Trying to understand mental activities

Last time, I wrote about the common category mistakes we make. We are in error when we think of minding as it if were like the body or some bodily organ. It is not. Since minding is not only not the body but also not like the body, it follows that minding cannot be healthy or ill (though the brain, a part of the body, can be healthy or ill), and it follows further that minding cannot be treated, diagnosed, prescribed, or cured. From erroneous conceptions and assumptions, we arrive at hazardous courses of action.

Now, if we are not warranted in speaking of mental activities as if they occupied a spatial location (where is the mind?), as if they were a kind of thing (what is the mind?), and as if they were a container (what takes place in there anyway?), then how shall we speak of mental activities?

Alva Noe, a philosopher of mind and cognitive science, has a nice way of speaking of mental activities. These are the complex mutual interactions of brain, body, and environment. Without a brain, there would be no minding. Without the kind of body we have (with our hands, our turning neck, our eyes, etc.), we wouldn’t experience the world in the way we do. And without the kind of environment we find ourselves in, we wouldn’t have minding–or at least not the kind of minding that is the one with which we are familiar. Of course, minding is not identical with the brain, the body, or the environment. Conceivably, a different sort of brain-body-environment configuration would produce a different sort of being, only not the one we recognize in our daily lives, in works of literature, and elsewhere.

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Overcoming burden: Peter Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life

This is the sixth set of reflections on Peter Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life: On Anthropotechnics (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013). The first set of reflections can be read here. A summary of Stoterdijk’s principal theses is available here.


Recall that Stoterdijk is singularly focused on how the practicing animal can become more than he is. Having seceded from the buzz and chatter of ordinary life, the practitioner has now made the aim of his life that of putting his life to the test.

In Chapter 12, ‘Exercises and Misexercises,’ Stoterdijk suggests that there are five main fronts upon which they have fought. These are ‘material scarcity, the burden character of existence, sexual drive, alienation and the involuntary nature of death’ (416).

In the last post, I analyzed Stoerdijk’s claims concerning how the practitioner overcomes material scarcity. Not far from the layperson’s fear of hunger is that of the ‘burden character of existence’ (417). When one takes oneself to be overtaxed by the task of living, he either seeks forms of ‘hardenings’ or moments of ‘little escapes’ (417). We can tease out the implications of these two strategies. On the one hand, one can harden oneself to the point of ‘coldness’ (Adorno) so that one becomes as insensible to the vibrations of life–of the well-cultivated mind and senses–as to the ethical claims of others. On the other hand, one can fantasize about the kinds of escapes from burden that will count as times of pleasure and enjoyment. This form of momentary release is called vacation. Both strategies are foolish.

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How can a man embody manliness after three waves of feminism? (Part 3)

We are inquiring into the man who embodies manliness. Manliness is a disposition that is neither Brawny (and hot-headed) nor Sensitive (and frail). If it is hard to come up with living examples of men who are manly and graceful (Cary Grant, perchance, though he is dead?), the reason could be that few seem to exist at the present time. Most men who seek to cultivate themselves make the mistake of trying to become ‘ripped,’ only to become distorted pictures of vanity and pride, or to become ‘artsy,’ only to lose their ‘spirited part’ entirely.

For those of us who can clearly perceive the question of manliness as a pressing matter concerning how men can become excellent, after a fashion, at being men, it is necessary to inquire into with what kind of training in the body and the arts is appropriate in order for one to embody manliness, so understood.

Our ‘spirited part’ is best cultivated, I think, through those activities that stem from once-military sources but which have been transmogrified since into forms of art. I am thinking of the martial arts, of ashtanga yoga, of climbing (born, initially, of a conquering spirit), of archery, of swordplay. These are lifelong practices whose ferocity has been transformed, by means of study, attention, and guidance, into a vigorous practice. (I am not sure about boxing or certain styles of hockey. Parkour may count, however. This list is not meant to be exhaustive.) Tai chi is more appropriate for the old man than it is for the younger man, since the younger man needs to forge his thumos by pressing his shoulder squarely into something. He wants to lean into something hard enough to feel that something press at him, stress him, at least initially.

Meanwhile, our wisdom-loving part is best cultivated through gaining a wider appreciation of the ordinary natural beauties (the wind, birdsong, the cricket, the flee–see the haiku tradition), of the kind of simple music that honors human existence (hence, no songs of misery or wretchedness), of simple poetry written in praise and honor (the Daodejing, for instance), of earnest works of prose (no postmodernism, therefore), and of earnest, humble philosophy. Here, I find that reading Hadot lifts the spirit, though it is also true that his prose could show more lightness, vivacity, and humor. In this kind of education, the young man is perceiving the kind of simplicity and directness in nature as well as in thought that makes ultimately–in Plato’s elegant phrase–for ‘beauty of reason.’

We are proposing that a muscular existence, focused and concentrated, can be directed in such a way that it becomes graceful action. Manliness is neither a voice cutting another to pieces nor a limp article of clothing drying on the line. It is a man’s power strained yet softened to the appropriate degree. A simple, hearty song that takes years to sing aright.