Saturday, 7 June 2008

Dialectic, Disavowal, Defence

In a previous post - ostensibly about 'externalisation' in clinical psychology - I ended by claiming that it was essential for psychologists to dialectically steer back and forth between romantic and constructionist conceptions of the self without getting caught at either pole or taking either to provide a viable and complete metapsychology. The former present us with a conception of the relation between i) what one narrates about what is going on for oneself, and ii) what is actually going on for oneself, as external (non-constitutive). Recognition is the paradigm here, and acknowledgement of the possibility of in-apt forms of self-description the key concern. The latter presents us with a different idea - of the relation in question as internal (or, here, constituting). I 'make up my mind' - what I say goes, since to be treated as possessing this inalienable authority, to be the real author of not only self-narratives, but in and through this, of one's self, is just to be treated with the kind of respect that is due to people considered as such.

It seems to me now that this simply misdescribes the logical landscape of the self. In particular, the latter (constructionist) conception of the rationale for the inalienability of certain forms of self-knowledge is particularly thin. It owed, I now believe, too much to the constructionist philosophy of the first person of Crispin Wright. And not enough to other philosophers' (Rockney Jacobsen, Dorit Bar-On) attempts to explicate Wittgenstein's anti-recognitional conception of first-person epistemology. To be sure, there are times when we do 'make up our minds' - when making a promise, determining our resolve, committing ourselves to a cause, etc. - but there are many other times when this completely fails to capture the spirit of the relation between psychological state and self-narration.

In fact, the idea of self-narration as constitutive - especially for cases in which what we are interested in are a subject's emotions and fantasies - is one which should provide ample fodder for the psychoanalyst. Pseudo-disclosure, creation of a false-self, self-deception, unreality - are all possibilities which stem from the idea that we have a greater say-so than we really do with regards the reality of our own inner experience. But is there another way to grasp the two poles of self-narration and the dialectics of self-discovery and self-determination - one which preserves authority and the internal character of the self-narration without viewing it as always constituting?

The best place to start, it seems to me, is with a conception of self-narration as avowal. Here what I say with regard my own thought of feeling has an inalienable authority not because it itself actively constitutes, but because it is passively constituted by, the thought or feeling. I say 'I feel sad', 'I believe I ought to go now' - and these feelings and beliefs are what is directly expressed or avowed in what is said. These verbalisations are part of the 'natural behaviour' of belief or feeling of a linguistic being. To believe or feel something just is (amongst other things) to be disposed to utter just this or that. Our talk is not here descriptive or based in judgement of what is found within. It is directly, non-mediatively, expressive of the inner.

What then are we to make of failures of this kind of self-knowledge? (Failures of a kind of 'knowledge' that represents no form of epistemic achievement.) How can we understand too what makes for growths in self-knowledge, if our paradigm for this is of an activity which in itself represents no kind of achievement?

The answer to this comes, I believe, from understanding the difference between, on the one hand, correct and incorrect (mistaken) descriptions of the world around us and, on the other hand, avowals and disturbances of self-knowledge. It is tempting, but ultimately misleading, to model the latter on the former (or vice versa). It is misleading in two ways. First because everyday self-knowledge of the sort envisaged - when I simply express or avow my conscious thought or feeling - is no kind of epistemic achievement (unlike even simple cases of perception of the 'external world'). I do not need to 'get in touch with' these thoughts or feelings. Second because, whereas failures of knowledge of the world are often passively suffered, failures in self-knowledge typically have an active character.

The idea of 'getting in touch with' one's thoughts or feelings is, I believe, potentially misleading. It invites us to conceive of thoughts and feelings as inhabitants of the mind which are always 'there anyway' regardless of an 'awareness' of them. It makes it appear that our ability to avow our conscious feelings and thoughts is dependent upon a kind of inner perception - 'inner sense' as Kant once thought of it. But when I express myself, it is not that I talk about my feelings; rather I give them voice.

Pathological cases involve, then, not the failure of a mechanism of self-knowledge, but rather the installing of particular mechanisms of self-deception. The activity is all with them. When we arrive at self-knowledge which we did not before possess, regarding our thoughts and feelings, what we do is clear away the functioning of a defence mechanism. Successful articulation depends not on correct identification but on the often painful setting aside of defences which have distorted the otherwise spontaneous or unmediated exercise of avowal. It is disavowal, rather than avowal, which wears the epistemic trousers here.

There are occasional cases of self-narration where we must search for just the right words for our inner experience, or others when we feel the word 'on the tip of our tongue' yet cannot produce it. Sometimes we say what we feel yet acknowledge that this too isn't quite right. At other times someone else - our analyst for instance - may supply the words which had previously escaped us. A natural to question to ask of ourselves is 'what makes it the case that this one expression is the apt one, this other inapt?' Or 'How is it that I know when I've found thet right formulation?' And having asked such a question we are apt to feel utterly baffled by it - unless we slip back into a recognitional conception of the grounds of self-ascription (and miss the significance of the groundlessness propounded in the Wittgensteinian avowalist vision).

This possibility is one which has puzzled me for a long time, and I do not claim to be able to (dis)solve it fully here. But perhaps a start can be made if we alter the protagonist - of the search for the right expression - from the feeler to the feeling. This utterance (A) is the expression, the avowal, of the feeling in question. This other utterance (B) is not an avowal of it. There is no proper answer to the question 'What makes it the case that the words 'I believe that I am 6 feet tall' typically express the belief that I am 6 feet tall?', since it is not a proper question. The putative relation is 'internal': this is what it is to believe that I am 6 feet tall - it is to be disposed to answer thus to a question about how tall one believes oneself to be, and so on. There is no issue as to what makes it the case that this is a correct description of the belief. As with Wittgenstein on the sketch of a circle: The dark circle outline fits the white disk within perfectly not because of any perfectly operating matching mechanism, but because it itself determines the disk's parameter.

So too perhaps with the 'correct' avowal of a feeling. It is not a matter of an apt description the aptness of which can be attested to through appeals to the mode or norms of representation being employed. It is rather that: This expression is an avowal of the feeling; this other is not. Offered the right words, my feeling can body forth in discourse. The situation is akin to the violinist, with the second finger of his left hand pressing down on the D string, only producing an F# when the bow is placed on the string. Place the bow anywhere else - and a note will not sound.

It is sometimes instructive to consider the state of mind one is in when certain determinations become impossible - such as trying to determine which is the correct expressive articulation of one's own feeling. It occurs to me that a typical such state may be one of mild self-alienation - to even be caught in this situation of searching for the apt words, my feelings are without my vocabulary at their own command. A third-person approach to my own emotional state becomes inscribed into the very quest - and then appears to determine the forms of the reflective questions we ask about the nature of the adequation of the verbal search.

To return to the initial theme. Originally I compared psychoanalytic and narrative conceptions of the self - romantic recognitional and postmodern constructionist versions - as two poles both of which must be accommodated by a viable clinical psychology apt for description and theorisation of the gamut of human psychopathology. Without questioning the viability of third-personal recognitional paradigms applied on occasion to the first-person case, or first-person constructionist affairs, I have suggested that first-person discourse is best understood as expressive or as involving avowal. Here the emotions and thoughts express themselves immediately in our language, and there is no question of our being involved in recognition, or of our 'making up' our minds as we progress. Cases in which we are not 'in touch with' our feelings are best understood - not as obverses of typical cases in which we are in touch with ourselves (since that epistemic concept is quite out of place here), but - as cases where the active employment of disavowal or some other self-alienating defence is operative. Returning to ourselves is a matter of recovering our capacity to avow, through clearing away disturbances (not of recognition nor of creation but) of expression.