Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Pen that Refused to Work

There once was a man who had a job that required him to write things down by hand. He had a whole drawer full of pens and paper, and he usually didn't think much about which pen he was using as long as the pen worked. Sometimes the man would pick up a pen and start writing with it, but the pen would not work. So he scribbled in little circles on the edge of a piece of paper in hopes that the pen would start working. It did, and the man was able to get on with his work.

But there was one pen that would not work, even when the man scribbled in little circles with it for quite some time. He would pick up the pen and start writing, and the first few letters would come out all right, but then the pen would suddenly stop working. The man went back to try to correct the letters, but the pen would still not work. So he scribbled in little circles with it. This worked with all the other pens, so why should it not work with this one? He scribbled and scribbled and the pen began working, but when he started to write with it, it would stop.

The man checked the ink level in the pen. The pen was full of ink, and the man could not understand why the pen would not work when he wanted it to.

So he scribbled in little circles and, again, the ink would begin to flow. But then it would stop. The man scribbled and scribbled for what seemed like a long time, but there was no change in the pen's nature. Ink. No ink. Start. Stop. The pen's ink would flow forth as if this time it was finally going to keep working. But then it would stop.

So the man, knowing that he had a whole drawer full of pens that would work and desiring to continue his labor, threw the pen away.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Cognitive Dissonance and a Snickers Bar

According to social psychologist Leon Festinger, human beings are motivated by something he calls cognitive dissonance, which is essentially a fancy name for disharmony among or within our thought processes, beliefs, and/or opinions (A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance 3). Human beings thus have a drive to produce consistencies, reduce inconsistencies, and avoid situations that might produce inconsistencies. Cognitive dissonance comes from receiving new information, which can also be manifest in new events (4-5).

Cognitive dissonance is implicit whenever we have a decision to make, when we choose between two or more options. These options are dissonant--they're not in harmony--because they cannot be done at the same time and in the same moment.
Let’s look at a trivial but revealing example. Let’s say I am sitting at my desk, busily working on a project. I am focusing on my work when all of a sudden I have a problem--I receive some new information: my stomach growls, I start salivating, and I think about the Snickers bar that’s in the vending machine down the hall. At this new information, I have cognitive dissonance, an inconsistency, and one my nature drives me to resolve. I am hungry and I want to eat, but I also want to continue to do what I’m doing because if I get up to go get that Snickers bar, I will lose much (or all) of my concentration. (I also already know that Snickers bars aren’t very good for my health, which means that eating one is going to create another kind of dissonance.) But I have to make a choice. I cannot make both choices at the same time, and both choices have some consequences that I do not want--no Snickers on the one hand, a loss of focus on the other. The choices are dissonant because each choice will take me in a slightly different direction than the other. But when I do make a decision, and since both options have undesirable consequences, I must justify the resulting dissonance from that choice. If I choose to eat the Snickers bar, I’ll argue to myself that once in a while is okay (studies have said that chocolate is good for your health!), I needed a break anyway and will be able to focus better after I get a snack, and, besides, it just tastes so good that it’ll be worth it. On the other hand, if I choose to stay at my desk, my justification would be that I don’t need all those calories or all that fat and sugar (I’ll just have to exercise them off!), I’m getting so much done that I cannot risk losing my focus right now, and, besides, I find pride in not stooping so low to give in to my cravings--mind over matter, right?
In my own mind, the problem has been resolved. For now.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

What Is an Emotion?: Categorizing the Uncategorizable

Something cool that came up when I typed in "Seneca De Ira"
When we call something by a name, we put that thing into a category. And when we write a paper or book or a blog post or an article and then give it a title, we assume that what we have written is rightly categorized under our title. That being said, it’s no wonder that in a book titled What Is an Emotion? we’d find excerpts from Seneca’s De Ira, Descartes’s The Passions of the Soul, Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature, Sartre’s The Emotions, and so on. But what about the other readings? If we’re reading a book about the emotions, then why are we reading excerpts from books with titles like Ethics, On the Origin of Our Knowledge of Right and Wrong, Being and Time, and, my personal favorite, Rhetoric? What this means is, not only do Aristotle and Spinoza and Heidegger and Scheler and Brentano (among others) believe that emotions have to do, in some way, with the topics under which their books are titled, but also--apparently--Solomon, the editor of What Is an Emotion?, believes that the titles of these books--in some way--deal with the emotions.
So the question is, why, if these philosophers are as wise as we think they are, why did they include a discussion (in several cases a very lengthy discussion of which we only have a very small excerpt or an explanatory essay) about the emotions in books of these names? Ethics? Rhetoric? Origins of knowledge? Being? What do these things have to do with emotions?

I think it has to do with the act of categorizing and naming. The very nature of language forces us to categorize. We have to draw lines that may not (and in some cases do not) actually exist if we are to say anything at all. So, my question is, can we really categorize the emotions? Sure, we do it to talk about them, and language is, to some degree, the way in which reality appears to us. But, on a deeper level, there are some things that are real that we just can’t talk about. For example, in terms of emotions, don’t they seem a bit trite when we try to put them into words?

But we try anyway, and so have these philosophers. I do think it is significant, however, that while these philosophers seem to disagree on a whole bunch of different things, they all agree--whether they think emotions are bad or good--that emotions are part of who we are. Emotions make us human. (Or at least, one of the things that make us human.) And this is the problem, in The Joy of Philosophy, that Solomon had with much of analytical philosophy--the form contradicts the content, and modern philosophy tends to dehumanize the human experience. So maybe we can’t categorize human beings very much, either.

Or at least, we see what happens when we take the principle of categorization to its logical extreme. Because we can’t just not talk about human experience. And, besides, I think there is value in reading and studying others’ categorization of the uncategorizable. The more we study it, the more we understand the human experience--ourselves and one another, our lives together and alone.
And the more we understand life, the better we live, and the better we die.

Book Review: The Rhetoric of American Civil Religion

I've recently received word from Taylor & Frances Online that a book review I wrote was published in the Journal of Religious and Th...