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 powers 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. So 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.



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.








Wednesday, January 7, 2015

A Jury of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's Peers





ayin tachat ayin

Jury selection is underway in Boston for the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. I took the jury survey and won’t qualify to serve for two reasons: I was a block and a half from the second explosion and under no circumstances would I support Tsarnaev’s execution even though I think he’s a monster.  I don't know how many others share my view regarding Tsarnaev's lack of humanity, but 57% of my fellow Massachusetts citizens would not vote for his death regardless of his guilt. Only 33% would.

I am in full sympathy with the urge to kill this beast but I want to live in a civilization where the state does not implement this desire.  The majority of my fellow Bostonians appear to feel the same.

In the days that followed the bombings, my Back Bay and South End neighbors felt profound shock and dislocation. We comforted each other and talked through our absence of preparation. I live in a place where this violence was unexpected and where most of us were emotionally unprepared. We were vulnerable because our civil life allowed the reality or illusion of safety. Fortunately, we had heroic first responders who knew what to do. Although we despise Tsarnaev and what he and his brother represent, we remain in opposition to his execution. Killing him will not make us safer or undo our injury. 

The dead are gone and the injured painfully soldier on. Most of us have gone back to walking our dogs, playing with our kids, and living a fortunate and protected life.  We are the majority, the average citizens of this good Commonwealth. We oppose the death penalty much as we’d like to strangle the perpetrators with our bare hands. Perhaps this makes us hypocrites. Regardless, the people acceptable to serve on Tsarnaev’s jury are my community’s outriders, harboring whatever other beliefs support an examined or unexamined acceptance of state sanctioned murder. Massachusetts has not allowed this since 1947. 

Tsarnaev’s fate will not be decided by my peers but, perhaps in some small way, his. 



Sunday, December 28, 2014

William James College



William James

“By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever according to the tendency it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words to promote or to oppose that happiness. I say of every action whatsoever, and therefore not only of every action of a private individual, but of every measure of government.” Jeremy Bentham An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1789


The Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology (MSPP) is rebranding as William James College. I am a professor there.

Founded in 1974, MSPP is a freestanding institution that offers professional degrees in psychology.  I teach in the PsyD program in clinical psychology. The PsyD is a professional degree, a doctorate with a focus that differs from the PhD “scientist-practitioner” or Boulder Model offered by research universities.

Victor Raimy, a teacher of mine at The University of Colorado, Boulder, authored the 1949 proceeding of the Colorado conference that became the format for accreditation and training in clinical psychology. By the late 1960’s, psychologists felt secure enough in their empirical foundations and trainable techniques that another model was proposed that focused on training practitioners rather than scientists. Deep in the Rockies, the Vail Model of the clinical psychologist as “practitioner-scholar” was established in 1973. MSPP was founded shortly after.

I spend much of my time working with students who will devote their professional lives to the practical application of psychology rather than the pursuit of scientific knowledge. Although their training is different, the same is true for most PhD students. Very few PhD clinicians end up as scientists and academics; instead, like their PsyD peers, they work mostly in a clinical role.

PhD students are selected by their graduate programs more on the merit of their potential to become competent scientists than their promise as clinicians and therapists. This makes them normatively different from many of my William James students though they usually end up with the same sort of jobs and practices. In my role as a clinical supervisor, I’ve worked with students from both training backgrounds and the difference is clear, at least to me.  The PhD students are sensitive to the quality and rigor of the theories that inform their work. The PsyD students are generally less concerned with their scientific foundations and more focused on whether the work they do is effective and helpful. In time, with adequate supervision and good will, both groups consolidate their identities as clinicians or apply their skills to other pursuits. 

I'm happy MSPP is rebranding as William James College. The new name dovetails with MSPP’s slogan, “meeting the need….making a difference”. I’ll take liberties with “making a difference”, since I’ve never been exactly clear what it means, but I have some idea why William James might approve.

James, the philosopher-psychologist, helped create and promote a school of American pragmatics that profoundly influenced those whose perspectives on psychology involved both social application and scientific clarity. This vision informed John Dewey’s utilitarian philosophy of education where teachers and schools are agents of social progress. And James's gift for ordinary language descriptions of complex psychological phenomena should serve as a gold standard for behavioral and social scientists of any stripe. 

James’ own education in pragmatics had at heart at least two themes. One was the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham presented though John Stuart Mill.  Bentham and Mill’s utilitarianism concerned the value of maximizing total benefit or happiness while reducing suffering.  (I’m not sure why Bentham and Mill described this in the language of utility, but they did. Then again, I’m trained as a scientist-practitioner and not as an historian or philosopher).

A second line of James’s thought came from Charles Sanders Peirce’s pragmatics and conceptualization of knowledge: To ascertain the meaning of an intellectual conception one should consider what practical consequences might result
Charles Sanders Peirce
from the truth of that conception—and the sum of these consequences constitute the entire meaning of the conception”
(1905).

William James made Peirce's pragmatics central to his teachings. Here’s William James from his 1906 Lecture, “What Pragmatism Means…" where he extrapolates Peirce.

"….I wish now to speak of the pragmatic method. The pragmatic method is primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable.  Is the world one or many?  Fated or free?  Material or spiritual? Here are notions either of which may or may not hold good for the world; and disputes over such notions are unending. The pragmatic method in such cases is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences. What difference would it practically make to any one if this notion rather than that notion were true? If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle. Whenever a dispute is serious, we ought to be able to show some practical difference that must follow from one side or the other’s being right…..

…..It is astonishing to see how many philosophical disputes collapse into insignificance the moment you subject them to this simple test of tracing a concrete consequence. There can be no difference anywhere that doesn’t make a difference elsewhere – no difference in abstract truth that doesn’t express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact, imposed on somebody, somehow, somewhere, and somewhen. The whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite difference it will make to you and me, at definite instants of our life, if this world-formula or that world-formula be the true one."

Jeremy Bentham Stuffed at UCL
I opened this entry with a quote from Jeremy Bentham. Bentham was significant in founding London University, now University College London, where the radical idea of a secular and progressive institution took hold. London University was the first British university where students were admitted without regard to religious belief or gender.  That brings me back to “meeting the need....making a difference.”  William James' philosophy of life combined Bentham and Mill insisting that the good involves a policy of maximizing happiness (while minimizing suffering) with Peirce's reminder that information is only informative if it makes an actual difference in action.

And that’s what I want  of my students: A socially aware concern with overall human well-being and an understanding that to know something is to know how to do something with that knowledge. Something good. 

I like the sound of William James College. 




Saturday, December 13, 2014

A Call for Papers for the 37th Annual Meeting of The Society for Descriptive Psychology


A Call for Papers


Last year's program and conference abstracts can be found here: The 36th Annual Meeting of The Society for Descriptive Psychology.

Why Descriptive Psychology? 

“Had the social construction of psychological science been different in the 1950’s and 1960’s there would have been no need for a separate discipline of Descriptive Psychology. However, in fact there was such a need and in fact Descriptive Psychology was evolved. …..

However, by far the most important precondition for Descriptive Psychology was a deep and pervasive dissatisfaction with the then current psychological theories and psychological ‘science’, and with the philosophical views for which they stood proxy. There was much to be dissatisfied with then, as there still is now.....

Subjectively, points of dissatisfaction form a fluid and endless parade. It is a matter of essence and entirety and not merely fine points or particular issues. However, a sample of more or less discrete areas of dissatisfaction is presented below as “A Budget of Problems”. The point of these is not to draw up a full bill of particulars or to prove a case (even these brief sketches run the risk of tedium), but rather to indicate the kinds of issues that might be involved and to suggest the degree of commitment to a viable alternative that a concern for such issues might engender. 

1. Psychological theories portray persons in ways that are not merely limited, but highly distorting as well..... 
2. Psychological theory and method are clearly almost entirely non-empirical, yet no satisfactory account of this fact has been available..... 
3. Both psychological theories of methodology and psychological theories of behavior are inadequate to provide a rationale for clinical practice..... 
4. There is no general theory in psychology that is not fundamentally inadequate to account for language as a form of behavior.....
5. Finally, there is a whole set of intractable truth issues associated with traditional theorizing.....”  Peter G Ossorio

Edited and abstracted from Ossorio, P.G. “An Overview of Descriptive Psychology” in K. R. Gergen & K. E. Davis (Eds.) The social construction of the person. (1985) New York: Springer-Verlag.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

What is Reality?


How is the world real? What is its composition? Is it found or created? What are its limits? What is the connection between our behavior and our world(s)? The early Wittgenstein and the late Peter Ossorio worked it out this way. They said a lot more, but this is a good place to start: 

1.     The world is everything that is the case.
1.1   The world is the totality of facts, not of things.
1.11  The world is determined by the facts, and by these being all the facts.
1.12  The totality of facts determines both what is the case, and what is not the case.
1.13  The facts in logical space are the world.
1.2    The world divides into facts.
1.21  Something can be the case or not be the case while everything else remains the same.
2.      What is the case-a fact-is the existence of a state of affairs.
                     Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1922

A1.  A person requires a world in order to have the possibility of engaging in any behavior at all. 
A2.  A person requires that the world be one way rather than another in order for him to behave in one way rather than another.
A3.  A person’s circumstances provide reasons and opportunities to engage in one behavior rather than another.
A4.  For a given person, the real world is the one which includes him as a Person, and as an Actor, Observer-Describer, and Critic.
A5.  What a person takes to be real is what he is prepared to act on.
A6.  A person acquires knowledge of the world by observation and thought.
A7.  For a given person, the real world is the one he has to find out about by observation.
A8.  A person takes it that things are as they seem unless he has reason enough to think otherwise. 
A9.  A person takes the world to be as he has found it to be.
                        also keep in mind:
D11.  The world is subject to reformulation by persons. 
                                   Peter G Ossorio, Place, 1998 

                        and about knowledge:

Information is a difference that makes a difference.
                        Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, 1972


Descriptive Psychology's concept of World consists of the concepts and facts concerning the Objects, Processes, Events and States of Affairs (OPESAsthat have a place in Behavior. These are the distinctions, the elements, we act on. I have a telephone (an object) that starts (an event) ringing and goes to voicemail (a process) that I avoid (a state of affairs).  All of this is real. 

No single element of the OPESA is enough to make up a World. The entire package and the relationships are required. Relationships and elements that have a place in behavior are all essential aspects of the World, mine or anyone's.  Descriptive Psychologists are not alone in thinking this way. We are in the large company of pragmatists. 

In A Short Course in Descriptive Psychology, I provide a brief introduction to the Person Concept: the interrelated, interdependent concept that links together the meaning of Individual Person, Behavior, Language, and World. In that entry, I say a bit about individual persons and behavior. In Language, Influence and Self-Presentation, I write about language as symbolic verbal behavior; something always involving social practices framed by the participants' status as appraised by actor and observer. 

Here are remarks about the Descriptive concept of World and Reality and its empirical manifestation as a person’s Real World.

The concepts of world and behavior are interdependent since meaningful distinctions are those that can, in some manner,  be acted on.  In this way, the world is a social construction. Social constructions are neither random nor arbitrary since they are bounded by the possibility of effective action. The limits of the world are the limits of behavior. The limits of behavior are the limits of the world.

Descriptive Psychology recognizes the distinction between everything that is actually the case in contrast to what could possibly be the case (in this or any other world). The limits on the possible are boundary conditions. The Real World is the single whole that contains a place for the person (as Actor, Observer, and Critic) and all that is in that whole, no matter how large or small. Reality, on the other hand, is used to refer to what worlds could possibly be the case given the boundary conditions. Here's a kicker: we can't possibly know all those boundary conditions. As Ossorio put it, "We have limitations. And one of our limitations is that we don't know our limitations."

Descriptive Psychology is essentially pragmatic. Not just anything goes. The distinctions that make up a person's world must be useful, must make a difference in behaving one way or another.  If you distinguish X from Y, but I can't in any way employ X differently than Y,  then, at least for me,  there is no practical difference between X and Y.  Making and acting on distinctions requires sensitivity and competence. Some people are in a better position to notice and act on a difference. Perhaps you can see it but I can't. 

The different ways a person can act on X and Y is the informational value of X and Y.

A person's Real World is the full set of empirical or historical elements (OPESAs) that informs their Behavior Potential. This includes the possible elements they might consider, imagine, discover or invent.  Considering or imagining might not result in discovery or invention. Ideas often don't pan out, but still have the status of a wondering. What we wonderpractical or not, matters to us.  Still, since action is key to meaning, competence and effectiveness are fundamental in evaluating a person's knowledge. This is reality testing. Knowledge is vindicated by the action it facilitates. Knowledge of the world requires that we are in a position to look around, think, and act. 

This pragmatic point of view is less focused on truth and more by a concern with effectiveness and competence. ("I don't care so much that you say it's true. What I want to know is can it get you three in a row?" or perhaps, "The proof is in the pudding.")


The World Found Is The One Created


Inherent in the world as a social construction is the possibility of its destruction, maintenance, and reformulation. The world is both discovered and created. It is found and invented. The improvisational encounters of people and circumstance set the stage for world transformation. The limits cannot be determined a priori. We discover, invent, and create the world, our world, though our action and interaction. 

As an overarching guide to behavior, Cultures, by framing ways of life, define their member's shared worlds. As cultures change, the world of its members change accordingly. 

Every world is someone's world.  No one's world exists in solipsistic isolation. Meanings are created publicly, through social practice. Worlds, like languages, have the logical requirement of the potential to be shared. But since effective action requires knowledge and competence, not every world is completely sharable with everyone. A person has to be in an appropriate position, must have the requisite status, to engage in the actions that validate a world. Without the necessary math, I remain blind to the world of physics. Without some sense of soul, I am numb to the experience of the spirit. 

These distinctions are embodied in the Descriptive concept of Status. A person’s status is their place in the world.  Here, status means more than a conventional concern with rank and prestige, although these notions are features of a person’s overall status.  At different times, under varied circumstances, some aspects of a person’s status are more relevant than others. Consider the sergeant who directs the march in lockstep, but looks like she's herding kittens when she attempts to get her kids up and ready for school (although you'd not be surprised to see something similar in the way she does both). 

The Descriptive concept of status bears resemblance to the ecological notion of niche formulated by G. Evelyn Hutchinson.  Hutchinson’s niche is an “n-dimensional hyper-volume” consisting of all of the relevant resources and environmental circumstances relevant to an organism’s way of life. Peter Ossorio’s “status” and Hutchinson’s “niche” define the boundaries of a real world. They both concern behavioral context, possibility, and constraint.



A Person's Status In The World Provides Behavior Potential


Ossorio's concept of status is fundamentally concerned with Behavior Potential, the Intentional Actions that are possible given someone's personal characteristics and circumstance.  Since people are individuals capable of Deliberate and non-Deliberate Intentional Action, the world is the context of opportunity and choice, constrained by a person's competence to act effectively with what they encounter.   


Consider, the etymology of the word "world" comes from the Old English "worold" roughly meaning “the age of man”, "a long time" or “the course of one’s life”.  The world is what we find and create in living our life. 



The World Provides Relationships 


What we find, what constitutes and becomes our world, follows from our personal characteristics and circumstances, our place. This, in turn, may alter our personal characteristics as our relationships change, accordingly.  In Ossorio's 1976 lectures on Personality and Personality Theory, Peter talks about status and the relationship of a person to his world while addressing the question of where our behavior potential comes from.  He had just finished talking about the Relationship Formula, having said elsewhere: "It has been perfectly clear to most people most of the time that human behavior is a function of a person's relationships and of a person's place in the scheme of things" (Behavior of Persons, 2013). 

The Relationship Formula sets out the logic of what a person acts on: "A person will do X unless...". Unless clauses are particularly important.  






Here's Ossorio speaking:

Recall the relationship formula that we went through—that a person's potential for behavior depends on his relation to the things around him. And the heuristic example is the geometric relations between my being here and things in other locations in the room.
Then we extended it to not merely geometric relations but human relations, that things are possible if you have a friend than if you don't have a friend. Things that are possible with a friend may not be possible with a stranger, or vice versa. Things that are possible if you mistrust somebody will not be possible if you don't. So all of the kinds of relationships you have with the people in your life will provide you the opportunities and give you the reasons for anything that you might do.
Except, of course, we have to include not merely people, but non-human objects. I commented that dealing with things in terms of relations can get very, very tedious, in fact unmanageably tedious. I gave the example of all of the things in this room, and all of my relations to every single one of them, and then all of the relations of any one of them to any one of the others. I said we have ways of handling that kind of thing, namely, we have what amounts to a map. In this room, we place different objects in different places, and once we do that, their relations to each other are determined, and we don't have go to through this long, long, long list of my relations to everything in the room; and then its relation to everything in the room; and then its and its and its and its and its. Instead, we have a very parsimonious way of getting at that whole set of things simultaneously, simply by talking about the location, the place of a given thing in a given domain. I said that notion of place, if you extend from geometry to human relations, is the Descriptive notion of status. A person's status is simply his location, his place, within some domain, and if there's no specification, that domain is simply the whole world.
That notion of status is what corresponds to Being-in-the-World. It's simply your place in the world, where place is considered not as geometry but as the network of relations, of opportunities, of possibilities, of pushes, pulls, etc., that come from being related to the world and the things in it in just the way that you are.
That's where your behavioral potential comes from.


The World's Transformation Involves Its Elements, Operations, And Relationships


Ossorio also provides rules for the Reality Game. In the The Behavior of Persons he defines the basic reality concepts and provides transition rules for their composition and interrelations. 


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.



A Final Analysis And Reminder


Joe Jeffrey summed it up for me this way, "What kinds of things are there in the world? Objects, processes, events, and states of affairs. Everything you ever see in the world, as you look around you, will be one of those. What are concepts? Distinctions people can act on."

And that's the whole kit and caboodle.

And how does the world seem? Greg Colvin tells this story: After my first undergraduate class with Pete, he left on sabbatical and I was left trying to make sense of What Actually Happens, sitting for hours in the library where the single manuscript was available. When Pete returned I told him, "I just don't get this Reality concept. And of course he said, "Let's take a walk." All I recall of the walk is him taking a pencil and asking me, "What is this?"
"I dunno, two pieces of wood pressed around a graphite core, rubber and a metal band to hold it together."
"It's a pencil, damn it."

I write about world construction, destruction, and restoration in the entries, Freedom (an outline)Play and Therapy, and Trauma, Resilience and World Reconstruction.  

I try to make sense of what it is to be satisfied with one's world in Satisfaction, Narcissism, and the Construction of Worlds.

The Person Concept and the its components, Individual Person, Behavior, Language, and World, is explicated in Peter Ossorio's (2013) The Behavior of Persons. The 2013 paperback includes C.J. Stone's index, not found in the 2006 hardbound edition. The State of Affairs System and transition rules are found and elaborated there.

Ossorio has written about the problems with traditional Ontology and further elaborated the State of Affairs System in his 1996, "What there is, How things are" .

Special thanks to C.J. Stone, Joe Jeffrey and Greg Colvin for their help in refining my understanding of these concepts. C.J. reminded me of Ossorio's statements in Personality and Personality Theories.