Monday, 15 December 2014

a plea for mindlessness

A theme around which I frequently circle is what I suspect is corrupting in mindfulness meditation. Here I leave others - and there are myriad such others these days, others with good minds and good hearts - to speak for what is valuable in the practice. Doubtless too there will be good interpretations of what is meant by 'mindfulness' which obviate the following critique. I offer it more in the spirit of an articulation of a critique of whatever object might happen to fit it - i.e. as a piece of thought - rather than tying it to any particular empirical denizen of the psychological landscape.

One route into the kind of understanding of mind which I accuse of being banalising and corrupt is through a certain way of thinking about rumination. When I am anxiously preoccupied by something I am often rather lost in the process; I may be 'fused with' my thoughts as the ACT practitioner puts it. I'm in a slightly dreamy, trance-y, state of mind, not terribly aware of what is going on around me. The feelings which arise in me in relation to my own imaginings may be almost as vivid - depressed, fretful, say - as if I were confronted by the corollary non-imaginary situation itself. So far, so good.

At such times I will not often be reflexively aware that I am currently ruminating. That after all is rather in the nature of trance. And here is where what I think of as the corrupting conception of mindfulness arises. It arises in the idea that what I clearly need to do about this is to become more self-aware, become 'de-fused from' my ruminatory process, become a more effective stood-back inner witness to my own thought. There is a corollary corrupt metaphysics to go with this epistemology. The metaphysics has it that there is an inner place called 'my mind' in which thought 'goes on' or 'occurs'. The idea of the practice, as I am reading it here, is one in which I, the self, becomes an inner observer on a quasi-objective inner landscape in which mental events occur and mental states obtain.

Clearly a lot turns on what we mean by becoming more conscious. To be clear: the idea of an increase in vitality affects, aliveness of the body, a quickness of and clarity to the mind: this is all unimpeachable. But I don't believe for a moment that this is all that is meant by becoming more mindful. For how that mindfulness is often described is in terms of self-awareness. As if to become more vitally alive is to become more aware of the pre-existing sensations in my body. Waking up the body: great. Becoming aware of one's body: not so great. The danger is becoming the kind of self-reflective individual who always checks on an impulse before acting on it, who has a certain detaching lack of immanence within her own emotions, who refrains from being a passionately dynamic presence in the world and instead opts for a po-faced ethic of poised stillness.

Here is what disturbs me the most about mindfulness, along with various other palliative and quick-fix trends in broadly cognitive-behavioural psychological traditions. What if I end up catching myself in my neurotic rumination, getting thereby some relief from it as I somewhat disidentify from the runaway self-entrenching thoughts - only for this disidentified way of self-relating - i.e. for this way of being in the world constituted by in-the-moment self-relating - to take over as a governing ethic of living? Wouldn't it be far preferable to remain alive as someone unreflectively embedded in the hurly burly of their own physical and mental life, with no loss of the energy of un-self-conscious self-becoming, if this were possible? 

This after all is what psychoanalytic psychotherapy offers. It offers one the chance to peel back the defensive carapace of avoidant modes of relating, awakening the dormant transference monster within, tolerably bringing to the surface within the transference relationship the conflicts which often tacitly generate the rumination in the first place, developing a greater trust in the straightforward acceptability of many of one's feelings and hence decreasing rather than increasing the need for the kind of self-reflective awareness that risks mobilising that ethic of smug detachment, increasing self-shaping self-reflection but not as any kind of two-stage in-the-moment po-faced faux-beatific devitalising self-checking loop of awareness between thought and action. Mindfulness, it seems to me, risks adding another stage of mental machinery: having thoughts -> become aware of having thoughts -> make self-aware response. The ethic embodied instead in, for example, 'where id was there ego shall be' (i.e. becoming at one with one's desire) is radically different. Rather than wasting psychic energy on effortful self-regulation, the analytic patient is invited to enjoy an upsurge of vitality through removing the self-stultifying defences. 

To represent it diagrammatically: 

interaction with someone -> feeling -> anxiety -> defense -> symptom -> managed through rumination

What are you going to do? Peel it back to just: 

interaction with someone -> feeling

Or manage it with:

feeling -> anxiety -> defense -> symptom -> ruminatory tendency -> mindfulness -> defusing -> relief from rumination but life-sapping defences still in place and energy-sapping reflective poise mobilised

Well? What choice is there really?

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

and gone my way and forgotten it

R S Thomas
I have seen the sun break through 
to illuminate a small field 
for a while, and gone my way 
and forgotten it. 

But that was the pearl 
of great price, the one field that had 
treasure in it. I realize now 
that I must give all that I have 
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receeding future, nor hankering after 
an imagined past. It is the turning 
aside like Moses to the miracle 
of the lit bush, to a brightness 
that seemed as transitory as your youth 
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

Commentators on Thomas's fine poem sometimes miss the fourth line. But isn't that the most striking thing: that one can see the miracle, even know it for a pearl of great price, and then just go on to forget about it?

This one simple fact, it seems to me, could be the basis for a whole human psychology. We experience love, the balm of loving and being loved, we experience the repose this gives us, the settled wellbeing and vitality, the togetherness of mother and child not getting in one another's way, and in this moment of knowing the melting heart, the kindly gaze, the held hand, the contentment of joint attention, security and acceptance - we know with self-evidencing clarity that this is all that really matters - and then it just goes. And we don't even notice it going. And we don't even notice when it's gone. And then after a time of irritable bereft lostness, preoccupied by some or other agitation, we see it again, the sun illuminating the field again, and it melts and warms us, and it appalls and amazes us that we lost it.

Why do you leave me? When I find myself lonely, troubled, empty, irritable.... But, well, really you don't leave me, it's just that I somehow forget that you were ever there. And that's why I struggle. I forget about the balm of your love, I forget about the joy of loving you. Is it something like this?

[a song:]

there are times when i know what love is.
quiet times, when my toes nestle in the warm living earth, and
a smile shines in my eyes without me knowing it.

yes: those are times when i know who you are.
peeking round the corners of my wish and fear,
and i meet you so quietly, and listen to you there.

and, when i leave, you ask me to hold on
to you and, sure, i do try for a while - but the
great forgetfulness soon clouds over me -

and you are hurt without knowing why,
whilst i fly up towards a sun that’s all my own:
invincible, majestic, expansive, sullen.

or that so exciting, desirable face i
call yours is all i see - and this is so
hurtful to what is most human in you.

or my wings melt and now i am unreachable
and think you’ve left, though really i’m plummeting
down into the ocean’s loneliest blue.

sometimes, though, i’m wounded enough to be able to
give something to you open-heartedly,
sing to you directly, and listen quietly to you singing.

so sorry i am that i leave you without knowing it;
how i wish you could tether me in the warm living earth,
bind me to those times when i know what love is,

quiet times, times when i know who you are,
peeking round the corners of my wish and fear.
and i meet you so quietly, and listen to you there.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

against objectivist understandings of psychotherapeutic action

Is my psychotherapy working? Or perhaps it's just the light getting brighter now in the springtime that makes me feel better?
Was my psychotherapy really working, or was it just that I had some hope for a while that here was something, finally, that could help me? Hope that has now been spent, now that I'm back facing the same old depressing realities of the same old life and the same old misery-generating nervous system with which to encounter it?
Does psychotherapy work better than a placebo? Is it a placebo? Does psychotherapy work?
Well, perhaps psychotherapy does sometimes work. But, now: what works and for whom? And: how does it work?
Depressed patient complains to therapist: "This just isn't working for me! Why aren't you helping me?"
In clinical psychology we ask and encounter such questions all the time. We tend to simply assume that they are good ones. The suggestion that they are not straightforwardly, or at least not obviously, good questions - the suggestion I will be pursuing here - can seem simply preposterous. What more important questions, what more natural an assumption, could there be? Why would we waste precious resources, the state's or the individual's or our own, on something that doesn't work? That inner interlocutor of mine - an uppity clinical psychologist with his empiricist head-set on - gets really impatient with me when I even raise such a question!

So let me start by setting out my psychotherapist's stall. I claim here that the idea of psychotherapy working (or not working) involves something of a category mistake. To be sure, good work may be being done in the therapy (by you, by me, by both of us together), and I may find helpful something my therapist says or does. And there is surely room, at particular junctures, for explicitly causal talk in relation to subjectivity: thus it certainly makes sense to say that my mood can be caused to improve or drop off by taking a certain pill, or you may say something that causes me to become anxious. And in relation to the 'what works for whom from whom?' question, well: it may be that some therapists' patients typically make more progress in therapy than other therapists' patients. It may be that therapists who have certain beliefs about therapy, including that it works in this or that specific ways, and whose beliefs are reflected in their actions and utterances in the therapy room, have patients who do better or worse than those of other therapists with different beliefs and practices. (But, wait, don't give up now saying grumpily: well, that's all that I meant by saying that therapy works in this or that way... Please! Have a little patience, it really might still be that something important is at issue here!) Yet I still want to claim that if psychotherapy has effects this is all for the bad, because the very idea of engaging in psychotherapy is engaging in an encounter with someone in which I aim to become more of an active agent and less of an affected patient. It may be that certain therapist practices offer me more of an opportunity to reclaim agency. But surely no one would want to describe the offering of an opportunity to someone, and their taking one up in this, as the causing of an effect in them.

There are contrasts between our concepts of actions and events, doings and happenings, undergoings and undertakings, an agent and a patient. These conceptual contrasts surely contribute essentially to the sense of the contrasted concepts. Martin Buber captured something of this when he wrote: 'So long as the heaven of Thou is spread out over me the winds of causality cower at my heels, and the whirlpool of fate stays its course.' (Naturalists often suppose that we can only avoid appealing to supernatural elements in our understanding of what we are if we somehow account for agency in terms of causality and deny that the everyday conceptual contrasts run particularly deep. To my mind that seems topsy-turvy: the only reason one might be spooked by agential language is if one assumed it was somehow after all a matter of causality in the first place - and then it would look like one has to do with spooky causes beyond the normal range (which then have to be reduced to non-spooky causes).) At any rate: we have a natural distinction between being caused to do something, and doing something, as we say, 'of our own free will'. And naturally, as an English speaker, I want to respect this, and also to point to the essential fact that in psychotherapy I am healed to the extent that I become more of that agent that I can be, something that I must do rather than something that I can be caused to do, something that I do to the extent that I take courage and relinquish my defences. You may point them out to me, but I have to relinquish them. That is something that I must actively do: it cannot - and here the cannot is logical rather than empirical - be done to or for me. (It can't be done by giving me a disinhibiting compound (cocaine for example): I may then feel more confident, to be sure, but this is not really a growth or change in who I am (since the character who I am is still the person with those habitual defences which have just been temporarily put out of action by the drug.)) I take advantage of your solicitude, I gradually trust you, and coming to know what in my perception is you and what is my transference is a bloody great mess. But this is the thing: the psychotherapy does not work on me; rather: I do work (with you) in my psychotherapy.

In a recent paper Jonathan Lear tells us, propos outcome studies in psychotherapy, that the aim of psychoanalysis is psychoanalysis, and that nothing achieves that aim better than psychoanalysis. Lear understands psychoanalysis to be about self-understanding undertaken for its own sake: this involves us willingly becoming more of a person - where 'person' means: a being whose being is at issue for it, a self-interpreting animal in Taylor's phrase. Lear is both saying something important, and telling a joke (a la Wittgenstein). But to be a bit un-funny about it for a moment, there's a sense in which we don't achieve psychoanalysis by doing psychoanalysis. We don't pluck the chicken by plucking the chicken. Or, better than 'don't': talk of means to ends is here out of conceptual place. We simply have an activity that is properly undertaken for its own sake. Trying to understand oneself better is not best taken to be the cause (or not the cause) of understanding oneself better, for unless something is getting in the way of the trying, the trying simply is, one could say, the act itself.

Consider the saying in psychotherapy: 'you only get out of it what you put into it'. Jon Frederickson tells his patients 'I can put in 100% of effort, but if you put in just 20% you will only get a 20% result'. I suggest that these are 'grammatical' rather than 'empirical' remarks. It is after all pretty hard to know what it would be to measure any kind of relationship between effort I put it and result I get when it comes to psychotherapy. (If you were not offering psychotherapy, but instead some kind of behavioural or educational or occupational program, I can imagine trying really hard to get up each morning and go for a run, under the belief that this by itself will improve my mood (perhaps my explanation makes reference to hormones, neurotransmitters, endorphins etc.). Here we can readily imagine measuring a relationship between the effort I make (the number of runs I undertake) and my change in mood.) If you do actually deploy your agency, if you open yourself to my gaze, then you are being active and open - which is in fact precisely the aim of psychotherapy. The aim is the same as the method. There truly is a sense in which 'only you can fix your internal problems'. I cannot fix you, not because I am an inept therapist, but because my doing anything to you would be precisely an interference with your agency, and what we are working towards is a decrease in the extent to which you are a patient, and an increase in the extent to which you are an agent. (This is why hypnotherapy is simply a completely different animal than psychoanalytical psychotherapy, and not a different method towards the same end.)

Some people try to do justice to the idea of subjectivity - the idea of the human as constitutively self-interpreting - by suggesting that the problem I'm describing here comes from deploying a linear, non-loopy, understanding of causality in the human situation. (You know how it goes: the idea is that you can get virtuous circles of causes and effects when we consider the way that our interpretation shapes our experience and action and vice versa - in other words if you model human agency and subjectivity as a dynamical system a la cybernetics.) This, I suggest, actually makes matters much worse - since it offers some kind of passing acknowledgement to the intuition that there is something wrong with the very idea of therapy working or not, only to reinforce and cover over the actual problem. The actual problem has to do with the language of causality and its opposition to agency. For whilst the human nervous system, coupled with the body and the proximal environment, is undoubtedly a dynamical system, the human being in its humanity is not any kind of system at all. A system has components in causal interaction. But contra the constitutively depressogenic vicious circle models of CBT, the human being in her full agency and subjectivity is not self-constituting in some kind of recursive causal manner. Rather she is self-constituting in a far more intimate manner - in that my self-understanding does not cause my self to be a certain way; rather my self's being a certain way consists in my understanding myself thus.

So here is my thought. Clinically we can, I submit, intuitively sense that a question like 'is my psychotherapy doing me any good?' is simply off. It is a depressed person's question. The depression shows in the question's form - in its diminishment of agency. The question is not: 'Is my psychotherapy working?' but rather: 'Does this person offer me an opportunity to understand myself better? Do they afford me the requisite recognition such that I can meaningfully here undertake that project of opening myself, of becoming who I am?' The entire register of this question is different. Unsurprisingly someone's 'theoretical orientation' is not entirely pertinent here; what matters more is probably the therapist's relation to their theory (does it enhance or diminish their ability to offer their patient humane recognition, to hold them to account, to invite them to rise to the challenge of being and becoming themselves? etc.). Can they help me see my defences, habits, 'safety behaviours', more clearly - can I recognise myself in the mirror they present to me?

The conflation of depression with sadness is a depressive conflation. Depression is a state we are in; sadness is how we are now moved and not a mood. The CBT practitioner's models of the mind as a causal system to be intervened in is also a depressive modelling. Coming to psychic wellness is coming to fuller agency and enriched subjectivity. Freud and Buber can agree on this: where It/id was there I/ego will be. Id is by definition unintegrated drive and desire. Thus unintegrated id is indeed a domain of happening rather than doing - since the ego is, again by definition, the domain of agency and subjectivity. But when the heaven of Thou is spread out over me, and when I accept the responsibility of its calling, I become what I am qua I. This is us working together in therapy; it is not therapy working on me. Overcoming depression, living in ongoing connection with truly integrated good internal objects: that is just what being a true subject means. I have to maintain this contact: it isn't something that can be done to me.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

body dysmorphia

How can it be that someone takes themselves to be much fatter in some area of their body than they really are, or disfigured in ways that they really aren't? How can this be - when their perception of others is perfectly intact?

The answer I develop here is along the lines of the general existential-phenomenological psychopathological scheme I've been developing for understanding psychoses. 

The general strategy of this scheme is to explain an abnormal perception in terms of a skewed prior 'expectation' sedimented in the lived body, or, to put it differently, a skew in the fabric of the body schema. The skewed expectation is nothing conscious and does not belong to thought. Rather it belongs to the fabric of the apparatus of thought and experience.  

In cases in which someone sees themselves as somewhere or other grossly fat (despite the fact that they are in this area really tiny), what has happened is that their tacit body-schema-embedded 'sense' of what they can expect to meet with in self-perception is aetiolated

When I say 'sense' or 'expect' I'm speaking somewhat metaphorically. I'm not talking about the body image (i.e. our inner picture of what we are like), and not talking about anything thought or experienced by the person. Rather I'm talking about those tacit embodied expectancies that go to make up corporeal selfhood. The principle function of these is to coordinate our experiences of those others and those objects with whom and which we are in sensori-motor interaction. (This highly contrastive distinction between personal-level body image and sub-intentional body schema is owed to Shaun Gallagher.) 

It is the contrast between the aetiolated tacit 'sense' of self and the reality of the fairly normal sized person in the mirror which gives rise to the illusion of hugeness. 

Anaologies may help. We are all familiar with times when we get used to something rather extreme and then, when confronted by a regular sized item, take it to be rather small. Living with a fat domestic cat will do this to one's perception of the cats of others. Or: I take a flexible tape measure out in the heat, and it expands, and what it measures will now measure as smaller than when it was at room temperature. Or, when on an escalator my body gets used to the forward movement and then, although when we arrive at the top we are just walking onto something static, we lurch as if we had encountered something moving. In this last example the expectancies or senses that constitute the body schema have altered.

This, I am claiming, is what we meet with in dysmorphophobia. If the measuring stick of the body schema has shrunk, the experience in the mirror of the offending item - the nose, the stomach, the thighs, etc. - the body image - will now appear huge. The illusion of fatness is generated by the mismatch between the tacit body schema and the perceived body.

Any perception is a function of the body schema's 'expectation' plus sensory stimulation. (Mathematical analogy: Receive sensory stimulation of +2, be expecting -4, and the resulting perception will be -2.) Keep your head and body still, you 'expect' the world to be still; yet unexpected sensory stimulation occurs: perception results: the hawk now sees the mouse. (Perception, remember, is in no sense a straightforward function of sensory stimulation, but rather depends also on a combination of the body's movement, the sensory organs'  movement, the body's 'expectation' of what sensory stimulation changes will occur with this movement, etc. etc.) And what I am claiming in cases of distorted body image and body perception is that the source of the skew is a disturbance in the field of expectations sedimented in the lived body, expectations that constitute the body schema.

I want to stress how important it is to grasp that the 'sense of self' embedded in the body schema is precisely the opposite of what is actually experienced by the self. The psychologist sometimes explains hallucinations in terms of someone seeing what they expect or want to see. On my theory this is precisely wrong. They are not really expecting or wanting to see anything; rather the hallucinator is seeing the opposite of what their lived body 'anticipates'. This is why Gallagher's distinction between body image and body schema is 100% crucial.

Why is it that the body schema becomes aetiolated and the body image therefore becomes gross? One possible cause could be physical abuse - intrusive touching. The body schema - what goes to constitute corporeal selfhood - defensively pulls back within the lived body, jettisoning as extrinsic to itself aspects of the body's fleshliness. This would explain the way in which flesh is typically re-described as 'fat' (i.e. blubber), as something extrinsic to the self, as some unwanted accretion parasitically hanging off the true inner self. The experience of intrusive touch is an experience of disgust, and when this cannot be tolerated - i.e. when the toucher cannot be kept out from, separated from, the touched - the body schema chooses self-sacrifice. Another cause may be a wish to renunciate puberty. The body schema refuses to budge; perhaps rather small hormonally-inspired changes in body shape now register as gross.

Patients with dysmorphophobia may spend a lot of time looking in the mirror at their putatively greatly distended nose or what have you. As one looks and prods more and more, the body schema may defensively retreat further from the nose, and this in turn naturally (and in fact necessarily) drives an enlargement of the nasal body image. The preoccupation, the disgust-driven disidentification, and the illusion of grossness, may all be of a self-ratcheting piece.

Such self-sacrifice of the body schema may also be theoretically equivalent to what in psychoanalysis would be called a form of projective identification. The problem with the use of the defense is that it preserves a sense of going-on-being(-just-the-same) at the cost of a continued experience of persecution. Persecution, now, by one's own fat. That will always be the price of a body schema that does not incoorporate all of the body within it. The putatively alien part will adhere in a way felt disgusting and horrific.

It would explain too how those with body dysmorphia can become highly defensive and sensitive when we touch on these matters. The aetiolation of the body schema is doing powerful defensive work.

Thursday, 25 September 2014


When in an everyday sense and setting I understand you, I can be said to see how your thoughts and deeds ‘make sense’. Perhaps I can ‘find my feet’ here, 'relate to' your thinking, 'grasp' or 'get' what you're saying. I find what you say and do intelligible and, often enough, reasonable. This reasonableness is sometimes a function of the valid inferences it articulates - I can see how this ‘follows’ from that. Yet just as fundamental to my making sense of you as my appreciation of the cogency of your conclusions - the thises - is the intelligibility to me of your premises - the thats. Thus we are concerned not just with how someone got to where they arrive at, but with getting a sense of where they are coming from.

It bears pointing out, however, that, for by far the majority of the time when you understand me, you are neither in the business of tracking my transit through rational space, nor reconstructing where I must have set out from. You are, instead, already there alongside me. You ask me ‘do you know what time it is?’ and, because we already inhabit what at risk of pretension might be called the same ‘horizon of meaning’, it does not occur to me to disrupt my comfortable repose in our discussion with the consideration that you could be meaning ‘…in Timbuktu?’ or ‘…that we have to go to bed?’. Instead you want to know what time of day it is now, here, where we are - and neither I nor you needs to have thought about this in order to rightly be said to appreciate that the intended meaning of your question is constrained in such ways. My appreciation, my grasp of what you intend, consists in my already walking in step alongside you on the same socially prepared road. Typically we needn't strive to reach out to the meanings that are imminent within your action, expression and conversation - instead they are already within our grasp. Etymology supports our intuition here: comprehendere (Latin) meaning to have completely caught hold of, understandan (Old English) meaning standing in the midst of, among, or being close to.

At this juncture someone might ask: ‘Well, ok, for the most part to understand you is not itself to track or reconstruct, to reach out or foot-find, despite the fact that sometimes this must occur before understanding arises. But etymology is hardly the most reliable guide to semantics, and much of what you are offering here (standing, grasping, finding our feet, getting) is merely metaphor. So, then, what is it for me to understand you? What is it to get, when what I get is your drift?

One now-famous way to mislead oneself whilst answering this question is to begin by tacitly making the prior, unfortunate, options-constraining assumption that words, especially nouns and verbs, inevitably gain their meaning by standing for something or other - some state or entity or process. With that referential assumption about meaning in place it comes naturally to assume that the word 'understanding' must refer to some or other thing or state or process  - and, since the word does not refer to my speech or action itself, perhaps instead it refers to some state or process obtaining inside me. It may also come to seem that the meaning of what someone says, which meaning is of course not their words themselves, must also be some or other thing - some thing behind the words perhaps, some thing 'in the mind' of the speaker. By misleading oneself in such ways, the living unity both of meaningful discourse and of listening with comprehension soon come apart in one's reflective comprehension, so that both are now seen as composed of two separable components, the one 'outer' (speaking, listening) and the other 'inner' (meaning, understanding). [for book only not blog: I labour here this particular possibility of cramping one's reflective grasp of the relation of meaning, understanding and discourse since it will reappear later as a key driver behind an appealing and hopeful, yet misleading, idea regarding schizophrenic discourse. This is the idea that whilst in schizophrenia we may meet with garbled discourse, this need not be taken to indicate that the speaker's thinking is itself garbled. If, in our theoretical reflection, the being of thinking has been constitutively divorced from our discourse, the hope opens up that even garbled discourse may be cloaking intact thought which, with the right interpretative apparatus, could yet be reconstructed.]

Another option for misleading oneself is to begin with an assumption that when understanding something one always does so by relating it to something else. For example we might imagine that to understand what someone says is to trace rational or causal relations between what is said  and something else - e.g. other things that are said, beliefs and desires, etc. Yet whilst causal explanation and rational reconstruction are important aspects of a broad-spectrum approach to humane understanding, the particular focus we have here is on, for example, your simply understanding this sentence of mine. And it is not obvious that you understood it, assuming you did understand it, by relating it to anything else. At any rate, presumably one would also have to understand this something else, and the relation - which itself casts doubt on the idea that an ability to relate this and that in causal or rational ways is the essence of understanding itself. So our question remains: what is it for you to understand?

Let's now broaden our options regarding what meaning amounts to, so we can take in the full range of relevant facts regarding what is generally true of someone if they understand something, and not merely consider facts about referents. That is, rather than configuring our investigation into what it is to understand something in the way invited by the question 'what is understanding?' we will instead configure it along the lines of 'what is true of someone if they understand something?' And now what most immediately comes to mind are the diverse abilities that a person who understands someone and their utterance has. Thus if you get my drift then you may well be able to anticipate what I will say next, know how to react to my questions or instructions, pick up where I leave off, paraphrase and explicate what I say, fluently come back with the next move in the conversational dance, repeat what I say in new appropriate moments, etc. To be sure, understanding is not itself any single ability to do any single thing, yet in any one instance of understanding we find we can readily specify the kinds of abilities which would speak for attributions to someone of understanding and the kinds of inabilities that would defeat such attributions (see Wittgenstein PI paras 143-242; Gordon Baker & Peter Hacker, 1992, ch. 16).

It is sometimes suggested that an approach focusing solely on the abilities and dispositions of the one who understands risks leaving out the living substance of understanding itself. Thus we might imagine that someone learns to do what we rightly call merely feigning understanding by: in apt moments parroting responses they have heard others make at such times without understanding them himself, learning and following rules for interaction without understanding what the rules are about, or in any other way taking a merely mechanistic, stimulus-response approach to communicative situations. John Searle's (1980 ‘Minds, Brains and Programs’, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 3: 417–57) famous Chinese Room Argument has him sitting in a room responding to notes written in Chinese and slipped under the door. Searle makes use of a rule book written in English which, without alluding to their meaning, documents what strings of Chinese characters he should use in response to the strings of characters appearing on the notes. The notes he passes back out under the door satisfy his Chinese interlocutors, who assume that the person in the room understands Chinese. However it is clear that Searle does not understand Chinese: he can make nothing of the symbols he reads or writes. The argument, then, might have it that such examples show that something more than mere behavioural ability is required of someone who genuinely understands what she encounters; without this something more, we cannot distinguish true from artificial or feigned comprehension. And if we are already guided by a conception of meaning and understanding as inner phenomena it will be natural to suppose that the something more in question is an inner state or process.

However, before we let such a use of the concept of 'the inner' run away with itself, let's consider an alternative response. This alternative starts by reminding us of the originary unity of meaning and action in the expressive life of the human animal. It reminds us too of the fact that when we understand what someone says this is not typically taken to mean understand the meaning of what they say as opposed to, simply, what they say. And it diagnoses the source of that deficiency in understanding manifest in the cases considered in the last paragraph not in terms of a lack of supplementary inner mental processes or experiences but in terms of a lack of uncontrived spontaneity. I shall now explain what I mean by this.

Consider an android. Such an automaton simulates human understanding but in fact has merely been programmed to respond in particular ways in particular circumstances. The programmers have codified certain aspects of humane understanding in a set of rules which are then implemented in the causal processes controlling the android's responses to environmental inputs. There is however nothing uncontrived about such responses, and the artificiality or unreality of the intelligence on display is evident in the way that such behaviour is not spontaneously adaptive beyond a restrictive domain. Regardless of how clever the programming is, in taking account of diverse possible responses in diverse possible situations, the fact remains that we have to do with merely artificial intelligence, with a response that is not spontaneously generated but is instead programmed. The intelligence on display here belongs not to the android but to the programmers.

Consider next Searle stuck in his Chinese room receiving and responding to messages he doesn't comprehend. Essential to our estimation of his lack of comprehension is the fact that he cannot simply respond to the messages but must instead deploy a rule book. It is not that we meet with no understanding here - after all he understands perfectly well how to use the rule book. The thought experiment trades on the contrast between the comprehending conduct of Searle's use of the rule book and his uncomprehending relation to the symbols. He cannot spontaneously make use of or respond to such symbols, whereas his ability to use the rule book is taken up in his living frame in its spontaneous responsiveness to the items with which he is dealing. Searle does not understand what his symbols mean; his use of them is merely mechanical.

It is sometimes suggested that the use of accusations of mechanism as defeating conditions on ascriptions of understanding is unsatisfactory because it implies an anti-naturalistic prejudice. 'After all we are all of us biological mechanisms', the objection goes, 'and there is no spiritual supplement to be had to our corporeal frame. Nevertheless it is we, these fleshly machines, who understand. To deny understanding on the basis of mechanism is, absurdly, to deny understanding to all of us for all time.' 

Against this it can be noted that such a criticism plays fast and loose with the concept of 'mechanism'. To be sure, we are all biological beings through and through with no ghostly supplement, yet typically we only count certain of the biological or other entities in the natural and social world as mechanisms (which contrasts are what gives the concept of 'mechanism' its significance). A mechanism or device or contraption, however, is something which can be employed as a means to contrive some or other end. Mechanisms effect

And this takes us back to the heart of our explication of what understanding consists in. What counts against Searle or our android understanding what they are writing or saying is the fact that their behaviour is contrived. Far from their responses to their interlocutors flowing spontaneously from their living frame, they instead arrive by means of a contrivance. In Searle's case the contrivance is his, in the android's case it is its programmer's. By contrast with his uncomprehending relation to the Chinese characters he produces, Searle's genuine understanding of his rule book shows itself in his spontaneous actualisation of his abilities to match symbols, draw what is suggested at the right moment, turn to the right page, and so on. The point is not that such spontaneous behaviour is behaviour which flows from something beyond it, something within - but rather than such behaviour does not flow from anything else at all. That is what makes for true understanding being manifest by such genuine rule-book comprehension - precisely the absence of a distinction between inner and outer.

It is important to note that the notion of spontaneity I am calling on here is not intended to articulate any kind of immediacy with which genuine understanding is to be said to be gained. True understanding is of course sometimes hard won. Nevertheless once one can understand something, such an understanding makes itself manifest directly in our living engagement with that which is comprehended. I hear what you say, and in hearing it grasp your meaning, and in grasping it am able to respond appropriately without having to do anything to effect such responses. We do not meet here with three separate events or stages. Whilst we may separate off, say for individual physiological examination, the domains of sensory input, central nervous system activation, and motor processes, nothing in such a scheme legitimates a transposition of its tripartite structure onto the living unity of the comprehending agent (Susan Hurley, ****). In fact, what I have been suggesting here, as a way to recognise the distinction between the true comprehender and the mere contriver, involves precisely the absence of any such distinction in the life of the former. On this reading to relegate understanding to a domain of inner processes, to frame it as residing behind its expressive manifestations, or see it as effected by mechanism is, far from doing naturalistic justice to the corporeality of the comprehender, to occlude the essence of understanding itself. To get you, to grasp what you are saying: I am, in my responsiveness, spontaneously there alongside you, able to respond appropriately precisely without deploying inner or outer means - other than paying attention.  I need not empathically put myself in your shoes, or find it in myself to agree with what you are saying, or develop some worked out account of how what you are saying now fits in with what else you say. Far from constituting my living understanding, as manifest in my direct and uncontrived apt responsiveness, such procedures of mine may even stand in our way, as I become instead related to my inner experience or thought rather than directly, in my engaged interaction, to you.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

metaphysical neurosis

I'm delighted to be offering a response to Wittgenstein scholar Cora Diamond, from whose writings I've learned a huge amount, at a forthcoming seminar at the Tavistock Clinic on 'Wittgenstein's 'Unbearable Conflict''.

I won't here spill the beans regarding what Cora will be saying; my response will in any case be rather self-contained. What I should like to pick up on and develop, from her presentation, is her mooting of a connection between i.) early Wittgenstein's (and Russell's) insistent dogmatic undemonstrated faith in an ultimate and singular underlying logical order in our discourse (which singular order the correct logical analysis would reveal) and ii.) his implicit sense of the vulnerabilities to which we are subject as thinking and speaking beings. The connection in question is of a motivation-defense sort: the faith is needed to compensate for the terror associated with the vulnerabilities. I want to pick this up here, not by way of looking for biographical evidence to support a certain psychoanalytical story about Wittgenstein's motivations for undertaking his philosophy - but instead by way of unpacking what I take to be some illuminating comparisons between i) a psychoanalytical understanding of neurosis and ii) the character of the struggle between metaphysical, sceptical and therapeutic voices more generally in later Wittgenstein's philosophy. Perhaps I will be able to keep my thought in that respectably demure academic zone where one can rest content with the provision of illuminating comparisons between the philosophical and the psychological cases. But of course I don't really think like that - and instead take Wittgenstein's fruitful intellectual struggles to be rather more of a piece with his moral and emotional conflicts.


Let's first rehearse the main thrust of Wittgenstein's Kehre concerning logical structure and logical analysis. In the Tractatus he claimed the theoretical possibility of making absolutely clear, analysing, (what is imagined to be) the singular logical structure immanent within our thought and talk. What makes for simplicity or complexity, what makes for our thought being decomposable into just these 'simple names', was not seen as something relative to our analytical schemes or interests or purposes but as something 'absolute' or, as we might also put it, 'of its own nature'. This analytic possibility was presupposed and not itself demonstrated. Later on Wittgenstein came to realise that analysis was necessarily purpose-relative, that language itself is not codifiable in any single way, and therefore that what he said before about the singular logical structure to our thought was nonsense.

This rather reminds me of Newton's discussion, in the Scholium of his Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, of what he called 'absolute motion'. Ordinarily we deploy some or other frame of reference in order to establish movement, direction or speed. We say: the man ran at 10 miles per hour for 100 metres. We implicitly understand that this is relative to points on the athletics ground, not relative to an antelope running hither and thither in a nearby field. Newton takes the example of a man walking on a boat. He (say) walks east at 4 miles per hour. This speed is relative to the boat. Newton points out though that the boat itself is moving west relative to the ocean. So a supposedly 'truer' measurement of the man's walking is relative to the ocean. Yet, as he goes on, the earth is moving relative to the sun, etc etc: perhaps then a 'truer' measurement is relative to the sun. However Newton then spins this idea of 'true movement' outside of any context whatsoever. He wants to talk of movement relative to fixed absolute space itself - the coordinates of which somehow pre-exist any objects residing within it. He not only does this with space but also with time, which now is (absurdly, when you think about what talk of 'flow' presupposes) said to flow steadily and absolutely from its own nature - i.e. temporal duration is no longer to be thought of as relative to natural oscillations, orbits, transits or what have you.

This is what the notions of 'absolute movement', 'absolute space', 'absolute time' and 'logical simples' do: they 'sublime' (to borrow Wittgenstein's verb) the concepts in question. That is to say: Newton wrenches ordinary spatio-temporal concepts free from any particular context of application, but imagines they still carry a self-contained meaning. When he does try to explain how we are to understand these 'absolutes' he ends up fudging it. Thus he describes absolute time with a phrase something like: it flows at a constant rate out of its own nature; yet of course, as we know, the concept of flow and that of constancy themselves presuppose (and so can't be used to define) temporal standards. (Compare representationalist conceptions of vision: as if we could explain what seeing is in terms of having pictures in your head (which, since they are pictures, you presumably still have to somehow see!)) Or he talks of absolute space in terms of the 'fixed stars', which is fine if you are choosing to use those stars that do not move relative to one another as a frame of reference, incoherent if they are supposed to be fixed relative to nothing in particular - fixed relative to 'space itself' as it were.

The idea of the ether, a kind of ghostly scaffolding for the universe, an idea popular, as I understand it, at least until Einstein's day, is perhaps something of a remnant of this notion of absolute space. (cf too Bearn's idea that Wittgenstein's notion of 'subliming' or of 'sublimation' has a lot to do with the idea of sublimation in chemistry: a solid turning straight into a gas.) (Disclaimer en passant: I know nothing about the philosophy of physics; it's only that one day I happened to read the early parts of Newton's Principia.)

Like Wittgenstein's Tractatus, Newton's book was, thankfully, not entirely devoted to realising its nonsensical ambition and contains lots of interesting and hugely valuable ideas. But this basic ambition was, it seems to me, simply incoherent. Newton wants to find the non-arbitrary framework, one beyond any that we might just happen to use for this or that purpose, a framework indefatigably and autochthonously kosher. It's promise: we can exit any troubling disputes we have in physics about the movement of this or that by appeal to this independent singular and ultimate God-given set of coordinates. And we don't have to worry about the destabilising effect of realising that it is no longer obligatory to use the Earth as the frame of reference for motion (we can admit that the Earth is, so to say, only the centre of the universe to the extent that we stipulatively position it there on our maps). The Earth may be just a lowly and contingent denizen of this now bewilderingly massive universe, but despite this the promise of the idea of an absolute frame of reference (which when hypostasied is perhaps what becomes the universe's absolute matrix condensed out into an ether) is that we can at least hold onto a confidence in finding our feet within it and resolving any disputes by appeal to its ultimate high court.

Autobiographical aside: When I was 16 I started a notebook grandiosely called 'Towards a Universal Morality'. My ambition was, I believe, of the same basic form (whilst of course in a far more adolescent vein!) as Newton's: to locate and define an extra-human self-contained moral domain, crystalline and pure, immutable and timeless which could then be the absolute frame of reference with which to decide any moral disagreements. Shaken by the natural developmental collapse of my own childhood egocentrism at this time (my own micro version, as it were, of the effects of the Copernican revolution in physics), feeling radically destabilised by the sea of contrary human judgement, finding myself without what felt like adequate bearings, I tried to resolve this by looking towards a single superordinate moral frame of reference. How my intimations regarding this universal moral fabric were themselves supposed to escape being moral judgements (hence being fallible in precisely the ways I was trying to avoid) I have no idea. I imagine that I projected this supposed singular moral order into an underlying metaphysical fabric of the world itself (whether or not Wittgenstein does this in the Tractatus is famously a matter of dispute) which was then supposed to graciously crap itself out of the metaphysical clouds into my receptive mind.

Another (this time Heideggerian) aside: I wonder whether we might do well to think of both Newton and the early Wittgenstein as stuck here within an 'ontotheological' perspective, or as failing to respect the 'ontological difference'. A property of beings within a particular framework is attributed to the framework - to Being - itself. Thus we can all accept the idea of there being rules for the use of terms, and codifications which take us some way in making sense of this or that aspect of even quite general features of discourse such as: something's meaning something. But to posit an ultimate singular rules underlying discourse is as it were to mistake a property of the contained for a property of the container. Newton too keeps attributing to space and time themselves properties which in fact only pertain to entities and arrangements of entities within space and time: thus he talks about space itself having parts, or time itself as flowing at a steady pace.

Back to Wittgenstein. In the Investigations and elsewhere (e.g. On Certainty) he considers several different kinds of cases in which, for example:

  • something which is replete with intrinsic normativity, such as a rule-following practice, gets separated into two elements. One of these is the rule which contains its meaning bundled up within it, so to speak. The other is the practice of following it, which gets construed as external to the rule and as inheriting a derivative normativity from that rule.
  • a range of philosophical attempts to reconnect these rules and the practices of rule-following. Some attempts take the form of causal theories: the rule-followings need to be caused by inner representations of the rule, etc. Other theories give up on the idea of truing up the practice to the rule, instead opting for constructivism: the rule gaining its meaning from how we go on rather than the other way round. Others retreat from world-involving behaviour to an inner domain of private meanings in the hope that secure knowledge can be found in the certainties of self-consciousness.
  • a practice of ostensive definition (e.g. defining 'this Parisian stick is one metre long') gets separated into two elements. We have the stick which is seen now as just pointing to a meaning beyond it. It isn't the stick that is stipulated as one metre long, but rather a 'length of space' (whatever that means) that is defined by means of the stick. The stick is no longer a sample, no longer part of the fabric of our normative practice but is merely externally related to it, contingently pointing, if all goes well, to something (an ideal metre) that lies beyond it.
  • reality contact - stretches of world-engaging behaviour that one might have thought to themselves constitute what counts as reasonable here and there - gets theorised as separated into two elements. We have the side of thought, where reason is contained, and then its correct or incorrect representation of worldly facts outside of its own domain. The constitutive rationality of going on thus and so is lost. The rationality is all bundled up within the representing mind; the behaviour of going on thus-and-so now possesses only a derivative rationality.

In all these and many other cases discussed by Wittgenstein we find an implicit trashing of the immanence of mind and meaning in body, language and world such that praxis is denatured into something non-intrinsically-standard-bearing; a correlative hypostasising or subliming of mind and meaning; and a philosophical project of securing the viability of our de-normativised praxis, or (in constructivist and conventionalist flip-overs) the contentfulness of the rules and representations, by binding the two back together with theory.


Let's change tack now and consider what light some commonplace psychoanalytical ideas might throw on all this. The central concepts I will make use of here are those of defensive splitting and good-enough mothering. We will also have recourse to notions such as introjection, idealisation, narcissism, the paranoid-schizoid position and the depressive position.

The human situation is initially - i.e. for the baby - one of extreme vulnerability, whose fear threatens to overwhelm him or her. Inadequate and insensitive mirroring, attention, care and feeding result in devastation for the sense of what Winnicott calls going-on-being. This puts real strain on a child's ability to synthesise good and bad experiences as both being of the same object - of the same mother. The idea that the bad mother is also the good mother is terrifying: we feel we need the good mother, whilst the mother who fails us may be our downfall.

To keep the good mother safe, then, she is idealised; the bad mother is split off from her. The bad mother may perhaps be identified with in the manner described by Fairbairn: by taking the 'bad' within oneself (identification with the aggressor) what is left in one's experience of the world beyond oneself is good, salvific, hopeful. The main way this happens, I want to suggest, is not usually as any kind of discrete belief that oneself (rather than one's mother, say) is 'bad'. Instead it comes through a lodging of the bad in what different philosophers have called the 'background', 'clearing' or 'atmosphere' (Messrs Searle, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty) of one's experience. This, in other words, is what we meet with in the case Cora refers to - of Jonathan Lear's patient whose basic entrenched way of seeing was radically inflected by the unmetabolisable disappointment that then inevitably swamped her mind in every situation as it unfolded. Not that so-and-so on such-and-such an occasion could clearly be seen as at that time disappointing and as not then loving me - but rather that, in a diffuse and at least largely unconscious and on-most-occasions manner, I am as I can myself own and anticipate, unlovable and disappointing, and that the world will also be experienced as disappointing to the extent that I might dare believe in my lovability.

Other defences are of course possible. Rather than this diffuse introjection, the child may engage in more active and particular splitting and projection. In this way he holds onto a sense of himself and his objects as good and lovable. Perhaps it is, then, just that split-off other mother, un-recallable at happier times, who is the hateful one.

As well as this splitting and projection in the 'paranoid-schizoid position' the child can take refuge in omnipotent wish-fulfilling fantasy, taking comfort from imaginary breasts, substituting their own reliable (if rather empty) fantasy for an unreliable (but potentially genuine) other. He or she imagines she has more power and control over the vicissitudes of available nurture than is really possible.

If however there is enough of an experience of what Winnicott calls good-enough mothering, the child can begin to grow in their basic trust in their own survival, their own lovableness, the world's often-enough goodness. The world is safe enough; the mother is good enough; the self is lovable enough. Idealisations of the mother can gradually be dropped: her failings become tolerable and forgivable. As all this happens a sense of the independent reality of the world can develop - of a world independent of the wishes of the child. It is important that the mother is not, as it were, too good, or else the child will never have the need to develop her capacity to tolerate frustration which is essential for the relinquishing of omnipotent narcissism and the establishment of reality testing (i.e. the separation of fantasy and reality).

Such a child, who is able to begin to bear frustration, and to have a sense of survivability, of going-on-being, can also start to trust that she will survive the real loss of people or objects or ideals. In other words, in this - 'depressive' - position mourning starts to become possible. Emotional experience does not become trapped in an un-focal, swamping, mood-inducing form, but instead can become discrete.  Psychoanalysts have thought a lot about the way in which what they call 'symbolisation' makes this discrete suffering possible. By coming to symbolise their experience - for example, by putting it into words that are used to a genuine end of communicating, of sense-making, of representing what is absent as absent - thinking and the carrying-on-being of the thinker become possible.

Philosophy and Psychoanalysis

It will I suspect already be evident how some of the above psychoanalytic ideas - of the good-enough, the fear associated with the insecurities engendered by a disturbance in going-on-being, and defensively motivated splitting - find their analogues in the philosophical scenarios described in the first section. But before we get to that I want to point out one further very important aspect of the painful purgatory of the paranoid-schizoid position. This is that it is largely self-sustaining. We might sometimes imagine it only held in place by the ongoing defensive motivation to ward off the original disappointments. However what we encounter, again and again in clinical practice, is the ultimately stultifying misery-entrenching result of the defences at work. Once we meet with narcissistic retreat we find an ego position than can no longer receive succour from the world, and is left trying to suckle on phantom breasts. Or when we have to do with paranoid projections the projector now encounters a hostile world even less to be trusted than before. Or we have intellectualising efforts to make do, to repair basic faults with intellectual castles built in the air - but their foundationlessness just keeps coming back to our attention again and again. Or, in Lear's example, we have the forestalling of disappointment by a kind of owned anticipation of just this very possibility, which then occludes all that is not disappointing, yet which however then renders invisible all those more rewarding and promising affordances on offer.

This, too, is I think what we find in the kinds of examples Wittgenstein considers. Once the basic split is in place - the idealised normativity or intentionality being safely lodged in an extra-worldly undegradable Platonic domain, in a mental representation, in a sublimated sample, etc., and our once-living once-meaning-replete practices now all normatively denatured and goofy - then our best efforts to rejoin then tend only to make matters worse. So we wonder how we are going to reconnect some idealised, safely-self-contained, mind-relegated 'inner representation' with that in the world which it represents, and use our brains to construct a clever causal theory ... only to find that the causal story cannot make good the representation's normativity, or at least not without tacitly presupposing it. The gulf between thought and world looms even wider. We become more desperate. Obsessional attempts at justification aim to quell the obsessional doubts resulting from the basic fault of a loss of non-ratiocinative repose in the life-world.

Or we have a bright idea of a way out... and try and collapse one half of the split into the other, or to construct one half out of the resources available on the other side. One or another form of idealism, conventionalism, constructivism, behaviourism, etc. results. But we now encounter a merely ghostly world without the habitable solidity we crave (idealism), or we find ourselves with only a sham form of the certainties we were hoping to trust in (conventionalism), or we end up losing our spontaneity and dynamism of will (behaviourism), or merely haunting the meaning-depleted shadows of our discursive practices.

The philosophical patient craves certainty, finds the mish-mash rag-bag hurly-burly of our conversations and diverse purpose-relative conventions to be unsettling. To deal with this, absolutes are proposed. Ideals are split off and projected. The world and our workaday words may now be more goofy and tawdry - but at least the possibility of meaning has been salvaged - by being projected either inwards (into the self-interpreting inner representation) or outwards (into the otherworldly Platonic necessities). Yet, yet the gulf now terrifies us even more than before. The good object is saved through idealisation - but simultaneously put out of reach. The whole defensive endeavour is implicitly narcissistic: it attempts to render that in which one must trust and acquiesce - the diverse serviceability of our language, our connectedness with one another, our foundational reality contact - in terms which belong to the interiors of these practices, in terms which are thinkable within the mind of the theorist. (To cast Being (Rede, Mitsein, Dasein etc.) itself in terms belonging to mere beings, one could say, is the epitome of narcissism. The local thinkability of these terms is in fact dependent on the theorist being sunk into the entire practices. With our feet thus sunk in to Being we can muster certain thoughts, deploy this or that rule here or there, with our heads; the narcissism involved is the idea that we can take our feet off the ground and navigate our way back to Being just with our heads, spinning the coordinate map which guides us out of what is now conceived of as absolute self-sustaining cognition.)

What then is the analogue to the psychoanalytic working-through of the patient's anxieties, their gradual relinquishing of their defences as they come to trust in the availability of the analyst? What I believe we find in Wittgenstein in his working through, as he comes back to the same problematic from different angles, engaging again and again with the troubled interlocutor, is his encouraging us to have faith in the good-enough mother that is our ordinary (non-sublimed, that is) language. 'Let's look at how we go on. Well, what do we say here? Well, here is one possibility:…' Wittgenstein is constantly trying to return us home, from when words have gone on that kind of holiday that ultimately turned into a nightmare, to the diverse contexts of our lives. 'Look', he says, 'perhaps we can live here after all'. 'Maybe, you know, praxis doesn't need to be immune from imperfection (doesn't need to be serviceable in all imaginable contexts) to be good-enough'. Wittgenstein helps us back to finding ourselves at home in our language with an increased diet of examples, with humour, with his own healthy internalisation of a helpful Mr Sraffa (Wittgenstein's chief sanity-conferring interlocutor) to bring us back down from the vertiginous heights of our preoccupations. Our worries are not then so much formulated into questions that can then be solved. Instead, like a neurotic preoccupation that one can no longer relate to, or like a dream or psychotic delusion that is hard to recall, they slowly dissolve away. We come back to the rough but serviceable ground. And now, now philosophy finally finds some peace.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

when is it and when is it not wrong-headed to talk of emotional over-reaction?

Here's a question raised by a friend the other day. There are times when it could be right to say to a partner: 'you are emotionally over-reacting'. But there are times when to say that would be just plain inappropriate. How can we tell what we have to do with in a given instance?

We can probably give examples of both, although the whole business of sorting them out will inevitably be rather tricky. It will I think be tricky in ways that speak not only to (epistemic) difficulties in the accuracy of our determinations, but also to (ontological) difficulties of the following sort. There are reactive dispositions we have (to judge this or that way in this or that circumstance) that can themselves be evaluated by reference to further standards, but there are also reactive dispositions that themselves contribute to the normative foundations of the discourse and so are not intelligibly said to be apt or in-apt. The ontological difficulty is caused by the fact that these latter (call them 'constitutive') reactive dispositions, dispositions of a sort that also constitute our character, themselves differ between us.

Nevertheless we do well to forestall sliding into complete scepticism or relativism here. After all our everyday moral, aesthetic and psychological discourses are often run through with such ontological indeterminacies; character is a non-eliminable source of differently shaped constitutive dispositions. Yet the wiggle room doesn't entirely obviate the discourses (which is why I called it wiggle room), and there's no reason why they should be held accountable to standards only appropriate to the more scrutable (and typically impersonal) discourses of the sort found in, say, the sciences. After all, as I said at the beginning, I think most of us, especially before we get going with any wrong-headed theorising, when we are just, in an aptly unreflective way, simply residing within our ethical and emotional sensibilities and fathoming others from within them, would be more than happy with the idea that there are some judgements of emotional over-reaction which are apt and others which are not simply wrong but themselves ethically and conceptually out of place.

In fact we might suspect someone who flat-out refused the validity of any judgement of emotional over-reaction, or for that matter who insisted on its always being appropriate to make such determinations, as having significant narcissistic disturbance. To envisage this it might (yikes!) help to call on gendered stereotypes pushed to the max. With these stereotypes the ultra man would be the one to insist on the always-appropriateness of judgements of over-reaction; the ultra woman would be the one to insist on their always-inappropriateness. Someone who always tried to force the issue of their inexorable entitlement to judge, or their inexorable entitlement to reside immune from judgement, would be a very difficult friend or partner to handle. Frustration with such individuals would be inevitable; pity may well also be an appropriately charitable response.

When I started thinking about this question I was looking for a criterion to help me decide which case I had to do with. However now I suspect this is simply inappropriate. Instead I think what we might need to do is to borrow a method of Wittgenstein's, and to provide examples from neighbouring discourses (LW would call them: other 'language games') with which we find ourselves less puzzled, so that we can then relax back down into the sui generis determinations made within the moral discourse under investigation here. (Assuming all goes well. The risk of course is that the donor discourse will not cure, but will itself become infected by, the anxieties attending the discourse with which we are having reflective trouble.)

So let's consider those myriad cases in which we live and let live in our differences. One person is not moved by Beethoven but only by Bach; another is the other way around; we don't tend to give either a hard time about it. They are temperamentally different. And we willingly make space for temperamental differences within the scope of what counts as humanity. Jeff is a bit introverted, Caroline rather extroverted. That is fine, considered just by themselves these are equally respectable ways of being human. Mark is more placid, Harriet easily enthused. Katherine is more sensitive, Engelbert fairly thick skinned. Great! Bring it on! Each can bring something to the table. And with literature too we value being able to enter into transient imaginary identifications with characters who as it were travel different 'routes of interest', whose 'whirl of organism' (Stanley Cavell's lovely phrase) is somewhat different from our own; this is simply enriching. So at such junctures we relaxedly and fairly automatically take it as read that judgement would be out of place

Or consider the following example, again from a conceptual cousin of the discourse in question. So here are Jeff and Caroline having an argument at home. It's a Saturday morning and Jeff wants to spend some extra time at work going over his grant application; Caroline feels this as him not valuing time with her. It goes back and forth for a bit, but then Jeff, in a quiet and kind and thoughtful tone, says 'I hear you, that you wanted us to spend this morning together. And I honestly would love that too. But this is a one-off, it really is. And I think that, when you dismiss my desire to go to work this morning, you are really overlooking the value to me of my work and of my getting this application in. I want to gently remind you: this really matters to me, and right now I need your support in it.' In a straightforward, honest, un-manipulative manner Jeff reminds Caroline of his values, and of the fact that, if her love for him truly is a love for him, as opposed to a wish for him to meet her needs, she will not just begrudgingly take his wishes into account, but will be fully behind their being followed through. (In making this kind of point I think I'm probably plagiarising the super-thoughtful work of Joel Backström - The Fear of Openness.) Of course we can also imagine the opposite - that we have to do with Jeff being selfish, and Caroline's frustration being a matter of trying to remind him of the superordinate value of their relationship - I come back to this at the end.

I want en passant to say something here about the developmental significance of the acknowledgement of the validity of such temperamental differences by parents of their children. It is easy to imagine psychological problems being caused by discrete trauma, but the research on the development of extreme disorders such as schizophrenia suggests that what here particularly confounds the developing individual is a total lack of recognition of their individuality - of the validity of their having interests and cares and sensibilities that are all their own - of the parents' recognition and acknowledgement of the importance of these in their child simply because they are theirs. What causes the greatest difficulties for individuation is when there is no space at all for such recognition - we call it gross 'intrusiveness'. (Of course every parent-child relationship involves some failures in parental recognition and space-provision, and important and valuable individuation is often enough precisely predicated on a child's ability to reactively take a stand against this.)

Here, I think, we are in the territory of just what it means to offer recognition to someone as the individual they are. Carl Rogers' therapy can be read as an attempt at maximal recognition of this sort - what Rogers called 'unconditional positive regard'. The question of course is whether the unconditionality is a letting-off-the-hook sort which actually, in not holding someone accountable to common standards, perhaps paradoxically constitutes a failure to offer them real recognition (since - oh it's all so Tony Blair but never mind - rights come with responsibilities!) or whether it is a matter of that not setting out of conditions which itself constitutes a willingness to meet someone as a person.

Another way to get clear about the difference between the two cases is to develop some better vocabulary for describing it. Here is one effort: The difference is between those cases in which we hold someone accountable to a standard external to them, and those cases in which that person is themselves deigned the standard. That after all is part of what it is to treat someone as a person: to show them respect, take them seriously, to offer them acknowledgement - and to do this by saying that simply in virtue of their emotional reaction being their emotional reaction is it valid. As already suggested, though, this can't (on pains of narcissistic pathology) be a universal moral get out of jail free card. But the burden of proof, as it were, in any instant, ought properly to lie with the alleger of over-reaction.

Perhaps we would do well too to explore a bit more the character of the accusation of 'over-reacting'. So far I've written as if it were a factual matter - a matter of someone getting things out of proportion. Actually, though, I suspect it most often has an accusatory force. When I say of you that you are over-reacting, then I may well be saying of you that you are over-egging the moral pudding, over-cooking the ethical goose - that you are milking the situation to your moral advantage, trying to say to me 'oh look you've been really nasty to me and now you've gone and made me upset'. The question is: when is this accusation apt and when in-apt?

At any rate, rather than settle on a criterion for deciding whether or not we have to do with bad behaviour, or with something to do with an aspect of a person's personhood which ought to be considered inalienable, I now reckon we do best to work towards together keeping the conversation about that open. (After all, we can hardly find some external position, not itself inflected by precisely the whole richness of healthy characterological diversity here under discussion, within which to formulate the criterion.) Let's keep on the table, together, that either of us may be over-reacting, but also keep open our access to what at many moments is the properness of unconditional regard.

To do that we do well to have some reflective resources on hand - like the kinds of categories and contrasts drawn up in the above. Yet by itself this will never be enough. For surely, I now want to say, we can't hope to replace what is ultimately the work of morality itself with the work of the intellect. This is the main reason why it's wrong-headed to look for a criterion to separate out the two situations (of when it is and when it isn't ok to say 'you're over-reacting') unless that criterion itself (quite correctly) presupposes the moral-evaluative capacity for judgement that is here at issue. Unless I am able to move into a moral-emotional position of acknowledging my relational failings, bearing guilt, making reparations, honest contrition, open-heartedness, stepping out of the cycles of mimetic violence (Girard), saying 'I'm sorry' not to get something to end but because one actually is sorry, asking for forgiveness, then any amount of intellectual discussion may just get put in the service of those inexorable narcissistic perversions consideration of which began this post. We also need to work on elaborating the common ground between us and developing an apt mutual tolerance - hopefully not of the sort that does this by simply projecting all the undesirable badness onto others outside the relationship - so we can avoid becoming one of those awful smug self-righteous couples with a symbiotic cosyness yet with dismal self-righteous relationships with institutions and other families. All of this is hard work, perhaps mainly because guilt is hard work. Yet it is the work of love, and what matters more than that?

Recap: I started by asking how we can distinguish between situations when it is and when it isn't wrong-headed to say to someone 'you are over-reacting'. This was articulated as a conceptual rather than an empirical question (hence as actually being interesting!), and it was situated as relating to aspects of human judgement that are replete with constitutive indeterminacy. Next I reminded us of some related situations where we happily rule out the appropriateness of critical judgement - when we are talking about aesthetic preference. Finally I suggested that rather than provide an intellectually assayable criterion for making the distinction in question we need to refer ourselves back to our moral judgement - to our conscience. That is, rather than hoping to determine a moral decision (whether someone is right or wrong to say 'you are over-reacting') by reference to a general extra-moral criterion, we instead need to recognise that the work of offering someone apt recognition is a work of love. That work involves us listening to our consciences, rather than truing up moral judgements through wielding of criteria. Consider the parallel case of Jeff and Caroline again. How can we tell whether what we have to do with, there, is Jeff being unreasonable or Caroline being unreasonable? Well perhaps if Jeff is really 'honest with himself' he starts to see that he was becoming selfish and taking Caroline for granted. Or maybe instead, when she is honest with herself, she sees that she was becoming mindless in her relationship, getting caught up in Jeff meeting her needs rather than in her supporting him to meet his. It is tempting here, or in our case of determining over-reaction, to fish around for a criterion so our hearts and consciences can be guided by our heads. My suggestion now is that perhaps this is precisely the wrong way round.

Monday, 1 September 2014

on the sui generisity of humane understanding

The following is prelude to the question of what we are aiming to grasp when we hope to be able to understand someone who is psychotic 'in their delusion'... But, yeah, it's not itself in any way clinical... since at this preliminary juncture I'm just interested in the question of what it is to understand someone punkt.

Here is an odd question the oddness of which is inaudible if you've had the 'right' kind of philosophical education: 'What is it you grasp when you grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, when you grasp the significance of their gestures, the intention in their utterance, the feelings they express?'

And here are two kinds of answers that might present themselves once we've both a) habituated ourselves to the oddness and b) unwittingly subscribed to a somewhat alienated conception of meaningful behaviour and its appreciation, in such a way that we don't take the question to answer itself and have done with it.

i. What you grasp are the rational relations between the action/gesture/thought/emotional reaction and other thoughts, intentions, feelings, actions, beliefs etc. of the person.

ii. What you grasp are the causal sources in the mind of the behaving subject - their intentions etc. - that give rise to their actions and utterances.

If you are feeling like hedging your bets you could always be a hybrid theorist. 'Oh, understanding intentional action involves placing an agent's actions in relation to both the reasons that rationalise it, and also the motivations or intentions or various dispositions that cause it. Perhaps unlike anything else in the natural or social world which at first we intuitively imagine to have a singular logical character, our understandings of action - when I with apparent unity and simplicity just get the univocal what of what you're doing or what you're on about - actually draw on two distinct (rationalising, causalistic) canons at the same time.' Well, fancy that.

Now, I suspect that a good deal of the literature in the philosophy of action springs up as an intuitive reaction to the two above positions, and is an attempt to spell out these feelings in prose. (It doesn't present itself this way, but, but...) In this post I want to urge the logical univocity of our understanding of one another in our active lives, to suggest that this form of intelligibility and its object are sui generic, and to propose (following Heidegger I guess) that the basic character of this interpersonal grasp and of what is thereby grasped is just so basic, so much a part of or right under our noses, that we struggle to even bring it into view. With the result that we bring into view only its dependents and then try to win them back their heritage through rather unconvincing appeals to alleged stigmata of their bloodline.

i. As regards the rational relations pundit, we might start to feel her offerings as a little thin, too horizontal, too logical, with not enough animal oomph, insufficiently agentially alive. For when I grasp just what you are doing or getting at, I don't typically undynamically, statically, see it as reasonable in the light of such and such thoughts etc that you happen to have. (It's not a safe inference from a) something might not be safely thought intelligible if one could not also reconstructively track certain rational relations between it and this or that other intentional attitude, to b) this tracking is how we understand it. For might it not rather be that what makes for the possibility of rational reconstruction is also what makes for the possibility of understanding - 'effects of a common cause', so to speak...? So that I can give the reasons for your action because I understand it - not that I can understand it because I can give the reasons for it.) Rather I relate to it as a piece of active self-becoming, as an enactive aspect of the self-unfolding of who you are. 'There he goes, off to the bar again, holding the barmaid's attention with his characteristic twinkly eye, his self-deprecating yet assertive comportment...' I'm not sitting there rationally reconstructing Jeff's behaviour: 'Er, Jeff wants some beer, he believes that there is beer at the bar, that the barmaid can be pressed on to serve it, that if he hands over some of the lumps of metal and pieces of paper in his pocket they will give the beer to him, that it goes in a vessel rather than being poured straight into his throat from the tap, that...' All of that is true, sure. But isn't it rather that the intrinsic intelligibility of some stretch of Jeff's behaviour is what makes it apt for its rational hanging-together-ness with other of his actions and feelings and intentions and thoughts or, if that is going too non-holistic, that at the least it is not simply in its lateral rational relations that its intelligibility consists? I get the stretch of behaviour, and I get how it hangs together with this or that else that you think or feel, and it's the getting that we're interested in here. Getting at juncture Y does not explicate getability at juncture X: the phenomenon of getability - which getability is what we're here trying to get at - has just been presupposed.

(Note for initiates: This is not me repeating Davidson's allegedly successful argument against 'rationalists' - that reasons by themselves are not enough and so we need to supplement them with causal glue. You know the story: someone might have several beliefs or wishes which would rationally explain their action, but yet only properly be said to act for one of them. Julia Tanney utterly disposed of that argument some time ago, when she pointed out that we can only understand why some of the reasons might not be active if we specify defeating conditions on those. We don't need causal glue; instead we need rational solvent. It is however articulating what I believe to be a decent disquiet which might have got mis-expressed by Davidson in the wrong kind of rational reconstruction.)

ii. As regards the causal relations theorist, well, we may at least feel now that the phenomenon - the behaviour under its aspect of getability - is at least incarnate, so that there is the possibility of pulsion on the horizon. But then other worries crop up: we notice how rather too close we are to something which feels brute, uncomprehending (the kind of sense we make of why the bridge collapsed is just not the kind of sense we make of one another) - and to a mode of explanation which is paradigmatically explicated with examples of merely externally related relata (i.e. where cause and effect do not constitute one another) - and to a mode of explanation which everyday we precisely pit against the agential (i.e. when we have to do with undergoings as opposed to undertakings, happenings as opposed to doings - when we think about interferences in agency, for example, when we think about ourselves under the aspect of patient rather than agent). Thus Davidson introduced causation to glue active reasons to actions - but then leaves us with the problem of wayward causal chains when thoughts or feelings which don't constitute reasons nevertheless accidentally propel behaviour.

So, so: what then? What do we have to do with when we grasp intelligible action and utterance? What is the mode of comprehension and what is its object?

What I want to suggest here is that it would simply be disastrous to try to find some other scheme to accommodate humane sense making - a scheme such as the logical space of reasons or of causes. Rather than try to fathom it - getability - by placing it here or there, instead we would do better to simply offer it acknowledgment, remind ourselves of it in its sui generic being. What we have to do with, again, is the matter of understanding what someone is doing or saying. If we are not already sunk down in the arena of together-grasping, of com-prehension, of standing alongside, under-standing, then we may as Jaspers says need to sink ourselves down empathically with one another. This autonomous mode in which we are disclosed to one another, in our being-there for others, in their being-there for us: we know perfectly well what it is, really. The problem however is that this form of intelligibility and this mode of comprehension - a mode which is of a piece with our perceptual encounters themselves - are just so basic that we tend to overlook - and then tacitly presuppose - them. Sheer 'presence' and 'being-there' are so under, or of a piece with, our noses that they are utterly overlooked by the theorist.

So: I see you, I see what you are doing, I understand what you are saying, I get it, I'm there, there where you are. You make sense to me, the meanings you embed are ones I can embed too. I don't look beyond or behind, reconstruct or posit. I encounter you in your autochthonous sense-conveying sensibility. This is it: human life, fellow-feeling, con-vers-ation, together-being. The form of this understanding is primitive, sui generic - there is just no need to specify it as some sub-type of causation or deduction. Sometimes I must foot-find with you, but much of the time our feet are already aligned, we dance to the same tune, a tune which is so consistently woven into our lives that we theorists habituate to it at the same time as being animated by it.

And, and, it really is no more mysterious for all of its sui generisity - after all, not everything can be explained in terms of something else, and those things which can't (e.g. temporal and spatial properties) aren't obviously any more mysterious because of their recalcitrance to reduction.