Monday, 30 June 2008

Truth, Bullshit, and our ever so Fortean Times

The latest issue of The Psychologist contains a letter - from Christina Richards - which takes issue with a previous writer therein - Miles Thomas - for his claim that Rudolf Steiner's agricultural belief in 'Preparation 500' - 'that filling a horn with cow's manure and burying it until the spring solstice (sic) will ensure good vitriculture' [wine production] - would be found 'contrary to scientific understanding' by 'many psychologists'. Here is her central argument:

Presumably the people who undertook the burying of manure-filled cow's horns had some, at least anecdotal, evidence of the practice's efficacy. As I am unaware of any double-blind scientific studies on the subject, I suggest that in asserting that the practice is unscientific a value judgement is being made, in that a scientist cannot see how it could work, ergo it does not. This is of course deeply ironic as value judgements by individual scientists are themselves unscientific.

The argument is not a good one, for several reasons which I will present in what are, I hope, increasing levels of philosophical interest. First, perhaps Thomas meant that the practice was unscientific because it wasn't supported by (e.g.) 'double-bling scientific studies'. It would be ironic, then, if the absence of such studies was given as a ground for rejecting his description of the practice as unscientific.

Second, it seems that we are being presented with an unargued-for Empiricist's conception of science - as a domain of truths which are either self-evident or which are evidenced by good (e.g. double-blind-trial-procured) empirical data. But perhaps what it takes to be scientific must be understood in far broader terms - as a matter of participating in a collective sensibility, training, authority, the community one works in, aptness for testing of the ideas, ready commensurability with what is known, and so on. To suggest that the adjective 'scientific' must be restricted to claims which have passed a double-blind test, and 'unscientific' be applied to claims which have failed such a test, would itself - ironically - seem to amount to a curious 'value [idiosyncratic, personal] judgement'. (I suspect that the understanding, articulated by Richards, of what counts as 'scientific' is one which psychologists 'just (believe they) know' - without having done the respectable scientific thing and going and looking at what the sociology and philosophy of science has to say about the matter...)

The issue of real interest however is one which crops up both later in Richards' letter, and also in disputes between Forteans and Sceptics. This is what Richards writes:

The last argument often made in this regard is that 'exceptional claims require exceptional proofs' and that it is not down to the observer to prove that the thing is not true, rather it is down to the person who makes such a claim to prove its veracity; as with the flying spaghetti monster and Bertrand Russell's teapot orbiting the earth. In general I agree [but why?], but I wonder who decides that these claims are exceptional? (And on what scientific basis?)

Fortean Times

And this is the beef between Forteans and Sceptics: Both take a sceptical look at superstitions, but Forteans take a similar approach to supposedly scientific pronouncements. Both are held up to the same standards of evidence. It is supposed that, if I am to be counted as epistemically respectable in my holding to some claim, then I must be able to furnish the evidence for it.

Charles FortThis, I want to suggest, is just wrong. Whilst it is very instructive to realise that I have no better reasons for believing that speciation is a function of natural selection than my neighbour does for believing he was abducted by aliens, this does not entail that I am no more rational in my belief than my neighbour. Yet many, especially those of an empiricist temperament, will think it evident that this is not true. For them the entailment is obvious. That they are not right is what I want to argue here.

Anyone who takes reasonableness to amount to the having of reasons must surely be given pause for thought by the possibility of a vicious regress (which amounts to an instance of Wittgenstein's rule-following paradox). Take Richards' implicit claim that any judgement as to the exceptionality (bizzareness) or otherwise of Russell's teapot or flying spaghetti as explanations needs to be made on a 'scientific basis'. By this she presumably means that there must be some inductive or deductive or theory-driven procedure used for determining whether or not some explanation counts as reasonable or not.

Or take a more abstract example: We are trying to decide whether some decision was or was not reasonable. Now sometimes we can, perhaps, invoke various scientific theories, bits of knowledge, axioms, etc. But it could always be asked: How do we know that these are reasonable? And at some point our answer would just give out. We would just have to say: That is what counts as reasonable. That itself is a constitutive example of what it is to be reasonable.

Now I take it that a key insight of Wittgensteinian, Marxist, Heideggarian, and pragmatist philosophy has been that rationality does not reside in a decontextualised sempiternal set of self-evident axioms, but rather resides in distributed historical sets of practices. Similarly, I want to urge, with what counts for 'scientific' and for whether something is 'in accord with scientific understanding'. There are certain beliefs that strike us as 'far out' whilst their 'far-out-ness' cannot be explicated other than through their lack of concord with beliefs which in turn strike us as 'definitely sound' and the soundness of which cannot be explicated by reference to further such beliefs.

After all, we have to stop somewhere. And where we ought to stop, so the Wittgensteinian et al argument goes, is at various distributed, historically and culturally contextualised, different points in our lives. As with Neurath's boat, we may sometimes come to challenge the trustworthiness of some part of this structure of cases what otherwise passes for exemplary science. But when we do this we don't move forward by deploying some set of supposedly atemporal axioms against which the particular cases are held up. Rather we rely on the integrity of the rest of the distributed contextualised hull of the boat whilst changing any particular piece.

Sunday, 29 June 2008

Spontaneity, Self-Recovery, Insight and Avowal

Different therapies work with different values; they have different ends in sight. And some of these lie tacitly within the outlook of their practitioners and within the unfolding of their intra-disciplinary histories. Some core psychoanalytic values are, I believe: integration, a capacity to live out of (whilst residing within) one's own centre, and a return of spontaneity.

A subject who is neurotic has developed a curious kink in their personality. Their expression and perception becomes diverted or refracted through structures of phantasy. They are no longer in their utterances and acts as before. What Winnicott called the 'false self' has become prominent. What other people say and do, and whatever one oneself wishes to say and do, is first passed through a filtration system.

Donald W. Winnicott

This filtration, it should be noted, is not always or even often consciously contrived. The habits of mind which lead to the use of the neurotic 'buffer zone' are often just that - habits, which may be conscious or unconscious. Thought and feeling find their own ways through this zone. In the process of stripping their spontaneity they lose their real meaning. As with pasteurisation, the words of others are, detoxified, removing them of any potential to hurt the self, but at the expense of losing their original meaning and losing their ability to touch the self, or to put the self in touch with another. And one's own expressions of thoughts and especially feelings are similarly denatured, on their way 'out' to the other. Perhaps this may be (a la Klein) to avoid the other being hurt, but more likely it is to avoid giving anything away, giving anyone glimpses of the self which could serve as potential ammunition.

So why am I discussing this here? It is because I believe that psychoanalytic theory often recapitulates the distancing process in the ways in which it theorises the very phenomena of interest. The avowal of feeling - the embodiment or manifestation or enactment of affect - is often treated as if it were a matter of self-description, self-report. As if it were a product of a faculty of introspection which, not labouring under the blinders of the defenses, has come up with the goods and can generate correct descriptions of what lies within.

Take the way that the theory of the unconscious is often articulated: we are told that feelings which are unconscious are those which cannot be introspected, whilst those which are conscious are available to introspection. (Anthony Bateman and Peter Fonagy on self-mentalisation provide one such example of an introspective theory of what it is to be in touch with one's own feelings.) As if the feeling in question was the same in both cases, and it was only the access to it which was different. But whilst this may be true, it is I believe only a derivative truth. It is a consequence of the distinction between conscious and unconscious affects; not the defining feature. Furthermore, there is also a sense in which affects which are unconscious can be first-person reported (correctly), yet still continue to wreak the kind of havoc we associate with unconscious affects. What ought rather to be of concern is that they cannot be spontaneously avowed. (This is why intellectual insight is, therapeutically, such an ineffectual thing.)

So let's be clear about the logic of the argument. The traditional introspective theory of the difference between the unconscious and the conscious is that unconscious feelings cannot be introspected. Conscious ones, however, are conscious because they can be introspected. What I am claiming is that this does not define the difference. Conscious feelings, I am claiming, can be avowed. Unconscious feelings cannot be avowed. Conscious feelings, because they can be avowed, can also be reported.

Daniele Moyal-Sharrock

There is however a sense in which an unconscious emotion can be reported. We come to recognise that we must have such an emotion when we take a third-person attitude towards ourselves. We are not thereby directly 'in touch with' such an emotion; our self-ascriptions do not, as Daniele Moyal-Sharrock has discussed, spontaneously express, avow, embody, manifest or enact the emotion in question itself. Nevertheless we notice how we are behaving again - either from introspective observation of our 'inner' mental processes, or from perception of our own 'outer' behaviour.

However it is important to acknowledge that such a mode of self-reporting can itself be - far from providing the paradigm of being 'in touch with' ourselves - highly defensive. The taking up of a third-person attitude towards ourselves can constitute the contact barrier, the buffer zone of phantasy, through which affect may be refracted before it can be experienced. This is what can be annoying about having an analysand who has intellectually assimilated the conceptual apparatus of psychoanalysis. (Not being an analyst, I'm speaking here from my own past position as an analysand.) They start reporting judgements regarding what is going on within. The analytic function is internalised in such a way as to prolongue rather than dissolve the neurotic structures at play. Intellectual insight becomes a problem, not a solution.

What is important for the kind of growth aimed at by the values implicit in psychoanalysis is not, then, that the patient becomes able to correctly self-ascribe their emotional states. What is important is rather that they come to be able to spontaneously avow their emotions. The right kind of 'being in touch with' one's own feelings is not quasi-perceptual, where they remain at a comfortable distance from the perceiving subject. Rather, the gap between perceiver and perceived is finally closed, with the result that the patient's utterances spontaneously manifest their thoughts and emotions.

To conclude, let me make it clear what I am and am not claiming. I am not claiming that the above-described process or passage (from self-report to avowal) accurately conveys the essence of psychoanalysis. It is but one process amongst many others. I am not claiming that self-report is necessarily neurotic. It is however a process which can be recruited by the defense mechanisms. I am not claiming that the 'traditional' definition (of unconscious emotions as non-introspectable) is entirely wrong. It is a sometimes sufficient, but not a necessary, condition on the reportability of a feeling that it can be avowed.

I am claiming that one aspect of mental health is the possibility of avowal. When we arrive at the possibility of avowal we arrive at the possibility of being in our thoughts and emotions once again. It is in this non-epistemic sense that we are 'in touch with' our emotions. The defenses around direct acknowledgement of the meaning of the other's utterances and gestures (drinking mother's milk without pasteurising it), and the defenses around spontaneously displaying our own emotions, are gradually dropped. The disturbing effects of poor early mirroring are lessened through the process of the apt mirroring provided in the analytic sessions. These sessions provide a safe place, too, in which the defenses can be dropped. Avowal can be safely explored, and when the process goes well, the patient finally dares to reside in their own expressive comportment. The refractive kinking of the living-out of thoughts and emotions is diminished to the extent that the prism of the defenses is dismantled. And the energy that went into the refraction can now be used for furthering the projects of living.

Friday, 27 June 2008

The Boxing Metaphor

I've been trying to find a way to explain the difference between identification and mature object relating to non-psychological audiences. How about the boxing metaphor?

Imagine that a healthy relationship is one in which we are able to spar with our opponent. We risk receiving punches, yet we are able to give them too. We stay in the ring, in the contest. There is the right kind of distance between us, so that we can get each other in our sights, dance around one another, and take part in the fight. (The metaphor only works if you get past the idea that hitting someone is bad...! It's a metaphor, right!)

Imagine now that the fight seems too threatening - our fear of what the other will do to us - or what we might do to them - is overwhelming. There are two options. One is that we cower on the other side of the ring. We withdraw, step away, perhaps even climb out of the ring altogether. This is akin to psychological withdrawal, shutting down, avoiding contact with others, avoiding any close relationships.

The other is that we move right up to them, we become so close to them that they have no room to hit us. Caught up next to them, needing to move around with them in case any distance opens up, making their movements our own, mirroring or inhabiting the equal but opposite flip-side to any real movement so as to keep a subtle stasis in play, avoiding being hit but also avoiding hitting, any possibility of a real object relationship is avoided. This is identification.

Identification can involve becoming so close to another, over-familiar, intrusive, under-the-skin, that real relating, real boxing, is completely avoided. In this close proximity, there is no room in which punches may be traded.

Needless to say, giving up identificatory forms of relationship can be scary. The possibility that we may be hit and not be able to hit back, or that we may hit and hurt our boxing partner who we also care about, may seem too much. But, at the end of it, we can move around again, freely, dance around the ring with our partner, trading the punches of love and hate.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Feeling and Being - and Naturalism

I still find myself slipping with unfathomable rapidity into thinking of feelings and sensations and perceptual experience as subjective accompaniments of cognitive processes. The slip makes it hard for me to find a home for feelings (et al.) in the natural world. The model I seem to unwittingly and relentlessly present to myself is of feelings and experiential 'qualities' as the upshots of the real epistemic business of comprehending reality contact. As if feelings, emotions, and sensations had no epistemic value in and of themselves, beyond what they provide for the mind when we make inferences about their causes.

Here is one way I try to stop this slip: to insist that my inner interlocutor take seriously the idea that feelings themselves are essential for my comprehending contact with a variety of aspects of the world. I feel hurt when you tell me you don't love me. My feeling is not, on this view, simply an affective accompaniment of a piece of understanding which could still be considered genuine without the feeling. Understanding that someone we care for no longer loves us is not - I want to urge - something which can be reached through the registering or sharing of propositions and the drawing of abstract inferences. Genuine understanding here involves a radical change in my reactive dispositions, the whole way my body is set up, the way it responds in your presence.

What counts as understanding here involves not just my ability to linguistically cite the fact of your having fallen out of love with me. The significance I must grasp is not one which can be grasped by thought alone. My entire system must adapt - the bodily and affective system of my intuitive reactive dispositions. The way I talk to you, how close I stand - this must all change in a way which does not simply flow from a merely cognitive grasp of the circumstance, but which speaks to the presence of a change in a different arena of the psyche.

The difficulty with this way of articulating the significance of feeling, however, is that it still seems to leave open the idea that the pain I feel on losing you is an accompaniment. Perhaps I broaden my reflective conception of the understanding to incorporate reactive dispositions. Yet it still seems that I must accept a divide between the 'behavioural' and the 'phenomenal'. As if someone may have the same understanding, yet not have the same feelings - perhaps not have any feelings at all. Or perhaps I try to avoid this by giving the feelings a causal role in the generation of the understanding - a role which seems to make them empirically (or even, a la functionalism, metaphysically) necessary if still somewhat extrinsic to the real goods of interpersonal comprehension. And that seems just wrong - to leave me with a chasm between comprehension and phenomenality which amounts to an intolerable dualism.

Doubtless many just bite the bullet, allowing philosophical zombies into their ontology and the possibility of radical affective scepticism into their epistemology. I can't do that - and here's the counter-thesis that I want to try to motivate. It is that ceteris paribus (without surgery or a stroke, for example) an alteration in reactive dispositions just is the feeling of, say, emotional pain. My feeling itself is my comprehension of my loss of you. Just as physical pain is (again, ceteris paribus - in normal circumstances) my awareness of bodily damage, so emotional pain is my awareness of the loss of (e.g.) love.

Armed with this understanding I feel myself better able to resist the idea that feelings are accompaniments (however essential) to understandings. To feel that pain is to start to grasp the significance of the situation. It would not be 'that pain' were it not providing this grasp. The pain is the beginnings of that shift in my reactive dispositions which constitutes my grasp of my loss. It does not cause them, and it is not (contra James) an introceptive awareness of (the bodily aspect of) the adjustment. It is the shift.

I want to end this post by commenting on two uses of language indulged in in philosophical circles which, in my opinion, carry disguised conceptual confusions. The first comes with the above-used term 'phenomenal'. This is not an everyday term but, putatively, a philosophical term of art. It is supposed to index an aspect (the 'inner self-conscious aspect') of experience. However it seems to me that it is only on philosophical theories which unwarrantedly pull apart the phenomenon of world-encounter or experience into two (subjective or inner - or phenomenal on the one hand, objective or dispositional on the other) parts which even generates a putative use for the term. Outside of the context of such dualistic theories the term has little cogent application.

The other is the related idea that we 'feel our feelings' (or sensations or what have you), 'experience our experiences'. On the one hand this seems a perfectly harmless idea - we do say, for example, that we 'feel pain'. But I think the dualistic pull into phenomenal and objective gives rise to an appearance that to say that, say, we feel a feeling could be to say something more than that we have a feeling. As if feelings were not just basic modes of our comprehending registering of our environment, but also states of which, in turn, we have an extra inner 'subjective' registering. In denying this one is often (my mentalistic inner interlocutor at least often tries to pull this one on me) made to feel like an experience-denying behaviourist. When all I am doing is rejecting an unwelcome artificially dualistic conception of experience which is being foisted upon me.

Monday, 23 June 2008

Talking Teapots

"But in a fairy tale the pot too can see and hear!" (Certainly; but it can also talk.) ... "But the fairy tale only invents what is not the case: it does not talk nonsense." -- It is not as simple as that. Is it false or nonsensical to say that a pot talks? Have we a clear picture of the circumstances in which we should say of a pot that it talked? (Even a nonsense-poem is not nonsense in the same way as the babbling of a child.) (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 282)

Allow me to return again to a familiar theme. Perhaps I can put it more clearly this time.

So a patient tells me 'Constance is taking thoughts out of my mind'. He tells me that 'I am being controlled by telepathy'. My question is: What is he telling me when he tells me this? And my answer will be: that Constance is taking thoughts out of his mind, or that he is being controlled by telepathy. Hardly thrilling stuff...

But let me explain. What I really want to do is to enhance my sense of entitlement to hold onto this answer, whilst simultaneously rejecting the idea that what he says is a correct description of an experience he is having - the experience as of having thoughts removed from his mind. And I also want to reject the idea that what he says is an incorrect description of an experience he is having (of simply losing his train of thought, forgetting what he was thinking about, etc.). Further, I want to reject the idea that he is, strictly speaking, producing just 'meaningless speech acts' (German Berrios voiced this widespread psychiatric assumption - Berrios, G. E. 1991. Delusions as "wrong beliefs": A conceptual history. British Journal of Psychiatry 159 (suppl. 14):6-13). That I reject this should be evident from the fact that I want to provide the answer that I do (as sketched above).

So the question now is: Can I get away with this?!

Well, of course, I think I can. It seems to me that what I've called the 'romantic' and the 'psychiatric' (sorry chaps) options - of 'finding meaning in madness' and of denying the meaningfulness of the productions of the mad, respectively - both share a common assumption. This assumption is that what is said ('Constance is taking thoughts out of my mind') describes - or ought (if it is to be considered anything more than an empty utterance) to describe - an experience which could admit of some other possible individuation. That assumption would need to be fulfilled before either the romantic or the psychiatric approach could be successfully deployed. We would need to be able to answer the question 'What makes it correct or incorrect for Frank to describe his experience in such terms?'. We would need to spell out some rule of representation which was or was not being adhered to in the present case. But - we can't.

It's a commonplace in the 'romantic' literature to suggest that, if we see what someone says in their madness in a certain context, then it can be understood to be symbolically significant. If we accept this, then it may look like we have to accept that there is some fact which they are describing - it is just that this fact has been metaphorically described, or misdescribed.

The question of whether we should or should not accept this turns, however, on what is meant by 'symbolically'. For it ought to be noted that the psychological (especially the psychoanalytical) concept of 'symbolism' has a different meaning than the everyday one. The everyday one employs a notion of 'standing for' (x stands for y) where what makes it the case that x stands for y is a certain intentional relation (a relation of 'aboutness') obtaining between x and y. To explicate this intentionality we may refer to (for example) the intentions of the symboliser.

Agnes PetoczThis, it ought to be noted, is a far cry from the psychoanalytic meaning. As Agnes Petocz has nicely brought out, the relevant connections in psychological symbolism are causal, rather than intentional. As her 'Freudian broad theory of symbolism' would have it, the relevant sense of 'symbolism' is of a non-conventional process, where symbols are not used primarily to communicate, but are rather produced by displacement (i.e. slippage along associative lines). To quote (p. 233):

The basis of (non-conventional) symbolism lies in four empirical facts: (i) the initial primary objects [parents and their part objects] and consumatory activities of the innate instinctual drives; (ii) the long period of infantile dependence; (iii) the connection between the drives and cognitive structures, which leads to the 'interested' perceiving of similarities between the primary objects and other, non-primary, objects; and (iv) the unavailability (to some part of the mind), mainly through repression, of those primary objects, and the inhibition, mainly through repression, of the expression of the consummatory activities with respect to particular primary objects.

Now this seems fairly in order to me, if we leave aside the somewhat non-explanatory references to 'repression'. (Repression always seems like a lame explanatory concept, because what we want to know, when we are being told about a defense mechanism, is how it achieves its ends. Repression just says that the person does not think about something; what we want to know is: How do they manage that! Other defense mechanisms concepts, by contrast, (you know: denial, projection, acting out, dissociation, sublimation, introjection, intellectualisation....) seem in far better explanatory shape.)

We have, as Richard Wollheim described, broadened our sense of what counts as 'meaningful' or 'psychological' in developing a psychoanalytic psychology, developed a new form of explanation irreducible to everyday 'folk psychology' (our everyday understanding of one another in terms of beliefs, desires, intentions) - which is in fact an extension of everyday folk psychology. In the broadening out, the conditions for meaningfulness are somewhat relaxed, allowing us to take in more phenomena.

In this broadened out form, the idea that what the person with delusions says (when reporting their delusions) is symbolically meaningful is perfectly in order. But this does not in itself license the idea that what is said is a correct or incorrect description of an experience. To paraphrase Wittgenstein (Philosophical Investigations, 245), we still cannot 'use language to get between a [delusion] and its expression'.

What is it that stops delusional utterances from being (a la Berrios) 'empty speech acts'? What is it for that matter that allows us to think of (psychoanalytic) symbolism as carrying meaning? At this point it is I believe helpful to remind ourselves of the sanity of the insane. The simple fact is that the person who is delusional nevertheless knows perfectly well how to use the words 'Constantine', 'takes', 'thoughts', 'out', 'of', 'my', 'mind' in everyday parlance. They can point to Constantine, demonstrate taking, use the word 'mind' in an appropriate way in many contexts.

Were it not for this general sanity, then we may well be tempted to think of their uses of words as meaningless. The same, it ought to be said, goes for the metaphysician, when they find themselves tempted to deny or affirm the theses of (for example) empirical or transcendental idealism. If they didn't know perfectly well how to use the words 'world', 'dependent', etc. in their everyday conversation, we would think that what they said was simply vacuous. As it is we acknowledge that what they say when they say that 'the form taken by the world depends on its being perceived thus' means what it says. But we also acknowledge that it doesn't describe a genuine possibility, doesn't describe anything that could actually be the case. We have no real use for these words in that context - they don't delineate a real possibility.

So too, perhaps, for what the person suffering from 'thought withdrawal' or 'depersonalisation' or 'made actions' or Cotard's delusion ('I am dead') says. We hear what they say, and they mean just what they say, and we can to some degree allow our mind to travel sideways rather than head on (psychoanalytical symbolism through associative displacement, rather than everyday intentionality) into what is said. (Compare science fiction on time travel, and Wittgenstein (Investigations 282) on talking teapots in fairystories.) We can to some degree 'fall in step with', 'go along with' what is said, holding in suspense what we know (or just intuit) is the case: that there is no such thing as thoughts being 'put into' or 'taken out of' our minds in the literal way envisaged. (Contrast what does make sense - namely subliminal advertising, being distracted, etc.)

When someone recites or listens to a fairy story, they have suspended their everyday understanding, and playfully 'inhabit an alternative reality in which teapots talk'. I have pointed out in an earlier post that there is no such thing as really inhabiting an alternative reality - this is a metaphor. Nevertheless, this is what happens. The pre-reflective cogs which bind the mind to reality are disengaged, and it idles, spins in fancy. In psychosis there is not this element of choice, and certainly not this element of playfulness. The person with a psychosis does not suspend their everyday understanding; rather, it is suspended for them.To reconnect they do not need arguments or reminders - for these only work when the relevant cogs are capable of being engaged. What is needed is to build up the basic trust - of relationships, of certainty-in-action - which constitutes the pre-reflective foundations of our contact with the world. That, however, is the topic for another post.

To return to the main theme. Psychotic utterances say what they say, and they do not correctly or incorrectly describe the sufferer's experience. What the person with Cotard's delusion believes is that they are dead. This is not an intelligible possibility - any more than the beliefs of many a metaphysician are beliefs in intelligible possibilities. As with the metaphysician, and as with the talking teapot in the fairy tale, we do have some idea of what it would be to believe these things. For example, certain inferences can be made; we will not find it suprising if we come across the further idea in the story that the teapot with eyes and ears and the power of speech would be able to report on what has been said in conversations in its close vicinity. We can also predict what people labouring under metaphysical beliefs might say in various argumentative contexts. So too with the person experiencing delusions. We have reactions to what is said which we do not have if they are to speak mere gibberish. To do justice to them we need to both note the expectations we have with regard to what else they may now say and do, and also attend to that in what is said which exceeds credulity - and come to an understanding of which of our own sense-and-sanity-constituting reactive dispositions are exceeded by what is delusional about the delusion.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Just Because

In this post I want to focus on the reasons why it can be so hard to accept the non-causal character of the psychological 'because'. In the previous post I claimed that (popular expositions of) the James-Lange theory of emotions fail to distinguish between cause-providing and intelligibility-providing uses of 'because', and that this is why they appear to be radical challenges to our everyday understanding - rather than the nonsense that they really are. Now I have to report that my internal interlocutor - who is steeped in the intellectual vices of mentalism, reductionist naturalism, and scientism, and who has a bit of a metaphilosophical or philosophically reflexive blind spot - has already lodged an objection to what I wrote there.

His objection is as follows:

It isn't good enough to simply say that intelligibility-conferring uses of 'because' in psychological contexts are different from efficient-cause-providing uses in mechanical or other such contexts. Such an account simply begs the question. This is because it fails to provide us with a proper, adequate (substitute your preferred philosophical terminological jargon at this point) 'metaphysics' of the relation between explanans and explanandum. As soon as we try to reflectively understand the 'psychological because', then we realise that it must after all be a 'causal because'. Without such an analysis we are left without any reflective understanding of the kind of explanation on offer.

Bill Child

I ought to say that I suspect my inner interlocutor has been re-reading Bill Child's Causality, Interpretation and the Mind. When I myself return to his text, this is what I find he says regarding the 'psychological because' (p. 92):

We have two options. Either we say that the link between reason and action is sui generis, a basic relation; in which case there is no further understanding to be had and the relation remains a mystery. Or we give some kind of analysis of the relation; and what could that be but a causal analysis?

The point of Donald Davidson's causalist argument, we are told (p. 96), is

that we need to understand the 'because' in 'She Phi-d because she believed that p'. ... [W]e must appeal to causation in order to understand the metaphysics of the relation between reason and action. ... [T]he understanding we get from seeing that reason explanation is a form of causal explanation is a reflective understanding of the metaphysics of this form of explanation; we understand what sort of explanation it is, and how reasons explain actions.
The Wittgensteinian distinction between reasons and causes must, we are informed, be chucked out the window as another unfortunate superstition from those not-so-good old days and the pre-Davidsonian era of RKP 'little red books'.

Well, perhaps that is just how things look if we abandon metaphilosophical reflexivity so we can at least get on with the good old business of metaphysics. But my own suspicion is that what looks like an absence of 'metaphysical understanding' for the 'psychological because' is due not to any faillure in the anti-causalist construal of reasons, but because of tacit and unwarranted prior metaphysical and metaphilosophical commitments which skew the contest from the outset.

I leave it to others (Julia Tanney, Severin Schroeder) to demolish the Davidsonian idea that we cannot get enough of an explanatory fix on the relation between reasons and their explananda unlesss we supplement rational with causal relations. (The basic moral of their story was that - so long as we take care to individuate reasons for actions as we should (by appealing to what people tell us with respect to why they acted, for example), and so long as we do not try to insist on reason explanations possessing a greater degree of determinacy than in fact they do possess (a degree possessed by causal explanations, of course, which nicely rationalises the causalist's analysis), then - the rationale for introducing causality into the analysis is far weaker than the causalist supposes.) What I want to focus on here is Child's idea that the non-causalist owes us an account of the kind of understanding offered by the 'psychological because'. According to Child, this is what the causalist provides - when we accept that reasons are causes, then we understand 'how reasons explain actions'. As Child says

The point of the argument for a causal view is not that we must appeal to causation in order to tell whether S phi-d for one reason rather than another [well, actually, that was the point of Davidson's argument]; it is, rather, that we must appeal to causation in order to understand the metaphysics of the relation between reason and action.'

The principle idea I wish to focus on is that quoted above:

Either we say that the link between reason and action is sui generis, a basic relation; in which case there is no further understanding to be had and the relation remains a mystery. Or we give some kind of analysis of the relation; and what could that be but a causal analysis?
And what I want to question is the idea that saying that a 'psychological because' is basic, sui generis - of its own model, not to be modelled on something else, not to be understood in terms of something else - is to render it a mystery. For why should some thing always be intelligible along the lines of some other thing? Why shouldn't there be several different kinds of things in the universe - perhaps more than are dreamed of in the philosophies of (say) the reductive metaphysical naturalist - and why shouldn't one of these 'things' be reasons?

The question needs to be turned back against the causalist. So, what if someone were to say 'But we need a reflective metaphysical understanding of the kind of relation which is being described as a 'causal explanation', and what could provide the form for this be other than a reason explanation?' We can't just suppose that causality is a basic relation, sui generis. For that would be to make a mystery out of it. It must be modelled according to some other relation. And what other relations are there - other than relations of rationality and intelligibility?

Now clearly the Wittgensteinian non-causalist would not want to say that. They would most likely be quite happy with the idea that there are different kinds of 'becauses', and see their job as 'teaching us the differences' between these. When we learn our metaphysical lessons, we do not provide explanatory accounts of these different kinds of 'because'. We do not render them perspicuous in the terms of some pre-understood super-language. (Recall the phantasies behind the very idea of a 'theory of meaning'...) We just track the differences 'from within', note the different ways of going on in different language-games.

Is it mystery-mongering to indulge in positing (or less prejudiciously, acknowledging) sui generis phenomena? I think it depends on what we mean by a 'mystery'. Whether or not we feel it to be a problem that something cannot be explained will depend on whether we feel it is something which will baffle us unless it is explained - whether we feel it is something for which an explanation is owing, something that ought to be explained. And whether we feel it is something which ought to be explained will be a function of the prior theoretical commitments we have made.

It is only when we have (perhaps tacitly) decided, ab initio, to accept some particular range of phenomena as paradigms of intelligibility, as that to which all else must conform if it is to be intelligible, that phenomena outside this range start to present themselves as unintelligible or as mysterious in a troubling way. And of course it is perfectly legitimate to invoke some set of phenomena as paradigms of intelligibility in this way - otherwise we would never find anything mysterious, and take everything as its own model (which would be to evacuate all content from the ideas of a 'model' and of an 'explanation').

All I am requesting is that we own our metaphysical 'prejudices'. As Nietzsche wrote, metaphysical systems of the past have all too often been nothing other than the personal confessions of their authors, unconscious and involuntary memoirs. What I am suggesting is just that these 'confessions' become conscious and voluntary - that we attempt to excavate, and then explicitly lay down on the table in the light of day, our 'prejudices' regarding what we find intuitively compelling, or unproblematically sui generis.

What I suspect was underlying Child's feeling that it is simply mystery-mongering of the anti-causalist to urge that reason explanations are sui generis was a tacit commitment to a naturalistic metaphysics (his view that actions are construable as happenings or events is one other such manifestation of this). Reductive naturalism (unlike the relaxed naturalism of John McDowell) finds no place 'in the natural world' for phenomena which are not intelligible along the model provided by the natural sciences. And what is the model that is to be used to render the natural sciences intelligible? It is part of the metaphysical outlook of naturalism that this question is not to be asked. They, perhaps, are allowed to be their own model.

What the Wittgensteinian is asking is that the same courtesy be extended to the 'psychological because'.

The Psychological Because

Joseph LeDouxIn reading Joseph LeDoux's The Emotional Brain, I find the following from William James:

One natural way of thinking about ... emotions is that the mental perception of some fact excites the mental affection called emotion, and that this latter state of mind gives rise to the bodily expression. My thesis on the contrary is that the bodily changes follow directly the PERCEPTION of the exciting fact, and that our feeling of the same changes as they occur IS the emotion.

(This is the famous James-Lange theory of emotion in a nutshell.) LeDoux parses this as follows: it is not that 'we run because we are afraid'; rather 'we are afraid because we run.' It is said that James held it to be 'incorrect' to say that 'we run away when we notice we are in danger [b]ecause we are afraid of what will happen if we don't'. We 'do not tremble because we are afraid of cry because we feel sad; we are afraid because we tremble and sad because we cry.'

Now LeDoux goes on to develop his own theory of emotion, but what I want to point out in the meantime is that his construal of James' theory is nonsense. I don't mean that it is interpretative nonsense - although it is clear that the quotation from James does not itself need to be read in quite the paradoxical way suggested by LeDoux. (Perhaps non-quoted portions of his text are, however, as nonsensical as LeDoux's presentation.) My point is that - appealing as it may be to present a daring theory of emotion by denying an apparent everyday truism - what is denied is not an empirical, but rather a conceptual, truth.

William JamesThe James-Lange theory, on this presentation, appears to conflate reasons and causes. Or more perspicuously, it conflates questions about what makes something intelligible with questions about what caused something to originate. Consider how we normally use the expression 'Why are you sad?' This is clearly an appeal not for a cause but for a reason. 'I'm sad because I had a row with my partner.' This 'because' makes sense of the emotional reaction; it makes it intelligible. This is the 'psychological because' referred to in the post title.

Such a use contrasts nicely with cases in which we are after a causal explanation. For example: 'What is the cause of your shaking?' might sometimes be asked in the spirit of, and answered by citing, a cause: 'Parkinsons' or 'alcohol withdrawal'. Here we have a 'physiological because'.

Consider now LeDoux's idea that it is not that 'we run because we are afraid'; rather 'we are afraid because we run.' The second answer is an answer to a question about the efficient cause of our feeling the emotion of fear. The first is an answer to a question about what makes intelligible someone's running as they do.

Both answers are in fact fairly hopeless - and it ought to be noted that LeDoux is probably merely trying to come up with a snappy way of putting the theory, not to do it justice. We are not likely to ever be 'afraid because we run'. Let us accept with James the idea (from the quoted passage) that our feeling fear is our awareness of our bodily reactions when afraid. It is still clearly not good enough to say that my feeling of fear is my awareness of the sensations I just have when running. For when I occasionally run round the park I'm not afraid but rather, well, usually rather bored.

It is sometimes apt to say that we 'run because we are afraid'. But notice first that this is very under-determined as an explanation. We might contrast 'He's running because he's trying to catch the bus' with 'he's running because he's afraid of that yeti', with 'he's running to try to set a new world record'. Just 'running because frightened' tells us too little. We need the intentional object of the fear (the yeti) and some sense of how someone could be afraid of that object (it's big, strong, carnivorous, and hungry).

And notice second that this just isn't a causal explanation. The 'because' is a psychological because - it renders the action intelligible, rather than causes it to come about. It is not as if anyone has ever seriously thought that a satisfactory efficient causal explanation of my legs moving , arms swinging, fast forward motion, etc., was my emotion.

Whether or not James indulges in the confusion to be found in LeDoux's paraphrase, it is clear that what he writes is apt for inducing a confusion. This is because what would naturally be treated as four psychological 'becauses' are treated instead as if they were four efficient 'becauses'. The discussion seems to be predicated on construing the psychological phenomena in causal terms. Instead of human action speak: Richard recognising a yeti, we have event speak: 'the mental perception of' a yeti. Instead of intentional objects we have 'exciting' causes. And so on.

James and LeDoux both write as if they were turning common sense on its head. What they really turn on its head is their own metaphysical reworking of common intelligibility-conferring idioms in a causalistic idiom. Instead of this supposed bit of common sense, we have an alternative causal explanation of fear which irrationally seems to privilege, as 'the cause of the feelings', introceptive factors above exteroceptive, biological, and environmental concerns.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

Introjection and Scotomisation

W R D Fairbairn tells us that 'bad internal objects' come about through introjective identification, and that this introjection is defensive. So: I experience my mother as cruel, rejecting, unloving, hateful. This is unbearable to me. Attachment theory tells us why. The human infant is so embarrassingly helpless (compared with mammalian cousins) on exiting the womb that it stands no chance by itself. So the greatest terror is of abandonment. By becoming the cruel mother, introjecting all that is bad, I deplete the perception of the external object of its bad properties. A negative hallucination (scotomisation) results. As a consequence I can feel safer, feel that I live once again in a world of objects who love me, have my interests at heart.

But - like - how does this work? What's it all about? Of course we have a ready clinical appreciation of this, and can feel the pull to describe things thus. But how can we understand it theoretically? In particular, if we stick with a mentalistic container model of the mind (which the bodily metaphors around which the notions of mind are constructed suggest so readily to us - when we forget that they are indeed conceptual metaphors) then it all looks rather impossible. Our basic question is this: Why would identification lead to scotomisation?

In this post I want to suggest that the matter of apt theorisation becomes far more tractable if we take up an existential rather than a mentalistic conception of the self and its boundary. I have approached the issue before on the blog (especially from the projective rather than introjective end), but it is worth revisiting it, to see if I can state the basic ideas more clearly.

On the mentalistic conception the self has a pre-formed boundary (like the skin of the body). There is no ontologically significant question as to what occurs without and what within - only an epistemological question - are the qualities and attributes perceived to be in the places they really are in?

On an existential conception, however, the self-boundary is understood as something constructed through experience. It is not constructed on the basis of experience - we don't draw a boundary around ourselves on the basis of our experience of what belongs to self and what to other. (That presupposes the very issue: what does belong to self and what to other?) Selfhood is not experienced, it is not in experience, it does not arise as a construction out of it. But experience itself amounts to a registering of what is not of the self. Experience is difference, experience is differentiation, experience is relation. Selfhood and experienced Other always arise together as two poles of the intentional field. The self is what is not experienced. Self, perceived other, and intentional field arise together as three equiprimordial moments of intentionality.

Selfhood may well be a transcendental precondition for the possibility of experience, but it is essential to understand that this does not mean that it is necessarily constituted prior to any experiential act. That conflates an empirical (temporal) with a metaphysical concern. Selfhood is in fact constituted in an ongoing way throughout life - with some particularly dramatic changes occurring in toddlers and late adolescents. The possibilities of discrimination of the other increase dramatically at these times. The intentional field widens and differentiates, the possibilities of experience greatly expand (now I come to see my parents as existing independently from me, as having a relationship with each other; now I come to see them as having moral culpability...), the constitution of the self develops (my moral agency increases; I become able to think for myself; I experience a greater and more discriminating range of object-relating feelings (jealousy, envy); I gain a sense of moral culpability and non-culpability; who is responsible for what becomes much more articulated (and the typical childhood rows about 'fairness' get endlessly articulated too...)).

So let us suppose that we are confronted by the 'bad [unideal aspects of the] mother'. I'm terrified - so what happens? Either I acknowledge them, and stay terrified but, to the extent that I can after the acknowledgement, hold it together at all, I remain sane and intact. Or the intentional field is just shut down (autistic retreat). Or ... I 'introject the bad object'. What this means is that the self-other delineation and consequent possibility of (painful) relation is avoided for certain aspects of the potential relationship. She cannot hurt me because I and she are one. This is no mere passing hallucination, but rather a structural feature (or lack of a structural feature) of the self. We cannot see what is not other to us.

None of this answers the question as to how this is possible. Clearly a certain amount of splitting will be required - a lack of integration in one's experience of the other (and consequently, of the self too). But the key problem seems to be as follows: In order to defend against terror, I need to experience it. The differentiation between self and other needs first to be drawn. Yet then again we shouldn't just suppose that the mind cannot attack itself (Bion). Perhaps there is a nascent awareness of something which is then deflected through the use of powerfully regressive defense mechanisms. Recall that self boundary, experience, and intentional field all arise together as mutually constitutive moments of any interaction. What we are imagining here is just that, with a nascent awareness of the terrorising other, the distinction between self and other is not made, that it is drawn instead further 'into' the other, splitting and disturbing the natural object.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Aporiae of Apophany 3: The Groundlessness of Psychotic Avowal

In the last post I claimed that avowals of psychotic experiences are not apt because they aptly describe intelligible possibilities. Rather, they are apt ('necessarily apt', as it were - which is of course just to doubt the very aptness of 'aptness' here) because such avowals themselves individuate the experiences in question. We cannot, as Wittgenstein put it, use language here to 'get between thought and its expression'. It is of course often possible to ask whether a description really does do justice to something which is experienced. We say: 'That was a good, or a bad, description of the bird seen through the binoculars'. This is what I am claiming is not the case in cases of psychotic experience. Do we have a model for this kind of 'groundless relation' between experience and language?

The two models that comes to my mind are those of secondary sense and of the avowal of sensation. Secondary sense first: We use a word in one primary context, and it is in virtue of our mastery of such uses that we can then deploy it freestyle in a secondary context. We talk of people being thin and fat, and now we say that tuesday is thin and wednesday is fat (most people say this, rather than the reverse, if they are asked to choose). Or we learn to use words (up, down) in one (physical) context, then go on to deploy them, or spoontaneously understand deployments of them, in another (psychological) context (feeling up, high, low, down, etc.). Here nothing justifies our emotional use of 'up'. There is, we might imagine, a causal connection - something to do with the way the brain is wired, or to do with the way that culture is 'wired' - that explains the usage. But this causal explanation is no sort of justification.

Now avowal: When I say 'there's a sharp pain in my thumb' (thereby also presumably employing a secondary-sense use of 'sharp'), I do not say this on grounds. It's not obvious that, so long as I know the meaning of my words and I am being sincere, these words could fail to express a truth. 'What makes it the case that' my experience is of a sharp pain is just that these are the words in terms of which the experience voices itself. If I'm sincerely inclined to describe it as a sharp pain then this is just what it is.

Yet if there is something akin between psychotic experience and avowal and/or secondary sense, there had also better be something different. For first, it seems to not be extrinsic to our everyday capacity to use secondary sense that we know - have the ability to recognise - that it is not primary sense. Second, we rightly do not treat avowals as psychotic. As Manfred Spitzer (I think) once said, it is as if the person with psychosis has somehow conflated first person infallibility and third-person judgement. They are offering descriptions of impossible scenarios with a quasi-first-person authority ("I know that they are after me...") whilst maintaining a third-person descriptive stance.

Third, and relatedly, avowals purchase their inalienable authority at a high conceptual price. It is only because I can be said to have mastered the second- and third-person applications of folk-psychological predicates that I am afforded the logical luxury of groundless self-application in my own case. Yet aside from diagnostic usages there is no legitimate third-person application of 'he is having thoughts taken out of his head...'. The only grounds for ascribing that experience to someone would be their own avowal of it.

Nevertheless, the analogies with secondary sense and avowal do give further clues as to how to understand the nature of delusional experience. As per Spitzer's account, the way in which delusions are placed outside of the zone of potential refutation may be partially explicated through the analogy with the similar logic of avowals. (The other idea, owed to John Campbell, has it that this immunity to falsification comes from a delusion constituting the framework, rather than one of the empirical details, of someone's epistemological economy.) This is a concern about the form of delusions. The analogy with secondary sense by contrast gives us a clue as to the question of the content of delusional experience. (In all three cases (secondary sense, avowal, delusion) there seems to be no viable appearance/reality contrast either.)

Le me explain that I am not saying that secondary sense or avowal are to be taken as the model for understanding the individuation of psychotic experiences. For secondary sense and normal avowal presuppose a background sanity which is precisely what is lacking here. These phenomena rather serve a negative role - to remind us that we are cognisant of phenomena for the ascription of which it is decidenly un-apt to request certain justifications beyond what the subject is disposed to say. (Spitzer's suggestion, as with many other philosophical and psychological accounts of madness, risks making too much sense of the phenomenon.)

Notwithstanding this, secondary sense does perhaps provide the model for an outline of a causal explanatory account of psychotic self-reports (of thought insertion, made action, etc.). Whilst it may be thoroughly inapt to ask what adequates such a self report, we can still ask what causally explains the phenomenon. We just are, say, inclined to view the 'tue' of 'tuesday' as sounding thinner than the fatness of the 'wednes' of 'wednesday'. This may be due to the way our brains our wired up. So too we do naturally extrapolate - in what Mark Johnson calls 'conceptual metaphors' - from a vast array of the structural grammar of interactions between and within bodies when constructing our discourse around the self. Communicating an idea is viewed as transiting it from one person to another. Certain emotions are thought of as hot, others cold - and our experience of blood flow in the body may explain this.

Now the person with psychosis just is disposed to experience and report such experience in terms which are not apt for understanding by others - which do not conform to, or better do not constitute, the tacit canons of sanity. We tend to 'go on' in certain ways, use certain conceptual metaphors but not others, and so on. It is important to recognise that these ways of 'going on' do not correspond to the actual structure of the world or to some hypostasised 'rules of sanity'. Rather, they themselves form the bedrock for, they constitute, sanity itself.

Someone who is not disposed to talk and act as do the sane is not living in another country. They are not just going on differently. They are slipping away from living itself.

The difficulty we have in acknowledging the groundlessness of psychotic self-reports (i.e. the difficulties we have in giving up the idea that they are apt representations of inner experiences without slipping into the reductive psychiatric position that they are therefore contentless) may ultimately represent nothing other than the terror we feel in acknowledging the groundlessness of sanity itself.

Aporiae of Apophany 2: Do the Mad Live in Another Country?

In this second post I'm asking the question: Wherein or whence the psychotic strangeness of certain psychotic experiences? If depersonalisation and made feelings, for example, are not to be understood as a loss of personalisation or of self-made feelings (since there's no such things), then what do they consist in?

To start to understand this I want to turn in what might seem an unusual direction - to certain debates in Wittgenstein interpretation - in particular, between transcendentalist and resolute readers of the Tractatus. A good place to start is Cora Diamond on what nonsense might be. Diamond draws a distinction between two views of nonsense. To put these far too crudely:

  • On the first view, an expression is to be thought of as nonsensical if it expresses an idea which is nonsensical.

  • On the second view, an expression is to be thought of as nonsensical if it does not express an idea.

On the first view there is something that the expression expresses, and what it expresses is (to put it in an uncharitable formulation) a meaningless meaning, a meaning that cannot be thought, a thought which cannot be understood. We have here a something which cannot be said. One way of making sense of this (familiar enough) idea would be through something like this: the logical structure of our language or of our thought or of the world in some way constrains what can be said or thought. As if, were it not for these limits, we could have further and other thoughts.

On the second view this is all really quite hopeless. Something is meaningless not because it expresses as it were a meaning which is meaningless, but because it fails to say anything. It does not say something which is impossible - it just doesn't express anything. We have no use for those words in our language. We don't know what to do with them. Give them a meaning, build a practice around them, and we come to know what to do. Leave them as they are, and they are simply idling. Language gone on holiday, as Wittgenstein put it. Not language doing an impossible job, but language not doing a job at all.

Now what I want to suggest is that many attempts to 'understand madness' do so by creating a spurious metaphysical geography, positing lands beyond those known by those of us who are limited by being trapped within the bounds of sanity. As if we are constrained by our sanity - as if sanity, rather than being synonymous, as it were, with meaning itself, were just one form it takes. As if there are unthinkable ('for us' - for the 'transcendental we') thoughts which the person who is insane is thinking.

Delusional beliefs are accordingly thought of as species (delusions) within a general type (belief). The delusionality is not held to start to impair the very status of the beliefs as such. Thought disorder is thought of as a disorder between thoughts - rather than as something which starts to challenge the very aptness of talk of thought at all.

In short, a disturbance with reality contact is seen as contact with a different reality than 'real' ('consensual') reality.

But what is striking is that delusion, depersonalisation, hallucination, made action, thought insertion, etc., present themselves as real presences and not as absences. The person who is psychotic uses certain words and we view these as descriptions of possible experiences - just not of experiences which are possible for us (although perhaps if we take LSD etc...). And this sounds so absolutely reasonable as the best description of their experience that it becomes hard to think of any other.

At this point we need to tread very carefully to not do a disservice to the person experiencing psychosis. I want to make it very clear that I am not intending to say that they are not having disturbing experiences. That goes without saying. What doesn't - I am claiming - go without saying are the common characterisations of these.

For example, someone says that they are having the experience of thoughts being removed from their head. Now let us accept as true that they are having that experience which is aptly described using the phrase 'having thoughts removed from one's head'. What I am questioning is whether the content of their experience is that they are having thoughts removed from their head. Because I am questioning whether that is a possible content of any experience. What I am claiming, in fact, is that we lose sight of the very strangeness of the experience, fail to do it justice, when we accept as unproblematic the idea that they are describing a possible experience.

What is certainly true of course is that the person with psychosis is having experiences which are aptly described as of voices that aren't there, thoughts being put into their head, etc. But, you ask, how can I say this if I am also denying that these are possible contents of experience? The answer I wish to give is that: What makes it the case that the right description of the psychotic person's experience is of thoughts being put into their head that are not their own is just that this is the description which they are inclined to give. It is very tempting for us to try to describe some feature of their experience which would justify this description of it. A typical deficit account would do just this: We posit a mechanism by which we recognise thoughts as our own (whatever the evolutionary point of such a mechanism would be, given that we (even the psychotic person) only ever does have their own thoughts, is deeply unclear to me), and we posit that the person who suffers thought insertion has suffered a breakdown in this mechanism. But this is just the temptation which, I am claiming, we need to try our very best to resist.

Aporiae of Apophany 1

At a conference yesterday in Bristol I several times found myself struck by an apparently widespread assumption by the presenters that psychotic phenomena can be straightforwardly understood as breakdowns in normal psychological mechanisms. I'm thinking in particular of the idea that:

  • Depersonalisation amounts to a breakdown in a process of personalisation. The fact that someone may say that they are no longer aware of themselves as a person is taken to indicate that there is a normal process or state in which we are aware of ourselves as people.

  • Capgras syndrome - delusionally taking my partner for an impostor - 'something about them feels unfamiliar' - is viewed as the absence of a putative normal feeling of familiarity we have when meeting one another.

The idea is familiar from other psychopathological theories too:

  • Thought insertion - delusional experience of thoughts being put into my mind which are not my own - is viewed as a breakdown in a putative mechanism by which we ordinarily identify our thoughts as our own.

  • Hearing voices - similarly, our own inner speech no longer recognised as self-produced because of a disturbance in self-consciousness.

Now I don't want to deny that psychotic symptoms may result from breakdowns in normal brain processes. If someone wants to give these neurological processes psychological tags then that's fine, so long as they don't accidentally take themselves to be thereby providing psychological explanations...

But I do want to question whether these explanations really stand up. For one thing, they seem to run the risk of making too much sense of the phenomena. That is, they seem to make them highly intelligible in a way which thereby diminishes our sense of their psychotic strangeness. Whilst some might think that a good thing, I would argue that it fails to respect the person experiencing the psychosis. It incoorporates them into the kingdom of the sane, putatively discerning the meaning of their experience, but in fact failing to adequately do justice to the baffling and frightening strangeness of what they are experiencing.

For another thing, we are forced to introduce a phenomenology which appears to falsify everyday experience. For it simply isn't the case that I normally have an actual experience of my own thoughts as my own, or of my partner as familiar, or of my arm movements as my own arm movements, etc. To be sure, I don't experience my own thoughts as not my own, but this shouldn't be taken to license an inference to the idea that I do experience them as my own. An absence of an experience is not the same as an experience of absence.

More importantly, this common approach seems to cover over the real character of the 'madness' of psychotic experience. I shall consider how to characterise this in the next post.

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Dialectic, Disavowal, Defence

In a previous post - ostensibly about 'externalisation' in clinical psychology - I ended by claiming that it was essential for psychologists to dialectically steer back and forth between romantic and constructionist conceptions of the self without getting caught at either pole or taking either to provide a viable and complete metapsychology. The former present us with a conception of the relation between i) what one narrates about what is going on for oneself, and ii) what is actually going on for oneself, as external (non-constitutive). Recognition is the paradigm here, and acknowledgement of the possibility of in-apt forms of self-description the key concern. The latter presents us with a different idea - of the relation in question as internal (or, here, constituting). I 'make up my mind' - what I say goes, since to be treated as possessing this inalienable authority, to be the real author of not only self-narratives, but in and through this, of one's self, is just to be treated with the kind of respect that is due to people considered as such.

It seems to me now that this simply misdescribes the logical landscape of the self. In particular, the latter (constructionist) conception of the rationale for the inalienability of certain forms of self-knowledge is particularly thin. It owed, I now believe, too much to the constructionist philosophy of the first person of Crispin Wright. And not enough to other philosophers' (Rockney Jacobsen, Dorit Bar-On) attempts to explicate Wittgenstein's anti-recognitional conception of first-person epistemology. To be sure, there are times when we do 'make up our minds' - when making a promise, determining our resolve, committing ourselves to a cause, etc. - but there are many other times when this completely fails to capture the spirit of the relation between psychological state and self-narration.

In fact, the idea of self-narration as constitutive - especially for cases in which what we are interested in are a subject's emotions and fantasies - is one which should provide ample fodder for the psychoanalyst. Pseudo-disclosure, creation of a false-self, self-deception, unreality - are all possibilities which stem from the idea that we have a greater say-so than we really do with regards the reality of our own inner experience. But is there another way to grasp the two poles of self-narration and the dialectics of self-discovery and self-determination - one which preserves authority and the internal character of the self-narration without viewing it as always constituting?

The best place to start, it seems to me, is with a conception of self-narration as avowal. Here what I say with regard my own thought of feeling has an inalienable authority not because it itself actively constitutes, but because it is passively constituted by, the thought or feeling. I say 'I feel sad', 'I believe I ought to go now' - and these feelings and beliefs are what is directly expressed or avowed in what is said. These verbalisations are part of the 'natural behaviour' of belief or feeling of a linguistic being. To believe or feel something just is (amongst other things) to be disposed to utter just this or that. Our talk is not here descriptive or based in judgement of what is found within. It is directly, non-mediatively, expressive of the inner.

What then are we to make of failures of this kind of self-knowledge? (Failures of a kind of 'knowledge' that represents no form of epistemic achievement.) How can we understand too what makes for growths in self-knowledge, if our paradigm for this is of an activity which in itself represents no kind of achievement?

The answer to this comes, I believe, from understanding the difference between, on the one hand, correct and incorrect (mistaken) descriptions of the world around us and, on the other hand, avowals and disturbances of self-knowledge. It is tempting, but ultimately misleading, to model the latter on the former (or vice versa). It is misleading in two ways. First because everyday self-knowledge of the sort envisaged - when I simply express or avow my conscious thought or feeling - is no kind of epistemic achievement (unlike even simple cases of perception of the 'external world'). I do not need to 'get in touch with' these thoughts or feelings. Second because, whereas failures of knowledge of the world are often passively suffered, failures in self-knowledge typically have an active character.

The idea of 'getting in touch with' one's thoughts or feelings is, I believe, potentially misleading. It invites us to conceive of thoughts and feelings as inhabitants of the mind which are always 'there anyway' regardless of an 'awareness' of them. It makes it appear that our ability to avow our conscious feelings and thoughts is dependent upon a kind of inner perception - 'inner sense' as Kant once thought of it. But when I express myself, it is not that I talk about my feelings; rather I give them voice.

Pathological cases involve, then, not the failure of a mechanism of self-knowledge, but rather the installing of particular mechanisms of self-deception. The activity is all with them. When we arrive at self-knowledge which we did not before possess, regarding our thoughts and feelings, what we do is clear away the functioning of a defence mechanism. Successful articulation depends not on correct identification but on the often painful setting aside of defences which have distorted the otherwise spontaneous or unmediated exercise of avowal. It is disavowal, rather than avowal, which wears the epistemic trousers here.

There are occasional cases of self-narration where we must search for just the right words for our inner experience, or others when we feel the word 'on the tip of our tongue' yet cannot produce it. Sometimes we say what we feel yet acknowledge that this too isn't quite right. At other times someone else - our analyst for instance - may supply the words which had previously escaped us. A natural to question to ask of ourselves is 'what makes it the case that this one expression is the apt one, this other inapt?' Or 'How is it that I know when I've found thet right formulation?' And having asked such a question we are apt to feel utterly baffled by it - unless we slip back into a recognitional conception of the grounds of self-ascription (and miss the significance of the groundlessness propounded in the Wittgensteinian avowalist vision).

This possibility is one which has puzzled me for a long time, and I do not claim to be able to (dis)solve it fully here. But perhaps a start can be made if we alter the protagonist - of the search for the right expression - from the feeler to the feeling. This utterance (A) is the expression, the avowal, of the feeling in question. This other utterance (B) is not an avowal of it. There is no proper answer to the question 'What makes it the case that the words 'I believe that I am 6 feet tall' typically express the belief that I am 6 feet tall?', since it is not a proper question. The putative relation is 'internal': this is what it is to believe that I am 6 feet tall - it is to be disposed to answer thus to a question about how tall one believes oneself to be, and so on. There is no issue as to what makes it the case that this is a correct description of the belief. As with Wittgenstein on the sketch of a circle: The dark circle outline fits the white disk within perfectly not because of any perfectly operating matching mechanism, but because it itself determines the disk's parameter.

So too perhaps with the 'correct' avowal of a feeling. It is not a matter of an apt description the aptness of which can be attested to through appeals to the mode or norms of representation being employed. It is rather that: This expression is an avowal of the feeling; this other is not. Offered the right words, my feeling can body forth in discourse. The situation is akin to the violinist, with the second finger of his left hand pressing down on the D string, only producing an F# when the bow is placed on the string. Place the bow anywhere else - and a note will not sound.

It is sometimes instructive to consider the state of mind one is in when certain determinations become impossible - such as trying to determine which is the correct expressive articulation of one's own feeling. It occurs to me that a typical such state may be one of mild self-alienation - to even be caught in this situation of searching for the apt words, my feelings are without my vocabulary at their own command. A third-person approach to my own emotional state becomes inscribed into the very quest - and then appears to determine the forms of the reflective questions we ask about the nature of the adequation of the verbal search.

To return to the initial theme. Originally I compared psychoanalytic and narrative conceptions of the self - romantic recognitional and postmodern constructionist versions - as two poles both of which must be accommodated by a viable clinical psychology apt for description and theorisation of the gamut of human psychopathology. Without questioning the viability of third-personal recognitional paradigms applied on occasion to the first-person case, or first-person constructionist affairs, I have suggested that first-person discourse is best understood as expressive or as involving avowal. Here the emotions and thoughts express themselves immediately in our language, and there is no question of our being involved in recognition, or of our 'making up' our minds as we progress. Cases in which we are not 'in touch with' our feelings are best understood - not as obverses of typical cases in which we are in touch with ourselves (since that epistemic concept is quite out of place here), but - as cases where the active employment of disavowal or some other self-alienating defence is operative. Returning to ourselves is a matter of recovering our capacity to avow, through clearing away disturbances (not of recognition nor of creation but) of expression.

Sunday, 1 June 2008


In this post, as in several other recent contributions, I should like to do two things. One: offer a perspicuous overview of a clinical topic which is seldom addressed. Two: provide a perspective which demonstrates the contributions of philosophical as well as psychological reflection to unpacking the phenomenon in question. A third issue I ought to mention is that the post is rather autobiographical, tracing a difficulty which appears not only in clinical material but also in the act of writing about it (in a blog, for example). (One of my principal motivations in writing this blog is to cure myself of certain pathologies of the writing process.)

The phenomenon in question, here, is scope. I have in mind the simple fact that several disturbances of intentionality have, at their heart, a failure of a certain kind of intuitive appreciation of scale and relevance. Sometimes the mind gets anxiously lost in particular details, unable to 'see the wood for the trees'. Activities become unconstrained by general goals, but seem instead to pathologically generate their own momentum, leading to a lack of progress. At other times the mind constantly and depressively drifts to the bigger picture, paralysing the ability to get on with the particular, unable to 'see the trees for the wood'. Once again the general goals are not met through particular actions.

The lack of balance which comes from a disturbance of scope in either direction demonstrates a key principal of understanding mental health. This is that the balance in question is not a static poise, but rather a way of handling a dynamic equilibrium. The equilibrium is that between a general goal and the specific tasks which would jointly constitute its fulfillment. Further, the lack of balance is not one which can be proscribed by means of a universal formulae. It must be reworked and regrasped intuitively rather than rationally. That is, our capacity to appreciate what the 'relevant' scope is is, I suspect, ultimately unformulable.

A patient with obsessional difficulties may get particularly bogged down with a hundred details. The anxieties of success and failure make it hard to simultaneously hold in mind the general goal whilst performing the task that would lead to it. Activity takes over, develops a seeming momentum of its own, which takes one further away from fulfilling one's now-ignored goals. A hundred other details appear to require her urgent attention.

Another patient with depressive difficulties finds themselves preoccupied by the bigger picture. By remaining at this general level they find it impossible to enter into the moment. Action seems futile since no particular action they engage in will ever enable them to realise their more global desires. A lack of activity takes over, a gloomy paralysis in the eternal.

The above remarks are, I take it, best understood as psychological rather than philosophical. True, they are not empirical but theoretical; nevertheless they can be grasped by a purely psychological sensibility. This sensibility allows us to simply employ psychological notions, without thereby demanding a self-conscious reflection on what could be called their 'limiting conditions' or 'conditions of impossibility'. The significance of the philosophical, in the sense I wish to develop it here, comes out when we consider the psychoses.

Take schizophrenia. Schizophrenia involves a particularly radical disturbance of scope, where particular activities become significantly unconstrained by general goals. An activity may be repetitively engaged in, remaining uncancelled even when what we might have imagined was the original goal was achieved. But what is significant with this degree of a failure of 'scope' is that we start (or ought to start) to feel reluctant in our ascription of the goals in question. The very idea that someone may have a genuine goal, yet radically fail to stop trying to achieve it when they have already done so, seems to stretch the concept of goal-directed activity too far. We do not know whether to call a putative desire 'satisfied' if an action which would normally be seen as achieving its satisfaction is not consequently inhibited.

Some measure of what I am calling 'scope', then, is constitutive of intentionality itself. Radical failures of scope are failures of intentionality, and disturbances of sanity. We talk of the 'neuroses' when we remain fairly comfortably within the limiting conditions of the concepts of general goal and particular activity. We talk of 'psychoses', on the other hand, when the bounds of sense are stretched, when we can no longer achieve confidence in the application of the concepts in question.

Achieving 'scope' is often (I find) a difficult business. It may be tempting to try and find a formula to help us keep the right balance, a formula which prescribes and proscribes the 'right' amount of metaphorical distance we must take from the individual metaphorical trees in order to make our way through the metaphorical forest. Yet discerning whether this formula is itself apt or useful and how often it should be applied will itself depend upon further scope. If we remain in reflective thought we will limit our ability to engage in the praxes which individually partially embody our goals. Some degree of unreflecting trust must also, then, be shown - in ourselves, in the process of living out our goals, in the trustworthiness of our environments to not thwart our efforts to realise our own ends.