Showing posts with label Intelligence. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Intelligence. Show all posts

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Self-Monitoring Fallacy: Reflections on Self-Knowledge

“We are unknown to ourselves, we men of knowledge - and with good reason. We have never sought ourselves - how could it happen that we should ever find ourselves?" So begins Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals. I happen to be teaching this book now, so I am re-reading it for perhaps the fourth time, and like all great books, it deepens and expands with each re-reading.

Nietzsche has many targets of criticism in the Genealogy, but the one that he mentions first is our relationship with knowledge. One of the fundamental goals of philosophical reflection (or maybe we should just say plain old thinking) is the old Socratic dictum: "Know thyself." Self-knowledge is a key to good living. In order to achieve what makes us happy in life, we need to know at least at some basic level what makes us happy.

Ouch!

But the self turns out not to be so easy to know. There are any number of impediments to self-knowledge, and you don't need a PhD in philosophy to know the primary obstacles. Three come to mind off the top of my head:

1) Change. The self like all living things changes, and it does so in two fundamental ways. We change as we pass through life stages. As a child, we want to play. As a teenager, we want to be an adult. As an adult, we want to be a child, etc. And then we change in respect to the situations we are in. We learn to be different selves in response to different situations. In the end, this means that self-control looks less like knowing yourself and acting out your goals, and more like governing a city filled with different selves that have to be constrained and released in different situations.

2) We don't like what we see. Hence the lesser known but perhaps more true Socratic dictum: "Self-knowledge is a bitch." Here we are getting closer to Nietzsche's project in the Genealogy. Part of the reason we remain unknown to ourselves is that what we find when we turn the gaze inwards is sometimes repugnant to our sensibilities. A primary criticism that Nietzsche launches against the philosophical self-scrutiny that comes before him is that none of those philosophers were actually looking at human beings in all of their emotion, embodiment, animality, violence, pain, fear. Instead, philosophers were only interested in knowing and outlining the details of the ideal self -- the self that is the rational controller of its destiny. The self who disinterestedly pursues knowledge, the good, and God. The self that loves harmony and peace rather than chaos and disruption.

3) The knowledge-relation is an inadequate self-relation. This is Nietzsche's main point, and it's sorta subtle. You can't know yourself in the ways that we know other things because as soon as we make the self into an "object of knowledge" and set out to study it, we've already lost the sort of genuine relationship with the self that would be necessary for self-knowledge. The reason for this is that the self is not a thing, it is an activity. Once the self is abstracted from the projects it engages in and made into an object of knowledge, it's no longer a self.  The self, for Nietzsche is a relation in the making, and to look at it from the point of view of the knowledge relation is to disengage it from all other sorts of relations and make it do one narrow thing: engage in knowing. This is how we can arrive at the Cartesian myth: cogito ergo sum. I think therefore I am: nothing could be further from the truth.

When we look at the self from this point of view, we do indeed get the philosophical view of the self as a sort of truth-seeker or knower. But -- and this is the most important point -- the knowing self is just a fragment of the self that we are. There are many other aspects of self-hood that essentially and necessarily escape the knowledge relation. Who we are is really the sum of our relations with things, with people, with our prior acts of self, with our job, with our religion, with our body, and with what we know. Not seeing those other aspects of self-hood is committing what Nietzsche's peer William James calls elsewhere "the philosophical fallacy." To commit this fallacy of thought is to assume that when thinking philosophically we have a pure view of the truth, when really the perspective of philosophical reflection is merely that: a perspective, one among many others.

Nosce te ipsum?
A similar fallacy occurs with runners who use technology such as heart rate monitors and GPS watches and even training logs to monitor and "know" their running better. We might call it the "self-monitoring" fallacy, and it is subject to the same problems as the philosophical fallacy. These pieces of training equipment do not objectively monitor a pre-existing body. Instead, just as the philosophical gaze presents a certain type of "thinking self," technological monitoring presents a certain type of body -- namely the body as quantified field of data. When we read the data that is produced from this monitoring, we do indeed know our heart rates and paces and the like, but the thing that we know when we read that data is actually only a small fragment of the runner's body that has been abstracted from many other possible relations. It is one perspective among its many relations.

Just as the self is more than -- and fundamentally different from -- its knowledge relations, the runner's body is more than -- and fundamentally different from -- the quantified self that is produced by these instruments of measure. Running, like all rich activities of life is just that: an activity. It's a set of relations and undergoings that are mixed up and tangled with all of life's relations. The attractive thing about geeking out over training data and logs (and believe me, I am prone to do this) is that it presents running as "free" from all of these messy things. In precisely the same way that the philosophical idea of the self as rational, controlled, and naturally good-seeking, it presents training as a neat matter of science, a question of inputs and outputs that can be controlled and monitored from without. Attractive? Sure. False and narrow? Yep.

Philosophers catch all sorts of flak for being detached and out of touch with the reality of life's problems. Much of this flak is well-deserved, as is verified by a cursory glance at the lastest professional journals. But the hazards of our profession are not unique. In a specialized world, we are all subject to increasingly narrow connections and perspectives that in turn produce false and narrow world views.

Running, seems to me, can be a practice that resists such specialization. Beyond the geekery, the training plans, the tactics and strategies, we can find running as a broad practice that we do with others. One that not only loosens the legs and the chest and sets the heart to new rhythms, but also gets us outside, exploring space, our local towns and communities. It allows us to feel the weather. It gives us time for bull-shitting with friends, or for doing the hard work of introspection. Occasionally, it allows us the sense of power of using the body as a well-honed tool.

And, yes, okay, it also lets us indulge our inner training geek. I'll give you that. But be careful of that guy. He has a tendency to use the certainty of his knowledge to erase all of the uncertainty of life. It's that uncertainty, that wildness, that openness, that keeps us out there. Not just training. Running.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Listening to the Body: Neuroscience and the Art of Training


If you want to frustrate a new runner and come off as an elitist prick on message boards, there is a quick and easy path. Tell them to listen to their body. Long time runners are always offering this little nugget of wisdom, and new runners are always saying: what the heck does that mean!

I think that neuroscience can help explain.

Neuroscientists have confirmed what we have long known -- that there is an important difference between hearing and listening. In this nice little piece by Seth Horowitz, a Brown University neuroscientist, we learn that the auditory sense is quantitatively almost 10 times faster than the visual sense. In other words, our reactions to what we hear are less processed and more instinctive than our reactions to what we see. Horowitz describes the auditory sense as the human "alarm system" that operates constantly, even while asleep.

To balance that constant guardedness, we have something like "volume control" -- a way of turning up important sounds and diminishing less important sounds. This volume control is the attention. The philosopher/psychologist William James described it in the Principles of Psychology in the following way: "Everyone knows what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought...It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state."

The difference between hearing and listening is, of course, the quality of attention. Horowitz distinguishes between the startle, which is attention in its most attenuated, alarm-sounding, and reactive form and what he calls "stimulus directed attention." While the startle form of attending involves relatively little brain function and has been observed in every animal that has a spine, stimulus directed attention is much more complex and works through "temporoparietal and inferior frontal cortex regions, mostly in the right hemisphere." According to Horowitz, these are areas of the brain that are outwardly concerned; i.e. they are less interested in protecting the organism from danger and more interested in observing and understanding the stimulus received from the outside world. This is the sense in which they are "stimulus directed."

While hearing perhaps originated as a sort of alarm system, in the human brain it can be hooked up into a much more complex, outward oriented, and stimulus directed form of attention. When this happens, we say we are listening, rather than hearing.

Horowitz does a nice job of linking the neuroscience up with social concerns, particularly our interactions with media and with each other. It seems pretty clear that part of our political divisiveness has to do with the way our forms of attention are activated through media.

But I want to turn to running as another realm in which this distinction is important -- and as a realm in which the more complex modes of attention can be developed and trained. Experienced runners, to the chagrin and confusion of new runners, often speak of learning to listen to the body as a key, if not the key to proper training. I think that this Horowitz piece helps to articulate what exactly is meant here.

The art of listening to your body is really an art of developing more complex attention. When we start off in a sport or a new endeavor, we encounter all sorts of new "noises" in our environment, and the most natural reaction to these new stimuli is to be startled by them. The normal feelings of running -- because of their unfamiliarity -- get processed by the reptilian brain as startling, and they generate a fight or flight response. The "flight response" is usually the one activated in runners for obvious reasons, and so the new runner has a tendency to get out there and run to exhaustion on every single run.

But these runs are not the relaxed and confident runs of the well-trained experienced runner. They are painful and somewhat panicked. So, the new runner goes to the message boards and learns that they must slow down and run easy. This works for a time because it diminishes the sensations of running to the level that they can be processed and learned and hooked up to more complex modes of attention.

Once this has been accomplished, and the runner learns how to approach running in a relaxed way, new stimuli need to be introduced gradually and deliberately. This is where having a coach can be really helpful, as he or she can help the athlete distinguish between different modalities of effort and develop the organ of attention. And, in my opinion, this is where overuse or improper use of technologies like heart rate monitors or Garmin pace alerts can impede the development of attention -- in precisely the ways that new forms of media can inhibit the development of the sort of listening that leads to good communication.

I truly believe that in addition of course to genetic differences in talent, the ability to pay attention to one's effort while running in this richer and more complex sense of "listening" is what separates the best runners from the rest. Runners like to talk about pain tolerance and toughness as what makes a race effort full and complete, but the best way to tolerate pain is to understand it as a type of sensation that includes information. This is different from the traditional question of whether we should associate with the pain or disassociate from it to achieve a state of mental toughness.

True mental toughness is less rigid and inflexible than we often imagine it to be. It looks more like the complex attention that Horowitz describes. It looks like calm alertness in the face of the sensations of effort. That's what is meant by "listening to the body."

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Just Run, Baby!

"He who lives as children live -- who does not struggle for his bread and does not believe that his actions possess any ultimate significance -- remains childlike. "

F. Nietzsche, "Daybreak"

"The beast in me is caged by frail and fragile bars." -- J. Cash


Back when I was in graduate school, one of my professors (a Freudian psychoanalyst whose primary mode of pedagogy was delicately nudging and spinning thoughts as, perhaps, a mineral collector does late at night, hopeful that an old crystal lit from just the right angle might gleam with a new shade of light) told me something that stuck with me. He said quite matter-of-factly after one of us had made some sort of comment about childhood: "Remember that childhood is an adult concept."

This professor's point was the relatively simple but often unthought truth that children have no need for the concept of childhood. Childhood is a concept constructed in response to adult life which therefore may in fact have more to do with adulthood than with the actual experience of being a child. When we think of childhood or watch children at play -- and especially when we long for a return to childhood -- often what we do is simply conjure up an image of what adulthood would feel like without its, well, adult responsibilities: the struggle for bread, the struggle for meaning.

In other words, the immaturity of childhood is simply a negation of the idea of the maturity of adulthood, which required hundreds of educable moments, more than a few punishments and setbacks, and a lot of fucking hard work to achieve. When we look at children, we look at a being who has not yet undergone the more-difficult-than-you-might-think process of becoming civilized. And we kind of envy them for that, while also forgetting the fears, lack of control, confusion, injustice, weakness, and unpredictability that is also part of the life of a child.

The concept of childhood is the reason for adulthood, as our primary responsibility as citizens and parents and simply as adults is to create a better world for the children who are about to grow up into it. And, paradoxically, it is also the dream of an escape and relief from adulthood.

I guess these thoughts came back to me now because the high school team I help out with is about to run at the state meet, and one thing that we've been struggling with as coaches is how to get these young folks back to childhood, for at least a moment. These are good kids, from a good school, and their main problem is that they are too good -- too much like adults already. Too stressed, too conscious, too analytical. They've been racing tight, and battling themselves too much, instead of battling the competition.

Running is simple, and we run best when we find a kind of animal state of innocence that is akin to childhood. The good race has none of those adult feelings: no shame, no anxiety, no stress. If we get ourselves in the right mood, we perhaps recall an ancient memory of ourselves before we became civilized. We get natural; we get intuitive; we get cruel and competitive; and we release the beast. We run simply, we run dumb, and we are able to inflict pain upon ourselves without relenting.

"Wait!" you are probably saying. Childhood is a type of beastliness? Of course it is! I think any parents could tell you that. But beastliness is not all bad, just as civilization is not all good. When Johnny Cash speaks of a war within, he is being literal. Our civilized selves tame the beast and train the beast, and this is not without consequence or loss. In fact, our civilized selves have to become quite beastly towards our inner beast in order to cage it in those frail and fragile bars. They make it cower, hold it into a corner, and even make it feel itself to be something shameful and unnatural. These are the tactics of adulthood.

You can see this in a competitive situation when the athlete "gets tight." He or she begins running consciously and becomes so intent on running according to a plan or meeting a certain goal, that she forgets that she needs actually the help of the beast to get there. The runner tries to shame himself into a good performance or berate himself into a good performance. But this never works. The controlled and civilized part of us is, after all, only part of us. To reach our full potential, the beast and the controller, the child and the adult, have to figure out how to join forces and run together.

This is difficult to do, probably impossible to completely accomplish. But we can do better. Most of us denizens of late modernity (or whatever they are calling us today) and especially the readers of a blog like this one are overcivilized. The tendency to control, tame, organize, and understand has run wild, become somewhat beastly and needs, itself, to be tamed. Our enemy on race day is clear. It's not childhood or childishness; it's not ignorance and uncontrolled power. It's the forces of civilization; i.e. knowledge and control. To run and race well, we have to become more child-like, more beastly. We have to let go, which means letting the animal inside us lead us.

So, in your next race, give your adult self a break. Let the kid tow him along for a little while, do some of the work. Because after all, it's children, not adults, who have all the energy these days. Their power and work ethic is tremendous, but too often we miss this aspect of childhood. We miss it because the child's goal is different from ours. It's not to become civilized. It's to play.

Children have no need for the concept of childhood because they are too focused on just being to reflect about who they are. For overanalytical runners in an overanalyzed times, our best race strategy might be no strategy at all.

Just run, baby!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Racing Season, Election Season, and the Role of Intuition in Making Some Sense Out of It All

"In the great boardinghouse of nature, the cakes and the butter and the syrup seldom come out so even and leave the plates so clean. Indeed, we should view them with scientific suspicion if they do." --William James, "The Will to Believe"

One of the reasons I so admire James' view on things is that I think he's got his epistemology right. He understands that as knowers, thinkers, and understanders of reality we are vastly limited. Experience is pretty much chock full of uncertainty, vagueness, chance, and openness. Things hardly ever come out even or add up exactly. The truest confirmation of this fact is the feeling of pleasure that we get when our preconceptions about what's about to happen are actually fulfilled. If we were good predictors of the future and had a clear and firm grasp on reality, that satisfaction would be unwarranted.

The attitude of science -- by which I mean no more and no less than the attitude of intelligent inquiry -- is therefore suspicious from the outset of neat conclusions. In a prior life, I was a physics teacher, and the best sign that students were fudging their lab numbers was that they came out too well. In the lab, we left the realm of theory, where F always equalled (ma) and entered that great boarding house of nature with its marvelous multitude of variables, most of which seem especially placed to muck up the data.

At the time I was more focused on the outcome of each lab, whether the students made connections between the equipment and the concepts, and whether they could follow the instructions. I see more clearly now that much of what I was doing in that lab with those high school students was introducing them to the true difficulty involved in drawing conclusions in the real world. It's often said that the best thinkers rely on facts and evidence for their arguments. But isn't it the other way around? Aren't the best thinkers the ones who start out suspicious of settled conclusions and intent on remaking the facts?

I suppose my mind settled on these thoughts this morning for two reasons. The first is that it's racing season, and runners everywhere are all a-flutter trying to determine in advance what the training they have done this summer really means. We want to draw clear conclusions from the cold facts of training. So, we pore over our running logs looking for signs and indications, a few solid facts that can peg marathon pace for us. It's a doomed project from the start because as we all know, we had good days and bad, and we weren't really racing those workouts anyways. In the end race pace is an intuition, not a conception. What the work does is add up to a feeling that I can hold this effort for this sort of race. That feeling is not the result of an argument; it's more like a built capacity, the product of work and experience not conscious reflection. The very best racers--Sammy Wanjiru comes to mind--run intuitively. [Definitely check out this piece on Wanjiru from Toni Reavis.]

The second reason I've been mulling these things is that it's political season. The last debate was a total snooze-fest, and I think it's because both Romney and Obama overestimated the role of facts and evidence in decision-making. Their responses to each other and to the questions were, in a sense, too heavily loaded with facts, and too often the evidence for their views was presented in a way that made their argument too neat. Like James, my tendency was to view all the numbers with suspicion because I know that in reality the political process will disrupt all plans--as it should! Our political choices are very rarely a consequences of weighing arguments or evidence. They are, instead, the culmination of many experiences. We choose, in other words, on the basis of intuition rather than reason.

That our intuitions are not wholly rational does not mean that they are ill-informed. On the contrary. Political intuitions are a consequence of our temperaments, but they are also formed through direct experience, through habits and encounters, and indeed through the work of living. Jonathan Haidt describes this well. We know who we will vote for in the way that we know what pace to run in the early stages of a marathon. The choice is not conscious and reflective; it is deep and intuitive. It is not based on reasons or arguments, but on effort, choices, and experiences.

None of this means that we shouldn't try to find facts, give evidence for our claims, or scrutinize the rational basis of our decisions. These are all essential ways of developing good intuitions. But we shouldn't neglect the role of intuition in intelligence when considering the important choices we make this fall -- and also, as we are forced to come to terms with the fact that half of America, more or less, will make a different choice than the one our own intuition says is the smart one.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Philosophy, Running, and Life Beyond Justification

The question "what is philosophy?" is perhaps most expressive of the temperament and ambitions of philosophers. We are simultaneously proud of our ability to ask this question and ashamed that we have to ask it. We are proud of the question because it shows that we take critical inquiry so seriously that we apply it even to the very task of critical inquiry. And we are ashamed of the question because it implies that we don't really know what the heck we are doing, that philosophy is simply an expression of confusion. Which, of course, it is.

Like most questions, this one has many different answers. Speaking personally, I love reading and engaging in philosophy because it gives me a chance to think newly and differently. So, I tend to think of the task of philosophy as primarily imaginative and speculative. My favorite philosophers challenge ordinary ways of seeing, and give us new ways of approaching problems. This has probably been apparent in my writings on this blog.

The view that philosophy is about argumentative justification is more common among professional philosophers. This mode of philosophy is also creative, but it puts a higher value on conceptual clarity and argumentative rigor. It sees philosophy as an attempt to justify the way we think about things through clear argumentation and reason giving.

Obviously, good thinking requires both clear-headed and rigorous exchange of reasons as well as creative insight and intuition. In the very best philosophers profound and world-altering insights are delivered in a clear and graceful style that does not shirk the work of justification (Plato, Descartes, Rousseau, and Nietzsche come to mind as exemplary in terms of balancing creativity and argumentative rigor.) But most of us workaday philosophers tend to err on one side or the other -- so much so, in fact that intradisciplinary squabbles about which is the "real" or "true" form of philosophy occupy too much philosophical bandwidth. (Ah, but we love that question, "what is philosophy?" AND, even more, we love to argue!)

All of this is familiar and not too insightful, I imagine, for professional philosophers. These squabbles over the meaning and most basic values of philosophy have a long history and are also influenced by forces from outside philosophy -- i.e. the prestige and influence of math and science, and the more general ways that academics have to justify their own funding, etc. These are larger topics for a different audience.

At any rate, I was prompted to return to these questions on the nature of philosophy and what it might have to do with running when I ran across this advertisement for a conference on the philosophy of running and realized that I hardly wrote about any of the questions that they briefly posed.

Why run? How would I reply to this? Does my running require justification? Well, sometimes it does -- like when I should be doing something else.

What sort of value does running have? Here we get into the reasons for the first question -- Enjoyment comes to mind, first. Psychological stability. Health. Friendship. And then vaguer and more suspicious reasons: control, competitiveness, obsessiveness. Most of the value that running has is directly individual, but there are also community aspects: the race, the friends, even the simple act of being out in public spaces and on sidewalks seems to me to have social/political implications.

What does running tell us about intentions and effort? There are fascinating crannies to explore here. Marathon training and racing is an ongoing lesson in the limits of intentionality and goal setting. And runners are connoisseurs of effort--one of the great pleasures of running is in sampling different efforts and playing with them, as if the body were wine, and we were tasters!

What is philosophically distinctive about running? There is a lot to say here (this topic needs its own blog post), but I think the answer boils down to the fact that running is a freely chosen activity. I think for this reason, we see running as something we are -- we are runners -- rather than something we simply do. We don't run out of necessity, and running is not useful, and yet we choose it anyways.

This takes us back to the first question. What exactly is philosophical inquiry? I think it is best expressed as freedom of thought. This freedom forces certain responsibilities--that we practice it well, that we do it clearly, and that we respect the rights of others to think. But thinking is also like running. There is a dimension of the pure freedom of thought that pushes beyond justification, responsibility, necessity, and usefulness. To my mind, it's this dimension of thought -- a dimension that is itself exceedingly difficult and rewarding to think -- that we indicate by the concept of philosophy. We know we are in a philosophical dimension when our thoughts get confused and jumbled, but also appear new and alien.

Perhaps thinking philosophically and running are analogous activities. Though they each have positive and useful effects, they are activities that are not primarily useful and resist justification. But we choose them anyways, quite freely, despite their dubious use-value, and perhaps in doing so express something about the nature of human freedom. When Socrates said that "The unexamined life is not worth living," he drew a straight line connecting free inquiry and the value of life itself. But there is a subtler thought there as well. If the value of life is in the inquiry, it is also in the part of life that is not yet settled, not yet justified, still to be explored, not quite determined.

Time for a run.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Zoopy-zoop and the quest for uncertainty

"Running is a simple sport. You don't need all the zoopy-zoop." --Bill Squires

On the first day of my philosophy classes, I tell my students that the object of philosophy is fundamentally different from the object of their other classes. In the other disciplines, the point of study is to acquire specific and concrete knowledge and skills. The proper expectation is to leave with more than you came with. There will be tests and quizzes and things of this sort that measure more or less what you have learned. Most of academic life simply takes the value of the quest for certainty and knowledge for granted and sets about getting it done.

The aim of my class is almost entirely opposite. A philosophy class is successful when after a semester's work, the student feels less knowledgeable, less sure of himself and of his capabilities. Uncertain of himself and even his most precious values. Sure, philosophy has a set of knowledge and skills--certainly we have terminology and methods of inquiry and a history of the discipline, etc. But fundamentally philosophy is an attempt to see things freshly, and the main impediment to seeing freshly is the assurance of certainty. It's for this reason that philosophers hold up Socrates as their hero. He was a genius of ignorance; a philosopher.

So, I tell these students that in their academic careers philosophy will be an exception. For the vast majority of their time at the university, they will be gaining knowledge, skills, and habits that will be invaluable in their lives. But, for the three hours a week you are subject to philosophy, you will leave behind this noble and useful task of learning and try your best to do some unlearning.

I justify these three hours by making a distinction between wisdom and knowledge and saying we are after wisdom. But if you've spent much time with philosophy, you know that the idea of wisdom is really an embarrassment for philosophers. First of all, who knows what it means? It's vague and wishy-washy and pretentious to even assume that one might have it, much less teach it. Second, have you ever met a philosopher in real life? Usually not the paragon of wisdom. Third, shouldn't wisdom and knowledge go hand in hand?

But really it is precisely these embarrassing aspects of the idea of wisdom that make it such a useful tool. Philosophers appear to be unwise--even are unwise--precisely because they are busy making experiments into different forms of wisdom. Imagine taking experimentation so seriously, that you model your life after it--instead of, say, a set of rules or principles or commandments. This is a huge risk: to live your life as if you do not know its purpose or meaning. This is the atmosphere of philosophy.

Really, this atmosphere shouldn't be so hard to imagine. Everything we do is a quite radical experiment, even if we rarely reflect on this fact. Getting married, committing to a career, having children, buying a house--each of these decisions are made without full knowledge of their consequences. Every commitment we choose butchers a thousand other possibilities, murders a host of unlived lives, some of which might have turned out better. Indeed, what gives a choice its character as a commitment is the very fact that it might lead to failure. Commitment to a sure thing is no commitment at all. We hold these various experiments into life together with guts, elbow grease, and lots of help from family and friends--and yes, even occasionally some knowledge. And sometimes, despite our best efforts, things fall apart.

To take up philosophy is to affirm this precarious and experimental nature of life. It tries to practice living with the fact that we don't know. Embracing that ignorance and affirming its connection to wisdom may allow for unimagined successes, even if it is also sure to bring unanticipated failures.

The famous marathon coach Renato Canova describes the value of that affirmation for runners in the June issue of Running Times. "I think, in past, coaching may have been [a] big limiting factor on runners," he told Scott Douglas. "When I was national coach of Italy, we measured everything. We had a very precise idea of controlling everything. I think this created limits for athletes in their minds. What is better, athletes and coaches must have the mentality of explorers, so that you can overtake your limitations. You take one step into the darkness. If it's a mistake, you step back. If not a mistake, step again. Only in this way can you increase your knowledge.

"I think this is true not just of marathoning, but for every situation in life, no?"

Sometimes the primary impediment to wisdom is all the zoopy-zoop that allows us to forget that we don't know. Philosophy looks past the zoopy-zoop to the simple darkness that lies at the horizon of every life. It reminds us that there is always some darkness into which we might step, and in its best moments, it gives us the courage to actually take that step.

In a life that is fundamentally uncertain, confusion and hesitation is the mark of honesty and deep insight, not a sign of weakness. The best coaches and athletes never eliminate uncertainty from their training. The small miracle is that they train with great passion, full vigor, and deep attention, despite the fact that in every experiment failure will eventually come. Life is a simple sport; it leads onwards, ever, into the darkness.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Habit of Thinking about your Habits of Thinking


One role that philosophers play is we take ways of thinking and we amplify them, codify them, play with them, tweak them, and follow them to their (often absurd) conclusions. One of my grad school professors used to joke that he would tell people that he was a "conceptual engineer" by trade so that people (or at least the women he was trying to pick up) would take him more seriously. It wasn't really a lie: that's part of what we do. We tinker with ways of thinking in order to try to improve them.

This is one reason why philosophers always behave so strangely. It's because by long practice we have learned a habit of disassociating ourselves from our thoughts. The more native and natural way to think of ideas is that they are personal--you yourself have them. Common sense talks about our opinions and reasons as if they are our own, and we get emotionally attached to our ideas. An attack on our way of thinking is an attack on us. Philosophers, though, see opinions and modes of thinking the way that engineers see bridges and roads. They don't see them as the possessions of a single person or reflective of a personality with a set of commitments. They tend to see thoughts and ideas as objects constructed by communities for certain purposes. Like engineers, they want to tinker with them, to make them serve their purposes better, and they tend to develop a sort of engineer's distance from the objects of their analysis.


Philosophers are just like engineers, except less optimistic.

Philosophers are trained to be this way, but we are probably drawn to philosophy because of some sort of natural proclivity to treat thinking in this manner. One of the downsides of this sort of technical view of the nature of philosophy is that after a while, for philosophers, almost all thinking gets abstract and distant. We become like engineers or architects who are fascinated by the structure of bridges, their beauty, their mathematical form, etc., but who perhaps forget that the purpose of a bridge is not to be intellectually pleasing or perfect or precise, but to get people across the river. Philosophy can sort of mess up your mind because the habit of philosophizing makes us turn our minds towards analyzing its own structures. This is fine, except that the mind, like a bridge, is not best understood on its own terms, but in terms of its actual function in practical conditions. The common sense way of thinking about thoughts has some truth to it. Our thoughts are personal. They influence the way we interact with the world. It would be strange not to become attached to them because they are important--really important--to us.

When philosophers forget the personal nature of thought, we tend to get caught up in a particular "ism." We forget the vital common sense questions that drove us to philosophy: how to think better, how to live more fully, how to experience more deeply, how to think more truly and honestly, etc. In their place, we begin slowly to substitute specialized philosophical questions like: how is this "ism" better than that "ism"? What would this "ism" say about this particular subject? Is this part of this "ism" logically consistent with this other part of the "ism"?  It happens to most every philosopher. My "ism" is pragmatism.

I bring this up because this problem is, of course, not unique to philosophers. All of us are forced to specialize in one way or another. We rely on patterns of thought, shorthand labels, political parties, etc. This is not out of laziness; doing this is actually a sign of intelligence. The world taken without shortcuts would be simply an unintelligible blooming buzz of sensation. Think, for example, of the experience of a newborn baby. This baby is unable to discern the patterns of pretty much anything; it can't selectively attend to its environment, and pick things out. The same thing happens to us when we play a new game or have a totally new experience. Everyone else seems to understand what's going on, but to us the world seems to be flying around chaotically. Being able to play the game means being able to recognize patterns and repeat them or anticipate them. In other words, thinking requires using shortcuts that allow us to ignore certain aspects of experience and concentrate on others.

In life, through time, we settle on the shortcuts that work work for us. We adopt a number of "isms" that become precious to us because they help us sort out the world. We begin to cherish them, and in certain cases even worship and fetishize them. In my view, this is the truest way to understand religious life. Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism etc., all provide ways of shortcutting experience, by turning us toward this sort of thing instead of that, emphasizing a certain arrangement of concepts over another.

Politicians understand this all too well. They know that winning a vote is more about selling a certain framework of concepts that make the world appear in a certain way than it is about winning an argument. Democrats' favorite concepts are race, poverty, equality, society, justice, and fairness. Republicans prefer concepts like competition, the market, personal responsibility, and the economy. Once you buy that framework, you learn to attend to certain things and ignore other things, and over time your habits of attending to experience inform the way you see things, perhaps so much so that those who do not share your point of view seem totally alien to you, as if they are living in another world. Which, in some ways, they actually are, if your world is merely the sum of your experiences.



Habit is two-sided. Without its ability to concentrate and narrow experience to its most important elements, we would be totally lost. On the other hand, if we get too stuck in our habits, we run the risk of shutting ourselves off from renewing experiences. Habit can be a great friend; at its best it is determination, consistency, and fidelity. When it turns bad, we call it addiction, dogmatism, close-mindedness, and xenophobia.

Philosophy is the habit of constantly re-evaluating our habits of thinking. This habit can be taken too far; it can lead to paralysis, confusion, over-analysis and lack of commitment. But when it is measured and appropriately applied, it is perhaps the most important habit that we have. How do we find the appropriate measure of philosophy? How do we know when we are thinking too little or too much?

I am not sure that these questions can be answered once and for all. Different temperaments will be comfortable with different doses of reflection, and different historical moments will be better suited to reflection on our fundamental habits of living. Socrates reminded us two thousand years ago that we know that we don't know. For all the changes that we have undergone since Socrates was hanging around, it strikes me that this is still true. Language, culture, and simply our ways of living organize our experience in ways that make inquiry into the limits and possibility of experience difficult.

To be philosophical is to take that difficulty seriously--but not too seriously--because after all our seriousness itself might be the very habit that prevents genuine critical reflection.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Don't Just Do It.

"Thinking men and artists have not infrequently described a sense of being not quite there, of not playing along, a feeling as if they were not themselves at all, but a kind of spectator. ... 'What does it really matter?' is a line that we like to associate with bourgeois callousness, but it is a line that is most likely to make an individual aware, without dread, of the insignificance of his existence. The inhuman part of it, the ability to keep one's distance as a spectator and to rise above things, is in the final analysis the human part, the very part resisted by ideologists." --Theodore Adorno, "After Auschwitz," Negative Dialectics

It is common for intellectuals to wish that ordinary folks thought more about their lives and the consequences of their actions. It is even more common for ordinary folks to disparage intellectuals as being aloof or out of touch with reality.

These positions mark extremes. As individuals, we ought to avoid these extremes--we have to be careful not to become mere spectators of life, and on the other hand, we have to avoid the unreflective life. Thoughtful human experience is characterized by a gentle and controlled rhythm of reflection and action. Like positive and negative terminals on a battery, life sparks only when these moments are connected.

Our batteries are in danger of running out today. Folks seem always to be looking for more energy, whether it's in energy drinks, coffee, motivational sayings posted to social media, pharmaceutical anti-depressants. We try to cure this problem of lack of energy by reciting the Nike mantra, which is essentially the slogan for our manic age: "Just Do It." By just doing, we hope to escape the point of view of the spectator and plunge ourselves back into reality, lived and vibrant experience.


My sense is that this way of responding to flagging energy mistakes a symptom for the cure. The reason we are worn down is precisely because we are constantly "just doing" without thinking much about what or why or to what purpose we are doing. The answer to the problem of finding more energy may not be to do more, but to hesitate more, to think more.

Though culture presents it as a dichotomy, there is no tension between thought and action. Action requires thought as essential to it and part of it. Doing is mere impulse; it doesn't rise to the level of controlled action. When we take the point of view of "just doing," we disallow thoughts that might make us hesitate and reflect on whether all of this doing is sustainable, whether it's leading us in a healthy direction, whether it's harming ourselves or others. The "just do it" attitude is essentially reckless expenditure of energy without regard for the costs. It's the attitude of consumer capitalism--"Just Do It" translates pretty quickly into "Just Buy It." Nike has a financial interest in unreflective impulsion. Sure, it can get you out the door, but it's also what gets their shoes into your closet.

The guy I quote at the beginning of this post, Theo Adorno, was a big fan of philosophy. He thought it was the mode of human culture that is explicitly charged with preserving thought and critical reflection, the negative terminal of the battery of human action. Though Adorno can be difficult, his point in the above paragraph is pretty obvious: "After Auschwitz" we ought to be very suspicious of the call to live less reflectively, to just do without thinking. Auschwitz is a reminder of what humans are capable of when they cease to reflect on the consequences of their actions.

I generally dislike using the holocaust to motivate thought because first of all I think the impulse to "draw lessons" out of horrible experiences is one of the primary ways in which normalize and condition ourselves to living with evil. Secondly, and worse, it makes us think that evil was something that happened long ago, in another time, to another people, at the hands of others. There are plenty of examples of atrocity and evil today that should give us pause. Also, this is essentially a running blog, and let's face it the subject of evil is a drag, and you don't come here to get bummed out.

So, let me put the point I am trying to make in a different way. As a professional [and, at least on this blog, just a plain old] philosopher, I find myself often having to justify the practical importance of philosophy and its relevance to life. This is always a challenge to me because at a very basic level I find the practice of critical reflection the most practical asset in my life. Giving a justificatory account of thinking is like trying to justify breathing or singing or dancing. The very attitude that thinking is impractical just strikes me as odd from the outset.

Be that as it may, in a "Just Do It" culture, philosophy is in a position of having to justify its existence. This is of course difficult precisely because "justifying" is pretty much the opposite of "just doing." However, in my recent and fairly minimal work as a coach, the practical value of reflection has become pretty dang obvious to me, in a way that I think allows me to explain (even if this is a somewhat odious task) the value of philosophizing and reflecting more generally. So, instead of appealing to Auschwitz and saying something like: "Look what awful things can happen when people refuse to hesitate in the face of experience," essentially guilting you into remembering that philosophy is important, let me talk a little about coaching runners.

My primary function as a coach has not been to motivate my athletes. I always find that the extent to which athletes are motivated to become faster to be quite inspiring actually. The problem that athletes face, from high school through adulthood, is not how to find energy to train, but how to control the impulse to train so that it can work effectively. The challenge of training is a challenge of intelligence.

A coach shows you how to put motivation to work in effective ways. He helps you turn the impulsive thought: "I want to work to get faster" into an organized and intelligent plan of action. For a beginning runner, this may mean something like slowing down and working on consistency. For an intermediate runner, this may mean learning how to balance stress and recovery. For an advanced runner, this may mean learning the very specific modes of response that one's own body needs for training. This means "doing," sure. But it means doing in the right way, at the right time, in the right measure. Figuring all the rightness of this out requires time spent running, but it also requires the skill of critical reflection and response. Being able to pull this off means that the athlete will always have energy and motivation to train. The most motivated athlete is the improving athlete.

The analogy to broader areas of life is straightforward. How often are our impulses rash and inadequately conceived? How often does life feel like a relentless, will sapping, treadmill? All effort, little action? Sometimes in order to start in a genuine way, we have to stop. And think. And then go again, but this time better.

I am probably preaching to the choir here; this is a self-selected hardy philosophical crowd. But sometimes it's important to say things clearly, even if they are obvious. Philosophy--the care and development of a habit of thinking--is important. It is relevant. It is practical. That's obvious to anyone who has encountered the discipline. But unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, there are forces on the loose out there that seem intent on disparaging this activity, opposing it to doing, and consigning it to the realm of fuzzy-headed academics. Sometimes even we philosophers get in the habit of doing this.

So, yeah, let's say it loud and proud: philosophy is a practical discipline.



Forgetting the practical value of thinking lands us in a world where the only possible action is reduced to "just doing it," with little thought about what the hell that little "it" means or where it is leading us.

Such a world is, unfortunately, not too hard to imagine. It's a world where business majors can't talk about morality, a world where moralists can't put their ideals into practice, a world where the mind can't interpret basic signals from a sedentary and unhealthy body, a world where the value of work is unhinged from its consequences, a world where the food we eat poisons us and the earth it comes from, a world where lawyers forget about justice, a world where doctors make us sick, a world where the primary form of action is consumption, the primary form of human relation is domination. In short, it's a world that gave up on that old ideal that life ought to be constructed from humane and thoughtful action.

Working to prevent such a world seems to me to be just about the most practical thing we can do. It's a task that will take some thought.

So, yeah. Give a philosopher a hug.

Just think.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Drawing the Arrow, Some Reflections on our Historicity

"Consider the herd grazing before you. These animals do not know what yesterday and today are but leap about, eat, rest, digest, and leap again; and so from morning to night and from day to day, only briefly concerned with their pleasure and displeasure, enthralled by the moment and for that reason neither melancholy nor bored. It is hard for a man to see this, for he is proud of being human and not an animal and yet regards its happiness with envy because he wants nothing other than to live like the animal, neither bored nor in pain, yet wants it in vain because he does not want it like the animal. Man may well ask the animal: why do you not speak to me of your happiness but only look at me? The animal does want to answer and say: because I always immediately forget what I wanted to say--but then it already forgot this answer and remained silent: so man could only wonder."
--F. Nietzsche "On the Advantages and Disadvantages of History for Life"

In this lovely passage, which is one of my favorite in all of philosophy, Nietzsche draws the line between the human and the animal in terms of the capacities of melancholy and boredom, linking them with remembering and forgetting. The human is the animal capable of leaving the moment--becoming melancholy, perhaps or bored, perhaps. This capacity of leaving the moment is closely tied to memory, of course, memory being the act of traveling with the mind, breaking the thrall of the moment and entering that dreamy realm of history, yesterday, and today.

When we run, we enter into the animal state--this is one of its allures. It allows us to escape our history and future with their attendant anxieties and enter into the protective thrall of the moment. Racing, particularly, is like this. Perhaps the reason we are able to find extra power in the race situation is that we have become animal for a short time. All of our capacities and powers are released into the present moment, and we are able to accomplish things that simply aren't possible in normal human consciousness--which always has some part of it reaching out of the moment in anticipation or memory.

When we train, however, we do so as humans. We place ourselves in a present that has a past and a future. John L. Parker described it as making yourself into an arrow in Again to Carthage. Animals race--they run down their quarry, they play together, dogs chase a frisbee or their owners. But animals don't train. Training requires a different order of intelligence because it requires memory--and out of that memory, imagination of a possible future. We make ourselves into an arrow that connects, or attempt to connect, the two.

Nietzsche worried that the confusion into which we are thrown by the vast and plural histories that fund our present would no longer allow us to imagine a future for ourselves. We wouldn't be able to intelligently draw an arrow from our multiple and divergent cultural memories to an imagined future. Perhaps this is a problem that plagues our current political process--we either regress to an overly simple view of America with a too-clearly-imagined-future or struggle to define a future because of over-sensitivity to all of the future's possibilities.

This is the disadvantage of memory: it imposes a burden upon you. It makes you draw an arrow. We remember, for example, being young and powerful and we dream of returning to that state. But is this an arrow that is possible to draw? Or is it simply melancholic nostalgia for a past that cannot be recreated. If the past is too powerful, too good, it can make us reject the future and create a melancholic temperament that mourns the loss of that idyllic past.

Of course this very burden of awareness of the past is also an advantage for humanity. It gives us a task, makes the future possible. These ghosts of memory can spur us to try to recreate them in the future. We remember our best races and wonder what it would feel like to run even faster. We think back on our failures and imagine what might have been--and work to bring what might have been into actuality.
The arrow upwards can be equally thrilling or demoralizing.

This idea that we are all arrows pointing from the stories we tell ourselves about who we were towards the stories we tell ourselves about who we might be, this relation to the past and future, is what philosophers call our "historicity." We are, fundamentally, historical beings--this is Nietzsche's point.

Perhaps Nietzsche's most important contribution to philosophy was to look at history not as a series of facts about what happens, but as a collection of stories that creates an arrow that points towards possible futures. Nietzsche urged in all of his work the idea that as human beings it was essential to intelligently recreate these stories on behalf of our lives. In other words, Nietzsche understood the truth of history in terms of its effect on our ability to draw an arrow to a possible future arising out of that history.

This is a remarkable idea. But I think it is one that runners can understand well if they reflect on their own training. We all have goals for the future based on our pasts. Our training is oriented by these arrows. But sometimes the stories we tell ourselves about our running history can limit our future development. After each race, we place that race into the narrative of our lives as a runner. We connect it to other events in a way that makes sense. We historicize it. The question that Nietzsche poses to us is how thoughtfully do we historicize these events? Do the stories we tell about our racing limit us in certain ways? What futures do they create for us? And what futures do these stories prevent?

By giving us these sorts of questions, Nietzsche allows us to make a critical inquiry into who we are as runners. This is something that animals don't do. It takes a lot of energy, and it is not always a productive enterprise. It has its advantages (the possibility of new goals) and disadvantages (melancholy and rumination). People will say that you think too much.

But, Nietzsche reminds us, this sort of engagement with the past--this wondering--is what makes us human. Perhaps if we give ourselves to it completely, we can find in certain moments the animal in the human, the joy in reflection. In these moments, we philosophize with neither melancholy nor boredom, but with something like the thrall of the reflective moment. It's in these rare moments that we find the unique power of human consciousness--the possibility that we can make ourselves anew.

Isn't this the possibility that drives our running and indeed our lives?

Friday, December 9, 2011

Rethinking How to Train, Continued

"The true romance which the world exists to realize is the transformation of genius to practical power." --R.W. Emerson, "Experience."

One of my fundamental philosophical convictions is that intelligence is primarily about attention. The reason why attention is so important is because we have limited "bandwidth" for processing. Sure, people who score high on the SAT maybe have a bit broader (or more intense) bandwidth than the rest. However, given the amount of information that we all have at our disposal for living, the relative difference in processing power among individual minds pales in comparison to the question of what those minds decide to process. This question of what we decide to devote our minds to is essentially the question of attention. Since this is such an important question, it's important that we turn a bit of our bandwidth to it every now and then.

Yeah, I'm basically talking about thinking outside the box. Or at least in a different box. [A thought to chew on: when we do philosophy, what we are doing is creating new modes of attention.]

Concepts are the means through which we focus our attention, which is why they are so important for analysis. They are basically names for the content our attention takes up. When we argue about the fundamental concepts of training, what we mean by "fundamental" is something like "that which we ought to turn our attention towards most fully." Quality, volume, variation, form, pace, long runs, weekly mileage, aerobic development, speed, interval training, specific fitness, general fitness, strength, VO2max, lactic threshold--each of these concepts turns our attention to some aspect of the training process. The invention of a new concept invites a new mode of attention for intelligence.

In a late October post, I talked about shifting the focus of my training away from the concept of mileage and more towards the concepts of recovery and development. Before this shift, my primary question when planning my week or my day was, "How many miles can I get in?" Sure, I also tried to get in a harder session a week, but this was an afterthought. Even races took a back seat to the mileage. I would "train through" both workouts and races, often doing a double the day before them. This was because I took weekly mileage to be the primary organizing concept of training. It's what I paid attention to: putting in the work.

Since I have turned my attention to recovery and development, the primary question I put to myself every week is something like: "How is my training progressing?" This question puts me in a very different mindset than the prior sort of question. Building on what came before may mean an easy week to absorb some prior work. It may mean pushing my tempo pace down 5 or 10 seconds. It may mean lengthening intervals or reducing recovery between them. But the primary difference between this sort of question and the prior question that oriented my training is that it requires that I position myself squarely in the "present" of my training. Instead of repeating a process mindlessly that could happen at any time to anybody, I have to imagine myself as a runner with a past and a future and ask, simply: "How does the present fit into that past and future in a progressive way?" Instead of looking for the final answer about The Right Way to Train, I ask smaller, melioristic, questions like, how can I get a little faster this week? The latter is a much more intelligent way of framing the attention.

In a recent message board post the Lydiard disciple Nobby Hashizume described training as a kind of wave: "Training and training effect is series of applying stress and your base fitness level going down; and taking recovery and let the base fitness to come up and go beyond. It's the wave of this activity." He's right; training is like riding a wave. You've got to constantly evaluate where you are on the wave, where you are headed, and try to figure out how to take that wave to the crest. Most fundamentally, Nobby reminds us, training is an interaction, a method of call and response.

If we don't attentively frame our training in the right way, we miss this interaction. That's what I called "training like a mule" or "taking shortcuts" in my last post. It's unintelligent training because it sees training as repetition, but ignores difference. Both repetition and difference must be balanced. Otherwise, we are simply applying a stimulus and hoping that it is the correct one, or that the body will respond in equal measure to the stimulus applied. This is stupidity masquerading as toughness, pig-headedness disguised as an iron will.

Since I reframed the basic questions with which I approached my training, I have had some success. I ran 26:53 for 5 miles in our local turkey trot, which is just about equivalent to my best racing at higher mileage levels. Plus, I closed my last mile in 5:04, which bodes well for future racing. Equally importantly, I have more energy for work during the day--as well as more excitement to RACE than I did when I was grinding out the miles. These are no small achievements, especially since running is only part of who I am.

Tomorrow I take a shot at running under 16 minutes on the road for the second time since college. It's going to be tough, and I'm not sure if I am ready for it just yet. But, if I don't make it, I already have in mind a few things I can do to keep riding the wave upwards. If I do run under 16 minutes, then I will find myself in a place I haven't been in quite some time: as fast as I've ever been and with possibilities for getting a little faster.

If this approach to training interests you, you might like this piece on how training for 5k can help your marathon.

Friday, November 11, 2011

A Runner's Take on Occupy Wall Street

"Let us then place belief midway between certitude and nihilism. Let us see it characterized by trust, by affection, by a sense of novelty and by hope. Those traditions, especially religious, which have told us through the centuries that we know, for sure, the objects of our belief, have violated not only the character of genuine belief but also the mysterious openness of genuine religious experience. It is a deep tragedy that so much of our energy is expended in explicating and defending caricatures of our once viable traditions. ... [S]elf righteous interpretations of what is fundamentally inexplicable have divided us one from the other and cut us off from the human quest. In sociological terms, belief must cease its relationship to finality; it must turn to the future instead of the past." --John McDermott, The Community of Experience
John McDermott

I do not often write directly about politics on this blog, primarily because philosophy and running are escapes for me from an overwrought and underthought political scene. The connections between these three things--running, politics, and philosophy--are not obvious. They must be actively made, as the subtitle of the blog indicates. Something that is made can be unmade, and can be made poorly or well. Then, even if it is made well, it might be useful for some purposes and not others. At any rate, before beginning a political post, I just thought a sort of disclaimer might be in order--neither running nor philosophy necessarily lead in any logical way to certain political positions. The logical connections are always held and made through our thoughts, actions, temperaments, circumstances, efforts, and reflection. This is the "logic" of politics--the logic of ordinary life.

The above quote by John McDermott holds that belief is a midway sort of state. Running provides excellent examples of this. When we step to the starting line of a race, we have to believe in ourselves, believe that we are capable of running a certain time. This belief is something like a frame of mind that takes effort to hold and construct, and it guides our actions, gives us comfort, provides us hope, and--sometimes--allows us to achieve our goals. McDermott reminds us in this passage that we know beliefs by their function in experience. Their meaning and truth is found in how we hold them, and what they do for us. When we believe that we can run a certain time, we do not know it with certainty. Instead, we hold it with an attitude of trust and faith in our abilities to achieve. The race experience reminds us that the crucial quality of belief is not its having been determined to be true in the past, but the determination it gives us to fight for a possible future.

The beliefs that we hold at the starting lines of races are forged out of experience and effort. They are not arbitrary, and they are more likely to be realistic and serve their purpose of calling forth new capacities if they have been carefully and attentively made. The undertrained marathoner holds his belief in his ability to run a certain time in a very different way than the marathoner who has been through the trials of miles, and rightfully so. While the undertrained marathoner may be more certain of his ability to achieve his goal (depending on his ambitions), the well-trained runner has more faith in his belief--it means more to him; he holds his belief with affection and may call on this affect in times of distress.

As citizens of a democracy, we are asked to carry with us certain beliefs as well. These beliefs are well-known to all of us. We believe in equality, justice, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness. We are asked to hold these political beliefs together as a community, with affection. None of these ideals are certain; when we believe in these things, we are asked to do so in order that we bring them into being and hold them in place with our effort.

It is cheesy to suggest it, but the ideals of democracy are similar in form to race goals. They are not certainties that we accept because they have already been achieved. They are, instead, dreams that we will have to work towards with much effort.The important point, here, is that beliefs are not possessed; they possess us and move us. The marathoner proves his belief in his goal by being affected by it in the last miles of the race, by drawing on it to give him strength to continue to fight. So, too, do we prove our belief in democracy.

This is where McDermott's take on religion is helpful as well. We can practice politics as "explicating and defending caricatures of our once viable traditions," and we can give "self-righteous interpretations" of the meaning of democracy, intended to divide us. Or, we can abandon our relationship with finality in politics and offer ourselves up to democratic experience, which like religious experience is vague, indeterminate, and fundamentally open. McDermott's point is that we live into and with our beliefs; they are not made through argument. We can talk politics all we like, but in the end we have to run the race; we have to live together.

The analogy to running is limited, however, because a race is an individual endeavor in an artificial context while democracy is a community endeavor in a real and messy world. One of these things is much harder than the other. When we believe in democracy, we have to form common beliefs. We have to share experience. To create a deeply rooted faith in democratic life, we have to pass through experiences together, and we cannot control these experiences with a watch or break them into intervals. Often times these experiences break us down instead of making us stronger.

However, we can practice democracy. I believe this is the challenge that the Occupy Wall Street protests puts to us. It asks us how well we have been occupying our democratic ideals. As Matt Taibbi puts it in his excellent Rolling Stone article:

That, to me, is what Occupy Wall Street is addressing. People don't know exactly what they want, but as one friend of mine put it, they know one thing: FUCK THIS SHIT! We want something different: a different life, with different values, or at least a chance at different values.

There was a lot of snickering in media circles, even by me, when I heard the protesters talking about how Liberty Square was offering a model for a new society, with free food and health care and so on. Obviously, a bunch of kids taking donations and giving away free food is not a long-term model for a new economic system.

But now, I get it. People want to go someplace for at least five minutes where no one is trying to bleed you or sell you something. It may not be a real model for anything, but it's at least a place where people are free to dream of some other way for human beings to get along, beyond auctioned "democracy," tyrannical commerce and the bottom line.
The idea of occupying our democracy resonates with old American ideas. It reminds us that our beliefs are not precious gems to be fondled and protected or weapons with which we destroy our ideological opponents. Our beliefs are our deliberate ways of living; they are ways of occupying the world. When Thoreau wrote that he went to the woods to live deliberately, he was, in a sense, trying to occupy his life. This is what it means to be a free individual, to occupy your life, to occupy a place, to occupy a community, and to occupy your beliefs. The Wall Street protesters have chosen a different sort of wilderness to test their capacity for deliberation. They are not looking to take control of a single life, but simply asking whether it is possible to live together without fear in very heart of the democratic experiment.


Running provides me a space apart from the chatter and difficulty of contemporary life. It helps me carve out time away from screens and chairs, walls and air-conditioned spaces. It reminds me of my capacity for pleasure and pain. For these reasons, I choose to believe that it is a practice of hope and self-development. But it can be equally argued that running is also a naive escape, a waste of energy, an self-satisfied act of leisure. I could see it this way, and if I did for long, I would stop believing in its transformative potential.

Like running and everything else in life, Occupy Wall Street is not perfect. It is both a challenge to genuine politics and an escape from it. Like running, it can be construed positively or negatively, and that choice will have consequences for its continuation. I make the choice deliberately to believe in it, to advocate and articulate its metaphors and vision, and to see it as a challenge to my own practice of democracy and the choices I make in living it out.

The challenge that Occupy Wall Street poses to us is both simple and extraordinarily difficult. It asks us this question: Can we form a society in which we are able to live together in a dignified, joyful, and deliberate manner?

I don't know the answer to these question with any degree of certainty, but as a runner and a human being I am well practiced in the living form of belief that works outside of the range of the certain.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

On Art, Intelligence, and Training

John Dewey, American philosopher
"In art as experience, actuality and possibility or ideality, the new and the old, objective material and personal response, the individual and the universal, surface and depth, sense and meaning, are integrated in an experience in which they are all transfigured from the significance that belongs to them when isolated in reflection. 'Nature,' said Goethe, 'has neither kernel nor shell.' Only in esthetic experience is it also true that nature has neither subjective nor objective being; is neither individual nor universal, sensuous nor rational. The significance of art as experience is, therefore, incomparable for the adventure of philosophic thought."
 --John Dewey, Art as Experience


For Dewey and the pragmatists, analytic reflection, however necessary, is insufficient for intelligence because analytic reflection is always dissociative. Analysis always selects from experience, cutting it open by attending to this and not that. It makes progress by fixing certain variables with the attention and ignoring others. This way of slicing the universe up is absolutely essential to growth and progress, but if we confuse the distinctions that analysis makes for the nature of reality itself, then analytic reflection can stifle philosophical thought--the intelligent pursuit of wisdom.

Perhaps this is less of a problem for non-philosophers than it is for philosophers, who because of their commitment to the value of intelligence are uniquely prone to intellectual fallacies. The classic problems in philosophy, Dewey thought, committed a similar intellectual fallacy in the attempt to reduce all of experience to one analytic concept. So, for example, "objectivists" believe that the real world exists completely independent of any mind that would attempt to know it, while "subjectivists" argue that each of us can make our own reality simply by thinking it. The truth, as common sense tells us, is that neither position adequately grasps the relationship between reality and the mind. The history of philosophy has been a long wrangle between varieties of these sorts of reductive claims, neither side ever winning because both of them were essentially committing the same intellectualist error. They attempted to reduce all of experience to a single and one-sided idea that is perfectly useful for analysis, but wrongheaded when it comes to metaphysical speculation.

This is why Dewey wrote that "the significance of art as experience was incomparable for the adventure of philosophic thought." While analysis breaks the world apart, the experience of art is integrative. Art, both as product and as process of production, brings a divided world together. It is the sort of doing and experiencing that attempts to bring us into a more intimate and full relationship with reality. It takes a world that has been parceled out by our reflective capacities into various entities -- corporations, classes, races, nationalities, religions, political persuasions, friends, families, and enemies -- and attempts to bring these things into relation with each other. Art as an experience reminds us that the most essential task in living is not to divide our lives into parts through the understanding, but to learn how to balance in action its separate tasks in harmonious relation.

Here, as always, training provides a useful example. In order to be intelligent in training, we have to learn how to divide it up into its components. General concepts like variety, consistency, volume, periodization, recovery, frequency help us focus on various aspects of the training process. Physiological concepts like aerobic, anaerobic, lactic threshold, heart rate, perceived effort, cadence, etc. also allow us to break the effects of training on the body apart and look at its development from various angles. All of these concepts can help us to understand training.

However, understanding how training works from a variety of angles is very different from having a training philosophy. Producing a philosophy requires not only analytic intelligence, but also creative and synthetic intelligence. After the act of running has been broken apart into its various components, the runner must put the pieces back together in a particular way and create something like a philosophy--or at the very minimum, a plan.

I prefer the term "philosophy" to plan because as every runner knows plans have to be modified according to circumstances. Much more essential to proper training is having a way of approaching your running life that is balanced, flexible, and responsive--in short, living. This is the only form in which intelligence comes, as the only meaning of intelligence is nothing more or less than a way of living life that is in balance and growing and adapting to its environment.

Constructing such a philosophy is not something that happens overnight, but I suppose what Dewey would tell us is that when we are considering how to train well, we ought to extend our research beyond training manuals and old training logs. We also ought to also read novels, listen to music, and watch artists of other endeavors for signs of how to construct our own vision.


There is one trait that all of my best coaches had in common. They were all characters. They were quirky, bright, and different from the rest of the people that I met, each in their own way. I think this is because they realized that the secret to showing people the path to success was much less about understanding and more about deliberate and conscious attention to the unities that experience offers. They practiced coaching as an art.

Perhaps if you pay close attention to experience, you are bound turn out a little strange. That strangeness is a reflection of a simple fact: that one has learned how to extract from the world a secret or two that no one else has learned to see. These coaches were characters because there was something in them that tended to unity. You saw that they had fashioned for themselves a whole person, and even though that wholeness was quirky and couldn't really be understood, it was there, constructed out of a lifetime of attention and art.

This quirky integrity made you do a simple thing: pay attention. Which turned out to be the difference.

Bonus clip, from the Flying Monkey Marathon:


'Think Monkey' from Funky Umbrella on Vimeo.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Toughness as an Act of Imagination

"When watching for that distant clock to strike, our mind is so filled with its image that at every moment we think we hear the longed-for or dreaded sound. So of an awaited footstep. Every stir in the woods is for the hunter his game; for the fugitive his pursuers. Every bonnet in the street is momentarily taken by the lover to enshroud the head of his idol. The image in the mind is the attention; the preperception ... is half the perception of the looked-for thing." 
--William James, Principles of Psychology

When we talk about being mentally tough in running and racing, it is often unclear exactly what we mean. Most commonly we seem to imagine the tough individual as the one who can endure the most pain. Ascetic philosophers and religious figures through history have seen the encounter with pain as purifying in a certain way. Pain allows us to test the strength of our will by providing an obstacle to it, allowing us to distinguish the actions we choose from what has become ingrained habit. Through this test we learn to what extent we are in control of ourselves, and perhaps these lessons can be extended to other areas of life. This ascetic picture tends to draw a tidy relation between the quantity of pain that one endures and the quantity of willpower that one possesses. The more pain that one can endure, the stronger the will, the tougher the competitor.

Makau on his way to the WR.
However, runners know that the encounter with pain is not so straightforward as this picture assumes. Debilitating pain is, to borrow from the quote above, "the distant clock" that is bound to strike in every racing attempt. The early moments of every race are shaded by the effort that is to come--this is what allows us to pace properly; we anticipate--we preperceive the pain, and it colors our action in the early stages of racing. This is intelligence in racing, and in many ways the precise preperception of pain is what distinguishes experienced racers from new racers, allowing them to "ride the line" that will lead directly to a maximum effort. (The Science of Sport's recent analysis of Patrick Makau's marathon WR does a great job of showing how thin that line can be.)

While the runner must monitor his effort closely and be very attuned to sensation and impending or present pain in the early stages of the race, James helps us understand how attention to pain can be detrimental in the later stages of the race. If, as he writes, "the preperception is half the perception of the looked-for thing," then the runner has to be wary of projecting onto his experience more pain than is actually felt. As pain rises up in the latter part of the race, attending to the pain actually magnifies its quantity, adding to the "actual pain" the image of pain in the mind's eye. The psychology behind this is exactly the same as the psychology of "ripping off a band-aid;" we rip it off quickly before the mind has a chance to pay much attention to the site of pain. Pain that we haven't prepared the mind to perceive is, actually, less pain.

Thinking about the role of attention and preperception in pain allows us to understand more clearly the role that attention plays in toughness. Being mentally tough is less about confronting pain and more about controlling the attention. The toughest racers are those who allow their attention to be "consumed by the race," as a friend recently described it. Being tough, paradoxically, doesn't mean confronting the largest amount of pain. What it demands is literally not feeling the pain at all--keeping the attention absorbed in other things, like controlling the body, competing with rivals, maintaining the rhythms of the running motion. When we achieve a race like this, we usually call it a breakthrough. What has been "broken through" is an old preperception, an old habit of attending to an image of the self or of pain that was supposed to come but didn't.

The attention is the greatest tool of the human mind because it allows us to select from the world the stimuli to which we would like to respond. Intelligence, it seems to me, is a matter of selection; more about tuning things out than opening the mind. The great geniuses of history created a world that made some sense through acts of attention--selecting a single problem so that progress could be made, setting up the world as intelligible when apprehended along very particular lines. Great thinkers help us frame our vision--by telling us what to see or how to see, they also tell us what not to see.

Tunnel vision is at the core of human intelligence.
It is always difficult to quantify the mental aspect of training and racing, and often this aspect is overplayed. However, our preperceptions about the sort of runner that we are, the kinds of paces that we can handle, our strengths and weaknesses as a runner can hold us back and keep us from experiencing our power. They prepare us to pay attention to certain things and not others. A good training plan, then, shouldn't just look to train the heart and legs. It also has to work to train the mind to pay attention to new capacities as they unfold, altering our preperceptions, reimagining ourselves so that we can actually see ourselves more clearly.

Perhaps it is counter-intuitive, but it seems to me that mental toughness is more about imagination than brute willpower. The toughest thing in life is breaking out of old habits of attention. This breaking out requires the imaginative invention of a better self--and the willingness to trust that preperception once imagined.

Friday, August 19, 2011

William James on Attention: Some questions

William James, in The Principles of Psychology, on the development of attention:

"Sensitiveness to immediately exciting sensorial stimuli characterizes the attention of childhood and youth. In mature age we have generally selected those stimuli which are connected with one or more so-called permanent interests, and our attention has grown irresponsive to the rest. But childhood is characterized by great active energy, and has few organized interests by which to meet new impressions and decide whether they are worthy of notice or not, and the consequence is the extreme motility of the attention with which we are familiar in children, and which makes their first lessons such rough affairs. Any strong sensation whatever produces accommodation of the organs which perceive it, and absolute oblivion, for the time being, of the task in hand. This reflex and passive character of the attention which, as a French writer says, makes the child seem to belong less to himself than to every object which happens to catch his notice, is the first thing which the teacher must overcome. It is never overcome in some people, whose work, to the end of life, gets done in the interstices of their mind-wandering."

Have the marketers, technology having wildly increased their capacity to create immediately exciting sensorial stimuli, created a culture in which we all belong less to ourselves than the objects which happen to catch our notice?

Is this regression to the child-mind the source of the temper-tantrums that characterize the style of contemporary politics--unable to focus our attention long enough to maturely address problems, we lose ourselves in anger (the most intensely sensorial of emotions)?

If these are real problems, then should we be careful not to let intense sensorial stimuli into our classrooms in order to combat these cultural forces? Does the school have anywhere near enough power to combat the war on attention being waged by branding or marketing?

Or, am I being an old fogey: should we see this quickness with which our attention shifts as the appearance of simply another form of intelligence, not its dissolution?

(By the way, isn't this another argument for more attention being paid to physical education in schools: sports being a way to channel the intensity of sensorial perception into organized social life.)
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