What is “Ultimate Satisfaction”?

This is the third in a planned series of posts on Worlds, as understood by Descriptive Psychologists. This series requires a more careful reading than most other posts on this blog; I believe the work you put into it will be well-rewarded.

In the second post of this series I observed that, prior to the discovery of his eponymous Paradox, Bertrand Russell’s world was held together by the “delicious experience of knowing something with total certainly”. I used the term “ultimate satisfaction” to characterize that experience. As one of the readers of that post commented, the idea that “ultimate satisfaction” holds one’s world together is not intuitively obvious. Indeed it is not – until it is. I believe that in fact this conception is genuinely original; it’s not just a restatement of a well-known way of thinking, and thus requires some work to see. Once seen, however, it seems obvious, intuitively and otherwise. This post is meant to make the concept of ultimate satisfaction clear.

Peter Ossorio characterized “the spirit in which the initial work of Descriptive Psychology was undertaken” by citing four slogans, the first and foremost of which is:

The world makes sense, and so do people.

He reminded readers that “slogans are apt for saying what you live by, and .. that is quite different from saying what you happen to believe or what happens to be true.” (Ossorio, The Behavior of Persons, p. 2) Over the past fifty years Descriptive Psychology has grown, expanding its work and conceptual scope, such that a variation of this slogan is both appropriate and useful to orient us to the present work:

Worlds make sense, and each world makes sense in its own particular way.

To the person as Actor the world in which she is acting is the world of the community within which her participation takes place. This is true of every action by every person. Explicitly, there are no actual privileged persons who can act within “the totality world” by contrast with merely acting within the world of a community.

So what does it mean to say, “the world makes sense?” Initially we can simply point to the observable “clustering” of social practices; as Ossorio pointed out, it’s not like a cafeteria line of behaviors, where you go through and pick out whatever you like. Behaviors – social practices – clearly go together in a manner that is hard to specify. It’s not as simple as all practices share certain characteristics, or each derives from a small set of organizing principles; while we can often find some regularities of that sort, they are notoriously incomplete and “stereotypical” outsider’s view.

Worlds make sense, not analytically as known by the Observer/Critic, but rather behaviorally, as experienced by the Actor. It’s an inside job, so to speak. You have to be, and participate as, one of us to actually know how our world makes sense. It is Actor knowing rather than Observer knowledge. As Actor knowing, it is direct, first-hand and produced by the Actor as author.

In other words, the sense the world makes is not inferred or believed by the Actor. It is created and maintained on the fly by someone who knows what it means for something to be part of our world. And again, that “knows what it means” is not Observer’s knowledge; it is Actor’s competence.

So the world makes sense because it is created to make sense by a competent member of the community whose world it is.

Since “a person requires a world in order to have the possibility of engaging in any behavior at all” [Ossorio, Place, Maxim A1] and the person creates that world on-the-fly, we will not be surprised to find that direct, first-hand knowing is required to bring it off. An important type of direct, first-hand knowing is feeling (Actor’s knowledge of relationship), and in the core feeling of ultimate satisfaction we find a clear path to understanding how worlds are held together (and sometimes blown apart.)

Let’s take an extended look at ultimate satisfaction.

Beyond Beauty and Elegance

A confession: I am a recovering mathaholic, in recovery from addiction to elegance.

It began when I was 16, at a summer National Science Foundation program for high-school students. One day I was working through the proof that the infinite set of real numbers is larger than the infinite set of integers. The proof builds and builds through logical steps until – all at once, in a single move – it all comes together into a single irrefutable whole. The conclusion was not only true, it was profoundly, necessarily true. Words fail in describing the almost ecstatic rush of joy that accompanied that insight. It was just so beautiful, so … elegant!

That was my first taste, but it soon became a requirement – more insight! More elegance! I plowed through every university math course I could find; I began to mainline pure math, starting with rings and fields and moving on to the most abstract algebras. This went on until I got a wake-up call: I had two years to go in University and I had already taken all the math courses I could count toward graduation. I could feed my habit a little, but most of my time had to be spent studying … things that aren’t so elegant. Slowly I began to taper off: I still loved elegance, but I no longer needed it. That began a long journey that continues to this day; as any addict knows, one is always recovering, never recovered. The deeply satisfying rush attendant on getting a beautiful proof never goes away.

What I am referring to in this admittedly tongue-in-cheek manner is a profoundly real aspect of the world of mathematicians. It is in fact at the core of being “one of us”: a real mathematician gets profound aesthetic satisfaction from insights that accompany the best mathematical work. The word used to describe this is “elegance”; the famous 20th century mathematician Paul Erdos referred to it as “reading from the book of God” and it is not clear that he meant that purely as metaphor. It is how mathematicians recognize real math. Mathematics without elegance is just computation; useful, sure, but not what it’s all about.

If you are not a mathematician, most of what I have written here will likely be incomprehensible to you – unless you’ve experienced it yourself, it’s virtually impossible to credit the power of the direct experience of elegance. I hope the mathematicians reading this get at least a chuckle of recognition.

Now, let’s put aside metaphor and use Descriptive Psychology’s conceptual network to say directly what all this means.

Again recall [A1]: “A person requires a world in order to have the possibility of engaging in any behavior at all.” This is a strong statement. Couple it with “a person is an individual whose life is, paradigmatically, a history of Deliberate Action in a Dramaturgical pattern” (Ossorio, BoP, p. 69) and we see that a person requires a world in order to have the possibility of being a person. If we were to make a list of the basic human needs, the need for a world would have to be very near the top.

Accordingly, a person must recognize a world that makes sense and how it makes sense. This is an essential human competence. But that “sense” is not somehow inherent in the objective make-up of the world; it is created by members of communities and embodied in their practices. It has to do with how the ultimate objects, processes and states-of-affairs of that world fit together into a coherent whole.

That the world makes sense, in just the way it does, is inherent in participation in a community’s core practices. How the world makes sense is recognized directly as first-hand, Actor’s knowing. And since it is so essential to the person, the recognition takes the form of a strong feeling with a built-in appraisal, just as fear, the recognition of immediate danger, comes as a strong feeling with a built-in appraisal. We can refer to this feeling – the direct recognition that the world makes sense in just the way it does make sense – as “ultimate satisfaction”.

Why “ultimate satisfaction”? Two reasons:

  1. As illustrated in the elegance and mathematics example above, the experience is in fact deeply satisfying, and is the sort of thing one seeks opportunities to experience.
  2. More technically, ultimate satisfaction arises from participating in a community practice which requires acting on the way the world makes sense. Not all community practices are of this sort; indeed, practices that directly involve how the world makes sense are a special set, which we could call “ultimate practices”. These are practices that affirm the community’s world. Satisfaction accompanies participation; ultimate satisfaction accompanies participation in ultimate practices.

By way of illustration, let’s take a closer look at my initiation into the world of mathematics at age 16. What was I doing?

  • A mere description is: I was reading a proof in a math book.
  • The proof had been recommended to me by a professor in the program, so one thing I was doing by reading the proof was being an apprentice mathematician, one of the known ways to become “one of us”.
  • By reading the proof I was not just grasping the meaning of the words; I was checking the proof of the theorem. One could read each step of the proof and believe it, but that’s just “going through the motions”; actually participating in the practice requires more. Specifically, I mentally tested each assertion to determine that is was true and that each conclusion in fact followed from what had already been established. These judgments were not “built-into” the proof; I had to see them myself. This – checking theorems – is a core practice of mathematicians, and it depends on the person’s competence with how math makes sense.
  • The proof of the theorem came with the final statement, when I recognized the irrefutability of the entire proof. That recognition – experienced as a flash of insight when it all came together – was deeply, almost ecstatically satisfying. It was the ultimate satisfaction of a mathematician participating in an ultimate practice.

To summarize: The experience of “elegance” is the ultimate satisfaction of mathematics – the direct experience of the sense mathematics makes. To experience elegance requires participating in a math practice that involves acting on the way the math world makes sense (for example, proving theorems). Participation in math practices does not always evoke ultimate satisfaction (otherwise mathematicians would go around in a perpetual swoon of elegance), but that does not change the fact that the math world always makes sense in just the way it does make sense, to those who are competent to recognize it, i.e. mathematicians.

Now: What is true of the community of mathematicians is true of every community.

Drop the specific experience of “elegance” and what remains is this:

  • Every community has a shared world that makes sense to its members. The sense it makes is particular to each community’s world. This “making sense” is inherent in participation in the community’s core practices.
  • Every community has a set of ultimate practices, participation in which affirms their world and is accompanied by ultimate satisfaction.
  • Ultimate satisfaction is a strong basic human need. Persons are powerfully, inherently motivated to seek it.
  • The specific experience of ultimate satisfaction differs from community to community. Its importance to maintaining the community and its world does not.

In short: ultimate satisfaction holds the world together.

Next: What holds your world together?


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