The assumption underlying the notion that so-called reality confrontation is an antidote to Phantasy is: there is one true reality; it is possible to know it directly, independently of any imaginative apprehension or valuation of it. But it would seem instead that all knowledge of reality is symbolically mediated. Reality is always a symbolic creation. In simple terms, if you want to write a poem, make a scientific discovery, or choose a wife, primary process thinking may be exceptionally valuable; if you want to hammer a nail, it can be a damned nuisance. Here’s the sixth and final part of Prof. Ashoka’s erudite article, in the weekly column, exclusively in Different Truths.
From the discovery that patients suffer from reminiscences, that is, from symbolisations of the past, and then that these reminiscences are not true representations of the past but phantasy, you should not conclude that mental illness is equivalent to subjugation to phantasy, to the non-rational, while mental health is equivalent to recognition of brute reality. This, in effect, equates health with cognitive-rational symbolisation and denies any but dysfunctional effects to other modes of symbolisation. Furthermore, the assumption underlying the notion that so-called reality confrontation is an antidote to Phantasy is: there is one true reality; it is possible to know it directly, independently of any imaginative apprehension or valuation of it. But it would seem instead that all knowledge of reality is symbolically mediated. Reality is always a symbolic creation. Different modes of symbolisation are functional or dysfunctional with respect to particular goals or interests in relation to which they are employed. In simple terms, if you want to write a poem, make a scientific discovery, or choose a wife, primary process thinking may be exceptionally valuable; if you want to hammer a nail, it can be a damned nuisance.
Freud described primary process thinking in terms of such characteristics as condensation and is placement as well as the absence of conformity to the categories and rules of logic. (Note, following Kenneth Burke, that processes like condensation and displacement are probably particular aspects or resources of any symbolic system or language. Abstraction involves something similar to condensation; displacement is clearly related to metaphor.) Because schizophrenia, especially among the mental illnesses, has been described as involving an impairment of the capacity to abstract as well as a relative domination of primary process thinking, I might just as well state here that I think it is possible that primary process thinking may, in fact, best be understood as a type of abstraction.
Briefly, secondary process thinking may involve essentially abstraction by extension, which includes both differentiation and generalization. Through abstraction by extension, a concrete entity or event becomes a particular case of a more general law, idea, class, or series. The meaning of any experience is extended by relating it to other experiences; through such extension, any entity or event is experienced in a context, a series or order in which it has a location, a law of which it is a particular example, a class of which it is a member.
Abstraction by extension creates the bonds connecting, comparing, and systematically combining entities or events. Yet each entity or event, even as its meaning expands, even as its implications are explicated, retains its distinct identity and limitation; even as it fits into a universe, it remains independent and singular.
Interestingly enough, there seems to be a similarity between reality as conceived through abstraction by extension and the organic solidarity of a social community in which each individuated part makes its unique, differentiated, necessary contribution to the achievement of a shared end. May we expect that abstraction by extension is the important process of symbolisation in those subsystems of society characterised by organic solidarity—that is, in the adaptation and integration subsystems of a social system the outputs of which are, respectively, instrumental action and responsible action? Abstraction by extension does seem to be the process by which symbols are generated in science and history, cultural systems relevant to the adaptation and integration subsystems of the social system.
Primary process thinking, on the other hand, may involve essentially abstraction by intension. The concentration and separate characterization of abstraction by intension contrast with the expansion and universalization of abstraction by extension. Abstraction by intension acts to separate an entity or event from any context at all, thereby embedding it in shadow, endowing it with mystery, or surrounding it with an aura of special quality. Abstraction by intension isolates an undifferentiated totality, an essence, out of which characters may emerge. These characters, however, do not possess any individuality apart from the whole from which they emerge; they do not simply “stand for” that whole, but are identical with it, possessors of its entire value. Abstraction by intension focuses on an entity or event as an immediate presence having no context; therefore such an entity or event has no past and no future, is comparable to, tempered by, related to, or mitigated by nothing else, and as immediate presence commands total attention or fills consciousness. Abstraction by intension results in an intensification of the entity or event or, perhaps more exactly, of whatever value it has. Much is compressed in such an entity or event; any entities or events which share its value are absorbed by it; there is a condensation of all such entities or events. Such concentration, intensification, telescoping, compression, syncretic fusion, such violently separate characterization, such immediacy and totality, permitting no quantitative distinctions, extinguishing all differences—so that every part of the whole is identical with the whole and contains its entire significance, value, or potency—are, of course, recognizable as characteristic of primary process thinking as well as, as we have previously noted, what Ernst Cassirer has described in similar terms as mythic thinking. What perhaps is not so generally realized is that this kind of thinking is not non-abstract (which would mean asymbolic) but is, in fact, a special type of abstraction transforming experience through definable operations that create certain conceptions of experience and call for special symbols to represent these conceptions. You have heard that man has been conceived as acting under the influence of blindly impelling instincts. Freud’s concept of instincts is often misunderstood as denoting the operation of physiological processes. He quite clearly meant by “instinct” the psychic representatives of physiological processes and by “id” an organisation of such psychic representatives. By psychic representatives he clearly meant a particular kind of symbolization. You should consider that if a man under the influence of primary process thinking behaves as if he is irresistibly compelled, preoccupied, or awed, it is not necessary to account for such effects by recourse to hypothetical drives or instincts.
The compulsion exerted by such conceptions may follow from the nature of the mode of symbolisation from which they spring. Again, we may take a moment to notice that the “community of essence” conceived through abstraction by intension is similar to the mechanical solidarity of a homogenous social community in which the members share similar values, beliefs, and sentiments, in which involvement rather than individuation is required of these members. One might expect that abstraction by intension is the important process of symbolisation in those subsystems of society characterised by mechanical solidarity—that is, the goal-attainment and pattern maintenance subsystems of a social system the outputs of which are, respectively, expressive action and (to the system itself) the maintenance and generation of value-commitments. Abstraction by intension does seem to be the process by which symbols are generated in art and religion, cultural systems relevant to the goal-attainment and pattern maintenance subsystems of the social system.
What does this view of man imply for our idea of mental illness and the body of knowledge germane to the treatment of mental illness? Symbolisation may go awry or be impaired. Disorders of integration and adaptation result from such impairment. Psychiatry, as one of the healing arts, may be regarded as the treatment—often, by no means exclusively, but perhaps most significantly, through symbolic means— of impairments of symbolisation. Such impairments of symbolisation usually (but, given the limiting cases, not always) have origins, or are aggravated by processes, in all four systems of interest to the psychiatrist—the physiological behavioural system, the personality system, the social system, and the cultural system—and the complicated relationships among them. It is often difficult to know, with respect to a particular impairment of symbolisation, to what system or relationship between systems treatment should be directed.
What is the basic-science knowledge applied in psychiatry? In my view, it is the body of knowledge concerned with man’s symbolising activities and achievements. More particularly, it is knowledge about the conditions of, and resources for, symbolic processes in the physiological behavioural system. It is knowledge about the symbolisation of motivational dispositions and their fates in the personality system. It is knowledge about the interaction of entities according to shared patterns of meaning in the social system. It is knowledge about the characteristics of cultural systems—organizations of symbolic entities or works of man, such as language, myth, science, art, law, and religion, which may be institutionalized in social systems and internalised in personality systems.
(Excerpts from the volume Understanding Mental Illness: A Philosophical Journey by Professor Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad)
©Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad
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