Philosophy, Ontology, Thought

A personal essay, my philosophy, its emergence, partly articulated, as much a part of my experience as events in a memoir I am writing in another context.

I created my first website in 1997, something of an online resume, but also an attempt to show in this then new format, what was professionally important to me. Through it I hoped to engage others in conversation. At that time I also belonged to the Scottish Institute of Human Relations, SIHR, a charity and a membership organization. There I had a friend and colleague known to me as the “other Elspeth”, as I am known to her. She and I thought that communication between parts of the organization, and the membership, needed to be better. We created a newsletter, and in 1998, I made a website for SIHR, so we could put the news online as well as all SIHR information, its structure and management, lists of its courses, and procedures for applying, etc. Members received the Newsletter by post, probably no-one but me and the other Elspeth looked online. I knew that the internet offered an incredible possibility for communication, but like everyone, had little idea that within ten years it would have become a home to almost every kind of communication, perception and misperception, except those connections of feeling and touch, which it cannot do.

I know I like trying to communicate, I like writing, and the process, setting out to see if I can capture an event, or clarifying the record of information. Since 2011, I have been blogging, a kind of Diary, called My World, Your World, One World, a ramble of everyday activities and impressions. I hear my desire as I write, I so much want to “Tell the World” and I so much do not want to get mired in Me, Me, Me, but then for a while it does not matter at all if the world, or anyone, reads or hears, as one thing I am doing is listening to myself. With some chagrin I realize I do not have many followers, which is apparently a goal of blogging that I have not made my goal, but when I have occasionally had a response from some other previously unknown soul, I am happy for the rest of the day. It makes a harmony of some kind, a connection. Having discovered that blogging is now easy, once one has learned how, I put my poetry on another blog, another way to record that I am, this is a way to be. Dear old Descartes said “I think, therefore I am” which is totally the wrong way round. I, and all of you others, are. First, we exist. Then we discover that we are, hurray, people who think, consciously, and we can see that we exist by the many ways we do. From preaching to playing, there many ways to hear and see how others are also doing.

At the same time, seven years ago, I had finally retired from the last threads of part-time work. I happened to be in Shanghai for most of 2011, as thanks to sons and wanting to be physically near to the children, to feel and touch, I was being a global grandmother. I was often lonely after I had taken the twins, then three years old, to the “experimental kindergarten” they attended. I began a third blog, which was to be the “Not-me” writing, the place where I could be both passionate and informed about Human Rights, and our World. This writing would, by intention, attempt to clarify and put in order what I have learned from psychoanalytic and scientific thinking, and my work experience in teaching social justice. Well, I could have remembered which road is paved by intentions, but I only remember thinking that it was an irony to say “teaching” and “social justice” in one phrase, as silly as saying “teach morality or values”. The quality sought emerges from experience, one tries to be the part of the experience that would allow that quality to arrive. This blog is called Transitional Space: The In-between of Identity Culture and Community, with a tag line question: Can People Do Better? I remember I began it with such hope that this time I would succeed in sorting my thinking, I might even discover more clearly what it is that I think. I am happy that it declares my values in every post, but I know it is not clearly ordered at all, and my intentions are unfulfilled. It is laden with difficulty, complexity, clumsy writing, attempts at graphics, words, and more words. Looking at it, I am now surprised to find that there are actually 35 posts, that’s about five each year, more or less each about something that matters to me, attempting to explain or show why that is so. This blog has almost no followers, no comments from others. I think of this work as my failure. It is a failure. It was an experiment: could I order my thinking? Read it, and you will see that focus is elusive, there is no completed order emerging. What you might not see is that “failure” is fine, I am still hoping, still experimenting, and will write another post there when I find myself again in that transitional space that brings an idea into my thoughts. Failure is another way to learn, and that is what Michael Faraday knew, and tried to share. . [My doctorate is on Michael Faraday’s thought. In the 1840s he made the discoveries that brought understanding of the electromagnetic field.] I murmur Faraday’s seminal insight to myself: “What if space is not empty?” and realize, again, that transitional space is not ordered, especially when whatever is going to be new, has not yet emerged. I don’t even know if it will be a gem, crystalline, sharp, or round and smooth like a pebble tossed up by the waves on the beach. Maybe, I wonder, can creative new thinking only emerge from some deep level of conflict or ambivalence?

However, some kind of finding my way in transitional space is what seemed possible, lurking in the back of my mind, when I took Uncommon Harmony to be a memoir writing name, and thought that I would try memoir writing, see what happened. I know I was also doing what I have often done, and what many people do: see something they fancy, in the moment, get interested, follow along a bit, find it becoming a hobby, or more, and then it, whatever it is, seems to become part of one’s identity, as well as a pleasure to be enjoyed, a part of living. My memoir writing is making something obvious that I already know, that I have a history of shifts in identity, taking myself fairly blindly into something new that has grabbed my attention, or seemed a good way to go, when I found myself in a box that was becoming irksome. This means my memoir, although a looking back, has also to serve as a means of going forward.

As I write, the record says that throughout my life, circumstance, or active self, or both, have intervened and I would discover a door opening to a new interest and then a little later find I have moved on and seem to be somewhere that I had not previously expected to be. I am not where I was before, though I am still me. In a modern phrase, I have re-invented myself, but unlike the meaning of that phrase, this is not at all by plan. My re-inventing is reactive, not proactive. I would like to think I was creatively reactive, if such a thing can be, an uncommon series of identities, a harmony of self and world. I remember that Faraday, whose courage I revere, was reactive. He reacted to failed experiments, to observed puzzles, and called the process “a revelation, forced on my mind”. So failure can be a process, not a dead end, I am still getting somewhere, just arriving at a different place that I had not expected. There is an Irish joke, where the stranger asks the man at the side of the road: Do you know the way to Ballybofey? The man says, Yes, but I wouldn’t be starting from here.” Maybe planning to reach Ballybofey is not a good idea.

Now, I am not even sure that I have a place where I want to go, but, the act of memoir writing certainly lets me look at where I have been, with views both welcome and unwelcome. When I find myself recording the many different kinds of work I have done, my activities look manic. Surely that is a fault of writing, recording, as the memory is not of mania, some is of vitality, and enjoyment, but a lot is also of being lazy in a good way, letting time go by. It is true that I have more than once shifted from one field of work to another that on the surface seems totally different, but I know my recollection of change is that the transitions were smooth enough, even seamless, not sudden disruptive shifts. The pattern of change seems to hold together if I think of myself as a scientist, the exploring kind, even though know I have never actually been employed in the field of science, so I sometimes say I am a scientist, other times I say I am an educator. One needs experimentation, the other needs play, so both make some sort of sense, at least to me.

The memoir makes me look at my career, my various occupations, and trainings, as well as paid positions. In my resume of experience, extended into retirement, I have been a mathematician, a student of computing science in the 1960s, a wife and mother, a proof reader for a scientific publisher, and a nursery school teacher, though I had no formal certificated learning in Child Development. That was all before I was thirty. Then I was a historian of science, a trainer of science teachers, and a physics teacher, also, without having undertaken a teacher training myself. I was just forty-four when I became Head of a Physics Department, and also the first Chairperson, using that then newish word, of the newly formed Education Section of the British Society for the History of Science. I was breaking new ground, finding a place where I would not just go to conferences, but would sometimes be invited. Learning, education, became ever wider, I know I was a “trailblazer” though somehow, not a leader. I do not seem to bring people with me on the trail, just like now when blogging, I don’t bother courting followers.

While thinking about teaching, and being taught, I remember another quote from Michael Faraday:

“the education proposed must, to a very large degree, be of self, it is so far incommunicable; that the master and the scholar merge into one, and both dis­appear; that the instructor is no wiser than the one to be instructed, and thus the usual relations of the two lose their power”

My story of career is of learner and teacher “merged into one”. As learner I was a doctorate student and analysand, I would feel more like a child and a busy mother/parent, rather than a scholar or master. The best paper I ever had published is called “Making Mistaking Reality”, lots of pages, more words. I could more simply say, I learned to play, and learned while playing. At forty-two, doctorate complete, still fooling myself I was happily married, I had a new job as Head of Physics at Godolphin and Latymer School and was convinced of the value of psychoanalytic thinking. I attended an intensive evening course “Psychoanalysis in Britain Today”, and then with the support of the school, took a Master’s level course in Counselling Aspects of Education, and the Dynamics of Institutions and Groups. This two-year postgraduate study was undertaken at the Tavistock Clinic, London, a different department from where my then husband, George, had trained as a psychotherapist, but a place where I knew some of the tutors socially. The course was a crucial learning experience, that made sense of many previous interactions, and indeed helped immeasurably in those still to come, the breakup of marriage, the death of parents, the dysfunctions and failures of ethics in a teacher training college, that might otherwise have been unbearable. But, during my study time, there was no accreditation, it was pure learning for those of us on the course. I was there on what might have been its third intake. If I had waited until 1995, when it had become a Masters from the University of North London, though still taught at Tavistock by Tavistock tutors, then I would have received a Masters degree for my learning. Maybe there was a retrospective process, but by then I had again “moved on” and I do not know if a masters certificate might exist for those of us students who were the trailblazers, or guinea pigs, depending on view. Not “having a certificate” later mattered a great deal.

In 1990 I became a trainer of teachers in Scotland, and another kind of “not having a certificate” was almost a joke, as no-one cared about a particular regulatory phrase in scottish bureaucracy, but at the time of leaving that post thirteen years later, the General Teaching Council of Scotland had still not managed to state that I was indeed suitably certified to teach, or to train teachers. The paperwork sits on a shelf somewhere, as does the paperwork from COSCA, Counseling and Psychotherapy in Scotland, who did in 1996 decide that I could not be accredited with them as a counsellor or psychotherapist, even though I was not only teaching on courses that would allow the accreditation of others, but was a part of staff teams that had put these courses together and seen them through the quality assurance committees of the educational institutions. COSCA was at the beginning of finding out what was meant by certification and accreditation, as we all were, it was a new institution, for a new profession.

How these things happened are different parts of my story. Here I am reciting that in some sense, I have often been ahead of the game, from being a child who “got” what reading was about before going to school, and saw the solution to maths problems before I had worked them out, to these much later almost farcical professional conundrums. I want to show that it has taken a lifetime to hear my own perception of what I am trying to say, and even now I have no idea whether the articulation of it is understandable. It is certainly not about being a leader, clever or wise, or emotionally intelligent, though from time to time in particular circumstances I might have managed to be these things, and at most times I am doing whatever it is that I do, and then it goes off track somehow, and I start doing something else.

I have two anecdotes that illustrate different kinds of learning, both from the Child Psychotherapy world of the 70s and 80s, in which I was sometimes present, though usually a visitor, a guest, a wife. [I was married to George, a child psychotherapist.] The Child Psychotherapy Association organized professional lectures, seminars, conferences, most of which I did not attend, more often being part of a casual social event that followed, one or two people returning to my home afterwards and continuing discussions. Sometimes there were more organized social events, like the one where I met Martha Harris, one of the founders of the Child Psychotherapy training at the Tavistock Clinic London, whose personality convinced me to commit to therapy, or less profound events, like the Tavistock Christmas Party. Unlike now, I was then good at remembering faces and names, so I felt I knew most of George’s contemporaries, or at least was acquainted with who they were. I don’t remember the date, but it must have been in the 80s when they had all become well-regarded psychotherapists, no longer students or at the beginning of their careers. I attended an event where the visiting speaker was the very well-known Dr. Benjamin Spock. Like most mothers of that time, I owned a well-used copy of his book “Baby and Child Care”, probably more practical and helpful than any other advice I received. After his lecture, there was to be a social evening at Dilys Daws’ home, what we would now call pot-luck. I knew Dilys quite well, her son was in the same year as Donal [my eldest son] at University College School, and I was invited along with George.

There were maybe fifty or more people present, I greeted many, but not Dr. Spock, who was surrounded by eager faces. I have a ridiculous association of the evening with potatoes, and know I did spend most of the time in the kitchen, which I remember as having a very wide modern counter open to the main room, where I could see what was happening, and where people I knew came and went, in and out of the kitchen, to and from the counter, with the food. Why do I think “potatoes”? I don’t remember preparing or peeling potatoes, and I would not have brought potatoes as my contribution to the potluck. My offering was almost certainly a cheesecake, as cheesecake was the specialty I usually made. I know I love potatoes for their comfort, however they are prepared, so maybe the association is a clue to the atmosphere we were sharing, good wise, practical, homely, not too fancy, a place for really good parenting, Baby and Child Care, and Parent and Wife Care too. I felt at home, I was comfortable and cheerful with the role I had taken on, a sort of friendly unobtrusive helper, hearing about Dr. Spock’s lecture, and probably sharing anecdotes of Spock book consultation with whoever came by.

I did not speak to Dr. Spock at all. George had been in deep conversation with him for quite a while, so when the time came to leave, we both returned to his side to say goodbye and thank-you. Dr. Spock turned to me. I still remembered his clear attention and his words: “but I have not met you”. I think he said something like Do tell me who you are, because I also remember that I felt this man really did want to know who I was. Dr Spock had a remarkable skill, in the few sentences we then spoke he cannot have heard much about me, but he left me with the impression that I had been seen and known. I think his book is like that too, when reading, it can make an uncertain mother think her problems in caring are seen, and yes, can be resolved. This is an extraordinarily valuable thing to do, it is probably what being a “good authority” is about, a good parent to the child who wants to know. I will always remember the meeting, and that feeling of being both noticed and well-regarded.

However, another of the Child Psychotherapy lectures, quite a different one, helped me see that this kind of “good authority” is not always what we seek. When I think of the contrast with Faraday style learning, Spock is always the “master”, there is no merge of master and scholar in his attentiveness. At a different Child Psychotherapy Lecture, the speaker was David Bohm, also an author, roughly contemporary with Spock, writer of many books that very few people seem to have heard of, let alone read. His first in 1951 was “Quantum Theory”, one just before his death in 1992 was “Changing Consciousness: Exploring the Hidden Source of the Social, Political and Environmental Crises Facing our World”. Bohm had a theory of mind that psychotherapists were interested in, and I was asked if I would like to go to the lecture, not just the social event, as I was a physicist. Had I ever heard of this David Bohm? I had. In fact I had read his “Quantum Theory” book lying on the floor in that long ago flat I shared with my friend Jean in Belfast, but I had never heard that he had also had a theory of consciousness, linked to his understandings of physical matter. His ideas are very difficult to explain, but at one level are very simple. He says that the atomic theories of matter, and the physical representations of brain, and our ideas of consciousness, are fragmentations, and lead to confusions unless they are also seen to be “just a point of view”. They are always only a part of the “Whole”, aspects of whole, whatever that is, which emerge from the perspective taken. His theory offers not only perspectives but lots of different categories and levels for grasping understandings. Then, Bohm’s theory goes on to describe the nature of the “Whole”. The ideas stop being simple, at any level of understanding. For example, one explanation reads:

“the order in every immediately perceptible aspect of the world is to be regarded as coming out of a more comprehensive implicate order, in which all aspects ultimately merge in the undefinable and immeasurable holomovement.”

Well, quite, not immediately obvious nor clarifying any confusions the reader might have. [implicate? holomovement?] Bohm has several books elucidating his theory with thought experiments and models and further explanation, and it really is not surprising that they are not generally known. In my remembering, his lecture was not very well received by the psychotherapists, although a sense of “wholes and parts” is very much part of “systems thinking” which is much used in family therapy, as well as in organizational consultancy work. Recognizing holistic and dynamic perspective might be why he had been asked to lecture, or maybe, as most therapists would admit, “consciousness” and experience of it, is not something anywhere well described, and they wanted to hear what Bohm would say.

However, as I listened, I recalled what had been said about Michael Faraday by the great physicist who followed him, James Clark Maxwell. Maxwell put the mathematics into Faraday’s discovery of the wave theory of light, and confirmed its power, opening the way to understanding of the electromagnetic spectrum and thus the initial development of quantum theory. What Maxwell said was:

“We are accustomed to consider the universe as made up of parts, and mathematicians usually begin by considering a single particle, and then conceiving its relation to another particle, and so on. This had generally been supposed the most natural method. To conceive of a single particle, however, requires a process of abstraction, since all our perceptions are related to extended bodies, so that the idea of the all that is in our consciousness at a given instant is perhaps as primitive an idea as that of any individual thing. Hence there may be a … method in which we proceed from the whole to the parts instead of from the parts to the whole. …

The method of Faraday seems to be intimately related to the second of these modes of treatment. … He conceives all space as a field of force, the lines of force being in general curved, and those due to any body extending from it on all sides, their directions being modified by the presence of other bodies…”

[James Clerk Maxwell, Treatise, 1873, Art. 529]

Nowadays one name for this first method is “Social Construction Theory”, much loved by history of science educators, and others may give the method other names, but as I heard Bohm speak, I realized that he was talking about the second mode. As I write now, I understand that the essence of what he was saying is that everything is part of a whole, what he calls the “implicate order” and further that the meaning of “implicate” can be understood. However, from then the only thing I remember is that I know I was there. I think that Bohm would say that constructed learnings, whether scientific theories, or the many other kinds of knowledge, are an “explicate order” of parts, from particular points of view. He did give one analogy to the whole that resonates more easily. He asked us to consider music.

“In listening to music, one is therefore directly perceiving an implicate order.  Evidently this order is active in the sense that it continually flows into emotional, physical, and other responses, that are inseparable from the transformations out of which it is essentially constituted.”

I knew Bohm was talking about the Faraday kind of learning, the creative discovery of something new, not the positive good authority of a Dr. Spock. I wonder if most of us are often reluctant to let ourselves learn by this ‘second mode’, preferring to have our learning in Dr. Spock style. Sometimes I wish I had never heard this lecture. I do often, for years at a time, manage to put it out of my mind. Nevertheless, it always returns, and I try to understand it, and sometimes do, but can never explain what it is that I have understood. I do however think that maybe I do experience from “whole” rather than build my world from pieces and parts. The parts emerge, as Bohm describes, from the whole within which they have been enfolded, and each part carries, like a hologram, enough information to perceive the whole. This feels right, it could be what pushes me to go ahead of where I am. I let myself do so, but I don’t at first know that this is what I am doing, and when I am troubled I cannot make sense of it. In fact, most of the time it doesn’t make sense.

I also sometimes wish I had never heard of child psychotherapy, or any other kind of psychoanalytic process, or revelation. And then I remember how many doors have opened, how many prejudices have been shed, how living is not about order however much order pays a role. Again Faraday tried to tell his audience about learning this way:

“What he has lost are things imaginary, not real; what he gains are riches before unknown to him, yet invaluable.”

I wonder what I will lose, and what comes next.

 

What Have I Lost?

What have I lost?
My youth
young untried self
dipping into an unknown world.
Eyes half-shut, mouth open
bewilderment and folly mixed
I followed rules unspoken.

What have I lost
I mind losing?
A lithe waist,
a body quick to jump,
run, turn cartwheels
on the sand of each
and every beach I ran on.

Passions, lust and longing
springing unbidden,
greener than the grass
my feet passed in carelessness.
What have I lost
that I do not know
has passed by?

Somewhere a whisper
of apprehension.
What if some opportunity
is yet to offer
and I forget such chance
will also pass?
Choice is not for tomorrow.

Now, on the fulcrum
of this moment,
remember to dance
to seize with seeing eyes
whatever loss and sorrow gives.
How else is a life built?
Each present passes by forever
into loss, no longer now.

Age is the sand and stone and rock
on which I stand.
Joints ache
weary eyes need specs
a phoenix from the ash
of sorrowed time
looks to the future.

Considers, maybe,
Can I be wise?
Life’s adventure, next,
might yet surprise.

 

 

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Philosophy, Ontology, Thought

    • Thank you. I am very warmed to know that what I write has effects on others besides myself. I know the writing enables me so I really appreciate your saying ‘inspiring’. We all help each other.

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