Tuesday, 23 June 2015

self-understanding revisited

A conversation with a friend convinced me that I hadn't yet elucidated with sufficient cogency the distinction between, as I labelled them, subjective and objective self-understanding or self-knowledge. I am going to try again, once more trying to avoid phrases like 'understanding from the inside' which can too readily stand in for, rather than elaborate, a reflective understanding of the differences at play. So here are some of the key elements:

Objective self-understanding / self-knowledge

Here I stand in an epistemic relation to myself just as I would to anyone else. I grasp myself as an object. I increase my stock of knowledge about my dispositions to act and feel and think in this or that way.

What this form of self-knowledge affords is the possibility of increased self-management. Seeing that I act thus and so I can try to mitigate the effects, or do something to counteract the impulse, or distract myself in certain ways, or encourage myself somehow or other.

This kind of understanding does not essentially and automatically involve a change in the nature of the object of understanding - i.e. does not essentially involve a change in the self itself. That would at best rather be an upshot of the kind of understanding on the table.

To summarise using the rhetoric of the British idealists: When I understand myself in an objective manner, my self and my understanding of myself stand in an external relation to one another. My understanding here is not of a piece with my selfhood, but is rather just a registering of how things obtain for that self which is me.

Subjective self-understanding / self-knowledge

Both objective and subjective self-understanding share the same object, namely: my self (or 'myself'). The difference between them is not in their object but in the form or mode of the understanding.

The mode of understanding met with in subjective self-understanding is not a form of apprehension of the self. It may yet involve apprehension, since it can involve a new apprehension of the significance of some or other situation one is in. For example it may involve a new valuation of a relationship.

Arriving at subjective self-understanding involves what we call acknowledgement (rather than apprehension). I come to be able to speak from a thought or feeling that previously I could not speak from; this is a different matter than becoming able to speak about a thought or feeling one has.

Developing subjective self-understanding is essentially correlative with the relinquishing of defenses. This might sound unhelpfully parochial but is in fact just a feature of what it means to be able to move from blindness to acknowledgement.

Before I arrive at subjective self-understanding my behaviour is driven or motivated by my wish, but is not done intentionally. When I come to understand myself as a subject, however - when I achieve a growth in subjective self-knowledge - then I come via an acknowledgement to now own such action. It is embraced within the ego. Where a repetition compulsion was, there ego shall be.

Subjective self-understanding, then, involves an owning or re-owning - an integration - of an aspect of the self that was previously split off. It essentially involves a growth in the ego. A growth in the number of those things that one does that one is now 'behind', that one 'owns'.

Developing subjective self-understanding necessarily involves a change in the self itself. The understanding and the self are internally related.

Subjective self-understanding in psychotherapy

Some therapies are geared up to provide one with an increase in objective self-knowledge or self-understanding. Those which are conducted in a didactic mode clearly are. But even those which involve open-ended discussion or Socratic questioning could well just be aimed at enhancing objective self-understanding.

The following may be controversial, but I believe it is importantly correct, and summarises a key difference between the modes of knowledge met with in much clinical psychological practice and those met with in much psychoanalytical practice: The understanding that is contained in a formulation - verbal or pictorial - is objective understanding of the self.

As such it offers, I believe, either an opportunity for enhanced self-management, or food for such thought as may, perhaps, lead to a change in subjective self-understanding.

To the extent that objective self-understanding leads to an increase in self-management, it risks being alienating, stifling of growth, and depleting. Alienating: we remain an object to ourselves; rather than colonising the domain with the ego, we remain in relationship with ourselves. Stifling of growth: rather than developing as a spontaneous subject responding directly from his or her subjectivity and growing as a subject in and through successive moments of this in what we call a therapeutic process, we are instead left trying to manage a particular static configuration of the self. True underlying change may happen but only adventitiously. Depleting: Neurosis saps our energy; do we really want to sap it further through the attentional resources that must be given to self-management?! When instead we could be embarked on the liberating journey of freeing the spontaneity of subjectivity from the confines of our repetition compulsions.