The Psychology and Philosophy of Imagination

Einstein held that imagination is more important than knowledge: “Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”

I define imagination as the faculty of the mind that forms and manipulates images, propositions, concepts, emotions, and sensations above and beyond, and sometimes independently of, incoming stimuli, to open up the realms of the abstract, the figurative, the possible, the hypothetical, and the universal.

Imagination comes in many forms and by many degrees, ranging from scientific reasoning to musical appreciation, and overlaps with a number of other cognitive constructs including belief, desire, emotion, memory, supposition, and fantasy. Belief, like perception, aims at according with reality, while desire aims at altering reality. Emotion also aims at according with reality, but more particularly at reflecting the significance of its object, or class of object, for the subject—an aspect that it shares with many forms of imagination. Like imagination, memory can involve remote imagery. But unlike imagination, it is rooted in reality and serves primarily to frame belief and guide action. Memories are often more vivid than imaginings, which are, in turn, more vivid than suppositions. Suppositions tend to be cold and cognitive, and lacking in the emotional and existential dimensions of imagination. Finally, fantasy may be understood as a subtype of imagination, namely, imagination for the improbable.

I say the improbable rather than the impossible, because there is a theory that, just as perception justifies beliefs about actuality, so imagination justifies beliefs about possibility (or at least, metaphysical as opposed to natural possibility). To quote Hume, ‘It is an established maxim in metaphysics, that whatever the mind clearly conceives, includes the idea of possible existence, or in other words, that nothing we imagine is absolutely impossible.’ Could ghosts, the devil, time travel etc. really be possible? I think inconceivability may be a better guide to impossibility than conceivability to possibility. But what does it mean for something to be conceivable or inconceivable, and by whom?

It has to be said that, until very recently, most human societies did not mark a strict divide between imagination and belief, or fiction and reality, with each one informing and enriching the other. In fact, it could be argued that, in many important respects, the fiction primed over the reality—and even that this has been, and perhaps still is, one of the hallmarks of our species. Today, there are pills for people who confuse imaginings and beliefs, but back then no one ever thought that life, with its much harder hardships, might be meaningless—which I think tells us quite a bit about imagination and its uses, and also about mental illness.

The uses of imagination are many, more than I can enumerate. Most children begin to develop pretend play at around 15 months of age. What are children doing when they pretend play? And why are they so absorbed in works of imagination? When I was seven years old, I would devour book after book, and plead with my parents for those not already on the shelves. By playing out scenarios and stretching themselves beyond their limited experience, children seek to make sense of the world and to find their place within it. This meaning-making is joyful and exciting, and has an echo in every act of creation.

When we look at the Mona Lisa, we see much more than just the brushstrokes. In fact, we barely see the brushstrokes at all. In imagination as in our dreams, we ascribe form, pattern, and significance to things, and then reflect them back onto those things. Without this work of interpreting and assimilating, the world would be no more than an endless stream of sense impressions, as it might sometimes seem to those who lack imagination, with no hope of escape or reprieve.

More than that, by imagination we are able to complete the world, or our world, by conjuring up the missing parts, and even to inhabit entirely other worlds such as Middle-earth or the Seven Kingdoms. Imagination remains highly active throughout adulthood, and what is chick lit or even pornography if not an aid to the adult imagination? In one year (2017), Pornhub recorded 28.5 billion visits, equivalent to about four times the world population—and that’s just on the one site.

If imagination enables us to feel at home in the world, it also enables us to do things in the world. Science progresses by hypothesis, which is a product of imagination, and philosophy makes frequent use of thought experiments such as the brain in the vat, the trolley problem, and up to Plato’s Republic. Imagination makes knowledge applicable by forming associations and connections. It opens up possibilities, and guides decision-making by playing out those possibilities. So many of our failures, and some of our successes, are in fact failures of the imagination.

Imagination also enables us to talk to one another, understand one another, and work together. Without it, there could be no metaphor, no irony, no humor, no past or future tense, and no conditional. Indeed, there could be no language at all, for what are words if not symbols and representations? By imagination, we can put ourselves in other people’s shoes, think what they think, and feel what they feel. Problems in autism, which can be interpreted as a disorder of imagination, include abnormalities in patterns of communication, impairments in social interactions, and a restricted repertoire of behaviors, interests, and activities.

I’m lucky to have received a decent education, but one thing it didn’t do is cultivate my imagination. In recent years, I’ve been trying to recover the bright and vivid imagination that I left behind in childhood.

I’ve been doing just three things, all of them very simple—or, at least, very simple to explain.

  • Being aware of the importance of imagination.
  • Making time for sleep and idleness.
  • Taking inspiration from nature.

I’ll conclude with these few words from William Blake, which hint at the significance of the natural world and the transcending power of imagination,

The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity… and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself.


The Psychology and Philosophy of Intuition

At a wine bar in Corsica, I ordered a glass and shared some low-key wine talk with the chap who brought it to me. After some time, I ordered another glass, and we spoke again. I like testing my intuitions, so I said, at point blank, “You’ve written poetry, haven’t you?” The chap turned out to be a published poet.

‘Intuition’ derives from the Latin tuere, ‘to look at, watch over’, and is related to ‘tutor and ‘tuition’ and perhaps also to the Sanskrit tavas, ‘strong, powerful’. Broadly speaking, an intuition is a disposition to believe evolved without hard evidence or conscious deliberation. I say ‘disposition to believe’ rather than ‘belief’ because an intuition is usually held with less certainty or firmness than a belief; and ‘believe’ rather than ‘know’ because an intuition is not justified in the normal sense, and not necessarily true or accurate.

Intuition is often confused with instinct. Instinct is not a feeling about something, but a tendency towards a particular behavior that is innate and common to the species. “Karen stepped back, intuiting that the dog would follow its instinct and bite.” Although instincts tend to be associated with animals, human beings also have quite a few, even if they are, or can be, strongly modified by culture, temperament, and experience. Examples of human instincts include any number of phobias, territoriality, tribal loyalty, and the urge to procreate and rear their young. These instincts are often disguised or sublimed, for example, tribal loyalty may find an outlet in sport, and the urge to procreate may take the more rarefied form of love. Aristotle says in the Rhetoric that human beings have an instinct for truth, and in the Poetics that they have an instinct for rhythm and harmony.

If intuition is not instinct, how does it operate? An intuition involves a coming together of facts, concepts, experiences, thoughts, and feelings that are loosely linked but too profuse, disparate, and peripheral for deliberate or rational processing. As this process is sub- or semi-conscious and the workings are hidden, an intuition appears suddenly and unexpectedly, and cannot, or at least not immediately or easily, be justified. But what makes an intuition especially hard to support is that it is founded not so much on arguments and evidence as on the interconnectedness of things. It hangs, delicately and invisibly, like the web of a spider. The surfacing of an intuition, which can also occur in dream or meditation, is usually associated with a concordant feeling such as joy or dread, or simple pleasure at the high cognitive and human achievement that an intuition represents.

If this is how intuition works, then we can encourage intuition by expanding the number and range of our experiences, and by tearing down the psychological barriers, such as fears and taboos, that are preventing them from coalescing. We should also give ourselves more time and space for free association: my own intuitive faculty is sharpest when showering, traveling, or dreaming, and when I am well rested. Finally, it would help if we actually believed in our ability to form intuitions. We have micro-intuitions all the time, about what to eat for breakfast, what to wear, what road to take, whom to talk to, what to say, how to respond, and so on. I call them micro-intuitions because they depend on a large number of subtle variables, and escape, or largely escape, conscious processing. But what about the macro-intuitions? Never in the history of humanity has the intuitive faculty been more neglected or devalued than in our rational-scientific age.

As a writer, some of what I consider to be my best lines are intuitions, and work by prompting similar open-ended associations in the reader (you can read some of them on my website).

Similarly, in Zen practice, a kōan is a paradox or riddle that encourages the apprentice to connect the dots by subverting the rational and egotistic mind.

One day, a monk said to Joshu, “Master, I have just entered the monastery. Please give me instructions.”

Joshu replied, “Have you had your breakfast?”

“Yes, I have.”

“Then wash your bowls.”

The monk understood something.

Before reading on, try to work it out for yourself. You will have to shift gears, or pass into neutral.

The monk may have understood that life is to be found in all of life; that life, at all times, is right in front of us, simply waiting to be lived. Suddenly it seems so obvious, but it’s not something that the rational, task-driven mind either grasps or remembers.

Socrates is often held up as a paradigm of reason and philosophy. Yet, he seldom claimed any real knowledge. All he had, he said, was a daimonion or ‘divine something’, an inner voice or sense that prevented him from making grave mistakes such as getting involved in politics or escaping Athens. “This is the voice which I seem to hear murmuring in my ears, like the sound of the flute in the ears of the mystic.” In the Phaedrus, he goes so far as to say:

Madness, provided it comes as the gift of heaven, is the channel by which we receive the greatest blessings… the men of old who gave things their names saw no disgrace or reproach in madness; otherwise they would not have connected it with the name of the noblest of arts, the art of discerning the future, and called it the manic art… So according to the evidence provided by our ancestors, madness is a nobler thing than sober sense… madness comes from God, whereas sober sense is merely human.

In the Meno, which features Meno in conversation with Socrates, Plato explores the nature of intuition. At one point, Meno confesses that he is unable to define virtue, even though he has delivered many speeches on the subject. He compares Socrates to the flat torpedo fish, which torpifies or numbs all those who come near it. “And I think that you are very wise in not leaving Athens, for if you did in other places as you do here, you would be cast into prison as a magician.” Socrates, the paradigm of reason and philosophy, is the very embodiment of a kōan.

Meno asks Socrates how he will look for virtue if he does not know what it is.

And how will you enquire, Socrates, into that which you do not know? What will you put forth as the subject of enquiry? And if you find what you want, how will you ever know that this is the thing which you did not know?

Socrates says that he has heard from certain wise men and women ‘who spoke of things divine’ that the soul is immortal, has been born often, and has seen all things on earth and below. Since the soul already knows everything, ‘learning’ consists merely in recollecting that which is already known. Socrates traces a square in the dirt and asks one of Meno’s slave boys a series of questions that lead the uneducated boy, effectively, to derive Pythagoras’ theorem. Socrates claims to have proven that the boy found this knowledge not through teaching, but through recollection.

Reason is not the only road to knowledge. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that the types of disposition (hexis) by which the soul can arrive at truth are five in number: (1) scientific knowledge (episteme), which arrives at necessary and eternal truths by deduction and induction; (2) art or technical skills (techne), which is a rational capacity to make; (3) practical wisdom (phronesis), which is a rational capacity to secure the good life, and includes the political art; (4) intuition (nous), which apprehends the first principles or unarticulated truths from which scientific knowledge is derived; and (5) philosophic wisdom (sophia), which is scientific knowledge combined with intuition of the things that are highest by nature.

What is interesting in Aristotle’s schema is that scientific knowledge (and reason more broadly) is not independent of intuition. Rather, it is intuition that makes scientific knowledge possible. Centuries later, Locke made a similar point in contrasting intuition and demonstration: demonstration requires conscious steps, but each step is or should be intuitive. At the very least, intuition underpins the reasoning process, since fundamental axioms and elementary rules of inference cannot be established by any other means—and, of course, the same is also true of our fundamental moral beliefs, of ‘practical wisdom’. Today, there is a summit in Antarctica called ‘Intuition Peak’ in honor of the role of intuition in the advancement of human knowledge.

But one important caveat to climb down from this high point. If you put a right-wing person in a room with a left-wing person, or a religious one with a non-religious one, you will soon find that their intuitions conflict.

Intuition can and should be used to form hypotheses, but never to justify claims.

The Magic of Music

The oldest musical instruments to have been found, flutes made from bird bone and mammoth ivory, are more than 42,000 years old; and it has been argued that, by fostering social cohesion, music—from the Greek, ‘the art of the muses’— could have helped our species outcompete the Neanderthals. Remember that next time you stand to the national anthem.

In the Bible, David played on his harp to make King Saul feel better: ‘And it came to pass, when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, that David took an harp, and played with his hand: so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him’ (1 Samuel 16:23 KJV).

The oral works ascribed to Homer would not have survived if they had not been set to music and sung. By his song, the lyric poet Thaletas brought civic harmony to Sparta, and is even credited with ending the plague in that city. The Pythagoreans recited poetry, sang hymns to Apollo (the god of music), and played on the lyre to cure illnesses of body and soul. In the Republic, Plato says that the education of the guardians should consist of gymnastic for the body and music for the soul, and that, once set, the curriculum should not be changed: ‘…when modes of music change, of the State always change with them.’ Aristotle concludes the Politics with, of all things, a discussion of music:

Since then music is a pleasure, and virtue consists in rejoicing and loving and hating aright, there is clearly nothing which we are so much concerned to acquire and to cultivate as the power of forming right judgments, and of taking delight in good dispositions and noble actions. Rhythm and melody supply imitations of anger and gentleness, and also of courage and temperance, and of all the qualities contrary to these, and of the other qualities of character, which hardly fall short of the actual affections…

In the 10th century, the Islamic thinker Al-Farabi wrote a treatise, Meanings of the Intellect, in which he discussed music therapy. Modern music therapy took form in the aftermath of World War II, when staff in veteran hospitals noticed that music could benefit their patients in ways that standard treatments could not, and started hiring musicians. In 1959, American composer and pianist Paul Nordoff and British special education teacher Clive Robbins developed a form of collaborative music-making to engage vulnerable and isolated children, helping them to develop in the cognitive, behavioural, and social domains. Today, Nordoff Robbins is the largest music therapy charity in the U.K.

Modern music therapy aims, by the use of music, to improve health or functional outcomes. It typically involves regular meetings with a qualified music therapist and various combinations of music-related activities. In ‘active therapy’ the individual and therapist make music using an instrument or the voice; in ‘passive therapy’ the individual listens to music in a reflective mode. You don’t have to be musical to take part. And, of course, you don’t have to take part to engage with music.

Does music therapy work? And if so, how? There is mounting evidence that music boosts levels of dopamine, a feel-good chemical messenger in the brain. Dopamine is linked to motivation and reward, and released in response to activities such eating and making love. Many people use music to power through a workout. Beyond distracting from discomfort, music triggers the release of opioid hormones that relieve physical and psychological pain. Forget the workout, just dance to the music. Dancing is the best exercise because it involves movement in all directions and engages the mind on multiple levels. Music also boosts the immune system, notably by increasing antibodies and decreasing stress hormones, which can depress the immune system. Techno and heavy metal aside, music lowers heart rate and blood pressure, and even reduces recovery time following a heart episode or surgery.

From the psychological perspective, music therapy alleviates symptoms of anxiety and depression and improves social and occupational functioning. Aside from the biological benefits such as increased dopamine and decreased stress hormones, music can help us to recognize, express, and process complex or painful emotions. It elevates these emotions and gives them a sense of beauty and meaning. We hear a human voice and feel understood. As Taylor Swift put it, “People haven’t always been there for me but music always has.”

I don’t think that music has to sound uplifting to be uplifting, so long as it helps us to work with our feelings. In the Poetics, Aristotle compared the purifying or cleansing effects of tragedy on the mind of the spectator to the effect of a cathartic on the body, and called this purging of the emotions catharsis.

The benefit of music extends beyond depression and anxiety to psychosis, autism, and dementia. In dementia, music can help with cognitive deficits, agitation, and social functioning. It helps to encode memories, and can in turn evoke vivid memories. In acquired brain injury, it can assist with the recovery of motor skills, and, through song, lend a voice to people who have lost the faculty of speech. At the other end of life, music played during pregnancy has been linked, in the newborn, to better motor and cognitive skills, faster development of language, and so on.

I remember as a teenager, lying in the blackness of the night and listening to Beethoven on my portable CD player. It completely transformed the makeup of my mind.

10 songs for the blues

  1. The Verve, Bittersweet Symphony
  2. Soul Asylum, Runaway Train
  3. Disturbed, The Sound of Silence
  4. Abba, Chiquitita 
  5. Rolling Stones, Paint it Black
  6. Royksopp, I Had This Thing
  7. Eurythmics, Here Comes the Rain Again
  8. Beethoven, Violin Concerto
  9. Bruce Springsteen, Human Touch
  10. The Verve, Lucky Man

If a song has been helpful to you, please share it in the comments section.

Are You Too Cynical?

The history, psychology, and philosophy of cynicism

Diogenes looking for a human being

Cynics often come across as contemptuous, irritating, and dispiriting. But they are the first to suffer from their cynicism. They can miss out on the things, such as friendship or love, that make a life worth living. They tend to hold back from the public sphere, leading to a reduced social and economic contribution and relative poverty and isolation—which, along with their pessimism, can predispose them to depression and other ills. Their cynicism seems self-fulfilling: by always assuming the worst about everyone, they tend to bring it out, and not least, perhaps, in themselves.

Diogenes the Cynic

But cynicism also has brighter sides. To understand these, it helps to take a look at the long and distinguished history of cynicism. The first Cynic appears to have been the Athenian philosopher Antisthenes (445-365 BCE), who had been an ardent disciple of Socrates. Then came Diogenes, the paradigm of the Cynic, who took the simple life of Socrates to such an extreme that Plato called him “a Socrates gone mad.”

The people of Athens abused Diogenes, calling him a dog and spitting in his face. But in this he took pride rather than offense. He held that human beings had much to learn from the simplicity and artlessness of dogs, which, unlike human beings, had not “complicated every simple gift of the gods.” The terms cynic and cynical derive from the Greek kynikos, which is the adjective of kyon, or ‘dog’.

Diogenes placed reason and nature firmly above custom and convention, which he held to be incompatible with happiness. It is natural for human beings to act in accord with reason, and reason dictates that human beings should live in accord with nature. Rather than giving up their time and efforts in the pursuit of wealth, renown, and other worthless things, people should have the courage to live like animals or gods, revelling in life’s pleasures without bond or fear.

The stories surrounding Diogenes, though embellished, or because embellished, help to convey his spirit. Diogenes wore a simple cloak which he doubled up in winter, begged for food, and sheltered in a tub. He made it his mission to challenge custom and convention, those “false coins of morality.” Upon being challenged for masturbating in the marketplace, he mused, “If only it were so easy to soothe hunger by rubbing an empty belly.” He strolled about in broad daylight brandishing a lamp. When people gathered around him, as they inevitably did, he would say, “I am just looking for a human being.” His fame spread far beyond Athens. One day, Alexander the Great came to meet him. When Alexander asked whether he could do anything for him, he replied, “Yes, stand out of my sunlight.”

History of Cynicism and Related Schools

Diogenes was followed by Crates of Thebes, who renounced a large fortune to live the Cynical life of poverty. Crates married Hipparchia of Maroneia, who, uniquely, adopted male clothes and lived on equal terms with her husband. By the first century, Cynics could be found throughout the cities of the Roman Empire. Cynicism vied with Stoicism, a broader philosophical system that emphasized self-control, fortitude, and clear thinking, and that, in the second century, could count the emperor Marcus Aurelius among its adherents. Zeno of Citium (334-262 BCE), the founder of Stoicism, had been a pupil of Crates, and Cynicism came to be seen as an idealized form of Stoicism.

Other philosophical schools that took off around the time of Alexander include Skepticism and Epicureanism. Like the fifth century BCE sophists to whom he opposed himself, Socrates had skeptical tendencies, claiming that he knew little or nothing, and cultivating a state of non-knowledge, or aporia. Pyrrho of Elis travelled with Alexander into India, where he encountered the gymnosophists, or “naked wise men.” Pyrrho denied that knowledge is possible and urged suspension of judgement, with the aim of exchanging the twin evils of anxiety and dogmatism for mental tranquillity, or ataraxia. The most important source on Pyrrhonism is Sextus Empiricus, who wrote in the late second century or thereabouts. In the 16th century, the translation of the complete works of Sextus Empiricus into Latin led to a resurgence of skepticism, and the work of René Descartes—”I think therefore I am,”and so on—can be read as a response to a skeptical crisis. But David Hume, who lived some hundred years later, remained unmoved by Descartes, writing that “philosophy would render us entirely Pyrrhonian, were not Nature too strong for it.”

Like Antisthenes and Diogenes, Epicurus of Samos dedicated himself to attaining happiness through the exercise of reason: reason teaches that pleasure is good and pain bad, and that pleasure and pain are the ultimate measures of good and bad. This has often been misconstrued as a call for rampant hedonism, but actually involves a kind of hedonic calculus to determine which things, over time, are likely to result in the most pleasure or least pain. Epicurus explicitly warned against overindulgence, because overindulgence so often leads to pain; and, rather than pleasure per se, emphasized the avoidance of pain, the elimination of desire, and mental tranquillity (ataraxia). “If thou wilt make a man happy” said Epicurus “add not unto his riches but take away from his desires.”

I think that their shared emphasis on ataraxia makes the four Hellenistic schools of Cynicism, Stoicism, Skepticism, and Epicureanism more related than different.

Cynicism endured into the fifth century. In City of God (426 CE), St Augustine says that “even today we still see Cynic philosophers.” Although Augustine scorned Cynic shamelessness, Cynicism and especially Cynic poverty exerted an important influence on early Christian asceticism, and thereby on later monasticism. In the early first century, when it was more popular, it may even have influenced the teachings of Jesus.

Cynicism Today

“Cynicism” acquired its modern meaning in the course of the 18th and early 19th centuries, stripping Ancient Cynicism of most of its tenets and retaining only the Cynic propensity to puncture people’s pretensions.

Today, cynicism refers to doubt or disbelief in the professed motives, sincerity, and goodness of others, and, by extension, in social and ethical norms and values. This attitude is often accompanied by mistrust, scorn, and pessimism about others and humanity as a whole.

Cynicism is often confused with irony, which is saying the opposite of what is meant, often for levity, emphasis, or concision; and with sarcasm, which is saying the opposite of what is meant to mock or convey anger or contempt. Sarcasm can involve cynicism if it punctures the pretensions of its target, especially when the target has not been given the benefit of doubt. Adding to the confusion, irony can also refer to an outcome that is clearly and emphatically contrary to the one that would normally have been expected.

Antonyms, or opposites, of cynicism include trust, faith, credulity, and naivete, which refers to lack of experience or understanding, often accompanied by starry-eyed optimism or idealism. In Voltaire’s Candide, the naïve Candide befriends a cynical scholar named Martin:

“You’re a bitter man,” said Candide.

“That’s because I’ve lived,” said Martin.

The Psychology of Cynicism

The line between cynicism and accurate observation can be very fine, and it is easy and often expedient to dismiss truthfulness as cynicism. Few grownups in our society are entirely devoid of cynicism. Cynicism exists on a spectrum, and it might be argued that most cynics, cynical though they may be, are not nearly cynical enough. As Terry Pratchett wrote of the fictional Vimes:

If there was anything that depressed him more than his own cynicism, it was that quite often it still wasn’t as cynical as real life.

Cynics often take pride and pleasure in their cynicism, including perhaps in the uneasy mix of discomfort and laughter that it can provoke in others. They may seek out the company of other cynics to “let rip” and test the limits of their cynicism. Popular satirical publications and programs such as the Onion and Daily Show have a strong cynical streak. Beyond the humor, cynicism, like broader satire, holds up a mirror to society, just as Diogenes held up a lamp to the Athenians, inviting people to question their beliefs, values, and priorities, and pointing them towards a more authentic and fulfilling way of living.

This all fits with the theory that cynics are nothing but disappointed idealists. On this reading, cynics are people who began life with unrealistically high standards and expectations. Rather than adjusting or compromising, or quietly withdrawing like the hermit, they went to war with the world, deploying their cynicism as both weapon and shield. Sometimes their cynicism is partial rather than global, circumscribed to those areas, such as love or politics, which have led to the greatest disillusionment.

Cynicism may be understood as a defensive posture: By always assuming the worst of everyone and everything, we cannot be hurt or disappointed—while also making ourselves feel smug and superior. Under her apparently thick skin, the cynic may be much more delicate and sensitive than is commonly imagined.

At the same time, cynicism can be a kind of pragmatism, ensuring that all angles have been covered and all eventualities foreseen. The nature of the cynicism reveals itself in its temperature or flavor: scornful and gratuitous cynicism is more likely to be an ego defense, whereas calm and happy cynicism, however actually cynical, is more likely to be a form of efficiency—not to mention comedy.

Cynicism can also be understood in terms of projection. The ego defence of projection involves the attribution of one’s unacceptable thoughts or feelings to others—and is the basis of playground retorts such as “mirror, mirror” and “what you say is what you are.” By projecting uncomfortable thoughts and feelings onto others, a person is able not only to distance himself from those thoughts and feelings, but also, in many cases, to play them out vicariously and even to use them in the service of his ego. But there is a caveat. While projection is most certainly an ego defense, to dig deep into our shared humanity to read the minds of others is, of course, a kind of wisdom—so long as we are not also deceiving ourselves in the process.


So are you too cynical?

Probably yes, if your cynicism is primarily a psychological defense, and hindering more than helping you.

Probably no, if your cynicism is measured and adaptive, and more of a thought through philosophical attitude that aims at joy, efficiency, and peace of mind.

The Philosophy of Truth

Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth. —Thoreau

Truth tends to lead to successful action. In that much, truth has instrumental value. But truth also has intrinsic value. Given the choice between a life of limitless pleasure as a brain in a vat and a genuine human life along with all its pain and suffering, most people opt for the latter.

In Plato’s Cratylus, Socrates says that aletheia(Greek, ‘truth’) is a compression of the phrase ‘a wandering that is divine’. Since Plato, many thinkers have spoken of truth and God in the same breath. According to John the Apostle, Jesus said to the Jews: “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

When truth isn’t truth

Today, God may be dying, but what about truth? Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, claimed that “Truth isn’t truth”, while Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s counsellor, presented the public with what she called “alternative facts”. Over in the U.K. in the run-up to the Brexit referendum, Michael Gove, then Lord Chancellor, opined that people “have had enough of experts”.

One way to understand truth is simply to look at its opposites, namely, lies and bullshit. The liar must track the truth in order to conceal it. In contrast, the bullshitter has no regard or sensitivity for the truth, or even for what his or her audience believes.

Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.

—Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit

Fake news

Following his defeat at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, Mark Antony heard the rumour that Cleopatra had committed suicide, and consequently stabbed himself in the abdomen—only to discover that Cleopatra herself had been responsible for spreading the rumour. He later died in her arms.

“Fake news” may be as old as humanity, but in our internet age it has spread like a disease, swinging elections, fomenting social unrest, undermining institutions, and diverting political energy from health, education, and good government. Initially, “fake news” referred to false news with large scale popular traction, although Donald Trump seems to have extended the usage to include any news that does not serve him.

Those who are alarmed, or who feel they are in a minority, can take comfort in the words of Søren Kierkegaard:

Truth always rests with the minority, and the minority is always stronger than the majority, because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion — and who, therefore, in the next instant (when it is evident that the minority is the stronger) assume its opinion… while truth again reverts to a new minority.

—Søren Kierkegaard, Diary

The correspondence theory of truth

Truth is a property not so much of thoughts and ideas but more properly of beliefs and assertions. But to believe or assert something is not enough to make it true, or else the claim that ‘to believe something makes it true’ would be just as true as the claim that ‘to believe something does not make it true’.

For centuries, philosophers have agreed that thought or language is true if it corresponds to an independent reality. For Aristotle, “to say that what is is, and what is not is not, is true”. For Avicenna, truth is “what corresponds in the mind to what is outside it”. And for Aquinas, truth is “the adequation of things and the intellect” (adaequatio rei et intellectus).

Unfortunately, but perhaps also fortunately, the mind does not perceive reality as it is, but only as it can, filtering, distorting, and interpreting it. In modern times, it has been argued that truth is largely constructed by social and cultural processes, to say nothing of individual desires and dispositions. Michel Foucault famously spoke, not of truth or truths, but of “regimes of truth”. Categories and constructs regarding, for example, race and sexuality may not reflect biological let alone metaphysical realities.

The coherence theory of truth

A thing is more likely to be true if it fits comfortably into a large and coherent system of beliefs. It remains that the system could be a giant fiction, entirely divorced from reality, but this becomes increasingly unlikely as we investigate, curate, and add to its components—assuming, and it is quite an assumption, that we are operating in good faith, with truth as our aim. So conceived, truth is not a property, or merely a property, but an attitude, a way of being in the world.

‘Truth’ is not a feature of correct propositions which are asserted of an ‘object’ by a human ‘subject’ and then are ‘valid’ somewhere, in what sphere we know not. Rather, truth is disclosure of beings through which an openness essentially unfolds. All human comportment and bearing are exposed in its open region.

—Martin Heidegger, On the Essence of Truth

The pragmatic theory of truth

All the better if we can actually do something useful with our system and its components. If truth leads to successful action, then successful action is an indicator of truth. Clearly, we could not have sent a rocket to the moon if our maths had been wide off the mark. For William James, the truth is “only the expedient in the way of our thinking, just as the right is only the expedient in the way of our behaving”.

If something works, it may well be true; if it doesn’t, it most probably isn’t. But what if something works for me but not for you? Is that thing then true for me but not for you? For Nietzsche, who makes himself the natural friend of two-penny tyrants, truth is power, and power truth: “The falseness of a judgement is not necessarily an objection to a judgement… The question is to what extent it is life-advancing, life-preserving, species-preserving, perhaps even species-breeding…”

Short-term or long-term?

Deflationary theories of truth

That a thing fits into a system, or leads to successful action, may suggest that it is true, but does not tell us much about what truth actually is. It has been argued that to say that X is true is merely to say that X, and therefore that truth is an empty predicate. Truth is not a real property of things, but a feature of language used to emphasize, agree, or hypothesize, or for stylistic reasons. For example, it can be used to explicate the Catholic dogma of papal infallibility: “Everything that the pope says is true.” But this is merely shorthand for saying that if the Pope says A, then A; and if he says B, then B…

For some thinkers, something can only be true or false if it is open to verification, at least in theory if not also in practice. The truth of something lies at the end of our inquiry into that thing. But as our inquiry can have no end, the truth of something can never be more than our best opinion of that thing. If best opinion is all that we can have or hope for, then best opinion is as good as truth, and truth is a redundant concept. But best opinion is only best because, at least on average, it is closest to the truth, which, as well as instrumental value, has deep intrinsic value.

Some practical advice

A reader once emailed to ask, “How can I know when I am lying to myself?”

And I replied,

By its very nature self-deception is hard to distinguish from the truth—whether our internal, emotional truth or the external truth. One has to develop and trust one’s instinct: what does it feel like to react in the way that I’m reacting? Does it feel calm, considered, and nuanced, or shallow and knee-jerk? Does it take the welfare of others into account, or is it all about me? Am I satisfied with, even proud of, my self-conquering effort, or does it make me feel small, angry, or anxious?

Self-deception doesn’t ‘add up’ in the grand scheme of things and can easily be brought down by even superficial questioning. As with a jigsaw, try to look at the bigger picture of your life and see how the thought or reaction might fit in. Did you react from a position of strength or vulnerability? What would the person you most respect think? What would Socrates think? Talk to other people and gather their opinions. If they disagree with you, does that make you feel angry, upset, or defensive? The coherence of your reaction can speak volumes about the nature of your motives.

Finally, truth is constructive and adaptive, while lies are destructive and self-defeating. So how useful is a self-deceptive thought or reaction going to be for you?  Are you just covering up an irrational fear, or helping to create a solid foundation for the future? Are you empowering yourself to fulfil your highest potential, or depriving yourself of opportunities for growth and creating further problems down the line? Is the cycle simply going to repeat itself, or will the truth, at last, make you free?

How Does the Language You Speak Influence the Way You Think?

african boy

Silence is the language of God, all else is poor translation. —Rumi

The ostensible purpose of language is to transmit thoughts from one mind to another. Language represents thought, but does it also determine thought?

Wittgenstein famously said that “the limits of my language stand for the limits of my world.” Taken at face value, that seems too strong a claim. There are over 7,000 languages in the world—with, by some estimates, one dying out each and every week. The number of basic colour terms varies quite considerably from one language to another. Dani, spoken in New Guinea, and Bassa, spoken in Liberia and Sierra Leone, each have no more than two colour terms, one for dark/cool colours and the other for light/warm colours. But, obviously, speakers of Dani and Bassa are able to perceive, and think about, more than two colours.

More subtly, there is no English equivalent for the German word Sehnsucht, which refers to the dissatisfaction with an imperfect reality paired with the yearning for an ideal that comes to seem more real than the reality itself. But despite lacking the word, Walt Whitman could clearly conjure the concept and emotion: Is it a dream? Nay, but the lack of it the dream, And, failing it, life’s lore and wealth a dream, And all the world a dream.

The English language has a word for children who have lost their parents (orphan), and a word for spouses who have lost their spouse (widow or widower), but no word for parents who have lost a child. This may mean that parents who have lost a child are less likely to enter our minds, but not that they cannot enter our minds, or that we cannot conceive of them. We often think about or remember things that cannot be put into words, such as the smell and taste of a mango, the dawn chorus of the birds, or the contours of a lover’s face. Animals and pre-linguistic babies must surely have thoughts, even if they have no language.

Time heaved a gentle sigh as the wind swept through the willows. Communication does not require language, and many animals communicate effectively by other modes. However, language is closely associated with symbolism, and so with emotionalism and conceptual thought and creativity. These unique assets make us by far the most adaptable of all animals, and enable us to engage in highly abstract pursuits such as art, science, and philosophy that define us as human beings.

Imagine what it would be like to live without language—not without the ability to speak, but without an actual language. Given the choice, would you rather lose the faculty for sight or the faculty for language? This is probably the first time that you are faced with this question—the faculty for language is so fundamental to the human condition that, unlike the faculty for sight, we take it completely for granted. “Monkeys,” quipped Kenneth Grahame, “very sensibly refrain from speech, lest they should be set to earn their livings.”

If language does not determine thought, how, if at all, does it interact with thought? Or, to put it another way, how does the language you speak influence the way you think? Russian, Greek, and many other languages have two words for blue, one for lighter shades, the other for darker shades—goluboy and siniy in Russian, and ghalazio and ble in Greek. A study found that, compared to English speakers, Russian speakers were quicker to discriminate between shades of goluboy and siniy, but not shades of goluboy or shades of siniy. Conversely, another study found that Greek speakers who had lived for a long time in the U.K. see ghalazio and ble as more similar than Greek speakers living in Greece. By creating categories, language can enhance cognition.

In contrast to modern Greek, Ancient Greek, in common with many ancient languages, has no specific word for blue, leaving Homer to speak about “the wine-dark sea.” But the Ancient Greeks did have several words for ‘love’, including philia, eros, storge, and agape, each one referring to a different type or concept of love. This means that they could speak more precisely about love, but does it also mean that they could think more precisely about love, and, as a result, have more fulfilled love lives? Or perhaps the Greeks had more words for love because they had more fulfilled love lives in the first place, or, more prosaically, because their culture and society placed more emphasis on the different bonds that can exist between people, and on the various duties and expectations that attend, or attended, to those bonds.

Philosophers and academics sometimes make up words to help them talk and think about an issue. In the Phaedrus, Plato coined the word psychagogia, the art of leading souls, to characterize rhetoric—another word that he invented. Every field of human endeavour inevitably evolves its own specialized jargon. There seems to be an important relationship between language and thinking: I often speak—and write, as I am doing now—to define or refine my thinking on a particular topic, and language is the scaffolding by which I arrive at my more subtle or syncretic thoughts.

While we’re talking dead languages, it may come as a surprise that Latin has no direct translations for yes and no. Instead, one either echoes the verb in the question (in affirmative or negative) or expresses one’s feelings about the truth value of the proposition with adverbs such as certe, fortasse, nimirum, plane, vero, etiam, sane, minime…This may have led to more nuanced thinking, as well as greater interpersonal engagement, though it must have been a nightmare for teens.

Much of the particularity of a language is extra-lexical, built into the syntax and grammar of the language and virtually invisible to native speakers. English, for example, restricts the use of the present perfect tense (“has been,” “has read”) to subjects who are still alive, marking a sharp grammatical divide between the living and the dead, and, by extension, between life and death. But of course, as an English speaker, you already knew that, at least unconsciously.

Here’s another, more substantial, example: When describing accidental events, English speakers tend to emphasize the agent (“I fired the gun”) more than, say, speakers of Spanish or Japanese, who prefer to omit the agent (“the gun went off”). One study found that, as a result, English speakers are more likely to remember the agents of accidental events—and, presumably, to attach blame.

In English, verbs express tense, that is, time relative to the moment of speaking. In Turkish, they also express the source of the information (evidentiality)—whether the information is direct, acquired through sense perception; or indirect, acquired by testimony or inference. In Russian, they include information about completion, with (to simplify) the perfective aspect used for completed actions and the imperfective aspect for ongoing or habitual actions. Spanish, on the other hand, emphasizes modes of being, with two verbs for “to be”—ser, to indicate permanent or lasting attributes, and estar, to indicate temporary states and locations. Like many languages, Spanish has more than one mode of second-person address: for intimates and social inferiors, and usted for strangers and social superiors, equivalent to tu and vous in French, and tu and lei in Italian. There used to be a similar distinction in English, with thou used to express intimacy, familiarity, or downright rudeness—but because it is archaic, many people now think of it as more formal than “you.” It stands to reason that, compared to English speakers, Turkish speakers have to pay more attention to evidentiality, Russian speakers to completion, and Spanish speakers to modes of being and social relations.

In many languages, nouns are divided into masculine and feminine. In German, there is a third, neutral class of nouns. In Dyirbal, an Aboriginal language, there are four noun classes, including one for women, water, fire, violence, and exceptional animals—or, as George Lakoff put it, “women, fire, and dangerous things.” Researchers asked speakers of German and Spanish to describe objects with opposite gender assignments in these two languages, and found that their descriptions conformed to gender stereotypes—even when the testing took place in English. For example, German speakers described bridges (feminine in German, die Brücke) as beautiful, elegant, fragile, peaceful, pretty, and slender, whereas Spanish speakers described bridges (masculine in Spanish, el puente) as big, dangerous, long, strong, sturdy, and towering.

Another study looking at the artistic personification of abstract concepts such as love, justice, or time found that, in 78% of cases, the gender of the concept in the artist’s language predicted the gender of the personification, and that this pattern held even for uncommon allegories such as geometry, necessity, and silence. Compared to a French or Spanish artist, a German artist is far more likely to paint death (der Tod, la mort, la muerte) or victory (der Sieg, la victoire, la victoria) as a man—though all artists, or European artists, tend to paint death in skeletal form. Grammar, it seems, can directly and radically influence thought, perception, and action.

It is often said that, by de-emphasizing them, language perpetuates biases against women. For example, many writers in English still use “mankind” to talk about humankind, and “he” for “he or she.” Similarly, many languages use masculine plural pronouns to refer to groups of people with at least one man. If 100 women turn up with a baby in a pram, and that baby happens to be male, French grammar dictates the use of the masculine plural ils: ils sont arrivés, “they have arrived.” Language changes as mores change, and sometimes politicians, pressure groups, and others attempt to change the language to change the mores—but, on the whole, language serves to preserve the status quo, to crystallize the order and culture that it reflects.

Language is also made up of all sorts of metaphors. In English and Swedish, people tend to speak of time in terms of distance: “I won’t be long”; “Let’s look at the weather for the week ahead”; “his drinking caught up with him.” But in Spanish or Greek, people tend to speak of time in terms of size or volume—for example, in Spanish, hacemos una pequeña pausa (“let’s have a small break”) rather than corta pausa (“short break”). More generally, mucho tiempo (“much time”) is preferred to largo tiempo (“long time”), and, in Greek, poli ora to makry kroniko diastima. And guess what? According to a recent study of fully bilingual Spanish-Swedish speakers, the language used to estimate the duration of events alters the speaker’s perception of the relative passage of time.

But all in all, and with perhaps a couple of exceptions, European languages do not differ dramatically from one another. To talk about space, speakers of Kuuk Thaayorre, an Aboriginal language, use 16 words for absolute cardinal directions instead of relative references such as “right in front of you,” “to the right,” and “over there.” As a result, even children are always aware of the exact direction in which they are facing. When asked to arrange a sequence of picture cards in temporal order, English speakers arrange the cards from left to right, whereas Hebrew speakers tend to arrange them from right to left. But speakers of Kuuk Thaayorre consistently arrange them from east to west, which is left to right if they are facing south, and right to left if they are facing north. Thinking differently about space, they think differently about time as well.

Language may not determine thought, but it focuses our perception and attention on particular aspects of reality, structures and enhances our cognitive processes, and even, to some extent, regulates our social relationships. Our language reflects and at the same time shapes our thoughts and, ultimately, our culture, which in turn shapes our thoughts and language. There is no equivalent in English of the Portuguese word saudade, which refers to the love and longing for someone or something that has been lost and may never be regained. The rise of saudade coincided with the decline of Portugal and the yen for its imperial heyday, a yen so strong as to have written itself into the national anthem: Levantai hoje de novo o splendour de Portugal (“Let us once again lift up the splendour of Portugal”). The three strands of language, thought, and culture, though individual, are so tightly woven that they cannot be prised apart.

It has been said that when an old man dies, a library burns to the ground. But when a language dies, it is a whole world that comes to an end.

See my related post, Beyond Words: The Benefits of Being Bilingual

New Audiobook on the Emotions

Heaven and Hell Audiobook

Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions has just come out on Audible!

So now you can take it in the car, gym, kitchen, or wherever…

The book is narrated by the very talented Alexander Doddy, who also did Growing from Depression.

For more info, follow this link (UK) or this link (US).


Previous Older Entries Next Newer Entries

%d bloggers like this: