Monday, 26 September 2016

an uncommon humanity

Raimond Gaita's writings are, I believe, the consummate expression of an uncommonly examined life. Here is a man who, in terms lifted from the chapter I consider below, has found his voice and has something to say - something to which I am now learning to listen. It's in this chapter - entitled Truth as a Need of the Soul, the penultimate of A Common Humanity - that he offers his critique of Freud. So that's what I'm looking at here.

First for some scene-setting. Gaita starts by helping us bring into focus and reflectively understand something distinctive about our inner life. 1. There are, he notes, situations where emotion is but an external obstacle, or an external aid, to us forming true beliefs about a situation. Perhaps my defensively individualist self-righteous anger or my bleeding liberal depressive guiltiness may prevent me paying proper attention to the scientific data on global warming. In that situation my emotions are a separable matter from my knowledge; at best they play an instrumental relation to it. But I can yet grasp and understand the relevant facts without any emotion. 2. In other situations, however, emotion is essential to my knowledge. These situations pertain to our inner lives. The point is not that what we know are facts about our emotions. It is rather that emotion is itself the form our understanding must take. As Iris Murdoch writes, to see the reality of another person is a 'work of love, justice and pity'. Grief is the most basic and the essential form taken by our grasp of the (meaning of the) fact of someone's death. (Gaita describes 1 as a personal, and 2 as an impersonal form of knowledge, although he notes that, confusingly, we may also aptly describe objective thought about the inner life as (in a different sense) impersonal, since what makes for objectivity here is a clearing away of what we merely want to see.)

Sentimentality, then, has a different character or role in the two situations. In the former impersonal scenario it may result in falsehood; in the second, however, it is itself a form of falsehood. And the willingness and ability to achieve truth in one's experience - for example, to weed out sentimental forms of grief or love, to relate squarely to others, to live a meaningful rather than self-deceiving life - this, he tells us, following Socrates, is essential to achieving full humanity. This capacity to know thyself, to live the examined life, is, he tells us, what non-speculative conceptions of the soul are about - i.e. when we hear about soul-destroying work, suffering that lacerates the soul, soulful art or soul music, being a lost or deep or corrupt soul, etc. Integrity, and having the 'courage to be' as Tillich puts it, in the face of psychic pain - rather than evasion, self-deception, projection, etc. - to not glide over the differences between the good and the convenient, to be honourable and remain true to the spirit of things rather than rather conveniently hung up on the letter, this is what it is to live a life worthy of a human being.

What didn't convince me - assuming I understood it right - was Gaita's claim that the examined life can 'deepen without limit'. I think this was because I wasn't convinced by his suggestion that our emotions of love and hate and grief and joy and fear and passion are partly constituted by reflection. I mean, sure, they can often involve thought. But I feel that moral reflection is more important in weeding out inner falsehood than it is in establishing inner truth. Or rather: it seems to me that inner truth is not an achievement - other than the weeding out of inner falsehood (defences, self-deceptions, triteness, etc.). Gaita imagines someone calling it navel-gazing to be endlessly reflectively concerned with the truthfulness of one's loving or grieving. But, he wonders, would such a critic really think it mattered not at all if someone was indifferent to whether their grief or love was real or counterfeit? Well, sure. But neurotically wondering if one's emotions are truthful or not is a different matter than developing the sensibility and courage and depth of character to call oneself on one's own bullshit. Acknowledging this difference might also help with avoiding the appearance of elitism regarding the examined life and full humanity.

Now, onto Freud. Gaita queries - rightly I believe - Bettelheim's claim that Freud's scientism is simply a function of a scientising translation into English ('seele' into 'psyche', 'ich' into 'ego' etc.). Gaita doesn't give us the evidence - I imagine that this is really because it is just so diffusely ever-present in Freud's way of thinking that it's kinda hard to pin down - but his complaint against Freud is that he approaches matters of the heart as if they were matters of the functioning of, say, a mechanism. That is, he approaches it is as if our understanding of matters of the human heart was only contingently vulnerable to rhetoric and sentimentality (i.e. as if we here met with a situation of type 1. above). Sure, a psychologist may patronise the poet or playwright by acknowledging that they will borrow their idioms as the best we can currently, or perhaps ever, do. Yet such a psychologist at least harbours the fantasy of the intelligibility of replacing the artist's personal knowledge with a more impersonal scientific knowledge. By a form of knowledge, that is, which is only contingently vulnerable to distortion by sentimentality. By a form of knowledge which doesn't essentially call on the resources of character, the inner discipline, of the knower. And Gaita, I believe, is right in this: the forms of knowledge which do admit of this impersonality - the kind of psychology I was taught in my undergraduate psychology degree and clinical psychology doctorate - simply do not bring very much of the soul into view. It is not much of a surprise, to me, that the practice of psychotherapy really involves hardly any of such knowledge - and that the 'reflective scientist practitioner' model of the clinical psychologist is a bankrupt framework for a personally meaningful psychotherapeutic practice.

Another concern of Gaita is that, since we are self-interpreting animals (i.e. since our understanding of our inner life is not separable from our inner life itself), having a falsely impersonal conception of psychological knowledge will impact on the inner life itself. I want to report that I think this is right. What I felt I noticed on my clinical psychology training was a banalising influence of objectivist conceptions of inner life - now as measured using inventories and check-lists, or as putatively captured with some trite psychological schematic which would be wheeled out as a formulation or as providing the conceptual framework for idiosyncratic formulations - on the sensibility of the practitioner. In truth it was kind of embarrassing. The psychologists feel they are being oh-so-scientific and possessing of special knowledge as they proudly carry around these scientifically derived models of mental function as if it gave them some kind of professional edge; the rest of us look on in horror at the unwitting soul-squeeze they're oh-so-blithely-and-pleasantly setting in operation.

I thought there might be a missing premise in Gaita's argument. His talk of personal knowledge (with its emphasis on authenticity) mainly seems to concern self-knowledge. The psychologist, however, is mainly interested in knowledge of others. Might not that save her objectivist conception of psychological knowledge? The premise I would like to try to supply involves a correlativity of self- and other-knowledge. Consider projection.

Projection works by the projector subtly distorting the moral framework of an interaction. By moral framework I mean the equality of distribution of responsibility. Responsibility for taking care of, taking an interest in, being generous towards, being thoughtful about, one another. Someone who projects will play on the good nature of the person they project into. We're all disposed to give some leeway, some benefit of the doubt. Someone goes on a bit; we think 'well, they're tired'. Someone acts what might seem a little selfishly, but we cut them some slack, expecting them to return the favour later. Someone tacitly guilt-trips us; we might just suck it up and apologise without noticing, and then be a little more giving and forgiving than we might otherwise have been. In fact we make these adjustments, offer this leeway, in an instinctual and automatic manner. It's important, really, that this happens: friendship does involve thoughtfulness but it also involves not holding the other to account at every opportunity. This is really important: the placement of the moral fulcrum between self and other is not consciously negotiated, but forms part of the necessarily background structure of any interpersonal interaction. And in truth it isn't even something which could be consciously negotiated, and nothing for which criteria could be given. The personality-disordered-vexatious-litigant-type is someone who will always narrate the moral story in a self-serving way - disowning their guilt, blaming the other, etc. That this is possible without their moral self-contradictions immediately whacking them over the head is a function of the constitutive unformulability of the moral responsibility matrix.

In order, then, to be able to be a helpful therapist it is often really important to know how to stand your ground. (This is often rather hard, because therapists are also often driven by a generous desire to care and to offer the benefit of the doubt!) You need to know yourself well in order to be able to reliably call projection when you see it. My talk of 'reliability' there is apt to mislead if it pushes us towards formulating matters as if we had to do with impersonal (type 1) scenarios. But that isn't the point, which is rather that a confident un-arrogant clear self-possessed self-understanding is an essential element in helping someone whose moral mast is insecurely erected to get any kind of purchase on living a respectable life on the shores of their turbulent emotional life. Without such a mainstay, persecuted by inner figures which damage their self-esteem, without any trustworthy inner figures which make for self-soothing, they are liable to rely solely on further projection to maintain their inner equilibrium - which damages their relationships still further. And, note, that when I talk of 'standing your ground' I don't mean: functioning simply so as to rebuff projections. That is what a confident and secure non-therapist can do, and it's no bad thing. The therapist, however, is called on to be able to notice and think about these projections, to understand their source, offer soothing in relation to the source anxieties, and to feed back carefully and thoughtfully to their patient about what has happened in the interaction. This, then, is as I see it the essential link between self-knowledge and other-knowledge in psychoanalysis. You've got to be clear enough about what is your own shit to be able to spot, rather than depressively suck up, the shit of the patient. And also you've got to be big enough, inside, to think about the meaning of their projected pain/guilt/hopelessness/fear so that you can soothe it rather than ping it back into their interiority.