Social Science?

The social sciences began as an attempt to apply the procedures of the hard sciences — in particular the use of empirical evidence coupled with mathematics — to a study of human behavior. Today it includes such academic disciplines as psychology, sociology, anthropology, and, at times, even history — though the latter sits on the fence between social science and the humanities, depending on how heavily historians lean on mathematics. The mathematics of choice is statistics and probability theory and the technique usually involves studies of individuals or groups and their behaviors, though behavioral psychologists have shown a remarkable affection for the study of rats. I have left many holes in this brief overview and my hope is that my friend Jerry Stark will fill some of them in as I am once again venturing outside my area of expertise.

But in venturing outside I resemble in important respects the work of the Australian sociologist John Carroll, to whom I have referred a number of times. Carroll seems to be venturing outside his area of expertise to the point that his brothers and sisters within the walls of sociology may well refuse to accept his credentials. I say this despite the fact that he holds two positions at present: at La Trobe University in Melbourne and as a Fellow of the Center for Cultural Sociology at Yale University. The reason I suspect that his credentials might be rejected (despite his lofty positions) is because he relies less on the methods of sociology as traditionally understood and more on the careful reading of the great works of the Western World. This is why I like him and find myself nodding in agreement as I read him, I suppose. We share the belief that we can turn to the novelists, poets, and philosophers to find out important things about our fellow human beings.

Carroll especially prefers such thinkers as Sophocles, Aeschylus, Kafka, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Jane Austen, and Rilke. He refers to them time and again in his book Guilt, to which I have referred in previous blog posts. He is particularly enamored of Kafka — especially in that author’s take on the current human condition, rife with guilt and unable to find peace. Carroll has developed a notion of what he calls “dispositional guilt” that he is convinced we are all born with — like original sin, if you will. It differs from moral guilt which can be eleviated by confession and remission in the form of good works and genuine remorse. Dispositional guilt, on the other hand, is something we are born with and which we simply cannot shake off. It’s with us always — in different degrees.

His book is an attempt to trace the history of guilt from very early times to the present — which would be 1985 when he wrote the book. And while I marvel at his observations and careful readings of the authors he takes up (even including a brief story by Kafka about a mouse who sings to her fellow mice to keep them calm) I cannot accept his conclusions about dispositional guilt. Outside the readings Carroll refers to I simply do not see a people wallowing in a sense of guilt they cannot shake off. I see, rather, folks filled with feelings of fear, anxiety, depression, occasional joy, and even tendencies toward violence — as I have noted in previous posts. A lively conscience is rare, especially a guilty conscience.

In saying this, I tend to agree when Carroll turns to contemporary times, times of “Matricidal Guilt,” as he sees it. Of these times, we are told that

“There are any least six main strands in modern culture that appeal directly to the value of oral remission [characteristic of matricidal guilt].”

These six strands include Consumerism; the Welfare State; Indulgent parenting and schooling; Nature, Community, Creativity, and Feeling; image and celebrity; and fear of poisoning. I shan’t take you through each of these, you will be happy to know, but I must mention that under the topic of consumerism he notes that “Consumerism operates on one very simple principle: if you feel bad, eat!”  What can one say? One must bear with Carroll, because, despite the fact that his reasoning at times seems off the mark, he strikes chords of brilliance and much of his analysis — be it in accordance with standard sociological procedures or not — is spot on. Take, for example, his analysis of “indulgent parenting and schooling,” a topic near to my heart:

“The dominant reformist strain in modern child-rearing and educational theory has been that of pure indulgence. Do away with punishment and repression; let the child’s innate goodness and creativity flourish. The ideology’s founding father was Rousseau [whose mother died soon after he was born], and it is consistent with his own need to restore the lost maternal paradise. In effect weaning is to be abolished. Parents are not to say No: in reality what they do is take to bribing their children to keep peace, offering a constant supply of biscuits and sweets. Here is the basic lesson for the child in being educated into the consumer society. Advertising psychology is followed: to offer the right product will get you anything — the consumer version of everyone having his price. And of course children have their price, but they do not get what they need, love that constrains as it encourages. Similarly teachers are not to say No, but rather worship at the feet of the child’s potentiality.”

Now, whether or not one agrees with everything Carroll says — or whether one wants to take him to task for leaning more on classics of literature and philosophy than he does the latest study in a professional journal — he is interesting, insightful, and provocative. And what he says almost always has the ring of truth, as when he says that what children need is “love that constrains as it encourages.” The constraint is missing because of the replacement of patricidal and what he calls “civilized” guilt with a matricidal guilt. In a word, authority is not a bad thing — in moderation — and our culture has erred in the direction of far too much permissiveness.

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Wisdom

I mentioned a couple of years ago that Franny in J.D. Salinger’s delightful novel Franny and Zooey decided to drop out of college because, she said, “no one there talks about wisdom.” T.S. Elliot famously asked “Where is the wisdom we have lost with knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” Both of these comments deserve further comment.

As a philosopher who has devoted his life to helping young minds grow, a “philo-sopher,” a “lover of wisdom,” I have often asked myself the same questions. In my field, I have found members of my profession lost in a cloud of jargon searching for the “philosopher’s stone,” the key to understanding the mysteries of the universe. This, in my experience, has translated itself into a bunch of academic introverts weaving themselves into a tangled web of abstruse verbiage splitting hairs with a wicked grin on their collective faces, playing one-up to see who is the cleverest.  One of my professors at Northwestern suggested that if I wanted to succeed in my profession I should find an obscure topic no one knows anything about and write journal articles about it. As Franny asked, what became of wisdom?

This question lead me back to the classics, which I have quoted of late in these posts, writers such as Euripides and Sophocles, who seem to have a better grasp of what it means to be wise. Socrates, reputed to be the wisest man in Athens, insisted that his wisdom (if such it be) consisted in the fact that he knew that he did not know. That is, he did not presume to know things about which he was ignorant — unlike our president-elect who presumes to know more than 97% of the world’s entire scientific community, or anyone else for that matter.

Some distinctions are in order. Wisdom is not about knowledge and it’s not about information. We have both in abundance. We also confuse information with education when we say things such as “she needs to be educated about child-rearing.” No, she needs to be informed about child-rearing. Education is what transforms information into knowledge. Knowledge coupled with experience and common sense may then become wisdom. It depends on many variables, and some have insisted that the experience must involve some degree of suffering. I suspect this is true. In any event, wisdom requires a certain amount of information and a certain amount of knowledge as well. But above all else it requires a sense of how to apply that knowledge and how to weed out the misinformation from the information — a growing problem with bogus news on the Internet, the Fox News channel, and our increasing tendency to reduce all truth to gut feelings.

I would suggest that wisdom is the knowledge of what is appropriate in a particular situation, what the situation calls for. It comes very close to what we loosely call “common sense.” And in my experience, women seem to have more of it than men. It is a wise person who knows what to do and when to do it. A large part of this comes with the skill of critical thinking, which can be taught — and which all college professors of all stripes insist they are teaching (though most are not). We cringe at the word “critical,” because we have been told not to be “judgmental” and criticism is a form of judgment. This, of course, is absurd. Judgment is what separates the wise from the unwise. And criticism allows us to wade through the tons of information and misinformation thrown at its each day and separate out those few items that are worth careful consideration. Education, above all else, involves the development of critical sensibility, the ability to grasp what is essential and important and reject nonsense and blatant falsehood.

Education, therefore, ought to be about wisdom, teaching the skills that allow us to use our minds critically and glean important information from the dreck that surrounds us — and how to apply that information. Too often it is about information, per se, teachings kids the skills they will need to get a job or filling their minds with the information their teachers and professors have decided is important for them to know. The ability to winnow the information ought to be the skill that is taught and we can then hope that the young person will be lucky enough to wed that to a bit of common sense — which I suspect we are born with. Or not. But, in any event, wisdom ought to be discussed in our colleges and universities.

I do believe it can best be discovered by reading the words written by wise men and women who have experience of the world, who know what is appropriate in any circumstance and who have a wealth of common sense. And who write well.

Play The Hand!

“The fortunes that the gods give to us men

we must bear under necessity.

But men that cling willfully to their sufferings

. . . no one may forgive nor pity.”

(Sophocles: “Philoctetes”)

 

I am about to stop reading Facebook. Honestly! There are many reasons, but the main one is that so many contributors find it necessary to pull scabs off sores, refusing to allow time for healing. There is a surplus of weeping and gnashing of teeth about the new president-elect and everyone has an opinion about what will almost certainly happen once the man takes office, watching his every move while feeling it necessary to comment ad nauseam. And one person’s prediction is more dire than the next. If we could see these people we would expect to see them rolling around in the dirt tearing out their hair!

Can we all agree that this man is a wanker, as our friends across the Pond would say? He should never have been elected and he will turn government into a circus where he takes center ring demanding all the attention. In the end, it is my sincere hope, he will be impeached by a Congress that becomes sick and tired of his shenanigans, his thin skin and his vulgarity. But this is all speculation and it is time to stop speculating and accept the fact that the next four years are going to be difficult for us all, a real test of our fortitude and even our courage.

I find some solace in the fact that, historically, people have risen to the occasion. Challenges and problems tend to bring out the best in people. One of the greatest political documents ever written, the U.S. Constitution, was written by a handful of men while under the sword of the most powerful nation on earth. Most of the great art, literature, and music has been created during periods of great stress and even suffering on the part of the artist, writer, or composer. Dante, for example, wrote the Divine Comedy after being ostracized from Florence and separated for years from his family. Human beings have shown themselves to be incredibly resilient and creative during times of stress. We can hope that this will once again be the case.

Heaven knows Americans are a spoiled and self-indulgent people and we have needed a wake-up call for some time now. The ancient Greeks (sorry to bring them up again, but there were many wise people among them) together with great thinkers such as Dostoevsky were convinced that suffering brings with it wisdom, a deeper understanding and sympathy for other people and a greater appreciation for the gifts we usually take for granted; given the self-absorption of the American people this must be regarded as a good thing. We are facing a struggle like none other we have faced in several lifetimes. We can only hope that we will pull our collective head out of our collective butt and face up to the fact that the situation demands that we start to pay attention to what is going on around us, while not going on endlessly about what a terrible hand we have been dealt.

This means making every effort to effect change where we can have a positive impact and accepting as unpleasant, but inevitable, those things we have no control over. The important thing is to know the difference and to stop whining about the pair of deuces we have been dealt in what has become a high-stakes poker game.

Moira

When Oedipus killed his father and married his mother, the Greeks witnessing the event on the stage as depicted by Sophocles knew that there would be retribution. The act of marrying his mother is, as we would say, “unnatural.” In the Greek view it was a violation of what they called “Moira.” Since Oedipus was a great king, his actions resulted in cosmic imbalance (that’s right, cosmic imbalance). Things had to be set right. So while the folks sitting in the theater were horrified by what Oedipus did, they were even more concerned about how he would be punished — because he most assuredly would be punished. It was essential that the cosmic balance be restored and the only way that could possibly happen was if Oedipus were punished. It mattered not that he didn’t know his father was the man he killed on the road and the woman he subsequently married was his mother. It didn’t even matter that he fathered children by her. What mattered was that he committed a terrible wrong and it had to be set right.

Fundamentally the same notion of restoring cosmic harmony can be found in a number of Eastern religions in the notion of “karma.” It can be found in such religions as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Taoism, Shintoism, and Ching Hai, among others. It is a common thread running through both Eastern and Western thought for many hundreds of years. We still hear today the trite notion the “what goes around comes around.” As it happens, this is a faint echo of the deep-seated notion that wrongs will inevitably be punished.

For the Greeks, of course, the wrong resulted from hubris, excessive pride — not pride, per se, but excessive pride. A certain amount of pride was expected of a Greek: after all, he was a Greek and not a barbarian! But excessive pride was the essence of tragedy for the Greeks and it could be exhibited by an entire city and the results would be the same: the wrong must be set right to restore cosmic balance. Thucydides wrote a history of the war between Sparta and Athens which was lost by Athens, a tragedy according to the historian brought about as a result of excessive arrogance and pride on the part of the Athenian leaders resulting in a series of tactical blunders. Oedipus, of course, exhibited hubris because he ignored oracular warnings and arrogantly proceeded as though he were in control of his own destiny. No one is in control of his destiny, according to the ancients, not even the most powerful of men and women. Not even the gods: Moira was beyond even them.

We, of course, know better (!) We are certain that we are free and control our own destiny. And despite our lip service to karma, we don’t really take seriously the notion that wrongs will be punished — not by the courts, not by the gods, or even by powers beyond the gods, as the Greeks saw it. We know better.

Or do we? We might take a page from these ancient books of wisdom and think about hubris. There can be no question that as a nation we are arrogant and suffer from excessive (unwarranted) pride. We insist that we know how others should live their lives. And if they choose not to live the way we think they should, we feel justified in sending drones deep into their world, or fighter planes with powerful weapons designed to “take out” the enemy (and numberless innocent people cataloged as “collateral damage”). Further, in the name of “jobs” we continue to assault the earth and insist that she bend to our will and yield up all her treasure. Time will tell whether jobs are more important than stewardship of the earth, or whether we are right and everyone else is wrong — or whether the ancients were right all along and at some point cosmic balance must be restored.