Here is a question: what is the difference between not being able to do something and not wanting to do something?
In the normal course of events, the distinction is unproblematic. We know what it’s like to be frustrated because we want to do something but don’t have the skills to do it properly. We know what it’s like not to be able to do something, to learn how to do it (through will) and then to be able to do it. We know what it’s like to stop doing something because we don’t want to do it anymore. And we know what it’s like to want to stop doing something but to do it anyway cos we have to.
These are all easily understandable situations where we have a clear conscious understanding of what is going on. What about situations that are less clear? Let me give an extended example from a strange occasion in my life which was the first time I started wondering about the question.
The background to the story here is that I used to play a lot of music and got pretty heavily into recording and audio engineering. I was playing in a rock band with a couple of mates and we had just found a new drummer. It wasn’t my choice to have him in the band as I could see he wasn’t very good, but I was outvoted. It didn’t matter much. We were just playing the odd gig. And the new guy seemed like he would be fun to have around even if he wasn’t particularly good at drumming.
At the time, I had a small studio I was using for recording and we were working on an EP for the band. I invited the drummer to come over and do a recording session. It would help him to learn the songs and let me get some practice recording his kit. He thought it was a good idea and we set up a time on a Sunday afternoon.
There is one other important bit of context to the story that non-musicians need to know. The practice tracks we had recorded for the EP were done against a metronome. Anybody who has learned a musical instrument probably remembers the difficulty in playing against a metronome when you’re a beginner. It takes practice and can be very frustrating. I was quite sure our new drummer didn’t practice to a metronome and, as we were both about to find out, my guess was right. And that’s when the weirdness began.
The scene is a familiar one to anybody who has done music recording: the drummer has his drum kit set up and a pair of headphones on. I’m sitting at the computer and my job is simply to press the record button at which point the track begins playing through the headphones and the drummer plays along. Everybody else in the band had recorded their part of the song, so it’s just the drummer filling in his parts. Think of it like karaoke for drummers.
From the very first take, a pattern established itself. The song would start, the drummer would begin playing along and it took usually about 15-20 seconds before he would get out of sync against the backing track. We’d stop and start over. Sometimes I played back the recording to him so he could listen to where he had gone off the rails.
The drummer had seemed like an upbeat and outgoing kind of guy in the short time I’d known him. He’d been in a good mood when he arrived at the studio for what was supposed to be a fun and relaxed thing to do over a couple of beers on a Sunday afternoon. That’s the way it started but he quickly became frustrated at his inability to play in time with the song. I had been doing audio recording long enough by this point to know that it was a good idea to keep the energy up. I reassured him that there was no pressure; that this was all just for fun; that I would delete all the tracks afterwards; that the main purpose here was just for him to learn the songs; all the things audio engineers learn to do to keep musicians motivated.
Nevertheless, the mood of the drummer continued to worsen. I was waiting for him to just say he didn’t want to do it anymore. But what happened was weirder. After less than 30 minutes of trying to play against the backing tracks, he ripped off his headphones and angrily proclaimed that “this wasn’t rock’n’roll. Rock’n’roll is not supposed to be played to a metronome”.
I could have disagreed with him. Prior to modern recording, which is almost always done to a metronome, the drummer’s main job was to approximate a metronome as much as possible. Ringo Starr was not a technically advanced drummer. He got the job because he could hold time and Pete Best could not. The other Beatles even referred to him as their metronome. Keith Moon, a true rock’n’roller if ever there was one, was one of the first drummers to play to a metronome which was necessary once The Who started using synth tracks.
So, I could have disagreed with his statement but it was already a weird thing to complain about since the whole reason we were at the studio was so the drummer could play along to backing tracks and he knew that’s what he would be doing. So, I just nodded along and said some more things designed to lighten the mood. I suggested we take a short break and we went outside for a while.
When we returned, it took only a couple of minutes for an even weirder thing to happen: after another failed attempt to play along, the drummer started to say he was feeling sick. A few failed attempts more and he removed his headphones and said that it would be best to call it a day as he was probably coming down with a flu. So, that’s what we did. Just a few weeks later, the drummer had left the band.
To come back to the original question I posed at the start of this post: what is the difference between not being able to do something and not wanting to do it.
The drummer was unable to play along to a metronome. That was clear. The big advantage of a metronome and the reason why it’s such a valuable tool for aspiring instrumentalists is because it provides an objective standard to measure yourself against. The metronome makes it clear that the statement “you are unable to play to a metronome” is objectively true. I had enough experience with recording by the time this incident happened to know that most people would simply acknowledge this fact. They would say something like “this isn’t working. Let’s call it a day and I’ll go home and practice to a metronome.”
The drummer did not acknowledge the fact. His first response was a weird kind of moral objection: “it is not right to play rock’n’roll to a metronome”. His second response was to feel sick. On this second point, it’s worth noting the possibility that it might have just been an excuse. In Australian slang, this is called chucking a sickie. It’s a way to get off work. But that didn’t make sense in this context. We were not at work. He didn’t need to come up with an excuse. He could have just said he wasn’t enjoying it and didn’t want to do it anymore. Worst case scenario, he could quit a band that he’d only been in for about a week.
In hindsight, what I realise was happening was that the drummer’s pride was under attack. He was ashamed to say that he wasn’t able to play to the metronome and the weird moralising and sudden illness were a cover for that shame.
What got me thinking again about the drummer incident recently was reading the novel I’ve been talking about in the last several posts, The Brothers Karamazov. Pride and shame play a huge role in the novel and there are multiple scenes in the book which are exactly analogous to my drummer incident. There are the characters who are up on their moral high horse but their moral indignation is always a flimsy veneer for various emotional states, including shame. The weird moralising of the drummer was just like that.
On the subject of sudden illness, Dostoevsky several times refers to doctors and medicine in a mocking tone, something I can appreciate after witnessing the last two and a half years of behaviour from the medical establishment. But whenever a character in the book falls suddenly ill, it’s always because they are under emotional or, to put it in more accurate terms, existential stress. It’s sounds hyperbolic, but that’s exactly what was happening with the drummer in my story.
The topic of moral transgressions and their emotional ramifications leading to sudden illness is practically a cliche of 19th century literature where it was usually referred to as “brain fever”. It almost always happened to aristocratic female characters. The woman who finds herself morally compromised, usually involving some love interest that would be considered incredibly tame by modern standards, ends up fainting on the couch and then taking to her bed. Some hapless doctor is sent for and he will proclaim that he hasn’t the faintest idea what the problem is as the woman seems physically fine. None of the other characters know what’s going on either, but we the reader know.
This leads to a variation on the question from the start of the post: are you really (physically) sick or is it in your mind?
In our materialist worldview, sickness is always physical. But the phenomenon of feeling sick when under emotional (existential) duress is far more common than we think. I can give testimony to this fact from my hobby of powerlifting.
After you’ve been doing powerlifting for a time, you learn to lift weights that are heavy enough to be dangerous. (This is why you should always powerlift with a club or an experienced friend). When you walk into the gym to try and squat twice your body weight for the first time, you are rightfully nervous. You start thinking about what will happen if things go wrong. Perhaps your mind will start playing tricks on you. You might start feeling a little nauseous and it’s as if a little voice in your head was saying “you don’t really need to do this. Better go home and get some rest. You might be coming down with a flu.”
I suspect that the reason why the main demographic that was sceptical even at the height of the initial corona hysteria was professional athletes and gym junkies and the reason is that both groups have had long practice of learning to tell the difference between being physically sick/injured and being tricked by the mind.
As I have noted in previous posts, it is not a coincidence that all these psychological complexities started to come out in the 19th century among the upper classes in Europe as this was the time when the subconscious was being discovered. We see it in Schopenhauer’s concept of the will, we see it in 19th century literature and later on in Freud and Jung who made their living tending to exactly the kind of women who suffered from “brain fever”.
But, as far as I know, the philosopher who best addressed the question I posed at the start of this post was somebody who also wrote in the 19th century and that’s the Danish thinker Soren Kierkegaard in his book The Sickness Unto Death.
“…there is no dialectical specification appropriate to the transition from having understood something to doing it.”
Let’s summarise my drummer story again from the Kierkegaardian perspective. The drummer “understood” that it was a good idea to practice along to the backing tracks. He was enthusiastic enough about the idea to agree to spend a Sunday afternoon doing it. The question is what happened next to change his mind.
Kierkegaard introduces the idea from Socrates that understanding and ethics are identical. That is, a person who understood what was right would do what was right. To do wrong meant that you didn’t understand. This leads to a weird explanation for the drummer’s behaviour. It would mean he understood at the start of the practice session that it was good to practice but then he forgot the truth halfway through. In that case, the correct approach to remedy the problem would be to have a Socratic dialogue to lead him back to a correct understanding.
The problem, of course, was that the drummer was not arguing rationally. If he had turned around and said that he didn’t think practising was a good idea, then we could have had a rational, Socratic dialogue about the matter. But he didn’t. Instead, he made some arbitrary moral argument and then became sick. There is, as far as I know, no dialogue in Plato where one of Socrates’ interlocutors suddenly becomes sick and has to retire from the scene. The issue of the subconscious is not present in Greek philosophy. You either consciously understand or you don’t. If you don’t, then you need to be made to consciously understand through dialectic.
Kierkegaard’s explanation introduces the concept of will. By will he means what Freud and Jung would later call the subconscious/unconscious. The conscious mind is the understanding. The subconscious is the will. The question then becomes: how do you know when somebody is acting by understanding (consciousness) or by will (subconsciousness)?
Did the drummer no longer want (will) to continue with the practice? The answer is clearly: yes. Was he consciously aware that he didn’t want to continue? Did he understand why in his conscious mind? The strange answer is: probably not.
The objective nature of the metronome was making the drummer look bad. It was showing up his defects as a musician. This introduces emotions such as shame and these emotions affect the understanding. The distinction between conscious understanding and subconscious will is not binary like Socrates assumed. We have differing amounts of conscious understanding even about the contents of our own minds and our understanding can change over time. If a person does not understand his own mind, how can anybody else understand it?
The idea that somebody else can understand is the basis for psychoanalysis. Within the modern psychological framework following Freud and Jung, we might attribute the drummer’s behaviour to complexes or psychoses. We might frame them as psychological illness and we would put the drummer on the couch and ask him how he felt when it turned out he couldn’t play along to a metronome. We might hypothesise that the metronome triggered an inferiority complex he had had because his parents did pay him enough attention as a child, or whatever.
For Socrates, such episodes are ironic and comedic and that is how the interlocutors in a Socratic dialogue appear as they dialectically fumble around contradicting themselves. You could imagine a sketch comedy featuring a drummer who shows up to practice and then pretends to be sick or comes up with moral or other reasons why he can’t play. A good comedic writer could find plenty of material there and we could have a laugh at the drummer’s expense. Think of the movie Spinal Tap or the classic “more cowbell” sketch for examples.
When such things happen in real life with somebody you know, it’s not funny. It’s confusing and perplexing. For Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard, it’s more than that. Their frame is an ethico-religious one entailing an interpretation of the Christian doctrine using the concepts of conscience, despair and sin. According to this way of looking at it, the understanding/consciousness/conscience is the good while the “will” represents the lower parts of the psyche. To allow the lower parts of the psyche to triumph over the good by clouding the understanding is to sin.
“…sin does not consist in man’s not having understood what is right, but in his not wanting to understand it, and in his unwillingness to do what is right.”
Socrates would say that the drummer no longer understood what was right when he gave up and left the practice session. Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky would say that he did not want to want to understand what was right. He gave in to base desires. He sinned.
Within our modern utilitarian morality where we judge events by their consequences, this all sounds like a storm in a teacup. No damage was done by the drummer calling it quits. Nobody was hurt. Therefore, there is no moral issue. But for Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard, it’s exactly these moments which are telling because once you have given in to the subconscious it will become a habit and you deviate further from the path of the good one small step at a time. Note that this is literally true for a drummer who does not want to practice to a metronome. Their chances of becoming a good drummer are vanishingly small.
The Brothers Karamazov is full of examples of people deviating from the good and the differing levels of consciousness each character has about it. Some characters never consciously realise what is going on even with their own behaviour. Their conscious mind (conscience) no longer even understands the good. The more noble characters are in a struggle which is the struggle between knowing what is good and being unable to achieve it. This struggle is what Kierkegaard called the Sickness Unto Death, a metaphor which is particularly poignant after the events of the last three years. We immediately look for material causes for all illness but Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard imply that a great deal of illness is really spiritual.
Nowadays, with the Christian religion in seemingly terminal decline and the Dostoevskyan/Kierkegaardian interpretation even less well known, we have slipped back to a choice between the ancient Greek understanding of these issues or a modern psychological interpretation. We can laugh a Socratic laughter at the irrationality of the world or we can say that people are “crazy” or “insane”. Such epithets are hurled about by the thousands on the internet every single day but are also present in the mass formation psychosis explanation for corona, for example.
Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard would say that the underlying cause is ethico-religious: we have lost our understanding of the good. We have done so because we have given in to base desires i.e. the will. They are surely correct to some extent. Just look at the complete lack of ethical behaviour over the last three years; the rampant lying, gaslighting and manipulation every day in the public discourse; the use of force to silence dissent; the censorship; the weaponisation of the financial system. It all speaks to a lack of ethical understanding. If God (the good) doesn’t exist, everything is permitted.
Although this manifests most conspicuously at the level of politics, for Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard it was fundamentally an individual problem. We choose the fog of rational abstractions, we indulge in cheap moral grandstanding and we put blind faith in party politics precisely because we have lost track of our self. The answer is to return to the self and rediscover the good at the individual level. It’s not a glamourous task. There’s nothing heroic about it. It won’t win you any likes on social media. But without it you’ll be forever tilting at windmills.