Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

To contact me about organizing, email me at rpwolff750@gmail.com




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Monday, February 8, 2016

A REPLY TO S. WALLERSTEIN

S. Wallerstein offers the following interesting comment on a story I told in my fifth lecture: 

"You spoke of a group of anthropologists who studied a bar scene in Chicago and you mentioned that when anthropology students who were familiar with the bar scene from their normal social life looked at the results they found them weird because of the difference between how the bar scene is described by anthropologists and how they lived it as normal bar customers. (Not your exact words, but something like that).   Isn't that to be expected with any rigorous description? If a group of doctors describe my physical condition, it will have nothing to do with how I live it and I probably will not understand the technical language. If a group of psychiatrists describe my personality and its disorders, I may be surprised by the terms that they use and I will probably have to resort to Wikipedia to understand them." 

The difference between the medical description and the ethnographic description is this [the psychiatric description poses an additional problem, to which I shall return]:  My physical constitution is [mostly] independent of my self-understanding or my conceptual and social processes.  But my being as a social person is historically and socially constructed in part through my self-understandings [and misunderstandings, of course].  This is what distinguishes a fourth century A. D. Roman from an eleventh century A. D. Mongol or a twentieth century A. D. New Yorker [like myself].  My self-descriptions are a part of who I am.  Hence, an ethnographer's attempt to capture the lineaments of my society and my social being must include those self-understandings in a way that is comprehensible to me, whereas the physician's description of my medical condition need not be comprehensible to me at all. 

There is actually more going on here than just this, but since I shall be talking about that something more in my next lecture, I do not want to show my hand here.  As a non-spoiler preview, it will have to do with the way the Zhu understand and deploy  their kinship relations, as contrasted with the way ethnographers conceptualize those same kinship relations.  If I may be deliberately provocative, we shall see that the Zhu act in very much the same fashion with regard to kinship as the characters in a Jane Austen novel.


To return briefly to the question of a psychiatric description:  the sort of therapy pioneered by Freud essentially requires [among other things] that the patient come to a better understanding of his or her neuroses [see my tutorial, "The Thought of Sigmund Freud"] as opposed to the therapeutic interventions of psychiatrists who see their patients' problems as caused by chemical imbalances, correctible with medications.  If they, rather than Freud, are correct, then the patient's self-understanding is, by and large, irrelevant. 

2 comments:

s. wallerstein said...

Dr. Wolff,

I agree with you that any full description of people should include their own self-description or their self-understanding, even if it's a misunderstanding.

However, I don't see why that description must include those self-understandings in a way that is comprehensible to the self being described.

I have never read or studied any ethnography or anthropology, so I'll take my examples from contemporary social life in capitalist society.

Let's take a group of capitalists who see themselves as "job-creators", while we see them as capitalists, exploiters of the working class, destroyers of the environment and the dominant and hegemonic elite in our society. They genuinely see themselves as job-creators and insist on it: they are blind to the fact that they exploit the working class just as the capitalists that you mentioned in one of your first lectures who listened to Mitt Romney were blind to the fact that the "help" were conscious subjects who were capable of understanding the political implications of Romney's discourse and of warning the general electorate of them.
They literally do not understand that they exploit the working class. Thus, my description of their self-description is not comprehensible to them.

The same problem might arise if we find someone who is exploited or oppressed or dominated, but who considers what we see as their exploitation or oppression or being dominated as "natural" or as "God's plan" or as "fate" or "as the way thing will always be", etc.


Unknown said...

In response to Mr. Wallerstein: If the task of the anthropologist (unlike, say, the political activist) is to describe what life is like in the world of capitalists, then their understanding of themselves as job-creators trumps our (or workers') understanding of them as exploiters. (The analogy isn't quite on target, though, as capitalists, unlike Zhu, are not a self-contained society, but rather a sub-tribe of a larger society in which other members of that society do see them as exploiters.)

In response to Bob's response: My wife Eloise teaches nursing administration at NYU, and much of her work is talking about understanding the world of the patient. I've learned more about phenomenology from her than I ever did in school. From the patient's point of view, it often makes a great deal of difference whether the clinician is able to get inside the patient's world or merely sees him as a stage four carcinoma, or whatever. It even makes a difference to the physician's supposed goal: well-being. The nurse's distinctive role is to treat illness, rather than disease, and to do that, he or she has to be able to discern what is important in the world of the patient. (E.g., the impact on his family may be more important to him than the surgery, so simply doing the surgery is not necessarily going to maximize his well-being.)