Monday, April 25, 2011

MINDFULNESS, PROFESSOR JOHN ANDERSON AND THE FACTICITY OF THINGS

For most of my “thinking” life I have been an Andersonian ... that is, a student and follower of the philosophy of John Anderson (pictured opposite) ... my academic hero and role-model. Although in recent times I have moved away from certain aspects of his philosophy I still adhere to the central thrust of that philosophy, and when I teach law I use his ideas on the nature of reality to explain to students the nature of “facts” ... for, as Anderson taught, nothing, absolutely nothing, is superior to facts!
Scottish-born John Anderson, who was Challis Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sydney from 1927 to 1958 (and thereafter Emeritus Professor of Philosophy from 1958 to his death in 1962), and the "patron saint" of the Sydney Push, founded the school or branch of empirical philosophy known as “Sydney Realism”.

Anderson was beyond doubt the most distinguished and independent philosopher ever to work in Australia. He was also one of the most remarkable persons to work in an Australian university. Anthony Flew’s Dictionary of Philosophy records that Anderson was “an influential teacher … respected for his independence of mind and his eagerness to take a stand on behalf of numerous unpopular causes”.
The iconoclastic controversialist Professor Anderson waged a relentless war against the utilitarians and the philistines of his day, both of whom, sadly, have multiplied greatly since his death. (I know. I have taught at universities and worked for several politicians.)

If Anderson were alive today, he would mercilessly attack the emptiness and internal inconsistencies of postmodernism, the silliness of New Age spirituality, the intrusive menace of Sydney Anglicans (for whom, and for whose "fairy-tales", he had utter contempt), the loss of academic autonomy, the deliberate dumbing down of education, and the overall decline in academic standards at Australian schools and universities ... and just about most other things.

Anderson lived for many years in Turramurra just a few doors down from where I have lived with my family since December 1987. His house, which is almost a sacred shrine to me, is still there, although I fear it will soon be demolished to make way for multi-storey residential development. Typical. The philistines (so many of whom become successful politicians, captains of industry and even academic deans) do appear to be winning.

The central thrust of Professor Anderson’s otherwise complex philosophy is quite simple ... there is only one way of being, and one order or level of reality, that of occurrence ... that is, ordinary things occurring in space and time ... facts. A fact is an occurrence in space and time (or “spacetime”, as some would say today) ... a “thing-in-itself”. There are only facts ... facts! (Anderson had no time for Nietzsche's assertion, "There are no facts, only interpretations," and I know where he would have told Foucault to put his postmodernist post-structuralism.)

By the way, facts include not just so-called "things-in-themselves" but also thoughts, feelings, images, memories, opinions, bodily sensations and so forth ... all of which occur on the same level or plane of observability.
Anderson also taught that a single logic applies to all things and how they are related, and that there are three – yes, three – “entities” to any relation such as seeing, having, knowing, etc .. viz the -er, the -ed, and the -ing. First, there is the person who sees, has or knows. Secondly, there is the thing seen, had or known. Thirdly, and most importantly, there is the act of seeing, having or knowing.

Now, here is the very important part ... nothing, absolutely nothing, is constituted – either wholly or partly – by or is dependent upon, nor can it be defined or explained by reference to, the relation it has to other things. (For example, the Biblical statement "God is love" [cf 1 Jn 4:8] is logically untenable as a definition of God.) Thus, Anderson firmly repudiated the so-called "doctrine of intrinsic relations" (or fallacy of constitutive relations), which treats relations as if they were terms, and which says that everything is intrinsically related to everything else or, at the very least, is constituted by its relations to everything else.

What has this to do with mindfulness? Everything, in my submission. Absolutely everything. You see, the practice of mindfulness is a relation involving the following three entities:
* first, the person who is mindfully aware of what is occurring from moment to moment,
* second, the thing - in fact, things - of which the person is mindfully aware, each of which is an occurrence in space and time from one moment to the next, and ...
* third, the act of being mindfully aware ... which includes the ever-so-important acts of remembering what is present, remembering from moment to moment to stay present in the action of the present moment from moment to moment, and remembering in the present moment what has already happened.
Three (!) separate things ... each of which is a fact ... and none of which is constituted by its relations to any of the others nor dependent on any of the others. Such is the nature of reality ... and such is the nature of the practice of mindfulness which is the practice of being fully present in the present moment from one moment to the next.

I truly believe that if you can keep those three things separate in your mind at all times, your mindfulness practice will improve considerably, because the level of your choiceless awareness and bare attention to what is will be that much better.

Those interested in the ideas and teachings of Professor John Anderson can visit the John Anderson Archive.

Finally, you may wish to listen to a 1952 recording of Anderson singing "The Sydney Blues".

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