Spare Me, Bobo

October 20, 2009

CrazyMonkey.jpg Crazy Monkey image by cullyman07Arg and grumble. Bobo’s at it again. What in the holy name of wilde things is he talking about? Here, enjoy a taste:

In this view, what you might call the philosopher’s view, each of us has certain ingrained character traits…The psychologists thus tend to gravitate toward a different view of conduct. In this view, people don’t have one permanent thing called character.

Which philosopher, exactly, thinks that people have “one permanent thing called character”? I can’t think of anyone who thinks that character is a thing; nor can I think of anyone who thinks that it is a permanent thing. Perhaps David Brooks thinks such nonsense.  Perhaps the monkey on cocaine (above, right) thinks such nonsense.  Perhaps David Brooks and the very happy monkey are related. One thing’s for sure: very few, if any, notable philosophers think this.

But it gets worse…

How’s this for a wacky generalization?

The philosopher’s view is shaped like a funnel. At the bottom, there is a narrow thing called character. And at the top, the wide ways it expresses itself. The psychologist’s view is shaped like an upside-down funnel. At the bottom, there is a wide variety of unconscious tendencies that get aroused by different situations. At the top, there is the narrow story we tell about ourselves to give coherence to life.

My eyes ache from rolling so furiously. There is no thing called character; and there is no funnel; and there is no monolithic “philosopher’s view.” My goodness, man. What is going on at the NY Times? Philosophers have a huge range of views. As a collective, we each act independently to present thousands and thousands of different and nuanced arguments a year. Very infrequently do we agree with one another.

The difference is easy to recognize on the movie screen. Most movies embrace the character version.

Seriously? I call equivocation on “character.”

In the philosopher’s picture, the good life is won through direct assault. Heroes use reason to separate virtue from vice. Then they use willpower to conquer weakness, fear, selfishness and the dark passions lurking inside. Once they achieve virtue they do virtuous things.

In the psychologist’s version, the good life is won indirectly. People have only vague intuitions about the instincts and impulses that have been implanted in them by evolution, culture and upbringing. There is no easy way to command all the wild things jostling inside.

Gag.  It’s like Brooks stopped reading in 350 BC.  Here, maybe I can help.  In the 21st Century we have entirely free internet encyclopedias of philosophy.  Google your question and presto, you have a nice review article to bring you up to speed.  Check out the entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on moral character.

One comment

  1. That torture photo is disturbing. The “monkey” appears to be a baby orangutan, and there’s no reason to think that its horrible experience is in any way different from the one a human infant would have.

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