Talking Teapots

"But in a fairy tale the pot too can see and hear!" (Certainly; but it can also talk.) ... "But the fairy tale only invents what is not the case: it does not talk nonsense." -- It is not as simple as that. Is it false or nonsensical to say that a pot talks? Have we a clear picture of the circumstances in which we should say of a pot that it talked? (Even a nonsense-poem is not nonsense in the same way as the babbling of a child.) (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 282)

Allow me to return again to a familiar theme. Perhaps I can put it more clearly this time.

So a patient tells me 'Constance is taking thoughts out of my mind'. He tells me that 'I am being controlled by telepathy'. My question is: What is he telling me when he tells me this? And my answer will be: that Constance is taking thoughts out of his mind, or that he is being controlled by telepathy. Hardly thrilling stuff...

But let me explain. What I really want to do is to enhance my sense of entitlement to hold onto this answer, whilst simultaneously rejecting the idea that what he says is a correct description of an experience he is having - the experience as of having thoughts removed from his mind. And I also want to reject the idea that what he says is an incorrect description of an experience he is having (of simply losing his train of thought, forgetting what he was thinking about, etc.). Further, I want to reject the idea that he is, strictly speaking, producing just 'meaningless speech acts' (German Berrios voiced this widespread psychiatric assumption - Berrios, G. E. 1991. Delusions as "wrong beliefs": A conceptual history. British Journal of Psychiatry 159 (suppl. 14):6-13). That I reject this should be evident from the fact that I want to provide the answer that I do (as sketched above).

So the question now is: Can I get away with this?!

Well, of course, I think I can. It seems to me that what I've called the 'romantic' and the 'psychiatric' (sorry chaps) options - of 'finding meaning in madness' and of denying the meaningfulness of the productions of the mad, respectively - both share a common assumption. This assumption is that what is said ('Constance is taking thoughts out of my mind') describes - or ought (if it is to be considered anything more than an empty utterance) to describe - an experience which could admit of some other possible individuation. That assumption would need to be fulfilled before either the romantic or the psychiatric approach could be successfully deployed. We would need to be able to answer the question 'What makes it correct or incorrect for Frank to describe his experience in such terms?'. We would need to spell out some rule of representation which was or was not being adhered to in the present case. But - we can't.

It's a commonplace in the 'romantic' literature to suggest that, if we see what someone says in their madness in a certain context, then it can be understood to be symbolically significant. If we accept this, then it may look like we have to accept that there is some fact which they are describing - it is just that this fact has been metaphorically described, or misdescribed.

The question of whether we should or should not accept this turns, however, on what is meant by 'symbolically'. For it ought to be noted that the psychological (especially the psychoanalytical) concept of 'symbolism' has a different meaning than the everyday one. The everyday one employs a notion of 'standing for' (x stands for y) where what makes it the case that x stands for y is a certain intentional relation (a relation of 'aboutness') obtaining between x and y. To explicate this intentionality we may refer to (for example) the intentions of the symboliser.

Agnes PetoczThis, it ought to be noted, is a far cry from the psychoanalytic meaning. As Agnes Petocz has nicely brought out, the relevant connections in psychological symbolism are causal, rather than intentional. As her 'Freudian broad theory of symbolism' would have it, the relevant sense of 'symbolism' is of a non-conventional process, where symbols are not used primarily to communicate, but are rather produced by displacement (i.e. slippage along associative lines). To quote (p. 233):

The basis of (non-conventional) symbolism lies in four empirical facts: (i) the initial primary objects [parents and their part objects] and consumatory activities of the innate instinctual drives; (ii) the long period of infantile dependence; (iii) the connection between the drives and cognitive structures, which leads to the 'interested' perceiving of similarities between the primary objects and other, non-primary, objects; and (iv) the unavailability (to some part of the mind), mainly through repression, of those primary objects, and the inhibition, mainly through repression, of the expression of the consummatory activities with respect to particular primary objects.

Now this seems fairly in order to me, if we leave aside the somewhat non-explanatory references to 'repression'. (Repression always seems like a lame explanatory concept, because what we want to know, when we are being told about a defense mechanism, is how it achieves its ends. Repression just says that the person does not think about something; what we want to know is: How do they manage that! Other defense mechanisms concepts, by contrast, (you know: denial, projection, acting out, dissociation, sublimation, introjection, intellectualisation....) seem in far better explanatory shape.)

We have, as Richard Wollheim described, broadened our sense of what counts as 'meaningful' or 'psychological' in developing a psychoanalytic psychology, developed a new form of explanation irreducible to everyday 'folk psychology' (our everyday understanding of one another in terms of beliefs, desires, intentions) - which is in fact an extension of everyday folk psychology. In the broadening out, the conditions for meaningfulness are somewhat relaxed, allowing us to take in more phenomena.

In this broadened out form, the idea that what the person with delusions says (when reporting their delusions) is symbolically meaningful is perfectly in order. But this does not in itself license the idea that what is said is a correct or incorrect description of an experience. To paraphrase Wittgenstein (Philosophical Investigations, 245), we still cannot 'use language to get between a [delusion] and its expression'.

What is it that stops delusional utterances from being (a la Berrios) 'empty speech acts'? What is it for that matter that allows us to think of (psychoanalytic) symbolism as carrying meaning? At this point it is I believe helpful to remind ourselves of the sanity of the insane. The simple fact is that the person who is delusional nevertheless knows perfectly well how to use the words 'Constantine', 'takes', 'thoughts', 'out', 'of', 'my', 'mind' in everyday parlance. They can point to Constantine, demonstrate taking, use the word 'mind' in an appropriate way in many contexts.

Were it not for this general sanity, then we may well be tempted to think of their uses of words as meaningless. The same, it ought to be said, goes for the metaphysician, when they find themselves tempted to deny or affirm the theses of (for example) empirical or transcendental idealism. If they didn't know perfectly well how to use the words 'world', 'dependent', etc. in their everyday conversation, we would think that what they said was simply vacuous. As it is we acknowledge that what they say when they say that 'the form taken by the world depends on its being perceived thus' means what it says. But we also acknowledge that it doesn't describe a genuine possibility, doesn't describe anything that could actually be the case. We have no real use for these words in that context - they don't delineate a real possibility.

So too, perhaps, for what the person suffering from 'thought withdrawal' or 'depersonalisation' or 'made actions' or Cotard's delusion ('I am dead') says. We hear what they say, and they mean just what they say, and we can to some degree allow our mind to travel sideways rather than head on (psychoanalytical symbolism through associative displacement, rather than everyday intentionality) into what is said. (Compare science fiction on time travel, and Wittgenstein (Investigations 282) on talking teapots in fairystories.) We can to some degree 'fall in step with', 'go along with' what is said, holding in suspense what we know (or just intuit) is the case: that there is no such thing as thoughts being 'put into' or 'taken out of' our minds in the literal way envisaged. (Contrast what does make sense - namely subliminal advertising, being distracted, etc.)

When someone recites or listens to a fairy story, they have suspended their everyday understanding, and playfully 'inhabit an alternative reality in which teapots talk'. I have pointed out in an earlier post that there is no such thing as really inhabiting an alternative reality - this is a metaphor. Nevertheless, this is what happens. The pre-reflective cogs which bind the mind to reality are disengaged, and it idles, spins in fancy. In psychosis there is not this element of choice, and certainly not this element of playfulness. The person with a psychosis does not suspend their everyday understanding; rather, it is suspended for them.To reconnect they do not need arguments or reminders - for these only work when the relevant cogs are capable of being engaged. What is needed is to build up the basic trust - of relationships, of certainty-in-action - which constitutes the pre-reflective foundations of our contact with the world. That, however, is the topic for another post.

To return to the main theme. Psychotic utterances say what they say, and they do not correctly or incorrectly describe the sufferer's experience. What the person with Cotard's delusion believes is that they are dead. This is not an intelligible possibility - any more than the beliefs of many a metaphysician are beliefs in intelligible possibilities. As with the metaphysician, and as with the talking teapot in the fairy tale, we do have some idea of what it would be to believe these things. For example, certain inferences can be made; we will not find it suprising if we come across the further idea in the story that the teapot with eyes and ears and the power of speech would be able to report on what has been said in conversations in its close vicinity. We can also predict what people labouring under metaphysical beliefs might say in various argumentative contexts. So too with the person experiencing delusions. We have reactions to what is said which we do not have if they are to speak mere gibberish. To do justice to them we need to both note the expectations we have with regard to what else they may now say and do, and also attend to that in what is said which exceeds credulity - and come to an understanding of which of our own sense-and-sanity-constituting reactive dispositions are exceeded by what is delusional about the delusion.


Popular Posts