Text of conference presentation (05/08/21) given at Natural and Artistic Beauty in Process Metaphysics: 6th European Summer School in Process Thought, Warsaw, Poland (August 2nd-6th 2021)
Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote In the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus he writes:
“6.522: There are things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.” (Wittgenstein, 1961, p. 73)
Wittgenstein’s wisdom reflects the importance of human experience are beyond ideals of representation; it is a call to the ethical, to justice, to freedom away from the dominant Western psycho-scientistic research and philosophical basis of greedy desire for the understanding of beings or entities; of intelligibility.
Specifically, in relation to psychotherapy, perhaps we have to take heed from the likes of Wittgenstein.
We have had well over 100 years of psychotherapy and echoing James Hillman, the world is not getting any better. How many kinds of psychotherapy are there? 300, 400? Some might say that the rise of therapeutic culture, the cultural hegemony of mental health, the fetishization and fashion for mental health has made things a lot worse. As cultural theorists E. Michael Jones and Christian writers like Seraphim Rose have pointed out, the effects of the Renaissance and the enlightenment in the Western World, whilst undoubtably adding to Western Civilization, has added to the domination, especially in recent decades, the ideological creep of a humanistic modus operandi-that is a world where God is dead, or at least been killed or is less and less present. This leads the psychic geography towards a place where man is God, the Superman in the Nietzschean sense-but this situation comes with a price, whether one is religious or not.
Our present situation is very complicated. The sexual revolution, advocating for an “anything goes” approach towards the erotic and different permutations of sexual relationships and reproduction, e.g., sex as a risk-free hobby to pursue, has, surprisingly, instead of adding to increased contentment has ushered in a new age of discontent. This for me at least has realised itself in the consulting room; as a symptom, or an elusive symptom that hides or disguises itself, sometimes being addressed as a demand or plea, e.g., for more sex, better sex, or a demand for an answer why unlimited sex has not resulted in the utopia that was promised by society, TV, social media inherent in our hyper-sexualised culture.
These problems of our present era, is a view of human Being (or being human) on a technological level-For example, the psyche as an entity to be manipulated like any object; ones emotions, cognitions, moods, life project etc are now the focus of medico-technological therapies, where the self is idolised, and where we think we can be master of our own house and have complete mastery over our world and domain. This is in fact demanded via the guise of medicalised evidence-based practice informed psychology or psychotherapy. In effect like Nietzsche argued in This Spake Zarathustra, this cultural development has killed God. Is this a good or bad thing? According to the great Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a survivor of the Soviet Gulag, the answer is no.
From his Templeton Prize Lecture in London in 1983, “Godlessness: The First Step to the Gulag”. He says:
“Since then I have spent well-nigh fifty years working on the history of our Revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous Revolution that swallowed up some sixty million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”
And from his address to Harvard in 1973, a veritable warning to the West Solzhenitsyn said:
“However, in early democracies, as in the American democracy at the time of its birth, all individual human rights were granted because man is God’s creature. That is, freedom was given to the individual conditionally, in the assumption of his constant religious responsibility. Such was the heritage of the preceding thousand years. Two hundred or even fifty years ago, it would have seemed quite impossible, in America, that an individual could be granted boundless freedom simply for the satisfaction of his instincts or whims. Subsequently, however, all such limitations were discarded everywhere in the West; a total liberation occurred from the moral heritage of Christian centuries with their great reserves of mercy and sacrifice. State systems were becoming increasingly and totally materialistic. The West ended up by truly enforcing human rights, sometimes even excessively, but man’s sense of responsibility to God and society grew dimmer and dimmer. In the past decades, the legalistically selfish aspect of Western approach and thinking has reached its final dimension and the world wound up in a harsh spiritual crisis and a political impasse. All the glorified technological achievements of Progress, including the conquest of outer space, do not redeem the 20th century’s moral poverty which no one could imagine even as late as in the 19th Century.
As humanism in its development became more and more materialistic, it made itself increasingly accessible to speculation and manipulation by socialism and then by communism. So that Karl Marx was able to say that “communism is naturalized humanism.”
This statement turned out not to be entirely senseless. One does see the same stones in the foundations of a despiritualized humanism and of any type of socialism: endless materialism; freedom from religion and religious responsibility, which under communist regimes reach the stage of anti-religious dictatorships; concentration on social structures with a seemingly scientific approach.”
Essentially, Solzhenitsyn wrote in his warnings to the west that it had forgotten God and all the goodness which faith endowed; the importance of family, tradition, community, and also the hermeneutics of how we conceive of our human lives, a sense of the transcendent, a sense of soul, a sense of God; this had been replaced by a technocratic approach to human life. To a large extent, psychotherapy in the West has now become a soulless and Godless spectre which tinkers with peoples’ personal problems in a technical and calculative manner; it treats appetites of a person as something to be indulged, thoughtlessly, like offering no resistance to a small child wanting sugary sweets; the therapist just gives in and feeds the passions, not realising the harm that occurs. One has to remember, and it crucial to understanding the importance of our present predicament, that Solzhenitsyn, experienced the horrors of Nazism and the horrors of totalitarian communism. Lest we forget the horrors of such regimes and their effects on people, because as Solzhenitsyn indicates, if we do forget, we will repeat the mistakes of the past. It seems under COVID19 totalitarianism, many people are in a state of forgetfulness.
Therefore, Solzhenitsyn’s warnings were prophetic. Frightening and sinister things are occurring in the West today. The United Kingdom and Scottish Governments are intruding into the lives and families via “mental health” and inappropriate (especially for 5-year-old children) psycho-social and sexual/” gender” education instruction programs inspired by the dubious academic discipline of “queer theory”. Demands are being put forward by lobbyists to be able to abort viable children in the third trimester, right up until the moment of birth. Campaigners are suggesting that people of 70 years or over should not receive expensive life-saving medical procedures. Freedom of speech is being suppressed by Governments and the police; social media accounts are being monitored for people writing politically incorrect sentiments and the same people are subsequently arrested. Christian preachers are arrested for speaking the words from the Bible. The state (in the UK) are continually making attempts to regulate psychotherapy out of existence-or rather reduce it to a series of techniques, processes and “outcomes” where psychotherapy is hollowed out and purged of any authenticity, intensity, risk, spontaneity and soul. And now under the COVID-19 totalitarianism, we have the UK and Scottish Governments are using applied behavioural psychology, breaking the ethical guidelines for psychologists, to deliberately ramp up fear in the population.
In many respects, not just with the lockstep multi-Governmental response to Covid19, but with education, healthcare, and mental health care, specifically psychotherapy, totalitarian medical-technocracy is now very prominent in many aspects of out lives.
Bearing in mind our historical antecedents, e.g., totalitarian communist and fascist regimes, and our increasing technocratic era (technology, which aforementioned totalitarian communist and fascist regimes used), my argument is that it is important to keep in mind the Docta Ignorantia or the spirit of wise unknowing, especially in relation to psychotherapy.
As French Psychoanalyst Clotilde Leguil-Badal (2006, p241-256 ) describes, one of the major paradoxes of our times concerns the status of the subject. A result of the progress of science and how it currently stands today is that a new definition of the subject and subjectivity has been imposed; this is a subject that is composed of a material, organic substrate, or cognitive machine which is observable; i.e., the brain’s neurochemicals or the results of cognitions expressed in a psychometric questionnaire. Leguil-Badal describes how from a political standpoint how subjectivity is being wiped out, paradoxically because we supposedly live in an age where freedom, democracy, and the rights of the individual are held up as values. On the one hand we have “freedom” and the “human rights to freedom and be what we want when we want” or in other words subjectivity, yet on the other hand we have the neurosciences, computer-like/information processing discourse of Cognitive behavioural therapy. These discourses of power banish subjectivity as the brain and the science of mental health rules and guides subjectivity. This creates a landscape or symbolic with no landmarks; science is the big authority of how we feel, think, experience; subjectivity is written out of the picture as we are pre-determined, yet we are supposed to be free. If people get unhappy they blame it on their neurons or cognitions. In turn they demand happiness assuming it is a human right and that such a thing from an imaginary ideal of mental healthiness is possible; this is a big double-bind, a vicious circle. The human spirit (or holy spirit) is never seen in an MRI scan or in the results of a cognitive psychology laboratory experiment measuring reactions time to depressive or negative stimuli (i.e., negative words paired with self-referent words). What gets missed in these discourses in that the subject exists by his speech, his silence, and his actions, not by scientific knowledge or discourse. The subject existing in the here and nowis being forgotten about; science comes first and we are increasingly defining ourselves by an abstract fictitious scientistic posturing to become free, but by defining ourselves by science we paradoxically give up our liberty and subjectivity.
The rise of brain science and cognitive science is in many ways actively denouncing the creativity of the subject. The subject (or psyche) is being drawn into the working of the brain and cognitive theories of inner schematic representations with the result that activities such as psychoanalysis and psychotherapy which adopt the approach of the Docta Ignorantia (wise unknowing or recognising the limits to reason), are being made out to be redundant and useless. Cognitivism and the neurosciences have taken away the unity of the individual or the possibility to know oneself as an impossible unity; in other words, to know that we cannot know everything about how to live a human life; i.e., that the self is an illusory construction). In other words, one is invited to conceive of oneself as a machine, as a processor of information and receiver of stimuli and a network of neuronal interactions.
The technological stance in our contemporary society is fraught with misleading psychologisms, and this brings us to what Heidegger described beautifully in the introduction of his book ‘Being and Time’ referring to the necessity of restating the question of being:
“This question has today been forgotten…..Not only that. On the basis of the Greeks’ initial contributions towards and Interpretation of Being, a dogma has been developed which not only declares the question about the meaning of Being to be superfluous, but sanctions its complete neglect. It is said that ‘Being’ is the most universal and the easiest of concepts. As such it resists every attempt at definition…….In this way, that which the ancient philosophers found continually disturbing and self-evident such that if anyone continues to ask about it he is charged with an error of method……the ‘universality’ of ‘Being’ is not that of a class or genus….Thus we cannot apply to being the concept of ‘definition’ as presented in traditional logic, which itself has its foundations in ancient ontology and which, within certain limits, provides a quite justifiable way of defining ‘entities’. The indefinability of Being does not eliminate the question of its meaning; it demands that we look that question in the face.” (Heidegger, 1962, p2-4).
What the wisdom of Heidegger teaches us, especially in relation to this present study, is that ‘inventing’ psychologisms, psyche entities, conceptual ideas of being, and the trustworthiness of our signs (language) is quite phantomic and that these strategies do not lend themselves toward a truly ‘scientific’ theory of Being. This presents problems for process and product-orientated teleological psycho-scientific-researchers. The most obvious one is, if one cannot define an ‘entity’ of the psyche for example, one cannot measure it, account for it, or trace its development from one time point to another. Further, one cannot make meaningful comparisons of such entities from one person to another, yet alone at the end of the research process formulate a theory for replication based upon such ‘entities. Such entities are not static in time or lend themselves to scientific or mathematical conceptual nature; there will always be ‘slippage’ or something will be missed when applying scientific and mathematical criteria to people. If this is the case, we are left in a very precarious position, or are we?
It should be quite clear at this point that the standard psycho-scientific methodological approaches which most psycho-technicians take for granted, whether they are quantitative or qualitative, are not value free, objective, and might well be applying unnecessary and misleading totalisations to people under the guise of scientific research. Of course, I am not saying that all scientific research is negative,[i] but when it comes to the issue of mental distress, psychotherapy, and how people live their lives, such methodological tools are not as sharp as one might like to think. This is where philosophical reflection plays it part or to put it more succinctly as Heidegger (2001) advocates, we should look at this question in the face. This does not imply that we cannot attain meaning or insight by not adopting such scientific methodology. It also does not mean that we should think more; we should perhaps again take Heidegger at his word and actually think less, or at least only think in the methodological sense when we actually need to, instead of blindly going down a research path without really considering what we are doing.
On a similar note, Montaigne from his essay, ‘The Art of Conversation’, describes how conversation is a dialectic, an art (much like psychoanalysis and psychotherapy) where thoughtless reasoning and cogitation, slavishness to doctrine and dogma, and deferring to the wisdom of the other, or as Lacan (2006) would say, to the one supposed to know, leading to universal judgements, is a lax and dangerous path to take. Montaigne appeals to the ordinary in living a good life; an ordinariness that is beyond truisms of the academy dictated to the masses or a force-fed dogma of how we should live and which leads us into absurdity. Montaigne describes:
“Take an arts don; converse with him. Why is he incapable of making us feel the excellence of his “arts” and of throwing the women, and us ignoramuses, into ecstasies of admiration at the solidity of his arguments and the beauty of his ordained rhetoric! Why cannot he overmaster us and sway us at his will? Why does a man with his superior mastery of matter and style intermingle his sharp thrusts with insults, indiscriminate arguments and rage? Let him remove his academic hood, his gown and his Latin; let him stop battering our ears with raw chunks of pure Aristotle; why, you would take him for one of us –or worse. The involved linguistic convolutions with which they confound us remind me of conjuring tricks; their sleight-of-hand has compelling force over our senses but in no wise shakes our convictions. Apart from such jugglery they achieve nothing but what is base and ordinary. They may be more learned but they are no less absurd…..In my part of the country and during my own lifetime school learning has brought amendment of purse but rarely amendment of soul.” (Montaigne, 1991, p1050).
Later on in the chapter ‘On the Art of Conversation’ Montaigne outlines why Socrates debates not for the sake of debating, but for the sake of the debater; to show the debater that ultimate truisms are ungraspable in how to go about living a good life. Montaigne, like Socrates (Plato, 1997), Ibn ‘Arabi (Chittick, 1989), and Lacan (2007), espouse the Docta Ignorantia; the doctrine of wise or learned ignorance. These thinkers’ ideas relating to Docta Ignorantia are very important in relation to psychotherapy and psychoanalysis; the position of an effective analyst or therapist is to be in the position, not of the one who knows, but of the one who can be formative for the subject; for the analyst to accept that he does not know any anything about the analysand except for what the latter’s own words, or signifiers reveal. This position of wise ignorance is important to hold because, as Montaigne points out in his essay on experience, being dictated to in how to live one’s life (i.e., to gain happiness or health) furthers one from oneself, or replaces one set or schemata of information or dogma to live slavishly by, for another.
This state of affairs according to Montaigne is foolish and he describes why this is in his lengthy essay, ‘An apology for Raymond Sebond’ (Montaigne, 1991), an essay in honour of the Docta Ignorantia. He describes how a person who abides by learned ignorance is somebody who is content to realise that all human knowledge is as nothing, compared to that of infinity who is God; learned ignorance never claims to know, or aspire to know beyond what one can know. In essence, learned ignorance is a way or a path away from cogitation or reasoning to gain health; reasoning and cogitation towards unrealistic goals, i.e., certainty. I am certainly not saying that reasoning and cogitation are bad per se; reasoning and cogitation performed used to find out what we do not know is essential to reach or practice the Docta Ignorantia. This position is unlike cognitive behavioural therapy or a medico-technical psychotherapy whose techniques focus on cogitation and reasoning about things (e.g., happiness) that cannot ever be truly known; reasoning about happiness cannot ever lead one to know happiness like one knows the length of a table top (Wittgenstein, 1980; Heaton, 2010). One can say ‘I am happy’ and explain why one is happy, but such reasoning ultimately fails to translate into a technical procedure where one can re-produce happiness by such a reasoning procedure. Ultimately happiness is not an object that can be manipulated via calculative or technological thought (Heidegger, 1977).
So, we are coming to the end now. We are back to what Solzhenitsyn said, “We have forgotten God”, or perhaps the cultural sensibility which provided a grounded groundlessness to the existence of being alive, as an answer to suffering, as route away from the narcissism of the self, of humans as the “Superman”.
I will end with a little discussion of one of my favourite psychologist/philosopher/therapists who espoused brilliantly the Docta Ignorantia, who we can all learn from, not only the practice of psychotherapy, but in the art of living: Soren Kierkegaard
For Kierkegaard, in agreement with Pascal, “that only rarely and for few does God step forth from his concealment in nature’s secrecy”. And in his book “The lily of the field and the bird of the air”, the naïve reader might hope that that their difficulties are answered in some kind of formulaic way. They will be sadly disappointed-similarly to how patients might feel after encountering psychoanalysis or psychotherapy. But like the analyst, Kierkegaard is not giving in to such a demand. For Kierkegaard, Christianity is a moral and spiritual exercise that has the ultimate purpose of teaching human beings their imperfection, their weakness and selfishness, in the face of the transcendent; Kierkegaard’s therapeutic theology is a refusal of the demand from, God as man, the master of technology, leading to Docta Ignorantia, just like in psychoanalysis, as Jacques Lacan argued.
“From the lily and the bird as teachers, let us learn silence, or learn to keep silent. For surely it is speech that places the human being above the animal, and if you like, far above the lily. But because the ability to speak is an advantage, it does not follow that there is no art in the ability to keep silent, or that it would be an inferior art. On the contrary, precisely because a human being has the ability to speak, for this very reason the ability to keep silent is an art; and precisely because this advantage tempts him so easily, the ability to keep silent is a great art. But this he can learn from the silent teachers, the lily and the bird.”
And he goes on, highlighting beautifully the praxis (or paradox) of analysis or psychotherapy, the pass from the discourses of knowledge as Lacan discussed, the discourses of the University, the master, the hysteric, to the discourse of the analyst, where one’s own truth at the seat of the Docta Ignorantia is reached.
“True enough, it is a marvellous feat, but that why you must pay attention all the more closely to the lily and the bird. It is a marvellous feat and, like “the feat of meekness, it contains a contradiction, or is it a feat that resolves a contradiction?”
And on that note of a paradox and contradiction, like a true psychotherapy, I will end there.
[i] Medical research into curing certain degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis is invaluable.