reality

Home Base (continued)

The Form and Function of Home

In part one we saw that feelings associated with home base are not necessarily the same feelings we have while in our parents’ house(s)—maybe that home feels homey, maybe not. Here we have an incredibly useful tool: the distinction between the form of home and the function home base.

If I live in the Waltons’1 house and every member of my family lovingly bids me “Goodnight, Mark-Boy!” then the form of my home (the house and the family in it) and the function of home base (accepting, sheltering, embracing, and supporting me) are in perfect harmony, even through the leanest times of the Great Depression. If, on the other hand, I live in the workhouse and my request for a second helping of gruel is met with, “Whaaat? MORE?” and I am chased, caught, and caned,2 then the form of my home (the orphanage where I and the other Dickensian waifs live) and the function of home (welcoming, feeding, protecting, and comforting me) are rather different.

The extreme contrast between The Waltons and Oliver Twist is for the sake of clearly illustrating how the relation between form and function can vary widely, and therefore how important it is to distinguish them. However, detecting the distinction is often a far more subtle proposition. This next example is about the form and function of a parent, not home per se, but I hope it will be useful, as feelings concerning home and parents can be strongly correlated.3

I was talking with a young woman who still lived with her parents. She wanted to share difficult news with her mother, and was trying to decide whether it felt safe to do so. I asked the woman how she wished her mother would react to her news. Her first thoughts on this were (paraphrased):

    —I don’t want her to be judgmental, or to try to manage it or fix me.

After she reeled off a number of familiar, unwanted responses that she had gotten from her mother on past occasions, I prompted her to describe what she did want in this instance.

    —I want her to be accepting and supportive. I want her to be calm, because I’m not calm about this, and I need her to be there for me. I want her to be strong and comforting and helpful, and… and…
    “Motherly?” I asked.
    She stopped and looked up, then smiled ironically. “Yes, motherly.”

In that moment the woman realized the distinction between the person of her mother and the experience of being cared for in a motherly way. The form mother and the function mothering do not necessarily coincide, but they can, and in this woman’s case the mother was often quite motherly. (It is important to bear in mind that a distinction is not the same as a division.)

Extending the above example, with its flexible relation between form and function, to home, we can notice that though our physical home functions more or less in providing the feelings of home base such as security and support, it is nevertheless those feelings that we crave and that sustain us. We want the function more than the form. Who would choose to live with creepy Mrs. Danvers at Manderley, or with megalomaniacal Charles Foster Kane in Xanadu, when they could live instead with warm and attentive Mr. and Mrs. Beaver in a humble dam?4 And why do we desire these feelings? It isn’t merely because they are pleasant (though most often they are), any more than the young woman wanted her mother to be strong, comforting and helpful just to be able to brag about how awesome her mother was. She wanted to feel her mother’s stabilizing strength and comfort and assistance because in nature that is what “motherly” actually means. Just so, the feelings of home base inform us that we are indeed secure and supported. We want the feelings of home because we want what home functionally provides, and we know we have it when we feel it.

In other words, the feelings of home are the indications of an experiential reality. In this very important sense, the feeling of home is more real—that is, more self-consistently the “real thing”—than any apartment or house, mansion or lean-to that we call home. Whereas our physical dwelling is variable in evoking the feelings of home to a greater or lesser degree, the feelings of home base themselves tend toward constancy; i.e. homey always feels homey. (When is the last time you felt at home by virtue of feeling unwelcome?) Mr & Mrs Beaver’s House We can rate a place, any place, according to how well it functions in helping us feel accepted, calm, comfortable, and welcome to enter and stay as long as we wish. Like a motherly mother.

In a forthcoming chapter we’ll delve into what these constituent feelings of home base are in more detail, so that we can better recognize them and distinguish them from home-in-name-only experiences. In doing so we will discover a deeper connection even than the above analogy suggests between the experience of home base and natural motherliness. Already we’ve noticed similarities: accepting, calming, comforting, there for me—these are what we want from our home. The reverse would be absurd. Imagine at the end of a busy day returning to a home that functioned to reject, irritate and agitate you, and then sometimes, without warning, relocated itself.5

What’s important is that we can now think in terms of the kinds of experiences we want from our home base as distinct from our given circumstances. In this differentiation lies freedom to choose and opportunity to create an environment that nurtures us.


  1. The Waltons (1971–1981), possibly the most heartwarming TV series ever. 

  2. This is the response, as I remember it, in the musical version, Oliver! (1968). In Dickens’ original Oliver Twist, Oliver is either threatened with a blow or actually struck (“The master aimed a blow at Oliver’s head with the ladle”), violently grabbed, perhaps overhears an adult prophesy that he will someday be hung by the neck, and is then locked in a dark room for a week, after which he is sold for three and a half pounds sterling. 

  3. http://theconsciouslearner.com/streams/home-1/#archetype 

  4. Manderley: the mansion in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Xanadu: the palace of Charles Foster Kane in Orsen Welles’ Citizen Kane. Mr. and Mrs. Beaver’s dam-house: from C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

  5. Alas, some unscrupulous landlords have been known to foster such conditions. 

 

No Freedom Without Representation. No Representation Without Reading.

A learner is one who walks the paths to knowledge. Knowledge leads to freedom. Take, for example, Frederick Douglass.1

While still a slave Douglass learned to read and write, which he accomplished by cajoling some white boys to tutor him without knowing that’s what they were doing. Now, Douglass had suffered the horrors and indignities of slavery before becoming literate, but it was only after he began reading that he became fully conscious of just how intolerable his condition was, and why it was intolerable. In other words, he knew, before learning to read, that he was a slave, but he only knew it as a matter of fact. When as a child, cowering in a closet, he inadvertently witnessed the whipping of his aunt, he experienced shock and terror, anticipating that the leather would be turned against him in due course. This and multiple other devastating events, left unreflected upon in illiteracy, might very well have made of Douglass’s whole life one long, unending trauma. His autobiographical Narrative, however, transformed these horrors into history, into a perspective on human behavior and relations, that continues to serve as a moral touchstone in our civilization.

It was only after learning to read that Douglass was able, while in the midst of experiencing, to represent his experiences to himself, because the very acts of both writing and reading are acts of representation. Writing and reading externalize words from human speech. Words on a page are objective containers of sentences that were originally thought by a subjective author. Printed words stand outside and apart from the subject-writer and the subject-reader. When Douglass learned his letters, then his alphabet, then the sentences of his appropriated composition book, he developed his brain in such a way as to be able to symbolize inner experiences outside of himself. Always before, when illiterate, he’d felt the freezing cold through a whole winter with only a single coarse, knee-length shirt and no pants, shoes, or jacket; his bones felt that. But those winters were not part of any narrative, in the most fundamental sense, until he was able to step outside of his experiences and see himself in them by representing the events of his life to himself in language.

Douglass describes, upon learning to read, how he came to understand the implications of what being a slave meant. Before reading, slavery was the epitome of misery. But it wasn’t until after reading that slavery became, in Douglass’s mind and heart, repugnant to moral conscience and loathsome in all human feeling. The realization of this exacted a heavy toll. Douglass was now burdened not only by his condition but also by an acute consciousness of his condition. He fell into a depression. After a climactic, revolutionary fistfight with an especially vicious master, Douglass might have continued as a slave, sullen and belligerent as he had become at that point in his life, but he had gained something from reading that would change the course of his reality: concepts.

Slavery was no longer the de facto necessary condition of Frederick Douglass’s existence, as it had been when the main thing he knew about himself was that he was owned by someone else. But now he had developed the understanding, reading the Columbian Orator, that slavery was unnecessary, that it was imposed, and that it must be stopped, beginning with his own emancipation. For Douglass, freedom began as a fresh concept. His knowledge of the ideas of slavery and freedom enabled him, first of all, to imagine a different life for himself and for others suffering the same fate. He was then able to judge what was right. And he was empowered thus to act in accordance with his convictions.

Frederick Douglass escaped and became a free citizen. He went on to become an advisor to President Abraham Lincoln, a U.S. marshall, a diplomat, an influential public speaker, a newspaper publisher, and author of three autobiographical accounts of his life. These are all very impressive lines on a resume, but what impresses me most about Douglass’s work—apart from his writings, which are of incalculable value to successive generations—were his active support of abolition and of women’s rights. The concepts he learned did not—do not—only apply within a single cause. His knowledge transcended the boundaries of his original political affiliations. What was right and worth doing were realms larger than himself, larger than his personal experiences. Learning and knowledge connected Douglass with, and called him to act in, the world beyond the self.


  1. Douglass’s birthday anniversary is February 17th, the occasion of this post. 

 

What Makes a Pen Real and a Falling Tree Make a Sound?

Pick up any ordinary pen and consider what you see.  Supposedly your eyes will do their job, which is to represent the physical structure of the pen as a particular configuration of rods and cones. But your mind will not acknowledge the object in your hand as a bunch of rods and cones, nor as a structured mass of molecules (which is what a pen and everything else is made of). Your mind instead understands the object simply as a pen.

There are two stages involved in knowing that what you picked up is a pen. First, your eyes and your fingers communicate sense impressions, or percepts; to your brain. These percepts are in the form of electrochemical stimuli traveling through your nervous system, and they no more resemble a pen than a weather map resembles an actual rain storm. Second, your mind then organizes this raw data into concepts. It is the concept of a pen that the mind grasps, and to prove this, simply put yourself in a room that contains no pens and then reread this paragraph. You still understand what a pen is, even though you’re not perceiving one at the moment.

The first of these two stages is really nothing more than passive observation. What is a pen, materially? It’s a mass of molecules, which are composed of atoms, which are composed of subatomic particles. Has any human being ever actually seen—as in laid eyes on—those subatomic particles? No. Even the most powerful microscopes can only bump over some thing that physicists have mathematically postulated to be an electron, but no one has ever perceived an electron with his own senses. A pen in its raw state, like every other object in the world, is just a mass of particles.

The second stage, the concepts stage, is where we get our sense of reality; for if we did not organize the constituent particles of matter with our minds, we would forever be confronted with a universe of undifferentiated particle soup. A pen is made of particles; air is made of particles; and the particles in both are fundamentally the same (i.e. protons, neutrons, electrons).1 It is consciousness that differentiates between the two by forming two distinct ideas. The idea of a pen is a coherent representation of the sensory data we receive in the form of percepts. The raw data—the particles themselves, as well as the sensory impulses traveling through our nervous systems—remain unrepresented until our minds make comprehensible forms out of them.


This extra-sensory, reality-forming activity of the mind is what philosopher Owen Barfield calls figuration: After passively perceiving undifferentiated particle structures with the senses, the mind figurates those structures and forms an image of the real world. Barfield calls the process of perception and figuration, taken as a whole, participation.2

Thus, the world, without consciousness to participate3 it, is an abundance of unrepresented phenomena. Such unrepresented phenomena would certainly exist in their own right, but they would not be real in any sense that is useful, because they would have no conscious meaning. In terms of an existential state, unrepresented phenomena do not depend on consciousness for existence (in other words, the particles, the quanta of energy, are there whether consciousness figurates them or not); but in terms of conscious reality, what is unrepresented lingers in the realm of the potentially manifest. Thus the answer to the long-debated question, “If a tree falls in a forest but no one hears it, does it make a sound?” is, No, it doesn’t. But it does make something, something as yet unrepresented. Particles of what a participating person would recognize as air would move precipitously. And if a participating person were in the forest, that unrepresented movement of particles would indeed be recognized as sound.

Perhaps the hardest part of participation to swallow is that without consciousness there is no reality. Raw percepts, what I called “particle soup,” aren’t anything without concepts. But neither have concepts any reality without percepts. As philosopher Georg Kuhlewind noted in The Logos-Structure of the World, the percepts bring the weight of evidence to our perceptions; in other words, the percepts of our sense impressions tell us that something exists, that something is actually there. Concepts structure the something-there into an intelligible, experiential reality. It might be useful to distinguish between what exists and what is real in this way: something which exists potentially may occupy consciousness and join with concepts, whereas something real has already so appeared in the mind and been conceptualized by it. Even for the tree to fall in the forest, a participating consciousness is prerequisite. Otherwise the best anyone can say is that, because he’s been in a forest, or experienced artistic renderings of forests (in paintings, for example), he can imagine that in some forest a tree might fall, and if it did fall, he can imagine that it would make a sound. In the absence of a participating consciousness, there is no tree even, and no forest. Something exists, and something is happening in the world of unrepresented energy-particles.

Though it is difficult, using conventional wisdom, to think of a phenomenon as part of existence and yet simultaneously unreal, it is a viable distinction; otherwise, the word real in the philosophical sense could just as well be stricken from the dictionary as redundant, and the distinction between represented and unrepresented phenomena would be impossible to make.

There are many practical implications of the above philosophical excursion, not the least of which is that our collective reality is correlative to our collective concepts. It follows that what we make of the world in fact makes the world. What we do with our minds matters. This is one of the major foundational principles of The Conscious Learner.


  1. You might argue that the configurations of the subatomic particles make all the difference, but if that’s so it must be by a magical process: the mathematical differences between one atom and another do not in any way resemble the qualitative differences between a pen and air. Nor do molecular structures determine that a pen is a pen and not a hippopotamus. A molecular structure is a set of relationships, bonds, between atoms. These bonds are said to determine the substance’s physical properties, its conductivity, hardness, soluability, and melting point. But all of the terms being used to describe molecular structure are conceptual. A bond is a particular kind of relationship involving attraction. Conductivity, hardness, soluability, and melting point are all concepts. Thus a molecule’s physical properties are the product of consciousness’s figuration of percepts. 

  2. See the first four chapters of Barfield’s Saving the Appearances, which, especially as far as the argument here is concerned, may be read as his magnum opus. 

  3. This usage of the verb participate can be found, says Barfield, on nearly every page of Aquinas’s writings. E.g. “Suppose we say that air participates the light of the sun, because it does not receive it in that clarity in which it is in the sun.” (De Hebdomadibus, chap. 2—quoted in Saving the Appearances, p. 90.) 

 

Honor

The shortest and surest way to live with honor in the world is to be in reality what we appear to be.

— Socrates

 

Go Fish in
Streams of Consciousness:

absenceacceptanceaccomplishmentADHDaimsanalysisannotationanxietyAPAappearanceappleappreciationargumentartistaskingattachmentattentionawarenessBatmanbeingblank mindblissboatboring!brainstormingbraverycandlescenter of gravitychoicechoosing collegecognitioncommunicationcompassionconclusionconfidenceconsciousnessconversationcreative writingcreativitydawdlingdiagnosisdoorsdramadreamdrinkingecologyemotionenergyessaysessentialevidenceexamexcitementexecutive functionexerciseexperienceexpositionfailurefearfeelingfightfigurationflowfootballfrederick douglassfreewritinggamegedankenexperimentgesturegetting startedgoalgrammarhappinesshealinghearthonorhopehumanideasimaginationimagination_exerciseimplexinnovationinspirationinstinctinterestjubileekinestheticknifeknowledgelogicloudlovemagicmanagemasterymeaningmechanicsmedicationmeditationmetacognitionmilitarymindmistakesMLAmothermotivationmountainnontraditional collegenote-takingnotesorganizeout-of-the-boxparticipationpartspassionpatiencepeak-experiencepedagogyperseverancepersistencephysicalizeplanplayingplaywrightingplotpoetrypositive pointingpre-writingpreferenceprepositionpresenceprioritiesprocessprocrastinationprofessorsproofreadingputteringquestionsreadingrealityreflectionrelationshiprelaxationrepresentationreservesresourcesresponseresponsibilityrevisingsanctuaryself-actualizationself-assessmentself-relianceseptembershort storysocratic methodsoulspacestorystrengthsstressstudyingsuccesssummariessynthesistalkingtasksteachingtechniquetest anxietytest-takingThanksgivingthemethesisthinkingtimetolerancetomorrowtreetrusttruthunderstandingveteransvisualizationvoicewaldorfwelcomewholewillwillpowerwomenwordsworkingwriter's blockwritingyearningyesterday