Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Person Concept

The Foundations of Behavioral Science 

"I am myself and my circumstance."  Ortega y Gasset

"...These concepts: proposition, language, thought, world, stand in line one behind the other, each equivalent to each. (But what are these words to be used for now? The language-game in which they are to be applied is missing.)"  Ludwig Wittgenstein

Despite what we are sometimes told, we know what we are and what we do.  This knowing is essential to function as a person in the company of others.  But what we implicitly know is not always respected in the theories and practices of behavioral and social science. When theory starts with the premise that we are not as we seem, something fundamental is missing. When we are described as essentially unconscious, irrational, fully determined by our past or physiology, the social foundation that rests on choice and accountability become an illusion. (Alternatively, but less under the guise of rigorous science, we are described as potential spirits or mere social constructions, free and unbounded from natural constraint.) 

My students ask are you psychodynamic, cognitive-behavioral, humanistic? 

There is another way to build a behavioral science. The Person Concept, the cornerstone of Peter Ossorio's Descriptive Psychology, makes explicit our implicit understanding, while providing a place for our physiology, our past determinants, and our unconscious and coerced actions while respecting the unrealized potential of socially constructed life. The Person Concept provides a systematic and coherent foundation for building behavioral science by identifying the fundamental concepts and transition rules required for a unified science of persons as persons. The absence of this underpinning has resulted in behavioral science that appear as a collection of unconnected "silos of knowledge" lacking a common ground. The result more resembles warring theologies than systematized science. In reaction to this eclectic embarrassment, some practitioners claim to engage in "integrative" practice, theory be damned. Oh, would it be true.

Consider how normal science is supposed to work.  Every observation and theory should have transition rules that allow for a coherent connection to all other claims made by scientists. The subject matter's empirical assertions, laws, grammar, and rules should, as a goal, seamlessly connect without contradiction. Astronomy and particle physics, organic and inorganic chemistry, genetics and neurophysiology should produce a coherent, potentially interconnected body of knowledge. When such connection is neither apparent nor formally possible, a systematic reworking is called for.  This is generally recognized by the community of physical and natural scientists. Such unified theory has not been achieved but is arguably a goal. Thomas Kuhn made this clear years ago when he pointed out that a scientific scaffold corrupted by anomaly and contradiction eventually calls for revolution and reformation. 

Now consider psychology. 

In 1976, Peter Ossorio wrote in the Preface to his "What Actually Happens": 

Sometimes it is better just to make a fresh start.
Just as a building may be so ramshackle that it can neither bear the weight it must nor be refurbished or enlarged effectively, so also may a social or intellectual structure be so deficient and self– defeating that any procedure which involved accepting it in general in order to correct some deficiencies in particular would be as hopeful and productive as slapping Uncle Remus’ Tar Baby around. In such circumstances one naturally tries to salvage what one can, but a fresh start is indicated.

Ossorio's Person Concept is a fresh start. Below, you'll find an outline of the elegant and satisfying elaboration of the Person Concept found in his The Behavior of Persons. 

Ossorio recognized that:

1. The world makes sense, and so do people. They make sense now.
(They already make sense to begin with.)
2. It's one world. Everything fits together. Everything is related to everything else.
3. Things are what they are and not something else instead.
4. Don't count on the world being simpler than it has to be.

Ossorio thought it a good idea to approach ourselves as persons and not as something else. (We are not reducible to a machine, a wet computer, or an organism. Nor are we fundamentally irrational, unconscious, etc.  Such embodiments and attributes may be, however, something we also are but not what we fundamentally are). 

The starting point is recognizing that people are deliberate actors who observe and describe themselves and their circumstances, critique how they are doing, and adjust their actions accordingly. In doing so, people encounter and create their world. In we accept this as a starting point, the concepts Individual Person, Behavior, Language and World are the necessary interdependent concepts, each relying on each. None of these concepts can be adequately appreciated without full reference to the other three. All four together, Ossorio subsumed under the Person Concept.

Scientists, for example, are individuals who deliberately attempt to understand some aspect of the world using the social practices of their scientific community.  This includes representing that understanding symbolically. For behavioral scientists, this might include attempting to systematically understand their own practices.  The social and behavioral sciences (or alternatively, the systematic humanities) are fundamentally different from the physical or natural sciences in this way. Behavioral and social science must have a place for representing the practices of scientists as empirical instances of the behavior of persons. The scientist is just another person within the boundaries of the subject matter. 

The physical and natural sciences do not have this problem. For them, it is dirty pool to advance ad hominem critique, "that's just the sort of physics we'd expect from someone like her." But ad hominem arguments, if accomplished transparently and systematically, are, at times, appropriate in the behavioral and social sciences. Knowing something of the scientist's life, personality, language, and world is often useful in understanding their perspective on the subject matters that catch their attention. We are interested in observer perspective and bias. But it's more than this. Psychological theory has to have a place to account for itself.  How could it be otherwise?  Creating, critiquing, and empirically validating theory is an activity of persons (and only persons).

Unlike the physical sciences, the social and behavioral sciences must be both recursive, i.e., allow for systematic transition, stability and change, and reflexive,  i.e., have a place to self-represent within the subject matter. The Person Concept accomplishes this. (The parametric formulation of Intentional Action is recursive since it can be repeated and linked to other actions performed by self and other, and has a built in place for the representation of both the person acting and the action performed.) 

So with this promise made, let me show a bit of the Person Concept along with some hyperlinks connecting to content that further unpacks and uses these concepts.  Part of what is promised is a pre-empirical foundation of explicit concepts and reminders consistent with the fact that in our actual lives we make choices, are held accountable, and can negotiate and understand others in our shared culture. That's not all we do, but unless this ordinary manner of living has a place in behavioral science, such "science" results in caricature or distortion.  

Here is a chart of the concepts and some of the key formulations, elements, and reminders that are components of the Person Concept. Calling these concepts "components" may be misleading. They are not in a part-whole relationship, but, as inter-dependent, offer different perspectives on the overall Person Concept.  

We'll start with the Individual Person.  Starting with this concept is a matter of choice, not necessity. We can start with any of the other three concepts and end up in the same place.  This is not a logical-deductive system but something more akin to a map.

I'll be employing two distinctive Descriptive Psychology methods, Paradigm Case Formulation and Parametric Analysis, in illustrating these central concepts. Paradigm Case Formulations are employed when it is desirable to achieve a common understanding of a subject matter but where definitions prove too limiting, various, ambiguous or impossible. A Parametric Analysis, on the other hand, attempts to clarify how one example of the subject matter can be the same or different from all other examples. Each parameter should identify a necessary and independent dimension of the concept.  

The Individual Person

Cognizant and Deliberate Action are instances of the broader category of Intentional Action.

Notice that this formulation allows for non-human persons as a possibility. I explore this in the posting, "What is a person and how can we be sure?"

What sort of object is a person? With the ascent of neuroscience, clarity regarding the relationship of persons, brain, neurology, and embodiment is called for.  The neuropsychologist Ned Kirsch offers a clarification in "The Conceptual Relationship Between Embodiment and Persons".  

The "Individual Person" is able to engage in Cognizant and Deliberate Intentional Actions, briefly described below.

Behavior as Intentional Action

A Parametric Analysis of Behavior:

Behavior = Intentional Action = < I, W, K, KH, P, A, S, PC > 

I: The Identity of the actor.
W:  What the actor Wants to accomplish.
K:  What the actor Knows, distinguishes, or recognizes in the circumstance that is relevant to what the actor Wants. (In Deliberate Action the actor recognizes different options, in Cognizant Action the actor is self-aware of the ongoing behavior).
KH:  What the actor Knows-How to do given what the actor Wants and Knows about the relevant circumstance.
P:  The procedural manner or Performance of the action in real time.
A:  The Achievement of the action.
S:  The Significance of the action for the actor.  What the actor is up to by performing the act in question.
PC:  The Personal Characteristics of the actor expressed by the action.  

These parameters, < I, W, K, KH, P, A, S, PC >, provide a useful format for the comparative study of personality theory. Some theories focus more on some of these parameters than on the others.  For example, the operant conditioner will focus on the relation of Performance to Achievement; the psychoanalyst, to the parameters of Want, Knowledge, and Significance. 

The parameters provide a common ground linking otherwise unconnected "silos of theory". An adequate personality theory needs a differentiated way of accounting for all of these conceptual distinctions.            

The Person Concept's "Individual Person" is able to engage in Cognizant and Deliberate Intentional Actions. I illustrate this in the posting A Short Course in Descriptive Psychology.  

We can start with a simple diagram illustrating the structure of "agency".  

A chain of these Intentional Action "diamonds" that link behaviors creates recursive Social Practice Descriptions.

The paradigmatic actions of a Person are Cognizant and Deliberate:

In Cognizant Action, the actor knows something of the Intentional Action performed and this allows for reflexive representation. In Deliberate Action a choice among alternative ways to proceed is made. 

Since a person is both a cognizant observer and deliberate critic of their ongoing action, self-regulation by means of a classic negative feedback loop occurs. 

I explore these concepts further in the posting Intentional Action, Empathy, and Psychotherapy.  

Ray Bergner's "What is behavior? And so What?" cogently argues that psychology has been crippled by the lack of an intelligible and consensually recognized agreement on the meaning of "behavior" and presents Intentional Action as a solution to this problem. 

Behavior follows from the recognition of something wanted that one knows how to get. The natural multiplicity of a person's motives or reasons figures in their judgment.  The decision that results in what they actually do follows from the weight they actually give their specific motivational values. This produces choice, conflict, and the fact of individual differences. Some of this is expressed in Ossorio's Relationship Formula:


Ossorio reminds us that language is "a form of behavior in which we make certain distinctions because we have forms of behavior which call for them".  Accordingly we can always ask, what was that person doing by saying that?" 

Language provides the Person with a way to represent actionable distinctions and communicate and negotiate options; to identify, describe, evoke, and enjoin. To be able to represent actionable distinctions is vital in Deliberate Action and the social practices that make up a person's life and community. These distinctions will also be the Individual Person's World. 

Here's a Parametric Analysis of language as verbal behavior:

Verbal Behavior =  < Concepts, Locution, Behavior as Social Practice >

The formula explicitly ties the meaning of language to its use.  Concepts are distinctions that have informational value. They represent distinctions that make a difference in behavior. Concepts are operating tools for our varied and irregular actions. They vary the way that tools in a tool chest vary. They are created and employed to do different things: To correspond in one way or another to all the things we do. Locutions or  utterances are expressed in speech or other symbolic form and correspond to or represent the concepts. The Behavior is the Social Practice where the uttered concept is employed and validated through shared social use. This is similar to Wittgenstein’s point that language is not private, that the meaning of a concept follows from its use in what he called language-games. And remember, we have all sorts of games played in all sorts of different and irregular ways. We need a vast array of concepts along with a complicated grammar to get at the objects, processes, events, and state of affairs that constitute our World or Reality.

I employ this understanding of language in the posting, Language, Influence, and self-presentation: Lessons for the young therapist.

Inherent in the concept of language are the social practices that provide the meaning and the significance of communication. This naturally implies what some have suggested is the fifth major component of the Person Concept, Community. Anthony Putman's   "Communities" is a seminal explication of this concept. 

An updated version of Putman's Parametric Analysis of Community:

Communities = <M, SP, S, C, Lc, CP, W> 
M: The Members eligible to participate in the practices of the community. 
SP: The Social Practices of the Community that members engage in when they are doing the community's "done thing."
S: Statuses are the places (roles, jobs, behavior potential, etc.) a member may have within the community.
C: Concepts are the distinctions that members are expected to competently appreciate. 
Lc: Locutions are the verbal behaviors, the general and technical language employed by competent members of the group in engaging in the practices of the community.  "Baseball talk."
CP:  The Choice Principles typify the decisions usually made in acting as "one of us".
W: The World is the domain of objects, processes, events, and states of affairs germane to acting as a member of the community. 


"The world is all that is the case." A person has both a world of possibilities and the world historically created and encountered. One's real world consists of all of a person's actionable distinctions that make up the their course of life. 

This is the world we actually know, a place of objects, processes, events, and states of affairs all systematically inter-connected. This is formally articulated in Descriptive Psychology's State of Affairs System.

The State of Affairs System's transition rules and The Relationship Formula provide a grammar that allows all of the elements in The Person Concept to inter-connect and transform, to compose and decompose. 

State of Affairs System Transition Rules

1. A state of affairs is a totality of related objects and/or processes and/or events and/or states of affairs.

2. A process is a state of affairs that is a constituent of some other state of affairs.

2a. So also is an object, so also is an event, so also is a state of affairs.

3. An object is a state of affairs that has other, related objects as immediate constituents. (An object divides into related, smaller objects.)

4. A process is a sequential change from one state of affairs to another. 

5. A process is a state of affairs that has other, related processes as immediate constituents.  (A process divides in related, smaller processes.)

6. An event is a direct change from one state of affairs into another.

7. An event is a state of affairs having two states of affairs (“before” and “after”) as immediate constituents.

8. That an object and/or a process and/or an event and/or a state of affairs has a given relation to another object and/or process and/or event and/or state of affairs is a state of affairs.

9. That an object or a process or an event or a state of affairs is of a given kind is a state of affairs.

10. That a process begins is an event and that it ends is a different event.

11. That an object comes to exist is an event and that it ceases to exist is a different event.

The posting, "What is Reality?"  offers an unfolding of these basic reality concepts in which "Reality" refers to the full range of possible objects, processes, events, and states of affairs, and "Real World" to the historically particular one found and created. 

The computer scientist, Joel Jeffrey, in his essay, Structure, demonstrates a use of the State of Affairs System in a "calculation of the structural similarity of disparate kinds of things in the world, ranging from human families to intra-cellular organelles". 

What I have presented hardly does justice to the elegance and elaboration of Ossorio's creation, nor have I mentioned the related methodologies that follow from this perspective. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

Monsters and Evil. Further reflections on clinical and moral language.

Finish Line 2013

On the identification of monsters and evil.

Next week the sentencing phase of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's trial begins. He faces life in prison or execution. 

While I share with many a desire for harsh punishment, I also want to live in a civilized state. Boston is a place where most everyone demands harsh punishment but only a small minority supports capitol punishment. Even the parents of the youngest victim want to spare Tsarnaev's life. Concerns with the moral, the clinical, and the legal collide. 

The responses to “Evil, Sickness, and Choice”, where I called Tsarnaev an evil monster, were helpful, even therapeutic. They clarified my ambivalence and discomfort. They remind me I’m dealing with two categories, the clinical/medical and the moral, usefully complemented by a third, the legal.  Here’s what I see a bit better. To express outrage and indignation, I want a language of blame, accountability, and responsibility. I need expressions that honor that actions follow from reasons and choice. Clinical/medical language minimizes or limits blame insofar as it deliberately avoids pointing to the value or worth of someone. Moral language attacks the problem of worth head on.  Unlike the quiet calm of a clinical statement, moral language can scream judgment. But shouting is satisfying and troubling at the same time. Moral utterance, at least for me, elicits struggle. I want to yell, “you evil, disgusting monster!” but then I’m appalled at what I may be setting in motion: “Let’s kill the monsters!”

Moral language is unruly. I want rules that, on the one hand, appreciate our moral understanding while, on the other,  protect us from primitive moral impulse. That’s what the category “legal” offers. The law attempts to systematically sort these issues out. It provides the cool sterile procedure of clinical/medical method while respecting a need for blame and judgment. Courts of law provide and enforce official and negotiated Degradation Ceremonies.  At least, that’s their charter.

Another problem. Calling someone a monster is different than treating someone as a monster.  Earlier I equated certain personal characteristics as those that identify a monster. (I believe I muddled my use of the concept of  Personal Characteristics” by not distinguishing the clinical from the moral). I’m thinking of the tale of the scorpion and the frog and what happens when the scorpion convinces the frog to provide it a ride across the river. We don’t blame monsters the same way we blame persons. After all, can you really blame a monster, if a monster is what a monster does? 

There are, however, the interrelated distinctions of responsibility for one’s deliberate actions and responsibility for knowing one’s personal characteristics and dispositions. Freud nicely pointed this out when he was asked if we are responsible for our dreams and replied if we don’t hold ourselves responsible, then our neighbors will. With this in mind, if a monster holds itself responsible for its evil ways and refrains from acting on these dispositions, is it still a monster? Was it ever?  

Next week, the penalty deliberations of a jury that represents but is not representative of Boston and Eastern Massachusetts begins. The Marathon is next Monday.


On A Jury of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's Peers.   And  Monday April 15th, 2013, Marathon Day.
On the issue of responsibility for a person's actions and their personal characteristics: The Two Concepts of Action and Responsibility in Psychoanalysis.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Choice, Sickness, and Evil. Some thoughts on clinical and moral language.

There are monsters among us. They are one of us and they are not one of us. 

A pilot, depressive and narcissistic, learns that his flying for Germanwings will be curtailed by his medical condition. His problematic eyesight will end his career and kill his dream of captaining for Lufthansa. He enters history in suicide and mass murder.  

An impressionable teenager, enthralled by his powerful older brother, absorbed in Islamic ideology and grievance, plants a homemade bomb in the midst of the crowd at the Boston Marathon. He walks away and triggers the fuse.

Why, even with a complexity of mitigating factors: medical, psychological, religious, familial, and cultural, do I say these men are evil. Why, as a clinician and scientist, do I still employ this ancient concept? Why is evil not reducible to sickness? In short, evil is a moral concept, sickness is a clinical  concept, and I need moral language to express my utter outrage and indignation.  

I don't think evil is in us. Evil is not a substance. Nor do I see evil as something requiring theology. Gods and demons have nothing intrinsically to do with it. Evil is determined by the choice finally made. Saying that a choice is evil is to pass moral judgment, to engage in a Degradation Ceremony. Given what I hold most dear, and acting as a representative of my community,  I may have reason to pass such judgment. I do this when the values violated are so significant that someone who can willingly and knowingly engage in such a violation is acting as someone alien to my community. In these circumstances, I have reason to speak of monsters. 

Do I understand the behavior of these men to be a byproduct of psychiatric illness, ideology, personal weakness or social grudge? If the devil didn’t make them do it, if it wasn’t because of their depression, their ideology, or their big brother, then what did? What made them do it? The answer is nothing made them do it. They did it. Their behavior can be understandable, even unsurprising, without it being caused by anything. An excuse is not a cause.

Insisting on questions of causality distorts our understanding of why people behave. We become confused when we reduce our understanding of behavior, no matter how problematic or strange, to causal explanation. If it was caused, can I truly be blamed? If it was caused, what choice did I actually have? Is it enough to say, "I’m depraved on account I’m deprived?" Better to recognize some people have their reasons, twisted and evil.  Reasons aren't causal. A person weighs their reasons. Reasons for or against a course of action are weighed against other reasons.  The reasons that prevail indicate the character of the actor. 

Still, when I think about Tsarnaev and Lubitz clinically, I wonder about narcissistic personality disorders, psychopathy, and depression. I wonder if they felt intense anger and shame evoked by loss, fear, and grievance.  They may have suffered. They may have been subjected to indoctrination. I accept these potential facts as part of my understanding.

Nonetheless, to me, these are evil men.

Simply put, both morally and clinically, these two are persons who perpetrated evil. Persons are agents, and unless unconscious or under utter coercion, potentially deliberate actors, whose choices reflect their personalities. In the cases in question, evidence points to considerable planning and forethought:  Bombs built and planted for maximum destruction; locked cockpit doors researched, cries ignored, and autopilots set to increase decent and speed.

But I would call these men evil even if what they did was unplanned, spur of the moment, and under extreme duress.

Why? I see no absence of a final choice. From the perspectives of these men, I believe they thought their behavior was self-justified. That’s why they’re evil.  Are the circumstances that evoked or justified their deeds important? Of course, similar to the fact that adversity does not tend to bring out the best in us, but makes us mean. Could I argue that under enough stress, hardship, depression, and despair, all of us are capable of evil? I could, but I won’t, since the empirical evidence differs. We don’t all make such choices even in the worst of times. We don’t have it in us and this shows when push comes to shove by the values we actually enact.

Or I could simply say no; some of us, many of us, do not have an option to act with wanton, murderous intent and disregard for others. That option is simply not available, not a possibility given our character. When a Deliberate Action reflects wanton, malicious or murderous intent with disregard for the lives it effects, it's a Paradigm Case of what I call evil. Violence, terrible and lethal, is not inherently evil given this paradigm. The soldier who kills within the rules of engagement or the police officer who shoots with proper recognition of the restrictions for lethal force does not fulfill the paradigm. (As a paradigm case, there is, however, a place for ambiguity and disagreement: the resistance fighter, violently acting to liberate his community, may seem righteous to some, evil to others. This may boil down to how one views the legitimacy of the communities in question and which side you're on. And, at day's end, we may have reason to label an entire community evil given its wanton, murderous intent: There are nazis with final solutions.) 

Evil is not self-defense, nor is it a necessity. It is a name for a choice. 

Choice is constrained by the options available. And options are limited by belief and circumstance. But short of utter and complete delusion or coercion, there is always the option to reconsider, resist, desist, refrain, or refuse at whatever cost. Choice is mitigated by circumstance but behavior does not follow from circumstance but from the personal characteristics of the actor in the circumstance.

Keep in mind: persons are agents, actors able to observe and critique their actions. There is no way around this if personal responsibility has any real meaning. Responsibility involves accountability for the choice actually made. This cannot be divorced from the personal characteristics of the actor who makes the choice.

Clinical language is appropriate when the goal is to avoid a moralistic stance of blame, or to facilitate empathy or, although with less accuracy, prediction. We appeal to clinical language when we examine the personal history of the character in question. This can help our understanding. It provides the mitigating facts. It facilitates psychotherapy, disclosure, and confession. We use clinical language to explore a performance under the guise of not being judgmental.

But at times judgment is called for. Clinical and moral language may cover the same performance but with different intent and significance.  Moral language is appropriate when blame is at stake and where agency is treated as irreducibly given. Moral language is employed when we are judging a person's place in our community. We employ concepts such as evil when we make the judgment that a person's actions reveal they are not, and perhaps never were, one of us in good standing.   

Personal characteristics revealed in an evil act are the characteristics we associate with monsters.  

This is what moral language serves: It identifies evil, it isolates the monsters. The morality of those making this judgment appears in how they act toward those they identify as such. This includes their disposition to use such language. Isolating a monster is not the same as killing a monster. Identifying evil behavior is not the same as reducing the actor to someone essentially evil. 

In the comment section below, Tony Putman points out the danger of seeing a single act as demonstrating character. He also asks me to consider the dangerous consequence of the label "monster". Part of my response was developed earlier in "A Jury of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's Peers".  In the dialog below, Tony, Greg Colvin, Clarke Stone, and Phillip Cartwright offer an unfolding and clarifying  confrontation, identify problematic implications, and build an understanding, at least for me. I follow up my response with On the identification of monsters and evil. Further reflection on clinical and moral language.

On the nature of Degradation Ceremonies, deserved or not, I have written The Degradation Ceremonies of Everyday Life.  

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Confusions and Uncertainty in Sexual Feeling and Identity

Confusions and uncertainty in sexual feeling and  identity: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The solution for those who do raise such questions is not to find an answer (there isn't any to be found) but to outgrow the inclination to raise the 'question'. Peter G Ossorio, The Behavior of Persons

A few weeks ago the Boston Study Group discussed psychotherapy clients upset by their confusions and uncertainty regarding their sexual feelings and identity and the way this plays out in their behavior. As it happened, what started our conversation was a different issue. We moved from addiction to the concept of therapeutic through-lines to talking about people confused and uncertain regarding their sexuality. We wondered if there are regularly expected, rule following consequences to being confused about one's sexual feelings and identity. (We were not taking about people whose self-assigned identity is clear, whether acceptable or not to their relevant communities or to themselves.  I looked at this some in “The Degradation Ceremonies of Everyday Life”. It matters what other people think.)

Here's a summary of what we talked about.

The concept of a therapeutic through-line was suggested as descriptive of a recovering addict's move from addiction to membership in a 12-step community.  We wondered how recovery communities offer a continuation in the life of the addict as addict with the added benefit of providing a coherent self-understanding and renewed satisfaction.  The recovery group offers membership in good-standing as an alternative to the confused and problematic attempts of the addict to find significant satisfactions in life.  Addiction and recovery groups figured into this as a means of maintaining a common thread of satisfaction that linked the addiction to the recovery. 

But what of the confusion itself? Another member wondered if trying to understand his client’s confusion about her sexual feelings and identity might throw some light on this.  His example involved a young woman who loves a man but wonders if she's a lesbian. She doesn't have strong erotic feelings toward her boyfriend, but believes she should. She is also adamant about her love and deep intimacy with him and insists that that not come into question.  Lately, however, she feels what might be erotic stirring when around a woman of her acquaintance. What is she to make of the nuanced and complex nature of her attachments and desires? 

From this we wondered about a wide class of people uncertain about their sexual identity, confused about what to make of their urges and desires.  A variable considered was whether the people in question accept what they believe are the social norms regarding appropriate sexuality and desire, whether heterosexual, homosexual, or a bit of both. (And then of course, there's the relational mode of engagement: sadistic, masochistic, and so on, along with the autoerotic. We assumed, correctly or not, that most adult masturbation involves a fantasy "object" related to in some imagined manner of encounter). 

The people we wondered about are those who don’t know what category fits them, but believe in conventional categories whether they see them as social constructions or a natural given. They may even know the categories are inadequate but nonetheless struggle to fit themselves into some Procrustean bed. 

The whole notion of lust is also a confusing variable, especially when people believe they should have a stronger urge than they feel. To make matters more complicated, what does this all mean regarding love and intimacy?  This last question was tabled for the time being.

Since the study group is interested in behavioral logic, we sorted out three categories of confusion and/or uncertainty regarding erotic behavior.

Three behavioral variations of uncertainty regarding I to You:

1. I'm attracted to you but don’t clearly understand what’s being evoked.  I’m curious to find out, so let’s explore if you're willing.

2. When you are near me or I think about you, I feel uncomfortably awkward and defensively attempt to avoid you and what you are evoking.  I might become hostile or submissive if you get too close owing to the anxiety, guilt, shame, or some other discomfort you stir up.

3. When you (or it) appear, I freeze or panic.

As a first move, let's take the first relation, if consensual, as healthy.  Curiosity opens up behavior potential and expands a person's world.  (Rarely does it kill the cat). The second two cases are more or less pathological, since they restrict or prevent choice and limit the range of deliberate activity.  Defense and panic constrict the world. In the second case the person has a defensive ability to establish distance at the cost of flexible association, but in the third case the person is simply disabled.  I suspect these groupings can be applied usefully to other behaviorally significant issues as well. 

Social norms can exacerbate problems in the second case. When self-accepted norms conflict with hunger for a taboo relationship, fear and hatred for what is desired but forbidden is unsurprising.  This can occur in incestuous, homosexual, pedophilic, and other proscribed relations and may produce urges to coerce, eliminate or destroy the anxiety or panic producing “object”. The greater the taboo, the more self-degrading the encounter is felt, the more the encounter can provoke a hostile reaction. Here desire becomes shameful, inducing reactive hatred, disgust, and violence.

In contrast to a hostile reaction, a submissive stance can also result. This may involve a self-deceiving avoidance of blame for the sanctioned behavior, akin to what Sartre meant by "bad-faith". The defensive move attempts to abdicate agency or accountability. The person disowns responsibility by claiming they were seduced or overcome by desire. Perhaps they were. This can be a variation of the devil made me do it, something I examined in "Sex and a Person's True Colors":  The perpetrator as victim of their biology or the other's enticement. 

When erotic hunger is intense, correctly labeled or not, all three cases intensify, with different consequences given the person’s self-awareness and competence to manage and tolerate desire. Given the usual complexity of people’s values, conflict is inevitable and the ability to manage and tolerate ambivalence crucial. Rarely is the erotic free of some degree of ambivalence.

And that was how far we got in discussion. 

So what do you think? What are other useful complexities? Where else can these three grouping of health, defense, and disability apply? (Or what relevant themes would be distorted or misconceived using this model?)

And what are most of us to make of how complex and nuanced our erotic lives actually are?  Long ago, as a summer student at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Allen Ginsburg was my seminar teacher in a course on Blake and spiritual poetics. He ended class with a reminder and a rousing, "Now Everybody Sing!"  

But since we shouldn't table love, Ray Bergners's essay published in The American Journal of Psychotherapy, Love and Barriers to Love: An Analysis for Psychotherapists and Others, provides some of the subtle complexity useful for clear thinking (when clear thinking is called for).

For a discussion of the concept of through-lines see Through-lines and the Dramaturgical Pattern and Formulation of Through-lines and the Dramaturgical Pattern.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Freud, Freedom, and the Human Animal

What brings me back to psychoanalysis? What do I want to teach in the semester to follow? I'll start with and come back to Freud. 

Freud had two commitments that remain mine. The first is to a vision of our nature and the second concerns the opportunities and boundaries of our freedom as persons.

Freud's first commitment was to our animal nature. We are mammals; primates subject to the pains and pleasures, the needs and conflicts that come from a primate nature that informs our capacities and dispositions. As animals go, we live a very long life.  We have a long gestation, an extended infancy followed by a period of childhood vulnerability and a maturation that takes decades.  Finally, we have decline and death. This provides considerable time for a life to go well or poorly. 

Freud was especially fascinated by the relationships of infancy and childhood to adult personality.  He said that the child is the father to the man, and as Adam Phillips points out, showed that “Childhood...informed everything but predicted nothing.” I think this empirical claim is correct and goes a long way toward clarifying why the history of psychotherapy and the history of “good enough parenting” go hand in hand. Psychoanalytically informed culture has had models of parenting and methods of therapy that speak to each other in similar terms.

Saying that childhood predicts nothing is not to say that childhood does not make adulthood understandable. I think it does.  Untying this knot will show a significant connection between our nature and our freedom.  Keep in mind, understanding and predicting are not the same. You can make sense to me even if I can't predict your actions. (What I can do is recognize whether your behavior seems in-character or not.) 

Freud's work involved coordinating human developmental biology with the requirements for membership in the human community. I want to say a bit more about nature, constraints, and freedom: Our forty-week gestation and slow development create the necessity for a stable social unit to protect the infant and young and shelter their immediate caretakers. Family, community, and culture follow as a necessity. It takes a village. This will ensure our possible survival and provide the context for acquiring our various values, knowledge, and competencies, but also our conflicts, inhibitions, and vulnerabilities. Sex and aggression, hierarchy and power, the competition for love, mates, and resources become inevitable themes of social opportunity and regulation. Desire and regulation will necessarily conflict.

Sexual desire and its regulation is, of course, a central feature of Freud's theory. Desire and the need to connect shape an important through-line that comes with our bodies and cannot be fully ignored or renounced. We are interested in each other sexually apart from reproduction, a disposition we share with a few of our primate cousins and other big-brained mammals (especially, it seems, the aquatic ones).  We take the pleasures and pains of mating seriously and are polymorphous in our erotic expression. We get turned on more or less easily from infancy until our decline.

Our abilities and dispositions to express sexuality vary widely, and will be a source of significant pleasure, inhibition, and trauma.  Since sexuality has such a pervasive influence on our social lives, sex becomes a central focus of "civilized" regulation and constraint. 

As we mature and our competence to tolerate and manage the world changes, so does our potential for trauma. Freud was particularly sensitive to how conservative we are in harboring traumatic damage; how we remain preoccupied with how we've been hurt. We are dogged in returning to the scene of the crime. He called this the return of the repressed, driven by a compulsion to repeat, a concept he used to describe the unconscious and self-deception. Freud also invented a therapeutic relationship, psychoanalysis, as a weak but useful antidote to the problems of unfortunate repetition. 

Freud and the psychoanalytic community that followed had a second commitment. The first was to our instinctual, animal nature. The second was to our status as persons. When things go well enough, the average expected case, we are not merely Homo sapiens but become human beings and persons. We become deliberate actors, able to knowingly make choices, are linguistically competent, and as a result live a life in a dramaturgical pattern. Our lives hold together in an improvisational drama of developing, changing, and recurring through-lines of significance. Our story can be told, with some tellings being more serviceable than others. Freud believed the self-examined story offered the narrator greater freedom than the under-examined. Psychoanalysis would facilitate such examination. The goal was to free up choices not otherwise seen. Here, his commitment to biology, personal history, intentionality, and self-awareness coincide. His therapeutic goal was to help the defensively driven, unconsciously intentional actor become self-aware and deliberate. He believed that self-awareness better serves our capacity for “love and work”. I think this is true. Self-understanding is a boundary condition on our personal freedom, on our non predicable possibility to do something spontaneous and new. Awareness and choice go hand in hand.  

Freud synthesized his two commitments. He painfully appreciated that we are often far less free to engage in deliberate action and far less free to enjoy the opportunities and pleasures of our bodies than we may reasonably wish. In this spirit he wrote Civilizations and its Discontents and The Future of an Illusion. We domesticate ourselves and find religion. That brings us good news and bad news.

The bad news is that because of traumas and deprivation, necessary and unnecessary compromises of desire, and through culture's indoctrinations, we become a version of a human being whose drama has through-lines shaped by character disorder and neurosis

The good news is that all of us share these features and are capable, under fortuitous circumstances, of becoming more reasonable, spontaneous, and deliberate actors. But rarely can we do this by ourselves. We need help. Sometimes help comes from enlightened parenting, sometimes from finding and settling into stable and tolerant love and friendship. But, as Freud also hoped, it can be helped along by a prolonged immersion in a relationship that provides a second chance to revisit and explore the inhibitions and compromises that rob life of the joy that might be possible.  (Still, ever the pessimist, he thought the usual outcome would be to transform neurotic misery into ordinary unhappiness). 

Therapy requires work, an ordeal of sorts, taking whatever the time required to examine and confront the unhappily ingrained patterns, the unserviceable though-lines, and explore and practice other in-character versions of being a better person.  It will likely require more time than conditions allow.  He called this the “working-through” conducted by engaging in “free-association” as a manner of confronting and reducing the neurotic “repetition-compulsion”.

Freud's vision was to create increased “freedom of association” through the method of “free association”.  He invented a relationship to facilitate this. Empathy, appropriate silence, and mindfully refraining from judgment and direction would become central to the Analytic Attitude needed to maintain this relationship.  Psychoanalytic therapists would cultivate this stance toward their clients' thoughts and feelings in the service of enhancing their ability to engage in emotionally competent, deliberate and non-deliberate, intentional action. 

Intentional Action, the general case of goal-directed, meaningful behavior, can go right or wrong. It likely will go wrong when performed with inadequate knowledge of the circumstances, without suitable know-how, or with underdeveloped, conflicted, or unacceptable motives. Sometimes we literally don't know what we are doing or how to competently achieve it. If we don't know what we are doing, we can hardly choose to act otherwise. Choice requires a knowledge of serviceable options. With this in mind, Freud developed methods of interpreting and confronting self-deception.  The analysand is invited to engage in compassionate but ruthless self-examination.  For this to be possible, the analyst has to self-examine, too. This, the analysis of the repetitive patterns of transference and resistance, is the heart and soul of the psychoanalytic process. 

Freud attempted to understand the human animal with the aim of liberating it from the unnecessary damage and neurosis brought on by the trial of becoming a person. This remains the difficult, complicated, and constantly revised work in progress that I intend to share with you this semester. 

An outline of psychoanalytic theory and practice:  Essentials of Psychoanalytic Theory and Practice.

On the question of what constitutes therapy: Mindful Uncertainty: What is Psychotherapy?

and on the concept of transference, sort of: "Everything reminds me of my therapist"

and on being a primate, the Kinks, Apeman.

And on the policies and what Roy Schafer has called "The Analytic Attitude":

Saturday, January 10, 2015

When Religion Masks Pathology: The Vengeful Gods Within. We are Carlie Hebdo!

Every idea is someone's idea and every use of an idea is someone's use of the idea. 

How can a cartoon evoke murdous rage? How can satire justify  a  religious community's claim of victimhood? Who is so vulnerable to insult that murderous rage results? The logic to this madness involves religion as a problematic solution to personal and social pathology. Selective religious doctrine creates a map assembled for particular purposes. But who will follow the selections? 

It is easy to appreciate the victim who has directly suffered trauma, been cheated, degraded, lost territory, or power. But injury can be less direct. We can also feel victimized when the insult and damage happens to the people who are, in a manner of speaking, significantly part of us. If you hurt my children or my wife, I suffer, since my identity, my basic sense of self, is inexorably and intrinsically tied to them. I probably won't feel the full anguish of your pain, but I feel my version of the pain of those I deeply love. In a vital way, I am not separate from them. And if you hurt my children, if you hurt my wife, I will want to hurt you. I am fine with this. I think it's normal.

My family is not the same as the abstract idea of my family nor are they equated in my heart with their name, image, or likeness. My family is different, more significant, than any abstract belief in the sanctity of family. The map is not the terrain. But not everyone makes this separation nor is everyone so tolerant especially when it comes to images that depict the sacred.  Some religions forbid forms of representation and treat such representations as taboo and respond accordingly.  Still, there are many ways to address transgression both within and outside of one's community. What is a significant violation in one community may matter differently in another. 

For Muslims, images of Muhammad with comic or satirical intent not only transgresses but causes insult. For non Muslims, it may be different.  If you ridicule my tribe, my politics, or religion (if I had one), I‘ll be irritated and defensive and probably push back. Go ahead, insult what I hold sacred. Make all the jokes you want. I won't like it, but I will tolerate it. In contrast, some people’s religious identification is so personal, so intertwined with their identity, their sense of self, that to insult their deities or prophets cuts to the core. They directly feel the blow.  Reacting in desperation, they can't tolerate comedy or ridicule directed toward their faith. 
It is an intense narcissistic injury. They will never simply suffer the joke but demand that the comedian suffer, too.  Some will try to cause that suffering. Religion that requires or facilitates such revenge is a very ancient and a very bad idea. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. 

Vicious revenge is especially unsurprising when insult stirs up damage already there, damage concealed by religious ideas that are also vulnerable. This is not principled revenge, if there is such a thing, but narcissistic rage.

Religion vulnerable to the outrages of free expression is dangerous when it facilitates reactive intolerance to the cosmopolitan sense of satire's fair game.  Joking about the sacred is inevitable in urbane society; even in bad taste it comes with civilization's progress. Liberal society makes room for various systems of belief and offers an alternative to fundamentalist and totalitarian ideologies while living in uneasy detente with them. Clearly, this works when people are generally happy with their lot. But not everyone is so fortunate.  Fundamentalist and totalitarian ideologies offer redress to victimhood, real and imagined.  The conditions that invite malignant ideology show no sign of abating. The grievances at root cause fester; just solutions are long in coming. Uncompromising ideologies promise compensation if embraced.  People make do with what they find and religion is very easy to find. It's already there offering community and meaning.  But faith, the opium for some, can soothe and placate or crystalize into an amphetamine of hate. 

Deprivation, abandonment, poverty, abuse, and the degraded, marginalized identities wrought by racism and colonization spawn individuals and cultures where personal identification with a deity offers the possibility of feeling whole. Gods sometimes get internalized to fill an awful gap. These conditions can hide in places where all looks well. A middle class family that appears fine can conceal pathology that an Allah or a Christ promises to remedy. Desperation answered by religious zealotry can produce a condition that satisfies until it is doesn't. Such solutions to pathology do not stand up well when subject to questioning or laughter. If I need God to hold myself together, if it's all I have to hold on to, I'll defend my faith in urgent self-defense.  

The values of religion are legion, but when the internalized gods that mask pathology are insulted, they seek revenge.   

On the behavioral logic of indoctrination: "On Indoctrination".

A  New York Times essay that reflects similar themes : Two Outcomes, Similar Paths: Radical Muslim and Neo-Nazi.

And another from the Times: Isis and the Lonely Young American.