Sunday, 11 August 2013


Here's a recent BBC article which presents us with another undelightful concoction of CBT pop-philosophy. 'CBT', we are told, 'is based on the idea that problems aren't caused by situations themselves, but by how we interpret them in our thoughts. These can then affect our feelings and actions.' There follows the obligatory schematic of situations and an individual's thoughts and feelings and actions linked up with bidirectional arrows (we're not told what the arrows represent - causal relations? intentional relations? rational relations? who knows...).

There's something rather helpful about this presentation of the now widespread Pop Individualist Stoic Schematics (henceforth I'll just use the acronym), in that it does rather lay bare to the passingly critical mind some of the confusions at the heart of this vision of the human condition which, being second to none in its triteness and banality, remains such a constant embarrassment to the discipline of psychology.

Let's take the PISS notion of 'situations' (also often glossed as 'things') for starters. For the contrast (not by the situations themselves, but by our interpretations of these situations) to get off the ground we presumably need to have access to a concept of 'situation' which doesn't already have built into it too much by way of meaning-laden-ness - so as not to approach too closely (and obviate) the 'interpretation' which we are told mediates our emotional reactions or 'problems'. At an extreme we might perhaps take 'situations' to be intrinsically devoid of meaning, dead as it were, all the meaning being supplied by the individual's interpretative responses to, or overlay on, them. (This perhaps-pre-requisite deadening of the lifeworld is perhaps also why the stoic adage is often rendered in terms of mere 'things': 'not by things but by our interpretations of things...')

And then on the other hand we're going to have to be careful with our concept of 'interpretation' - weaving a course away from something which risks reconstruction in terms like 'meaning-sensitivity', 'uptake', 'grasp [of meaning]', 'getting [the sense of]' (since if we get too close to meaning-finding and too far from meaning-making we will lose the sense of the contrast (not by situations but by interpretations of situations...)), but which doesn't in the process take us too close to something implausibly intellectualist. By the latter I have in mind anything too literally interpretative - i.e. as when we aid our understanding by substituting the initially unperspicuous words of a text for certain other phrases which, for certain ends in a given context, can be taken as less opaque.

Now neither of these extreme readings - of 'situations', of 'interpretation' - is presumably going to find many supporters in an even slightly reflective psychological milieu. For on the 'external' side the very idea of a situation, especially as we encounter it in sociology, is of an event or context which is already run through with socially specified norms which pre-specify a range of correct, incorrect, apt, inappropriate, dismal or hopeful or what-have-you responses. And, on the 'internal' side the idea that our finding or discerning or imputing meaning in our situations is a function of anything as cognitively rich as something akin to genuine interpretation can hardly seem anything other than hyperbolic.

So on both the 'situation' and the 'interpretation' side we are, on reflective appreciation of what we could allow ourselves to sensibly mean by our talk of such matters, likely to want to slide towards the middle - taking situations as already to some degree meaningful without individual help from us readers of them, and taking what is being referred to here as 'interpretation' as to some degree a matter of sensitivity rather than of idiosyncratic and reflective making-something-particular-out-of-ness  (the 'how we interpret them in our thoughts' bit). But then, I want to ask, are we still really confident that we know exactly what we are talking about when we say now that psychological 'problems' are a function of interpretation rather than of situation? Can we really hold these two far apart from one another in an obvious and reliable way without them jostling up against / collapsing into one another in the middle? Can we avoid the defunct dualistic conception of the human as split into a meaningful interior which inhabits a meaningless exterior, and instead bring ourselves home to the embodiment of our dasein, the fleshliness of the social, whilst yet still holding out any hope that the PISS formulation can do anything for us?

Unemployment and social isolation are what social psychiatry identifies as amongst the most powerful causes of depression. Is it really a helpful take on this to come from family home into one's job in the clinic and say to one's patient 'but you're just caught up in an unhelpful take on your predicament me old mate'? 'Look at it this way: you have no commitments or responsibilities to anyone, you have a lot of free time to yourself; you're just taking a perfectly innocuous situation in which you happen to not be in frequent geometric proximity to others and laying on top of it all of this unhelpful interpretative paintwork by construing it evaluatively in terms like 'isolation', 'loneliness' etc.' Now of course no-one really thinks this, and I should probably stop taking the PISS so seriously. To talk in that way is just as absurd as to suppose that the causal effects of unemployment and isolation are brute de re facts akin to the causal effects on mood of, say, low serotonin (or what have you).

But my point, recall, is not in any way to try and position the causality underlying emotional problems as either meaning-involving or brute, or anywhere in between, but instead to put pressure on the idea that we really know what we're talking about when we say things like 'not due to situations, but due to our readings of them.' For the fact seems to be: that some, perhaps many, readings are a matter of uptake and not of (non-dynamic) projection; that some of the emotionally significant meaning is there to be found and not to be made; that the concept of a 'situation' is typically of something necessarily already meaningful - already woven through with trans-individual emotionally salient senses of significance; that both problems and joys (both our access to reality and impairments of that access) arise naturally and equally through an admixture of meanings found and imposed; that often problems emerge not from our interpretations of our situations but from the thought-and-feeling-and-understanding-numbing consequences of an instinctual defensive recoil away from those painful feelings that we avoid; that the 'interpretations' which we meet with in the patient are often enough the result of the distorting effect of defenses operating on feelings rather than something driving the problems-in-feeling under their own steam; etc. (To say nothing of the fact that, surely, some problems are somewhat brute - take the unwanted side-effects of certain psychiatric medications for example, or the impact of damage to this or that part of the brain.)

In fact, to get nearer to the psychopathological truth it seems to me that we have to become much more specific and phenomenologically acute about what we mean by our 'interpretations' of our situations. And at the end of this process, I submit, we might look around and find ourselves a million miles away from anything like the nice breezy PISS formulation and allied boxological models of the human condition. (We ultimately arrive, I would submit, at something which looks a lot more like the primitive embodied unconscious phantasies described by the psychoanalysts - phantasies that much more beset us than are entertained by us, phantasies which pay little respect to the laws of rational sense-making - than at anything that naturally invites us to engage in talk of 'interpreting'. But I won't try to make that case here! In any case, to imagine that one could promote the grasp, through a bare schematic assertion of the psychodynamic and phenomenological facts, of what is what here really would amount to the analytic kettle calling the PISS pot black.)

Read the PISS in as interpretatively charitable a way as possible and we arrive at something which one would have to be pretty much insane to deny. But also, I suggest, at something which will either need to be so vaguely broad, or so idiosyncratically finessed, that one would also have to be pretty much insane to imagine that its articulation in the clothes it normally wears could serve any fathomable human purpose.