What is Man?: Rational Action is not Always the Best for Relation Between Man and his Environment – V

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Heinz Hartmann has made a point throughout his writings in suggesting that is not the only or always the best means of achieving an optimal relation between man and his environment. Man is not pushed by a chaos of wants but drawn by ends of his own imagining, which are related to one another in more or less integrated systems of symbolised meanings. Here’s the fifth part of Ashoka’s erudite six-part debate, in the weekly column, exclusively in Different Truths.

The achievement of science is its system of highly abstract cognitive representations of reality, to a great extent freed of particular sensuous connotations. However, science among the works of man does not offer or lead to the only or necessarily the best interpretation of reality for all purposes or requirements of an individual or group. The utility of science or an adaptive-cognitive orientation to reality for the adaptive mastery of reality has tended to lead to their overvaluation in the behavioural sciences and to a concomitant lack of appreciation of other works of man and other orientations to reality as involving meaningful, functional frameworks of meaning within which one may orient to and represent reality. Heinz Hartmann has made a similar point throughout his writings in suggesting that rational action is not the only or always the best means of achieving an optimal relation between man and his environment.

Man is not pushed by a chaos of wants but drawn by ends of his own imagining, which are related to one another in more or less integrated systems of symbolised meanings. Such systems may be studied, and they are important to study. A set of personal or internalised symbolic systems and the relations between these different symbolic systems constitute the personality system. (I may add here that the emergent or distinctive property of a social system is the existence of a common, more or less integrated, system of symbolized meanings shared by its members.) Since man’s actions are resultant of the interdependent interaction of subjective and objective elements, and since a variety of symbolic systems are possible among which man may choose, man, must have a variety of histories, his social life is inevitable to some extent pluralistic, and evolution is neither necessarily linear nor progressive. Parsons’ theory of action in sociology and the theory of psychoanalysis of Freud converge in this view of man. In fact, I believe that Freud would receive greater credit as its architect if his positivistic assumptions had not interfered with his own realization that his discoveries cried out for a conceptual frame of reference appropriate to such a view of man. But that is a lot to expect of a great innovator —that he the very certainties he stands upon and from which he is able to impel himself into the future toward a creation whose final form he himself is doomed, like Moses, never to see.

As it is, incredible, perplexing, even humorous strains are evident in Freud’s . He longs for eventual rapprochement with neurophysiology, while he analyses the meaning of a dream. He utilises a reflex reduction of tension model replete with references to external and internal stimuli while discovering patterns in the linguistic productions of patients and — would such a discovery be possible for anyone but a rationalist? — the nature of a thought process operating according to principles entirely different from ordinary rational thought. He is preoccupied with displacements and transformations of energy, while he develops a tool of investigation and that relies solely on understanding verbal occurring under carefully controlled conditions. He thinks of instinct and of libidinal phases, while he observes the ubiquity of certain groups of metaphors he terms oral, anal, and phallic, and the penetration of any one of these in verbal and nonverbal symbolic transformations into every crevice of a patient’s experience of himself and reality and the very nature of the ends the patient seeks. He apologises for the fact that his case studies read rather like the products of the novelist’s art than the scientist’s sober investigations, and at the same time discovers that memory and phantasy have effects as striking as any non-subjective constitutional or situational variable. Heredity and early life experience he holds to be important aspects of his frame of reference, although his method denies him any possibility for the direct investigation of either, and an apocryphal tale has him replying sublimely to an objection to his report of a patient’s experience with a psychoanalyst in the center of England — the objection being that, in fact, there was not and never had been a psychoanalyst in that vicinity—that “If the patient says a psychoanalyst is there, then there is a psychoanalyst there.”

I think you may agree with me that Freud’s courage, his ability to transcend his own conceptual predilections, are truly astonishing. Despite his positivist belief that psychological phenomena would eventually be completely explained by neurophysiology, a belief that perhaps as a man of his own time he never completely abandoned, he was nevertheless bold enough to abandon a strategy founded on that belief. At a crucial point in his career, he decided to study psychological phenomena as if these constituted an empirical realm in their own right for the explanation of which a conceptual system couched in psychological language was required. He thereby discovered a realm of symbolic processes, which he called “psychic reality.” This psychic reality included the inner world of phantasies, conscious and unconscious, imagined states of affairs deemed desirable and toward the realization of which action could be understood to be oriented. That patients suffer from “reminiscences” was an early formulation of Freud’s giving primacy to symbolic process in etiology. This insight of his was considerably enriched by his fortunate and dramatic recovery from his “mistake” in ascribing causal status to supposed actual, objective, sexual seductions in in accounting for neurotic illness. He saw instead that “mere” phantasies of relationships, phantasies of events—symbolisations of a special kind — may also have causal efficacy. In discovering transference, he discovered that an objectively existent social being, the physician, for example, and relationships with such objective beings, may serve as symbolic representations or recreations of past experience.

The dominant theme in Freud’s empirical work is a view of man in terms of conflicting motives as these are manifested in symbolic processes with different characteristics and aims. The concepts of conscious and unconscious, of ego, superego, and id, may be regarded, in part at least, as classifications of types of symbolisations, regulated in different ways and with reference to different kinds of ends or goals.

The internal conflict between tendencies, and the symptoms which represent compromises between different tendencies, likewise may be understood in terms of the interaction and mutual influence of different kinds of symbolisations. The concept “superego” most clearly, perhaps, refers to a symbolic invention. It does not arise in any simple way from either experience or what is genetically given alone. Once in existence, as part of the personality system, it accounts for man’s actions as a third relatively independent variable, together with representations both of current experience and physiological processes. Freud’s discovery and description of two modes of symbolisation— primary and secondary process—will probably survive as one of his greatest achievements. It is important to emphasise now, in preparation for a later discussion of mental illness (and of schizophrenia as an illustration of mental illness) that primary process thinking should not be regarded as a debasement of rational or secondary process thinking, but as an independent form of thinking which in its own right may contribute to important achievements. With regard to the achievement of such criteria as survival, creativity, understanding, expressiveness, adaptation, or health, both secondary and primary process thinking may contribute either functionally or dysfunctionally. Primary process thinking in and of itself cannot be pathognomonic of mental illness.

(To be continued)

(Excerpts from the volume Understanding Mental Illness: A Philosophical Journey by Professor Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad)

©Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

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Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad is a physician /psychiatrist holding doctorates in pharmacology, history and philosophy plus a higher doctorate. He is also a qualified barrister and geneticist. He is a regular columnist in several newspapers, has published over 100 books and has been described by the Cambridge News as the 'most educationally qualified in the world'.
Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad