On invitations to have philosophical conversations, disciplines of eating, smallholding farming, and much more on Pindar and St. Benedict

In the spirit of giving, I’d like to invite you to have a philosophical conversation with me. Let’s call it philosophical conversation as gift giving. I’ve been meeting a lot of people this way in the past couple weeks. My strolling card is filling up, but let’s see if we can make it work.

What’s philosophical counseling, you ask. My latest essay: “Philosophical counseling is the art of putting lives in order.”

You can read more about my invitation here. You can also re-tweet this invitation if you’d like.

I’ve had 2 questions fermenting in my mind–

  1. What is the nature of good institutions? (I’m returning to Pindar and St. Benedict.)
  2. What is the nature of good authority? (I’m querying the possibility of crossbreeding Aristotle with St. Benedict.)

–and so far I’ve got only half-chewed answers. It’s a start.

I haven’t gotten very far in my investigation into the “discipline of eating,” but I have made some progress in my understanding of good organizations and viable practices. I’m trying to sketch a picture of a small community that would realize a Benedictine-Aristotelian vision of social order.

How did I get here, and what am I talking about?

The First Step: I re-read Alasdair MacIntyre’s classic After Virtue which ends with a stirring call for a very different St. Benedict for our time.

The Second Step: I read and wrote a forthcoming book review of Benedict’s Dharma. Patrick Barry’s new translation of Benedict’s Order is magnificent: direct, lucid, and fresh. I read Patrick Henry’s introduction in which Henry suggests that a better translation of the Latin Ordo would be trellis. Ah! Trellis as an image of good institutions and good authority! Ah! I began thinking, “Could the Order of St. Benedict be recuperated for our time?”

The Third Step: I am writing an essay on Pindar and St. Benedict for Dark Mountain Project–Issue 3. Also, I had a conversation with theologian-in-residence Victor Lee Austin of St. Thomas Church. During our wonderful conversation, he mentioned that the Community of Jesus has built a monastic community in accordance with St. Benedict’s Order. I mean to go check it out and see what I can learn. To clarify: I am looking into the possibility of “lay monasticism,” a “spiritualized” but secular re-interpretation of Benedict for our time. This is not antiquarian history (cf. Nietzsche) but what I’ve taken to calling “alchemy” or “alchemical history”: the recuperation of the past but with a reinventive twist.

The Fourth Step: I am reminded, as ever, of Pindar’s line that “Human excellence grows like a vine tree, fed by the green grass,  among men wise and just, raised up to the liquid sky.” Pindar’s, en nuce, is a good story of human moral development. Here is a picture of beautiful children.

The Fifth Step: I just finished reading Rosie Boycott’s Our Farm: A Year in the Life of a Smallholding (London: Bloomsbury, 2007). The book is referenced in one of David E. Cooper’s essays about the “spiritual dispensation.” In “Food and Spiritual Reflection: The Daoist Example,” Cooper writes,

There are, then, good grounds for taking seriously, in our contemporary context, the Daoist thought that reflection on food practices belongs to a wider meditation on our proper alignment to other creatures and to the world at large. It is interesting to observe, therefore, that some of the best recent writing on food has a distinctly Daoist tone. A good example is her chronicle of a year spent on a farm in which Rosie Boycott records her conviction that ‘something’–a Way –orders and ‘guides’ the life of a person who is able to ‘let go’, and to‘let be’. It is, she continues, especially through growing food and gardening that people are best able to ‘connect their lives’ to this ‘something bigger’.

The Sixth Step: If you’ve followed me thus far, then you are mad. You’re a Mad Hatter! Mad mad mad!

The Seventh Step: In Our Farm, Rosie Boycott (who seems to know John Mitchinson who knows my friend Keith Kahn-Harris whose book on water skiers in Luxembourg has just hit its funding mark and with whom I’m chatting over Skype this week) discusses the plights and blessings of local community, the rhythms of farming life, and the economic juggernauts like factory farming and supermarkets that are crippling small town life. The book has an almanac-like quality to it. I’m especially fond of Boycott’s ability to weave together practical matters with homey scenes and spiritual concerns.

Practical matters:

Now it is mid-January 2006, under three months till the date of the first market, and we are sowing vast quantities of herb seeds: parsley, rosemary, thyme, basil, chervil, oregano, chives, mint and sorrel. I’ve found some research on the net which tells me that sales of fresh herbs have soared by 124 percent in the last five years to the value of [lb] 38 million. Despite the demand, the home market is lagging far beyond…. (92)

Homey scenes:

I unlock the back door to let the dogs out into the garden and follow them along the grass path beside the long herbaceous border, and through the crooked metal gate into the wood. (293)

Spiritual concerns:

All sadness, they [Buddhists] maintain, comes from failed expectation, from regretting what has happened and waiting for circumstances to change and make you feel better. By living with one foot in the past and another in a fantasy of how things might be, we fail to live in the present. And that way a sort of madness lies. I knew intellectually that everything in life is impermanent and that all we truly have is the moment in which we live, right here and right now. And that it is within our gift to live in that place and thus to feel and see all that is fine and right in our universe. But there is a huge divide between understanding something intellectually and finding a way to live it. (56)

That there is. And thus the longing of philosophy, the longing to make life whole.

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Burning Man: Spiritual experience, gift exchange, & primal ritual

I ask again what we’re to make of spiritual experience in the early 21st C. and I hear again more first answers. And I think again of the place of gift exchange in this new order of being. And I read again about Burning Man–how strange, how primal, how elemental, how transient.

Simone Ubaldi explores this net of questions in his essay, “Burning Man.” (Thanks to my friend James Polchin for more excellent curating. My hunch is that James also has exquisite taste in wine.)

Further Reading

Geoff Dyer, “The Zone,” Yoga for People Who Can’t be Bothered to Do it (New York: Pantheon, 2003).

Andrew Taggart, “Public Philosophy and Our Spiritual Predicament,” Butterflies and Wheels.

Friday meditation: On gift giving, potlatches, and the modern world

The Gift Exchange

I think it was last week when I had a conversation with John Mitchinson of Unbound books. I write “I think it was last week” because I’m starting to run all my conversations together, and my days have started to lose their hard edges. Near the end of my conversation with John, I very likely said something about philosophical conversation as gift giving, and then he very likely asked me whether I’d read Lewis Hyde’s book about gifts.

I had not, but it is now in my hands thanks to the New York Public Library. (Or, to be honest, beside my computer because my hands are now roaming about the keyboard.) In The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, originally published in 1979 but still very fresh and alive today, still quite the cadeau, Hyde says that he is proffering a theory of gifts, that this theory of gift exchange is distinct from the logic of market society, and that the creative process follows the logic of gift making and gift giving.

I’m only through the first 70 pages but because I have a Ph.D. I feel qualified to comment on the whole thing and to draw all relevant conclusions. I’m joking. So far, I can say, though, that the book is stunning. Instead of offering a long commentary, I’ll quote a few passages, hum a tune, and then leave you with a few questions to meditate on.

“When we barter we make deals, and if someone defaults we go after him, but the gift must be a gift. It is as if you give a part of your substance to your gift partner and then wait in silence until he gives you a part of his. You put yourself in his hands.” (19)

“When I give to someone from whom I do not receive (and yet I do receive elsewhere),  it is as if the gift goes around a corner before it comes back. I have to give blindly. And I feel a sort of blind gratitude as well.” (20)

“I described the motion of the gift earlier in this chapter by saying that gifts are always used, consumed, or eaten. Now that we have the figure of the circle we can understand what seems at first to be a paradox of a gift exchange: when the gift is used, it is not used up. [Unlike the commodity which is used up; unlike capital which is stored up.–AT] Quite the opposite, in fact: the gift that is not used will be lost, while the one that is passed along remains abundant. In the Scottish tale the girls who hoard their bread are fed only while they eat. The meal finishes in hunger though they took the larger piece. The girl who shares her bread is satisfied. What is given away feeds again and again, while what is kept feeds only once and leaves us hungry.” (26)

Wow! The magic of the gift–the gift of the gift–is abundance. The tragedy of the commodity is scarcity and tight-fisted possession. (Capital accumulation as crabbed spirit?)

The Potlatch

Hyde notes that the potlatch was a ceremony in which one tribe invites and gives extravagantly to a neighboring tribe. The potlatch is a ceremony of abundance, a feast in which convivial spirits give and partake freely. It is meant to bring about and maintain goodwill. Indeed, even insults are repaid not with enmity but with amity, with gifts and gifts galore!

Meditation #1: In the modern world, what role could a potlatch play? Can Dionysus return?

A Gift Scenario

The gift is an object but in some larger sense it is an activity. If John gives a gift to Karen, then Karen is indebted to John. And what then are Karen’s options?

  1. She can reject the gift. But, supposing that John offered the gift in the right spirit, what does this say about Karen? How is Karen’s spirit? (Toothy, I’d say.)
  2. She can hold onto the gift. The trouble is that holding onto something tends to “reify” it, turning a process into a product, an activity into an object, a thing-that-is-passed-along into a possession that is mine and mine alone. (The spoiled kid who needs to get kicked in the teeth.)
  3. She can give something to John “in return.” The hard part, in this case, is that this concept of the return must be wretched free from the concepts of bartering and exchange. The barter and the exchange both conceptualize the relationship between the initial item and the later item in terms of an equivalence. A = B. Yet A = B spells the death of the gift.
  4. She can circulate the gift. That is, she can give another gift to someone else, or she can pass on the gift that she has been given. The paradox is that the gift thereby supplies, satisfies, and multiplies

Meditation #2: How can you give a gift well? And how can you receive a gift well? If there are only two of you, then what can you give “in return” without making “the return” into an equivalence? If there are more than two, then how do you pass the gift on in the right spirit? To pass on is to let go but to let go in fullness.

Meditation #3: Can work be made holy? To work well is to give freely?

Further Reading

Andrew Taggart, “An Invitation to the Reader to Join Me in a Philosophical Conversation.”

A critique of CBT – Part 2

Kantian Critique as Just Generosity

Kant’s conception of critique is meant to give us an accurate assessment of the instrument under investigation: of its proper uses, overuses, and misuses. There is a generosity of spirit in showing a pupil how something is to be used as well as in admonishing her for using it in ways that cannot possibly work.

Yesterday, I set out to critique Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). It is worth recalling the method and aim of CBT:

“The central method of cognitive therapy,” Donald Robertson writes inThe Philosophy of CBT, “consists of monitoring one’s thoughts and challenging those ones that are irrational or unhelpful and the beliefs that underlie them” (169). The aim of this exercise (or set of exercises) is to move the ‘client’ from a state of mental disturbance to a state of mental equilibrium.

I suggested that, when properly used, CBT can be helpful in training us in the art of stepping back and taking second looks. First thoughts are not always good ones, and second thoughts may make all the difference. At the end of this post, I hope to be even more generous. I want to make the case that CBT can be good preparation for philosophical inquiry.

I also suggested, however, that CBT is quite limited in its application. In the following sections, I discuss the limits of CBT. There are 4 problems in particular that are worth canvassing. (Note: The 4 problems I discuss below do not line up exactly with those I mention in Part 1.)

4 Problems with CBT

1. “Are Facts really Distinct from Values?” On the Problems of Pollyanna and Psychological Development. 

CBT holds that our descriptions of facts qua states of affairs (“It is raining in NYC at 9 a.m.”) can be disentangled from our value judgments, which are mental projections cast over the world of facts (“Yuck! This rain will make for an awful day!”). CBT, like Positive Psychology, thinks that reality is the kind of thing that is up for value-added grabs such that it admits of different ‘takes’.

I’m not so sure that this concept of reality is right. Consider Robert Nozick’s thought experiment about a Holocaust survivor:

“A proponent of maximizing our own happiness might recommend we ignore these negative portions of reality and focus our attention selectively only upon the positive. Sometimes that might be appropriate; a person in a Nazi extermination camp might focus eventually upon memories of Mozart’s music in order to escape the horrors around him. But if this were his preoccupation from the beginning, smiling constantly in fond memory of the music, that reaction would be bizarre. Then he would be disconnected from important features of his world, not giving them emotional attention commensurate with they evil they inflict.”

There is something immensely bizarre about focusing one’s attention only on what would be ‘uplifting’ when having a good understanding of total reality would require us to see that there is something evil or disgusting or repugnant about the way things are. To say that we are placing value on a value-free reality is perhaps to say that we’ve got an emaciated picture of reality from the get go. And this is indeed to say something patently bizarre.

There is a another problem with the fact/value split, and it surfaced during a conversation I had a few years ago with an acquaintance of mine. She wondered whether this fact/value story wasn’t the endpoint of good story of psychosocial development. The well-intact, mature adult would be more likely than the poorly raised pseudo-adult to distinguish between the value judgments he makes and the way things are. My acquaintance’s point is a good one as it goes to show that something like a Capabilities Approach to human development (there’s a nice piece by Martha Nussbaum about this at Harvard Press Typepad) underlies CBT’s general accounting.

2. “How Much is Really Under my Control?” On the Problem of Coercion.

CBT begins from the premise that there are things within my control and things that are not. I take it that this distinction is also the product of good psychosocial development. However, it is also already ‘too psychologistic’ inasmuch as it does not take seriously–or does not take seriously enough–the problems presented by an unjust social world.

Bad institutions are bad in virtue of their being coercive. (They also be bad in other ways and for other reasons.) One way that coercion works is by degrading and corroding the hard distinction between an individual’s powers and his sense of powerlessness. E.g., I speak with conversation partners who are working for bad corporations that have taken on board the “great speedup.” Bad parents and bad schools abuse their charges by making them believe that there is only this way of living. Bad marriages, bad relationships, etc., etc. are all bad in virtue of their approaching, asymptotically, an act of torture.

The reply could be, “Well, now we need to relearn what’s within your power.” Perhaps. Or we need to acknowledge that the mental faculties of some persons may be “corroded” or “degraded” for good. Human life is plastic, true, but not entirely plastic and not so readily re-shapable.

CBT has no room in its moral universe for human tragedy.

3. “How Should I live?” On the Problem of Teleology.

One conversation partner I work with said that his CBT practitioner always told him to “act in accordance with your values.” He is sharp enough to know that (a) his values may not be intrinsically worthwhile (he could be wasting my life, his talents, and so forth), (b) his ultimate values may be in conflict (final end P being incommensurable with final end Q), or (c) he may have no idea whether he has any values of this sort. He can act, but why should he act? And in what way? And for what reason?

A thought experiment will make this more perspicuous. Suppose you are a master of CBT techniques. The problem is that you really could be mind-numbingly dull, boring, uninteresting, uncurious, exhausting to be around, or downright evil. (Practicing CBT techniques is not inconsistent with murdering activists during years of apartheid in South Africa.)

It is readily apparent, then, that CBT has no answer to and cannot even entertain the inquiry about how one should live.

4. “Is Peace of Mind Better than Truth?” On the Problem of Instrumentalism. 

CBT seeks to bring us back to a state of calm. All right. But is that the ultimate aim (or the only aim or the chief aim) of reasoning well?

Instrumentalism states that we do X for the sake of Y. According to CBT, we use reason and learn good habits for the sake of being calm. (You can see why CBT is now at the core of resiliency training for military personnel.)

Consider the instrumentalization of meditative practice. We now read in medical journals that one should meditate for the sake of being healthy. This is utterly puzzling not least because meditation is supposed to move one out of finite egoicity and into a state of a-egoicity. To say that you are going beyond the self for the sake of selfhood is patently bizarre. Furthermore, one might ask, “What’s the use of being in good health if one has no reason for living?” We circle back to point 3. And we have just toppled most self-help.

And what to make of my intuition that I value getting certain things right for its own sake despite the fact that getting things right for its own sake may cause me great pain. E.g., I value knowing that I have hurt someone period. (I don’t value the hurting someone bit.)

CBT as Good Preparation for Philosophical Inquiry

There are two things that can be said in favor of CBT. The first is that it provides us with good exercises, albeit of a limited kind, type, and duration. Doing CBT exercises, like doing push-ups or sit-ups, is good at returning us to a ‘zero state.’ This is much more than nothing.

The second is that CBT is good (though not necessary) preparation for philosophical inquiry. It’s good to know that other people might see things differently. It’s good to develop the capacity for second thoughts and third looks. It’s important to learn how to make relevant distinctions and to see that those distinctions can make a significant difference in our lives. And it’s good to recall the limits of human endeavor and the limited capacities of human beings. The virtues of patience, circumspection, discrimination, fallibility, humility, unhurriedness are of vital importance.

Finally, the lessons we learn from CBT could very well be the first steps on a long, remarkable philosophical journey into the depths of our being and out into the vast expanse of our all-too-human world. Perhaps, our critique of CBT should end, as it began, in gratitude.

A critique of CBT – Part 1

Update: I’ve written some later reflections on CBT entitled “A Re-Evaluation of CBT.”  The latter post is the culmination of over a year of working with conversation partners whose previous experiences were in cognitive therapies. Throughout, it should be borne in mind that I consider philosophical practice (for more about which, see here) to bear no resemblance to the therapeutic dispensation.

Kant’s Concept of Critique

Kant’s concept of critique should not be confused with a commonsensical notion of criticism. For Kant, a critique of reason involves a proper assessment of the powers of reason: an analysis of the nature of the instrument, an attention to the functions it serves, and a pellucid understanding of its inherent limits. We get in trouble, Kant thinks, when we seek to use an instrument without first examining its proper uses and applications. We get into a conceptual muddle because we expect the instrument to fulfill tasks that go beyond its inherent capacities.

In the spirit of Kant, I want to perform a critique of the powers of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Today, I want to analyze what it does, what ends it serves, what uses it has. Tomorrow, in Part 2, I mean to clip its wings. My general conclusion from Parts 1 and 2 will be that CBT provides us a highly limited set of techniques or tools we can use to achieve a state of equilibrium. The trouble with CBT is that it cannot provide us with any reason for living–that is to say, with any reason for using these tools in the first place. For this, we need philosophy.

Method and Aim

“The central method of cognitive therapy,” Donald Robertson writes in The Philosophy of CBT, “consists of monitoring one’s thoughts and challenging those ones that are irrational or unhelpful and the beliefs that underlie them” (169). The aim of this exercise (or set of exercises) is to move the ‘client’** from a state of mental disturbance to a state of mental equilibrium.

The Foundations of CBT

CBT is based on 3 fundamental assumptions.

1. The Ontological Distinction Between Control & Lack Thereof. Like the Stoics, CBT practitioners assume that there are some ‘basic things’ or ‘basic activities’ that are up to me and some that are not. The question, “What is within our control and what is not?” therefore looms large in any CBT session. According to CBT practitioners, many ‘psychological problems’** stem from running together what’s within our power with what is not; or from acting as if what’s not within our power should be; or from presupposing that there’s not within our power when, as a matter of fact, there is; or from expecting–outlandishly–thus and so without having reason to expect thus and so; and so forth.

2. The Axiological/Ontological Distinction Between Facts & Values. The natural and social world is the place of ‘facts’ whereas the mental apparatus is the place of ‘values’. (The mind as positer of value, the mind as ‘label maker.’) Hence, “It is cold outside” is not to be confused with “It is awful and unbearable outside.” Or: “P has bumped into me” is not be to confused with “P willfully and deliberately harmed me. P meant to do that.” CBT, therefore, teaches the ‘client’ to disentangle physical descriptions from value judgments and then to question the validity of these value judgments.

3. Cognitive Theory of Emotions. Our rational or irrational beliefs are constitutive of our emotions. (I’ve found the accounts of emotion rather muddled in the CBT books I’ve thumbed through. The philosopher Martha Nussbaum has written a lucid book, The Upheavals of Thought, in which she offers a clear account and defense of a Stoic-derived cognitive theory of emotion.) Take fear. Let’s say that fear is the belief that (a) I am not self-sufficient and (b) such-and-such can harm me or mine (or such-and-such poses a great harm). (Perhaps there is more to the definition of fear, but put that question aside for now.) The CBT practitioner could ask, “Are you not self-sufficient, or is there something that could be done to prepare you for this?” More fundamentally, he would ask, “Is this the kind of thing that can actually harm you, or are  you ‘catastrophizing'”?

The Importance of Habit Retraining

CBT insists that human beings have picked up bad reasoning habits that must then be identified (hence the importance of self-monitoring) and replaced with better reasoning habits. The ‘client’ learns to dispute negative emotions, which spring from lots of confusions in 1-3 above, seeking to substitute ‘healthy’ lines of reasoning for ‘unhealthy’ ones. The point is to make ‘healthy’ thinking second nature.

Examples Amenable to CBT Treatment

Mild forms of depression, social anxiety, irrational fears, deep-seeded regrets, and excessive demands are all ripe for CBT.

  • ‘Mild Depression.’ CBT’s Explanation: Perhaps you have underestimated your powers of acting or overestimating the ‘fatedness’ of the world (Assumption 1). Perhaps you have confused a misfortune with a horrible, life-altering event that you cannot overcome (Assumption 2). Or perhaps you have inherited a set of irrational beliefs that are ‘triggering’ your mood of always feeling sad or down.
  • ‘Social Anxiety.’ CBT’S Explanation: You are overvaluing the opinions of others when these are beyond your control. You have forgotten that, to a large extent, good or bad reputation is outside your ken.
  • Gnawing Regrets. CBT’s Explanation: The past, just because it is past, is beyond your control. You must learn to accept that, must learn that there is nothing that can be done or changed (Assumption 1). The only thing you can change is your attitude toward the past (Assumption 2).
  • Excessive Demands. CBT’s Explanation: Careful with the ‘shoulds’ and the ‘should nots,’ the ‘musts’ and the ‘mustn’ts.’ You are overestimating your powers of action, or you are engaging in wishful thinking (as if the world should bend itself to your whims) (Assumption 1).

CBT engages in a series of exercises–note taking, journaling, visualization, etc.–in order to retrain the mind to think more ‘heathfully.’

The Limits of CBT

As an exercise in confronting trying episodes, CBT can be incredibly useful. Yet as a philosophy of life, it offers some pretty thin gruel. In Part 2, I examine 4 fundamental problems that CBT faces and for which it can have no answers.

  1. The Pollyanna Problem. Can one learn to think ‘healthfully’ in the middle of the Holocaust? In hell? In the hold of a slave ship? When working for an exploitative corporation? (Contra Assumption 1)
  2. The Fact/Value Split. Are facts the kinds of things that are ‘over there’ and values the kinds of things that are ‘in here’? Moral realism, for instance, begs to differ. (Contra Assumption 2)
  3. Teleology. Suppose you’ve mastered every CBT technique. Do you have a reason for living? You could be a master of CBT, could have achieved this ‘zero state’ of equilibrium, yet could also be wasting your life. Or you could simply be a terribly dull or boring person. Etc. “What you should aim at” or “How you should live”: these are questions that CBT cannot answer and, worse yet, has no way of asking. (Contra lack of final end)
  4. Instrumentalism. CBT’s standard of good reasoning is ‘healthfulness.’ The reason I don’t get angry with Jane is that I have told myself that Jane is ignorant or misguided or isn’t malicious and so on. But is achieving a ‘zero state’ the same thing as being accurate or truthful? Is the only or main standard of reasoning that I feel better? What of truth and accuracy, of getting things right for their own sake? (Contra aim of reasoning)

End Note

** In this post, I’ve put common psychological terms between single quotes (‘ ‘). The reason is that I’m generally skeptical of the accuracy, validity, and usefulness of psychotherapeutic categories. I’m not sure, e.g., why “Jane is feeling rather sad” is any less accurate a description of Jane’s mental state than “Jane has been diagnosed with a mild form of depression.” I also don’t see why “Jane thinks that her mother thinks too much of herself and not enough of Jane” is a less clear description of her mother’s cast of mind than “Jane’s mother is a narcissist.” The second, however, does make us sound smart. It’s as if we’ve really gotten to the bottom of things and so need look no further. (Perhaps philosophical inquiry begins where dated labeling ends…)

There is a second problem with psychotherapeutic terminology. We seem to believe that “P is a narcissist” is an explanation when, in reality, it is just a re-description or a re-categorization. “Why is P this way?” “Oh, because P is a narcissist.” And why is a cat this way? Oh, because it is a feline. Ah.

In my philosophy practice, I’ve been following the sci-fi writer Ursula Le Guin’s poetic approach. How are our powers of discrimination–of perceiving what is going on with this person in this way at this time–strengthened once we unhook ourselves from worn-out categories and once we think in terms of poetic re-descriptions and conceptual constellations?