Philosophy and the Therapeutic Analogy 4: The Origin of Philosophical Problems

In previous posts I have considered the character and maintaining factors of certain philosophical difficulties. I used Wittgenstein's famous analogy with neurosis, and with treatments of neurosis, to shed light on the nature and treatment of such disturbances. What I haven't yet considered in any depth is the metaphilosophical question of how these problems come around. One idea, owed to Wittgenstein, has been given - that they arise due to the havoc played by unnoticed similes operating in the cognitive unconscious. In what follows I shall consider this and one other theory of the origin of 'philosophical neurosis', providing a few reasons why they do not strike me as completely persuasive. I then present a theorisation owing at least as much to Heidegger as to Wittgenstein, which seems to me to perhaps be more on the right lines. I must own at the start that what I am saying is often rather speculative and undeveloped.
1. Fischer's Cognitive reading of Wittgenstein's Therapy Analogy
Eugen Fischer
A popular reading of the 'philosophical problem = neurosis; philosophical dissolution = psychotherapy' analogy stresses those passages in Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations which refer to our 'bewitchment by language'. Eugen Fischer has done the most to develop this conception - both in his paper Wittgenstein's Non-Cognitivism - Explained and Vindicated and in his forthcoming book on Philosophical Delusion and its Therapy. There are several principal claims at work in Fischer's conception which strike me as perfectly in order. I hope I can be forgiven if I illustrate these by quoting at length from his excellent work:
In the grip of [unconscious] models, we unwittingly but systematically make leaps of thought which tacitly rely on presuppositions we do not want to rely on, including propositions we reflectively reject. As long as we are under the influence of such models, we then find the conclusions we leap to intuitively compelling, and adopt them as often as not.
This tacit reliance on propositions we reflectively reject systematically leads us to adopt paradoxical claims in the absence of warrant. Such claims conflict with common-sense convictions we are unable, or scientific findings we are unwilling, to give up and thus appear to raise disquieting problems. These ‘problems’ are ill-motivated to the extent to which their proponents lack warrant for the paradoxical claims that raise them.
To such bad problems, philosophers frequently respond with the construction of equally bad theories. These theories are to restore consistency to the beliefs of their proponents: to refute what conflicting beliefs we feel able to abandon, and to accommodate those we cannot give up. Such theories tend to suffer from two defects: First, they are pointless at least to the extent to which they are meant to solve problems that are ill-motivated. Second, where philosophical pictures drive us to adopt an unwarranted claim which appears to raise a problem, they typically also drive the formulation of the theories that are to solve that problem.
In this case our theories are as unwarranted as our problems are ill-motivated: Both ultimately rely on presuppositions we tacitly make but reflectively reject. Not all of philosophy, but a significant part of it, is such a futile struggle with philosophical pictures and their consequences (the windmills they have us attack). This insight vindicates a novel approach to those problems which we raise in the grip of philosophical pictures. Once we have realised how we come to raise such problems, at least the most basic ideas of a new approach are dictated by plain common sense: Instead of rushing to ‘honour’ the claims to which we leap in the grip of philosophical pictures and then find intuitively compelling in the absence of warrant, we ought to establish carefully what warrant we can obtain for maintaining them. Where we cannot obtain any, we ought to abandon the ‘problem’ the claim appeared to raise.
The proper response to such an ill-motivated ‘problem’ is to show that it is ill-motivated: that it is raised only by a certain philosophical claim and that this claim is unwarranted. Second, we then need to enable us to actually give up what we have seen reason to reject: to deprive the claim of what intuitive appeal it may retain even once it has thus been refuted. In a nutshell: Picture-raised problems are to be resolved not by answering the questions that articulate them but by showing that we ought to give up these problems and enabling us to do so.
To this end, we need to turn from theories which belabour the symptoms to a new approach which addresses the causes: which exposes philosophical pictures and traces their effects, which shows us how adherence to such pictures leads us to endorse unwarranted claims and formulate ill-motivated problems.
Without further considering the above let me now consider what Fischer himself considers the cause of such problems. Why do we find ourselves drawn to tilting at such philosophical windmills? Fischer tells us that:
Much philosophical reflection is guided by ‘philosophical pictures’: false analogies to tangible or familiar models that have been built into our language and guide our thinking in ways of which we are hardly ever aware.
And why do we get 'held captive by' such 'pictures' - in what does our capture consist - where do what Fischer calls the 'systematically recurring cognitive distortions' come from? Wittgenstein talks (PI 109-111) of how problems arise through a 'misinterpretation of our forms of language', how 'grammatical illusions' are generated when philosophers are driven by 'urges to systematically misunderstand the workings of our language.' And why do we thus misinterpret when we do? At times Fischer appears simply to note that we do have such a systematic urge to misunderstand our own concepts. In other places, however, he develops the intriguing idea that such misunderstandings derive from the 'overly literal application of ... 'conceptual metaphors''. That is, 'philosophical reflection is profoundly pre-shaped by unintentional analogical reasoning, and that much of this reasoning involves characteristic and systematic mistakes.' Following Wittgenstein Fischer calls this 'adherence to philosophical pictures'.
Now I must own two things. First: Fischer's principle two-volume work is not yet published, and so I ought not to pretend to know what he will eventually say. Second: what Fischer does give us by way of a cause of our disposition to get caught in 'philosophical pictures' begins to give me just a little of what in other contexts is that far more profound uncomfortable quasi-countertransferential feeling I get when reading, say, certain NLP or CBT or ACT (or, even more extremely, General Semantics!) texts. (I sometimes wonder: Do people other than myself ever base their philosophy on the unpacking of their at-first-ad-hominem-ish countertransferential feelings to philosophical texts? How many others think primarily with their nose?) The feeling I get in those other contexts is that I am being presented with a too-thin vision of the being of human beings, a concerningly flat articulation of the soul, and it is linked to the notion that the kinds of emotional suffering we meet with in the clinic and in our own lives can be tracked back to logico-linguistic confusions, scope fallacies, and the like.
Why does this feeling arise? Well, it only arises a little when I consider Fischer's forgetfulness-of-metaphor approach. But when I think of cases which most pertinently manifest this disturbance in a clinical rather than intellectual register - in other words, when I think of the magical thinking and symbolic equations of OCD and schizophrenic delusion - what I immediately think of are the emotional, personality-driven, motivational factors within the mind which exploit the conflations to their own ends, without which the patient would not get stuck in such predicaments - without which the pictures would not derive their impetus and grip. I might also question why it is that the cognitive slips are made in the 'directions' in which they indeed are made. By 'direction' I mean: why is it that we tend to interpret 'ideas' along the model of 'physical objects', and not vice versa? Or: why do we tend to assimilate expression to assertion? To say that this is due to a tendency to 'literalise conceptual metaphors' may just be a way of restating this problem. Why don't we metaphoricise literal concepts instead? And why are there so many cases in philosophy - and in life - when we manage perfectly well with our conceptual metaphors without getting into philosophical trouble? Of course, it may be that we really are here at the end of the causal analysis, that our spade is turned here. But I have a reason for suspecting otherwise.
The reason is simply that urged in the previous post: that what unifies the kinds of conceptual conflations we make in philosophy is their manifestation of an alienated conception of the human being. We tend - I believe - towards conceptual conflations which depend upon our disposition to view ourselves and our worlds from the outside, as if we were not really participants in our own lives but rather, instead, disengaged onlookers.
2. Cavell's Psychoanalytic reading of Wittgenstein's Therapy Analogy
And why might that be? One reason could be that the therapy analogy is in some way more than an analogy - that our philosophical neuroses spring from the same source as our clinical neuroses. This, at any rate, would appear to be the idea behind certain contributions of Stanley Cavell, whose principal engagement with the topic has been through the idea of philosophical scepticism.
Cavell's engagement with scepticism - especially in The Claim of Reason - and especially with respect to scepticism regarding other minds - is fairly well known. Let me just highlight what I take to be a few of its principal features:
  • Cavell attempts not to refute the sceptic, but to show why and how we do not have to accept his arguments.
  • Cavell argues that Wittgenstein was not, as he reads Norman Malcolm and others as having suggested, attempting to use the notion of 'criteria' to defeat our scepticism about other minds.
  • The sceptic's argument is considered to undercut or doubt what Cavell calls our very 'attunement with one another'.
  • The anti-sceptical epistemologist and the sceptic can be viewed as two sides of the same coin. Consider Wittgenstein's parable (PI 297) of the water boiling in the pot ("Of course, if water boils in a pot, steam comes out of the pot and also pictured steam comes out of the pictured pot. But what if one insisted on saying that there must also be something boiling in the pictured pot?") - The epistemologist's desire to refer to empirical associations or to quasi-logical criteria between what is in the pot (sensations) and the steam (pain behaviour) is a manifestation of his accepting 'the picture that forces itself upon us here'. (nb as I argued above: Does the picture really force itself upon us - or are we here disowning our motivations and projecting them into the alleged 'force' of the picture?)
  • (Wittgenstein's point is better made when we understand the limitations of the picture of steam and pot contents for depicting the relation between pain and its expression.)
  • Cavell considers the philosophical problem of other minds to be an academic outgrowth of more general (not-just-academic) movements in the history of western culture.
  • In particular, we must take into account the rise of the self in the Enlightenment, the centrality given to the notion of privacy in its articulation, and the existential doubts that arise about the possibility of achieving connection with one another in this cultural context.
  • Cavell considers the way in which the attempt to refute scepticism can itself be a form of scepticism. By trying to insist on a criterial hardness of a putative 'connection' between pain behaviour and pain, the anti-sceptic finds it hard to make room for the emotionally difficult-to-accept: contingency, doubt, moral frailty, vulnerability, possibility of misreading, inability to find our feet with, of our relations with one another. They too end up denying what is, in effect, essential about our humanity.
  • Cavell turns to literature to find cases in which we fail in our acknowledgement of one another, or in our attunement to one another. Scepticism is ultimately understood as an ethical failing - a failing in those connections with one another which constitute our recognition, or acknowledgement, of one another's humanity. I'll quote a section, just because it's so very interesting (Claim of Reason pp. 478-9):
    Shylock [Merchant of Venice] has just listed his abuses at the hands of Antonio and asks the reason for them. Shylock gives his answer: "I am a Jew."
    Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us do we not belled? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong is shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge! If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his siffereance be by Christian example? - Why, revenge! The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.
    That is, for present purposes: My body, and its fates, the visible part of me, is the same as the Christian's. And then the philosophical conclusion one would expect Shylock to draw, or ask to be drawn, is that the invisible part is the same as well; reason is compelled to admit as much. It is true that Shylock includes more in his premisses of "the visible part" of himself than a purer philosopher would; he includes things that the philosopher would regard as part of the conclusion of the argument from analogy, e.g., senses, affections, passions; and hence seems to beg the question. But though less pure, Shylock is more knowing. He knows, what any sensible person knows, that the purer argument must fail, that one who does not already know that the other's body "is connected with" sentience cannot be convinced by this argument, or rather cannot understand what it is an argument about, the existence of others. So Shylock, in noting his points of identity with other human beings in a series of rhetorical questions, is allowing that others of course do know all of these things about Jews - for example, about him; but he is denying (or further reminding us not to conclude) that knowing such things about him is knowing of his existence as a (an other) human being.
Now these suggestions are, I believe fascinating and compelling - some have more recently been developed, in particular, and to great effect, by Raimond Gaita. But my question, which is not here Cavell's question, is: To what extent does this serve as an explanation of our disposition to arrive at neurotic questions in philosophy?
Cavell alludes to what seems to be the existential flip-side to Fischer's linguistic-logical standpoint. According to Fischer our philosophical 'neurosis' is as the cognitive therapist or relational frame theorist might have it: a failure to notice that we are cognitively over-reaching ourselves when, using language which borrows its structure from other conceptual domains, we take out more than our due allowance and unwittingly over-play the metaphor. Cavell, however (as it appears to me) draws on a broadly psychoanalytic vision. Our epistemological quandaries about other minds are outgrowths of our general human predicaments in sustaining our acknowledgement for one another - or for that matter, in sustaining our own humanity. Perhaps they have their source in the various drives to omnipotent phantasy: we find it hard to acknowledge the genuine independent otherness of 'other minds', of an 'external world', because it can be hard to tolerate their real independence from us, their lack of subservience to our will. At the same time it can be hard for us to recognise our own humanity for something like the opposite reason: that we are just one amongst others; that we can only live and grow and love, take in emotional food, be loved, to the extent that we can also be vulnerable, to be hurt and be broken.
These are of course valid psychological observations. But are they valid expressions of the sources of the kinds of philosophical perplexity that have been troubling me in these posts? Is Cavell right to think of scepticism as (p. 493) a 'cover - [as] the conversion of metaphysical [existential] finitiude into intellectual lack'? Against this I wish to lodge the following objections:

  • If we have already accepted that literature can be a 'truer' expression of the sceptical impulse than philosophy, then we may be persuaded by what Cavell writes. This is so because great literature grapples so well with precisely the kinds of existential and emotional preoccupations that the psychoanalyst meets with in her clinic. Yet the suspicion remains that it is only because Cavell himself holds it up as a 'truer' expression of the 'real' sceptical impulse that we are inclined, then, to treat the philosophical in the same way we would the literary.

  • Cavell's position appears to psychologise the sources of the sceptic's and the epistemologist's struggles. But perhaps there is an unwarranted assimilation at work here. Just as Fischer warns us against literalising our metaphors, or getting 'held captive by pictures', so too I am inclined to think it may be too easy to explain the hold that philosophical neuroses have on us by simply de-analogising the 'philosophical problem as neurosis' analogy.
3. Richard's ?Heideggarian? reading of Wittgenstein's Therapy Analogy...
Martin Heidegger
So is there a way between or beyond the cognitive and the psychoanalytical when we are trying to spell out the roots of what the analogy presents us with? Here I shall be claiming that Heidegger provides us with a metaphilosophical vision that has greater (explanatory) depth than the 'cognitive' one, and greater discrimination (between the psychological and the epistemological) than the 'psychoanalytic'.

Here, then, is our question: Whence the assimilations we make? Why are we prone to construe minds as places, why do so many of our tacit assimilations run in the same direction (assimilating thoughts to entities rather than vice versa)? Why are they often organised by a conception of ourselves and our relation to reality as alienated and external? If we reject the psychoanalytic vision (when applied to philosophical problems) as psychologistic, and reject the cognitive one as too thin (yes, we make the assimilations, overlook the metaphors, but why?), where do we turn?

In particular the question that interests me here is: Are there any general structural (i.e. non-motivational) reasons, relating to the nature of human understanding, which explain the alienation of some of our philosophical self-conceptions without grounding this in an alienation to which we are prone when not philosophising? Can we keep apart the existential from the psychological, keeping the former and rejecting the latter, in our metaphilosophical explications? Clearly this alienation is of a piece with our disposition to construe ourselves as objects, to model, in Sartrean language, the pour soi as the en soi. We overlook the immediacy of expression, avowal, and intrinsic normativity, and instead view our language as simply a descriptive device. Life and meaning are constantly sapped from our expression and from our discourse, and relegated to an interiorised domain from which they derive. All of this is true; we do this again and again. But: Why?
The answer that presents itself to me is as follows:

  • Philosophy begins not in wonder but in perplexity. (It seems to me that if it goes well, it ends in wonder at the world and self-dissolution of the philosophy; and if it goes poorly, it ends in an unholy alliance of theory and continued perplexity.)

  • This perplexity may arise from a multitude of sources, but like neurotic doubt it is a function of the way in which the questions are being asked.

  • This 'way' in which the questions are asked may well be under the influence of certain 'philosophical pictures' (Fischer), or out of the anxieties we have about being human (Cavell). Or perhaps it simply arises from a misunderstanding, from two people talking past each other, from one person talking past himself, or from a certain kind of curiosity which overstretches itself.

  • Yet regardless of how it arises, it is quickly 'fixed' by the habits of inquiry which are built into our understanding. It is these habits which consolidate and drive the philosophical inquiry, create the philosophical problematic, and motivate the search for theoretical answers.

  • The habits are good habits when operating in their normal, everyday, contexts. They are good habits when they function well in scientific pursuits too. In fact they constitute our very understanding of what we everyday encounter.

  • However they themselves operate within a range of conditions, a context of inquiry, which cannot be taken for granted - are in fact put out of operation - in the philosophical context.
  • The very act of raising questions, articulating perplexities into questions, questions about ourselves, has us treat ourselves, or aspects of ourselves, in reflective thought, as 'objects'. (In itself this is fine: we are, of course, in at least one sense, 'objects'.)

  • Philosophy makes enquiries of our thinking, turns our thinking into an object for its enquiries. We are thereby brought into a sort of relation with ourselves. But what can tacitly happen, when we are not then careful, is that the way in which we show up to ourselves when we inhabit this new context, becomes inscribed into our vision of the kind of being we are.
  • So: I think philosophically about thinking itself. Thinking now becomes the object of my thought, and if we are not careful we now easily overlook its character as the living medium of our linguistically structure comprehending relation to the world. It becomes objectified. Thought becomes objectified, viewed as a matter of representation, and now these representations must become magical - self-interpreting representations for example.
  • The vorhanden becomes framed as zuhanden. So too for our behaving, acting, writing, speaking, expressing. When the mind takes itself as an object a forgetfulness of its ownmost subjectivity slips in. Donald Davidson wants to start thinking of actions as events, etc. We become tacitly alienated from ourselves.
The neurotic has lost their pre-reflective, foundational, confidence in the functioning of their own mind and in the stable reliable availabilty of others and of the world around them. They are however perfectly confident in is the viability of their own questions. When foundational trust returns, however, when these tables are turned, their confidence in the sensibleness of their own doubt quickly itself erodes.

A similar process may obtain (I find, from my own experience) in doing philosophy: I am caught up in an attitude of belief in the possibility - and felt need for - but apparent absence of - a kind of certainty, and along with this goes a peculiar kind of certainty about (the viability of) my own philosophical questioning or doubting. I am, as Fischer notes, held captive by a picture. But what holds me captive, I want to say, is not the picture forcing itself on me (how would it ever do that?).

Rather, I am predisposed to make the assimilations or conflations I do because of the objectifying stance embedded in the metaphysical or epistemological gaze itself. Thoughts remain objects for too long not simply because of the metaphorical conflation but because the activity of philosophising too-readily encourages the conflation in question.

This, I believe, explains why it is that we are driven to make the particular conflations we do. Our life with numbers becomes detached and alienated and deanimated - and so we start getting into the tangles of conventionalism or platonism. Rules become facts. Expressions of feelings become expressions of judgements that we have feelings. Feelings become inner entities. Praxis becomes rule following. People - subjects - become combinations of objectified bodies and objectified minds. The true conscious subject appears to recede ever back and quite soon even mystifying talk about a mysterious flame called consciousness starts to look appealing. (It's the repository of all the life that unbeknownst to us has been sucked out of ourselves by our own tacitly objectifying mode of enquiry.) Even the idealist has first tacitly assimilated minds to things before they then go on to explicitly assimilate things to (thing-like) minds. The living heart of human life which we must always enact or expressively body forth ossifies again and again under the gaze of the Medusa-like philosophical consciousness.


Popular Posts