrote a post outlining ways he thinks we could become more right-hemisphere dominant. See https://x28newblog.wordpress.com/2022/04/08/seven-ways-to/

McGilchrist himself tends to resist trying to find solutions to the left hemisphere dominated world he describes, although I have heard him suggest that it’s mostly to do with raising awareness, which aligns with Matthias’ approach. But McGilchrist does believe that we can train ourselves to attend to the world with our right hemispheres, through skills such as meditation and mindfulness, and through believing that the attention that we pay to the world alters what we find there.

For myself I think it’s important not to fall into the trap of demonising the left hemisphere. Obviously we need it’s focussed way of attending, but we don’t need it to the exclusion of the whole picture, and we should try to resist its dominance in the way we attend to the world. McGilchrist believes that if we ask which way of attending to the world is more viridical, which reality should we trust, then the right hemisphere has the upper hand.

The next meeting of the Channel McGilchrist reading group is on Friday May 6th Pacific Time (Los Angeles time zone), when we will discuss Chapter 3: Perception. The idea is that we will each submit a comment/question or provocation a few days before the meeting to help focus the discussion. This is how the Philosophy of Education Reading Network organises their meetings and it works well.

And fortunately for the Channel McGilchrist group, McGilchrist has just started to discuss the chapters of The Matter With Things with Alex Gomaz. Here are links to the first two episodes:

Understanding The Matter with Things Dialogues: Episode 1: The Introduction

Understanding the Matter With Things Dialogues: Chapters 1 & 2

References

McGilchrist, I. (2021). The Matter With Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World. Perspectiva Press.

McGilchrist, I. (2009). The Master and his Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

McGilchrist, I. (2019). Ways of Attending: How our Divided Brain Constructs the World. Routledge

‘Dancing in the Dark’ and dwelling in uncertainty

Dancing in the Dark – A Survivor’s Guide to the University is the next book to be discussed on April 19th by the Philosophy of Education Reading Network. This is a delightful, curious, and thought-provoking tiny book which defies attempts to pigeon-hole it into a category and particularly not into an academic category, despite reference to the University in the title.

There are many things to like about this book. It really is tiny, roughly 10 x 14.5 cm and about 50 pages in length, but there is no sense that this has been for cost-saving purposes, for example by cramming a lot into a limited number of pages. The font is a good size, there is plenty of white space and there are many pages of intriguing artwork by artist and dream whisperer Geoffrey Baines. In short it is a lovely object in it’s own right, which you can easily slip into a pocket or bag.

And before starting to discuss the content of the book, I should also mention that it is beautifully sold by Golden Hare Books. It came with a bookmark and a message on a postcard from the sales team. The personal touch made receiving the book such a pleasure.

So, what is this book about and who is it for? The authors, Anne Pirrie, Nini Fang and Elizabeth O’Brien say that it is for anyone working or studying in a university who feels they are fumbling around in the dark, but I think it doesn’t have to be confined to this sector. This book is for anyone who is uncomfortable with uncertainty, or not knowing; anyone who feels ‘locked down’ by their and others’ expectations, anyone who questions whether they are good enough for whatever it is they are doing; anyone who equates being ‘in the dark’ with failure.

The authors say that they ‘challenge the binary between shadows and light – and in respect of form – between lightweight and gravitas.’ ‘Our aim’, they say, ‘is to reinstate the shadows as a place of possibility and to reassure the reader that the entertainment of doubt is the heart of the educational project’. In other words, we can embrace being ‘in the dark’, embrace uncertainty and ambiguity, embrace not knowing; and more than this we can be open to doubt, be curious, and learn to ‘dance in the dark’.

What I particularly like about this book is that the authors have created a sense of ‘dancing in the dark’ in the way they have written and presented their ideas. Despite the fact that they reference philosophers, sociologists, psychoanalysts, poets, and artists, they do not present this as an academic text. True to their words, they have challenged the binary between lightweight and gravitas, they have explored the interplay between shadows and light and resisted being governed by ‘linear understanding of learning processes’. They share their ideas with us through conversation and narrative, drawing on their personal experience, and resisting closing circles of inquiry. They do not offer solutions or practical assistance but invite us to acknowledge the essential unknowability of the ‘Other’ and leave the circle incomplete.

Reference:

Pirrie, A., Fang, N. and O’Brien, E. (2021). Dancing in the Dark. A Survivor’s Guide to the University. Tilosophy Press.

See also Roy Williams’ wiki post – Dancing in the Dark/Seeing in the Shadows

Source of image 1: https://goldenharebooks.com/

Source of image 2: https://www.henrimatisse.org/the-dance.jsp

Footnote:

Elizabeth O’Brien, together with Victoria Jamieson, founded the Philosophy of Education Reading Network

What is Philosophy? Deleuze and Guattari

What is Philosophy? is the question that Gilles Deleuze (French Philosopher, 1925-1995) and Felix Guattari (French psychoanalyst, 1930-1992) explored in the last book they collaborated on and published in 1991. Of their collaboration Deleuze wrote. “We do not work together, we work between the two…. We don’t work, we negotiate. We were never in the same rhythm, we were always out of step.” (I have selected this quote because it resonates with my experience of working collaboratively, so I just want to mark it here).

This is also the book that has been selected by the Philosophy of Education Reading Network for discussion online on March 15th

‘What is Philosophy?’ is an inquiry into the nature of philosophy itself, i.e., metaphilosophy. The question is a metaphysical question.

I am not completely unfamiliar with the work of Deleuze and Guattari. Between 2014 and 2016 I spent quite a bit of time exploring some of the ideas they discussed in A Thousand Plateaus – principally The Rhizome (see page on Rhizomatic Learning on this blog), but also Lines of Flight; Multiplicities, Wolves, Tribes and Pacts; Smooth and Striated Space; and Nomadism. However, there was a lot in A Thousand Plateaus that I never got to grips with. My experience of this book is similar.

Deleuze and Guattari’s language is abstract and difficult to understand. Yes, it is often imaginative and sometimes poetic, but that hasn’t made it any easier to read.

They start the book by writing:

“The question what is philosophy? can perhaps be posed only late in life, with the arrival of old age and the time for speaking concretely…….It is a question posed in a moment of quiet restlessness, at midnight, when there is no longer anything to ask.”(p.1).  It is also a question that is often posed as an icebreaker on the short adult education philosophy courses that I attend and, I realise now,  the answers provided by the participants (including myself) are exactly what Deleuze and Guattari say philosophy is not. Philosophy is not, argue Deleuze and Guattari, contemplation, reflection, or communication.

In this book Deleuze and Guattari are interested in how philosophy is distinct from other disciplines, in particular how it is distinct from the sciences and arts. What are the similarities and differences? A novelist generates stories, and a scientist generates empirical knowledge about the world, but a philosopher generates concepts. The philosopher is the friend or lover of wisdom, and the philosopher ‘is the concept’s friend; he is potentiality of the concept.’ (p.5). Philosophy is the creation of concepts.

Philosophers seek to define philosophy, but also to determine the boundaries without which there would be chaos. Deleuze and Guattari try to avoid chaos.

In what follows I am not going to discuss the whole book, but just the first two chapters, ‘The Introduction: The Question Then ….’ and Chapter 1, ‘What is a Concept’. I have found a very useful secondary source which has helped to explain these chapters (see Varsity Bookwork playlist on YouTube), which I am going to draw on heavily 🙂

Philosophy is not contemplation

In seeking to define what is philosophy, Deleuze and Guattari don’t just fill the space, but determine the boundaries (define it) by saying what philosophy is not.

‘It is not contemplation, for contemplations are things themselves as seen in the creation of their specific concepts.’ (p. 6)

Contemplation has always been considered important by philosophers, as far back as the Greek philosophers. Plato said that Ideas must be contemplated. For Deleuze and Guattari the question is, ‘how can you contemplate an Idea, if you don’t know what the Idea is?’ Asking what is the Idea is a conceptual and philosophical question, which has to be asked first before we can contemplate the Idea. So philosophy and concepts come before contemplation. We need concepts first before we can contemplate them. Contemplation considers the concepts that philosophy generates.

Philosophy is not reflection

Philosophy is not reflection, write Deleuze and Guattari (p.6),

‘… because no one needs philosophy to reflect on anything. It is thought that philosophy is being given a great deal by being turned into the art of reflection, but actually it loses everything. Mathematicians, as mathematicians, have never waited for philosophers before reflecting on mathematics, nor artists before reflecting on painting or music. So long as their reflection belongs to their respective creation, it is a bad joke to say that this makes them philosophers.’ (p.6).

On page 122 of his book, Negotiations (1997), Deleuze writes:

‘In barren times philosophy retreats to reflecting “on” things. If it’s not itself creating anything, what can it do but reflect on something? So it reflects on eternal or historical things, but can itself no longer make any move. Philosophers Aren’t Reflective, but Creative. What we should in fact do, is stop allowing philosophers to reflect “on” things. The philosopher creates, he doesn’t reflect.’

Neither reflection nor contemplation are creative activities, but reflection and contemplation are different, because contemplation contemplates concepts, but reflection does not involve thinking about concepts. Reflection is a mode of thinking distinct from contemplation. It doesn’t need concepts. Contemplation needs concepts.

Philosophy is not communication

Deleuze and Guattari also write that philosophy is not communication, because communication ‘only works under the sway of opinions in order to create “consensus” and not concepts. The idea of a Western democratic conversation between friends has never produced a single concept.’ (p.6).

Thus, the aims of philosophy and communication differ. Philosophy aims to create concepts; communication aims to generate consensus (agreement between people).

Deleuze and Guattari do not deny that communication plays an integral role in philosophy. It is part of philosophy but is not itself philosophy. No matter how many people share an opinion it doesn’t make it true. For Deleuze and Guattari, philosophy is about getting us to see where disagreements are; this is where creativity can thrive and a new concept can emerge.

In an interview with Deleuze conducted in 1990 (so before the publication of ‘What is Philosophy’), Deleuze said ‘We’ve got to hijack speech. Creating has always been something different from communicating.’

For Delueze and Guattari, philosophy is a necessarily disruptive act which challenges the status quo; creativity is synonymous with disruption, and philosophy is a creative act.

This is as far as I am going to go in this post. There is a lot more. I have barely scratched the surface. As it says on the back cover of my copy of the book:

‘The first part of the book [ as well as the concept, also] explores … the ‘plane of immanence’ in which [the concept] can be born and the ‘conceptual personae’ which activate it. It concludes with a brilliant account of philosophy’s relation to social and economic development, from ancient  Greece to the modern capitalist state. Part two considers other forms of thought: science, art, literature and music.’

However, just this short section has implications for educators. Deleuze and Guattari have argued that philosophy is distinct from the sciences and the arts, describing disciplines such as the human sciences and sociology, epistemology, linguistics, psychoanalysis, logical analysis, computer science, marketing, design and advertising as ‘increasingly insolent and calamitous rivals that Plato himself would never have imagined in his most comic moments’. (p.10).

Saying clearly what philosophy is not, helps to make the case for Philosophy as a unique discipline, a discipline much needed in education today.

Update 15-03-22

Dr Kay Sidebottom who will introduce the discussion about this book, has now posted three questions for us to consider:

Update 09-03-22

An individual extensive response to this book by Roy Williams, can be found here – http://resonancesofknowledge.pbworks.com/w/page/148119147/0%20-%20Knowledge%20Tools%20and%20Affordances

If you access the link you will see that this is a work in progress.

References

Deleuze, Gilles, Guattari, F. (1991). What is philosophy? Columbia University Press.

Deleuze, G. (1990). Negotiations. Columbia University Press.

Additions R, Ewald F, C. C. (1990). Control and Becoming, Gilles Deleuze in conversation with Antonio Negri.

Varsity Bookwork YouTube Playlist: What is Philosophy? Deleuze and Guattari

Reading for Life. Martha Nussbaum

The second book of 2022 to be selected for discussion by the Philosophy of Education Reading Network is Martha Nussbaum’s collection of Essays on Philosophy and Literature , ‘Love’s Knowledge’.

The group is organising itself differently this month. The book was selected in the same way as I have described before, although this time we only voted for this month’s book, not for the next 3 months.

Given that Martha Nussbaum’s book was thought to be too long to read and discuss in one meeting, and that it is composed of a series of independent essays, we were then asked (via Twitter) to let the organisers, Elizabeth O’Brien and Vicky Jamieson, know which chapters we would like to read and discuss.

Then came the surprise for those of us who had suggested chapters.

Just for something different, since the chapters stand alone together, how about each of us comes up with a question/provocation for one chapter we’ve suggested?

And that is how I ended up with Chapter 9 – Reading for Life – to come up with a question/provocation for, the chapter on which this post is based.

Like some of the other authors we have discussed in the PhilofEd group, Martha Nussbaum has been on my radar for a number of years, but I haven’t read anything by her until now. First impression: extremely dry and difficult to read. Not particularly enjoyable for me, but at this stage I really know very little about her work as a whole, so I may, in the long term, change my mind.  The irony is that Chapter 9, Reading for Life, is about the relationship between book and reader, and how a book should be the reader’s closest friend, with whom the reader has an intimate and loving relationship. So far, I have not developed an intimate and loving relationship with this book!

Nussbaum asks the questions: What is happening to readers as they read? Are people changed by what they read? If people are changed by what they read, then there are ethical and moral implications for both writer and reader, and of course, for educator.

In this chapter, Nussbaum considers the disdain with which ethical criticism of literature has been held over the years. It is often thought to be dogmatic, simplistic, emotive and ‘irretrievably subjective’. This quote below, which I find helpful in explaining why ethical criticism is thought by some to be important, does not come from Nussbaum, but from an article by Marshall Gregory (1998), ‘Ethical Criticism: What it is and Why it Matters’.

Most of us cannot evade the deep intuition that identifying with characters in stories can exert a powerful influence on the quality and content of our own lives. To analyze how fictions exert this influence and to assess its effects is ethical criticism’s job. What literary criticism needs in particular is a theoretical basis for inquiries into and judgments about the potential ethical effects of literature and narrative art in general. We need theoretical grounding because practical ethical criticism goes on all the time, often conducted in a most helter-skelter, contradictory, and intellectually incoherent way. Some contemporary critics may want to insist that ethical criticism is irrelevant, but ethical criticism’s century-long rejection in the academy is matched in scope only by the ceaseless talk about ethical issues that goes on inside and outside of the academy. The persistence of these issues as foci of constant and passionate controversy gives the lie to ethical criticism’s irrelevance. We may not always know how to live with it but we certainly cannot live without it. Ethical criticism cannot be evaded by epistemological relativism, by emotivism, or by the view of art as “mere entertainment,” for none of these views engages the overwhelming evidence both in literature and in life that imitations of fictional models comprise an important source of conduct for most of us much of the time. The aims of ethical criticism are to lead readers to a better and clearer understanding of certain issues: that literary effects are always potential, never determined; that moral and ethical criteria are unavoidable in both understanding and evaluating narratives; and that almost all critical approaches rest to some extent on ethical presuppositions that may be silent but that are always present………….

Nussbaum discusses ethical criticism through the work of Wayne Booth, in particular his book, ‘The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (1988), in which he makes a ‘compelling case for the coherence and importance of ethical criticism’. For Booth and Nussbaum, critical ethical discourse is essential to a just and rational society. For Booth, ethical criticism should be more than questioning what this work tells me about my moral duty. We should be able to ask certain questions of the text, such as, What relationship does my engagement with it have to my general aim to live well?  Ethical criticism should look at the work as a whole and not take characters or particular sentences out of context. It does not have a single dogmatic theory of what literature should be or do, but it can take a stand against certain things such as sadism, racism, and sexism. It does not need to be preachy or formally insensitive, and it is not about the consequences of reading, but about what becomes of readers as they read.

How are our desires and thoughts shaped as we read? Booth suggests that some texts (he uses the example, Peter Benchley’s Jaws) narrow the range of our conceptions and sentiments, but others, such as Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Dickens, Tolstoy, enable readers ‘to live during these moments a richer and fuller life than they could manage on their own’ (p.223). They also enable readers to change their minds and break down long-term entrenched, but possibly misinformed, views on life.

But what about Philosophy and Literature? Is the friendship we have with a novel different to the friendship promised by a philosophical treatise? Nussbaum suggests that ‘Novels … as a form of writing, have a distinctive, and a controversial ethical content.’ (p.237). We succumb trustingly to novels, but ‘philosophical texts, on the whole, do not invite the reader to fall in love’. (p.237). Nussbaum seems to suggest that philosophical criticism could learn from ethical literary criticism and become ‘less abstract and schematic, more respectful of the claims of the motions and imagination, [and] more tentative and improvisatory.’ (p.239). It could, like literature, appeal more for the emotional engagement of the reader.

Richard Eldridge in his review of Reading for Life explains Nussbaum’s view as follows:

‘Once we see human lives as courageous or cowardly, creative or routine, loving or narcissistic responses to such constraints and forces, then the treatise, the favored form of philosophical expression in modernity, immediately becomes less attractive as a vehicle of human understanding of human possibilities. Instead, it will be “texts that narrate the experiences of beings committed to value” (149), novels and perhaps related historical and biographical works of sustained narration, that will have the most to show us about how we might best live in response to our constraints and to the incommensurability of goods’. (Eldridge, p.190)

And…

‘It is through our emotional reactions – aversion, fearfulness, sympathy, grief, awe, love, reverence, or boredom as may be – to narratives that we learn the best possibilities of human life and the best paths toward them that various contexts make available’. (Eldridge, p.191)

Iris Murdoch doesn’t fully agree with Nussbaum. In “Philosophy and Literature” in Men of Ideas (ed. Bryan Magee), she says that she sees “no general role of philosophy in literature” (p.242). She draws the following distinctions between literature and philosophy: literature does many things, philosophy does one thing (has one aim); literature is natural, philosophy is counter-natural; literature arouses emotion, philosophy tries to eliminate emotional appeal; literature is indirect, philosophy is direct; literature has no problem to solve, philosophy seeks to solve a few technical and abstract problems; literature is concerned with aesthetic form, philosophy does not aim at formal perfection. (Cited in Holland, 1998).

There is, of course, much more in this chapter that could be discussed. Richard Eldridge raises some interesting points in his review of this essay, which Martha Nussbaum thought worthy enough to respond to. In seeking to respond to the request from the Philosophy of Education Reading Network organisers, I have focussed not on how we read, for example on whether we can distinguish Booth’s three voices, the narrator (the character who tells the story); the implied author (the sense of life or the outlook that reveals itself in the structure of the text taken as a whole); and the writer (the real-life person, with all her or his lapses of attention, trivial daily pursuits, and so forth) (Nussbaum, p.233). Instead, I have focussed on the value of ethical literary criticism and the different affordances of literature and philosophy. So, the question I would like to raise for the Philosophy of Education Reading Network, which I hope is sufficiently provocative to promote discussion is:

Do we agree with Martha Nussbaum that ethical literary criticism gives a fuller appreciation of Reading for Life than philosophical criticism, and if so, why?

Further questions raised by members of the PhilofEd Reading Network in relation to other chapters are below.

Chapter 5

Moral communication, moral imagination, and love are tied to the singularity of others. To what extent does an attention to singularity complicate and/or complement pedagogical approaches otherwise committed to social transformation/change?

Chapter 11

Assuming that education should help students better know themselves, what role(s) can literature and/or philosophy play in this process? What conceptions of the emotions and the intellect might hamper/help in this regard?

Chapter 12

Reading Nussbaum’s reading of Beckett (and bearing in mind that Beckett began to publish his literary works in 1930s) what are your thoughts on relation, life, and education?

See https://www.philofed.com/community-blog for further context in relation to these questions.

Update 07-02-2022

Whilst reading and writing about Martha Nussbaum’s ‘Reading for Life’, I have had an enjoyable email exchange with my friend (and past research colleague) Roy Williams, who joined the Philosophy of Education Reading Network last month for the first time. Roy has written his own response to this chapter, and to Nussbaum’s book more generally, on his wiki. It makes for fascinating reading. See http://resonancesofknowledge.pbworks.com/w/page/147886971/Reading%20-%20in%20and%20out%20of%20time

References/Bibliography

Martha Nussbaum (1990) Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wayne Booth (1989) The Company We Keep. An Ethics of Fiction. University of California Press

Gregory, Marshall W. (1998) “Ethical Criticism: What It Is and Why It Matters.” Style 32, no. 2, 194–220. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42946423

Richard Eldridge. (1992). Review. Reading for Life. Martha Nussbaum on Philosophy and Literature. Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, 2 (1), 187–197. Retrieved from https://works.swarthmore.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1306&context=fac-philosophy

Nussbaum, M. C. (1992). Reply to Richard Eldridge. Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, 2(1), 198–207. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/20163514

Iris Murdoch, “Philosophy and Literature,” in Men of Ideas ed. Bryan Magee (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982) p. 230.

Holland, M.G. (1998) Can Fiction be Philosophy? https://www.bu.edu/wcp/Papers/Lite/LiteHoll.htm

Rachel Aviv (2016) The Philosopher of Feelings. The New Yorker

Ana Sandoiu (2016) Martha Nussbaum on Emotions, Ethics, and Literature. The Partially Examined Life. A Philosophy Podcast and Philosophy Blog.