Friday, July 12, 2019

New Age nonsense and the “spiritual dimension”

Westerners are today shy of admitting how often magic trumps logic in their thinking. But the trauma of war lays bare essential human truths. Public discourse during the Great War – in books, newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, letters, manifestos and almanacswas merely the visible expression of fear, anxiety, horror, rage and grief. After 1918 magic was no longer just an emanation from the cosmos, but something inside the self, closer to the unconscious and subconscious states around which psychology and psychiatry would build new ways of understanding how people survive. — From the conclusion to Malcolm Gaskill’s review, “Ministry of Apparitions,” of Owen Davies’ book, A Supernatural War: Magic, Divination and Faith during the First World War (Oxford University Press, 2019), in the London Review of Books, Vol. 41 No. 13, 4 July 2019. 

For an entertaining critique of New Age magical thinking and affectations, the episode “Quickie Nirvana” from The Rockford Files provides sufficient material to mull over, especially for those of us who lived through this period in the 1970s. I should note that, unlike some cultural critics, I do not equate New Age stuff with the countercultural currents that surfaced in the mid-1950s with the Beats and continued into the 1960s with hippies and others (e.g., some of the New Left), even if New Age solipsism and narcissism appeared at the margins of these movements. See, for example, Keith Melville, Communes in the Counter Culture: Origins, Theories, Styles of Life (Morrow Quill, 1972), and Timothy Miller, The 60s Communes: Hippies and Beyond (Syracuse University Press, 1999).
*           *           *
The following snippet is from a recent Los Angeles Times article by Jessica Roy, “How millennials replaced religion with astrology and crystals.” It prompted a few thoughts from yours truly, some of which our regular readers may have come across in slightly different form in prior posts over the years.
I love myself.
I am beautiful.

It was an unseasonably chilly night for June in Los Angeles. About three dozen people, mostly women in their 20s and 30s, were spending their Friday evening lying on yoga mats on the back patio of a shop a few blocks from Hollywood Forever Cemetery and the Paramount Pictures lot. Attendees had been invited to bring whatever they needed to make the space cozy: Blankets. Pillows. Crystals.
I am powerful.

Ana Lilia was leading them in affirmations, closing out a 90-minute breath-work session celebrating the summer solstice.
I am a bright light.
I am ready to be seen.

Most days, Lilia works with individual clients. In the evenings, she teaches classes or puts on events, such as the solstice gathering. She first got into breath-work four years ago and started taking classes to become a teacher six months later. If you’ve never done it before, it’s a mix of breathing exercises and guided meditations meant to relax you and help connect with your thoughts — a cross between the last 10 minutes of a yoga class [such classes are often simply āsana(s) or ‘posture(s),’ which is but one small and preliminary part of Patañjali’s Yoga as elaborated in his Yoga Sūtra (3rd to 4th century CE; usually read in conjunction with its indispensable commentary, Vyāsa’s Bhāsya); it is also known as the ‘Eight-Limbed Yoga,’ although most of these ‘limbs’ are often missing from classes on yoga in this country] and a therapy session that takes place entirely in your head. 

She’s one of a growing number of young people — largely millennials, though the trend extends to younger Gen Xers, now cresting 40, and down to Gen Z, the oldest of whom are freshly minted college grads — who have turned away from traditional organized religion and are embracing more spiritual beliefs and practices like tarot, astrology, meditation, energy healing and crystals. And no, they don’t particularly care if you think it’s ‘woo-woo’ or weird. Most millennials claim to not take any of it too seriously themselves. They dabble, they find what they like, they take what works for them and leave the rest. Evoking consternation from buttoned-up outsiders is far from a drawback — it’s a fringe benefit. ‘I know this work is weird,’ Lilia said of her breath-work practice. ‘But it makes me feel better and that’s why I keep doing it.’ [emphasis added]

The cause behind the spiritual shift is a combination of factors. In more than a dozen interviews for this story with people ranging in age from 18 to their early 40s, a common theme emerged: They were raised with one set of religious beliefs — Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist — but as they became adults, they felt that faith didn’t completely represent who they were or what they believed. Millennials increasingly identify as “nones” when asked about their religious affiliation, according to a 2017 Pew survey: They are atheist or agnostic, or say they are ‘spiritual but not religious.’
But yes-or-no survey questions don’t tell the whole story, says Diane Winston, the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the Annenberg School for Communication at USC. Just about every society throughout human history has developed traditions and practices. That’s not a coincidence, she said: ‘People are inherently religious or spiritual.’” [….]
*           *           *
Most of this strikes me as the latest iteration of New Age nonsense (exacerbated by wholesale commodification). I sympathize with those who are genuinely in search of something spiritually meaningful in their lives or who cannot make sense of their anxieties and suffering (and find the New Age variation on instant gratification as providing some relief or escape), yet there’s far more truth and wisdom found in many of the traditional religions of their parents and ancestors than in astrology, tarot, “energy healing,” and crystals (although we might find evidence of self-fulfilling prophecy and the placebo effect at work here). Religious worldviews are what people make of them and we need not give up our critical faculties or dispositional skepticism in the religious or spiritual quest or life. In examining traditional religions, people often, as we say, see what they want to see. Moreover, and relatedly, we should also keep in mind the Scholastic dictum (translated from Latin): “whatever is received, is received according to the capacity of the recipient,” a capacity more often than not decisively shaped by such psychological phenomena as willful ignorance, self-deception, denial, and wishful thinking. This provides us with at least two reasons why even among avowed religious adherents we find widespread neglect of what John Cottingham defines as the “spiritual dimension,”1 incarnate, for instance, in therapies of desire, in self-examination, meditation, the technique of prosoche, and sundry “spiritual exercises,” all of which are capable of transforming character (metanoia, a change of heart, or a transformation of self) so as to render us more loving, more compassionate, more forgiving, more understanding, more virtuous, perhaps even a bit wise; at the very least, less egocentric or self-centered. This “spiritual dimension” can be found in one way or another and in varying degrees outside traditional religions as well: in some philosophical worldviews, the arts, and even, I would argue—provided it is properly understood and practiced—psychoanalysis. 

The common thread here entails a commitment to what Cottingham terms, the “primacy of praxis” (which, as a thesis, ‘is … perfectly susceptible to being examined and supported by philosophical argument’), meaning it dialectically transcends orthodoxy: correct belief, dogma, doctrine, or creed, all of which is subject to error, fallibility and revision given that it is the product of human hearts and minds, however divinely inspired.2 This is how and why we can make sense of the following admonition from Hilary Putnam: “’Is our own way of life right or wrong?’ is a silly question, although it isn’t silly to ask if this or that particular feature of our way of life is right or wrong, and ‘Is our view of the world right or wrong?’ is a silly question, although it isn’t silly to ask if this or that particular belief is right or wrong.” Put differently, our religious and nonreligious worldviews and traditions provide us, among other things, with a personal and collective orientation or “way of life” (including, at the very least, a moral compass and ethics) that contributes to our cultural—personal and collective—sense of identity. This way of life is grounded in grand narratives, shaped in part by myths that serve to make connections between the cosmos, our natural world (including nonhuman animals) and possibly non-natural world(s) (possible and ‘spiritual’ worlds, for instance), and history. These narratives speak to such questions as the meaning of life and death and the meaning or logic of rituals, symbols, and the more modest mythic stories (for both children and their charges) we’ve inherited from cultural traditions. As part of the overarching worldviews, such narratives express and articulate the fundamental values of our respective communities so as to affirm their most important values perhaps even an “ultimate value.”

Finally, and however pivotal to our sense of identity and existential bearings, such (structural) worldviews are invariably modified in myriad ways at the level of the individual person, providing for a unique construal or interpretation that may or may not cohere with other values, beliefs, and practices of any particular individual in our time and place. This idiosyncratic—in a non-pejorative sense—worldview in the life an individual person is what we will call a “lifeworld,” which by definition does not perfectly coincide with the normative (dogmatic, creedal, systematic, etc.) pictures of worldviews painted by those with religious or intellectual authority, in other words, the “official” worldview of any particular religion or philosophy, in which case the lifeworld reveals a worldview now comparatively crude, radically simplified, ideological in essence, or perhaps even fairly sophisticated, psychologically and philosophically speaking.3 At bottom, however, we should have at least prima facie or presumptive evidence suggesting that the individual and the corresponding groups he or she belongs to, publicly subscribe to these worldviews and thus are bound to sincerely endeavor to live in accordance with the ethical and spiritual strictures, values, and purposes that distinguish these qua worldviews, at least some of which partially overlap with other worldviews (of course even those without any worldview adherence or semblance of a lifeworld, in so far as they’ve reached the age of reason and are of sound mind and body, are no less morally and legally responsible and accountable agents). 

The remainder of Putnam’s remark has the following implications: we can, indeed should strive to make rational or reasonable and ethical assessments of particular beliefs or practices within our worldviews, as Martha C. Nussbaum did in Sex and Social Justice (1999) and both Mohandas K. Gandhi and a B.R. Ambedkar did in their respectively unique if not inimitable ways with regard to several well-known but morally odious beliefs and practices within Hinduism. Such properly motivated evaluations and critiques can be made from vantage points both within and outside of worldviews (presumably members of the latter class have taken the trouble to deeply acquaint themselves with the worldview in question). A fundamental assumption here should be the belief that no worldview, religious or not, should countenance in theory or practice the violation of basic moral principles and ethical values and precepts (of course precisely what those are or might be is in an open yet no less urgent question, although conceptions of human dignity, human rights instruments, as well as criminal law provide us with some guidance here). One by-product or spillover effect of this critical enterprise, it is hoped, will be the “de-tribalization” of Westerners (Ninian Smart), including, and once and for all, the relinquishing imperialist and post-imperialist dreams and designs or simply global political and economic domination.

With regard to another facet of this critical obligation or task, we might assess, for example, the potential or capacity of a particular worldview to rationally, ethically, and creatively respond to various conspicuous issues and problems in our contemporary (and future) world: be it nationalism; uneven or unfettered technological development; public health and general welfare; various kinds of violence; ecological deterioration and devastation; the respect for basic human rights: civil, political, economic, social and cultural; the commodification of values; global distributive justice; the awakening and exercise of functions and capacities believed essential to human flourishing or eudaimonia, and so forth and so on. This serves to remind us that, at bottom, our traditions and worldviews are the repositories of our normative conceptions of the Good or the good life, and only a clear and deep understanding of such conceptions will enable us to find the necessary evaluative ethical and spiritual criteria essential to critically assessing elements with these worldviews (and ideologies derived therefrom) in the interests of our shared humanity or individual and collective welfare, well-being, and human happiness, fulfillment or flourishing. 

Again, our worldviews, and by extension our lifeworlds, are (or should) not in the first instance be about defensive apologias, self-sufficient dogmas, hermetic doctrines, or orthodoxy, but about ways of life: orthopraxis, thus they are first and foremost about “ways of life” in the widest if not deepest sense (particularly insofar as they involve questions of personal and group forms of identity that acknowledge our common humanity, questions that provide ‘answers’ or frameworks for answering basic questions of existential meaning), with richly normative consequences for personal and collective conduct.

1. See John Cottingham, The Spiritual Dimension: Religion, Philosophy and Human Value (Cambridge University Press, 2005). See too John Haldane’s essay, “On the very idea of spiritual values” in Anthony O’Hear, ed., Philosophy, the Good, the True and the Beautiful (Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement: 47) (Cambridge University Press, 2000), and Jonardon Ganeri and Clare Carlisle, eds., Philosophy as Therapeia (Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement: 66) (Cambridge University Press, 2010).
2. Here is perhaps another reason for the primacy of praxis: insofar as dogma, creeds, and theologies presuppose or assume a metaphysics, these are unavoidably perspectival and relative, at any rate, it impossible for us to determine if any one such picture is absolutely true, that is, true to the exclusion of the truth(s) of other such pictures: 
“To affirm that there can be several different systems all giving us, at the same time, varying and yet legitimate ‘true’ metaphysical descriptions of the world does not … necessarily entail that there are many realities, that nothing is absolutely real, or, put less dramatically, that there is no such thing as a single, context neutral description or account of the world, that is, as the world really is. It only means that no metaphysical description of it can be outside every possible conceptual framework, but Reality itself is. Nor does it follow that any assertions about this ‘real’ or ‘true’ world beyond all conceptual frameworks, are nonsense. We need not accept a very different solution, such as that offered by Kant—that there is a world in which there exists the ‘thing-in-itself,’ but that we can never directly know this world. Indian classical philosophy, since it is always connected with religion, must and does believe with complete assurance in the possibility of human beings actually attaining to a perfect knowledge of Reality—a ‘scientia intuitiva’ that leads to the Divine or the Absolute Truth. [I think the previous sentence needs qualification, if only because of Lokāyata/Cārvāka, although perhaps Professor Iyer would exclude from the class of ‘Indian classical philosophy.’] The conceptual frameworks we build in the realm of rational thought are not useless just because they cannot describe Ultimate Reality. Serious examination of, reflection on, these explanatory and interpretive schemes, their differences and overlaps, are crucial to expanding and deepening our understanding of reality, even if these conceptual frameworks (any or all possible combinations and collections of them) cannot bring us the Absolute Truth. If nothing else, they enable us to understand the relativity of conceptual truths and structures, and make us see what Pascal meant when he said that the highest function of reason is to show us the limitations of reason.” Nandini Iyer, “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” in Knut A. Jacobsen, ed., Theory and Practice of Yoga: Essays in Honour of Gerald James Larson (Brill: 2005): 123.
 3. Compare the following from my late teacher and friend, Ninian Smart: “Do we, when it comes to the crunch, really have a systematic worldview? We have an amalgam of beliefs, which we may publicly characterize in a certain way. I may say that I am an Episcopalian, but how much of my real worldview [what I term here a ‘lifeworld’] corresponds to the more or less ‘official’ worldview which tells me nothing directly about cricket, being Scottish, having a certain scepticism about nationalism, thinking there is life on other worlds, shelving the problem of evil, or other matters. Our values and beliefs are more like a collage than a Canaletto [cf. Lévi-Strauss’s use of the term ‘bricolage’]. They do not even have consistency of perspective.”

Friday, July 05, 2019

More musings on miscellaneous topics

The Stars and Stripes Forever’ is a patriotic American march written and composed by John Philip Sousa, widely considered to be his magnum opus. By a 1987 act of the U.S. Congress, it is the official National March of the United States of America.”

Having for the first time read the lyrics to this American march song (which, it seems, are not well known), I could not help but be struck by the tones of nationalistic and militarist triumphalism, the sort of stuff that encourages dangerous phantasies, wishful thinking, and illusions (not the least of which are incarnate in the Military-Industrial Complex or ‘Pentagon of Power’ and an unsustainable defense budget that trumps domestic needs or public welfare and well-being, i.e., the common good), both individual and collective. It meshes well with Trump’s pathological narcissism (‘narcissistic personality disorder’1), political paranoia, xenophobic nationalism, and megalomania, and is aptly symbolized by the core character of Trump’s 4th of July celebration: tanks2 on the ground and fighter jets in the air. It is one with the perpetuation of “bread and circuses” ideology that has assumed an entirely novel dimension when manipulated by a dictator-loving, plutocratic president, racist, and reality-television celebrity whose past is littered with sexual assault and rape claims, draft dodging, and unethical and illegal business practices (that have of course harmed multiple parties, including and especially, workers), and yet is the recipient of ritual blessings by and the enthusiastic support of conservative evangelical Christians (who apparently have failed to read Jesus’s Gospel teachings; or if they have read them, are afflicted with obdurate self-deception, denial, and cognitive dissonance).
  1. Please see the essay on this at my Academia page. Here is a taste: “… [W]e should not be surprised by Trump’s habitual rhetorical reliance in public speeches upon crude, hyperbolic, and often child-like adjectives and metaphors (with corresponding child-like or homologous and associationist thinking: mistaking bigness for greatness; the quantitative valuation of virtually everything; connecting competition, success and size; the attraction of novelty; a thirst for sensationalism; an overweening sense of privilege and superiority rooted in a fascination with sheer power if not megalomania, and so forth and so on), the harm of which is exacerbated by mendacious Manichean propaganda within an overarching framework of narcissistic nationalism.”
  2. The subject of tanks happens to be part and parcel of the irrational defense budget cited above: “For years, the army has tried to convince Congress to stop buying new ones. They are expensive to build, maintain, exercise, and train troops to use. The army already has more than six thousand of them—far more than it needs for any conceivable future combat.” From Jessica T. Matthews’ important and urgent piece, “America’s Indefensible Defense Budget,” New York Review of Books, July 18, 2019 issue.
*           *           *

This is extracted from my comments at a FB friend’s post on Jesus and Jewish Law: 

First, please see Matthew 5:17-20. As Anna Wierzbicka writes, “[t]he relationship between Jesus and the [Jewish] Law is one of the most hotly and extensively debated issues in the literature on Jesus’s teaching.”* One problem that arises here of course is that Christians tend to look at Jesus as if he himself was, so to speak, a Christian! But it was only after his death that some Jewish followers decided that conspicuous Jewish ritual and legal obligations distinctive of Jewish identity were deemed no longer obligatory, something Jesus himself, as far as we can ascertain, did not do. It appears clear that Jesus was an observant Jew, we might say a “Jew +” in the sense that he was “adding” his unique perspective on Jewish teachings (there was, after all, different Jewish sects at the time, although Jesus seems to have made a point of not identifying with anyone one group in particular). He did declare that “not everything in the Mosaic Law corresponded in all respects to God’s will.” However, and I suspect more importantly, as Wierzbicka also writes, “Jesus’ question was no so much whether Moses and the Prophets had communicated God’s message ‘correctly’ but whether the people to whom they spoke had come to know fully what God had to say (through the Scriptures); and to this question his answer appeared to be ‘no, not necessarily, not always.’” In short, Jesus reaffirmed the Torah’s moral and ethical message, while in some respects enhancing and even revising its requirements.

In addition, Jesus did something quite radical: he claimed to embody a unique religious authority heretofore the prerogative and privilege of Moses (and to some degree other prophets) related to an apocalyptic or apocalyptic type message regarding God’s activity and promise. 

Cf. too what Joseph Dan writes in Jewish Mysticism and Jewish Ethics (University of Washington Press, 1986)  about the distinction between halakhah and aggadah in Judaism, with our understanding of Jesus’s teaching perhaps best seen in the light of the latter:

“The halakhah, being a legal system, strives to present the required minimum necessary for the accomplishment of a certain commandment, so that the individual performing it will be certain that he has conformed to the religious and social standards that the Jewish faith imposes on him. The Talmud, therefore, points out what is the minimum height of a sukkah (tabernacle), or the minimum amount to be donated to charity. The aggadah, on the other hand, is concerned with the maximum religious and ethical achievement that an individual can attain; it points out tasks and needs without limit, which enable the believer, if he so chooses, to advance toward perfection, both in the human and the devotional-religious fields. The usual reference to ethics in ancient and medieval literature is ‘lifnim mi-shurat ha-din,’ ‘beyond what the law requires.’ The halakhah defines the obligatory minimum; ethics, and the aggadah, describe the unending road toward perfection.”

* What Did Jesus Mean? (Oxford University Press, 2001)

*           *           *

Toward a psychoanalytic (of both Freudian and Kleinian provenance) accounting of the carnivorous appetite? 

“The aim of oral eroticism is the first pleasurable autoerotic stimulation of the erogenous zone and later the incorporation of objects [e.g., in the adult: kissing, smoking, eating habits…]. Animal crackers, loved by children, are significant remnants of early cannibalistic fantasies [and the grandmother says to her young charge; ‘I love you so much I could just eat you up!’].” — Otto Fenichel

This is but a taste of a much larger discussion but it still provides sufficient food for thought, in this case, posed as a question: Does the extent to which the adult’s diet is carnivorous provide us remnant evidence of early incorporation phantasies (actual animals, no longer ‘animal crackers’) that are eventually acted out? One book I read some time ago, while not explicitly addressing this question or appealing in any way to psychoanalytic theory or philosophy, nevertheless contains, I believe, sufficient material for beginning to address the topic (and others closely related to it): Carol J. Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory (Continuum Publishing, 1992). At the other end of the moral and political spectrum, so too the arguments and views expressed by Roger Scruton in Animal Rights and Wrongs (Metro Books, in association with Demos, 3rd ed., 2000), bearing in mind he claims, with regard to eating meat, that “the only obvious guide in this area is piety which, because it is shaped by [especially religious] tradition, provides no final court of appeal.” Scruton, “[h]aving opted for the Western [i.e., ‘Judeo-Hellenic’] approach, states forthrightly (if not revealingly), “I find myself driven by my love of animals to favour eating them” (the gist of the argument: ‘it is not just permissible, but positively right, to eat those animals whose comforts depend upon our doing so’).

*           *           *

It is irritating, no, appalling (perhaps even infuriating) to hear a CNN journalist refer to Bernie Sanders’s principled fundraising practices as consistent with his “brand.” The widespread analogical and metaphorical extension of this this term outside the commercial world is one of the more lamentable developments in public discourse.

*           *           *

There are symbols … and there are symbols 

The distinction between “symbolic thinking” in psychoanalytic psychology and “thinking or reasoning with symbols” in philosophy, in particular, formal logic, is the difference between primary process or pre-logical and often non- or pre-verbal thinking and secondary process or rational, specifically, logical thinking. The symbols in the former instance are often based on relations of similarity or analogy, usually vague, associative, and idiosyncratic (with a history). On occasion they are indecipherable. They are of course unconscious in origin (although they may be brought, as it were, to awareness) and linked to drives, affects or emotions, and our earliest experiences as infants and thus indissolubly tied to what we call “magical” thinking. The symbols employed in the latter case are conscious in construction, possessing a strict representational correspondence to processes, functions, signs, and rules (grammatical, mathematical, semiotic, logical, etc.) to facilitate highly abstract and usually deductive reasoning as but one dimension of rational thinking in general.

*           *           *

An online K-12 educational curriculum is not identical, as advertised, to a “public education at home.” If you believe otherwise, it’s likely you have not devoted sufficient time to studying education and pedagogy as they relate to democratic theory and praxis (e.g., John Dewey, Jonathan Kozol, Robert E. Goodin, Nel Noddings, Diane Ravitch, among others).

Wednesday, July 03, 2019

Otto Fenichel (1897-1946): remarkable psychoanalyst and committed Marxist

Fenichel

It is well attested, in the words of Leo Rangell’s introduction to Otto M. Fenichel’s The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (W.W. Norton & Co., 1996, first published in 1945),* that [a]fter Freud’s death, it was Fenichel, in effect, who collated the Freudian scientific oeuvre for the psychoanalysts of the time.” His works served as “teaching aids” for training analysts and provided “the psychoanalytic world a general theory that would be comprehensive for psychopathology and embrace normal behavior as well [as Erich Fromm and more recently Adam Phillips remind us, just what constitutes ‘normal’ mental health and behavior has not often been directly, let alone coherently or sufficiently, addressed both within and outside psychoanalytic circles].” Fenichel was an “integrator and systematizer,” a “clinician-theoretician” whose “erudition and scholarship were prodigious; his perceptions, incisive; his presentation, lively; his method, objective and fair.”                   

By contrast, Harold Bloom characterized Fenichel as the “grim encyclopaedist of the Freudian psychodynamics,” and it “was precisely the encyclopedic aspect of his work which aroused the criticism of Lacan,” who compared Fenichel’s work to “an enumeration of the ‘main sewer’ type,” arguing “for a distinction between a catalogue of past interpretations, and the actual job of finding the mutative interpretation within the actual session” [this criticism is a classic straw man, and shows Lacan did not read Fenichal’s work with the care it deserves]. [Lacan] also criticised Fenichel’s use of organic stages of development in his writing.”

The following from George Markari’s history of psychoanalysis introduces us to the character and political beliefs and values of Fenichel, which he viewed closely allied to or integrated with his clinical and theoretical work, even if he did not systematically spell out the details of a possibly holistic Marxist-psychoanalytic worldview: 

“Fenichel had always been an organized, a consensus builder who brought people together, and his commitment to Marxism was strong. In his steadfastness, Fenichel insisted on [Wilhelm] Reich’s right to publish his paper critiquing the death drive and was rewarded with the loss of his job as editor of the Zeitschrift. Freud’s autocratic reaction made it easy for Fenichel to take the high ground and appear dignified. In addition, he had many allies who held his encyclopedic knowledge and prodigious work in high esteem. After the Nazis took over Germany, Fenichel fled to Oslo; from there he pulled together his epistolary community of Marxist analysts. He had become convinced that all of Europe would be swept into fascism, and like it or not, the future for psychoanalysis was in America. For Fenichel [as it was for Freud], this was another kind of disaster, for he believed that the state of psychoanalytic knowledge in the United States was abysmal. In exile, Fenichel tried to preserve the field he loved from the twin perils of Nazi fascists and American know-nothings.”

Based on my acquaintance with Fenichel’s life and work to date, I’m inclined to dismiss the aforementioned comments of Bloom and Lacan as unfair when not wrong. 

From the brief Wikipedia entry on Fenichel:
“Otto Fenichel (2 December 1897 in Vienna – 22 January 1946 in Los Angeles) was a psychoanalyst of the so-called ‘second generation.’ [He] started studying medicine in 1915 in Vienna. Already as a very young man, when still in school, he was attracted by the circle of psychoanalysts around Freud. During the years 1915 and 1919, he attended lectures by Freud, and as early as 1920, at the age of 23, he became a member of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. 

In 1922 Fenichel moved to Berlin. During his Berlin time, until 1934, he was a member of a group of Socialist and/or Marxist psychoanalysts (with Siegfried Bernfeld, Erich Fromm, Wilhelm Reich, Ernst Simmel, Frances Deri and others). After his emigration – 1934 to Oslo, 1935 to Prague, 1938 to Los Angeles – he organized the contact between the worldwide scattered Marxist psychoanalysts by means of top secret ‘Rundbriefe,’ i.e. circular letters. Those Rundbriefe, which became publicly known only in 1998, can be counted among the most important documents pertaining to the problematic history of psychoanalysis between 1934 and 1945, especially in regard to the problem of the expulsion of Wilhelm Reich from the International Psychoanalytic Association in 1934. In Los Angeles, Fenichel joined existing psychoanalytic circles and later helped found the Los Angeles Psychoanalytic Society and Institute. His training analysands in Los Angeles included Ralph Greenson.”

Perhaps Fenichel’s foremost blind spot was his failure to objectively appreciate and evaluate the work of Melanie Klein. 

For an introduction to Fenichel’s life and work, please see Russell Jacoby’s The Repression of Psychoanalysis: Otto Fenichel and the Political Freudians (University of Chicago Press, 1986) and Elizabeth Ann Danto’s Freud’s Free Clinics: Psychoanalysis and Social Justice, 1918-1938 (Columbia University Press, 2005). See too the indexed references to Fenichel in George Makari’s Revolution in Mind: The Creation of Psychoanalysis (Harper 2008). 

* As Fenichel himself notes, this book should be read in conjunction with his earlier work, Problems of Psychoanalytic Technique (The Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 1941). See also, Otto Fenichel (Hanna Fenichel and David Rapaport, eds.) The Collected Papers of Otto Fenichel: First Series (W.W. Norton & Co., 1953), and Otto Fenichel (Hanna Fenichel and David Rapaport, eds.) The Collected Papers of Otto Fenichel: Second Series (W.W. Norton & Co., 1954). 

Related Bibliographies

Friday, June 28, 2019

Psychoanalysis, Philosophy, and Religion: a triangle of hostility?

Wassily-Kandinsky-Wassily-Kandinsky-Schwarze-Beziehung-1924

In an essay, “A Triangle of Hostility?—Psychoanalysis, Philosophy and Religion,” John Cottingham1 writes: “as a generalization, it appears that contemporary philosophical thought is on the whole inimical to psychoanalytic ideas. (I am speaking here of the analytic branch of philosophy: among so-called ‘continental’ philosophers, psychoanalytic modes of thought have been extremely influential).” While published over ten years ago, this assertion, with the appropriate exceptions, remains largely true. 

Generally speaking, anglophone academic analytic philosophy accuses Freud’s theories “of being unscientific, over-sweeping, and, by some critics, virtually incoherent: since the defining characteristic of the mind is consciousness (so runs the objection), doesn’t the concept of unconscious mentation verge on the absurd? There are admittedly staunch philosophical defenders of Freud to be found,2 but I think it is fair to say the prevailing reaction of analytic philosophy towards psychoanalytic ideas is either oddly indifferent or markedly hostile.”

Cottingham proceeds to address the relation between philosophy and religion: 

“[A]gain, as a broad generalization, it seems that the dominant position in the modern analytic academy [Cottingham is himself rightly identified as a member of same, although he represents a dissenting or peripheral position] is one of hostility towards religion, the traditional arguments of God’s existence are widely supposed not to work, while the arguments against his existence (most notably various forms of the problem of evil [the theodicy question]) here taken to be pretty decisive.3 The general temper of contemporary analytic thought is, moreover, broadly scientistic [This claim is often not well understood, as it in no way suggests or is indicative of an ‘anti-science’ attitude or even a strong skepticism about scientific knowledge, rather, it is about the imperialist pretensions on behalf scientific knowledge or, put differently, it acknowledges various kinds of ‘knowing’ within distinguishable domains of intellectual or humanist inquiry and praxis, thus it attempts to circumscribe science such that it does not represent the absolute pinnacle of the quest for knowledge, however indispensable it remains to that quest.], or at least rationalistic, in its methodology and outlook. The model to which most or at least a very large number of modern anglophone philosophers aspire is that of the rational, precise, and cautious thinker, with a skeptical (with a small ‘s’) and no-nonsense outlook; and this means that, speaking generally, they tend to have little truck with the idea of the supernatural [i.e., anything that cannot be described in purely naturalist, physicalist or materialist terms; although it might be said that some conceptions of naturalism border on the supra-natural or at least allow for that possibility]. In short, atheism appears to be the default position at least in the anglophone philosophic academy.”

I will not here share Cottingham’s treatment of Freud’s psychoanalytic critique of religion (which is primarily based on the latter’s –at times intimate—understanding of only two religious traditions, Judaism and Christianity, as his knowledge of religious worldviews outside that orbit was rather weak, at least no way comparable to his acquaintance with these two of the three ‘Abrahamic’ traditions), which is fairly well known, so suffice to say for now that Cottingham can grant Freud provides insight into the beliefs and praxis of Judaism and Christianity on the ground, as it were, and thus there is some truth to be gleaned from his critique, however reductionist and crude in its approach and conclusions. In a future post I plan to delve more deeply into Cottingham’s views on this score. Of course not all contemporary psychoanalysts share Freud’s views on “religion,” if only because analysts are not out to change, let alone abolish, the overarching cultural beliefs and values or worldviews (religious or not) of their patients (or clients or analysands…). Still, it is fair to say, at least historically and theoretically, that traditional psychoanalysis (to the extent that it is defined as primarily ‘Freudian’) is hostile to a religious outlook. 

Which brings us to the heart of Cottingham’s argument: there is more or less a “triangle of hostility” in which (i) psychoanalysis opposes religion; (ii) religion is opposed by philosophy; and (iii) philosophy opposes psychoanalysis. I wholeheartedly agree with Cottingham’s  contention that, “in so far as such antagonisms do in fact obtain, they ought not to; for properly understood, there is no good reason why any of these three respective modes of thought [of course they are modes of praxis as well, which Cottingham evidences robust appreciation of elsewhere] should be taken to be in [intrinsic] tension.” In brief, he concludes that “the psychoanalytic project is … closely related to the religious quest [cf. ‘therapies of desire,’ individuation, self-examination, etc.]; and an enlightened philosophical outlook can find room to acknowledge the value of both.” Hear, hear! 

Notes
  1. Please see Louise Braddock and Michael Lacewing, eds., The Academic Face of Psychoanalysis: Papers in Philosophy, the Humanities and the British Clinical Tradition (Routledge, 2007): 92-110. From his Wikipedia entry: “John Cottingham (born 1943) is an English philosopher. The focus of his research has been early-modern philosophy (especially Descartes), the philosophy of religion and moral philosophy. He is a Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Reading, Professorial Research Fellow at Heythrop College, University of London, and Honorary Fellow of St John’s College, Oxford. He is also a current Visiting Professor to the Philosophy Department at King's College, London. Cottingham has served as editor of the journal Ratio, president of the Aristotelian Society, of the British Society for the Philosophy of Religion, of the Mind Association and as Chairman of the British Society for the History of Philosophy. A Festschrift with responses by Cottingham, The Moral Life, was published by Palgrave in 2008.”
  2. I listed many if not most of these philosophers in my post at Ratio Juris (cross-posted at Religious Left Law) from June 7th (2019), “Philosophy and Psychoanalysis.”
  3. As Cotthingham writes in the Preface to The Spiritual Dimension: Religion, Philosophy and Human Value (2005): “Current attitudes to religion among philosophers are highly polarized, some impatient to see it buried, others insisting on its defensibility. But as long as the debate is conducted at the level of abstract argumentation alone, what is really important about our allegiance to, or rejection of, religion is likely to elude us. There is, to be sure, a cognitive core to religious belief [for a brilliant analysis of what this does and might entail, please see James Kellenberger’s The Cognitivity of Religion: Three Perspectives (University of California Press, 1985)], a central set of truth-claims to which the religious adherent is committed; but it can be extremely unproductive to try to evaluate these in isolation. There are rich and complex connections that link religious belief with ethical commitment and individual self-awareness, with the attempt to understand the cosmos and the struggle to find meaning in our lives; and only when these connections are revealed, only when we come to have a broader sense of the ‘spiritual dimension’ within which religion lives and moves, can we begin to see fully what is involved in accepting or rejecting a religious view of reality.” Later in the book, Cottingham’s conception of spirituality is defined so as to embrace the possibility of non-religious spirituality: “[A]t the richer end of the spectrum [of spirituality], we find the term used in connection with activities and attitudes which command widespread appeal, irrespective of metaphysical commitment or doctrinal allegiance. Even the most convinced atheist may be prepared to avow an interest in the ‘spiritual’ dimension of human existence, if that dimension is taken to cover forms of life that put a premium on certain kinds of intensely focused moral and aesthetic response, or on the search for deeper reflective awareness of the meaning of our lives and of our relationship to others and to the natural world.”
A few of the many books by Cottingham (chosen because I’ve read them and they speak more or less to topics broached above):
  • Philosophy and the Good Life: Reason and the Passions in Greek, Cartesian and Psychoanalytic Ethics (Cambridge University Press, 1998)
  • On the Meaning of Life (Routledge, 2003)
  • The Spiritual Dimension: Religion, Philosophy and Human Value (Cambridge University Press, 2005)
  • Philosophy of Religion: Towards A More Humane Approach (Cambridge University Press, 2014)

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Momentary Musings on Miscellaneous Topics



Wassily-Kandinsky-4-Figuren-auf-3-Quadraten-October-November-1923
These brief thoughts were intermittently composed over the past several months and make, I think, for light summer reading. 

Compare these three recent news items (political and cultural symptoms of a pathological moral psychology among the powers-that-be):

(i) “Federal prosecutors are pursuing criminal charges against activist Scott Daniel Warren for doing nothing more than giving food, water and shelter to migrants trekking through the desert.” “[P]rosecutors charged Warren with several counts of one of those offenses, conspiracy to transport and harbor migrants. A federal felony that could land Warren in prison for 20 years.”
(ii) “President Trump has indicated that he is considering pardons for several American military members accused or convicted of war crimes, including high-profile cases of murder, attempted murder and desecration of a corpse, according to two United States officials.”
(iii) Jeff Koons’ stainless steel sculpture of a rabbit (‘Rabbit’) sold at auction for $91 million. “The buyer in the latest sale was Robert E. Mnuchin, a former executive at Goldman Sachs who currently plies his trade as an art dealer. He’s the father of Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin, which must stand as some sort of commentary on 21st century robber barons and their relationship with a plutocrat-loving administration in Washington.”
*           *           *
Generally speaking, arbitration clauses and processes have been a predictable boon to the rich and powerful (meaning the rest of us, as we say, get shafted), which explains why businesses frequently insist that “arbitration is a better alternative for consumers than litigation.” This is of a piece with the ideological bullshit propagated by conservatives that we are in urgent need of “tort reform,” hence the importance of Koenig and Rustad’s classic retort (pun intended), In Defense of Tort Law (New York University Press, 2001). As we learn from article in the Los Angeles Times, “[a] recent academic study confirms what consumer advocates have been saying for years: Mandatory arbitration is a rigged system — rigged, that is, in favor of businesses.”
*           *           *
When it comes to examining or learning from motley doctrines, grand theories, worldviews, philosophies, and so forth, the qualifying phrase, “such truth as there is” (exemplifying the epistemic if not metaphysical spirit common to Jain epistemology, pragmatism, and more sophisticated notions of pluralism) is often apropos. This does not mean that “anything goes,” indeed, it may lead us to discover how or why this or that aspect or part of a theory or philosophy may be wrong and another right, and some theories or philosophies may therefore  increase in plausibility or persuasiveness while others thereby diminish or recede in significance or insight.
*           *           *
In an attempt to dispassionately view the debate surrounding the Democrats running for President, I’ve arrived at the tentative conclusion that some, if not perhaps too many of us on the Left are hell-bent on displaying to our real and virtual comrades in real and envisaged struggle our virtuous Leftist bona fides and doctrinal purity, which strikes me as betraying at once both psychological insecurity and (relatedly) an inordinate desire for intellectual security: the former proves, oddly, motivating, for we then need to continually strive to demonstrate to ourselves and others the converse case (i.e. that we are not insecure); while the latter impoverishes the imagination and amounts to a variation on the proverb that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions,” as it proves reckless with regard to consequences, be they foreseen, probable, or unintentional.
*           *           *
The President, a pathological narcissist and megalomaniac, is caught up in a welter of phantasies, delusions, and illusions, many of which are now shared with his supporters. One does not need a medical degree or psychoanalytic training to come to this conclusion. He should be removed from office forthwith. The President’s behavior, rhetoric, and policies are suffused with irreality and surreality, while Republican pundits and politicians take great pains to assure us that their twisted character and perverse logic are merely for entertainment and justifiable partisan purposes, allowing the Right to accomplish otherwise unobtainable putative purposes and ends that, at bottom, serve our individual and collective interests! How else to describe this but as political sorcery in the service of sheer madness and evil?
*           *           *
The U.S. government views itself as uniquely entitled to untrammeled pursuit of its political and economic “interests” around the globe, while other countries are entitled to their geopolitically and legally circumscribed nation-state interests and, on occasion, nearby “regional interests,” although the latter can never trump U.S. interests, which are at once global and supreme by definition, thus recognition of regional interests must coincide with if not promote U.S. interests to have any sort of validity. The U.S. does not feel bound by the legal rules and norms of international law insofar as those clash with its tendentious formulation of national interests, all other countries (save Israel), however, are subject to the preeminence of U.S. interests and thus when there is conflict with those interests, the U.S. will find sufficient reason to call upon this or that international law only if it can somehow be construed in support of its globally sovereign political and economic interests.
*           *           *
Pandering to those desires, preferences, and sentiments of the masses that are ill-formed, self-destructive or harmful, irrational, fickle or evanescent (subject to quickly changing fads and fashions), myopic, or shaped by fondness for instant gratification, or rhetorical appeals to our basest instincts and fears, our phantasies, illusions and delusions (this is not an exhaustive list), amounts to a flagrant failure to embody or exemplify any coherent and principled notion of democratic political representation and leadership. “The people” are not always and everywhere a reliable let alone intelligent or wise judge of their best interests, and thus to assume otherwise, is corrosive of the public good, the common welfare, and our individual and collective well-being. To assume otherwise may win you an election, but the deleterious consequences of this path to political power will eventually manifest themselves in both predictable and unpredictable ways.
*           *           *
In retail marketing rhetoric and “branding,” using the adjective “upscale” is intended to get your attention and money (after all, you’re worth it!). In our case, it means “stay away,” this is not a place we’d like to visit. It also informs one that the lower classes are not welcome (well, that is, unless they dream of one day joining the upper classes), even if they could afford to buy something now and again. But what if “upscale” is combined with putatively “green” or “sustainable” practices (e.g.: ‘Caffe Luxxe [appropriately named] is diligent about its sourcing, down to the plantation level. Alternating between farms in Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia, Caffe Luxxe sources its beans from growers who focus on sustainable practices, such as crop rotation, tree renewal, and complementary crop cultivation.’)? What could be better than that, right?

Monday, June 17, 2019

Reality and Sour Grapes

Fox and grapes

“’Human kind cannot bear very much reality,’ T.S. Eliot said [see “Burnt Norton,” Four Quartets (Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1943)]. What our psychology, too, stresses is how hard the process of self-awareness is, how painful, sometimes searingly painful [it is], to face the reality of who we are. Not that this is surprising when we remember that it was the unbearability of this pain that produced our defenses against awareness in the first place, when we began our splitting off, or repression, of aspects of ourselves [cf. the ‘fragmented’ mind, the divided self, our capacity to ‘compartmentalize,’ etc., all of which, strictly speaking, are logically distinct from, even if perhaps thought to provide some sort of evidence for, the ‘modularity of mind’ theory in cognitive science and philosophy of mind which goes back to the late philosopher Jerry Fodor [see his book, The Modularity of Mind (MIT Press, 1983)]. Part of the work is for both parties to the [therapeutic process of psychoanalysis] to begin to tolerate what has been untolerable [or intolerable] so that self-awareness can happen. 

Psychoanalysis has refined and deepened our knowledge of how much this is so, and how the denials function to limit, constrain, and distort our lives. We find it hard to bear our hatred; but it is also hard to bear our loving and all that goes along with love—need, dependence, greed, lack, fear of rejection, loss, jealousy, envy, rage, and guilt. Nor is it easy to bear the humiliation of others’ harshness and contempt (or others’ imagined harshness and contempt) if we allow or show the dependence (and all the rest). Love, which always has elements of possessiveness in it, inevitably makes us vulnerable to psychic pain.

Similar hard-to-bear vulnerabilities arising as a result of wanting or desire occur with less personal feelings of love – think of the fable of the man [rather than the fox!] who, hungry, thirsty, and tired, is walking along a dusty road, and sees delicious-looking grapes hanging over the high hedge. He tries desperately to reach them, but can’t. He then denies his longing, saying to himself: ‘the grapes were green and unripe. I didn’t really want them’ [Brearley here references a later—1962—English translation (with a slightly different title) of Sartre’s brief use of this fable* in his book, The Emotions: Outline of a Theory (Philosophical Library, 1948) (original in French, 1939)]. This man thus changes the world as he perceives it in order not to suffer disappointment. If he never wanted the grapes, he doesn’t have to mind not having them.” – From Michael Brearley’s essay, “What do psychoanalysts do?” in Louise Braddock and Michael Lacewing, eds., The Academic Face of Psychoanalysis: Papers in Philosophy, the Humanities, and the British Clinical Tradition (Routledge, 2007): 20-32. 

* “The Fox and the Grapes” is one of the Aesop’s fables, although widespread knowledge of these are likely owing to La Fontaine’s Fables, which “adapted them into French free verse. They were issued under the general title of Fables in several volumes from 1668 to 1694 and are considered classics of French literature.”

In a future post I will discuss Jon Elster’s use of the “sour grapes” fable (in his brilliant book by that title) to illustrate and explain “adaptive preference formation,” as well as G.A. Cohen’s critique of same as part of the latter’s larger and important discussion of “market socialism” in the conclusion to his book, Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality (Cambridge University Press, 1995).

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

On moral philosophy—or ethics—and moral psychology (and the general irrelevance of scientific or academic psychology)

Pollock number-26-1949
Moral philosophy is the mirror that self-consciousness holds to morality
, and it tends to distort that which it reflects. It idealizes it. It gives it a cohesiveness or a clarity that it lacks, and it exhibits it as uniformly benign, which it isn’t. It gets away with this because it ignores or obscures the story of morality. Restored to its proper place in the life-history of the individual, morality does not, self-evidently, or even evidently, have the features that moral philosophers have given it. — Richard Wollheim, The Thread of Life (Cambridge University Press, 1984): 199.
 

There is a set of apparently anomalous psychological activities—self-deception, akrasia, the irrational conservation of the emotions, agent regretthat present problems for theories of rational agency. Having put aside [in the first half of her book] the distinctions of faculty psychology, and having placed cognitive, rational, activities within a larger psychological context, we are in a better position to understand why such apparently wayward activities are so common, and why they resist correction. They areby-products of common, highly functional psychological activities: their analysis reveals the structures and operations of the self, operations largely ignored by reconstructive, rationalized accounts of psychological functioning. — Amélie Oksenberg Rorty, Mind in Action: Essays in the Philosophy of Mind (Beacon Press, 1988): 195.

… [P]hilosophy has nothing to fear from psychoanalytic thought, and may even have something to learn from it. But one may go further and argue that a sound philosophy can hardly subsist without it. Thisis particularly and obviously applicable to moral philosophy; for in so far as the task here is to establish how humans should best live, a proper understanding of the passions and their role in our choices and decisions is absolutely crucial. And given the opacity of the passionsthe way in which they so often mislead us because they carry a resonance from forgotten early experience of which the subject is typically unawareany recipe for the good life that fails to find room for systematic self-scrutiny and reflective analysis, in short for a broadly psychoanalytic programme of self-discovery, will be found to be seriously impoverished. 

Let us assume, for the moment, that it is a moral truth that humans cannot live well if they reject the demand for progressive moral improvement. On a personal and psychological level, the problem of responding to that demand will now immediately become one of achieving integration and wholeness. For as long as there is a psychic split between what I feel like doing and what I am morally called to do, as long as there is part of myself that sees the ethical demand as something alien, something harsh and tyrannical that risks interfering with my personal comforts and convenience, then there will be an unresolved tension at the heart of my moral nature. In psychoanalytic terms, this split is characteristically described as a compartmentalization or division of the selfthe root of all instability, encompassing the full range of disturbance from minor psychic irritation to entrenched neurosis and even potential catastrophic breakdown. In existential terms, the result will be something variously described as Angst, a sense of dread, fear and trembling, nausea. In theological terms, what is involved is the idea of sin, the inherent sense in each human that it has fallen short of the normative pattern laid down for each by the creator. 

If the sense of a gap between our ordinary human capacities and what we might best achieve is an ineradicable part of what it is to be a reflective adult human being, then it must be among the most fundamental moral aims for humanity to form some kind of strategy for addressing the problem of that gap. And this is what the psychoanalytic programme, in its broadest sense, sets out to achieve. The psychoanalytic project of self-discovery aims at integration of the demands of conscience and morality into a fully adult awareness: the passions that may push us in a direction contrary to those moral demands are neither repressed or denied (for that would be a recipe for instability), nor wantonly indulged (for that would be a recipe for chaos), but rather brought to the surface so that their character, theirallure,’ is properly understood. The psychoanalytic project, correctly construed, is a deeply moral project, since it involves nothing less than a radical transformation of the self, a kind of re-birthing or re-education process, where the harsh imperatives of the superego on one side, and the raw urgency of our instinctual impulses on the other, are systematically scrutinized, and brought together into an integrated whole where they lose their threatening and destructive character. — John Cottingham, from his essay, “A Triangle of Hostility? Psychoanalysis, Philosophy and Religion,” in Louise Braddock and Michael Lacewing, eds., The Academic Face of Psychoanalysis: Papers in Philosophy, the Humanities, and the British Clinical Tradition (Routledge, 2007): 103-104.
*          *          *
The passages above explicitly and implicitly provide us with a nuanced and profound assessment of the impoverished nature of moral philosophizing and ethics when bereft of a plausible moral psychology. And this is why any ethicist or moral philosopher who aims to be practical, realistic, pertinent, or simply speak with conviction and suasion to those outside academic philosophy proper, need to accord moral psychology (i.e., ‘the study of the growth of moral sentiments, moral beliefs, and moral habits in the typical life-history of the individual’) a central role in their philosophizing. To some extent, philosophers working in virtue, feminist, and care ethics have moved in this direction, but their work as well is often subject to the regnant standards and constraints of their profession which effectively ignore, marginalize or even trivialize questions of moral psychology, if only because of a de facto or normative submission to the academic division of labor (interdisciplinary studies notwithstanding). The relevant moral psychological topics are addressed in one way or another in psychoanalytic theory and therapy, earlier by French moralists, by novelists and playwrights, and to some extent by contemporary philosophers dedicated to the study of the emotions. Some religious worldviews and those philosophers committed to same (e.g., Buddhism, Pascal, Kierkegaard), are likewise capable of speaking to questions of moral psychology with a relevance that extends beyond the specific tenets of their traditions. 

As Ilham Dilman has argued in a couple of books, the moral psychology Wollheim refers to here is critically and crucially distinguishable from that which looks to experimental or scientific or academic (i.e., empirical) psychology for its bearings. The latter psychology, in Dilman’s words has, so to speak, “no soul.” Thus, for instance, the entry on “moral psychology” in the SEP (the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) exemplifies a scientistic or unrealistic conception of moral psychology:

“Progress in ethical theorizing often requires progress on difficult psychological questions about how human beings can be expected to function in moral contexts. It is no surprise, then, that moral psychology is a central area of inquiry in philosophical ethics. It should also come as no surprise that empirical research, such as that conducted in psychology departments, may substantially abet such inquiry. Nor then, should it surprise that research in moral psychology has become methodologically pluralistic, exploiting the resources of, and endeavoring to contribute to, various disciplines.” 

The demarcation and specification of “moral contexts” alone shows the enterprise has gone awry, as it is based on a fundamentally mistaken assumption or premise, as the late philosopher and writer Iris Murdoch suggests in this passage from her book, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992). For the moral life or “ethical living” in one very important sense, and in which questions of moral psychology are paramount, is “not intermittent or specialized,” cabined by circumstances or situations, even if these are sometimes appear or are in fact, more morally conspicuous or salient or urgent than other times and places in our lives, for the moral life has to do with the person qua person. Thus the moral life is not a    

“peculiar separate area of our existence. [….] Life is made up of details. We compartmentalise it for reasons of convenience, dividing the aesthetic from the moral, the public from the private, work from pleasure. [….] Yet we are all always deploying and directing our energy, refining or blunting it, purifying or corrupting it, and it is always easier to do a thing a second time. ‘Sensibility’ is a word which may be in place here. Aesthetic insight connects with moral insight, respect for things connects with respect for persons. (Education.) Happenings in the consciousness so vague as to be almost non-existent can have moral ‘colour.’ All sorts of momentary sensibilities to other people, too shadowy to come under the heading of manners of communication, are still parts of moral activity. (‘But are you saying that every single second has a moral tag?’ Yes, roughly.) [….] [M]uch of our self-awareness is other-awareness, and in this area we exercise ourselves as moral beings in our use of many various skills as we direct our modes of attention.” 

When the authors of our SEP entry conclude that “empirical research … conducted in psychology departments” is “substantially abet[ting]” the interdisciplinary research into moral psychology conducted by ethicists, this should give us pause, indeed, it might prompt us to refrain from imbibing in the enthusiasm (at least the kind of enthusiasm permitted professional philosophers in their academic work) that marks their conclusion. Furthermore, the claim that this field of study has become, of necessity, “methodologically pluralistic,” sounds agreeable if not heartening, but this pluralism is predictable if not banal, for these “empirical approaches” fail to encompass psychoanalysis, the humanities, religious worldviews, the French moralists, the work of novelists and playwrights, all of which are, I and others would argue, far more enlightening and helpful when it comes to integrating moral psychology into moral philosophy and ethics. And thus I am reminded of something Jon Elster wrote in Alchemies of the Mind: Rationality and the Emotions (1999):

“I believe … that pre-scientific insights into the emotions [we could substitute ‘moral psychology’ for ‘emotions’ without altering the point] are not simply superseded by modern psychology in the way that natural philosophy has been superseded by physics. Some men and women in the past have been superb students of human nature, with more wide-ranging personal experience, better powers of observation, and deeper intuitions than almost any psychologist I can think of [I am assuming Elster has in mind here a practitioner of what we know as ‘scientific psychology’]. This is only what we should expect: There is no reason why one century out of twenty-five should have a privilege in wisdom and understanding. In the case of physics, this argument does not apply.”