Sunday, 30 August 2015

on the intentionality of wish-fulfilling thought and behaviour

In recent work Tamas Pataki tells us that not-quite-so-recent philosophical attempts (Gardner, Brakel, Lear, Hopkins, et al) to rescue and do justice to Freudian wish fulfilment and Kleinian omnipotent phantasy by offering sub-intentional or pre-propositional accounts of such phenomena are often superfluous - since the everyday scheme of intentional, belief-desire, explanations for action will often suffice, so long as it itself is comprehended in its true depths. (Pataki gives us the best account we have of wish-fulfilment; Petocz gives us the best account we have of symbolism: these Australians are really sewing up the whole field... Oh, I ought to note: the following thoughts are based on my reading of Pataki's 2015 paper (in the book edited by Boag, Brakel & Talvitie) rather than of his 2014 monograph.)

As Pataki describes it, wish-fulfilling phantasy (of the sort found in dreams, daydreams, psychotic delusions, hallucinatory gratifications, actualisations in the transference, acting out, etc.) is described by Freud both in terms of the wishful representation of wishes as fulfilled, and as the creation of beliefs that such wishes are fulfilled. The latter is the interesting notion: nobody has ever doubted that we sometimes like to imagine our wishes being fulfilled, but what is motivating both for daydreamers and for neurotics is the possibility of achieving not the frustrating recognition that this is mere imagination but rather a temporary 'substitutive satisfaction' from the fantasising.

As Pataki describes it, the reasons why Gardner et al tend to opt for sub-intentional (non-agential, brutely causal) accounts of dynamic wish-fulfilment cluster around the difficulties allegedly attendant on the idea of unconscious yet purposive action (think: Sartre's regress argument against inner censors who must both know and not know something at the same time). Pataki, however, holds out, with Freud, for an intentionalist explanation of wish-fulfilling phenomena such as masturbatory fantasy, parapraxes, play, art, lucid dreams - by contrast, say, with normal dreaming, infantile wish-fulfilment and some defences. He does so because of the way in which much self-deception is intelligible as a form of self-consolation (i.e. as motivated quelling of psychic pain).

To make the case for the promise of intentionalism Pataki invites us to consider the following case from the Sandlers:
A patient, a successful scientist in his own field, came to analysis because (amongst other things) he had a severe work problem. He could, in fact, produce the work required of him, and had made several notable contributions in his field. He had previously had analysis for some years, and at the beginning of his current analysis it seemed that all the well-known factors causing a work difficulty of the sort he had were present. His need to delay getting down to work till the very last minute was quite clearly an oedipal problem, in which he could not allow himself to feel that he had satisfied oedipal sexual and aggressive wishes by working well. It was also seen to be part of an anal-retentive tendency, which had persisted for most of his life, and so on. Analysis of his fear of success, of his need to hold on until the last moment, and of many other elements that were clearly related to his work problems did not do more than give him greater insight ... Eventually ... the significant function of his symptom became clear. By allowing himself to get into a state of anxiety, and by creating a feeling of great internal pressure as the time passed and his work was not done, he could recreate, to a degree which was almost hallucinatory in intensity, the feeling of being nagged at and even screamed at by his mother. It became clear that he used his symptom to re-experience an object-relationship, one in which a wished-for sado-masochistic relationship with his mother was actualised. However, what was present was more than the simple sexualisation of anxiety, but a real need to feel secure by re-experiencing the earlier relationship to the mother, even though he had to pay a rather painful price for this. (Sandler & Sandler, 1978, pp. 290–291) 
Of this patient he says:
There is, we may assume, good reason why he wants to experience mother’s presence, painful to be sure, but satisfying the patient’s overriding need for security or attachment. Can this wish-fulfilling end—that it be for the scientist as if mother were present—be achieved non-intentionally?
Notice that the panic that the scientist manufactures is not the product of a single stroke. What we would find is endless procrastination, strolling, eating; a veritable programme of postponement. In other words, the strategy invades more or less every corner of his life and intentional projects: a thousand intentional acts pointing in the same direction.
In response to this I find myself thinking that, yes, if we accept along with the Sandlers that their patient is intentionally making himself excitedly anxious then the argument goes through rather well. But the question of whether we find unconscious intentional explanation satisfactory in general will also affect the kind of motivational meaning we're disposed to ascribe to the particular case. Thus some chap may experience the idea of fluent success as anxiogenic, since it threatens the perversely comforting identification with the punitive mother - risking her wrath, as it were, if he branches out on his own into accomplished action. This anxiety could however then simply (i.e. non-intentionally) cause the diverse procrastinatory self-soothing, anxiety-discharging, behaviours. It may not be, that is, that the diverse procrastinations are themselves intended as ways to secure professional failure, but rather that they all provide momentary relief from the fear that the thought of success engenders. What knits them together is perhaps, then, not the unity of a singular purpose but the unity of that fear which causes them. (On re-reading this I wonder if I'm here influenced by Jonathan Lear's thinking on repetition compulsion: not, he says, a compulsion to repeat, as if the repetitiveness and the effects of it as such are themselves desired, but a repetition merely caused by a failure to overcome a problem for which the same old failing solution is, in the absence of others, endlessly attempted.)

[post-script: Tamas responded to me with this nice question: but why does the Sanders' patient choose just these ways of procrastinating? He is suggesting that we can only understand the patient's choice of these kinds of behaviour if we take into account his understanding of the consequences of acting thus. My counter would be: Yes, if we do start by taking these procrastinatory behaviours as chosen, then we will want to know, as we rightly do for choices, why they were chosen, and yes, a psychoanalytic account does here give us a good way of answering that question. But, I suggest, maybe they are (properly described as being) done without (yet being properly described as) being chosen. One can't always ask for what purposes behaviour is done like this rather than like that - much behaviour is a function of our morphology, training, identifications, classical conditioning, etc. And every behaviour that is chosen is itself performed in ways which are themselves not always best thought of as chosen. Really the question is: how deep do purposes go? I follow the general hermeneutic tack of thinking that we best serve psychoanalytic thinking by never ascribing more intentionality than absolutely necessary (but, well, it goes without saying that I do think it is much more often necessary than, say, the CBT pundit is inclined to think!). ... I think there's another interesting point here. Let's accept with the Sandlers and Pataki that the procrastinatory behaviour has the effect not merely of quelling anxiety but is also itself positively rewarding (e.g. it itself enacts a comforting if perverse object relation). Even so, rather than thinking here of unconscious choice and motivation, might we not serve ourselves well enough here with the mere concept of conditioning? The person ends up doing the behaviour more because of the reinforcement contingencies that are operative, rather than because they are aiming at and achieving a goal...? ... Thinking about it, it's a really interesting (and, I suggest, non-factive) question - when do we feel the need for, and when do we lose patience with, a notion like 'unconscious choice'?]

At any rate, I am straying a little from my original purpose in writing this post which was instead to think first of the importance, when entering into such debates, of becoming as clear as possible about the marks of intendedness - before, that is, considering whether or not unconsciously motivated action is intended. Rather than start with an assumption that we confidently know without having to reflectively specify what it is for an action to be intentional, and so can straight up consider the question of whether or not there can be unconscious intentional activity, I want to look to the prior question of what it means to talk of intentionality.

There seem to me to be two typical marks of intentionality. The first is the way in which someone's diverse behaviour coheres around a telos, can be seen as answering to their desire, etc. Geoff gets up and walks to the fridge, picking out a beer, and sits back down. Here much of our grasp of his action's defining telos - i.e. of its intentionality - is given simply by our appreciation of its shape. In fact it would be odd to suggest that any smoothly performed temporally extended action were non-intentional - it is not a matter of our having to provide evidence for its intendedness but rather of our needing to provide specific defeating conditions (e.g. someone is in a trance) if an ascription of intendedness is not to go through automatically.  The second is what someone says when you ask them why they did something. As Anscombe puts it:
What distinguishes actions that are intentional from those which are not? The answer that I shall suggest is that they are the actions to which a certain sense of the question “Why?” is given application; the sense is of course that in which the answer, if positive, gives a reason for acting. (Intention: p. 9.) [The answers in question are those provided by the agent on being asked 'so why did you do that?']
It is a fact about human beings, one that conditions the shape that our discourse on intention takes, that these two marks tend to hang together rather consistently, at least much of the time. This may perhaps be partly explicable in terms of innate wiring, but I rather suspect that it mainly comes from the ways in which enculturation and development inculcate just such binding structure in us, as we are nudged, through our initiation in the diverse discourses regarding accountability, towards being implicitly governed by a constitutive and constituting ideal of coherence between avowal and action (probably I'm plagiarising Julia Tanney here).

However when philosophers talk about whether intentions are conscious or unconscious the way they tend to take this question is in terms of whether someone is aware of having the intention in question. The idea seems to be that I am able to avow my intentions, when I am, because I am inwardly conscious of them. (This of course automatically contradicts what I claimed above was actually one of the two marks of intentionality - namely what someone says in response to a 'why' question. ... Yeah yeah, these philosophers would probably claim I am a logical behaviourist; I on the other hand claim they are hyperbolic mentalists. Like Ryle, at least, I'm not trying to reduce (by specifying sufficient conditions) mind to behaviour, so it's really just odd to call us logical behaviourists.) This whole idea of inner awareness, however, seems to me to make a big mess of things. There is simply no reason that I can possibly imagine (but can you? ... really?) why we should typically construe avowals of intentions or desires along the lines of quasi-perceptual judgements that we have such and such desires or intentions. Judgements, after all, are avowals of beliefs - vide the looming infinite regress. (Or: if I can avow my belief straight up, why can't I avow my desire or intention straight up?) No, there is no phenomenological evidence, and much grammatical counter-evidence, to support construing avowals of desires and intentions as reportative, as based on an epistemic appraisal, right or wrong, of how things stand with us. The whole idea is so radically self-alienated that it beggars belief. After all, when I tell you my desire or my intention, what I typically do is not speak about, but rather speak directly from, my desire or intention.

What is interesting to us as depth psychologists is our sometime inability to speak from that which, on the basis of the shape of my dispositions to otherwise express and act, otherwise appears as a warrantably ascribable desire or intention. These are the cases that we call cases of 'unconscious' desire or intention. It is, I suggest, simply a fact that people sometimes go on in this disjunctive manner, simply a fact that there is no guarantee, metaphysical or neurological, of any perfect match-up here between their talking and their walking. (From this perspective, Libet et al's observation that directed action can temporally outrun avowal seems not so very interesting - and the idea that our will is illusory to itself be an illusion caused by foisting onto the discourse of intention an epistemic apparatus (of introspection) which has rather little to do with it.) (In all of this I am, I think, hugely influenced by John Hyman's paper on blindsight.) By saying that this is itself 'simply a fact', what I am denying is that there is some further fact of the matter - the alleged fact of whether or not the person actually has a standard-issue intention which has just got partially put out of reach. Instead what I am suggesting is that we here encounter an ontological rather than any alleged epistemic feature of that which we call 'unconscious intention' - that the 'being', as the existential phenomenologist would put it, of an unconscious intention is a different being than that of a regular intention - that unconscious intentions are marked by the peculiar absence of avowal in a creature which (unlike an infant) is perfectly capable of such avowals in other non-complex-related instances. 

Having set out my stall above I want to come back to Pataki before deploying my critique. So, in thinking about what it is that is unconsciously intended, Pataki (like Freud) makes reference to the concept of an unconscious belief. The case under consideration is one of Freud's: a girl can't go to sleep at night unless the pillow is not touching the bedstead. Freud's understanding has to do with oedipal jealousy: the girl wants to separate her mother and father, she believes that by separating masculine bedstead and feminine pillow she will separate them, so she separates them. Against this it could be objected that it is, as it were, too mad to believe that one's mother is a pillow and one's father is a bedstead - so mad that the beliefs can't be ascribed whilst still continuing to do their job in helping us make sense of what she does. But Pataki rightly insists that this identity proposition is not the content of the unconscious belief, which is rather something like 'if I separate the pillow and bedstead then I will have separated my parents'.
Believing this proposition is not the same as, nor does it presuppose, believing that her parents were identical with the furniture. The sorcerer who sticks pins into an effigy doesn’t believe that the effigy is his enemy. The distinction underlying the difference here is between one thing operationally symbolising another and that thing being believed to be identical with the other. And both of these circumstances can be distinguished from a third, where one thing is functionally equated with another: where there is a Segalian symbolic equation. 
So we have identity beliefs, symbolism proper, and symbolic equation. If I understand him right, Pataki is saying that whilst there may be an 'as if' stage in the middle of 'I wish to separate my parents - by doing X it is as if I can achieve that - now that I have done X I believe that my wish is fulfilled', this does not affect the cogency of the ascription of the final belief (although presumably it does affect the cogency of the belief!). I will come back to this.

The next point that Pataki makes is that, following Freud, hallucinatory wish-fulfilment succeeds because it regressively draws on primary process thought in the following way: by withdrawing attention from reality nothing contradicts the hallucinated fulfilment of the wish, and so the belief in the reality of the hallucination 'goes straight through' as it were.

For the sake of the discussion let us accept that there is something right about Freud's account of the girl's oedipal anxieties causing her obsession about her pillow. (I myself find it perfectly plausible, and think that those who baulk at it tend to be simply rather unacquainted with the shape, presence and character of unconscious phantasy - it does after all take a long time and patience and the working through of several defences to start to get one's eye in to this dimension of human life. Unless one does this then one's appreciation of the Freudian account will probably just be bogus - based on a merely theoretical, and emotionally dishonest and idealising, grasp of it.) Now, here's the difference, as I see it, between myself and Pataki. We are both uncomfortable with attributing a belief in the identity of pillow and mother to the girl, but he is more comfortable with attributing to her the belief that her wish that mother and father be kept separate is in some sense satisfied, whereas I am not. I feel no less uncomfortable with the latter than with the former.

Here is my basic gripe. It seems to me that there isn't any obvious fact of the matter as to whether the girl believes that by separating the pillow and the headboard she is effecting a separation between her parents. Thus if you ask her this, she may well say either 'no I don't believe that could work' or, 'oh goodness, yes it was as if I was somehow dreaming or believing that' or 'I did think that yes'. In some sense she did believe that (to summarise it glibly:) the voodoo would work, in other senses she didn't. The closer we get to thinking of belief, as we sometimes rightly do, as governed by a constitutive principle of rationality (a la Davidson), the further we get from wanting to speak of the girl believing that her action could satisfy her wish, or believing that her wish is temporarily satisfied. The closer we get to a conception of belief that has to do with emotional and bodily action tendencies, or to our not asking certain questions of ourselves or of our situation or of others, then the closer we get to wanting to talk here of belief. And the more we allow ourselves to play with partitive ideas of selfhood, the more we are disposed to save for the rationality and thereby, to the extent that the rationality constraint is speaking to us, save the belief. But I just don't see that there is anything that could make me think that some of these proximities make for greater respectful accuracy in playing the language-game of belief ascription. Rather, surely, they just reflect the kind of indeterminacy that obtains in that game itself.

In truth I think the best answer from the girl would be something like 'oh yes, I did kind of think that', a bit like she was reporting something that she dreamed she believed. (When someone says 'In my dream I thought...' they are, I believe, not telling us that they actually thought something, but that they dreamt that they thought something... cf Malcolm on Dreaming.) This is an important point, it seems to me, about the grammar of dreaming and of phantasising. The very moment we give it propositional articulation is (unless one is psychotic or delirious) also the moment of insight, release, and mental structuration: the past tense ('I did kind of think that') is obligatory. (And note, the psychotic never avows beliefs as such - they tell us that the CIA is after them, not that they believe that the CIA is after them.)

I want to avoid a misunderstanding. Someone might say of me 'oh, you're just an anti-realist about beliefs - you're a coherentist or some-such, taking the reality of the belief to consist merely in the explanatory work that positing it can achieve' (think Dennett). Well, no, that's not what I'm saying. In pointing to the ways in which the criteria for belief can come apart I'm both, in pointing to the diverse criteria, actually (unlike those who just take for granted that we intuitively know this so don't have to think about it) specifying what the reality of belief consists in, and in pointing to the disjuncts, noting the somewhat exceptional indeterminate cases. Further, let us imagine someone trying to keep separate two allegedly different scenarios. In the first the girl really does believe that her wish has been effected - this is how she can allow herself to go to sleep. In the second it is somewhat as if the girl believes that her wish has been effected - this is why she can go to sleep. Well: how would we tell these cases apart? I don't mean that question in an epistemic spirit - I mean, rather: what does the putative difference actually consist in? And look, I don't want you to now give me a story about separate selves or what have you -  that, at this point, would just be to be doing metaphysics in the disreputable sense of that term. What I want is to know the practical difference in ascription conditions.

So it seems to me that there is a good dialectical reason why we ought with Hopkins opt to talk of 'pacification' rather than the 'fulfilment' of an unconscious wish. The reason is this: that the act of hallucinatory wish-fulfilment is not just an abrogation of reality-testing in that kind of way we might (by falsely reporting, or by creating illusions) mess with someone else's head. It is rather a (benignly intended, sure) assault on the structure of the ego itself which temporarily damages the integrity of the wish, the perception of the object, and the relation to reality. Hallucinatory wish fulfilment and unconscious phantasy are simultaneously fudges on satisfaction and fudges on the intentionality of the wish: the cost of substitutive satisfaction is the simultaneous degrading of the intentional character of the desire. Speaking purely from an ontological point of view, a wank is never as good as a fuck, and the hallucinatory kingdom of Yeats' faeries is definitively lacking in life and soul. It won't do to say that the desire still 'aims at' something (e.g. the breast) outside the mind, but the baby (e.g.) has fooled himself that he truly is at the breast and this is why he is now pacified. The pacification is as much a degradation as a satisfaction of the wish. My challenge to anyone who thinks otherwise is: convince me what here would even make for a substantive difference between the two.

One other thing struck me about Pataki's chapter. He tells us in it that we needn't think of wish-fulfilling self-deception as 'mad', and this because it yet aims at self-solicitude. Here however I think I want to draw a distinction between solicitude on the one hand and fobbing off or hypnosis on the other. It seems to me that fooling someone that their desires have been realised is not much of an act of solicitude, and there's something even shabbier and ego-degrading about fooling oneself. Part of what makes me think of it as, precisely, itself making for madness is the way in which it damages reality-contact: it un-hinges the mind from the world and leaves it without that grounding animal bedrock of world-embeddedness. But it is not just that the mind's feet are pulled up into it and out from under it by wish fulfilling phantasy, but that the mind's necessarily non-reality-oriented faculty of imagination is simultaneously bent out of shape. The mind most becomes itself when it comes to entertain what it acknowledges as not the case; undoing this makes not for satisfaction or solicitude but for the undoing of imagination itself.

To return to the beginning: how do we distinguish between mere wishing, wishing that is satisfied, and wishing that is 'fulfilled in phantasy'? I think we ought to acknowledge that the last is a term of art, that it relates to a set of tendencies in human beings to achieve lulling through gulling, but where the gulling in question no more amounts to the satisfaction than to the regressive dismantling of the wish.