Category Archives: Middle Way Philosophy

Double Vision

When we try to think critically and to open our imaginations at the same time, a kind of double vision results. At one and the same time we develop our awareness of potential alternatives, making our thinking more flexible, but still remain aware of the limitations of our beliefs, and do not allow our imaginativeness to slip into credulity. We develop meaning but also control belief. It seems to me that developing this double vision is one of the hardest parts of the practice of the Middle Way: but if we are to avoid absolutizing our beliefs we need to develop both meaning and belief. Those of an artistic disposition will find it easier to imagine, and those of a scientific disposition to limit their beliefs to those that can be justified by evidence: but to hold both together? That’s the challenge.

I’ve been reflecting more on the metaphor of double vision, since I heard it used recently in a talk by Jeremy Naydler in the context of the Jung Lectures in Bristol. Naydler used this metaphor in a talk called ‘The Inner Beloved’, which was about the way in which visionary men of the past have maintained images of beloved women that were actually projections of their own psyches (what Jung would call the anima). He spoke of Dante’s vision of Beatrice in the Divine Comedy and Boethius’s figure of Philosophia in The Consolations of Philosophy. These were not ‘real’ women, or had the slightest of relationships to real women, but rather became powerful archetypal symbols of the part of themselves that remained unintegrated. They were the focus of yearning, but also the path of sublimated wisdom – never possessed but always beckoning and challenging.

The capacity for double vision is central if one is to cultivate such a figure: for if a man were to project it onto a real woman (or vice-versa) the results could be (and often are)disastrous. “Being put on a pedestal” probably creates conflict when the real person starts behaving differently from the idealisation – for example, needing time of her own away from a relationship. It is only by maintaining a critical sense of how the mixed up, complex people and things in our experience are not perfect and do not actually embody our idealised projections that we can also give ourselves an imaginative space to engage with the archetype itself. Recognising that the archetype puts us in touch with meaningful potentials, showing us how we could be ourselves, and how we could relate to the world, can provide a source of rich inspiration that I see as lying at the heart of what religions and artistic traditions can positively offer us without absolute belief. 

The annunciation, a Christian artistic motif that I’ve previously written about on this site, for me offers an example of the archetypal in its own terms. For most of us, it is much easier to look for the archetypes in art, and separate this mentally from trying to develop balanced justified beliefs with the real people we meet every day, rather than prematurely over-stretching our capacity to separate them by risking archetypal relationships with real people. That’s why lasting romantic relationships need to be based on realistic appraisal rather than seeing the eternal feminine or masculine in your partner, and also why venerating living religious teachers like gods may be asking for trouble.

Personally, I do have some sense of that double vision in my life. My imaginative sense and relationship to the archetypes has developed from my relationship to two different religious traditions (Buddhism and Christianity) as well as from the arts and an appreciation of Jungian approaches. On the other hand, my love of philosophy and psychology provide a constant critical perspective which also provide me with a respect for evidence and a sense of the importance of the limitations we must apply to practical judgement. Sometimes I find myself veering a little too far in one direction or the other, slipping towards single vision rather than double vision, and then I need to correct my course. Too much concentration on cognitive matters can make my experience too dry and intellectual. Underlying emotions and bodily states can then come as an unpleasant surprise. On the other hand too much imagination without critical awareness can reduce my practical resources in other ways, as my beliefs become less adequate to the circumstances.

Our educational system overwhelmingly only supports a single vision, with the separation of the STEM subjects on the one hand from arts and humanities on the other. But a single vision seems to me an impoverished one, even within the terms of that vision. Those with a single vision based on scientific training and values tend to have some understanding of critical thinking, but to think critically with more thoroughness it’s essential to be aware of your own assumptions and be willing to question them – which requires the ability to imagine alternatives. There are also those with a single vision who are willing to imagine, but tend to take the symbolic realm as in some sense a key to ‘knowledge’ of ‘reality’, and thus uncritically adopt beliefs that they can link with their imaginative values. For example, those who, like Jung, find astrology a fascinating study of meaning, often seem to fail to draw a critical line when it comes to believing the predictions of astrology – for which there is no justification.

If it is not simply a product of limited education or experience, a single vision is likely to be associated with absolutisation; because absolutisation, being the state of holding a belief as the only alternative to its negation, excludes alternatives. We avoid allowing ourselves to enter the world of the other kind of vision, then, by regarding ours as the only source of truth, and by disparaging and dismissing the other as ‘woo’ (from the scientific side) or as soulless nerds (from the imaginative). Rather than accepting that we need to develop the other kind of vision, we often just construct a world where only our kind of vision is required. Then we share it with others on social media and produce another type of echo chamber – alongside those created by class, region, educational level, or political belief.

Developing a double vision, then, is an important part of cultivating the Middle Way, and thus also a vital way beyond actual or potential conflicts. A failure to recognise your projection onto someone, for example, creates one kind of conflict, but a failure to imagine may take all the energy out of it and lead to another type of division between you. We may not be able to develop double vision all at once, and it’s best not to over-stretch our capacity for it, but the counter-balancing path is open to you right now from here. Here are some follow-on suggestions on this site: if you’re a soulless nerd, go to my blogs about Jung’s Red Book. If you’re more of credulous “woo” person, try my critical thinking blogs.

Pictures (both public domain): double vision from the US air force and Simone Martini’s ‘Annunciation’.

Mindsets and the Middle Way in education

In my job teaching physics to young people from ages 11-18, I often encounter unhelpful absolutisations that act as barriers to the students being able to address conditions. For example, if a student is finding it hard to do the work that I expect them to be able to do, they may say things like “But I am no good at physics!” (absolutising the subject) or “But physics is impossible to understand!” (absolutising the object). Either way, the student who holds these kinds of beliefs has their judgement clouded by the delusions created by conceiving things in absolute terms. If instead, the student can understand the situation incrementally then they’re more likely to be able to follow the most basic imperative in Middle Way philosophy by making judgements about their learning on the basis of beliefs that are as free from delusion as possible. In this article, I explore the connection between the Middle Way practice of incrementality and the ‘mindset’ model in teaching practice.

Two mindsets

The mindset model in education was first proposed by Carol Dweck and Ellen Leggett in their 1998 paper A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality. In the formulation of this model that is well known in modern educational circles, absolutising one’s self (e.g. “But I am no good at physics!”) is a judgement made by a student with a ‘fixed mindset’. The graphic by Nigel Holmes (below) sums up this belief using the phrase “Intelligence is static”. In my example, the student believes that their intelligence with regards to physics problems is static and cannot be further developed. This maintains a self-reinforcing feedback loop, where the student – in order to save face – avoids challenges, gives up easily when encountering obstacles, sees effort as fruitless and thus ignores useful criticism. They feel threatened by the success of others (whom the student regards as innately and absolutely “Good at physics”) and through a lack of engagement they fail to make the kind of progress with learning physics that they would otherwise make.

The second, more productive mindset is referred to as a ‘growth mindset’. It does not represent the opposite absolutisation (i.e. believing that “I am good at physics!” or “Physics is easy!” – which are really just another kind of fixed but positive mindset) but a middle way which recognises that intelligence can be developed, but only if the subject is willing to allow it to develop. Avoiding the fixed mindset means that a student will embrace (appropriate) challenges, persist in the face of setbacks (to a reasonable extent), and to see effort as the path to mastery. A more adequate self-correcting feedback loop is established because the student is open to learning from useful criticism, and they can find lessons and inspiration from the success of others. By experiencing progress in their study of physics they have a greater sense of being responsible for their ability to learn, avoiding the absolute of determinism.

Why do students believe in a fixed mindset?

As usual, the reasons for the entrenchment of a fixed mindset are complex. However, one really obvious factor is the attitude of influential members of earlier generations: parents, teachers, voices in the media. When some people first discover that I am employed as a physics teacher they seem to be quite happy to immediately tell me that they “were never any good at physics” or that they “dropped physics as soon as they could when they were at school”. I don’t get the impression they’re doing this to avoid feeling intimidated by the knowledge and understanding that I have that presumably they don’t. It appears acceptable to them to believe that people either ‘get’ physics or they don’t – and this sidesteps having to consider whether they were taught in a competent way, or whether they made the necessary effort to learn physics when they were being taught. It may be that they never saw the relevance of understanding physics (which, up to some age, they were compelled to study) and that they’ve never noticed any adverse effects of a lack of physics in their lives so far.

There are also the gender-related expectations communicated (wittingly, or unwittingly) to young people, which vary in their precise details but seem to be well represented in the stereotype of physics and engineering as being “boys’ subjects”. There have been studies of the factors behind gender-imbalance in the take-up of certain A-level subjects in schools in England and Wales, and I’ve been involved in a minor way with the Institute of Physics’ Improving gender balance project which is investigating the effectiveness of different strategies which aim to improve the balance in subjects with a disproportionate number of boys (or girls!). I’ve not done any formal analysis of the numbers of boys and girls who tell me that they’re “No good at physics!” or they think that “Physics is too difficult.” but I certainly hear it from both boys and girls, although perhaps slightly more often from girls.

A third thing that encourages the fixed mindset is the way that famous physicists are presented to students as ‘geniuses’, both in popular culture and perhaps unwittingly also within school education, where we should perhaps know better. Albert Einstein is the classic example. The problem with the genius model of excellence in science is that it reinforces the idea that you have to be innately special to excel at physics, and that it is only a very few people who are lucky enough to have this rare talent. Einstein once made the modest claim that “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” This kind of remark that hints at a growth mindset gets lost in the hype and mythos surrounding Einstein the eccentric genius, the ‘one of a kind’ plaudits, which seem to be so much more palatable to the general public.

Cultivating a growth mindset in the classroom

How, then, can I encourage students to believe the growth mindset rather than the fixed mindset? One way is to model a growth mindset myself. At the time of writing, we are five weeks into the new school year and I’m still struggling to accurately remember the names of all the children that I’ve not taught in previous years. The most acute case is my science class of 11 year-olds, who are completely new to the school. I am making a point of explaining to them how I’m going about remembering their names, as it isn’t something that comes easily to me. I’m modelling the growth mindset in action by embracing the challenge with good humour (I’ve got to learn their names, so I might as well have fun doing it), I’m persisting in the face of setbacks (keeping on trying to use their names, even when I get it wrong so often), I’m showing that I’m making an effort (refusing their help until I really really need it, and then encouraging clues rather than just supplying the forgotten name) and I’m learning from their criticism (which more recently has involved them suggesting helpful mnemonics). They’ve helped in this by providing an environment in which it is safe for me to fail over and over again, and by praising my effort rather than any innate ability to remember names with ease.

Providing opportunities for failure to occur in a safe way so that students can learn that (repeated) failure is usually a necessary step towards better understanding a subject. The earlier this can be put into practice, the better – I meet a lot of students (even the older ones, who are working at quite a high level of achievement in physics) who would rather not try at all than try and encounter failure. A classic example of this is students sitting and waiting for me (or someone else) to reveal “the correct answer” to a problem that they are supposed to be trying to solve themselves. A superficial examination of the reasons for this yields answers like “Well, there’s no point me writing stuff down if it is wrong!”.

A third technique involves making careful use of the way that I speak to students about the inherent challenge in the process of learning. The most useful advice I’ve had about this is about appending the word ‘yet’ to fixed mindset phrases that students use: for example, “I don’t get this” becomes “I don’t get this yet” or “I’m not good enough to do the exam” becomes “I’m not yet good enough to do the exam”. The word ‘yet’ is not essential, of course, as can be seen from the example of how “There’s no way I can do this” can become “I can’t see a way of doing this right now.” This more or less seems to amount to skilful use of provisionality markers, as previously discussed in one of Robert’s blog posts.

A fourth involves incrementalising absolutes by persistent questioning to go from the general to the specific. For example, a student who comes to a revision lesson may say “I don’t understand anything in physics!”, to which I respond “Give me an example of something you don’t understand.” and so on until you’ve gone from a blanket rejection of the whole subject to something quite specific, like not realising that a term like ‘resultant force’ just means something like the ‘overall force’, rather than being a new type of force in addition to things like friction, weight, air resistance and so on.

A final simple practice involves a general ‘no hands up’ policy during teacher-led questioning in the classroom. I’ve been amazed at the difference this simple technique makes. Previously, with children putting their hands up to indicate that they want to be picked to answer a question, those who considered themselves to be ‘no good’ at the subject could opt out by not ever putting their hand up. The division between those who considered themselves ‘no good’ and those who thought that they could answer would be reinforced in a feedback loop. A better practice is to make it clear that anyone could be called upon to respond out loud, to pose the question, to give time for all to think about it (no hands up) and then to ask a specific student to share their thoughts. It also helps to praise the effort made, to valorise trying even if it involved failure, and not to praise a student for ‘being correct’ or innately ‘clever’.

Concluding remarks

I’m not claiming here to offer anything radically new in terms of pedagogy. The examples of practice that I mentioned above seem to be the sort of thing that experienced teachers typically do to get students to see that they are capable of making progress, if only they’ll allow themselves – and the fact that they align well with the mindset theoretical framework just gives a pleasing coherence. The experience of students in the past, or in other schools currently, may have been different if teachers did, in fact, tell students that they were “no good” at this subject (or even worse “no good… just like your brother/sister/mother/father was no good at it”), or if the education system itself assumes that students have a fixed mindset and treats them accordingly by severely restricting their possibilities from very early on in their school careers.

I’m also wary of slipping into the mistake of telling children that they can “be anything they want to be, as long as they want it enough”, as that fails to address conditions adequately by absolutising responsibility. I’m told that a lot of children think that they are going to be ‘rich and famous’ because they really, really want to be rich and famous – it is easy to believe this when you see examples of celebrity culture. Maybe that attitude is not so common where I teach, but we can’t ignore the fact that some children will assume that they are ‘no good’ at certain subjects, or even the whole business of learning, because their parents before them were ‘no good’ – and it may be that there is a job waiting for them (in the family business, etc.) which doesn’t require them to have a school-level of understanding in physics! There are many other contributing factors other than the fact that a student ‘really wants’ to succeed, contrary to the popular perception, such as happening to be in the right place at the right time!

Further reading
Picture credits
  • Mindset graphic by Nigel Holmes, professional graphic designer.
  • Satirical Einstein quote, own work.
  • Photograph of me with magnets at a school open evening by Stephen Hill.

A Hurricane of Paranoia

Is there any end to the flow of paranoid conspiracy theories seeded in the internet ocean? Like hurricanes, they seem to proceed implacably, one after the other. Not only do we have the illuminati, the reptilians, the 9/11 conspiracy theories, and the revival of flat earth beliefs, but more recent theories seem to suggest that almost no action is so bad that it can’t be attributed to the mysterious ‘deep state’. There were some who alleged that the Sandy Hook shootings were a set up, and now – before the hurricane has even struck the coast of Florida, there are those who allege that the hurricane itself is the creation of the all-manipulating authorities. What distresses me about the rising tide of conspiracy theory is the way in which closed loops of confirmation bias are increasingly fed by the ‘echo chamber’ effect of social media, aided by the widespread lack of the kind of critical thinking skills required to challenge them. The effects feed not only disinformation, but quite unnecessary social and political conflict. Just when everyone needs to be on the same side, dealing with enormously traumatic events, they end up undermining the whole basis of experiential judgement on which common humanity could develop. Although as I write, Hurricane Irma has not yet hit Florida, the consequences of a section of the population seriously believing that it’s all been set up by the US government can hardly seem anything but deeply insulting to those who will shortly doubtless risk (and possibly lose) their lives to save others, in the service of the very same public authorities who are being blamed for the disaster by these conspiracy theorists.

In many ways, a conspiracy theory is no different from any other absolute belief. Those in the grip of an absolute belief do not weigh up the evidence and select the most likely explanation for it: rather they select evidence that fits the beliefs that obsessive desire or anxiety are urging on them, and ignore or dismiss all alternatives. In this respect conspiracy theorists are no different from medieval dogmatists – they just have access to better communications technology. They trade on uncertainty, pointing out that there is no way of disproving their belief, but completely ignore that the same point applies to a wide range of other possible competing beliefs that can also not be disproved. Unrealistically expecting disproof, they remain attached to their conspiracy theory in its absence, but can only do so because the comparison of probabilities simply does not figure in their thinking. Any challenge to the theory is likely to be seen as under the deluded spell of the all-powerful conspiracy that otherwise rules the world. By maintaining and spreading such beliefs, too, social capital is earned by gaining prominence in the in-group, whilst to seriously question their basis is to risk that status and thus risk rejection by that group.

Those who attempt to offer ‘facts’ to refute conspiracy theories merely feed them by providing more of the same absolute language. The whole context in which they exist is one of dualistic opposition, so that the direct opposing of one ‘fact’ by another reinforces defensiveness. It is only by becoming reflectively more aware of the limitations of our knowledge, as well as positively confident in justified belief, that we can start to disentangle the kind of thinking that fuels conspiracy theories. By holding off from claims about ‘truth’ and ‘falsehood’, but nevertheless investigating justification, we would be practising the Middle Way.

The belief that Hurricane Irma is created by the US government, like most other conspiracy theories, involves a weight of assumptions that make it vastly improbable when you start to consider those assumptions. The video that I linked above merely argues that there is a record of the US government researching and testing weather manipulation in the past, but gives no evidence at all that weather manipulation on the scale that would be required to either create or stop a hurricane is or ever will be possible. Even if it was, a large number of people would have to be in on the plot, and the government would have to have some kind of motive for doing it (the video falls into its nadir of incoherence when trying to explain why on earth the US government would want to engineer Hurricane Irma). But, of course, mere improbability and weight of assumption does not figure at all for a conspiracy theorist. The shadowy authorities are powerful enough – so they can do anything, it seems.

The role that these shadowy authorities play (the ‘deep state’, the ‘liberal establishment’ and its ‘fake news media’, the Communists, the Reptilians etc.) is very similar to that played by God in medieval times. The vaguer the actor the better, so that any inconvenient new developments can be readily attributed to it . It’s not necessary to offer any allegations about who exactly did what, since a vague suspicion is actually more powerful in inducing this kind of absolute belief. This shadowy authority is also, in Jungian terms, a projected archetype: an open potential that we have for power in ourselves is attributed to something beyond us.

But for those watching the video offering ‘proof’ of such a conspiracy theory, these considerations are unlikely to figure. In order to maintain critical awareness, the alternatives need to be available to you whilst you are watching such a video, or at least immediately afterwards. That for many people they obviously are not seems to be more than anything due to gaping holes in our education systems, which still leave many people without any practice in exercising that critical awareness. All the rest of us can do, I think, is try to support others in thinking things through, whilst trying to avoid simply inducing a dismissive reaction through too direct a challenge. Together with that, we can positively acknowledge the archetypes in us, not out there, and positively investigate the complexity of causation in an event like a hurricane, which may be our fault in some respects (looking at the wider context of climate change) but not in others. As the hurricane heads across the straits, my thoughts are with the people it is about to strike. For their sake, if for nobody else’s, please do not uncritically share conspiracy-mongering!

Picture: Hurricanes Irma and Jose on 6th Sept 2017, NASA (public domain)

Nationalism and Patriotism

[The following is an adapted chapter from Middle Way Philosophy 4: The Integration of Belief. It’s of special relevance given recent political events!]

Nationalism is an ideological commitment often, but not always, associated with conservatism. However, the fact that it can take liberal or socialist forms (as under the recent leadership of Alex Salmond in Scotland, or the anti-colonialist left wing leadership of such figures as Julius Nyerere in Tanzania) shows that it is worthy of separate treatment rather than being treated only as an aspect of conservatism. It could also be argued that most politicians add a seasoning of nationalism to their other ideologies – one that needs a separate critical perspective. For example, there are few politicians who will not appeal to ‘national interest’ to justify a stance in international negotiations, apparently without embarrassment.

Nationalism focuses specifically on one kind of value foundation of the six identified by Jonathan Haidt: that of loyalty. Loyalty to one’s country is predominantly loyalty to one’s compatriots and to the cultural (or perhaps linguistic and religious) traditions of that country, but also perhaps loyalty to that patch of the earth itself. Such loyalty clearly has a rooted basis in our moral experience, and in its benign, non-exclusive and non-ideological form may be defined as patriotism. I would suggest that patriotism involves an embodied sense of one’s relation to a particular ancestry, ethnicity, environment, language and culture, to deny which would be as fruitless as denying our bodies. Those who assume, explicitly or implicitly, that they are neutral in these respects must be deluded, for there is nobody with a body, for example, who can label other people ‘ethnic’ whilst they are not, or assume that their regional or class-specific language is the default and other people speak ‘dialects’.

For my own part, then, I try to acknowledge that I am an Englishman. What’s more, I’m a middle class educated Englishman subject to a particular set of cultural assumptions that go with that background. Although my culture and language are increasingly part of a globalised norm that tends to assume itself to be the default, these norms are actually very specific in their origins. Standard British English, which I use when writing, is just the one of many dialects of English that happens to have become dominant, but if you were hearing me speaking instead of reading, my delivery would be more obviously influenced by my physical state, background and environment, for example including a mildly northern English pronunciation. My geographical environment – that of an ecologically robust, damp, maritime, temperate, fertile, and heavily populated corner of Europe – is also only one of many specific geographical environments that help to form people’s cultural responses and assumptions, not some sort of default normality. I love the landscape and cultural heritage of England and embrace that specificity.

However, nationalism as normally understood, though made meaningful by this embodied patriotism, contains an additional absolute or metaphysical element: a belief in the absolute identity and value of the nation-state. Since belief in the nation-state means belief in the absoluteness of a set of boundaries and the value of what lies within those boundaries, it is a form of metaphysical field-belief (a belief about absolute boundaries). Such field-beliefs are in no way a necessary accompaniment of patriotism, for I can love my country without believing either that it should necessarily have particular boundaries or political organisation, or that the value of its assumed interests overrides other values. I could continue to love England, for example, whether it became part of a European superstate or whether it was divided up into micro-states, and even if the interests of its inhabitants in maintaining a particular level of wealth or land ownership needed to be greatly compromised to share that wealth or land with newcomers.

Such metaphysical field beliefs can be spotted as absolute assumptions that are required to reach particular policy judgements. For example, the belief that ‘national interests’ override the interests of those in other countries assumes an absolute rather than incremental distinction between the interests of those in one nation and those in another. This results, for example, in conflicts over resources or in immigration restrictions. If we compare these assumptions about national interests with those of an individual, they are equivalent to ‘self-interest’ – that is, a frozen representation of a self and its desires that is identified with at a particular time. Not only do the inhabitants of a country not necessarily identify with the particular boundaries and interests its government represents on its behalf, but it may actively prefer foreign ones, just as individuals may identify with others rather than themselves. The problem is thus not that nation-states, like individuals, have particular desires so much as that the represented context of those desires is assumed to be absolute and eternal. Nor is the problem with boundaries as such: nations need boundaries as a basis of action, just as individuals do, but those boundaries do not have to be absolutised. Boundaries on a political map, like those in language, can be provisional, accepted for practical reasons in the ongoing recognition that those reasons may change.

Though nationalism can be defined by this absolutised loyalty, it may also incorporate a range of other values depending on the circumstances. If a part of an existing nation-state demands independence, the emphasis is likely to be on liberty. If one nation is oppressed by another, the emphasis will be on fairness. If compatriots are suffering, the emphasis may be on care. If the nation has a clear leader such as a monarch, the authority of that leader is likely to be closely tied to loyalty to the nation. If the nation is closely associated with a specific religion, notions of sanctity are also likely to play a part. However, in each of these cases it would also be possible to detach the other value from the nationalistic beliefs. For example, in the recent referendum in Scotland on independence (2014), values of liberty and fairness were important for many Scots who voted ‘yes’ to independence, and who felt oppressed by the rule of Conservatives from London that they had not elected; but it would be possible to protest against this constraint and unfairness without tying it to the concept of Scottish nationhood.

The metaphysical elements of nationalism become even more pronounced in its extreme form as Fascism. Fascism not only maintains absolute field-beliefs in the nation, but also in the race that inhabits that nation. The difficulties of creating and maintaining an absolute division between a pure in-race and an inferior out-race became rather ludicrously apparent in Nazi Germany, where the stereotype of the pure Aryan did not fit Hitler himself very well, and Nazi men who were sexually attracted by Jewish women resorted to accusing them of using black magic to bewitch them rather than admitting their compatible humanity. Ideas of sanctity also tend to get embroiled in those of racial purity, with whatever lies beyond the zone of racial purity arousing disgust. Fascism also relies on the absolute authority of a leader in a way that supports totalitarianism.

Nationalism can be distinguished from most other political ideologies  in its central reliance on specific metaphysical beliefs, rather than on value foundations that may or may not be absolutised (such as the care and fairness that are central to socialism). This means that there are also counter-beliefs to nationalism that deny these beliefs, such as internationalism and cosmopolitanism, which deny national boundaries or deny the exclusivity of value involved in national interests. Like most metaphysical denials, these are mistaken if they simply assert the opposite, in this case that national boundaries have no justification at all or that the desires of national groups have no value. Internationalism becomes metaphysical when it denies patriotism and the experience of loyalty when rebounding from the dogmas of nationalism. Our international sympathies can become gradually extended in a way that is integrated from an embodied starting point, but this process can be blocked rather than aided by a discontinuous leap to a wholly international perspective.

Internationalism thus offers a false middle way between the extremes of conflicting national absolutes, when it is instead patriotism that offers an experience of loyalty to country as a value foundation in experience. One’s patriotism might potentially expand to include a positive identification with all other nations, but I do not need to have necessarily experienced all other nations and find them meaningful to adopt a Middle Way response to my own. Genuine internationalism thus needs to develop from the roots of a non-exclusive identification with one’s own country, and the confusion or repression of such roots is more likely to result in shallow nationalism than in genuine internationalism – just as the denial of one’s individual desires does not create the conditions for loving others.

Of related interest: Cosmopolitanism

Picture: Medal ceremony from the 1984 Olympics (Creative Commons: Wikimedia Commons)

The meaning of meaning

[In recent months I have written very little by way of blogs on this site, due to being preoccupied with other matters – and, when I had the time, finding that I still lacked the creative momentum. However, I have already written large amounts of material on the Middle Way, particularly in the form of my books, and I have decided to start offering some selected extracts from my books as taster blogs. They will just be lightly edited to fit the blog form. This one comes from the beginning of Middle Way Philosophy 3: the Integration of Meaning. – Robert]

Although meaning has traditionally been separated into the two spheres of cognitive and emotional, Middle Way Philosophy involves an inclusive and unifying account of these two spheres of meaning. In every practical situation in which a flesh-and-blood person finds a given symbol meaningful, there must be both cognitive and emotional aspects to that meaning.

By “cognitive” meaning, I mean the recognition of symbols, particularly but not only words, in terms of semantic equivalences: for example, dictionary definitions. The bare recognition that a cross represents Christianity is cognitive. The understanding that the word “cross” refers to the shape of two rectangles overlapping in their centres, with the longer sides of each at 90° to the other, is also cognitive. The ability to recognise a cross and pick it out from other shapes tests understanding of its cognitive meaning.

Cognitive meaning (when treated in isolation in its own limited terms of reference) ultimately depends on the truth conditions of propositions (i.e. the conditions in which a statement would be true), even when it is applied to the meaning of a non-verbal symbol. That is because my ability to cognitively identify a cross depends on my ability to judge whether a statement like “This is a cross” or “This is not a cross” is “true” or “false” in terms I would accept in my representation of the world.  “Cross” by itself doesn’t tell me what that judgement would be, because it doesn’t tell me whether a cross is being claimed to be present at all, or where it is. The dictionary definition of a cross can only follow from this ability to tell what is a cross and what is not in the terms in which we accept the word. This is the standard account given in the theory of meaning used by analytic philosophers, which applies exclusively to cognitive meaning.Cross_in_the_Sky_Photo Dharma CCA2-0

This cognitive meaning also applies to the merely cognitive interpretation of non-verbal symbols, or what have often been called “signs”. A “sign” in this sense is just a non-verbal indicator of a verbal equivalent: a cross means “Christianity”; a red traffic light means “stop”. Because our understanding of these signs depends on our ability to relate them to verbal equivalents, and those verbal equivalents depend for their meaning on truth-conditions, the cognitive meaning of a sign also depends on truth-conditions. The same can be said for signs in a wider sense. If I think the unpleasant noise of a violin is a sign that it is badly tuned, or a footprint is a sign of deer, then these meanings depend similarly on my ability to relate the sign I am experiencing to a verbal equivalent, and ultimately to recognise whether propositions like “The violin is badly tuned” or “Deer have been here” are “true” or “false” in terms I would accept.

By “emotional” meaning, on the other hand, I mean our responses to symbols: responses that vary in intensity. Regardless of my appreciation of its cognitive meaning, a given statement may be of enormous interest to me, or of practically none. If I am waiting expectantly for an announcement that is crucially important to the fulfilment of my desires: say, the announcement of whether or not I get a job I’ve been interviewed for, or an indication of whether a sexual interest is reciprocated, the language that follows is highly meaningful. On the other hand, routine and formalistic language is likely to be of very little interest, because we know that the person giving it is only going through the motions: for example, the safety information at the beginning of a flight (unless it’s your first flight), or the legal terms and conditions that most people don’t read before installing new software. I can fully understand such language in a cognitive sense, and yet barely register it, because it has little emotional meaning for me.LOT_1968_safety_instruction_card_(front)

Emotional meaning is not ultimately dependent on interpretation in terms of propositions, or indeed on interpretation of any kind. It means what it means because of its impact on us, regardless of whether it is a misunderstanding of what the speaker or writer meant to communicate. Emotional meaning can be attached to single decontextualised words (think of “vomit” or “blood”) and to symbols, or to anything that we choose to interpret as meaningful. The emotional meaning of a cross as a symbol may depend on our background and relationship to Christianity, and may be very negative or very positive. Our emotional relationship to a favourite tree on a frequent walk, or a certain gurgle made by a baby, is also a matter of emotional meaning, despite the fact that the symbol to which we attach this significance may be purely personal and not recognised by others as symbolic.

My central thesis about the relationship between these two spheres of meaning is that neither is ever wholly absent. Although our experience of certain symbols may be overwhelmingly dominated by one, and the other may be very attenuated, we can never justifiably claim of any symbol that it has no cognitive or no emotional significance whatsoever. This is because, in the concrete situation in which people experience meaning, both are required to some degree.

This is perhaps most obvious in the case of language that depends strongly on its cognitive meaning, where its emotional meaning may be attenuated. A bored school-child, who is supposed to be reading a textbook which she is quite capable of understanding but has no interest in, will find that textbook as meaningless as any set of undeciphered hieroglyphs. Attention is simply a necessary condition for meaning, and attention has to be motivated by desire. In the absence of such desire, that meaning is absent. As soon as some attention is brought to bear on the symbols, though, cognitive meaning can also follow.

I set aside here the abstracted scenario assumed by analytic philosophers, who assume that a proposition can have meaning by itself, even if it is not a meaning for anyone. Analytic writings on meaning are full of examples like “Paris is the capital of France if and only if Paris is the capital of France”. This is the locus classicus of analytic philosophy abstracting itself into irrelevance by totally disregarding all the conditions in experience by which people find “Paris is the capital of France” to be meaningful. People find it meaningful because they have an understanding of the terms, yes, but also because they find the claim worthy of attention.

Where symbols depend much more strongly on emotional meaning, however, there also needs to be some element of cognitive significance present, however attenuated. Take the example mentioned earlier of a favourite tree. That tree is meaningful to me because I frequently pass it and admire it. I do not merely perceive it, but also accord it a specific significance. So although the significance of the tree consists mainly on my admiration of it, it also has a cognitive significance that could be given a verbal equivalent, such as “That’s one of my favourite trees.”

There is obviously a vague boundary line between perception and meaning, particularly as perception is not a uniform appraisal of everything in view, but is already guided by what might be taken to be at least a potential form of meaning. The boundary-line could be roughly defined by desire, because I define meaning in general as a habitual attachment of desire to a symbol. If I have no particular desires in relation to a landscape, say, I may perceive that landscape without attaching any particular meaning to any features of it. However, if I pick out an ash tree because I want to impress my companion with my tree-identification skills, or because its shape has an aesthetic appeal to me, the intercession of desire has simultaneously created a symbol. Where there is a symbol, there is meaning rather than merely perception.

This raises the question of how far the capacity for meaning of this kind is a unique capacity of persons: “persons” generally meaning, in practice, human beings with sufficient sentience, although theoretically extending to other possible persons such as intelligent aliens. There seems to be no good reason to limit meaning to persons, because other animals seem capable of experiencing both the emotional and the cognitive aspects of meaning. Obviously particular objects have an emotional impact on animals: for example, a dog may signal its desire for a walk by bringing its lead that it associates with walks. However, this same example has a cognitive element because the lead, for the dog, is obviously a sign for “walk” and could be given a verbal equivalent. The verbal equivalent does not have to be given by the dog for it to have that significance for the dog. The cognitive meaning of “I want to go for a walk” as the meaning of the dog’s gesture of bringing the lead ultimately depends on its truth conditions, but not on the dog being able to analyse the truth conditions, any more than it does for the majority of human beings, who would also (if they have not studied any philosophy) probably not be able to analyse the meaning of their language in terms of truth conditions. Meaning, even when understood representationally (i.e. as purely cognitive), thus provides us with no discontinuous justification for discrimination against animals purely on grounds of species. Animals may have a less sophisticated understanding of meaning, but their relationship to meaning only varies incrementally from ours.

The analysis of meaning in terms of cognitive and emotional spheres is of limited value. I think a Lakoffian account of meaning in terms of bodily experience and metaphorical extension is generally more helpful. However, I do not regard the Lakoffian account as inconsistent with cognitive and emotional accounts of meaning, provided that they are understood in the inclusive way I have described here. What Lakoff and Johnson effectively do is to explain why symbols have an emotional (or, more accurately, a bodily) impact on us. Their work on metaphorical extension also helps to explain how the cognitive element of meaning can be related to bodily meaning without appealing to “truth” or “falsity” of an abstract or metaphysically defined sort. However, I have started by relating these two spheres of meaning in order to create some continuity between my account of meaning and those widely used, and to show that my account does not contradict them so much as put them into a wider context.

“Representationalism” is not simply a representational or truth-dependent account of meaning, but the belief (or assumption) that such an account is an exhaustive one, or that meaning is entirely cognitive. Similarly, its less common opposite “expressivism” is not just the belief that meaning is emotional, but the belief that it is entirely emotional and has no cognitive element. The Middle Way can be applied here to avoid such metaphysical accounts of meaning, which are absolute, dualising, and non-incremental. However, like many other metaphysical beliefs, representationalism and expressivism are based on the recognition of certain conditions, the interpretation of which has been over-extended and absolutised. We can reject both representationalism and expressivism, whilst simultaneously accepting that language and other symbols both represent and express. Provided that we maintain an awareness of both, these explanations can both be incorporated into a wider account of meaning.


  1. Cross in the Sky by Photo Dharma (CCA 2.0)
  2. LOT safety card from 1968