Category Archives: Psychology

Constitutive ends, transcendent ends, and rules

I don’t care about making money, I just love to sell carpet!

— Buddy Kallick

If you ask what the goal or end of a particular action is, there are a number of actions which admit of two distinct answers — which, after rejecting several even less felicitous terms (trust me, it’s possible!), I have decided to call the constitutive end and the transcendent end.

This distinction was brought to my attention as I was rereading some of the epigrams filed under “Diversion” in Pascal’s Pensées (Krailsheimer’s translation), so I might as well use one of his examples to explain what I mean.

[Those who say] that people are quite unreasonable to spend all day chasing a hare that they would not have wanted to buy, have little knowledge of our nature. The hare itself would not save us from thinking about death and the miseries distracting us, but hunting does so.

In this case, catching the hare is the constitutive end of the hunt — so called because such an end is an essential part of what makes a hunt a hunt. Without a hare (or some other quarry), there can be no hunt. Or, to be more precise, it is not the hare itself that is necessary so much as the idea of the hare, as a goal imagined in the hunters’ minds. It is quite possible to hunt even when there are no hares about, so long as the hunters do not know this.

The constitutive end is therefore absolutely necessary, in that the activity in question is by definition the pursuit of that end. Unless a person pursues that end, it is impossible for him to engage in that activity. However, psychologically, it often happens that the constitutive end is not the “real” end — not the thing that would really satisfy those who are ostensibly pursuing it. This is where transcendent ends come into play. (Sorry if that sounds a little too maharishi; again, you’ll just have to trust me when I say that these are the least infelicitous terms I could come up with.) In Pascal’s example, the transcendent end of the hunt is simply to distract the hunter, thus relieving him of the pain of thinking about our miserable human condition. I call it transcendent because it transcends the activity itself. The hunt as a hunt is perfectly intelligible on its own terms even without the knowledge that the hunters are seeking to be distracted from their own mortality — but not without the knowledge that they are pursuing a hare.


Furthermore, although the transcendent end is the “real” end — the one that the hunters actually care about — they must nevertheless focus all their attentions and energies on the constitutive end. In another of his examples, Pascal discusses a man who gambles a small sum every day for entertainment. Like the hare hunters, he doesn’t really want his ostensible goal (money) but rather diversion and distraction. If you offered to just give him some money each day on condition that he give up gambling, he wouldn’t be interested. However —

He must have excitement, he must delude himself into imagining that he would be happy to win what he would not want as a gift if it meant giving up gambling. He must create some target for his passions and then arouse his desire, anger, fear, for this object he has created, just like children taking fright at a face they have daubed themselves.

The transcendent end is such that it cannot be pursued directly, but only by means of the pursuit of a wholly different (constitutive) end. And the more you can lose yourself in the pursuit of the CE, forgetting all about the TE if possible, the more likely you will be to attain the TE.


Actively pursuing one end (the CE) in order to attain a quite different end (the TE) is a dicey business, since there will nearly always be actions which, while effective ways of reaching the CE, are actually detrimental to the TE. This is why it is often necessary to pursue the CE within a framework of rules.

Hunting, for example, is subject to standards of sportsmanship, and too-effective methods are deemed unsportsmanlike. This is very strange if you know only that the goal of the hunt is to capture a hare — but once you understand the transcendent end of distraction-from-one’s-mortality (or, in less charged language, “fun”), it becomes clear why hunting must not be permitted to become so easy that it fails to keep the mind occupied.

The same is true for the rules of other sports. If your purpose is to get the ball into the goal, it seems quite counterproductive to refuse to touch it with your hands — but in light of the transcendent end of soccer (distraction again), such rules make sense.


So far my examples — Pascal’s examples — involve only sports and other diversions, where the TE is distraction. However, I think the logic of constitutive ends, transcendent ends, and rules can also be applied to many other kinds of activities. A few examples follow.


St. Augustine, back before he was a saint, used to enjoy stealing for the sake of stealing. As the noted Augustine scholar Sir Michael P. Jagger puts it, “Augustine knew temptation,” loving not only “women, wine, and song,” but also “all the special pleasures of doing something wrong.” In the saint’s own words (translated by E. B. Pusey):

I lusted to thieve, and did it, compelled by no hunger, nor poverty, but through a cloyedness of well-doing, and a pamperedness of iniquity. For I stole that, of which I had enough, and much better. Nor cared I to enjoy what I stole, but joyed in the theft and sin itself.

A pear tree there was near our vineyard, laden with fruit, tempting neither for colour nor taste. To shake and rob this, some lewd young fellows of us went, late one night (having according to our pestilent custom prolonged our sports in the streets till then), and took huge loads, not for our eating, but to fling to the very hogs, having only tasted them. And this, but to do what we liked only, because it was misliked.

Behold my heart, O God, behold my heart, which Thou hadst pity upon in the bottom of the bottomless pit. Now, behold, let my heart tell Thee what it sought there, that I should be gratuitously evil, having no temptation to ill, but the ill itself. It was foul, and I loved it; I loved to perish, I loved mine own fault, not that for which I was faulty, but my fault itself. Foul soul, falling from Thy firmament to utter destruction; not seeking aught through the shame, but the shame itself! . . .

So then, not even Catiline himself loved his own villainies, but something else, for whose sake he did them. What then did wretched I so love in thee, thou theft of mine, thou deed of darkness, in that sixteenth year of my age? Lovely thou wert not, because thou wert theft. But art thou any thing, that thus I speak to thee? Fair were the pears we stole, because they were Thy creation, Thou fairest of all, Creator of all, Thou good God; God, the sovereign good and my true good. Fair were those pears, but not them did my wretched soul desire; for I had store of better, and those I gathered, only that I might steal. For, when gathered, I flung them away, my only feast therein being my own sin, which I was pleased to enjoy. For if aught of those pears came within my mouth, what sweetened it was the sin.

The pears were a constitutive end for young Augustine — no theft without something to steal — but the transcendent end was to taste “all the special pleasures of doing something wrong.” These are seemingly paradoxical pleasures, but everyone knows them; no one reads Augustine but recognizes himself in this passage. (I suppose the root of the pleasure is pride — glorying in the fact that one can do such things and enjoy them, in defiance of God, reason, and society.)

The theft was by definition a means to the end of getting pears — but the pears were valued only as a means to the end of committing theft.


Everyone knows the story of the widow’s mite (as it is always called for some reason; it should be “the widow’s mites“).

And Jesus sat over against the [temple] treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: and many that were rich cast in much. And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing. And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury: For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living (Mark 12:41-44).

This is not generally considered one of Jesus’s “hard sayings”; most people naturally and intuitively understand and agree with the judgment expressed. For me, though, it has always been a major sticking point, something I have brooded over again and again in an attempt to understand Jesus’s message.

From a utilitarian point of view (and we moderns are all utilitarians to some degree), how can the widow’s donation possibly be judged better than those of the rich men? The rich men contributed substantially to the support of the temple at no real inconvenience to themselves — maximum benefit for the temple, minimum harm for the donors — whereas the widow made an enormous sacrifice which scarcely benefited the temple at all. By what criteria is that donation judged better which produces greater harm and less benefit?

One easy, not to say facile, explanation is that Jesus was making a statement about the general goodness of the attitude exemplified by the widow, not of this particular instance of it. What he meant was that it would be good if people in general (particularly rich people) were as proportionally generous as this poor widow had been. This particular widow’s gift was worthless and even actively harmful, but we ought nevertheless to praise it so as to encourage a similar attitude in others — specifically, in others who are not poor widows.

but that’s not what Jesus said. He didn’t say, “If only the rich could be so generous!” He said, “This poor widow hath cast more in.” It’s hard to avoid the (anti-utilitarian) conclusion that, for Jesus, the primary value of the gifts lay not in the good they did to the temple but in the harm they caused to the donors. The temple received more from the rich, but the widow sacrificed more, and thus her gift was superior.

Sacrifice is thus valued qua sacrifice, regardless of whether or not it helps anyone. However, not just any sacrifice will do. It must be a sacrifice motivated by love or piety — which in turn means that its constitutive end must be to help some other person, to further the work of God, etc. Although the widow wasn’t really helping the temple at all, it was nevertheless important that it was into the temple treasury that she cast her mites. Had she just cast them into the sea, it seems unlikely that Jesus would have been as approving. Likewise, when Jesus wanted the rich young man to sacrifice his wealth, he didn’t tell him to scatter his flocks and burn down his house; he told him, “sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor.” Was the point really to help the poor? No, of course not. But helping the poor (or some similar “good cause”) was nevertheless necessary as a constitutive end. The transcendent end was the sacrifice itself, or perhaps the moral effects which sacrifice engenders.


Is all charity similar in kind to that demonstrated by the widow or demanded of the rich young man? There is, after all, something paradoxical about on the one hand scorning worldly goods and comforts (as a virtuous person should), and on the other hand trying to provide those goods and comforts for others as if we were thereby doing them some great service. Just as Pascal’s gambler had to “delude himself into imagining that he would be happy to win what he would not want as a gift,” doesn’t the charitable Christian have to delude himself into imagining that he can contribute to others’ happiness by giving them what he knows cannot bring happiness.

The constitutive end of charitable giving is to alleviate poverty — and that could be most effectively achieved by forcibly taking money from the rich and giving it to the poor. But such means would be detrimental to the transcendent end (namely, the happiness that comes from love, generosity, and gratitude), so a rule is needed (“thou shalt not steal”).


My work as a language teacher is necessarily based on the pursuit of constitutive ends. The transcendent end is to develop proficiency in English, and that goal can be achieved only through practice using the language. Language, however, is such that it cannot really be used without some communicative goal (which is why “Say something in Chinese!” is such an annoying request). In a recent class, for instance, I had my students read an English version of H. C. Andersen’s story “The Swineherd” and discuss whether the characters’ actions were right or wrong. (I knew from experience that women tend to sympathize with the princess, and men with the prince, leading to lively debate.) The real purpose of this whole exercise was to practice a few specific grammatical constructions — perfect modals (“he shouldn’t have deceived her,” “I would have done the same thing,” etc.) and the third conditional (“if she hadn’t kissed him, they wouldn’t have been banished”) — but this was accomplished by focusing almost entirely on the constitutive end of passing moral judgment on fairy-tale characters.

Of course, the most effective way for a group of Taiwanese people to reach any communicative goal would be for them to speak Chinese. Hence the need for rules (English only) to ensure that the transcendent end is served.


One type of error is to disregard rules and focus too exclusively on the constitutive end. Another is to focus directly on the transcendent end, forgetting that the activity cannot maintain its character — and thus cannot lead to the TE — unless the CE is kept in focus.

“We don’t keep score; we just play for fun.” People who say this exhibit a fundamental misunderstanding. Yes, fun is the real point (transcendent end) of playing — but unless you’re trying to win (the constitutive end) you’re not actually playing the game and therefore won’t have as much fun.

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Filed under Ethics, New Testament, Philosophy, Psychology

Sin! Sin! Sin! Help! Help! Help!

The anonymous author of the Middle English mystical work The Cloud of Unknowing advises his reader that the best prayer is a single word, and that a one-syllable word is best of all. After all, “Fire!” and “Help!” are undeniably our most sincere “prayers” to our fellow human beings, and the ones most likely to get a response. We instinctively rush to help a man who shouts “Help!”, the author of the Cloud explains, even if he should be our worst enemy — while a longer, more discursive request for assistance may well be turned down. And if even enemies are moved by monosyllabic calls for help, he reasons, how much more so must God be; we should therefore never cease to pray, “Sin! Sin! Sin! Help! Help! Help!”


I do not feel qualified to comment on this appropriateness of this form of prayer, except to note that it sounds an awful lot like the “vain repetitions” warned against by Christ. However, I have found it to be surprisingly effective  psychologically.

I never consciously decided to try following the advice in the Cloud. However, once I had read the passage summarized above, the machinery of association saw to it that whenever I found myself thinking or doing something that I ought not to think or do, it would pop up automatically in my mind: “Sin! Sin! Sin! Help! Help! Help!” — and then I would find it quite impossible to go on with whatever it was I had been thinking or doing which had prompted the association.

In a previous post (qv) I discussed the inadvisability of trying to reason with oneself in the heat of temptation. Reasoning is an invitation to argue back and rationalize. Commanding oneself, while more effective than reasoning, is also suboptimal because it triggers instincts of independence and rebelliousness. If, on the other hand, some part of your soul is shouting “Help! Help! Help!” — well, what can you do but rush to help the poor guy?


I should make it clear that the author of the Cloud did not intend for his prayer to be used in this way. His purpose was not to help people control their behavior or to sin less often, but to make them constantly aware of their sinful nature and thus motivate them to draw closer to God. He did not intend it as a prayer for deliverance from some specific sin one was committing or being tempted to commit; on the contrary, he instructs his reader to think of sin “as a lump” and to avoid analyzing it or thinking of any specific sin. Nevertheless, despite the author’s intentions, I have found it to be useful for quite another purpose, and I post this in the hope that others may find the same thing.

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Filed under Ethics, Psychology

No ghost instinct

I recently had a discussion with a group of Taiwanese high school students about childhood fears. It turns out that roughly 100% of them had been afraid of the same thing: ghosts. One guy had a phobia of cats, but other than that it was ghosts all around.

When I was a little child, I was afraid of tigers. I slept on the top bunk, and I remember asking my mother how high my bed was and how tall a tiger was — trying to calculate whether or not a tiger would be able to climb up and get me while I slept. Leopards, too. One of my most vivid memories from early childhood is of sitting in the bathtub trying to decide whether I wanted the bathroom door to be closed (to keep leopards out) or open (so that I could see any leopards that might be out there). Later in childhood I was sometimes afraid to go into the woods alone, and when I tried to pin down exactly what I was afraid of, I found that it was the prospect of encountering a huge ugly beast which I could visualize clearly but which I only later learned (after seeing pictures in books) to call a Hyaenodon. I’ve been told that I also used to worry a lot about monkeys coming into my room when I was a toddler, but I have no clear memories of that. “Monsters” also featured in my early childhood fears — beasts corresponding to no specific animal, but sporting fangs and claws and fur clearly inspired by the big cats and other predators. Dinosaurs were also an occasional fear.

Until recently, I assumed that such fears were a pretty universal experience for children and that they were rooted in instincts which served our ancestors in the not-so-distant evolutionary past, when leopards and hyenas and such were among the leading causes of death. As silly as my fears were for a kid living in suburban New Hampshire, they would have been perfectly reasonable on the African savanna.

However, when I described my childhood fears to the high school students, they looked at me like I was from outer space. No one could relate — not even the ailurophobe, who feared only domestic cats and had never worried about lions or leopards. This was a bit of a shock to me. I was also surprised to find that they had never imagined “monsters” — the prevalence of which in popular culture (Monsters, Inc. and the like) had led me to believe that they were also pretty universal. They had feared ghosts, and pretty much only ghosts.

I, on the other hand, cannot remember ever experiencing even the tiniest hint of a fear of ghosts. I’ve been afraid of the dark from time to time, but that fear never took the form of worrying about ghosts. Walking through a graveyard at night would be no more scary than walking anywhere else at night. As a child I used to imagine that a leopard or a “monster” or Darth Vader was hiding in the dark corners of my bedroom, but it never occurred to me to imagine a ghost. I even thought I saw ghost-like apparitions a couple of times as a child (bright white human figures glimpsed out of the corner of my eye) but never thought to be afraid of them (or to think of them as “ghosts,” for that matter). As an adult, I lived alone for a year in a house which was supposed to be haunted (and which had very low rent as a result) without ever once feeling the slightest bit uncomfortable about it. I find the ghost movies that my wife loves to watch insufferably tedious because I simply do not respond to them at all on an emotional or visceral level.

This is not explained by the fact that I don’t believe in ghosts. For fears at this level, belief simply doesn’t enter into the equation. After all, I never really believed there were tigers in New Hampshire or Hyaenodonts in Ohio, either. I know plenty of people who “don’t believe in ghosts” but still feel a frisson of fear when passing a cemetery at night. It’s more likely that the causation runs the other way: I don’t believe in ghosts because I’m not afraid of them; the idea of ghosts can’t muster enough of an emotional response in me to make it a “live option” in Jamesian terms.

Nor is it explained by general fearlessness. In fact I’m quite easily spooked by things other than ghosts. I’ve been afraid of plenty of silly things over the course of my life, and even now stories about grey aliens can sometimes terrify me every bit as much as ghost movies terrify my wife.

One disadvantage of having lived in a foreign country for most of my adult life is that it’s hard to separate personal idiosyncrasies from racial or cultural differences. Am I personally unusual in having feared wild animals more than ghosts as a child? Or is it that Western children fear leopards and hyenas, and Chinese children fear ghosts? And either way, what accounts for the difference?


Filed under Anecdotes, Psychology, Taiwan

Practical observations on will

In an attempt to understand the workings of my own will, I decided to try to take an ice-cold shower every day for three months. I chose this partly because of the purported health benefits but mostly just because it was something harmlessly unpleasant I could try to force myself to do, affording opportunities for introspection. I wanted to observe what exactly happened psychologically when I succeeded in acting contrary to inclination, and what happened when I failed to do so.

I started this project a month ago and have been imperfectly successful so far — only 26 cold showers in 30 days, with my longest streak of cold showers every day being (so far) 15 days. (Of course, imperfect success is what I “wanted” on one level, since my purpose was to observe the causes of both success and failure.) Here are some of my observations.


Visualizing the intended act

I got the idea from William James (in his Principles of Psychology and elsewhere) that imagining a particular act is the same thing as willing it, and that imagination naturally leads to motor consequences unless something checks it. There seems to be some truth to this view. One of the most effective ways of making myself take a cold shower turned out to be visualizing — as vividly as possible — myself turning the faucet handle to the right.

The act itself is what must be imagined, not its consequences. Imagining the unpleasant shock of the freezing water hitting your body would obviously tend to weaken resolve rather than strengthen it. Less obviously, even imagining the pleasant consequences of the intended action (e.g., how good you will feel when the cold shower is over) turned out to be relatively ineffective. It’s best to be direct: If you want to do X, imagine X — not something which can be connected to X only by a train of reasoning. When it comes to willpower, as I shall explain below, reason is not your friend.

This technique would appear to work only when willing oneself to do something — not to refrain from doing something. Attempting to visualize oneself not-smoking or not-eating-junk-food or whatever would obviously be an exercise in futility. When trying to stop doing something, then, it would perhaps be helpful to decide in advance on a fixed substitute-behavior (“when I’m tempted to do X, I’ll do Y instead”), turning a thou-shalt-not into a more visualizable thou-shalt.


Stupid slogans, not syllogisms

In the heat of temptation, the last thing you want to be doing is reasoning — earnestly trying to persuade yourself to do what you have already decided you ought to do. Reason is the slave of the passions, and practical reason ought not to be attempted when the baser passions (such as a caitiff unwillingness to be doused with ice-water) are in play.

Here I seem to be parting ways with William James (“to think, in short, is the secret of will”) and leaning more in the direction of Martin Luther (“the devil’s bride, Reason, that pretty whore”), but in fact James is right even here, as the larger context of the quote makes clear.

If, then, you are asked, “In what does a moral act consist when reduced to its simplest and most elementary form?” you can make only one reply. You can say that it consists in the effort of attention by which we hold fast to an idea which but for that effort of attention would be driven out of the mind by the other psychological tendencies that are there. To think, in short, is the secret of will, just as it is the secret of memory (Talks to Teachers, emphasis in the original).

The kind of “thinking” James is recommending is certainly not discursive reasoning. (That kind of thinking may be “the secret of memory,” but in the context of will it is a mere slippery slope to rationalization.) Rather, it is a stubborn refusal to let go of an idea. Bulldog, not fox. The tools you want are not arguments, but rather thought-terminating clichés.

In my attempts to make myself turn on the cold water, the most effective “thoughts” were sound bites calculated to bypass reason and enlist the passions in the service of a predetermined conclusion. I drew slogans from various sources, ranging from Spenser (“Vp, vp, thou womanish weake Knight”) to Hollywood schlock (“This is SPARTA!”), and the stupider they were, the more effective. One that worked particularly well was simply “I’m a Viking!” — because, you know, Vikings are tough and obviously aren’t afraid of a little cold water.

On those occasions when I found myself standing in front of the faucet reasoning about what I was going to do, I inevitably ended up being swayed or almost-swayed by the stupidest rationalizations imaginable: I didn’t say I wouldn’t take any hot showers, only that I would take cold showers — so I can take a hot shower first and then a cold one after that. Or I could make it a James Bond shower (start with hot water, then switch it to cold right at the end). Or I could just take a hot shower today and two cold showers tomorrow, which still averages out to one a day. Or actually, since I’ve only been doing cold showers for a few days now, it wouldn’t really make much of a difference if I took a hot shower today and started the three months tomorrow. And so on. The slave of the passions is nothing if not a hard worker, and will keep dutifully churning out justifications until one of them does the trick.


Striking while the iron is hot

You think and think, and then at some point you say “Okay, NOW!” and make the jump from thought to action. The timing of that jump is important because various motivations fluctuate in strength. You don’t always have the luxury of choosing when to make your decision, but usually you do, and you want to time your fiat so that it coincides with your “good” motivations being at their strongest and their rivals at their weakest. What exactly that means in practical terms varies from situation to situation and can be learned only by experience. Sometimes I had to turn on the water immediately, before I’d had time to have second thoughts; other times I had to just stand there, sometimes for over a minute, “working up” the necessary willpower.


I intend to continue this experiment until I actually succeed in doing three months straight of cold showers every day, and will post other observations as they occur to me.


Filed under Anecdotes, Psychology

Why is choosing beliefs more problematic than choosing actions?

There are those who scoff at the schoolboy, calling him frivolous and shallow: Yet it was the schoolboy who said “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”

Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar

“Believing what you know ain’t so” — if it is true that we choose our beliefs and are morally responsible for them, then it ought to be possible to do just that.

We are certainly morally responsible for our actions because, knowing (or thinking that we know) what is right, we are nevertheless capable of choosing to do otherwise. We are able to do what we know is wrong — to judge a particular course of action to be wrong and to do it anyway. This is possible because judging a deed to be right is one thing, and actually doing it is another. Without this distinction, the idea of sin would be incoherent.

When it comes to belief, though, no such distinction is possible. To judge a belief to be right just is to believe it. “Believing what you know ain’t so” is, pace the schoolboy, meaningless. To believe something just is to think it is so; if you don’t think it’s so, you don’t believe it. Thus, the idea of sin is incoherent when applied to beliefs. We cannot be held morally responsible for our beliefs because there is no internal standard against which to judge them. Of course, there is the external standard of what is objectively true, but that’s not good enough. A man may do something which, as a matter of fact, is wrong — but if he doesn’t know it’s wrong, he is still innocent. Likewise, a man who believes something false is innocent unless he knows it’s false — but if he knew it was false, he would eo ipso not believe it.


And yet, and yet — that can’t be the whole story. At some level, everyone understands exactly what Twain’s schoolboy is talking about, which is why his definition of faith makes us smile knowingly rather than scratching out heads. “Believing what you know ain’t so” is not simply meaningless, or it would not even register as a witticism. Somehow, despite the contradictions it seems to involve, it is possible to willfully — culpably — believe something you know is false. As for what exactly that means, though, I confess that I’m still at a loss. Further research is, as they say, indicated.


Filed under Ethics, Philosophy, Psychology

Calling things by their correct names is an aspect of self-control

From a comment by Bruce Charlton on this post (emphasis added):

Somebody who was married once told me that he was always ready to ‘commit adultery’ (he did not use those words) if ever the opportunity presented itself (plus of course he sought such situations), and that not to do this would be crazy.

From William James’s Principles of Psychology:

[I]n describing the ‘reasonable type’ of decision, it was said that it usually came when the right conception of the case was found. Where, however, the right conception is an anti-impulsive one, the whole intellectual ingenuity of the man usually goes to work to crowd it out of sight, and to find names for the emergency, by the help of which the dispositions of the moment may sound sanctified, and sloth or passion may reign unchecked. How many excuses does the drunkard find when each new temptation comes! It is a new brand of liquor which the interests of intellectual culture in such matters oblige him to test; moreover it is poured out and it is sin to waste it; or others are drinking and it would be churlishness to refuse; or it is but to enable him to sleep, or just to get through this job of work; or it isn’t drinking, it is because he feels so cold; or it is Christmas-day; or it is a means of stimulating him to make a more powerful resolution in favor of abstinence than any he has hitherto made; or it is just this once, and once doesn’t count, etc., etc., ad libitum – it is, in fact, anything you like except being a drunkard. That is the conception that will not stay before the poor soul’s attention. But if he once gets able to pick out that way of conceiving, from all the other possible ways of conceiving, from all the other possible ways of conceiving the various opportunities which occur, if through thick and thin he holds to it that this is being a drunkard and is nothing else, he is not likely to remain one long. The effort by which he succeeds in keeping the right name unwaveringly present to his mind proves to be his saving moral act.

Of course no one speaks of “being a drunkard” now, nor of “committing adultery.” Drunkards have been superseded by “alcoholics” (a medical term), and no one would be so gauche as to commit adultery when it is so much more civilized to simply have an “affair” or an “indiscretion.” (See documentation here and here.) Examples of such euphemistic treatment of vice and sin (two words which are themselves on the way out) could easily be multiplied.

We may think we are doing the drunkard and the adulterer a favor by finding gentler, less judgmental terms for their vices, when in fact the opposite may be true. Without confession — that is, admitting that a sin is a sin and refusing to call it anything else or make excuses for it — repentance is nearly impossible. Modern “sensitive” language makes it harder to think the thoughts which lead to reform. In shying away from judging others, we make it harder to judge ourselves.

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Contagious forgetting

My wife and I are both teachers, and in addition to our main jobs with our respective institutions, we both teach English classes at the local YMCA on Tuesday nights. Our classes are at the same time (6:30-9:40), so we usually just go together on my motorcycle.

This past Tuesday, my class ran several minutes late, so I expected my wife to be waiting for me when I finished — but she was still in class. She finally came out nearly half an hour after the scheduled time and explained to me what had happened. She hadn’t lost track of time — on the contrary, she had been keeping an eye on the clock — but for some reason she had misread it as saying it was about nine o’clock, when in fact it was about ten.


The very next day, I was teaching my regular classes at the college, which are also supposed to finish at 9:40, and the same thing happened to me! I glanced at the clock from time to time as I was teaching but always misread the time as being an hour earlier than it actually was. Towards the end I was a little worried because I had almost finished the material I had prepared but still had (I thought) 40 more minutes of class time to fill. When one of the staff knocked on the door and reminded me that it was time to wrap up, I said, “No, I’ve still got 40 minutes, see?” and pointed at the clock — at which point I finally realized my mistake. Quite embarrassing.


So is it just a coincidence that my wife and I made the same unlikely mistake within 24 hours of each other? The odds seem rather low. I won’t say I’ve never made this kind of mistake before, but surely only a few times in my adult life. It seems that hearing about my wife’s mistake somehow caused me to make the same mistake myself.

But it seems very strange that hearing a story about not noticing something could cause you to not-notice the same thing. Hearing something mentioned, no matter the context, puts that thing in your mind. It’s proverbial that when someone tells you not to think of a white bear, you immediately think of a white bear — so when someone talks about not noticing the correct time, you’d think that would make you more likely to notice the correct time. If I was in fact influenced by my wife’s mistake, the psychological mechanism of that influence is a mystery.


Something similar happened to me last year when I forgot the name of the country of which Monte Carlo is the capital, apparently due to the influence of a story Freud tells about how he once forgot the same thing — with the added twist that I read Freud’s story the day after my own memory blank!


Filed under Coincidence / Synchronicity, Psychology