Tuesday, May 31, 2011
First, to "formerly a wage slave," the central point here is not the rather familiar notion that the norms of polite behavior are conventional and variable, but that, as Mannheim says, there are certain modes of thought that cannot even be understood without attending to their social and historical context. It is comprehensibility, not truth, that is inseparable. That is a very powerful claim.
My favorite example of cross-cultural misunderstanding [this may be the anthropological version of an urban myth] is the visitor to a foreign country who eats everything on her plate, thinking that that is the polite way to show how good the food is, not realizing that in this new cultural situation, one is expected to leave a little food on the plate to show that one is full. She keeps eating, her hosts keep offering her more. You get the idea. The following is a true story about me. Many years ago, I had dinner at a nice bistro in the Marais in Paris named Les Philosophes [who could resist?]. I ordered filets de hareng marinees [herring in wine sauce], which came in a large handsome cast iron tureen. Not realizing that I was supposed to take a few filets and return the tureen, I stoically ate the whole damned pot! The waiter, to his eternal credit, never said a thing.
Now, to Chris. Yes, that is right. Marx saw this too. The norms of feudal justice and right linger on even after the bourgeois revolution. It takes time for the new socio-economic order to transform the law, politics, art, and philosophy.
By the way, Mannheim's views are very complex. As is my custom, I prefer to expound complex ideas slowly, starting with the simplest cases and building in more and more complexity until the fully developed idea is before us. We are at this point just at the very beginning of a long and fascinating story.
Monday, May 30, 2011
IDEOLOGICAL CRITIQUE, A BLOG COURSE, OR BOURSE PART ONE
With this post, I begin what will be an extremely lengthy discussion of ideological critique. In the course of a long series of posts, I shall first talk in detail about the theories of the great late nineteenth early twentieth century Hungarian/German/English theoretician Karl Mannheim. Then I shall undertake three applications of what we have learned from this discussion: First to a controversy involving a number of ethnographers of the South African inhabitants of the Kalahari Desert sometimes referred to as the !Kung; Second to a dispute between Edward Said and a number of scholars usually referred to as Orientalists; and Finally to a rather unusual interpretation of a Jane Austen novel found in a movie by the Canadian director Patricia Rozema. I had thought to include lengthy extracts from a number of works in my exposition, but it has been pointed out to me that I would, in doing so, violate the copyright laws, so instead I shall provide the URL with which readers can access the books online in Google Books, and read there the selections I recommend. I very strongly urge readers to follow those links and do the reading, as it will enrich and deepen their understanding of my exposition and analysis.
This new on-line blog course, or Bourse, as I have decided to christen it, comes after lengthy on-line tutorials on the Thought of Karl Marx and the thought of Sigmund Freud. Very quickly, it will become clear that Mannheim was deeply influenced by both authors. Indeed, the undertaking that Mannheim calls "The Sociology of Knowledge" can properly be viewed as the offspring of Marx and Freud. My own personal view is that the work of Mannheim, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, Friedrich Tonnies, Werner Sombart, and others in the Franco-German tradition constitutes a brilliant intellectual achievement that has not been equaled or surpassed -- indeed, that has in large part been lost to us by the distinctly inferior work of subsequent sociologists, political scientists, and philosophers. But you will have to judge that for yourselves.
First, a URL. If you will cut and pasted the following into your command line, it will take you to the Google Books on-line pdf version of Mannheim's great work, Ideology and Utopia, to which I shall be referring for the next several posts.
Mannheim begins with these words: "This book is concerned with the problem of how men actually think. The aim of these studies is to investigate not how thinking appears in textbooks on logic, but how it really functions in public life and in politics as an instrument of collective action." Writing in the aftermath of the First World War, Mannheim is deeply troubled by what he sees as the loss of broad common agreement among thoughtful people about what is true and false -- indeed, about what the criteria of truth and falsehood are. This loss, which he eventually traces back to the breakdown of a medieval consensus and the eruption of competing ways of thinking about the social world, is for him a terrible problem making it impossible to have reasoned public discussion and debate about how societies should active collectively.
Although Mannheim was writing almost a century ago, his concern has a disturbingly contemporary ring to it. We live today in a country [indeed, in a world] in which elementary objective scientific facts such as the evolution of life and the acceleration of global warming cannot command common agreement either in the general public or among those elected to make political decisions. It is not difficult to understand why Mannheim was so deeply troubled by this sort of shattering of rational consensus. Not surprisingly, writing when he did, Mannheim paid a great deal of attention to religious disagreements, but he was also living precisely at the time when fundamental economic premises were also no longer shared universally. Between communists and defenders of capitalism, as also between Christians and non-believers, it seemed that there could be no commonly accepted ways of seeing the world, or even of determining which way takes us closer to the truth.
Almost immediately, Mannheim put forward a very controversial thesis. "The principal thesis of the sociology of knowledge," he writes on the second page of his opening chapter, "is that there are modes of thought which cannot be adequately understood as long as their social origins are obscured." It would be easy to misunderstand this sentence as making a much less interesting claim. We might imagine that Mannheim is saying that we cannot understand why someone believes a proposition so long as its social origins are obscured, or even that we cannot know whether it is true so long as its social origins are obscured. But he is actually claiming that we cannot even understand certain modes of thought so long as their social origins are obscured. What can be possibly mean by this claim?
As is so often my practice, I shall start with a personal example before moving on to a more general explication of Mannheim's thesis. Those of you who have read my Autobiography may recall this story. Almost seventy years ago, when I was a little boy living in the Kew Gardens Hills section of Queens, New York, I started taking violin lessons with Mrs. Irma Zacharias, who lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, on 71st street near Amsterdam Avenue. To get to my weekly lesson, I had to take the subway from the Union Turnpike Station. My parents were a trifle concerned about my traveling alone when only eight or nine, so it was arranged that I would go to my lesson with Beverly Rosenberg, an older girl from down the block who was studying the piano with Mrs. Zacharias' unmarried daughter, Dorothea. [It was rumored that Dorothea had, earlier on, dated Ira Gershwin, George's brother.] As the Q-44 bus had not yet started running from Main Street to Union Turnpike, we had to walk the mile or so to the subway station. On the way, Beverly undertook to instruct me in some elementary rules of courtesy, including the rule that a man, when walking with a lady, walks on the street side, closer to the curb. I dutifully learned this rule, along with other rules, such as that a man rises from his chair when a lady walks into the room, and that a man holds a door for a lady and allows her to go through it first. I did not ask why one did these things. I simply learned them along with all the other things I was learning at that age.
There is simply no way in which I, or anyone else, could have reconstructed the social meaning of these rules by examining the thought contents of my mind, or of Beverly's mind, or even, perhaps, of my parents' minds. To make sense of these apparently arbitrary rules of conduct, one would have to reach back fix or seven hundred years, when the elaborate rules of courtoisie or courtly conduct were developed and elaborated by the upper classes of the late Middle Ages in Europe. These rules of conduct were part of the myths and practices of Courtly Love that supposedly regulated the behavior of knights and their ladies in an even earlier period, and which were then articulated and celebrated in court practices, secular music, dress, and other cultural manifestations of a specific time and place and class in the history of Europe. These practices played a number of social roles. They helped to civilize and humanize the rather barbaric social behavior of the time. They glorified and idealized the ruling classes, thereby justifying their dominant [and exploitative] position in society. And they even played a role in justifying the political dominance of the descendants of the Carolingian imperium at a time when it was being challenged. I knew none of this, of course, nor did Beverly, or perhaps even my parents, educated as though they were. But, as Mannheim says, these "modes of thought" can not be adequately understood so long as their "social origins" are obscured.
Sunday, May 29, 2011
I HAVE A PLAN
I shall start with an introductory explanation, including a description of the "course" I shall be offering. Then, I shall launch the course, combining my exposition with extended passages [running a number of pages, in some cases] drawn from several books: Ideology and Utopia by Karl Mannheim, Land Filled With Flies by Edwin Wilmsen, Orientalism by Edward Said, and so forth. I shall not merely be referring readers to these texts. I shall actually be incorporating into my exposition the lengthy excerpts I want people to read. In this way, I hope actually to enrich and deepen my own exposition, giving those following the course a real sense of the authors about whom I am writing.
This is all going to take me a while to unfold, and I shall be interspersing segments of the blog-course with incidental commentary on the passing scene, in an effort to hold those of my readers who are not enamored of the new format. I have no idea whether this format will actually attract and hold readers who are prepared to stay with me through the entire length of the blog-course. [Since "blog" is itself a contraction of "web log," I think I ought to christen this new form of exposition a "bourse."]
I shall be very interested to hear from some of you along the way, to learn whether you are finding the bourse interesting and worthwhile.
Saturday, May 28, 2011
Friday, May 27, 2011
PASSING THE TIME
IN A HOLDING PATTERN
Meanwhile, the political scene has turned so freaky that even my evolved powers of schadenfreude are inadequate to do it justice. Bear with me as I work things out. Perhaps after Memorial Day I shall be able to start the tutorial.
Thursday, May 26, 2011
Thank you, Charles.
A propos college education, one comment called attention to the enormous importance placed in the United States [and elsewhere, of course] on where one goes to college, as opposed simply to whether one has gone at all. The obsession with the Ivy League and its imitators seems to proceed from the premise that "everyone, my dear" goes to college; all that matters is where you go. The endless media discussion of every aspect of this subject helps to obscure from view the fact that only a third or fewer of Americans "go to college" at all. By the way, although this is not the place to expand on the subject, I am deeply sceptical of the purported vast superiority of an Ivy League education [I mean, the students who took my classes at Harvard, Chicago, and Columbia got the same me as those who took my classes at UMass.] But there is absolutely no doubt that the Ivy League and the other elite schools are the royal road to good jobs -- not because they have taught their students anything so special, just because employers think the students are elite. Well, don't get me started.
Somebody with the webname Pliny quotes the following passage from my last Freud segment:
"Obviously, it takes training, patience, experience, and sensitivity to draw this sort of distinction, just as it takes a combination of ability, training, and experience to enable a research laboratory scientist to distinguish between an important experimental anomaly and just some glitch in the equipment. A skilled luthier [someone who makes stringed instruments] can tell, by picking up a piece of wood, flexing it, plucking at it with a thumbnail, and even smelling it, whether or not it will make a good back of a violin. I cannot do that, needless to say, but the luthier is not claiming to have magical powers when he tests a piece of wood. He is simply exhibiting the result of long training, experience, and some native talent."
He or she then says, "This is a very interesting passage, and it suggests to me that you mean something different by "science" than most modern philosophers do. Many scientists and philosophers would bristle to hear it suggested that doing work in physics or biology require (in principle) wisdom, discretion, prudence, intuition, all those intangible qualities. Could you talk a little bit about what you think science is?"
I am now very much out of my depth, as I have not kept up at all with recent writing on the philosophy of science, but I was under the impression that the old "Covering Law Model" "Inductive inference" "confirmation and disconfirmation" view of the nature of science had given way maybe thirty or forty years ago to a recognition that science is a social activity [see all the discussion about citations as making a claim a scientific fact, not simply evidencing that it is a fact]. Scientists learn to be scientists by working in someone's laboratory, where they not only develop skills with equipment, but also learn, through imitation and such, how to craft an experiment, what constitutes a significant experimental result, and all the rest. This is why people who read all the books and articles but never come into contact with a functioning laboratory seem so often to have a tin ear for science, and come off as cranks. Can one of them actually make an important discovery? Of course. And how does it become an important discovery? By being taken up into the ongoing social activity of science and being used as the basis for other scientific work.
Well, I know from nothing about any of this [although I do know a little bit about what it takes to be a good musician], so I welcome comments from folks out there who actually do know something about it [and from others as well -- far be it from me to discourage comments from novices like me!]
Wednesday, May 25, 2011
LA CARRIÈRE OUVERTE AUX TALENTS
Thus the famous boast of Napoleon Bonaparte, who claimed that under his rule, talent, not inherited rank, would determine who advanced and who did not. The principle lies at the core of what is widely thought to be the American value system, and it underlies as well the foundations of capitalism. As a matter of strict law, "the career open to talents" remains the universal rule in American society. We have no inherited squierarchy, no "three estates," each with its separate law courts. But of course, the reality is very different indeed.
Some while ago, I wrote a blog post about the distribution of higher educational credentials in American society. I return to this subject today, because I continue to be convinced that the facts I cited then are the key to understanding a good deal that is happening currently in our politics. My interest in the subject was reawakened by my absorption in the affair of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, which I followed intently while in Paris.
The facts I located on the web and cited here are these: In the United States today, roughly thirty percent of adults 25 or over have Bachelor's Degrees from four year institutions. Another twenty percent have some post-secondary formal education. This latter group includes those who enrolled in two or four year undergraduate programs but failed to complete them, those who have earned an Associate's Degree at a Community College, and those who have simply taken some courses at a State College or Community College but without pursuing a degree. Thirty percent is actually a high water mark in American society. When I was a lad, the figure was much closer to ten percent, and though it has been rising steadily, the rate of growth has slowed considerably in recent decades.
As I have often observed on this blog, one's economic condition in America is almost entirely determined by what job one manages to get and hold. There is a vast amount of inherited wealth in America, but it is concentrated in very few hands. For the overwhelming majority of adult Americans, how well or poorly you live is a function of your job. Now there are a great many good jobs, this being a country of more than three hundred million, but they constitute a relatively small fraction of all the jobs in the economy. Corporate executives do well, as do doctors, lawyers, college professors, architects, and such like professionals. But last year, in 2010, the median weekly wage or salary for all ninety-nine million plus full-time employees in 2010, was just $747 [$824 for male workers and $669 for female workers.] That means that fifty million workers were making less than $750 a week before all payroll deductions and such.
If you have a low-wage job and want to move up to something that will allow you to put food on the table, pay the rent, finance a car, buy health insurance, and maybe even have a bit left over for a restaurant meal or a night out at the movies, you very quickly run into what can be an insurmountable problem. To get any one of a large number of pretty good jobs, you need a college degree. And if you are one of that seventy percent who do not have a degree, you are screwed.
Obviously, you will need a college degree, and probably a good deal more than that, if you want to be a physician or a dentist or a lawyer. It won't do you any good to protest that you have really soft hands and care a lot about people, or that you have a strongly ingrained sense of justice. You almost always need a BA to get into Veterinary School, and then it takes four more years to become a vet. Your cat won't know the difference, but the Licensing Board will. And as we all know, you need a BA plus a Ph. D. these days to have any hope at all of getting a job as a college professor. But what about some other jobs that a man or woman might want to try out for as a way of moving up the economic ladder?
Do you need a B.A. to be a high school teacher? Of course. In some public school systems, applicants must even have a Master's Degree in the special field in which they want to teach. So if you are one of the seventy percent, forget about being a high school teacher. The same is even true nation-wide for Elementary School teachers. Some school systems require a degree in Education, others are content to accept someone with a degree in a subject area such as English Literature or Mathematics or History. But without the B.A., you can forget about teaching eight year olds.
Law Enforcement? Well, you can get into a Police Academy training program without a degree, but not the F. B. I. That requires a Bachelor's Degree at a minimum, and they would really prefer that you have a law degree as well.
What about the business world? Here things are not quite so rigid, but those without college degrees are facing a real uphill battle. The WalMart website says you really ought to have a degree in business management if you aspire to manage one of their stores. ExxonMobile's website doesn't even seem to acknowledge that someone might apply to them for a management position who does not have at least a college degree.
And so forth. Everyone in America knows this, although they may not be able to quote chapter and verse. And this means that there are maybe a hundred million Americans 25 and older who are perfectly well aware of the fact that they are on the outside looking in, with no hope of getting in, when it comes to good jobs.
How does it look form where I stand? What follows is subjective and anecdotal, but not therefore irrelevant. I live in a world of college graduates. Everyone of my relatives is a college graduate [grandchildren excepted, of course], and so are all of my friends and acquaintances. All the opinion makers on television are college graduates. Even the professional basketball and football players are, by and large, college graduates [LeBron James to the contrary notwithstanding.] The people without college degrees who appear in the media are, by and large, there for "man in the street" or "local color" interviews.
This skewed perception is deeply engrained in the endless public conversation about the needs of the "middle class." In 2008, the median household income for all households was a bit more than $50,000. Since the median wage of full-time workers was about $35,000, this of course means that most households were sending more than one wage earner into the labor market. But households with annual income of $150,000 or $200,000 are routinely described by politicians as "middle class,' despite the fact that a quick calculation of Government statistics shows that only a bit more than 5% of all households had annual incomes of $175,000 or more. The endless talk about the "interests of the middle class" is profoundly dishonest and out of touch. The reality of American society is that people are, by and large, much poorer and possessed of much less in the way of educational credentials than anyone is willing to acknowledge.
And that, I am convinced, is what lies beneath the rhetorical surface of so-called "Tea Party" anger. People by and large may be ill-informed, or lacking in educational credentials, but they are not stupid. Those on the outside looking in know perfectly well that they are not living, and have little hope of living, the lives portrayed in the media. It is those on the inside who engage in self-delusions, imaging that their $150,000 a year incomes make them "middle class," and that everyone save for the lazy and the people of darker skin have college degrees.
The French version of this skewed perception, this blindness, was thrust into public view by the Strauss-Kahn matter. In France, the ruling elite is drawn almost entirely from the graduates of what are called "les grandes écoles." Those not familiar with France may be surprised to learn that nobody who is anybody goes to the Sorbonne. Class prejudice trumps everything, especially ideology. French socialists, as I observed, were quite ready to assume that Strauss-Kahn was the victim of a sting, and it took a week or so before French feminists started to speak up for the poor Black working woman whom he assaulted. [The New York Post, that indispensable source of gossip, reports that as Strauss-Kahn was forcing himself on "Ophelia" in the grossest and most appalling ways, he kept shouting, "Don't you know who I am?"] In Paris, the separation of the classes is the inverse of the American pattern. The inner city is preserved as a paradise of old French life and culture. The poor, the unemployed, the North Africans whom "true French" cannot acknowledge as genuine citoyens, are consigned to the banlieue on the outskirts of the city.
As long as we on the left persist in this skewed perception of the American reality, we will be unable to understand what is happening in our political life, nor will we will be able to forge bonds across class lines to advance a progressive agenda.
Tuesday, May 24, 2011
HOME AGAIN AND SOME MIDAIR THOUGHTS
In the past fourteen months, since April 4, 2010, I have written and posted something like 385,000 words of sustained exposition and narration, including a three volume autobiography, tutorials on the thought of Karl Marx and the thought of Sigmund Freud, a brief tutorial on how to study society, and [on a second blog] a book-length tutorial on the use and abuse of formal methods in political philosophy.
You would think I would be about talked out by now, but Antaeus-like, each fall to the earth revives my spirits and I spring up eager to keep going. On the plane home, as I half dozed and watched several awful movies, I brooded about what I might do next. These extended multi-part tutorials are really very unusual for a blog, I believe. Blogging is by its nature episodic, up to the minute, gossipy, and evanescent. It is the polar opposite of both book writing and teaching. And yet, for more than a year now, I have been treating my blog as a venue for both book writing and teaching.
On the one hand, it all seems like a great deal of effort for very little result. We live in a world in which Lady Gaga has eight and a half million friends on Twitter. My blog draws an average of five hundred visitors a day, and has perhaps one to two thousand people checking in on it from time to time, if that. It is enough to make one genuinely modest [not my natural stance vis-a-vis the world.] On the other hand, if I gave a university course and five hundred people showed up, I would consider myself an academic rock star.
To I shall persevere. [Well, it didn't take much to persuade me, I must say.] While idling above the Atlantic at subsonic speeds, I had the following thought. I am going to sketch it and ask for some feedback. Doing what I am about to describe would be a good deal of work for me, so I do not want to launch on it unless there really is a groundswell of interest. Absent that, I shall go back to my animadversions at the passing scene, until some other idea strikes me.
What I think I would enjoy doing is teaching a rather extended tutorial, or quasi-course, on ideological critique. I have actually taught such a seminar on at least three occasions during my lengthy career, and it worked well in a classroom setting. A blog is quite different, of course. There is no easy give and take of conversation, although there are comments and replies. And perhaps most important, I cannot assign readings. If there is anything I want my readers/students to know, I must tell it to them in the blog posts. That makes everything a good deal more difficult.
The structure of the tutorial would be this: I would begin by discussing some of Marx's early writings [The review of On the Jewish Question, maybe a turn on his hilarious discussion of the concept of the Absolute Fruit in The Holy Family], and with that a reprise and expansion of my discussion of his concept of mystification. Then I would spend a long time on Karl Mannheim's brilliant book, Ideology and Utopia, to my mind one of the most important books in the great tradition of sociological theory. This would constitute the first part of the tutorial. In the second part, I would take up in turn three case studies of ideological critique, to see how the concept plays out in practice.
The first case study would be based on a book by Edwin Wilmsen, entitled Land Filled With Flies, a fascinating ethnographic treatise on the people of the Kalahari called the Zhu or !Kung. [These are the people who are usually referred to as "Bushmen," but that is a dismissive and contemptuous term, like Kaffir, or Nigger, or Wop, or Kike, or Sheeney.] Wilmsen argues that the famous work on the Zhu done by a team of A-List Harvard anthropologists is fundamentally flawed because of the ideological preconceptions with which they approached their fieldwork.
The second case study would be Edward Said's classic work, Orientalism, which is sometimes credited with single-handedly creating the field of Post-Colonial Studies. In light of the current events of the Arab Spring, so-called, it would be very interesting to see how Said explodes some of the myths fostered by Western colonialists and their intellectual apologists, including most famously Sir Bernard Lewis.
The third case study would a multi-media effort, focusing on a lovely film rendition of Jane Austen's novel Mansfield Park by a Canadian director, which seems to me to embody a fascinating reading of the novel by, once again, Ed Said, according to which it is really, despite appearances to the contrary, about slavery.
The point of the case studies is to get beyond endless theorizing about and intellectual play with the notion of ideology in order actually to see how the idea works out when we apply it to historical or social situations.
Well, that is the idea. I have not a clue how long it would take me to spell all of that out, but it would not be a short tutorial. Of that I am certain. To do it, I would, at a minimum, have to re-read the Mannheim, Wilmsen, and Said, so this is not one of those things I can just toss off while making hazelnut encrusted rabbit in a Paris pied-a-terre. I will be very interested to hear what readers have to say.
Sunday, May 22, 2011
WILL SPRING TRAINING NEVER START?
Saturday, May 21, 2011
THE THOUGHT OF SIGMUND FREUD LAST PART
One of the post-Freudian developments that I find most interesting is Ego Psychology. Freud focused his attention on the Id, and on the Superego – on the unconscious. But the developmental stages of the Ego are also an important subject for investigation, and a number of theorists, most notably Erik Erikson, made major contributions to this branch of psychoanalytic theory. I knew Erikson back in ’59-’61. He was at Harvard then, as was I, and through David Riesman, whom I came to know pretty well, I met Erikson. Riesman, Erikson, and I, along with lots of others, were part of an anti-war nuclear disarmament group called the Committees of Correspondence, a name we took from a Revolutionary War era organization. The young Teaching Fellows who assisted him in his courses adored him, but I found him rather distant and hard to get to know. [This was, for me, a time when, for a brief period, I had a number of older scholars in my life whom I looked up to and on whom I could model myself – Riesman, Erikson, Marcuse, Moore, among others. Not a bad collection of role models.]
Erikson’s greatest work, to my way of thinking, is Childhood and Society, published in 1950. When I met him Erikson was only 57 or so, but he seemed ancient to me. It was Erikson, by the way who coined the phrase “identity crisis” to describe the stage of development through which teenagers go. What was distinctive about Erikson’s work was his attempt to identify a series of turning points in emotional and psychological development that occur at every stage along life’s way, well after the early stages of psychosexual development identified by Freud. Erickson argued that each of these stages presented psychological challenges that, if not met successfully, could result in functional and emotional deformations similar to the familiar neurotic dysfunctions rooted in the oral, anal, and phallic stages of early childhood development. Erikson also attempted fascinating cross-cultural comparisons between the characteristic ways in which European and American cultures organize the passage through the earliest developmental stages and the quite different ways in which this is done, for example, in some of the cultures of Native Americans of the Northwest Pacific region.
Finally, I ought at least to mention a form of therapy emerging from the branch of Psychology known as Behavioral Psychology [associated most famously with B. F. Skinner], which in effect treats the person as a recipient of inputs – positive and negative reinforcement, as it came to be called – and a producer of behavioral outputs, a black box, so to speak. Behavioral Psychology makes no claims at all about what happens “inside” the person between the inputs and the outputs. It hypothesizes that one can achieve alterations in self-defeating or dysfunctional behavior simply by altering the schedule of inputs, the recipe and positive and negative reinforcements, without attempting to interpret the meaning of those behaviors, without construing neurotic symptoms as a form of communication, as psychoanalysis does. My favorite trivial example of this is the parlor trick that undergraduate Harvard and Radcliffe students of Skinner devised. They would go to a party and single out some poor shlub sitting alone on a sofa. Each time he did some particular thing, such as putting his hand to his ear, they would all smile at him. The idea was to see whether by this schedule of positive reinforcements, they could condition him to put his hand to his ear over and over again, like a pigeon pecking at a button. I do not think one can hold this against Skinner! I may simply be out of the loop, but it is my impression that Behavioral Modification has gone out of style. If I am wrong, perhaps a knowledgeable reader of this tutorial will correct me.
And now, a word from our critics. Freud’s theories, and the treatment method he devised on the basis of them, have come in for some excoriating criticism, needless to say. Before I go on to the serious criticisms, let me dispose of one right away that rests on a misunderstanding. Some people say that Freudian psychoanalysis is a pseudo-science, a closed epistemological loop, incapable of empirical conformation or disconfirmation, and they find the patent imperviousness to criticism with which supposed “Freudians” present their “explanations” simply infuriating.
Student A suggests, in a social situation, that Student B is worried about his ability to perform sexually with women. Student B says, “No, I really am not.” “Ah,” says Student A, who features himself an armchair psychoanalyst, “you are in denial.” “I am quite unaware of such feelings,” says Student A, feeling a bit annoyed by Student A’s manner. “You see,” says Student A with an air of smug self-congratulation, “you are being defensive. You have obviously repressed those feelings, perhaps because of an unresolved Oedipus Complex. That just proves that I am right.” Short of punching Student A in the snout, what is Student B to do?
This parody of the psychoanalytic method springs from a fundamental misunderstanding of the way in which an analyst attempts to get at and bring to light repressed wishes, despite the force of resistance with which the mind [the Censor, as I called it earlier] tries to keep certain contents of the unconscious concealed. This is a complicated subject, so I am going to give an example instead of trying to elaborate an all-encompassing account. I will rely in the reader to grasp my meaning.
Let us suppose that in the context of an analytic session, the analyst asks the patient to associate to the several elements of a dream that the patient has reported. The patient starts to voice a stream of associations, and then abruptly stops. The analyst waits for a while, and finally quietly suggests that the patient continue. The patient snaps at the analyst, “I am sorry if you are disappointed, but that is all that comes to mind. Do you want me to make something up just to keep you happy?” The analyst may conclude that she has encountered resistance, and may speculate that this resistance arises because the associations have led the patient close to an idea, an image, or a wish that the patient finds too dangerous to acknowledge. On another occasion, the analyst asks the same patient to associate to the elements of a dream that the patient has reported, and the patient, after smoothly and seemingly effortlessly producing a stream of associations, finally falls silent, and says mildly, “That seems to be all that comes to mind.” This time, the analyst may conclude that the train of associations has simply run out, as all such trains do eventually, and that no resistance is being manifested – hence that there probably is not some dangerous unconscious thought perilously close to being revealed.
Obviously, it takes training, patience, experience, and sensitivity to draw this sort of distinction, just as it takes a combination of ability, training, and experience to enable a research laboratory scientist to distinguish between an important experimental anomaly and just some glitch in the equipment. A skilled luthier [someone who makes stringed instruments] can tell, by picking up a piece of wood, flexing it, plucking at it with a thumbnail, and even smelling it, whether or not it will make a good back of a violin. I cannot do that, needless to say, but the luthier is not claiming to have magical powers when he tests a piece of wood. He is simply exhibiting the result of long training, experience, and some native talent.
All of us judge other people in this manner. Sometimes we call it “reading their body language.” If we are sensitive observers of the human comedy, we pay close attention to a clenched jaw, a forced smile, the impatient tapping of a foot, to discern feelings and beliefs that the subject may not be willing to acknowledge, and indeed of which the subject may not even be aware. I once heard Bruno Bettelheim say, in response to Sidney Hook’s objection that every thing Bettleheim was imputing to Freud had already been done by Shakespeare or Dostoyevsky, “Yes, Shakespeare did it, and Dostoyevsky did it, but Freud taught us to do it.” He might have added, “and Freud managed to develop a full-scale theoretical model of the human mind within which to make sense of these interpretative abilities that he taught us how to acquire.”
A really serious objection to Psychoanalytic Theory, associated in my mind most closely with the philosopher of science Adolph Grunbaum, is that psychoanalytic theory either cannot be disconfirmed by observation, or else has not been systematically tested by controlled experiments. The first objection, as I have already suggested, is based on a misunderstanding. The theory underlying psychoanalysis certainly can be disconfirmed by observation [or experiment], even though one cannot directly observe the unconscious. [That is obviously no objection to atomic physics.] Relief of symptoms is not the only evidence, but it is clearly crucially important, just as relief of symptoms is centrally important to a test of any other medical procedure. Psychoanalysis, like Marxian economics, has developed in some circles into a quasi-religious cult. I have no patience for that sort of thing when it comes to evaluating the theories of Marx [as readers to a previous tutorial know], and I am no more sympathetic to it in the case of psychoanalysis. The Marx-ideologues had great big supposedly “Marxist” countries to point to, and the Freud-ideologues have a large branch of professional medicine to point to, but neither is a substitute for some hard evidence.
A second group of criticisms of Freud have it that he got the emotional life of women dead wrong, that he got homosexuality dead wrong, and that generally speaking he was a prisoner of his culture, his class, and his location in history. As I have already indicated, I think all three of these criticisms are correct, although the third is remarkably ungenerous. All of us are prisoners of our culture, our class, and our location in history [and of our gender and sexual orientation too, for that matter.] There are really very few thinkers of whom I am aware who struggled more successfully than Freud against those constraints.
One of the measures of Freud’s success is that so many of the revolutionary claims he advanced are now treated as self evident truths [something that, in a different context, can also be said of Marx.] Who among us doubts the reality of the unconscious, of repression, of infant sexuality, of the thought processes of displacement, projection, and sublimation?
But what of psychoanalysis, which I think he probably considered his most important contribution to medicine? On that, despite my own valuable experience with it, I must in all honesty say that the reviews are mixed and the evidence indecisive. It may be that drug therapy will entirely replace “the talking cure,” and the prescription pad will take the place of the analytic couch. Eventually, a high speed computer will pass the Turing test, and we will all forget about the inner life of the mind. By then I will probably have gone to such reward as is vouchsafed for belligerent atheists.
And at last, to quote Portnoy’s analyst, “Let us begin.”
Friday, May 20, 2011
THE THOUGHT OF SIGMUND FREUD PART THIRTEEN
So what about little girls? Well, Freud concluded that they go through an analogous development conflict, competing sexually with the mother for the father. Freud himself spoke only about a female Oedipus Complex, but Freud’s pupil and later competitor, Carl Jung, dipped back into Greek tragedy [an endless source of archetypal imagery] and coined the term “Electra Complex” for this stage in the development of the little girl. Since I am way past the outer limits of my grasp of psychoanalytic theory, I am going to move and, and leave it to interested readers to explore all of this themselves [or, if they choose, with a significant other, playing doctor. Hem hem.]
Let us move on to a few words about the superego, which plays so important a role in the healthy development of a mature man or woman and can wreak such havoc if things go wrong. As the child develops, in the third year or so and beyond, it begins to internalize the voice, indeed the very being, of the parent. This process of internalization is one of the strange primary thought processes of the unconsciousness that I mentioned earlier, along with projection, displacement, and splitting. The primitive mind, if I may speak that way, does not distinguish between imitating another person and incorporating that person into itself. [Literally incorporating – i.e., eating.] One consequence of this incorporation or internalization is the development of a conscience – an inner voice, originally that of the parent, that in healthy development becomes an authentic part of the child. If you spend a good deal of time with little children, you can actually watch this process of internalization as it is taking place. I recall seeing a little boy [not one of my sons, as it happens], doing something that he had been told many times not to do, and saying out loud, as he did it, “No. No. Don’t do that.” The voice was that of his parent, and he was, as it were, on his way to developing a conscience. He had internalized the voice, but not yet the ability to obey its injunctions.
I was giving a lecture at
A too harsh, endlessly critical internal voice can become a punitive superego that cripples the individual with constant immobilizing feelings of guilt. It says a good deal about the social world in which Freud practiced that this was one of the most common neurotic formations he encountered. In these laxer, more self-indulgent times, one can grow quite nostalgic for the days of punishing superegos.
It is worth pointing out here that psychoanalysis was not conceived by Freud to be a technique for the treatment of all mental illness whatsoever. Neuroses are a particular form of emotional illness. Strange as it may seem to say, they actually require a well formed ego for their occurrence. But there are many other kinds of mental illness – psychoses, they are sometimes called. Paranoid schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, profound depression, among others. Psychoanalysis was not designed by Freud to treat such ailments, and in fact cannot do so.
Needless to say, I have only scratched the surface thus far in my attempt at an exposition of the core ideas put forth by Freud, but since this tutorial is pushing 17,000 words, I think the time has come to speak about some of the developments in psychiatry post-Freud, to acknowledge and comment on some of the criticisms of Freud and psychoanalysis, and then to offer a summary estimation of Freud’s legacy.
As we have already seen, some of Freud’s followers, including his own daughter, tried to extend his analytic techniques to the treatment of children. In theory, this ought not to work, because the aim of analysis is to bring to the surface repressed wishes that date from childhood and are interfering with adult functioning. But one could certainly hope that very early interventions might forestall precisely the fixations and repressions that lie, according to Freud, at the root of adult neurosis. I confess that despite myself having been the subject of an experimental teenage analysis [see my autobiography for details], I do not know how these efforts in general panned out.
A second variation in therapeutic technique – group therapy – was prompted by the sheer cost of psychoanalysis. The legendary financial burden of analysis is a simple consequence of its time-intensive nature. An analysis lasting only three years [never mind Woody Allen and the problem of interminable analysis!] takes, let us suppose, between five hundred and six hundred hours [four times a week, forty-eight weeks a year]. What is a reasonable price per hour? Well, a psychoanalyst, we may suppose, can see patients seven or eight hours a day, five days a week, forty-eight weeks a year [just try to think about what a crushing burden of focused attention that requires], which is to say about 1700 hours a year. Now, Wikipedia tells me that psychiatrists are among the lower paid specialists in the medical profession. The median annual compensation for psychiatrists is $214,740. For cardiac surgeons it is $533,084, for orthopedic surgery $605,953. You are much better off replacing hip joints than trying to relieve people of their neurotic hang-ups. A psychiatrist working 1700 hours a year has to charge a tad more than $125 an hour to hit the median compensation. But that means that our patient completing an analysis in three years [and whom do you know who ever managed that?!] is looking at almost $75,000 for the total treatment! Even with spectacular medical coverage, this pretty well limits psychoanalysis to members of the upper middle class.
But group therapy, though much cheaper, cannot by its nature employ the techniques of free association and dream interpretation that Freud believed to be the royal road to the unconscious. Group Therapy, like once a week counseling, is inevitably limited to adult adjustments designed to manage, but not to get at the causes of, debilitating behaviors. It may be quite helpful with the problems that arise along life’s way, but if Freud was right, it cannot treat neuroses, any more than physical therapy can take the place of hip joint replacement.
A far more promising development has been the extensive use of psychotropic drugs to treat psychoses [not amenable, remember, to psychoanalysis] and also less serious psychological problems, like depression, and even some problems, such as Attention Deficit Disorder, which almost seem to have been invented to fit newly marketable drugs. Let us recall that Freud himself was committed, as a trained neurologist, to the operating assumption that every psychological disorder is rooted in some dysfunction of the nervous system, and indeed that every aspect of human personality, healthy or otherwise, must be grounded in the nervous system. There is no longer any doubt that certain diseases, such as bi-polar disorder, are the result of some neuro-chemical imbalance in the body. People who are “on their meds,” as popular slang has it, function effectively in the world and lead reasonably satisfying lives. When they go off their meds, their disabling psychosis returns. If one thinks back to the horrific treatments that neurologists employed in an earlier, darker day [hydrotherapy, electric shock therapy, even pre-frontal lobotomies], one can get some sense of the magnitude of the medical triumphs that have brought relief to large number of psychiatric patients.
The use of mood-altering drugs in less serious cases raises some very, very difficult questions which I can adumbrate here but hardly answer definitively. I have in mind particularly the tranquilizers and anti-depressants that are now among the most widely prescribed drugs in
This raises a very difficult and troubling question. Is the insight achieved by psychoanalysis merely a byproduct of an inferior mode of treatment now superseded by drug therapy, or is it a valuable cognitive and emotional achievement that ought to be preserved despite the possibility of obtaining cheaper and faster relief from painful symptoms? One is reminded of Voltaire’s sardonic observation that “you can kill a flock of sheep with witchcraft, provided you also feed them arsenic.” [The great English economist, Joan Robison, to her eternal discredit, invoked that famous quote in claiming that nothing in Marx’s excoriating critique of capitalism had anything at all to do with the Labor Theory of Value.] Are the explanations provided by psychoanalysis nothing more than the witchcraft accompanying the “arsenic” of alterations in body chemistry?
To some extent, I think, this question can only be answered empirically. If drug therapy relieves anxiety or depression, but does not stop patients from making the same self-defeating decisions or from engaging in the same dysfunctional behaviors that sent them to a doctor’s office, whereas analysis succeeds in interrupting those repetitive behaviors, then we would have to conclude that psychoanalysis achieves something that drug therapy cannot. On the other hand, if patients treated with tranquilizers, anti-depressants, or other mood altering drugs function just as well as those who go through lengthy and expensive psychoanalyses, then perhaps we should conclude that the wisest course is to give them the drugs and suggest they read some books if they are looking for self-understanding.
I confess that I believe analysis achieves something that drug therapy cannot. Whether it is worth the time, effort, and money is a separate matter, and one that is not, perhaps, really a medical question at all.
ADVICE TO THE LINGUISTICALLY CHALLENGED
Wednesday, May 18, 2011
THE THOUGHT OF SIGMUND FREUD PART TWELVE
Before moving on to the Oedipus Complex, I need to correct a mistake [this is what comes of trying to do this from memory.] According to Freud, the third stage of psycho-sexual development is the phallic stage. This is followed by the latency period, and finally, at puberty, by the genital phase. The terminology doesn‘t matter, of course, but I might as well get it straight.
So, on we go. Sometime around the age of three or four, the young boy transitions from focusing his libidinal energy on the anal region to focusing on the phallic region. He develops the desire to have his mother sexually, and fantasizes about killing his father to get him out of the way. [Needless to say, I am here simply expounding Freud’s views.] Classically trained like most well educated people of his day, Freud connected this family drama with the Greek story of Oedipus. Since this is a very big deal, and the play Oedipus Rex by Sophocles is generally considered the greatest of the classical Greek tragedies, I am going to insert here the entire plot summary given by Wikipedia. Read it. It is heavy stuff.
“As is the case in most climactic drama, much of what constitutes the myth of Oedipus takes place before the opening scene of the play. In his youth, Laius was a guest of King Pelops of Elis, and became the tutor of Chrysippus, youngest of the king's sons, in chariot racing. He then violated the sacred laws of hospitality by abducting and raping Chrysippus, who according to some versions killed himself in shame. This cast a doom over him and his descendants.
The protagonist of the tragedy is the son of King Laius and Queen Jocasta of Thebes. After Laius learns from an oracle that "he is doomed/To perish by the hand of his own son", he tightly binds the feet of the infant Oedipus together with a pin and orders Jocasta to kill the infant. Hesitant to do so, she orders a servant to commit the act for her. Instead, the servant takes baby Oedipus to a mountain top to die from exposure. A shepherd rescues the infant and names him Oedipus (or "swollen feet"). The shepherd carries the baby with him to Corinth, where Oedipus is taken in and raised in the court of the childless King Polybus of Corinth as if he were his own.
As a young man in
On the road to
To this Oedipus replies, "Man" (who crawls on all fours as an infant, walks upright later, and needs a walking stick in old age), and the distraught Sphinx throws herself off the cliffside. Oedipus' reward for freeing the
The psychodynamics of this tragedy – the son who kills his father and marries his mother – are, Freud believed, the central emotional conflict confronting the young boy. He also thought [rather plausibly, I must say] that this explains why the barest narrative account of the story of Oedipus strikes us with such power and produces in us the feelings of pity and terror that are, Aristotle says, the characteristic responses to a true tragedy. The central developmental problem for the little boy is First to accept the fact that he cannot have his mother sexually, Then to identify with his father instead of fantasizing about killing him, and Finally by this identification and internalization to become in effect like his father, so that when he exits the long latency period he can in puberty begin to seek appropriate sexual partners.
There are all sorts of ways in which this necessary transition can get royally screwed up, Freud thought, basing his belief on what he discovered in his clinical work. First of all, the attachment to the mother may be so strong that the little boy cannot give it up. This, Freud thought, could be prompted in part by overly and inappropriately clinging and loving behavior on the part of the mother. The little boy becomes fixated at this stage of development, never is able to give up his fantasies, which are repressed [as unacceptable or as threatening] but never forgotten, and thus grows into a man who can only find satisfaction in sexual relationships that are characterized by a childish clinging to a maternal-seeming woman. [Personal aside: My father’s parents had four children – my father, my uncles Bob and Ben, and my aunt Rosabelle. In my grandmother’s letters, which I used as part of the basis of the book I wrote about my grandparents, I found that she referred to him as a “big baby” and her “fifth child,” even though to the world he was an impressive Socialist leader with a booming voice and presence. This contrast is extraordinarily common, especially in some cultural and ethnic groups, lending some credibility to Freud’s theoretical explanations.]
A second danger is that the hostility toward the father will be so strong as to interfere with the identification through which the boy can eventually develop into a mature, stable man himself. This failure of development may be caused in part by an overly punitive father [who may, of course, feel threatened by the son for reasons having to do with the father’s inadequate resolution of his own “Oedipus Complex”] or by the son’s perception of the father as not strong enough to handle the little boy’s hostility. [Remember that although it may strike us as humorous that a little boy would think of his father as in any danger from him, to the boy the feelings are enormously strong and dangerous.] This may lead the boy to grow into a man who is constantly challenging authority figures, both in anger at his own father’s weakness, and in hopes of finding a father substitute [Kant?] who is strong enough to stand against the boy’s powerful hostile feelings. Indeed, the boy may conclude that there are no father-figures strong enough. He may even – dare I say it? – become an Anarchist and deny the legitimacy of all authority.
Whew, maybe I ought to take a break and go have some coq au vin at Chez Rene. More tomorrow.