Sunday, 21 May 2017

wittgenstein, self-knowledge, sensations

Philosophical Investigations paras 246-7 has it that
...If we are using the word "to know" as it is normally used (and how else are we to use it?), then other people very often know when I am in pain. - Yes, but after all not with the certainty with which I know it myself! - It can't be said of me at all except (perhaps as a joke) that I know I am in pain. What is it supposed to mean - except perhaps that I am in pain?
Other people cannot be said to learn of my sensations only from my behaviour,—for I cannot be said to learn of them. I have them.
The truth is: it makes sense to say about other people that they doubt whether I am in pain; but not to say it about myself.  
"Only you can know if you had that intention." One might tell someone this when one was explaining the meaning of the word "intention" to him. For then it means: that is how we use it.
(And here "know" means that the expression of uncertainty is senseless.)
I heard it said yesterday, at a conference, in the context of a discussion of John Hyman's analytical-philosophical 'account' or 'conception' (i.e. that project of answering the question 'what is something?' by citing general sufficient conditions or general proper definitions) of knowledge that p as having an ability to use (or be guided by) the fact that p as a reason (for doing or saying something), that Wittgenstein did not in fact give us reasons for thinking that 'It can't be said of [myself] that I know I am in pain'. And in the context of that discussion I took it that Wittgenstein was - aside from some possible face-saving reconstruction by Anthony Kenny - being taken to be failing to offer something which anyone, including Wittgenstein himself, might have thought sensible to offer - namely for him to say to us 'here is my general positive conception of knowledge, and behold, here we see that the alleged first person case of knowledge does not fall under that conception.' (... The point being that, by contrast, on Hyman's general 'account' of knowledge the person who says 'I know I am in pain' is perfectly entitled to say this since they may of course use the fact of their being in pain as a reason (why didn't you play badminton this week? I had a pain in my elbow).)

Yet one of the things which is clear from 247 is that Wittgenstein is not in fact always shy of letting us know what he takes 'know' to mean. ('And here "know" means that the expression of uncertainty is senseless.') And, in fact, given that this remark occurs in the very passage after the one in which he says that it can't be said of myself that I know I am in pain, the situation is really rather curious. After all is he really saying that it can't be said of myself that an expression of doubt by me regarding my sensation is senseless? That in fact would seem to be rather the opposite of what he is claiming!

What is going on here? First of all, why can't it, joking aside, be said of me that I know that I am in pain? Second, how can it be true that this can't be said when in the very next paragraph we are offered a use for 'know' which looks like it makes for the possibility of what was denied in the previous paragraph?

The trick to answering or perhaps, better, dissolving these questions is to note that Wittgenstein is not interested in providing general sufficient conditions. Nothing in what he says about our life-with-language would lend support to the idea that he thought that an intelligible philosophical project. He is at times (as in 247 concerning know and intention) happy to provide contextually situated sufficient conditions ('And here 'know' means...'), but nowhere does he defend the (to me intuitively implausible - but you might have other ideas!) notion that language is trans-situationally decomposable. As if, for example, one might intelligibly imagine someone who went through his earlier life never hearing the word 'know' used, but being perfectly proficient in understanding and deploying facts as reasons, could then be inducted into our knowledge talk at one fell swoop. (One natural thought is: might we not expect to encounter analogues of Gettier-type problems for Hyman's non-belief-involving account of knowledge? That is, cases of being 'guided by' facts in offering reasons, or however exactly the proposal is to be cashed out, which don't amount to knowledge or which tacitly and illegitimately build in a reference to knowledge in order to secure their fix on their target.)

But then, it might be suggested, the problem with 246 is not just that no general account of knowledge is given, but that we don't even have a specific account of what talk of 'knowledge' in the context of sensations would be. But then that seems absurd too. After all, if Wittgenstein had such a specific account then he could hardly go on to say that it is nonsense to talk here of knowledge! So what does he mean? What I propose (in a 'new Wittgensteinian' spirit) is that, far from saying that something in our general concept of knowledge rules out a coherent application of it to cases of my own relation to my own sensations, he is saying that nothing here has yet been 'ruled in' (as it were). That is, he is claiming, there is no obvious use to talk here of 'knowing that I am in pain', nothing that comes to mind when we try to imagine here what those words are supposed to be doing, no obvious contribution they make to our conversations, nothing they add to my merely saying 'I'm in pain'. 

Is Wittgenstein trying to say that we can't imagine uses for 'I know I am in pain'? In fact I think we can imagine uses for that sentence. For example you might be quizzing me about my grasp of the concept 'pain' and I kick myself and say to you 'I know I am in pain'. It's a bit odd, perhaps, but it seems to me not unimaginable. (We might also imagine someone insisting, to someone who is wrongly trying to generalise a situationally unhelpful conception of reason-giving to argue down someone who tries to appeal to their pain as a reason not to go into work, that they know they are in pain. Again, it's a bit odd, but I think we can probably get there!) Here I have made sense of the idea of knowing I am in pain by imagining a possible situationally specific use of the sentence. And surely - and this is the general 'new Wittgensteinian' point - nothing stops us from developing uses which, so long as we demonstrate them, show the contributions they can make to our conversations, are perfectly and (as it were) unaccountably fine. What he was disputing was not that we can't ever imagine helpful deployments of  'I know I am in pain' but that, in the context of our relation to the fact that I am in pain, talk of 'knowledge' seems to have yet no clear work to do. 

But, you know, feel free to invent some such a purpose. Wittgenstein surely wouldn't want to stop you! After all, he's got no general account to get defensive about.

Saturday, 20 May 2017


An akratic gambler says (again) that he wants to quit gambling. For example, if you ask him this is what he will tell you. We might also say that it is what he 'says to himself'.

But then he starts to think of himself 'empirically' rather than 'practically'. He says 'ok, so this is what I intend, but what actually am I likely to do?' He then reasons 'in the past I haven't quit, therefore I probably won't quit.'

There are also many occasions when the gambler still wants to go gambling. (This, indeed, is what gives point to our talking here of addiction, of commitment to quit, etc.)

Richard Moran offers this:
For the gambler to have made such a decision is to be committed to avoiding the gambling tables. He is committed to this truth categorically, as the content of his decision; that is, insofar as he actually has made such a decision, this is what it commits him to. For him his decision is not just (empirical) evidence about what he will do, but a resolution of which he is the author and which he is responsible for carrying through.
What this made me think of is a predicament that can arise in psychotherapy. A patient says that he or she wants to overcome some problem, to quit a certain habit of thought or action. And he then engages the psychotherapist in a discussion the form of which is supposed to help him tackle this disposition within himself.

The patient is at war with himself. The therapist is engaged as collaborator with the patient to help him take a stand against himself. Hmm.

It all looks so reasonable.

Perhaps sometimes it is.

However there is I think also something disquieting about the way the patient moves into the 'empirical' rather than 'practical' stance. That very stance, I want to say, is already one which prescinds from the commitment to give up their addictive or other behaviour. After all, if he really has made up his mind, then what is the possible relevance of looking at past evidence? Acts of self-determination are precisely that.

But because the patient appeals to something which these days is a paradigm of reasonableness - namely an empirical, evidence-taking stance - we may be encouraged to overlook his irrationality in deploying it in the present case.

 Why is he irrational?

It is irrational not because it ignores evidence. It is irrational in the way that Moore's paradox is irrational. ('I believe it is raining but it is not raining'.) In effect, one feels, he is saying 'I make up my mind to not do this, but probably my mind isn't made up'.

If I make up my mind to do something, then I am committed to doing something. To be committed to doing something means to follow this through so long as the opportunity remains.

Now a further question might be thought to coherently arise. That question is 'ok, but might not the opportunity here include the absence of overwhelmingly compelling urges to gamble?'

But what is being said here? Is the idea that the person, in committing to stopping gambling, is really saying 'I now commit to giving up gambling, unless of course I have compelling urges to gamble'? Yet this is absurd - it seems to reduce a commitment to a wish. Or is he saying 'Despite and in truth because of the compelling urges to gamble I experience, I now commit to put this behaviour behind me'? Hopefully the latter if we're not to waste our time in listening to him.

The rationality-defeating narcissism in the akratic gambler's appeal to empirical considerations about his past behaviour consists in his overvaluation of what he says to himself or to us when he takes himself to be making a commitment. The irrationality is partly obscured from us because the word 'says' or 'tells' in the first paragraph has two meanings - to utter and to commit, and we flit between them without realising.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

not defensive

Why can it be hard to 'get in touch with your feelings', to 'feel what you need to feel'?

Psychodynamics offers one answer: it's because we don't want to feel pain, and so shy away from painful emotion and from the anxiety it causes.

No doubt that's sometimes true. However I've described before how it seems to me that what can make for the difficulty is not so much the pain, but the shame, of feeling. Or at least, that what makes for the difficulty is not having a sense of an other who will accept one in it. That, I believe, is not so far from a difficulty in 'mentalising' one's emotions, so long as one resists the temptation to construe that phenomenon in a merely cognitive manner.

But something else that needs to be considered is the intrinsic difficulty of transitioning between states. Being in an emotional state is being in a self-maintaining auto-enacted attractor basin of affect, thought, activity, etc. It is being in a mode which is itself one way of 'making sense'. My hypothesis is that it is simply difficult to move between states. You have to escape the self-maintaining attractor dynamics of one state, move over a threshold, and enter another state.

Moving between solitude and co-presence is a good example. Getting in touch with your latent anger when you are happy is another. We aren't obliged to think of this difficulty in motivational terms.

Often enough we are, when we arrive there, perfectly happy to be angry or sad or what have you. It was the transition, not the destination, that was troubling. Or, sometimes, not even troubling, but simply difficult.

So what we need to do is to cultivate our ability to move across thresholds between emotional states. We need to develop rites of passage. Micro-emotional forms of what anthropologists note regarding major transitions in life.

Some of these are simple. For example, we have rituals for saying hello and saying goodbye. These enable us to move between the radically different modes of being of solitude and company.

Moving between states can be troubling. I propose that 'anxiety' is the name of the stateless in-between, the state of upheaval we feel when we move out of one unanxious known into another such - but, since we must reconfigure ourselves - or better, since we must be reconfigured - in transit, we have to go through discombobulation. But, once again, I'm not proposing a psychodynamic theory - i.e. it isn't that we don't want to feel the anxiety - although that too may well sometimes be true. It is that we are designed to keep being pulled into the prior steady states. It is anxiogenic to get in touch with uncommon emotions, on this model, not because we don't want to be in the latter state, but because the process of auto-reconfiguration we must go through to get there is intrinsically jarring. But, again, it's not  necessarily that we act to avoid the anxiety, so much as that we get auto-configured by the attractor basin of the original affect state.

It's not that we don't want to travel, but just that having a home is having a place we are pulled back to. When we get there, finally, we're usually happy enough.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

hate has to come first

In The Divided Self chapter 10 Laing makes extensive effective reference to a paper by Hayward & Taylor (1956) called 'A schizophrenic patient [Joan] describes the action of intensive psychotherapy'. The following caught my eye:

Laing: The main agent in uniting the patient, in allowing the pieces to come together and cohere, is the physician's love, a love that recognises the patient's total being, and accepts it, with no strings attached.
Joan: Hate has to come first. The patient hates the doctor for opening the wound again and hates himself for allowing himself to be touched again. The patient is sure it will just lead to more hurt. He really wants to be dead and hidden in a place where nothing can touch him and drag him back.
The doctor has to care enough to keep after the patient until he does hate. If you hate, you don't get hurt so much as if you love, but still you can be alive again, not just cold and dead. People mean something to you again.
The doctor must keep after the patient until he does hate, that is the only way to get started. But the patient must never be made to feel guilty for hating. The doctor has to feel sure he has the right to break into the illness, just as a parent knows he has the right to walk into a baby's room, no matter what the baby feels about it. The doctor has to know he's doing the right thing.
The patient is terribly afraid of his own problems, since they have destroyed him, so he feels terribly guilty for allowing the doctor to get mixed up in the problems. The patient is convinced that the doctor will be smacked too. It's not fair for the doctor to ask permission to come in. The doctor must fight his way in; then the patient doesn't have to feel guilty. The patient can feel that he has done his best to protect the doctor. The doctor must say by his manner, "I'm coming in no matter what you feel."
It's hellish misery to see the breast being offered gladly with love, but to know that getting close to it will make you hate it as you hated your mother's. It makes you feel hellish guilt because before you can love, you have to be able to feel the hate too. The doctor has to show that he can feel the hate but can understand and not be hurt by it. It's too awful if the doctor is going to be hurt by the sickness.
What is striking about Joan's description of her state and its apt therapy is how replete it is with moral tension. Laing tells us that is the doctor's love that cures. Joan tells us all about her hate, and her need for the doctor to engage in a non-collaborative self-assured tolerant manner. The manner, i.e. the form of the relationship, a form Laing calls 'love', is all.

What today is called 'clinical psychology' can, I believe, often-enough almost be defined as an attempt to approach psychological suffering and treatment in descriptive/psychological rather than moral/evaluative terms. To the extent that it succeeds in its attempt, to that extent does it damage the patient and impede true recovery. Joan needed a therapist who could be morally assured and bold. She did not ask for a moral relationship defined merely as a collaborative willingness to do work which itself could be understood non-morally (merely epistemically, for example). Instead she asked for what she essentially needs - a transformative moral relationship, the therapist's containment and metabolism of her hate, a stance which from the standpoint of the defences amounts to intrusion, a stance which is nevertheless in the service of recognition of the patient's actual and potential humanity.

Psychologists are today so apt to disaggregate and deconstruct schizophrenia into this or that symptom which supposedly warrants treatment. Laing takes a different route - he reaggregates the symptoms into an understanding of predicament - the schizoid and schizophrenic predicament and struggle with the courage to be, to be in relation to fate and to the passing of time, and particularly the courage to be in relation to others.

Saturday, 22 April 2017


Joe Weiss
I've been looking at a little of the writing on Control Mastery Theory - the approach to psychotherapy developed by Joseph Weiss, later in collaboration with Harold Sampson, and disseminated by Alan Rappoport, George Silverschatz and others. It's a simple model (ugh, that word 'model' that hides so many conceptual sins in clinical psychology) and, if we are to have a simple model, it surely describes better than most any other some of the central features of the psychotherapeutic process.

And yet I find myself reading through Frank Cioffi's eyes. (Cioffi, the marvellous critic of Goffman and Freud, with the keenest of eyes for, and wittiest of pens for recording, the latently pseudo-empirical.) For CMT, it seems to me, offers much by way of 'posits', but provides little sense of what it would be to confirm or disconfirm these. So we're left wondering if what we meet with here are really hypotheses, or axioms, or what.

The real worry I have is that they are axioms masquerading as hypotheses. And that's a real worry because such masquerading is typically cultish, because it shrinks one's sense of the possible, and because it bamboozles natural human communication.

Frank Cioffi
(I'm not trying to overlook the benefits of having a simple system to organise one's thought and experience and interaction. Perhaps some people really would be better off with such a system? (Rappoport, for example, tends to write as if therapists will be lost without a system which provides a far greater degree of reduction than I could ever find comfortable.) Maybe I'm naive in believing most of us can outgrow such needs and return to a richer, more diverse, more fluid encounter with our own and one another's minds.)

The main move in CMT that interests me is a tendency to offer something we can all recognise as sometimes done or occurring, in psychotherapy, as if it were always done or occurring. Because the normal criteria for that something are clearly not going to be present all the time, the tendency can be to suggest that this is because the something is unconscious. Yet it confuses matters to use the concept of the unconscious thus. Not because we cannot find very decent uses for it. But because, if we want to know what it can mean to say that A is Xing even when A is not aware of or disposed to avow that he is Xing, it does not help us to say that A is Xing unconsciously. Sure, fine - but what are the criteria, the ascription conditions, for that? What counts for and what counts against ascribing X to A?  Unless you can give us some kind of answer to that question then it's not clear to me that you're really yet saying anything in maintaining that A is Xing. (Explanationism, in the philosophy of psychology, suffers the same lacunae: we are told that an unconscious or subconscious Xing is the best explanation of the consciously available behaviour Ying, and that's all very well but gets us nowhere until we are told what it is to un/sub-consciously X. It won't do to be told 'well, it's the same as to consciously X except the subject is not aware of it!' For what it is to 'consciously X' is in part to avow that one is Xing etc etc.)

You've been owed an example for too long. Here's something from the San Francisco Psychotherapy Research Group Website:
Control Mastery Theory embraces the idea that patients consciously and unconsciously regulate their own treatment. They work in therapy to disconfirm their crippling pathogenic beliefs. Patients are made miserable by these beliefs and are highly motivated to disconfirm them. Patients think unconsciously about their problems, and make and figure out plans for disconfirming these beliefs. Symptoms such as compulsions or inhibitions can now be understood as efforts to avoid dangers foretold by the pathogenic beliefs. One way that patients work to disconfirm their pathogenic beliefs is by testing them in relation to the therapist. This is a way for patients to reevaluate the reality upon which the dangers predicted by the pathogenic beliefs are based. In testing, a patient acts in accordance with his pathogenic belief. Patients engage in testing behaviors in order to ascertain if conditions of safety are sufficient enough for making their beliefs conscious.
Now how would we distinguish whether that, or the following, was right?
Out of Control Theory embraces the idea that patients come to therapy with emotional pain, anxiety and behavioural dysfunction which they either can't understand or can't control. They have a range of unconscious, semi-conscious and conscious pathogenic beliefs, sets of expectations, complexes, schemata, phantasies and wishes in terms of which we can understand their habitual thoughts, feelings, fantasies, behaviours, and relationship patterns. Because patients are often not adequately aware of their mental states,  and/or because they may not recognise their possible falsity, they typically enact them unintentionally in the therapeutic relationship. Yet so long as the therapist pays attention this is all super grist to the therapeutic mill. What keeps the therapeutic work in the zone of the complexes is not, since he is unaware of them, the patient's drive to test them out, but rather the therapist's skill in noticing and drawing them out, the absence of small talk, the activation of the transference, the closeness of the therapeutic relationship, etc. Fostered by his own reflection on unexpected experiences in and out of therapy, fostered by the therapist's transference interpretations, and fostered by the therapist's love and care, the patient increasingly recognises that he has latent fears and wishes and that they are not as inevitably sound as he expects. Because of all this the patient comes increasingly to acknowledge some of his own unrealistic desires for control and mastery, both of his emotional experiences and of his relationships. Sometimes he takes a punt on his expectations being unfounded or merely self-fulfilling, and risks a new way of relating to his therapist or to other significant others. If things go well he comes to be able to tolerate more of his diverse drives and wishes, acknowledge his all-too-human failings, withdraw his projections, be more vulnerable and loving, make reparations when required, notice and desist from his self-thwarting depressive and avoidant defences, man up, etc. Sometimes the all-too-human therapist gets in the way of this progress, but when therapy goes well he can be a helpful aid, confidant, testbed, reality check, support, recognition provider, confessor, and caregiver.
We all recognise, I think, that patients do sometimes test their therapists. But CMT invites us to think that this is the form that many or most interactions in therapy take. And it invites us to think that progress is made when therapists pass tests. But what about all the times when patients don't test their therapists? And what about the times when the testing is itself pathogenic? When testing needs not to be passed but to be called?

'Oh', the CMT therapist might say, 'calling someone out on their testing is just another way of passing the test. The test was whether you would take a stand against such behaviour. This is what we call 'passive into active' testing. The patient is behaving badly, but what they are hoping is to learn how to resist such bad behaviour as they themselves were subject to.'

But what are the grounds for saying that the patient was testing the therapist in their behaviour? It won't do to move straight to 'well, this explains really well why they are doing it', for explanations are only good to us if we understand them, and it is an understanding of what it means, here, to talk of testing that we are after.

There is a use of 'test' or 'try' - as in 'trying/testing my patience' - which is largely non-intentional. It is one which would fit the situation just envisaged (when the patient projects guilt into the therapist, for example). But it is not one which fits the CMT therapist's model - since it is, qua test if not qua evacuation, non-intentional. We are not here after evidence; we are after an understanding of what the evidence is said to be for. And none is forthcoming.

I'm not trying to say that we can't think of myriad instances in which a child or a patient benefits, calms down, feels safe, when their boundary-testing and omnipotence is successfully stood up to, when their bluff is called. But is this really going to provide the general framework for psychotherapy in general? Nobody, and certainly not the CMT therapist, thinks that.

Friday, 21 April 2017

sit yourself down in the right place and you won't ever need to go anywhere

When the concept of 'internal relation' is used to overcome a dualism, used to overthrow a depiction of a situation which makes it look like we need to find a way to relate two separate phenomena (mind and world, rule and application, thought and object, order and execution, etc) then we cannot but applaud it. Yet it seems to me that, notwithstanding, the dose of conceptual medicine it provides is often sub-clinical. 

Take the outside of the white disc and the inside of the black circle: O. It is, as Wittgenstein suggests, nonsensical to talk about the fitting of the disc in the circle when the boundary of the disc is defined, given, by the circle. Good, yes, right. They are not related as two separately definable or defined phenomena. But then does it really help us to say that they are instead related internally?

What is it that are related here? Objects or concepts? (This is a doubly terrible question.) Well, one thing is for sure: it is not that we have here two objects which are related by being 'brought under a unifying description'. There is no more fundamental designation of these alleged two objects than 'this disc defined by that circle'. 

No, the designation doesn't unify; we do better to say that we have here one figure, and that we can focus on certain features of this figure. There are two sides to a coin - we cannot peel the sides off from the singular coin to which they belong without their ceasing to be sides. 

The problem with the 'internally' answer to the 'how are they related?' question is that it fails to completely take apart the assumption that here we do indeed properly meet with a 'they'. It's a bit like  (to borrow again from Wittgenstein) answering 'Mr Nobody' to the question 'Who is in the room?' where there isn't anyone in the room. We could speak like that, but we both know it simply disguises the out-of-place-ness of the question. 

The only reason it looks like we meet here with a 'they' is that we have started talking as if that is what we have here. But we don't, so we shouldn't. Sit yourself down in the right place to start with and you won't ever have to go anywhere.

We get this kind of thing all the time in philosophy. 'What makes it the case that 2+2 is necessarily 4?' Bad question - this whole 'makes it the case?' way of speaking already presupposes that we here have to do with two separate phenomena (2+2, and 4) which are by some or other means, you tell me, joined up. But, no, it is not the Platonic objects or the rituals of human life that 'make' this the case. Rather what is the case is that we have such a singular ritual as adding 2 + 2 and calling this '4'. One phenomenon, one rule, one coin, one O, and no thing to relate to any thing else.

How are the morning star and the evening star related? They are not related or unrelated. There is no 'they'. There is one star with two names. ... How are the two names related? ... Well, what kind of relation did you have in mind in your question which asks about how names are related? I can't yet think what you're talking about.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

the inner, the outer, the unconscious

Our thinking about the unconscious harnesses itself with beguiling readiness to the inner/outer picture which we've otherwise worked so hard to overcome. I'm thinking of how easy it is to imagine that unconscious emotion is inner emotion which is not yet finding its way to outward expression. That defences are inhibitions on voicing and otherwise expressing. Or even that they are inhibitions on some kind of (philosophically invented) 'inner access' to our own inner emotional state.
P M S Hacker

I've no desire to rehearse the critique of the metaphysical inner/outer, and correlative epistemological self-access, picture here. Peter Hacker has conclusively done this to death many years since with his Wittgensteinian work in the philosophy of mind. Let's instead start with a reflective appreciation of the immanence of mentality in behaviour and ask ourselves where this leaves our conception of the dynamic unconscious.

According to Maurice Merleau-Ponty, dynamic unconsciousness is best understood as a latency. This seems promising to me. My desire is, sure, not reducible to, but nevertheless not somehing other than, my expressions of it. The unconscious is an atypical black hole in the texture of my expressive emotionality. And this emotionality has its very being in its enactions, which enactions may be shrunken or expansive, simplistic or finely nuanced. And, since we are here eschewing the inner/outer picture, shrunken or widely ramified and nuanced expressivity is of a piece with shrunken or ramified and nuanced emotionality itself. 

Defences are typically against the shame of having this or that desire, experience, feeling, thought. It is when the accepting balm of the shadow of Thou is cast over me by you that I can thaw, expand into my own latent emotionality. Now there is relief, since the blockage - not in merely outer expression or self-knowledge, or in some separable quotient of the emotion called, tautologically, the feeling of the emotion -  is undone and I can once again body forth in my relatedness. Now I can go on. Now my emotions can actually take shape as such.

M Merleau-Ponty
Now I can make sense again - not in the sense of making reflective sense of my feelings (best leave that to the psychologist), but in the sense in which I, in my feelings, can now develop in them, and a merely immanent possibility of intelligible being - of relating with sense to a world - is back on the table as something more than immanent, as something which may now actually take shape and take up space. My ability to make sense is the same as my ability to move again, to unfold here and there,  to enact meaning in my self-becoming in the context of this and that relationship.

Freud's energic metaphors - which he somewhat psychotically did not recognise as such - capture well, I believe, the experience of defensive blockages on affective becoming. For when we cannot body forth with an affective intentionality, all that we may have left by way of expression is something denuded of intentionality. For example, a sense of pressure, of dampening, of physical symptoms (we cannot cry but perhaps even so water spills from our eyes.)

Monday, 3 April 2017

why defend?

I used to think that emotions which remained unconscious inevitably did so because to feel them is in itself too painful. The idea lies behind the common canard that 'people need their defences'. Anger or sadness or guilt are too much - in the sense that the pain they generate is too much, and the anxiety about feeling this pain is too much. Thus the defences which kick in and which stop us from feeling the emotions are defences against the intrinsic and anxiogenic pain of the emotions.

One of the clinical facts the standard view rather ignores is that it is often a relief to someone to have a defence lifted. You often see this in the clinic: sure, after the defence against sadness is relinquished, the patient feels sad, but yet he is not unhappy to be so, can bear it just fine, etc.  Frankly: it is a relief, and on being reacquainted with oneself thus it also feels healing and integrating. In truth I still believe that the standard view obtains when we meet with psychosis: reality is too painful and so the defences of delusion, mind-dismantling, and autistic retreats are indulged. But I've come to doubt its adequacy in many neurotic cases.

What strikes me as true in neurotic cases is that the becoming, bodying-forth, of emotions is anxiogenic not because of the pain of the emotions but because of an expectation of oneself not being accepted in such emotions, or a feeling that even to oneself one is unacceptable for having such emotions. The anxiety, I am proposing, is essentially social. The anxiety is more often a matter of shame or guilt: I shouldn't be feeling this feeling. Or it's the fear of rejection and the complex nexus of resentment and trepidation and self-doubt and rage that is characteristically bundled up with that.

In the clinic the patient is enabled to body forth into this or that feeling because she gets an inkling of acceptance and understanding of herself in her feeling from her therapist.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

making sense

Sometimes my experiences start to make sense. Now I can, after all, go on.

How easy it is to misconstrue this as 'Sometimes I start to make sense of my experiences'.

Already we're sunk. Already we've become narrative enquirers into our experiences. The sense that arises, now, within our experience is lost behind a philosophical story.

Sense is sometimes created - made - by experiences. They have an intelligible form - not in the sense that I am there making sense of them. No. I'm there making sense of the world. I am doing this, now, in my experiencing of it. This doing is my experiencing. 

'Now I see.'

Now my experiences make ( - create - ) sense.

The intelligibility of my experiences is not their intelligibility to me. Instead their form is one of the forms of intelligibility itself. The form this intelligibility takes is that of this particular experiential encounter.

speaking for my self

There are phrases we use to signal a change of game. Then some philosopher comes along and mistakes them for further moves in the same game. Et voila: metaphysics.

(Perhaps we didn't signal wildly enough. But then again, perhaps we really weren't expecting some philosopher to come blundering along.)

The topic of selfhood is a prime location for such reflective clumsiness. 

Thus often enough such 'self' talk is introduced to signal the absence of interpersonal relations. But then the philosopher thinks that what we are talking about is, say, the presence of reflexive relations.

For example: 

I live by myself. 
Speaking for myself. 
He's become more self-possessed.
She's become so self-conscious.
I thought to myself that...

'Speaking for myself' doesn't mean being my own mouthpiece. Or rather, to talk more perspicuously, the notion of 'being one's own mouthpiece' has no very obvious positive sense (but do please feel free to invent one).What it signals here is simply that I'm not being someone else's mouthpiece.

Being possessed by someone (charmed, hypnotised, gaslighted, bewitched, mesmerised, gulled, under the thumb of) is not something which requires replacing by a possessive relation to oneself. Self-possession is but the absence of possession by someone.

Being self-conscious does not mean taking one's self, instead of someone else, as the object of one's attention. It means fearing that others are scrutinising you.

Living by myself: it just means I don't have housemates, ok!

I thought to myself...: I didn't express my thought!

Talk of the self even starts being construed as talk about some kind of thing. (As Wittgenstein describes it - this absurd idea that nouns always get their meanings by standing for things.) Or, when (unsurprisingly) no thing is found, it gets construed as talk about an illusory thing! (Who knew that things could be so hard to give up?!) Here's a few lines from an article about Dan Dennett in this week's New Yorker: 
The tree of life grew, its branches stretching toward complexity. Organisms developed systems, subsystems, and sub-subsystems, layered in ever-deepening regression. They used these systems to anticipate their future and to change it. When they looked within, some found that they had selves—constellations of memories, ideas, and purposes that emerged from the systems inside.
Whoa, hold on chap! Let's leave aside the idea that I do something called 'use a system' to 'anticipate the future and change it'. (Like: what are the criteria for using a system? When we ponder that question are we likely to consider that, say, we use our liver to detoxify our blood? Surely not! Now, do we really want to say the same kind of thing about our brains and the future?) Let's consider instead the (alleged) idea that we 'look within' and there 'find that we have selves' and that these selves are emergent 'constellations of memories, ideas, and purposes'. 

So: 'looking within'. We talk like this mainly when we're doing that thing called 'examining our conscience'. We also use it to denote a moment of stepping up, taking responsibility, when we stop pointlessly trying to look for resources or causes of alleged misfortune outside ourselves. (Another good case of a phrase's primary purpose being the changing of a game (looking for the causes of what goes wrong in your life turns into a different game of owning your shit) rather than making another move within the same looking-for-the-causes game.) The author of the article is not using it in either of those two senses. That's fine. But, like, just how is he using it?

Next: 'having a self'. I know what it is for someone to have or lack personality. But having a self? 'Having' in what sense? Possessing? Surely not. (If a feminist insists that her body is her own property, presumably what she's saying is just that her body is nobody else's possession, and not - let's hope - claiming that the ordinary concepts of 'possession' or 'property' do any kind of justice to what it is to have a body.) 'I am a self', one might offer - if, say, one was trying to teach the use of the word. Right now I can't imagine a use for 'I have a self'. (Again, feel free to invent one. Just don't forget to tell us about it - preferably before using the phrase in conversation.)

Finally: the self has become some thing - or at least a 'constellation of memories and ideas and purposes.' .... The purpose of my field trip was to collect some more weevils. So, 'to collect some more weevils' is part of my self? Like, what? (I'm not disagreeing. I just don't know what you're saying... No, it's not that. Rather: I think that you don't know what you're saying.)... Or: I have a thought about Geoffrey; I have a thought about weevils; these 'thoughts are parts of myself'. ... How could one agree or disagree with such a strange phrase? Perhaps if someone is saying that these are my thoughts, not someone else's thoughts, I can begin to get a purchase...? But, like, dude, what are you actually saying with your words? How are you using them? I know you thought you had something in mind when you issued them. But, hmm... did you? Really?

Saturday, 25 March 2017

John Berger on loneliness and recognition

"Most unhappiness is like illness in that it too exacerbates a sense of uniqueness. All frustration magnifies its own dissimilarity and so nourishes itself. Objectively speaking this is illogical since in our society frustration is far more usual than satisfaction, unhappiness far more common than contentment. But it is not a question of objective comparison. It is a question of failing to find any confirmation of oneself in the outside world. The lack of confirmation leads to a sense of futility. And this sense of futility is the essence of loneliness: for, despite the horrors of history, the existence of other men always promises the possibility of purpose. Any example offers hope. But the conviction of being unique destroys all examples. 
An unhappy patient comes to a doctor to offer him an illness - in the hope that this part of him at least (the illness) may be recognisable. His proper self he believes to be unknowable. In the light of the world he is nobody: by his own lights the world is nothing. Clearly the task of the doctor - unless he merely accepts the illness on its face value and incidentally guarantees for himself a 'difficult' patient - is to recognise the man. If the man can begin to feel recognised - and such recognition may well include aspects of his character which he has not yet recognised himself - the hopeless nature of his unhappiness will have been changed: he may even have the chance of being happy."
The quoted section continues with a remarkable description of how the physician John 'Sassall' offers such recognition in his medical practice in the 1950s Forest of Dean. Sassall
"is acknowledged as a good doctor because he meets the deep but unformulated expectation of the sick for a sense of fraternity. He recognises them. ... 'The door opens,' he says, 'and sometimes I feel I'm in the valley of death. It's all right when once I'm working.' ... It is as though, when he talks or listens to a patient, he is also touching them with his hands so as to be less likely to misunderstand and it is as though, when he is physically examining a patient, they were also conversing."

Thursday, 23 March 2017

self-possession in talk

Last night I saw the Rheingans Sisters in concert. I admired their music. I also admired their sisterliness. I thought: how admirable to be able to love and hate each other as robustly as this! And found myself imagining their robustness to be a function of a lifetime of counter-dependent individuation. Imagining they had to fight for themselves, to continue to manage their relationship and identity and strife, in the midst of their sisterly love.

All of that may have been my fantasy. Yet it prompted a thought about self-possession, thought and conversation I'd like to share. Here's the scenario:
I have a thought. I share it. You understand my words a particular way. I don't notice that you have supplied but a reading of them, but one parsing of their intent and their implications. I start taking myself to have had just the thought you understand me to have had. The conversation that follows rather presupposes this on both sides. Perhaps somewhere along the line I start to feel baffled and lost.
I think this can happen rather a lot. The determinacy of thought does sometimes and somewhat precede its outer expression, but often gets achieved through progressive finessing along the way. And one can easily collapse into someone else's finessing, or into the dead metaphors and tropes that pervade one's culture, and thereby lose the immanent intent of one's drift.

'Immanent... drift': I have in mind the notion that whilst one hasn't thought out in advance just what one meant by what one said, what such words do mean in one's mouth are yet aptly thought of as a part function of the other things one might naturally say in the ambit of this and related discussion when one's interlocutor gives one the space to mentally breath. I'm thinking not at all about what we might wishfully like our words to mean - no overly charitable unaccountability this - but rather about what they do mean, where what they do mean is a function of what else one is disposed to say.

I felt for a moment like saying: '...disposed to say absent a controlling other and absent a hypnotic disposition'. Yet that is my question here. Are the determinacy of my thought's content and my degree of self-possession quite so obviously separate matters? To what extent is the true content of my thought to be understood as aptly indicable only by the least forceful of my interlocutors? Or might my capacity to weather the rough and tumble of conversation, my self-possession, itself be a determinant of my thought's determinacy?

My thought, in short, is that my self-possession and the determinacy of my thought are not two different things. Underlying this is a Heideggerian idea concerning Discourse: that we are thinkers to the extent that we can partake in discussion. That, sure, we can take refuge away from actual conversation and think cleanly and clearly in the privacy of our own studies; thus J S Mill called solitude 'the cradle of thought'. Yet this psychological possibility, I'm suggesting, should not be thought to give the lie to an ontological necessity which is its paradoxical condition of possibility: namely that such private conversation is still only as good as the public conversation in which it could find its realisation.

Why does this matter? It matters to the extent that, if it is right, it shows that we do wrong to hive matters cognitive and matters dynamic off from one another. It strongly suggests that the development of my personality is not entirely separable from the development of my ideas. It ontologically elevates matters personological to a place in the philosophy of mind. It undermines the self-arrogated independence of cognitive science from matters psychoanalytic. Naturally we can think of all sorts of exceptions, real and apparent, to my thesis. We might for example bring to mind the boorishly over-confident person who is unshakeable in his drift. Yet for him we might well wonder whether his apparently determinate ideas really are quite so, since he hardly seems able to attend to the subtleties of our critique, to listen to what our questions regarding his thought mean in our mouths, and so he hardly seems able to render his own thought determinately accountable. Maybe our sense of his cogency was partly a function of our cowedness. Or we might bring to mind the fragile genius. Yet here, and this was all along my point, this genius must be able to stand up in some or other test, in correspondence at least if not in badinage.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

organic, psychogenic, factitious

Something which makes it hard to achieve conceptual clarity regarding the psychiatric distinctions of the organic, the psychogenic and the factitious is the perennial temptation to import metaphysical distinctions between the mental and the physical into their explication. Yet this is but a way  philosophy hinders rather than aids psychiatry's reflective self-understanding.

One result of a glib importing of the metaphysical distinction into the psychiatric categories is a well-meaning psychologist's proffered: 'Oh, these distinctions between the organic and the psychogenic are so old-fashioned and dualist. These days we know we don't do well to assume that mental causes and neurological causes are two separate phenomena. The mind is not somehow some separate thing from the brain you know...'

The irony here is that it is the psychologist rather than the psychiatrist who is making the crass philosophical assumption - the assumption that in psychiatry the category of the 'organic' is to be understood in terms of that of the 'physical', the 'psychogenic' in terms of the 'mental'. The result is not that the distinction itself is shown to fail, only that the psychologist fails to achieve any rational reconstruction of it, and causes further muddle to boot.

So how are we to understand these distinctions? I propose that the fundamental category - the one we need to start with, the one an understanding of which is presupposed by the other categories - is that of the psychogenic. (Bet that surprised yer.)

A psychogenic condition, I suggest (tell me if I'm wrong!), is a breakdown due to intolerable pressure on the ego due to the thwarting of drives. Thus a breakdown due to unrequited love, to hopelessness, companionlessness, thwarted aggression, etc. Note that this definition says nothing about the degree of change in neurological structure or function. Perhaps a serious case of unrequited love involves all sorts of striking neurological alterations; I rather imagine it would! But the point of saying the category is fundamental is precisely to say that the nosology doesn't depend upon differentially diagnosing the absence of neurological alteration.

An organic condition, I propose, is one which is not psychogenically intelligible. (The concept of an organic illness in psychiatry is, I'm suggesting, not the same as the concept of an illness in general medicine, for the everyday concept of an illness is not left ontologically hanging on the absence of psychogenicity.) The alterations we find in the brain of an organically ill psychiatric patient (e.g. a late-stage syphilitic) are not due to thwarted drives (but to spirochetes!). Yet an organic illness is in one sense still defined functionally. That is to say, an organic illness is defined in terms of such impairment of an organ as causes disturbance in organismic (i.e. your) function. (If a spirochete eats away half your brain but gets so depressed with its miserable life that it gives up the ghost, and yet you suffer zero functional impairment, then in what sense are you ill? Who gives a monkeys if you've lost half your brain?) What is important, however, is that the illness is not constituted by an environmental thwarting of function. The brain changes are not caused by atrophy due to impossibility of drive satisfaction. Again, the concept of the psychogenic wears the differential trousers here.

A factitious illness is not an illness. It is someone pretending to be ill. You gotta understand it in terms of intentions to deceive.

We might add hysterical to the above list. If I had to define it I'd suggest: psychogenic with a form offering secondary gain (?is that right?). (And if anyone tells you that there is always and everywhere a clear distinction between intentional and non-intentional action, I recommend asking them where they got the license for their conceptual confidence. Our concepts so often have raggedy edges and admit intermediary cases. I for one see no grounds - other than egregious philosophical fiat - for saying that it must be the case that someone always either intends or does not intend something.)

It is natural for medics to worry that they may be mistaking psychogenic for organic illness. (The opposite of course may happen too, but is usually less fatal or less shaming for both patient and doctor - although let's not underestimate the disastrous existential and financial costs of undiagnosed or misdiagnosed psychogenic illness.) What can be said to reassure them?

On the one hand: not a lot. You just gotta do a careful examination of your patient. You can't just go around guessing that they have unfulfilled desires of such intensity as to cause functional breakdown. You look for the actual signs of this. But really this is just like the rest of medicine. Again: the category of the psychogenic is the one wearing the conceptual trousers here; the concept of the organic is only to be invoked when the former finds inadequate purchase.

Where I think the added pressure comes from is the supposed march of progress of neuroscience. ... 'We are finding out more and more about the brain, and as a result will find out that more and more which was previously understood to be psychogenic will be organic.' ... Yet regards that: how many disorders have actually been newly understood since neuroimaging came on the scene? We have learned something more about organic conditions like neurosyphillis, dementia, parkinsons, and epilepsy. Have we really learned any more about the causes of other mental illnesses from neuroscientific investigation? Most often we just learn something more about the typical neurological alterations in this or that psychiatric condition. Yet, once again, neurological changes in no way index organicity. To suppose they do is to collapse back into the metaphysical canard with which we started.

Nothing in neurology shakes the conceptual primacy of the psychogenic in psychiatry.

Friday, 17 March 2017

a different existence

The psychiatric patient is alone. He has few relationships or perhaps no relationships at all. He lives in isolation. He feels lonely. He may dread an interview with another person. At times, a conversation with him is impossible. He is somewhat strange; sometimes he is enigmatic and he may, on rare occasions, be even unfathomable. The variations are endless, but the essence is always the same. The psychiatric patient stands apart from the rest of the world. This is why he has a world of his own: in his world, houses can sway forward, flowers can look dull and colorless. This is why he also has a special sort of body: his heart aches, his legs are weak and powerless. His past, too, is different. His rearing has failed, and this in turn causes his difficulties with other people - difficulties that summarize, as it were, all his other complaints. He is alone. He is a lonely man. Loneliness is the central core of his illness, no matter what his illness may be. Thus, loneliness is the nucleus of psychiatry. If loneliness did not exist, we could reasonably assume that psychiatric illnesses could not occur either, with the exception of the few disturbances caused by anatomical or physiological disorders of the brain. We have no knowledge of animals ever having "genuine" mental disorders.

The clearest articulation of the thought that loneliness is the dying heart of psychopathology. J H van den Berg; A Different Existence pp. 105-6.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

hope beyond hope

I'm thinking about the difference between the presence or absence of fundamental ('ontological') states of (human) being - of states which constitute us in our humanity as such - and the ('ontical') presence or absence of such feelings as are only possible when the fundamental states already obtain.


To feel love for, or be annoyed with, someone presupposes an ability to be in relationship with them. To be in relationship with them involves being open to being touched by them. It means offering them a place in your life. We meet all the time with love (and anger), but this love presupposes a deeper love - a love beyond love - which is the condition of possibility of love (and anger). From the point of view of this deeper love, anger could be said to be one of its forms. Ontological open-heartedness is a condition of possibility of ontical love and anger. Ontological closed-heartedness is a condition of impossibility of both love and anger.


Sometimes I am delighted or disappointed - when my hopes are met or dashed. Yet there is a kind of hope in which I take out a mortgage on the happening of what I hope for, and when my hopes are not met then I am not disappointed but crushed. When I am delighted or disappointed I am able to reside in hopeful relations to the world. I am open to love and opportunity. Yet when I am crushed I become depressed; I am hopeless and have no future. 'Hope beyond hope' is ontological hope. It is an attitude of accepting openness to whatever will be. It does not hold the world to account but aims to take whatever is offered in good faith. Job saw that his complaints were, despite his terrible sufferings, vapid. We can be happy, yet vulnerable, when we awaken to hope beyond hope.


Ordinary loneliness is an ache. In this state one knows that love and friendship are possible - this much is shown in the way in which one misses them: one is aware of what one is missing. Their love, the living meaning of their companionship, can still be felt in its absence. Yet loneliness beyond loneliness - ontological loneliness - is something else. This state of unmooring and hollowed-out bereftness makes it impossible to stay in touch with what one is missing. One is now no longer being in the mode of a companion.


Psychotherapy aims at the restoration of the capacity to feel ontically lonely, disappointed and angry. The capacity to feel thus is constituted by our ability to hope beyond hope, to love beyond love, to have companionship beyond companionship. Psychotherapists talk about their patients 'internalising' their therapists' care for them. This means staying in a mode of open-hearted relatedness to others, imagining oneself as the object of their care, and keeping them in mind too, even when alone. This is the whole task of therapy. It won't do to describe it in terms of 'affect regulation' or 'mindfulness'; what we are aiming at is, instead, an ontological transformation.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

hope born of love is unaccountable to reason

There are times when it's rational or irrational to act on or offer hope. There are, that is, forms of hope-inspired action the rationality of which is properly said to be assayable. Thus I may hope to win the lottery and this find expression in my buying lots of tickets. Which, given the dreadful odds, would be irrational. Or I may perennially be lost to the hope that, in some or other arena of my life, the grass will yet be greener; a hope which, in the typical contexts of that idiom's deployment, is to be understood as irrational. Or I may quite reasonably leave my umbrella at home in the hope that it won't rain - after all it's been rather dry recently. Such forms of hope are all either rational or irrational, and never neither.

Such a conception of hope - let's call it 'empirical hope' - is not what interests me here. I bring it up to provide the necessary foil for that other conception - let's call it 'transcendental hope' - to which I want to draw attention. For this latter form of hope is, as it seems to me, when offered and when taken, the very essence of the restorative and the salvific. What it provides is a restoration of life itself, a venturing outside the shell, a raising of the gaze, an opening of the heart, the 'finding of meaning in life' - a new attitude to life itself. Transcendental hope and the acts it inspires are, I claim, not rational or irrational. Or, to the extent they may be, they are so in a very different sense than acts born of empirical hope. And the reason I want to highlight the distinction between them is because, as it seems to me, the perennial temptation is for transcendental hope to be collapsed into its empirical cousin in ways which damage what is salvific in it. My claim is that, in contrast with its empirical cousin, a marker of transcendental hope is that it is not assayable as rational or irrational.

We may hope for and we may hope that. I hope that I will get a promotion; I fail and am disappointed. This is empirical hope. I have already taken out a mortgage on the new job's arrival, and now I must painfully repay the debt. By contrast I hope for love and health and happiness; I get ill or remain alone, yet am not painfully disappointed; I had not taken out a mortgage on their arrival.

Transcendental hope is a living acknowledgement of what I like to call 'love's possibility'. Such hope may be deeply personal yet is not, unlike hope that, vulnerable to hope's predators in the same way. With hope that we make ourselves the measure of the world. We have a wish which will or will not be satisfied. With hope for the world's possibilities are instead the measures for us. Including, especially, the possibility for love.

Various spiritual battles may be read as the collapse of transcendental into empirical hope. Thus Job had a dismal time of it and, one can easily feel, quite reasonably wished and hoped that matters could be otherwise - for example that he could be dead. Or, Jesus succumbed to hopelessness on the Cross ('why hast thou forsaken me?'); from a natural all-too-human standpoint, one might say, life wasn't exactly working out his way.

Transcendental hope has nothing to do with forming a representation of how one wishes life to be. Hope which is a willing acknowledgement of love's possibility is not hope that love will come along for one. The hope that is born of love is a loving recognition simply of the fact of love's existence, that one lives in a world that is so structured that love can obtain. It is the possibility of it that matters.

Yet by this focus on possibility I don't mean to detract from a thought of love's particularity and personal character. For what is essential to staying alive to such hope is a sense of the intelligibility of the idea of one's own lovability, and the intelligibility of the idea that one's own loving could be welcomed by someone in friendship, in parental care, in romance. Without that living and highly personal sense, life becomes transcendentally hopeless. We become depressed.

Christians, it seems to me, sometimes have their eye on this ball, to possibly good effect. The transcendental character of hope is guaranteed for them by the love of a transcendental God, and the personal sense of hope is guaranteed by the essentially personal character of an individual prayerful relationship with Him. But what interests me here is elaborating the concepts of love's possibility, and of a hope that is unaccountable to reason, outside of the religious context. Partly because that context so often carries so much (by way of supernaturalism and psychology) that I and others find impossible. And partly because I fear the ways in which it itself, in grounding a possibility (love's possibility) in an allegedly cognisable actuality (the personal love of a transcendental God), loses the essential fragility of the possibility as such. An obvious way that shows itself is in the utterly non-transcendental hope that good behaviour will be rewarded in an afterlife - such that my hopeful actions now are rationalised by what is to come.

An essential aspect of transcendental hope is, I believe, that it is unaccountable to reason. But this isn't to say that we can't marshall reasons why it makes sense to become transcendentally hopeful. In short: life tends to go better if we do! (That's no great surprise, and it's hardly magic.) But that's not my point, which is instead that transcendental hope cannot be justified in terms of it being reasonable for someone to expect love. And this is because transcendental hope simply does not expect love. To expect love is, as it were, to ask of the world that it conform to one's wish, whereas transcendental hope is of a piece with the relinquishing of that wish. Hope born of love is, to borrow the religious language, essentially a dying to self. Where ego was, there other shall be. Transcendental hope is unaccountable to reason in the sense that it doesn't make sense to talk of us being hopeful thus as it does to go to the shop on the way home. The latter makes sense to me because I want some milk and it's an excellent bet that there's some milk in the shop. That the action makes sense, or doesn't make sense, is partly a function of my wish (this makes it possible for it to be rationally assayable) and partly a function of whether the world is going to play along (our knowledge of this determines whether the hope is rational or irrational). But transcendental hope - we might also call it 'hope beyond hope' - is not like that. It is instead a matter of saying 'yes' to the living of one's life, a willingness to take what inevitably comes to you, a refusal of the impulse to pretend to know what will happen to one in one's relationships to others, a refusal to foreclose on possibilities.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

understanding psychoanalytic understanding

Consider a psychoanalytic theory such as Freud offers for paranoia. In nuce this has it that paranoid beliefs - that others are harbouring hostile intent towards one - are caused by projection onto them of one's own hostile feelings toward oneself. I find my anger with myself utterly intolerable, so to keep from being overwhelmed by shame or incongruence or terror I instead attribute the anger to you. Now I no longer have the intolerable tear-myself-apart anger at myself - great! What was inside has been relocated outside, in you. But, unfortunately, now that I've populated my world with my hostile projections, my world becomes frightening. And it also makes me angrily resentful. Because, damn it, why are you being so hostile to me?!

That, at least, is a simple projection-based understanding of paranoia - but we might also offer a further or alternative dynamic to explicate at least some of it's forms. Namely that my live delusional sense of retaliatory anger from you arises because unconscious anger at you has awakened in me a particular complex, a particular transference dynamic, a particular unconscious phantasy, in which two people (you and I) are locked in an intractable angry retaliatory battle with one another, and yet of this I am only left in conscious touch with your feelings towards me. The thought being that for me to be able to acknowledge/own my anger, it is not so much that it would have to be reclaimed from you, but rather that it would not now be simply fuelling the phantasy in which your retaliatory hostility is provoked. (This is projection in a very different - non-dynamic - sense than in the first theory: projection type one involves a motivated misattribution; projection type two involves but a misreading of you along the lines of my fearful phantasy - combined with repression of my own hostility.)

My question is: what is the 'logical status' of such theories? Are they empirical theories of a sort which have a truth value which could, in principle at least, meaningfully be ascertained through experiment? Another way to put this is: is their objectivity of a sort evincible through testing? Or are they redefinitions of paranoia - now anything worthy of being called 'paranoia' necessarily is to be understood as a function of projection or what-have-you? Or are they let's-call-it phenomenological theories which aim to give us a deeper characterisation of the intelligible forms of paranoid thought?

One way to think about what it can mean to describe a cognitive (i.e. knowledge-providing) discipline as scientific, as opposed to non-scientific, is to focus in on its use of 'the' scientific method. Perhaps there are in fact many scientific methods, but the idea I'm here referencing with that phrase refers to a general methodological feature of good experimental science which always gives to nature alone the opportunity of answering the questions one puts to it. Imagine that one is investigating the causes of upper back ache. Various dietary and viral contributions are proposed. Naturally the form of our investigation will be to test the proposals - hypotheses are formed, and the diet and viral infections of people who have or who go on to develop back ache (and of those who don't) will be investigated. The hypotheses are clearly testable: if the achey people don't have more viral infections then the hypothesis would appear a dud. The results of the investigations may be predicted beforehand, but the fact is that back aches and viral infections are individuated utterly separately, and this external relation between them makes for a maximum ease of application for the scientific method. Nature can then answer quite independently of our intuitions, and this fact is valuable to us in establishing the objectivity of our thought.

Nothing in what I am saying is intended to promote the idea that the only method for establishing thought worthy of being called 'objective' is the scientific method. (To think in that way is to submit to a rather bizarre form of positivism.) Here, for example, is another way. I make a claim and we get clear on whether or not it has application by spelling out a range of alternatives and how to tell them apart. For example, at the beginning of this post I offered two psychoanalytic understandings of paranoia. The apt question here, I imagine, is not the general 'which is the right understanding?' since, unless one of the understandings makes less sense than I suppose, they surely may either of them find application in this or that instance - and will, when they do, reference two different forms that paranoia may take. Depending on how you are apt to individuate meanings we may even find ourselves wanting to say that here we have two different possible meanings that paranoia can possess. At any rate, so we know that we here genuinely do have two different explanations, and not simply two different sentences, what is required is that we can think how to tell them apart in practice. And this is fairly easy. The first question we would want to ask would, I imagine, be whether the feelings and thoughts which the paranoid person attributes to their feared other are feelings and thoughts which do in fact apply to themselves. Or do they simply characterise not what the observer might think of as aspects of the paranoiac's character, but the different matter of what the paranoiac expects to meet with in others? Does the patient appear more shamed by the idea of the content of the paranoid thoughts applying to them or by the content of the accusations that their feared object makes of them? And so on. The objectivity of my thought - the fact that I can't just whimsically say whatever I want, that I'm being properly accountable - is guaranteed here not by experimentally testing the ideas but by being very clear about what the differential criteria are for their instantiations. This provision of a more deeply specified description of a phenomenon is what I'm calling here a phenomenological understanding. (You will have noticed that I slyly answered my own question already: psychoanalytical understandings are often phenomenological rather than scientific.)

Take by contrast the kind of explanation of paranoia offered us by Richard Bentall. Bentall's is a kind of psychodynamic explanation, but he aims to provide the kind of explanation which is, at least in part, scientifically testable. Bentall's hypothesis is that 'paranoid patients show an exaggeration of the self-serving bias (the normal tendency to attribute positive events to the self and negative events to external causes) and ... when they make external attributions for negative events, their explanations usually implicate the intentions of others (the make external-personal attributions) rather than circumstantial factors (external-situational attributions).' He also claims that delusions are understood by thoughtful psychologists to be formed by people trying to come up with explanations to make sense of those of their experiences which otherwise puzzle them. Finally he claims that the self-serving bias has a function and doesn't just lead by chance to a happy outcome - the function is the happy outcome itself (i.e. the external attributions serve to protect self-esteem). His explanation as to why paranoiacs make negative attributions of others rather than of situations has to do with hyper-vigilance concerning threat-related information and/or impairment in reading situations.

There are several things I take issue with in Bentall's account. First I'd say that it is mainly the not-so-thoughtful (cognitive) psychologists who've accepted this notion of delusion-as-explanation, whilst the phenomenologists and psychoanalysts are more thoughtful in instead seeing delusions as rationalisations (not explanations) which are motivationally (rather than rationally) intelligible (i.e. they bring relief not through rationally making sense of things - which often they strikingly fail to do - but through locating inconvenient intentions or experiences elsewhere). Second I'd suggest that paranoiacs find it easier to make negative attributions to others (rather than to situations) because one can only meaningfully project an intention into, or take part in a dispute with, an other (situations aren't agents so can't be said to have intentions or to dispute). But leaving such disagreements aside, what I really want to focus on is the logical form of his explanation. It is not at all obvious to me how to test the idea that the patients are motivated in their self-serving bias. But it appears much clearer that the claim that paranoid delusions are a product of a heightened general self-serving bias is an explanation of a testable sort. Here all one needs to do is measure the self-serving bias of a population and see if higher measures correlate with higher measures of paranoia. In a way it's not a very satisfying explanation, since it just shunts our question a step further back: why does the patient have a higher self-serving bias? And if here we appeal to their need to defend against painful emotions we will, I suspect, be back in the territory of phenomenological understanding rather than scientific explanation.

Bentall does try to give scientific data correlating low implicit self-esteem and paranoia, but it all becomes very convoluted and controversial at this point. In any case our experience of defences is that they quite often cause more problems than they solve (e.g. the pains of now living in a hostile-seeming world), and are often not that effective despite being strongly motivated - so just because someone may use a defence of external attribution / projection to manage their latent negative feelings about themselves doesn't mean that we should expect any very clear correlation between one's latent feeling about oneself and the degree of one's paranoia. But be that as if may, my point here has been to contrast the kinds of explanations one may meet with in cognitive science, in which testing may be the way to establish objectivity, and the kinds of explanations one may instead meet with in psychoanalysis, in which the making of clear phenomenological discriminations may instead be the way to establish objectivity.

At a talk at the UK Institute of Psychiatry about 15 years ago a young clinical psychologist - Paul Tabraham I think it was - presented his case formulation of an individual psychotic patient. Causal relations between his patient's self-worth, self-understanding, symptoms, relational experiences, mood etc were presented one by one in diagrammatic form (with, if I remember rightly, the boxes and arrows beloved of cognitivist psychologists). The then head of the Institute, Robin Murray, kept intervening to ask what scientific (i.e. general) evidence there was that such associations actually obtained; he was clearly concerned about the objectivity of this psychologist's claims. Naturally, the psychologist had no such general evidence and became increasingly exasperated. Eventually Anthony David intervened to say something - I forget what - about the epistemological difference between individual and general explanations in psychology, and the rather tense matter was, if not understood, at least passed over.

Murray's idea seemed to be that the legitimacy of individual claims ought to be a function of the extent to which they instantiate general truths which have been scientifically tested. Yet this not only ignores the ways we make apt causal claims every day without any kind of general back-up (he broke his hip because someone tripped him up with a stuffed albatross), but also asks the wrong question for the current context. The right question is: how can I tell whether or not this perfectly intelligible scheme from amongst many such possible schemes actually is instantiated in this instance? To answer that question it helps me not at all to discern whether that scheme is to some or other degree generally instantiated - since the question still remains as to whether it is instantiated here and now. Contrast that with the kind of research claim which interests Murray - e.g. 'does cannabis use cause non-transient paranoia?' In the case of cannabis use it's clearly important that we employ the scientific method in population studies that correlate cannabis use and paranoia over time. And then, when we encounter a particular paranoid individual, and suggest that he went paranoid because he smoked a lot of weed, our suggestion regarding the particular will be all the more reputable if we can back it up with the general findings.  Yet nothing like that makes sense for the kind of psychoanalytic claims regarding paranoia with which I began this post. For such claims their intelligibility as schemes of understanding is perhaps all that is required at the general level, and at the particular level what is required is evidence that they are here and now - and not evidence that they are to some or other degree quite generally - instantiated.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

levinas all alone

Levinas tells us (p. 42) that:
It is banal to say that we never exist in the singular. We are surrounded by beings and things with which we maintain relationships. Through sight, touch, sympathy and cooperative work, we are with others. All these relationships are transitive: I touch an object, I see the other. But I am not the other. I am all alone. It is thus the being in me, the fact that I exist, my existing, that constitutes the absolutely intransitive element, something without intentionality or relationship. One can exchange everything between beings except existing. In this sense, to be is to be isolated by existing. Inasmuch as I am, I am a monad.
Someone once related to me the following experience:
As a child I looked at my outstretched hand, and thought to myself that 'it is mine and no-one else's'. I then realised that, in a profound sense, I was truly all alone.
The two thoughts seem similar to me. They are both of them profound yet nonsensical. Can we specify the nonsense, and rescue the profundity from it?

The conceptually strange passage is that from 'I am not the other' (or 'this hand is mine alone') to 'I am all alone'. In the normal sense of the phrase, to 'be all alone' is but one possibility of human life, and the phrase gains its meaning through its contrast with the alternative possibility of 'being with others'. It certainly doesn't gain its meaning through semantic opposition to being others! 'I am only ever myself; I am not you' is but a non-informative tautology, a vacuous rehearsal of the meaning of 'I' and 'you'. 

That I cannot be (what Straus called) Allon is, I suggest, (what Wittgenstein called) but a 'grammatical' truism. Left cannot be right, here cannot be there, before cannot be after. We may of course switch the designata of these essential indexicals: I and you change place; now I am speaking, I am the one to use 'I', and I designate you 'you'. I move over there; what was left is now right; we change the time frame. Yet the concepts do not thereby lose their essential exclusivity, which in fact is still entirely presupposed by the descriptions of the new situations. But this exclusivity hardly makes for something we should want to call an essential solitude of left, here, now, or I. If anything - and I propose that perhaps it's really nothing rather than anything, nothing but a shadow of a shadow - what this grammatical exclusivity shows is just how very deeply I and you belong together.

And yet. And yet. ... There is, I believe, something profound to Levinas's, or the child-looking-at-her-hand's, thought, something which my deflationary analysis ignores. The profundity reminds me a little of what I suspect lies behind the answer to a common thought experiment: do you ever wish you could actually be someone else? Most everyone says that they'd rather be themselves, even though they freely acknowledge that certain others have more of what they wish they had for themselves. And it also reminds me a little, in a different way, of Ian McEwan's little girl Briony who sits (p. 35) looking at her hands in her lap which:
appeared unusually large and at the same time remote, as though viewed across an immense distance. She raised one hand and flexed its fingers and wondered, as she had sometimes before, how this thing, this machine for gripping, this fleshy spider on the end of her arm, came to be hers, entirely at her command. Or did it have some little life of its own? She bent her finger and straightened it. The mystery was in the instant before it moved, the dividing moment between not moving and moving, when her intention took effect. It was like a wave breaking. If she could only find herself at the crest, she thought, she might find the secret of herself, that part of her that was really in charge.
Such thoughts are profound, but are not, I believe, profound because they offer us a descriptive revelation of the human condition. Instead they offer us a powerful evocation of a passing state of deep alienation. (That we may fall into this state is essentially important to being human, but this of course is not to say that what we say in such states are truthful pronouncements about what really must, underneath it all, always be the case.) Thus Briony, caught up in inner reflection, has become alienated from her hand which now appears external to her, appears as a fleshy spider. Briony has, as it were, become some inwardly retreated faculty of pure will - and not a living agent. Someone who thinks that her body is aptly described as her property is in a similarly alienated state: she mistakes what she fundamentally is for something that she merely owns. So too is someone who starts to think of 'existence' as a predicate - so that even the being of a thing starts to be considered merely an attribute of an 'it', which 'it' now recedes into an extensionless and empty point.

Levinas, looking lonely
What Levinas' thought - that our very being, our un-interchangeable existence itself, renders each of us 'all alone' - voices by expressing is, I believe, a truly important state of mind. What he gives voice to is the kind of thing we are disposed to say when (to borrow Wittgenstein's pictorial metaphor) certain of the cogs have already become disconnected from the mechanism. That the cogs may thus disconnect (I'll spell out the metaphor further in a moment) is an essential feature of our humanity - that we are beings who lose ourselves, who are always (in the Biblical metaphor) 'falling', prone to deploying alienating defences which preserve-whilst-yet-uprooting our going-on-being. Yet it seems to me that Levinas' thought hardly describes the fundamental and universal feature of human life - as if, underneath it all, in the roots themselves, we are all alone. (I'm reminded of people who say things like 'You are born alone and die alone'. ... 'Well...', the deflationary me always wants to retort, '...I bet that, at least in the first part of the story, your mum was there as well'.)

Notice your countertransference to Levinas' writing: I'd guess that it's one of abjection or pessimism. Doesn't this point to the fact that it - the writing - takes something which we can feel within our life (i.e. loneliness) and expands it incoherently to the frame of life itself? Isn't this the kind of hypostatisation which makes for metaphysical thought in general - thought, that is, which has tacitly disrespected its own conditions of possibility? 'Ontotheological' thought, as Derrida has it, which attempts to expand half of a dichotomy into an ur category and then, with a knowingness which betrays - whilst also attempting to shore up - a fundamental insecurity, to derive the other half from this putatively originally primary ur phenomenon? (Thought which lacks humility, which wants to derive life from thought rather than have thought arise within a life that is always larger than it.) Don't we also encounter such a countertransference when we read other authors who have attempted to contend with death/separation anxieties by biting into death itself whilst alive - I'm thinking particularly of Lacan's deathliness or Schopenhauer's miserabilism? (We may also think of the writings of such novelistic flรขneurs as W G Sebald and Teju Cole who carry with them the loneliness of the isolate photographer, alienated from life through their observational stances.)

Yet isn't just such a state of mind, and just such a thought (that we are, fundamentally, because of what it is to exist as such, 'all alone'), an essentially important part of the human condition? The fact is that we are beings who are prone to existential despair. Those who are not thus prone are experienced by us as shallow; the abyss is the dearest friend that reflective thought knows. So, sure, I'm with Heidegger, and against Levinas, in thinking that mitsein is the condition of possibility for both friendship and solitude. Yet that we are prone to feel the terrors of aloneness (i.e. fundamental attachment anxieties, which I take to be equivalent to death anxieties), and to contend with these by trying to think ourselves as essentially solitary, in a hopeless attempt at auto-vaccination is, it seems to me, itself a fundamental feature of the human condition, of our ineluctable terrors and the narcissistic defences we deploy against them.

Wittgenstein, also lonely
From an alienated, abject, standpoint - a standpoint in which, say, 'being' becomes framed as a predicate, a standpoint in which the body becomes framed as a possession - various questions which are not intelligible yet beset us and become pressing. From this standpoint their unintelligibility is heavily disguised from us. If (like some philosophers) you feel that the fact that something seems to make sense to you is enough of a guarantee of its meaningfulness, then you'll probably miss the music here. (But let's leave such irredeemably narcissistic folk to spin their own endless fairytales.) Such questions include the one about 'would you become someone else if you had the chance?'. We tend (incoherently) to say 'no!' rather than (as we ought) 'shut up!' both because we intuit the loss of life/being within the question, but also because we, retreated as we sometimes are even behind our own being, struggle because of this to acknowledge the rampant unintelligibility of the question.

As Wittgenstein says (p. 56):
Don't for heaven's sake be afraid of talking nonsense! But you must pay attention to your nonsense.
What we have here is a possible meaning for the controversial concept of 'important nonsense': not nonsense which points beyond itself to some ineffable truth, but rather nonsense the speaking (if not the (in-any-case-non-existent) content) of which conveys something important about the human condition: that we are essentially prone to a radically dirempting alienation which disintegrates selfhood (Dasein) itself. Without our feet on the ground, without the cogs connected up to the rest of the mechanism, what we say will be language that has 'gone on holiday', language that only appears to express intelligible truths. That we are motivated to talk thus tells us something important about ourselves, even if what we say does not.

Levinas, I assume, was lonely. (Just think: he wrote the notes that eventually became these lectures whilst living as a prisoner of war manual labourer, his father and brothers killed by the SS, cut off from fellow intellectuals.) And, taking my assumption as right, I propose that (his) loneliness gets inscribed into the very fabric of (his) thought in something like the following way: We all need recognition and love. We need the recognition that is love. Or, to render the thought with more finesse: we need to be able to feel the pain of the unavailability of love and also to know the balm that can come from possible love. We need to be able to think of ourselves as the possible object of love, even when this is not forthcoming. This capacity to experience ourselves as lovable, even if we are not currently loved (and hence more vulnerable to loneliness), is essential both to true joy and to true sadness. Yet there are times when we fail to stay open to this possibility. We call these times 'losing hope'. This hope is not best thought of as a wish; it is rather the remaining thinkable for oneself of a possibility. The possibility of love. And then we lose touch with the possibility of love and of not being loved by becoming one with the latter, living in a world which now is framed by solitude. We give ourselves over to it. Lose our self-possession. Possibility becomes inevitability. What ought to show up in the lichtung instead becomes part of its very fabric. Loneliness becomes unconcealment rather than unconcealed. Fatalism takes over as a deathly salve for the terrors of abandonment. The world itself becomes hopeless, loveless.

Levinas famously wrote 'If one could possess, grasp and know the other, it would not be other.' But why would anyone want to do that? (Well, we do want to know and be known, but I take it that we are supposed to read Levinas here as offering a hyperbolic sense of 'know' as 'know everything about'.)  Well, he would want to do that if he was what we call insecurely attached. To enjoy that state of being we call 'secure attachment' is to be able to enjoy the company, love, friendship, of the other; it is to be able to be with her; it is to not be vulnerable to panic and trema. It is to trust that she will go away and come back. Only the terrified person wishes to 'be' the other  - this is the primary defensive yet experience-emptying use of identification: 'if you can't meet them, become them'. Yet as Levinas phrases it, our very being is, he alleges, a fundamental isolation. But we know this isn't a coherent thought - our being is the condition of possibility both of isolation and of its actual antithesis: friendship. The religious person can defend against the terrors of the loss of love by imagining it ever-present. The irreligious person can defend against the terrors of life (including the death of God) through a kind of Schopenhauerian pessimism which inscribes loneliness into the heart of Dasein. As Nietzsche had it (quoting roughly), 'great philosophies are but the confessions of their originators, and species of involuntary and unconscious autobiography'. Only such a piece of driven unconscious autobiography could render invisible, I believe, the glaring logical fallacies of:
Through sight, touch, sympathy and cooperative work, we are with others. All these relationships are transitive: I touch an object, I see the other. But I am not the other. I am all alone. It is thus the being in me, the fact that I exist, my existing, that constitutes the absolutely intransitive element, something without intentionality or relationship. One can exchange everything between beings except existing. In this sense, to be is to be isolated by existing. Inasmuch as I am, I am a monad.
Levinas mistakes the 'cannot' in 'you cannot exchange existing between individuals' as the impossibility of something yet thinkable. He says that being is intransitive and lacks intentionality, as if he were thereby saying something about the nature of being, rather than merely noting that we have no use for talk of a 'transfer of being'. To say that being is intransitive is akin to saying that numbers have no mass. It's confusing because it makes it look as if we are saying that numbers are weightless, whereas really we ought to say that numbers neither have a weight nor are weightless. Their weightlessness is not like, say, the weightlessness of air, for something could (I think?) count as the weight of air, whereas nothing does count as a transfer of being. 'Being' is not a predicate and thus, while in some or other very thin sense a verb, is not helpfully described as either transitive or intransitive, as referring to what has or lacks relationship, or to what enjoys or doesn't enjoy intentionality. What we really encounter here is just a disguised remark on the grammar of 'existence' and 'I'. To cite Wittgenstein once more, here we meet with a whole 'cloud of philosophy condensed into a drop of grammar'.