Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Some thoughts on the inner life

The inner life is a subject that I have very strong views about. In the past, these strong views have inspired some pushback. I've been rethinking the matter. The following is an attempt to work some stuff out in writing.

I've long been of the opinion that a person would do well to function as if there were no such thing as an inner life. It's not that I deny we have inner feelings and thoughts and so forth. I get suspicious when we call this jumble of inner stuff a separate "life". My suspicion has always been that if you take care of the outer, the inner will resolve itself.

Years ago, a woman I knew admitted to me that there was nothing she could learn about a man by having sex with him that she couldn't have learned by studying his behaviour outside of bed carefully. She admitted this rather ruefully as she had learned this, too late, after spending the best decades of her life taking the first approach, that is having sex with men as a way of getting to know them instead of really getting to know them before deciding to have sex with them. My beliefs about the inner life have tended to be pretty much the same: we spent far too much time focusing on our inner life in the mistaken belief that doing so will improve our outer life when the opposite approach is more fruitful.

I think we make two deceptive moves when we think about our inner life (I'm cribbing all of this from Wittgenstein.). The first is to imagine that it is a thing that we should be able to analyze. Here it is:

Except that is too plain and obvious. If someone asks, "Where and what is your inner life?", you can just point at it. Okay, but play the game and actually do it. Put your finger on the screen right where the box is and say, "This is my inner life". I know, you want to say, "But it isn't really my inner life." I'll get to that. For the time being, play the game. If your inner life really were in the box above, you could just point at it and say, "Here it is."

Okay, let's get back to that concern. The problem isn't, we want to say, simply that my inner life isn't those words in a box. The problem is that it couldn't be. My inner life is this very mysterious thing. It is not easily accessible. It has an opaque black box around it.

 And that's odd. I mean, that should strike us as odd. Most of the time, my inner life is easily accessible. I have feelings, fantasies, secret thoughts, hidden shame, suppressed desires. They're all there and I know about them. If anything, I spend more time making sure my inner life stays inner: I don't want my friend to know that I am actually bored by his problems and am only listening because I want to be a good friend; I don't want my boss to know I think this team-building initiative is a pile of crap; I don't want my women friends to know how curious I am about what it would be like to see and touch their breasts.

Why is it that the inner life suddenly becomes an immensely complex and difficult thing when we try to talk about it? Part of the answer is that the examples I give above don't seem good enough to us. If, like me, you grew up in a good liberal household where people talked about New Yorker short stories with reverence, you will want to say that the above examples are indeed part of the inner life but that the real inner life, the one worth having and knowing about, is (or should be) much richer and more valuable than that.

This is where I take a slightly different tack than Wittgenstein. His approach was to show us, through countless reminders and puzzles, that the way we talk about the inner life is incoherent. We put it in a box, he would say, and we claim that this box is inaccessible to our senses. You can't see, taste, smell, hear or touch it directly. The only way to get at it is ... well, what? Introspection? Freudian analysis? Some sort of direct experience that only works with the inner life? Wittgenstein, with incredible patience, works through each and every one of these examples and shows us that every attempt to spell out this rich inner life ends in confusion.

But there is also a deeply troubling moral aspect that arises when we dismiss the mundane inner life we all know about to focus on something else that we claim is supposedly rich and wonderful and would radically change and improve our lives if only we would take the time to really get in touch with it. If this inner life, this thing that is there and seems terribly important even though you can't touch it or see it and can't prove it exists is beginning to sound sort of like God, then you are beginning to see the problem.

Here is why I have begun to change my mind about the inner life. If we look at someone like Saint Thomas Aquinas, whose feast is today, we get a very different approach to the inner life. Aquinas didn't seek a richer inner life but a more impoverished one. He wanted to empty his inner life in order to make room for God. I've never tried that, not honestly anyway.

1 comment:

  1. I think Aquinas was right. I don't see it as the inner life vs the outer life, the outer life is a reflection of the deepest aspects of the inner life. If God is the basis of our inner life, that will be reflected in our outward behavior, sometimes by making an intellectual decision to do the right thing even if we're inclined to do the opposite. This is always a work-in-progress, we never get it completely right.