The very idea

by CarlD

Last week, after a whole bunch of stalling, I went in to the local health care provider for my intake physical. We’ve been in our new location for three years with no primary care, but neither of us likes how the medical industrial complex works or how it works us, so we haven’t been eager to get ourselves reengaged with it. As usual I liked the new folks fine and everything went fine. That’s not what this post is about.

As part of the intake the screening nurse asked me a bunch of medical history kinds of questions. One of them was whether I’d ever had suicidal thoughts. Because I was in an honest question answering mode I said of course I have, routinely. This answer threatened to change the room and involve me in the kind of relationship to medicine I seek to avoid, so I spent the next couple tense minutes walking it back, until eventually I had never of course actually thought of actively taking my own life. Which, in a narrowly literal kind of way, is truthy enough and a workable compromise for all concerned.

The more robust truth is that to me suicide has always been an interesting idea. It seems like obviously among the live options under certain circumstances, and therefore well worth being mindfully aware of in case those circumstances. To me, and this is what the post is about, the idea doesn’t become real until it’s called forth as a real live option under real live circumstances. Until then it’s just an interesting way of being aware of and in the world, a kind of inexpensive experiment, and a way of being alive to possibilities not immediately in play. So I’ve thought suicide all the way through, many times, without so far reaching the pragmatic threshold where it’s what I might want to do right now. Have I ever had suicidal thoughts? Of course I have. I’m a thinking person.

In general this is how ideas work for me. They are not, at all, where my reality is. The idea of suicide has no power to kill me, any more than a recipe for hummus is a delicious and nourishing snack.

This is pragmatism. It’s also Marx snarking at the idealists in The German Ideology:

Hitherto men have constantly made up for themselves false conceptions about themselves, about what they are and what they ought to be. They have arranged their relationships according to their ideas of God, of normal man, etc. The phantoms of their brains have got out of their hands. They, the creators, have bowed down before their creations. Let us liberate them from the chimeras, the ideas, dogmas, imaginary beings under the yoke of which they are pining away. Let us revolt against the rule of thoughts. Let us teach men, says one, to exchange these imaginations for thoughts which correspond to the essence of man; says the second, to take up a critical attitude to them; says the third, to knock them out of their heads; and — existing reality will collapse.

These innocent and childlike fancies are the kernel of the modern Young-Hegelian philosophy, which not only is received by the German public with horror and awe, but is announced by our philosophic heroes with the solemn consciousness of its cataclysmic dangerousness and criminal ruthlessness. ….

Once upon a time a valiant fellow had the idea that men were drowned in water only because they were possessed with the idea of gravity. If they were to knock this notion out of their heads, say by stating it to be a superstition, a religious concept, they would be sublimely proof against any danger from water. His whole life long he fought against the illusion of gravity, of whose harmful results all statistics brought him new and manifold evidence. This valiant fellow was the type of the new revolutionary philosophers in Germany.

Ha. So anyway, it is from this disposition that I react with dismay to people who, speaking with great moral conviction, hold that there is no reason to come to any kind of understanding with people who entertain and articulate certain kinds of dangerous, harmful ideas. There’s no such thing. This is just, literally, narrow-mindedness. But also, that’s an interesting idea to me – that ideas could be so important, so immediately real, that they need to be opposed in themselves, as such. I think the world must be a very different kind of place for people who experience ideas with such concreteness.

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9 Comments to “The very idea”

  1. I’d be happy to ideate with you awhile, Carl, the suppression of suicidal thought itself being a kind of intellectual suicide. No sense belaboring the obvious: that the suicidal thoughts question appears on the screener because a “yes” answer correlates with attempt; that thoughts about suicide, like pretty much any sorts of thought, aren’t as prevalent in the general population as a thoughtful person might expect; that a hummus recipe is of most use to someone who might want to make hummus. And now after your healthcare encounter you’ve gone ahead and entertained more thoughts about suicide, writing them down and making them publicly available.

    I’m curious about why, among the various thought-provoking encounters you experience, you posted on this topic. After your father died, after you posted your eulogy to his honor here, you could have let Dead Voles die by withholding life support. Now you’re back with not one but two new posts. Had you given thought to just letting this blog die? If so, what caused you to give it some nourishment?

    I’ve got to say that my own father’s death got me thinking more seriously and pragmatically about the benefits of assisted suicide as an advance directive when all hope of recovery is gone, when pain is intolerable, when the mind is gone. Did your father’s death stimulate further thinking about suicide as an end-of-life option?

  2. These are all good questions, John. Why keep the blog alive is easy – it actually works for me as a log, and I return and link to it frequently to remind myself and show others what I/we have had to say about this or that topic of interest from time to time. I like it, and I’m proud of it, and it keeps doing good work for me.

    Suicide really was just the prompt and has no more meaning for me than I say here. That’s more my point and I suspect the more subversive one than grotty old life and death – that I don’t experience ideas as tangibly real. I seem to be weird that way. There’s a lot actually that follows from this, including an impaired relationship with “the sacred,” which as far as I can see is 100% idea. There’s plenty I care about, which seems to be a different pathway.

    One step back, I’ve been chewing for a long time on good liberals’ righteous declarations that merely to tolerate certain forbidden ideas is to endorse them. “”As we say in Germany, if there’s a Nazi at the table and 10 other people sitting there talking to him, you got a table with 11 Nazis” was an infuriating recent offering on Facebook from a friend. Presented as obviously right. And I think it’s not just obviously wrong, but barbarous. I think this for example as a non-Christian critic of Christian history and many aspects of Christian doctrine who has never not been surrounded by Christians, many of them wonderful people. And don’t even get me started on Platonists, but sometimes they make a good point and tell funny stories when they’re drunk. Eugenics, for another example, is very obviously a great idea. We practice it on the livestock on the farm and it saves us and the animals all kinds of trouble. But on balance I’m glad we have a rich and civilized enough society that we don’t need to practice eugenics on Nazis, Christians, or Platonists.

  3. I kind of think people who take ideas literally and deadly seriously like this must just not have enough of them. If you’ve got lots of ideas, it becomes really obvious that not all of them will or can go somewhere. You get used to selecting among ideas and comparing their merits in relation to situations and resources and constraints and agendas and so on. They become much more optional and much less weighty, one by one. Whereas I suppose if you’ve only got the one, or a tight cluster, other ones may seem like fatal distractions or existential threats. I suppose this must be what it’s like to be anti-communist or anti-Muslim.

    I also wonder if this is one of those basic closure strategies I’m interested in, an attempt to compress and linearize complexity, a kind of managed ignorance as my friend Nicole might say. And since as far as I can tell there’s no human syndrome more dangerous than fanaticism, I think it’s really funny to be told that staying aware and alive to the full range of available thought is where the moral peril lies. I think that’s especially funny when who’s saying that is simultaneously defending diversity and the humanities as essential practices of civilization.

  4. Well gosh, now I feel self-conscious; maybe I’m really the one with suicidal ideations… Nah.

    I liked your Marx quote and passed it on to somebody else. He’s being a strong materialist there, but he’s also certainly prepared to acknowledge the synthesis of material and immaterial components to reality in things like commodity fetish value and fictitious assets. Overcoming gravity does seem to require formulating an idea about how gravity works. Surely you acknowledge these interplays between idea and matter in ordinary life, between material and socially constructed reality. What you’re demonstrating is the abstract skill of pulling idea and matter apart, which isn’t easy — that you can take an idea around for a spin, entertain it royally, then just set it aside when you’re done with it. We’ve talked about affordances before here — a similar skill is disconnecting the affordance from both the environment that generates it and from the visceral-emotional-behavioral response that it stimulates.

  5. Need for Cognition Scale HERE.
    Mean Need for Cognition Scale scores, college freshmen and seniors, HERE.

  6. Ha! Well those are on point. I’ll have to think hard about what they mean. 😉

    You’re right for sure about the interplays of idea and matter. We’ve talked about that here also in terms of object orientation and relation orientation. Relations seem immaterial because you can’t shake a stick at them and thump them. They lead you into traps like Cartesian dualism and action at a distance puzzles. If it turns out what we’ve been used to calling material or objects is just a particularly durable kind of relation, millenia of confusion go away. Or so the Young Hegelians would expect.

    I might say I’m very interested, like Marx, in how ideas like money, commodity, debt, and capital are materialized. But this would be to fall back into the old mystifying dualism. Ideas are already entirely material in this larger sense as relationships in my brain. As brain relationships I can play with them any way I like at very low cost, as long as I don’t fall into capture. Brains are full of perfectly real unicorns, hippogryphs, heavens, hells, and self-regulating markets. Are the schizophrenic’s voices real? Of course.

    It matters whether and how we act around ideas. Schizophrenics get ‘better’ when they realize they don’t need to pay attention to the voices. The idea of money is just an idea until I’m captured by it as an organizing relationship with other parts of my life. Someone is properly called a Nazi when they combine the idea of racial essences, an idea many people who aren’t Nazis have, with the idea of hierarchy, another idea many people who aren’t Nazis have. This person is someone I strongly disagree with, but they’re not dangerous yet. They have to add the idea that a world conforming to the prior ideas needs to be actively pursued, and then actively pursue it. And even then all sorts of other stuff has to be correctly aligned for this effort to work, in some tangible way, otherwise you’ve got a couple dipshits yelling hateful garbage at a bar. In the same way gold is not currency until some other stuff gets added to it, and a college degree is ‘just’ a piece of paper. In each case misplaced concreteness is available, like with my suicidal thoughts. INUS conditions apply.

  7. “Relations seem immaterial because you can’t shake a stick at them and thump them.”

    I’m not well-versed enough in philosophy to defend or refute the correspondence theory of truth. But it seems clear that the relationships among verbal descriptions of ingredients, equipment, and actions outlined in a recipe for hummus correspond, and intentionally so, with the substances and processes that go into making the delicious and nourishing snack. It’s not that the words of the recipe represent the materials in some kind of one-to-one representational mapping; it’s that the relations among the words correspond with the relations among the materials and actions. The recipe-reader has to recognize this relational correspondence in order for the recipe to work. As you point out, that recognition takes material form in the brain, with a set of neural and synaptic relations that correspond with the verbal relational pattern, translating it into the culinary relational pattern.

    “but they’re not dangerous yet. They have to add the idea that a world conforming to the prior ideas needs to be actively pursued, and then actively pursue it.”

    The linear model linking idea to action can be sketched out roughly: (1) There’s an adaptational mismatch between what I want from the world and what the world offers me. (2) The mismatch comes to my attention as an emotional disruption — anger, confusion, frustration, etc. (3) Affect triggers cognition: what scheme can I imagine that will reshape the world to conform more to my liking, or to reshape my likings to conform more to the world. (4) Enact the cognized scheme. (5) Evaluate the scheme’s effectiveness. (6) Revise the scheme and/or its enactment. (7) Iterate and reiterate until some new, more acceptable equilibrium is achieved between self and world. If that’s the sequence, then the idea comes under consideration in the first place because it is deemed a candidate for active pursuit.

    I’m in agreement with you that linear causal models are overly simplistic. But I do think that ideas are charged with adaptive instinct, affect, intent, and the urge to take action. You could say that ideas have relational affordances, pointing back toward selves and out toward ecosystems in which selves are embedded. As such ideas may allure and repel in confusing admixtures,, provoking visceral as well as intellectual responses in some kind of muddled mixture. Recognizing the affordances and neutralizing them is a good trick — kind of like ignoring the tastiness of that hummus when you see it sitting there on a plate surrounded by pita strips and veggies.

  8. Anyhoo, this post was you being annoyed at people who regard your thinking about something as evidence of your personal commitment to that thought. ikr.

  9. “I’m in agreement with you that linear causal models are overly simplistic. But I do think that ideas are charged with adaptive instinct, affect, intent, and the urge to take action. You could say that ideas have relational affordances, pointing back toward selves and out toward ecosystems in which selves are embedded. As such ideas may allure and repel in confusing admixtures,, provoking visceral as well as intellectual responses in some kind of muddled mixture.”

    Yes. This is really the right move in my view. I would just add that we can also recognize where affordances are incomplete, and lacking. So there are some kinds of people in some kinds of situation where if they start monkeying with Nazism, there’s a very good chance this will bring a bunch of stuff into an alignment we want to divert or disable if at all possible. Whereas there are other sorts of people and situations where Nazism has very little adaptive fit, and so can be played with, taken apart, poked around, and maybe even repurposed without trouble. The mistake is thinking that Nazism in whole and in part is immediately and comprehensively effective, persuasive, contaminating, what have you. Godwin’s Law applies.

    It’s an open question what the full package of adaptive affordances is that gets you from “here’s a set of ideas about power, race, and nation” to “hey kids, let’s fire up the death camps.” Or from “suicide, reasonable option” to the robe sash over the bathroom door. Or from “guns are great because freedom” to “where all the children at.” In fact it’s because we don’t know how to sort all that out that broad brush interventions like ermigerd Trump is Hitler, testy medical history interrogations, and gun control seem reasonable as a kind of risk management to some people.

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