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Monday, October 1, 2018


There has been a flood of comments on this blog [and a four or five fold increase in views, a result of Brian Leiter’s kind words and link].  I should like to respond calmly to just one, by LFC.  Here is what he or she said:

“I think all I was trying to suggest -- and probably I didn't say it very well -- is that Wolff's Freudian take on Kavanaugh is theory-influenced (or theory-laden) speculation, and that's different from the people-watching analogies he used. Maybe "hazardous" was the wrong word. I just think it's different than common-sense inference.”

I don’t agree with that distinction.  Let me explain why.  All human beings, for as long as anyone can tell, have engaged in efforts to interpret the feelings, motives, and behavior of other human beings.  These efforts, successful or not, all involve observation, memory, the forming of hypotheses, the checking of those hypotheses against new observations, the making of generalizations arising out of those efforts, and the remembering of past observations, hypotheses, and generalizations.  Some people are astonishingly good at interpreting the feelings, motives, and behavior of others.  Some are not so good at it.

In my opinion [and this is, I know, a matter of considerable debate among Philosophers of Science,] there is a continuum rather than a sharp dichotomy between what ordinary people do and what trained scientists do.  And ordinary people of any period in history tend to incorporate into their explanatory efforts what they know about the scientific discoveries of previous periods.  My examples of ordinary “people watching” were intended, perhaps unskillfully, to indicate that continuum.

In my interpretation of Kavanaugh’s testimony, I drew on my layman’s knowledge of psychoanalytic theory, derived principally from the quite limited and narrowly focused experiences of my own psychoanalysis.  I also drew on my first-hand experiences with people and my [mostly] second-hand knowledge of American Catholic social milieus.  

It might be useful here to tell once again a story from fifty years ago.  One evening in New York, I attended a very chi-chi gathering of Upper West Side intellectuals at a meeting of something called The Theater for Ideas.  The topic of the panel discussions was “The Hidden Philosophy of Psychoanalysis,” and one of the speakers was the famous psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim.  [In the audience, by the way, were, among others, William Schuman, Susan Sontag, Sander Vanocur, and Norman Mailer.  It was that sort of event.]  After Bettelheim’s talk, feisty little neocon Sidney Hook got up and said, pugnaciously, “There is nothing new in what Freud said.  Dostoyevsky and Shakespeare could do what Freud could do!”  Bettelheim replied calmly, “That is true.  Dostoyevsky could do what Freud did, and Shakespeare could do what Freud did.  But Freud taught us to do it.”

Correctly or incorrectly, I was trying to do what Dostoyevsky did and what Shakespeare did, and what Austen and Dickens and Proust and countless other novelists have done, which is to make sense of a striking and extremely memorable public self-presentation.


s. wallerstein said...

The difference is that Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky invent their characters.

Now if you're writing a novel about a candidate to the Supreme Court who has the characteristics that your portrayal of Kavanaugh a few posts ago does, then that portrayal is certainly plausible in the context of a novel.

I and others, however, were skeptical if you could analyze Kavanaugh's (the real person) conscious and unconscious motives, without having talked to him personally at length, without directly questioning him as psychologists do when they seek to understand a person's motives, without the use of psychological tests such as the Rorschach which some psychologists use to get more sense of a person's inner self.

Now it may be that you are especially perceptive about the motives of others and you were correct about Kavanaugh. However, in my experience most of us, including myself, tend to misjudge people on first meeting them, to misjudge public figures whom we've just seen once or twice on TV or read about in the media, and we especially misjudge public figures when we are deeply engaged in partisan public issues such as is the case with Kavanaugh.

To reiterate, you personally may be the exception to our tendency to misjudge public figures when our political passions are aroused. If so, what I say above does not apply to you.

Michael S said...

Specifically pro-Freudianism: unlike the other two branches of the high-theory triad of Marxism, structuralism and psychoanalysis, if you're discussing people, seriously, pretty soon you're going to, at the very least, need to say why you're rejecting Freud. The same is not true of Marxism or structuralism, in contemporary (lay or academic) political or philosophical discourse (whether one likes this fact or not, regarding Marxism).

It is very often, in part, deliberately provocative, to say that someone who sees nothing in Freud is merely registering their own resistance; it is also very often true. (To insist on the letter of Freud's theory (which one?!), though, or on its exclusion of other, competing frameworks (theories/etc.), is another thing. Which Prof. Wolff was - as far as i can tell - not doing).

And regarding the utility of arguing that, roughly (1) people are always making sense of people, anyway, and that (2) they (inevitably) use a combination of everyday concepts, quasi-scientific proto-theories, half-remembered theorems, proverbs, etc. -- It's not clear to me that, if you have to say these things (not to regard them as incontrovertible, at a high level of abstraction), then you're probably not going to convince your interlocutor(s). Why not just re-assert your character-assessment? It's as true, and as likely to persuade.

Ed Barreras said...

Now do one on Lindsey Graham.

Michael S said...

There's also a certain irony in connecting Shakespeare with Freud, since he - more than anyone else than 'we' can relate to - he holds out the possibility that we are not in fact only, ultimately, enclosed egoistic delusional obsessive freaks.

I'd agree with s. wallerstein's point if Prof. Wolff's testimony were law, or regulative in any domain (perhaps including this one); but it's not. Life would also really boring (and probably very quiet) if you say only what you'd say to a pedantic conscientious deity. To the unobjectionable nothing happens.

howard b said...

Much of my youth for better or worse was spent in analysis. One lesson my analyst taught me is to pay attention to how people behave. Kavanaugh's performance in front of the senate was a mighty sample of his behavior. It was even more telling because we reveal who we are the most under pressure. I don't see any way around that. His defenders are merely rationalizing his glaring flaws, which the Republicans do laughably and reflexively.
Whatever the substance of the charges against Kavanaugh, he revealed his true self.
You make of it what you will

Anonymous said...

Take that LFC. As for me, I stand corrected.

LFC said...

A lot of insightful mini-essays, blog posts, and longer-form articles have been written recently about the various aspects of this whole affair. I've learned some things from reading them -- and I've only read a small sample, I'm sure.

Although Prof. Wolff and I disagree on one or two "meta" issues, if I were putting together a collection of (thoughtful) writings on this matter, I'd include his piece. (Of course, I'm not going to be putting together such a collection, but if I were...)

Daniel Langlois said...

'It might be useful here to tell once again a story from fifty years ago. One evening in New York, I attended a very chi-chi gathering of Upper West Side intellectuals at a meeting of something called The Theater for Ideas.'

I think you mean 'shi-shi', as I take you to mean 'excessively showy/extravagant'. I've heard of the Theater for Ideas in New. Heck, I've heard of the Provincetown Players. Note, what was then the Province of New York, composed of a rather loose association of trading
posts. Note the history of Fort Amsterdam, Peter Minuit bought Manhattan Island from the Indians for 60 guilders and so forth. Anyways, you might mean 'shi-shi'.

MS said...

When I enter "shi-shi" in my internet dictionary, "not found" appears.

When I enter "chi-chi," the following appears:


also chichi, "extremely chic, sophisticated"