Sunday, July 20, 2014

Satisfaction, Narcissism, and the Construction of Worlds

or, at the end of the day, how does it feel?

For the clarity that we are aiming at is indeed complete clarity. But this simply means that the philosophical problems should completely disappear.
The real discovery is the one that enables me to break off doing philosophizing when I want to. -- The one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions that brings itself in question. Ludwig Wittgenstein (Philosophical Investigations, 133)

But he, Herzog, had committed a sin of some kind against his own heart, while in pursuit of a grand synthesis.
What this country needs is a good five-cent synthesis. Saul Bellow (Herzog)



What is it to be satisfied? What kept Herzog and Wittgenstein in torment?

Sitting at my table facing Poucha Pond, it’s a mid July morning on
Chappaquiddick. My wife is reading while our dogs doze and sniff the humid Atlantic air. The saw-grass that bounds the property hides a weathered blue plastic bulldozer and orange dump truck. I miss my kids.  I’ll write a bit more and then take the Jeep to Wasque. Maybe the storm last night improved the fishing. There is nowhere I’d rather be and nothing I’d rather be dong.

A woman I know, entangled in her family’s affairs, complains constantly about the endless tasks she angrily undertakes. Very few people would have the focus or competence to manage what she toils at daily. “When will I get back to my life?” she asks.  When her week finally ends, she doesn’t look forward to the next. 

Both of us are deliberately engaged in activity that significantly expresses our particular personalities.  She’s certain she’ll get the job done. It will be unassailable, with every document examined, understood, and in place.  Nearly perfect.  Me? I’ve no guarantee I’ll catch anything.  

Both of us can clearly state our intentions but with an important difference. I’m comfortable, for the moment, and have no further aim in sight.  She’s not. I'm not sure what I'll be doing later, except that I'll want to edit this so it might be clearer to you. Knowing her, by early evening she'll be absorbed in her body's painful tensions and want relief. She'll take for granted no one will understand or really help. Her pain will frustrate her.  She'll go to bed more angry and determined than when she first awoke.  

I am describing two different patterns of intentional behavior that underscore a through-line of satisfaction and dissatisfaction. Intentional behavior is an expression of our values, knowledge, and competence. The weights we give these values, our motivational priorities, correspond to what we want to accomplish in any given circumstance. What we actually do depends on what we recognize and know how to perform given the conditions at hand. This is all organized by the the significance of what we are trying to achieve. We may be only more or less aware of this significance, but it will establish a pattern, a through-line, central to how our worlds feel. 

All of us, in our own individual way, live our lives engaged in the social practices of our communities. Our actions express our personal characteristics and our participation in the institutions and communities that constitute our culture, our way of living.  What we create and value, we find here. This will be the source of our satisfactions. 

Not everything we accomplish provides satisfaction. Much of what we do is instrumental, done because it provides access to something else we want. We work in the coal mine for money and fuel. We need to buy groceries and pay the rent, but we’d do something else for food and shelter if we could. 

Some of what we do is intrinsic, done just for the doing. We do it in expression of core values, hedonic, prudent, ethical, and aesthetic. Successful performance that expresses this is satisfying. 

How does this work? Hedonic pleasure speaks for itself. The prudent or self-interested enhancement of one’s place in the world should be a source of satisfaction (or, at the very least, relief). 

Ethical and aesthetic actions are especially significant since they are deliberate in a way not required when simply seeking pleasure or behaving with prudence.  The ethical choice of “the right thing”, done for the sake of justice and fairness, can be its own reward. 

Aesthetics involve the appreciation of how things fit together, how they make sense. The artistic, scientific, conceptual, or social engagement with beauty, truth, rigor, elegance, objectivity, and closure is profoundly satisfying for those who are competent to engage in such pursuits. 

Some of our values are complementary. They work together well.  Some values are relatively independent or non-contingent. And some of what we want conflicts and antagonizes in unsettling ambivalence. Life is complicated. 

The weights we give our values, core and peripheral, are fundamental to what we take as opportunity and dilemma. We build our worlds this way and are satisfied or dissatisfied with what results. 

Satisfaction is rarely achieved by accident. Authentic accomplishment requires competent participation. This is a matter of choice, of selection, and is deliberate. 

Here is the gist of my thesis: Recognizing a sufficient link between the instrumental and the intrinsic and having sufficient faith the connection will hold is vital for satisfaction. I also think it is an aspect of general happiness. Feeling satisfied accompanies an instrumental act when we know it has a significant connection to something we also value intrinsically.  This connection can be a self-aware appreciation or simply felt. I am going to follow this idea because it will clarify why some people are generally happy and some are not. I know people who can’t find this connection and I know people who defensively resist where the connection leads. They are generally unhappy people. 

When I am sufficiently satisfied and see this as my good fortune, I’ll probably feel happy. But not all satisfactions bear good fortune, coming as they may in the wake of a tragic or ironic undertaking:  settling a score, paying off a debt, finally making it right, going down swinging. 

Again, my thesis: The feeling of satisfaction ties the instrumental to the intrinsic and is a function of the awareness of the tie. Mindful recognition of how the instrumental connects to the intrinsic is fundamental in establishing satisfying and unsatisfying through-lines in people’s lives. I suspect a life lived without sufficient recognition of this connection will be depressive, anxious, frustrating, and narcissistic. It may also involve a sense of helpless repetition of feeling compelled to do something again and again without satisfying closure. 

It complicates matters that connections are not always recognized and felt. Sometimes the connection is there, its significance to an observer clear, although the actor remains defensively unaware. Emotionally, some cannot afford the price of knowing if it brings more guilt, shame, sadness, or anger than they can bear. Despite these bad feeling, the actor may compulsively and unconsciously repeat a performance, devoid of satisfaction or closure.  If unaware of an action's connection to something of compelling and intrinsic significance, it becomes especially difficult for a person to renounce the act, or choose a more adequate implementation. Under these conditions, desire feels futile, meaningless, becomes a sort of shadow boxing. Nothing solidly connects or ends.  

Ultimately, the significance of doing something rests on its intrinsic foundation, hedonic, prudent, ethical and /or aesthetic. When an act is performed with awareness of its connection to something’s intrinsic significance, it provides some sort of satisfaction. The experience of satisfaction is a motivational aspect of the awareness of this connection, whether the act is intrinsic or instrumental.  Satisfaction is the feel of the connection. Some satisfactions provide closure and some provide the reason to do it again.

My friend, Anthony Putman, takes this further. He writes that the experience of a certain satisfaction, what he calls ultimate satisfaction, holds a person’s world together. A person’s world has at its foundation intrinsic social practices.  People construct their worlds from what they find and can do. Every world is someone’s world, and someone’s shared world.  Worlds involve a community’s practice. 

Some practices, that Tony calls “ultimate practices”, affirm the particular coherence or sensibility of a world; to engage in those practices is an affirmation of that world. This makes it all the more vital for the instrumental to be tied to the intrinsic.  Creating a well-formed formula is one of these ultimate practices for a mathematician, but the ritual of selecting and sharpening a number four pencil can provide satisfaction as an instrument of that act.

(Notice I am distinguishing the varied worlds where a person participates from a person's overall status in their “world of worlds”. Tony writes about a mathematician’s ultimate satisfaction in recognizing the elegance of a proof. He’s felt it himself. But every mathematician participates in more than just the world of mathematics. We all engage in varied and irregular roles in the institutions and communities that make up our worlds. But worlds have some sort of coherence.  This is not to say it is easy to see this coherence nor that it will be seen and felt. It may not feel to an actor that their worlds make sense, separately or together. The terrain of a world varies irregularly as does the relations among worlds. This is why we have and need complicated grammars and varied sets of conceptual tools to sort this out.)

Tony writes: 
Every community has a shared world that makes sense to its members. The sense it makes is particular to each community’s world. This “making sense” is inherent in participation in the community’s core practices.

Every community has a set of ultimate practices, participation in which affirms their world and is accompanied by ultimate satisfaction.

Ultimate satisfaction is a strong basic human need. Persons are powerfully, inherently motivated to seek it.

The specific experience of ultimate satisfaction differs from community to community. Its importance to maintaining the community and its world does not.

In short: ultimate satisfaction holds the world together.

Knowing how to regularly participate in the core practices that provide ultimate satisfaction seems wise. I appreciate the wisdom of those who do and hope for guidance given my limitations. I suppose this is why I find spiritual practices daunting. The late theologian Mary Shideler described the spiritual as the domain of totalities, ultimates, and boundary conditions. A synthesis or feel for the totality requires a stance and perspective beyond my reach. It would be pretentious for me to even say I try. 

Spiritual practice requires, I think, an appraisal of the totality of worlds.  There are philosophers, theologians, adepts and disciples who attempt explication and entrance to this totality wanting to know its awesome dimension. Can you grok it? I can't.

Spinoza’s state of beatitude, suggesting recognition of God’s love and understanding of the whole is, I gather, this type of experience beyond my means.

I’ve stopped trying to imagine the Zen state of Satori involving the wholeness of dissolved paradox and attachment.  

Perhaps more accessible is Aristotle’s practical wisdom, a version of eudaimonia, described in his Nicomachean Ethics as an effective comprehension of how friendship, pleasure, virtue, honor and wealth fit together.  This seems closer to what is possible for some ordinary lives. This “practical understanding” requires acting on the intrinsic practices of “the good”. This, I can imagine if not approach.  It more resembles Tony’s concept.

Tony’s ultimate satisfaction is situated in the core practices of particular communities and their worlds. This less than grand synthesis is achievable and perhaps vital, at least for some. 

Tony’s ultimate satisfaction, if I understand what he is saying, has a limited and reachable scope. He's hypothesizing a basic human need to participate and feel how things fit together. This is an aesthetic recognition even as it may also involve pleasures, self-interests and just pursuits.  To call ultimate satisfaction a basic human need implies that if not met, pathology will result. I think this helps us understand some of the pathologies of narcissism. 


But perhaps he's overstated it as a universal need. I question Tony's claim that "Ultimate satisfaction is a strong basic human need. Persons are powerfully, inherently motivated to seek it." I think to say persons are "powerfully, inherently motivated to seek it" overstates its place in the lives of most people. I think it makes more sense as a desire for a sort of optimal satisfaction for those who both know and want to seek it. For these folk, if not achieved, their world may feel fragmented, empty or broken. Norman Normal doesn't know what he is missing, but Wittgenstein and Herzog painfully do. What is a sufficient satisfaction for Norman may be insufficient for those on a more demanding aesthetic quest. 


But if Tony is correct, then he is pointing, I think, to a pathology of ordinary life, providing a key to the diffuse pattern of malaise that is part of banal existence. 


Part of the problem is that although needs unmet will result in some degree of pathology, what is needed is not always known. What is needed must in some way be known for it to be intentionally sought. 


Where Tony is correct, what then is the implication of an absence of “ultimate satisfaction”? Will the center not hold? How does the absence of sufficient satisfaction affect a person’s experience of themselves and their worlds? What happens when a person cannot see how their actions connect to what they intrinsically value?  What if they almost never feel the connection? Or alternatively, what if their sense of the intrinsic is underdeveloped or under utilized, an insufficient mix of the hedonic, prudent, ethical and aesthetic? Some of these values are harder to develop than others. I suspect that ethics and aesthetics fall into this camp. 

There is an underdevelopment of aesthetics and ethics in the narcissistic character. Instead, compensatory hedonic and prudential concerns are the foundation of their worlds.  Despite the narcissist’s apparent pursuit of beauty and perfection, an intrinsic appreciation of aesthetics seem less core to what they are about. Their quest seems mostly compensatory, a matter of self-interest. Beauty and perfection are salves applied to their questionable self-worth, providing needed attention and admiration, trophies valued for purposes of display. 


A poverty of ethical behavior is often how the narcissist gets diagnosed in the first place. A version of the Diagnostic and Statistical manual describes the narcissistic personality as exploitive, lacking a “moral core”. They act out an aggrieved entitlement where self-interest trumps intrinsic concerns with justice and fairness. 

Most developmental explanations of malignant narcissism begin with a child who has been damaged by inadequate parental empathy and an over or under indulgence that meets the parent's needs more than their child's. Akin to Maslow's recognition that survival needs have to be met before optimal growth can occur, the narcissist is constantly hungry for attention and affirmation, vulnerable and exploitive in attempting to satisfy a self-interested craving.  

Some narcissistically damaged people have talents and appearance that provide them considerable hedonic and prudential success. They crave and celebrate what they possess and appear untroubled by what's underdeveloped. But most narcissists are not so lucky, and won't achieve celebrity, fame or fortune. They know misery, instead. 

Are their limited satisfactions clung to in lieu of optimal satisfaction?  Might someone seeking ultimate satisfaction, but failing to competently achieve a workable insight, enact a pattern of frustrated action, a repetition compulsion, or the problematic satisfaction of an addiction?  One's reach might exceed one's grasp.

The woman I mentioned at the start of this entry has very little she experiences as done for its own sake. Mostly, she acts from an unresolved ambivalent duty to her dead parents, who never understood nor loved her enough. Her childhood involved trauma and the absence of adequate parental empathy. All this is complicated by her hostile and competitive relations with her siblings, better loved and more disabled than her. She works hard and constantly to gain the love and respect it is too late to achieve from her mother and father. Instead, she is haunted by a confusing ambivalence and unappreciated duty. She has no time for play and no one she really wants to play with. Fortunately, what saves her from total despair is her highly developed sense of ethics. This and her considerable intelligence may see her through if she can separate from her compulsive enactments of hostility, fear, and guilt. She wants to “return to her life” but her inability to find valued intrinsic connection to what she feels she is required to accomplish leave the end of each day a disappointment. This is her life, a world that hangs together as disjointed tasks disconnected from a fuller appreciation of their significance. Her dead parents will never provide what she intrinsically values and can’t find.  For now, a fuller realization of the meaning of her action is too painful for her to tolerate. The connection of the instrumental to the intrinsic is either unavailable or too much to bear. Unconsciously and defensively she is stuck in the instrumental. 

I know I can’t connect it all together. Wittgenstein saw method and concept pass one another by.  Herzog, his grandiosity passing, stopped writing his never-to-be-sent letters and made ready for dinner with Ramona, thinking, if he could find them, he’d light candles.  I didn’t catch a damn thing today, but for a good 30 seconds, thought I’d hooked the biggest fish of my life. I needed to tighten down the drag because my line was running out faster than I could reel. But then the jerking became a steady pull east with the current. Afraid something would snap, I flipped open the bail, saw what had hit, and released the log floating a few feet under the surf, 70 yards out. The guys around me were laughing but I didn't lose my lure.  


Anthony Putman's exploration of  his concept of "ultimate satisfaction" is found here: "Tony Makes Sense of..."

About the center not holding: an exchange between Richard Helms and Richard Nixon, The Second Coming.

And for the intrinsic funk of it, Lee Dorsey on the instrumental: Working in the Coal Mine.


Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Adaptation in Evolution and Behavior

Adaptation in Evolution and Behavior: A brief conversation among Descriptive Psychologists. 

Adaptation in evolution and behavior are not the same. One is selective, the other selected. 
A week or so after posting, “ Playing for the Fun of It….”, the italicized paragraph below was added. I argued that play is intrinsic and involves action and personal characteristics not accountable by evolution.  

There is a difference between explanations proper to evolutionary theory and those within the domain of Intentional Action. The difference is whether science accounts for the actual behavior of persons.  

Organisms evolve through selective adaptation. To survive, organisms adapt to the changing circumstances of their worlds. Behavior, as purposeful action, maintains and expands the organism's world. These statements have different implications. Selective adaptation drives a statistical process, a number's game of whom is left standing to reproduce. Behavior involves performances of personal significance, intrinsic and instrumental, selected for their significance. These are very different notions that may not dovetail. The significant might not be adaptive, but then again, it might. 
And then I asked some Descriptive Psychology friends to comment. Here’s their response.

CJ Stone:

Instant reaction: organisms have worlds? Not in the Descriptive Psychology sense. I'd be happier with organisms adapt to their changing circumstances. Behavior maintains and expands the organism's behavior potential.

Aimee Yermish:

I would be very very careful about the word "adapt."  

In biology, the term is understood to mean a process that happens on its own, not as an intentional action on the part of the genetic material.  It's a mathematical process that happens over the course of generations.  

In psychology, it's an intentional action, to adapt to the demands of the environment.  It's a cognitive/emotional/behavioral process that happens over the course of seconds to years.

Wynn Schwartz:

As a former zoologist, the way you are using “adapt” is what I meant. Am I being ambiguous?

Aimee Yermish:

I know we're both recovering biologists.  My concern is that many non-biologists don't really grasp that evolution is not an intentional process, and the word "adapt" is precisely a reason for much of the misconception.

Wynn Schwartz:

Hmm, interesting. Help me with some other locutions. Adapt means an active intentional process? I wouldn't have thought it does but I can see your point. Thanks.

Anthony Putman:

Might be reasonable to see biological "adapt" as an ex post facto concept -- if an organism in fact survives, whatever characterized it was an adaptation. It doesn't adapt and then survive -- it survives and thus adapted. This explicitly contrasts with behavioral adaptation in which the action is intended as an adaptation to the situation. The time vector moves in opposite directions.

Aimee Yermish:

That still sounds too teleological for me.  Evolution has no purpose.  It's just a mathematical process.  We impose meaning on it post facto, but that's not what the organism was trying to do or what "evolution" was trying to do.

Anthony Putman:

Aimee, that's what I was suggesting. Although I would say evolution is better thought of as an algorithm than a mathematical process (which may be what you meant….)

C. J. Stone:

I think that's exactly Tony's point. The orgs are just living their lives. Evolution is our concept, not theirs; and we can only see it after their lives are over. "Mathematical process" is our concept, too.

I am reminded of all the shipwrecked people who cried out to the gods to be saved. We never hear from the ones where it didn't work.

Joe Jeffrey:

Tony's point, and Aimee's, are well taken.

One way to talk about evolution is that the entire concept is ex post facto: a reconstruction of how (biological) things came to be the way they are. This included adaptation, all statistical models, evolutionary "trees", and the famed evolutionary "niches": we say a kind of plant or animal (or archeobacteria or whatever) occupies a niche when we see it surviving, and we then re-describe the set of circumstances as a niche. But people in general think of evolution as a process leading to a goal, with humans at the "peak" of evolutionary development, the "end product of millions of years of evolution." Wrong. Only in the sense of, "We here now can now look back and see the chain of events that led to the current state of affairs." But that's all we can say.


As for adaptation: psychological adaptation is, paradigmatically, equally non-intentional. Normally, we look at someone's behaviors and re-describe what we see as the person adapting to their circumstances (physical/social/psychological/whatever). But that's our re-description of what happened, not their intention. Further, there is no such thing as the social practice of adaptation. In the non-paradigm case, a person looks at their circumstances and says, "OK, I now face a change in my circumstances, so I better figure out some new way to live, or some new way to maintain aspect "A" of my life."  And if they succeed, an observer may say, "OK, they changed their ways to adapt to their new circumstances." But calling that a "process of adaptation" is misleading.





The various concepts of behavior as Intentional Action are clarified in the posting, A Short Course in Descriptive Psychology.









Sunday, June 1, 2014

Playing for the Fun of It: Some notes about our playful universe.

And some limits of evolutionary explanation.

…the fun of playing…. As a concept, it cannot be reduced to any other mental category.  Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens

Satisfaction accompanies intrinsicness. Anthony Putman

Consciousness is the first example of the selectiveness of enjoyment in the higher animals. Alfred North Whitehead, Modes of Thought

A Zilch particle is a person with almost everything left out. Peter Ossorio


Let's play around with some ideas.  I'm going to take steps to build a case that play abounds. That nature teems with it and that it serves no necessary purpose other than the enjoyment of having fun.

I’m going to start from the top down. 

Play is intrinsic to "higher" animal life. Its adaptive function, if any, is just icing on the cake. The capacity for playfulness is not reducible to something genetically selected for its adaptive value. I know this personally. Playfulness may be an attractive quality, but given the trouble I sometimes get in, I suspect some of my playful ways are not adaptive at all.  You’d have to bend, twist and wiggle to make the case. 

Remember the maxim: people take it that things are as they seem unless they have sufficient reason to think otherwise.

This is how it seems to me:

The point of play is to have fun. Play counts by not counting. Play is satisfying and fun. This is so intuitively obvious it shouldn't need to be said, but bear with me, I'm going to link some weird stuff together. I'm going to poke around and offer thoughts that concern the over use of evolutionary explanations in psychology.

(Still, I love the explanatory power of evolution. I have a portrait of Darwin in my office.)

Organisms evolve through selective adaptation. To survive, organisms adapt to the changing circumstances of their worlds. Behavior, as purposeful action, maintains and expands the organism's world. These statements have different implications. Selective adaptation drives a statistical process, a number's game of whom is left standing to reproduce. Behavior, on the other hand, involves personal significance, intrinsic and instrumental. These are very different notions that may not dovetail. The significant might not be adaptive, but then again, it might. 

O.K. That was serious, but I'm not just playing around here. 

What I'd like to do is make sense of play as play and not as something else, but first I need to provide some relevant concepts.

Let's start with goal-directed behavior, Intentional Action. Behavior with a purpose.  There are varieties of Intentional Action. Some forms of Intentional Action involve choice and self awareness and some do not. I am capitalizing concepts to indicate they are part of the lexicon of Descriptive Psychology but you'll find they are consistent with ordinary usage. 

Intentional Action is the general case of purposeful, goal-directed behavior, whether chosen or not.   One variety is Cognizant Action, where actors knows they are acting intentionally. Another is Deliberate Action, where actors choose a behavior from the possible options they recognize. 

Intentional Action is the general case of animal behavior. Deliberate Action is the form of Intentional Action paradigmatic of Persons, and of the type of persons we know best, humans. 

People, while awake and behaving, are not always deliberate or cognizant. Some of our actions are merely intentional. We are not always making choices nor are we always aware of our actions, but Paradigm Case Persons must be, at times, appropriately able to know they are making choices to be one of us in good standing. 

Intentional Action is in contrast to behavior or performance that is a matter of reflex, is accidental, or utterly coerced. 

What sort of action is playful action? What are we doing when we play?

I am not going to define play yet but will instead appeal to the notion that all play shares some sort of “family resemblance”. There are lots of similar and dissimilar practices that count as play. (A main cause of philosophical diseases—a one sided diet: one nourishes one’s thinking with only one kind of example. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations). 

I will come to some tentative conclusions about what makes play special based on its improvisational and intrinsic nature. 

I also think as an intrinsic action play satisfies Hedonic and Aesthetic motivation.  Hedonics and Aesthetics are intrinsic, along with Prudential and Ethical/Moral reasons for action. But it is easier for me to see the Hedonic and Aesthetic nature of play. Perhaps you can build a case for the other intrinsic reasons? 

Play is intrinsic to life. Play is a natural possibility of Deliberate Action. Humans are deliberate and cognizant players. But other animals play, too. If they can behave deliberately, they can play. 

The less evidence that an action is deliberate or cognizant, the less convinced I am that it's play, even though it might be fun to watch. I won't argue that electrons dance. 

Humans have an advantage. Language infinitely explodes our playful possibilities. We get up to our own special monkey business, facilitated by language.  We play with words. We imagine, articulate and share the worlds our words help create. There is no end to this fun. 

If we start with the recognition that Deliberate Action is enhanced by language, but does not require it, we'll find play abounds. But play is deliberate. It involves choice. Play is an action, a social practice, not a reflex or an utterly coerced performance. Language makes it easy to represent choices.

It makes me happy that Wittgenstein spoke of a child’s learning its native language as playing a “language game”. 


My dogs play alone and together. Sometimes they let me play with them. Social play is easy to identify. People play with people. Dogs play with dogs. Dogs and people play with each other. 

I think I have observed an octopus at play. About worms, I'm not so sure. 

When I play with peers there are more possibilities, and more interesting possibilities, than when I play with small children or infants. But it is all fun. 

There are more ways I can play with you than with an infant or a dog. We joke around. But that is not saying playing with you, my peer, is more fun. Fun is in the significance, the personal value of the enjoyment. (You point out I sometimes play with you the way I play with kids and dogs. I still laugh at farts, but so do you).

It seems that vertebrates play. (Somehow, that octopus seems to have the spine for it, too.)


Playing also requires mastery, competence or know-how. With practice we get better at our games and acquire sophisticated and nuanced ways. It may be the more skilled the play, the more it's satisfying and fun. But maybe not. Sometimes fun is in the trying and it gets old after we've accomplished it sufficiently. But, then again,  with mastery, we can improvise and renew the play.

It gets old? Maybe thats just saying it's not so much fun anymore but maybe it says something about novelty. Creative play is especially fun and satisfying. Creative play is improvisation. 

I will later elaborate on satisfaction and fun

That fun is reason enough to play is not to claim that fun is all we accomplish. We learn to navigate all sorts of tasks as well, but if play is not for the fun of it, it’s not play. (And while trying to accomplish some serious instrumental task, I might just end up playing around with it, too.)

I like to play with ideas. Here are some thoughts: 

I promised to say something regarding evolutionary psychology. I take issue with the belief that behavioral patterns persist fundamentally because they are adaptive and enhance reproductive fitness. When I say play is intrinsic I am saying its occurrence requires no other reason than it's fun. (Of course, if you have two or more reasons to do something, you have more reasons than if you only had one of them. I love tautologies. They're fun to think. While play is intrinsic, it might also accomplish something  instrumental and adaptive.)

Must play have an adaptive function?  Must it offer some sort of selective advantage, some enhancement in reproductive fitness? (Note, I am asking if it must, not if it also might.) 

Consider some ideas and finding that inform my thinking here. I think they fit together.

Thomas Nagel seriously pissed off a variety of scientific and philosophical communities when he argued in Mind and Cosmos that “the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false.”  One gist of his case is that qualities that are integral to consciousness are inherent in nature and not simply an emergent quality or one that arises out of adaptive processes. The possibility of cognizant action is inherent in the cosmos.  Of course, this pleased some with a theistic bent, but Nagel argues their claims are also problematic. He is not suggesting  deities or supernatural forces. But he does point to a conclusion that there is more to biology than material process, that there is something inherent in material substance that renders it compatible with consciousness from the get go.  This makes for a very interesting universe. 

Another bee in my bonnet. Here's from a recent posting in The Baffler by David Graeber, “What’s the Point if We Can’t Have Fun”, that resonates with Nagel’s view and takes play as intrinsic.  A brief passage: 

…. those who do look into the matter are invariably forced to the conclusion that play does exist across the animal universe. And exists not just among such notoriously frivolous creatures as monkeys, dolphins, or puppies, but among such unlikely species as frogs, minnows, salamanders, fiddler crabs, and yes, even ants—which not only engage in frivolous activities as individuals, but also have been observed since the nineteenth century to arrange mock-wars, apparently just for the fun of it.
Why do animals play? Well, why shouldn’t they? The real question is: Why does the existence of action carried out for the sheer pleasure of acting, the exertion of powers for the sheer pleasure of exerting them, strike us as mysterious?

Near the end of his essay Graeber writes:

Still, if one wants a consistently materialist explanation of the world—that is, if one does not wish to treat the mind as some supernatural entity imposed on the material world, but rather as simply a more complex organization of processes that are already going on, at every level of material reality—then it makes sense that something at least a little like intentionality, something at least a little like experience, something at least a little like freedom, would have to exist on every level of physical reality as well.

OK, I am not of the opinion that electrons play, nor do I want to make the case for ants. (At least not yet).  But mice?  Here is part of the abstract from Johanna Meijer and Yuri Robbens’s “Wheel Running in the Wild” (Proc. R. Soc. B 7 July 2014 vol. 281 no. 1786)

The importance of exercise for health and neurogenesis is becoming increasingly clear. Wheel running is often used in the laboratory for triggering enhanced activity levels, despite the common objection that this behaviour is an artefact of captivity and merely signifies neurosis or stereotypy. If wheel running is indeed caused by captive housing, wild mice are not expected to use a running wheel in nature. This however, to our knowledge, has never been tested. Here, we show that when running wheels are placed in nature, they are frequently used by wild mice, also when no extrinsic reward is provided. Bout lengths of running wheel behaviour in the wild match those for captive mice. This finding falsifies one criterion for stereotypic behaviour, and suggests that running wheel activity is an elective behavior. 

They also found that a few frogs got on and off the wheel but they didn't want to make too much of that. Nor would I. But it appears that wild mice got on the wheel just to spin. I'm not surprised, my dog Hart likes knocking the tippy ceramic sculpture in our living room just, it seems, to make it rock. 


Fun and satisfaction are experience concepts. When we add improvisation to this conceptual mix we get closer to what I think play is about. What is the experience of successful improvisation?  Why is playing with my dog fun for both of us but when I play around with worms, I am the only one having fun? (I think.) 

Satisfaction is the experiential accompaniment of intrinsic behavior. The achievement of intrinsic hedonic, prudent, ethical, and aesthetic aims is pleasurable and/or satisfying.

Improvisation involves the affirmative acceptance and responsive incorporation of one player's moves by another, and back and forth it goes. The paradigm of improvisational acting involves at least two players, but one person can do this alone with the props found personally within or with those on their stage. 

I can engage in creative improvisation with myself, mutually with you, and with my dog. I am pretty sure, however, that improvisation with a worm is one sided. I wouldn't bait a hook if I believed otherwise. 

We seek sensations of all sorts. We stimulate ourselves, alone and with others. Pleasure, satisfaction, and fun accompany the accomplishment of intrinsic activity. (Anxiety and pain may accompany the anticipation of unsuccessful results. And some stimulation is more than we can manage; some too little to bother with). 

Some activities require actions and things to fit together in a pleasing way, the unfolding connections and incorporations have aesthetic value. Improvisation excites and invites novelty. I play with the sensations of my world of objects, processes, and events.  I play with you and I play by myself.  I play alone with my body and my imagination. I bounce a ball off a wall.  I play with my companions and engaging strangers.

When the practice is social and mutually incorporative, when I affirm and assimilate your response into mine and you do the same, we’re both probably having fun. 


Improvisation free of need or desperation tends towards fun. Play may work best when unnecessary. If I successfully improvise out of desperation or need, I may feel relieved or satisfied but I am probably not having fun.  We are most authentically playful when we don't have to play along. To see someone playing out of desperation looks pretty un-playful. 

Play is not reducible to a particular performance. Play is the name we give an intrinsic practice done for the fun of it, and that's a matter of its significance, not its performance. The experience of play is fun.

When improvising, I only more or less know what to expect. That’s part of the fun. Manageable novelty is fun. (At least, for me). 

When our activity fits together, and all we need is the fit, we might be at play. If the fit is pleasing, along with its pleasure, play is an aesthetic act. Since play is a deliberate improvisation, its creative and uncertain outcome follows. Playful improvisation invites novelty. Who knows the game's outcome? This is why play creates and expands culture.

When we successfully perform an intrinsic act, we are satisfied. If the action is both intrinsic and fun, we are at play.


It's nice this morning. I'm going to walk with my dog and see if I can find someone to mess around with.

So let's hang out,   
I'll be lookin' for fun (and feeling groovy). 
Cause all I want to do is have some fun.



Some related postings:  Dreaming as Playtime, and Play and Therapy.

And a discussion of Adaptation in Psychology and Evolution.

I'd especially invite you to read Issue 24 of The Baffler, "The Jig is Up!"

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Degradation Ceremonies in Everyday Life

A person will not choose less behavior potential over more. Peter G. Ossorio

When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose
You're invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal.  Bob Dylan





The Degradation Ceremonies of everyday life don’t look like ceremonies. Instead, they look like how we treat people as not one of us, how we deliberately or inadvertently assign the status that someone is not in good standing with what we believe we represent. 

Social interactions are framed by status assignments that address the place we have in each other's worlds.  Are you good enough, are you worthy of being one of us?  Am I?  
Harold Garfinkel

The ethnomethodologist Harold Garfinkel, writing about the sociology of moral indignation, described Degradation Ceremonies as rituals that remove people from a valued place and restrict their eligibility within a community.  Social practices that a person could previously perform are now limited or forbidden. After a successful Degradation Ceremony, the degraded person is not one of us. They fail to meet our standards.

What counts as a degradation ceremony?  How do they vary? Paradigm Case Formulations are conceptual devices for capturing a wide range of related content. When the complete paradigm of a degradation ceremony is performed, there's little doubt that the degraded has undergone restriction. When less than the full case is employed, the outcome is less clear. I think the less than full case informs everyday engagement. While moving though the day with a welcome greeting or a dismissive glance, we let each other know where we stand. Whether obvious or subtle, deliberate or not, stances and actions create an organizing dynamic that degrades or accredits.  

Understanding the full paradigm may help us understand aspects of more mundane interaction.

Here's the full paradigm:



Notice that degradations are social practices that involve a community's shared values required to perform specific social roles. To be one of us in a particular role carries the expectation that we value certain states of affairs in a similar way. As fathers, we value our children; as police, we respect and enforce the law; as friends, we trust and go out of our way to engage and play with our buddies; as boy scouts, we are trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. And so on.  We all have varied roles and are members of multiple communities. I have a friend who was once a scout and is now a father and a cop. 

Some roles comfortably coexist and some do not. Conflict is more or less inevitable. Life is complicated this way. I may feel degraded in some roles but not others. 

We play our roles and demonstrate our values through our actions. We take it that true membership requires more than lip service to these values. We walk the talk. Whether or not our performance reflects our true colors, the choices we appear to make define what others see as our character. 

In any community there are people who are obviously the real McCoy, who serve as exemplars of what it takes to be in good standing. They are the ones most eligible to denounce transgression and to witness, acknowledge or enforce the transgressor's removal from privilege. In the classic ceremony, they perform these roles in public. 

Here's the paradigmatic ceremony:



Garfinkel's full ceremony is deliberately done out loud and in public, but it can be accomplished quietly, discreetly, silently, ambiguously, or perhaps unconsciously. It can be unintentional or performed by mistake. Certainly two people can do this to each other. 

Since the the ceremony involves social roles, a person can play the different parts. People can play this out by themselves and to themselves. I can recognize my transgressions, my own moral failings, denounce myself, and restrict myself accordingly. I might not be good enough for myself regardless of how you see me.


The Ceremony May Be Taken As The Natural Order of Things (Or As Already Happened).


Degradation can be taken for granted as the moral superiority or inferiority inherent in a community or as stigma passed down through generations. The chauvinisms concerning sexual orientation, physical appearance, gender, age, race, class, ethnicity, as well as the indoctrinations of virulent religion or nationalism can convey a status both inherited and degraded. Children who see their parents as occupying an unfortunate social place may see themselves as "born to lose". 

If people are born into an untouchable condition, a position of shame, degradation can seem the natural order of things. The choices made in this context may reflect this unjust status assignment. Rarely is the world a level playing field, but for some the rules are unfair from the get go. 

If I start life degraded, perhaps I'll rise up and rebel or perhaps I'll accept my degradation and make the best of it, pro or anti-social, like it or not. 


Some Effects of Degradation.


The degraded are prone to anxiety and depression.  They have lost something significant, their world of valued action is now smaller.   This depression corresponds to lost eligibility, the loss in esteem that reflects the restricted ability to do what the community values.  An important role cannot be fully performed. The experience of satisfaction that comes with the successful accomplishment of a valued role cannot be achieved.   Sadness, shame, humiliation, regret, guilt, emptiness, resentment, and other kindred moods and emotions are part of the package. 

Anxiety attends the insecurity of inhabiting an unfortunate place in the social world. This insecurity follows from being seen as  incompetent to maintain the values of the community along with an expectation of an absence of support when confronting tasks that only members in good standing are permitted. Members in good standing have each other's back and are expected to be competent players. The degraded no longer have that support or opportunity.

When the degraded find themselves in the company of members of the valued community they may exhibit signs of inferiority and rejection. Encounters become awkward.  The recognition of stiltedness intensifies whatever anxiety is present. The rhythm of gesture and speech that flows among peers is broken.  Engagement is skew. 

The degraded may develop a paranoid expectation of harsh judgment, making social contact even more awkward and defensive.  It is no wonder they end up lonely.

Anger, hostility and rage may also be present and serve as a move to negate the degradation. To the extent I have nothing, I may have nothing to lose. 

Threatened degradation elicits self-affirmation. Attacking the integrity of the denouncer or blinding the witness are a reasonable response to attempted degradation. Excuses that the so-called transgressive performance  is misunderstood, not in character, or a result of mitigating or coercing forces are understandably attempted. It is not for you to say and I had no choice, may counter the threat of being degraded. 

In the paradigm of the degradation ceremony the denouncer describes the act in value laden terms. Appropriation is theft, death is murder, an absence of assertive response is cowardice, and so on. The perpetrator has reason not only to disown the offending act but to re-describe it as something else. It is not what you are calling it. You don't know what you're talking about. You've got it wrong, that's not what I did. 


What Is The Degraded Left To Do?

If the degradation is accepted by the community and perpetrator, the fundamental problem for the degraded is how to regain status or tolerate the status assigned. Since the paradigm case involves the claim that the transgressive acts were in-character, one path for the perpetrator is to show the deplorable deeds were not in character or that the character of the perpetrator has changed. Since we generally hold that character is stable over time, this presents a fundamental barrier to regaining a favorable place. It will take time.  

It is also possible for the degraded to reassign the significance of what is valued. What was once desirable or transgressive no longer matters that way. This can look like sour grapes or gay pride.

One first step in regaining status is to show that the perpetrator's actions may have reflected a transgression of the community's values, but none the less, these values remain important to the perpetrator. Acknowledgments of guilt, through penance and restitution, accompanied by the acceptance of punishment are forms of action that may be required. Non-recidivism is key but may be difficult to demonstrate since the opportunity to continue in the valued role has been restricted. Time will tell. Different judges have different criteria for what passes as sufficient demonstration of dues paid and character changed. 



I've hardly mentioned the varied ways we degrade each other. We treat people as invisible, dismissible, of no consequence; as inferior, not worthy of attention, as sources to an end worth only our desire and use. 

When we treat strangers as already known and pegged, we degrade them by our transferences, typecasts and stereotypes. When we invalidate, we degrade. 

A degradation may be just or unjust, but when it follows from unexamined pre-judgment, it is inherently unjust. Degradation is a natural companion to not treating people, all people, I to Thou. In some social interactions, this hardly matters. While in line at the counter, I only need to be polite, maybe kind. But with people I meet frequently or intimately, where inter-dependence counts, where we share common community, it always matters.  The erosions of degrading encounter grind us down. The fuzzy line that draws a boundary of community should not be taken lightly or for granted. I should be careful not to assume you aren't my brother or sister or peer.

I wish I could claim success in not degrading others, but like kindness and my attention to empathy, it's a work in progress. It takes practice. 

The concept of micro-aggression has meanings similar to the degradation ceremonies of everyday life. Degradation covers a broad terrain not restricted to aggression, but if by aggression we mean the assertion of privilege to put others in their place, the territories are the same. 


Later, I hope to take up accreditation ceremonies and the function of attention, empathy, negotiation and moral dialog in accreditation and affirmation. My earlier thoughts with commentary on the role of these ceremonies in psychotherapy can be found in the essay, Degradation, Accreditation, and Rites of PassagePsychiatry, 1979.  Also note Harold Garfinkel's Conditions for Successful Degradation Ceremonies, American Journal of Sociology, 1956.  And see, Walter Torres and Raymond Bergner's Humiliation: Its Nature and Consequences, Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and Law, 2010.

I have discussed the use of Paradigm Case Formulations in the entry, Empathy and the Problem of Definition.  The Descriptive Psychology concept of "community" is central to an understanding of the context of social roles and gives actions their particular meaning. Anthony Putman's essay, Communities, Advances in Descriptive Psychology, 1981, clarifies this vital concept.

But here's a song by John Hiatt, asking, is anybody there? Are you good enough?  It resonates.