Sunday, 7 June 2015

reflective understanding in psychopathology

I've recently been much enjoying David Ellis's reminiscences of Frank Cioffi,a sometimes grumpy yet most often charming, writerly, humane and evocative memoir of this sometimes grumpy and often charming, writerly and humane philosopher. Cioffi was best known for his sensitive exposition of Wittgenstein and his (sometimes uncharitable yet most often) penetrating critique of the tendentious elements of Freud's theorising. I think however that his real gift was for providing a certain kind of illumination that we are not always aware we require but which, when we receive it, reduces or removes the pressures we can feel to articulate our perplexity into rather unhelpful, misbegotten, kinds of questions. Perspicuity is the name of the game; the felicitous phrase the intended product; careful thinking which pays keen attention to fine conceptual differences the method. The aim is not to inevitably displace scientific inquiry, but to check the impulse to squash every question into a scientific mould or to automatically answer in explanatory or predictive terms the queries that our puzzlements inspire.

There's not much I want to say about this, but it bears insisting on that such a reflective understanding is indeed possible, that it's value is self-intimating, and that it is, I believe, just what psychopathological science requires. Ellis' book is filled with nice examples of Cioffi on what he called 'the two directions'; I will consider one from it in a moment. But Cioffi gives examples in other places too, such as in this late lecture on 'Was Wittgenstein right to call science a trap?'. He is considering Dawkins' view that science but adds to our wonder at the natural world and the cosmos. Imagine, Cioffi says about himself, that he is in a corner shop, having taken down a magazine from the top shelf, lustfully admiring the centrefold. Then professor Dawkins comes along and, over his shoulder, starts telling him all about the evolution of the mammary gland. The impromptu lecture might, Cioffi suggests, be really rather interesting, but one thing can be guaranteed: that within a few minutes of this he will have lost his erection! The point being that science may just as likely be a distraction from, than an enhancement of, autonomous forms of understanding and contemplation for which we do well to make independent space in our lives. Relatedly, Ellis writes (pp.74-5) of how, quoting Yeats,

Dawkins had asked, 'As Michelangelo's mind moved upon silence "like a long legged fly upon the stream"; what might he not have painted if he had known the contents of one nerve cell of the long-legged fly?' He found it equally absurd that Dawkins had gone on : ''Think of the Dies Irae that might have been wrung from Verdi by the contemplation of the dinosaurs' fate when 65 million years ago, a mountain sized rock screamed out of deep space at 10,000 miles per hour straight at the Yucatan peninsula and the world went dark.' These speculations illustrated for Frank the way in which an infatuation with science could make the mind lose its bearings and he expressed relief at being spared Dawkins's conjectures as to how Shakespeare's achievement might have been improved had he taken an A-level in chemistry.

As far as I'm aware the most famous example there is of the ways in which scientific modes of apprehension can obscure what it is we are disturbed and impressed by, and of the value of a philosophical mode of comprehension which instead aims at deeper reflective clarity, is Wittgenstein's discussion of Frazer's treatment of the Beltane fire festivals (pp.105-6):

The Beltane fires festivals were pagan rituals which, in the eighteenth century and thereafter, involved dancing around a bonfire and in some cases throwing a human effigy on to it. Frazer traced these far back to times of human sacrifice, when he believed real men were burnt. For Wittgenstein, this explanation of why the festivals impressed us as they did was gratuitous, and a manifestation, perhaps, of the nineteenth century's slavish indebtedness to science. To account for the slightly disturbing effect of the ritual in its more modern forms, we did not need genetic [i.e. causal-historical] speculations but only the capacity to put into order what we already knew and the ability to understand our own minds better. This was true of very many experiences which could be said to 'assault our being', and in by no means of all of these was there the revelation of human kind's capacity for cruelty. A remark which Frank particularly liked, for example, and which also comes from what Wittgenstein had to say about The Golden Bough, begins with 'every explanation is a hypothesis' and goes on: 'But for someone worried by love, an explanatory hypothesis will not help much. It will not bring peace.' Wittgenstein goes on to refer to 'the crush of thoughts that do not get out because they all press forward and are wedged in the door'. It was about how to deal with this 'crush of thoughts' wedged in the door that Frank felt Wittgenstein had important things to say.
I've not myself managed to find anything in Frazer which suggests that his interest in the sacrificial origins of the Beltane fire festivals is offered by way of explanation of why their observation may be experienced as an assault on our being. (And watching today's neo-pagan revival of them is surely a far less disturbing matter!) By contrast, if we look at how The Golden Bough begins, we find what seems to me to be a far more likely target: Frazer's attempt to get to grips with the gruesome succession of the priesthood of Nemi through reconstructing likely precursors seems to gloss too quickly over the significance to us of something it already tells us: that our jarring impression of barbarousness is partly a function of the situation of Nemi in the serene Italian countryside. (Consider: attempts to prosecute ontology through etymology.)

Severe psychopathology, more than anything else, can be said to 'assault our being' - not merely the being of the afflicted, but the being of those who engage with them. Might it not be that, here of all places, we might most feel the value of Cioffi's carefully reflective non-scientific approach? This, at any rate, is what I intend to take up by way of a philosophical psychopathology. Psychological texts miss again and again the terror, derangement and bewilderment at the living heart of psychosis: both that of the sufferer and that of those who attempt to encounter them. They normalise away the very meaning of psychosis itself. The first job of recovery here is to recover our own bewilderment, to do justice to the assault on the being of the sufferer and their interlocutors, to articulate the dismemberment here of that background (Searle) or bedrock (Wittgenstein) that sustains our ready empathic availability to one another.