Abstraction

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

Try to pick the intruder among the following group of things: glass, bottle, stock cube, vase. I don’t really want you to solve this elementary puzzle of abstraction. Instead, I would like to tell you about the original solution my sister gave to it, when she still was at the beginning of secondary school.

The faculty to abstract the general from the particular is an amazing capacity of the human mind. Its discovery goes back at least to Aristotle, and had enormous impact on the way we think about the functioning of our mind.

Abstraction enables us to categorize things in the world and give them an order. It is the fundamental ability underlying the very possibility of scientific research, which aims at giving general laws of nature (if not universal). You couldn’t say anything informative about movement, molecules or cells if all you could talk about were single movements, single molecules and single cells. Abstraction makes it possible to say how every single movement works according to the laws of physics, and how all molecules and cells behave according respectively to chemistry and biology.

The merits of abstraction are countless. One could even claim that there would be no human intellectual progress without the capacity of finding the common property among many individual things. The world would look like a chaotic ensemble of particular entities, precluding any possibility of orientation.

Luckily, all humans share abstraction. Or so I thought, until my sister ruthlessly smashed my convictions.

A questionnaire was given to all schoolchildren of her year. Its purpose was to test their logical abilities with respect to public education, I guess. When confronted with the “intruder’s puzzle”, they were expected to abstract the common property of most of the items presented and pick the exception. Of course, there is one evident property shared by glass, bottle and vase, which stock cube doesn’t present, namely the property of being a container. Apparently, that was not evident enough, since my sister answered “vase”.

Should we worry about my sister’s intelligence back then? Where on earth did she find the property common to glass, bottle and stock cube, vase doesn’t present? The best way to counter my apprehension was to ask her directly. Her response was along these lines: “you don’t necessarily find a vase in the kitchen, do you?”

What she did when confronted with the puzzle, wasn’t to abstract the shared property. She rather asked herself if there were contextual similarities among those objects of common usage. And the first thing that came to her mind was that you never find a kitchen devoid of glasses, bottles and, when available, stock cubes. Vases, on the contrary, are not necessarily part of the kitchen’s furniture.

My sister’s thought was contextual rather than abstractive. And, to a certain extent, that was more appropriate, insofar as the term “intruder” comes with a feeling  of disappointment rather than logical rigour. In a certain sense, you would have good reasons to be disappointed if you weren’t to find glasses, bottles and stock cubes in someone’s kitchen (when available). On the contrary, you just don’t go to someone’s place asking “why aren’t your vases in the kitchen?”

Of course, my sister’s way of thinking was not as rigorous and general as abstraction would have been. But instead of wondering how contextual thought is less reliable than abstractive thought, we should ask ourselves if the intruder’s puzzle was rigorous enough in the first place! Indeed, it seems that the puzzle was already expecting a certain kind of answer there was no precise criterion to expect. And my sister involuntarily showed the flaw in the formulation: one needn’t necessarily use abstraction to give a pondered answer to certain questions.

It was very stupid of me to have fun of her when I first heard that answer. I share part of the blame with those who formulated the intruder’s puzzle first, presuming that people who think, need thinking in a certain way. But my sister proved us wrong.

Indeed, she taught me a very important lesson: don’t expect people to act and think always upon the best theoretical principles because, in practice, abstraction might be of no use in everyday activities, like having dinner or the like. A stock cube might help instead.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

Love

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

It’s hard to admit that I have failed miserably to understand love. I thought it came from a slowly growing  interest, then suddenly, at first sight. I tried to make it abstract, then concrete. I tried to induce it by means of dating apps, then in more spontaneous environments, without ever improving my comprehension of the concept and of the feeling. However, I would like to report a related discussion I once had with a friend of ours, back when I was in London. For the sake of privacy I call her N.

After having visited the Tower of London together, N and I decided to have lunch at Wetherspoons. I followed her fuzzy entanglement of honey blonde locks till the restaurant, which is right across Tower Hill. It started raining lightly.

Luckily, by the time we reached the crowded place, a group of seemingly young businessmen was leaving a table free. We sat and ordered our meals.

I always admired N. She is independent, and she has a gorgeous smile. Her untamed hair reflects her strong character.

Eventually, we ended up talking about our private life and relationships. She told me something, which left me perplexed: “you deserve to find love”.

Do I? Does anyone really deserve love? As if love were something you have a right to reclaim? Of course we were not talking about some general concept of love, but the rather specific love making someone your intimate partner for a relevant temporal interval of your life.

I asked N for clarifications. The rain outside got more intense and a cold wind started shaking the trees. She told me she didn’t intend that someone out there “ought to love me”, as I first understood her claim. If my memory doesn’t betray me, she simply meant that if you are yourself, and you love yourself, you can make a person happy. And you are open to be made happy by that person. No matter if that person is right behind the corner, or you’ll meet her in a decade or never.

To deserve to be loved meant, according to N, that there are more pros than cons to your being loved. And I agree that this amounts to deserving love. But does this also mean that anyone can deserve to find love? Finding love seems something completely independent from your will and your self-confidence. It is also something you can’t grant as some sort of normative right, insofar as you can’t induce people to love yourself with some kind of law (whether moral, rational, or the like). I thought we were left at the mercy of destiny, like the twirling leaves moved by the blowing wind out of the windows. Sometimes we meet, more often we diverge.

I find no objection to the fundamental intuition that not everything in the world can be forced under schemes of rational comprehension, but there is something more in what N intended. We must be open to our destiny and to the uncontrollable circumstances of life. Our rationality shouldn’t lock us into enclosures of what is already known and mastered, making us reject the discovery of something we fear we won’t understand or control.

Self-confidence is not enough if it remains an impenetrable shield. We need to confront our destiny, with rebellious hair and an ironic smile on our face, because destiny is not unfair. It just might quite diverge from our expectations. And we shall work hard to deserve love, even if we may never find it.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

Gender

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

Dualistic gender is a big issue. It poses constraints on our behaviour and on our everyday life, but mostly on the way we think. Dualistic gender means that if you are a man you have to act in the way appropriate to man, and if you are a woman you have to act accordingly to being a woman. This rigidity of roles is both internal, shaping our mental states, and external, determining obligations and permissions as well as prohibitions.

An article appeared last month on Time dealt with the process of redefinition of gender going on among young people in recent years. The “no-gender generation” tries to get rid of the dualism of gender by spreading a countless amount of new labels for those finding “man” and “woman” too tight fitting, if not completely inappropriate. From pansexual to polyamorous, from non-binary to gender-fluid, there seems to be a label for any identification.

What kind of social significance does this identification present? The answer can be tracked in the following distinction I make: there is a personal and intimate dimension of gender and a public and political dimension.

When you call yourself “gender-fluid” in the sense that you don’t recognize your behaviour as conforming to the dualistic labels, and you feel like swinging between various patterns of behaviour, you are trying to give a name to what you feel on the inside. And this attempt of defining yourself will always be an approximation, since the way we experience gender is particularly complicated and resist precise definitions and labels.

However, when you scream to the world that you exist and you deserve the same recognition as a member of society  the way all other members are recognised, then “gender fluid”, “lesbian”, “gay”, “transsexual”,… assume a completely new meaning. This new meaning is a political one, rather than a personal one. It is also very precise, insofar as it categorises you as “politically different”.

When you have suffered homophobia or transphobia or similar forms of discrimination, you are not “just like the others”. Of course, we are all the same on the inside, for there is almost a gender identity for each human being. But on the outside that changes. It changes as soon as you get confronted with the dualism of gender, which structures society.

If you can’t identify as a man or a woman, you are left alone, as a strange beast unable to cope with its “natural” habitat. And when you grow up and come to know that your identity needn’t conform to the dualism, you also need society to know. The habitat must structurally change to welcome you as an authentic member of society.

Bisexuals exist and asexuals exist too. And they are, along with all the other identities, political realities. The intimate dimension of gender remains so far a mystery,  and self-identification can help get through the trouble of alienation. But the category under which a person suffers the pain of systematic discrimination has no ambiguity.

A gender-revolution must be aware of the two battlefronts. One is intimate and based on empathy, compassion and altruism. The over is a categorical vindication of existence and equality.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

 

Self-control

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

Sooner or later it has to happen to everyone. It strikes you like the first time you peed your pants at elemetary school in front of all your classmates. You feel powerless and obliterated by some sort of divine verdict, stating YOU ARE GUILTY.

It is not epic, nor particularly dramatic. It actually is embarassing. But it’s time for the world to know. For too long I’ve been living like a fugitive. I need to repent from my sin. So, what happened? I passed intenstinal gas in the University library once. Yes, that means that I farted.

Strage how such a tiny, cute, noisy bubble of smelly gas – that traitor- can make you feel like the meanest of all criminals. When it so innocently pops, it feels like the detonation of thousand atomic bombs, the crush of the tsunami on the pacific seashore of the diligent students. The second before you pretended to be just like them, behind those serious glasses of yours. Now you are suddenly transformed into an outcast. You lost all your dignity in the blink of an eye. You deserve no respect anymore.

Now that you have infringed the sacred silence of the library in such an inappropriate way, there is just one thing to do: pack your bags, and run away. And pass the rest of your life in exile on some isle in the middle of nowhere, on the other side of the globe, where no one can find you.

I’m sorry for having failed you, my Princess. I’ve dishonoured you because of my lack of self-control. There is no lesson to be learned, nor teachings to be given.

In the desolation of my shame, there is one last interpretation I could give my unfortunate destiny: rainbows come in many, unexpected ways.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

Non-jealous

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

The alleged synonimity between the words “jealous” and “envious” is a linguistic phenomenon I’ve always found puzzling. There seems to be no apparent difference between the two terms in everyday conversations and also in dictionaries.
I’m not convinced by this understanding of the two words but, before you take me for a hopeless grammar-nazi, I’ll try to give reasons for my puzzlement and explain why I find this philosophical issue particularly challenging.

Let’s take a step back.

Some philosophers have argued that introspection is constitutive of our mental states. That means that the knowledge of what we feel modifies our feelings. For instance, we usually “make up our mind” to understand if we really love a person or she just interests us, or if we really desire a certain thing for ourselves or we are simply fascinated by it, and so on.

Knowing what we feel or think doesn’t only shape our emotions, it shapes also our actions. You don’t buy a box of pralines on Valentine’s day for someone you are just “interested in”, do you?

If this makes sense, the direct consequence is that the more we know about our mental states, the larger the spectrum of our emotions will be.

Now, going back to my puzzlement, it seems clear that jealousy and envy differ a lot from one another. Drizella and Anastasia were very envious of Cinderella for her being more beautiful. They desired her beauty and hated her because of it. But to say that they were jealous would imply some sort of possessive attachment to their step-sister they never had. On the other hand, I can be jealous of my own things, but it is impossible for me to envy my possessions. A lover is jealous of her fiancé and envies potential rivals, not the other way around…

What can happen if I take jealousy for envy or vice versa? If I am jealous of a friend of mine but I think I envy her, I might attempt to boycott her hairstyle, whereas I just truly wanted to be the only one dancing with her all night. If, in a beauty competition, I envy my rival’s make up skills but I take my emotion to be jealousy, I may kidnap him instead of mixing his foundation with sour cream!

I am joking – seriously. But the problem raised is, I think, interesting: if we impoverish our language through improper use, does that mean that our emotions also get impoverished? Do we feel “less” by talking (and thinking) improperly?

I leave these questions up to you, my friend.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

Romanticism

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

I heard that Paris is the city of love. Despite this reductive description of the French metropole I had in mind, I grew great romantic expectations to visit it. I imagined myself with some beautiful Prince Charming, walking side by side by the Seine, contemplating the shapes of lazy clouds at dawn in late spring.

I couldn’t think of getting to know the city of love without the love of my life – or of that holiday, for what it’s worth. For several years, I held myself from buying those plane tickets, just because I thought Paris wasn’t worth a visit on my own or with friends. I suspected that Prince Charming was just right behind the corner, ready to make me regret the decision of not having first travelled with him.

Never have I ever thought anything as stupid as that. And romanticism, with its detrimental waiting for fulfilment of expectations, is arguably one of the greatest obstacles on the road to happyness and self-affirmation.

I don’t despise Romanticism meant as the period of great thinkers, writers, artists and revolutionaries it has been. I despise the all too common romanticism – with the little “r” – and its rigid roles, its cryptical etiquette, the repression of feelings it sells for sophistication of the soul, its pathetic theatre of faithfulness and betrayal, and the fetishist attachment to an oversimplified conception of love.

Yes, Paris is the city of Love! But with a HUGE “L”, large enough to embrace its majestic museums, the great boulevards irradiating from the Arch of Triumph, and the animated nightlife on the upper side of the Seine corresponding to the Isle of Notre Dame. The L you can find in the laughter of me and my friends in a vintage bistro right out of the city centre, with Art Nouveau posters of its dated glory. The double L of the will to climb Montmartre and its steep lanes up to the white Sacré-Coeur church, and then admire the whole city spreading at your feet. The many Ls you can sit on in the Jardin du Luxembourg on a mid-February morning, watching from the distance the peak of the Tour Eifel, promising that you will return. With Prince Charming, or without.

Forever Yours,

‘Miasha

Fundamentalism

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

The topic of this letter is fundamentalism in dogmatic religions. Everywhere you can read of people attacking religion as the source of fundamentalism, whereas others try to defend religion detaching it from its extremist deviations, as if the two were different phenomena. I call the defenders of the former view absolute secularists, and those defending the latter absolute liberals. I won’t consider the third position defending a particular religion while attacking another, because it is self-undermining.

My aim is to argue against both views, and propose a rationalist alternative.

I start with absolute secularism. To think that fundamentalism can be tracked in the Scriptures or in the predicaments of clergymen is to think of religion as something way more static than what it actually is. We have read of Christianity, Islam and Judaism accepting slavery, corruption and massacres of innocents, even if nowadays most of our religious friends are very open minded, and share the same difficulties and hopes of the rest of the population when faced with social changes. Why? Because Scriptures are subject to interpretations, so that they can adapt to the transformation of culture.

But does this mean that Scriptures are like empty shells we can fill with whatever content we like? I don’t think so, and the reason is that religion and, say, moral principles against slavery, belong to different domains. Religion can give meaning to our lives with its books and practices, and be the light against the distress of existence. Science and rationality are of no help here, because their domain is theoretical and experimental, and they can’t work as a “social glue” the way religion does, nor do they give shelter in front of the paradox of existence.

On the other hand, moral principles are principles which apply only and insofar as reason, experience and moral intuitions tell us what is the case – no “word of God” has authority over here. Being good is a matter of morals, not of observance of religion. The proof is given by saying that you can be good without being religious or morally bad and still religious, with respect to thus and such scriptural interpretation. On the contrary, you can’t be at the same time good and immoral, or bad and moral.

Religion is not intrinsically conjoined with anything bad or good. It becomes fundamentalism when people mistake it for having authority over morals, science and reason. And the same mistake is made by thinking that its “good predicaments” are good in virtue of their being religious, whereas in fact, if they are good at all, they are good only and insofar as they are moral. Absolute secularists forget that fundamentalism comes from a confusion among domains and doesn’t belong to religion itself, which is dynamic and can adapt both to good as to bad intents, thanks to interpretation.

On the other side, absolute liberals argue that fundamentalism has nothing to do with religion and is some sort of parallel phenomenon, for which religion is simply a distraction or a label. I don’t buy this position either. If I am right in arguing for the rationalist separation of domains, we shall see what sorts of domain they are.

The domain of reason obeys only to reason, but the one of religion doesn’t obey to “religion”. It obeys to the contextual interpretations one gives to the Scriptures. This allows religion to be a powerful medium to guide society and individuals instrumentally, as to follow a certain interpretation one gives to the Scriptures. And its power relies in its “meaning-giving” role and its “social-glue” role.  Therefore, it is not a distraction from other intents. It is rather the necessary means for fundamentalism to gain supporters, reunite them and lead them to action.

Absolute secularists think religion is the cause of fundamentalism, when it is the means instead. Absolute liberals attribute improperly to religion the possibility of neutral isolation only reason has.

My conclusion is that both positions are false, and that we shall consider religion as different in nature from rationality, morality, etc. and much more malleable, also because it addresses a different realm of life. It is a constituent of our society that we can accept insofar as it stays within its domain. Furthermore, we should blame religious fundamentalists not for their being religious, but for their being extremists, keeping however in mind that, without religion, we wouldn’t even talk about them.

Forever Yours,

‘Miasha