Sunday, July 20, 2014

Satisfaction, Narcissism, and the Construction of Worlds

or, at the end of the day, how does it feel?

For the clarity that we are aiming at is indeed complete clarity. But this simply means that the philosophical problems should completely disappear.
The real discovery is the one that enables me to break off doing philosophizing when I want to. -- The one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions that brings itself in question. Ludwig Wittgenstein (Philosophical Investigations, 133)

But he, Herzog, had committed a sin of some kind against his own heart, while in pursuit of a grand synthesis.
What this country needs is a good five-cent synthesis. Saul Bellow (Herzog)



What is it to be satisfied? What kept Herzog and Wittgenstein in torment?

Sitting at my table facing Poucha Pond, it’s a mid July morning on
Chappaquiddick. My wife is reading while our dogs doze and sniff the humid Atlantic air. The saw-grass that bounds the property hides a weathered plastic blue bulldozer and orange dump truck,
sturdy remains of summers past. I’ll write a bit more and then take the Jeep to Wasque. Maybe the storm last night improved the fishing. There is nowhere I’d rather be, nothing I’d rather be doing.

A woman I know, entangled in her family’s affairs, complains constantly about the endless tasks she angrily undertakes. Few people would have the focus or competence to manage what she toils at daily. “When will I get back to my life?” she asks.  When her week finally ends, she doesn’t look forward to the next. 

Both of us are deliberately engaged in activity that significantly expresses our particular personalities. She’s certain she’ll get the job done. It will be unassailable, with every document examined, understood, and in place.  Nearly perfect.  Me? I’ve no guarantee I’ll catch anything.  

Both of us can state our intentions with an important difference. For the moment, I’m comfortable and have no further aim in sight.  She’s not. I'm unsure what I'll be doing later, except that I'll want to edit this so it might be clearer to you. Knowing her, by early evening she'll be absorbed in her body's painful tensions and want relief. She'll take for granted no one will understand or really help. Her pain will frustrate her.  She'll go to bed more angry and determined than when she first awoke.  

I am describing two different patterns of intentional behavior that underscore a through-line of satisfaction and dissatisfaction. Intentional behavior is an expression of our values, knowledge, and competence. The weights we give these values, our motivational priorities, correspond to what we want to accomplish in any given circumstance. What we actually do depends on what we recognize and know how to perform given the conditions at hand. This is all organized by the significance of what we are trying to achieve. We may be only more or less aware of this significance, but it will establish a pattern, a through-line, central to how our worlds feel. 

All of us, in our own way, live our lives engaged in the social practices of our communities. Our actions express our personal characteristics and our participation in the institutions and communities that constitute our culture, our way of living.  What we create and value, we find here. This will be the source of our satisfactions. 

Not everything we accomplish provides satisfaction. Much of what we do is instrumental, done because it provides access to something else we want. We work in the coal mine for money and fuel. We need to buy groceries and pay the rent, but we’d do something else to keep the lights on if we could. 

Some of what we do is intrinsic, done just for the doing. We do it in expression of our core values, hedonic, prudent, ethical, and aesthetic. Successful performance that expresses this is satisfying. 

How does this work? Hedonic pleasure speaks for itself. The prudent or self-interested enhancement of one’s place in the world should be a source of satisfaction (or, at the very least, relief). 

Ethical and aesthetic actions are especially significant since they are deliberate and involve the recognition of choice in a way not required when simply seeking pleasure or behaving with prudence. The ethical choice of “the right thing”, done for the sake of justice and fairness, can be its own reward. 

Aesthetics involve the appreciation of how things fit together, how they make sense. The artistic, scientific, conceptual, or social engagement with beauty, truth, rigor, elegance, objectivity, and closure is profoundly satisfying for those who are competent to engage in such pursuits. 

Some of our values are complementary and work well together. Some are relatively independent or non-contingent. And some of what we want conflicts and antagonizes in unsettling ambivalence. Life is complicated. 

The weights we give our values, core and peripheral, are fundamental to what we take as opportunity and dilemma. We build our worlds this way and are satisfied or dissatisfied with what results. 

Satisfaction is rarely achieved by accident. Authentic accomplishment requires competent participation. This is a matter of choice, of selection, and is deliberate. 

Here is the gist of my thesis: Recognizing a sufficient link between the instrumental and the intrinsic and having sufficient faith the connection will hold is vital for satisfaction. I also think it is an aspect of general happiness. Feeling satisfied accompanies an instrumental act when we know it has a significant connection to something we also value intrinsically.  This connection can be a self-aware appreciation or simply felt. I am going to follow this idea because it will clarify why some people are generally happy and some are not. I know people who can’t find this connection and I know people who defensively resist where the connection leads. They are generally unhappy people. 

When I am sufficiently satisfied and see this as my good fortune, I’ll probably feel happy. But not all satisfactions bear good fortune, coming as they may in the wake of a tragic or ironic undertaking: settling a score, paying off a debt, finally making it right, going down swinging. 

Again, my thesis: The feeling of satisfaction ties the instrumental to the intrinsic and is a function of the awareness of the tie. Mindful recognition of how the instrumental connects to the intrinsic is fundamental in establishing satisfying and unsatisfying through-lines in people’s lives. I suspect a life lived without sufficient recognition of this connection will be depressive, anxious, frustrating, and narcissistic. It may also involve a sense of helpless repetition, a feeling of being compelled to do things again and again without satisfying closure. 

It complicates matters that connections are not always recognized and felt. The connection is there, its significance to the observer clear, but the actor is defensively unaware. Some refuse the price of insight when it brings more guilt, shame, sadness, or anger than they can bear. In avoidance of these bad feeling, a person may compulsively and unconsciously repeat a performance, devoid of satisfaction or closure.  If unaware of an action's connection to something of compelling and intrinsic significance, it becomes especially difficult to renounce the act, or choose a more adequate implementation. Under these conditions, desire feels futile, meaningless, becomes a sort of shadow boxing. Nothing solidly connects or ends.  

Ultimately, the significance of doing something rests on its intrinsic foundations: hedonic, prudent, ethical and /or aesthetic. When an act is performed with awareness of its connection to something’s intrinsic significance, it provides some sort of satisfaction. The experience of satisfaction is a motivational aspect of the awareness of this connection, whether the act is intrinsic or instrumental.  Satisfaction is the feel of the connection. Some satisfactions provide closure and some provide reasons to do it again.

My friend, Anthony Putman, takes this further. He writes that the experience of a certain satisfaction, what he calls ultimate satisfaction, holds a person’s world together. A person’s world has at its foundation intrinsic social practices.  People construct their worlds from what they find and can do. Every world is someone’s world, and someone’s shared world.  Worlds involve a community’s practice. 

Some practices, that Tony calls ultimate practices, affirm the particular coherence or sensibility of a world; to engage in these practices is an affirmation of that world. This makes it all the more vital for the instrumental to be tied to the intrinsic.  Creating a well-formed formula is one of these ultimate practices for a mathematician, but the ritual of selecting and sharpening a number four pencil can provide satisfaction as an instrument of that act.

(Notice I am distinguishing the varied worlds where a person participates from a person's overall status in their “world of worlds”. Tony writes about a mathematician’s ultimate satisfaction in recognizing the elegance of a proof. He’s felt it himself. But every mathematician participates in more than just the world of mathematics. We all engage in varied and irregular roles in the institutions and communities that make up our worlds. Still, worlds have some sort of coherence.  They fit together the way a person's life fits together. In some way, it all connects. This is not to say that this coherence will necessarily be seen and felt. It may not feel to people that their worlds make sense, separately or together. As Peter Ossorio pointed out, we can't count on this to be simple. The terrain of a world varies irregularly as does the relations among worlds. This is why we have and need complicated grammars and varied sets of conceptual tools to sort this out.)

Tony writes: 
Every community has a shared world that makes sense to its members. The sense it makes is particular to each community’s world. This “making sense” is inherent in participation in the community’s core practices.

Every community has a set of ultimate practices, participation in which affirms their world and is accompanied by ultimate satisfaction.

Ultimate satisfaction is a strong basic human need. Persons are powerfully, inherently motivated to seek it.

The specific experience of ultimate satisfaction differs from community to community. Its importance to maintaining the community and its world does not.

In short: ultimate satisfaction holds the world together.

Knowing how to regularly participate in the core practices that provide ultimate satisfaction seems wise, perhaps spiritual. I appreciate the wisdom of those who do.  I suppose this is why I find spiritual practices daunting. The late theologian Mary Shideler described the spiritual as the domain of totalities, ultimates, and boundary conditions. A synthesis or feel for the totality requires a stance and perspective beyond my reach. It would be pretentious for me to say I even try. 

Spiritual practice requires, I think, an appraisal of the totality of worlds.  There are philosophers, theologians, adepts and disciples who attempt explication and entrance to this totality, wanting to know its awesome dimension. Can you grok it? I can't.

Spinoza’s state of beatitude, suggesting recognition of God’s love and understanding of the whole is, I gather, this type of experience beyond my means.

I’ve stopped trying to imagine the Zen state of Satori involving the wholeness of dissolved paradox and attachment.  

Perhaps more accessible is Aristotle’s practical wisdom, a version of eudaimonia, described in his Nicomachean Ethics as an effective comprehension of how friendship, pleasure, virtue, honor and wealth fit together.  This seems closer to what is reasonably possible for many fortunate but more ordinary lives. This practical understanding requires acting on the intrinsic practices of the good. This, I can attempt.  It more resembles Tony’s concept.

Tony’s ultimate satisfaction is situated in the core practices of particular communities and their worlds. This less than grand synthesis is achievable and perhaps vital, at least for some. 

Tony’s ultimate satisfaction, if I understand what he is saying, has a limited and reachable scope. He's hypothesizing a basic human need to participate and feel how things fit together. This is an aesthetic recognition even if it also involves pleasures, self-interests and just pursuits.  To call ultimate satisfaction a basic human need implies that if not met, pathology will result. I think this helps us understand some of the pathologies of narcissism. 


But perhaps he's overstated it as a universal need. I question Tony's claim that "Ultimate satisfaction is a strong basic human need. Persons are powerfully, inherently motivated to seek it." I think to say persons are "powerfully, inherently motivated to seek it" overstates its place in the lives of most people. I think it makes more sense as a desire for a sort of optimal satisfaction for those who both know and want to seek it. For these folk, if not achieved, their worlds may feel fragmented, empty or broken. Norman Normal doesn't know what he's missing, but Wittgenstein and Herzog painfully do. What brings sufficient satisfaction for Norman may be insufficient for those on a more demanding aesthetic quest. 


But if Tony is correct, he is pointing to a pathology of ordinary life and providing a key to the diffuse pattern of malaise that is frequently part of banal existence. 


The problem is that although unmet needs will result in some degree of pathology, what is needed is not always known. The needed must in some way be known for it to be intentionally sought. 


What, then, are the implications of an absence of “ultimate satisfaction”? Will the center not hold? How does the absence of sufficient satisfaction affect a person’s experience of themselves and their worlds? What happens when a person cannot see how their actions connect to what they intrinsically value? What if they almost never feel the connection? Or, alternatively, what if their sense of the intrinsic is underdeveloped or underutilized, an insufficient mix of the hedonic, prudent, ethical and aesthetic? Some of these values are harder to develop than others. I suspect that ethics and aesthetics fall into this camp. 

There is an underdevelopment of aesthetics and ethics in the narcissistic character. Instead, compensatory hedonic and prudential concerns fill a void and become the foundation of their worlds. Despite the narcissist’s apparent pursuit of beauty and perfection, an intrinsic appreciation of aesthetics seem less core to what they are about. Their quest seems mostly compensatory, a matter of self-interest. Beauty and perfection are salves applied to their questionable self-worth, providing needed attention and admiration, trophies valued for purposes of display. 


A poverty of ethical behavior is often how the narcissist gets diagnosed in the first place. A version of the Diagnostic and Statistical manual describes the narcissistic personality as exploitive, lacking a “moral core”. They act out an aggrieved entitlement where self-interest trumps intrinsic concerns with justice and fairness. 

Most developmental explanations of malignant narcissism begin with a child who has been damaged by inadequate parental empathy and an over or under indulgence that meets the parent's needs more than their child's. Akin to Maslow's recognition that survival needs have to be met before optimal growth can occur, the narcissist is constantly hungry for attention and affirmation, vulnerable and exploitive in attempting to satisfy a self-interested craving.  

Some narcissistically damaged people have talents and appearance that provides them considerable hedonic and prudential success. They crave and celebrate what they possess and appear untroubled by what's underdeveloped. But most narcissists are not so lucky, won't achieve celebrity, fame or fortune. They know misery, instead. 

Are there limited satisfactions clung to in lieu of optimal satisfaction?  Might someone seeking ultimate satisfaction, but failing to competently achieve a workable insight, enact a pattern of frustrated action, a repetition compulsion, or the problematic satisfaction of an addiction?  One's reach might exceed one's grasp.

The woman I mentioned at the start of this entry has very little she experiences as done for its own sake. Mostly, she acts from an unresolved ambivalent duty to her dead parents, who never understood nor loved her enough. Her childhood involved trauma and the absence of adequate parental empathy. All this is complicated by her hostile and competitive relations with her siblings, better loved and more disabled than her. She works hard and constantly to gain the love and respect it is too late to achieve from her mother and father. Instead, she is haunted by a confusing ambivalence and unappreciated duty. She has no time for play and no one she really wants to play with. Fortunately, what saves her from total despair is her highly developed sense of ethics. This and her considerable intelligence may see her through if she can separate from her compulsive enactments of hostility, fear, and guilt. She wants to “return to her life” but her inability to find valued intrinsic connection to what she feels she is required to accomplish leave the end of each day a disappointment. This is her life, a world that hangs together as disjointed tasks disconnected from a fuller appreciation of their significance. Her dead parents will never provide what she intrinsically values and can’t find.  For now, a fuller realization of the meaning of her action is too painful for her to tolerate. The connection of the instrumental to the intrinsic is either unavailable or too much to bear. Unconsciously and defensively she is stuck in the instrumental. 

I know I can’t connect it all together. Wittgenstein saw method and conceptualization pass one another by.  Herzog, his grandiosity finally passing, stopped writing his never-to-be-sent letters and made ready for dinner with Ramona, thinking he’d light candles because she was fond of them.  I didn’t catch a damn thing today, but for a good 30 seconds, thought I’d hooked the biggest fish of my life. I needed to tighten down the drag because my line was running out faster than I could reel. But then the jerking became a steady pull east with the current. Afraid something would snap, I flipped open the bail, saw what had hit, and released a log floating a few feet under the surf, 70 yards out. The guys around me laughed but I didn't lose my lure.  



More on satisfaction, authenticity, and being well cast in the world:  Authenticity and Emotion: a note on the satisfaction of being well cast.

Anthony Putman's exploration of  his concept of "ultimate satisfaction" is found here: "Tony Makes Sense of..."

About the center not holding: an exchange between Richard Helms and Richard Nixon, The Second Coming.

And for the intrinsic funk of it, Lee Dorsey on the instrumental: Working in the Coal Mine.

Remember Norman Normal (He looks a lot like you).

And we know this empirically "Liking Work Really Matters"