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Hobbes in fact defined "body" in terms of accidents that are mathematically tractable in mechanics and geometry. He tried to provide some kind of rationale for this basic assumption of the new natural philosophy by introducing the criterion of conceivability, which will not really do the work required of it. Hobbes defined space as "the phantasm of a thing existing without the mind simply. If the world were to be destroyed, and a man were left alone with his imagination and memories, some of these would appear external to him, or located in space, for the system of coordinates used to describe the relative position of bodies is a subjective framework.

Place cannot, therefore, be an accident of bodies; place is feigned extension — an order of position constructed from experience of real extended things to provide a framework for their externality. Similarly, time is "the phantasm of before and after in motion. Hobbes never made clear the relationship between any particular temporal or spatial system that an individual may devise and the system of coordinates adopted by the natural philosophers.

Here again, Hobbes typically took for granted the system used by the scientists and tacked on a very brief philosophical story about its relation to the "phantasms" of the individual. Hobbes's psychology was not behavioristic, as it has sometimes been said to be, except insofar as behaviorism has often been associated with a materialistic metaphysical theory or with mechanical modes of explanation. Hobbes stressed the indispensability of introspection in the analysis and explanation of human behavior. When Hobbes looked into himself he found, of course, motions that were in conformity with Galilean principles.

He boldly proclaimed in De Corpore that "we have discovered the nature of sense, namely, that it is some internal motion in the sentient. They have the character of externality because of the "outward endeavor" of the heart. Having provided a mechanical starting point for his psychology, Hobbes then tried to describe what was known about psychological phenomena in terms compatible with a mechanical theory.

One of the most obvious features of perception is that it involves seeing something as something, some sort of discrimination or recognition. Hobbes's way of saying this was that sense always has "some memory adhering to it. Without this retention of motions, what we call sense would be impossible, for "by sense we commonly understand the judgment we make of objects by their phantasms; namely, by comparing and distinguishing those phantasms; which we could never do, if that motion in the organ, by which the phantasm is made, did not remain there for some time, and make the same phantasm return.

The selectivity of perception raised a further problem. Why is it that men do not see many things at once? Hobbes again suggested a mechanical explanation: "For seeing the nature of sense consists in motion; as long as the organs are employed about one object, they cannot be so moved by another at the same time, as to make by both their motions one sincere phantasm of each of them at once. Hobbes's ideomotor theory made it hard to give a plausible account of the influence of interests, attitudes, and sets on what is selected in perception.

Hobbes also attempted a mechanical explanation of the phenomena of attention and concentration.

R.S. Thomas: Conceding an Absence Images of God Explored

When a strong motion impinges on the sense organ, the motion from the root of the sense organ's nerves to the heart persists contumaciously and makes the sense organ "stupid" to the registering of other motions. Hobbes's account of imagination was explicitly a deduction from the law of inertia.

For after the object is removed, or the eye shut, we still retain an image of the thing seen, though more obscure than when we see it. Rather, it comes about because the sense organs are moved by other objects, and subsequent movements obscure previous ones "in such manner as the light of the sun obscureth the light of the stars. Memory, Hobbes claimed, differs from imagination only in that the fading image is accompanied by a feeling of familiarity.

It is also difficult to see how, in his view, remembering something could be distinguished from seeing it for a second time, if the second impression of the thing is not very vivid. Hobbes's fundamental mistake in all such descriptions and explanations was to attempt to distinguish performances, such as perceiving and remembering, by reference to subjective hallmarks vaguely consistent with his mechanical theory, rather than by reference to the epistemological criteria written into them.

The fundamental difference between perception and imagination, for instance, is not one of vividness or any other such accidental property; it is an epistemological difference. To say that a person imagines a tree rather than perceives it is to say something about the status of what is claimed. To perceive is to see something that really is before one's eyes; to imagine is to think one sees something that is not there.


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Similarly, to remember is to be right in a claim one makes about something in the past that one was in a position to witness, whereas to imagine is to be mistaken in what one claims. There are, of course, further questions about the mechanisms by means of which people perceive, imagine, and remember; and it could be that some such mechanical story as told by Hobbes might be true about such mechanisms. But in the language of such a story the basic epistemological differences between these mental performances could never be made, and although the mechanical story might give an account of some of the necessary conditions of such performances, it is difficult to see how it could ever serve as a sufficient explanation of them.

The same general critique concerning neglect of epistemological criteria must be made of Hobbes's treatment of thought, which he equated with movements of some substance in the head. There may be movements in the brain that are necessary conditions of thought, but no description of such conditions should be confused with what is meant by "thought.

Even though Hobbes's general account of thought was rather hamstrung by his obsession with mechanics, he nevertheless had some quite illuminating things to say about trains of thought, an account that owed more to Aristotle than to Galileo. Hobbes distinguished "unguided" thought from that directed by a passionate thought or plan. Unguided thought followed principles that later came to be called principles of association — for example, spatiotemporal contiguity and similarity. Hobbes, however, made no attempt to formulate principles of this kind. He was much more interested in, and attached much more importance to, guided thought, in which desire for an end holds the train of thought together and determines the relevance of its content.

R. S. Thomas

Hobbes distinguished two main types of regulated thinking. The first was the classic Aristotelian case of deliberation, where desire provides the end, and the means to this end are traced back until something is reached that is in a person's power to do. This faculty of invention is shared by the animals, but they do not share the other sort of guided thinking that Hobbes called prudence.

In prudence the starting place is an action that is in a person's power to perform, and the store of past experience is used to speculate on its probable effects. In this case, deliberation leads forward to an end that is either desired or feared. Hobbes seemed to think that people's prudence is in proportion to the amount of past experience on which they can draw. This sounds improbable, for although children cannot be prudent, many old people miss the relevance of their past experience. Dreams fascinated Hobbes.

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He attempted to determine what distinguishes them from waking thoughts and to develop a mechanical theory to explain them. He claimed that they lack coherence because they lack the thought of an end to guide them. Dreams consist of compounded phantasms of past sensations, for "in the silence of sense there is no new motion from the objects, and therefore no new phantasm. There is no sense of time in dreams, and nothing appears surprising or absurd. There is an intimate connection between dreams and bodily states. Lying cold, for instance, produces dreams of fear and raises the image of a fearful object.

The motions pass both from the brain to the inner parts and from the inner parts to the brain. So, just as anger causes overheating in some parts of the body, overheating of the same parts can cause anger and, with it, the picture of an enemy. Dreams are thus the reverse of waking imaginations. Motion begins at one end during waking life and at the other end during sleep. This tendency to project images produced by bodily states gives rise to belief in apparitions and visions.

Hobbes's treatment of dreams typified his approach to such matters.

He seemed uninterested in the epistemological questions to which they give rise, as, for instance, in the thought of his contemporary, Descartes. Hobbes's mechanical theory of human action hinged on his concept of "endeavour," by means of which he tried to show how the gross movements of the body in desire and aversion could be explained in terms of minute unobservable motions in the body. He postulated two sorts of motion in the body. The first is its vital motion, manifest in such functions as circulation of the blood, breathing, and nutrition, which proceeds without external stimulation or the help of the imagination.

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The second is animal motion, which is equivalent to such voluntary movements as walking and speaking. This is always "first fancied in our minds" and is produced by the impact of external stimuli on the sense organs, an impact that gives rise both to phantasms in the brain and to internal motions that impinge on the vital motions of the heart. If the motion of the blood is helped, this is felt as pleasure; if it is impeded, as pain.

Pleasure, Hobbes said, is "nothing really but motion about the heart, as conception is nothing but motion in the head. When this endeavor tends toward things known by experience to be pleasant, it is called appetite; when it shuns what is painful, it is called aversion. Appetite and aversion are thus the first endeavors of animal motion. We talk about "will" when there is deliberation before acting, for will is "the last appetite in deliberating.

Hobbes's theory of the passions was an attempt to graft the traditional Aristotelian account of them onto his crude mechanical base. Love and hate are more or less the same as appetite and aversion, the only difference being that they require the actual presence of the object, whereas appetite and aversion presuppose its absence. These, together with joy and grief, which both involve foresight of an end rather than just an immediately perceived object, are the simple passions out of which others are compounded.

Social life is a race for precedence that has no final termination save death. A man who is convinced that his own power is greater than that of others is subject to what Hobbes called glory; its opposite is humility or dejection. Pity is grief for the calamity of another, arising from imagination that a like calamity may befall ourselves.

Pluperfect by R. S. Thomas (1981)

Laughter is the expression of sudden glory caused by something new and unexpected in which we discover some superiority to others in ourselves. Hobbes also introduced motion into his theory of individual differences. He thought that such differences are derivative from differences in passions and in the ends to which men are led by appetite, as well as to the sluggishness or agility of the animal spirits involved in the vital motions of their respective bodies.

The basic difficulty in understanding Hobbes's theory of motivation arises from his attempt to underpin a psychology derived from introspection, from the shrewd observation of others, and from the tradition going back to Aristotle with a mechanical theory whose outline was only very briefly sketched. Perhaps the essential criticism of any such theory is that actions cannot be analyzed into mere movements because, in any action proper — as distinct from a nervous tic or a reflex — the movements take place because of an end that the person has in mind.

This end is what makes the action one of a certain sort, and, provided that the movements are directed toward this end, an almost indefinite range of movements can form part of the same action. Similarly, the movements involved in raising one's hand can form part of quite different actions, depending on the purpose for which the hand is raised — for example, to signal, to test the direction of the wind, to stretch the muscles, and so on.

Having something in mind — which is part of the concept of "action" — is not a movement, still less a movement of some internal substance of the head, if this is what Hobbes really believed. But Hobbes was not at all clear on the relationship between movements, whether observable or unobservable, and the cognitive components of appetites, aversions, and the various passions. Indeed, he seems to have held an extremely paradoxical and overintellectualistic view about the cognitive component of the passions.


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  • For he saw that passions are to be distinguished by their objects and by the judgment of the possibility of attaining such objects, yet he injected into his account a bizarre kind of egocentricity. For Hobbes, in all cases of passions the notion of "self" was part of the content of cognition. He seemed to think that all such "phantasms" of objects, by reference to which the passions are to be distinguished, involve the thought of ourselves doing something or of our power to do something.

    Pity is thus seen as grief arising from our imagining ourselves in the same predicament as that of the one pitied. Hobbes's analysis of laughter palpably suffered from the same injection of egocentricity. Furthermore, how the highly sophisticated and narcissistic type of appraisal involved in the passions is to be reconciled with any attempt to represent them all as movements of the body and of some internal substance in the head is very difficult to determine. For all its ambiguities, oversights, and obvious defects, Hobbes's psychology was remarkable, for he attempted to establish it as an objective study untrammeled by theological assumptions.

    To suggest that man is a machine was a great step forward in thought. Even though the hypothesis is probably untenable, it marked the beginning of the effort to use scientific methods and objective concepts in the sphere of human behavior. In the seventeenth century this was a novel undertaking, as well as a dangerous one.

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    Hobbes thought that, by employing the resolutive method, he could demonstrate the absolute necessity of leagues and covenants and the rudiments of moral and civil prudence from his two principles of human nature — "the one arising from the concupiscible part, which desires to appropriate to itself the use of those things in which all others have a joint interest; the other proceeding from the rational which teaches every man to fly a contranatural dissolution, as the greatest mischief that can arrive to nature.