Welcome to Inclusorium.



This website is my way of stepping out of my chosen profession (nutrition) to write about a lost asset in U.S. culture: ideas. Like skilled labor and physical work, ideas seem to have lost much of their value in our cultural thinking. I believe the explanation is simple: we’ve gotten the wrong idea about ideas.


Ideas aren’t about intellect



As far back as I can remember, my father used to “forbid” my mother to drive long distances by herself – and she never did.  The reason he gave was her safety.  One year, just after college, my girlfriend wanted to come visit me. I told her that I did not like the idea of her driving such a long distance by herself. I used safety as my reason. She understandably used a two-word expletive and hung up the phone. In reality, I was ecstatic that she wanted to come see me. And I wasn’t worried in the least about her safety. Eventually I came to the conclusion that I was acting just like my father. 


We can spend a lifetime trying to shake certain ideas. (I am just like my father. I am nothing like my father). And clinging to others. (It’s all for the best. Everything happens for a reason). Ideas show up out of the blue when we’re taking a shower. And vanish before the soap rinse. We cannot predict whether ideas will persist or fade.


I attribute the unpredictability of ideas to their embeddedness in experience. Ideas can come and go because experiences can come and go. After that phone call  I started rummaging through my life to find times when I acted like my dad. For the record, I ultimately decided that: (1) an idea that I was nothing like my father had embedded itself in my experience for years; (2) while thinking that I was nothing like my father, I nonetheless wanted to feel closer to him; and (3) as a way to feel closer to him I imitated some of his behaviors.


As you can tell from these descriptions, I don’t think  ideas have much to do with intellect. What I connect them with is upbringing and culture. I want to use drinking laws in the states of Connecticut and Alabama to explain my perspective.

Drinking Laws in Connecticut and Alabama


Connecticut and Alabama are states with vastly different drinking laws. In Connecticut, persons under the age of 21 are currently allowed to consume alcohol in any commercial establishment (or in a private home or club) in the presence of a parent/guardian who has given consent. In Alabama, persons under the age of 21 are currently not allowed to consume alcohol in any amount at any time for any reason.

Ideas and cultural thinking aren’t needed to explain the practical origin of these laws. The citizens of Connecticut elected state legislators who passed a state drinking law. The citizens of Alabama elected stated legislators who passed a different one.


Passing laws (and voting for state legislators) is part of civilization – how people interact and do stuff, how they engage publicly. Civics, civility, and citizenship are all derived from the Latin civilis meaning “related to public life”.

But what was going on in the minds of state legislators when they adopted their state’s drinking laws? What is it that they cared about?


I like to think that legislators in both states chose not to ignore issues like individual safety, community safety, family relationships, and mechanisms of enforcement.  I also like to think they paid attention to statistics on underage DUI, on alcohol-related underage emergency room admissions, and on the likelihood of later life alcohol abuse given underage consumption. But if legislators in both states paid attention to these issues, why did they adopt such different laws?


Unlike the focus of civilization on the way people do stuff, the focus of culture is on the things they care about. The word “culture” comes from the Latin cultivatus –  the past participle of the verb colere meaning “to care for”. Some sociologists describe culture as the spirit  or soul of a society (in comparison to the body of a society, which they equate with civilization).


The reason I associate ideas with culture is tied to this theme of  spirited engagement. When ideas get embedded in our experience they direct us toward the things we care about.


From a civics perspective, Alabama and Connecticut could be described as sharing some common history with respect to drinking laws. For example, both passed prohibition laws prior to ratification of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution in 1919 (prohibiting the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol). The Women’s Christian Temperance Movement (WCTU) and the Anti-Saloon League (ASL) had attained a sizable presence in both states prior to this time. (Although in Connecticut, the ASL had retained its older name – the Connecticut Temperance Union.)


But the histories unique to each state overshadow their shared history. Alabama went much further than Connecticut in its efforts to implement prohibition. The Alabama legislature passed a statewide local-option law in 1907, and by the end of that year 58 out of 67 Alabama counties had prohibited sale of liquor. The legislature went on to pass an outright state ban in 1915 (4 years before ratification of the 18th Amendment), and it kept this ban in effect until 1937 (4 years after ratification of the 21st Amendment which repealed federal ban).


By contrast, the Connecticut legislature carved out a major exception for imported liquor beginning with its first statewide ban in 1854. Imported liquor – so long as it was produced by licensed and bonded manufacturers and sold in its original casks through town-appointed agents – remained legal despite the ban. The Connecticut legislature repealed its ban in 1872, and not only declined to pass another statewide ban but went on to become one of two states (along with Rhode Island) that rejected the 18th Amendment. According to a 1921 article in the Bridgeport Telegram (published in Bridgeport, Connecticut) 1,500 saloons continued to operate openly throughout the state despite federal prohibition.


Historical differences between these two states with respect to alcohol and its prohibition reflect a different “spirit of engagement”. I don’t know enough about the history of each state to feel confident in pinpointing the ideas guiding this engagement. But having grown up in the South, I suspect that the “currency of thinking” in Alabama about alcohol and its use included ideas about individual responsibility, self-discipline, and allegiance to an order.


And having lived briefly in the state of Connecticut, I suspect the “currency of thinking” in that state – while including some of the same ideas – also included ideas about opportunity, adaptability, and interdependence.


Ideas aren’t “alternative explanations” for real-world events. They’re woven into experience and shape the unfolding of events.


In the 1800’s, Alabama’s 60-mile coastline at Mobile functioned differently than Connecticut’s 300+ miles of Long Island Sound coastline. The role of this coastline in opening a door for trade surely played a role in the exception that Connecticut legislators carved out for imported liquor in their 1854 ban. (Imported molasses, for example, was the key to making rum.) But what mattered to legislators about their coastline was just as important as its physical existence.


The populations of Alabama and Connecticut were as different as their coastlines. In 1810, Alabama’s population was just over 9,000. Connecticut’s was 260,000. In 1830, Mobile became Alabama’s first town to qualify as “urban” because its population had reached the minimum required size of 2,500. Connecticut had 40 towns that qualified. Urbanization was tied to industrialization, and both developments played a role in liquor demand, availability, and affordability. But once again, what mattered to legislators about urban towns was just as important as the towns themselves.


The embedding of ideas in experience



The embedding of ideas in experience is easiest to describe by focusing on their “disembedding” – i.e., those situations in which the bond between them gets broken.


Few forces have the power to break the bond between ideas and experience. Because I view this bond-breaking as an act of treachery, I refer to these forces as “supervillains”.



The first supervillain that can pull ideas apart from experience is Brainiac – the extraterrestrial cyborg with a twelfth-level effector brain:





The second supervillain who can do it is Mastermind – the human mutant with the psionic ability to take all five senses (sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste) and destroy their reliability:



These supervillains represent two basic ways in which the bond between ideas and experience can be broken.

The Brainiac maneuver: isolating ideas


At the Brainiac end of the spectrum, the bond between experience and ideas gets broken through an isolating of ideas. This maneuver treats ideas like abstractions inside our head. Here is how the maneuver works:


Let’s say that we notice a white piece of paper, a white piece of chalk, a white cloud, and some white snow. Unless we are drunk, drugged, or otherwise incapacitated, we trust our visual experience and consider ourselves to have recognized four unmistakable, real-life things. We go on to describe these real-life things as having an attribute called “whiteness.” All four have whiteness in common.


Not for a second do we believe that “whiteness” is some fifth sort of thing that exists in real life in the same way as the paper and chalk and cloud and snow. We consider whiteness to be an abstract concept – an idea floating around in our head.


Moreover, we consider it helpful for the idea of whiteness to float around there. It provides us with the power to determine an attribute shared by the paper, chalk, snow and cloud.


The Brainiac maneuver breaks the bond between ideas and experience by stripping ideas of their real-world privileges. In the case of whiteness, it takes this idea and isolates it from our real-world experience of paper, chalk, snow and cloud. The existence of this idea is confined to our head and reduced to an abstraction.


In some later comic book descriptions of this supervillain, Brainiac is said to possess a brain that has the processing ability of octodecillions of beings combined. (An octodecillion is 10 to the 57th power, that is, 10 x 10 x 10 some 57 times.) Brainiac’s brainpower is virtually limitless. His ability goes far beyond – but still falls into the continuum of –  “intellectual prowess” and “monumental insight” and “ingenious theorizing”.


On the surface, these descriptions appears to laud the magnificence of ideas and intellect. But the Brainiac maneuver places ideas in solitary confinement, hopelessly isolated from experience.

The Mastermind maneuver: making experience appear senseless


At the Mastermind end of the spectrum, the bond between experience and ideas gets broken not through manipulation of ideas but manipulation of experience. Rather than turning ideas into something less than they are, this maneuver turns experience into something less than it is.


The evil genius of Mastermind – despite a name that implies manipulation of ideas –  resides in manipulation of experience. Mastermind can take any sight or sound (or taste or smell our touch) and cause it to appear at any time and in any place. In a more complicated but similar way, he can also make himself look and feel like whatever person or physical object he chooses.


What gets undermined in the Mastermind maneuver is not ideas but experience. When we experience the world, the present is always filled with a before and after, a “carry-over” in time and space. If this carry-over could be eliminated, experience would fall apart. I want to borrow an example here from one of my teachers at the University of Chicago, Eugene Gendlin (1926-2017):

What do you do if you are walking along and you get hit on the shoulder by a rock? You look around to see who threw it. If no one is there, you look up to see how it fell. You don’t look around or look up out of rank stupidity or cluelessness. The rock had to have fallen or get thrown. Rocks don’t pop up out of nothingness and strike you on the shoulder. (Gendlin ET, p. 273 in the analysis section of Martin Heidegger’s What is a Thing, Henry Regnery Company, Washington D.C., 1967)

The experience of getting struck on the shoulder by a rock – like every experience – makes sense because it occurs within some context. Experiences are nestled into the world, woven into a matrix of already-connected events. Stripped of this context, experiences become senseless. The Mastermind maneuver breaks the bond between ideas and experience by stripping ideas of a reliable place in which they can be embedded.


The peculiar bond between ideas and experience



The Brainiac and Mastermind maneuvers raise a lot of questions. If ideas are not in our head, where are they? And if ideas are embedded in experience, to what extent can ideas change experiences and to what extent can experiences change ideas? If a rock strikes us on the shoulder and causes us pain, are ideas part of the pain? Is pain part of the ideas?

Wundt and the metronome


No one struggled more with the bond between ideas and experience than Wilhelm Wundt. Wundt was a German physician and professor who founded the world’s first psychology lab in 1879 and who is considered by most historians to be the founder of experimental psychology.


In his book called An Introduction to Psychology (written in German and first published in 1912), Wundt provides an exceptionally detailed description of his experiments with a metronome – the standard device used by musicians to mark time by producing precisely regulated beats or ticks. While familiar with use of a metronome by musicians, Wundt also describes it as an exceptionally useful psychological apparatus.

In order to be useful for the purpose of psychological experimentation, however, Wundt states that a metronome must be able to satisfy one requirement: “The strength of the beats must be sufficiently uniform, so that even to the most attentive listener differences in the intensity of the successive beats may not be noticed.”


In other words, for a metronome to be helpful in a psych lab, its ticks must be so steady and unchanging – so unvarying and identical – that listeners cannot tell any difference between them. Or in the language of present-day physics: the beats of the metronome must be nearly identical in terms of their loudness (soundwave amplitude, which represents the maximum distance that particles move from their usual position when they vibrate, and which can be measured in decibels or dB); their pitch (soundwave frequency, which represents the number of vibrations per second made by particles as they transmit sound, and which can be measured in hertz or Hz); and their timbre or tone (harmonic content, which is determined by the number, intensity, and pattern of upper overtones, including the ratio of note frequencies and the degree of overtone sharing between notes).


While trying to make certain that the metronome in his lab was producing unvarying and identical beats, Wundt noticed something that he found quite peculiar. In his own words: ” .. it is really extraordinarily difficult to hear the beats in absolutely the same intensity, or, to put it in other words, to hear unrhythmically.”


In fact, based on hours and hours of experimentation, Wundt found that it was absolutely impossible for his  graduate students to hear a monotonous, repetitious series of metronome-generated beats (tick, tick, tick, tick, etc.) – even if those beats had been “certified” as identical in loudness and pitch and tone.


What Wundt discovered was that his graduate students always heard some pattern (tick tock, tick tock, etc.). In fact, not only did they always hear some pattern, they also heard a wide variety of different patterns, depending on the spacing of the beats and the total number of beats sounded by the metronome.


One common pattern was a simple pairing of 2 beats: “tick tock, tick tock, tick tock.” This type of simple, 2-beat pattern was often heard when a large number of beats were spaced 1 to 1.5 seconds apart. But if these beats were spaced more closely together in time – say less than 1 second – the tendency of the listener was to hear a larger number of total beats (for example, 4 or 8 or 16 beats) as part of one whole pattern (tick, tick, tick, tock).


Wundt determined that 2-beat patterns could be heard in a virtually endless number of beats, and that the greatest number of beats that could be heard by his students as part of a single whole pattern was 40 beats.


One of Wundt’s basic conclusions from these experiments was what he referred to as the “rhythmic disposition” of consciousness:

Consciousness is rhythmically disposed, because the whole organism is rhythmically disposed. The movements of the heart, of breathing, of walking, take place rhythmically .. Our consciousness is not a thing separated from our whole physical and mental being.” (Wundt W, pp.5-6, Introduction to Psychology, George Allen & Unwin Ltd., London, 1924 reprint)

This episode in the history of psychology provides a full-fledged exposé of  the peculiar relationship between experience and ideas. Like other psychologists of his time, Wundt assigns the auditory experience of his students to consciousness, which he views as a brain-regulated field of awareness complete with its own regions, thresholds, scope, and structural elements.


But this assignment of events to consciousness is not important for recognizing the strange bond between experience and ideas. Wundt’s students are unable to hear a monotonous, repetitious series of metronome-generated beats (tick, tick, tick, tick). It is literally impossible for them to disconnect their auditory experience from the realm of ideas. In this context, “realm of ideas” consists of “beat patterns.”


For Wundt’s students, beat patterns are not slathered on top of auditory experience like butter is slathered on bread. The butter is incorporated into the bread. It’s an ingredient in the recipe. Wundt’s students experience the world (auditorily) through beat patterns (ideas). These beat patterns are not qualities superimposed on experience by Wundt’s students. The patterns are part of their immediate experience and inextricably intertwined with it.


Ideas and cultural thinking



I started off this section by recounting a personal experience involving my mom, my dad, and my girlfriend. I began with these events because it seemed like my personal life would give me a better vantage point for looking at experience and ideas than the life of someone else or the collective lives of many people in a society. In each of our personal lives, the time and space of experience is our time and space. Ideas pass through thinking that is our thinking.


In cultural life, this vantage point changes. We lose our front row seat. What we get is more like a seat with an obstructed view. Nothing changes in the performance. Ideas and experience continue to intertwine in their peculiar way. But the time and space of thinking are no longer exclusively ours. Cultural thinking involves a longer timeline, a broader geography, and many more people.


In the history of art, for example, the cultural transition between neoclassicism and surrealism took 150 years and involved the lives of hundreds of artists in dozens of countries. In the history of dance, a similar number of years intervened between the waltz and the foxtrot and a very large number of people were involved. Other cultural transitions – like the transition from hunter-gatherer to farming, or the cultural transition from use of clay and stone to smelting of ores – take place over thousands of years.


This shift in scale between personal life and cultural life takes away the possibility of a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) approach to experience and ideas. When ideas move in and out of our thinking at a personal level, our personal thoughts enjoy a certain privilege. They get moment-by-moment access to the dynamics of our personal life. But when ideas move in and out of cultural thinking, our thoughts cease to enjoy this privilege. The dynamics of culture flow through us. But they also surround us and precede us and surpass us.


When our context for thinking about ideas shifts from personal to culture life, what we’re left with is something like the perspective of a woodworker who has nothing more to work with than flat-sawn boards cut from a tree trunk. When woodworkers come across a knot in a board, they are forced to imagine a spot in the tree where a branch grew out from the trunk.


They are also forced to imagine how the board was cut from the tree. Compressed striations alongside of a knot help them figure out how the board was cut, since cells in the tree would not have become compressed unless the weight of a branch had pressed down on them. Compressed striations tell woodworkers that this striated part of the board came from a part of the tree below a branch.


Similarly, when woodworkers see stretched striations alongside of a knot, they know that this part of the board came from a part of the tree above a branch since the weight of the branch would have pulled down on the cells above it and stretched them out:



By “reading” the grain in a flat-sawn board, woodworkers can recognize a wealth of events in the life of the tree. That life may have begun long before the woodworker was born, and it was likely filled with many purposes: regulating water flow, balancing the mix of gases in the air, stabilizing the soil, protecting smaller plants, providing food in the form of decaying bark to ants, providing a habitat for birds and insects, etc.


A knot in a board is a unique signature of the tree. It gives us a limited but valuable opportunity to learn about the tree. Ideas function in this same way – they give us a limited but valuable opportunity to learn about our culture. The striations around a knot tell us how the tree cells got compressed or stretched, and by studying the “grain” in a flat-sawn board, we can understand something about the tree from which it was cut. The study of ideas can help us in this same way, because the flow of thought in our culture is always being compressed and stretched by ideas.


We have no way of knowing ahead of time which ideas will pass into or out of cultural thinking. But a single idea can shape many events and transform many aspects of culture.


Once again: welcome to Inclusorium.