transference and indeterminacy

Marjorie hears James say something ambiguous. On one reading that comes naturally to her - let's even say: comes inexorably and unwittingly to her - she finds herself thinking that he's being rather controlling and mean and thoughtless in saying what he does. Well, 'finds herself thinking' is putting it a bit too reflectively: she immediate reacts, with a certainty that ought to belong only to knowledge, to what James says - or rather to him in his saying of that.

Now pretty much any social-conversational offering might be considered ambiguous. That is: the significance of what is said - not just of what but of why it is said as, and when, and to whom, it is - can't be ascertained by reference to any facts about the verbal content of the speech act itself. We grasp a speaker's intention in saying what they do - we grasp not just the content of their speech act but also its perlocutionary force - against our background knowledge of and assumptions about his or her character and situation.

Of course, hopefully, in the normal run of things, our interactions proceed against a background of implicit trust in the goodness, or at least the good-enough-ness, of our interlocutors. That kind of trust - that we are not here in the presence of evil, say - is a prerequisite for playing the relational game.

Someone who has what in certain contexts and in certain extreme manifestations would get diagnosed as a 'personality disorder' - like we all to-some-very-much-varying-degree-let's-be-honest have from time to time - though, will be primed, probably from themselves having been on the receiving end of copious projections earlier in their life, to kinda expect the worst.

Marjorie expects the worst. She just does. She can't help it. And, recall, this expectation is not a reflective matter - it is her automatic conviction. It isn't something she really knows to be irrational. Well, she might suspect it, or she might 'know it but not believe it'. The point is: her 'knowledge' of her irrationality, if she even suspects it at all, barely touches her living conviction about James' thoughtlessness, barely touches the belief about that which courses through her reactive dispositions.

Take as true that, in this situation we're considering, what James said would not, by most people, be considered offensive in the ways Marjorie suspects. Take as true, for that matter, that what James says is not in fact ill-motivated.

Here, finally, is my first point: that there is (at least, not usually, not that I can think of right now) no simple fact that can be appealed to to instance in an irrefutable manner James' probity in issuing his remark. There is of course the goodness of his intention itself - and this, sure, is a fact, a simple one if you like. But what I really mean by 'simple fact' here is: there is no fact such as something particular said or done which alone can speak unambiguously to that intention's goodness.

(The great appeal (to me at least!) of the show 'Lie to Me', in which Tim Roth (playing a sexed-up version of Paul Ekman) reads people's true feelings and intentions by paying attention to their facial micro-expressions, resides, I believe, in its offering us (the fantasy of) a true short-cut which can, for the cognoscenti, eradicate the form of uncertainty here arising.)

What we are encountering is what Lars Herzberg, following a lead of Wittgenstein, called 'The Indeterminacy of the Mental' (Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Vol 57 (1983), pp. 91- 109).

And here is my second and final point: that the standing constitutive indeterminacy of the mental is a condition of possibility of the kinds of fearful anticipations (of evil, meanness, etc.) we find in extremis in personality disorders and to varying lesser degrees in the less 'happy' moments of all our interpersonal lives.

People become phobic about all sorts of things. Psychoanalysts have suggested that most phobias are ultimately social - that simple phobias of inanimate objects and animals are often symbolic ways of coping with deeper unconscious phobias pertaining to the attachment zone. Whether or not that is true, it remains the case that most of what constitutes psychopathology is founded in our fears of what others think and feel - especially what they think and feel about and towards us.

My goal in this post has just been to describe how what Wittgensteinians (like Hertzberg, but also Peter Hacker - see e.g. section 3 of ch 7 of Hacker's Wittgenstein: Meaning and Mind) have labelled the 'indeterminacy of the mental' is what makes for that vulnerability which sustains not just the richness of personal life but the personality disorders themselves.

Philosophical psychopathology is premised on the idea that psychopathological 'conditions', rightly interrogated, tell us about what makes for mindedness itself - as well as vice versa. So, here: the kinds of chasms of transferential disturbances which are fallen through by those who suffer from personality disorders (i.e. let's-face-it  all of us to some degree in some contexts of attachment (partners, bosses, colleagues, housemates...)) are illuminated by, and themselves illumine the nature of, the indeterminacy of the mental.


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