A Quote From John MacMurray

About twenty years ago I, um, lost my faith.  A lot of what I had believed up till then simply evaporated.

It didn’t even leave a residue.

I have been, ever since, an unbeliever.  I don’t believe psychiatry is science.

Psychology is most likely not a science either.  That could depend on how we define it; I might come back to that before this post is over.

It was a text from John Macmurray that pulled the rug out from under my convictions.  I was reading Persons In Relation, his Gifford lectures from 1954.  Sharply distinguishing the two realms of personal and scientific knowledge, he wrote — with razor-sharp sarcasm —  that “…our objective or scientific knowledge of man is such knowledge of one another as we can obtain without entering into personal relation.”

Poof.  The bubble popped.

In that single moment, an entire closetful of intellectual reservations that had been accumulating over the years blew open and disgorged itself all over my mind.  (That scene in Return of the King where Aragorn, having extracted an oath from the dead, is almost buried in skulls… .)

Experimental conclusions only expressible as probabilities?  Check.  Theoretical entities only dubiously related to anything observable?  Check.  Prohibitions against individual narratives as “anecdotal”?  Check.  Inability to arrive at stable theoretical foundations for even the most basic of observations?  Check.  Prohibition against knowledge by introspection?  Check.

The list goes on and on and on and on and on.

I thought about everything I had absorbed of human nature since I was born, and the sources from which I had learned it: from my own reflections on my family, friends, enemies, favorite stories and novels and comics, movies, and just plain daily news; and above all from my own adventures in exploring my own humanity.

By the definition of scientific objectivity, none of this could count towards knowledge of human nature.  And that’s just silly.

I’ve been asking myself, ever since, how could we ever, here in Western intellectual history,  have arrived at such a stupid conviction.

  • What are we studying when we study psychology?
  • How deeply may one person know another?
  • What can we know about humankind in general that is different — intrinsically — from knowing individual persons?

I’ll be coming back to these topics in upcoming posts.  More than once.

Clear and Distinct Ideas

The phrase comes from Descartes, somewhere in the Meditations on First Philosophy.  (I’m not going to look up the exact citation — you can google for it.)

Some ideas, some ways of talking about ideas, try to follow this path of “Clear and Distinct”.  Some don’t.  Some ideas are intrinsically unsuited for a clear and distinct context.  Others can’t really be used outside of such a context.

Obvious instances of clear and distinct are the stipulative definitions you find in geometry, math, and logic textbooks and online tutorials.  In any of these disciplines, the first step for a beginner is to understand that points, lines, polygons, circles, and so on, have only the properties we define them to have.  That’s “clear and distinct.”

A Cartesian clear and distinct idea has — I always think of the matter this way — sharp edges.

Most of the notions of which our everyday colloquial speech is constituted do not have sharp edges.  Not at all.  They are not clear and distinct in Descartes’ sense.  This is not a defect; there are good reasons why everyday speech uses bendy, fuzzy, blurry-edged words and phrases.

One of those reasons is that in ordinary conversation, people are often simply expressing, sharing, or responding to, some state of mind.  Such matters, and the idioms by which we refer to them, are simply not amenable to sharp-edged definition.

For example:

  • “how are you feeling now that it’s over?
  • “Your friends are telling me I shouldn’t let you waste your time on it.”
  • “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal saviour?”
  • “Those conservative wingnuts are going to destroy the country.”

Please note: I am NOT saying that these can’t have clear meanings.  They can; but the clarity, when it appears, is supplied by non-verbal context.

Picture any of the first three expressions above (the fourth one differs from those in some important ways), being uttered in a one-on-one intimate exchange between two persons who know each other well.  Well enough so that they understand each other in the presence of statements and questions such as these.  It is that silent context that defines the ideas involved here.

The domain of human speech represented here is at the opposite pole of a conceptual spectrum from the Cartesian clear and distinct ideas.  In this realm,

  • there are only ostensive definitions, not verbal, conceptual, stipulative ones
  • clear and distinct are negotiable attributes.  They are unequivocally present only by mutual agreement between two or more persons.  One person alone cannot judge the issue.

In very general terms, this is the realm of the humanities, the liberal arts, religion, drama, intimate personal relations.

This is, mostly, where I’ll be spending my time and effort on UPTIME.

It is possible, in this realm, to think and speak with clarity and distinctness.  But not by imitating Descartes.  The philosopher John MacMurray talked about this in his Gifford Lectures The Self as Agent and Persons in Relation.  Those have had a big impact on me; I’ll describe that in another post soon.