Tag Archives: Communication

Spinoza, Self Help and Agency

The bookshelves of the world abound with tomes on self-help. Many of these profess to help people with various emotional woes, such as sadness, and make vague promises about happiness.  Interestingly enough, philosophers have long been in the business of offering advice on how to be happy. Or at least not too sad.

Each spring semester I teach Modern Philosophy and cover our good dead friend Spinoza. In addition to an exciting career as a lens grinder, he also manage to avoid being killed by an assassin. However, breathing in all that glass dust seems to have ultimately contributed to his untimely death. But enough about his life and death, it is time to get to the point of this essay.

As Spinoza saw it, people are slaves to their emotion and chained to what they love, such as fame, fortune and other people. This inevitably leads to sadness: the people we love betray us or die. That fancy Tesla can be smashed in a wreck. The beach house can be swept away by the rising tide. A job can be lost as a company seeks to boost its stock prices by downsizing the job fillers. And so on, through all the ways things can go badly.

While Spinoza was a pantheist and believed that everything is God and God is everything, his view of human beings is similar to that of the philosophical mechanist: humans are not magically exempt from the laws of nature. He was also a strict determinist: each event occurs from necessity and cannot be otherwise—there is no chance or choice. So, for example, the Seahawks could not have won the 2015 Super Bowl. As another example, I could not have written this essay in any other manner, so I had to make that remark about the Seahawks losing rather than mentioning their 2014 victory.

Buying into determinism, Spinoza took the view that human behavior and motivations can be examined as one might examine “lines, planes or bodies.” More precisely, he took the view that emotions follow the same necessity as all other things, thus making the effects of the emotions predictable—provided that one has enough knowledge.  Spinoza then used this idea as the basis for his “self-help” advice.

According to Spinoza all emotions are responses to the past, present or future. For example, a person might feel regret because she believes she could have made her last relationship work if she had only put more effort into it. As another example, a person might worry because he thinks that he might lose his job in the next round of downsizing at his company. These negative feelings rest, as Spinoza sees it, on the false belief that the past could have been otherwise and that the future is undetermined. Once a person realizes nothing could have been any different and the future cannot be anything other than what it will be, then that person will suffer less from the emotions. Thus, for Spinoza, freedom from the enslaving chains is the recognition and acceptance that what was could not have been otherwise and what will be cannot be otherwise.

This view does have a certain appeal and it does make sense that it can have some value. In regards to the past, people do often beat themselves up emotionally over what they regard as past mistakes. This can lead a person to be chained by regrets and thus be partially trapped in the past as she spends countless hours wondering “what if?” This is not to say that feeling regret or guilt is wrong—far from it. But, it is to say that lamenting about the past to the detriment of now is a problem.  It is also a problem to believe that things could have been different when they, in fact, could not have been different.

This is also not to say that a person should not reflect on the past—after all, a person who does not learn from her mistakes is doomed to repeat them. People can, of course, also be trapped by the past because of what they see as good things about the past—they are chained to what they (think) they once had or once were (such as being the big woman on campus back in college).

In regards to the future, it is very easy to be trapped by anxiety, fear and even hope. It can be reassuring to embrace the view that what will be will be and to not worry and be happy. This is not to say that one should be foolish about the future, of course.

There is, unfortunately, one crushing and obvious problem with Spinoza’s advice. If everything is necessary and determined, his advice makes no sense: what is, must be and cannot be otherwise. To use an analogy, it would be like shouting advice at someone watching a cut scene in a video game. This is pointless, since the person cannot do anything to change what is occurring. What occurs must occur and cannot be otherwise. For Spinoza, while we might think life is a like a game, it is like that cut scene: we are spectators of the show and not players controlling the game.

The obvious counter is to say “but I feel free! I feel like I am making choices!” Spinoza was well aware of this objection. In response, he claims that if a stone were conscious and hurled through the air, it would think it was free to choose to move and land where it does. People think they are free because they are “conscious of their own actions, and ignorant of the causes by which those actions are determined.” In other words, we think we are free because we do not know better. Going back to the video game analogy, we think we are in control as we push the buttons, but this is because we do not know how the game actually works—that is, we are just along for the ride and not in control.

Since everything is determined, whether or not a person heeds Spinoza’s advice is also determined—if you do, then you do and you could not do otherwise. If you do not, you could not do otherwise. As such, his advice would seem to be beyond useless. This is a stock paradox faced by determinists who give advice: their theory says that people cannot chose to follow this advice—they will just do what they are determined to do. That said, it is possible to salvage some useful advice from Spinoza.

The first step is for me to reject his view that I lack free will.  I have a stock argument for this that goes as follows. Obviously, I have free will or I do not. It is equally obvious that there is no way to tell whether I do or not. From an empirical standpoint, a universe with free will looks and feels just like a universe without free will: you just observe people doing stuff and apparently making decisions while thinking and feeling that you are doing the same.

Suppose someone rejects free will and they are wrong. In this case they are not only mistaken but also consciously rejecting real freedom.

Suppose someone rejects free will and they are correct. In that case, they are right—but not in the sense that they made the correct choice. They would have been determined to have that view and it would just so happen that it matches reality.

Suppose someone accepts free will and they are right. In this case, they have the correct view. They have also made the right choice—since choice would be real, making right and wrong choices is possible. More importantly, if they act consistently with this view, then they will be doing things right—not in the moral sense, but in the sense that they are acting in accord with how the universe works.


Suppose someone accepts free will and they are wrong. In this case they are in error, but have not made an incorrect choice (for obvious reasons).  They believe they are freely making choices, but obviously are not.

If I can choose, then I should obviously choose free will. If I cannot choose, then I will think I chose whatever it is I am determined to believe. If I can choose and choose to think I cannot, I am in error. Since I cannot know which option is correct, it seems best to accept free will. If I am actually free, I am right. If I am not free, then I am mistaken but had no choice.

Given the above argument, I accept that I have agency. This makes it possible for me to meaningfully give and accept (or reject) advice. Turning back to Spinoza, I obviously cannot accept his advice that I am enslaved by determinism. However, I can accept some of his claims, namely that I am acted upon by my attachments and emotions. As he sees it, the emotions are things that act upon us—on my view, they would thus be things that impinge upon our agency. As I love to do, I will use an analogy to running.

As I ran this morning, I was thinking about this essay and focused on the fact that feelings of pain (I have various old and new injuries) and tiredness were impinging on me in a manner similar to the way the cold or rain might impinge on me. In the case of pain and tiredness, the attack is from inside. In the case of the cold or rain, the attack is from the outside. Whether the attack is from inside or out, the attack is trying to make the choice for me—to rob me of my agency as a runner. If the pain, cold or rain makes me stop, then I am not acting. I am being acted upon. If I chose to stop, then I am acting. If I chose to go on, I am also acting. And acting rightly.  As a runner I know the difference between choosing to stop and being forced to stop.

Being aware of this is very useful for running—thanks to decades of experience I understand, in a way Spinoza might approve, the workings of pain, fatigue and so on. To use a specific example, I know that I am being acted upon by the pain and I understand quite well how it works. As such, the pain is not in control—I am. If I wish, I can run myself to ruin (and I have done just this). Or I can be wiser and avoid damaging myself.

Turning back to emotions, feelings impinge upon me in ways analogous to pain and fatigue. I do not have full control over how I feel—the emotions simply occur, perhaps in response to events or perhaps simply as the result of an electrochemical imbalance. To use a specific example, like most folks I will feel depressed and know that I have no reason to feel that way. It is like the cold or fatigue—it is just impinging on me. As Spinoza argued, my knowledge of how this works is critical to dealing with it. While I cannot fully control the feeling, I understand why I feel that way. It is like the cold I felt running in the Maine winters—it is a natural phenomenon that is, from my perspective, trying to destroy me. In the case of the cold, I can wear warmer clothing and stay moving—knowing how it works enables me to choose how to combat it. Likewise, knowing how the negative feelings work enables me to choose how to combat them. If I am depressed for no reason, I know it is just my brain trying to kill me. It is not pleasant, but it does not get to make the decisions for me. Fortunately, our good dead friend Aristotle has some excellent advice for training oneself to handle the emotions.

That said, the analogy to cold is particularly apt. The ice of the winter can kill even those who understand it and know how to resist it—sometimes the cold is just too much for the body. Likewise, the emotions can be like the howling icy wind—they can be too much for the mind. We are, after all, only human and have our limits. Knowing these is a part of wisdom. Sometimes you just need to come in from the cold or it will kill you. Have some hot chocolate. With marshmallows.


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Preoccupied about Wall Street pundits

Wall Street is occupied. Across America, the streets have been taken. These popular revolts are an expression of a common cause. Ordinary people are convinced that the 2008 financial crisis was a moral, economic, and political disaster. Citizens have a hard time with the state of things, so they take their grievances to the pavement.

That common cause is easy to see. Their cause is communicated beautifully by the pithy slogan: “We are the 99%”. They are referring, here, to the historically unprecedented income disparity between 99% of the population and the 1% that controls the wealth.

Yet a certain class of pundit — the kind you see on the Oct 7/2011 edition of Real Time With Bill Maher — have found it difficult to decipher what the protesters have to say. Hence, the message of the 99%s is called “incoherent”. But this claim is just weird. The 99’s message is clear as crystal: there is a state of economic injustice, this state of affairs is on the whole a bad thing, and that this state of injustice need not exist.

The more interesting question is: how is it that an educated class of people has, by all appearances, lost the ability to read? It’s as if we’re living through the Day of the Triffids, except only the cable news anchors have gone blind.


To answer these questions, we have to step back and ask a more general one. How is it that people fail to talk to each other effectively?

Some time ago, Miranda Celeste Hale took issue with a claim made by a literary critic:

What [the critic] fails to understand is that, when it comes to effective communication, the onus is on the communicator, and that, if a communicator fails to reach their audience, they cannot blame their failure on the attitudes or supposed “deficiencies” of their readers. To assert otherwise is both counterproductive and gallingly elitist.”

This is an expression of Hale’s ‘clarity imperative’. And she’s making two solid points, here.

The first point to make is that the speaker has a lot of control over the way their message is interpreted, and so they have a duty to speak clearly. Philosopher of language H.P. Grice famously pointed out that the speaker has the duty to be cooperative in various ways — the speaker should not blather on for too long, should not say things that are false, and so on. Grice is like Hale in the sense that he puts the onus primarily on the speaker, not the listener.

The second point to make is that someone who knowingly traffics in nonsense is a moral elitist. As a younger version of me argued in a 2002 op-ed:

It saddens me to report that philosophy enthusiasts, modern philosophers and modern philosophy teachers alike have no grasp on how to communicate… If you’re a philosophy student, then odds are, you’ve noticed. You notice it when you ask a question about basic logic and receive a referral to Wittgenstein. You notice it when you propose a simple critique and have its merit gauged on whether or not someone else wrote about it. You certainly noticed it when you read a post-modernist philosopher and wondered just how much wacky tobaccy the French-to-English translator was smoking at the time of writing the book.

Yet all of the above authors — Hale, Grice, Nelson — provide an uneven analysis. Hale’s clarity imperative should not be exaggerated in such a way that places the burden entirely on the speaker. The fact is, both the speaker and the listener have their duties to each other. Just as the speaker has a duty to contribute in a cooperative way, the listener has to make an effort to follow along in good faith.

Of course, there may be contexts where it is important for us to focus on the obligations of the speaker more than the listener. But the role of the speaker is not going to make much sense of the present concern. The fact is, by their own admission, the American pundit class does not understand how to read the signs.

So let’s look at it from the other direction. How is it that two people might fail to communicate, because the listener isn’t pulling their own weight?

Courtesy of Mr. Fish (clowncrack.com)

Courtesy of Mr. Fish (clowncrack.com)

Grice suggested rules for speaking cooperatively in conversation. I intend to make some general remarks about the duties of active listeners engaged in conversational uptake. For good measure, I’ll illustrate each maxim with some topical goodies. (Be sure to click the Youtube links.)

#1. FIDELITY. The first rule is, don’t intentionally misrepresent the contents of what has been said.

If you have a lot of time and energy — for instance, if you’re a philosopher — then you ought to try to attribute as many true beliefs to the speaker as you can, so long as those beliefs are consistent with what has been said. If possible, try to get as much bang for your buck: listen for the broader message in context, to get the most information as you can. But if you don’t have that kind of time or energy — for instance, if you’re not a philosopher — then at least interpret others in such a way that they do not seem totally confused about themselves.

Admittedly, it can be hard to be charitable when you are trying to figure out the message of a crowd. But even so, there are better and worse ways of doing it.

An excellent tactic might be to look at what all the signs have in common, and judge them all on how much you think they are representative of the context. Consider [VIDEO 1]. Perhaps you don’t agree that we should abolish the Fed, but you do think that something is seriously awry with the banking system. If so, then congratulations are in order — you’ve found enough common ground to be able to say something about what is going on. This particular protester has some views to talk about, and by all indications, his views are appropriate to the context.

A bad tactic would be to single out a fart enthusiast, and draw conclusions about the nature of the protest from that.

#2. CANDOR. The listener also has the duty to not misrepresent their own level of engagement in the conversation.

If the listener is interested in the message, but finds the message confusing, then they ought to communicate their confusion (if possible). If the listener is unwilling or unable to follow along, then they ought to say so. If as a listener you find yourself bored, it may be that you are in fact listening to a boring person, and therefore should run away as if being pursued by leopards. But it may also be that you feel entitled to a circus, parade, and song, in which case you might consider relocating to hell, your proper domicile.

In ordinary talk, when a person is disengaged and feigns interest, we call it pretentious; and when they’re engaged but feign disinterest, we call it disingenuous. In both cases, at least one or more of the interlocutors is going to end up embarrassed, and usually the humiliation falls on the interlocutor who has less power. But actually, there’s not really much telling in advance who it’s going to be. Consider [VIDEO 2]. It is difficult to imagine that the visibly pretentious and relatively unknown CNN anchor in the linked clip will make a strong recovery.

#3. INTEGRITY. Provided that the listener is, in fact, engaged, he/she should be ready to make clear what type of conversation they are interested in having (i.e., the rules of their language-game).

If you expect a cooperative dialogue, then at minimum you should be prepared to say what “cooperation” means to you. Not everyone is playing the same game, or keeping score by the same rules.

Consider this exchange [VIDEO 3]. In it, an eloquent protester named Jessie makes some compelling remarks. While his responses are completely relevant to the interviewer’s prompts, he’s also playing a different game than his interrogator. NewsCorp’s interviewer wants to give credit to the Tea Party movement for inspiration, and to direct blame towards the Obama administration for inadequate response; Jessie credits the movement to the populace, and directs blame towards a mismanaged corporatist state.

Edit: Consider, also, this video from the CBC [VIDEO 4]. In it, author Chris Hedges subverts the expectations of his conversation partner by arguing that the protesters are the true conservatives, since they advocate the rule of law. Hedges also makes it clear, when being accused of being a ‘nutbar’, that he has no interest in that kind of adversarial exchange.

#4. HUMILITY. If you can’t engage in the conversation in a way you find satisfying, then consider either deferring to someone who can, or disengage with the conversation entirely.

For instance, media pundits might be having a hard time making sense of what the kids are going on about, much in the same way that Beethoven might have had a hard time listening to The Rap Music. Still, when it comes to the protests, the financial experts are having no trouble at all. Perhaps that might be worth pause.

And finally, an essential rule that applies to both speakers and hearers (which Grice missed):

#5. DIGNITY. Both the listener and speaker should treat their interlocutor as being worthy of consideration, and expect to be treated in the same way.

The vague way of putting it is to say, “Treat people as if they have some kind of dignity”. A less vague formulation would be to say, “Be willing, as far as possible, to ratify the other person’s self-concept.”

A first step, there, is figuring out how exactly people see themselves. By talking to them as if they were human beings, for instance.

A second step is to make sure you are consistent in the way you treat others, once you’ve figured out how. For example, you can’t treat someone with pomp and circumstance, and then go on to say things that are completely at odds with that sentiment. Consider the speech of the anchor in the linked clip [VIDEO 5]. If you click through, you’ll witness a bizarre interview where the anchor (in this case the speaker) goes out of her way to praise the interviewee as being in high esteem, a “national treasure”, and so on, while also making the argument that no taxpayer has any desire to support her. The incoherence is painful to endure.

This principle of dignity sounds like it is magnanimous, a kind of principle of kindness and generosity. But it’s actually a double-edged sword: treating people with dignity can be devastating. If a man presents himself as a clown, then it is consistent with his dignity for him to be treated as a clown. If you present yourself as a medical doctor, but have not actually got a degree, then it is consistent with your dignity for you to be treated as a charlatan.


Solidarity on Sesame St.

So there you have it. Four listener’s duties, and one final duty for both speakers and hearers. That’s all I wanted to say.

I don’t have any snappy ending to this post. Anyway, thanks for reading, if you did. But if you were expecting to find a song, then fine, I’ve still got you covered.

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Just Doesn’t Get It

Rhetoric of Reason

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When it comes to persuading people, a catchy bit of rhetoric tends to be far more effective than an actual argument. One rather neat bit of rhetoric that seems to be favored by Tea Party folks and others is the “just doesn’t get it” device.

As a rhetorical device, it is typically used with the intent of dismissing or rejecting a person’s (or group’s) claims or views. For example, someone might say “liberals just don’t get it. They think raising taxes is the way to go.” The idea is that the audience is supposed to accept that liberals are wrong about tax increases on the grounds that its has been asserted that they “just don’t get it.”Obviously enough, saying “they just don’t get it” does not prove that a claim or view is in error.

This method can also be cast as a fallacy, specifically an ad hominem. The idea is that a claim should be rejected based on a personal attack, namely the assertion that the person does not get it. It can also be seen as a genetic fallacy when used against a group.

This method is also sometimes used with the intent of showing that a view is correct, usually by claiming that someone (or some group) that (allegedly) disagrees is wrong. For example, someone might say “liberals just don’t get it. Raising taxes on the job creators hurts the economy.” Obviously enough, saying that someone (or some group) “just doesn’t get it” does not prove (or disprove) anything. What is needed is, obviously enough, evidence that the claim in question is true. In the example, this would involve showing that raising taxes on the job creators hurts the economy.

In general, the psychology behind this method seems to be that when a person says  (or hears)”X doesn’t get it”, he means (or takes it to mean)”X does not believe what I believe” and thus rejects X’s claim. Obviously enough, this is not good reasoning.

It is worth noting that if it can be shown that someone “just doesn’t get it”, then this would not be mere rhetoric or a fallacy. However, what would be needed is evidence that the person is in error and thus does not, in fact, get it.

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Rhetorical Overkill

Adolf Hitler portrait, bust, 3/4 facing right.

Image via Wikipedia

As part of my critical thinking class, I teach a section on rhetoric. While my main concern is with teaching students how to defend against it, I also discuss how to use it. One of the points I make is that a risk with certain forms of rhetoric is what I call rhetorical overkill. This is  commonly done with hyperbole which is, by definition, an extravagant overstatement.

One obvious risk with hyperbole is that if it is too over the top, then it can be ineffective or even counterproductive. If a person is trying to use positive hyperbole, then going too far can create the impression that the person is claiming the absurd or even mocking the subject in question. For example, think of the over the top infomercials where the product is claimed to do  everything but cure cancer.  If the person is trying to use negative hyperbole, then going too far can undercut the attack by making it seem ridiculous. For example, calling a person a Nazi because he favors laws requiring people to use seat belts would seem rather absurd.

Another risk is that hyperbole can create an effect somewhat like crying “wolf”. In that tale, the boy cried “wolf” so often that no one believed him when the wolf actually came. In the case of rhetorical overkill, the problem is that it can create what might be dubbed “hyperbolic fatigue.” If matters are routinely blown out of proportion, this will tend to numb people to such terms. On a related note, if politicians and pundits routinely cry “Hitler” or “apocalypse” over lesser matters what words will they have left when the situation truly warrants such terms?

In some ways, this  is like swearing. While I am not a prude, I prefer to keep my swear words in reserve for situations that actually merit them. I’ve noticed that many people tend to use swear words in everyday conversations and I found this a bit confusing at first. After all, I have “hierarchy of escalation” when it comes to words, and swear words are at the top.  But, for many folks today, swear words are just part of everyday conversation (even in the classroom). So, when someone swears at me now, I pause to see if they are just talking normally or if they are actually trying to start trouble.

While I rarely swear, I do resent the fact that swear words have become so diluted and hence less useful to make a point quickly and directly. The same applies to extreme language-if we do not reserve it for extreme circumstances, then we diminish our language by robbing extreme words of their corresponding significance.

So, what the f@ck do you think?

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