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.