Judgement and Experience

Saturday August 21, 2010

About eighteen months ago, I wrote a post here about judgement and about the need to test judgements against the fine grain of experience. In that post, I quoted the story – a story that I have been fascinated by for a long time – about the friend of the painter Courbet who used to wake in a cold sweat crying “I want to judge! I want to judge!”

I’ve been thinking again about judgement, because I have been noticing whilst travelling that the mind does very curious things. This will not be news to anybody who a) has a mind and b) pays it any attention. But the particular thing that I have been noticing is the way, when I come across a new experience, I find myself succumbing to what could only be called a kind of restless hunger to pass judgement. So, for example, I arrive in a new town. Let us say Anyang in China (not the Anyang in Korea), where I am now. And as I come out of the railway station or the bus station, I find my mind doing the following. “Hmmm….” my mind says, “Looks a bit dowdy here. Not as good as the last place I was in. Oh look, there’s a person doing something unappealing. Just goes to show. I knew it. This town is rubbish. Aha, what’s this? Somebody has just pushed in front of me. Typical, eh? Looks like it’s going to be a grim couple of days.”

And immediately, poor old Anyang – or wherever I happen to be, because this is not a pattern that has anything to do with the objective qualities of a place – has been damned on the basis of rather faint evidence: one person doing something mildly unappealing, somebody else doing what anybody who doesn’t want to be crushed underfoot does when in a station in China, and… well, and that’s about it. Sometimes it goes the other way, and my mind says “Oh, look, this place is clearly great because I’ve just seen a cute cat by the station entrance.” Which is equally spurious stuff.

What is interesting here, I think – and what is interesting in the story about Courbet’s friend (as retold in an essay by Foucault, which is where I read it) – is the sheer hunger that we the mind has for casting judgement. It does this, more or less, of its own accord. It wakes up yelling “I want to judge! I want to judge!” Sometimes, at least, as time has gone on I have got better at ignoring its cries. Or better at putting its rapid judgements to one side, and leaving the door open for a bit more evidence to come in. Sometimes, however, I find myself succumbing.

I do still wonder what is going on here. Maybe it is a kind of attempt to control the future, or to deal with uncertainty. When you arrive somewhere new, the possibilities are wide open. The fact is, very often, you simply don’t know what a place holds, what it is like, what will happen. And the mind, poor little thing, doesn’t like not knowing. So perhaps this is why it spins webs of judgement over vast abysses of ignorance.

It is interesting to see the mind do these things, and to let it go about its business without taking its judgements too seriously. In the end, it gets fed up and stops, at least for a while. It is not that the faculty of judgement is not useful; but the proper exercise of judgement is very different from these curious little outbursts. And I’ve noticed that, if I don’t take these stories seriously, very soon they subside. Cities, and people too, are complex things. They cannot be easily summed up. Experience is constantly shifting and nuanced, hard to capture in judgements as simplistic as these. And when experience simply comes and goes without this layer of judging, it takes on a very different character, as the heat goes out of it. It just becomes that which happens.

Incidentally, I should say in the city’s defence – and if I have to come to some kind of provisional judgement – that Anyang has been a charming and fascinating place to spend a couple of days…

Image: thanks to Michael Kan on Flickr

# · karen

Hello. Very interesting, and in my experience true. The desire to judge comes from a (false) belief of mine that somehow this judgment will keep me safe. It is a limiting habit and one that I must stay mindful of. Warmly,Karen

# · Lilian Nattel

This made me smile and chuckle. I think
it’s possible that quick judgment evolved
in a time when it could have been life-
saving to quickly assess a new environment.
It’s left-over from hunter-gatherer days.
Your post reminded me of my 2 trips to
China. I came here via Tasting Rhubarb and
so glad I did.

# · Robert Ellis

I find it creditable that you distinguish your ‘curious little outbursts’ from judgement in general. In general I think I’d want to argue that not using judgement is just as much of a problem as using it too readily: for example as a teacher of philosophy and critical thinking to 16-19 year olds, I find that learning always takes place when students are willing to exercise their judgement, even if crudely (as it can then be refined through challenging discussion), but if they don’t engage it at all and just greet a new argument or experience with blank indifference, I have much more of a sense of failure as a teacher. Your snap judgements about Anyang are the first indication that you are engaging with it (and thus to some extent, appreciating it). The refinements and the complexity can come later, but you need something to work with.

Of course the ‘curious little outbursts’ of judgement that you note also might be a bit of a problem if you were to take them too seriously. However, as a seasoned traveller, I’d be very surprised if you were in any real danger of doing so. I think you could take these stirrings of judgement much more positively and see them as crudely-formed clay.

# · Will

Thanks for the comments folks. I’m not entirely sure that the snap judgements lie on a continuum with genuine judgement, however. I wonder if they are rather different processes. They certainly feel rather different, not just in extent but in kind. And certainly we do need to make judgements about this and that if we are to make any headway at all in the world.

But there is something different going on in this restless stamping of usually moral evaluations upon things.

# · Sabio Lantz

“And the mind, poor little thing, doesn’t like not knowing”
—-> fantastic !

# · star

Wonderful example you provide of the way our minds seek to name and categorize everything. I like Richard Gombrich’s explanation that one of the reasons the Buddha used the metaphor of fire so often is because fire appears to be “appetitive” — it seeks fuel. Our minds are just like that, aren’t they? If I ever get my mind to settle down in meditation, I can feel the bubble of a thought “wanting” to arise, like a little pressure — it hasn’t got a shape yet, it’s just the desire to be thinking, to be doing — anything but just sitting silently! Surely this is a left over survival mechanism — the more quickly we can judge a situation, the less likely we are to get eaten by the bear?

# · mahesh

dear sir,

have you ever read books by Osho?

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