Sunday, 30 November 2008

sense and nonsense in psychology

Well, I don't have an example to hand. But haven't you ever noticed how frequently psychologists tell themselves things like "In psychology what we are interested in is the meaning of the phenomena. It's all very well (being a biologically minded psychiatrist and) developing a causal understanding of the thought or behaviour in question, but we mustn't treat the subject as merely a broken mechanism, etc etc"
And that's fine, I guess - for a certain range of psychological phenomena. But why on earth curtail one's psychological remit so grossly in advance of examining what it is that (competent) psychologists might actually do, within their job description, in practice? For several different modes of negotiating with meaning and with the apparently senseless come to my mind right now, and only one or two of them appear to be adequately constrained by the above-caricatured simplistic self-understanding.
  1. So, yes sure, it does sometimes - often? - happen that myself and the client are engaged in a process of making sense of the apparently senseless. The client may come along not really knowing why they are doing what they are doing. Why they can't get over the loss of their dad (we explore the ambiguities in their relationship with their dad and it soon becomes clear), why do they keep feeling this compulsion to clean (well, they haven't been adequately trained in anxiety-tolerance as a child, and so get caught up in short-term attempts to manage distressing obsessions by compulsively neutralising them; or they are symbolically attempting to wash away feelings of emotional 'contamination'), why do they keep getting agitated and unable to study (becase they are rebelling against a harsh parental introject whose only way of self-parenting is through the use of the stick rather than the carrot).

  2. But what about those times when what is driving the psychopathology is the very idea that there must be a meaning, a reason, a purpose - when perhaps there just isn't one? (And why in any and every case should there be one? What kind of a metaphysical prejudice is that?) I'm thinking principally here of cases of severe depression. The depressed person keeps trying to find a reason for why they did what they did, why something happened to them, and so on - but they are trying to answer an impossible question (there was no reason). Far more helpful, here, it seems to me, to help the patient 'externalise' their depressogenic thinking, and to see it as a kind of centripetal vortex that constantly grips their mind, spinning a web of attempted reason around a pseudo-cognition. (When subjects recover from psychotic depression, do they tell us that they have now made sense of why they felt just so guilty, or why they had the delusion that ...?)

  3. And what about those other times where sense must be developed rather than recognised? Or when an existing sense has developed which constrains too tightly the pre-reflective meanings organised within it? I'm thinking here about child development and about psychosis. So: children gradually learn to articulate their desires according to the narratives available to them in their home environment. This is often not a matter of correctly labelling or recognising nicely pre-individuated desires, but rather of the in-form-ing of desire itself. What was at first a fairly inchoate feeling, a very loose set of dispositions, now becomes tightened up, structured: the desire gains shape. But sometimes if the environment has not been apt for individuation, then narratives of the self may have developed which crack and strain at the scenes, and cannot be maintained through any amount of narrative work without an enormous (perhaps intolerable - hence psychosis?) amount of psychological effort. Here - just as with the development of symbolic capacities in, say, play therapy - desires are born afresh, out of the ashes of the old psychological structures. This is not a matter of making sense of something, but making sense out of something.

  4. And what about all of our behavioural interventions, our mindfulness interventions, and the rest of it? Behavioural activation is hardly a matter of sense-finding, but is surely none the less psychological for all that. Hypnotic interventions are not sense-finding either, but are still (surely?) psychological. Mindfulness interventions are about becoming aware of thoughts and feelings per se, as they are - and not about 'making sense of them'. Doubtless the list could go on and on.
So next time you see a psychologist describing what they do as 'making sense of the apparently senseless', you can ask why they restrict themselves to such a limited portion of psychological activity. And why, too, they restrict themselves to such a limited (merely recognitional) theorisation of the relation between sense and its articulation.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

temporality and happiness, mindfulness and metaphysics

Last night I went to a talk in Oxford by John Cottingham - which was on - amongst other things - nachträglichkeit, and in particular on the temporality of human happiness. One of his basic claims - surely plausible - was, if I understood him right, that our happiness (unlike, say, a sensation of pleasure) is not to be understood merely episodically. Rather, it is bound up with the meanings of our lives, and these meanings extend from any moment far into the past and the future. We are continually reinterpreting, or discovering more about, or becoming, ourselves. Thus, for example, how we die may itself have a profound impact on the quantity or quality of happiness which can be said to accrue to our life as a whole. 'Call no man happy until he is dead' is one Greek aphorism (attributed by Heroditus to Solon) cited by Cottingham, which seems to give - if albeit in an extreme form - us a clue about the essence of what we could call 'happiness holism'.

The Freudian topic of nachträglichkeit was particularly and personally apt because the discussion caused me to rework and unfold some of my own reflections, earlier that day, on the kinds of spurious (usually idealist) metaphysics that get implicated in the interpretation of simple Buddhist or CBT Mindfulness Techniques. Here's what I have in mind:

We are invited to cultivate an ability to move from a 'doing' to a 'being' mode. To just notice the sensations, for example, that come up in our body, as they arise. To notice when our mind wanders - off into the past, or the future, or some present concern, and gently bring it back to the meditative object (e.g. the body, or the breath, or a candle, or what have you). We may notice as we do this that a sense of happiness wells up from within - contentment, bliss - not about anything in particular, but just through settling into ourselves and gently relinquishing the urge to fantasise, fret or ruminate.But what sometimes frustrates me is the way in which the 'being' mode gets presented as a kind of engagement in a temporal pointilism. As if just 'being here now' meant a relinquishment of temporality. As if I could really be said to be existing as a human being, living a meaningful, rewarding, happy, life, if I were to pursue an existence self-contained at every moment. As if my being - my dasein - were not itself constitutively temporal.

Why is it that a straightforward psychological or spiritual technique so readily gets caught up with a particular metaphysics - in this case a metaphysics which seems to want to deny the kind of temporal happiness holism described by Cottingham as constitutive of the human condition? Well, I think the answer is clear when we think about it. It is because we have not adequately distinguished between the neurotic temporalisation of the mind which flees from being into the imagined future (or past), and the constitutive temporality of human existence - dasein - which knits us essentially into our personal-historical contexts. A perfectly decent psycho-spiritual claim gets dressed up in metaphysical garb, perhaps to make it appear more philosohpically respectable - but the result is just implausibility.

To conclude, let me just make the distinction as clear as I can. Sure - when I'm depressed I may just be thinking about the past, or when I'm obsessional I may just be ruminating over what I said or did earlier, or when I'm neurotically anxious I may just be desperately trying to figure out what might happen next. Perhaps in part I am trying to flee from a present which I fear will be overwhelming. In all such cases I am showing an unwillingness to simply experience what is 'in my mind' - to accept my experience for what it is. It is this neurotic temporalisation which therapies or practices relying on mindfulness attempts to dispel - and to return the subject to stimulus-governed (rather than rule-governed) contingencies, as the behaviourist might put it.

But it is not only - not even primarily - through such neurotic temporalisation that my life gains temporal structure. Rather, the meanings which are necessarily distributed throughout the historical texture of my being arise not just in anxious reflective thought, but in my reposed moral reflection, in my gradually unfolding self-understanding, and primarily in the mainly non-reflective practices which occupy me each day. Lived temporality looks after itself, we might say, putting the claim in a rather extreme way, with no need of such a helping hand from thought. My life has its temporal contours, and the meanings of it stretch right out through the unfolding activities and practices of my existence. Neurotic temporalisation would in fact be most likely to stifle, rather than promote, any such temporal unfolding, keeping being locked into static (situation/contingency non-governed) and predictable patterns of action and reaction.

Being, then, is not aptly opposed to Doing, when making a contrast between a mind which is anxiously projecting itself into possibilities, and a mind which is reposed in the present yet constructed by its temporal ties to past and future. Being is doing, Doing is being. Some forms of being, because of their infatuation with projection-ahead-of-itself modes of fantasy, are profoundly limited. The question is not: Can I reside in the present moment? (Now that often really would be banal!) The question is: Can I reside in my Being, as it unfolds, through time, with all of its rich temporalities and episodic uncapturability? Can I be on-the-way-to with no hurried pace faster than my existence can carry me?

Saturday, 1 November 2008

words were originally magic

Solution-focused therapist Steve de Shazer tells us that 'words were originally magic'. He himself is quoting Freud who, in both the Question of Lay Analysis, and in his Introductory Lectures, discusses in passing the idea that

Nothing takes place in a psycho-analytic treatment but an interchange of words between the patient and the analyst. The patient talks, tells of his past experiences and present impressions, complains, confesses to his wishes and his emotional impulses. The doctor listens, tries to direct the patient’s processes of thought, exhorts, forces his attention in certain directions, gives him explanations and observes the reactions of understanding or rejection which he in this way provokes in him. The uninstructed relatives of our patients, who are only impressed by visible and tangible things ... never fail to express their doubts whether ‘anything can be done about the illness by mere talking’. That, of course, is both a short-sighted and an inconsistent line of thought. These are the same people who are so certain that patients are ‘simply imagining’ their symptoms. Words were originally magic and to this day words have retained much of their ancient magical power. By words one person can make another blissfully happy or drive him to despair, by words the teacher conveys his knowledge to his pupils, by words the orator carries his audience with him and determines their judgements and decisions. Words provoke affects and are in general the means of mutual influence among men. Thus we shall not depreciate the use of words in psychotherapy and we shall be pleased if we can listen to the words that pass between the analyst and his patient.

But what does this mean: 'words were originally magic, and to this day have retained much of their magical power'? Is it really to be understood simply in terms of the idea that words 'provoke affects and are in general the means of mutual influence among men'? Or was Freud here trying to unpack an intution or insight using a theoretical framework which could not possibly contain it?

That, at any rate, is my conjecture, and in this post I want to explore what it might mean to still want (as I do) to describe words as somehow 'magical' if we eschew any idea that they have (or have been believed to have) any astonishing causal powers. Along the way I shall touch on Freud, Frazer, Adorno and Wittgenstein. The aim is to develop (clear the conceptual space for) an idea, rather than to achieve ultimate demonstration of the validity of the case being offered.

So, to reiterate: The sense of 'magical' that I am after here is not one which accrues only to extraordinary uses of words (in spells, say). The traditional notion of the spell (although even here we must be careful in our anthropology, as Wittgensteinian readers of Pagan faiths remind us) would appear to be one of 'action at a distance'. And this causal notion is precisely not what I am going to be articulating. Words are to be understood as magical, it might be said, in their suchness, and not in their causally functioning as talismans.

The topic most naturally invites a Heideggarian analysis, but it has also received consideration by the Frankfurt School scholars Horkheimer & Adorno in their Dialectic of Enlightenment, and a Wittgensteinian treatment from the intriguing philosopher Viktor J. Krebs in his papers Mind, Soul, Language in Wittgenstein - and The Subtle Body of Language and the Lost Sense of Philosophy.

Here is my first stab at an outline.

Words have both expressive and descriptive functions. Yet we are constantly tempted to construe the expressive as the descriptive (for example, treating our avowals of our feelings as if they were descriptions of what a putative faculty of introspection finds within).

Furthermore, we all too readily fall pray to a phantasy of having, or of attempting to achieve, a purely descriptive discourse. (Adorno and Horkheimer are particularly good - albeit in their stylistically atrocious manner - at expounding the ways in which unconscious (fascist) desires get smuggled into a discourse which presents itself as merely reportative, and which thereby covers over the appalling values it embeds and expresses.) But our grasp of language 'bottoms out' not in a mythically self-interpreting, nor alternatively in a hopelessly infinite regress of, rule and representation - but in the diverse range of our instincts embedded in the diverse range of our language games.

Language, we might say, is always 'driven by and embeds desire', and if we attempt to cover this over, we all-too-readily just disguise from ourselves our own (ethical, political) desires or values, imposing them uncritically onto the structure of the social world.

Finally, what drives our blindness to the magical (in the 'good' sense) quality of words, and what drives the view that our sense of the magical must be explicated in terms of the talismanic, is our alienation from our own life-with-language and the allegedly obligatory pseudo-explanatory agendas which that alienation births. (It is also true that the appearance of any genuine content to the (my) philosophical notion that words are magical (in the 'suchness' sense) is itself an illusion - a kind of residual shock surprise and an associative residual post-enlightenment carry-over-disposition-to-say-that that things can be just as they are - surprise that (vacuously) they 'just are' as they are - a residual shock amazement that we are not in fact called on to entertain the explanatory agendas which the alienated stance seemed to promote as an intellectual necessity for any responsible philosopher.

Cioffi on Freud  and FrazerHere is Frazer and Freud's idea of what magic is: When the 'primitive' person, dominated by a mythic consciousness, acts mimetically in behaviour or speech, they are allegedly trying to effect a causal impact on the world merely using their mind. But here's Adorno or Wittgenstein's riposte: rituals are not (always) best thought of as superstitious attempts at instrumental control of the world through the power of thought. Krebs' example of a modern parallel is kissing our lover's photograph: we don't typically do so on the basis of a belief in the causal power of our action. The kiss is, rather, expressive of my desire, it is part of its 'body'.

Wittgenstein notes that ritual practices cannot be understood in [Frazer's] way, for their purpose is none other than the spontaneous expression of an inner need that is as important as it is different from intellectual articulation. [Krebs, MSLW, p. 1]
What is 'magical' can, I believe, best be brought out by an investigation of common, unhelpful, alienated, Augustinian, phantasies of language learning and language production. Such phantasies invite us to take it that when we articulate our responses to what we see or hear, or when we articulate our feelings ("Here's my brother coming back home!"; "I feel exhausted!"; "That is a lovely, yet haunting, tune you are playing!") then what we do is, say, pick the best description of what is encountered in experience. Visual avowal, then, becomes thought of as predicated on matching or representing. I represent something in the world, or represent something in my mind, in my language. Perhaps the matching procedure, which is thought to ground my sense of what is apt to say on some or other occasion, is said to be a function of my grasp of some rule. I apply the rule, and so see whether or not the description is or is not apt in some situation.

The fallacy is obvious: The person who is performing this putative 'matching' or 'representing' must know how to wield these representations or rules. But what does my grasp that this X word is an apt representation for that X object or that X thought consist in? And what grounds it? Are we to allow that it is intuitive, and also that it is groundless? If not, then must we posit a further rule which guides the interpretation of the first? Yet if so, then why cannot the same be said of our bald articulation of our affects, thoughts, and perceptual experience? So: What if I am simply voicing my desires - if my verbal articulations of them are no more representations of desires than my pre-verbal expressive behaviour (grunts, groans, sighs) - themselves? The sound the bow makes when drawn over the string does not report on the tone which it voices, nor report on the state of the violin.

Here we are, talking together. I 'speak', you 'understand'. You take up the phrase where I left off. We laugh together, share a moment. An image drifts through the conversation, structuring it for a while, only to be replaced by another. Then there is a short hiatus when something happens which we call 'misunderstanding'. At least one of us cannot feel our way into the language of the other. At such times perhaps we retreat to common, agreed, shared, uncontroversial terms - perhaps we try to work our way reflectively out from these - via what we call 'definitions' or 'rules for the use of words'. Yet this reflective, descriptive, form of discourse, in which some distance opens up between our intentions and our inflections, is hardly to be taken up as the prototype. It is recognisable as an aberration, as what it is against the backdrop of the norm in which there is no such separation between thought and speech.

"Are you just saying that words are magic, then, because of the immanence of thought within discourse?" Well, that is a very thin way of putting it. It captures litle of the magic. The magic is in the fact that not only are my words immanent within my discourse, but that I am immanent in it too - and so too are the worldly situations ("That's one big mansion house", "You remember yesterday when George fell over getting out of his car? Well he could hardly...") my words articulate. Magic here is not: using thought to affect reality. The magic is rather: here where there is no room for thought to insert itself between reality and my expressive comportment. It is the immediacy, the shared spontaneity of the conversation: that is what is magical.

Sometimes at the start of a clinical session I may ask the client "Well, I'm wondering how you're feeling; what's been on your mind; what the week's held for you". And then what I often get is a report, of little therapeutic value or use in itself. But soon the real conversation gets going, and now my client is not reporting their thoughts, but rather unfolding them. Felt senses give birth to meanings, meanings that are themselves unfolded with back and forth gestures between the feeling and its articulation. All of this is witnessed by myself, the interlocutor. Thoughts of the correctness of what is said do not yet arrive on the scene. Truth and meaning have not yet gone their separate ways - and so there is no substantial opportunity here for the meaningful articulation of propositions which then may or may not be correct. Where we are at is, rather, at the site of the birth of personal meaning (or of what Christopher Bollas calls 'idiom'), the site where the self becomes itself.

Words were originally magic. But: they still are magic, although their magic quality is constantly disguised from us by the representational fantasies that thought throws up when it reflects upon itself. The sheer fact of (what Frederick Olafson, in Heideggerian vein calls) presence is lost upon us - tacitly and illicitly assumed for our relation to inner representations, utterly disguised in our perceptual relations to outer entities which now appear merely causal.

The patient talks ...The doctor listens. ... By words one person can make another blissfully happy or drive him to despair, by words the teacher conveys his knowledge to his pupils, by words the orator carries his audience with him and determines their judgements and decisions. Words provoke affects and are in general the means of mutual influence among men. Thus we shall not depreciate the use of words in psychotherapy and we shall be pleased if we can listen to the words that pass between the analyst and his patient.

The temptation is to think that the 'magic' aspect of words consists in their ability to conjur up for us what is not present, or in the power of mere sounds to alter how the other feels, to exert an influence on us. But this is not the kind of 'magic' about words which entrances myself, nor the kind which fascinated Heidegger and caused him to endlessly try to articulate it, nor the form which attracted Wittgenstein but which he found tramelled over by the barbaric culture of the twentieth century. Or - it is a shallow articulation of what they found 'magical' about discourse. We might as well say that it is the lack of any need for any such conjuration which marks out language as magical. It is the lack of the need for language to evoke images or objects 'in or to the mind' - the lack of the operation of any such mind - which best captures its magical quality. You speak, I listen and in listening understand - without the need for mental intermediaries. That is the magical.

Perception is certainly no less magical for the presence of the real object before the perceiver. What is magic is the sheer presence of the object to the perceiver. Representational theories attempt to dispel this magic by 'explaining' the perceptual act. The irony of its ultimate reduplication, and hence the preservation of the putative mystery, is typically lost on them. But in any case, magic and this mystery are two quite separate things. This 'mystery' stems not from our being confronted with an explanandum in search of an adequate explanans, but from our having, first, simply missed the fact of presence.

The magic of words is, then, not to be found in their capacity to 'exert an influence' on us. That very way of putting things covers over what is of real interest - which is that in which in the influence consists. It is not that 'mere words' somehow make way for understanding - as if the process of listening with understanding had to be understood in terms of the taking up of the mere outer sounds into an inner domain of comprehension. That words influence our feelings is no more surprising than that any other act or occurrence should influence our feelings. What is magical about words-in-use is simply their partaking of presence, their embodiment of comprehension.

The patient talks ...The doctor listens.

Hasn't enough been said already?