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.

Friday, June 11, 2021

Living Therapeutically as the Reduction of Domination

Psychotherapy is something that a client may attend for 1, maybe 2 hours a week. But the goal of being in therapy is not to be in therapy. The goal of going to therapy is living therapeutically, living in a way that is healing, or, as I'll explore here, living in a way that reduces the domination of ourselves and others.

Human life is intensely bound up with domination. Our lives necessarily take place within society, and society is invariably organized around rules and roles: generic dictates that say do this, don't do that. Rules and roles are almost always hierarchical. Roles are generally co-ordinate, sub-ordinate, or super-ordinate. Two coworkers at a cafe or construction job work together, doing different tasks that are fundamentally on 'the same level'. There supervisor, however, stands 'above' them in the hierarchical organization of that situation. Their bosses role is super-ordinate (supervisor), while their role is sub-ordinate. 

This way of organizing—co-, sub-, and super-ordinate—gets replicated in our own psyches. We make certain 'parts' of us subservient to other parts. In some people anger, or their protector, has the most commanding role. In others shame may predominate. We all have a uniquely distorted community of emotions (forms) with a various hierarchical relationship. I have often avoided pain by giving my intellect a super-ordinate role: I have tried to rationalize and compartmentalize emotions, often not giving them due credit. Thanks to good therapy and other experiences I now have a more balanced hierarchy of emotions. Each part of me has a seat at the table. 

I used to dominate myself with my intellect, chastising my shame, inflaming my anger, and cursing the parts of me that feel small, afraid, and alienated.

I no longer dominate myself so badly. I, of course, still keep certain feelings in check. "I can't cry right now... I have to get to meeting my friend..." And so I 'tamp' down a part of me, I force it into a subordinate position.


Even our physical bodies seem to be organized hierarchically. When we are afraid our bodies stop digesting, stop exerting energy to socialize, and focus on the 'core processes' of surviving. Even our guts, our organs, are a community of forms that have their own relations with one another. One of the reasons breathing is such a common coping technique is that our breath is the only part of our autonomic nervous system we can control. In taking control of our breath, then, we place our lungs in a super-ordinate position over the rest of our organs, signalling we are safe to our kidneys, hearts, and brains in the only way we can.

We also have the opportunity to dominate others in big and small ways. Being rude to servers, commanding those who are economically obligated to help us, is one very common form of domination. But we also dominate others by tacitly reinforcing gender roles, racial stereotypes, or other social-political labels and hierarchies. These systems of domination are generally invisible, as they exist in a sort of symbolic-institutional matrix.

Learning to not dominate ourselves and others, learning to live therapeutically, means being able to make the invisible visible. We make the invisible visible through language, through phenomenology in the deep and genuine sense: by producing a logos that allows a phenomenon to be seen.

Learn to live therapeutically means articulating the invisible forms that govern the processes of our lives. In naming these invisible forms we reveal their hierarchical organization. In revealing the hierarchy of invisible forms we initiate the process of reorganizing them. If we reveal them in a kind and loving way (likely the only way), we invite them to reorganize themselves in a kinder and more loving way. The community of forms follows our lead, whatever this implicit 'I' is that is capable of love.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Symbol as the Birdnest of Humankind, and the Esoteric Text as Natural Artifact of Our Ambivalent Nature

I recently told my friend Eric about my developing thoughts on the relationship between life process and artificial structure.

Animals throughout nature seem to use tools, to take up and modify elements of their environment to elaborate and further their life processes. Otters and apes use stones to break open food; birds build nests to hold their young and attract their mates. Many forms of life find ways to 'use' things in ways they weren't 'intended' to be used. A blowfish's toxin is not meant to intoxicate a dolphin in a pleasurable way, but apparently dolphins have found a way to 'use' them in this way.

Human beings are apparently the most complex artificers, tool users, on this planet. We, too, make things in order to further or elaborate our life processes. Humans kill animals and wear their skins to keep warm; we create fabrics and materials to make slings to carry our young; we fashion instruments to cultivate and hunt food to eat. 

Eugene Gendlin's work on life process is absolutely decisive in my understandings here.

Perhaps the most notable human artifice is the symbol, or the separation of patterns from their instances. 😀 This smiley face, for example, is a symbol that is an abstraction from the life processes of the human body: the face that reveals the experiential processes of the organism. 


Symbols are crucial in our ability to organize ourselves socially and politically. When a group of people arrive at a camping site, for example, they may divide the necessary labor: you go get water, you go get the food started, I'll stay here and get the fire started. In that moment, each of these people acquires a symbolic role within the whole of that 'unit' of people, that 'society'. Roles are implicit in that moment: fire starter; water fetcher; cook.


A role is a peculiar form of symbolization whereby a particular person is made to fill a general role. The filling of roles is essential to human experience. We cannot be ourselves (particular, being) unless we also are something that we are not (generic role, non-being). I worked for many years as a barista, and currently as a psychotherapist. In one sense I 'was' a barista and 'am' a psychotherapist. In another sense I am neither of those things. Those roles are a symbolic artifice that I take on in order to further my life processes. 


It seems that human beings are the type of animal that cannot live without symbolically structuring itself. 

Because human life requires the occupation of roles, human life thereby requires sacrifice. I cannot be what I am apart from 'fitting' myself into the activity of the community. Therefore all of my potentials will not, cannot, be actualized. 

And this brings me to the point that I've been groping towards for many months or years now: the existence of esoteric texts, as uniquely human artifacts, is evidence of the type of animal that we are. We are a political animal, which also means we are a sacrificial animal and a symbolic animal. Because we are a political animal we have permanently ambivalent interests: we have the unique developments of our person, and the developments of our community. Both of these developments require sacrifices.

Esoteric texts, layered texts whereby individuals navigate the tension between individual and communal goods, are the natural artifact that is unique to the sacrifical-symbolic animal. An esoteric text allows a human being to develop a life process that is incredibly complex: How am I to further my growth as a unique, thinking being, when I am also a communal being that belongs? The esoteric text answers: I will further both of these processes by living a double life in which I care for myself in private while also preserving my belonging to a symbolic community.

Alexei Leontiev, an impressive Soviet psychologist I have recently made contact with, speaks of the 'double life of symbols'. On the one hand, they function publicly, designate roles, delineate abstract rules. On the other, symbols enter into unique relation with our individual souls, take on deeper meanings an intricacies.

The esoteric text is a perfect instantiation of this double life of symbols. And, I would add, it is evidence of the struggles unique to our animal. 

The esoteric text is the artifact that is essential to understanding the unique life processes of this kind of animal we seem to be.

Friday, May 7, 2021

The Emotional Difficulty of Writing, and the Relationship Between 'General Psychology' and Ontology

I produced five full length 'academic' papers in the last 6 months or so. I had intended to try and publish a few of them, but found myself profoundly frustrated with the process.

Showing my writing to others, in particular, occasioned challenging conversations, and feelings of alienation. I am inclined to alienation, so this is not altogether surprising. 

Yesterday I spent time with a friend (a pleasure) and spoke with him about my frustrations. 

I fear that I was irritable at the time, as I was expressing my irritation with how my writing is often met. "My writing," I said to him, "is the answer to a question and the solution to a problem." "How Collingwoodian of you," he humorously replied, as we just read R.G. Collingwood's Essay on Metaphysics together. Collingwood defines thinking as a series of questions and answers, and encourages other to write, not about him, but about the problems that he is addressing.

I want my problems to be shared. "I show people my writing and everyone takes issues with my formulations. 'This isn't clear...'. 'This metaphor doesn't quite work...'. 'This is ambiguous...'. These are proper critiques of my writing, and I want to learn to engage in the craft of writing, editing, considering audience. But I also get frustrated when I feel I am told that I am inventing problems, asking the wrong questions, or otherwise misguided.

I want to feel like I perceive reasonable problems in the world, and that my problems can be shared. But it is difficult when there is a lack of agreement in what problem,  what situation, we are even dealing with.

I have recently decided to not pursue a PhD, and to attempt to write beyond academia. I have also recently outlined a project of substantial length. 

There are a variety of to frame the project, but one is to discuss the relationship between 'general psychology' and ontology. 

I have recently been reading Niels Engelsted's book Catching up with Aristotle, an attempt to articulate a 'general psychology' that could offer greater unity to the fractured discipline of psychology. Engelsted argues that the Soviet psychologist Aleksei Leontiev and Aristotle shared a four-part scheme to capture the meaning of 'psyche', or soul, as they appear in the world: sentience (in basic life), intentionality (in conscious life), mind (in animals with locomotion), and human consciousness (in animals with a social debt economy). 

I am highly attracted to the project of general psychology because it is identical with the question, 'What is life?'

The question of general psychology cannot be raised without asking about the general nature of things, or the question of ontology or being. 'What is life?' cannot be asked without also asking 'What is the world?'

The fusion of general psychology and ontology is a feature of our present situation. I said to my friend, 'Behaviorism as a general psychology is predicated upon or consonant with materialism as a general ontology'. He asked me to repeat this. It felt like one of those simple and crystal clear formulations, obviously oversimplified, that I should hold onto. 

My friend was pointing out the theoretical extremes of my political analysis; my insistence on the significance of 'local teleology' for psychology and philosophy, my desire to attack materialist, crude 'empiricism', and the like. 

I understand this sentiment, and am also surprised by it. Pre-reflective experience is so theoretically intricate, so implicitly theoreitcal. Our entire situation feels so materialist, so behaviorist. 

How could we possibly approach general psychology differently without rethinking ourselves ontologically? 

And, yet, I speak so often of the impotence of philosophical analysis.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

To Speak Twice of Density

 In the first, we speak

Of cakes and earth, and

No one has to die.

In the second, we speak

Of people and their brutality,


and many have to die.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Shame and Story

I have been experiencing shame, as I have often throughout my life.

I began a new writing project on shame. I produced 10 pages in one day. I have not touched it since.

I wrote a short story for a group of friends that I occasionally write stories with. I post it here, as I have not posted much else here. I have been busy and tired. Two papers have been sent to places. Two more papers remain to be sent to places.

A Brief Story: "To Understand a Face"

She looked and saw the familiar rows of faces on either side of her, always vanishing into the gray distance, always behind the thin thread. She found herself always checking, always looking for slight differences in feature, but one was yet to be seen. The expressions shifted, the eyes followed, but the faces stayed the same. The process was less urgent now that it had been going on for so long. But it was still unnerving.

The last thing she remembered from the old world was the argument she’d had with Allan that last morning she awoke in their apartment. “Kate, I can’t do this unless I feel you can start to trust me again…. I’m trying so hard...” Kate was unable to forgive him or forget about it.

The night before she’d dreamt of endless rows of faces judging him, scowling as he walked through an endless gray void. Two thin pieces of twine, stretched tautly along thin torches, ran parallel and disappeared into the gray horizon. Each face was identical. They did not move and their mouths did not move but everything in them said Shame.

“I’m trying so hard…” She twinged with pleasure at this desperate confession. She’d always wanted to see him feeling small, afraid; for once he was the one afraid that she was going to leave.

She felt that pleasure and felt that power and blinked and found herself in the gray dream. She looked at the faces on either side of her. She saw them seeing her and she knew she had to walk so she started walking. Shame, and she set out; Shame, and she moved her body; Shame, and she did not belong.

She hoped that Allan would be there when she got to where the faces vanished and life appeared. She hoped that he would be different and that she could be different and that things might be different.