Category Archives: James

Fixin’ Things

by Dr. Norris Frederick 

My family preferred to deal with challenges and craziness with humor, thus the plaque my sister Virginia gave to me on a recent birthday, “Just remember: as far as everyone knows, we are a nice, normal family.”  I laugh every time I see this sign, as does everyone else.  We can all see, in retrospect, the craziness in our families, and if it was not too harmful, we can laugh about it.

My parents, siblings and I lived in a house originally occupied by my mother’s parents.  The small house, with three rooms on each side of a central hall that ran the length of the house, was typical of modest homes in Charlotte built around 1920.  By the time I was a young teenager, the house was definitely aging.  Things needed fixin’.  But we had neither money nor the know-how.

One evening we heard loud noises coming from the attic, much too loud for a squirrel.  As we read and watched television in the living room, we were concerned. What was that?  Since we couldn’t figure it out, my brother Charlie and I and our father repaired to the kitchen to get a bowl of ice-milk before Gunsmoke began.  We later drifted to sleep, accompanied by the rumbling in the attic.

The next day I was pitching a rubber ball against the front steps when I saw movement on the lower portion of the roof.  I saw a large, fat possum ambling toward the side of the roof.  It then disappeared. I walked closer to the roof, where I could see a possum-sized hole in the lower left corner of the house, just above the roof. Ah-ha!  Mystery solved!  I was excited to tell everyone what was causing the noises in the attic.

And what did we do with this knowledge? Well, mostly it enabled us to say with a rueful smile when we heard noises in the attic, “There’s that possum again.”  It seems that the six of us living there, including our father, never thought of canvassing our neighbors to see if anyone had a ladder that would reach up to the roof.  Perhaps the thought that we’d additionally need a board and some nails to make the repair made it out of the question.  Our dad would hear the noise, glance up and then go on reading the paper.

Learning to Solve and Think About Problems 

As I became a teenager and later when I had my own family, I began to see ways to live other than ignoring the possum or contemplating the possum.  I learned how to fix some things:  a flat tire, an electric dryer, an attic fan, loose bricks in a chimney, etc.  As long as the result did not require too much precision, I did okay and took great pleasure in solving problems.  In fact, I became a bit proud. There are ways to keep the possum out of the attic!

My actions in fixin’ things connected well with ideas.  I came to realize there is a conceptual aspect to fixing things, including gaining knowledge about the underlying structure of a thing, and in all cases defining what the problem actually is rather than just what it first appears to be. In philosophy grad school, I was delighted to learn that the philosophers known as the American pragmatists – Charles Peirce, William James, and John Dewey – wrote that philosophy itself is an attempt to solve problems.  Belief is a satisfied state that is interrupted when doubts begin to arise about the workability of those beliefs.  We believe the roof is in good shape, but then water stains appear on the ceiling.  We believe that our race is superior to others, but then we encounter folks of other races who demonstrate the falseness of this belief.  Doubts arise.  The doubts lead to an attempt to clarify and then to address the problem.  Peirce even wrote an article entitled, “The Fixation of Belief,” about four methods to move from the problematic feeling of doubt to the settled state of belief:  tenacity (stubbornly hanging onto whatever beliefs we have); authority (of others, societal leaders who tell us what to believe); pure reason (looking for a consistent set of beliefs); and the scientific method (which goes beyond just consistency to find ways to test various hypotheses about the world).

So now I could not only fix some things, I could think and talk about methods to solving problems!  I was feeling pretty good.

The Stubborn-ness of Reality

One Saturday after I’d left grad school, in the year I first began teaching – in a high school, while I finished my Ph.D. dissertation in philosophy – I walked out into our carport and saw that my left rear tire was flat.  Ah, a nice easy problem to fix on a pretty fall morning, with plenty of time.  I opened the trunk to pull out the 4-way lug wrench, popped off the hubcap, fitted the wrench to the tire to loosen the lug nuts, and turned it to the left.  Hunh!  This nut was really tight.  But I was young and relatively strong, so no problem.  I bent my knees, grabbed the wrench tightly, and turned left with all my strength.  What!  Instead of the lug nut coming off, the wheel stud broke off from the wheel!  How the heck did that happen? It must be some freak incident, perhaps due to a weakness in the bolt.  I was agitated, and at the same time a bit pleased with my strength.

Okay, I thought, I’m sure after I remove the lug nuts on the other wheel studs, I’ll still be able to drive the car until I can get it repaired.  I moved the wrench to another nut, braced myself, and turned strongly to the left, and broke off another stud.  What the hell??!!  Now I was furious.  This stupid car!  I tried another nut, turned with all my might, and  – you guessed it – broke off that wheel stud too.

Having spent all my adrenaline, I sat down on the steps and cooled off.  I thought finally to look at the car’s manual in the glove compartment, turning to the section on changing a tire. Crap!  As I read I remembered:  this Dodge Dart is a Chrysler, and Chrysler have left-handed threads on the left side of the car, so to remove the nuts, you turn to the RIGHT, not to the LEFT as on every other car I knew!  Omigosh, how humiliating.  I went back to the wheel and looked at the lug studs and saw an “L” clearly stamped at the end of each stud, indicating a left-handed thread.  I felt all the energy drain from my body.  I finally recovered enough to remove the other lug nuts and drove slowly to the filling station where I sheepishly explained my problem and let the professionals fix the problems I had created.

What caused this minor disaster?  Certainly a lack of knowledge of the underlying structure of the bolts.  However, the real cause was my pride and then my anger.  I threw myself into the torrent of pride and anger, and then found myself swept downstream, ultimately wrecked.

A year or so after My Humiliation I read a book that greatly influenced me, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig.  The book is both about the most lofty metaphysics and also about…well…fixin’ things.  In the 1975 Bantam Books paperback I’ve held together with tape, the frontispiece quotes two statements from the book: “The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called ‘yourself’….Working on a motorcycle, working well, caring, is to become part of a process, to achieve an inner peace of mind.”

That’s it.  My ego demanded some magic by which a piece of metal would submit to my strength, anger became my dominant emotion when it did not, and much to my surprise that did not end well.

Reading Pirsig’s Zen led me to be curious about Buddhism, and I learned that one of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths is that “clinging desire” or “craving” is the cause of much suffering.  “Clinging desire” is the result of my belief that there is nothing more important than my individual self, and if I can just cling a little tighter to what I want then I will be satisfied.  If I just cling to my righteous anger then the wheel lugs must come off in the direction I turn them, cling to my desires that my friends and loved ones will change to be exactly as I want them to be, cling to my demands that my cravings be ceaselessly met, then I will be happy.  In fact, since these desires are based on a false view of reality, this attitude results in unmet desires and living in a continuing state of dissatisfaction.

There are some possums we probably should just leave alone.  And there are lots of problems we should resolve the best way possible.  Either way, rather than demanding of reality that our desires be met, Buddha advises that we get rid of those clinging desires and cravings.  If we do, he says, that sense of things being unsatisfactory and unworkable will go away, or at least lessen.  We can train ourselves — through meditation, mindfulness of the present, and practicing compassion — to lessen our desires and paradoxically increase our sense that this life is satisfactory.

Healthy-Mindedness and the Sick Soul

By Dr. Norris Frederick
Third and final in a series on death

The recent solar eclipse was almost total here in Charlotte, and a large number of people gathered on the Queens University campus to watch the event.  For the folks around me and those shown in videos from around the country, the atmosphere was of celebration or deep awe at this rare celestial event.  At our campus there were enough eclipse sun-glasses to share so that everyone could gaze as the moon came closer and closer to blocking the sun.   For weeks, there had been dire warnings about the dangers of looking directly at the sun.  I wonder:  should there be similar warnings about staring at death, as it eclipses our lives?  Is our joy destroyed by that evil shadow creeping over our vitality?

We always need lenses through which to look at the deepest philosophical questions, and I find the philosopher and psychologist William James to be of great help.  In The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (1902), his method is to collect and categorize human responses to the question of “What is the character of this universe in which we live?”[1]  After examining these responses as shown in “feelings, acts and experiences,”[2] he offers philosophical hypotheses and conclusions to answer two key philosophical questions, what is true and what is best.

The healthy-minded temperament and strategy

James describes two main types of temperament toward viewing evil and death.  The first he calls the “healthy-minded”:  “In many persons, happiness is congenital….when unhappiness is offered to them” they “positively refuse to feel it [unhappiness], as if it were something mean and wrong.”[3]  Evil has no reality.  Their soul is “sky-blue” and their “affinities are rather with flowers and birds…than with dark human passions… [and they] can think no ill of man or God.”[4]

People with the totally healthy-minded temperament manage not to see the reality of death at all.  When James published The Varieties in 1902, there was in America (as there is now) a great emphasis on happiness or “healthy-mindedness.” Today those who are not naturally as optimistic can voluntarily adopt strategies to become happier through therapy, medication, or meditation.  Healthy-mindedness can be not only a temperament, but a strategy.

In my most recent post on death, “Out of Sight, or Front and Center?” I wrote of our study tour visiting the Capuchin Crypt in Rome, where the bones of thousands of past monks are on display.  The healthy-minded in our group would have preferred to never have entered in the first place (“Why go to such a gloomy place on such a beautiful day, and in romantic Italy, for God’s sake!?”).  And many of us left after viewing the Crypt moving as quickly as possible to find a cappuccino or a beer, trying to restore healthy-mindedness, happiness. And why not?  Don’t we want to be happy?  Isn’t happiness a good thing?  And if the young naturally cannot conceive of the reality of their death, why should we focus on it, either?

The temperament of the sick soul 

James describes a second temperament which he names the “sick soul.”  For people with this temperament “the evil aspects of our life are of the very essence…the world’s meaning most comes to us when we lay them most to heart”[5]  For these people, it’s as if they are born to a life where from every pleasure, “something bitter rises up:…a touch of nausea…a whiff of melancholy,” which have “a feeling of coming from a deeper region.” [6]

If you’ve ever had a time when evil and sadness overwhelmed you for extended periods of time, you know how inadequate this description is to what you felt or feel.  We know now that at least part of this temperament (as well as the temperament of the healthy-minded) is genetic.  Whether from genetic or other reasons, the sick soul can overcome us.  In The Varieties, James gives a vivid description of someone overwhelmed by depression.

Whilst in this state of philosophic pessimism and general depression of spirits about my prospects, I went one evening into a dressing-room in the twilight to procure some article that was there; when suddenly there fell upon me without any warning, just as if it came out of the darkness, a horrible fear of my own existence.  Simultaneously there arose in my mind the image of an epileptic patient whom I had seen in the asylum, a black-haired youth with greenish skin, entirely idiotic, who used to sit all day on one of the benches, or rather shelves against the wall, with his knees drawn up against his chin….This image and my   fear entered into a species of combination with each other.  That shape am I, I felt, potentially.  Nothing that I possess can defend me against that fate, if the hour for it should strike for me as it struck for him.  There was such a horror of him… that it was as if something hitherto solid within my breast gave way entirely, and I became a mass of quivering fear. After this the universe was changed for me altogether. I awoke morning after morning with a horrible dread at the pit of my stomach, and with a sense of the insecurity of life that I never knew before, and that I have never felt since.  It was like a revelation; and although the immediate feelings passed away, the experience has made me sympathetic with the morbid feelings of others ever since. It gradually faded, but for months I was unable to go out into the dark alone.[7]

James later admitted the sufferer was himself, in a period of depression early on his life.  Clearly, the category of the unhealthy-minded was no mere philosophical abstraction for James; he had experienced it with the depth of his being.

What strikes many people immediately upon viewing the Capuchin crypt and all those human bones is a feeling of disgust, easily seen in the faces of the viewers. The word several people in our group used is that it’s just “morbid.”  If that viewing and that sense of morbidity, darkness and gloom dominated a person for long periods of time, we might well judge that to be unhealthy.To the sick soul it is not the pleasure of the beer and human company that is the most real, it is the feeling of death to come.

Which is true and best: the healthy-minded or the sick soul? 

Like so many questions of this sort, the question of whether the healthy-minded or the sick soul presents a true view of reality and is the best way to live is a false dilemma.  There are other possible answers.  There are both different levels and combinations of these two temperaments that form a philosophy for living.

There is something to be said from within the morbid-minded view, especially when it is taken not from the extreme of debilitating depression but from its more philosophical form.    James writes that the view of the sick soul is “based on the persuasion that the evil aspects of our life are of its very essence, and that the world’s meaning most comes home to us when we lay them most to heart.”[8]

I think that is why so many of the great works of literature deal with death and suffering.  That why Tolstoy grabs us so strongly with the opening sentence of Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  It’s the truth and reality of the unhappiness that reels us in.  It’s why Walker Percy’s The Second Coming has stuck so many as a powerful truth, as the central character deals with the sadness and emptiness he feels and sees in his past, his self, and the society around him.

James points out that there are different levels of both healthy-mindedness and morbid-mindedness people have some mixture of the two temperaments.  He stated in his 1895-96 lectures on abnormal psychology that “A life healthy on the whole must have some morbid elements.”[9]  Finally, he argues that the morbid-minded philosophical position is superior in some ways to the healthy-minded, as the former ranges over a “wider scale of experience” and because “the evil facts which [healthy-mindedness] refuses positively to account for are a genuine portion of reality.”[10]

Refusing to see and experience the reality of death and suffering narrows and constricts our experiences, while acknowledging and feeling their reality paradoxically enriches our lives.  Acknowledging and feeling the reality of death, suffering, and evil turns out to be healthier than trying to deny it.

A truly healthy philosophy for living has the proper relationship between the healthy-minded and the sick soul.  An Epicurean life of simple pleasures and serenity is not enough, for an adequate philosophy will value the struggle.

A healthy worldview calls both for acknowledging and for an overcoming of death in some way, whether by a life demonstrating courage and human excellence, and/or by a life continued – in some way — beyond this one, through an afterlife, reincarnation, or the influences we leave in the world.  We are elevated by the lives of good, honest, courageous, and hopeful people, and they inspire us to do likewise.
__________________________________________________

[1] James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, (Penguin Classics, 1982), 35.
[2] James, The Varieties, 31.
[3] James, The Varieties, 75.
[4] James, The Varieties, 8o.
[5] James, The Varieties, 131.
[6] James, The Varieties, 136.
[7] James, The Varieties, 160 – 161.
[8] James, The Varieties. 131.
[9] James, “Notes for the Lowell Institute Lectures on Exceptional Mental States,” Manuscript Lectures, (Harvard University Press), 63.
[10] James, The Varieties, 163.

Photo Credit:  NASA

 

Still Teaching After All These Years

by Dr. Norris Frederick

The fall semester – finally – has come to an end.  And even though I don’t have a real job – like welding, for example – I’m exhausted, just as I have been after every semester for the past 40 years or so.  You’d think a rational person would be ready to hang it up and walk away. Instead, I’m thinking about the spring semester classes I’ll teach, especially about my upcoming class on the philosophy of religion.

As I write this, the people of the United States are perhaps more divided than ever on major issues of politics, ethics, and religion.  In the last year we’ve seen raging hatred, mass murders of citizens and police by individuals, senseless killings by police, international slaughter in Syria, and a vicious political campaign season. Confidence in political figures is at all-time lows.

Many of our students — in response to these hatreds and fears and in their desire to welcome others  — confuse acceptance of differences with subjectivism: “Whatever you believe, that’s right for you.”

My philosophy of religion classes attempt to model a sympathetic approach to deeply held beliefs, and also to move beyond “whatever you think is true” to critically examine current beliefs in order to move toward more adequate beliefs, thus benefitting both the individual and our society.

William James’ The Variety of Religious Experience, with its basis in human experience and pluralism, is the backbone of my approach.  The book contains hundreds of often first-hand accounts of the religious experience of various forms of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.  James focuses both on the differences and also on the underlying psychological and philosophical similarities.

I also find a guiding idea to my teaching in his Talks to Teachers.  On its first page, he urges teachers to “reproduce sympathetically in [our] imagination, the mental life of [the] pupil as the sort of active unity which he himself feels it to be.”  Note that this respect is both ethical and pedagogical.  It assigns a worth to the current life of each student as that student experiences it.  It’s a worth very different from the “I respect your right to be an idiot.”  It’s different because we’re asked to sympathetically imagine the unity that the student feels.  The ethical is based in the fact that the mental lives of the students and our own as teachers are based in the same processes of the stream of consciousness, association, habit, and so on.  Every person’s life – including that of the professor — is built largely on the same principles.

We hardly feel that everyone in the profession of teaching philosophy – let alone in teaching other disciplines – should come to the exact same conceptions about the nature of the good life and what the aims of life should be.  Our lives and our democracy are better to the extent that we can sympathetically imagine the lives of others and thus extend respect to their lives.  So it is with the lives of our students.

As I think back upon my teaching, some of the best moments in class and I hope some of the best learning took place with assignments that allowed the students to think about their lives and at the same time allowed me to sympathetically imagine their lives.  In my introductory Philosophy of Religion class last time I taught it, the assignment for the second meeting was to write a couple of pages on “What influences did your parents have on your worldview?  Do one’s parents determine one’s worldview?”  The students were told in advance that I’d ask them to discuss or read part of their papers in class, although they could pass if they weren’t comfortable with sharing what they’d written.

There were a wide variety of responses that led to a lively class discussion which offered the opportunity for the students to sympathetically imagine the mental lives of each other.  Many chose to describe their religious upbringing or absence thereof.  Some asked others for more details about their upbringing.  The second question (“Do one’s parents determine one’s worldview?”) allowed for students not only to further describe their parents’ influence and the student’s actions, but also to develop a definition of “determine,” and to offer evidence and reasons.

The assignment was connected to the topic of the day’s reading on “worldviews,” and it appealed to each student’s strong interest in the self and to their curiosity about concrete and lively details in the upbringing of others.

The discussion gave me an opportunity both to learn more about my students’ lives, to strive for distinctions (such as the difference between “influence” and “determine”), and to ask whether some of the evidence offered was sufficient or relevant to claims being offered.  When I commented in class and later when I read and wrote comments on the papers, I not only sympathetically responded to the student’s present self, but also invited her to grow into a wider and deeper self.  As James makes clear, sympathetically imagining the unity of a student’s mental life is not mutually exclusive with challenging a student’s thought.  We who teach philosophy have an obligation to our students to move them toward a broader and deeper set of ideas that is more adequate for meeting life.

With that introduction to the course, the students felt more free both to express their own views and to realize that critically examining those views might get to a more adequate response.  In my most recent philosophy of religion class some memorable discussions occurred between two of my students who in many ways could not have been more different.  She was a middle-aged African-American woman from a rural town in the South, whose strong Christian faith was formed in youth and sustained by community.  He was a 20-something white male from the Northeast whose major in biology and military deployment in several countries had led to a sort of reverse conversion, through which he now happily found himself a naturalist, an atheist.

These students played a leading role in class discussions in which several realizations occurred over the course of the semester.  She came to realize that there are plausible arguments for atheism, even though she would never find them strong enough to become an atheist.  He was particularly interested in reading and discussing instances of conversion and transcendence.  He had at first dismissed these experiences as non-scientific and thus non-veridical, but as we discussed and read the arguments of James and others, he came to see the value of the experience of transcendence.  For him, the object of that transcendent experience was not God, but nature.  Both he and the theist came to realize that each found value in a transcendent experience.

While they might have left the semester’s discussions alienated and estranged, instead they found themselves companioned, in community. And both had deepened their understanding of philosophy, religion, and self.  That’s one valuable thing philosophy can offer to the modern university, and to our culture.

And that’s one reason I’m still teaching after all these years.­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­_____________________________________________________________________

A slightly different version of this article appears at http://philosophyofreligion.org/?p=524969 .

Photo credit:  Norris Frederick