Intentional Realism

I took a short break from posting about the book I’m working on to review Purser’s book on mindfulness—which seems to have been of little interest generally.  Except for a handful of nasty personal emails, and some incomprehensibly stupid discussion of my post elsewhere on the internet, there wasn’t a whole lot of response. It seems I’m just not capable of making my concerns with mindfulness clear to most people.

Which is, of course, my biggest concern regarding the book I’m working on: can I make my point clear to my target audience?  So I’m going to post a draft of one of the short chapters from Part II of the book (see the outline: Working Outline).  I hope any interested readers will let me know if my arguments, and my prose, are clear enough to be effective.  


Chapter 7: Realism

It is a common assumption that we can never know anything objectively, as it is in itself; that we have access merely to our distorted perception of external reality.  Remember the discussion of the Kantian concept of the noumena? That the “thing as such” is beyond our access, and we only ever deal with the limited concepts possible for the human mind?  Our goal here is to escape this error.  It is an error that has long baffled attempts to correctly understand how ideology works. 

The goal of this chapter is to shift the founding assumption from which we begin when thinking about realism—that is, about what it means to be able to say of something that it is real.  Remember that, as with all the chapters in this section, I am not going to make an extensive argument for a particular kind of realism; it would take a book longer than this to make such an argument in a way anyone versed in contemporary philosophy would understand, much less be convinced by.  Our goal here is simply to point up the usually implicit assumptions from which we begin, and to suggest that we try beginning from different ones.

There is a universal assumption that realism requires objectivity. We must be able to see something from what is often called a “God’s-eye view” in order for our account of it to be realist.  Short of this, we are seeing only a distorted mental image of the thing, and so not seeing “reality” at all. And since this God’s-eye view is impossible, realism is impossible.

But remember my analogy of the x-ray.  When we x-ray an arm to see if it is broken, we are not at all looking at the arm “objectively.” We are looking at it with an intention, and are purposefully distorting the image of it. Nevertheless, what we find is very much the reality of the current state of the arm!  

Realism, as I mean it, makes certain claims, each of which could be argued for cogently, but which I will simply state as basic assumptions to start:

  1. That there are things that exist independently of our knowledge about them.
  2. These things will impact us in ways determined by their own metaphysical properties, regardless of how, or whether, we know about them.
  3. We can gain objective knowledge of such things—which is to say knowledge of what the metaphysical natures of the things are regardless of their role in our intentions.

This either seems obvious or absurd to most people today, either in need of no argument or so implausible that no argument for these assumptions will be given a hearing.  I will try to give a minimal defense, and simply ask that we make the attempt to think from these assumptions and see what happens.

The more difficult claim to argue for, thought, will be that these assumptions also apply to Md things:

  1. Md things may have both causes and effects of which we remain unaware.
  2. They will often impact us in ways we do not intend or expect.
  3. We can gain objective knowledge of these Md things, including of those causes and effects which are beyond our initial intentions and expectations.

I don’t know how evident these things are to you at this point in reading this book, but they seem to be difficult to grasp even for those who seem to be arguing for realism.  So I am going to offer a defense of this position in an unusual way: by defending it against the errors made by those who are claiming to support the realist position.

Let’s begin with the example I mentioned in the introduction to Part II, from the book Retrieving Reality by Hubert Dreyfus and Charles Taylor.  They are attempting to recover the possibility of realism from the general philosophical position dominant today, which would deny it.  However,  toward the end of the book they discuss the matter of whether a thing actually has any kind of objective essence of its own, separate from what we think of it, and conclude that in order to save realism we will have to admit that it does not.  They use the example of gold.  We might think that it is in one sense objectively true of gold that its defining feature, what makes it gold, is that it is the element with the atomic weight of 79.  This, they think, is a mistake.  Because “any property of gold, even, for instance, where it was mined, could be picked out as essential by some culture” (151), and there is no objective way to decide such disagreements.  On their account of what they call “plural realism,” it might just be true that “the Egyptians might well have revealed properties of gold only accessible through their religious practices.”

The point here is that Taylor and Dreyfus will not maintain the distinction between Mi and Md, and so the only way they can find to save realism at all is to allow that it is perfectly likely that “all attempts fail to bring the different ways of interrogating reality into a single mode of questioning that yields as unified picture or theory (so they stay plural)”(154).

To me, this seems obviously absurd.  Let me state, as clearly as I am able, why.

It seems clear enough to me that this is a conflation of the intentional purpose for which we use gold, and the thing in itself as it exists outside of any human intentions.  There are certain things that gold can do because of its physical properties, and we may want to make use of its different capacities in different cultural practices. Maybe the fact that it does not tarnish or oxidize is important, or its tendency to turn purple when mixed with certain other elements. But none of these uses are essential to the gold itself.  We certainly can arrive at clear and correct scientific knowledge of what makes gold different from other kinds of matter, even though we may want this knowledge for a number of different ideological reasons.

Once we sort out the reason we want to know about gold from the nature of the gold, we realize we can in fact gain correct knowledge about both kinds of things: both what the gold is in itself, and how the culture we are engaged in operates.  We will often do this only when the gold fails to accomplish what we intended it to, or when there is some contention about which of its possible uses is the one we ought to desire.  But we can gain this knowledge about reality, even if we gain it for some human intention that is not at all objective.  We could, for instance, learn more about the life cycle of trees and how they exist as a metaphysical object—that is, how they tend to go on being what they are despite sometimes adverse conditions (see Chapter 2); but we may only learn that as a way to make it possible to harvest more or better wood than we had been able to previously.  When we undertake such learning tasks, there is very much a non-objective intention at work; however, we may wind up with some real knowledge about both the Mi object and the Md way of meeting our needs for shelter in the process.  

The failure to guard agains the ontological collapse lead to a denial of realism even by those keen to argue for the possibility of realism.  We don’t need “plural realism.” That amounts only to a conflation of Mi and Md aspects of reality, and right back to the Kantian problem we began with: the idea that we cannot really know a thing, only our particular distorted image of that thing.  Rather, what I am arguing for is that we know the thing for a reason, but that doesn’t require that our concept of the thing be incorrect.  We cannot, for instance, decide that gold is a nutritious food, or is useful to make shoes out of.  Or perhaps we could, but the results will be bad and we will come to question this particular intention.  Picking out where it was mined as the essential property of gold would be such a mistake, exactly because where it was mined has no effect at all on the capacities of the gold.

Now let’s consider another kind of error common to the defense of realism: the refusal to make explicit the human intention at work in some particular practice.  This error also leads us right back to a kind of relativism, and forfeits the realist position. 

I’ll use an example from the well known literary critic Stanley Fish.  In 1996, Fish wrote an editorial in the New York Times responding to a popular scandal in academia at the time—one still often cited today.  Alan Sokal, a physicist, had written an essay that was mostly made up of nonsense and gibberish, and sent it to the journal Social Text, a journal advocating a social-constructionist position.  Sokal took it that the acceptance of his nonsensical article proved that in fact social constructionism was a lot of nonsense.  His position was that any social constructionist would clearly deny that “There is a world; its properties are not merely social constructions; facts and evidence to matter.”  His claim is that no “sane person would contend otherwise,” but since social constructionists did contend otherwise they must not be quite sane.

Sokal was clearly missing the point here.  Social constructionism does not necessarily deny the properties of the world.  It just adds that there is also a Md world, which is in fact socially constructed, and which does have real causal powers.  Fish denies that any of Sokal’s targets would, in fact, deny the reality, the non-sociality, of the properties of the world: “none of his targets would ever make such statements.”  

Unfortunately, Fish is wrong here.  Many social constructionists do make exactly the kinds of claims Sokal suggests a sane person could not make.  The psychologist Kenneth Gergen, author of the widely used textbook An Invitation to Social Constructionism, for instance, makes exactly that claim. In a talk at the Taos Institute that is posted as a video on various internet sites, he explains social constructionism in exactly the way Sokal fears. He uses the example of a water bottle, and suggests that the water bottle has no real nature, that it just is whatever we choose to say it is.  We can discuss it as a collection of molecules, as an object of art, as a talisman with magical powers—and it just is that thing because we think it is.  This, of course, gets social constructionism exactly wrong. It assumes that we have a mind that freely chooses how to make the world it wants, without being socially constructed at all.  The point of social constructionism, however, is not always taken to be something so absurd. Many social constructionists would claim that the real point is that our values and intentions are shaped by the use of water bottles; that is, that once water becomes a commodity sold for profit in a way that destroys the environment—once even the most basic necessity of life is commodified in this way—then our possible intentions in the world are constructed by this practice we are obliged to engage in.  The point is not that we can decide to grant the water bottle magic powers, but that the practice of bottling water alters the world we live in, in ways that have real causal powers beyond what we might be aware of.

However, even if we were to dismiss folks like Gergen, and focus on the more intelligent social constructionists Fish seems to have in mind, we are still left with an important error.  Because Fish employs the analogy of the rules of baseball to defend social constructionism.  As he says, “balls and strikes are both socially constructed and real.”  His evidence for their reality  is that “some people get $3.5 million for producing balls and strikes or for preventing their production.”  And he further argues that the “distinction between baseball and science is not…so firm.”  Like baseball, which is made up of humanly created rules, the truth of a scientific fact is in large part up to humans: “scientists don’t…present their competing accounts to nature and receive from her an immediate and legible verdict.  Rather, they hazard hypotheses that are then tested by other workers in the field in the context of evidentiary rules.”  This is, as Fish puts it, “the way the game goes.”  That is, the decision that a scientific hypothesis fits the “evidentiary rules” will determine who gets the money to continue producing their hypotheses.  In this sense, the “facts yielded by both [baseball and science] will be social constructions and be real.”  Real, apparently, because they cause a certain distribution of money (the only effect Fish seems to consider significant proof).  

This, then, is a defense of realism that collapses right back into relativism.  It does so because Fish does not want to consider the implications of a social practice, the intentions it is meant to fulfill, beyond the obvious one of getting others to give one money.

But surely baseball has many social functions beyond the distribution of millions to a small number of players.  And just as surely, the proof of a scientific discovery is often not up to the acceptance of the rules of the game, but to the actual concrete effects in the world.  If the polio vaccine had failed to actually stop polio, it would hardly matter that Salk played the game of science by the rules.

Now, it is possible that often science does work the way Fish suggests, more concerned with playing by the rules than with reality.  I would even suggest the fear that this is true might be what is really motivating Sokal’s response.  But when this happens, it is not to be taken as a model of how science ought to work, but as an unfortunate case of Md realities obscuring Mi realities. As when the Pope decides that Galileo must be wrong, and the Earth just is at the center of the universe.  

Consider the situation faced by Einstein, and many other physicists, at the beginning of the twentieth century.  Physics had become a profitable gentleman’s profession, and little progress was being made.  Einstein describes an encounter with the chief editor of the journal Annalen der Physik:

To two pertinent objections which I raised about one of his theories and which demonstrate a direct defect in his conclusions, he responds by pointing out that another (infallible) colleague of his shares his opinion. (Cited in Stone, Einstein and the Quantum)

The problem here is one common to academic fields today. If no actual results are expected, an incorrect understanding can be held in place by mere “evidentiary rules.”  This is not uncommon in psychology, for instance, where proof of a claim is never even expected, and the failure of a therapeutic technique to relieve symptoms is simply called “empirical validation.”  And perhaps the quantum theory which Einstein helped create would not have been accepted had it not been for a particular demand for results.  The intentions to build an atomic bomb, which could not be done on the old model of physics, ultimately forced a radical changing of the guard in physics faculties around the world.  

Now, we may not see the atomic bomb as a laudable intention.  But the point is that we begin to access reality only once we have intentions we hope to fulfill, which we cannot fulfill with just any construal of the world. The intention to pass on good jobs to friends and family members may have required the old-guard physicists to ignore actual empirical facts. And they did produce a very real social institution. But it was not one functioning to address Mi reality at all.  That is, we can gain real knowledge of the discipline of physics once we address fully its intentions at a given time, whether those intentions are making a bomb or creating a prestigious profession. We can then tell whether is is producing a Md reality, or describing a Mi one.

It is important, then, to avoid the errors we have seen here. We can defend realism only if we do not make the mistake of ontological collapse and do not fear the addressing of all the intentions at work in a practice.  

But there is one more essential assumption I need to add. Something we have already touched upon, but will need to be borne in mind if we hope to make a case for realism. That is the reality of objects.  I mean here something like ordinary objects in the world, things like rabbits and water and trees.  We need to bear in mind what we said about the metaphysical reality of such objects, their irreducibility to any ultimate and final “really real” basic elements.  

We tend to think that realism must mean getting to some ultimately “really real” level, some final cause that is determinant of all else, like the big bang, or subatomic particles.  But realism depends, instead, on accepting that middle-sized objects have real causal powers.  We will make more progress when we understand that any model of what subatomic particles is depends, ultimately, on a theoretical account of what we can see occurring at the “macro” level.  The Nobel Prize winning physicist Gerard ’t Hooft wants to go In Search of the Ultimate Building Blocks, but even he has to admit that on the standard interpretation “it is senseless to search for such a reality. The quantum mechanical rules by themselves, and the actual observations performed by the detectors, are the only realities we are allowed to talk about”(13).  In short, and overstating just a bit, the best realist model is concerned not with ultimates, but with the real effects, on the success of our intentions.  The subatomic particles are only models useful to help us better predict what will happen in our CD players or cellphones.  We can never detect any of them directly, we can only determine whether they serve as useful concepts to help us achieve our intentions.  As ’t Hooft puts it, “even the simplest molecules, such as those of water or alcohol, can often better be studied by doing simple experiments with the substances themselves than by doing ab initio calculations starting with our equations”(8). 

One way to think of this is as a return to the old fashioned metaphysics of Aristotle.  What is it we do when we try to understand reality?  We must arrive at some general categories into which we can organize things so that we become better able to make use of them.  We must find the underlying type which is represented by a particular instance.  If we have done a good job of creating such categories, we will be able to successfully fulfill our intentions.  Here’s how Alistair MacIntyre describes this:

Aristotle distinguishes between epistēmē, scientific knowledge, which involves universals and phronēsis, practical intelligence, which is concerned with particulars as well. But inability to exercise phronēsis can have two different sources.  We may fail to identify the characteristics of a particular which are relevant to the actions that we should be about to perform either for lack of experience of the relevant set of particulars or from inadequate epistēmē, so that we do not understand the universal, the concept of the form this particular exemplifies. (92) 

Lots of Greek words, so let me explain.  What is at stake in Aristotelian metaphysics is always an assumption that there is something we want to do—some “action” we are “about to perform.”  We gain practical knowledge of how to get something done by engaging with empirical objects.  But we may sometimes fail to get that thing done because we misunderstand what kind of thing a particular object actually is.  

Let’s think of an example.  We want to make bricks, and have experience digging loam and heating it to make bricks. But now your bricks don’t hold. They tend to dissolve in the rain.  The error here might be a lack of epistēmē, an inadequate idea of the kind of thing you are using. The loam may look like other loam you’ve used, but may contain inadequate amounts of clay to hold together.  What we need, then, is to gain better scientific knowledge of the categories into which we can divide soil.  Of course, we could have such adequate scientific knowledge, but lack the practical ability to locate or recognize them out in the field.  So we need some combination of practical skill and theoretical knowledge, and an intention to pursue, in order to gain any correct knowledge of Mi objects.

The overall point here, what we need to take away from this discussion of realism in order to eventually get to our understanding of ideology, is that reality exists at the level of mid-size objects with which we can interact.  We don’t need to go down to the “ultimate building blocks” to find reality.  In fact, to do so is to mistake the model for reality itself.  That is, this kind of metaphysics would suggest that what is ultimately real is phenomenal reality.  That the kinds of subatomic particles we need to theorize are merely what Aristotle would call the archē: the conceptual forms we use to enable us to better accomplish the actions we intend.  That is to say, the reason it works better to investigate water or alcohol directly is that these just are the ultimate building blocks.  Things like neutrinos, for example, are simply necessary concepts to avoid impossible contradictions in the existing models we use to manipulate the physical world.  Now, I won’t argue for this implication here, because it would take a whole book in itself and the argument would shock and horrify any science teachers who might read it.  But we will need to bear with the possibility that it might be true that basic elements are not made up of subatomic particles, but that metaphysical objects interact in ways we explain by using models that include concepts of subatomic particles.

However, for our purposes here we need only accept that realism means we can gain knowledge of what scientists sometimes call medium-sized object; but we can only gain this knowledge if we are invested in trying to accomplish something.  That is, contrary to the common assumption, a disinterested God’s-eye view of the world would fail to give us any knowledge of things as they are in themselves.  It is only once we engage the world with some intention that we can begin to get actual knowledge, and realism becomes possible.  Recall, once again, the example of the x-ray of a broken arm.  Objectivity, on this understanding, risks falling into what Aristotle would call an ineffectual epistēmē, a good theory that may be elegant and formally coherent, but which doesn’t correspond to the external world.  As in Stanley Fish’s example, when science relies on internal rules of debate, and forgets to engage with real actions of consequence, only then are we in danger of falling into relativism.  Realism, that is, requires intentions.  It is not impeded by our “biases,” but enabled by them.  

We gain knowledge because we often fail at our intentions, and can tell that we have failed.  Many things in the world happen that we do not expect, that don’t fit our construal of how the world works. Contrary to the naive version of social constructionism espoused by Gergen, we do not create the world in our concepts of it.  This will be important to keep in mind when we try to explain why ideology is not a prison trapping us in delusion, why it is in fact corrigible and empowering.  Our intentions are fundamental to our ideologies, but we often fail at them. And when we fail, we can gain new knowledge about reality, about how the Mi world works independently of our beliefs about it.  

We may also miss some of our intentions.  That is, there may be real effects of our practices we mostly remain unaware of.  Recall the discussion of The Hunger Games in the previous chapter.  We generally think we read novels for mere entertainment, and we do.  But we also create and consume fictions for the purpose of reproducing a particular construal fo the world necessary to our collective intentions—necessary to keep reproducing our existing way of organizing human life.  We often miss this part of the intention, but we can get it.  We do so when, as with The Hunger Games, we are surprised that a practice did not have the effect we expected it to have, and we try to examine why. Why, for instance, did the enormous popularity of this series of novels and films fail to produce a politically active and radically feminist generation of young adults? 

We can, then, also be realists about Md things.  We can gain correct knowledge of how Md things actually work, what effects they have in the world, beyond just the subjective assertions we usually stop at.  

But all this talk of mind independent and mind dependent kinds of things of course assumes something called a mind.  What exactly do we mean by that troubled term?  Now that we have shifted our assumptions about human nature, language, and realism (even if at this point you merely entertain my position hypothetically), we are in a position to engage this difficult term, and to explain what kind of thing a mind is.  

Again, if you want to pursue this question of realism, I will suggest some useful reading to fill out this short discussion.

Andrew Collier’s Critical Realism: an Introduction to Roy Bhaskar’s Philosophy (Verso, 1994) is fairly easy reading, as writing on this topic goes, and helps explain further some of the assumptions I am suggesting we adopt.

Christopher Norris’s On Truth and Meaning (Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006) is harder reading, but a good overall survey of the debate over realism, as well as his proposed defense of a realist position.  

Daniel Devereux’s essay “Particular and Universal in Aristotle’s Conceptions of Practical Knowledge”, (Review of Metaphysics 39, 1986) is helpful in explaining better than I have some of the classical concepts I’ve used to argue for realism.

Can Mindfulness Be Liberated?

The release of Ron Purser’s book McMindfulness inspired me to take a break from the chapter on hermeneutics I’m writing.  Although I will be making limited mention of things buddhisty in my book, I want to make some notes here about my thoughts on having (too quickly, perhaps) read this book.

It is encouraging to see someone take a thoroughly critical stance toward a profitable ideological project.  And no doubt difficult to do, in an age when almost all access to media is controlled by a few big corporations which are focused exactly on promoting such projects.  This book is accessible enough, and engaging enough in its accounts of various mindful practices, that it is possible it may provoke some reaction, and so some critical thought about the newest mantra of neoliberalism.  So, kudos to Purser and to Repeater Books for publishing it.

But, of course, I have some concerns.

To begin with, Purser makes it clear that he “do[es] not question the value of adapting mindfulness for therapeutic use, nor do[es he] deny that it can help people”(83).  My position on this has always been that in fact this is what we do need to question. That is, that mindfulness does not actually help most people, and those people whom it does “help” it helps to become horrendous human beings.

To some degree, Purser would seem to agree with my last statement.  The overwhelming force of his book is in its argument that mindfulness produces a passive subject trained to adapt to the world as it is and never question, and certainly not attempt to change, the social formation.  The good subject of neoliberalism blames herself for her suffering, and seeks to avoid even considering the possible existence of any social or material causes of human suffering outside of her own attitude, her own disposition. Such people may, if they are affluent enough, actually be happy enough as they go about the business of reproducing capitalist social relations. But what they are doing is clearly, even on Purser’s account, nothing more than profiting by enabling the oppression of others.  I can see how this is therapeutic, if we understand therapy as the adjusting of individuals to better serve the interests of global capitalism—that is, if we grasp that therapists are, as Purser says (quoting Fromm) “the priests of industrial society,” whose goal is “helping the person to become better adjusted to existing circumstance”(258).  Given the overall force of the argument, and the approving citation of Fromm, it would seem to me to be a contradiction to still maintain that “the therapeutic functions of mindfulness-based interventions are clearly of value” and so “we don’t need to stop using them” (258).

To be clear, what Purser is advocating is that we “need to do much more”(258). That is, that we should do mindfulness practice, but then add on some critical thinking which will enable active participation in the transformation of society.  My position is, and has always been (see my last attempt, a couple years ago, here:, that this is not possible. That is, that the goal of undertaking mindfulness is exactly to render the subject incapable of the “much more” that Purser, rightly I think, urges us to engage in.

So why this apparent contradiction?  Why the simultaneous acceptance of mindfulness as a necessary beginning in the midst of an overwhelming argument that beginning from there forecloses any hope of meaningful progress?

I think I can explain this contradiction by offering two objections to Purser’s critique, with the (admittedly faint) hope that this might get some discussion going.

First: What Purser so effectively critiques is the ostensible ideology of mindfulness. That is, he is right about what it is meant to do, and would do if it worked as advertised.  But my claim is that in fact this ostensible ideology is not what mindfulness really does, because the practice of mindfulness as described by all its advocates is not a possible thing for anyone to actually do. So, instead, we need to address the actual ideology of mindfulness, what it really does in practice.

Second: Purser’s acceptance of a postmodern relativist position, advocated by some Buddhist scholars, effectively rules out any hope of a real alternative to mindfulness, any hope of meaningful production of an ideological practice that resists and seeks to transform global capitalism.

Let’s look at a couple of examples of mindfulness in action, from Purser’s book, to try to clarify my point here.

What is really going on when someone teaches mindfulness?  As I suggested in the essay I linked to above, it is simply not possible to really non-judgmentally experience reality. All of our experiences are structured by our judgments about the world. That is, we have not perception at all that is not given its quality by our projects and intentions. Even a sunset, one of Kabat-Zinn’s examples, has a positive meaning only in relation to some construal of the world, some way of organizing our activities.  Consider the very different experience of the sunset described in the Tolstoy story “How Much Land Does a Man Need?”  Sunsets and flowers and baby’s smiles seem like pleasurable perceptions to us because of their role in the kind of social project we are engaged in.  I won’t argue for this at length here—but if you’re in doubt, consider taking the time to read Charles Taylor’s essay “Self-Interpreting Animals.”  Many people, of course, have made the case for this point, but Taylor does it compactly and clearly, I think.

So, what does that say about what is really happening when people are asked to engage in mindfulness?  Purser describes the attempt to force mindfulness on students depicted in the documentary movie Room to Breathe. What happens is never, in these cases, what the mindfulness facilitator wants to happen.  My own kids underwent forced “mindfulness” in school, and they simply ignored the instructor. My older daughter explained that everyone simply put their iPhones on their legs, and sat looking through their Instagram feed, or something.  My younger daughter, too young to have a phone, said she simply sat daydreaming, thinking about what she would do on the playground at recess. But, of course, they knew enough to sit quietly and not disrupt the boring and useless presentation. So, they were properly interpellated into the ideology that schools are meant to teach: we don’t care what you think, so long as you give the outward appearance of consent, so long as you don’t disrupt our routines.

In the documentary, several students do object.  When one simply states that “it’s boring,” the facilitator sends four students out of the room.  This, today, is a standard punishment in schools.  My own daughter once asked her music teacher why they were doing trivia contests in music class, instead of learning about music. She was sent to stand in the hall, and learned her lesson: questions will get you noticed in a bad way, and lead to bad grades on report cards.  My suggestion is that the participation of the remaining kids was simply their recognition that this was not an activity in which questioning was going to be allowed.

Of course, some students will always be enthusiastic about anything they are asked to do.  These are the students who learn quickly what the teacher wants them to say, and say it. They are the ones who seek the approving gaze of the Other, in Lacanian terms.  They want to be seen by the Other as the good subject, hoping in return to get the promised reward of social and financial success.  That is to say, those who enthusiastically announce that they loved being “mindful” actually just loved being approved of by the teachers and mindfulness facilitators.  They will, likely, also be the ones who will succeed in school, and then their active participation in mindfulness activities will be given the credit.  But in fact the real cause of both success in schools an active participation in such activities are that these are the good subjects, already well interpellated into the goals of the existing system, already sharing in the collective projects and intentions of global capitalism.

While we’re on the topic of ideology, let’s consider Purser’s chapter on “Mindful Employees.”  He suggests that “corporate mindfulness works very subtly to train good employees to serve their employers—and the broader system that supports them”, not by some “industrial form of brainwashing” but by “binding people’s inner lives to corporate success” (140). My suggestion, again, is that mindfulness could not possibly do this.  What does this is, of course, the paycheck.  Our “inner lives” are quite literally bound to corporate success by the fact that if they weren’t we couldn’t eat or pay our mortgages.  All that corporate mindfulness programs do is remind employees of exactly what kinds of behavior their continuing paychecks are dependent upon. As with the schools, those who participate most enthusiastically are not those who really succeed in achieving “pure non-judgmental perception of the present moment,” which is of course an impossibility; nor are they even those who have deluded themselves they can do this; no, they are those who have grasped that their employer is demanding that they claim to have done the impossible, even while fully knowing in cannot be done. Like the character in Koestler’s Darkness at Noonwho must finally admit he sees five lights while he and his interrogator know there are only four. The demand is not to be mindful, but to become willing to enthusiastically voice any falsehood you are asked to voice.

And in the same chapter, we can begin to see the fundamental underlying conceptual problem which leads to the contradiction structuring this whole book. This has to do, of course, with an incorrect concept of ideology—this is where this bears on the book I’m writing.

Purser cites Richard Payne’s assertion that “All tools are ideologies.  They exercise the values of their makers and instantiate those values in their users”(141).  The implication, here, is that ideology is a clever plot of corporate masterminds to brainwash their employees.  Of course, it is true, as Payne says, that all tools are ideologies. Every tool is meant to accomplish some project, to fulfill some intention, to help in producing the fundamental needs of humans in some particular way.  We invent plows because we have the idea of staying put and growing food instead of wandering and gathering food—and the use of that tool makes the person into someone who shares the values that motivated the invention of the tool. But we need not see this as necessarily oppressive, as a manipulation by some clever elite who knows they are controlling the mind of the masses. In fact, tools can often be put to uses beyond those of the existing organization of society—can be used to transform rather than simply reproduce it. This was clearly the danger, for instance, with higher levels of education and literacy, intended to facilitate capitalist growth but threatening to be turned to different uses by those now literate but not benefitting from capitalist. So, of course, literacy skills and critical thinking have been eliminated from the schools as the focus of education turns to job training.

What I’m suggesting here is that the inability to see that we are always ideological animals by nature, that we never live outside of ideology, that ideology does not trap and oppress us but empower us to engage the world, leads to the inability to see any real alternative to global capitalism in Purser’s book. There are lots of calls to be radical, to “engage with social historical and political realities,” but no real demonstration of what that might look like in practice. We must “assist victims of exploitation to resist the inhuman demands of capitalism”(259), but how, exactly?

Well, apparently by simply accepting postmodern relativism as an ultimate truth.  Purser argues that his better version of mindfulness, his “mindfulness liberated,” would be the recognition that, in the words of C.W. Huntington, “I, too, and nothing but a mental construct, a phantom’s mask covering the reality of change”(249).  This leads directly into the assumption that “to be somebody—anybody—is to continually suffer.” We can only stop suffering once we realize we don’t actually exist, but are an illusion projected onto a “ceaseless ungraspable stream of event that spontaneously emerge and disappear.”  We must forget, on this model, that we are metaphysically real entities with real causal powers.  Rather, we must see that all things “spontaneously” occur, and we have no real hope of agency at all.  (I’ll leave aside the baffling question of who exactly is making this error, who is being fooled by this construct—I’ve discussed that enough to tire even myself at this point.)

The dilemma Purser is left with is that he cannot figure a way out of the trap of suffering, since the “suffering caused by neoliberalism is…so amorphous, pervasive and systematic…the inner and outer worlds become confused” (255). The solution seems to be to “raise collective awareness of…class interests, social inequalities, and political oppression,” but how can we do this if the final cause of all (illusory) phenomena is merely the “ungraspable stream”?  If there are no metaphysically real objects with causal powers—like human subjects?

I think this error is what leads to the contradiction that generates this book, but also leads to the failure to do more than simply assert that we should, somehow, be more radical.

Let me offer a suggestion of what I think is more radical.  Purser collapses all kinds of what he calls “first order suffering” in a troubling way.  First-order suffering includes: “sickness, old age and death, chronic physical pain, conflicts in personal relationships, divorce, and loss”(255).  But does it really make sense to say that divorce and death have the same ontological status?  Isn’t one what I have called mind-dependent and the other mind-independent?  We need to maintain this distinction to begin to recognize the removable causes of suffering. We may need to learn to accept our mortality and stop agonizing over it, but we don’t need to learn to accept the institution of marriage, or, more importantly, the capitalist economy as something inevitable and beyond our control.  We need to be like that kid in the documentary, and object to the practices we are being asked to engage in.

But we need to do it in a more critical way, examining the actual ideological practices taking place not merely the ostensible ideologies.  Part of this would be learning to reject the approval of the gaze of the Big Other, which promises us things it can never deliver.  Only once we can reject the temptation to seek this approving gaze might we be able to do really radical things, like form unions of the precariat to demand a universal living wage to all regardless of employment. No existing gaze will approve such action—it will need to be motivated in mutual recognition, in the approval of small-O “others” who are our equals.

Of course, as I’ve said before, mindfulness does “work” in some sense. It does help the affluent to more easily accept that it is okay to participate in global capitalism, to benefit from it, and not to question its effects. It teaches them they are better people when they do this.  It is simply not the case, as Purser believes, that “individual happiness seems hollow unless all human beings are free of oppression, poverty, and violence”(260).  The function of mindfulness is exactly to make such happiness seem not hollow but full. It works. It just works not by giving access to pure and non-judgmental perceptions, but by constructing an approving gaze.  For this reason, it will never work to go on with mindfulness, as Purser suggests, and then add on some critical analysis of the causes and conditions enabling our current social formation.  The task of mindfulness is exactly to construct subjects for whom such analysis is impossible.


Brains and Minds (and practice)

This short post was motivated by some discussions I’ve had lately about Buddhist “practice.”  I want to remember to include this point in my chapter on the nature of “mind.”

Over the years of posts, here and on Speculative Non-buddhism (and in my contribution to the book Cruel Theory|SublimePractice), I have often been accused, often with considerable rancor, of failing to address “practice.”  This used to puzzle me, because it was what I always thought I was doing.  It took me several years to figure out just what people were actually objecting to.

What people want, when they come to Western Buddhism, is a technique that will give them some kind of effect that is in the register of what I call mind-independent reality.  The goal is to alter the brain, and to do so in such a way that it will make one “feel” better in some way.  This is sort of the same desire as the dream of an actually effective anti-depressant.  Just change my brain so that I will be happy all the time, without having to do any thinking or make any intentional changes in the world.  Give me a drug-free permanent buzz.  

There are, of course, ways to change the brain. But none of them will guarantee such a buzz.  I remember reading an article when I was a psych major about how London cabbies, who used to be required to memorize the entire map of London to get licensed, showed actual physiological changes in the brain.  So, sure, we can change the brain. But first we need to decide whether that change will actually be for the better.  That part is the mind-dependent register of reality, and does not require any long-term changes to the brain. It requires thinking carefully, in concepts, about causes and effects.  

My idea of a good “practice,” then, is one that changes the mind, not the brain.  That can be done with some intense effort, usually requiring other people engaged in dialogue (written texts will do, but I’ve found that dialogue about those texts speeds progress).  One can change one’s mind fairly quickly—in a few months of intensive study and thought.  Changing one’s brain may take longer, but it also has less dramatic results.

Think of the enormous change to our mind when we first come to understand the causes that give rise to some phenomenon in the world.  This could be anything from discovering how the solar system works to understanding human psychology.  Our ability to act in the world expands enormously with every such advance. 

On the other hand, a decade of often physically tortuous ascetic practices can make small changes to the structure of the brain, which have been shown to make us less susceptible to noticing what is occurring in our environment. Many think this makes them less “distractable,” and so more “mindful” and more content or whatever.  

Why would we be willing to devote long years for such a small change, but not short months for such enormous changes?  

Perhaps the simple answer is that we think only physical changes are “really real.”  We don’t like the idea that our thoughts are real and have real causal powers.  

But I think there is also a component of just plain fear.  Many people seem to want to continue in the beliefs they have always held, and not be responsible for deciding what to believe.  That decision would make us much too responsible for the world we live in, and is unsettling.  Last night, I was at a meeting of people proclaiming their belief in God, and accusing atheists of stubbornly refusing to accept the obvious evidence of God’s existence.  Every one who spoke, without exception, insisted that they have no idea at all what “God” is, but they know he (always a he) must exist—they have been told so since childhood, and see no reason to question this.  I see this as a fear to be overcome.  We want to continue in beliefs that have been offered to us, because to question them is to become responsible for what we believe, and will demand ever more intellectual work.  

I always think of Joseph Priestly when I consider this.  Despite being credited with discovering oxygen, Priestly refused to believe in it.  For the rest of his life he worked to prove that what he had produced was “depholgistonated” air.  I’ve been to his house in Northumberland Pennsylvania, where some of his scientific equipment is preserved.  It has always seemed sad to me that he could never bear to give up on the old Aristotelian model of the world, even if it meant denying the evidence of his own empirical experiments.  

To accept the evidence of his experiments would have required him to make a change in his mind, to join in with the collective mind of many of his contemporaries who understood the ramifications of his discoveries.  This change is often the most frightening of all—and is what those who want a “practice” in the sense of a technique to alter the brain are trying to avoid.  

So my suggestion is to stop trying to change the brain, and to do the work of changing the mind.  It will lead to much greater overall happiness, because it will lead to much greater agency (on this, see my last post on “Human Nature”).

I have been arguing for a practice all along.  Just not the kind of practice most people involved in Buddhism (or, apparently, Christianity…or psychology…) are looking for.