Sunday, 28 June 2015

just because

At a tattoo studio the other week, when I asked ‘why’s that?’ to the instruction to bring and drink a sugary drink while having the work done, the tattoo artist, misunderstanding my question as a questioning of him rather than as an interest in the rationale for the action, and seemingly suffering a moment of regression, said rather bluntly ‘because I said so’, before recovering himself and explaining that it is to prevent fainting.

The answer ‘because I said so’, offered most often by an adult to a child in search of a reason, is rarely a satisfying or reasonable response. If the adult has a reason why they think the thing they wish the child to do should be done then why not proffer it? Or if the thing to be done is just itself a sui generic good, then again why not say as much (er, in different words than this...)? To say ‘because I said so’ seems - unless it follows a performative - to amount to little more than an authoritarian and demeaning move, albeit one borne, most likely, of a perfectly understandable exasperation.

One of the reasons why it is hard, I think, to take the second option - of articulating that here we have to do with something that is simply a sui generic good, something good in and of itself and not because it meets some further standard or aptly pursues some further end - has, I think, to do with the psychological difficulties involved in comfortably stopping with a not unwarranted 'just because', or a 'because I feel like it'. It is so easy to feel a, or try to make up for an imagined, lack of justification when instead we ought to be taking confidence, putting ourselves and our judgement directly on the line. It takes guts to say 'I and the source of judgement are one', 'I am not accountable to something beyond myself here', 'I am, on this occasion, now myself the voice of reason or of nature herself'.

So when is it apt to say 'because I feel like it!' to a request for a justification for an action? Perhaps we can ease our way into this by thinking first about the nature of inductive reason. The classical treatment of induction has it that the relation between my experience of some or other daily regularity and my judgement that the same thing will also happen tomorrow is one of justification or reasoning. That is to say, the classic treatment has it that when you ask me 'Why do you think the badgers will bound out of their set at 9pm?' and I answer 'Well, that's when they've come out the last two weeks', I am providing you with my justification for thinking what I do. Now I don't mind if we call this a justification, but what I want to point out here is that it appears to be a quite different logical species of animal than one which offers a piece of reasoning. It could just as easily be construed as a condensation of the claim that, precisely because this is what has always happened, and because it just is reasonable to expect what has regularly happened before to happen again, I am not here in any need of a justificatory rationale for my belief about the bounding badgers. If, by contrast, despite their 9pm exit on previous nights I maintained that tonight they would depart at 8pm, then, then, some piece of reasoning surely would be required, and what it meant to ask for and receive a justification would be a different matter. So, what I am claiming is that it is perfectly reasonable to return a request for a reason with a response which basically provides some context and says 'I've no reason to doubt this, and that's all there is to it'. Similarly, might it not be perfectly acceptable to say 'Because I feel like it' as a response to a request for a justification - where the answer is of course not really providing a justification but rather urging that here the simple fact of the desire obviates the question?

A friend recently told me that she came to a helpful new understanding when realising that it is ok to want to not go on a date with someone just because. Just not fancying it: that's itself all the reason that one could possibly need for not wanting to date someone. We are sovereign in our desires, in such instances, and anyone who tries to get between us and our ownmost feelings at this juncture is simply intruding and disrespecting our being as true subjects.

Yet we do, it seems to me, often intrude, as it were, on ourselves. The result is what we call 'alienation'. Marx tells us how we are alienated from our labour when it becomes simply a means to another end ('working in order to live' as they say), rather than a fulfilling end in itself (where an important part of one's being is one's work - where we are 'making a living' as they also say). We 'intrude' on ourselves, I believe, when we deplete ourselves, diminish our authority, when we tacitly or knowingly give it over to someone or something else. We might, for example, give it over to an employer or to the state, or to a social group or friend or lover.

James is hankering after Marjorie. He hopes that by bending himself to the shape of her ideal man she will love him and offer him the balm of recognition he longs for, and he will then possess the object of his desire. But in the process James becomes depleted and self-alienated. He loses a sense of the 'just because'-ness of his own thought, action and desire; instead 'because Marjorie would like this' becomes the measure of his being. James becomes increasingly depressed and desperate; and Marjorie, of course, becomes less and less interested, since she would in any case only be interested in dating a man who amongst other qualities enjoys self-possession, has 'his own mind', who 'believes in himself'.

When are and when are we not entitled to our 'because I want to's? Clearly there are many, many junctures at which I would simply be embodying narcissism were I to think myself beyond the need for justification. There is a recommended daily allowance of 'just because's' which the narcissist exceeds. And yet there will be many other junctures where to take myself in need of a justification for my actions, decisions and beliefs would be self-alienating. If I do that, if I render my desire as always awaiting the say-so of reason before I can be entitled to my standing firm in it, I deplete and disrespect - I depress - myself as a human subject.

There is surely no general criterion that can be used to distinguish what is a juncture for narcissism and what a juncture for self-alienation. We are here at a site of the being of the human that is more fundamental than any other, so the proffering of general criteria - which would themselves necessarily have to be couched in terms other than those which are here under scrutiny - would be to put the epistemic cart before the ontological horse. Rather than criterion wielding what we surely need is thoughtfulness and vigilance. There can here be no responsible outsourcing to ratiocination of what is really the work of the virtues of courage and conscience.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

timelessness and eternity

What does Freud mean by saying that the unconscious is 'timeless'? What could be meant by the Christian idea of 'eternal life'?

Every now and then I think I've grasped what is meant by such ideas of the e-ternal, only to lose track of them once again. The following attempts to consolidate an understanding.

Hubert Dreyfus on the forever experience in Dostoyevsky

In a recent talk Dreyfus tells us that we do well to understand Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov as presenting us with an  'existentialised' version of the Christian sacraments. Thus: Dr Herzenstude decides to buy the scruffy little Dmitri a pound of nuts; Dreyfus reads this as an act of baptism, which in turn he reads as Dmitri being introduced into the connectedness network - i.e. being offered recognition, being shown agape love, being made a place for in the ethical world of humans, a place in a network of caring. It is one thing to be born in the mere sense that animals are born, another thing to be born into community: to be given a name, that is, an identity, to become a person, a being of value, of worth. This is given by Dreyfus as just one example of a much broader interpretative drive: to see Dostoyevsky as giving us clues (e.g. phrases like 'and the devil only knows' when we are dealing with an evil person, or mention of twelve people when we are encountering apostolic beings, or the rays of the sun when we are encountering transcendental moments, etc.) throughout his text that he is now articulating a core Christian insight - articulating it in non-superstititious, non-paranormal, science-friendly, terms.

The sacred Christian experience of interest here, to me, is one that Dreyfus calls 'the forever experience'. We are taken first to that moment half way through the book when Alyosha falls to the ground, kisses it and cries over it, vowing passionately to love the earth for ever and ever, all this in accord with Zossima's instructions. 'What goes on in this moment', Dreyfus says:
is a kind of temporality which is different from the everyday kind of temporality where events occur now and now and now and now and you begin to forget the earlier ones. There are sacred experiences which, when they occur, are so important in your life that you'll never forget them again. And they will be moments of joy which you will remember. .... [now quoting Karamazov p. 333:] 'It was as though some idea had seized the sovereignty of his mind, and it was for all his life and for ever and ever.' That's a really important phrase. That means that there's something that is saved from the everyday temporality of meaningless and forgetting, and that you'll be in touch with it all your life and it will give everything meaning. And that's a sacred experience - for ever and ever. It's the experience of lasting meaning in your life that you can come back to to organise your life, and which gives it meaning from the experience on.
Here the relevant contrast is between moments that arise and pass within the flux of life, and a moment which then informs the rest of life by 'seizing the sovereignty of the mind'. Perhaps this amounts to the content of an inspiring experience being taken up as a guiding norm, becoming part of the framework from that moment on with which further experiences are to be sought and evaluated.

A comparison that comes to mind concerns marriage or, more generally, deep romantic commitment. In any relationship there will be interactions which might threaten to damage the relationship itself. However a deeply felt love may inspire one to remove the relationship itself as a possible object of questioning. What I have in mind is not any kind of psychological self-blinding but rather a willed existential commitment which says: this, for me, stands firm, and what comes up in the journey of life must now be accommodated to the shape of my life-in-relationship-with-this-person. (This, it seems to me, could be one reason for thinking of marriage as (potentially) a transcendental concern.)

D Z Phillips on the life eternal

In his essay 'Eternal life and the immortality of the soul' D Z Phillips (1970) cites Sutherland (1967-8) making the point that 'eternal life is not to be equated with endless life.' (Interesting then to note that the standard English translation of the Apostles' creed (...Credo in Spiritum Sanctum, sanctam Ecclesiam catholicam, sanctorum communionem, remissionem peccatorum, carnis resurrectionem, vitam aeternam. Amen.) invokes belief in the resurrection of the body and 'life everlasting'. How are we to read 'everlasting' other than as 'endless'?) Accepting that a metaphysical view of the soul as an entity somehow endlessly surviving the death of the body is nonsense, we instead are invited to consider the ways in which we actually do talk about 'soul':
'He'd sell his soul for money' is a perfectly natural remark. It in no way entails any philosophical theory about a duality in human nature. The remark is a moral observation about a person, one which expresses the degraded state that person is in. A man's soul, in this context, refers to his integrity, to the complex set of practices and beliefs which acting with integrity would cover for that person. ... Questions about the state of a man's soul are questions about the kind of life he is living. ... The relation between the soul and how a man lives is not a contingent one. It is when a man sinks to the depths of bestiality that someone might say that he had lost his soul. ... 'What profiteth it a man if he gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?' Talk about the soul, then, is not talk about some strange sort of 'thing'.
Phillips then goes on to discuss eternity:
Like Plato, Kierkegaard too sees the demands of goodness as eternal demands. They are not temporal considerations. By this he means that one cannot speak of a time to be good, without distortion. Kierkegaard says that 'a love of goodness will not belong to a certain section of life as fun and play belong to youth. It will not come and disappear as a whim or as a surprise.' Thus, Kierkegaard wants to say, remorse and repentance are part of the eternal: they cannot be assigned a time. ... to speak of a man's acquaintance with the eternal is, so far, to speak of his acquaintance with a love of goodness. This being so, we can see why it would be foolish to speak of eternal life as some kind of appendage to human existence, something which happens after human life on earth is over. Eternal life is the reality of goodness, that in terms of which human life is to be assessed. The difference between the man who aspired to eternal life in this sense and a man who did not would not be the difference between  a man who did think he would live on after death and a man who did not think that he would live on after death. The difference would show in the attitudes they had to their respective lives. In one man, his desires and appetites would be, or would be aimed at being, subordinate to moral considerations ,while in the other they would reign unchecked.
... speculations about continued existence after death are beside the point. ... Eternity is not an extension of this present life, but a mode of judging it. Eternity is not more life, but this life seen under certain moral and religious modes of thought. This is precisely what seeing this life sub specie aeternitatis would amount to. ... the postulation of a life after death would be neither here no there, since the same questions about the character of that life would arise.
This however, Phillips tells us, is not enough to mark off the specifically religious notion of eternal life; it rather just 'marks them off in logical grammar from prudential considerations or considerations of convenience.' The religious notion is also importantly connected with the idea of 'overcoming death'. But what does this idea mean?

Phillips now draws our attention to the idea of overcoming the fear of death, and from there to a radical relinquishing of narcissistic entitlement. Thinking about Dostoyevsky's Ivan Ilych, Phillips says:
He was the centre of his world, and thought that only his fortunes and misfortunes were the real fortunes and misfortunes. His reputation in the eyes of others was all-important to him, and he felt that worthy and enviable reputation could be attained solely by his own efforts. Death revealed to him the foolishness and falsity of such an attitude.
Next we are treated to Simone Weil's moral profundity:
Simone Weil 
When we have enjoyed something for a long time, we think that it is ours, and that we are entitled to expect fate to let us go on enjoying it. Then there is the right to a compensation for every effort, be it work, suffering or desire. Every time that we put forth some effort and the equivalent of this effort does not come back to us in the form of some visible fruit, we have a sense of false balance and emptiness which makes us think that we have been cheated. ... The effort of suffering form some offence causes us to expect the punishment or apologies of the offender, the effort of doing good makes us expect the gratitude of the person we have helped, but these are only particular cases of a universal law of the soul. Every time we give anything out we have an absolute need that at least the equivalent should come into us, and because we need this we hunk we have a right to it. Our debtors comprise all beings and all things; they are the entire universe. We think we have claims everywhere. In every claim which we think we possess there is always the idea of an imaginary claim of the past on the future. This is the claim which we have to renounce.
Weil is superb on the balefulness of narcissism:
We are like the beggar who said to Talleyrand: 'Sor I must live' and to whom Talleyrand replied, 'I do not see the necessity for that.' Our personality is entirely dependent on external circumstances which have unlimited power to crush it. But we would rather die that admit this. ... All the circumstances of the past which have wounded our personally appear to us to be disturbances of balance which should infallibly be made up for one day or another by phenomena having a contrary effect. We live on the expectation of these compensations. The near approach of death is horrible chiefly because it forces the knowledge upon us that these compensations will never come.
How, then, can we cope with death? According to Weil and Phillips, what is needed is grace. Whereas the worldly approach to death is to still wish some compensation for it (e.g. to somehow live on afterwards!), the religious conception invites us to conquer death by ourselves 'dying to the self'. 'This', Phillips says, 'is the contrast between the temporal (that is, the concern with the self), and the eternal (that is, the concern with self-renunciation). ... The immortality of the soul ... refers to a person's relation to the self-effacement and love of others involved in dying to the self. Death is overcome in that dying to the self is the meaning of the believer's life.'

Death, then, has no dominion over us to the extent that we die to the self - to the extent that we forego the narcissistic expectation that life be fair and acknowledge that nothing is ours by right. To live in grace is instead to live with one's will aligned to the divine will - that is to say, at the very least, to what happens. This, of course, does not involve taking a passive relationship to life, does not involve a cessation of all striving, since our striving is often enough a part of life itself.

Jonathan Lear on timelessness in Freud
Jonathan Lear

In a 2014 Aristotelian Society paper Lear discusses the nature of what following Aristotle he calls the non-rational soul, and takes a lead from Freud as to how to flesh out Aristotle's moral psychology. The unconscious, according to Freud, operates according to its own 'logic' or 'principles'. Two of these are exemption from contradiction and timelessness. He tells us of an analysand, Ms A,
who seemed to inhabit a disappointing world. No matter what happened, she would experience it in a disappointing way. Real-life disappointments were of course disappointing, but even when she something she wanted came to pass, there quickly followed a disappointing interpretative frame. 'My boss told me he is going to seek a promotion for me... But he probably felt he had to... He was too embarrassed just to promote X, who he really wanted to promote, and not promote me as well.' ... When  a colleague to whom she was attracted invited her out, Ms A assumed he had already been turned down by someone else, and now had nothing better to do. ... Experiencing life in disappointing ways had become a style of living, experienced as rational; and the analysand was resolutely unaware of how active she was in living that way.
...From the point of view of consciousness, Ms A's disappointments look like repetition... : disappointment is happening over and over again. But if we try to capture the structure of Ms A's subjectivity, each of these individual disappointments is derivative. Each is there to sustain a large-scale structure: that life shall be disappointing. This injunction has a different temporality from the historical narratives of life (when I was young I was disappointed by my parents, then as a teenager I was let down by my boyfriend, and now in adult life...). It hangs over the historical narrative and informs it with the timeless quality of disappointment. Via the particular moments in life, a primordial structure, disappointment, is timelessly held in place.
Lear's explanation for Ms A's mode of (not) thinking is, naturally, a psychodynamic one:
As finite, non-omnipotent creatures we are constitutively vulnerable in a world over which we have, at best, limited control. How disappointing that we cannot render ourselves invulnerable to disappointment! An imaginary strategy which the young Ms A chanced upon was to render herself invulnerable to the world's disappointments by getting there first and, in fantasy, inflicting the disappointment upon herself. This is an omnipotent 'victory' - being in control of the disappointment - that consists in a lifetime of suffering disappointment. It has this illusory benefit: it protects a childish sense of omnipotence from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
Entry to and exit from the eternal

Eternality, then, may constitute the pinnacle or the depths of human existence. For Dreyfus and for Lear the idea involves the subliming of a moment of becoming into a frame of reference through which becoming obtains. Lear's patient lives her life according to an unconscious ethic which inexorably construes everything as disappointing. Dreyfus too offers Dostoyevsky talking of 'an idea seizing the sovereignty of the mind', although in this case the experience is one of joy rather than of disappointment. Here, as I see it, the idea of the eternal is really simply the idea of the temporal transcendent: something which does not obtain within the flux of time as one of its moments, but rather is elevated to part of the transcendental frame - think of Heidegger's idea of our inevitable pre-understandings of Being - of any experience whatsoever. Ms A's ethic however is unconscious, and it is because of this that it is inexorable; Alyosha's is more conscious. I suspect that we all have some such windows or portals from the temporal to the eternal, windows that take a valuable emotional experience from within the river of our experience and install it in the riverbed.

Phillips' analysis is similar, but provides a specifically religious focus. He steers us away from nonsense like 'life after death' - if by espousing that we are somehow attempting an evasion of precisely what is final in death (and, well, you can't get more final than death!). And takes us towards the specifically religious meaning of such phrases as eternal life, which religiousness is precisely a function of an ethic of relinquishing our narcissism and living in grace (i.e. seeing life as a gift rather than as something to which we are entitled). (I wonder whether there could be a parallel reading of exiting the cycles of rebirth in Hinduism or Buddhism.) In the Christian context the exit into the eternal is one of exiting cycles of revenge or sacrifice (mimetic violence a la Girard) or the endlessly self-righteous machinations of a consciousness wedded to self-aggrandisement, entitlement, image, a bogus fantasised internal locus of value and control, and the relentless attempt to trounce those people or situations which threaten such unstable worldly commodities. The eternal life, for Phillips' Christians, is ultimately one in which one does good simply because it is good - rather than because of any boons it may bring to the self.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

self-understanding revisited

A conversation with a friend convinced me that I hadn't yet elucidated with sufficient cogency the distinction between, as I labelled them, subjective and objective self-understanding or self-knowledge. I am going to try again, once more trying to avoid phrases like 'understanding from the inside' which can too readily stand in for, rather than elaborate, a reflective understanding of the differences at play. So here are some of the key elements:

Objective self-understanding / self-knowledge

Here I stand in an epistemic relation to myself just as I would to anyone else. I grasp myself as an object. I increase my stock of knowledge about my dispositions to act and feel and think in this or that way.

What this form of self-knowledge affords is the possibility of increased self-management. Seeing that I act thus and so I can try to mitigate the effects, or do something to counteract the impulse, or distract myself in certain ways, or encourage myself somehow or other.

This kind of understanding does not essentially and automatically involve a change in the nature of the object of understanding - i.e. does not essentially involve a change in the self itself. That would at best rather be an upshot of the kind of understanding on the table.

To summarise using the rhetoric of the British idealists: When I understand myself in an objective manner, my self and my understanding of myself stand in an external relation to one another. My understanding here is not of a piece with my selfhood, but is rather just a registering of how things obtain for that self which is me.

Subjective self-understanding / self-knowledge

Both objective and subjective self-understanding share the same object, namely: my self (or 'myself'). The difference between them is not in their object but in the form or mode of the understanding.

The mode of understanding met with in subjective self-understanding is not a form of apprehension of the self. It may yet involve apprehension, since it can involve a new apprehension of the significance of some or other situation one is in. For example it may involve a new valuation of a relationship.

Arriving at subjective self-understanding involves what we call acknowledgement (rather than apprehension). I come to be able to speak from a thought or feeling that previously I could not speak from; this is a different matter than becoming able to speak about a thought or feeling one has.

Developing subjective self-understanding is essentially correlative with the relinquishing of defenses. This might sound unhelpfully parochial but is in fact just a feature of what it means to be able to move from blindness to acknowledgement.

Before I arrive at subjective self-understanding my behaviour is driven or motivated by my wish, but is not done intentionally. When I come to understand myself as a subject, however - when I achieve a growth in subjective self-knowledge - then I come via an acknowledgement to now own such action. It is embraced within the ego. Where a repetition compulsion was, there ego shall be.

Subjective self-understanding, then, involves an owning or re-owning - an integration - of an aspect of the self that was previously split off. It essentially involves a growth in the ego. A growth in the number of those things that one does that one is now 'behind', that one 'owns'.

Developing subjective self-understanding necessarily involves a change in the self itself. The understanding and the self are internally related.

Subjective self-understanding in psychotherapy

Some therapies are geared up to provide one with an increase in objective self-knowledge or self-understanding. Those which are conducted in a didactic mode clearly are. But even those which involve open-ended discussion or Socratic questioning could well just be aimed at enhancing objective self-understanding.

The following may be controversial, but I believe it is importantly correct, and summarises a key difference between the modes of knowledge met with in much clinical psychological practice and those met with in much psychoanalytical practice: The understanding that is contained in a formulation - verbal or pictorial - is objective understanding of the self.

As such it offers, I believe, either an opportunity for enhanced self-management, or food for such thought as may, perhaps, lead to a change in subjective self-understanding.

To the extent that objective self-understanding leads to an increase in self-management, it risks being alienating, stifling of growth, and depleting. Alienating: we remain an object to ourselves; rather than colonising the domain with the ego, we remain in relationship with ourselves. Stifling of growth: rather than developing as a spontaneous subject responding directly from his or her subjectivity and growing as a subject in and through successive moments of this in what we call a therapeutic process, we are instead left trying to manage a particular static configuration of the self. True underlying change may happen but only adventitiously. Depleting: Neurosis saps our energy; do we really want to sap it further through the attentional resources that must be given to self-management?! When instead we could be embarked on the liberating journey of freeing the spontaneity of subjectivity from the confines of our repetition compulsions.

Monday, 22 June 2015


I've just finished reading the charmingly written It's All in Your Head: True Stories of Imaginary Illness by Suzanne O'Sullivan. This popular medical work offers anecdote ensconced in clinical experience, rather than the phenomenologically thin, watered-down sciencey stuff one gets in the popular psychology literature, and in my opinion is much the better for this. The result is we get a clear sense of or feel for how O'Sullivan understands various hysterical/psychosomatic/somatising/neurasthenic/conversion/functional disorders and conditions and, to the extent that we are right to trust her expertise, a clear sense too of the living character of that which she describes.

What the book acknowledges it does not try to do is to theorise the conditions it engagingly brings to life. Some cursory suggestions are made regarding causation and maintenance (hypochondriacal somatosensory hyper-vigilance; secondary gains from attention others give the afflicted), but these are clearly far removed from the existential core of the conditions themselves. (They remind me of those theorisations of mental health problems that CBT theorists often provide: accounts which skirt over the surface of the phenomena, relying only on such meagre and point-missing entries to an understanding of human existence as are offered up by experimental psychology, to give us their breezily unphenomenological vicious cycles and other such boxological pathways.) And this existential core is, as O'Sullivan herself acknowledges, a psychodynamic core: that is, it has to do with issues of the intolerability of powerfully painful emotional experience. 

So, somehow these intolerable emotions inappropriately 'end up in the body', or perhaps are somehow 'converted' from a psychic to a physical form. What I want to consider here, though, is the question of how to theorise such somatisation. What is implicit in the very idea of somatisation, and what is conceptually unimpeachable because paradigmatic in this and what instead is misarticulated gloss, is what I would like to sort out.

Consider first the fact that psychological disturbances including psychosomatic disturbances will  involve a range of neurological, immunological, endocrine etc. alterations. At the least it is hard to imagine a psychological change not being 'realised' in neurological change of some sort. And given that we may be dealing with conditions which are entrenched and long lasting, it is surely also likely that changes in function may also change the form of the organism's physiology. 

It may be tempting to suppose that the eschewal of dualism, and perhaps the embracing of a form of physicalism such as functionalism, is enough to solve the issue of how to theorise psychosomatic disturbance. I believe however that this would be a massive and rather lazy mistake. It helps us not at all to grasp the distinct being of a psychosomatic disturbance. To suppose thus is to act like those breezy theories that eschew an attempt to really understand anything by offering us a 'biopsychosocial' 'model' of the phenomenon under investigation: here we have all surfaces collated together and no eidos whatsoever.

'Conversion', then, remains a mystery. What does it mean to talk of the 'conversion' of emotional distress into an experience of physical disability? And how could that even happen?

It seems to me that, as with theorisations of the unconscious in general, we do much better to avoid imagining that someone for whom a certain emotional experience is intolerable is someone who is now having that experience yet, somehow, unconsciously. The person does not avow such emotions, and they do not even show straightforwardly in their behaviour (that, after all, is the force of the idea that they have been converted into physical symptoms). What we have, instead, is a theory of unconscious emotion that could be cobbled together out of, say, observations of the presence of traumata which one would at least expect to have had a lasting emotional impact, the activation of brain centres associated with emotional experience, and the otherwise inexplicable illness experience itself.  

If you are more satisfied by inference-to-the-best-explantion type explications in the philosophy of psychology then perhaps this little collection will do for you. For me however it helps not at all: I want ontological elucidation of what is distinctive about the being of the phenomena, not generic schema of causal explanation applied to individually assayable symptoms. I want to know about the being of that to which inference is being made - if it is even being made; after all, without such an elucidation I wouldn't even be able to understand what the force of the explanation is (aside from a vague appeal to a merely general idea of 'causation'). So, without beating about the bush I now present my own theorisation.

The first point I want to make is that the hysteric is perhaps best described as suffering not from unconscious emotion (which is a concept apt to confuse us - which is yet not to say that it can't be put to good uses) but from an inability to tolerate emotion as such. The emotion is neither born nor borne: there is here just not enough ego capacity yet. A metaphor may help: In the normal human way of things the river of experience that comes from a particular encounter or realisation would flow through an open emotional channel, but for some people this channel is greatly constricted. The river is then diverted into subsidiary channels - those for the experience not of emotion but for physical illness.

The second point concerns the inverse correlativity of bodily and emotional experience. This will take a while to spell out... When emotional what I am understanding in my emotion is my encounter, my situation, what I have lost, how you have slighted me, etc. There are a massive range of physiological changes in the body (tears, heat, heaving,  tensing, increased blood pressure, hormonal and endocrine changes, etc.), but when I am really 'in touch with' my feelings I am not focally aware of any of these. I am not in an experiential relation to my own body, nor to my own emotions, but attend from this body and its physiological modifications to my situations. This attending from a particular lived state of arousal to a certain interpersonal interaction whose meaning it unfolds for us is called 'emotional experience': I do not attend to my emotions themselves - this is one reason why the metaphor I just used of 'being in touch with' an emotion can itself be misleading... if for example we took that contact as epistemic (as a matter of coming to know of the emotion) rather than as embodying (oneself pulsing with the living form of the emotion - in a sense 'being' the emotional experience). In ordinary language we call this 'having' an emotion; that is of course unimpeachable because paradigmatic, but we mustn't mislead ourselves here either into thinking of the having as possessive or as implying that once we have it we then may make its acquaintance. Our emotions are existential modes of us ourselves; we could say that we are, in normal emotional experience, identified with our emotions - we do not stand over against them but, rather, they constitute our selfhood itself. (By identification I mean, here, taken up as part of selfhood.) I am this man now who is saddened by your rejection of me; my sadness is the spontaneous living form taken by my grasp of the meaning of the fact of your spurning; and it is not an effect of my grasping something in emotion-free cognitive appraisal, but rather is itself the entry point to a genuine understanding of matters of human significance - it is itself the form such understanding takes.  

When by contrast I am poorly and able to recognise this as such, I am not thus identified with my body. The illness is an affliction; it is not a mode of interpersonal sense-making but instead an impairment of human functioning.

To grasp the point about correlativity let's start with poorliness. Speaking purely for myself, I often struggle to recognise at first when I am poorly. I seem to suffer for a while from an inverse of the problem of the somatiser: I may develop a neurotic belief that my loss of energy and aches are symptoms of a depressive neurosis. I realise that I am 'off colour', unenthusiastic, somewhat hopeless, but see this as due to an ego deficit. Then I realise that I am poorly, and instantly feel much better about myself! (My 'neurosis neurosis' is partly right: I do have an ego deficit, but it is a matter of failing to adequately internalise a nursing consciousness rather than a matter of emotion intolerance...) Anyway, the point is that we are not typically identified with our illness - or, better put, the very idea of an illness is of something with which we are not identified, but rather of something with which we are afflicted. (In the language of the British idealists: the relation between ourselves and our illnesses is, in virtue of what an illness is, external not internal.)

So here is the basic existential situation: we have a certain state of physiological arousal - HPA axis and ANS activation etc. - and the 'question for us' is: are we to identify with it or not? If we do thus identify with it then it constitutes part of an emotional experience: we attend from it to our relationships. If we do not identify with it then it constitutes an affliction - an illness.

Clearly this is no question or choice that we are making as decision-making beings. I use the language of choice but could equally use the passive language of, say, attractor basins, or of how we are drawn to existentially self-constitute. The point here is, though, that we tend to go one way or the other - either identifying with it and attending from it or disidentifying with it and attending to it. (Bodying forth somehow or other - which some people call (I believe unhelpfully) 'sense making' - is after all simply of the human condition.) This is the inverse correlativity I mentioned above. 

Now this is understood, the nature of 'conversion' should be clearer. In truth it is not a matter of emotional experience being converted into physical experience at all, but rather of physiological arousal that couldn't get taken up into the form of emotional experience (because, say, of incompatibility with the ego ideal) and so instead gets attended to as affliction. There is, I think, a real sense in which there is nothing particularly wrong or right about any of this: the existential situation we are dealing with - i.e. one of the constitution of the self itself - is too primordial to be aptly framed in such terms. (Rather it is only once we have selfhood off the ground that normativity can enter the picture.) However there is also a real sense in which certain 'choices' are yet poor, and this is in terms of their consequences. The consequences of disidentifying with stressed arousal which is yet not caused by disease is that it cannot be assimilated and we are deprived the opportunity to adjust to the meaning of the interpersonal situation that has kicked off the arousal response. We cannot grieve; we cannot take assertive action against an oppressor. And this is because the other is not truly being experienced as dead or oppressing. They may be understood to be thus in some thin, 'merely verbal', sense, but this understanding is not one which can propagate upwards from an emotional experience to adjust the weightings throughout the whole system of instinctive reactions and expectations. The somatiser's selfhood is depleted through their disidentification from certain aspects of their physiological state.

The question that I would want to put to the somatiser is, then, not 'Really you are emotionally hurting aren't you?' but rather 'Shall we try to understand together why you aren't emotionally hurting when you need to be?' 

Contra Freud the hysteric does not suffer from reminiscences, but from an inability to reminisce in an affectively rich manner.

Friday, 19 June 2015


Consider: "How does understanding yourself better help you change?"

The question looks innocent, but in truth may often-enough itself betray a failure of understanding. A radical failure to understand what self-understanding, at its best, actually amounts to.

When we understand some object better we do indeed get a better sense of what we can and can't then go on to do with or about it. Sometimes, perhaps, such a form of understanding obtains too in relation to ourselves, especially when we are dealing with factors of objective performance. I understand better what makes me tired or overwhelmed, so I change my behaviour.

Such an understanding however really only acts as a spur to self-management, and it would surely be a desperate and banal state of affairs if psychotherapy were reduced to the encouragement of 'self-management' or 'coping'. Within this state of affairs we precisely remain an object to ourselves.

And neither, I think, is it the case that self-understanding is best understood as its own reward, as if, or in the sense suggested by the idea that, to live an examined life were to be understood as a life in which one learned more and more about oneself.

True self-understanding, by contrast, involves as part of what is meant by the very idea, a changed relationship with oneself. It is the relationship change which is the significant part, and not any mere gain in reportable knowledge. It is its own reward because of this. In this change we move from becoming an object to ourselves to recovering our subjectivity (i.e. our subject-hood).

In what I will call true or subjectifying self-understanding I am already liberated. I am not then liberated such that I can then go on to do this or that in which the real gains will consist. Rather I am liberated from the picture that held me captive previously. I am no longer possessed by a thought or mood: rather, now I am self-possessed. The liberation of self-understanding does not enable me to go on to make better sense of anything: it is my thus going on. It was the possession by the picture which was kicking up the problems, but when I gain true self-understanding I am no longer within the frame of the picture - instead the picture becomes something I can see. But, again, it is not what I now see in the picture that is the important thing, nor what I do with it - it is rather that I am not myself now within the picture.

I remember once someone describing to me a paper in which the author was commenting on an analyst - perhaps Guntrip or someone - who documented in his journal the various psychological insights he arrived at about himself in the course of his psychoanalysis. The author's comment was that this showed that Guntrip - or whoever it was - hadn't really had an analysis. The comment may be hyperbolic, but we can surely grasp its meaning: if a true psychoanalysis involves the generation of subjectifying self-understanding, then the point of it is not to come to know facts about oneself. but to be liberated from being possessed by a phantasy and instead to become self-possessed.

True self-knowledge, I want to say, is just not a factive concern. Someone who truly recovers from a mental illness and recovers or develops in their subjectivity may remember little about it, just as we may all readily forget our dreams. And, I am suggesting, this is all just well and good.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

reflective understanding in psychopathology

I've recently been much enjoying David Ellis's reminiscences of Frank Cioffi,a sometimes grumpy yet most often charming, writerly, humane and evocative memoir of this sometimes grumpy and often charming, writerly and humane philosopher. Cioffi was best known for his sensitive exposition of Wittgenstein and his (sometimes uncharitable yet most often) penetrating critique of the tendentious elements of Freud's theorising. I think however that his real gift was for providing a certain kind of illumination that we are not always aware we require but which, when we receive it, reduces or removes the pressures we can feel to articulate our perplexity into rather unhelpful, misbegotten, kinds of questions. Perspicuity is the name of the game; the felicitous phrase the intended product; careful thinking which pays keen attention to fine conceptual differences the method. The aim is not to inevitably displace scientific inquiry, but to check the impulse to squash every question into a scientific mould or to automatically answer in explanatory or predictive terms the queries that our puzzlements inspire.

There's not much I want to say about this, but it bears insisting on that such a reflective understanding is indeed possible, that it's value is self-intimating, and that it is, I believe, just what psychopathological science requires. Ellis' book is filled with nice examples of Cioffi on what he called 'the two directions'; I will consider one from it in a moment. But Cioffi gives examples in other places too, such as in this late lecture on 'Was Wittgenstein right to call science a trap?'. He is considering Dawkins' view that science but adds to our wonder at the natural world and the cosmos. Imagine, Cioffi says about himself, that he is in a corner shop, having taken down a magazine from the top shelf, lustfully admiring the centrefold. Then professor Dawkins comes along and, over his shoulder, starts telling him all about the evolution of the mammary gland. The impromptu lecture might, Cioffi suggests, be really rather interesting, but one thing can be guaranteed: that within a few minutes of this he will have lost his erection! The point being that science may just as likely be a distraction from, than an enhancement of, autonomous forms of understanding and contemplation for which we do well to make independent space in our lives. Relatedly, Ellis writes (pp.74-5) of how, quoting Yeats,

Dawkins had asked, 'As Michelangelo's mind moved upon silence "like a long legged fly upon the stream"; what might he not have painted if he had known the contents of one nerve cell of the long-legged fly?' He found it equally absurd that Dawkins had gone on : ''Think of the Dies Irae that might have been wrung from Verdi by the contemplation of the dinosaurs' fate when 65 million years ago, a mountain sized rock screamed out of deep space at 10,000 miles per hour straight at the Yucatan peninsula and the world went dark.' These speculations illustrated for Frank the way in which an infatuation with science could make the mind lose its bearings and he expressed relief at being spared Dawkins's conjectures as to how Shakespeare's achievement might have been improved had he taken an A-level in chemistry.

As far as I'm aware the most famous example there is of the ways in which scientific modes of apprehension can obscure what it is we are disturbed and impressed by, and of the value of a philosophical mode of comprehension which instead aims at deeper reflective clarity, is Wittgenstein's discussion of Frazer's treatment of the Beltane fire festivals (pp.105-6):

The Beltane fires festivals were pagan rituals which, in the eighteenth century and thereafter, involved dancing around a bonfire and in some cases throwing a human effigy on to it. Frazer traced these far back to times of human sacrifice, when he believed real men were burnt. For Wittgenstein, this explanation of why the festivals impressed us as they did was gratuitous, and a manifestation, perhaps, of the nineteenth century's slavish indebtedness to science. To account for the slightly disturbing effect of the ritual in its more modern forms, we did not need genetic [i.e. causal-historical] speculations but only the capacity to put into order what we already knew and the ability to understand our own minds better. This was true of very many experiences which could be said to 'assault our being', and in by no means of all of these was there the revelation of human kind's capacity for cruelty. A remark which Frank particularly liked, for example, and which also comes from what Wittgenstein had to say about The Golden Bough, begins with 'every explanation is a hypothesis' and goes on: 'But for someone worried by love, an explanatory hypothesis will not help much. It will not bring peace.' Wittgenstein goes on to refer to 'the crush of thoughts that do not get out because they all press forward and are wedged in the door'. It was about how to deal with this 'crush of thoughts' wedged in the door that Frank felt Wittgenstein had important things to say.
I've not myself managed to find anything in Frazer which suggests that his interest in the sacrificial origins of the Beltane fire festivals is offered by way of explanation of why their observation may be experienced as an assault on our being. (And watching today's neo-pagan revival of them is surely a far less disturbing matter!) By contrast, if we look at how The Golden Bough begins, we find what seems to me to be a far more likely target: Frazer's attempt to get to grips with the gruesome succession of the priesthood of Nemi through reconstructing likely precursors seems to gloss too quickly over the significance to us of something it already tells us: that our jarring impression of barbarousness is partly a function of the situation of Nemi in the serene Italian countryside. (Consider: attempts to prosecute ontology through etymology.)

Severe psychopathology, more than anything else, can be said to 'assault our being' - not merely the being of the afflicted, but the being of those who engage with them. Might it not be that, here of all places, we might most feel the value of Cioffi's carefully reflective non-scientific approach? This, at any rate, is what I intend to take up by way of a philosophical psychopathology. Psychological texts miss again and again the terror, derangement and bewilderment at the living heart of psychosis: both that of the sufferer and that of those who attempt to encounter them. They normalise away the very meaning of psychosis itself. The first job of recovery here is to recover our own bewilderment, to do justice to the assault on the being of the sufferer and their interlocutors, to articulate the dismemberment here of that background (Searle) or bedrock (Wittgenstein) that sustains our ready empathic availability to one another.