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Psychology

Interests in Affect, Emotion, &c., eventually puts you into the orbit of some interesting literature in neuroscience.  I’m thinking especially here of the work of people like Antonio Damasio, Jonathan Mercer, and Rose McDermott.  But more interesting is the critical work on neuroscience from people like Ruth Leys, and Patricia Clough, and in a different way William Connolly.  Jan Slaby and the Critical Neuroscience project have produced some mind-bending yet spot-on philosophical critiques of the state and aims of neuroscience and politics (cf. Personhood v. Brainhood).  But none of this work really, truly, meets the challenge of neuroplasticity.  If our brain does change itself, if our biological structures are a result of our environment, then culture and politics have a much more important role than this work realizes (and anatamo- / bio- politics is even more powerful than Foucault might have anticipated).   In short, let’s listen to this interview with Norman Doidge at The Guardian.com, who is the pioneer in Neuroplasticity.

[Norman Doidge] started out as a poet and a student of philosophy, before moving into psychiatry. He authored guidelines for the practice of intensive psychotherapy, before working to integrate new discoveries in neuroscience with existing psychiatric, psychological and psychoanalytic knowledge.

In 2007, he published the best-selling book, The Brain That Changes Itself, and has just written the follow-up, The Brain’s Way of Healing.

Interview here.

I usually post about books I have read or I am currently reading. So here’s a first: a book that I’d definitely like to and need to read.  New in paperback, from Princeton University Press, The Symptom and The Subject: The Emergence of the Physical Body in Ancient Greece, by Brook Holmes.  If you are a Foucaultian, Platonist, or Thucydidean, this is probably going to be an enlightening argument.  A quote from the introduction:

I explore and defend the claim that the physi­ cal body plays a pivotal but unacknowledged role in ideas about the human in the fifth and early fourth centuries, as well as in the formation of a new kind of ethical subjectivity centered on practices of caring for the self. I explain the strength of its influence in terms of its dual identity. On the one hand, the phys­ical body is a model of intelligibility: although its workings are hidden, a physi­cian trained in the medical tekhnē, “science” or “art,” may reconstruct them through reasoning. Doing so allows him both to intervene in disease and to manage health. On the other hand, that body is an untrustworthy and unfamil­ iar thing: it is prone to disorder, largely estranged from consciousness, and ani­ mated not by intentions but by impersonal, asocial powers. Its very strangeness, I argue, encourages ancient thinkers to take an increasing interest in the psukhē as the locus of the person.

As with all PUP book, the intro is freely available. Scroll down to pages 24-5 and you’ll see some thoughts on the role that the body plays in Thucydides’ account of the politics of the plague and presentation of the Funeral Oration of Pericles.  Biopolitics in Ancient Greece is worth attention, hence the project on “Periclean Biopolitics” that I’ve been saying is “the next project” for a couple of years now. Anyways, based on the introduction, Holmes looks to have written a very interesting and important book.

It strikes me that I own, have read, and will read, a number of books with the word “Mind” in the title. To wit, a list:

The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt

The Political Mind, George Lakoff

The Reactionary Mind, Corey Robin

The Reckless Mind, Mark Lilla

The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom

The Phenomenology of Spirit Mind, G.W.F. Hegel

What should be added? I’m sure I’ve missed some notorious titles.

Insofar as my ongoing interest in the moral consciousness conforms to a “plot”, it thickens.  I love Plato’s Symposium, which I know is rather cliche.  I came across this remark from Allan Bloom’s famous “Ladder of Love” essay:

The study of the soul had become such a part of Catholic Christianity that its destruction in the name of something like consciousness seemed a necessity.  But the Christian teaching was about a specific version of the soul characterized by separability from the body and immortality, great miracles that defied common sense and reason. (p.195)

Okay, so classical political philosophy is about the soul and nomos, while modern political philosophy is about the moral consciousness.  Hmm….

At some point, I don’t quite remember when, I began to hold the work of William James in high esteem.  My first impression of him, an impression which has yet to disappear, is that he begs us to recall a time when liberal education truly meant the freedom of the mind.  He was a philosopher who could speak to psychologists, and a psychologist who could speak to philosophers.  This outlook, such as it is a bird’s eye view of the human condition, is worth retrieving.  Before his volumes in the Library of America came into my possession I spent many hours at the indispensable William James cybrary.  I sometimes wonder – aside from the fantastic amount of talent that arrived in America after the World War Two – who, if any, are the American philosophers that might rank higher than James, especially given the scope of his expertise?  A small quote from The Moral Equivalent of War:

History is a bath of blood. The Illiad is one long recital of how Diomedes and Ajax, Sarpedon and Hector killed. No detail of the wounds they made is spared us, and the Greek mind fed upon the story. Greek history is a panorama of jingoism and imperialism — war for war’s sake, all the citizen’s being warriors. It is horrible reading — because of the irrationality of it all — save for the purpose of making “history” — and the history is that of the utter ruin of a civilization in intellectual respects perhaps the highest the earth has ever seen.

Those wars were purely piratical. Pride, gold, women, slaves excitement were their only motives. In the Peloponesian war, for example, the Athenians ask the inhabitants of Melos (the island where the “Venus de Milo” was found), hitherto neutral, to own their lordship. The envoys meet, and hold a debate which Thucydides gives in full, and which, for sweet reasonableness of form, would have satisfied Matthew Arnold. “The powerful exact what they can,” said the Athenians, “and the weak grant what they must.” When the Meleans say that sooner than be slaves they will appeal to the gods, the Athenians reply, “Of the gods we believe and of men we know that, by a law of their nature, wherever they can rule they will. This law was not made by us, and we are not the first to have acted upon it; we did but inherit it, and we know that you and all mankind, if you were as strong as we are, would do as we do. So much for the gods; we have told you why we expect to stand as high in their good opinion as you.” Well, the Meleans still refused, and their town was taken. “The Athenians,” Thucydides quietly says, “thereupon put to death all who were of military age and made slaves of the women and children. They then colonized the island, sending thither five hundred settlers of their own.

Let us not forget about John Dewey…

In Carl Schmitt’s The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes, Schmitt makes a handful of comparison’s between Hobbes’s political theory, and Descartes on the mechanization of man, or the interpretation of man as a machine.  This is possible, of course, because in Les Passions de l’Ame Descartes articulates the division between body and soul.  At any rate, the decisive difference in how one can interpret the relationship between Descartes and Hobbes seems to be this.  One can side with Schmitt and believe that Hobbes took the mechanization of man from Descartes and constructed the “huge man” (makros anthropos), if one likes.  But this comparison of Hobbes and Descartes in the mechanization and “hugeness” of man in the form of the state is contrasted by Strauss’s interpretation of this relationship, where Hobbes follows Descartes’ “retreat into consciousness” for the sake of dismissing Descartes’ refutation of the Deus Deceptor in order to refute it on human bases alone (i.e. in the coming into contact with the world, pragmata).  So, either they are similar because the make man big, or they are similar because they reduce him to his ineluctable conscience.  The latter, not the former, allows for the full horizon of modern philosophy to reveal itself.    This horizon is also fully aware of its theologico-political presuppositions, or the account of miracles that opposes the premodern account of the same.  Now the “Account of the Chariot” begs to be read as a critique of miracles, or at least as being fully aware that it is contemporaneously an account and a critique of mystery.  Schmitt turns to sovereignty; Strauss turns to conscience, to synderesis/syneidesis.

Still reading Dan McAdams The Redemptive SelfGreat book, really enjoying it.  I get the impression that he’s the Hugh Gusterson of the Psychology world, in that he’s transcended his specific discipline and is now fully an Academic.  At least this is the impression I get from his written work.  But his notion of redemption has raised at least one question for me:  what about the struggle for recognition?  Isn’t the struggle to be recognized fundamentally at odds with any inner or lifelong narrative of redemption?  George Bush had a story of personal redemption; Barack Obama gives the polis as a whole a redemption story.  But recognition is something different – the desire to have someone acknowledge you, to acknowledge your inherent and essential worth as a human being.  This is not the same as redemption, but people construct lives around this too.  It’s the difference between Cinderella and an Underdog.  They aren’t mutually exclusive, but there is a difference.  To “give one what is due” or to “move from a place of darkness to light”.  Perhaps the answer is simply that this is an overwhelmingly American book, written for Americans about Americans.  The Germans need not interfere.

McAdams provides a very useful lens through which to understand the inability of Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich to gain any traction with their base or nationally.  Mitt doesn’t need redeeming; New is simply irredeemable.  The absence of a narrative means the absence of any traction.

Just finished the first chapter of Dan McAdams The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By.  So far, so good.  Quote:  “We will see, then, that redemptive narratives sometimes condone and reinforce social isolation and a kind of psychological American exceptionalism.” (original italics)  More here.

He’s speaking at WLU in February on his new G.W. Bush book.  Looking forward to that, especially since this is one of the few times where my wife’s academic work overlaps with mine!  In general, very impressed by the plain-spoken “politics” of McAdams’ book.  A quick glance at the index of a couple of his books reveals the name of maverick psychologist Silvan Tomkins – with reference to his Script Theory.  More on this at a later date, and quite possibly at a later time of night.