Sunday, 28 February 2016

acceleration and mentation

I'm not infrequently in the position of needing to draw convincing parallels to help my line of argument when talking with someone who's convinced that it makes sense - and, damn it, is simply true! - to say that 'the mind is the brain' or 'thinking occurs in the brain'. For what typically happens, when I start trying to reject such claims in some or other way, is that I get (mis)identified as someone espousing 'substance dualism' or some other equally weird doctrine. In this post I proffer the notion of acceleration as a helpful comparator when thinking about the location of mentation.

So the other day someone asked me where, if my thinking does not go on in my head, it does go on. And I answered: well, sometimes in my study, sometimes on the river path between Folly Bridge and Iffley lock, etc. I was slyly trying to remind them of the grammar of our everyday talk of the location of thought - or at least such that there even is of that. But they weren't having any of it. That kind of ordinary language philosophy is just not going to cut it for someone who is already downstream of a more fundamental metaphysical package of mentalistic conceptions of thought as inner process, of consciousness as inner world, etc. Similarly I can remind someone of the ascription conditions for particular thoughts - i.e. conditions such as what someone says, how they respond to questions, what they do etc. But once the aforementioned metaphysical package has already been sucked up such reminders start to look like behaviourism, in a similarly odd way that my refusal to locate thoughts in the head looked like dualism. ("So where are they then?! In 'the soul'? You crackpot...")

Instead I want to suggest a simple analogy. A car accelerates. What makes this possible? What are the causal underpinnings of acceleration? Well, presumably (... to be honest I don't actually know...), more fuel gets pumped into the carburettor or fuel injector. Does this mean that acceleration actually occurs in the carburettor? ... Well, isn't that an odd idea? ... If we locate acceleration anywhere don't we say: the car accelerated as it drove down the motorway? Isn't that where the acceleration occurred?

I submit that we don't really have a language-game which provides the location of acceleration outside of the language-game which places the accelerating object in a context (up the road, say). Similarly, it seems to me, we don't really have a language-game locating thoughts other than that which places the thinker where he was when he had the thought (in the shower, say).

Now, are you going to tell me that I am a dualist about the acceleration if I refuse to locate accelerating in the carburettor? Is it really just obvious that location is given by reference to the material sine qua nons of the situation (if you don't have a brain you can't think; if you don't have a carburettor you can't accelerate; so, allegedly, thinking is in the brain, accelerating in the carburettor?) Don't get me wrong, I don't mind if we invent (but, really, what's the point?) a language-game which says, by way of stipulation, that the acceleration occurs wherever the mechanical change happens that causally sustains it. (If in relation to the acceleration you're a believer in 'the inner', you might like to identify the causal substrate with the goings on in the carburettor. If you're a more funky extended/enactive/externalist acceleration pundit, you might like to locate the acceleration throughout the car and even in the wheels and in the road too which is part of the necessary physical context of and substrate for acceleration. So long as you don't think that one of these stipulations is 'right' then, well, you can say what you please.) So, yes, we can invent whatever language-games we like. But please don't try and pretend that we had them all along and that I'm just being difficult if I claim to have not yet picked up the implicit rules. For it's not unreasonable of me to ask to see the evidence, need to see the paradigms of such usages. So far I've never seen such usages outside of philosophical discussions, and such discussions typically take themselves to be making substantial claims - rather than offering paradigms of meaning - regarding the actual location of thinking. They seem to take for granted that there are some such meaning paradigms - but, strangely enough, the actual paradigms or rules for the ascription of the location of thinking (those we know well when saying 'well I had this great idea in the shower') never seem to be noticed, and instead it is simply presupposed that paradigms for talk of the location of, say, mechanical processes find a clear application here. That, however, is just what we're trying to establish.

Monday, 22 February 2016

models, maps and mr flood

An oft-cited passage by the gorgeously-named John Wisdom has it that (Paradox and Discovery 1965):
It is, I believe, extremely difficult to breed lions. But there was at one time at the Dublin zoo a keeper by the name of Mr Flood who bred many lion cubs without losing one. Asked the secret of his success, Mr Flood replied, 'Understanding lions'. Asked in what consists the understanding of lions, he replied, 'Every lion is different'. It is not to be thought that Mr Flood, in seeking to understand an individual lion, did not bring to bear his great experience with other lions. Only he remained free to see each lion for itself.
Mr Flood of Dublin Zoo (he's the one on the left).
(...only the lion heard the cameraman say 'Smile!'...)
Dublin zoo was in fact extraordinarily successful in breeding African lions - between 1857 and 1962 they produced 565 cubs from 181 litters. We ought to take Mr Flood's methods seriously. Or better, given what Mr Flood appears to be saying, we ought to take seriously the idea that methods and models may not always be what we need. Perhaps they could even impede our grasp? For one way of hearing what Mr Flood says is as a refusal, a returning rather than an answering, of the question.

My topic, naturally enough, is not zoo-keeping but psychotherapy.

Clinical psychologists often talk of their clinical understanding in terms of 'models'. (As in: a cognitive model of OCD which posits an excessive sense of responsibility for one's thoughts and actions, etc.) These are models of psychopathology and models of therapeutic action. The idea sometimes seems to be that our practice ought to be guided by models, that it is best when we are properly implementing the model. It is sometimes suggested that a seasoned clinician who no longer reminds himself of his models has simply 'internalised' them, by which is meant that his procedural knowledge, his know-how, is still to be seen as guided by his models, but that this can happen without him bringing the models to mind; they remain 'tacit'. (Now the models somehow become subconscious causes of his actions and reactions.)

Over the years I've noticed how increasingly little I think in terms of models. It's possible this is because I've become an undisciplined numpty, but since my therapeutic results have improved over the time that my thinking about models has decreased, undisciplined numptyhood may have more going for it than at first appears. At any rate, here I want to question the idea that models deserve more than a peripheral place in our clinical understanding.

There certainly are times when I need models. Yesterday, for example, I was talking with a woman with a particular form of paranoia, and I couldn't understand the link between her unconscious emotional experience and the content of her paranoid thoughts, and I thought 'right, I must look up that nice paper on the psychodynamics of psychosis, perhaps it has a schematic that could be useful to me here'. Here a model is important when the person is not making human sense to me, when there is some mediated, external, understanding which could make up for the absence of what usually obtains in an unmediated, particularistic, imminent manner. The model can help me guide my responses and open up therapeutic possibilities. Yet such cases appear to me to be the exception rather than the rule.

It is sometimes suggested that even when I'm not guiding my behaviour by drawing on models, the models may yet themselves guide my behaviour - when they've been 'internalised' in such a way that we have 'tacit knowledge' of them. I think this suggestion more simply confused than right or wrong - to be a bastard hybrid that conflates different senses of 'guide', 'behaviour', etc. - or, in terms of the slogan, to conflate 'reasons and causes'. I don't want to get into this debate here, however, and instead will offer an analogy with our knowledge of landscapes which, I believe, ought to make us pause before we move too quickly to talk of our needing to possess and draw on models of everything we understand.

A model, I take it, is something like a map. And we don't always use maps to find our way around. Imagine: I acquire a new holiday cottage, and on arrival I take a little walk out the back door. There is a map left by the previous owner, but I don't use it, and I don't buy or make my own. Instead each day I venture a little further afield. I get to know the lie of the land. Here's the curiously yellow boulder, here the yew tree where the goldfinches nest; if you go up there between the rock and the lime tree you get to the muddy end of the river; turn left here and you come down to the little shack by the road. Half an hour up that way lies Overford Farm; back that way is the sloping meadow where we will have picnics in the summer. I become familiar with the landscape in a particular way. I come to know it from within; I get a feel for it. I dwell in it and it comes to dwell in me: over time the landscape will become deep in me; it will inform my sensibility, my moods, my values. My living dispositions are shaped by the history of my experience of it: over the years I am conditioned by it.

If someone asked me to draw a map of this locale I may struggle. The transformation from know-how to representational knowledge may well be beyond me. In any case, the best cartographers may well be foreign explorers; I however have become native.

When we think about it we realised that it just can't be the case that a living knowledge, familiarity, experience of, a landscape is a matter of having a map tacitly or explicitly in one's head. After all, a map is only useful to me if I can read it. But if I can read a map simpliciter - i.e. understand how the symbols are related spatially to one another - why can't I just read a landscape simpliciter - understand what is where within it without making use of a map? And when we think further we come to see that map comprehension is actually parasitic on a more fundamental form of landscape comprehension. We only understand how to use a map because we already understand how to negotiate landscapes.

To make a rather Heideggerian point: there may well be times when we get lost, and at such times we can be greatly helped by a map. However the possibility of being lost in this way presupposes - unless we have become psychotic - what is always-already there: a more elementary intact familiarity or 'found-ness'. We know roughly where we are lost, where we have come from, where we want to get to, and where it was we were just now - it is only relative to this familiarity that the present disorientation makes sense. We can make use of a map because we know how to relate it to the landscape, and in order to do this we must already ourselves have some relation to the landscape.

Some people prefer to get to know a place using maps. Others prefer to wander, to come to know it from the ground up rather than the top down. The first kind of explorer trades on her familiarity with landscapes earlier in life to ground her ability to use maps, and thereafter relies heavily on maps. The second kind continues to develop a fresh living familiarity with each new landscape, thus obviating the need for maps.

Mr Flood's skill with lions came from his experience with lions, rather than from any general scientific knowledge of how or what to do. He has learned from experience - which is to say that his current actions flow from the unformulated skills embedded in a corporeal frame that has been unreflectively conditioned through a lifetime's experience. He 'got to know lions' as we say. He came to just know what to do with them. This knowledge was however nothing general about lions - it wasn't contained in maxims, rules, laws, generalisations. Rather it was his un-principled know-how, the auto-conditioning of his lived body. His body was itself a conduit between the past and the present, such that its attunement to his present feline situations allowed those situations to call forth apt responses directly from his body, out of his experiences in the past. Recollection, thinking, representing, mapping, modelling - all of this is besides the point. (This is why I think Mr Flood's answer to the question about his success can also be seen as a refusal of the question: when we have to do with conditioning we do not have to do with method - there just is, in such situations, no psychological answer to the 'how' question.)

So too, I suggest, with clinical wisdom. We don't come to our ability to 'know people', as we say, through knowing things about people in general. Our ability to read the transference and the countertransference, our attunement to our patients'  unconscious experience, our sense of what will and what will not make for containment, our handling of the superego, our sense of when to let something go, when someone is ready to hear something, what to make of a dream, what is defensive and what authentic, when to sit tight, when someone needs feeding and when they need a kick up the arse - these all come from experience. They come from experience not in the sense of having recollections, but rather: our current choices are guided not by thought but by the past itself as it has sedimented in our body's training.

We say of a gardener who 'knows plants' that she has 'green fingers'. She just has a sense of what needs doing - she has a feel for gardening. Some people have a knack for cooking rather like this - they have a living familiarity with ingredients, an automatic sense of what goes with what, and so they don't need recipes. Some musicians play 'by ear'. Some parents have the knack for parenting, knowing when to discipline and when to comfort, when to encourage and praise, when to intervene and when to let alone. Mr Flood had the knack too: he 'knew lions'. The knowledge here is gained from deep ongoing un-mediated immersion in the field. In psychotherapy, I suggest, our knowledge of people, our knowledge of the unconscious, is gained in the same way. Models are all very well, but like cookbooks may simply get in the way, both of the task and of the learning. As therapists we know this perfectly well with our anxious patients. Our job is to help the socially anxious or obsessional patient to leave behind their reasons, their justifications, their attempts to gather evidence that things will be ok - and to take the plunge into the interpersonal world and into their future. That - the plunge - is what I'm agitating for here. Models may help us when we're lost - but they may equally well prevent the plunge and forestall that true immersion which alone generates the experience from which a therapist's living familiarity with her patients's struggles and needs arises.

Friday, 19 February 2016

praxis precedes precepts

Cora Diamond and Rai Gaita have done more to make visible to us the profound groundlessness of our ethical judgement than any other philosophers I know. But the kind of 'groundlessness' they expose is not something that turns out to be a problem for ethics; it is not anything which ought to entail a revision, or inspire any kind of doubt about, our ethical judgements. It is a problem, rather, for a certain sort of philosophical aspiration. (The truth is: there was a fantasy of grounds and of a need for grounds; the fantasy is merely that, but thankfully the imagined need was merely that too. So, one might say, there really isn't any actual or significant or ethical groundlessness either.) This aspiration amounts to a wish to ground ethical judgement in ethical principle, or to see the shape of our empathic and reactive tendencies towards others - other people, and certain non-human animals too - as depending on, or when it is going well reflecting, the shape of prior, independently intelligible, ethical or rational principles. The vision they offer us is instead one in which our reactive dispositions to one another themselves condition or partly constitute both our moral understanding itself and our grasp of the meaning and applicability of any such principles to which we may make appeal. There simply is no measuring these diverse tendencies which spring from a disparate collection of instinctive and socialised dispositions against any set of moral rules or ethical standards; in one sense they are not intelligibly thought of as themselves right or wrong - any more than it is helpful to describe the standard metre in Paris (ahem, just imagine it actually exists and still plays the requisite normative role ok?) as longer or shorter than or exactly one metre. Praxis precedes precepts is the Marxist/Wittgensteinian mantra I'm coining here to summarise this train of thought.

Look, you just don't eat people, ok! Ugh! No! Yes, it's bad to do it - but it is itself a paradigm of such badness, not something that drops out of some independently understood general moral rule.  If regarding this you ask 'why?' in a sincere manner, the problem is probably not that, lacking a decent justification for not eating others, you risk casually scoffing the odd person pasty without the requisite baulk .... but rather that you are already a psychopath. The philosopher wants to help us feel more justified, grounded, reasonable, in our moral judgement - but to the extent that they invert the order of praxis and precept they risk, despite their best intentions, alienating us from our moral sensibilities. They risk - one might say, if one accidentally took or pretended to take them seriously - courting a moral catastrophe - in which we are no longer standing by and in our judgment, no longer simply embodying the form of moral sensibility in our assured moral stand-taking, but - rather like the obsessive who wants to derive and support what for them has somehow ceased being a certainty-in-action from and with certainty-of-memory or decency-of-evidence, but who in this cart-before-horse manner just makes things worse - instead imagining and feeling a need to be plugged by reason to justify why we should judge as we do. (That was a ridiculously long sentence. But it works. It expresses a clear thought. I promise.)

Here then is once again my master thought, the one I endlessly keep writing about, recalling, coming back to. It is: that the judgement of sanity vs insanity is itself similarly groundless. That psychiatry, especially the philosophy of psychiatry, but also academic clinical psychiatry and psychology, so often aims to find some principle to separate the sheep of sanity from the goats of insanity. But the principle is always hopeless, since it is either normatively inert (being a merely statistical norm, for example) or facile (since it really only applies to, and this since it tacitly presupposes that here we actually have to do with, the types of thoughts enjoyed by the sane). Sometimes these get cobbled together (as in definitions of delusion which mark it as culturally unusual (in, presumably, a statistical sense) and merely false or inadequately reasoned). And, my thought goes, the reason why the theorist  or clinician so inexorably indulges this desire to provide  or deploy criteria for true madness is both because of the unenviable responsibility in making the clinical judgement and because of what we might think of as a form of contamination anxiety (how can I be sure I'm not mad too?). If it seems dangerous to let loose mental health professionals on populations with nothing more than clinical judgement to guide them then - well, then perhaps we ought to give more thought to the non-operational finessing of practical judgement itself. After all, the thought could go, we are not in any magically better shape when it comes to our moral judgement itself of the possible ill that such necessarily unprincipled practice could inflict. Praxis precedes precepts applies, I'm suggesting, as much to the moral as to the clinical domain. Courage, good-heartedness, and casuistry are the names of the game.

Friday, 12 February 2016

does intellectual insight exist?

Sometimes we talk of a 'merely intellectual insight'. James acts as if Margorie loves him; everything he does - how he organises his holidays, what he buys for her, how he messages her - seems to speak to this. But, he will also tell us, he knows that she does not. He knows it with his head, he says, if not with his heart. And, we know, the words he attributes to his head are a way of saying what we know to be a truth. Mark tells us that he 'grasps intellectually' that his continual befriending of and submission to borderline women is due to his depressive tendency - due to his regressive wish that he could repair his mother's mind and his relationship with her. And yet he keeps on doing it. We might say: his grasp is not a living grasp - he 'understands with his head', not with his being.

Well, we might want to say these kinds of things. We do say these kinds of things. But maybe it's all a little swift? Maybe this idea of 'intellectual understanding' is a mistake. Maybe it is, rather, a wordy pretence at understanding?

For consider how we would distinguish between someone understanding something, for real, actually, and someone merely learning to say the right thing at the right time. Distinguish between someone who understands Chinese for real, and someone - John Searle, say - without Chinese who's secretly looking up our written Chinese questions in an enormous manual which contains the Chinese answers, and transcribing these answers for us. We would not call this a 'merely intellectual understanding' of Chinese. We would call it 'no understanding at all'. So, my question is: how sure are we that such cases of 'merely intellectual understanding' as we meet with in the domain of human emotional relations do at least contain something worthy of the term 'understanding'?

Someone who ' 'merely' intellectually understands' something - as the phrase is used in psychotherapeutic circles - knows fairly well how to talk about that something in disengaged moments. So, in fact, they do better than Searle, in his Chinese room, since they appear to be able to make various further moves in the language-game of 'unrequited love' or what have you; they may be able to play - or at least play at - this game fairly well when describing the predicaments of others; and so on. Sure. But, take two, does James really understand that Marjorie will never love him? You impatiently tell me, like I've not yet managed to learn the elements of the psychotherapist's discourse: 'Well, Richard, in one sense yes, but this is a merely intellectual understanding.' But, duh, that's what I'm wondering about; that's what, having once learned to talk the talk here, but now stepping back and reflectively calling this presumed facility of mine and yours into question, I'm wondering about: does that italicised phrase really mean anything? How confident are you that when James says 'yeah, I do know Marjorie will never love me' (yet carries on behaving as if one day she will) that he's actually being honest with himself and with us? Maybe he doesn't actually understand.

Another way of putting my query: How confident are you that the split between intellect and emotion obtains in James - rather than in your descriptions of him?

And this too: How confident are you that your desire to describe him as merely intellectually understanding his predicament isn't itself a peculiar unwitting homage to intellectualist conceptions of understanding? One which, on the one hand, wants to distance itself from them by stressing the significance of something which is now to be called 'emotional understanding' or 'understanding in your heart', but which yet gets pitted against something which it is still conceded may perfectly well obtain by itself - a 'purely intellectual understanding' of something?

I propose an alternative: That understanding something 'in your heart' means: truly understanding it. That what 'understanding' really means is: a capacity to uncontrivedly cope with some situation: is: for one's body or tongue to have apt action-ready dispositions at play within it.

And this too: That there is nothing 'mere' about genuine intellectual understanding. That phenomenon is not part of some false self, or something which is merely a matter of being able to merely shuffle words around in a tolerably non-bizarre way whilst sitting at one's desk. An intellectual understanding of love is an understanding which ties it together with other phenomena (attachment, selflessness, etc.), which understands its different cultural and historical forms, etc etc. But in order for the person who discourses thus to actually know what we're talking about when we talk about love  he must have a different relationship with his object - one which calls on a range of intuitive and praxical dispositions.

We think we know what we talk about when we talk about rational-emotional splitting and merely intellectual understanding. We do know what we are talking about when we talk about intellectualisation - this is a different matter. But I hope I've here at least managed to raise the question whether the very idea of 'merely intellectual insight' makes as much sense as we sometimes suppose.