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.