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Interesting Findings And World Unfolding Through My Eyes.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

"Homeric psychology"

Odd as it may sound, concepts such as "soul" and even "psyche" cannot easily be translated back into Homeric Greek. By the time of Plato, centuries after Homer, we are on relatively familiar ground: the "soul" is the whole of our being which seems not to be bodily, the vehicle that bears our personality and memory as distinctively as one's body bears its thumbprint. But for Homer, the soul is at most a kind of remnant, a shadowy gibbering entity which departs bat-like at the moment of death, leaving all that is human behind. If we have lived, we have lived through a body, not a soul.

Homer's usage separates him here not only from modern thinkers, but also from other ancient writers and composers. In casting about for parallels to this curious Homeric way of thinking, the only one that has occurred to me over the years is in the American William James. He was an anatomist, and hence someone with a feeling for the fine structure of the body. I am not sure if medical education produces such people any more; physiology presumes to subsume anatomy—the distinction is between function and form—as though anatomy were an afterthought of its larger concerns. (Anthropology presumes to subsume linguistics in a similar, and equally false, way.)

In his "Principles of Psychology" James espouses a notion of correlation or correspondence. Like most moderns, he has a preoccupation with the brain—which was unusual in the ancient world. There, it is the chest and lungs that are the seat of consciousness; they are also the bellows that exhale the shapes of air that we call "words". Words are "winged", according to Homer's epithet, because they must fly across a material medium in order to impinge upon another human's sense apparatus, before they can penetrate his consciousness.

As James well understood, the transition from the physical to the cognitive in this process is not just difficult, but impossible to understand. His brain-fetish led him to formulate his principle in the following way: for every mental state there is a brain state, and vice versa. Ostensibly this proposition seems as though it could be empirically demonstrable; but James articulates it as a rational principle.

The claim might seem innocuous unless one sees it in its positive light. Correlation does not imply causation. The claim is in fact very strong: that nothing more can be said about the relation of mind to brain, except for this thoroughgoing correspondence. The whole of recent psychiatry depends upon a fundamentally opposite premise: that brain states cause mental states.

It is certainly the case that the experience of joy can be correlated with a certain configuration and chemistry of the brain. What James understood, correctly, is that it is impossible to model
theoretically—not difficult but completely impossible in principle—the transition from chemistry to joy. Material can only affect material.

It is possible to induce a certain chemistry in the brain, with drugs, and the lucky subject will more than likely feel joy. It is, all the same, an impossible fact. It is possible to induce the same brain chemistry by giving the subject good news. Good news also produces joy; how does this good news, translated at some point into packets of winged air, ever come into contact chemically with the nerve fibres of the brain?

One need only think about blushing to realise the fundamental quality of this conundrum, a mystery always under our noses that we avoid confronting or thinking through. How is a blush possible? What possible connection could there be between shame, and the flow of oxygenating blood in one's facial capillaries? It is impossible that there be one. And yet blushing is a fact.

It is a fact that reminds us of the principle of correlation without causation, in the relation between the physical and the mental. Correlation seems to be the key to what is sometimes misleadingly called "Homeric psychology".
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Posted by Ajay :: 5:56 PM :: 0 comments

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