Sunday, June 19, 2022

Structure and Process, Medicine and Trauma: A Note

 I am here to document a thought that I will develop further later. 

Intelligibility broadly, thinking in general, has something to do with the relationship between structure and process. A historian, for example, has access to certain 'structures': written documents, archeologically excavated buildings and objects, any sort of pattern or stable object. From these structures historians seek to derive and describe process. The Declaration of Independence is not significant in its own right, but is significant in that it belongs to a process whereby people tried to create certain forms of government. 

Medicine, similarly, tries to explain processes with reference to structures. We notice that a person's living is painful, that their body struggles or hurts in certain ways. These are fundamentally processes, ongoing activities whereby people live. We try to explain these in terms of structures: this pathogen has entered your body, this flaw exists in your neurology or genetic code. These structures (pathogens, flaws) are then employed to explain the quality of an ongoing process. 

Most epistemoligies are overly concerned with structures. As Gendlin says in a provocatively titled essay, however, 'Process generates structure, Structures alone don't generate process'. How do we think in a way that foregrounds process? 

This problem is especially difficult because our normal way of using language is structure-bound. I am employing strings of letters into words, sentences, and paragraphs. These are structures. But my use of these structures is in process. I was thinking about these ideas in conversation with someone this morning. I am doing this writing in the midst of the larger process of my day. I am deferring eating and showering because I wanted to document these thoughts.

It seems to me that trauma in the broadest sense is essentially about process: it concerns our ongoing activity. We can certainly say that there are 'structures' associated with trauma: neurological patterns indicative of chronic threat; epigentic change in genetic expression; patterns of speech and activity. But the fundamental reality of trauma is not in the structures, it is in the process of the living body. Those structures are ancillary to those processes.

Gendlin's work shows that structural thinking (language) can be employed within a larger frame of process (experiencing). I would like to propose that medicine and trauma stand in analogous relation to one another. Adopting a process/trauma frame does not mean that we don't value or look to medical intervention. It means that medicine must be situated within a larger trauma framework, just as language/structure must be situated within a larger framework of experiencing/trauma.

These are fancy, high level, abstract things to say. My sense is that it is a basically correct statement or formulation.

But I do not yet know what these structures mean. My process must go further, still.

Friday, April 8, 2022

Scientific Process as Derivative of Political Process: Or on Three Forms of Space-Time

Science is not merely an objective gathering of knowledge, but rather a series of practices at least partly social in nature. People who work and explore as scientists, in other words, are also parents, pedestrians, and every other conceivable social role. To be a scientist is a type of process that one undertakes, and one has many 'supporting' or ancillary processes that enable one to do scientific work. One must, for example, also eat breakfast, bathe, and travel to and from work. 

Such observations are not made in an attempt to denigrate science, but to understand more precisely what it is. Its embeddedness within a social context does not mean that it is incapable of objectivity. It does mean, however, that making sense of science will always mean understanding its context, its social-political origins. The insights of science or philosophy certainly transcend this origin, but they are never entirely liberated from it. 


The idea, put briefly, is that scientific process is derivative of political process. By derivative I mean that political life is prior to scientific life both temporally and logically. Temporally it is obvious from the historical record that there were animals living in communities with something like politics before there were ever communities that generated philosophical or scientific process. Logically, science or philosophy already presupposes the language of the community (which is creatively redeployed for scientific purposes i.e. a 'cell' as in a room can metaphorically become a 'cell' as in one of the fundamental concept of biology). Thus both logically and temporally science is derivative of political process.

I am interested in formulating this idea in terms culled from Gendlin's A Process Model, an astonishing book I have recently completed for the first time. Gendlin's book is meant to provide a model for developing and using concepts in a process oriented way. This stands in contradistinction to the typical type of concept that we develop and use, which is a unit or structure oriented concept. This video of George Lakoff talking about the mystery of consciousness is instructive on this point.  Notice that Lakoff's attempt to talk about consciousness are all about 'aspects' of consciousness, 'structures' of the brain that 'perform' or 'do' things. Lakoff is essentially bound to unitized thinking, or acting as if though structures are genuinely explanatory. He can't regard or discuss the process as fundamental.

The problem is that structures are derivative of processes, not the other way around. The process of an embryo and a sperm meeting, for example, generates the structure of the human body. But all throughout our lives our bodies are in flux, in process. The structures are ancillary to the processes.

How do we build concepts that do not assume that causation is about the combining and re-combining of units, but rather implies process all the way down? I don't know how to answer this question 'fully' yet. But Gendlin's Process Model is one of the deepest excursions into this problem I have seen.

In the first five chapters Gendlin develops his 'basic model' of process. In those first five chapters he establishes (1) the fundamentally interactive unity of organism(body) and environment (2); the existence of functional cycles within organism-environment interaction (i.e. hunger, food, defecation, hunger, so on; plant consumption of water can also be an easier example); (3) the existence of 'objects' that can further a stopped process (i.e. water is the 'object' that a plant 'implies' when it sags, and which will carry its life process forward); (4) a primordial sense of time in which it is constituted principally by the body's implying of its own processes (i.e. my body bears the scars and marks of my past and thereby implies the past; while my body also implies the future in its ongoing needs and processes); and (5) establishes the possibility of evolutionary change within the model.

After establishing the basic model in 1-5 Gendlin begins to develop concepts that are more precisely applicable to complex animal and human situations. More specifically, Gendlin wants to show how animal behavior (6) processes could develop into more complex human symbolic processes (7), and finally, how those symbolically augmented behavior processes could turn into something like science, philosophy, or focusing (8). 

At each of these levels (behavior, symbol, focusing) a new form of space and a new form of time is developed. Understanding these different forms of space and time will help us see the fundamental dependence of scientific process on political process. In deriving of scientific process from political process we can appreciate some of the most troubling aspects of our current situation, namely, anti-intellectualism, misology, racism, sexism, transphobia, and political violence broadly.

Behavior Space

We are animals and we have and live our bodies like the rest of the animals. I find this claim to be nearly axiomatic in my own thinking and I do not feel compelled to offer arguments for it. John Gray's Straw Dogs would be a jarring and maybe helpful read for someone that disagrees with this claim. Hans Jonas' The Phenomenon of Life or Even Thompson's Mind in Life would offer more subtle and 'scientifically' grounded accounts. 

To have be an animal is to have a body that can move, indeed must move, in space, generally in pursuit of sustenance of some kind. To be an animal is to be capable of behavior, and even more specifically, locomotion. Space, in its most fundamental sense, then, is behavior space. (I find myself asking if plants or fungi have a sense of space. This isn't clear to me. I can see how the plant mode of living could involving some sort of spatiality, as plants move in different directions, interact with gravity, but behavior space it seems to me is quite fundamental for us as human beings and all other animals).

Behavior space is the immediate and intuitive bodily knowledge of my surroundings and situation. I, for example, am aware that my hot tea is to my left and that it is still too hot to drink readily. I know that my water to my right and my tea are both within my immediate grasp, but that I'd have to lean over to turn on my small lamp (a gift from my friend Eric), and I know that I'll want to do that soon because the sun is going down. I know that my phone just vibrated (I could hear and feel it through the table), and I'm pretty sure it is my friend George responding about our Beach House conversation (we don't care for the recent albums). I'm aware that my interaction with my friend this afternoon went better than expected. I am aware that I'm feeling hungry, and that my trip to the gym this afternoon means I need to be sure to eat substantially. And I'm aware that nothing in my fridge is appealing. I'm aware that my kitchen is behind me, and that I won't be able to finish this writing in one sitting. I'm aware that I'll be getting up to eat pretty soon. 

I don't really need to think about any of this in order to know it. I just have to use my attention and language more explicitly and I find that I already implicitly understand these things. Behavior space is constituted by my implicit bodily understanding of my situation. This includes the physical space I am in, what activities would be possible from different places, as well as a temporal sense of what I did earlier, what I'm doing now, and what I'll do later. I am demonstrating an explicit awareness of this implicit behavior space.

All animals have an experience of behavior space, and it is the most fundamental sense of space available to us. The notion of 'empty space' is not first experientially, but rather derived from our experience of behavior space. Indeed, Gendlin has a very interesting essay called "The derivation of space," that develops this idea. He also makes this claim in A Process Model. In fact, there is some strange consonance or identity between the idea of empty space and the emergence of symbolic consciousness. Somehow the emergence  of human 'symbolic space' seems to imply or require some sense of empty space.


Behavior space also has its own unique, fundamental sense of time, the original rhythms of the living body. Clock time, measured time, is derivative of a more fundamental since of time that originates in the processes of living bodies. Gendlin would say that a living body 'implies' its relationship with time. The biggest difference between clock time and the body's implied time is that body time is not linear. Clock time pretends that we can cut time up into little units, and makes it seem like past, present, and future are somehow distinct or discreet. Our experience of time, however, is far less linear in that both the past and the future seem to 'function' within the present moment. That is, our sense of the present is really some complex feeling of then-becoming-now-as-I-look-forward. I agree with Gendlin that we need an understanding of time in which both the past and the future can function in the present. The distinction between clock time and body time makes it possible for us to understand our experience of time in which  the past and future are both implied by the present body.

I now transition to the emergence of human symbolic space, or the symbolically augmented behavior space that constitutes most of human experience and serves as the basis of our experience as political animals. 

Symbolically Augmented Behavior Space

Human situations are unique and strange in that our embodied living processes are carried forward primarily through the deployment and re-deployment of communal patterns and symbols. Everything we do has a name. We go to work or school or the gym. In those places we interact with certain kinds of people who occupy certain symbolically designated roles. Everything we 'do' in those places is accomplished or at least augmented through the use of symbols.

Lets take two highly physical activities: lifting weights and building construction. Going to a gym and lifting weights is a highly physical process. Getting there, whoever, involves many symbolic steps: using words to tell a person you want to join a gym or using a website to purchase a membership. This also involves spending money, a quintessentially symbolic activity. Then once at the gym one must have some articulate understanding of the equipment, and must use numbers while interacting with all of them. Treadmills and stair-mills all have numbers. Weights are numbered. The very act of working out, too, implies a degree of self-consciousness in which we can symbolically conceptualize our own identity. We look in mirrors while we lift to see that our posture is 'correct', i.e. aligned with an imagined (symbolic) posture that we are imitating. Thus even the most physical activity, lifting weights, is suffused with symbolic elements.


Now lets think of physical construction project. First of all, in order for something significant to be built, like a skyscraper, someone has to have some idea about it, some plan. Generally someone will have a blue print, there will be someone in charge of making sure that the actual building conforms to what the image implies or asks for. A blueprint in this case would be the supervenient symbolic element. The blueprint implies a whole slew of subservient symbolic processes: masons to lay the concrete, welders to secure iron, carpenters to handle wooden frames and walls. Each of these tasks would have their own complex symbolic processes of measurement, distinction, and procedure. Thus something like building construction is a thoroughly symbolic process: all of the behavior of construction workers and foremen is organized by hierarchically organized symbolic patterns: money, institutions, blueprints, crafts, all with their own unique symbol-worlds. 

Human activity is therefore primarily symbolically augmented behavior space. Our bodies function just like the bodies of the other animals, but we have somehow become intertwined with symbolic processes that have fundamentally augmented our experience of ourselves, each other, and the world. Other animals engage in what seems to be proto-symbolic behavior, and dogs are particularly adept at engaging in our symbolically structured situations. But it seems this symbolic augmentation of behavior space is most pronounced in human beings. 

There are two more important points to make about symbolically augmented behavior space (SABS). The first is that SABS is the foundation of our experience as political animals. The second pertains to the relationship between SABS and time. 

SABS is the foundation of our experience as political animals because it is what it possible for us to divide and collect the world into discrete kinds. Politics is fundamentally concerned with distinguishing various things and evaluating their arrangement. For example, politics is concerned with who belongs and who does not, who constitutes a citizen of this particular community or city. There are then distinctions within those who belong, various roles, both formal and informal. Class, hierarchy, caste. In some ways this point strikes me as so obvious that I won't do much here. Politics depends upon the division of people into symbolic kinds. This symbolic order then becomes reflected in the physical structures that organize society, think of neighborhoods and geographic segregation, rooms accessible only to the wealthy or connected, so on. All of this depends upon fundamental symbolic distinctions like 'here and there', 'us and them', 'mine and yours'. 

Our experience of SABS is also particularly bound up with our experience of artifacts, constructed objects. This point is especially significant and I really don't have a full handle on it. But Gendlin, for example, discusses in A Process Model how the development of SABS emerges around the same time that people started saving their tools for later use as opposed to constructing them on the spot. When chimps go 'termite fishing', for example, they grab a stick or plant from the area and begin using it to catch termites right then and there. They don't, as far as I know, save a stick for later because it was especially good. To save a tool for later use rather than to simply create one in the moment implies that something has been added to the immediate behavior space. Something has been added or developed in which 'this' can now be understood to be useful for 'that' at a later time. So somehow the experience of SABS has something to do with the emergence of what I'll call artifactual continuity. That is, the capacity to perceive the usefulness or purpose of an object beyond the immediate context of its use. I have, for example, a frisbee in my closet. The closet is not a context in which that object can achieve what it is generally used for. Therefore I have an understanding of its usefulness despite the absence of its proper context. I have a sense of other times and other places, other situations in which it will be useful. I'd like to know more about how animals relate to artifacts, because I can think of an instance of an orangutan saving a rag to clean themself or something like that. 

The existence of artifactual continuity is what allows human beings to undertake intergenerational projects. There is a famous proverb, that progress happens when people plant trees that they will not live to sit in the shade of. I recently had a moment of clarity around the Greek notion that 'happiness takes a whole life' or to 'count no person happy until they are dead.' Having the capacity to think and plan over long periods of time is essential to large scale human development. 

Indeed, it seems as though ancient people's produced artifacts to keep track of time: stonehenge, sun dials, the pyramids, all of these things show some kind of relationship with celestial process and cycle, the tracking of time. Calendars then become essential for how we navigate time. 

In the modern world the relationship between time and artifacts has become nearly overbearing. We orient primarily towards clock time as opposed to seasonal or bodily time. We have lights that make the rhythms of the sun potentially 'obsolete'. I have been looking at Jacques le Goff's book on time, work, and culture in the middle ages. The development of measured time, clock time, was a big deal with significant cultural impacts.

One thing I am unsure of is Gendlin's claim that the advent of symbolic behavior space comes along with a sense of empty space. He makes a big deal of when hunting implements were saved for the next hunt. Apparently he thinks this has something to do with being able to conceptualize empty space as opposed to just living in behavior space. I can see this in that saving a tool implies I am aware of another situation that is not here, which means I can imagine directionality in space and time. 

Our basic experience is that of SABS. This is the most essential and immediate reality for human beings. This is another way of saying that the human being is by nature a political animal.

It is against this backdrop of SABS that scientific process emerges. 

Indeed, I would claim that philosophy or science is precisely a transcending, a moving beyond, the limitations of SABS.

Philosophy as Inner Space, Beyond the Capture of SABS

Philosophy or science is a special development of our activity within SABS. SABS does not necessarily generate philosophical or scientific process. SABS is always in a certain sense rational, as in it is structured in terms of language and 'reasons' for doing things (however contradictory or shallow the reasons may be, culture or nomos or SABS has a 'rationality' to it. Philosophy or science begins when we begin to engage rationality as such as opposed to the rationality implicit in SABS. It is in this sense of being a political animal, an animal always in SABS, that we must understand scientific or philosophical process as emergent or derivative of political process.

The transcendental character of philosophical process can be understood my examining the alternative: simply being 'captured' by SABS. Most people I know are aware of the possibility of being 'trapped' in their cultural perspective. We may fear that we lack the resources necessary to confront our unconscious biases. It is no doubt true that our cultures inevitably imbue us with certain prejudices and distortions. The symbols of any society are inherently normative. Language is always implicitly evaluative, never simply neutral. So how do we get outside of the assumptions of our culture, our time and place? Is such a thing even possible, or is something like philosophy or science ultimately just another contingent cultural 'world view'?

The reality of philosophy or science depends on the possibility of not simply being captured by the normative character of language. Philosophy depends, instead, on being able to use symbols developed in practical life to be deployed in new theoretical ways. I have recently been interested in the way that scientific language is ordinary language that has been repurposed. I noted above that the word 'cell' in biology comes from 'cell' in the sense of a room or chamber. 

How is it possible that familiar words can be made to mean new things? This is a complex question that gets straight at the nature of language. What must be the nature of language that words can be made to mean new things? Some conceptions of language will obviously not work, such as formal understandings of language whereby symbols function as fixed units. This is reminiscent of the early Wittgenstein (from what I understand). This could be called the 'picture' theory of language in which a word is like an image of a corresponding thing in the world. Sometimes language works this way, like a little label we put on something. But the picture theory of language won't explain how old words can mean new things.

The later Wittgenstein's 'use' theory of  language will get us closer to answering our question. Wittgenstein noted how the same word ('slab!') could mean many different things depending on the context and way in which it was uttered. So language is something that acquires meaning in its use in situations. Gendlin has developed this use theory of language far beyond Wittgenstein, more than anyone else I'm aware of, in fact. So now I say something like: philosophy is possible because the nature of words is not to be fixed units, but to acquire meaning in their use in situations. If a situation is different then the words will do different things.

Philosophy is possible due to the fact that words acquire new meaning when used in new situations. The human situation is peculiar in that we are always already in a symbolically structured situation, SABS. Our lives begin within a situation that language has created for itself. To be in SABS means that 'words have us' just as much as we have words.

Because the situation is linguistically structured from the outset it follows that the use of language can change the situation. This follows from the whole analysis above of SABS. Walk into a cafe, make the situation change by using words, it'll be ordinary and fascinating. 

So how do philosophical situations arise? How could there be a linguistically structured situation in which someone begins to raise fundamental questions? 


There are two questions that I have, two concepts that concern me: the felt sense and the good. These two questions, I suspect, will prove to be one question.


The emergence of science would have something to do with the ability to sense more holistically into the implicit intricacies of SABS. This follows from the claim that science begins to make explicit the rational structure implicit in SABS (implicit, in fact, in all animal bodies). 


The order of SABS is the orderliness of the living body with the addition of symbols that structure and augment it The living body, in turn, is part of the larger order of nature. In the chapter "The Intertwining / The Chiasm" Merleau-Ponty shows that the body's presence within the visual field can be taken as evidence of its fundamental continuity with the rest of being. The body is continuous with the other things in the visual field and therefore can't be totally foreign to them, must be akin in some way.


Science or philosophy thus has something to do with the order that is present in the whole visible world and experienced most directly in our living bodies. 


Science or philosophy thus begins from a type of orderliness that seems to be identical with the world itself. Science or philosophy assumes the intelligibility of nature, the orderliness of nature, and our access to this orderliness.


Our access to this orderliness seems to be fundamentally mysterious. Einstein, at the end of his life, wrote that science and religion meet in the fundamentally orderly quality of the world, and the strange fact that our language seems to be capable of revealing or explicating that orderliness.


The experience of encountering the world's orderliness in our own bodies could be called having a 'felt sense'. A felt sense is the essential concept of Gendlin's whole philosophy and its emergence is identical with the emergence of science from SABS. SABS is inherently a limited domain, one that implies capture and obfuscation of the deeper order of nature. A felt sense, by contrast, is capable of grasping holistically the partial reality created by our enmeshment in SABS.  Wholeness, somehow, is what Gendlin points to as the defining character of a felt sense.

When engaging with a felt sense one accesses directly one's living relationship with the orderly-body-emergent-from-orderly-nature. A felt sense allows us to see that our body is engaged with the situation in a way that transcends and reconfigures the generic social categories of SABS. It is this capacity to engage with the symbols of SABS in a way that is not simply social, not simply intelligible within the SABS situation, but implying the larger situation of nature or cosmos from which SABS is emergent and contained. 

Thus a felt sense, or the ability to sense holistically beyond the domains of SABS, is a prerequisite of the emergence of science.

The emergence of a felt sense would also be the explicit emergence of awareness of 'the good' or 'goodness as such'. All living activity is implicitly directed at the good. Living things think it is good to be alive and all of their activity is aimed at preserving and elaborating this implicit goodness.

To become aware of a felt sense is to become explicitly aware of one's living relationship with goodness. SABS has an unreflective relationship with goodness, just like behavior space. Put differently, the beautiful and the good are taken to be identical within behavior space and SABS. The emergence of science, philosophy, or a felt sense, however, would be to become aware of a diremption between the beautiful and the good, what seems to be good and what is really good

The felt sense has a unique form of implying, and this implying is always towards some form of rightness or goodness. Gendlin talks about the felt sense as a 'zone of rightness' where steps will always emerge that have some 'life forward' energy to them. 

This concept of life forward energy is the most mysterious and difficult in this whole set of questions. Behavior space and SABS are clearly ways that more complex forms of life carved out to carry their life energy forward. Science or philosophy is also a way of carrying life forward energy further.

The problem is that some human beings are carried forward by philosophical activity and some are not. Some people live good lives strictly within SABS. I would think this is most common in sound SABS, or good governmental situations. But for some reason, perhaps when individuals are harmed rather than nurtured by the SABS, philosophy emerges as a way to carry forward energy that cannot be carried forward in the political situation as such.

It seems that the existence of the felt sense and the existence of goodness must simply be assumed. So much can then be made intelligible. But if one begins from units, from a pre-human developmental story, there will be a gap. Terrence Deacon's Incomplete Nature is evidence of this massive gap that exist between first and third person accounts. Deacon never makes a phenomenological turn, concludes the book instead by talking about the 'morphodynamic' processes of the brain and how we could see them correlated in the experience of consciousness. He downplays the rift between first and third person perspectives.

I conclude with an observation on the felt sense and the tension between nature and nomos. The tension between nature and nomos, a staple of Leo Strauss' thought, is well reflected in the relationship between SABS and a felt sense.

Felt sensing is an ascent that is also a return. It is a return in two senses. First, in a simpler sense in which we return to the concepts our community delivered to us, we return to them, we return to our lives within the 7 symbolic matrix. But is also a 'return' in a stranger sense in which we are getting access to something that 'was' there all along; a potential or possibility, never actualized. This is where the dimension of eternity shows itself: this was in principle always possible for a human being once they become a human being. This is in fact what we mean by human being. A being that can begin to make explicit for the first time the implicit intricacy that is nature, that was present in behavior space and SABS. Aha, openness to nature. Solitary historians of the cosmos.

Conclusion : First person science means the ascent from politics... we have to feel 'back' developmentally to understand behavior space, we have to reach out forward and beyond for inner space, holistic space. We are most naturally in symbolically augmented behavior space - rational, mimetic, political... not philosophical... To begin felt sensing is to make explicit what was implicit in behavior space and SABS. It is to invite a new experience of time. It is to invite a new experience of inner space.

I've accomplished something in this explication, but I can do no more.

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Stories: Making Change

 I meet with a few friend every other week to talk about our writing. We generally have a small prompt: 'something about a cat', or 'something about disappointment', or more recently, 'something that has the same structure as the book/movie Cloud Atlas'. 

This is a story I wrote for that final prompt, 'making change'. I think I may start to put my little stories on here, as I continue to explore my many faces as a writer.

Making Change

Samantha had waited forty four years to finally stroll through the home that she’d always dreamt of. It was a strange design (she knew this), and she had to seek out several different builders until Alastair agreed to build it.

“So let me get this straight,” Alastair said to her, looking over his small round rimless glasses, “six domes, nested inside each other, all connected by doors leading from one end to another, all meeting at one central point in the center?”

“Yes, from above it should look like a series of concentric circles. If you walk in the front door and walk straight you’ll pass into each dome, slowly going deeper into the center. Once you arrive in the center you’ll begin walking out. The last room you’ll enter is the other side of the first dome, the first room that you entered.”

“Okay…” Alastair said expectantly, “why?”

“Containment,” Samantha replied.


Each dome was practically a world.

The first layer was yellow and was the only one that had windows to the outside (how else could it be?). Thus this first room is bright and verdant with plants and flowers there to relate to the sun through the windows. It was a perfect way to begin, Samantha thought.

The second was principally orange and it felt something like Fall. All soft browns and leather couches. As the room stretched around the walls were coated with vines, living leaves somehow permanently autumnal. There is a wood burning stove and many books, no windows.

A layer deeper, three domes in, and we meet soft lavender walls and deep purple shag carpet. This layer is peculiar in that a thin veil of fog seems to cover every surface. The curved walls of the room are lined with curved couches. On each curved couch a fully grown child lies curled up on the couch. If you choose to walk around the room you will find that their faces gradually and subtly transform from the heights of despair to the lows of rapture and back again.

One step further, one dome further, black. Nothing but black. In this fourth space nothing can be seen. Even when you open the doors to the surrounding, illuminated areas. The quality of the space simply does not permit the entry or existence of light. If one is brave enough to do anything other than move straight they will find a distinct path followed by indistinct organic material. One can stop and feel along the edge of this path and will feel leaf bone tooth brain hair slime blood shit. There is no odor, only indistinct masses of rising and falling organic material.

The fifth dome was a deep green and contained an overwhelming amount of life. Animals roamed freely. Plants were everywhere, something like a jungle, or what Samantha imagined a jungle to look like. Sometimes the animals ate one another but mostly they were provided for in ways that were hard to describe. Sloths dangled. Lemurs scurried and swung. A tiger or two napped. The animals seemed to be unaware of Samantha when she passed through. It took her a few passages to not be afraid.

The final room was the only room that felt like a dome. It was the softest blue Samantha had ever seen and there was a plate sized skylight in the center that let in natural sunlight 24 hours a day. Alastair tried to explain how he did it to Samantha. Something with mirrors and satellites. She didn’t care.


On the way out things were the same, just in reverse. Things were also very different, somehow. Samantha had expected this, designed the whole space to induce this effect. But she didn’t think that it would strike her as deeply as it did. After all, it was her idea, her plan.

Her ability to imagine and anticipate this place did nothing to rob it of its strangeness and presence.

Saturday, February 12, 2022

Coercion, Conformity, Compulsion: Thoughts on 'Liberation' and the Grief of Learning to be Human

 Today my therapist told me that I seemed to feel disempowered or stuck, or something, in my life. "Where is your freedom?" or some similar question was asked. I became visibly frustrated with the word freedom. 

I told her that I rarely use the word freedom. I don't talk much about liberation. I generally agree with what these words point to: the easing of  coercion and violence; the abolition of oppressive structures'; the reorganization of society. Yet I resist the language of freedom and liberation. 

I am reminded of an paraphrase Maggie Nelson in The Argonauts: 'most worthwhile pleasures fall somewhere in between helping ourselves and helping another.'

Much of the complexity I am trying to work through is implicated in that concise phrase.

I don't know what it would mean to be free or to be liberated because I don't know what it would mean to not be connected to others and thereby obligated to others.

I do not lament obligation. I think that the question is owing the right people the right things. 

Liberation, of course, doesn't imply complete dissolution of responsibility, relation, dependence, and obligation. These things are centrally human. They cannot be done away with without some consequence. 

I have often explored these questions around liberation in the language of 'roles', and how all of human life is structured by formal and informal roles. We play many roles throughout our lives. My grandmother's memoir that I was recently reading indeed begins with her listing all the roles she has occupied in her life. 

Roles are inherently normative, they imply rules and standards of evaluation. Oppression, the opposite of liberation, has something to do with the roles that are available in a society, how people are 'cast' in the different projects that constitute society. 


Liberation would probably have something to do with roles in society being more equitable, not the dissolution of roles as such. Our society is certainly too complex for the roles to just dissolve; the famines would be awful if there were no truck drivers or boat operators or grocery store employees. So the goal is the reorganization of role structures, or the division of labor, and not the dissolution of role structure as such. I am ignorant of anarchist theory, but I think I've heard that anarchism retains a place for roles, for the division of labor and cooperation. These exchanges and relationships are just freed from illegitimate hierarchy.  

The really difficult question really is that of hierarchy, of leadership. 

I want to find a way around or through these difficulties with the notion of liberation, and I want to do so by writing through three words: Coercion, Conformity, and Compulsion. It's not clear to me precisely how these words blend together, but it is clear to me that they do. In sussing out their overlap I hope to move from a negative to a positive understanding of roles and more complex understanding of what liberation would mean given that roles will persist.


Talking about roles is a way of talking about our needfulness, our lack of self-sufficiency, our necessary dependence on others around us. No human being can really live alone, totally apart from others. Because we are needful, necessarily social or political, we must take on roles. The notion of 'role', moreover, extends to any complex whole of parts. We thus speak of the 'role' of the drums in a song, the 'role' of those eggs in this recipe, or the role of a sentence in a paragraph. In each case we point towards a whole of parts, an interconnected and interdependent whole.

Humans are complex. We take on roles within ourselves (the role of anger, the role of my anxiety...); we take on roles for those around us; and there is a relationship between these intrapsychic and interpersonal roles. 


 To speak of coercion is to speak of violence. To coerce is to induce or 'persuade' someone to do something through force or threat of force. Our society is rife with various forms of coercion. Economic exploitation is probably the most pervasive form of coercion in America, so much so that large swaths of the population don't really talk about it, or would defend it. I acquired but have not read Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, a foundational book in economic theory. Smith, I have heard, regarded the fear of destitution as an important motivator in individual's participation in the market. It is reminiscent of Hobbes' state of nature in which life is nasty, brutish, and short.

So, coercion can be quite explicit, as when someone pressures someone to do something. Or, coercion can be quite diffuse, spread out in a network of assumptions, practices, and institutions. Capitalism functions certainly based on endemic and silent forms of coercion.


The basic object or goal of coercion is 'conformity' in some sense. In individual cases we see someone pressuring someone else to 'conform' to their standards, expectations, or practices (i.e. someone who doesn't normally smoke accepts a cigarette after being pressured, conforming in that moment). Similarly, the background coercion of capitalism asks for conformity; for us to be a certain way, think certain ways, speak certain ways (which is to say the same thing three different ways). 


Conformity is peculiar or difficult because we also like a sense of belonging. Belonging may involve a similarity in opinions, appearances, or practices. But belonging is qualitatively different from conformity. The former would be 'authentic' or natural or organic or something like this; the latter 'inauthentic', false, fake, or something. 

What, then, does it mean to be authentic, natural, or organic?

It seems that he human being is by nature pretty conflicted, divided, confused, discordant.

I think that being authentic or natural has something to do with compulsion.


Compulsion is a peculiar concept in that it initially seems to bear a strong resemblance to conformity or coercion. We can imagine saying, for example, that 'that person compelled them to give them their money.' To compel, to be placed under 'compulsion', could mean to be coerced or made to conform.

Compulsion, however, also has other uses that reveal different aspects of the experience. We also speak, for example, of how a person, piece of art, or idea is compelling. To find something compelling is to find it interesting, exciting, and demanding of our attention. There is something in a person/text/idea that we respond to, or something in us that responds to it. It seems that both 'compelling' and 'compulsion' (obviously) share a common Latin root compellere a combination of com (together) and pellere (drive). To find something compelling or to be placed under compulsion both have something to do with things being 'driven together'. Curious. I'm not entirely sure what to make of the etymology as I was just looking into it as I was writing this.

This divergence between the meanings of compulsion and compelling is telling about human experience. It should help us see that some of the most important parts of life, are bound up with a peculiar kind of necessity and a peculiar kind of power(lessness). Aspects of life like love, deep thought, or creativity all possess a type of necessity in which a person, an idea, or a project is compelling, it simply appears to us as such, we find it beautiful. There is much choice involved in how we pursue a love, an idea, or a project. Analysis, reflection, and time often change what we once thought beautiful or worthwhile. But what strikes us as beautiful enough to be worthwhile possesses a strange sort of necessity. It simply is so for us. 

In acknowledging this peculiar necessity I am also implying a type of power(lessness). I put it with those awkward parentheses because I'm trying to convey the peculiar way in which this sort of necessity at first glance appears as weakness, as a fault or flaw, but turns out, on deeper reflection, to be the source of properly human strength and stability. 


I am thus formulating and arguing for something like the freedom to be compelled or freedom as the freedom to discern which compulsions are actually worthwhile. I am reminded of C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man in which he well summarizes the essential task of ancient Greek ethics as 'to learn to want what one ought to want.' We will most likely not be free from desire. Thus it is important to develop desire, actively participate in the coming of desires, and understand why we desire what we desire.

This view of freedom can be contrasted with images of freedom that imply a detached manipulator or observer. It often seems to me that I encounter people talking about choices or experiences as if they should somehow have been living from a detached, rational perspective. We all know what it is like to look back and find our actions befuddling. It can be easy for us to scold ourselves, perhaps, say 'You should have done such and such...' The internet is awash with jokes about people anxiously rehearsing interactions or conflicts in the shower and beyond. This type of scolding is wrapped up with spurious views of freedom in which we suppose we should be god-like, manipulative, masterful, or the like. This type of freedom, I think, can also be associated with capriciousness, the ability to do whatever you want whenever you want, to shirk all attachments and responsibilities and to set out into some sort of fictional self-sufficiency.

This type of spurious view of freedom isn't what I sense in leftist or liberal accounts of 'liberation'. This spurious view of freedom appears more in something like Ayn Rand, or other far right circles. I think that what I've said so far, about the strange compulsory quality of important parts of our lives, should raise questions about the meaning of liberation. If some of our deepest qualities as humans involve compulsion, obligations, 'debts' (in our sense here), then what would it mean to be liberated? 

When I look at situations in which I or someone else doesn't understand 'what I was thinking', or I'm talking to someone who is upset with themselves, I get really curious about what in that situation was so compelling. We are not 'simply rational' and we should not expect ourselves to be. We have to accept that situations have structures independent of us. These structures are partly physical, like roads, buildings and tools, but also partly symbolic, made up of our bodily habits and processes, and the words and symbols we use to develop those processes throughout the day.We live in intimate relationship with these situational structures, and our body is intimately familiar with how they work (just talk to someone who struggles to pee in public, the body understands the situation).

It is unimaginable to me that we would be without relationships, networks, always blending coercion and compulsion (in our proper sense). The goal of a society would be to limit the coercion, and to place more people in positions of being able to pursue what they find compelling. This is perhaps just some 'aptitudes' psychological theory or something. But I think I'm talking about something quite different.

To accept this view of freedom as developing compulsions is painful. It is to accept that there are very real limits to human happiness and autonomy. It is to accept that happiness and autonomy are not simply identical. Obligation, intimacy, involvement, and intertwinement all loom large in all human lives. I am aware, after the fact, that my last sentence contains a highly relevant pun. I speak of us as intertwined, an image of threads. And I speak of how this question looms. I don't understand why that word means both of those things for us, i.e. a thing that weaves and a thing that waits ominously. 

I think it is easy to take refuge in images of freedom that promise 'liberation' from obligation or responsibility. To become deeply familiar with freedom as a type of compulsion one has to grieve, has to come to terms with the limits of this process we are all going through (living). I, at least, have had significant grieving to do to reckon with what I have learned as I've grown up. There is so much pain in the world and in my family line and in my own life, it was often overwhelming and too much to really look at. It still is sometimes. But I also have a deeply intimate relationship with all that pain and difficulty and really see it as a place to honor and live from. 


So I am pointing to a concept of liberation that makes room for all of these compelling qualities about human life. We are not free to choose our loves, and we are not free to deny the compelling quality of an idea or project. We are free to sense into the intricacies and complexities of the situations we are living in and through.

I suppose my model for this type of freedom is a strange fusion of two important thinkers for me: R.G. Collingwood and Eugene Gendlin. 

Collingwood speaks of the highest form of freedom as 'duty'. By duty Collingwood means something like what I've described above: acknowledging that the most important experiences are accompanied by a strange form of necessity in which we find things 'compelling' or not. Collingwood knows that situations have these structures, and believes that freedom is a practice of 'consulting the situation', trying as hard as possible to understand what situation we are in. Real thorough understanding of a situation, and one's self in that situation, generally comes along with a sense of what 'one has to do'. Thus Collingwood says that duty implies a tautological formulation: 'this is what I have to do because this is what I have to do.' 

Much of my writing above, I confess, reeks of my learning from Collingwood, who I read incessantly in the early 2010s. He speaks often and forcefully of the compulsory quality of thinking, the compulsory quality of really 'dutiful' action.

Eugene Gendlin, by contrast, is a profound philosopher who developed an embodied therapeutic-philosophical practice known as 'focusing'. I am currently being trained as a focusing-oriented psychotherapist, and recently had a paper on Gendlin accepted for publication. 

Focusing is a process whereby one engages in a quasi-meditative awareness of one's body. One will generally, with a companion or alone, sit down and bring their awareness into their body. Instead of staying in a meditative posture, however, one sort of gently inquires 'How am I doing? What am I really living with here in my body?' When one learns focusing one learns that the body will actually answer such questions in quite peculiar, detailed, and precise ways. 

It is important to note that in attending carefully to one's 'body' I do not just mean the physical body, for the body is not merely a machine. The body is also the situational body, aware of what room or space we are in, what day and time it generally is, and what we are up to. Our bodies are attuned to all of this and more that isn't or doesn't need to be in explicit awareness. So in going into 'the body' in focusing one is going into 'all of that' understanding of the situation that the body has. 

The essential concept of focusing is that of a 'felt sense'. When one goes into one's body and 'senses' into a certain situation or problem, one may encounter a peculiar 'felt sense' of a situation; some murky sense of 'something about that interaction...'. This may be a familiar experience. Can you recall a situation or relationship that was particularly difficult or striking, so much so that its hard to put exactly into words what the feel of it is? A felt sense is our 'bodily', funny feeling about 'what happened' or 'what that was'. 

Gendlin says a felt sense has 8 characteristics:

  1. A felt sense forms at the border zone between conscious and unconscious.
  2. The felt sense has at first only an unclear quality (although unique and unmistakable).
  3. The felt sense is experienced bodily.
  4. The felt sense is experienced as a whole, a single datum that is internally complex.
  5. The felt sense moves through steps; it shifts and opens step by step.
  6. A step brings one closer to being that self which is not any content.
  7. The process step has its own growth direction.
  8. Theoretical explanations of a step can be devised only retrospectively.

The process of focusing is about going back and forth between a felt sense of a situation and explicit formulation or symbol. So I may sit and attend to my body and invite my sense of 'that whole thing with my old friends and video games'. Immediately I can feel my body respond to my invitation to that situation. 


So I actually closed my eyes and took a few deep breathes and started paying attention to my body. I noticed how loud the clock ticks behind me sometimes, which I can barely notice now as I'm typing again. As I kept breathing and noticing my body I thought to myself 'What is it with that whole thing with friends and video games?'. I experienced a little sensation in my chest that quickly turned into an image of something strange, like a neck stretching up and down and twisting. I was curious and I thought to myself 'is this choking or something?' When that happened I got clearer about the image and I realized it was actually like a creature stretching to bite something and defend itself, and that it was actually sad when it went back from having to bite and defend. I sensed that for a moment and then it shifted again and got more detail and I was left with an image of a hedgehog in a hole in the ground that was like a little house with a wood floor and a little kitchen and chair and tv. And the hedgehog likes playing video games but every now and then has to go to his door to keep some foes from getting in, which he does not like to do. Especially because those same intruders are later just fellow hedgehogs to hang out with.

I felt all of this as interesting and enjoyable and kind of a relief. It was nice to sense into the situation and have these images come up and realize that they are actually communicating something to me. It's nice to know that this is really about feeling bad about having conflict with friends. My 'body' had responded to my inquiry once I had taken a moment to settle into it and really be there with my full awareness. 

You can also see how my process reflects aspects of the felt sense named by Gendlin. Border-zone, this was a situation where yeah, I sorta know sorta didn't how I was 'really' feeling about it (1). It presented itself to me as an unclear bodily felt whole (2, 3, 4), and steps emerged from it (5). Those steps took me in a direction where I could witness the process more clearly as opposed to the content (6), and it took me in a direction of having more understanding of my own sadness and my friend's difficulties (7). Lastly, after that process I'm able to formulate the situation differently in more theoretical concepts (8): 'Oh okay I'm sad because it hurts to have to fight back against one's friend because later you'll want to be close again'. The crucial point is that it wouldn't have been as impactful to simply deliver that theoretical formulation to me from the outset. In some ways that theoretical formulation is in some ways obvious. But what matters is that I went through those experiential, embodied steps to get there. We all know that it is really hard to persuade someone of something simply rationally. Therapists don't, and should not, simply tell someone what is wrong and what they should do. A therapist facilitates someone else's process, always by providing a safe non-judgemental environment, and sometimes through fancier things like focusing, emdr, mindfulness, or what have you.

The most important feature to highlight about focusing and the felt sense for my purposes is that it is experienced as compelling. A felt sense, Gendlin often says is 'exacting', 'demanding', 'precise', or 'intricately ordered'. Gendlin often uses the image of a poet who is trying to finish a poem. The lines written so far have a 'feel', a quality, and the poet has a felt sense of 'all that'. The felt sense of the lines 'implies' which line is next. The poet tries a line and can sense that the line does not fit. The felt sense is responsive in that it responds to our explicit or symbolic formulations. It will tell us what words are just right. You don't have to be a poet to experience this, nor even learn focusing. But being a poet or learning focusing hone precisely this capacity for engaging in refined or higher forms of compulsion.

So, to put Collingwood and Gendllin would be to claim that when one wants to act dutifully, one wants to act from full embodied awareness of the situation, or handle situations in a 'focusing' or felt sense oriented manner. 

This would mean really pausing and sensing into your deeper sense of things, not settling at immediate reactions. Immediate reactions are generally overly logical, conventional, or rigid. It is so easy to just be on autopilot, reactive mode, saying yes to this and no to that, shutting down this conversation and indulging that one. Duty, responsible and relational action, would involve pausing, slowing down, sensing into the intricacy of the situation as one experiences it in their body, and really trying to be precise about how they want to meet the situation.


Duty and felt sensing is compelling. This is a peculiar form of freedom in that it is the freedom to listen carefully to what one is sensing. What precisely is the role of rational thought is an absolutely burning question that I must bracket. For I believe there is a role for formal systems, rules, roles, so on. But I don't have space here. 

This notion of duty, or being intimate with situational intricacy, to me, is the closest I can come to understanding the meaning of liberation. To be liberated would not mean to be capricious, or 'simply' free of obligation, whatever that would even mean. We find that the spurious obligations of our society (boys have to...) can be transcended and subsumed by a higher form of obligation, one's obligation to our deeper sense of things, the real source of sources of understanding.

I want to close with another brief note about the grief of this all.

To 'be intimate with situational intricacy' is difficult, I think, because all intimacy contains an acknowledgement of separateness and weakness. I have been sitting with some sense that intimacy and love have so much to do with death and grief. To be intimate with another person is to be in such deep relation to mortality. It seems like such a pleasure to be able to be intimate and vulnerable with another person. But it also seems like there is a peculiar question that rises, which is can we tolerate how frail and strange and vulnerable human life can really be? I feel tremendous grief in asking that question, a tremendous difficulty in acknowledging how much intimacy and comfort matters, and how hard it is to be in need of others so deeply.

To  be liberated, for me, is to grieve a certain sense of freedom and independence that I don't think really exists. To be liberated is to be in relation to others and myself in a way that allows something deeper in me to show its continuity in public. Our society is not liberated because so many people experience so much violence, are forced into positions in which their deeper processes are not actualized, in which life is spent in fear and survival alone.

To ensure or promote other people's deeper processes is to address the material conditions of people's lives, i.e. their housing, their healthcare, their ability to access resources, proximity to family and friends, their conditions of labor, so on. 

The most therapeutic thing that could happen in this country would be a genuine revival of support for a decked out welfare state. This would mean overcoming the legacy of the cold war that has skewed the country so far right. 

And then I run into the problem that I seem to keep running into, and that I won't be pursuing: the nature of political process differs from these intricate processes of felt sensing, of dutiful activity.

Gendlin puts it well when he says that politician really only work with the 'cut up options', the flat as opposed to intricate concepts. Collingwood would say they've not yet discovered duty and are stuck in 'regularian' thinking. 

I have tried to point at some concept of liberation that would also be a form of grief. It would involve recognizing the pervasive role of coercion in human experience, and attempting to become a 'compelled' person as opposed to a coerced person. People don't generally choose to be coerced, and would of course want to pursue what is genuinely compelling. Addressing this question, how conditions can be established so that people are coerced less and compelled more, seems like where I'm going.

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Patterning Time: Individuals, Ancestors, and History, or On the Movement from the Implying of Artifacts to the Implying of Institutions - Section 1

 I recently had a paper published in a journal called Human Arenas. The paper is called "The early modern attack on teleology and the politics of contemporary psychology: Intellectual roots of current dilemmas." Feel free to contact me if you'd like to read it.

I have several other academic papers I am working on but frankly grow weary of the deep stylistic constraints. I want to write something else these days, poetry, more relaxed whatever. Below is 'Section 1' of a new project on time, experience, artifacts, ancestors, and institutions. It has already started to get weirder than I anticipated. I have two other projected sections where I will get deeper into questions first around ancestors and artifacts, and second around institutions and our modern concept of 'history'. The main idea I'm exploring is this: the modern experience of time is highly chaotic, out of step with natural rhythms, vexed by distress and 'pathology' (which are particular distortions of time). This chaotic experience of time has some connection to the role of artifacts in our individual and collective lives. Earlier and smaller human communities would have had a very different relationship with artifacts and the way they patterned time, preserved tradition and connection. Rather than artifacts, in this more proper sense, we deal with commodities. Artifacts imply a temporal containment and order. Commodities imply processes too complex to derive from the commodity alone. Thus the commodity assumes a mysterious quality and our relationship to it is alienated. An artifact, more properly, implies its process, makes its origins and purposes known. A commodity implies opaquely, it does not announce its origins. Thus I am inquiring into the experience of time as a way to pursue these questions about artifacts, ancestors, institutions, and history.


Here is part 1: 

Patterning Time: Individuals, Ancestors, and History, or On the Movement from the Implying of Artifacts to the Implying of Institutions

Time is perhaps the constitutive aspect of experience. Its ubiquity means that it is easy to not notice it, and incredibly difficult to think clearly about it.

Here I am concerned with what it means to ‘pattern’ time: to give it rhythm, to regulate its passage, to make change less violent, more manageable. There are many ways to think about how to pattern time, and here I will explore several ‘scales’ or ‘levels’ on which time can be patterned: as individuals, as communities, and comprehensively. Individual time will be discussed in terms of music, breathing, and ‘mental health’. The patterning of communal time will hinge on the meaning of ancestors, artifacts, and rituals. The comprehensive patterning of time will concern the notion of history, and the desire to perceive order in the total unfolding of events.

To speak about time is to speak about movement and change. To speak about patterning time is to speak about orderly movement and change, as opposed to disorderly or chaotic movement and change.

These reflections strike me as more urgent as I go further into my time, or as I age. As I’ve aged I’ve become aware of the great violence that afflicted my ancestors, the chaotic and painful movements and changes suffered by those before me. I have been fortunate to approach their pain through a particularly deep psychedelic experience during the summer of 2021. It was my own pain that made me wonder about the pain of those that came before. As I’ve studied my own pain I’ve found their pain to be implied, and as I’ve studied them I’ve found my own pain to be implied. I live further what they lived; I am implied in their living.

I wish to heal, to ease the violence of the flow of time, for myself and for others.

I will, hopefully, trace a line from the patterning of time on an individual scale as it leads to more communal and historical perspectives. I regard this as a preliminary exercise into a larger project that will involve doing much historical work, such as going through the memoirs and books left by my own ancestors. The ultimate philosophical upshot concerns the way in which local artifacts, known in ancestral and traditional situations, become unmoored from their implying; they cease to become intimately known in places, and instead become commodities.

Patterning Individual Time: Meaning, Music, Breathing, ‘Mental Health’

Society is real, but it is still made up of individuals. Thus in order to understand the workings of this thing called society, and how society patterns time, we need to understand how individuals experience time, patterned and otherwise.

Individual experience can be understood in terms of the quality of how time passes. This follows from the fact that consciousness, experience, and time are nearly synonymous terms. To be conscious is to be aware of time, to be able to track change. To have ‘experience’ is to be engaged in an ongoing flow of occurings and happenings; things that happened, things that are happening, things that will happen. Thus Bergson’s Time and Free Will, Heidegger’s Being and Time, and Gendlin’s A Process Model all treat time, or process, as essential and constitutive aspects of time. I have seen Rob Parker, a psychologist who studied with Gendlin, say ‘we are time…’

Many of our most important experiences involve a certain pattern of time. The psychologist Guy Claxton, for example, discusses the way in which a human voice is only intelligible at certain tempos or rhythms. If you play a tape too fast a voice becomes screechy and unintelligible; the same tape slowed down would reveal a voice too deep and garbled to be comprehensible. Human speech is intelligible within precise temporal parameters; it is a particular rhythm, tempo, and cadence, and we cannot understand it unless these temporal conditions are met.

Social and interpersonal situations similarly are governed by a specific cadence, rhythm, or pattern of time. When greeting another person, for example, there is an acceptable rhythm to the exchange of “Hey, how are you?” “Pretty good, how about you?”. Too much of a delay and one may seem disengaged, uninterested, or not listening. Too quick of a response and one is interrupting, talking over, or overbearing. This is true both in the short-term and long-term. An interaction in a retail environment has a specific rhythm. A long-term relationship—with a partner, friend, or parent—has a different set of rhythms and landmarks. Thus we celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays, all ways of patterning time.

The quality of an experience—whether it is good or bad, better or worse—can also be understood in terms of the quality of time. A painful or unpleasant experience, for example, may feel temporally stretched out, long, exaggerated. We might say that a meeting or date dragged on, and note how 30 minutes felt like 2 hours. Similarly, it is commonplace to note how time moves quickly in pleasurable activity or good company. ‘Time flies…’ we say.

The notion of patterning time is especially relevant in the discussion of ‘mental health’ or human well-being. Indeed, part of my desire in writing about this topic is a larger project of developing non-pathological language for discussing human well-being or goodness. I don’t want to talk about ‘mental health’, as I believe the concept smuggles in a variety of untenable philosophical positions (i.e. that human distress is an issue of ‘pathology’). Pathologizing —diagnosis, medicalization, so on—is an important practical and theoretical issue in my life as a psychotherapist.

It is possible to discuss traditionally ‘pathological’ issues in terms of the experience or rhythm of time. Depression, for example, could be understood as often involving a slowed, thickened sense of time; the future may feel closed, the present inescapable, and the past overwhelming. The experience of ‘mania’, by contrast, could be understood as a radical opening of the future where anything becomes possible, thoughts race, time flies by and leaves no trace in memory. Or severe schizophrenia may involve complete disruption of lived time, leaving people with large stretches of time unremembered and unaccounted for. All of these experiences, moreover, are intensifications of tendencies present in all experience.

The claim thus arises: Any given human experience, perhaps experience in general, can be understood as unique temporal patterns or rhythms. Everything seems to be some kind of becoming; every being originates, develops, and perishes in time. To speak of experience in terms of time offers a significant challenge to the language of ‘mental health’. To speak of ‘mental health’ is to imply a medical understanding of distress. To medicalize distress is to confine the questions largely to the physical body (i.e. physicians). To medicalize is thus to focus on structure and thereby space as opposed to time. Medical professionals of course are interested in patient history, and there is plenty of work done on integrative medicine. But the basic framework of medicine—and especially psychiatry and some psychotherapy—is essentially physical and therefore spatial.

To take seriously the relationship between experience and time is thus ultimately a challenge to any sort of physicalist ontology. For if the pattern of time is truly integral to (identical with) experience, then there are processes at play that are otherwise than physical. Or, put differently, the relationship between experience and time shows that consciousness or life is genuinely causal in the world and not simply epiphenomenal of physical process.

The relationship between experience, time, and causality will now be made evident through an inquiry into artifacts. Artifacts, objects made or used by intelligent agents for purposes, will provide crucial information about the causal role of consciousness and its peculiar relationship to time. For the existence of artifacts presents us with evidence of a peculiar process whereby a living being regulates its relationship with time through the active appropriation of its environment. To understand artifacts, then, is to understand the possibility of a being that patterns time for itself, regulates its own experience. Because such an experience is fundamentally temporal it must be understood and explained temporally. If such a phenomenon exists and can be understood, then, fundamentally temporal processes must exist, excluding any possible reductive physicalist metaphysics.

In addition to these therapeutic and philosophical issues, there is also a personal-political dimension. My hope is that this inquiry will shed light on the particular forms of suffering that have afflicted me as well as my immediate and extended family members. I have often found life painful, and I remember finding it painful from a very young age. As I’ve aged, learned, and become a therapist I’ve learned a lot about trauma and intergenerational trauma. I believe that the pain I have experienced in my life is not just my own, but comes also in part from the suffering going back at least four generations. These, sadly, are the only generations I am aware of. But in those four generations there are a variety of displacements, emigrations, wars, illnesses, abuses, and troubles. Most, perhaps all, of what I know of them is thanks to the artifacts they left behind: the pictures and stories, the books and writings. Through those artifacts I have been able to pattern my experience of time, and bring some calm to what has often felt like chaos. Thus in asking after the relationship between time and well-being I am raising the question of ancestors, of generations, of graceful transitions in life and death..

Sunday, July 11, 2021

A Note on the Core of my Project: Trauma, Social Welfare, and Social Domination

 It seems more and more obvious to me that one of the most profound implications of trauma research is that the language of 'mental health' needs to give way to the language of justice. Mental health assumes that problems are fundamentally in individuals: in your brain, in your behavior, in your genes, in your way of thinking. 

Trauma is not intelligible apart from a social-political context. The most severely 'mentally ill' in our society are the most consistently traumatized: women, people of color, trans and gender non-confirming folks. 

The writers who have made this most clear to me are Bessel van der Kolk, Resmaa Menakem, Judith Herman Lewis, Mark Fisher, and currently Gabor Mate. We have to stop talking about individual pathology and start making sense of the social determinants of human suffering. 

What stands in the way of recognizing these implications of trauma research? I answer: the fusion of governmental domination, behaviorally-medically oriented psychology, and a larger philosophy of scientific materialism.

Our current ruling paradigm, bio-medical-behavioral psychology, came to prominence in conjunction with the principle modern political institutions. Fisher and van der Kolk both write explicitly about this: psychopharmacology has triumphed. It is the most favored solution to 'mental health' issues, and it produces billions of dollars every year. The logic of psychopharmacology, in turn, depends on basic assumptions about the chemical-physical nature of life processes. I have been convinced that life processes have to be understood in their own right, and cannot be reduced (experientially or philosophically) to chemical-physical process.

I'm trying to understand more thoroughly the way that these various institutions came to constitute each other's legitimacy, how it is that bio-medically oriented psychology became so deeply intertwined with governmental institutions of domination, and how all of this is contingent upon philosophy that preaches the primacy of physical stuff, and the reducibility of experience.

The challenge I'm still sitting with is how to articulate this intertwining of political and philosophical dimensions.

But I'll say it again: Trauma, properly understood, poses fundamental challenges to how we understand the meaning of human distress, and how we understand nature in general and human nature in particular.

All this, I think, as the world seems to move closer to death on most fronts.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

General Psychology, Cosmology, Anthropogenesis

 My reading pushes me deeper into the idea that 'general psychology' is not possible without an account of the cosmos, the origin of life, and the origin of human beings.

General psychology simply means the study of the 'psyche' in general. Every discipline has general and specific elements. Physicians study of general medicine before they begin specializing.Niels Engelsted's book Catching up with Aristotle helped me understand this question of general psychology more than any other recently.

Psychology, at least in America, lacks any coherent center, any coherent form of 'general psychology'. This means we have no accepted answer to the question 'What is the psyche?' Instead, we have a chaotic and often contradictory collection of sub-types of psychology: behavioral, cognitive, existential, humanistic, just to name the few closest to my concerns. 

The question of what the psyche is cannot be answered apart from more general questions about the world: what is the universe, how did it come to be, what does life have to do with cosmic process as a whole, and what is human life.

The various ways we answer the meaning of psyche, or psychology, contain implicit answers to cosmic and anthropogenic questions. Behaviorism and cognitive psychology, for example, imply a basically materialist view of the cosmos, and assume that life processes are generally reducible to physical processes. As Engelsted would say, they are basically forms of 'reactivity theory' in which the world is assumed to be basically predictable physical process. Existential psychology tends to bypass cosmic and anthropogenic questions and tacitly assent to materialist views of the cosmos. Human freedom arises not from nature, but from history. History is treated as a metaphysically unique realm in which choice and freedom are triumphant over deterministic physical process.

Humanistic psychology contains an alternative cosmology, and implies a different account of anthropogenesis. Carl Rogers believed the universe was not made of fundamentally non-living, predictable matter. He claimed that the whole thing shows a directionality, a movement towards order, complexity, and interrelatedness. Rogers called this the 'formative tendency' and he regarded it as the theoretical foundation for humanistic psychology. Rogers does not offer an anthrogenic account, but one is implied in his conception of the formative tendency.

I am currently reading Terrence Deacon's book Incomplete Nature. It takes up these questions at great depth, breadth, and length. 

I am hoping it will compliment my reading of Engelsted, as well as my growing interest in Soviet psychology, namely Alexi Leontiev's 'activity theory' (which I've only recently begun to study and reflect on). 

The most pressing clinical and political questions ultimately rely on the cosmological and anthrogenic ideas. The roots are deep, the links real. I worry that the clinical and political questions are hard to see in light of these deeper metaphysical questions. But the questions go all the way down.

What is the psyche? Is it the soul? Is it the mind? Is it behavior? Each of these answers implies comprehensive views of the world.