AGGRESSION- A Developmental Trajectory
WIPD 2020 Philip McKenna
I want to tell you how I came to this topic.
Several years ago -2011- in a CTP Graduation Address I touched on this issue in a few sentences. I had these sent around as an excerpt with the announcement of the What is Psychotherapy Day. I’m going to read that here:
I’ve become aware over the last few years that our psychodynamic psychology treats very differently the developmental story of those two great energies of all sentient-moral life, eros and aggression .
We have become accustomed to the picture of eros expanding from the earliest forms of individual desire and relational connectedness into all the complexities of bodily life in community and into the highest forms of human love for others.
However, in the face of our species’ history of war, murder, hatred, greed, abuse and ecological destruction, it might seem naïve to imagine a similar arc of development for the human energy of aggression. In fact, I think our psychodynamic tradition has been daunted both theoretically and clinically by the magnitude of this problem. Clinically I think we tend to settle for the honest acknowledgment of repressed anger and the goal of managing anger so that when expressed it is proportionate and ‘useful’. I think we mute or fail to imagine the maturation of aggression into all the tissues of human life as patience, perseverance, firmness in face of oppressions, courage in crisis, sustained detachment and objectivity. I see all these as transformations of aggressive energy.
The irony is that we strive to attain to these maturations of aggression in our own presence and work as therapists. We hold ourselves to a high standard of patience, perseverance, firmness, non retaliation, steady hope amid turmoil. If our clients see themselves and present themselves as dead inside, radically unlovable, terminally depressed, we strive to treat them with non-judgmental respect and hold for them not only our own hope, but theirs too, the hope that sleeps buried in their inner core. This striving and this hoping too are maturations of aggressive energy.
A number of students asked me about this later which kept the topic close to my mind and made me realize the need for some expansion.
1. Looking back on my own first experiences of therapy in Therafields (Therafields was a therapeutic movement between the sixties and eighties last century: CTP grew out of it) I realized that we dealt with aggression as a major issue in many ways. There were common tropes, that repressed anger would devour you interiorly, that sadism lurked within sentimentality, that masochism (the victim side of sadism was an or the basic neurosis (Bergler).
We had many ways in therapy “to get to your anger” or “to get out your anger” which clinical methods I will go into later. Here I just want to note that it was a central issue in therapy and quite a challenge to an arrogant young priest who considered himself unconflictedly amiable.
Of course as training therapists we knew that we couldn’t allow “unresolved “anger issues to interfere with our therapy work. On the other hand it was “the sixties” and there was a lot of social disruption, much of it angry, and which we generally saw as justified and liberating. We were quite unconvinced when the locally famous philosopher-psychoanalyst, Charles Hanly, publicly psychoanalysed it all as oedipal rebellion against the Father.
2. However recently I realised that my personal preoccupation with the issue of the developmental trajectory of aggression had other sources too.
Coming to therapy from a valued priestly and religious life, and from philosophical and theological studies, I always saw the therapy as a form of spiritual search, search for growth and human flourishing. In 2001 I wrote a paper titled “The Moral Journey Implicit in Doing Psychotherapy” which laid out this understanding of therapy both for the client and the therapist (see ‘Invited Papers’ at ctp.net)
And if therapy is an expression of the human moral journey, I had learned to think of that journey developmentally, as the gradual growth in the crucial habits-virtues that constituted the human moral movement towards what Plato called ‘the Good’ (with a capital “G”) and what I as a Christian called ‘God’. It was for me –and it entered from the beginning into my theoretical understanding of psychodynamic psychotherapy.
3. I am aware here of a certain paradox in being a privileged white male teacher lecturing a heavily female group of listeners on the subject of the maturation of anger/aggressiveness into morally higher forms of expression.
If I were doing a session with an overtly rageful or violent woman I would indeed try to calm her down in order to fruitfully “talk about things” –( I hope that’s not all I would do).
But what do I appropriately do when we all of us live in a history-old social reality that inferiorizes and oppresses women? It is so systemic that it doesn’t have to show its teeth- its intrinsic violence and hatred. It is calmly “just the way things are”
I might say women are better off today than they were in my mother’s day… Tell that to the indigenous women on the Highway of Tears .
I might say we’re further ahead than Saudi Arabia. Not much of a bar to set!
The truth is that I have come to my theoretical ideas within my Western white male privileged life, and while you may be appreciative that I am somewhat self-deconstructed, you are quite free to listen to me with a degree of cultural suspicion, and take from what I say anything you find useful for your liberation struggles.
Here is an example of an experience and a voice impossibly beyond me.
This is from Elena Ferrante’s novel “The Story of a New Name”, Vol.2 of her four Neapolitan Novels, p.102-103 I’ll have a woman read this for us…
…… The only woman’s body I had studied, with ever-increasing apprehension, was the lame body of my mother, and I had felt pressed, threatened by that image, and still feared that it would suddenly impose itself on mine.
That day, instead, I saw clearly the mothers of the old neighborhood. They were nervous, they were acquiescent. They were silent, with tight lips and stooping shoulders, or they yelled terrible insults at the children who harassed them.
Extremely thin, with hollow eyes and cheeks, or with broad behinds, swollen ankles, heavy chests, they lugged shopping bags and small children who clung to their skirts and wanted to be picked up. And, good God, they were ten, at most twenty years older than me. Yet they appeared to have lost those feminine qualities that were so important to us girls and
that we accentuated with clothes, with makeup. They had been consumed by the bodies of husbands, fathers, brothers, whom they ultimately came to resemble, because of their labors or the arrival of old age, of illness. When did that transformation begin? With housework? With pregnancies? With
beatings? Would Lila be misshapen like Nunzia? Would Fernando leap from her delicate face, would her elegant walk become Rino’s, legs wide, arms pushed out by his chest? And would my body, too, one day be ruined by the emergence of not only my mother’s body but my father’s? And would all
that I was learning at school dissolve, would the neighborhood prevail again, the cadences, the manners, everything be confounded in a black mire, ……………. as, over the millenniums, had happened to the chaotic, debased city itself?
From Elana Ferrante: The Story of a New Name. page 102-103
4. Nevertheless, I’m going to enter on a brief review of how Plato. Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas located aggression in human life.
4a. Plato (428/7—348/7 BC) in his dialogue, “The Republic” searches for a definition of justice and a picture of the just or good society. At the same time he analyses the human soul (psyche) whose “parts” match the classes in the Republic. He says the soul (which pre-exists the body) has three parts: The Rational part
The Spirited part
The Desiring part.
The Spirited part is where he locates aggression. The social parallel is the class of Guardians who are police and army. They are given a full humanist education so that they will justly support the governing rational Authority (the Philosopher King).
The Spirited part of the soul is seen as an ally of the Rational part in pursuit of its ends. Plato pictured the soul as a rational charioteer in control of two horses–one the spirited horse who consistently helps the rational driver go where she directs – the other the desiring horse who causes all the trouble by wanting constantly to go its own way, ignoring the rational driver.
Freud later referred to Plato’s image of the charioteer and her horses but characterized his own insights as showing that the charioteer thinks she is in charge but really the two horses take her where they want. The great Disruptor tells us we only think we are in masters in our own house. In “A Difficulty in Psychoanalysis” he writes:
But these two discoveries—that the life of our sexual instincts cannot be wholly tamed, and that mental processes are in themselves unconscious and only reach the ego and come under its control through incomplete and untrustworthy perceptions—these two discoveries amount to a statement that the ego is not master in its own house. Together they represent the third blow to man’s self-love, what I may call the psychological one. (Standard Edition Vol.XVII, Page 143)
Plato sees war and aggression as an ordinary part of life and while he does talk about the danger of Tyrants his social imaginary (to use Lacan’s word) does include a harmonious Republic and a harmonious and meaningful life journey for the soul. No cascade of human evils here that exercised Freud (and me).
4b. Aristotle (384/3-322/1 BC) is quite similar in tone to Plato. He does not specifically deal with aggression in his De Anima (On the Soul). He doesn’t think of the human soul as pre-existing but a single soul is the substantial form of the human body bringing us intelligence and all the nutritive, reproductive and sensory functions that plants and animals have.
He deals with aggression in his ethical work (The Nichomachean Ethics) where he argues that virtues are always the happy mean between vices of excess or defect. So the virtue of courage (remember the spirited horse) is the mean between the excess of rashness and the defect of cowardice. Courage, the virtue, is clearly seen as a (benign) development of aggressive energy.
4c.Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274 CE) has a more nuanced and detailed analysis of the powers (potentiae) of the human soul. These powers are distinguished by their specific objects. There are the spiritual powers, intellect and will, which bear on universal and immaterial objects, and then a panoply of sensory powers bearing on the particulars of life –the five perceptual senses, the internal senses for imagination and memory, and then sensuality within which he finds two powers named the Concupiscible and the Irascible.
“Therefore, since the sensitive appetite is an inclination following sensitive apprehension, ……..there must needs be in the sensitive part two appetitive powers—one through which the soul is simply inclined to seek what is suitable, according to the senses, and to fly from what is hurtful, and this is called the concupiscible: and another, whereby an animal resists these attacks that hinder what is suitable, and inflict harm, and this is called the irascible. Whence we say that its object is something arduous [difficult], because its tendency is to overcome and rise above obstacles. Now these two are not to be reduced to one principle: for sometimes the soul busies itself with unpleasant things, against the inclination of the concupiscible appetite, in order that, following the impulse of the irascible appetite, it may fight against obstacles. Wherefore also the passions of the irascible appetite counteract the passions of the concupiscible appetite: since the concupiscence, on being aroused, diminishes anger; and anger being roused, diminishes concupiscence in many cases. This is clear also from the fact that the irascible is, as it were, the champion and defender of the concupiscible when it rises up against what hinders the acquisition of the suitable things which he concupiscible desires, or against what inflicts harm, from which the concupiscible flies. And for this reason all the passions of the irascible appetite rise from the passions of the concupiscible appetite and terminate in them; for instance, anger rises from sadness, and having wrought vengeance, terminates in joy. For this reason also the quarrels of animals are about things concupiscible—namely, food and sex, as the Philosopher [Aristotle] says [*De Animal.Histor, viii.].” (Summa Theologiae Part 1 Q.81 art.2 )
You see here how Thomas treats the irascible power as a natural and necessary part of animal and human life. We must have an energy that enables us to confront even dangerous obstacles that are in the way as we seek the objects of desire. He sees the anger power as champion and defender of the desiring power.
It’s no wonder then, as Thomas lays out his vision of the moral journey towards blessedness, happiness and human flourishing, that he sees the gradual integration through virtues of the sensory drives into the higher, specifically human purposes. The energy to “champion and defend” will rise against the complex human obstacles to human purposes. The energy of aggression will manifest as patience, perseverance, courage, steely conviction, firm confrontation and so on.
5. Freud. We come then to Freud. There are reasons why this developmental view of aggression has been slow to emerge in psychoanalytic theory.
Freud himself speaks of the early confusion in the psychoanalytic theory of the instincts.
Freud, the scientist did not start with an assumption of an harmonious teleology in human life. Rather he focused on the radical inner conflicts he observed. And as he said to Oscar Pfister, the Christian minister, he worked in the basement while the religious thinkers focused on the upper stories. So he is interested in instinctual energy in its primary forms.
He also goes on to argue that all the psycho-neuroses show the mark of some repression of the sexual instinct.
Hate (I summarize) which precedes (object) love is present in the sexual stages: devouring in the oral stage and sadism in the anal (mastery) phase, but not as a conscious emotion. Narcissistic indifference precedes any empathy with an other…
Aggression in this picture seems to just be merged in with the sexual instincts, themselves merged with self preservation.
Adler was the first to name aggression as a separate instinct. Freud, perhaps somewhat reactively, was slow to accept it as separate. When he did (as in Beyond the Pleasure Principle ) he sees it as an expression of the Death drive—that instinctual energy in all organisms that pulls them (back) to the inorganic state. He originally clearly marked this as speculation, not a fully established part of psychoanalytic theory, yet as time went on he said he couldn’t think any other way. At the same time he accepts Eros in the large sense that Plato uses it, as naming all the energy of the universe and all the life energies of the human being in the movement to greater and greater unities.
Many, perhaps most psychoanalysts did not follow Freud’s hypothesis of the death drive, but I think Freud’s authority did have a chilling effect on any effort to integrate aggression into a positive developmental psychological picture.
When we turn to the larger social reality, Freud’s appropriation of Empedocles’ “Love and Strife” as the active principles of the whole universe –“Natura Naturans” –nature as the agent of everything (Leowald p. 516), seems to make more sense. The Great Wars of the 20th century, the Holocaust, Colonialisation, Massacres, Racism, Capitalist greed, Environmental destruction, Gender oppression, hypocritical religious institutions—all seem to speak of a trans-individual force operating in the universe leading to Death through violence.
6. Our moral heroes from the 20th Century—Gandhi, Martin Luther King and I would add, Etty Hillesum—all advocate and work against these evils by Nonviolence. If you respond to social and individual violence with violence, you join the violators, the agents of destruction. It would seem they are saying that to survive we must give up all aggression.
What they are saying is actually more complex.
“If given a choice between violent resistance and passive acceptance, King and Gandhi both accepted violence. But they saw nonviolent resistance as a better alternative. Like violence, it was aggressive, but it was spiritually, not physically, so. It was active, refusing to accept evil, standing up and resisting without inflicting harm.“
And Gandhi said:” My creed of nonviolence is an extremely active force. It has no room for cowardice or even weakness. There is hope for the violent man to be some day nonviolent, but there is none for a coward.” (Both quotes from Nassir Ghaemi, A First Rate Madness, Page 110).
And Etty Hillesum through prayer, intellectual work and active care of others was able to combine inner peace, empathy with enemies, acceptance of suffering, and moral indignation at systemic evil.
She and her family perished in the Holocaust. Her journals remain an inspiration. (An Interrupted Life).
All three of these heroes were murdered, so the path of sublimated aggression I am recommending is in view of a moral imperative, not for a contented life this side of death.
7. Now I just used the psychoanalytically tricky word “sublimation”. Hans Loewald (1906-1972), one of our psychoanalytic giants, notes that most psychoanalysts regard sublimation as a defense which engenders dishonesty in the ego. But he finds evidence in Freud for a completely positive view of sublimation as a genuine “appropriation” (Loewald, 2000 p.578) .This is in Freud’s writing about Leonardo Da Vinci where Freud describes Leonardo, for a period, channeling all his sexual energy into intellectual curiosity. (S.E. 1910)
I don’t think it’s too far off the mark to see the sublimated aggressive energy of morally struggling individuals as our best ‘champion and defender’ of what is finest in human community.
8. However I expect none of us are up to the heroism of those three heroes. I did note that the role of therapist does call us to a certain degree of sublimated aggression.
I have also already entered a caveat that some of you who are personally oppressed by social systemic evil will be working out your own appropriate forms of resistance, and I won’t presume to predict or advise what that should be.
But I do want to note that although as therapists we must be nonviolent with our clients, in our therapy work we also work with people who have trouble with their uncontrolled anger and also with people who have repressed or suppressed their anger to an unhealthy degree.
The constantly enraged person I don’t allow into a therapy group. I keep them to individual therapy and insist on certain boundaries. Mostly I hold them to verbal expression only. I don’t forbid angry words at me. I’m mostly silent and non-interpreting—playing the long game…
With people who need to find their anger I think group work is splendidly appropriate. The group rule of speaking honestly what you feel needs distinction. Present you anger which is at another: do not launch into a verbal attack.
Psychodrama I consider the best form of therapy here; hidden anger can be provoked into verbal and physical expression with complete safety if the big mat is used. And afterwards the feelings and insights from the experience can be brought to understanding.
Some clients can be helped with Bioenergetic work. I would have the client lie on the mat and encourage them to kick and pound with their arms while verbally venting their anger. Often this would lead to other emotions behind the anger—like crying, fear or despair. I also found it useful when a person just became exhausted and lay quietly— puncturing a common fear that their anger was so enormous it could kill or destroy everything. This can ‘normalise’ anger.
9. I’ve only once done some psycho-education based on my theory of the sublimation of anger. This was with a person I considered further along in the spiritual life than me!
Mostly I think we should just exemplify this stage of development. We should help people acknowledge their anger and see its purpose as ‘champion and defender’ of their life. The higher reaches we can try to exemplify and leave it to society’s heroes to articulate.
Frederick Copleston S.J. A History of Philosophy
Vol 1 Greece and Rome
London: Burnes and Oates LTD. 1966
[Plato. Part 111 Ch.XVII—XXVI pp.127-265.
Aristotle. Part IV Ch.XXVII—XXXIV pp266-378]
Vol. 2 Medieval Philosophy-Augustine to Scotus
[Thomas Aquinas. Ch.XXXI—XLI pp.302-434]
Elena Ferrante The Story of a New Name
Book 2 of the Neapolitan Novels
Translated by Ann Goldstein
New York: Europa Editions 2015 (1st Ed.2013)
Freud: Leonard Da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood (1915)
S.E. Vol. XI, pp.57-137
Instincts and Their Vicissitudes (1915)
S.E. Vol. XIV, Ppp.111-140
Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920)
S.E. Vol. XVIII, pp.1-64
Nassir Ghaemi: A First-Rate Madness:
Uncovering the Links between Leadership and Mental Illness
London: Penguin Books, 2011
Etty Hillesum: An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbork
New York: Henry Holt and Co. 1966
R.D. Hinshelwood: A Dictionary of Kleinian Thought
London: Free Association Books, 1991.
Laplanche and Pontalis: The Language of Psychoanalysis
Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith
London: Karnac Books+ the Institute of
Hans W. Loewald: The Essential Loewald –Collected Papers
and Monographs. Intro. By Jonathan Lear
Hagerstown, Maryland: University Publishing Group
Plato: Timaeus: translated with an Introduction by H.D.P. Lee
London: Penguin Books, 1965
Ross M. Skelton (Gen.Editor): The Edinburgh International
Encyclopaedia of Psychoanalysis
Edinburgh: the University Press, 1988
Charles Taylor: Sources of the Self
Boston: Harvard University Press, 1989
DOING PSYCHOTHERAPY IN A CULTURE DOMINATED BY NATURAL SCIENCE
Philip McKenna : What is Psychotherapy Day January 6, 2018
Psychoanalysis makes a basic assumption, the discussion of which remains the preserve of philosophical thought, and the justification of which lies in the results. We know two things about what we call the psyche (or psychical life). Firstly, we know about the brain (nerve system), the psychical organ and scene of the psyche; secondly, we know that there are acts of consciousness that are presented to us in their immediate form and that no description can bring us any closer to. Everything in between is an unknown quantity to us; there is no direct relationship between these two endpoints of our knowledge. If there were such a relationship, it would at most give us an exact location of the processes of consciousness, and would not in the slightest help us to comprehend them.
Sigmund Freud, An Outline of Psychoanalysis 1939 Penguin Edition P.175
In 2005 when HPRAC was preparing to advise the Minister of Health whether to regulate the profession of Psychotherapy in Ontario, they questioned various associations of therapists as to whether they wanted regulation or not. Eventually they said they had heard from a significant number who did want it.
When I made my submission to the commission on behalf of CAPT, I pointed out that probably they saw it as a path to social recognition.
I explained that in our current culture dominated by medical science and pharmacological psychiatry, psychotherapy was seen as ”what we doctors used to do before we knew what to do (scientifically)”. We psychotherapists didn’t mind this derogatory estimation of our work. Our kind of work was ill suited to the medicalised health system. Insurance was too meager to be of much use, and we didn’t particularly want to be part of a team in any agency or hospital where confidentiality is under serious pressure in the name of records and inter- professional collaboration.
This was my first public encounter with hostility towards psychotherapy on modern scientific grounds. As a Catholic priest I had frequently encountered battles between science and religion. Now I noticed the irony that while psychotherapy in its origins had seemed to be “against” religion on scientific grounds, it now seemed to be itself attacked along with religion as being contrary to modern science.
I think the issue is worth exploring. It affects each of us personally as we participate in our contemporary culture. It affects our profession especially as we come under regulation by a state health system governed at the highest level by political judgments and dominated at the next level down by medical scientific judgments.
And thirdly, as we sit across from a client we have to negotiate the boundaries between us.
It is the therapist’s job to find a psychological pathway for really deep and fruitful communication while practically bracketing areas of potential disagreement—religious, scientific, political, ethical, aesthetic and so on.
There is much to be said about all and each of these, but today I want to concentrate on the relationship in theory and in practice, in general and in each person, between psychotherapy and natural science.
I want us all to take some time to reflect on how we each relate to the body of natural science that is largely accepted in our present shared culture.
Was there scientific knowledge in your family? Did you study science at school? Physics? Chemistry? Biology? Botany? Cosmology? History of Science? Geology? Climate? Human Anatomy and Physiology? Did you become interested in a particular kind of science?
Did you study Mathematics, Relativity, Quantum Theory? Genetics? Neuroscience?
Did you ever hear about Unified Science?
Were you aware of, or did you study, the connection between the rapid technological changes in the last century and the scientific knowledge that made such knowledge possible?
Were you aware of the effort made by the “human” sciences (psychology, sociology, political science, economics) to be accepted as fully accredited sciences along with the natural sciences?
(I wonder if one or two of you would volunteer to dialogue with me about these questions so that the issues would appear more concrete for all of us here. As we talk people will compare their own experiences with yours. Afterwards some of the historical and theoretical issues we take up will maybe have more relevance for you.) (this was omitted on the day)
Before I begin this next section wherein I will be making some vast historical generalizations, I want to raise several cautions for your consideration.
( Because of the overwhelming complexity of presently available human knowledge and opinion, we all tend to seek authoritative simplifications and generalizations. How do we discern what is authoritative/trustworthy?
Often we go with what Heidegger call “Das Mann” “the They”. “They say …” Especially if we grew up among people who “All say…
Especially if a group with whom we are passionately identified “all say …
Too much of this and we find ourselves repeating slogans in place of knowledge.
This of course trenches/builds on the fact that almost all our knowledge inevitably requires an element of trust. Trusting testimony of other people.
One of the great ways to avoid the seduction of slogan thinking is to reflect carefully on how omnipresent is our trust of testimony in making our way through life. —————————————————————————————-
The big issue is not really between natural science and the human science of psychology but between generalizing knowledge (natural science & psychology) and individual (actual) knowing connection between two humans, that is only possible because of an evolution towards this possibility and concretely possible only if one is empathic and committed to the process of connection. ( see Hrdy)
Of course in an individual encounter each (adult) person will also speak out of an enculturated self, assuming many truths and beliefs, including those embedded in their common language.
But when we see a baby and a mother communicating we are aware of a large reality that is pre-linguistic and largely independent of the particularities of the mother’s culture.
This pre/non linguistic reality remains always within or under our adult encounters with others in psychotherapy sessions. It may be “the talking cure” but there’s much more going on than the literal talking. —————————-
I would like to take an example from history that can show us how we can both ‘know’ something but need to hold our mind open to better or fuller knowledge. (referenced the public letters between Umberto Eco and Cardinal Montini)
Our ancestors looked “up” at “the heavens” and saw (pretty much) what we see. They worked very hard to do and record accurate observations of periodic movements. They needed the knowledge for agriculture and for its own sake (theology), as the heavens appeared closer to the unchanging divine than this earth where generation, corruption and change ruled all.
This eventually led to an explanatory theory, the Ptolemaic theory of a series of concentric spheres: one for all the stars, and one for each of the planets and for the moon—all of them moving around the earth in the predictable repetitive pattern that had been carefully observed over many years. They knew that any explanation had to, as they said, “save the appearances,” that is, they knew the theory had to rely on accurate observations.
So why did the rival astronomy of a sun-centered world cause such a convulsion in Western civilization? It also “saved the appearances>”
The problem arose not only from academic opposition but from the Church authorities who were the custodians of God’s revelation through Jesus, the prophets and the Biblical Scriptures.
They thought that when the book of Genesis said that God made a dome and separated the waters so that there were waters above the dome (which God called Sky) and waters below the dome, that this guaranteed that there was such a dome and waters above it. They didn’t read Genesis as an imaginative account of creation with the religious message that God created everything.
They had ceased to hold open the meaning of “the heavens” for expansion and specification.
In our time we see the same struggle carried out with regard to gender and sexuality. “Male and female God created them.” Then we dismiss how this simple binary is actually full of complexities at many levels—hormones, anatomy, orientation, psychic self regulation, and cultural identifications.
Many religious leaders can’t allow this new knowledge to fill out, amplify for them what God created, but they hold onto that simple binary and treat everything else as against nature (against God).
Another completely unnecessary conflict.
Historically then, the scientific movement gradually (not suddenly) moved to a position generally hostile to all religious interpretations of reality as superstitions.
As the cultural movement of the scientific revolution gained in confidence and gained general popular acceptance especially because of its manifestly successful technological applications, it gradually dismissed as irrelevant all other pathways to human knowledge, not only theology (formerly the “Queen of Sciences”) but also philosophy, and also all the prescientific Wisdom of the Ages.
This need not have happened and paradoxically it leads to a narrowing of the mind and an abandonment of the holding of concepts and systems open for completion and connection.
“Scientism”—the view that our only knowledge is through modern science—demonstrates a kind of fundamentalism we usually associate with some religious positions.
There are numerous ways we could describe the modern challenges to the dominance of scientism with its ideal of a unified science about everything.
One of these is post-modernism which in extreme form holds that all variations in languages and theories or all kinds are arbitrary (i.e., freely chosen) cultural artifacts. So the idea of a universal trustworthy science is just such an arbitrary choice in our culture.
Another critique (not unconnected) comes from the sociology of knowledge that traces the social construction of knowledge systems and highlights the influence of political aims in shaping theories of all kinds. ( Foucault)
These are issues we could spend a WIPD on but we won’t take them on today. I would like to refer you to 4 sources: 1. John P.A. Ioannidis on the chronic flaws in most medical research:
Why Most Clinical Research is not Useful
- The Mad-in-America folks at www.madinamerica.com
for their careful critique of pharmacological psychiatry and their promotion of more human practice.
- Nancy Cartwright and the Stanford school on the limits of Science.
- Charles Taylor in “A Secular Age” for his masterful appreciation and critique of post-religious secularism.
What I do want to address today is more specifically the meeting between brain science/neuroscience and psychology.
Concretely does all the new neuroscience about the human brain show that the brain is the mind?
Edward F. Kelly writing the Introduction to Irreducible Mind notes how most of mainstream theoretical psychology in the 20th century was dominated by desire to create a psychological science on the model of the “hard sciences” that relied on third person observation, controlled experiments, reproducible data, and generally materialism.
Watson’s Behaviorism that tried to explain the specifically human by scientific observation from the “outside” alone, dominated the field for decades.
So naturally the study of the brain was understood as study from the outside. And what an exciting field it proved to be! Much research was stimulated by working with the terrible brain injuries caused by history’s most terrible wars.
Great advances were made in knowledge of what human capacities were damaged when various parts of the brain were damaged. Evolutionary history showed that certain parts of the brain were more so called “primitive.” We have a reptile brain, a horse brain and a human cortical brain for higher functions.
When the new emerging techniques were discovered: EEG, MRI’s, PET scans, scientists could now measure in living function, and they could examine fairly non-invasively, normal brains as well as damaged brains. The early experiments with brain damaged patients are very revealing for our topic. Because the surgeon would stimulate a spot in the brain and ask the patient what he was experiencing.
So the correlation of brain location and activity with some kind of memory or experience, depended on trusting the reports of human subjects. When the patient would say “I see the farm I grew up on” he is not referring to his brain; he is reporting on his own experience at the moment.
Without all the communication by subjects of their psychic experiences the scientist would have absolutely no idea what all the electrical activity in the brain had to do with anything.
This is the crux of the matter and led me to choose as an epigraph the text from Freud which names two irreducible paths of knowledge.
Freud famously tried to write a totally scientific account of psychology,
“Psychology for Neurologists” as he said of his “Project for a Scientific Psychology.” (1895) He thought originally he could quantify psychic energy and model mental functioning on mechanical principles.
In the end Freud rejected the Project, as Strachey writes in his Introduction, Standard Edition I, 293.
“And after all we must remember that Freud himself ultimately threw over the whole neurological framework. Nor is it hard to see why. For he found that his neuronal machinery had no means of accounting for what, in the Ego and the Id (1922b, Standard Edition Ed, 19,18), he described as being “in the last resort our one beacon light in the darkness of depth psychology—namely. “the property of being conscious or not.” (SE I, 293)
One extreme line of thought, exemplified in the American doctrine of behaviourism thinks it possible to construct a psychology which disregards this fundamental fact.” (Outline of Psychoanalysis, SE 23,157)
The fact is that, as Freud worked on the Project, he became more and more interested and fertile in exploring strictly psychological matters that require communication about matters that can only be understood and talked about by people who have consciousness and can speak of personal experiences, inaccessible to third person observers.
In 1958 G.E.M. Anscombe, a famous British philosopher, student and translator of Wittgenstein, wrote a small book called “Intention”. In the course of writing a critical theory of intentional action she made the seemingly simple distinction between : Knowledge by observation and
Knowledge without observation.
She argues totally convincingly that when a person executes an intentional action, that one knows their intention in the doing, not by an observation of the intention.
The ‘observation ‘ referred to here is the kind of perception of things shareable by two or more people, and so measurable etc.
This gives me a rich idea for understanding what is special to psychology and psychological theory/science. When we go through the long process of learning our culture’s common language about ourselves and others as live, conscious beings, with thoughts, beliefs, feelings, habits, actions, we can easily forget how remarkable it is that this shared language can refer to our subjective experiences and to those of our own kind with whom we have an empathic bond.
And we are using pathways to knowledge quite distinct from our common pathway to knowledge of measurable physical objects.
The scientistic attempt to reduce all knowledge to knowledge by observation gains a modicum of plausibility from the fact that our language for naming and describing observable things seems to be more basic than our language for naming and describing states of consciousness, feelings, or intentional actions. The latter language seems to be built on the model of simpler object descriptive language.
So we see our mental self as having structure, higher and lower functions and so on
(I have spent my entire adult life as a theologian doing what is called negative theology—trying to understand the divine by removing all spatio-temporal models from theological language. There is an appropriate role for similar purification of psychological language in the development of theories).
The second thing that might explain the confidence of scientism is that the scientists arrive at their task, already in possession of a rich common sense language about psychological/mental life, which because of our embedded existence is married closely with language of physical description; thus, e.g., the intentional act of closing the window also includes the closing of the window that can be described in purely physical terms.
What is unconscionable is that brain scientists should neglect to acknowledge that how they know the psychic realities they correlate with (or reduce to) the electrical neuronal activity, was not from observing electrical activities, but was a gift to them from a community of conscious beings able to understand and share their experiences.
There were a few philosophers in history who were materialists—among the Greeks Epicurus and Democritus, and among the Scholastics of the Middle Ages “stultissimus Durandus” (Stupid Durandus) as he was called by St Thomas Aquinas. (the only time in the Summa that Thomas gets personal)
Only in modern times and in our culture has there been something like a dominant culture of materialism.
Fortunately there are trends within physics and cosmology to focus more on invisible realities and a growing awareness of how limited is our present knowledge. Neurology though excited by knowledge of the bicameral brain and especially the plasticity of the human brain, is also aware of how much more must be explored.
Psychology and even psychiatry has shown a new openness to religious quests for meaning and to mindfulness traditions from the East.
I haven’t said much yet about actual psychotherapy practice. I want to share with you the theory of anthropologist S.B. Hrdy in Mothers and Others. She says anthropologists have a ‘dirty secret’—they can’t explain the monumental evolutionary shift to homo sapiens. Her theory is that what sprung it was the need for human infant care that required more than one mother and general protection by the group. The human baby had the capacity to “seduce” extra helpers…the mother had to be ample enough to understand and accept helpers…the ‘alt parents’ needed to be able to communicate emotionally with mother and baby. All this she hypothesizes required the development of empathy, altruism and emotional communication typical of homo sapiens. She thinks that this preceded rather than followed the creation of language.
You see where this connects with our kind of psychotherapy. We privilege the therapeutic relationship as the heart of psychotherapy—before insight or techniques of intervention. In the encounter with the client we are evoking ground zero of evolution before our theories and our specific words.
We have to unlearn something here. We are in a unique act of relating to a unique person. So much happens and we both know so much before and beyond words.
Our whole human development of knowledge skills and language begins in the unitary meeting/encounter with the Mother, the altmothers, so we must learn to know this as the basis for all we do in therapy.
Emotional, body encounter is our ground. We have to be serene with uniqueness that is fuller than words that instantly divide and generalize. We must trust what our gaze says, get what another’s gaze gives, as we struggle to bring to words what is needed to be said today in this case.
Anscombe, G.E.M., Intention , Oxford, Blackwell 1958
Cartwright, Nancy, The Dappled World: a Study of the Boundaries of Science , Oxford, University Press, 1999
Hrdy, Sarah Blaffer, Mothers and Others: the Evolutionary Origin of Mutual Understanding, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2009
Ioannidis, John P.A., Why Most Clinical Research is Not Useful , journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.1002049
Kelly, Edward F. Irreducible Mind: toward a psychology for the 21st century/Edward Kelly, Emily Williams Kelly, and Adam Crabtree: Lanham, Boulder, New York, Toronto. Plymouth UK; Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc. 2007
Siegel, Dan Mindsight www.drdansiegel.com
Taylor, Charles A Secular Age Cambridge Mass., London England; The Bellknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007