Thursday, July 28, 2011

Experience vs. non-experience: reading Montaigne in Scotland

That Montaigne engages in the protracted scrutiny of himself and his experiences is evident. "I study myself more than any other subject. That is my metaphysics, that is my physics," he claims in "Of Experience." To grasp what Montaigne means by "experience," it is useful to contrast it with things that might be confused with experience, but are actually pseudo-experience or non-experience. Suppose I read a novel quickly and carelessly. I can describe its plot, or say something about the life of its author. But none of its characters resonate with me; nothing in the book causes me to think or feel anything new. Since the book fails to stimulate any new internal experience, or alter my existing experience of myself, I do not "experience" it. Though I read it in some sense, it was "just words." Does this occur when we are taught books by the learned? Montaigne's answer: all the time. Words of the teacher strike the pupil's ear, but they do not activate any experience, other than the tedious one of memorization and repetition as required.

The antidote to this, Montaigne says, is to teach in a manner that induces genuine experience. From the start, according to the capacity of the mind he has in hand, the teacher should "begin putting it through its paces, making it taste things, choose them, and discern them by itself; sometimes clearing the way for him, sometimes letting him clear his own way" ("Of the Education of Children"). Only when the student begins to apply the words to herself and her own tasting, choosing, and discerning, does she experience something, as distinct from merely hearing about it. That one has grasped the thing, made it her own, assimilated and digested it—this is the reliable sign of experience in its proper sense, as distinct from non-experience or pseudo-experience.

Though we can do or undergo many things, we experience little in the sense sketched above, unless we follow Montaigne's example of actively studying ourselves. The language of self-study risks being misunderstood by modern readers, who tend to regard study as a rather tame activity, something done in a leisurely and casual fashion. For Montaigne, however, self-study is a courageous enterprise, one that involves risk and requires putting oneself to the test—"essaying" oneself. For purposes of analysis, we may regard self-essaying as a process with several related yet distinct moments. These may be set out schematically as follows:

1. Exposing oneself to a range of experiences. These may occur spontaneously, or they may be deliberately sought out.

2. Reflecting on one's experiences, attending to them as closely as possible, scrutinzing them.

3. Articulating the experience by "translating" the scrutinized experience into the alien medium of language, preserving some fidelity to the experience and one's reflection on it.

4. Repeating the process as continually as possible, since only the accumulation of many experiences, along with constant scrutiny and translation will yield knowledge of the self (or selves) which has (or have) the experiences.

I think Montaigne gives us insight into each of these four steps.  I do confess to feeling a bit guilty about schematizing someone so deliberately, beautifully, gloriously unsystematic as Montaigne.  My only excuse is that the scheme occurred to me here in Scotland, as I was listening to Don Garrett give a paper on Hume's concept on probability.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Letters of C.S. Lewis

I love reading the correspondence of authors who are better known for their published works. In my experience, it's often no less illuminating than the works themselves. Yesterday morning I read some letters of C.S. Lewis, transcribing the bits that struck me.

The letters remind me that Lewis is more subtle and complicated than his reputation might indicate. Here are a few selections (about a fifth of what I transcribed), arranged by date:

"My own frequent uneasiness comes from another's source—the fact that apologetic work is so dangerous to one's own faith. A doctrine never seems dimmer to me than when I have just successfully defended it" (2 August 1946, to Dorothy Sayers).

"'Regular but cool' in Church attendance is no bad symptom. Obedience is the key to all doors: feelings come (or don't come) and go as God pleases. We can't produce them at will, and mustn't try" (7 December 1950 to "Mrs Arnold").

"I think that if God forgives us we must forgive ourselves. Otherwise it is almost like setting up ourselves as a higher tribunal than Him" (19 April 1951 to "Mrs Breckenridge").

"All that Calvanist question—Free-will and Predestination—is to my mind indiscussible, insoluble. Of course (we say) if a man repents God will accept him. Ah yes (they say), but the fact of his repenting shows that God has already moved him to do so. This at any rate leaves us with the fact that in any concrete case the question never arises as a practical one. But I suspect it is really a meaningless question (20 October 1952 to "Mrs Arnold").

"It's not essential to believe in the Devil: and I'm sure a man can get to Heaven without being accurate about Methuselah's age. Also, as Macdonald says 'the time for saying comes seldom, the time for being is always here'. What we practise, not (save at rare intervals) what we preach is usually our great contribution to the conversion of others" (2 February 1955 to "Mrs. Ashton").

"I feel the whole of one's youth to be immensely important and even of immense length. The gradual reading of one's own life, seeing the pattern emerge, is a great illumination at our age. And partly, I hope, getting freed from the past as past by apprehending it as structure.

"... By the way, that business of having to look up the same word ten times in one evening is no proof of failing powers. You have simply forgotten that it was exactly like that when we began Latin or even French" (8 February 1956 to Dom Bede Griffiths, O.S.B.).

"My model here is the behaviour of the congregation at a 'Russian Orthodox' service, where some sit, some lie on their faces, some stand, some kneel, some walk about, and no one takes the slightest notice of what anyone else is doing. That is good sense, good manners, and good Christianity. 'Mind one's own business' is a good rule in religion as in other things" (23 March 1956 to "Mrs Ashton").

"No one ever influenced Tolkien—you might as well try to influence a bandersnatch. We listened to his work, but could affect it only by encouragement. He has only two reactions to criticism: either he begins the whole work over again from the beginning or else takes no notice at all" (15 May 1959 to Charles Moorman).

"... I sometimes wonder if an interest in liturgiology is not rather a snare. Some people talk as if it were itself the Christian faith" (4 August 1962 to Dom Bede Griffiths, O.S.B.).

Saturday, July 2, 2011

An implausible diagnosis

A person writing under the name "Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio" claims:

"We who oppose same-sex marriage are not callous to the very real longings for friendship, affection and belonging that proponents of this legislation espouse. We have, in part, failed as the proponents of the historical understanding of marriage as that between a man and a woman precisely because we have sought to be sensitive to those who have same-sex attractions."

This is the problem? Ecclesial officials have been too sensitive to the predicament of gay people? They've spent too much time considering the possibility that "many LGBT youth can't picture what their lives might be like as openly gay adults. They can't imagine a future for themselves"? Because--or should that be "precisely because"?--the bishops care so much, they've lost the capacity to argue for the "historical understanding of marriage."

How much does this particular diagnosis say about the problem? What does it reveal about the diagnostician?