Monday, 26 September 2016

an uncommon humanity

Raimond Gaita's writings are, I believe, the consummate expression of what reads to me as an uncommonly examined life. Here is a man who, in terms lifted from the chapter I consider below, has found his voice and has something to say - something to which I am now learning to listen. It's in this chapter - entitled Truth as a Need of the Soul, the penultimate of A Common Humanity - that he offers his critique of Freud. So that's what I'm looking at here.

First for some scene-setting. Gaita starts by helping us bring into focus and reflectively understand something distinctive about our inner life. 1. There are, he notes, situations where emotion is but an external obstacle, or an external aid, to us forming true beliefs about a situation. Perhaps my defensively individualist self-righteous anger or my bleeding liberal depressive guiltiness may prevent me paying proper attention to the scientific data on global warming. In that situation my emotions are a separable matter from my knowledge; at best they play an instrumental relation to it. But I can yet grasp and understand the relevant facts without any emotion. 2. In other situations, however, emotion is essential to my knowledge. These situations pertain to our inner lives. The point is not that what we know are facts about our emotions. It is rather that emotion is itself the form our understanding must take. As Iris Murdoch writes, to see the reality of another person is a 'work of love, justice and pity'. Grief is the most basic and the essential form taken by our grasp of the (meaning of the) fact of someone's death. (Gaita describes 1 as a personal, and 2 as an impersonal form of knowledge, although he notes that, confusingly, we may also aptly describe objective thought about the inner life as (in a different sense) impersonal, since what makes for objectivity here is a clearing away of what we merely want to see.)

Sentimentality, then, has a different character or role in the two situations. In the former impersonal scenario it may result in falsehood; in the second, however, it is itself a form of falsehood. And the willingness and ability to achieve truth in one's experience - for example, to weed out sentimental forms of grief or love, to relate squarely to others, to live a meaningful rather than self-deceiving life - this, he tells us, following Socrates, is essential to achieving full humanity. This capacity to know thyself, to live the examined life, is, he tells us, what non-speculative conceptions of the soul are about - i.e. when we hear about soul-destroying work, suffering that lacerates the soul, soulful art or soul music, being a lost or deep or corrupt soul, etc. Integrity, and having the 'courage to be' as Tillich puts it, in the face of psychic pain - rather than evasion, self-deception, projection, etc. - to not glide over the differences between the good and the convenient, to be honourable and remain true to the spirit of things rather than rather conveniently hung up on the letter, this is what it is to live a life worthy of a human being.

What didn't convince me - assuming I understood it right - was Gaita's claim that the examined life can 'deepen without limit'. I think this was because I wasn't convinced by his suggestion that our emotions of love and hate and grief and joy and fear and passion are partly constituted by reflection. I mean, sure, they can often involve thought. But I feel that moral reflection is more important in weeding out inner falsehood than it is in establishing inner truth. Or rather: it seems to me that inner truth is not an achievement - other than the weeding out of inner falsehood (defences, self-deceptions, triteness, etc.). Gaita imagines someone calling it navel-gazing to be endlessly reflectively concerned with the truthfulness of one's loving or grieving. But, he wonders, would such a critic really think it mattered not at all if someone was indifferent to whether their grief or love was real or counterfeit? Well, sure. But neurotically wondering if one's emotions are truthful or not is a different matter than developing the sensibility and courage and depth of character to call oneself on one's own bullshit. Acknowledging this difference might also help with avoiding the appearance of elitism regarding the examined life and full humanity.

Now, onto Freud. Gaita queries - rightly I believe - Bettelheim's claim that Freud's scientism is simply a function of a scientising translation into English ('seele' into 'psyche', 'ich' into 'ego' etc.). Gaita doesn't give us the evidence - I imagine that this is really because it is just so diffusely ever-present in Freud's way of thinking that it's kinda hard to pin down - but his complaint against Freud is that he approaches matters of the heart as if they were matters of the functioning of, say, a mechanism. That is, he approaches it is as if our understanding of matters of the human heart was only contingently vulnerable to rhetoric and sentimentality (i.e. as if we here met with a situation of type 1. above). Sure, a psychologist may patronise the poet or playwright by acknowledging that they will borrow their idioms as the best we can currently, or perhaps ever, do. Yet such a psychologist at least harbours the fantasy of the intelligibility of replacing the artist's personal knowledge with a more impersonal scientific knowledge. By a form of knowledge, that is, which is only contingently vulnerable to distortion by sentimentality. By a form of knowledge which doesn't essentially call on the resources of character, the inner discipline, of the knower. And Gaita, I believe, is right in this: the forms of knowledge which do admit of this impersonality - the kind of psychology I was taught in my undergraduate psychology degree and clinical psychology doctorate - simply do not bring very much of the soul into view. It is not much of a surprise, to me, that the practice of psychotherapy really involves hardly any of such knowledge - and that the 'reflective scientist practitioner' model of the clinical psychologist is a bankrupt framework for a personally meaningful psychotherapeutic practice.

Another concern of Gaita is that, since we are self-interpreting animals (i.e. since our understanding of our inner life is not separable from our inner life itself), having a falsely impersonal conception of psychological knowledge will impact on the inner life itself. I want to report that I think this is right. What I felt I noticed on my clinical psychology training was a banalising influence of objectivist conceptions of inner life - now as measured using inventories and check-lists, or as putatively captured with some trite psychological schematic which would be wheeled out as a formulation or as providing the conceptual framework for idiosyncratic formulations - on the sensibility of the practitioner. In truth it was kind of embarrassing. The psychologists feel they are being oh-so-scientific and possessing of special knowledge as they proudly carry around these scientifically derived models of mental function as if it gave them some kind of professional edge; the rest of us look on in horror at the unwitting soul-squeeze they're oh-so-blithely-and-pleasantly setting in operation.

I thought there might be a missing premise in Gaita's argument. His talk of personal knowledge (with its emphasis on authenticity) mainly seems to concern self-knowledge. The psychologist, however, is mainly interested in knowledge of others. Might not that save her objectivist conception of psychological knowledge? The premise I would like to try to supply involves a correlativity of self- and other-knowledge. Consider projection.

Projection works by the projector subtly distorting the moral framework of an interaction. By moral framework I mean the equality of distribution of responsibility. Responsibility for taking care of, taking an interest in, being generous towards, being thoughtful about, one another. Someone who projects will play on the good nature of the person they project into. We're all disposed to give some leeway, some benefit of the doubt. Someone goes on a bit; we think 'well, they're tired'. Someone acts what might seem a little selfishly, but we cut them some slack, expecting them to return the favour later. Someone tacitly guilt-trips us; we might just suck it up and apologise without noticing, and then be a little more giving and forgiving than we might otherwise have been. In fact we make these adjustments, offer this leeway, in an instinctual and automatic manner. It's important, really, that this happens: friendship does involve thoughtfulness but it also involves not holding the other to account at every opportunity. This is really important: the placement of the moral fulcrum between self and other is not consciously negotiated, but forms part of the necessarily background structure of any interpersonal interaction. And in truth it isn't even something which could be consciously negotiated, and nothing for which criteria could be given. The personality-disordered-vexatious-litigant-type is someone who will always narrate the moral story in a self-serving way - disowning their guilt, blaming the other, etc. That this is possible without their moral self-contradictions immediately whacking them over the head is a function of the constitutive unformulability of the moral responsibility matrix.

In order, then, to be able to be a helpful therapist it is often really important to know how to stand your ground. (This is often rather hard, because therapists are also often driven by a generous desire to care and to offer the benefit of the doubt!) You need to know yourself well in order to be able to reliably call projection when you see it. My talk of 'reliability' there is apt to mislead if it pushes us towards formulating matters as if we had to do with impersonal (type 1) scenarios. But that isn't the point, which is rather that a confident un-arrogant clear self-possessed self-understanding is an essential element in helping someone whose moral mast is insecurely erected to get any kind of purchase on living a respectable life on the shores of their turbulent emotional life. Without such a mainstay, persecuted by inner figures which damage their self-esteem, without any trustworthy inner figures which make for self-soothing, they are liable to rely solely on further projection to maintain their inner equilibrium - which damages their relationships still further. And, note, that when I talk of 'standing your ground' I don't mean: functioning simply so as to rebuff projections. That is what a confident and secure non-therapist can do, and it's no bad thing. The therapist, however, is called on to be able to notice and think about these projections, to understand their source, offer soothing in relation to the source anxieties, and to feed back carefully and thoughtfully to their patient about what has happened in the interaction. This, then, is as I see it the essential link between self-knowledge and other-knowledge in psychoanalysis. You've got to be clear enough about what is your own shit to be able to spot, rather than depressively suck up, the shit of the patient. And also you've got to be big enough, inside, to think about the meaning of their projected pain/guilt/hopelessness/fear so that you can soothe it rather than ping it back into their interiority.

against phenomenology

There is a mode of philosophising which has it that what we need to do is get right our description of the fundamental character of world, mind and life. Of the world, of our mindedness, of our embodiment, of our relatedness to one another, etc. These matters are described wrongly by Cartesians, cognitivists, reductive materialists, etc. Our job is instead to describe them correctly. The lived body, intercorporeality, being-in-the-world, pre-reflective intentionality, etc. are the designations which collect together what we could call a positive phenomenological understanding of the nature of our life and world.

Now, being of a Wittgensteinian-therapeutic disposition I'm not one for the metaphysics, and so whilst I applaud the existential phenomenologists' repudiation of mentalism, materialism, dualism, introspectionism, etc., I see their invocation of a positive alternative as at best empty yet prophylactic and at worst as a wrong-headed endorsement of a conception of philosophy as a cognitive discipline. According to the perspective I prefer, mechanistic and mentalistic and materialistic pictures don't need replacing with better pictures sketched for us by Messrs Merleau-Ponty et al. Rather we need to understand that the pictures the existential phenomenologists diagnosed as suspect were nonsensical answers to a nonsensical question. And since the questions are themselves nonsensical we don't now need better pictures to replace the suspect ones. We rather need to stop trying to assimilate some aspects of our life and language to other bits of it - we need to resist the urge to generality.

So yes, if someone tries to offer us a philosophical anthropology that sunders essential internal relations between mind, body, world, others, etc. we do right to stress that the being of the human being is being-in-the-world, is intercorporeality, etc. But does this amount to more than either a) calling the metaphysician out on their claptrap? or b) describing not the human being itself but instead the grammar of our key terms like person, thought, perception, etc.? It seems to me that when earlier Heidegger attempts description of existence itself, the appearance of cognitive content in the philosophical claims starts to evaporate and we are left with only empty, platitudinous if poetic reminders to not be conceptual numpties. For the opposite of a piece of nonsense, I suggest, is not a description of the world but simply a rule of grammar.

Take any core concept: intentionality, human being, action, perception. Isn't it the case that our understanding of these concepts itself bottoms out in our practical grasp of these phenomena? Isn't it the case that any of the terms we are apt to marshall in our descriptive phenomenology are themselves only intelligible to us because of our prior practical competency in shunting these terms about, here and there, in the midst of our living?

For example, we are considering the nature of objects, and you offer as part of your putative descriptive phenomenology that objects have extension. I ask you what that means and you tell me about length and breadth and height. But you've drawn a short straw with me; somehow I never learned those concepts before. So you go to the tool box and get out a measuring tape, and hold it up against objects in the different dimensions. Or you just run your finger along the edges of the table this way and that. And now I come to understand, I get what you are on about, now I come to know how to use the word 'extension'. But surely it is now clear that it wouldn't be apt to say that I can offer a fundamental description of the nature of reality with the phrase 'objects have extension'. My 'theory' is, as it were, too laden by the 'data' for it to even get that distance from them required for mere description.

This is why proper names are only designators and not descriptors. The name is given its sense by its tie to the thing, and so it can't be pretended that knowing the name's meaning gives us a grip on the being of the thing. It's most stark when we have to do with concept-determining samples. You give a meaning to 'X' through ostensive definition. Later on you tell me that ''it is a fact that X' forms part of a true description of the world'. And I tell you to get your head out of your conceptual backside.

What is a description? Well, if you want to describe something, you must already have some way of identifying it. Having identified it you can say of it that it is green and hairy. This has cognitive content, and that it does so is a function of the negations it entails: that it is not blue and smooth. What it is to say something about something is in part to not also say something else about it. It is to make a discrimination amongst possibles.

Philosophical phenomenology, however, does not offer us a discrimination amongst possibles. It offers us, I'd say, a rule masquerading as a description versus some impossibles. One of the tricks which keeps us from noticing this is the way in which it posits a super-object as that which is being partly described through the terms like 'coloured', 'has extension'. This super-object is 'the world' or 'reality'. (For some reason that I can't fathom, even many Wittgensteinians are attracted to 'the world'.) They don't seem to mean 'the planet' or anything I can actually get a discriminating handle on. No, they mean, like, everything! 

In fact the only way I can get any kind of handle on how 'the world' is supposed to feature as the object of our alleged fundamental descriptions is if I bring in something somehow outside of it. Perhaps 'the mind' will do. But it's kind of the point of the phenomenological enterprise that we're not really supposed to do ontology like that (hence not minds, but Dasein...). So we're supposed to be describing still, but now abrogating another condition on description: that it is of this as opposed to of that.

The world as totality cannot be described; this is a grammatical proposition about 'the world'. Most of what I have written above is, however, a note on the grammar of 'description'.




Saturday, 24 September 2016

defeating versus enabling conditions - and the character of the human mind

Davidson suggests that we need to supply ourselves with enabling conditions for desire in order to understand how it issues in action. For, he tells us, we can perfectly easily imagine cases in which, whilst yet wanting something, we fail to act so as to satisfy our want. This is supposed to knock Wittgensteinian anti-causalism on the head since what, he asks, with a confidence which makes the question come across as unassailably rhetorical, could take the place of such an enabling condition if not a causal relation?

To which the Wittgensteinian reply (that I'm recalling here from Tanney) is (in my own words) that, leaving aside the in-any-case-rather-too-dialectically-blunt-to-be-philosophically-interesting causalism versus anti-causalism debate, Davidson's argument gets arse-over-tit the logic of the relation between desire and action. For the cases of unsatisfied desire which he imagines are in truth not ones which require us to supply enabling conditions to explain the efficacy of desire. They are rather ones which require us to supply defeating conditions if we are even to make intelligible the suggestion that we do yet genuinely have to do with desire even in the absence of the kinds of action which, in whatever sense we give the term, typically 'flow' from them.

Bandy about (or not) however you like terms like 'flow' and 'cause' and 'explain' and 'disposition'; the fact remains that we can all make a clear enough distinction between cases of failure which are, and cases of failure which are not, even intelligible in the absence of defeating conditions. And that when we apply it to the present case, we find - don't we? I know I do - it hard to sustain the appearance of intelligibility for a dogged ascription of a desire if here we meet with an absence of the relevant action despite not being able to locate any relevant defeating conditions. I really wanted an ice-cream and had the money and was in the well-stocked shop - but didn't buy one. Perfectly intelligible, I grant you. But perfectly intelligible even if nothing we could offer (e.g. wish to lose weight, allergy, hatred of the shop-keeper, recent ice-cream poisoning scandal) by way of explanation as to the non-procurement of ice-cream is found acceptable? I think not.

This little conceptual distinction between defeating and enabling conditions - this 'drop of grammar' - is, I believe, that down to which a huge amount of fuss in philosophical anthropology may be boiled. Mentalists are those who proffer enabling conditions just where constitutivists would proffer defeating conditions. The topic is neat, it seems to me, because, amongst other matters, it enables us to immediately see the connection between metaphysical doctrine and metaphilosophical inclination. The mentalists - who reckon on mind as extrinsic to behaviour and to world, now propose identity theories to give some kind of reality to the now otherwise dangerously unanchored mental domain, and also use their philosophy to offer putatively substantive explanations to link the domains (mind, body, world). The constitutivists - who reckon on mind as a constitutive dimension of behaviour - have no need to accept the explanatory burden / nice job opportunity met with in the mentalist's program. Start off on the constitutivist's foot and there will be no explanatory work to do to anchor mind in body or to show how we get from desire to action or more generally from mind to world - for we're always-already there (to use a Heideggerian phrase which, despite being (used and yet) described as 'annoying' by Rowan Williams, is surely rather helpful (and, yeah, not annoying at all! Jesus!)). Start off always-already in the world and you don't need to go about looking for necessary and sufficient enabling conditions. As with knowledge-first epistemologists: start off with knowledge and subtract from it (by providing defeating conditions) to get to mere belief; please don't start off with belief and then try and collect enabling conditions to help you securely make your way out to the world.

Something that interests me here is the work the enabling/defeating distinction as deployed by a constitutivist can do for us when considering the nature of the dynamic unconscious. For the distinction between conscious and unconscious can (to draw on some helpful conceptual formulation from Finkelstein) be said to be one regarding which Freud's treatment mirrors Davidson's. Freud tells us that the clinical facts he's discovered regarding our unconscious emotional life oblige us to offer an explanatory account of our having of regular-style conscious emotions. These, he says, we are obliged to comprehend as the upshot of our exercise of a faculty in inner perception of items - emotions - which in themselves are unconscious. (An unconscious emotion is, then, to be understood as an emotion of which we have yet to become conscious.) But what Finkelstein implies is that, instead of this putatively explanatory introspectionist-inspired ontological-myth-making, we do better to provide not enabling conditions which render conscious the otherwise unconscious, but instead defeating conditions which render the otherwise conscious unconscious. This, he claims - and I think it an irresistible consideration when rightly grasped - is what an unconscious desire is all about: it is a desire which expresses itself in our verbal and non-verbal behaviour yet which cannot be expressed through a verbal self-ascription. Contra Freud, a conscious desire is not an (intrinsically unconscious) desire plus an act of inner desire-directed consciousness. Rather, an unconscious desire is a(n otherwise conscious) desire the ability to express which in self-ascription is defeated through the presence of defence mechanisms. Contra Freud, unconsciousness is not, as it were, the resting state of nature onto which consciousness is bolted. Rather, talk of 'conscious' desire only makes sense as an antonym to unconscious desire (animals have neither; they just have desire punkt), and unconscious desire only makes sense as desire which is partly defeated in particular ways.

Desires burn with their own light, so you don't need a torch to see them; what you do need is a concept of a defensive occlusion to make sense of why sometimes we can't.

Friday, 9 September 2016

what is (curative in) psychotherapy?

The title is a question I often ask myself. As I ask it I think, naturally, of the therapy I myself practice. But yet generalise beyond that to what is curative in the therapy I myself have received, and to what I understand would and wouldn't be helpful for the patients I meet with simpliciter.

I want here to offer an answer which does some kind of justice to the value of psychoanalytic understanding, yet which places something more humanistic at centre-stage.

Thus it occurs to me that what is only actually helpful to any of us is ordinary care and concern and recognition and love and security and safety and a modest tenderness and being taken seriously and jovially and shown everyday solicitude and and honesty and informal respect and being called on one's bullshit in such a way as makes clear that redemption is not too remote a prospect.

And it's impossible to offer these by way of a strategy or technique or intervention. When people talk about, say, 'using humour' in their work my stomach turns. Not because there's anything wrong with humour - which can be a wonderful thing (unless deployed in the service of avoidance of pain or awkwardness that needs to be faced). But because there's something wrong with 'using' it - or 'using' any strategy for that matter. Someone who is 'using' humour is strategising, devising, planning, implementing. They are not offering themselves to the patient to meet with. They are offering an intervention. They are still at a remove.

So, offering oneself - sincerely, lightly, honestly, carefully, whimsically, truthfully, straightforwardly, undefendedly - this is what matters. This is what is meant by 'making one's mind available to the patient'. It's not a matter of thinking about them psychologically, although let's not rule that out. After all, if you're a psychologist then it's likely that you will sometimes be thinking along such lines. But it's the offering of the you who is doing the thinking in that thinking, or of the you who is feeling or remembering or dismayed or proud or delighted or interested, that matters. Thoughtfulness is the key: not cogitation or theorising, but sincerity and truthfulness, where cognition is primarily put in the service of clearing away the crap in one's own head rather than reasoning one's way to an answer. Offering oneself in a direct and uncontrived and genuine manner. This is what matters in a friend, and what matters in a therapist.

A therapist, though, is not a friend. So what is it that makes for the difference, leaving aside the obvious lack of mutuality?

A therapist has another job too: Of being wise to the defences the patient is erecting, being wise to her unmet needs and her unconscious feelings, wise to the way his patient's character has potential which is yet bent out of shape by her defences. Of being skilled in negotiating these defences - dancing around them, challenging them straight on. Noticing what feelings can't yet be tolerated and, when they are projected, tolerating them without retaliation and thinking carefully about them before challenging them at the right time. Gently yet firmly handling the superego. Articulating the unrecognised doubts that get in the way of trust and emotional contact in the room. Avoiding the temptation to falsify through 'normalising' or to offer 'interpretations' or any such knowing cognitive understandings of the patient's inner predicaments. Listening with interest to daytime and nighttime dreams as embody the distinctive idiom of the patient's ownmost unconscious life. Noticing his countertransference and sifting through that, apportioning it in an ongoingly revised way to himself or to her transference. Getting rather lost and finding himself again in the muddle of the therapeutic relationship. Getting rather lost and finding himself again in the muddle of psychotherapeutic thought. Waiting it out, sitting on his hands, when there's just crazily little hope around without resorting to a kind of fixology that smacks of denial of disturbance and desperation.

Sometimes it takes a whole lot of clearing work to just let one very little bit of ordinary love sneak through the undergrowth and work its humane magic. The gardening analogy is trite yet apt. The craft of it - the weeding, the painful but necessary pruning - requires special skills, yet it's the soil, the water, the sunlight of the raw uncontrivable humane encounter, which make the plants grow and thrive.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

callanish

This morning I walked amongst the standing stones at Callanish. I was struck by the impression they made, and by the disjunct between that and what was on the information placard. Not that the information qua information was in-apt, but that what was striking and valuable to me about the stones was not something well articulated by the provision of such historical information and anthropological conjecture. (My observation was a variation on Wittgenstein's animadversions on Frazer.)

We call them 'standing stones'. It's worth noting this, I think. We don't say 'upright' or 'upended' stones. It doesn't capture the mystique. They are standing and in this, I believe, we see them under the aspect of the gravity-defying power of the animal. And because of their shape we spontaneously relate them in particular to one kind of animal: a human being. 'They stand there', one wants to say, 'like watchful sentinels'.

We may be drawn into speculating on the ritual uses of such stones, their alignments with celestial objects, etc. But much of what takes us even there is the impression they more directly make on us. They are like human sentinels, standing there - and yet they are of stone. They are of the mineral body of the earth itself, not subject to illness or pain or rash desire. They have this perpetual perdurance about them. About all this there is something comforting yet awesome, something which makes the vagaries and vicissitudes of our animal and social life more bearable, something quietening.

They are still and they point upwards to the sky above. Just through their shape - and let's leave aside speculation about the conscious intentions of their makers - and their circular arrangement they fulfil a 'sacred' role: to link the temporal and the eternal orders. They bring the balm and awe that comes when we see our lives sub specie aeternitatis. In this they are like vast columns in the nave of a cathedral, or the ancient sequoia of Yosemite. (But unlike the former are not man-made nor under a roof, so can link the resonant observer more directly with the cosmos; and unlike the latter are not subject to the vicissitudes of the living.)

You can't see it in my photo, but on the hilltop the stones are hemmed in by a sheep fence, and this automatically depletes their impact. Yet impact they still have, especially when seen against the hills and under the shifting skies, or when your body wanders amongst theirs, moving through whilst they stand there stock still.