Faculty Psychology

I confess to a fondness for the old psychology of the faculties, where neatly differentiated components like Sentience, Judgment and Will are labeled, articulated and shown to work like the parts of a pinball machine. Assume that these faculties are housed in distinct organs, like the ones down in the belly, and phrenology is the result. Within the disciplines of the mind sciences, this way of thinking is way out of date, just one step up from the homunculus or “little man inside the head” model. But if we adjust the scope to focus not on the individual brain, but on the organized group, it begins to make some sense; and since, as Vygotsky, Dewey and so many others tried to teach us, thinking is a social act, the transfer from mind to social practice is easy.

I think of the newspaper– the classic newspaper developed under liberal-democratic governance, in stages from around 1750 to just recently– as an example of faculty psychology write large. It is a way of organizing intellectual labor for certain ends and against certain defects. To idealize somewhat (so don’t object that this is indeed an idealization), you have the Fact department, the Editorial department, and the Business office. The Fact reporters are out there working the pavement and the telephone lines. What happened, who did it, to whom, how, why, and what happened next. The Editorial writers sit in their cubicles wreathing elaborate smoke rings of fantasized verdicts and futures around the odds and ends brought in by Fact. What does this mean, what must we think, if we accept this, what possible objection will be have against that, where are we going. The Editorial writers have no business intervening with the Fact seekers. If anything, the Fact people have the right to go upstairs and spike a story concocted by the Editorialists if it turns out to be based on no facts or an incorrect assessment of facts given. Meanwhile, the Business office is drumming up advertising and subscription revenue– autonomously, it is expected. It would raise a stink if a story reported by Fact or a view suggested by Editorial were to be swayed by considerations of Business (say, by a threat on the part of a major tobacco advertiser to pull their full-page cigarette ads if the paper goes ahead and prints a story about smoking and lung cancer). It would also raise a stink if the editor-in-chief decided that an important piece of reportage needed to be shelved because the readers wouldn’t like it. Of course, when I say I idealize, I don’t mean that such interventions across the boundary of “church and state” (newspaper slang for the division between news and sales) never happened. Of course they happened, probably all the time, and it’s a wonder that the Fact people ever got their jobs done. But when we find out about it, we’re scandalized, and we are right to be so because the large-circulation newspaper, purporting to represent facts as they are together with opinions reasonably arrived at, is a form of thought-processing, and its corruption is a menace to the general interest. “Corruption” in the circles I inhabit means the subornation of the fact and judgment processes by the business process– not the other way around. (I suppose there are hard-core monopolists who usually take corruption to be the production of untoward facts by people heedless of the bottom line. Such people tend to denounce everything newsworthy as “fake.”)

Compare this differentiated and constitutionally hierarchicized processing of news with the non-transparence of e.g. Facebook. You don’t know where the facts come from, who represents them, and the role of money-making interest in publishing them is completely obscure. Enough reason to refuse to pay the slightest attention to that channel.

And as a further thought on the differences between Mother Jones and the New York Times on reporting the Steele/Russia/collusion story: it seems to me out of place to blame the NYT as a whole for shoddy work. I know this brings satisfaction to some; I have often hated the Times’s stupidity in reporting on and instigating American murderous intent and action in Haiti, Iraq, and a few other places. It would be good to know– for the health of the Times and of democracy in this country– exactly how the decision was taken to report in early November 2016 that there was no news about collusion, when every indication since then has been that there was.