A difficult week given the untimely demise of our beloved pup; but I am finally released from the shackles of a job which often made me feel helpless and hopeless.
After crying my eyes out on Tuesday as the vet put Romeo to sleep, on Wednesday I began to tackle the domestic to do list: tidying and odd jobs. By yesterday evening I’d got as far as completing my tax return… a process and sense of achievement nicely encapsulated by Boston Dynamics’ Atlas robot, here:
Today I have cycled, walked, made sausage sandwiches for breakfast, sorted our evening meal, done my washing, and now am sitting socially distanced outside a little cafe with a nice flat white. I feel a bit like Atlas the robot below, tentatively upbeat…
But there’s no getting away from the fact that this week will always be remembered for our lost little dog; he tried, but after his stroke, never could quite get back to his feet.
The great Dutch philosopher Spinoza has always appealed to me; but all the more so now I’ve studied more psychology.
Spinoza’s ethics are ‘naturalistic’ and spring from simple real-world causes. There is no divine origin or human uniqueness. Everything stems from the simple proposition (as Michael LeBuffe explains in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) that:
Human beings desire whatever will bring joy and are averse to whatever will lead to sadness.
This fits beautifully with modern psychological theories that, along with animals, we have one of two basic reactions to everything: approach or avoid. And it all stems from a simple, unquenchable, animalistic drive which Spinoza describes thus:
Both insofar as the mind has clear and distinct ideas, and insofar as it has confused ideas, it strives, for an indefinite duration, to persevere in its being and it is conscious of this striving it has.
Spinoza’s ‘passions’ are the manifestations of this striving, as LeBuffe describes them:
Human passions are for Spinoza changes, that is, increases or decreases, in the power with which we, or parts of us, strive.
And again, as modern psychology suggests, Spinoza suggests a lot of what drives us is subliminal and below the level of consciousness:
Between appetite and desire there is no difference, except that desire is generally related to men insofar as they are conscious of the appetite. So desire can be defined as appetite together with consciousness of the appetite.
And the mind is constantly on the lookout for ‘perfection’ via more ‘joy’ and less ‘sadness’.
By Joy, therefore, I shall understand in what follows that passion by which the mind passes to a greater perfection. And by Sadness, that passion by which it passes to a lesser perfection.
All of which drives our actions or ‘striving’ accordingly:
We strive to promote the occurrence of whatever we imagine will lead to joy, and to avert or destroy what we imagine is contrary to it, or will lead to sadness.
And virtue for Spinoza is simply ‘correctly’ striving:
Consciously trying to preserve oneself is right and neglecting to preserve oneself is wrong.
The more each one strives, and is able, to seek his own advantage, i.e., to preserve his being, the more he is endowed with virtue; conversely, insofar as each one neglects his own advantage, i.e., neglects to preserve his own being, he lacks power.
All very simple – but we’re pretty complex in our motivations aren’t we? All that complexity comes from our reaction to other people and things; or as Spinoza has them ‘objects’.
There are as many species of Joy, Sadness and Desire, and consequently of each affect composed of these (like vacillation of mind) or derived from them (like love, hate, hope, fear, etc.), as there are objects (i.e. things) by which we are affected.
And a key part of achieving virtue, and correctly developing and using our ‘power’ of right action, is developing ‘clear and distinct ideas’ on things. As LeBuffe explains:
When I do something that fails to help me to persevere, it’s because the ideas on which I based my action were confused; that is, I thought I knew what would help me to persevere, but I was wrong.
When I do something that does help me to persevere, though (unless I have simply been lucky in acting from an inadequate idea), it is because I acted on clear and distinct ideas or, in other words, genuine knowledge about what would help me to persevere.
And this of course is a life’s work; coming to know ourselves, understand others and appreciate how the world works.
But does this mean there is no objective good and bad? Looks like it… For Spinoza:
As far as good and evil are concerned, they also indicate nothing positive in things, considered in themselves, nor are they anything other than modes of thinking, or notions we form because we compare things to one another. For one and the same thing can be good, and [evil], and also indifferent. For example, Music is good for one who is melancholy, [evil to] one who is mourning, and neither good nor [evil] to one who is deaf.
Truth is, as Spinoza sees it, they are the other way around:
It is clear that we neither strive for, nor will, neither want, nor desire anything because we judge it to be good; on the contrary, we judge something to be good because we strive for it, will it, want it, and desire it.
LeBuffe concludes we need to stop kidding ourselves:
The ideal we set before ourselves will be a person who possesses the greatest possible power of action. This would be, in effect, to correlate our systematically distorted ways of perceiving ourselves—as free agents pursuing as an end a model of human nature—with the causes that really determine our actions.
So does this mean anything goes?
No, because we live in community, society and constant connection with myriad others, each with their own delusions, desires, passions and ideas of what’s good and bad; and that 100% creates our context.
And so as Susan Jones explained in Philosophy Bites in December 2007, Spinoza’s sage advice is to find a ‘community’ whose values you share – as he himself did. Because given how small our ‘power’ to influence events, people, ourselves and human nature truly is, you won’t make much headway in changing one you don’t.
And this piece of Spinoza’s advice – from across time and place – is part of why I’m changing jobs next month.
Out walking the dog, what should pop up on my podcast playlist than Keith Frankish on Philosophy Bites explaining why I was lost in thought, while the dog was 100% focused on the walk…
The difference between us is he lives in the immediate, whereas we spend a lot of our time elsewhere.
Consciousness is the distinctive feature of the human mind. Because a conscious thought is a thought about something that isn’t perceptually present. We can react to thoughts about the world detached from immediate perception.
So if we can do it, why can’t animals? Not least given we have ostensibly similar sensory apparatus and not massively dissimilar brains?
The crucial difference is we have language… Frankish’s proposal is that it is the presence of language that enables us to have conscious thought, not just conscious perception.
We don’t just use language for communicating with each other, we use language for communicating with ourselves; for stimulating ourselves in new ways, for representing the world to ourselves, for representing situations that aren’t actually real… situations that ‘might’ happen and this enables us to anticipate, to plan to prepare for eventualities that haven’t yet occurred.
This, I think is the function of conscious thought. Conscious thought, I think, is essentially a kind of speaking to ourselves.
And by talking to ourselves we can mentally shift in time and space in ways which my trusty hound probably can’t. He’s a clever little chap – but apart from chasing bunnies and squirrels in his sleep (you can see his legs twitching as he runs them down) he’s a creature of the immediate present.
As Frankish explains:
We might say that one of the main functions of mind generally, in us and other animals, is to lock us onto the world; to make us sensitive to the world around us so we can respond quickly to changes to enable us to negotiate the world in a rapid and flexible way.
But Homo Sapiens has another trick…
The function of the conscious mind, I think is quite different. It’s not to lock us onto the world, it is to unlock us from the world – to enable us to consider alternative worlds, to consider what we would do if things weren’t as we expect them to be, to make plans for how we might change the world.
So this ability to step back from the ‘immediate’ and use language – talking to ourselves – to reflect on what is, has, might or will happen is what our unique combination of language and consciousness give us.
So far so generically interesting. But potentially even more interesting is how I’m going to try and use this insight…
Here are the mental steps:
Most of the bad things that are happening to me in work (and there are plenty) are made worse be me running over them in my mind.
Because I’m quite verbally dexterous I may be guilty of sharpening them in my inner dialogue to the point of exquisite pain.
Treatments may vary but nearly all (bar the most serious) respond to ‘talking therapies’ which aim to change the inner dialogue.
Mindfulness, which helps too, is all about turning off the ‘inner talking’ and returning to the moment – in effect locking back onto the world as a trusty hound would.
Although bad things are happening to me at work (as they are for most people right now) they are still not as bad as the versions in my mind (at least not all of the time) and most of them are anticipated and haven’t actually happened yet.
My inner voice is currently more negative and ruminative than is good for me.
And talking to other people makes it even worse.
So what to do?
Simple – switch language, and here’s why:
People in several different workplaces down the years have commented that I’m very cheerful and animated when I speak French.
I remember that when I used to live in France I couldn’t really do numbers very well in French; it’s like I was saying them in my head but the ‘numbers bit’ of my brain wasn’t properly engaging.
If I’m thinking about something terrible – like getting made redundant or making other people redundant it makes me feel really sad.
If I consciously think about the same thing in French, there is little or no physiological effect… it’s as if the ‘pain connectors’ aren’t there; I think it, but more slowly and not sadly…
Perhaps it’s because I have to work at it. I think more slowly, and my vocabulary is less ‘fine’ in French – but it seems the pain and sadness just isn’t there when I think the same thought in French. In fact it’s not really the same ‘thought’ at all, its more a daisy chain of words which register in the mind but aren’t ‘felt’ in the same way.
So based on Keith Frankish, when bad and sad thoughts crowd in, I clearly need to switch to Frankish – or French as we know it these days. Whenever I start ruminating or feel chest clenching anxieties about work I plan to try thinking about them in French to get them under control.
Let’s see if it works… And if not there’s always Italiano! Vive la France.
After a month of refusal, obstruction and obfuscation… on Monday the dam finally broke.
Under siege from my other and better half, out thought and out argued by my eldest; and finally advised to throw in the towel by my youngest… I gave in. Tomorrow we drive to the south coast to pick up a small brindled bundle of energy and potential joy called Romeo.
My daughter’s well argued PowerPoint put a massive crack in my defences
Our friends bringing his sister Winnie round last weekend brought the proposition to life…
So tomorrow we embark on by my guesstimate circa 17 years of having a hound again. Here he is looking rather down in the mouth with his breeder:
Albeit I know I’ll end up schlepping around in the rain, cold and dark for myriad hours as a result; I also know – in my heart of hearts – this is a statement of genuine optimism.
A dog brings mess, bother, responsibility, cost and ultimately great sadness – in their inevitable and sometimes painfully protracted decline. But a dog also brings joy, unconditional love and companionship; no one more pleased to see you when you open the door than a dog.
Every home is a happier home with a hound.
And so to our old dog. Poor old Mr Tumnus went downhill very badly in his last months; but he was a very fine hound for a good 7 years. It has taken half a decade but it’s time to welcome another big fella into our lives.
A great many birds with broken wings or ruffled plumage, have come to perch in my tree in recent weeks. Human beings are fragile and so easily damaged – usually by each other.
We all like to believe life is fair. So, in the end, very few people are able to cope well with anxiety or things going badly for them.
We were taking about this at home the other day, asking the question:
“Is it possible to communicate to other people you are stretched, stressed or tired yourself, without being pissy, shirty or sad with them?”
Probably not. Because ‘pissy’, ‘shirty’ and ‘sad’ are exactly the ways we communicate stress. To do it any other way just confuses people – or they simply don’t hear.
So for the various birds; small and large, young and old; who have come to unburden themselves on me, there are only really two ways to be:
1) ‘pissy’, ‘shirty’ or ‘sad’; and quickly break both their wings so they never come back to my tree again.
2) reach for patience, tolerance and kindness; give away some all-too-precious time, and hopefully help them a little, to fly onwards.
I’ve mostly managed the latter. Some are still chirruping in my branches. Some are permanently nested there; so they are to be lived with.
But at least a few have gently flapped away with splinted wings or smoothed feathers. And that’s a success of sorts. Kindness is always the best answer.