Friday, September 06, 2019

Trump’s mind and the big picture

One of the few times Trump has spoken the truth occurred when he admitted he would do nothing about (alleged) climate change (about which, of course, he is appallingly ignorant, of a piece with his inexcusable ignorance of science or indeed about any field of organized inquiry and knowledge as represented, for example, by the natural and social sciences) if that meant affecting corporate profits (and the avaricious accumulation of money and wealth generally). So, even when he is honest, we get a frightening glimpse into his manifestly irrational and a-rational beliefs and the workings of his mind, a mind long mired in denial, self-deception, and wishful thinking, exacerbated so as to cause a surfeit of all manner of harms, given his narcissistic megalomania (or exemplification of all—or virtually all—of the diagnostic symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder), rendering his beliefs in the form of phantasies, illusions, and delusions. This is profoundly disturbing on its own. It is made even more troubling, confounding, and frustrating when we realize that the President has instinctively loyal and perfervid enablers and supporters in the White House, in Congress, among right-wing talk radio hosts and TV personalities, and throughout the general population, including the vast majority of the Republican Party, erstwhile conservatives, capitalist titans of industry and finance, groups like the NRA, conservative evangelical Christians (a small number of evangelical Christians, namely those who have read the synoptic Gospels and taken the parables and sayings of Jesus to heart, are on the Left), white supremacists, proto-fascists and fascists…, all of whom are in active or implicit, de jure or de facto cooperation, collusion and complicity with the regressive politics and policies of the Executive Branch, including those of the Cabinet and federal agencies, politics and policies that are regressive not only with regard to our ecologies and the environment, but in light of whatever progress we have made to date and the possibilities and hopes we entertain for the democratically inspired and constrained pursuit of generalized welfare, well-being, and fulfillment (or eudaimonia).

Thursday, September 05, 2019

Beyond “scientific psychology”

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So, let me ask, what is knowledge of human beings? How does it enter into our understanding of ourselves and others as individuals? Can it be acquired by scientific observation, and does it have the kind of generality, precision, and objectivity characteristic of science? Wittgenstein asks: can one learn this knowledge? Let me quote his very brief answer: 

‘Yes; some can. Not, however, by taking a course in it, but through “experience”—Can someone else be man’s teacher in this? Certainly. From time to time he gives him the right tip.—This is what “learning” and “teaching” are like here.—What one acquires here is not a technique; one learns correct judgments. There are also rules, but they do not form a system, and only experienced people can apply them right. Unlike calculating-rules.’ 

The experience which Wittgenstein has in mind is the kind one has in living ones own life. It refers to one’s dealings with people in their variety in different situations, meeting with their cooperation as well as obstruction, their gratitude and their resentment, finding communion with them and at other times feeling at a loss and out of ones depth. The point is that we acquire whatever knowledge we have of mankind in living our life, engaging with others and suffering lifes adversities. The more open we are in ourselvesthat means open to hurt, grief, criticisms, as well as to the pleasures of give and takethe more we are capable of learning from others about life. By contrast the psychologists laboratory is an ivory tower. — Ilham Dilman, Raskolnikovs Rebirth: Psychology and the Understanding of Good and Evil (Open Court, 2000): 2-3. 

At Leiter Reports, there is a link to a piece, “Beyond the Replication Crisis,” with the following conclusion posted along with a request for comments:

“The replication crisis, if nothing else, has shown that productivity is not intrinsically valuable. Much of what psychology has produced has been shown, empirically, to be a waste of time, effort, and money. As Gibson put it: our gains are puny, our science ill-founded. As a subject, it is hard to see what it has to lose from a period of theoretical confrontation.” 

I tried to post a comment, but for some inexplicable reason, Brian never posts my comments. I gave up attempting to comment several years ago, but thought I’d try again (it turns out the passage of time in this case could not work any magic), as this was a topic that very much interests me and to which I’ve given some thought over the years. In any case, what follows represents what I wanted to say (it’s not the original comment, as I did not save it).

Whatever the specifics of “the replication crisis” (some of the comments to Brian’s post argued the ‘crisis’ was rather exaggerated or its implications scientific psychology far less dramatic) one might have drawn the same conclusion based on other, albeit not unrelated reasons, those culled from the outside looking in as it were, the foremost of them owing to the field’s regnant presuppositions and assumptions, as well as the highly constricted scope of psychology experiments. The backbone of such psychology (its forms of knowledge being impersonal, general, inductive, statistical, and theoretical) is of course experimental, and the artificial nature of such experimentation, owing to its constitutional inability to faithfully reproduce or even emulate or imitate the conditions of everyday life or cohere in some measure with folk psychology (first-person or not) and its corresponding narratives, by itself suggests its findings will largely “be a waste of time, effort, and money,” and thus one can reasonably reach the conclusion that scientific psychology as currently organized and practiced is “ill-founded.” 

As I’ve noted in this space before, one domain fundamental to human psychology, the study of emotions, likewise reveals the intrinsic weakness of scientific psychology, a fact highlighted here by Jon Elster, although he is able to salvage some residual utility from this discipline:

“… [W]ith respect to an important subset of the emotions we can learn more from moralists, novelists, and playwrights than from the cumulative findings of scientific psychology. These emotions include regret, relief, hope, disappointment, shame, guilt, pridefulness, pride, hybris, envy, jealousy, malice, pity, indignation, wrath, hatred, contempt, joy, grief, and romantic love. By contrast, the scientific study of the emotions can teach us a great deal about anger, fear, disgust, parental love, and sexual desire (if we count the last two as emotions). [….] I believe…that prescientific insights into the emotion are not simply superseded by modern psychology in the way that natural philosophy has been superseded by physics. Some men and women in the past have been superb students of human nature, with more wide-ranging personal experience, better powers of observation, and deeper intuitions than almost any psychologist I can think of. This is only what we should expect: There is no reason why one century out of twenty-five should have a privilege in wisdom and understanding. In the case of physics, this argument does not apply. Advances in mathematics and experimental techniques have made it possible to go far beyond what could be achieved in earlier centuries. There has be no similar revolution in psychology. Although the pages of psychology journals testify to a great deal of concern with methodology, even the most sophisticated statistical analysis cannot compensate for the intrinsic limitations of laboratory studies on humans.” (Alchemies of the Mind: Rationality and the Emotions, 1999: 48-50) 

Compare the virtually identical sentiment expressed some twenty-five years earlier by an avowed “pupil” of Wittgenstein (yet also a dear friend) in a small book of essays by the psychiatrist Maurice O’Connor Drury, The Danger of Words (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973):

“We might say of a great novelist such as Tolstoy, or our own George Eliot, that they show profound psychological insight into the characters they depict. Or again we should say of a historian such as Burckhardt that he had great psychological acumen in penetrating the motives behind the facts of history. In general, then, it is the great novelists, dramatists, biographers, historians, that are the real psychologists.” 

And like Elster, Drury is not simply dismissive of scientific psychology as such: “I believe that experimental psychology has made and will continue to make very significant contributions to the study of neuro-physiology.”
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Another philosophical and theoretical perspective from which we can critique scientific psychology can be gleaned from psychoanalytic theory and therapy. Of course it has long been fervently argued that psychoanalysis itself is not now nor ever will be a “science,” and so perhaps it is understandably expected that psychoanalysis is disposed to conspicuously serve as one of several possible polemical or conflicting vantage points from which a vigorous critique of scientific psychology can be—and has been—formulated. I won’t here systematically address, let alone attempt to assess, the arguments in this multi-faceted and long-standing debate about the scientific merits (or lack thereof) of psychoanalysis except to state that I happen to believe psychoanalysis can and should be viewed as a (new) science of subjectivity: in one sense, it is betwixt and between the natural and social sciences, and free to borrow—thus benefit—from both; in another sense, psychoanalysis is distinguishable from the modern sciences in its proximity to philosophy, other “therapies of desire” (those of both religious provenance, as in Buddhism, and non-religious origin, as with ‘philosophy as therapeia’), and the arts, especially literature. 

This is not to ignore the genetically derived flirtations with and occasional indulgence in scientism that shadowed the beginnings of psychoanalysis. Nor should we forget the primary (thus not exclusive) focus on psychopathology, early on at least, which effectively suppressed, distorted or left unexamined key conceptions and assumptions essential to normative models or pictures of what makes for psychological health and well-being. In brief, psychoanalysis is a science, given a sufficiently generous definition of science, one with strong family resemblance to or close in spirit to the meaning of vidyā in Sanskrit. In any case, wherever one falls out in this debate, psychoanalysis remains abundantly rich with psychological insight and knowledge of the sort that can enable us to keenly appreciate the chronic shortcomings of scientific psychology as the preeminent academic field (in the sense that it tends to crowd out different orientations, e.g., psychoanalysis) dedicated to the study of human psychology.

The late Ilham Dilman, who penned a number of exquisitely incisive analytical examinations of Freudian psychology and psychoanalysis in general, and was, it turns out, likewise a student of Wittgenstein’s writings (his review of the aforementioned volume by Dury, concluded that it was ‘like [a] breath of fresh air’), ties our material together with a concise summary of the differences between “scientific psychology” and psychology proper: 

“What the psychologist is concerned to discern and understand in human conduct are expressions of the human soul—verbal and other—that is of individual human beings. Here it is important to remember that human beings can be themselves in what they say and do, and as such accessible to others, and they can also withdraw, put up a front, hide their feelings and intentions from others. They are capable of lying and pretense. There is nothing like this in the animal world or the world of physics, nothing like this which the physicist or ethologist needs to take into account in his observations. For much of what the psychologist needs to understand he has come to know people as individuals. [….]

The trouble with academic, experimental psychology is that, deceived by the pretensions of science, it does not recognize its own limitations. As Wittgenstein puts it at the end of the Philosophical Investigations: 

‘The confusion and barrenness of psychology is not to be explained by calling it a ‘young science;’ its state is not comparable with that of physics, for instance, in its beginnings …. For in psychology there are experimental methods and conceptual confusion.

The existence of the experimental methods makes us think we have the means of solving the problems which trouble us; though problem and method pass one another by.’” — From Dilman’s chapter on “science and psychology” (which deserves to be read in full) in Raskolnikovs Rebirth: Psychology and the Understanding of Good and Evil (Open Court, 2000: 1-21)

Kandinsky dRelevant Bibliographies
Images: Wassily Kandinsky

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Reading Lists and Sundry Material

Several times a year I post an updated list of the bibliographies available on my Academia page (the start of the school year for many being one of those times). I have also included a separate list of my writing on a variety of topics as well as the “study guides” for several religious worldviews I used to give to my students. All of the material is in alphabetical order on the site, save the study guides, which are found at the bottom of the page.
  1. Transdisciplinary Perspectives on Addiction
  2. Africana & African American Philosophy
  3. After Slavery & Reconstruction: The Black Struggle for Civil Rights, Freedom, and Equality in the U.S.
  4. Salvador Allende and the Quest for Socialism
  5. R. Ambedkar
  6. American Indian Law (this list goes considerably beyond ‘law’)
  7. Samir Amin (3 September 1931 - 12 August 2018)
  8. Analogy & Metaphor
  9. Anarchism: Philosophy & Praxis
  10. Animal Ethics, Rights, and Law
  11. The Arab World: Modern & Post-Modern
  12. Attica Prison Uprising (September 9, 1971 – September 13, 1971): Notes, Timeline, and Essential Reading
  13. The Bedouin
  14. Beyond Capitalist Agribusiness: Toward Agroecology & Food Justice
  15. Beyond Capitalist-Attenuated Time: Freedom, Leisure, and Self-Realization
  16. Beyond Inequality: Toward the Globalization of Welfare, Well-Being and Human Flourishing
  17. Beyond Punitive Capitalist and Liberal Society
  18. Bioethics
  19. Biological Psychiatry, Sullied Psychology and Pharmaceutical Reason
  20. The Black Athlete and Sports
  21. Blacks and Food Justice: A Guide to Resources
  22. Blacks on the (Radical) Left
  23. The Black Panther Party
  24. On Boxing — Sweet Science & Brutal Agon
  25. Buddhism
  26. Buddhism & Psychoanalysis
  27. Capital Punishment
  28. Capitalist and Other Distortions of Democratic Education — From Etiological Diagnosis to Therapeutic Regimen
  29. César Chávez & the United Farm Workers
  30. Christianity
  31. Classical Chinese Worldviews
  32. Communism in India
  33. Comparative Law
  34. Conflict Resolution and Nonviolence
  35. Constitutionalism
  36. Constitutionalism in India
  37. Contract Theory & Promises
  38. Criminal Law: Municipal (Domestic) and International
  39. Death & Dying
  40. Democratic Theory
  41. Detroit: Labor & Industrialization, Race & Politics, Rebellion & Resurgence
  42. Dreams and Dreaming
  43. Ecological & Environmental Politics, Philosophies, and Worldviews
  44. Emotions
  45. Ethical Perspectives on Science & Technology
  46. Famine: History, Causes, and Consequences
  47. Frantz Fanon
  48. Freudian and Post-Freudian Psychology
  49. The Life, Work, & Legacy of Mohandas K. Gandhi
  50. Genocide
  51. Global Distributive Justice
  52. The Great Depression & The New Deal
  53. The Haitian Revolution
  54. Health: Law, Ethics & Social Justice
  55. Hinduism
  56. The History, Theory & Praxis of the Left in the 1960s
  57. Human Nature and Personal Identity
  58. Human Rights
  59. Ethics, Law, and Politics of Immigration & Refugees
  60. Indic (or Indian) Philosophy
  61. Individual & Shared Responsibility
  62. International Criminal Law
  63. International Law
  64. Modern Iran
  65. Islam, the Arts, and Aesthetic Experience
  66. Islam and Jurisprudence
  67. Islam & Muslims in the United States
  68. Islamic Studies
  69. Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
  70. The Jain Tradition
  71. L.R. James: Marxist Humanist & Afro-Trinidadian Socialist
  72. Judaism
  73. Law and Literature
  74. Toward an Understanding of Liberalism
  75. Malcolm X (May 19, 1925 – February 21, 1965)
  76. Marxism
  77. Marxism (or ‘the Left’), Art & Aesthetics
  78. Marxism and Freudian Psychology
  79. Toward a Marxist Theory of International Law
  80. Mass Media
  81. Nonviolent Resistance in the Middle East (with an emphasis on the Palestinian struggle)
  82. Nuclear Weapons
  83. Pan-Africanism, Black Internationalism, & Black Cosmopolitanism
  84. Philosophy of Law and Legal Theory
  85. Philosophy, Psychology, & Methodology for the Social Sciences
  86. Philosophy & Racism
  87. The Prophet Muhammad
  88. Toward a “Realist” Social and Political Psychology
  89. The Puerto Rican Struggle for Independence & Self-Determination
  90. Punishment and Prison
  91. The Qur’ān (Translations, Commentaries, Studies)
  92. Radical Catholicism (The Catholic Worker Movement, Liberation Theology…)
  93. Science and Religion
  94. Science and Technology
  95. Slavery
  96. Social Security & the Welfare State
  97. South African Liberation Struggles
  98. Sufism
  99. Sullied (Natural & Social) Sciences
  100. Terrorism
  101. Theology and Philosophy in Islamic Traditions
  102. Torture: moral, legal, and political dimensions
  103. Transitional Justice
  104. Utopian Imagination, Thought & Praxis
  105. The Varna & Caste System in India
  106. Vietnam War
  107. Violent Conflict & the Laws of War
  108. Women as Intellectuals in the European Enlightenment
  109. Workers, the World of Work, and Labor Law
  110. Zionist Ideologies
Reading in Prison 2
Essays, Papers, and “Study Guides,” (some published, although most of what little I’ve published—largely encyclopedia entries—is not available on my Academia page):
  • “Act Naturally!” “Say What?”
  • Advaita Vedānta Philosophy: a short introduction
  • Analogy and Metaphor: An Idiosyncratic Introduction
  • Bombing French Indochina during the U.S. War in Vietnam: a précis
  • Book Review: Oliver Leaman’s Islamic Aesthetics: An Introduction (2004) Philosophy East and West, Vol. 57, No. 2, (2007), 271-275.
  • Book Review: Martin D. Yaffe, ed., Judaism and Environmental Ethics (2001), Philosophy East and West, Vol. 57, No. 3 (2007), 400-405.
  • Christianity: study guide
  • Confucianism: study guide
  • Daoism: study guide
  • Democracy and Islam
  • Free Association in Psychoanalysis and “Willing What Cannot Be Willed”
  • A summary introduction to the Freudian psychoanalytic model of therapeutic philosophy and psychology
  • The Golden Rule
  • Hinduism: study guide
  • Iran’s Nuclear Power Program and the Question of Nuclear Weapons: Articles and Blog Posts (this material is not written by yours truly)
  • Islam: study guide
  • Judaism: study guide
  • Natural Law “externalism” v. Natural Law as “moral aspiration”
  • The pathology of normalcy ... and the quest for a sane society
  • Poetry and Islam: An Introduction
  • Prosoche in the Daily Life of a Salonnière in the French Enlightenment
  • Toward a Philosophically Sensitive Definition of Public Health Law
  • Social Norms and Legal Theory
  • Toward Socialism
  • The Legal Doctrine of Stare Decisis and Rationality
  • Therapies of Desire: Introspection in Buddhist and Psychoanalytic Psychologies
  • Donald Trump and Narcissistic Personality Disorder
Reading in Florida prison

Monday, August 19, 2019

Linda A.W. Brakel on the epistemic and ontological priority of (conscious and unconscious) knowledge over beliefs (‘neurotic’ and otherwise)

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“That there can be unconscious knowledge at all and the recognition of the great importance of unconscious knowing in mental life, together constitute one of the most basic assumptions of psychoanalytic theory. However, from the philosophical viewpoint most modern epistemologists [and most contemporary work in philosophy of mind] have contended that belief, rather than knowledge, is the most fundamental mental attitude.” In Unconscious Knowing and Other Essays in Psycho-Philosophical Analysis (Oxford University Press, 2010), Linda A.W. Brakel discusses and analyzes the epistemic and ontological priority given to notions of true belief, in particular “justified true belief,” hence the dominant philosophical view in which knowledge is explained in terms of belief, belief being “maintained as the foundational attitude, conceptually prior to knowledge.” 

Invoking in part the philosopher Timothy Williamson’s Knowledge and Its Limits (Oxford University Press, 2000), Brakel argues for a “radical epistemic view,” namely, that knowledge “comes first, conceptually and ontologically, with belief dependent on knowledge.” She draws upon data from psychoanalysis (e.g., ‘negative hallucinations,’ the role of ‘neurotic beliefs’ interfering with patients’ evidential use of knowledge, and ‘dream drawing’) as well as experimental research in cognitive neuropsychology to support her strictly philosophical arguments which serve to bolster or re-affirm the psychoanalytic theory or model of mind and which, in turn, is critical to therapeutic methods and processes of psychoanalysis.

I won’t attempt here to summarize her arguments for this radical epistemic view, which constitute only one—the second—chapter of her brilliant book. The other chapters treat, with equal analytic sophistication and keen insight, “a-rationality and vagueness;” “agency” and philosophy of action; the placebo effect; and explanations in the philosophy of science as these bear upon psychoanalysis in particular. Rather, I first want to share a clinical vignette on “neurotic beliefs” and phantasy, followed by a substantive and extremely helpful footnote from the same chapter on unconscious knowing, for it provides a succinct conceptual backdrop for the larger argument and thus directly bears upon the psychoanalytic evidence she gathers together on behalf of the endeavor to displace (justified true) belief with knowledge as the foundational epistemic attitude (and thus conceptually prior to belief, that is, the converse of the prevailing view in philosophy). 

“The phenomenon of neurotic-belief demonstrates [yet] another way in which one can know without believing what one knows. Most neurotic persons (and patients) have central phantasies, which are treated as beliefs, and have some of beliefs’ causal and functional roles—this despite the important fact that unlike beliefs, neurotic beliefs do not aim at the truth and are not regulated by evidence. Take, for instance, Mr. R who was brutally beaten many times by his father as a child. Now a very successful business man, middle aged and homosexual, he behaves in ways seemingly designed to never attract any man, even as he longs for sex, marriage, and male companionship. Through work in analysis, Mr. R first came to see that his characteristic overly dramatic style alternating with cool indifference was not likely to attract any of the men he was interested in attracting. We then began to understand the purpose of these behaviors. Over the decades, he had developed a complex phantasy (partly unconscious, and partly conscious but irrational) that worked to explain his past problems and prevent future ones. The phantasy as we constructed it looked like this: Mr. R neurotically-believed that his father’s damaging acts had been largely caused by his own lively (and very normal) little boy activities directed toward his father. So he neurotically-believed that as long as he was the opposite of normal—either too histrionic or too cold—not only would this sort of thing never happen again, it would also undo the past. Now Mr. R was not a psychotic person; he was competent and sophisticated and functioned well in the world. Clearly he knew that his father’s sadistic physically damaging behavior owed mostly to his father’s serious psychopathology and moral turpitude. He knew that behaving either with outrageous flamboyance or with cold self-containment could not guarantee future safety. Further, of course, he knew that the present cannot effect the past. Despite this, his neurotic-belief interfered with his rational capacities to believe what he knew. Mr. R had knowledge without believing what he knew.”
*    *    *

As Brakel explains, the purpose of the unusually long footnote below is to illustrate the following epistemic phenomena: “(a) justified true beliefs that seem to constitute knowledge, (b) justified true beliefs that do not constitute knowledge (Gettier-like cases [if you are not familiar with this, see here or here]), (c) unjustified true beliefs, and (d) justified false beliefs. To begin with, take the following five facts as true: (1) It is Friday evening at 5 pm. (2) Our front doorbell is broken. (3) Vic, a punctual visitor at 5 pm each day, arrives on this particular Friday at 5 pm and presses the broken doorbell, but does not knock on the door. 4) Meanwhile, at 5 pm I hear what sounds to be a knock on the door. 5) Also, there has been a strong wind blowing intermittently for hours, and at 5 pm a medium-sized tree branch hits our front door just as Vic is ‘ringing’ the broken doorbell. 

So with these in mind, here is (a) an example of a simple justified true belief that seems consistent with knowledge: I have the justified true belief/knowledge that since the doorbell does not work, some other sound (like a knock) will be needed to signal a visitor’s presence. Now, for (b) a Gettier-like case, where justified true beliefs do not constitute knowledge: On the basis of the ‘knock’ sound at 5 pm, I believed that someone is at the door, especially as I am expecting Vic. Although this was a justified and true belief—justified as it is rational to think that when doorbells are broken people will knock to signal their arrival, and that knocking makes the type of knock-sound I heard; and true in that Vic truly was at the door at 5 pm—still, I cannot be said to have had knowledge of Vic being at the door at 5 pm, because the appropriate causal chain did not figure into my justified true belief. I believed Vic was at the door due to what turns out to have been the false belief that Vic had knocked on the door when really the ‘knock’ was the sound of the branch banging against the door. (c) An unjustified true belief is as follows: My husband, Art, was daydreaming at 5 pm that someone was at the door. On this a-rational basis he believed that someone was at the door. Since there was a visitor at 5 pm—this turned out to be a true belief. However, this belief was true only by accident; Art arrived at it without sufficiently justifiable reasons. Finally, to illustrate (d) a justified false belief, let us change one of the facts above. It is still Friday at 5 pm, but Vic does not arrive until 5:30 pm. At 5 pm when I heard the knocking sound, expecting Vic at 5 pm, I had the justified belief that it was Vic. As in the Gettier-like case above (example b), the knocking sound was really the branch hitting the door; but this time Vic was not yet present. My belief that it was someone at the door was equally justified, but under these circumstances it was false.”

Friday, August 16, 2019

Desires, Wishes ... and Weakness of Will

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Linda A.W. Brakel, who by training and profession is both a psychoanalyst and a philosopher, demonstrates how this particular combination can yield important insights that uniquely benefit psychoanalytic theory and therapy as well as philosophy. Philosophically her work is on par with such stellar exemplars in the philosophical examination of psychoanalysis as Marcia Cavell, Ilham Dilman, Sebastian Gardner, Jonathan Lear, A.O. Rorty, Richard Wollheim, Jon Mills, Tomas Pataki, and John Wisdom, among others. In what follows I highlight some aspects of one of several incisive and compelling arguments in her book, Philosophy, Psychoanalysis, and the A-Rational Mind (Oxford University Press, 2009). This has to do with her conceptual distinction between “desires” and “wishes” (a distinction Freud himself failed to make), one result of which is her contribution to making sense of, if not solving, the akratic or “weakness of will” problem (i.e., acting against one’s better judgment) in philosophy. 

As Brakel explains, “[p]sychological attitudes are standardly divided into two types—cognitive attitudes, in which the content of the attitude is regarded as having come about; and conative attitudes, in which the context is to be brought about. Beliefs are the foremost example of the former, and can be further distinguished from other cognitive attitudes: phantasizing, imagining, pretending, supposing, and hypothesizing, for example. Beliefs stand apart from these other cognitive attitudes in that

“[i]ntrinsic to being a belief is the distinctive functional and constitutive aim in attempting to represent the world truly and correctly. If evidence to the contrary of a belief’s content a is gained—if I am shown that what appeared to be a water fountain is really a birdbath—the belief that a can no long be held as a belief. The same negative evidence, however, in no way prevents me from continuing to phantasize a, imagine a true, pretend a true, or suppose a true. The content a can no longer be believed-true owing to the fact that belief functions to represent the world as it is—‘belief constitutively aims at the truth’ [David Velleman]—and that this constitutive regulation of belief constrains what contents can be believed (as opposed to imagined, supposed, etc.).” 

We’ll leave aside further analysis and discussion of cognitive attitudes to focus on an exemplary conative attitude, desire. Brakel argues that desire has a constitutive function,

“namely, that in order to be a desire, a conative attitude must contribute to action production in the real world toward the fulfillment of its own content—a readiness-to-act. Wishes … have a much different constitutive function. Wishes contribute to the fulfillment of their content, not through readiness-to-act in the real world, but via the formation of the sort of phantasies that can provide fulfillment.” 

We cannot fill in all the steps in the argument or provide the details of her treatment of possible objections, all of which make for enjoyable reading. Here we will simply share the bulk of her novel and ingenious approach to the problem akrasia, or weakness of will:

“Donald Davidson gives the modern standard version of the dilemma of the akratic person. A man has a desire for a and is able to do a. He also has a desire for b and could do b. He is free to do a or do b, and they are mutually exclusive. After taking everything possible into account, he judges that b is the better action. On this basis he desires to do b more and therefore decides to do b. Yet he performs a and does not perform b. Davidson asks, ‘what is the agent’s reason for doing a when he believes it would be better, all things considered, to do another thing[?].’ He continues ‘the answer must be: for this agent has no reason.’ In other words, although ‘[o]f course he has a reason for doing a; what he lacks is a reason for not letting his better reason for not doing a prevail.’ To the extent that the akrate performs akratic actions, he is for Davidson not rational. Further, according to Davidson, the akrate ‘cannot understand himself; he recognizes in his own internal behavior, something essentially surd. 

Let us investigate this with an example that is both specific and commonplace. H drinks sugary soft drinks, and colas are his favorite. He knows, all things considered, that it is better not to drink them. Thus with each can or bottle of cola, he both desires to drink it—let us say he desires a; and desires not to drink it—let us call this his desire for b. Not drinking colas would be better, and b is the better act. Therefore, according to Davidson, H should desire b more. Yet H continues to imbibe cola soft drinks—he does a, he does not do b. 

Davidson’s problem can be addressed fairly readily if one considers readiness-to-act as desire’s constitutive function and the psychological calculus alluded to earlier…. An agent’s judgment that an action b is better than some action a, even all things considered, is no assurance, Davidson’s claim to the contrary notwithstanding, that this agent will desire b more than a. This type of example makes it clear that desire and evaluative judgment are not intrinsically linked. To desire something does not mean, as Davidson claims, that one has an attitude toward it as worthy of that desire. Rather, on my view, desire’s constitutive function of readiness-to-act links it to intentional action such that if an agent performs desired action a intentionally and does not perform desired action b, no matter what other actions are considered, in some sense he can be said to desire a more. H judges that b, stopping cola drinking, is better. But H does a, he drinks colas. Hence, H desires a more. Note that this analysis does not preclude H having a strong wish for b, to stop imbibing colas, even as he does a, and drinks them. Moreover, H might well have a strong wish that he could desire b more than he desires a. In fact, just these sorts of conflict between wish and desire is likely present in every case of akrasia. And yet, as long as he continues to do a, his cola drinking is reflective of his stronger desire and its constitutive aim of readiness-to-act in the real world toward fulfillment of its content.”
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Further Reading (In addition to the basic literature on akrasia andweakness of will found in the bibliography to the SEP entry by Sarah Stroud below, this short, idiosyncratic list represents material that has influenced my perspective on topics broached by Brakel as well as related matters, such as addiction and ‘precommitment’ or ‘self-binding.’):
  • Elster, Jon. Strong Feelings: Emotion, Addiction, and Human Behavior (MIT Press, 1999).
  • Elster, Jon. Ulysses Unbound: Studies in Rationality, Precommitment and Constraints (Cambridge University Press, 2000): 1-87, but especially, 63-87.
  • Fingarette, Herbert. Heavy Drinking: The Myth of Alcoholism as a Disease (University of California Press, 1988).
  • Heyman, Gene M. Addiction: A Disorder of Choice (Harvard University Press, 2009).
  • Hill, Thomas E., Jr. “Kant on Weakness of Will,” from his book, Virtue, Rules and Justice: Kantian Aspirations (Oxford University Press, 2012): 107-128.
  • Radoilska, Lubomira. Addiction and Weakness of Will (Oxford University Press, 2013).
  • Rorty, Amélie Oksenberg, 12. “Where Does the Akratic Break Take Place?” and 13. “Akrasia and Conflict,” from her book, Mind in Action: Essays in the Philosophy of Mind (Beacon Press, 1988): 229-265.
  • Stroud, Sarah. “Weakness of Will,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta, ed.
Relevant Bibliographies

Saturday, August 10, 2019

God wants you to be rich (in material wealth)

Christ of the Breadlines 2Jesusteaching on poverty and wealth was anchored in the Scriptures, in particular, it shared with Psalms and the Prophets the key idea that God was somehow on the side of the poor. At the same time, however, Jesusmessage about the dangers of wealth was radical and provocative at the time (and of course remains so two millennia later). — Ann Wierzbicka, What Did Jesus Mean? (Oxford University Press, 2001): 385 

From Meagan Day’s article, “A Grift From God,” Jacobin (10 August 2019):  

“The prosperity gospel is a movement within American Christianity, also known as the Word of Faith, that says God wants you to be rich, but you have to will his financial blessing into being. Forty percent of Evangelicals are taught the prosperity gospel, according to which the root cause of poverty is faithlessness. [….] 

Prosperity gospel ministers don’t usually stop at urging positive thinking. To manifest financial success, believers can’t simply have faith. They must demonstrate that faith — preferably in the form of a tithe to the person doing the preaching. As rapper Ice-T put it, ‘The preacher says, “I know God a little bit better than you. If you pay me, I’ll hook you up.”’ Like payday lenders, prosperity gospel ministers see the broke and struggling as a consumer market. Their target demographic is those who suffer from lack, and their product is the promise of abundance, or at least relief. Financially, the prosperity gospel is nothing but a swindle, prying money from people who by definition have very little and desperately wish they had more.

Ideologically, the prosperity gospel dovetails perfectly with right-wing ideology, which views poverty as a consequence of individual failure rather than rigged economic and political structures. As [Barbara] Ehrenreich writes [in Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America (2009)], ‘Always, in a hissed undertone, there is the darker message that if you don’t have all that you want, if you feel sick, discouraged, or defeated, you have only yourself to blame.’ When times are hard, it’s because you didn’t think positively enough, pray hard enough, or tithe enough. It’s a spiritual spin on meritocracy, the ideological handmaiden to neoliberal capitalism. The prosperity gospel is one of America’s greatest grifts. Little wonder, then, that it’s made its way to the White House, currently occupied by a master con artist himself.” 

The full article is here. 

Image: Fritz Eichenberg, The Christ of the Breadlines (wood engraving, 1955)

Monday, August 05, 2019

The Prisoner as Person: Education and the Arts behind Bars

Reading Revolution
Prison offers, curiously, a time to make art, with men on life sentences sometimes being the most serious about developing their craft. Boredom also assures the motivation of Tobolas poets: ‘Unlike my college students, who were required to take composition, my inmate students came to class because they wanted to learn.’ But the book also raises questions about creative work, its potential and its limits. A prison classroom or theater is a crucible, a lab for working out what art can do when separated from economies of grants, sales, and prestige.

Art is a form of resistance. It is an attempt to maintain ones humanity and individuality even while wearing a uniform and tagged with a number. Art builds community. As any reader of prison or internment camp memoirs knows, the creation of art in captivity does not require an official program. In moments of crisis, people instinctively draw on their own creative resources.  – From Irina Dumitrescu’s review, “Door Open for Beauty: On Deborah Tobola’s Hummingbird in Underworld: Teaching in a Mens Prisona Memoir (Berkeley, CA: She Writes Press, 2019), in the Los Angeles Review of Books, 2 August 2019.

Highwaymen murals 2 
Dumitrescu’s review moved me to put this list together, culled from my larger compilation on “punishment and prison.”

The Prisoner as Person: Education and the Arts behind Bars
  • Bernstein, Lee (2010) America is the Prison: Arts and Politics in Prison in the 1970s. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
  • Brottman, Mikita (2016) The Maximum Security Book Club: Reading Literature in a Men’s Prison. New York: HarperCollins.
  • Chevigeny, Bell Gale, ed. (1999) Doing Time: Twenty-Five Years of Prison Writing. New York: Aracade.
  • Coyle, William J. (1987) Libraries in Prisons: A Blending of Institutions. New York: Greenwood Press.
  • Davies, Ioan (1990) Writers in Prison. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell.
  • Desai, Ashwin (2014/Unisa Press, 2012) Reading Revolution: Shakespeare on Robben Island. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books.
  • Franklin, H. Bruce (1978) The Victim as Criminal and Artist: Literature from the American Prison. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Franklin, H. Bruce (1998) Prison Writing in Twentieth Century America. New York: Penguin Books.
  • Fyfe, Janet (1992) Books Behind Bars: The Role of Books, Reading, and Libraries in British Reform, 1701-1911. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
  • Harlow, Barbara (1992) Barred: Women, Writing and Political Detention. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press.
  • James, Joy, ed. (2003) Imprisoned Intellectuals: America’s Political Prisoners Write on Life, Liberation, and Rebellion. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
  • James, Joy, ed. (2005) The New Abolitionists: (neo)Slave Narratives and Contemporary Prison Writings. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
  • Johnson, Paula C. (2003) Inner Lives: Voices of African American Women in Prison. New York: New York University Press.
  • Karpowitz, Daniel (2017) College in Prison: Reading in an Age of Mass Incarceration. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
  • Kornfeld, Phyllis (1997) Cellblock Visions: Prison Art in America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Lagemann, Ellen Condliffe (2016) Liberating Minds: The Case for College in Prison. New York: New Press.
  • Melville, Samuel (1972) Letters from Attica. New York: William Morrow and Co.
  • Miller, D. Quentin, ed. (2005) Prose and Cons: Essays on Prison Literature in the United States. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
  • Monroe, Gary (2009) The Highway Men Murals: Al Blacks Concrete Dreams. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida.
  • Peltier, Leonard (Harvey Arden, ed.) (1999) Prison Writings: My Life is My Sun Dance. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.
  • Sachs, Albie (1990) The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs. London: Paladin/Grafton Books.
  • Salinas, Raúl (Louis G. Mendoza, ed.) (2006) raúlsalinas and the Jail Machine: My Weapon is My Pen. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
  • Scheffler, Judith A., ed. (2002) Wall Tappings: An International Anthology of Women’s Prison Writings, 200 [CE] to the Present. New York: Feminist Press.
  • Schorb, Jodi. (2014) Reading Prisoners: Literature, Literacy, and the Transformation of American Punishment, 1700-1845. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
  • Schreiner, Barbara, ed. (1992) A Snake with Ice Water: Prison Writings by South African Women. Johannesburg: Congress of South African Writers.
  • Suttner, Raymond (2001) Inside Apartheid’s Prisons: Notes and Letters of Struggle. Melbourne: Ocean Press/Pietermaritzburg, SA: University of Natal Press.
  • Sweeney, Megan (2010) Reading Is My Window: Books and the Art of Reading in Women’s Prisons. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
  • Waldman, Ayelet and Robin Levi, eds. (2011) Inside This Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women’s Prisons. San Francisco, CA: McSweeney’s Books and Voice of Witness.
Maximum security book club