Moving on from Homer

Recapping up the discussion of Iladic people

Let’s recap on what the mental lives of the Iladic people were like.These people didn’t distinguish well at all between ‘thinking’ and ‘emoting’, and used the concept of the physical ‘thymos’ to characterize both. The thymos, you’ll recall, did the things we now take to be done by the brain and CNS; it was effectively the ‘mind’ and its various functions, and was literally thought to be a mixture of breath and blood located in the lungs (phrenes).

We also saw that based on this understanding of mind, Onians explained that learning was as literally “taking into the mind” and forgetting was literally “letting escape”. In addition, the state of a person’s thymos was thought to determine the “fierceness, energy and courage of a person” and the emotions were physical events or things that “enter into” the thymos as a liquid enters a cup.

Athena appears to Achilles, grabbing him by the hair to make him cease

Finally, let’s recall that we said that for Iladic people, perception or cognition was automatically associated with an emotion, and immediately followed by some degree of a tendency to action. By contrast, we today, and even Greeks of the classical era, exhibit the ability to seemingly “think in cold blood”. We’ve attained more discrimination about what’s going on in our minds, we’ve identified and defined various aspects and phases of mental activity rather than understanding mental activity as all of a piece.

To our credit, over the centuries we’ve managed to use language and abstract thinking, as well as philosophical and scientific examination, to slice and dice what our bodies do when we think and emote, and we’ve clearly become “outwardly more restrained” and even “inwardly calmer” in our actions than the Iladics are represented to have been. Much of this is to the good. Yet at the core of our advancement was a turning away from the core premise that all human mental life is physically based.

Quite some time ago we began forgetting, ignoring, or rejecting the basic starting point that emotions and thinking were coming from the same place, and in our efforts to locate more exactly what was the source of our mental lives, we made emoting and thinking functions of different parts of our anatomy, while at the same time coming to think of these different parts of our anatomy as fundamentally different. And even though most people today working on issues in and around cognition do accept that all thinking and emotional activity is physically based, you may be surprised to find out that old biases have calcified and we’re left with a big mess. At the core of the mess, as Joan Wynn Reeves put it, is the typical modern psychological view that there are “sharp distinctions between thought and feeling”.

More on that in the future, now let’s meet Plato.

Plato, or The Source

Plato, my favorite philosopher

My argument is that if you look at Plato, Aristotle and Lucretius with a charitable, reasonable eye to what they were trying to address in psychology with the information on physiology they had, we can uncover a conception of mind and emotion that rivals any we have available today. This “P-A-L” account shows us that while a visceral view such as that of the Iladic people is useful, strict adherence to such a view is simply not robust enough. The account also provides a foundation on which to build a theory robust enough to handle the actual complexity of the relationships between mind, thought, emotion and morality. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long after Plato and Aristotle that theories about the emotions started off on two quite debilitating forks from this promising path.

I spent much of my discussion of Homer and the Iladic people focusing on thymos because that is overwhelmingly the concept their psychology depends on. However, there were other concepts and terms used for ‘mind’. The most recognizable of them is ‘psyche’, which you’ll recognize as the root of the English word ‘psychology’. In Homer, by and large it refers to “life-soul”, usually identified with spinal fluid or seminal fluid, which the ancients though literally gave life to a being. Through the ages between Homer and Plato the concept of thymos evolved and changed and distinctions were made that moved the “psyche” from this sort of spinal-seminal fluid to the immortal soul and the “seat of rationality”. For example, the poet Pindar (or II) is said to have developed the meaning of psyche into something “divine” and in some sense “concerned in the feelings of ordinary waking life” but at the same time “asleep when the limbs are active”. Plato, while he accepts the basic Iladic position that thinking and emotions come from the same physical system, significantly develops all of these concepts.

One thing I want to point out that is consistently overlooked is that Plato thinks the physicality of cognition is invaluable. People point to his theology (II) and metaphysics and overstate Plato’s wish for dissolution of the bonds between mind and body. As far as his psychology is concerned, it’s simply not important. We’ll see that what is crucially important is his creation of the conceptual space, the theoretical framework, for excluding some mental activity, sometimes, from the intrusive, inevitable and even overwhelming forces acting in and on the human body.

The Basics on Plato’s Adjustments

Plato starts from the view that in early childhood development (II), we are all like the Iladic people: everything takes a back seat to our immediate desires and our actions are based on the immediate information we have available. Our body is the conduit of information about both internal physical states (e.g. grumbling stomach, pain in leg) and external events that cause changes in our internal physical states (e.g. being hit by an object, a parent’s voice).Our responses to these states are limited to hardwired reactions.We slowly move beyond inborn or built-in responses to these states up to basic intelligence through experience and increasing body control.

Plato notes that we only perceive a limited amount of the information given us; some thing, some mechanism, filters the constant flow of stimuli. Its hard to overstate the importance of this move by Plato. It allows for a psychology that can distinguish between the center of registration and the center of perception.The center of registration is effectively the living body of any being and the center of perception, of consciousness, is a living body with a working psyche. The center of registration is the more basic system, it underlies all thinking and self consciousness.

After making this crucial move, Plato realized that if we could determine how the living body of a being registers stimuli, it would go a long way in understanding how the more intelligent system, the perceptive consciousness of a human, works, because they are causally connected. As I’ll highlight as we go along, this realization by Plato is of the utmost importance and the failure of later thinkers to make it is the cause of many problems for later theories of the emotions.

I’ll wrap it up for this post by noting that we only get more abstract thinking ability if we are properly educated. But once we begin learning to use abstract concepts we begin to develop judgment and our actions go from being more or less predictable or determined reactions, like an animal’s, to being actually willful (chosen, intended) acts.


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