Criticism and Healing

Criticism and Healing

A Study of Human Agency Steven Goldman, Ph.D. July 2015


For the last several months my research has focused on the relation between criticism and healing. More specifically, I’ve been looking at critical partitioning in relationship to therapeutic strategies.  Put differently: I have been looking at various kinds of mind maps and various opportunities for self-­?regulation that they suggest.  The key problem of psychological integration varies with, must adapt to, and is empowered by the elements we identify as out of sync and needing integration.  Thus we can learn something from looking into this distinction and its development through history.


This essay is really no more than a few notes from ongoing research -­?-­? I have really only one conclusion to offer -­?-­? mainly I am recounting histories and working through philosophical arguments -­?-­? I am also trying to formulate some ideas for further research.   I am trying to get some of my thinking down on paper.  As always, the point of doing this is to set down a marker -­?-­? to make a claim and see where the argument leads, in order    to get some distance from it -­?-­? to see if it is true -­?-­? and to seek criticism of the work.


Definition of Criticism


By criticism I mean things like seeing truth, seeing what is, openness, really looking at the evidence, and acknowledging reality; as taking care, taking the time, taking effort, as closely observing; as venturing objections and proposing problems for a line of thought, posing arguments for and against; as testing; as pointing out limits, lines, structures, patterns; as drawing attention; as saying the uncomfortable thing, as speaking up, negating, opposing, hectoring, mocking; as denial, rejection, and demanding proof;       as departure, disloyalty, breaking ranks, opposing the natural attitude, as questioning whatever is held to be true; as focused on knowledge, as discounting mere opinion, dismissing convention, as skepticism; as precision, accuracy, as error detection; as attacking presumption; also attacking one’s own arrogance, as facing oneself, confronting oneself, having the courage of one’s convictions, as cleaning away, clearing away the lies, as putting the problem back in one’s own court, as self-­?responsibility.  Stirring the pot -­?-­? and not replacing one delusion with another. Living in doubt -­?-­? as work, discipline, practice.  This is what Nietzsche called “unquiet living.” Criticism has its purest expression in Socrates’ saying that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”


Definition of Healing


By healing I mean things like getting it, waking up, awareness, understanding; recovery; recognition, resolution, restoration, renewal; I am talking about ideas such as remedy, cure, therapy, medicine, prescription, drug, antidote, treatment, relief; I will use terms


like integration, differentiation, maturity, mastery, growth, health -­?-­? even happiness; I am talking about self-­?regulation; I am talking about suffering and the relief of suffering.


Healing matches the disease, just as criticism is specific and focuses on a particular weakness. But in all cases, healing is a return.  From its earliest history, healing has been practiced as primum non nocere -­?-­? first do no harm; make preventions for harm with any knowledge about it; then address harm as it arises. Healing in this prime sense is the restoration, in the wake of an injury, of a person’s health and power for life -­?-­? restoring the person, giving them back their life, restoring their dignity and agency.


Criticism and Healing


Philosophy exists in order to address suffering. We should think of arguments and systems of thinking in the same way as we we do about treatments, therapeutics, drugs of various kinds and surgical techniques. This strategy becomes more transparent as we work through various stages in the history of the critical attitude. Philosophy in its early stages is comprehensive -­?-­? philosophy is all learning -­?-­? historically, lines of thought in philosophy break off from philosophy -­?-­? philosophy becomes physics, medicine, politics, ethics, logic, natural and biological science. But philosophy is also ‘learning’ in basic senses like learning to speak, learning by experience, learning to do, learning from mistakes, learning to cope, to manage, to get along on one’s own -­?-­? strengthening the part of ourselves that learns; learning what is really true, learning about oneself, learning from real confrontation; learning to put things together, learning some realism, learning as failure and survival, or learning a new language; learning the ropes. Philosophy is less what and more that we learn. Philosophy is also less what we say and more how we say it. In my conception of philosophy, it is crucial to hang on to the learning process itself, rather than identifying with any of its results -­?-­? or with any kind of expert knowledge; and what I am claiming is that practicing skepticism is deeply healing just by itself.


By working through some of the following stages and arguments, we put forward an idea of selfhood as the ability to learn, but also come up against objections to this idea that seem to suggest that the self is far more than what the conscious self can survey -­?-­? our idea of philosophy becomes more sophisticated and we begin to discriminate more problems -­?-­? this gets us to a place where we can get a clear view of the key idea of agency.  Then we can test the idea that skepticism empowers self-­?regulating agency.


Historical maps


Some ‘mind maps’ (as I am calling them) that seem especially germane to the idea I am exploring in this essay include Greek maps, psychoanalytic maps, and biological  maps.  I am not discounting the import of other ways of conceiving the problem of the self or the value of other teachings about psychic wholeness -­?-­? with some humility, I am trying to keep the scope of the study fairly simple and stick to what I am able to understand.


Greek maps


“Psychology is another word for what the ancients called fate.”1 Implacable forces are set against a person, shaping and prefiguring the whole course of life, but especially in the sense that accidents of birth underlie human temperaments and the fortunes that follow these different makeups and natures -­?-­? showing a logic of personality that makes a restless man a sailor, an impetuous man fail, or prefiguring the fall of a haughty king. Heraclitus’ fragment 119 is ???? ??????? ?????? -­?-­? “character is destiny” -­?-­? the kind of person we are shapes the kind of life we lead -­?-­? our personhood makes our life course. The divine machinery behind the scene does not so much explain as lament human folly. This subtle idea insinuates a ‘moral’ responsibility for disasters of fortune -­?-­? as Oedipus bears some responsibility for his angry outburst at the crossroads, where he killed a party of strangers, even though they treated him roughly -­?-­? his own flaw in character ‘explains’ the downfall -­?-­? hinting at a more patient Oedipus who lets the strangers pass.


Calling out Oedipus’ heedless arrogance is dangerous -­?-­? messengers fear to come before kings with bad news.  Finally someone must stand up and speak truth to power -­?-­? to say what everyone knows but fears to say -­?-­? and gradually, beginning in Archaic times and developing in Athens, Greek culture makes an honored place for truth-­?telling.


The Greeks also categorized various kinds of madness such as prophetic madness, poetic madness, and the madness of ecstatic frenzy. This suggests a model of the self in which a human being goes in and out of extraordinary states of madness, and also one in which people return to kind of baseline sanity after losing all control of themselves.


Homer shows Achilleus struggling between courses of action but also reveals his weak character -­?-­? we get both the idea of careful choice and the idea that weakness makes people choose badly. It is not simply his fate to have lost his temper and left the field of battle to his friend Patroclus. Homer shows that Achilleus could have acted differently, but for his character -­?-­? this subtle idea insinuates that agency still has some power even in spite of implacable fate.  Homer’s hero is wily Odysseus, who adapts to his situation.


In Euripides’ Bacchae we see reason and unreason at war with one another. Pentheus cannot bring himself to honor Dionysius, and this proud refusal brings about his doom. His punishment at the hands of the god seems at first like barbarism triumphing over reason, but the playwright points to Pentheus’ prudishness and extreme repression. There are powerful instinctive forces within us that we struggle to keep in check; but when we repress these forces for too long or too harshly, with no outlet in sight, they explode so forcefully that they overwhelm a person and entirely extinguish the self.


Whatever the circumstances of our lives, we have to look for the flaws in our own characters; and we have some power over our character, even if we have none over


1 Donna Tartt, The Secret History (New York: Vintage, 1992), p. 29.

2 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, 1882, section 110.


fortune.  We have to get back to ourselves, even if we sometimes lose ourselves; we need a habit of reflection and a chance to think. And whatever it is that we are doing in terms of self-­?regulation, we need outlets -­?-­? otherwise ‘control’ becomes a stranglehold.


The Anaximander fragment (the earliest philosophical writing by any Greek author) says: “Into that from which all things come, they pass away again, by necessity, for they make reparation and satisfy one another for their injustice, according to the law of time.” Anaximander seems to speculate that balance, in some cases, in order to reach balance, becomes unbalanced -­?-­? thus balance needs a kind of outlet, in order to reestablish itself.


Thus from an early division of mind into characters -­?-­? proud Achilleus and wily Odysseus -­?-­? and with conceptions like fate, fortune and destiny, connected with observations about temperament and weaknesses, such as impetuousness or pride, we get a kind of ‘folk psychology’ and course of treatment that is about controlling one’s temper, not being too much in a hurry, and not thinking too much about oneself -­?-­? a loose control with room for outlets -­?-­? also a sense that the main problem has to do with adjusting to something over which (whatever our circumstances) we have no control at all.


The implacable destiny is death.  The characteristically Greek ‘heroism’ confronts death with cool honesty, defining the problem of suffering and a strategy of self-­?regulation.


These are a few results from looking at the earliest Greek ‘mind map’ we can discern.


Socrates’ strategy is to focus on ignorance rather than death -­?-­? even to make death a problem of knowledge, since we know nothing about it -­?-­? offering the model of living life with a profound sense of being ignorant, and to stay in the game of telling the truth -­?-­? originally about ordinary people speaking up to kings, and now about saying truth to oneself -­?-­? as the centering act of healthy living. Philosophy is principled ignorance.


Plato like Freud keeps developing his ideas. He offers the tripartite model that Freud reinvents -­?-­? dividing the soul into reason, spirit and passion, and conceiving their integration as a steadying, taming power that gradually gets a hold on lust and anger -­?-­? in Freudian terms this is a calculating, steering realism mediating id and conscience.

Plato offers the idea in the Symposium that wholeness is inherently unstable -­?-­? we get hungry and want something new -­?-­? and the trajectory of desire keeps ascending.  Thus the life-­?problem is less about getting a hold on one’s empirical self, and more about escaping the hold of the self, and following one’s passion.  The power of abstraction and the mental ability, growing with practice, to extrapolate to wider contexts, gets us closer to the world of Ideas, and pulls us out of the world of mere dull sense.  Yet Plato also offers the idea that otherworldly aspirations are ultimately pointless -­?-­? the philosopher who escapes his bonds in the Cave and makes it into the light above must descend back into darkness and try to rescue some of his former cellmates -­?-­? which in Freudian terms is a rejection of infantile fantasy, showing some development towards a reality-­?based ego -­?-­? which is something like “adjustment” or healthy engagement.  Plato also sees that class and conditioning have an inalterable effect on a person’s character -­?-­? thus chipping away at the idea of sovereign agency -­?-­? stressing both the huge impact of early childhood experiences and the import for a person’s life chances that he is born into an elite, as one of the Guardians, or into a lower station, destined only for menial labor.

Thus the focus of his studies changes from psychological questions to practical politics: if the problem of self-­?regulation is ultimately about how things are arranged in society, then human beings can only improve themselves by creating a better society.


Plato sees the mind as divided and needing to be mended together and harmonized. He also sees the mind as alternately withdrawing and then focusing in, observing intense interest in a thing followed by aloofness and comic distance -­?-­? conceiving that we can escape the shifting world of the senses by seeing the truth; steadying emotional lability (whether this is an ecstasy of erotic passion or an presentiment of impending doom) with more realism -­?-­? getting back into the world, to what is real -­?-­? thus arguing for the healing power of actually seeing what is the case -­?-­? being able to say and hear the truth.


Plato surely is a pioneer in what people call ‘mentalization’ today -­?-­? i.e., explicitly being puzzled about something and questioning it, and explicitly ‘transcending’ the puzzling immediate situation by explicitly calling it out as a theme and trying to think about it.  He is proposing a kind of reality therapy, focused on reality-­?testing and verified thinking, thus a rejection of fantasy, a psychology of acceptance -­?-­? we have to see what there is before we can do anything. Becoming self-­?aware is also a baseline -­?-­? we have to have some self-­?awareness in order to think about how we are looking at the world or to direct ourselves to dismiss our fantasies and try to really see what is real.  Plato is also the first social psychologist who calls upon his readers to re-­?engineer society in order to create human beings who are strong and wise enough to govern themselves.


Aristotle’s key insight is seeing that in every arena in which a person could exercise self-­? control, there is an excess and a defect and a mean in between; which first articulates the idea of modulating affect, rather than letting go altogether (as in Dionysian frenzy) or harsh repression (in the example of Pentheus).  Thus courage is a mean between excessive fear (cowardice) and inadequate fear (recklessness) and in general the key problem in mental health is to bring thought to feeling, and feeling to thought, to create moderation -­?-­? the golden mean -­?-­? thus developing a line of thought from Anaximander that stresses symmetry and balance.  The dissociated condition is conceived as off the mark, unbalanced, unjust, inaccurate (excess or defect) -­?-­? the integrated condition is conceived as aiming at the center, with a loose control, and making room for error.


Aristotle is aiming at a vision of the ‘person’ emerging from the ability to learn, and in reflecting on this model he observes that people do not seem to learn anything without experiencing pain. Learning is difficult and implies coming back from failure -­?-­? for example, driving a chariot takes some practice -­?-­? skill comes from arduous practice.

We seem especially to care about something when it has made us hurt -­?-­? we remember something that has caused us pain -­?-­? we stay fit through a painful regimen -­?-­? everything that we care about that is really worth doing takes persevering through painful exercise.


Thus rather than the self ‘falling into place’ naturally like the function of an organ that takes no conscious effort to achieve, the reality-­?ego is a won-­?by-­?pain-­?ego.  If the self is the ability to learn, then the self is made up gradually of injuries.  (Lacan talks about the painful differentiation from the infant-­?mother couple: “I am means, I have lost.”)


Aristotle stands at the end of the world created by the Homeric poems in which human beings achieve dignity in a warrior culture, closely linked with a fierce pride, competition and cruelty. Aristotle’s teaching of this culture inspired the incomparable Alexander, whose death in 323 BCE is generally regarded as the end of the classical period.


Nietzsche’s reflection on this history brings him to the conclusion that not just in the ancient world, but even today and for every single person, everything depends on self-­? imposed hardship and even cruelty, in order to creative something like a strong will -­?-­? a masterful will, a will to power, a will to get into the game of life, rather than ceding the power to determine what is important to other people.  Nietzsche talks about the human capacity to endure the creative transformation – the “transvaluation of value” – as a kind of “spiritualization of cruelty”  “Almost everything we call ‘higher culture’ is based on the spiritualization of cruelty, on cruelty becoming more profound.”


“Rather than let it all go and stay in the world of appearances, there is a will which is a kind of cruelty of the intellectual conscience … this is the sublime inclination of the seeker after knowledge -­?-­? the kind of person who insists on profundity, multiplicity, thoroughness -­?-­? all really courageous thinkers will recognize this in themselves. They will say there is something cruel in the inclination of my spirit.”2


Aristotle is an important source for the idea that creativity is bound up with passionate, violent emotions that break through social conventions; that forces deep in the soul shove themselves forward and upend morals; that we can measure thought by emotion and get some practice doing it, sometimes checking and sometimes encouraging desire, which builds up in us as habits -­?-­? what Aristotle calls ‘strengths of character’ or ‘virtues.’


Nietzsche takes a critical step beyond Aristotle in further reasoning on the question, arguing that we harness the creative process by laying hold of the impersonations one has already undergone and enacted in countless episodes of social life; he argues that taking on roles in social life offers a precedent for explicitly creating a persona for oneself and acting it out; so that by conscious intention one may transform oneself into one’s own explicit creation. He emphasizes that creative work emerges out of a place where good and evil are still indistinct, but not because self-­?creation is amoral; instead, because art tries to wrestle raw, rude drive energies into an explicitly ‘created’ form.



2 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, 1882, section 110.


This gets us back to the idea of feeling an imperious longing in every instant, so that each moment of conscious renunciation is another conquest, if not of an enemy then of some force in oneself -­?-­? self-­?regulation in Greek terms is a kind of ongoing battle in which we are fighting something, but also trying to keep our head -­?-­? a love-­?affair too, chasing a dream that threatens our wits -­?-­? thus a trial and a test of character, a learning process with successes and defeats -­?-­? in which we earn some self-­?respect (or not) through our sense of being able to feel and steady ourselves and act with purpose.


Thus moral competence is shaped from the outset by upsurging emotional pressure, by societal judgments and biases, but also by ‘strengths of character’ (virtues) that guide us between extremes of losing all sense of ourselves (just getting absorbed in the feeling) and determinedly focusing our every effort (acting with tight self-­?conscious control).


Medieval and early modern maps


At least as early as the fifth century, living tableaux representing Bible stories such as the Creation, Adam and Eve, the murder of Abel, and the last judgment were introduced into sacred services, gradually expanding to large public performances called Mystery plays.  In 1210, Pope Innocent III issued an edict, forbidding clergy from acting on a public stage -­?-­? which is an indication of how popular these kinds of shows had become. Change in pontifical policy encouraged a separation of church and stage -­?-­? this is how the more secular Morality play of medieval times emerged slowly from the religious Mystery plays that preceded them.


In the medieval Morality play, we see Youth traveling on the Road of Life, set upon by Temptation and encouraged by Wise Counsel.  Our protagonist strays from proper guides such as Simple Virtue or Godly Life, and begins to spend his time with Misrule, Ignorance or All-­?for-­?the-­?money.  Things go downhill as Ignorance introduces Youth to Pride and Pride introduces him to Lechery and Lechery at last brings him to Iniquity, typically through the door of a tavern.   Then Charity, reminding the audience of the mystery of divine Grace, frees Youth from the influence of Ignorance and restores him to the company of Humility.   Thus we glimpse the profound change in the underlying psychology in society in making the jump from the heroic ideal of classical times -­?-­? a world of self-­?power -­?-­? to a new world of faith in which the agent cannot extricate himself from the troubles of life on his own initiative, but only by the grace of God.


Shakespeare scholars like Stephen Greenblatt, James Schapiro, Bill Bryson, Jeffrey McQuain, Tucker Brooke and Anthony Burgess help us imagine what the experience of seeing a Morality play was like for young boy living in a provincial town like Stratford. “With a flourish of trumpets and the rattle of drums, the players swaggered down the street in their colorful liveries, scarlet cloaks, and crimson velvet caps. They proceeded to the house of the mayor and presented the letters of recommendation, with wax seals, that showed that they were not mere vagabonds, but that a powerful patron protected them. The first performance was always known as the Mayor’s play, and was free to all comers. Municipal records in Stratford routinely show the record of broken windows and damaged chairs and benches, caused by mobs of unruly spectators jostling for good view of the play. The magic of the play included the fashioning of imaginary space, artful impersonations, elaborate costumes, and the use of theatrical and heightened language all aimed to capture the imagination.” Greenblatt writes that Shakespeare learned from Morality plays how to give his characters emblematic names such as the whores Doll Tearsheet and Jane Nightwork or the drunken Sir Toby Belch.

Morality plays helped him understand how to focus theatrical attention on his players’ psychological state. They helped him fashion physical emblems of the inner life, such as the withered arm and hunchback that marked the crookedness of Richard III. The Morality plays provided him with a source for the theatrically compelling and subversive figure of Wickedness, hidden in each person, which we all must struggle to keep at bay.3


The authors of Morality plays thought that they could enhance the broad impact they sought to achieve by stripping their characters of all incidental, distinguishing traits to get to their essences. They thought their audiences would thereby not be distracted by the irrelevant details of individual identities.  The story of Everyman reaches us all.


Colin McGinn’s book Shakespeare’s Philosophy: Discovering the Meaning Behind the Plays (2007) argues that the thing to emphasize in trying to understand Shakespeare is particularity.  The Bard rejects the universalism of medieval thinking, in which the tale of Mankind is the undercurrent in every single life.  He is equally is pre-­?Newtonian; that is, he has a pre-­?scientific vision of the world; he has no idea of scientific generality; thus he would find it odd to think that all human beings are afflicted with the same problem (e.g. the Oedipus complex) or that all human beings’ behavior is dictated by the same biochemistry (e.g. in which low oxytocin supplies inhibit affection and high dopamine supplies arouse mania).  The Bard does not see unity across all bodies, hearts and minds, but portrays a world of singularities -­?-­? a rich irreducible variety -­?-­? insinuating that everyone, no matter what a person’s station in life, has some truth to teach us.


Shakespeare’s works -­?-­? plays, sonnets and poems -­?-­? contain some 17,677 different words. Of these, roughly 1700 were first used by Shakespeare, a feat of creation in language unparalleled in history. This includes much of our language of courtship -­?-­? including the word courtship itself. Tracking the key problems of mental illness and health, dissociation and integration, the boy from Stratford gives us words like addiction, drug, excite, reinforce -­?-­? also numb, submerge, torture -­?-­? also arousal, discontent, flaw, gloom, glow, instinct, misgiving, rancor, domineering -­?-­? also negotiate, ruminate, transcend, unclog -­?-­? also splitting, undervalue, unreal, and question -­?-­? also the term healing -­?-­? also the term criticism itself. Perhaps he was forced to create so much language, because of all the differences he saw. If we look with all our powers of observation, and with less reliance on existing ideas and filters, we begin to see more. We do not have a word yet to capture what a “Shakespearean” understanding is like.


3 Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World (New York: Norton, 2004), p. 29.


On Aristotle’s model, tragedy and comedy are worlds apart, as tragedy shows the character of man as better than the average man, while comedy shows him as worse; but Shakespeare mixes fools with heroes, jesters with villains, drunks and gravediggers alongside unhappy maidens, melancholy princes, soldiers and courtiers, every station in life -­?-­? his characters have the stamp of real people with complexities of feeling and thought -­?-­? Dr. Johnson’s praise of Shakespeare still rings true, for holding a faithful mirror to life. Shakespeare is also clearly a voluntarist. “For use can almost change the stamp of nature” (Hamlet, III, iv, 178). We are what we choose to do and bring about by our own actions -­?-­? by our actions we make new habits that can overtake our histories.


The Mystery play, Morality play and the Shakespearean drama represent new mind maps for our survey.  They define the underlying dissociated state of human being in gradually more secular terms, with gradually less moral didacticism, and with greater leeway for individual differences, as if to argue that effectively we are all broken up in unique ways, and that the problem of integrating broken-­?off parts of the self is ever a personal matter, without necessarily implicating the grand world drama of Humanity.


Psychoanalytic maps


Freud often refers to Shakespeare whom he began reading at the age of eight and could “recite at length in his near-­?perfect English.”4   In his work “Psychopathetic Characters on the Stage” (1905), he recalls the import Shakespeare had for him in developing the idea of the Oedipus complex.  “The conflict in Hamlet is so effectively concealed that it was left for me to unearth it” -­?-­? Freud’s letters to Wilhelm Fliess show that his self-­?analysis was often guided by his reading of Shakespeare and that thinking about the Elizabethan stage was helpful for him, with “every member of the audience a budding Hamlet,” submerged under a deep measure of repression, separating an infant from an adult.5


Harold Bloom perhaps goes furthest in trying to make this case: “Freud has to be seen as a prose version of Shakespeare, the Freudian map of the mind being in fact Shakes-­? pearean … What we think of as Freudian psychology is really a Shakespearean invention

… Freud is merely codifying this work.”6   Freud speaks for himself on this issue: “The

poets and philosophers before me discovered the unconscious; what I discovered was the scientific method by which the unconscious can be studied.”7


Freud tries to conceive a minimal self. Over his long career, he continues to revise his minimalism and ideas about the self.  He offers new models and draws new conclusions.


Freud begins explicitly from ordinary language by talking about the I (das Ich).  This fact



4 Peter Gay, Freud (New York: Norton, 1998), p. 166.

5  Norman Holland, “Freud On Shakespeare,” 1960, PMLA, 75(3), 163-­?173.

6 “Interview with Harold Bloom,” The Paris Review, bloomshk.html/

7 Quoted in Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination (New York: NYRB Classics, 2008).


is obscured by the English translation of his idea into the Latin term ego. Latin trans-­? lations of his other concepts, the It (das Es), and the Over-­?I (das Über-­?Ich), into Id and Superego, also misrepresent more commonplace examples as forbidding abstractions.


We can get an idea of how Freud thinks about the self from his developing ideas about das Ich – the I – the ego. The ego has to contend with three powerful influences. First there is wild libido (id, instinctual impulses); then a repressing moral sense (superego, ethical restrictions); then the dangerous external world (reality, sensory stimuli). Freud refers to the ego as an organizing function. It manages conflict passively, by inhibiting incoming excitation. The excitation may be a wish clamoring for satisfaction, a fear threatening pain, or a sensation of any kind. Thus my sense of being does not come from my experiencing pleasure, or from upholding ideals, or from my experience of the outside world. It comes from my ability to slow these impressions down – to take them in – to manage experience with some critical distance. I begin to see myself and I gradually become someone who can manage this material. The sense of self so understood is what Freud is referring to in his discussions about “ego development.”


Freud hypothesized a weak, inertial, structural ego, trying to keep order while confronted by waves of primitive untamed energy, waves of rejecting, guilt-­?inducing conscience, and constant input about the external world from the senses. He argued that self-­?development is possible.  The ego can make the transit through epochs of maturation and emerge on the other side with new freedoms.  It can grow more self-­? confident and manage conflict with less coercion and more art. It can become less driven by fantasy (imaginary wish fulfillments) and more by reality (achieving mastery).


In this picture the self is something like a structure. It changes only very slowly. It is made of parts that either fit well together, as if well glued, or that can fall apart easily. Thus a self is “cohesive” or “fragile” -­?-­? these terms define a large gray area with lots of room for compound forms -­?-­? so that dissociation and integration are relative terms -­?-­? not so much opposite states of being but more like different settings or tunings.


Talking about the ‘structure’ of the self however is metaphorical. The Freudian self or mind or I does not exist as an entity. We are talking about something that develops (or fails to develop) through a history. It can remain trapped in the past (stuck in infantile positions) or become free for a future (making adult decisions). Thus a self is “regressed” or “differentiated” -­?-­? but again these are comparative terms and do not point to substantives -­?-­? Freud begins from, and stays with, ordinary language.


Freud also began to open the box where we have kept hidden everything we have disowned or disavowed, all the dissociated aspects of ourselves that somehow we cannot deal with. He discovered that these same broken off pieces of ourselves that we cannot quite see or acknowledge seeing, have an odd way of popping up unaccountably when we’re least expecting them, and without our knowing how to deal with them. Unwanted, unrecognized, unacknowledged parts of ourselves, they still feel alien and strange; yet somehow we also see very clearly that these are parts of ourselves.


It is generally held that Freud’s greatest contribution to science, the one usually associated with The Interpretation of Dreams, was his conception of the unconscious mind.8 Thus it would appear that thinking may even be unconscious, as well as irrational and not yet subsumed under a rational principle – in thinking, some parts fit well but some don’t fit very well – thinking cannot see all of itself or from outside itself or with complete detachment – some the of the I is awake, and some of the I is asleep.


Freud discovered the clinical fact of repression; also the clinical fact that experiences repressed in childhood find an outlet later in life; and the theories he formulated to explain repression focus on instincts and diverting instinctive energies towards socially approved goals. Freud thought that just giving a person perfect freedom to talk out whatever occurred to him could be a method of healing. Socrates also thought that carefully talking things out could become a way of healing the soul. Shakespeare very much wants to talk also as a way back to health. Talking is important because it is a way of getting something into the light where we can see it and get a handle on it.


Thus Freud begins with a deterministic idea and borrows the concept of the It (das Es) from Groddeck, who wrote “We should not say ‘I live’ but ‘I am lived by the It’ (The Book of the It, 1923).  Groddeck’s claim threatens to overthrow the whole idea of a unique and self-­?responsible person.  As a scientist, he is trying to see how much of human behavior he can understand without talking about anything like ‘agency.’  Advancing from this premise, Freud gradually moves towards a conception of a self actively changing itself. Gradually consolidating senses of self-­?awareness, growing competence (ego nuclei), a witness, an autobiographer, float up from the depths of total amnesia. Repression in the first instance is the interest in not creating awareness of something. Freud held that the very basic human phenomenon of ‘not knowing’ in this connection is a not wanting to know.9 Repression is inferred from the symptoms it leaves behind. Psychoanalysis is a means of teasing up the return of the repressed and in that sense overturns the interest in not knowing and replaces it with a powerful desire to know. The person gets to know herself or himself better, but at the same time the patient becomes a different person, who may feel and remember many kinds of impressions but who no longer exhibits particular symptoms. Freud advances to an idea of freedom and characterizes his aim as strengthening the ego, writing “where id was, there ego shall be” (New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, 1932, lecture 31).


Many far-­?reaching changes in psychoanalytic theory have taken place since Freud. Some different conceptions of dissociation and integration come up especially in the Objects Relations School and in later thinkers influenced by Freud -­?-­? some we will mention here come from Fairbairn, Winnicott, Kohut, Lacan and Foucault.


8 Ernest Jones, Freud, (New York: Basic Books, 1953), vol. 1, p. 397

9 Sigmund Freud, Standard Edition, op. cit., volume 2, p. 270



Repression gives us the idea that selfhood is a result of the conflict between instincts. In that sense it is negative. The hypothesis in Object Relations is a basic object-­?seeking libidinizing life drive of the human psychic self. The ego, psyche or personal self grows, Is disturbed, and is restored to wholeness in the life context of the ego’s relations with others, primarily in infancy, and thereafter in the unconscious – which is the repressed infantile ego, split and in conflict with itself. Selfhood emerges in the course of interacting with other people in life – that is to say, in the contexts of beings who are themselves egos and object-­?seeking life drives of psychic selves. Selfhood emerges in the first context of the mother-­?infant relationship at the start of life, and develops through all sorts of personal relationships, good and bad, that make up our life, and proceeding if necessary to the psychotherapist.  The restored self gets back into the world and acts. In this sense the Object Relations School as a whole moves on from the problem of the control of instinct towards the deeper problem of developing a stable core of selfhood.10


Fairbairn: Freud begins his thinking with a very stark – a very deficient concept of human reality. We should work with the concept of a whole human being from the very beginning of life, normally whole at every stage – the newborn infant starts life as a whole psychic self, however primitive and undeveloped it may be. The pristine personality of the child consists of a unitary dynamic ego. The crudest beginnings of the ego feeling developed in the initial stage are the ego feeling appropriate and proper to that earliest stage of development. The ego is not a later synthetic growth. The human psyche, simply because it is human, contains the innate psychic potentiality of ego growth in a way that an animal psyche does not. The psychosomatic whole of a human being does not begin as a bestial layer of animal instincts blindly seeking a relief of tension, so that the repressing, social environment has to conjure up a controlling ego in an entity that is born without any sense of itself. The human infant is a unitary dynamic whole with ego potential as its essential quality from the start. Freud was wrong in thinking that the drama of childhood is intrapsychic – referring to the internal private space of the individual – it is interpsychic – referring to the external public space of the family. Ego potentiality takes shape in the matrix of primary objects (parents), passes to transitional objects (cuddly toys, teddies, dolls), flourishing (or not) in social life.


Winnicott: The human pattern of advance and decline flows through key thresholds. Human potential unfolding though the life course matures in an environment that in the first instance is a mother’s care. This environment may nourish growth through nurture, support, understanding and encouragement – not perfect, but “good enough,” or “ordinarily devoted” – or instead it may fail as a nurturing, facilitating environment. It may not satisfy the needs of this life form, in which case development becomes arrested and distorted. In a case like this the potential is not realized, but instead a false self emerges on the pattern of conforming to, or rebelling against, the failing environment.


10 Harry Guntrip, Psychoanalytic Theory, Therapy, and the Self (New York: Basic Books, 1971), p. 12.


The false self tries to survive the life course by a principle of least action – it lives defensively, fearful, on guard against exposure.  The result is tame goodness or criminality.  In the ordinary case, the good-­?enough mother is this environment, and there is some continuity of being, and the infant is not forced to react.  The idea is that the mother keeps the world of the infant as simple as possible.  The idea is to provide a graduated failure of adaptation, so that the psyche-­?soma has some chance to build up a tolerance to suffering. Positive social relationships make it possible for us to see reality.


Psychosis is therefore an “environmental deficiency disease” – mental illness is the result of poor “object relations” and “attachments.” Sexual problems as hysteric conversion symptoms represent a clue to the nature of a being whose outreach towards relationships has power to libidinize any part or the whole of a body, accordingly as intense need, or as withdrawal from intimacy, direct. It takes these actions accordingly because it is seeking the object – it is seeking the maturational, facilitating environment in which it can take root, grow and flourish – it is seeking its mother.  Once the mother is possessed by the baby, she can be represented symbolically by things, cuddly toys, by transitional objects and not-­?me objects on the way towards developing a less exclusively mother-­?centered outreach – if only the mother remains reliable enough – then the infant gains some capacity to be alone. Thus we need a mother who is herself a healthy whole ego to enable a baby to perceive and develop her own wholeness as an ego.


Kohut: From the personal perspective -­?-­? from ‘my’ perspective, my mother is part of ‘me.’ Thus the self begins to form in its most archaic condition in intimate connection with another person – someone who is nonetheless not experienced as separate and independent of the self. This precarious union and its later dissolution represent thresholds for the self unlike any others. They are fraught with difficulties such as the creation of a false self and the inability to exit from merger. It implies a developmental schedule and different problems keyed to injuries at different junctures. Because human being is innately temporal -­?-­? because people develop through important epochs-­?-­? there are likely to be various special kinds of temporal deficiency disease.  Therapy redramatizes the normal phase of the development of the grandiose self in which the gleam in the mother’s eye, which mirrors the child’s exhibitionistic display, confirms the child’s self-­?esteem and, by gradually withdrawing its approval, begins to channel the object-­?seeking, libidinizing ego drive into realistic directions.  The mirror transference is a kind of playhouse for acting out the confrontation between grandiose fantasy and reality.  The cure lies in accepting the painful truth that life offers few possibilities for gratifying narcissistic-­?exhibitionistic wishes. The trick is to take this news with some humor.


Kohut was skeptical about the use of the term ‘agency’ and thought it made more sense to talk about a person whose changing senses of self, strong or weak, with greater or lesser clarity and realism, in various moods and conditions, begins to take shape through choices.

Kohut’s idea is very like the Buddhist idea of the anatman, the no-­?self, or of the illusion of the self.  This is an experience of being without a center – without an unchanging core of identity – the mind does not exist as an entity at all.  But minimally it exists as a series of relationships.  Gradually I build up an autobiography, a chronology of who I was at various times of my life, and thus an unfolding sense of who I am and who I might be. I get some experience and learn some realism.  There’s no sense that the same basic construct is undergoing various changes -­?-­? we are talking about deepening relationships.


Lacan: we are born into the world living in our bodies, exploring and expressing our physical being and figuring out what we can do. But gradually the world we are exploring becomes less the physical world and more the human world of symbols, gestures, language, images, all of which alienate us from just relaxing back into our bodies. At a certain moment, the child becomes alienated from the kinesthetic body self and from knowing who she is by what she does, and thus the child enters the human system of symbols and thoughts – this is the Logos – and from this point on we use gestures, bearing, images, language, concepts and references to define who we are – and thus instead of being this psyche-­?soma, I am this mind (Écrits, 1966)


When we enter the human world we get defined in myriad ways, as strong or pretty or serious or funny – a fighter, a quiet one, loving, moody – as something-­?class, religion something, ethnicity something, race, sex, all of it.  These categories and impressions seem to come from without, from ways in which we get defined, but at the same time they stick to us and take up residence – they take up space in the world of the self – even if they are painfully partial and only capture us haphazardly.  We are far too complicated and dynamic to be delineated by any handful of markers – such as social categories or points on a map – family roles, social roles, roles at school. And even more than from these sources and apart from religion and race and class and sex and myriad roles, we all have a big basket of accumulated memories, fantasies, images, reflections and ideas about what we believe to be real, of how we think relationships are supposed to go, and expectations for virtually every situation we find ourselves in.


In relationships we use our human capacity for symbolization – what Lacan calls the Logos – to forge our personal identities and to share them with other people.  We also dissociate inconsistent or unwanted selves within us, allowing us to experience them as not me.  This works until our presumptive identities become challenged by our relationships. At that point the mask comes off.  In effect we are living presumptive selves, but unawares we are also signifying unacknowledged experiences of otherness that we have disowned, that we fear to show but also somehow want to show. Thus Lacan is offering the idea – emerging out of the legacy of object-­?relations thinking – that the basic libidinizing life drive of the human psychic self does not want pleasure, love, power or anything like this -­?-­? it wants itself, it wants truth.  Eros continues to drive us into relationships that provoke transformation in which the disavowed parts of ourselves break into the open and finally gets a chance to be assimilated.

Foucault: Foucault talked about the hermeneutics of suspicion.  The idea was to break up the illusion of the Cartesian ego. He thought we had to be skeptical about ourselves. He thought we had to be on the lookout for our shadow selves. He thought we had to develop a skeptical outlook and look for openings for multiple origins of valuation rather than remaining transfixed in an obsessive self. We have to get away from the idea that dissociation per se is problematic and that wholeness per se is something that makes sense for us. The transformation made possible by the life process, translated into the Logos, and the presumptive I think that emerges out of it, gradually takes shape as a skeptical attitude one takes towards oneself. These are some steps in the development of an agentic, critical awareness. Existing involves a continual emerging from and potential transcending of one’s past. Thus transcending – literally to climb over or beyond – describes what every human being is engaged in doing, every moment – every moment when he is not seriously ill or temporarily blocked in despair, anxiety or fatigue.


Psychological injury leads to loss of freedom – to be rigidly confined to one and only one world is the mark of psychological disorder – oppositely, freedom is a kind of letting go of the world, letting it occur, and taking up various stances as explicitly selected choices.


In general, psychoanalytic maps mark out the problematic state (illness, fragmentation, dissociation) and the desired state (health, integration, wholeness) by talking about excitation vs. inhibition, and split-­?off part-­?selves vs. a gradually consolidating agency.

The Object Relations School defines the basic dissociated state, and the basic idea of wholeness, in social terms -­?-­? as the false self or the good enough self; as the motherless condition or having good attachments; as grandiosity versus a healthy sense of humor. Lacan talks about the presumptive self and its disavowed parts -­?-­? also the relational self confronting the truth.  Foucault sees far enough to challenge the idea that dissociation is even problematic, or that wholeness is something we really want or could live with.


Biological maps


Beginning in the early 21st century, a new consensus formed around a fundamentally biological understanding of the brain. Some researchers whose work is important in this new school are Mark Solms, Jaak Panksepp, Helen Fisher, Scott Atran, Michael Gazzinga, Pascal Boyer, Vilayanur Ramachandran, Sara Lazar, Andrew Newberg, Antonio Damasio, Jonathan Haidt and Deborah Kelemen. This school tries to synthesize findings from archeology, anthropology, linguistics, experimental and developmental psychology, mathematics, cognitive science, physics and electrical engineering, and computer science -­?-­? developing with ideas in neurology. The idea is to connect basic biological, mathematical, and physical parameters so that we can begin with neurons and computations and get to behavior. The overall research program in neurology is to understand the neural basis of thinking, consciousness, emotion, memory, language, perception – of human powers of mind – as well as the various disease conditions of the nervous system. This is the kind of work that Freud wanted to do but abandoned because the science of his day had not advanced far enough to get at the problem.


This school begins with the psychoanalytic principle of the unconscious -­?-­? the idea that the brain is up to a great deal more than we are aware of -­?-­? following Groddeck the idea is to see how much of human behavior we can understand without assuming an ‘agent.’ This school reads human psychology as having been shaped by natural selection -­?-­? evolution impacts behavior just as much as it does the body -­?-­? thus the mind and its problems of dissociation and integration ultimately rest on biological principles.


The mind in this conception has no single belief network. It is more like a toolbox with many sorts of tools. Just as color and shape are handled by different parts of the visual system, so myriad distinct networks contribute to the behavioral system – which domains remain separated in human cognition -­?-­? our problem has to do with this separation and what we can understand from research about making it conscious.


I have been reading the research literature from this school for several years but I cannot find yet any consensus or consistent vocabulary for talking about behavioral network systems. Some researchers talk about “unconscious guidance systems” (e.g. perceptual, evaluative, motivational) at work simultaneously in shaping behavior. Some talk about “tacit knowledge” – something generally not available to conscious inspection – a basket of implicit ideas and principles of explanation running independently of one another. Some use words like clumps, bundles or networks, also variously called programs, modules, schemas, and operators. At some level these must be nets, webs, links, grids or lattices of nerve tissue -­?-­? a very complex interactivity within the brain but also distributed throughout the body via the peripheral nervous system.

Research in neurology supports the conclusion that some of these networks, such as affect programs, social interaction schemes and cognitive modules, operate without our awareness as the unconscious, pre-­?reflective frame of behavior. Some use Freud’s terminology -­?-­? ‘unconscious’ -­?-­? some use the Objects Relations term ‘psyche-­?soma’ -­?-­? the human psychic self.  Some of Freud’s other terms survive: the Id, arousals, instincts, drives -­?-­? there is a also a return to the simplicity that Freud was looking for in simply talking in a common-­?sense way about basic nervous functions or patterns that we all call out in everyday speech, such as seeking, lust, fear, rage, care, play, panic and grief.


Affect programs include ‘surprise’ and ‘fear’ – reactions human beings share with reptiles – as well as ‘guilt’ and ‘grief,’ which may be unique to human beings. Like echolocation or an active sonar device, we send out bursts of affect to test the environment, trying to fine tune and speed up the basic decision of fight or flight. We make our way through an environment by means of an emotionally charged positioning system. This is a kind of defense system, or a security and precaution network -­?-­? e.g. dedicated to preventing potential hazards such as poisoning or contamination. These networks trigger specific behaviors such as checking the environment and washing.


Social interaction schemas include ‘detecting predators,’ ‘seeking protectors,’ and ‘reciprocating in kind’ – which appear to reach back very far in evolutionary time – as

well as newer patterns such as ‘welcoming strangers’ or ‘showing mercy.’  Part of the social interaction schema has to do with detecting agents versus mere objects; as it were, this function is a human-­?specifying and human-­?defining function.


Social interaction networks form the background for something like ‘group feeling’ or ‘coalitional psychology’ or ‘principles of social cohesion’ – e.g., detection of kin or in-­? group members and feelings such as loyalty (thought to have evolved from cross-­?group or sub-­?group competition); inclusion functions based on kin-­?detection that motivate trust and cooperation and lending of aid -­?-­? engaging care; also submission patterns, behavior signaling respect and feelings such as respect and awe relative to leaders (thought to have evolved from primate hierarchies). Thus in many different kinds of ways, the brain keeps us ‘in the group’ and connects us back to evolutionary priorities.


Cognitive modules include something like a ‘causal operator’ (a function that searches for causes and effects) and a ‘holistic operator’ (a function that searches for wholeness in the midst of diversity). These functions represent a kind of hard-­?wired metaphysics: they determine what is real and define patterns of explanation (as social interaction schemas determine ‘agents’).


Alternatively we can think of seeking as a basic nervous function -­?-­? excitation of nerve tissue surveying, feeling its environment -­?-­? e.g. seeking objects, kin, dangers, protectors, causes, wholes, agents -­?-­? rather than various different modules that engage ‘seeking’ affectively, socially or cognitively -­?-­? thus we would also look for lust, fear, rage, care, play, panic and grief to kick in, whether perceptually, socially, or cognitively.


At some juncture this whole approach gets us to a list of basic functions that operate unconsciously or without requiring any kind of awareness -­?-­? we are talking about blindly adaptive processes that have accrued through immeasurable stretches of evolutionary history. The explanatory idea is that mental representations that have evolved to perform a certain function will perform that function once they are activated. The source of the activation is irrelevant. The function is ‘blind’ about its source. It has no ‘memory’ about it that might cause it to behave differently depending on the source.


These systems arose from the very immediate problem of surviving in an environment. Whatever the system undertook to survive in past situations predisposes the system to do in new situations; but new adaptations that emerge and foster survival are repeated.


As microorganisms ‘choose’ genes useful to their survival out of the ambient flux of organic material -­?-­? which could, for example, confer resistance to antibiotics -­?-­? then a relatively ‘simple’ entity is capable of interacting with its environment and equipping itself with a gene (a sequence of nucleotides -­?-­? the basic unit of heredity) to help it survive. ‘Higher’ organisms appear to operate on the same principles, in which different parts of the organism interact with each other, and with other organisms, and with environments, ‘selecting’ from an even more complex flux of materials, to enhance life.


Tacit ‘knowledge’ is unconscious but can be detected via experiment; decades of work in this field (e.g. by John Bargh and his colleagues at Yale University) demonstrate both its existence and that, beneath human variation – differences in culture, language, religion, climate, race, economy, social mores – people are remarkably identical at the level of tacit knowledge, or unconscious processing, or basic nervous functions.


Emotions are normally seen as enemies of cool rationality and disruptive of cooperative social relationships -­?-­? the biological map overturns these biases -­?-­? we should think of emotions as ways of keeping us in the group -­?-­? emotions organize rather than disrupt rational thinking -­?-­? emotions guide our perceptions, memories and judgments, typically in ways that empower effective responses in the current situation -­?-­? e.g., anger gets us attuned to what is unfair in order to animate actions that remedy injustice; sadness prompts people to unite in response to loss; lust, play and care activate attachment.

In general the emotional ecosystem is social, which means that we have to think about consciousness in relation to the breakdown of normally unconscious, social processes.


Thus on the biological model and beginning with the idea of blindly adaptive functions, facing our problem (dissociation and integration) means explaining the emergence of explicitly conscious processing -­?-­? we also have to try to extrapolate from the evidence what we can see regarding ideas like self-­?regulation, self-­?responsibility and agency.


Thus the brain is reacting to one person differently than another because the one activates a pre-­?existing schema and the other does not.  Without any conscious intention being involved, I react to someone to whom I am attracted differently than with someone who makes me afraid.  But in some cases, e.g. in meeting a new person, I am aware that I have never met this person before, yet at the same time I have an intimation that this person is quite familiar -­?-­? perhaps I meet a young woman who somehow resembles my mother.  Much more effort is required to discern this person and actually ‘see’ the person -­?-­? more of the brain lights up, more error circuitry kicks in (the left and right insula, the motor cortex, the right caudate) to make them out from previously stored patterns -­?-­? because the situation is more complex, more ‘brain’ gets involved -­?-­? we can think about ‘consciousness’ in relation to situations in which this kind of extra effort comes into play.  The brain enables us to thrive in a social context, but as our social context changes, our range of options expands, and more effort is required to live and experience social life -­?-­? we incorporate social dynamics into personal choice.


Thus at first and primarily, we are members of a collective, or rather of several such -­?-­? family, clan, village, city -­?-­? this is where we can locate our basic ideas about agency.

That is: agency does not exist in the brain -­?-­? or the self -­?-­? it is an interaction between people. We can say that our extensive “mirror neuron” systems give us the ability to understand the intentions and emotions of others.  Thus e.g. I learn to put a brake on my unconscious intentions -­?-­? I inhibit my intentions when I am interacting with other people -­?-­? this is a way of thinking about ideas like ‘self-­?control’ and ‘choice.’  I don’t attack you just because you scowl at me.  I am still in the group and adapt my behavior


to it -­?-­? communal ties impact individual mental states -­?-­? thus we are talking about a brain interacting with other brains, which then ‘interacts’ with itself on this same model. From interacting socially we get a kind of story or theory about the people we meet -­?-­?        at a later stage we use this same social experience to create a story about ourselves. Thus agentic control is a kind of rule that emerges in social life and, out in the social world, which develops according to its own dynamic, and especially with the advent of spoken language, this rule becomes something we can apply to ourselves even when we are alone. Culture develops and culture gives us new resources to think about and expand our cognitive processes. Culture develops and, eventually, Greek culture emerges, which has no counterpart among other ancient civilizations, and which is remarkable especially for locating power within the individual -­?-­? developing the Greek map we have been discussing -­?-­? an idea which spreads around the world and which is also still vigorously resisted as the most problematic aspect of human culture.


“The Greeks, more than any other ancient people, and in fact more than most people on the planet today, had a remarkable sense of personal agency -­?-­? the sense that they were in charge of their own lives and were free to act as they chose. The very definition of happiness for the Greeks was that it consisted of being able to exercise their powers in pursuit of excellence in a life free from constraints.”11


The biological map comes full circle by explaining the existence of the Greek map and its successors, medieval and early modern and Shakespearean and psychoanalytic maps. Essentially these are all social developments and advances on the strength of cultural ideas -­?-­? meanwhile human nature, as shaped by evolution, remains untouched -­?-­? which means that all the ideas which we have been exploring such as ‘dissociation,’ ‘agency,’ ‘integration,’ ‘consciousness,’ ‘self-­?regulation,’ ‘responsibility’ and ‘self-­?responsibility’ and the like, are cultural artifacts, and do not indicate physical structures in the brain.


The first principle to linger on here is complexity: twenty-­?two parts of the brain are involved in distinguishing between the sounds for “P” and “B.”  Whatever the brain is doing in cases where we experience sensation or emotion or cognition, there is an enormous complexity -­?-­? the mathematics involved in thinking about the brain are daunting, since the brain has typically roughly 100 billion neurons -­?-­? and even further, every brain (or its owner) is “out there in the world” interacting with other brains.  Let us give ourselves some language here and say that the “mind” is what the brain has developed in contact with the world, and in social life, in a complex and nuanced interaction with itself, as a strategy for survival or as a way of equipping itself to survive. It does not seem possible that the region of the brain that is most involved with speech would not be deeply integrated with structures involved with social behavior as well as memory and imagination, in wildly different degrees and circumstances.  The idea of response or of the whole being reacting to its environment and exploiting resources at hand to try to survive and flourish -­?-­? which we can see in much simpler cases -­?-­? is what


11  R.E. Nesbitt, The Geography of Thought (New York: Free Press, 2003), pp. 2-­?5.


we are trying to say with the word “mind.” The mind is what the brain does, and the brain is doing so much, and is interacting so powerfully with other brains, in so complex a form, that we have so much to look at when we start thinking about consciousness. My idea here is simply that the basic functions -­?-­? such as seeking, fear, rage, surprise and play -­?-­? in interactions with each other and in society, constitute what we call mind.


“As proof of the existence of mind, we have only history and civilization, art, science and philosophy.”12   Language that would have been adequate to describe the ages before the appearance of the first artifact must now be enlarged by concepts like agency and intention, and new forms of life in which the universe itself begins to be questioned.


The idea of the self emerging in the biological model is not any kind of fixed entity – it is more like a collection of dynamic processes – by exploiting cultural resources, we begin to get a handle on processes that normally operate without any conscious control at all.




Looking over the whole expanse of the history covered in this research, without belaboring the material or trying to force it into some ready-­?made shape, there is nonetheless one large result that emerges very consistently in each lengthy epoch. Briefly this is the exploitation of social resources for expanding the power of the self. We see this in Homer’s praise of wily Odysseus -­?-­? taking on many disguises, anxious to learn new languages and customs, diplomatic, ingenious, self-­?restrained -­?-­? whose protean nature allows him to adapt to different fates in society and thus learn to become more than he was.  We see it in Plato’s insight that the key to making men strong enough to govern themselves lies in refashioning the society in which they are born and educated.  We see it in Aristotle’s definition of man as a political animal.  We see it in the jump from the heroic ideal of classical times -­?-­? a world of self-­?power -­?-­? to the medieval ideal of obedience -­?-­? a world of god-­?power -­?-­? as we see that society teaches us to see ourselves as the authors of our actions or as having no power in ourselves -­?-­? both conceptions showing us a social origin for the way people look at themselves and their expectations about what they can and cannot do.  We see it in Shakespeare’s creation of drama from the Morality play, his unparalleled display of human types drawn from every station in society -­?-­? Shakespeare gives us more of the human condition, and thus more to absorb and become, than virtually anyone else.  We see the same theme in Nietzsche, who shows us that the roles we take on in social life create the precedent for our explicitly creating a persona and an agency for ourselves. We see it from our psychological and biological studies, which confirm for us again that we are exactly as much as we can learn and take on from our social relationships.


Thus the study of different schemes for laying out the nature of human being and its problematic divisions and recombinations leads us to conclusions about the nature of


  • Marilynn Robinson, Absence of Mind (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), p.


society and the jump from social contexts to individual behavior -­?-­? taking in more of the social brain, making more of the social brain explicit, and incorporating more of social dynamics into personal choice. By doing so we exploit the dynamism that emerges in the evolutionary process -­?-­? human social evolution and cooperation -­?-­? and thus make ourselves more social, which in our time means more cosmopolitan and open -­?-­? as if to remake ourselves into a bigger city, a deliberative body, a noisy community that airs its disputes and works through them, by talking things through, and by making decisions.


Thus it makes no sense to investigate the construction of self, or the division of the self into parts and so on, because the self is only what one creates and puts into practice. All we have done here is to show that when we create more ‘self’ for ourselves and a larger sense of agency, we do so by taking in more from the society in which we take part, unhooking somewhat from society and its power to determine the significance of things for us, by explicitly appropriating this power and deploying it on our own.




By this line of thinking skepticism is healing of itself and this is the claim we are testing.


I smile with my readers in hearing someone claim to teach us anything about  healing.  Of course there is a spirit in the Gospels, and in the ancient Dhammapada, in which holy men teach about healing, which may be legitimate cases even if mine is not.  But it is also true that ‘healing’ often means becoming indoctrinated or is equated with believing some or other nonsense.  This is the mistake of equating real understanding with belief.


My particular teaching about healing turns out to be about society. This is my finding. I’m saying: no one is healed alone. I’m talking about relationships, and the social mind, and living in society, and taking in more of the social mind explicitly for oneself. In a sense the problem is to take on more from society and become a new kind of society, a more explicitly mindful society, with more and more focus on thinking. (“If man’s dignity consists in thought, let us all strive to think well” -­?-­? Pascal, Thoughts, VI, 347).


Healing -­?-­? but healing from what? To give it a name, let us say that healing is about forgiveness. Then psychotherapy is forgiveness. The healing process offers forgiveness. This means that the unforgiving are still sick, believing that they are unforgiven.


I’m saying that forgiveness is the coin of the realm. I am saying we all must feel this -­?-­? that we are after something fundamentally social -­?-­? though ‘forgiveness’ is just a word. We can think the problem in other ways and propose other ways of setting the course.


We all have some sickness unto death, something to confess, some shame or sin or something about which we are guilty, some division, which William James calls “a sense that there is something wrong about us as we naturally stand.”13  This is a very old idea. C.G. Jung argued that only the wounded healer can heal, and there is a kind of biblical precedent for this idea in the story about Jesus perceiving in himself that power had gone forth from him, or as Shakespeare says, “that virtue had gone out of him,” after he had healed a woman without even knowing it, when she touched the hem of his robe. The story tells us that when one has done real work and there is real healing, the healer feels exhausted.  They feel exhausted because they are fighting against powerful forces.


Everyone who goes on being sick and refines the sickness and polishes the sickness and nurses this sickness, has the secondary gain of refusing to forgive, so that he can go on in anger, and in greed, and in every other kind of emotion that might rise up from pain. But we are talking about an idea in which human beings can gain increasing happiness as they are relieved of servitude beneath the emotions -­?-­? a servitude engendered in unconscious mental conflicts -­?-­? as emotion, conscience, observation and thinking do more work -­?-­? this is what we are zeroing in on in thinking about criticism and healing.


Let us say then that the patient is a screen for the projection of the therapist’s sins, enabling him to let them go.  The therapist sees in the patient all that he has failed to forgive in himself.  Here he has another chance to look at it.  He can open it again to re-­? evaluation.  He can forgive.  Thus the more he is skeptical and brings criticism back to himself, the more he uncovers and can heal.  Skepticism is healing -­?-­? we don’t have to be protected from truth, or ‘explain,’ deny or repress it -­?-­? truth really is healing of itself.


The fundamental concept of mental health that seems to emerge in these researches is complex; it involves exposure to reality; it is social in nature -­?-­? it is a kind of growth via relation; it involves replacing automatic responses with mindful responses (via social resources we have a chance to isolate what is going on unconsciously within us -­?-­? by means of social learning we gets some handholds to bring more of the automatism under conscious control -­?-­? ultimately to a new kind of unforced but thoughtful response. In this sense Freud’s maxim that where Id was, there Ego shall be is exactly right.


A frequent metaphor from the new biological synthesis is imagining oneself as a very small rider on top of an enormous elephant.  This goes to the sense that we are much more elephant than we are rider.  At the same time absolutely everything depends on the rider learning something about the elephant, and gradually getting some control over the elephant.  This is very difficult and should make us patient with people who have some trouble handling their elephant.  We a chance to learn something from experienced riders, and from people who spend their lives studying elephants, and from poets, artists and philosophers who show us the elephant-­?struggle in all its complexities -­?-­? but mainly we learn, and have to unlearn, from our families, and from our struggle to get out from the closed world of the family into the enormous reality that includes it -­?-­? which means that much is expected of us -­?-­? healing is something we have to work for.


  • William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), XX, Conclusions.