Saturday, December 23, 2006

Finding Oneself Musically

Yesterday was the last day of final exam week. So I've been really busy. It is hard when the end of the semester comes this close to Christmas! Tomorrow I depart for Christmas travels to visit family. It will be really nice to see everyone again. I am very excited about this trip!

My concerts went pretty well last weekend. In addition to playing the Charpentier Midnight Mass, I also played a Telemann flute duet with the other flute player in the impromptu baroque orchestra that had been assembled for the Charpentier Mass. We had two performances: one on campus, and another at a local historical venue. I really like performing in historical spaces. Not only do I appreciate their historical charm, but such places tend to be smaller spaces whose acoustics are more suitable for early instruments. Playing baroque flute with modern instruments is always a challenge. While the other players do a nice job of playing in baroque style, their modern instruments can so easily overpower the baroque flute. But I think we did a pretty good job at these concerts. And I really enjoyed this experience.

Leading up to the concerts, though, I was not so sure. The concerts came at a time of the semester that is really busy for me. Besides all that, we had just received news that our wonderful Dean is leaving at the end of this year. This hit me particularly hard, because our Dean is a member of the philosophy department, and was chair when I first started teaching here. He has been a very important mentor for me.

So, I was reeling from this news, and was overly busy, and tired. Our dress rehearsal got cancelled -- instead we were to meet early for the concert and have a quick run-through then. That run-through went reasonably well. Then in the span of time between that and the concert itself, I became aware of how unusually nervous I was. I have always had problems with performance anxiety, but thought I had been getting better.

So I took a good look at this spell of anxiety (so bad that I wondered whether I shouldn't just stop performing altogether), and realized that it wasn't lack of confidence about my preparation, but was simply an effect of how unsettled the rest of my life was feeling. "Still, was it a mistake to agree to do this?" I wondered. "Is it going to be a disaster?"

But then I reminded myself that I knew better than to spiral into negative thinking.

"The music is beautiful!" I reminded myself, "and that's what this audience is here to hear!" So, how was I to focus my attention just on the present: this music, here, now? Why, by praying, of course!

So I asked for God's help. "I feel rattled and tired, and I'm worried that I even feel like I've slipped onto a self-destructive path, but you know that that's not really what I want. What I really want is to be a medium for the expression of this beautiful music. So, how do I get to the frame of mind that will allow this to happen?"

Suddenly there popped into my mind the realization that I really had quite a negative image of myself as a performer: someone with a fatal weakness in my soul that is likely to cave in under pressure, causing the music to collapse all around me. And along with this realization was again the sense that I knew better than this! Key to success in any endeavor is the ability to conceptualize a positive image of that success. Didn't I realize before my last performance that a good way to conquer performance anxiety is to pretend to be one of the flute players I most admired?

But now I realized that even that wasn't quite the right technique. What I needed to do, I realized, was create an image of myself as a good performer! Imitating others' styles can be helpful along the way, as one is learning and cultivating one's range of expression, but everyone knows that mastery culminates in the development of one's own distinctive style. I realized with some astonishment that I have not given this the attention it deserved. I keep "humbly" thinking of myself still as learning. And, in that, I've let myself internalize a rather awkward self-image of a beginning learner -- and this is the image that tends to come forward under stress! In my "learning" mentality, I tend not to trust my own musical judgments, but keep thinking in terms of what various of my musical mentors would think. I play a passage a certain way and think, "so and so would find that too sappy!" and then make the adjustments I think that person would want me to make. But I have been playing music just about all my life! Can I not start trusting my own musical instincts?

This realization seemed big. Too big for the time I had before I was "on"? "I can't just conjure up a positive, distinctive vision of myself as a performer in the next ten minutes, can I?" I asked myself, or God, in a new rise of panic.

Then I relaxed. "I don't have to do this all now. But I have performed well in the past, and there's simply no reason whatsoever that I should not be able to do so today. I don't have to be all the way to who I want to be. All I have to do is remember how much I love this music, and try to communicate its beauty to an audience already eager to hear it."

And this worked.

Since these concerts, my practicing has now taken on an entirely new spirit. I am starting to listen to myself in new ways -- directly, and no longer filtered through the imagined critiques of my mentors. (Well, those critiques still whisper in the background, but I am not paying as much attention to them.) I am acknowledging the fact that my having played for all of these years has built up something of a positive image that I just haven't consciously put together or let myself trust.

As I listen in new ways, it is my listening that now knits this image together into a consciously realized coherence that now I can start to trust.

It is astonishing to me to realize that I actually am a good musician, who has overlaid upon my good playing an awkward beginner-stance, and then tries on top of that to fake being pretty good when I am called upon to perform!

What a liberation to let go of pretending to be good, and then to let go of pretending to be awkward and uncertain, and finally get down to what is actually there musically at my core!

What is there is a deep and abiding love. I can lean into this. I can trust it.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Quakers, Science, and Knowledge III: An Alternative Epistemology

Before I describe the two important ways that "Quaker epistemology" differs from contemporary scientific epistemology, I need to give a bit of philosophical background.

One of the most important words philosophically during the 17th and 18th centuries was "experience." The empiricist philosophers, such as Locke and Hume, used this word when describing how all knowledge comes from "experience." Those who teach early modern philosophy now explain that the empiricist philosophers meant "sense experience," so that students do not mistake the word "experience" for our contemporary notion of "personal experience," or "life experience." Yet even Locke and Hume had a broader conception of experience than our contemporary "sense perception" version of empiricism (and science). Locke and Hume both allowed for "internal senses" as well as the "external" ones of sight, hearing, touch, etc. By "internal senses" they were simply referring to our ability to be aware of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, moods, etc. Through the development of empirical science, "experience" became narrowed to just "external" sense perception, gradually expanded technologically, but still "external."

So I argued in my presentation that it was the Quakers who were the true inheritors of the richer, broader, original notion of "experience." While mainstream philosophy and science dropped the notion of "internal senses," the Quakers developed this idea in their notion of the "inner light." While they respected science, and participated in it, its experience-based investigations into the natural world were not sufficient. The findings of science needed to be illuminated by the inner light in order to gain a proper understanding of its significance. (Isaac Penington wrote about this in a letter to the Royal Society of London, a scientific society, in 1668.)

Describing more fully how the early Quakers understood the "inner light" could turn into a separate essay unto itself (in fact, others have written on this topic, and I am working on this too in my academic writing at the moment), but for now I just want to note that the Quakers' taking seriously the inner light is an approach to knowledge very different from the scientific approach. Over time in scientific thinking, the "internal senses" became characterized as "subjective," and science was allied with "objectivity," and anything with "subjective" connotations got pushed out.

(But even this story is more complicated than it looks at first. The concept of objectivity has changed over time and only gradually did it get linked to scientific knowledge. There are excellent essays by Lorraine Daston, one co-authored with Peter Galison, that tell some of this history. While we now associate science with "objectivity," the concept is still in dispute. Some contemporary philosophers argue that the concept needs revision and clarification. Others, such as Lorraine Code, advocate "taking subjectivity into account" in science (I quote this phrase because it is the title of one of Code's essays, which can be found in an anthology entitled Feminist Epistemologies).)

In my presentation, I argued that the Quakers' taking seriously the inner light did not make them rationalists instead of empiricists, because some, such as Penington, were specifically suspicious of human rationality, in part because it could be used for devious and deceptive purposes. So he took great pains to distinguish the notion of the inner light from human rationality itself. Instead, I interpret the Quaker use of the notion of the inner light as showing that it was the Quakers who were the true inheritors of a richer empiricism, one that develops a notion of inner sense (even if that's not what the Quakers called it) even while following the development in science of our understanding and use of the external senses.

This point is disputable, of course, and was disputed quite eloquently and convincingly by one of my students during the question and answer period following my talk. (I was so pleased!) Another student chimed into this part of the discussion as well. The point that emerged was that this question hinges on whether the inner light is regarded as a source of knowledge, or a kind of sensory mode. If the former, then it is better to think of the Quakers as being rationalists of a sort; if the latter, then the "expanded empiricism" interpretation works better. Answering this question requires going back to the early writings and looking more closely at exactly how the writers characterized the inner light -- but from what I recall, I rather suspect that "both sides" would be able to find convincing quotations to support their positions.

In addition to carrying forth this richer interpretation of "experience" into the present day (see Eddington's Science and the Unseen World, 1929. Look at how he describes "experience"), Quakers also never separated epistemology from ethics, fact from value. The "inner light" can be regarded as a methodological principle underlying both the discernment of truth (epistemology; fact), and decisions about actions (ethics; value). Quakers stayed in touch with the relationship between knowledge and human interests, needs, and action in the world, never pretending that it was possible or desirable to establish a clear division between the two. And so this is the second major way that "Quaker epistemology" differs from contemporary scientific epistemology, which takes great pains to keep knowledge separated from ethics.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

And Now for a Non-Musical Interlude!

After I received tenure, my office was a mess.

It had been a massive effort to assemble my tenure file -- which ended up filling 5 thick 3-ring looseleaf binders. As a testimony to my feeling frozen in fear while awaiting the verdict, my office just froze at that point. I couldn't bring myself to throw away the papers-not-included, out of a combination of an irrational worry that I may have left something important out that remained in those piles (irrational because I was not allowed to change the submitted files anyway), and a superstitious fear that any further disruption of all that had gone into this massive effort would somehow jinx the results. It was a holding of breath.

Then the verdict came in stages, over a series of months. There are several stages of decision-making. As each "yes" came, there was still the lingering anxiety that the next stage might bring a "no." So the piles remained untouched.

After the final decision, I was happy, but too exhausted now to tackle the massive spring-cleaning my office so desperately needed. Life remained busy, and I was just trying to hang on until sabbatical.

When sabbatical came, I thought, "If I try to reorganize my office now, I'll end up spending all of my sabbatical just doing that! And I won't get anything else done!" So I simply abandoned my office altogether. Every now and then I would go to campus to check my mail, and mostly I just piled it on my desk after weeding out the important things I needed to hand over to the interim chair of the department.

This semester I came back from sabbatical. As I got ready for the new semester, I looked at the towering piles of paper and said to myself: "This is ridiculous." But in a sudden flash of inspiration one day, I ordered filing cabinets! I knew that once I started going through the piles, I would end up throwing a lot of those papers away, but even so, having more filing cabinets would be a helpful way to jump-start the organization process.

Still early in the semester, one exciting day, the filing cabinets arrived. A man came wheeling them on a trolley. One was four drawers high; the other two. Both were encased in huge cardboard boxes. The delivery man was very keen to know exactly where they should go. I pointed out the corner I had cleared out for them. We moved a table out of the way, and then he carefully positioned them exactly where I had indicated -- still in their boxes -- while I marveled, waiting to see what technique he would have for removing the cardboard boxes after they were squeezed back in the corner like that.

Then he left.

I stood there looking at the filing cabinets in their boxes in the corner of my office in disbelief.

I went back out to the hallway to see if he was perhaps coming back with some fancy box cutter? But no, he was gone.

So, a bit embarrassed that I had just trustingly let this happen, I found myself dragging the heavy boxes back out into the middle of my office, carefully tipping them over, and struggling to pull the large and heavy filing cabinets out of their huge, tight boxes.

Eventually I succeeded and got the cabinets back into their corner in my office. Then I surveyed them happily as a sign of new hope for Organization in my life!

There they stood, empty, for weeks.

And weeks.

Yes, my friends, it wasn't until yesterday that finally, in a fit of feeling overwhelmed by all that I had to do, I suddenly decided that this was the time to, well, not exactly organize the piles, but, at long last, yes, hide them!

From bottom up, I just filled those drawers with the dusty piles of papers, until all of the most scary piles were hidden away. (This took three drawers.)

Now my working surfaces at last were clear of all but this semester's paperwork, which I then did sort. About half of this pile got thrown away (by which I mean recycled). The rest I did file, in an organized way.

There's still lots of organizing of the older stuff to do, but the pressure is off. I can do that in smaller doses, as I have time.

So, although I have a lot of far more important things to do, it did my soul good to clear the obvious (and oppressive) clutter from my office. And, surprisingly, it has made the end of the semester seem less daunting. I am no longer as overwhelmed by all that I still have to do. I feel like I have elbow room now, and fresh air, and light.

Monday, December 04, 2006

And Now for a Musical Interlude!

I just said in a comment that I'm now working feverishly on Installment III of my Quakers, Science, and Knowledge report, but while a half-finished version is happily taking a nap in the "unpublished drafts" chamber behind the scenes of this blog, the truth is that I probably won't be working on it further right now, as I am just back from a music rehearsal -- and yes, note how late it is!

I've been asked to play traverso (baroque flute) in Marc-Antoine Charpentier's Messe de Minuit pour Noel, and we instrumentalists had our first rehearsal tonight. It was so good to be playing music with others again! And it is such beautiful music!

So, I am happy!

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Quakers, Science, and Knowledge II: Some Intellectual History

It is very interesting to note that Quakerism arose at the same time as the rise of modern science. So, during this time and place (17th century England), there was a lot of enthusiasm about the new experimental science. The experimental method was being developed as an exciting new approach to gaining knowledge -- an approach that at least in theory was accessible to everyone and thus was beginning to break down the view that knowledge was the special domain of an elite few, and needed to be channeled through designated social networks of authority.

From this description of the rise of modern science, we can already see affinities with how Quakers were describing their approach to "seeking." The Quakers, too, articulated a process that was accessible to everyone and did not require being mediated through designated religious-knowledge authorities. And note the language George Fox himself used: "This I knew experimentally" (from his Journal).

Another important comparison between Quakerism and science is that both are non-creedal. Even today, what we most prize about science and what most gets emphasized in science education (and scrutinized in peer-review of scientific findings) is method. The findings of science change over time: it is important to let the findings change if new observations or data indicate that revision is needed. While current scientific knowledge is taught as a basis for future research, it is not taught as doctrine or as infallible truth. Again, it is research methods that are emphasized above all in science education.

Quakerism shares this kind of openness about belief. Quakers do not have to agree to a statement of beliefs before being accepted into membership. What is important is engaging in a continuing process of seeking after truth or spiritual insight.

Furthermore, like science, Quaker practice involves a dialectic between individuals and community. In science, the work of individual scientists or research groups is valued and respected, but their findings do not count as "knowledge" until they have been processed through a community discernment process called "peer-review." It is only after others have reviewed the scientist's or research group's work and found the methods and conclusions to be sound that the results get published in respected journals and the findings now count as knowledge.

In the Quaker world, the dialectic between individuals and community is somewhat different, but still involves a similar balance, for similar reasons: On the one hand, individual experience and individual discernment are valued. But, on the other hand, individuals hone their beliefs in community (e.g., discussion groups), and bring some of their most important decisions to the community for the community's assistance in discernment (e.g., clearness committees).

This shows some of the resonances between science and Quaker seeking. Next time, I will write about some of the important and striking differences between how science is currently understood in mainstream academic thought, and the interpretation of science that is embedded in the Quakers' implicit theory of knowledge.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Quakers, Science, and Knowledge I: Some Social History

Rather than share my whole paper here (which is kind of long), I thought I would share some of the ideas -- and not try to do it all at once.

One of the central points of my presentation was to argue (using both historical and philosophical evidence) that while the trajectory in mainstream Western thought has been for science and religion to split apart over time, within Quakerism it is possible to trace an alternative historical story: a community that never constructed science and religion as being at odds with each other, but managed to keep them integrated until the present day.

On the historical side, I drew a lot from Geoffrey Cantor's work, outlining his analysis of why Quakers were open to science from the very beginning. Here are some of those reasons:

  • When William Penn established Pennsylvania, this opened up trade routes. Some of the Quaker merchants who traveled back and forth also collected botanical samples -- they were well-respected amateur botanists.
  • Science was seen as an acceptable occupation even during the Quietist period. Studying God's creation was regarded as spiritually valuable, and as having practical and moral value.
  • Science was given an important place in Quaker schools, because of its spiritual, practical, and moral value. The skills learned and the moral discipline cultivated by careful and systematic study were seen as useful for a variety of occupations.
  • While Quakers' opportunities for higher education were limited because of the religious requirements for admission to Oxford and Cambridge, scientific societies such as the Royal Society of London did not exclude anyone from participation on religious grounds. So the Quakers' scientific work was welcomed and appreciated in these settings.
So all of this meant that science was an acceptable intellectual engagement. One could participate in it in a way that maintained spiritual centeredness and a focus on its practical value, and without indulging in the frivolous system building, detached from real experience, that some other intellectual pursuits are guilty of doing!

Part of the story then is that there were these good reasons in the early days for Quakers to educate themselves in and participate in at least certain sciences. Because they cared about maintaining the proper attitude towards participating in science, they then did write about the nature of scientific knowledge in relation to their more general views about knowledge. This now leads to the philosophical side of the discussion, which I will write about in the next installment.