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Posts Tagged ‘Francis Bacon’

The only authenticated portrait of Emily Dickinson later than childhood. (For source of image see link)

[I]n turning inward, Dickinson gained unique insights into the human psyche.

(Pollak and Noble in A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson,page 45)

The Passion of Emily Dickinson 

As I indicated at the end of the last post, I am looking at another book this time. Unlike Gilbert and Gubar, with their focus on patriarchy in The Mad Woman in the Attic, Judith Farr, in her book The Passion of Emily Dickinson,spends most of her time in the first two thirds of her book unpicking delicate strands of evidence to help us guestimate to whom some of Emily Dickinson’s poems were addressed.

Though fascinating from a biographical point of view, whether Emily Dickinson was writing a poem to Sue or to the Master doesn’t really matter to most of us as aficionados of her work. For us, what counts is to be able to allow the poem to impact as strongly as possible on our consciousness through the lens of our current understanding. Admittedly sometimes biographical details can shed light upon the meaning of poem: but all too often they constitute a veil between it and us. A great poem almost always transcends even the writer’s conscious intentions and understanding. That’s what makes it great. If anyone can capture all its meaning in words it might as well have been written in prose.

For these reasons, I am skipping over the whole of the first part of her book and homing in on where I feel most at home, with what Farr has to say about Emily Dickinson as poet of the interior in relation to time, nature and eternity.

The beginning of this exploration comes at page 247 when Farr writes:

She did have a poetic ‘project,’ and throughout her oeuvre it is perceptible. This was to depict ‘Eternity in Time.’

She continues (pages 247-48):

[H]er feelings result in a radiant conception of immortal life. . . . There is nothing morbid about this dream vision. … It is love, and the painful longing issuing from it, that gave Dickinson her vision of eternity. . . If Dickinson’s poetic productivity largely ceased after 1868, the reason had to do with the assimilation of her two great passions for Sue and for Master.

I will come on later in more details as to why I think this is yet another over-simplification of why she may have fallen away from her peak after the mid-1860s.[1]I’m not denying though that love and loss were part of the grit that helped form the pearls of her poetry. I concur with Farr when she writes (page 251):

[S]he had to grieve before she could continue to develop (and the grief was itself a means of developing).

Pollak refers (page 6) to ‘Dickinson’s incremental knowledge of the house of pain.’

Her love of poetry and her perception of its links with love, as we have already noted contrasted with her loathing of domestic chores (page 255):

Her prevailing conception of love inspiring art enables Dickinson to write her final sentences. There eternity is felt in time, and its sea is linked to her work.… Her vision was of the next world next to her as she did her housework, all that baking, canning, cleaning, and sewing so balefully recorded in her letters.

Nature was crucial to her, as it had been to the Brontës and to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, because for her (page 294) ‘nature offers clues about infinity.’ This was even to the extent that (page 302):

The horizon was a point of order for landscape painters like Church. For poets like Dickinson, it was the point of fusion of this world and the next.

Which finally brings me to two specific poems.

This is the first, an intensely powerful poem of sacrificial separation.

There came a Day at Summer’s full,
Entirely for me—
I thought that such were for the Saints,
Where Resurrections—be—

The Sun, as common, went abroad,
The flowers, accustomed, blew,
As if no soul the solstice passed
That maketh all things new

The time was scarce profaned, by speech—
The symbol of a word
Was needless, as at Sacrament,
The Wardrobe—of our Lord—

Each was to each The Sealed Church,
Permitted to commune this—time—
Lest we too awkward show
At Supper of the Lamb.

The Hours slid fast—as Hours will,
Clutched tight, by greedy hands—
So faces on two Decks, look back,
Bound to opposing lands—

And so when all the time had leaked,
Without external sound
Each bound the Other’s Crucifix—
We gave no other Bond—

Sufficient troth, that we shall rise—
Deposed—at length, the Grave—
To that new Marriage,
Justified—through Calvaries of Love—

Farr writes (pages 305-06) that, while being on the one hand plighting ‘troth on earth,’ it also records a quasi-religious ‘ceremony or compact of renunciation.’ She summarises it by saying:

This may have looked like an ‘accustomed’ sunny day when her flowers bloomed as usual, but it has marked her own movement from spring to summer: from girlhood to womanhood, from the old life to the sacred new one.

Nature is here contrasted with the spiritual by its ignorance of the day’s significance, its beauty notwithstanding. While her hope for her love’s fulfillment in the afterlife is its main theme, there is the implication that this separation is at least part of the crucible for her future poetry.

Before moving onto the next poem I want to quote in full, I need to refer briefly to two others: ‘I cannot live without You’ and ‘Behind Me – dips Eternity.’ As Farr explains (page 308) the first poem is important because it is describing ‘the surrender of a love that is morally forbidden.’ This is one of the sources of the grief referred to earlier. The second is important for present purposes because the opening stanza captures vividly her fusion of nature and eternity:

Behind Me– dips Eternity –
Before Me – Immortality –
Myself – the Term between –
Death but the Drift of Eastern Gray,
Dissolving into Dawn away,
Before the West begin –

Farr goes into much detail about how the Luminist paintings of Frederick Edwin Church and Thomas Cole, with which Emily Dickinson was deeply familiar, play on these tropes. I will shortly be coming onto how nature and women were similarly seen, and in my view still continue to be seen, as objects of exploitation during this period and beyond.

It’s probably also worth including here Eberwein’s view, expressed in A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson (page 79), that ‘For Emily Dickinson, then, the essence of religious experience remained in that haunting question, “Is immortality true?”’

Capturing the Inscape

I now need to illustrate the other powerful capacity her poems have: to capture inner states. It will also serve as a useful pointer towards the next book I’ll be considering: Lives like Loaded Guns.

A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things gives a powerful account, similar to the one in John Fitzgerald Medina’s Faith, Physics & Psychology, of the so-called Enlightenment’s rapacious attitude to nature, expressed all too often in sexual terms. Patel and Moore write (page 53):

The second law of capitalist ecology, domination over nature, owed much to Francis Bacon (1561–1626)… He argued that “science should as it were torture nature’s secrets out of her.’ Further, the ‘empire of man’ should penetrate and dominate the “womb of nature.“

For them, ‘The binaries of Man and Woman, Nature and Society, drank from the same cup.’ I think their meaning would have been more faithfully represented if they had written ‘Society and Nature’ in that order. Even so their point is reasonably clear.

They share Medina’s distrust for our Cartesian legacy (page 54):

[H]ere was an intellectual movement that shaped not only ways of thinking but also ways of conquering, commodifying and living. This Cartesian revolution accomplished four major transformations, each shaping our view of Nature and Society to this day. First, either–or binary thinking displaced both–and alternatives. Second, it privileged thinking about substances, things, before thinking about the relationships between those substances. Third, it installed the domination of nature through science as a social good.

Finally, the Cartesian revolution made thinkable, and doable, the colonial project of mapping and domination.

This maps onto McGilchrist’s thinking about left-brain and right-brain differences and how the holistic, intuitive and empathic processes of our minds, which were in the past sometimes dismissively referred to as ‘feminine,’ and which tune into the ambiguous subtlety of reality, have been misguidedly subordinated to those arrogantly over-confident, logical, serial and linguistic processes, which hopelessly oversimplify reality and are sometimes complacently referred to as ‘masculine.’

I agree that Emily Dickinson, though she ultimately transcended them, was shaped by these crude ideological forces within a capitalist nonegalitarian culture that sees nature and humanity (women and ‘natives’ particularly) instrumentally, as thingsto be exploited for some kind of purely material advantage, rather than as beings to be valued for their own sake and nurtured with love and respect. As the Universal House of Justice has pointed out in The Promise of World Peace, capitalism is as flawed as communism, because both are equally materialistic ideologies:

The time has come when those who preach the dogmas of materialism, whether of the east or the west, whether of capitalism or socialism, must give account of the moral stewardship they have presumed to exercise.

That Dickinson was able to retreat from these repressive pressures into Vesuvial creativity is both a blessing to her, that helped compensate for her pain, and a gift to us now as we confront our generation’s variants of a toxic culture. She can inspire us to also strive to turn our pain in the face of abuses into creativity.

Her social isolation, a characteristic that fascinates me as my Solitarios sequence testifies, may have brought at least one other crucial benefit, beyond giving her creativity space to flourish in a general sense. It may have made her more sensitively attuned to her inscape than most of us will ever be.

I heard a Fly buzz– when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –

The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –

I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –

With Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –

Not only is this one of my favourite Emily Dickinson poems, but it is a significant one as we begin to transition to Lives like Loaded Guns. Farr pins down its crucial characteristic (page 310): ‘In such poems Emily Dickinson investigates the nature of consciousness by analysing its recession.’ As many people know it’s not the only one. Most famously there is also ‘I felt a funeral in my brain.’ More of that later.

Why she should be so interested in recessions of consciousness, Farr does not explain except in terms of her interest in death. She apparently called her poems (page 328) ‘bulletins from immortality.’

In the next post we will begin to close in on where all these ideas are leading.

Footnote

[1]. Between 1861, the year the American Civil War started, and 1865, the year it ended, she wrote something in the region of 936 of her 1789 poems, ie 52%. She was writing at an approximate rate of 187 poems per year. After the war was over, her average rate was 32 poems per year. That may not, though, have been the only factor.

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Ringstone Symbol

. . . . the mind is the power of the human spirit. Spirit is the lamp; mind is the light which shines from the lamp. Spirit is the tree, and the mind is the fruit. Mind is the perfection of the spirit, and is its essential quality, as the sun’s rays are the essential necessity of the sun.

(Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: page 316-317)

Because my next sequence of posts will be referring to the Kellys and their thought-provoking text Irreducible Mind, it seemed a good idea to republish this sequence from March 2013. The three parts will appear over the next four days finishing on Wednesday.

I began studying psychology in 1976, long before I became a Bahá’í, and completed my clinical training in July 1982, at least four months before I met even a mention of the Faith in the following November.

Never once in my entire experience of being taught psychology did I ever hear of Frederick William Henry Myers. The closest encounter I ever had of this kind was with William James. He was mentioned in asides with a dismissive and grudging kind of respect. The implication was that he was an amazing thinker for his time but nowadays very much old hat. I gave him a quick glance and moved on.

Looking back now I realise I was robbed.

FWH Myers

FWH Myers (1843-1901)

When I decided to become a Bahá’í at the beginning of December that same year, after a lightening conversion, my friends thought I was nuts, and when I met the quote from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá which you’ll find at the top of this post, I was thunderstruck. It ran completely counter to all I had been taught and all I had found in any psychology I had ever read. I really struggled to integrate that insight into my world-view.

The context included ideas such as Manifestations of God (symbolised by the stars in the picture at the head of the post), a spiritual realm (represented by the left hand line), and a link between that spiritual realm and our material one (the line that joins the left hand to the right hand line). If accepting the idea of God was a huge challenge for a former atheist, taking on board the concept of a soul was an even bigger one. At least the Bahá’í concept of God was definitely not the one I most certainly did not and could never believe in: it still seems such an unwarranted gift for beings like us to have an immortal soul though, considering how badly we behave most of the time. It took me four years at least of hard study and deep reflection to even begin to get my head around this stuff. (The poem I posted on 21 March, after this post was written, gives a sense of where I was starting from.)

It is plain to me now though how this situation came about. Kelly and Kelly capture it neatly and clearly in the introduction to their brave, thorough and well-researched book, Irreducible Mind (pages xvii-xviii):

[William] James’s person-centered and synoptic approach was soon largely abandoned . . . in favour of a much narrower conception of scientific psychology. Deeply rooted in earlier 19th-century thought, this approach advocated deliberate emulation of the presuppositions and methods – and thus, it was hoped, the stunning success – of the “hard” sciences especially physics. . . . Psychology was no longer to be the science of mental life, as James had defined it. Rather it was to be the science of behaviour, “a purely objective experimental branch of natural science”. It should “never use the terms consciousness, mental states, mind, content, introspectively verifiable, imagery, and the like.”

And, sadly, in some senses nothing much has changed. Psychology is still, for the most part, pursuing the Holy Grail of a complete materialistic explanation for every aspect of consciousness and the working of the mind. It’s obviously all in the brain, isn’t it (page xx)?

The empirical connection between mind and brain seems to most observers to be growing ever tighter and more detailed as our scientific understanding of the brain advances. In light of the successes already in hand, it may not seem unreasonable to assume as a working hypothesis that this process can continue indefinitely without encountering any insuperable obstacles, and that properties of minds will ultimately be fully explained by those brains. For most contemporary scientists, however, this useful working hypothesis has become something more like an established fact, or even an unquestionable axiom.

This is a dogma and as such can only be protected by ignoring or discounting as invalid all evidence that points in a different direction. Edward Kelly argues for a different approach in his introduction, believing as the co-authors demonstrate in this massive tome that there is a wealth of evidence to undermine this a priori belief (page xxii):

First and perhaps foremost is an attitude of humility in relation to the present state of scientific knowledge. . . . Second, we emphasise that science consists at bottom of certain attitudes and procedures, rather than any fixed set of beliefs. The most basic attitude is that facts have primacy over theories and that belief should therefore always remain modifiable in response to the empirical data.

Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

He quotes Francis Bacon (ibid.):

“The world is not to be narrowed till it will go into the understanding . . . but the understanding is to be expanded and opened till it can take in the image of the world as it is in fact.”

The Kellys try and practice what they preach, as their book demonstrates (page xxv):

Our own empiricism is thus thorough-going and radical, in the sense that we are willing to look at all relevant facts and not just those that seem compatible, actually or potentially, with current mainstream theory. Indeed, if anything it is precisely those observations that seem to conflict with current theory that should command the most urgent attention.

Their first chapter, to which I may return in a later post, takes a critical look at the current mainstream position. I want to start instead with their second chapter that looks in detail at the work of Myers. I want to do justice to a deep and creative thinker whom I was induced to neglect during my formal training, much to the detriment of my practice for a significant number of years.

I am plucking a quote from the middle of Emily Kelly’s chapter on Myers’s approach (page 76) because the last sentence cuts to the core of the challenge constituted by his position and the evidence that mainstream ‘scientists’ ignore:

This notion of something within us being conscious, even though it is not accessible to our ordinary awareness, is an exceedingly difficult one for most of us to accept, since it is so at variance with our usual assumption that the self of which we are aware comprises the totality of what we are as conscious mental beings. Nevertheless, it is essential to keep in mind Myers’s new and enlarged conception of consciousness if one is to understand his theory of human personality as something far more extensive than our waking self.

And perhaps it needs to be said in advance, in order to soften the shock for some readers, that he is not just talking about the kind of unconscious processes we all accept as definite, such as those which keep our hearts beating, or as probable, such as the projection of past experiences onto the present. He takes seriously not just what lies underneath our minds so to speak, the stuff that many dreams are made of, but also what soars above them, such as mystical states.

Emily Kelly’s preamble:

Before we look in more detail at what his exact position was in the next post, it might be useful to quote from Emily Kelly’s preamble. She puts her finger on the most significant loss incurred when psychology went pseudo-scientific (page 50):

All elements of the universe are not only inextricably related, but they all function according to the same basic, deterministic principles of cause-and-effect and are all, in the final analysis, of the same basic essence or nature. . . . The attempt to transform psychology into a science, however, raised some unique problems. The phenomena of psychology are unlike those of any of the physical sciences in that they are, above all else, mental. (Ibid.)

The pioneers of this approach were far too sure of themselves (page 54):

. . . . For many in the first generation of scientific psychology, the thoroughgoing unilateral dependence of mind on brain was “a practical certainty.”

The basic issue had been resolved (page 58):

. . . . For [T.H.]Huxley as for many other 19th-century scientists, the exact nature of the dependence of psychical processes on physical ones with an open – though unresolvable – question; the general dependence of mind on matter was a resolved – and thus closed – question. (page 58)

I almost winced when I read her pointed explanation of how psychology had traded in the mind to buy itself a place among the sciences (page 59):

Scientists instrumental in the development of 19th-century psychology thus in general had chosen to conceptualise science primarily not as a method with which to confront basic questions posed by contradictory aspects of human experience, but as a doctrine to which psychology, if it is to be a science, must conform. (page 59)

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Lotus/I-Ching (From this Website)

She paves the way for a key component of Myers’s approach in her quote from Mill (page 62):

John Stuart Mill had been the leader and exemplar of mid 19th– century liberal thinkers who believed that the cause of knowledge is best served, not by partisans, but by “those who take something from both sides of the great controversies, and make out that neither extreme is right, nor wholly wrong.” (page 62)

In the next post on Tuesday we’ll be taking a closer look at Myers’s approach.

Read Full Post »

Ringstone Symbol

. . . . the mind is the power of the human spirit. Spirit is the lamp; mind is the light which shines from the lamp. Spirit is the tree, and the mind is the fruit. Mind is the perfection of the spirit, and is its essential quality, as the sun’s rays are the essential necessity of the sun.

(Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: page 316-317)

Because my current sequence of posts will be referring more than once to the Kellys and their thought-provoking text Irreducible Mind, it seemed a good idea to republish this sequence from March 2013. The three parts will appear on consecutive days finishing on Thursday.

I began studying psychology in 1976, long before I became a Bahá’í, and completed my clinical training in July 1982, at least four months before I met even a mention of the Faith in the following November.

Never once in my entire experience of being taught psychology did I ever hear of Frederick William Henry Myers. The closest encounter I ever had of this kind was with William James. He was mentioned in asides with a dismissive and grudging kind of respect. The implication was that he was an amazing thinker for his time but nowadays very much old hat. I gave him a quick glance and moved on.

Looking back now I realise I was robbed.

FWH Myers

FWH Myers (1843-1901)

When I decided to become a Bahá’í at the beginning of December that same year, after a lightening conversion, my friends thought I was nuts, and when I met the quote from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá which you’ll find at the top of this post, I was thunderstruck. It ran completely counter to all I had been taught and all I had found in any psychology I had ever read. I really struggled to integrate that insight into my world-view.

The context included ideas such as Manifestations of God (symbolised by the stars in the picture at the head of the post), a spiritual realm (represented by the left hand line), and a link between that spiritual realm and our material one (the line that joins the left hand to the right hand line). If accepting the idea of God was a huge challenge for a former atheist, taking on board the concept of a soul was an even bigger one. At least the Bahá’í concept of God was definitely not the one I most certainly did not and could never believe in: it still seems such an unwarranted gift for beings like us to have an immortal soul though, considering how badly we behave most of the time. It took me four years at least of hard study and deep reflection to even begin to get my head around this stuff. (The poem I posted on 21 March, after this post was written, gives a sense of where I was starting from.)

It is plain to me now though how this situation came about. Kelly and Kelly capture it neatly and clearly in the introduction to their brave, thorough and well-researched book, Irreducible Mind (pages xvii-xviii):

[William] James’s person-centered and synoptic approach was soon largely abandoned . . . in favour of a much narrower conception of scientific psychology. Deeply rooted in earlier 19th-century thought, this approach advocated deliberate emulation of the presuppositions and methods – and thus, it was hoped, the stunning success – of the “hard” sciences especially physics. . . . Psychology was no longer to be the science of mental life, as James had defined it. Rather it was to be the science of behaviour, “a purely objective experimental branch of natural science”. It should “never use the terms consciousness, mental states, mind, content, introspectively verifiable, imagery, and the like.”

And, sadly, in some senses nothing much has changed. Psychology is still, for the most part, pursuing the Holy Grail of a complete materialistic explanation for every aspect of consciousness and the working of the mind. It’s obviously all in the brain, isn’t it (page xx)?

The empirical connection between mind and brain seems to most observers to be growing ever tighter and more detailed as our scientific understanding of the brain advances. In light of the successes already in hand, it may not seem unreasonable to assume as a working hypothesis that this process can continue indefinitely without encountering any insuperable obstacles, and that properties of minds will ultimately be fully explained by those brains. For most contemporary scientists, however, this useful working hypothesis has become something more like an established fact, or even an unquestionable axiom.

This is a dogma and as such can only be protected by ignoring or discounting as invalid all evidence that points in a different direction. Edward Kelly argues for a different approach in his introduction, believing as the co-authors demonstrate in this massive tome that there is a wealth of evidence to undermine this a priori belief (page xxii):

First and perhaps foremost is an attitude of humility in relation to the present state of scientific knowledge. . . . Second, we emphasise that science consists at bottom of certain attitudes and procedures, rather than any fixed set of beliefs. The most basic attitude is that facts have primacy over theories and that belief should therefore always remain modifiable in response to the empirical data.

Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

He quotes Francis Bacon (ibid.):

“The world is not to be narrowed till it will go into the understanding . . . but the understanding is to be expanded and opened till it can take in the image of the world as it is in fact.”

The Kellys try and practice what they preach, as their book demonstrates (page xxv):

Our own empiricism is thus thorough-going and radical, in the sense that we are willing to look at all relevant facts and not just those that seem compatible, actually or potentially, with current mainstream theory. Indeed, if anything it is precisely those observations that seem to conflict with current theory that should command the most urgent attention.

Their first chapter, to which I may return in a later post, takes a critical look at the current mainstream position. I want to start instead with their second chapter that looks in detail at the work of Myers. I want to do justice to a deep and creative thinker whom I was induced to neglect during my formal training, much to the detriment of my practice for a significant number of years.

I am plucking a quote from the middle of Emily Kelly’s chapter on Myers’s approach (page 76) because the last sentence cuts to the core of the challenge constituted by his position and the evidence that mainstream ‘scientists’ ignore:

This notion of something within us being conscious, even though it is not accessible to our ordinary awareness, is an exceedingly difficult one for most of us to accept, since it is so at variance with our usual assumption that the self of which we are aware comprises the totality of what we are as conscious mental beings. Nevertheless, it is essential to keep in mind Myers’s new and enlarged conception of consciousness if one is to understand his theory of human personality as something far more extensive than our waking self.

And perhaps it needs to be said in advance, in order to soften the shock for some readers, that he is not just talking about the kind of unconscious processes we all accept as definite, such as those which keep our hearts beating, or as probable, such as the projection of past experiences onto the present. He takes seriously not just what lies underneath our minds so to speak, the stuff that many dreams are made of, but also what soars above them, such as mystical states.

Emily Kelly’s preamble:

Before we look in more detail at what his exact position was in the next post, it might be useful to quote from Emily Kelly’s preamble. She puts her finger on the most significant loss incurred when psychology went pseudo-scientific (page 50):

All elements of the universe are not only inextricably related, but they all function according to the same basic, deterministic principles of cause-and-effect and are all, in the final analysis, of the same basic essence or nature. . . . The attempt to transform psychology into a science, however, raised some unique problems. The phenomena of psychology are unlike those of any of the physical sciences in that they are, above all else, mental. (Ibid.)

The pioneers of this approach were far too sure of themselves (page 54):

. . . . For many in the first generation of scientific psychology, the thoroughgoing unilateral dependence of mind on brain was “a practical certainty.”

The basic issue had been resolved (page 58):

. . . . For [T.H.]Huxley as for many other 19th-century scientists, the exact nature of the dependence of psychical processes on physical ones with an open – though unresolvable – question; the general dependence of mind on matter was a resolved – and thus closed – question. (page 58)

I almost winced when I read her pointed explanation of how psychology had traded in the mind to buy itself a place among the sciences (page 59):

Scientists instrumental in the development of 19th-century psychology thus in general had chosen to conceptualise science primarily not as a method with which to confront basic questions posed by contradictory aspects of human experience, but as a doctrine to which psychology, if it is to be a science, must conform. (page 59)

LEAD Technologies Inc. V1.01

Lotus/I-Ching (From this Website)

She paves the way for a key component of Myers’s approach in her quote from Mill (page 62):

John Stuart Mill had been the leader and exemplar of mid 19th– century liberal thinkers who believed that the cause of knowledge is best served, not by partisans, but by “those who take something from both sides of the great controversies, and make out that neither extreme is right, nor wholly wrong.” (page 62)

In the next post we’ll be taking a closer look at Myers’s approach.

Read Full Post »

Ringstone Symbol

. . . . the mind is the power of the human spirit. Spirit is the lamp; mind is the light which shines from the lamp. Spirit is the tree, and the mind is the fruit. Mind is the perfection of the spirit, and is its essential quality, as the sun’s rays are the essential necessity of the sun.

(Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: page 316-317)

I began studying psychology in 1976, long before I became a Bahá’í, and completed my clinical training in July 1982, at least four months before I met even a mention of the Faith in the following November.

Never once in my entire experience of being taught psychology did I ever hear of Frederick William Henry Myers. The closest encounter I ever had of this kind was with William James. He was mentioned in asides with a dismissive and grudging kind of respect. The implication was that he was an amazing thinker for his time but nowadays very much old hat. I gave him a quick glance and moved on.

Looking back now I realise I was robbed.

FWH Myers

FWH Myers (1843-1901)

When I decided to become a Bahá’í at the beginning of December that same year, after a lightening conversion, my friends thought I was nuts, and when I met the quote from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá which you’ll find at the top of this post, I was thunderstruck. It ran completely counter to all I had been taught and all I had found in any psychology I had ever read. I really struggled to integrate that insight into my world-view.

The context included ideas such as Manifestations of God (symbolised by the stars in the picture at the head of the post), a spiritual realm (represented by the left hand line), and a link between that spiritual realm and our material one (the line that joins the left hand to the right hand line). If accepting the idea of God was a huge challenge for a former atheist, taking on board the concept of a soul was an even bigger one. At least the Bahá’í concept of God was definitely not the one I most certainly did not and could never believe in: it still seems such an unwarranted gift for beings like us to have an immortal soul though, considering how badly we behave most of the time. It took me four years at least of hard study and deep reflection to even begin to get my head around this stuff. (The poem I posted on 21 March, after this post was written, gives a sense of where I was starting from.)

It is plain to me now though how this situation came about. Kelly and Kelly capture it neatly and clearly in the introduction to their brave, thorough and well-researched book, Irreducible Mind (pages xvii-xviii):

[William] James’s person-centered and synoptic approach was soon largely abandoned . . . in favour of a much narrower conception of scientific psychology. Deeply rooted in earlier 19th-century thought, this approach advocated deliberate emulation of the presuppositions and methods – and thus, it was hoped, the stunning success – of the “hard” sciences especially physics. . . . Psychology was no longer to be the science of mental life, as James had defined it. Rather it was to be the science of behaviour, “a purely objective experimental branch of natural science”. It should “never use the terms consciousness, mental states, mind, content, introspectively verifiable, imagery, and the like.”

And, sadly, in some senses nothing much has changed. Psychology is still, for the most part, pursuing the Holy Grail of a complete materialistic explanation for every aspect of consciousness and the working of the mind. It’s obviously all in the brain, isn’t it (page xx)?

The empirical connection between mind and brain seems to most observers to be growing ever tighter and more detailed as our scientific understanding of the brain advances. In light of the successes already in hand, it may not seem unreasonable to assume as a working hypothesis that this process can continue indefinitely without encountering any insuperable obstacles, and that properties of minds will ultimately be fully explained by those brains. For most contemporary scientists, however, this useful working hypothesis has become something more like an established fact, or even an unquestionable axiom.

This is a dogma and as such can only be protected by ignoring or discounting as invalid all evidence that points in a different direction. Edward Kelly argues for a different approach in his introduction, believing as the co-authors demonstrate in this massive tome that there is a wealth of evidence to undermine this a priori belief (page xxii):

First and perhaps foremost is an attitude of humility in relation to the present state of scientific knowledge. . . . Second, we emphasise that science consists at bottom of certain attitudes and procedures, rather than any fixed set of beliefs. The most basic attitude is that facts have primacy over theories and that belief should therefore always remain modifiable in response to the empirical data.

Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

He quotes Francis Bacon (ibid.):

“The world is not to be narrowed till it will go into the understanding . . . but the understanding is to be expanded and opened till it can take in the image of the world as it is in fact.”

The Kellys try and practice what they preach, as their book demonstrates (page xxv):

Our own empiricism is thus thorough-going and radical, in the sense that we are willing to look at all relevant facts and not just those that seem compatible, actually or potentially, with current mainstream theory. Indeed, if anything it is precisely those observations that seem to conflict with current theory that should command the most urgent attention.

Their first chapter, to which I may return in a later post, takes a critical look at the current mainstream position. I want to start instead with their second chapter that looks in detail at the work of Myers. I want to do justice to a deep and creative thinker whom I was induced to neglect during my formal training, much to the detriment of my practice for a significant number of years.

I am plucking a quote from the middle of Emily Kelly’s chapter on Myers’s approach (page 76) because the last sentence cuts to the core of the challenge constituted by his position and the evidence that mainstream ‘scientists’ ignore:

This notion of something within us being conscious, even though it is not accessible to our ordinary awareness, is an exceedingly difficult one for most of us to accept, since it is so at variance with our usual assumption that the self of which we are aware comprises the totality of what we are as conscious mental beings. Nevertheless, it is essential to keep in mind Myers’s new and enlarged conception of consciousness if one is to understand his theory of human personality as something far more extensive than our waking self.

And perhaps it needs to be said in advance, in order to soften the shock for some readers, that he is not just talking about the kind of unconscious processes we all accept as definite, such as those which keep our hearts beating, or as probable, such as the projection of past experiences onto the present. He takes seriously not just what lies underneath our minds so to speak, the stuff that many dreams are made of, but also what soars above them, such as mystical states.

Emily Kelly’s preamble:

Before we look in more detail at what his exact position was in the next post, it might be useful to quote from Emily Kelly’s preamble. She puts her finger on the most significant loss incurred when psychology went pseudo-scientific (page 50):

All elements of the universe are not only inextricably related, but they all function according to the same basic, deterministic principles of cause-and-effect and are all, in the final analysis, of the same basic essence or nature. . . . The attempt to transform psychology into a science, however, raised some unique problems. The phenomena of psychology are unlike those of any of the physical sciences in that they are, above all else, mental. (Ibid.)

The pioneers of this approach were far too sure of themselves (page 54):

. . . . For many in the first generation of scientific psychology, the thoroughgoing unilateral dependence of mind on brain was “a practical certainty.”

The basic issue had been resolved (page 58):

. . . . For [T.H.]Huxley as for many other 19th-century scientists, the exact nature of the dependence of psychical processes on physical ones with an open – though unresolvable – question; the general dependence of mind on matter was a resolved – and thus closed – question. (page 58)

I almost winced when I read her pointed explanation of how psychology had traded in the mind to buy itself a place among the sciences (page 59):

Scientists instrumental in the development of 19th-century psychology thus in general had chosen to conceptualise science primarily not as a method with which to confront basic questions posed by contradictory aspects of human experience, but as a doctrine to which psychology, if it is to be a science, must conform. (page 59)

LEAD Technologies Inc. V1.01

Lotus/I-Ching (From this Website)

She paves the way for a key component of Myers’s approach in her quote from Mill (page 62):

John Stuart Mill had been the leader and exemplar of mid 19th– century liberal thinkers who believed that the cause of knowledge is best served, not by partisans, but by “those who take something from both sides of the great controversies, and make out that neither extreme is right, nor wholly wrong.” (page 62)

In the next post we’ll be taking a closer look at Myers’s approach.

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Last week I would not have had a clue that several very different things were in any way connected. I would have looked  at the Church of Humanity, a Comtean religion of the 19th Century, Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, Homer, the Old Testament, and the Higher Criticism which sent shock waves through the Christian worlds of Europe and America, as occupying totally separate spheres of inquiry.

Just to pick up on one unlikely pairing, Twain, the Mississippi river pilot and irreverent humourist, and Freud, the humourless founder of psychoanalysis, do not at first sight seem to have anything in common except the writing of books.

The thread that connects them all, the argument over the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, is unravelled and displayed in the witty and fascinating book, Contested Will, by James Shapiro.

He places Delia Bacon and her advocacy of Francis Bacon (no relative) as the writer of Shakespeare’s plays in their full context. Firstly he unpacks their links with some unsettling deconstructions. There was the work that suggested that ‘Homer‘ might not be a real historical figure and the sole author of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Then came the doubts about the core of the Bible: it just might not be the unmixed work of Moses. Lastly the gospels were demonstrated to be a less than coherent account of Christ’s life.

He goes on then to explain the way this context interacted with her deeply disappointing personal life to shift her thinking about Shakespeare in the direction it finally took.

Mark Twain

To explain here how Mark Twain got involved might be a bit of a spoiler for those who don’t already know, but it makes fascinating reading, not least because Helen Keller, the immensely popular writer who had overcome the double handicap of being blind and deaf from the age of 19 months, played a key part in the process.

John Thomas Looney (and, before the cheap shots come flying in, this was pronounced to rhyme with ‘bony’) had other reasons which Shapiro explores for needing to prick the balloon of Shakespeare’s status as an icon of the Comtean ‘Church of Humanity.’

Shapiro disentangles very clearly why Looney’s case for the Earl of Oxford as the author of the plays solved some awkward problems for Freud, while at the same time creating others that were equally uncomfortable.

To simplify the situation slightly, Freud had made Hamlet a key plank in proving his Oedipal theory. This ‘evidence’ was somewhat devalued by the later discovery that Shakespeare’s father didn’t die until after the play was written. Oxford’s father, on the other hand, not only died before the play was written but his mother had also conveniently remarried by that stage.The shift to Oxford’s authorship neatly solved this first problem.

The fact that Oxford died before all the plays hit the public gaze could be explained away to Freud’s satisfaction, but Looney’s somewhat reactionary ideology, and possibly his less than sympathetic attitude towards the position of Jews in society, posed problems that Freud, as a Jew who had fled Nazi Germany, could not face up to let alone resolve. So, his allegiance to the Oxford theory came at an inconvenient price.

Shapiro is clearly in no doubt about Shakespeare’s being the true author of his plays. None the less he manages to convey, in a thoroughly engaging fashion, a sympathetic view of why it seemed so plausible to some otherwise intelligent and well-informed people that he could not have written them.

His journey covers issues of identity, reality, scholarship and literature that are of concern to us all. It sheds much light on how any of us could come to entertain misguided ideas. That these ideas about Shakespeare do not directly entail patterns of action that threaten anybody’s life does not devalue this investigation of them. In fact, the Looney advocacy of Oxford’s authorship cannot be separated completely from his views about how society should be organised.

This is a very good read indeed for any one concerned about these things. It is not just for Shakespeare fans like me!

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