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Discussion of "On Kindness" by Adam Phillips

We choose one book per month to read and discuss philosophically as a group.

January 2019 Philosophy Book of the Month: The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World by David Eagleman and Anthony Brandt

February 2019 Philosophy Book of the Month: The Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and the Future of Humanity by Byron Reese (Nominated by RJG)

March 2019 Philosophy Book of the Month: Final Notice by Van Fleisher

April 2019 Philosophy Book of the Month: The Unbound Soul: A Visionary Guide to Spiritual Transformation and Enlightenment by Richard L. Haight
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How do you rate On Kindness?

1 star - poor, recommend against reading it
0
No votes
2 stars - okay, fair
2
100%
3 stars - good, recommend it
0
No votes
4 stars - excellent, amazing
0
No votes
 
Total votes: 2

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Scott
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Discussion of "On Kindness" by Adam Phillips

Post by Scott » October 2nd, 2011, 2:08 am

Please use this topic thread to discuss the October 2011 philosophy book of the month, On Kindness by Adam Phillips.

How do you like the book? Would you recommend it to others? Do you agree with Phillips' arguments? On what points do you disagree with him and why? Are there any quotes or short excerpts from the book you particularly like? If so, please post them.

I am still reading the book so I will post some of my thoughts once I have finished.
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Re: Discussion of "On Kindness" by Adam Phillips

Post by Dewey » October 7th, 2011, 7:10 pm

"On kindness" is a gracefully-written and encompassing study of how, when kindness is needed, the contradictory nature of humans is as apt to lead them into cruel behavior. The authors conclude this sadly convincing account with a plea and suggestion for willfully resisting the cruel inclinations. The suggestion is described thusly:

"Kindness comes from what Freud called--in a different context--'after-education' that is, a revived awareness of something that is already felt and known. And this after-education, ...., entails the recognition of kindness as a continual temptation in everyday life that we resist."

Maybe this is one of MY nature's mixed cruel and kind days, for that is how I regard this book. It merely reiterates , though in more interesting detail, what I already knew in sufficient detail, It does add the "awareness revival' suggestion along with some supporting detail. But the suggestion strikes me as being illogical and, in the current state of human intercourse, rather far-fetched.

Perhaps I should not fault the book for this additional shortcoming. But where, oh where, is the book that assures us we are capable of applying our new-found kindness. Everyone seems to be taking it for granted that kind intentions produce kind actions? Whoa! Review your personal history. How often have you tried to help those you know best, your kids and friends and other relatives -- and, instead, you have just made things worse? Not as often as me, I hope, but too often, I bet. And these are the ones with whom we are intimate! Are we ready to help the ones we hardly know--the rest of the world or any part of it?

And, oh yes, I will fault almost any book of information if it lacks an index. "On Kindness" lacks an index.

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Re: Discussion of "On Kindness" by Adam Phillips

Post by Scott » October 14th, 2011, 10:06 pm

Those are some great points, Dewey!

You make an especially important observation when you note how kind intentions often have hurtful and counterproductive results. The authors often mentioned and I think attempted to derail the claims by philosophers and political theorists that self-interest and egoism have the best results, i.e. the hidden hand of the free market means that people interacting selfishly in their own interests leads to the best results for both parties, which is sort of the inverse of your point. But they do not do enough to either support the proposition that kind intentions lead to the intended results or to explain how to make kind intentions work well. Although, I do like the authors points in regards to how kind intentions and acting on kind intentions are directly healthy and happiness-inducing for the kind person, but I think there is a lot more to be said about the results as this may play out in society, in the economy.

In addition to the lack of an index, one thing that I dislike about On Kindness is that I do not recall any footnotes or sources at all. More important to me is the reason why. There are no--as well as I can recall--statistics or interesting verifiable facts in the book. I do enjoy the numerous quotes from philosophers throughout the book for which the authors do generally provide a nice explanation regrading from where the quote came, i.e. which book or essay, by whom and in what context. And I think the authors strikes a perfect balance between direct quoting of other philosophers, paraphrasing and summarizing their beliefs and expressing his or her own ideas. Nonetheless, I would have really liked for this book to be to kindness what Stumbling on Happiness, which was the May 2009 book of the month, was to happiness. What I loved about Stumbling On Happiness was the way its author, Daniel Gilbert, includes so much well-documented scientific information in a way that is understandable and enjoyable by non-experts while still using all that science and raw information as the basis for more contemplative, argumentative and philosophical contentions and pondering. In my analysis, On Kindness does way too much skipping of that first step, which is why it lacks anything worth sourcing.

Particularly in reading the first part of On Kindness, I was reminded of Sophie's World, which is another philosophical book I love. I enjoy and felt somewhat educated by the way the author summarizes in roughly chronological order the different views of all the philosophers throughout history and the way different ideas evolved off each other. While Sophie's World did this for philosophy in general, this book focused specifically on philosophical ideas regarding kindness. However, too much of the latter part of the book was focused on Freud and sex, in my opinion, and much too little on contemporary issues.

The author frequently in the book stressed how much he believes kindness is neglected or frowned upon or disregarded or suppressed or not acted upon or such nowadays. But again I would have liked to see more statistics, summaries of studies and source-able evidence for this as a premise. And I would have liked for the author to expand on why he believes we (allegedly) feel like this about kindness now, why he wants us to change it now, how these opinions about kindness can be changed and what is the expected result.

Somewhat to that end, I was expecting at least some brief insight and information into the latest (or any!) of the science as to why and as to how much people are naturally, instinctively sympathetic, empathetic and kind. I appreciate the fact that this book is short because the more time I put into a book the more I expect to get out of it. Indeed, the fact that it is short is the reason I gave it 2 stars rather than just 1. But with all the time dedicated to historical guess-work about kindness and so much talking about what Freud's pseudoscience--as I see it--has to do with kindness, I think some more time could have been put towards modern-day science. Maybe the author was too dedicated to his quasi-hypothesis regarding how 'magical' kindness develops from childhood into real kindness but is also distorted by the Freudian sexual maturity process (e.g. we are allegedly inclined to be unkind to sexual partners and inclined to be unattracted to those to whom we are kind as a way of repressing our sexual attraction to our parents from childhood). The author spent so much time on this idea and used it in the brief comments that followed regarding contemporary issues and his final conclusions, but the idea is in my opinion convoluted and uncertain, and there is so many more questions about kindness and about the science and psychology of kindness that could have been answered. I would rather the author left us with much less of an argument and conclusion but instead a more complete analysis of kindness and the science and psychology of kindness. In other words, I think the book, particularly the last half or so of it, focused too much on trying to make a linear argument which ultimately came out convoluted and unconvincing as opposed to summarized many different up-to-date theories or ideas about kindness and the benefits of kindness.

***

Moving on, here are few things I made notes to myself about while reading On Kindness.

I am very intrigued by Rousseau's ideas as explained in chapter 2 (on page 31 in my copy of the book). Namely, I like and want to learn more about the dichotomy between amour de soi and amour propre, described by author respectively as instinctual self-love necessary for one's survival and "hateful and irascible" egoism based on the envious comparison of self to others. I believe this is a useful dichotomy and provides the basis for interesting thoughts and discussion regarding how innate self-love can either be the basis for a happy, kind outlook or be corrupted into unhappy selfishness. I say unhappy because I feel envy has to stem from or lead to at least in part from some sort of low self-esteem or even self-hatred, with hatred for something often going hand in hand with love for the same meaning if you start out loving yourself I can easily imagine that love turning into a hate as a source or result of envy in an unequal or unkind world.

In chapter 3 (on page 59 in my book) I made note of some of my thoughts regarding this passage and the context in which it is written:
Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor wrote:The small child lives in the illusion that he controls the mother, the person he needs, and that she has no desires of her own that exclude him. His kindness is this illusion. The dawning awareness of the mother's independence and the loss of the child's picture of himself as omnipotent engenders rage. Much of our cruelty is the largely unsuccessful attempt to restore or to recover the state of things before this catastrophic disillusionment. And this perhaps is why sexual jealousy has haunted the Western imagination: it puts our kindness, our original link to other people, under threat.
I guess this stuck out to me because it makes so much sense. (Indeed, rereading it here makes me feel bad about my criticisms of the book in the first part of this post because I find this idea so agreeable and wise.) The idea of the child's rage is anecdotal familiar to me since I am currently the parent of a 20-month-old toddler who I feel has already gone through and is coming out of his so-called terrible twos. How such a seemingly loving, cute and kind little boy can quickly turn into the most devastated--"It's the end of the world"--crybaby and then into a ridiculously angry, wild kicking, screaming, breaking, throwing madman because he does not get something he wants. And certainly it feels to me that sometimes it is not to him simply about not getting the thing he wants but that we would dare not give in. But until reading On Kindness and namely the quote above and the part of the book from which it comes, I did not connect the child's rage to adult rage and unkindness. But now thinking of it, it fits so well. It seems almost obvious to me now picturing the cliche jealous lover's rage or even the cliche abusive spouse's rage leading people to what would be unbelievable if it wasn't so common self-destructiveness or hurting the person they love most. But even in a less exactly parallel way I can see how this can explain unkindness--and thus by extension kindness--in other more subtle ways. This is because as adults we find other outlets for our rage, namely when our rage is suppressed. As adults, most of us when upset--from as the hypotheses goes realizing our non-omnipotence over those we love in frustration--we do not go into sudden short bursts childlike rage violently attacking everyone or jumping headfirst on the ground. We repress it in some ways and let it own in myriad of other potential ways often more extended overtime from passive aggressiveness to being continually short-tempered to addiction to being subtly but persistently resentful. But what really makes this hypotheses stick out to me is the reason why we become so enraged. Saying it is because we realize we aren't omnipotent over the one we love may not make the listener really get it. It's not simply that we are not omnipotent but why we are not omnipotent over the one we love. And this is why it would be most noticed in a child. It is because this comes with, in the case of a young child, the forced realization that the mother is not an extension of the child but is her own person (and thus the child is his own person). This is I believe a well-known process that pretty much universally occurs and is known to be a devastating realization albeit necessary for maturity and to function as an adult in that it is the process of developing a concept of self. It never dawned on me before how this process could be repeating itself in a way when we are older, particularly when we fall in love with someone and as the cliche goes believe 'I am one with my beloved'. Even though consciously we may realize this belief is metaphorical, I find it very plausible that the rage in adults comes mainly from our--perhaps subconscious--resistance to accept the proposition that we are our own self and that other people are not an extension of us. The fact that we cannot control other people is not what makes so enraged per se but really it is simply a detail that seems to subconsciously remind us of our most dire fears and devastation. Maybe one is not so mad at the guy who cuts one off in traffic or the lover who cheats because of the act itself and the relatively superficial harm directly caused by the act itself but rather is enraged down to the core because of our most unthought fears about being alone and detached from our mothers as babies and from everyone as adults. This also puts an interesting light on so-called objectification in that we consider adults who objectify each other to be doing quite the opposite of being kind and loving yet breaking the process of objectification is exactly what breaks the young child's baby-like love of its mother (and to a lesser extent father) into first a terrible-twos hate and ultimately a more mature love.

That point brings me to a note I have from chapter 4 (on page 89 in my book). Basically what the authors say here, and with which I totally agree and am intellectually inspired by, is that one cannot really love without having hated. They use an example of foster children who grew up in bad conditions. In their new loving homes the children often seem to need to misbehave to the point of getting the parents so mad at them before they can accept the parent's love. The authors contend this is because one does not trust love until the person is aware of one's faults. In other words, one will not really believe they are loved by another until that other person has seen what is least lovable about that person. Until then it is a case of, 'You love me? You don't even know me?" That can be true even if this is not consciously what the person is thinking but is rather a subconscious or unrealized motivation for one doing hate-inspiring things to those attempting to love one.

My final note is simply a reminder of a point made at the beginning of chapter 5. Namely, it is summed up in these two lines: "To live well, we must be able to imaginatively identify with other people, and allow them to identify with us. Unkindness involves a failure of the imagination so acute that it threatens not just our happiness but our sanity." What an argument for being kind! Unkindness makes us insane.

Overall, I have to qualify some of my criticism from the beginning of this post. While I stand by my dislike for the lack of factual information, sources and scientific premising, I do find this book very philosophically inspiring even if all it takes is a few incredibly powerful points or propositions of new ways of looking at an idea to greatly philosophically inspire. For me personally, some of the comments and ideas this book has on rage and love/hate have been very inspiring by giving me a new agreeable way of looking at rage, love and hate, particularly in the way these develop in childhood in the relationship between mother and child.
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