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Philosophic Counseling

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60m
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English
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$120 USD
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$120 USD

As an APPA-certified philosophical counselor and trauma survivor I express my passion for philosophy through the trajectory of healing that integrates the mind, heart, and body. What we lose in the relational event of trauma is the integral self whose appearance shines through the space of others. In philosophic counseling, I offer clients, from a variety of life situations and professions, to work through the crises and dilemmas that present in relationships, careers, and life in general.

You may find us working through important issues such as existential crises and melees, developing one’s world view as an integrated belief system, emotional issues, including grief, despair, angst, and other elements of our human condition, decision-making and moral dilemmas, and the awakening of purpose, meaning, and value. Philosophic counseling elicits a journey between the crumbling of one’s limited assumptions and understanding to the healing birthing process aimed at finding our truth through a dialogue that facilitates the emergence of the self.

The majority of my sessions are done through zoom, skype, or facetime.

My standard rate for a 60 minute session is US$120.00, but I offer a reduced sliding fee for lower-income clients.

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Boise, ID, USA

My practice in Philosophic Counseling involves opening an nonjudgmental holding space where one can be broken open and allow the dark pieces of the self and one’s experiences to exist without fear, and where the darkness may become the fertilization of growth and movement into greater self-understanding, self-acceptance, self-realization, and authenticity.

On Core Spirit since September 2019

Ann K Johnson, PhD
The Impure Soul

Most theories of the soul (self/mind/consciousness) forge a distinction between the material and immaterial, giving preferential value to the immaterial due to its purification from the material. In this sense, what has been traditionally called a psyche or soul is seen as cleansed of the sin, mess, and confusion of the world in a way that brings hope to many that there may, at some point, be transcendence from the suffering of existence. We see this thinking in both Western and Eastern traditions and it normatively operates in our reflection of what the true self is, namely the soul, that which is purified of the illusion of the body and the material world. But, what if we take another road to the soul, one which is not only bound up with the body, but, rather, requires the material in order for the immaterial to appear? If we were to radically shift our thinking, to posit an impure soul, recognizing that in such impurity we find the marvel of all existence, would this not be a worthy investigation? Might it not be a story of redemption for our existential suffering?

This conversation is precisely the one I find in Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s discussion of the inter-mixing of self and world, subject and object, in his mature work written soon before his death, “Eye and Mind.” Though a piece seemingly about the value of art, and indeed it is also that, “Eye and Mind” offers a full critical review of the Western tradition of thought initiated by Descartes, the thinker credited with the famous mind/body problem. In the mind/body problem, we note that what is self-evident to us is our own thinking and since there must be someone doing the thinking, the “I” or what we now call the self/mind/consciousness, must exist. Because we can deduct this through pure reasoning, the purity of the self is guaranteed. We come to this conclusion without any recourse to the information gleaned from the body and, for Descartes, thankfully so, as the body provides us with confusing data, through which we form all sorts of beliefs that are grounded on the shaky conditions of the world and our perception of it, a ground that is always changing, sometimes from moment to moment. Sense-perception, therefore, for Descartes, cannot provide us with reliable information about the world precisely because it is in contact with it.

What is true and reliable then becomes pure thought, that which we can glean through the mind alone and the “I” is one of those things, self-evident through simple logic. What this means is that the body itself is merely an extension (in space), dubiously related to my self/mind/consciousness, a container for my mind, so to speak. My perception of the world, in this view, is a weaker form of truth precisely due to its contact with this mess of a world. Hence, only the purified mind can provide us with truths in contrast with the illusory world of the material. Something like vision can only be valuable if I turn it into thought and what our senses bring to thought are mere representations of the world rather than the world as it is. Such representations are the world as distinct in my mind, removed from the world as it is and while they are not the most reliable thoughts I have, being mere resemblances, they are truer than the world itself, which remains essentially unknown to me despite my body’s contact with it. For that matter, my body itself is less known to me because it is part of the world as it is. We are radically removed from the world through this purification of both sense and mind by establishing sense as mind, a mere modality of thought.

Merleau-Ponty’s discussion in “Eye and Mind” also provides a compelling revaluation of sense-perception, emphasizing vision and the medium of painting as a paradigmatic example of how being is accomplished through our bodily immersion in the world. Sense-perception, rather than being this messy and confused contact with objects of the world, is recognized as a profound condition of embodiment reflecting the inter-mixing of our self with the world through embodiment. The manifest or that which exists, therefore, becomes the vehicle for the appearance of reality AS seen, touched, heard, etc. Even more compellingly, the mind/self/consciousness makes its appearance through our embodied existence. Let us look in more detail into how this all works out.

Seeing, for Merleau-Ponty works as a revaluation of sense-perception, reflecting an “extraordinary overlapping” (162) that “opens onto the world” (162). Merleau-Ponty explains:

“The enigma derives from the fact that my body simultaneously sees and is seen. That which looks at all things can also look at itself and recognize, in what it sees, the ‘other side’ of its power of looking. It sees itself seeing; it touches itself touching; it is visible and sensitive for itself. It is a self, not by transparency, like thought, which never thinks anything except by assimilating it, constituting it, transforming it into thought – but a self by confusion, narcissism, inherence of the see-er in the seen, the toucher in the touched, the feeler in the felt – a self, then, that is caught up in things, having a front and a back, a past and a future …” (162-163)

What Merleau-Ponty says here can be evidenced right now if you are to lay your hand on the table in front of you. Not only do you feel the table, but you feel your own hand as it touches the table. In this intertwining of the hand and table, you and the world are shown to be enmeshed. Similarly, with sight. If I am to look into a mirror, I make evident my own power of sight, which reflects the world around it through that power. In this way, in seeing, objects “awaken an echo in our bodies and because the body welcomes them” (164). Sense-perception, therefore, rather than a passive coinciding with the world is shown to be a powerful engagement with the world, through which the world itself is disclosed or made to appear and through which we are disclosed or made to appear through our involvement with the it. Merleau-Ponty continues:

“This initial paradox cannot but produce others. Visible and mobile, my body is a thing among things; it is one of them. It is caught in the fabric of the world, and its cohesion is that of a thing. But because it moves itself and sees, it holds things in a circle around itself. Things are an annex or prolongation of itself; they are encrusted in its flesh, they are part of its full definition; the world is made of the very stuff of the body. These reversals, these antinomies, are different ways of saying that vision is caught or comes to be in things – in that place where something visible undertakes to see, becomes visible to itself and in the sight of all things, in that place where there persists, like the original solution still present within crystal, the undividedness of the sensing and the sense.” (163)

This amazing quote shows us that in our intertwining with objects, objects become an extension of our body, so that where the one ends and the other begins becomes obscured, meaning that subject and object are not clean delineations that we can posit, as if we are a pure subject acting on the objects of the world “out there.” Objects, are, in fact, under this reading, not out there at all and neither, are we, “in here” in any clear way. Both are in and out, the outer and inner worlds reflect a deep ambiguity, which places radical questions on our traditional view of the self as a soul, mind, or consciousness; it questions the notion of a “true” self, detached from the manifest. It questions the notion of sense as an internal resemblance of things as they are “out there.” What this view shows is precisely the co-constitution of the self and world through our sensual immersion. The world speaks to us and through us, it echoes through us, just as we see our self through it. Paradigmatically, a painting reflects this deep inter-relatedness of the object as interpreted through the vision of the artist. The world speaks through the artist, which is translated somatically through the bodily extension of the paint brush onto a canvas, reflecting the disclosure of the world through the artists eyes. But, Merleau-Ponty makes art an example of how our own perception works every day, under the radar, under the dichotomy of mind and body normatively assumed in our Western attitudes.

I would like to posit a few important things that come from this discussion:

First, is that our welcoming of the world through our body enables the world to appear to us, to appear at all. This appearance, enables ourselves to appear through the body’s translation of the world or as Merleau-Ponty states, “It is, then, mute Being that itself comes to show forth its own meaning” (188). In this sense, vision is thinking, rather than thinking being something separate from the act of seeing. The mind, therefore, is found in embodiment itself, so that the notion of a mind and body or a soul residing in the container of the body are found to be one: The manifest (seen) and the un-manifest (unseen) are united, so deeply that the disclosure or appearing of one cannot occur without the other. The mess and confusion of the manifest, therefore, facilitates the appearance of mind. One “’thinks in painting’” (178) says Merleau-Ponty, quoting Cezanne, because seeing is thinking, it is thinking through the body. It is interpreting signs from the world (176). If we think this through to its full extent, we find all around us the marvel of existence, the magical speaking of the world through us and us through it. It is only in our embodiment that the soul/mind/self/consciousness comes to appear as an interpreter of the signs of the world.

What we call the “I”, then, may be seen as merely a marker or sign of the soul, the hidden ground of our being in the world. It is not self-evident. Rather, it arises into appearance through the manifest and co-creation of reality with objects and other human beings. But, what is important here, is noting that our being is IN THE WORLD. Being appears through its manifestation. The problem is that we identify with the “I”, Descartes famous “cogito,” the ego in psychoanalysis and psychology. We think the mark of the soul is us, we identify with it, but it arises only because our being is manifest through the marvel of life. This identification with the “I” is evidence of the normative influence of Cartesian thought and its influence on our understanding of the nature of the self that still conditions our relation to our self and the world.

The impure soul is an important and radical reminder of the miracle of our existence. We are wrapped up in this world, creating with it our reality. And this reality does not bear the certainty of our objective knowing. The object is imbued with the hue of our subjective processing and this processing leads to new and more engagements with the objects, so that there is ever new appearing of the real and of us within it. In this sense, our consciousness is ever shifting in this co-constitution of reality, it is shifting with the appearing and disappearing of the world and of ourselves. What is true, is therefore, never totally evident or certain. Our anxiety and/or disappointment at this impermanence Merleau-Ponty says:

“… issues from that spurious fantasy which claims for itself a positivity capable of making up for its own emptiness. It is the regret of not being everything, and a rather groundless regret at that. For if we cannot establish a hierarchy of civilization or speak of progress … it is not because fate impedes us; it is, rather, because the very first painting in some sense went to the farthest reach of the future … if no work is itself ever absolutely completed, still, each creation changes, alters, clarifies, deepens, confirms, exalts, re-creates, or creates by anticipation of all the others. If creations are not permanent acquisitions, it is not just that, like all things, they pass away; it is also that they have almost their entire lives before them.” (190)

What is created, or co-created therefore, reflects an extension backward and forward in time, connecting all creation together. While one thing may pass on, it lives in this integration of time in the living moment of creation itself. Further, it may pass away, but not before it opens new possibilities or new ways of seeing, a new vision of what can be in the world. This new vision of what can be requires a reawakening of our world immersion and our role in constituting reality. In this role arises a responsibility to co-create with our inter-relatedness with all life in mind, lest our appearing and the appearing of the world be rendered obsolete. The implications concerning the value of other life and even what we consider to be “dead” objects are considerable. Our being is bound up with it all and consciousness is in ambiguous relation with even what we consider not to be alive. They are alive, though, because they are bound up with the living and we are tied through all that is bound to life through time, into eternity. Extending the limits of respect seems the least one could ask, revaluating how we treat the world and all the beings in it that share the world.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. “Eye and Mind.” The Primacy of Perception and Other Essays on Phenomenological Psychology, the Philosophy of Art, History and Politics, edited by James M. Edie. Northwestern University Press, 1964, pp. 159-190

Ann K Johnson, PhD
Can All Be Forgiven?

The question of forgiveness is one that comes up in both personal and political contexts. What this means is that forgiveness is not simply about harms done to ourselves or those close to us, but about the harms done to others in the larger community. Forgiveness, therefore, may be seen as a kind of ethical response to harms perpetrated either consciously or unconsciously. The problem of forgiveness, however, rests upon whether or not any act can be forgiven and whether forgiving is something that should always be granted. Further, we must understand if forgiveness is for the self or for the other, or both.

We might first consider forgiveness within a private context, that is, as a harm perpetrated by someone upon our person, creating some form of hurt or pain. Common responses to pain can range from anger, rage, sadness, despair, depression or even suppression of the pain depending on the how deep the wounding or grievance the harm done. It is a common belief that forgiveness is a way to mitigate this pain for the sake of healing, as an individual. This view holds that the forgiveness of injury is really more about the self for the sake of healing and moving forward. In my experience, this view is the one that one is most likely to encounter when looking for information and understanding regarding forgiveness.

I recommend when looking at the issue of forgiveness it is important to consider the nature of actions, so that we gain a deeper understanding as to why forgiveness is an important concept both personally and politically. To foster such a discussion, I recommend perusing Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, where she qualifies action as a significant feature of human existence, one exercising the power of spontaneity, but with the added difficulty of the open-ended possibilities that such spontaneity can create. In other words, in action we birth new events into being, but with the complication of not controlling all the outcomes of what we put into motion. Arendt calls this complication “irreversibility” (237).

As Arendt explains:

“The possible redemption from the predicament of irreversibility – of being unable to undo what one has done through one did not, and could not, have known what he was doing – is the faculty of forgiving. The remedy for unpredictability, for the chaotic uncertainty of the future, is contained in the faculty to make and keep promises. The two faculties belong together in so far as one of them, forgiving, serves to undo the deeds of the past, whose “sins” hang like Damocles’ sword over every new generation …” (237)

She continues:

“Without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover; we would remain the victims of its consequences forever, not unlike the sorcerer’s apprentice who lacked the magic formula to break the spell.” (237)

Arendt notes two important things about forgiveness here:

First, she understands that forgiveness is a necessary feature of life for any of us. We all take actions that we do not completely control and because of that, we must rely on forgiveness in order to continue to act in the world. In this sense, it is not so much about my forgiving you for what you did to me as it is about my reliance on the community to forgive what I may do to them. As part of the community, of course, this goes the same for all others, so that they would need my forgiveness as well. Forgiveness, in this sense, is not merely a private form of grace, but part of the cycle of actions in the world that perpetuate the human condition itself. Without forgiveness we simply cannot continue to be in a fundamental way.

Secondly, forgiveness features our lack of control over ends of our actions. Because actions are innately open-ended, the outcomes of actions cannot be cleanly predicted. We can always, even with good intentions, even with good actions, cause harm. Because acting itself contains this possibility, forgiveness is necessary, both on a personal and communal level. It is part of existing in a world with others who may be impacted by what we do. In this sense, forgiveness is an act we carry with us knowing that harm may occur. We feel secure to act because we know that forgiveness may happen. Forgiveness, therefore is not only a moral response that we may choose to take, but one that we must necessarily rely upon to exist in a world with others. As Arendt explains forgiveness depends “on plurality, on the presence and acting of others, for no one can forgive himself” (237).

Arendt’s view is unique in that it posits that self-forgiveness is not a possibility, but rather a binding term of action in a world with others, so that what I do carries with it a reliance on forgiveness and likewise for what you do in relation to me, etc. It is essentially relational, not about myself. This begs the question of what self-forgiveness could even be? When I am forgiving myself, what is it I am forgiving? It is here that I would like to posit that self-forgiveness from this relational perspective entails forgiving the breach in the relationship I created through the harm. This may be even more important in terms of not being able to glean forgiveness from another, so that I must do the forgiving for them. In forgiving myself I can, on the one hand, forgive the breach of the relationship if I have created the harm or I can forgive the breach of the relationship the other person created in their stead. Either way, what is being pardoned and potentially restored is myself in acting relationship with the world, not merely myself or, on the other hand, their relationship with the world, through me, as a representative of the community of which their acts are bound.

Forgiveness then is the restoration of the connection with others. Acts creating harms are a breach of this connection, transforming connection through the breach – that is - it is a harmed connection through which I now relate to you. Forgiveness is the attempt to restore the connection so that I no longer relate to you through the harm, but through forgiving connection, one that recognizes your powerlessness to control all the terms of your acts.

A couple of things arise in this view. First, is the question: “What about those who consciously perpetrate harm?” Arendt does not so much deal with intentional harm as she does with the fact of harm as a consequence of acting in the world. Intentional harm makes us re-evaluate the possibility of forgiveness, as the act was done against the faith of the community to forgive in the first place. An intentional harm presents us with someone who sees themselves outside the relational terms of the community altogether, so exempt from the terms and conditions of their actions in the world with others – what we might call a narcissist. A narcissist can only appear in the world through domination because they are not able to work within the terms of action that imply the binding grounds of promise-keeping and forgiveness.

“Without the fulfilment of promises” (237), Arendt explains, “we would never be able to keep our identities; we would be condemned to wander helplessly and without direction in the darkness of each man’s lonely heart, caught in its contradictions and equivocalities – a darkness which only the light shed over the public realm through the presence of others, who confirm the identity between the one who promises and the one who fulfils, can dispel” (237).

In other words, our identities are bound to the conditions of both faith and trust established innately in promise-making. When we promise something, within the act of promising, we bind ourselves to the fulfillment of the promise, reflecting our tie to the one whom we promised. Without our word holding weight, we could not rely on each other and the world would not work. What Arendt reveals here is that one who operates outside of the binding conditions of keeping their word and the potential to forgive, fails to be one who is capable of appearing in the activities of the community. Because they cannot recognize the binding terms of their own identity – an identity only conceivable in relation with others – they exist in the periphery, a place where they cannot be seen or recognized by the community. They locate themselves outside of the world and its terms, conditions, and relational values. In so doing, they may only form an identity through anti-communal activities, such as manipulation, egoic display, and domination: the creation of harm to be recognized as an identity. They make their appearance in the world through harming others, but in a way that makes them exempt from the need for forgiveness or the requirements of trusting what they say and its tie to what they do. In not needing to be forgiven, neither do they feel the need to forgive others. In not being trustworthy, establishing themselves as an identity in the community through the through-line of what they say to what they do, they have no faith in the connection of the words and acts of others. This kind of person is one who might be said to be unforgivable. They are a dark island unto themselves. In perpetuating harms outside the communal terms, they impose their identity onto others, a kind of imprint of themselves through the harm, an unraveling of the binding grounds of the other’s being in the world. They harm the grounds of the plurality – the arising of others through relationship. They steal away the other’s identity by precluding the possibility of connection. Only they can appear.

Arendt also discusses the problem of harms done, even unconsciously, that may be so horrific that they may be unforgivable. In her controversial “Eichmann in Jerusalem A Report on the Banality of Evil” she discusses Eichmann’s contribution to the Nazi horrors perpetrated on the Jewish community. She shows that Eichmann, though seeing himself as a moral man, as a man just going to his job, sitting behind a desk, shuffling paper, was truly a mindless actor in the world, a banal evil, a kind of evil more insidious in some ways than the overt violator. Eichmann was a man who did not have judgment, the ability to know right from wrong because he could not see the disconnect between his moral (Kantian deontological) values and his everyday actions as a bureaucrat for the Nazi’s. Furthermore, he couldn’t see how his morality justified his action, thus undermining his ability to properly make moral judgements. In this sense, Eichmann was mindless, an unthinking cog in a machine of evil, and as unthinking, evil himself. In this pushing of papers, he signed off on the death of a huge number of people. Arendt discusses several complications of Eichmann’s complicity with the Nazi’s and the failures of how the court addressed an unprecedented case, namely genocide from totalitarian rule. Ultimately, the case represents the ontological condition of plurality, the condition of life on earth as multitudinous – there are many who share this earth and each has a given right to live on the earth, so that no one can determine whether or not another has the right to appear on the earth or not. The problem that the Eichmann trial brings out, among others, is that in deciding that the Jewish community was not fit to “share the earth” (279) then “we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang” (279). In violating the plural conditions of earthly existence, one may forego the forgiveness of the community. This suggests that some acts may be irreversible in a way that it breaks the communal terms grounding action permanently. Then, the community may expel one from its shared conditions.

While not all of us have harms done to us on the level of the extermination of an entire people, we may have experienced harms that bring up our ability to forgive another and our desire to expel someone from our association(s). The question this brings up is whether or not we will be able to move ahead in our community in a forgiving relation or if we will remain in one of harmed relation? The problem of even a single event, an incident between just two people, is that it carries the weight of the world, so to speak. Bound up in the event, are the conditions of shared existence itself. Harm by another can affect all our relationships. It isn’t just that we don’t trust the person that has done the harm to us, but that we may no longer trust at all. We may simply lose our faith. This possibility points to the fact that our faith in any other is connected to all the ties that bind us. Forgiveness is moral-political precisely because it already implies the community. When we have faced harm, forgiveness becomes not only a single act, but a way of approaching how we relate with others – we must continually take up forgiveness in order to restore our trust and faith. But, if there are harms that foreclose our ability to take up forgiveness then are we forever unable to establish the terms of this restoration? Are we even obligated in some cases to not forgive? Here we see the struggle of forgiveness, the weight of its responsibility. Are there cases where reconciling with the world would actually be the wrong thing to do? Honestly, I do not have an answer to this and such a struggle is one that we must carry along with our pain. It is part of the story of that pain and it may be that the only answer can come from the community at large, where my pain is taken into the story of the community, so that some of the weight of forgiveness may be a cross that I no longer bear alone, but is recognized as a struggle within the larger world, one that re-humanizes this struggle for me.

References:

Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Penguin: New York, 1992.

Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago UP: Chicago, 1958.

Ann K Johnson, PhD
The Need for Harmonious Experience After Trauma

Having steeped myself in the study of the experience of trauma from violence, I have looked at many angles of the experience: how it disrupts beliefs and our orientation toward our view of the world, its moral and political reality and implications, physical manifestations and disruptions, psychological symptoms, etc. Central to these investigations is how trauma disrupts experience itself or how trauma is disruption of experience. The moral implications of this disruption in trauma are extensive.

I think this is where the importance of thinkers like John Dewey take center stage in helping me understand why traumatic experience is so disruptive to the person undergoing it and, here, he brings out key reflections about the nature of experience that bear the most potential when trying to make sense of our own trauma and our needs for harmonious experiences after traumatic events. It is in his Art as Experience where we find his mature writing on the quality of experience in everyday life.

Experience Should Not Be, But Often IS Anesthetic

Dewey makes a comparison between non-esthetic or anesthetic experience with what an experience actually is. However, he notes that the non-esthetic experience is one we are all too familiar with. Much of our experience, Dewey thinks, is a kind of “drifting” (41). He states:

There is no interest that controls attentive rejection or selection of what shall be organized into the developing experience. Things happen, but they are neither definitely included nor decisively excluded; we drift. We yield according to external pressure, or evade and compromise. There are beginnings and cessations, but no genuine initiations and concludings. One thing replaces another, but does not absorb it and carry it on. There is experience, but so slack and discursive that it is not an experience. (his italics, 41)

The value of what Dewey says here reflects how our actions and emotions are out of attunement with our environment, so much so that our conscious intent is absent, leaving our experience devoid of meaning. In this sense, we feel as if things are merely happening to us rather than us being engaged or having a definitive interest in the goings on of life. We do not process the experience in a way where, through the processing, meaning arises. I think this is absolutely true to the extent that many of us get lost in our day to day routines and our emphasis on being productive rather than really living. We tend to allow activity and happenings to take the place of proper processing, reflection, emotional resonance, and the value of what we are doing. Drifting is similar to being lost. In drifting, we are lost in our experience. Our self does not enliven through proper engagement, processing, and evaluation of what we are doing.

On the other hand, Dewey explains that anesthetic experience can be a kind of going through the motions. Dewey explains such experience as “dominantly practical” (40). He continues, saying:

The activity is too automatic to permit of a sense of what it is about and where it is going. It comes to an end but not to a close or consummation in consciousness. Obstacles are overcome by shrewd skill, but they do not feed experience” (40).

In this example, we might think of how many of us proceed in our everyday life at work. We get the job done, but we do not enjoy what we are doing and we are certainly happy when it is over so that we can be released from its relentless demands. On the one hand we have “aimlessness” (40) and on the other hand we have “mechanical efficiency” (40), but neither provide us with an experience that is qualified as an experience which, as Dewey expresses, needs to have “esthetic quality” (41). What both anesthetic varieties share in common is the deadening of the person. We lose our living engagement as a vital creature in an enriching world.

Experience Should Be Esthetic

So, we might ask, what is an experience if not these two things? For Dewey, an experience reflects the organic flow of the subject in attunement with their environment. To be in this organic flow is to be fully immersed within one’s environment and relationships, but, also to be deeply engaged and invested in the goings on. There is an interplay between doing things and processing things, as well as a “sense of growing meaning conserved and accumulating toward an end that is felt as accomplished of a process” (40). In other words, the anesthetic experience reflects a breach in our attunement or harmony with the world around us and with our relationships with other people, both of which create the meaningfulness that can arise within our experiences. Such experience reflects a rift between our openness to experience and our action within experience. Esthetic quality, therefore, reflects our ability to harmonize with our environment, the world of objects, other creatures, and human beings in a way that expresses our sensual and conscious engagement, both of which produce value or meaning. The meaningfulness of experience occurs precisely because we are openly engaged in the experience and actively invested, so that our experience becomes enriching. Meaning is the natural outgrowth of our attunement to the conditions of experience in any given case.

Interference with Esthetic Quality in Experience

Dewey discusses several kinds of problems that lead to an experience failing to have esthetic quality, but most predominately is our modern tendency to divide and specialize forms of knowledge and activity, including dividing knowledge from activity itself. For example, he explains that:

Compartmentalization of occupations and interests brings about separation of that mode of activity commonly called “practice” from insight, of imagination from executive doing, of significant purpose from work, of emotion from thought and doing. (21)

Further, we remove our sensible nature from our considerations of what information we deem as valuable, so that what we experience through the senses remain below our conscious awareness so that we do not see their vital role in our practices and intellectual pursuits. Senses “yield to conditions of living that force sense to remain an excitation on the surface” (21), says Dewey. Needless to say, our senses become a force of distraction rather than an integral part of our openness to experience. The value of these ideas reveals the necessary integration of our sensual engagement with the world, so that our experiences are infused with feeling, rather than feeling being set aside as too distracting or being reduced to a mere distraction. One of the most important contributions that Dewey can give us about experience is how, in modernity, our experiences tend to be more and more disjointed or disrupted, without organically flowing into a culmination of meaning. We might think of a paradigmatic example being the emphasis on multi-tasking, where we must constantly start and stop tasks to take on others that we also start and stop, moving back and forth among multiple tasks without really experiencing any of them. On top of this, we find an increased push for mindfulness, which cannot really be fostered under such conditions, so it tends to be relegated to our private time, which many find in decreasing capacity. Needless to say, our modern conditions tend to regulate experience in ways that decrease its quality and lead to us asking, “What is the point!?”

Trauma as a Form of Disruption

Traumatic experience may be understood as a form of disruption, so that when we are traumatized, we are stopped in an important way. It is an experience that is difficult to find a growth of meaning within. With the combinations of psycho-physical discombobulation that distort the emphasis on survival vs. the sophisticated modes of language and meaning processing, the undermining of our views of the world in regards to our own safety, and the moral degradation of the self, resulting from the violation of our bodies and minds, both of which co-condition our sense of self-belonging, the self as we know it loses its grasp on the world and sometimes even its desire to make such engagement. We are out of harmony with our environment, but without our prior resources to engage and reinvest. In a sense it is a radical loss of meaning rather than the growth of meaning because it undermines our trust in our own ability to interact in the first place. The undergoing of such experience, needless to say, is overwhelming and very difficult to process and the actions we take are often out of attunement with our conscious intent because that no longer has its resting place in the world or even in our body in the same way. Actions and decision-making become difficult and even small efforts can feel like overwhelming obstacles. And yet, the world expects us to move on. In fact, the world often offers us recourse to further experiences that have lost their experiential quality and luster, moving us forward in the repetitious haze of lost meaning. Our experiences, in trauma, become anesthetic, a kind of aimless drifting, being lost to the world or a mere going through the motions to get through the day, to lose ourselves long enough to get the job done. But, what it is not, is an organic flow of invested engagement culminating in the growth of meaning.

Qualitative Experiences for those Traumatized as an Obligation

The task for addressing trauma under this discussion becomes one of asking whether what we are doing to address trauma and those under its conditions are actually ones that help re-attunes people with the world or if they are merely treating its symptoms. We have to ask what kind of experience is one having in a women’s shelter, for example? What kind of experience is a refugee having when entering our country? What kind of experiences are we offering our veterans when they return home? How has trauma disrupted their ability to have quality experiences? We must address obstacles to the re-engagement of their integral self with the world, be it work, home, and a variety of other relationships. We must address their ability to feel alive again. Are we giving them experiences that enliven their sensual, intellectual, and willful contact with the world so that they can be open to the world again? Too often the answer is “No.”

What Dewey offers us is the absolute importance of harmonizing experiences as a way to reconstitute the value of our human involvement, the linking of our sensual, intellectual, and active selves as a dimensional wonder in its immersion in the live environment, reawakening wonder, trust, feeling, consciousness, and even faith that such immersion will culminate in meaning, in a meaning that we can share, in the meaningful growth of the human spirit as expressed through so much flesh and bone. We might say that we carry with us a duty to ourselves and others to make our experiences imbued with the living force of meaningful interaction and that all healing can only come when this is dutifully recognized as an ultimate value, one that carries with it the deeper purpose of our human relations. Treating harmonious experience as an obligation that we have reminds us of our duty to provide enriching opportunities of engagement that bring us in vital relationships with each other and the larger world. This obligation may be said to be moral to the extent that our human relationships with each other and the larger world require care, a care that can only thrive under proper conditions. We must be mindful in whether we are drifting in our duties or falling into the habit of going through the motions. Deadening anesthetic conditions lead to a deepening apathy, so that we must be vigilant to work against our own apathy, especially when we have the duty to help others in our professions, for why should others care if we do not? Care, therefore, is a vital moral force that orients us to the world and in order to care, we must first be open, active, and alive.

Dewey, John. Art as Experience. New York. Penguin Group, 1934. Print.


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