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Week 4--Empirical Non-Foundationalism/The Unsounded Ocean

Anne Dalke's picture

This week we'll be exploring "empirical non-foundationalism" in two different genres. The first, fictional version is demonstrated by the "intellectual chowder" Ishmael is making of Moby-Dick. The other version takes the form of the academic essay Paul just published in Soundings. What are your thoughts about these approaches to understanding, either alone or in tandem, as you go fellow-traveling in the "unsounded ocean that is Life"?

P.S. (as fuel!) You'll find a link to today's prepared-for-but-inaccessible-in-class notes here; to info on The Bible as Graphic Novel, With a Samurai Stranger Called Christ here; and to the Bryn Mawr Now article on Publishing Students' Work on the World Wide Web here.

Anne Dalke's picture

continuing non-foundationalism...?

As comment on and extension of our discussion about publishing student work on the web?

See the recent decision: Harvard Research to be Free On-Line.

For further details, see also At Harvard, a Proposal to Publish Free on the Web.

l. amsterdam's picture

Melville As Psychologist

In class on Tuesday, part of the discussion focused on why, in Moby Dick, the crew would follow Captain Ahab, even though they know that he is mad. This, in turn, brought to mind a number of ideas that I had been introduced to in the few psychology courses I have taken.

Someone above already made this connection, and commented that this reminded them of the Asch conformity experiments, in which a participant in a group was asked to match two lines, and would conform to the majority opinion of which two lines matched, even when that opinion was wrong. I thought of a similar experiment, conducted by Stanley Milgram, in which participants, believing they were in a learning study, were asked to give electric shocks to another participant (actually a man hired by the experimenters, and never actually shocked) if he answered a question wrong. With each wrong answer, the “voltage” increased, and the other “participant” became more and more distressed. Many people went through the entire experiment, believing that they were delivering the highest shock possible to another person; these people were utterly psychologically normal. Milgram believed that one of the reasons participants went so far in an activity they believed was harming another person was due to the fact that an authority was demanding their cooperation; a psychologist was in the room with them as they delivered the shocks, and more than that, they believed that they were involved in an experiment that would benefit the science of psychology as a whole. Perhaps something similar, at least in part, is going on with Ahab’s crew. Ahab is the captain, the authority whom they must obey so as to survive (As someone pointed out in class, if all of the crew does not immediately obey an order, it could result in loss of life, or loss of a catch, which could result in loss of quality of life). In a sense, Ahab also stands for the institution of whaling as a whole, an institution these men respect enough to become a part of to earn a living. If Ahab in some way equals whaling to them, some of their motivation to follow him could be that they want to work for the benefit of the institution as a whole.

Another memory from past psychology classes came back to me, namely the concept of Terror Management Theory. According to this idea, everyone is terrified of death, and therefore clings to their culture (Though this is somewhat problematic, because the definition of this word is problematic), which acts as a sort of psychological barrier against the thought of death. Research into this phenomenon has found that subjects, when forced to think about death, will have a much more positive attitude toward something representative of their culture (In the experiment I am thinking of, subjects, around the time of the 2004 presidential election, gave a higher approval rating to George W. Bush than John Kerry when forced to think about death, despite professed political beliefs; the researchers believe that the subjects, when confronted with the idea of death, cling to a representative of their national identity, one aspect of their culture). In a certain way, this dovetails with the way that the Milgram experiment relates to Ahab: He is a representative of the culture these men have chosen, and so they cling to him, sane or insane. In this light, it is interesting that this representative of their culture is attempting to kill what he understands to represent an underlying malicious force in the universe, Moby Dick. Death itself is another way this malicious force manifests itself, if it indeed does exist. So, this man that the crew is following because they are afraid of death (if we are using Terror Management Theory) is, by destroying Moby Dick, striking a blow indirectly at death as well. No wonder he commands such obedience.

Paul Grobstein's picture

A story about kinds of stories

Thanks, all, for rich conversation last Thursday about emergence and its similarities to/differences from other kinds of stories. Looking forward to hearing more about what others made of these distinctions, and how useful they might or might not be in other contexts, including literary studies. If helpful, you can get to the notes I prepared for the session here.
AF's picture

This week in class....

On Tuesday we started by talking about the manga version of the Bible. Our conversation then turned to the question of whether or not we should publish our writing on the web. As a whole our class didn't fully agree when it came to answering this question. Some of us don't feel comfortable posting our work in public, while others felt that publishing on the web is an important way for us to grow as writers. However, we all agreed that our professors shouldn't make their first priority grading; rather they should strive to truly educate us. Then we questioned how Melville would answer this question. We came to the conclusion that he thinks life sucks anyway so we might as well post our writing on the web since we can’t protect ourselves from the terrifying world no matter what. Then we talked about the consciousness and the unconsciousness and discovered Ishmael and Ahab are foils for one another in terms of these. The difference between tragedy, what it seems to be, and satire, the entire meaning changes, also came up. Finally, we discussed the sudden change to drama in chapter 40 and what that means in terms of Melville’s style. Ultimately, it seems to demonstrate that the reader should not trust the narrator, no one is in control. 


On Thursday, Professor Grobstein came to talk to us about his paper on emergence and how that relates to genre. He introduced us to four types of stories: non-narrative foundational, narrative foundational, emergence, and anti-stories. Non-narrative foundational stories are not characteristic of modern western thought and have eternal order, or no time dimension. Narrative foundational stories have something to do with time and also have a foundation. They claim the past is the determinant of and hence best guide to the future. Emergence stories show that chance is good and life is an ongoing experiment in creation. Anti-stories show that life is all about chance and also pointless. Professor Grobstein then explained an example of emergence stories: biological evolution. Finally, we discussed whether Melville had an objection when writing Moby Dick and decided literature is unjustly collectively viewed as an anti-story.


Hannah Mueller's picture

Sequoias and emergence stories

In August, I went to CA for the first time and had the pleasure of visiting the Sequoias in Sequoia National Park—they are the oldest and largest living things on Earth. In two senses, then, they win the evolution game: nothing is bigger, and nothing outlives them. If the goal, though, of evolution is to proliferate your species, then they have nothing on mosquitoes or rats; they only grow at a very specific elevation in two places on Earth. And if they goal of evolution is to be able to defend yourself, run fast, be sentient, etc., then they also lose.

Yesterday I was able to add to this thought that I had during the summer. Sequoias (as living things) are part of an emergence story. The “point” of emergence stories is not for everything to be reaching for the same goal. The narrative of an emergence story is that everything is constantly reaching for what will (or might possibly be) more useful in its particular situation. If evolution were a narrative foundational story, maybe life would have a single goal, and would always be attempting to create the biggest, longest-living, strongest, fastest, smartest, etc. creature—but that would be a strange living thing, indeed.

To somewhat relate these thoughts to Moby-Dick, I was wondering what the book would look like if it were mapped out like the images Prof. Grobstein gave us to represent the four stories. I think it would be most like the emergence story, with periods of order (when the plot takes over) and then more spread-out sections, when the chapters don’t directly relate to each other, or at least don’t clearly progress from one to the other. These tangents (Ch. 80, “The Nut,” for example) are not useless—they are reaching for new possibilities and opening up new paths for inquiry. I think this book is so long in part because Melville wanted to include everything he could come up with that might be useful to some reader in understanding the book and how it relates to their own life. It’s for us to piece together, not to understand the book “as a whole” (he never wants to finish anything), but to connect with our own experiences; this is how he’s suggesting that we read.
Paul Grobstein's picture

"a strange living thing, indeed"

Nice connections, both re Moby Dick ("reaching for new possibilities and opening up new paths for inquiry") and re Sequoas/living things. Yep, no "single goal" but instead a wide ranging set of different explorations of "what ... might possibly be ... more useful" in particular situations. Maybe not ony a useful way to think about biological systems and literature but also about human cultures and individual lives as well?


egoodlett's picture

A couple of thoughts

We talked in class on Tuesday about why the crew chose to follow Ahab. The discussion that followed reminded me of a similar one last Tuesday, when we were discussing the humor in the text, especially when we discussed the opening pages, in which Melville seems to be making fun of the reader for reading into the novel too much, and looking for meaning in it.

That led me to wondering if maybe Melville was comparing us (the meaning-seeking readers) to the crew, who are so eager to follow their captain on his quest for vengeance. That comparison would make Melville into Ahab, though.

On a slightly different mental path, thinking about just the crew and their motivations in the story, I was reminded of some of the psychology experiments on peer pressure and conformity I've read about in past classes. For example, one experiment took a roomful of assistants, and placed one participant among them (who believed that the rest of them were participants in the experiment as well, not aiding the researchers). The researchers then asked simple questions of the entire room (e.g., they would show a row of lines, one considerably shorter than the others, and ask which line was the shortest). Everyone in the room except the participant was instructed to give the wrong answer. In most cases, the participant, although it was quite obvious which line was shorter, also gave the wrong answer.

Then there are other experiments regarding people's views of those in leadership positions, and the automatic tendency to obey them in most people. An example is the Stanford prison experiment (I remember discussing the experiment in a class recently, but I can't for the life of me remember if it was this class or not... If it was, sorry for the explanation, but I'll just give it quickly for those who might not have heard of it). In the experiment, a number of randomly selected, normal 21-year-old males were integrated into a prison setting. Some were chosen as guards, others as prisoners, and the guards were instructed to run the prison according to any means they found necessary (though physical violence was prohibited). As the experiment progressed, they began to psychologically abuse the prisoners. The reason I note this in relation to the crew, however, is because of the prisoners' reactions. None of them did anything wrong under the law, and none of them were legally required or bound to remain in the experiment. Yet, none of them, even after days of abuse, resigned from the experiment. Even when they wrote up a parole request, offering to give up the money they were being paid in exchange for freedom, and that request was denied, none of them simply said they quit and left. Even in an extreme situation, and even when they openly voiced resentment of those who were their "leader" figures, they did not directly disobey.

Maybe something of the same motivations were at work in Ahab's crew? The reluctance to disobey an authority figure, coupled with the reluctance to disagree with a large group of people who loudly voiced their agreement with Ahab's plan (the shout of encouragement when he first suggests it)?

akeefe's picture

I'm engaged!

February 14, 2008

I have been thinking about the duality of the mind. We have already experienced it in the manifested forms of the creature, and the thinker in Moby-Dick, but also in other works such a Frankenstein. We discussed that “the creature” is a manifestation of our sub-conscious mind, it’s fears, desires, and obsessions. We also discussed that the “thinker” is roughly equivalent to the conscious mind. Both exist in humanity, and the territorial battle for control of the body’s ultimate actions has proven itself to be a timeless theme and archetypical struggle.

What I have found engaging about empirical non-foundationalism is that while it deals with this struggle, it does not condemn it to black and white terms. Emphasis on one will not lead you to a correct answer. (in fact there aren’t any right answers.) Both interact in order to create the world we’re in, to create the “right” and “wrong” to begin with. Like perhaps Ishmael does with his experience at sea, we invent the meaning necessary to create a stable environment.

This notion is not without it’s unsettling features. How do we rectify a world without rules, when they seem so intrinsic to our understanding not just of scientific principle, but also of social constructions? What do we do with this general principle when applying it to the particular that is our lives? I’ll admit that patterns, rules, and principles can be just as appealing to a modern audience as fate and an omnipresent God has been for thousands of years. These systems allow us to tap into a source of knowledge that will direct our lives. According to Empirical non-foundationalism, our lives seem to be swept up into active transformation. We are not simply encountering random possibilities, we are making them, we are them. Ishmael is not the narrator, not a character. The story only exists because he does, and because on some level he needs it. On some level even, he may be like God.