Life Lessons from Bergson

My dogears from Michael Foley’s excellent “Life Lessons from Bergson”

Time

“Time” is now the most-used noun in English, whereas many primitive peoples, for instance the Amondawa tribe of the Amazon and the Australian Aborigines do not have a word for it. (p.24)

Chance

The corollary of predictability as comfort is randomness as threat … We would almost rather accept gross injustice than randomness. At least with injustice there is someone to blame. And good fortune is just as rarely recognized. For bad luck, we blame others and for good luck, we take the credit ourselves. (p.32)

Habit & Old Fogyism

Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to their conduct while in the plastic state. (p. 40, from William James’ Psychology: The Briefer Course)

Old Fogyism begins at a younger age than we think. I am almost afraid to say so but I believe that in the majority of human beings it begins at about twenty-five. (p.40, from William James’ Talks to Teachers)

Comedy

It is the function of comedy to repress any separatist tendency, to convert rigidity into plasticity, the readapt the individual to the whole (p. 43, from Bergson’s Le Rire)

Artists

How can the eyes be asked to see more than they see? Our attention may enhance precision, clarify and intensify; but it cannot bring out what was not there in the first place. That is the objection – in my opinion, refuted by experience. In fact for hundreds of years there have been people whose function was precisely to see and make us see what we do not naturally perceive. These are the artists. (p. 49, from Bergson’s La Pensee et le mouvant)

Character and Attention

According to James, our experience of life is nothing other than what we have chosen to pay attention to, and the choice is decisive because experience is character. (p64)

Ripples, Systems and Effects

If everything is connected to everything else then every action propagates its effects for ever, and if feedback loops are the method of propagation then every action also modifies the character of the actor. Many of these nano-modifications are below the level of perception but they eventually add up to a cumulative change that is all too perceptible. One day you may wake up and realize you have become a shithead – or, more likely, your partner wakes up and informs you of this in a loud, outraged tone, en route to the door. (p.75)

[Photo: Edinburgh University]

WIlliam James, Psychology & Teaching

I’ve been thinking about brain research and teaching again, specifically in the light of an article about the seductive allure of neuroscience. I’d felt at a bit of a dead-end. My gut feeling was that there was a lot to learn from cognitive science, but I was (and am) very aware that I’m a very poor layman when it comes to assessing its value.

So I was chuffed to learn that William James had sorted it out for me a long time ago. He comments that

“You make a great, a very great mistake, if you think that psychology, being the science of the mind’s laws, is something from which you can deduce definite programmes and schemes and methods of instruction for immediate school-room use. Psychology is a science, and teaching is an art; and sciences never generate arts directly out of themselves. An intermediate inventive mind must make that application, by using its originality.

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A science only lays down lines within which the rules of the art must fall, laws which the follower of the art must not transgress; but what particular thing he shall positively do within those lines is left exclusively to his own genius. … To know psychology, therefore, is absolutely no guarantee that we shall be good teachers. To advance that result we must have an additional endowment altogether, a happy tact and ingenuity to tell us what definite things to say and do when that pupil is before us. That ingenuity in meeting … the pupil, that tact for the concrete situation, . . . are things to which psychology cannot help us in the least. [My emphasis]

As David Berliner says,

“James did, however, see the study of psychology as useful in three ways: to provide the underpinnings for beliefs about instruction, to prohibit teachers from making certain egregious errors, and to provide intellectual support to teachers for some of their pedagogical decisions.”

Bingo.