Wednesday, August 03, 2011

The Ego, Vulnerability, & the Circumscription of Reason


The following passages are from John Cottingham’s, Philosophy and the Good Life: Reasons and the Passions in Greek, Cartesian and Psychoanalytic Ethics (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998). I find them utterly persuasive on all counts and thus believe these propositions spell out at least one way we might take seriously the slogan that “the personal is political.” As such, they should be axiomatic to any Left-inspired emancipatory project.

“The fact is that vulnerability—to pain, to loss, to fear, ultimately to extinction—is not simply a function of psychological or developmental difficulties, but is part of our very nature as human beings—one of the signs of existence [dukkha] as the Buddhists have it. And unless moral life can be lived in a compartmentalized way, in a way that ignores or dangerously blindfolds us to that vulnerability (and this would involve a sacrifice of our wholeness, our integrity), then we are going to need an askesis [‘spiritual exercises’ as found, for example, among the Stoics and monastic and mystical traditions] that enables us to come to terms with it.”

“Before we can begin on the project of seeing how we should live, we first have to embark on the task of trying to understand ourselves. That much, at least, is fully in accord with a long classical tradition stretching from the famous injunction at Delphi right down to Pope’s Essay on Man: “Know then thyself.” But what is new is the insistence that the process has to begin with an attempt to come to terms with the darker side of our nature—the side which is not revealed by simple introspection and rational weighing of ‘what on balance we most want,’ but which will be grasped only at the end of a long process of recovery, rehabilitating those parts of the self which are initially submerged beneath the level of ordinary everyday awareness.”

“The problem of mastering, or at least accommodating, the passions was seen in both Greek and in early modern ethics as absolutely central to philosophy’s goal of teaching us how to live. But the solutions offered by both of these earlier systems were defective in important respects, and…the defects only begin to be remedied with the development of the unconscious—the notion that important parts of the self are not fully transparent to the deliberations of reason.”

Cottingham turns, rightly I think, to psychoanalytic theory to transcend (aufheben) the Enlightenment trajectory (with Greek pedigree) of a purely ratiocentric philosophy and ethics, endeavoring “to uncover the seeds of an approach which comes to terms with the incapacity of controlling reason to settle the conditions for human well-being, while at the same time not abandoning the values of systematic analysis and rational reflection [which are, of course, intrinsic to psychoanalytic theory and practice].”

For further reading, see here (this list has since been updated and I can send it along upon request).

Image: Freud’s psychoanalytic couch at the Freud Museum in London.

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