Why no one listens to you

As I often note, only rarely does philosophy have any practical value. Mostly, philosophy is what you do when you have few practical concerns–perhaps because you are a rich gentleman of ancient Athens or a modern-day tenured professor, or perhaps because you are sitting around a campfire and deep conversations go well with alcohol (at least for awhile).

But there are important exceptions to this happy uselessness of philosophy. In this post I would like to present such an exception, a philosophical principle that tends to have countless practical applications, even though it is one of the most ancient in Western philosophy. It is this:Β whatever is received is received according to the mode of the receiver.

I’m going to do my best to explain it, but I would first urge you to memorize the principle in exactly that form. After all, part of the fun of philosophy consists in being able to trot out cryptic statements of that sort at pivotal moments. You want it to sound as opaque as possible–provided, of course, that you can actually go on to explain it if people aren’t willing to just accept your pronouncements.


Don’t do it. (Photo credit: JMaddox)

The idea of the principle is that the nature of a thing cannot simply overwhelm the nature of whatever receives that thing. Okay, I still sound cryptic. Here’s another try: if you pour beer into a champagne flute, then the beer takes on a certain shape determined by that flute. And, you can only pour in a certain amount of it: even if you think it would look pretty classy if you drank your 40 oz. out of a champagne glass, it just isn’t happening. It is not the “mode of the receiver” (the champagne flute) to hold that much beer. (At least in this world of sorrows.)Β To continue this analogy that should probably not be continued, the champagne flute also does not taste the beer, because it is not the mode of that receiver to be made aware of flavor. But a different receiver–like a human being–could receive those aspects of beer. Along with a hangover.

But there are other applications of this principle beyond those that so very much impress my college students. Consider this delightful little article by Anita Elberse that LinkedIn thoughtfully sent to me yesterday (in its never-ending quest to actually see me become gainfully employed). In the article, Elberse draws some shrewd business lessons from the 2007 stunt in which the world-famous violinist Joshua Bell played in a Washington, D.C. Metro station and was roundly ignored. Her takeaway: it is not enough to be talented, one must also have a strategy to alert others to that talent. Or, to put that differently, a good product is not enough, one must also have good packaging.

Why? Elberse offers hints of a psychological explanation: one must compete for people’s attention. But that is really just a specification of that general principle that what is received depends on the receiver. If one’s receivers are finite human beings, this means they have limited powers of attention. This puts obstacles in the way of their reception of things like the music of Joshua Bell, or your tremendously witty Tweets, or whatever else it may be. This means that if you would be heard, you need to think about your receivers, and perhaps even try to help them to get into the proper “mode” to receive what you have to say or give. If you are a student of mine, this might involve actually putting a well-formatted cover page on your paper and spelling my name correctly (so rigorous, I know). Or, if you a young man hoping to propose to a likely young lady, this might involve taking her out for a nice dinner or in some other way giving evidence that you are something more than a self-centered bucket of slop.

There, how was that for practical?

But lest you think I have cheapened philosophy with such tawdry practical applications, allow me to end with a more theoretic point, for the significance of this principle goes all the way to the top, as it were: it extends even to questions related to God. For example, in the dense and difficult Book V of The Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius ponders whether the infallibility of God’s foreknowledge of everything that will occur means that human freedom is just an illusion, that God is some sort of cosmic puppet-master controlling human actions. His solution to the problem (via his character “Lady Philosophy”) is to invoke a slightly different specification of our same principle: the character of what is known depends on the knower. A knower is, after all, a receiver like any other. As Lady Philosophy speculates, because God is an eternal knower, the character of his knowledge is bound to be different than ours. Since an eternal knower would stand outside of time, whatever such a being would know would be known with 100% accuracy; to put it differently, the events known would appear to such a knower as being necessary, even if the actions were, in themselves, completely free.

All that is just to say, take my advice and memorize this principle: whatever is received is received according the mode of the receiver. Its range of applications makes it well worth having in your “philosophical toolkit.” And don’t worry–it never needs sharpening.

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35 Responses to Why no one listens to you

  1. They Call Me Jane says:

    Reblogged this on Inspiration in a Box and commented:
    I have had that problem of seeing that philosophy could come in handy at some point, particularly when we find ourselves in the situation of making moral decisions, but we rarely notice that we do. I enjoy seeing that someone takes up the idea of practicability in Philosophy!

    • alexanderschimpf says:

      Thanks for the reblog and your kind words!

      • They Call Me Jane says:


      • They Call Me Jane says:

        Funny, I just noticed your name and it sounds and looks so German, but I checked your “About me” and you’ve put up a video there. You really do not sound German in any way. German roots, by any means?

      • alexanderschimpf says:

        Yes, I think I am ethnically about 1/4 German, along with a bunch of other Northern European stuff thrown in. However, you are correct that my last name is VERY German. It means to cuss, whine, or complain. German speakers generally start to laugh when they hear it.

      • They Call Me Jane says:

        I am a German native speaker. πŸ™‚ But thanks for the clarification, I did not know the word “cuss” up until now. πŸ™‚

  2. pauladkin says:

    Does this mean that we delude ourselves with our egoism? We are as what we are perceived to be like, not how we perceive ourselves to be.

    • alexanderschimpf says:

      Good question! You identified a tricky issue: are we also “receivers” of ourselves? Do we just know ourselves with absolute clarity, or as you said, do we have to “perceive” ourselves just as others have to perceive us? Philosophers differ on this. Personally, I do not think we are crystal clear to ourselves, so our egoism can act as a filter that affects self-perception. And, the converse is also true: a lack of appropriate self-love can also skew self-perception.

      The only slight point of disagreement I would have with your comment is that I would be hesitant to say were are, simply speaking, what we are perceived to be. I would accept that in the case of a divine receiver like God, but not as far as other humans go. No matter how well I think I see or understand another human person, my finitude means that there will always be some mystery left.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      • They Call Me Jane says:

        Sorry for being so bold as to remark on this comment as well, but being who we are is, I believe, nobody has really figured out just yet. I think both I and others have a schematic perception of my personality, based on certain memorable moments. My picture of myself would include a different perspective than that of another person. So why be absolute about who we “are”? I did have philosophy classes at Glasgow Uni and we had a very good lecturer on Personal Identity. To be fair, all he did was point out the complexity of the problem, rather than to solve it, but what I do remember is the question: If we had an identical clone that were to comprise the exact same DNA and cellular structure, who would be the real “me”? And if teleportation would take you apart and put you back together in the same way but a different place and at the same time, by accident, create the same molecular structure at a different place, i.e. creating two identical people that have newly come into existence, who would be “you”?
        Being fond of neurobiology and having seen experiments where we perceive things outside ourselves as intensely as if the stimulus had been inflicted upon ourselves, I believe the matter of personal identity is far more complex than what meets the eye. I believe there cannot be a real definition as to who we are. We redefine ourselves with regard to the roles we play, the people we want to be, based on the current perception we have of ourselves in a particular a situation (and that may include feedback from other people)…To other people we are certainly not the same person we are to ourselves, but who says we need to be? I think it’s all very relative and complex and personal identity does not need to have a clear-cut, absolute definition.

      • alexanderschimpf says:

        No apologies necessary, comment as much as you want. The possibility of conversation is part of what makes blogging fun.

        I don’t want to overcomplicate personal identity, partly for reasons of moral responsibility. If it is not possible to know (know, not comprehend) who I am and who you are, then questions of justice could lose their rational support. As for the neurobiology stuff, I think it is possible for persons to be intensely intersubjective (your pain becomes my pain), without personal identity ever being truly compromised.

        However, I have to admit that your take on personal identity is espoused by some very intelligent philosophers such as Derek Parfit in his book Reason and Persons.

      • They Call Me Jane says:

        πŸ™‚ Thank you, I highly appreciate new input. Haven’t been blogging for too long, but I do get some really remarkable feedback and great recommendations for new books these days and I utterly enjoy it.

      • They Call Me Jane says:

        As for the neurobiological part, I did not mean the “your pain becomes my pain” issue, in that case identity really isn’t compromised, I agree. What I mean is: there have been experiments on the subjectivity of our bodily functions. We flinch and have reflexes based on the mere anticipation of things that aren’t really there, we feel pain that isn’t really there, the placebo effect heals us when there’s no substance connected to it. So the question of identity, to me, is very closely linked to our perception and subjectivity and the question is if this is interchangeable with the perception of the brain. I have come to believe, because of those studies, that we aren’t necessarily our body, or our body doesn’t define as to the extent that we may believe it does. That’s also something we had in the personal identity class, assuming George W. Bush and Osama Bin Laden were to switch brains (now I know Bin Laden is dead, so that’d be gross now)…are they now really the other person? I find those things are really not easily answered from my point of view, seeing as I hardly read about philosophy at all. I only hat that one semester, but it was great, so I do want to keep up the practice and get to read some more.

      • alexanderschimpf says:

        Well, since you are a native German speaker, you know I just have to also recommend Robert Spaemann’s book Personen in regard to all these issues (as if you don’t already have enough to read!) πŸ™‚

        Okay, I see what you mean now about the neurobiology. I don’t link personal identity exclusively to the brain either, though it is clearly quite important. The deeper issue, though, is whether philosophy should try to think about issues like personal identity based on counterfactual scenarios (teleportation, brain swaps), or based on our lived experiences. Parfit tends to like the counterfactuals; Spaemann tends to like the lived experiences.

      • They Call Me Jane says:

        Thanks for the recommendation. πŸ™‚ I am very certain at least the last police detective I dated would thoroughly agree with you, I think debating morality based on lived experience is the most sensible thing. Although I imagine using thought experiments is a very good exercise and may lead to interesting if not great results in other areas. πŸ™‚

      • They Call Me Jane says:

        The Joshua Bell issue, by the way, has been adressed on other occasions from a different perspective. I wrote about this in my own blog: http://thoughtsarelikequicksand.wordpress.com/2013/06/22/what-good-art-and-music-is-really-worth/ , but ultimately, it does come down to what the “receiver” wants. Assuming that a god with 100% knowledge of everything would be able to perceive every human being in its finite form, I agree we must all be receivers of ourselves and others. It would explain why some days I look in the mirror and receive myself differently than on other days. I think every human being has a finite perception that can only ever deal with a very small amount of what’s going on in the world around us and even our own personalities, when reflected upon, are often reflected upon “from a distance”. And we are terribly susceptible to situative changes, which is why, when I have had a happy moment, for example, I look in the mirror and I feel radiant and that changes my perception of who I am in that very moment. I find it very difficult to maintain a stable idea of myself.

      • alexanderschimpf says:

        Thanks for the link–I will check it out soon!

        Another issue here is whether we are equally good receivers of ourselves and others. Despite of, or maybe because of, our natural self-preoccupation, I sometimes wonder if we aren’t better receivers of others than we are of ourselves. To put that in a plainer way, sometimes our friends seem to know us better than we know ourselves.

      • They Call Me Jane says:

        I think I’m very inclined to say “because of our preoccupation”. I think it’s a prerequisite for a healthy human being that wants to function in society to be able to figure out other people. Being emotionally detached from another person and seeing them in a more schematic way, we can probably see patterns in their behaviour more quickly. I imagine when other people seem to know us better than we do ourselves, it may come down to the difficulty of separating thoughts, feelings and emotions and handle a lot of them at the same time. Being very introspect, I find, makes it more difficult to understand other people’s behaviours that differ from my own, because I’m mostly interestd in them when I feel they’ll help me understand myself within the whole construct of society, but making that connection with people that are very different from me sometimes fails.

  3. With regard to “Lady Philosophy” in Boethius, a question for you, I always have an inner picture of an observer on a high tower (who can intervene from his post) who sees that a person down in the valley is walking approaching a crossroad – is this in the book or just my imagination? You describe how Divine Providence could be thought: “Since an eternal knower would stand outside of time, whatever such a being would know would be known with 100% accuracy; to put it differently, the events known would appear to such a knower as being necessary, even if the actions were, in themselves, completely free.”

    • alexanderschimpf says:

      It is in the book–good memory! In Book 5, Prose 6 Lady Philosophy does indeed use the metaphor of looking down “from a lofty mountain-top” to describe divine foreknowledge. Just as being up high allows our sight to be “present” to more things at once, so the idea is that God could be cognitively “present” to events that for us humans are in the past or in the future.

  4. Greg Ward says:

    I am very intrigued by the theological aspects of your maxim, as I have long had difficulty intellectually reconciling free will and God. Other than the dense and difficult book you mentioned, is there a more approachable primer for this topic available that you’d recommend?

    • alexanderschimpf says:

      Nothing pops right into my mind, except my general faith that Peter Kreeft has dealt with every possible concern anyone could have somewhere in his massive body of work!

      For a slightly more accessible primary source, you might consider St. Augustine’s treatment of the same problem in the first half of Bk. III (“book” in the sense of “chapter”) of On Free Choice of the Will. He offers a few little considerations to show it isn’t such a bad problem, and then finally tries to show that knowledge is not causal–i.e. God can know what you are going to do without causing what you are going to do.

  5. ptero9 says:

    Very insightful thoughts here. I have been mulling over the importance and meaning of receptivity, a lot in recent days. Thankfully for humans, receptivity is a malleable and learned skill as is love.
    In my recent studies in alchemy, it’s my understanding that it was the vessel of the work that undergoes transformation as much as the substance to be worked on. The vessel though cannot and does need to hold itself. Perhaps the vessel can be likened to “Good packaging.”
    I agree with Jane, identity is a slippery concept. Defining identity has been a life-long issue for me that resolved when I came to see that knowing one’s identity is like seeing your own eye. The mirrors in life help me to see myself reflected back, whether those mirrors are other people, animals, or the ten thousand things and remind me that nothing is static.

    • alexanderschimpf says:

      That’s just a beautiful line: “knowing one’s identity is like seeing your own eye.” As in, it is seen best in other things.

      However, I think that reason does give us an absolute standpoint, a deep identity underneath all the change. Even if I have a completely identical twin, a clone, whatever–when I say “I,” I am referring to some sort of identity even deeper than my genetics, what I look like, my job, whatever.

      Thanks so much for reading and offering some insightful comments.

    • They Call Me Jane says:

      πŸ™‚ Debra, I can’t help but smile, finding you here, too. It’s like running into an old friend in a shopping mall. An odd sensation to have for someone I’ve only come to know through blogging. πŸ™‚ I do so love your comments though. I have to ask, though, if you don’t mind, why it is that you believe love is a learned skill. It is as old as humanity and older. According to Helen fisher, whose videos on how the brain in love works, I’ve revisited a lot recently, animals fall in love, too. Perhaps not in the same way, but there is something common to all of us. We have a sense of beauty as soon as we’re born and a sense of attraction when coming of age, in particular. And surely, based on our characters, we have social prefrences . What more would you say is comprised in love that needs to be learned?

      • ptero9 says:

        Hi Jane,
        Yes, I do feel many of us here are kindred spirits and so enjoy my blog friends too.
        You make excellent points about love and I absolutely believe that animals’ love for each other and for us is a powerful love. The cats that I’ve adopted into my world over the years have taught me more about love than, dare I say it, most humans I have known.
        Maybe the fault is mine and I have come to know what love is very slowly over time because of the barriers of pride that were well in place by the time I was in my teens. I don’t think I ever knew what love really is until well into my 30’s, but this could be circumstantial and not by any means human nature. πŸ™‚
        I think too that there are degrees or types of love and that the greatest love is that in which we love someone even when they don’t love us back, or can’t because they are so wounded. This is tricky, because I don’t meant to suggest that anyone should stick around for abuse when someone they extend love to is so wounded it becomes a poison.
        The best example I can give is that of long term relationships in which people are so familiar that they tire easy of each other and no longer feel love for each other. My experience has taught me that sometimes we can choose to love in difficult times and amazing things happen.
        Maybe people have varying degrees of instinct for love and the skill comes easier for some.
        Loving people who love us back and make us feel good is easy, but to continue to love a family member that is angry, hurt and miserable, always seeking to keep peace with them and at reach out to help them, I think this is a skill.
        What do you think?

      • They Call Me Jane says:

        I mentioned her on several instances, but I feel you’ve touched on so many points this video has brought up (i.e. animal love, unrequited love, learning to love late in life) that I highly recommend watching: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YfOd_1apOfU (s. minute 5:30 – especially on the last point) and: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OYfoGTIG7pY πŸ™‚

      • They Call Me Jane says:

        one comment is still awaiting moderation and the other may not be linked directly to you, so I suggest you do have a look at the page again, in case you haven’t.

  6. They Call Me Jane says:

    I haven’t ever really actively and consciously “chosen” to be in love with someone for the sake of a relationship yet. I am deeply attached to my family, but I have to admit loving the people for who they are has never been part of it, because I never got to choose my family. I have never been in a long-term relationship for more than 3 years, so I may not yet have reached that stage you are talking about. But what is certainly true is what Esther Perel says, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sa0RUmGTCYY, … I can derive that from what has been missing in my last relationship. I appreciate that there are tricks to maintaining a long-term relationship without becoming weary of each other and I think that, as you rightfully said in one of your previous comments in my blog, this is related to being very like-minded in the first place, because both people would have to be able to enjoy each other in the first place, but than also be able to know how to be passionate, they’d both have to have the motivation and interest to see each other with new eyes, know about and accept the sexual privacy of the partner, know that sexual attraction is premeditated in long-term relationships, know how how to trigger their own affectionate emotions, so as not to rely on the other to constantly provide them with inspiration, …being able to create an erotic space … i think really making a long-term relationship work is no longer based on marital promises these days. Back in the days when marriage to one person secured the prevelance of your family, that was all that mattered. Today you need a whole new set of skills to maintain something so complex that many people fail. And I’m not surprised. Happened to my parents. They’d be staying together for the sake of the children…but really, it’s awful like this for us children, too. I’m very determined to give it as much time as I need to find someone who’s just right, before screwing up my future children’s lives (you may remember my list ^__^).

    • ptero9 says:

      Yes, happened to my parents too. There are times when ending the relationship is the best thing for everyone.
      I guess I was recalling a very recent situation with my step-father, who through what I see as willful ignorance, has really been neglecting my mother and some of her health issues. But, for what is best for my mom, and she loves her husband very much, I needed to choose loving behavior when helping them in difficult times this past winter. To me, that was a very willful choice to give love to someone when my instinct would have had me doing something different.
      I think especially because we don’t choose our family, love does become a choice with them and sometimes a very difficult one, but choosing love when it’s a hard choice does reap benefits, or it has for me.
      I hope what I am saying is coming across well and I’m not sounding intentionally argumentative. I do agree with what you say about romantic/spousal relationships.

      • They Call Me Jane says:

        I hope I understand you correctly. To me what you describe just doesn’t seem immediately related to the feeling of romantic love. I assume what you may mean is treating someone with love and kindness and thereby acting against one’s more immediate urge to be egoistic and in favour of what we consider social obligation? I am aware that helping someone through tough times can ultimately be very exhausting for yourself and in a relationship will most likely leave a mark on you that may be a real trial by fire. But ultimately it’s the only way to keep up any long-term relationship, isn’t it? Because everyone has those. In the initial phase of a romantic relationship, is unlikely to happen and will probably nip it in the bud, because we usually fall in love with the other’s independence, strength and self-sufficiency. I assume it is kind of attachment, in the Helen Fisher sense. But not only that. I would probably describe it as something along the lines of compassionate, altruistic behaviour, perhaps also showing something like synthetic affection, i.e. something that feels like real one, because you feel it is your social obligation to feel it. Perhaps helping others by being affectionate may also be attributed that to a basic degree of gratitude for the fact that one is fortunate enough to be part of a social construct (as we are all social creatures) and perhaps to the anticipation / hope for reciprocity, as a sort of social back-up.

      • They Call Me Jane says:

        So yes, I think I get what you mean now, by having a skill to love someone when they’re being difficult. I think I can perfectly hate someone in those moments and still love the idea of being with them and see beyond that in the hopes that things will ultimately get better again. I agree that this is something that probably comes more easy to some than to others and that it probably will have to be learned both in family relations (though perhaps in a different way) and in a long-term relationship. Ultimately, people give up easily, which is why, when those moments happen, many relationships break and this is probably also why it is hard to think of it as a skill. But holding a relationship together, reminding oneself of why we love our partner, is probably a skill that needs to be aqcuired on a conscious level.

        Sooorry for that lengthy talk. Sometimes it takes me a while to be sure that I really grasp what both you and I think and wrap my thoughts up accordingly.

  7. ptero9 says:

    I think I am correct in saying that you and I share a love for thoroughness and understanding. Pondering the nature of love is a very worthy conversation to have. πŸ™‚

  8. Mark Hamilton says:

    Hey Alexander Schimpf, not sure if you remember me from your Cantius days, but I stumbled across your blog by accident and really liked this article. A philosophical idea explained well enough for me to understand. Good work

    • alexanderschimpf says:

      Hi Mark,

      Good to hear from you again–of course I remember you, and the amazing Hamiltons in general! Thanks for your kind words about my post, and give all my best to your family.

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