6. What Thomas Reid can Teach us about Doomscrolling

Every day, lately, I wake up hungry to check my twitter feed. But, my twitter feed does not make me feel good. I am not unique in this. It is actually hard to find anyone I know who has what I would call a genuinely healthy relationship with the internet and social media (especially since we had to start social distancing).

I recently got a copy of Solutions (and other Problems) by Allie Brosh, who was hugely successful on the internet, wrote a best-selling book, and then decided not to be on the internet for several years, and then wrote another best-selling book, and so has returned to do like one or two interviews. She has maybe the healthiest relationship to the internet of anyone I can think of (which is to be offered the option of a position promising massive attention and adulation, and decline it).

This is the introduction to Brosh’s new book, which is amazing and you should probably buy her book and read it instead of my writing.

Okay, so, I wake up, and I check my phone, and then proceed to keep checking it throughout the day. Why does the title of this essay claim that Scottish Enlightenment Philosopher Thomas Reid can help explain any of this? Well, Thomas Reid’s Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind is an interesting book, and has a lot of really neat stuff going on, but the part I am thinking about today concerns Essay 3 (“Of the Principles of Action”) Part II (“Of Animal Principles of Action”) Chapter 1 (“Of Appetites”).

People in philosophy use the same terms in different ways all the time, so you never know at first what someone means when they introduce a term, even a familiar one. Fortunately, Reid helpfully tells us that he means “appetite” not in the super strict sense where some people limit it just to hunger, and not in the super loose sense where some people use it for any desire whatsoever, but for “a particular class of desires, which are distinguished from all others by the following marks.”

First, Every appetite is accompanied with an uneasy sensation proper to it, which is strong or weak, in proportion to the desire we have of the object. Secondly, Appetites are not constant, but periodical, being sated by their objects for a time, and returning after certain periods. Such is the nature of those principles of action, to which I beg leave, in this Essay, to appropriate the name of appetites.

EAP, 3.2.1 5

So, for Reid, appetites are desires accompanied by an uneasy sensation, and recur periodically. They feel bad when you have them, they go away when they have been fed, and they come back on the regular. These are animal principles of action, for Reid, because they aren’t special for humans: hunger and thirst (and, according to Reid, lust) are examples of such desires that we share with lots of animals.

Most of Reid’s discussion is concerned with assessing how actions motivated by these desires relate to virtue/morality, but I promised diagnosis of doomscrolling, and that is what I shall give.

Now, Reid astutely observes that we can totally mess up the way these appetites work. He says “I believe our natural appetites may be made more violent by excessive indulgence, and that, on the other hand, they may be weakened by starving.”

If you do philosophy the right way, you can always find a relevant meme.

My understanding is that this is not the current cutting-edge model of how appetite regulation works, but the underlying insight that these natural appetites that function for homeostatic equilibrium and such can be totally set off kilter is an important observation, even if we are glad that we nowadays have a lot of more nuanced/refined scientific understanding of the actual mechanisms behind that.

What is most interesting, as I check my twitter feed, instagram, email, facebook, and so on, for the fifteenth time since I started writing this, though, is Reid’s observation about inventing appetites, ex nihilo.

Besides the appetites which nature hath given us for useful and necessary purposes, we may create appetites which nature never gave.

The frequent use of things which stimulate the nervous system, produces a languor when their effect is gone off, and a desire to repeat them. By this means a desire of a certain object is created, accompanied by an uneasy sensation. Both are removed for a time by the object desired; but they return after a certain interval. This differs from natural appetite, only in being acquired by custom. Such are the appetites which some men acquire for the use of tobacco, for opiates, and for intoxicating liqours.

EAP, 3.2.1 35-6

We can artificially produce appetites in ourselves, through training ourselves by repeated application of nervous system stimuli, which then leave us languorous when their effects wear off, leave us regularly wanting another fix, and are accompanied by an uneasy sensation.

Reid points out that this is distinct from building habits in the sense of just gaining facility or capacity to do things. This one is specifically accompanied by the recurring uneasy sensation relieved only through satisfaction of your desire for the stimulation. Now Reid is talking about getting yourself addicted to tobacco, opiates or liquor, but I say (flippantly) that that’s mainly because he didn’t know about twitter.

Reid concludes his discussion of these artificial appetites by saying “we ought to beware of acquiring appetites which nature never gave. They are always useless, and very often hurtful.”

I have one and a half objections to Reid, and they both relate to artificial appetites for personal hygiene.

When I wake up in the morning, I feel uneasy sensations accompanying the desire to brush my teeth and take a shower. Now you might say “that’s not because of an appetite, that’s because you actually need to clean up!” The reason I am counting this as one and a half objections, rather than two objections, is because I think the toothbrushing can be maybe be hand-waved away with the “that feeling is about whether your mouth needs to be cleaned”, but look: some people are morning shower people, and some people are evening shower people, and I think if those people reflect on it, they’ll realize their feeling that they need to shower on their “schedule” is not always tied to how clean they actually are, it’s more of an appetite in Reid’s sense.

Reid claims that this artificial appetite to perform daily hygiene is useless (I’ll just assume he won’t claim this is one of the hurtful ones). But that seems to overstate the case against it, at least a bit. It would be great if I could get myself to feel about daily flossing the way I feel about brushing my teeth twice a day. I would love to have an appetite for flossing!

Of course, this is all a distraction. Because this essay is about the appetite for doomscrolling. And on that front, Reid seems right. I’ve acquired an unhealthy habit to repetitively go through the unease-relief-unease cycle. The objections to Reid are fun considerations, but they don’t do anything to help with the main point of this essay: Thomas Reid had a good analysis of what’s happening with my relationship to social media.

Now the flipside of this is that Reid is also deeply invested in the view that humans are fundamentally social beings. He calls particular operations of our minds social when they “necessarily imply social intercourse with some other intelligent being who bears a part in them”. And for him this includes making promises, asking questions, asserting things (in contrast to seeing, hearing, and remembering, for example, which can be done in solitude). In Essay five (“Of Morals”), Chapter 6 (“Of the Nature and Obligation of a Contract”), Reid explains that these social acts of mind are part of the basic machinery we come stocked with, and he thought that you can’t construct them out of the solitary operations (which he saw as the default approach taken by many of his contemporaries).

If nature had not made man capable of such social operations of mind, and furnished him with a language to express them, he might think, and reason, and deliberate, and will; he might have desires and aversions, joy and sorrow; in a word, he might exert all those operations of mind, which the writers in logic and pneumatology have so copiously described; but, at the same time, he would still be a solitary being, even when in a crowd; it would be impossible for him to put a question, or give a command, to ask a favour, or testify a fact, to make a promise or a bargain.

EAP, 5.6 15

The idea that without these irreducibly social operations, we would be alone “even when in a crowd”, speaks to how crucial Reid takes sociality to be for human nature. So, while ordinary times might permit us to simply cut out our involvement with habit-forming social media, I think if we heed the overall picture Reid would give us, then, at least at this moment, right now, we have to hesitate, or at least add some nuance.

There is a tension in trying to pay heed to Reid’s advice—at least, in the specific scenario that we are enduring at this very moment—and that is that that giving up appetitive social media might lead to becoming an island of a person, given socio-physical distancing. And that’s unhealthy in a different way.

But, if it is not a good time to try to just quit the apps, I think Reid would still say it’s a good time to try and break the habitual relationship to them. I have friends that I connect with through them. I have friends whose children I am only able to know about by way of them (and you may think “gosh couldn’t you just keep up with those friends directly?” but I think, to be fair, my friends with kids don’t have time to write personal emails to every single friend of theirs who wants to know what is going on in their lives; they barely have time to post pictures and updates to instagram, so let’s not be too judgy about how people are keeping up with each other).

I can’t become Allie Brosh, I can’t even, realistically, aspire to my [uninformed, likely entirely imaginary ideal] of the Allie Brosh relationship to the internet. But I can probably find ways to diminish or defuse this artificial appetite, even as my current social needs can only be met through the same avenues that induced it in the first place.

On the other hand, if you liked this essay, please share, retweet, etc.

5. The Method of Hyperbolically Doubting Myself

I am usually a little bit nervous on the first day of classes. It’s weird, because after the first year of teaching, when things went fine, I expected that feeling to…go away? But it comes back, every year. I just have this weird feeling in the pit of my stomach right before I start my first lecture, like, maybe I’ll just forget everything about how to lecture, or maybe I don’t actually know things about philosophy, or whatever, and so I have my weird tricks (like making sure I’m wearing my glasses so I look smarter, even though I mainly need them for reading things at a distance).

This year, obviously, is much weirder. Because there isn’t a traditional first day. Instead of that meaning I had less nervousness, it meant I was more nervous during the entire procedure of preparing my class (spread out over much of the summer) and then, while recording my lectures, and then during the day and a half between uploading the lectures and when students could actually view them, and then between when they became available for students to view (6:00 am on a Sunday) and when students might actually start viewing them (I don’t know, like 3:00 pm or maybe Monday afternoon). I was torn between sending the videos to people to get feedback and worrying that the feedback would be useful in a way that meant I would have to actually re-record the lectures.

Dana Scully from the X-files with the caption [SKEPTICAL SIGHING]

Anyway, in my history of early modern course, we’re starting with Descartes’s Meditations (after a brief discussion of a poem by Cavendish to talk about my hobby-horse of early modern genre). So, in addition to being full of self-doubt (which has gotten a bit better since I shared my lecture videos with my mom, who seems to like them), I’m also thinking about the hyperbolic method of doubt.

Rene Descartes, the French philosopher, advocated what I usually introduce to students as a form of spring cleaning for your mind. This is a flawed analogy because spring cleaning is—allegedly—done every single year while the meditator suggests that this process should really only be done once in your life. It would perhaps be better if I went in the whole way on a Marie Kondo/Kon Mari method analogy, since, as I understand it, if you do that right, you only need to do it once, and also since, when you do regular spring cleaning you—and by “you” I mean “me, and almost everyone I’ve ever met”—typically hang on to a lot of stuff that you should get rid of. But when you go through the attic of your mind and use the meditator’s cleaning method it is more of a “rip out everything you can possibly remove and see what remains” approach.

Marie Kondo, famous for sharing the Kon Mari method of tidying up your home by holding the object and asking yourself “is it possible that an evil genius with unlimited power could trick me into thinking this object sparks joy?” before getting rid of it.

So, I have taught the first meditation roughly seven thousand times (this is “hyperbole” in a different sense—or well, I guess in the same sense, but for a different purpose), and every single time, I have to make sure of several things: we distinguish Descartes (the author) from the Meditator (the narrator), we make it clear that this is just a preliminary stage of ground clearing before we re-establish a bunch of things that we know (the meditator is not a skeptic for very long!), and most importantly: at no point does the meditator believe that an malevolent deceiver exists! The deceiver (or “evil demon” as everyone will refer to this hypothetical deceiver, despite the absence of even hypothetical demons from the text itself), never has to be more than a whiff of possibility in order to do the work that the meditator needs, which is, roughly: be a source of doubt.

And here is where I realized something that I am sure someone else has, somewhere else, already noticed: the structure of the first meditation does a great job of echoing the feedback loop reverberation of self-doubt and anxiety. Which is, of course, something I’m focused on a lot lately. So, the following is a bit less of interpretation of Descartes and more of me noticing a weird parallel between the first Meditation and anxiety-induced self-doubts. In other words, it probably reflects more on me than on Descartes.

The meditator (who is definitely not shy of listing their own limitations and flaws), notes that they have been a lazy lump and had this huge project they’d planned to do and basically waited as long as possible to get started with it (a feeling I’m sure many of us can sympathize with), and says, “but look, I guess since I’ve dragged my feet for this long, I can’t just do an okay job, I have to try and make something genuinely lasting and worthwhile, and I have to do it all now, in the next six nights.”

So the first part of the project is for the meditator to notice that they have made mistakes in their life. And instead of taking the Julia Child/Mr. Rogers lesson from this, we are about to embark on a journey to the center of tearing ourselves down.

So, we start by focusing on actual real mistakes we have in fact made. Sometimes we believe false things. The example I use is the situation where you see someone across the street who you think you recognize and it turns out to be a stranger and you thought they were waving to you, but actually they weren’t and you are very embarrassed (not that this ever happens to me). Okay, but that’s just a small mistake and it’s easy to put that in a box and cordon it off. It’s not like I make big mistakes like forgetting whether I’m sitting or standing, or wearing pajamas to the office or whatever. But, worries are good at creeping in. So, you move to the dream hypothesis. “Sure, you don’t mess up by forgetting to wear clothes to the office, but sometimes you have nightmares where you forget to wear clothes to the office, and you can’t always tell when you’re dreaming.” Well now we’re really good and freaked out. And beyond that, if there were someone really powerful trying to deceive you, you’d probably be making mistakes all the time! The only way to be safe would be to refrain from believing anything.

What I hadn’t realized before starting to think about it just this week, is that the actual pattern of thinking that happens next is basically like textbook cognitive distortion of that not-such-a-big-deal mistake into catastrophic proportions, where you then allow your entire worldview to become consumed by hypothetical worries about fictional mistakes you have no actual reason to think you are making.

So, when I think back to how hard it was to actually get started on actually doing my video lectures for my online courses, it’s not that I thought an evil genius was determined to make my online course fail, just as the Meditator doesn’t believe at any point that there is an evil deceiver bent on tricking them about everything. For the Meditator, it is a cognitive exercise, to test the certainty of the beliefs they are depending on in order to determine what the foundations of science should be. But for me, it was this spiraled up anxiety about the ways everything could go wrong with my class this term.

Mr. Rogers, undermining the Cartesian method, but probably promoting better mental health.

It didn’t matter that I didn’t even have well defined worries about what would go wrong. It just mattered that the worry was there. And it didn’t matter that I didn’t believe the worry would happen. Like Descartes’s evil genius, this worry is so clever, it can get around its’ own non-existence. I’ve been focused on the issue of planning my class, because that’s something that I had to do, and which I froze up on for a while, and then was more stressed about doing than I wanted to be, as a result. But this is something that seems to happen to lots of people I know, with all sorts of things that we do in our lives.

And for me, while writing this essay, the part that was interesting (for me, at least) was noticing that the paralyzing worry didn’t need to be something you actually believed in. The process seems to be that just thinking about the possibility of some of these big worries really can freeze us up sometimes. And the solution to it doesn’t seem to be deciding that the worry is impossible. If this last seven months have taught me anything it is that I probably was far too confident about which things were certain to happen, and vastly undercounted which things were possible.

It feels like I should end with a note about how to defuse the paralyzing power of these lurking demons (fine I give, I’ll call them demons), since it’s not about convincing yourself they aren’t true (you don’t need to believe them for them to have power over you), or denying that they are possible (they might well be possible). But I don’t have that, really. In my case, it was the impending deadline that shook me free. I saw the start of the term looming and got myself to ignore the anxiety and worry that way. But, that’s not a general lesson. Deadlines are not a cure for anxiety. They aren’t even a reprieve. So, I don’t really have a conclusion to this essay worked out yet, but if I do, it’ll probably be a whole separate essay, rather than something I can just tack on here. I guess the main moral of this story is that preparing for this semester has really changed how I think and feel about the first meditation.

3. “Nursery Lies About Childbirth”

One of my earliest memories is from an episode of Sesame Street. Based on when the episode originally aired, it has to have been a re-run the time that I saw it. It’s the episode where Big Bird learns that Mr. Hooper died. The thing that strikes me about that episode, and strikes me again whenever I watch it, is that they don’t lie to Big Bird. The model they present is one where they take his fears and sadness seriously, but they are honest and genuine with Big Bird about this tragic event.

Big Bird’s Drawing of Mr. Hooper

This stands out to me, I think because adults lying to children about things is not really all that uncommon. We do it when situations are much less important, and the stakes are much lower. Sometimes the boundaries around whether it is a lie are a bit fuzzy (it can sometimes be unclear whether something is a game of mutual pretend, or whether the kids are at-least-sort-of-believing it). In my house growing up, we had the tooth fairy, but (being Jewish) not Santa, and, at least in pop culture, there are a lot of stork-based theories relayed to children about where babies come from (I don’t think I know of a single person who themselves heard a stork based theory, though).

Believe it or not, this picture is directly relevant to this very serious essay about early modern philosophy!

So, it also jumped out at me, when I was reading Leibniz’s New Essays Concerning Human Understanding and he referenced a popular German lie told to children about where babies come from (the title of this post comes from the post-index “List of Examples, Illustrations and Anecdotes”, which alternates between fairly boring and highly intriguing/evocative in its brief descriptions of the various examples, illustrations and anecdotes):

noise of waves” vs. “the infallibility of marble and wood”

THEO: Yet one time when a child was told that his new-born brother had been drawn from a well (which is how the Germans satisfy children who are curious about this matter), the child replied that he was surprised they did not throw the baby back into the same well when it troubled the mother by crying so much. The point is that the account gave him no explanation for the love the mother showed towards the baby. It can be said, then, that if someone does not know the foundation of a relation, their thoughts about it are partly of the kind I call muffled, and are also insufficient, even though they may suffice in some respects, and in some situations.

New Essays Concerning Human Understanding (254) — G.W. Leibniz

Okay, so, let’s back up to some context: Who is Leibniz, who is Theo? And why did Leibniz write a dialogue in which Theo is talking the downfall of this German method for avoiding difficult conversations with children? Also, why is the dialogue called “New Essays”? (I don’t actually have a great answer to that last question).

Lightning round answers to these questions: Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, was a German philosopher (who is sometimes better known as a mathematician). He wanted to correspond with everybody, but because he and Isaac Newton had some bad blood over the question of who invented calculus (answer: both of them), and because Newton was a pretty influential person in England, the story is that Newton more or less blacklisted Leibniz. One of the people that Leibniz wanted to talk to was John Locke. Locke, being best buddies with Newton, did not correspond with Leibniz (he may have had other reasons for not corresponding, but at any rate). But, Leibniz still wrote a book length running commentary on Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which he then converted into—very bad as dialogue, but good as philosophy—dialogue by having one character, Philalathes, just quote from Locke’s Essay a bunch, in order, and then have the other character, Theophilus just give Leibniz’s response to Locke’s Essay, more or less paragraph by paragraph. It wasn’t published during Leibniz’s life, because Locke died and Leibniz didn’t want to publish a book length criticism of the recently deceased. This doesn’t yet explain whey it is called “New Essays” but it does explain the “Human Understanding” part of the title. And, Philalethes (i.e. Locke) had just mentioned, in the preceding line of the dialogue, that if someone believes that kids are plucked out of a cabbage patch because they are growing under the cabbage, that isn’t any barrier to their understanding what it is for two people to be siblings.

PHIL: If I believed Sempronia took Titus from under a cabbage, (as they used to tell children,) and thereby became his mother; and that afterwards she had Caius in the same manner,…I had as clear a notion of the relation of brothers between them, as if I had all the skill of a midwife.

New Essays Concerning Human Understanding (254) — G.W. Leibniz (quoting from the Coste translation of Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding)

Locke’s point, in the Essay, is to distinguish between the relation itself, and the foundation of that relation. For instance, it seems, with this example, that he takes the relation of being brothers to just be sharing the same mother (this isn’t Locke taking a strong stand on which parent is more integral to siblinghood, by the way, he is a conventionalist about relations themselves, and the meanings of terms, generally). His point here is that knowing what it takes for two people to get into the situation of sharing the same mother isn’t required for being able to think thoughts like “Caius and Titus are brothers”. The midwife has a much better understanding than the cabbage patch theorist about what actually happens with childbirth, but Locke thinks, the cabbage patcher can still understand which people are siblings (I almost used the word “know” but we have to be cautious with using the word “know” around any of the early moderns, especially the empiricists).

Okay, so what’s Leibniz’s complaint?

Well, if you tell a kid that their sibling was plucked out of a well, and the sibling is getting on their nerves, they might suggest throwing the sibling back in the well. Leibniz’s diagnosis is that the kid doesn’t really understand their relationship (or their parents’) to the sibling, and that’s why they think “throw the kid away” is a live option.

It is super important to note that Leibniz, in classic Leibniz fashion, would be quick to point out that he isn’t actually full-on disagreeing with Locke. He’s not saying that the cabbage-patcher or drawn-from-a-well-theorist can’t form a thought like “those two are brothers”. Leibniz just wants to say there is something extremely limited or defective in the way they think about being siblings, and it is illustrated by the readiness with which the child will suggest getting rid of their annoying crying baby brother or sister.

Leibniz calls thoughts with these partially understood notions “blind” or “deaf/muffled” thoughts (he uses different terms depending on whether he makes the reference in Latin or French). Unlike Locke who has simply divided the issue into two questions:

(q1): What is it to be siblings? (a1): to share parents.

(q2): How does one become a parent? (a2): [the story of where babies come from]

Locke thinks competence with “sibling” just requires knowing the answer to Q1. Q2 isn’t really relevant. Leibniz thinks q1 and q2 are pretty obviously interrelated since the answer to Q1 mentions parents. But he doesn’t think you can’t have thoughts about siblings if you’re in the dark about Q2, he just thinks you’re having limited, inadequate thoughts. So if we had a dimmer switch to reflect how well you understand things, it wouldn’t be turned all the way up. Importantly, for Leibniz, there can be/are more than just two questions, and it all comes in degrees! It’s a much richer picture, but he still gets to say the minimal thing Locke gets (that the really confused person is thinking (in some way, at some times)) about siblings.

Note, by the way, that this is compatible with thinking that even people who haven’t been lied to are also having confused/limited thoughts about siblings. Their dimmer switches are turned up higher, just, you know, not all the way up. Maybe that explains things like Shel Silverstein’s “Sister For Sale” poem:

In this poem, a child wants to sell his sister, but we have no indication that he believes the sister was drawn from a well, or pulled out of a cabbage patch.

So when I go back and watch that very memorable Sesame Street clip, where Big Bird comes out and says “I’ll give it to him when he comes back” after having been told that Mr. Hooper died I think to myself, there is something to be said for Leibniz’s way of capturing this. Both Locke and Leibniz can say that Big Bird believes that Mr. Hooper died, because the adults told him this, but when we ask why he isn’t sad yet, Locke seems to only have mushed the bump on the carpet over a bit, and hasn’t really dealt with that (this is not fully fair to Locke, but I’m not trying to be fully fair to Locke, at the moment). Leibniz, on the other hand, seems to really capture the sense in which Big Bird is having a thought that is simultaneously about Mr. Hooper being dead, while also explaining why he isn’t yet sad, only confused. And as the adults explain to him more of what that means, he experiences sadness and fear, and is better able to understand their reactions as well as what has happened in the world.

This one turned out to be more of an Essay Concerning Understanding Big Birds, but if you’ve ever read The Wisdom of Big Bird (and the Dark Genius of Oscar the Grouch) ° Lessons from a Life in Feathers °, I think you’d agree that Big Bird is human enough to be a worthy subject of our attention. And if you haven’t, I recommend you read it!

2. Shouting Into the Void?

A definition from grade school that I learned and which has stuck with me was something like “a sentence is a group of words that express a complete thought.” This definition is a) perfectly serviceable for most grade schoolers, b) not so great if you want to capture how contemporary linguists and philosophers of language understand what makes something a sentence, and—most interesting to me—c) actually surprisingly workable if you adopt two specific early modern attitudes about mind and language. The first, which I won’t really discuss at length right now, is Rene Descartes‘s trick of using “thought” very broadly to refer to any type of mental activity. The second, which will be our focus, is John Locke‘s approach to thinking about the relationship between mind and language.

One of the works from which this blog takes its name is John Locke’s long, at times frustrating, but nevertheless interesting tome An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. It contains some very exciting and prescient thought experiments like “what if you were locked in a room with a person you liked?” as well as some over discussed ones like “what if what looks green to me looks yellow to you and vice versa?” and some extremely underexplored thought experiments like “what if light is the result of fairies playing tennis against your eyes?” (The main upshot of that last one is to learn that tennis is a much older sport than I’d realized).

The third book of his Essay concerns our use of words, and (more or less) set the stage for how British philosophers (and European philosophers more broadly) wound up treating the workings of language for the 17th and much of the 18th centuries.

John Locke’s big idea was that people are able to use “Sounds, as Signs of internal Conceptions; and to make them stand as marks for the Ideas within [their] own Mind[s], whereby they might be made known to others, and the Thoughts of Men’s Minds be conveyed from one to another.” (ECHU 3.1.2) Or, in other words, that when you speak, the words you say are displaying or advertising your ideas to others, because, in general, what’s going on in your mind is hidden from the rest of the world, so without words, there is no way to share it. It is sort of an incidental feature of this set up that we generate a way to talk about the world; a byproduct of the fact that many of the thoughts you wind up sharing with others are thoughts about the world. If we only ever verbalized our expressions of pain or emotional reactions, then, presumably, our languages wouldn’t contain a lot of descriptive, truth-oriented, world-focused content. I’ve written a bit about this elsewhere.

Central to this, though, and this is a big thing not only for Locke, but for many other early modern figures (though they have big disputes on how to make sense of the basic idea, as it often the case), is that we are fundamentally social beings. The reason we need this whole language apparatus for sharing our otherwise hidden thoughts with one another is that we were created “with an inclination, and under a necessity to have fellowship with those of his own kind” (ECHU 3.1.1). Language was thus given to us as “the great Instrument, and common Tye of Society” (ECHU 3.1.1).

Locke is buying into the Tower of Babel idea that, with a common language, we can form genuine social connections, and without a common language, not so much (hence, God, in the parable, punishing us with a “confusion of tongues” for our hubris).

Of course, there’s some comedy to the idea that the “tye” of society is a common language, if you watch how we interact with each other on, say, twitter or any social media (or if you prefer, thinking back to family gatherings at which politics are discussed). It would require a sort of supreme optimism to think that all that conflict is due to our failure to speak precisely the same language as each other.

“when there are disputes among persons, we can simply say: Let us calculate, without further ado, and see who is right” (The Art of Discovery, 1685) — GWF Leibniz

At any rate, a simple way to phrase Locke’s big idea, and one that makes it sound both obvious and hard to deny, is that language is principally about communication (you may think this would be hard to deny, and I think if you phrase it this way, very few people would disagree, but people can still lose sight of this fact when working out their theories about language).

I spend a lot of time thinking about this thesis of Locke’s (I say “of Locke’s” but, obviously, he’s not the first to have this idea: a common feature of virtually every idea we encounter in the modern period), and more so, not surprisingly, over the last several months, during which there’s been drastic alterations to the ways I socially relate to every single person in my life, and corresponding shifts to how I have been communicating with them. From big things like not getting to go visit my new niece in person, because travel between where she lives and where I live stopped happening, to smaller things like changes in the frequency with which I video chat or phone call relatives (or how often I am invited to participate in video chat based birthday parties for family members).

I’m not an expert on mental health, but, it was not surprising to me (or, really, to anyone) when mental health experts started telling/warning us all about the strains that social isolation would start to take on us after even a short period of lock-down. Even most people who are accustomed to fairly introverted lifestyles are still used to periodically meeting up with a friend, or going out to the store/for a bite to eat real quick (or perhaps just having the option to do so).

On balance, these considerations are prima facie bad for Locke’s Big Picture. Locke says that we can still be fundamentally socially connected with each other, because we can still express our thoughts to each other (we even have video chat!) so, the basic ‘tye’ and instrument of social connection is in tact. Now, this is unfair to Locke because he didn’t say “the great instrument and social tye, and also there’s nothing else important to the well functioning of society” but, I think the difficulties we’ve all felt communicating with each other over the past several months, the fact that we get zoom fatigued, and so on, do mean that (as with basically any part of Locke’s picture), we’d need to update it and add nuance in light of our better understanding of the mechanisms involved. Just hearing the articulate sounds or seeing the words and recognizing that they stand for ideas in the mind of another person is not sufficient for the purpose Locke identified (or else, the lockdowns would not feel so isolating or lonely for us, I don’t think).

Today—apart from working on this blog post—I have work to do planning and prepping my classes. I really enjoy teaching, and the different classes I teach typically have very different feels to them. My intro to philosophy course is a large lecture-based class. I stand in the front of a 120 or more person room, and I get to try and spread my enthusiasm for philosophy to undergraduates, many of whom are taking the course to fulfill a requirement. My early modern philosophy course used to be small enough for a straight-forward discussion-based approach, but it is routinely over 40 students now, so it’s a bit too big for that (while still feeling too small for powerpoint slides and straight lecture, so I run it as more of a mixture). Both of these classes are going to be drastically different experiences this term. And I’ve been thinking a lot about how to design them so that they are still engaging to students, and still get the course content covered that I want to get covered.

Normally, in the classroom, when I talk to the students, I say things, I see their faces, and, at least on a good day, it feels like a meeting of the minds. Now, I could be wrong. Maybe that’s just optimism on my part. But it feels like I’m expressing what I’m thinking and it feels like they are picking up on what I’m putting down, and their homework, quizzes and test scores are good enough (give or take the folks who don’t show up, etc.) that it seems to be something that does happen at least some of the time. And that part is going to be missing this term.

I didn’t intend this post to be about teaching in particular—I actually thought I was going to wind up having a lot to say about the Lockean thesis and people engaging in intractable social media conflicts—but I am, usually, around this point of the summer, starting to look forward to stepping in front of a room full of students where I will be able to see whether I’ve managed to get them excited about philosophy.

But this isn’t just about my job not being as much fun; this is about Locke’s claim about our fundamentally social nature, and the role of language in permitting us to exercise our social selves. Clearly language isn’t sufficient (or, rather, language via zoom isn’t sufficient, or, rather, at the very, very, least just the use of language via zoom, without us adapting to the new zoom paradigm isn’t sufficient), but it is, super plausibly, necessary. Imagining these last months without the lifeline that is phone/social media/video chat, is a nightmare, no matter how much zoom fatigue I acquired. Imagining the fall without remote teaching would also be a nightmare, no matter how much I dread completing my course redesigns.

And since I can’t figure out where this rumination falls on the optimism to pessimism scale, I’ll just end with the quoting the poem that it keeps reminding me of, Donne’s “No Man is an Island”

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

No Man is an Island, John Donne

1. Persuading a Tree It Wants to be a Boat

Like many pet owners, I frequently talk to my dog, in a language she doesn’t understand, offering reasons she cannot appreciate, to try to get her to behave in ways that may or may not benefit her, but certainly would benefit me.

“Scully,” I say, “can you please just wait quietly for like ten minutes, until this episode is over, and then we’ll go for a walk?” My pleas are about as successful as you’d imagine they would be.

an impatient dog

A few hundred years before I adopted a dog who ignores my attempts at reason, there was a prolific and impressive philosopher named Margaret Cavendish, whose writing spanned a number of different genres: essays, treatises, plays, fiction, poetry. Around seven years ago during a talk by Deborah Boyle, I learned about one of my now-favorite poems, which I usually tell people about by calling it “a reverse Giving Tree“. It is a poem consisting of a conversation between an oak tree and a man cutting the oak tree down, fittingly titled: “A Dialogue between an Oake, and a Man cutting him downe

Man:

But here, Poore Oake, thou liv’st in Ignorance,

And never seek’st thy Knowledge to advance.

I’le cut the downe, ’cause Knowledge thou maist gaine,

Shalt be a Ship, to traffick on the Maine

Dialogue between an Oake, and a Man cutting him downe.

The poem begins with the tree asking, more or less, “hey, what’s the big idea, you chopping at me with that axe?” and then ultimately, consists of the man repeatedly attempting to sell the tree on the upside of being chopped down and converted to lumber, over the trees stable, unwavering, fairly straightforward and clear avowals that it, in fact, prefers not to be lumber.

When I heard about this poem, it quickly fell into the category of things I just couldn’t shut up about. I looked it up, I posted about it on my facebook page, I still use the flimsiest pretexts to bring it up. It’s a very gripping idea, to me. So much so that I usually focus entirely on the part where the tree is explaining how silly the “but wouldn’t you love to be a boat” pitch is, and don’t really attend to the end of the poem, where Cavendish tries to articulate some sort of summary statement about humans and what makes us unique.

There’s a lot of obvious stuff going on in the poem, even if you don’t have much background on Cavendish or the time period. The tree is making the case for the utility of the nature without industry/artifice, i.e. nature as it is (provides shade, fruit, etc.), while the man is trying to make the case for the improvements possible with ingenuity and labor (build a boat, see the world). The anthropomorphic twist, where the sales pitches are being made either to the tree or by the tree adds a dimension to it beyond just “is nature better as it is, or can we improve it”, by drawing our focus away from assuming the value has to be value for us. And knowing a bit about Cavendish (like her criticisms of sort of progress being pursued by the esteemed scientists of her day) or thinking about how it relates to the historical context, can certainly enrich or deepen our understanding of what’s going on.

But the close of the poem has the oak claim the advantage of contentment (something that was considered to be what we might call the “victory condition” in a variety of classical ethical theories: your goal was to attain a stable sort of contentment), and this is conceded by the man. The rest of creation gets to be content, because, being merely sensory beings, they lack the (divine) ambition of curiosity. As I am reading the last exchange with the oak, Cavendish seems to be suggesting, through the man’s closing dialogue, that our rational minds are discontented because we seek to fully understand nature, which is a, more or less, insurmountable task. Our rational minds will not rest until we understand things completely, like gods, but since this is impossible, we are, basically, fundamentally, built to be discontent inquirers.

0. Epistle to the Reader

Dear Reader,

In the modern period, it was customary to commence a work with a letter to the reader, apologizing for the text they are about to read, and explaining the aims and purposes of writing it in the first place. This was convenient, because you got to say that your work wouldn’t be very good, before anyone else complained about it, letting yourself off the hook, and then also telling people why you were bothering with it. Since introductory posts are still a useful concept, the conceit of an epistle to the reader seemed like a good one to take advantage of here, and I also want to let myself off the hook in case this blog turns out turns out not to be very good.

This blog may not turn out to be very good. I am pretty sure the idea for the blog is a good one. The idea is to look at what modern philosophers had to say about human nature, and see if we can glean any good insights about human nature from it. However, if I had to pick the single greatest insight from modern western European philosophy (not that it is exclusive to modern philosophy, because this insight is present in classical Greek philosophy, Indian Buddhist philosophy, medieval European philosophy, Arabic philosophy, and so on), it is that there can be a shockingly large gap between ideas and reality. Anyway, my point is, in standard Epistle to the Reader style, I need to pre-apologize that what you will read in the blog posts that I write may not be worth the time I spend writing them, or the time you spend reading them, because as great as this idea is, maybe I won’t do a great job at it.

So, the purpose of this blog is for me to explore modern philosophy texts that touch on various aspects of the question “what exactly is ‘the deal’ with humans?” (not a direct quote), and see if I can make any sense of what they are saying, and see whether what they are saying makes any sense.

I don’t exactly know how this is going to go, because I don’t have a plan—or rather, I have Napoleon’s plan—and the whole idea for the blog came to me when I tweeted a joke about how an angry teen might reverse the words in the name of an early modern text while yelling at their modern philosophy parents (“maybe you should try to write an essay concerning UNDERSTANDING HUMANS, JEEZ”), but regardless of how we got here, I do think the idea is worth pursuing.

Apart from “in order to be sort of pretentious”, you might ask “why is this introductory post written up as a letter, and labeled as an Epistle?” That’s because the other thing that I think about a lot with modern philosophy is genre. One of the things that happens, if you spend a lot of time reading—and especially teaching—modern philosophy, is that you think much more about the genre in which things are written than when you read mostly contemporary philosophical writing. Contemporary philosophical writing has a really nice virtue of the authors (mostly) saying what they want to argue, as much as possible, in a more or less straightforward way, and laying out the argument (hopefully), as clearly as they can. Before the journal article and academic monograph came to fully dominate the way philosophy was done, there were so, so many different genres of philosophical writing. Not just essays and treatises which are (more or less) forerunners to what we do now, but dialogues, meditations, the epistolary form, actual correspondence, pensées (not sure if that’s a full genre or if Pascal was just foreshadowing tweetstorms), the geometric method, plays, poems, novels and (probably) more.

I don’t have anything particularly insightful to say about what the specific trade-offs are in terms of what we lost or gained in narrowing the range of genres in which we tend to write; other than that there were definite gains in clarity by shifting to generally always writing in the assertoric mode. But, since we don’t deliberate about which genre to write in ourselves, we aren’t especially keyed in to how to read the different genres, and especially not how they functioned in that period, so we’re apt to miss a lot of stuff that would have been patently obvious to the folks at the time, simply because we don’t think of plays or poems as instances of philosophy any more.

Every single year when I teach the correspondence between Descartes and Princess Elisabeth, students ask whether the two of them were flirting, because of how the start of each letter has them tripping over themselves with “I’m not worthy to talk to you” and “you’re so smart I must have been too stupid to understand what you were saying” and “I was so sad I didn’t get a chance to see you in person when you were in town but if I had seen you in person I would have been too embarrassed to speak” type remarks (these are not exact quotes). This is especially heightened given the contrast with Descartes’s very hostile responses to some of the objectors in the Objections and Replies to the Meditations.

Is this way of writing a sign of actual warmth of feeling between them, or is that just how people wrote letters back then? The contrast with the Objections and Replies doesn’t seem like the best evidence one way or the other, since the objections and replies were definitively a public performance for defending the meditations from criticism. Sometimes correspondence was intended to be public when it was written, but the correspondence with Elisabeth wasn’t when it was written.

Every so often when I am starting an email or a letter with “dear”, I’m reminded that, taken literally, doing so means that I am addressing the recipient as dear to me. But I start emails to near strangers with “Dear [so-and-so]”. It’s so formulaic that people basically never even notice that they’ve been told they are dear to me, when I do so. And some letter writing conventions were so formulaically adhered to in the past, that people maintained obsequious sign-offs in their letters to each other, even when negotiating the details of how to attempt to kill each other. So that certainly could change some aspects of how we read the opening passages of the letters in the Elisabeth-Descartes correspondence. My point isn’t to settle the subtext of the Descartes-Elisaebeth correspondence here, but just to point out (as I do for my students) that I spend a lot of time trying to figure out what sort of phrasing acrobatics are required in order to neutrally email my co-workers asking them if they will read a paper and give me feedback, so it is hard to imagine there wouldn’t be analogous sorts of dynamics for the two of them.

I’ve been rambling about genre a lot because the first essay (concerning understanding) humans that I’m posting concerns a poem by Margaret Cavendish. And I’m not an expert on interpreting poetry. I may very well drop the ball with my interpretation of what Cavendish is trying to say with the poem. But I’m going to try!

Regards, Your Most Sincere and Grateful

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