Monday, February 23, 2009

Odds and Ends

I've been busy looking over page proofs for an epically wrangled-over article ("Evolution, Human Enhancement, and the Narrative Self," available by email request) for Literature and Medicine. Blog posting takes two minutes; academic print publishing can take two years (maybe if a blog is wine by the box, the academic journal is something more sophisticated). But there is something to the knowledge that one's work is occupying physical space in libraries (I take my pleasures where I can get them).

At any rate, this blog reflects my liking for quotes, which are like grains of sand that get lodged in my oyster of a brain until, one hopes, they are transmuted into something else. So as I was looking over that manuscript I came across a few quotes that, to switch metaphors, serve as the survey stakes for what I was trying to get across. To reverse metaphors, I should allow the possibility that these great quotes are themselves pearls that I merely manage to grind back down into my sandy prose.

But philosophy has no direct influence on the great mass of mankind; it is of interest to only a small number even of the top layer of intellectuals and is scarcely intelligible to anyone else. On the other hand, religion is an immense power which has the strongest emotions of human beings at its service. (Freud, "The Question of a Weltanschauung").

Perhaps the tragedy of classical psychoanalysis was its inability to accept that what most human beings most need is not insight, but something else entirely (which is only partially supplied by religion). Freud hoped that the treatment would change the allegedly neurotic need. But would we still recognize Homo sapiens without this need?

This is Socrates' legacy, and it is precisely this challenge that Freud takes up: to figure out a form of conversation in which one can succeed in genuinely taking oneself into account. (Jonathan Lear, Freud).

By bringing psychology into philosophy, Freud was trying to make the latter more philosophical. But his psychology wasn't yet psychological enough.

If I were having a philosophical talk with a man I was going to have hanged (or electrocuted) I should say, "I don't doubt that your act was inevitable for you, but to make it more avoidable by others we propose to sacrifice you to the common good. You may regard yourself as a soldier dying for your country if you like. But the law must keep its promises. (Oliver Wendell Holmes, quoted by Steven Pinker).

This is a spot-on summary of the necessary compatibility of free will and determinism. All is determined, but human society (and specific persons) can only function by presupposing that individuals can modify their behavior.

Yes, we were natural for eons before we were cultural--before we were human, even--but so what? We are cultural now. (Robert Scholes, quoted by Harold Fromm).

In a way this mind-bender, conjoined with evolutionary psychology, motivated my whole paper. How much does our escalating knowledge of our own contingent human nature grant us real freedom to alter our own individual and species identity?

One of the good things psychotherapy can do, like the arts, is show us the limits of what science can do for our welfare. The scientific method alone is never going to be enough, especially when we are working out how to live and who we can be. (Adam Phillips).

Amen.

2 comments:

neuronarrative said...

That sounds like a tremendous paper. I'd enjoy perusing a copy if you didn't mind sending it.

Anonymous said...

I think most people want opiates, but what they need is an ayahausacan journey to the centre of their brains with a self-eliciting truth serum, so to speak.

It would be comforting to think that a cornucopia of infinite determinate eventualities exists all for our willful and selective taking - I could live with that. But causes often feel like blind and deaf mack trucks accelerating in frictionless space: their relentless momentum mangling and slaughtering with no foresight or afterthought, just a raging nothing of emotionless emotion bent on derailing all for one end. If humans were but spanners in the works of life, they could make their own truths without lying. Until then, to find succour in oblivion, gives us just enough speed and stability to reach the end in time to realise (to no end purpose) that time is only a phantasm of our own morbid construction so that we may live in pretty coffins rather than dull open spaces.

I think problems arise when people try to wear their oysters and chew their pearls...so to speak.

Your paper sounds great - more pearl than grit, I would think.