A Role for Psychotherapy


I continue to slowly, very slowly, work on the next book about flourishing. I have been and will continue using this blog to try out ideas about it. I would greatly appreciate comments from you. You will have to send them directly to me using the email link on the right hand side of this page below the archive of previous entries or to my regular address if you know it. I am deep into the existentialist world these days, delving for ideas and language to use in my work. As I read, I am more and more convinced that “solutions” to the cultural malaise (unsustainability) are buried there.

Besides reading the so-called existential philosophers—Sartre, Heidegger, etc.—I have discovered other disciplines that have incorporated an existential flavor against the mainstream theories. The major social sciences—sociology, anthropology, economics— all have branches based on existentialism. I even found entries through a Google search for existentialist political theory. Existential theology has a rich tradition. I have yet to dig deep enough to say anything definitive about what is common in all these that label themselves as existentialist, but I think it is a common belief that human existence cannot be described by a single theory or even by any theory at all. This alone means that any discipline with the suffix “ology” is suspect.

Any such discipline is based on the foundation that behavior of human beings can be reduced to abstractions or rules, and individual beings can be placed in categories based on the theories. Theology leads to categories, like saints and sinners. Economics puts all humans into a category of rational, utility (pleasure) maximizers (or perhaps optimizers). And so on. I want to focus here on psychology and one of its practical offsprings, psychotherapy. Psychotherapy assumes that there are personal and societal norms that separate acceptable from aberrant behavior. Personal norms come into play when any individual determines that he or she is not living up to their own standards and is suffering as a consequence. Serious mental illness, insanity in its many form, describes behavioral patterns that contravene societal norms.

In recent years, another application of psychology has come into being alongside those focusing on deficiencies in or departures from normal behavior: the field of positive psychology. Here the target is not the removal of abnormalities, but the achievement of some positive state, typically happiness or flourishing. Marttin Seligman, the best known figure in the field, rejects happiness as a useful measure and uses flourishing as a more comprehensive, organic description of a fully functioning person. I have started to read his very popular “self-help” book, Flourish. For what should be obvious reasons, if not more to try to see why one book with “flourish” in the title should do so very much better than another—mine. As for any self-help book, it is built on a model or theory of flourishing that ignores to some extent the concreteness of individual existence. (Aside: I haven’t finished this book and may have misinterpreted what Seligman is saying. But unless I find some way to apply his theory in a fundamentally individualistic manner, my quick assessment will stand. To the extent that he draws from any basic psychological model of the “mind,” he cannot meet that criterion for existential thinking.)

This last sentence, before my aside, is the existential critique of any theory of human beings. Any practice that is based on an abstract, categorical model of humans is incapable of representing the concrete experience and “structure” of the individual under the lens. Human behavior is complex, incapable of being represented exactly by abstract rules. Perhaps if one had access to the brain, we might find idiosyncratic rules present there manifest in the structure of a particular brain that determine behavior, but so far such access has been denied. Now for the key leap in my work. The normal behavior of an individual can be related to a story told by that individual when asked to explain their behavior. Sometimes the explanatory story can be found close to the surface, but often the story lies beneath layers of trappings, much as the plot of a novel can be hidden by the writer’s embellishments.

This jump is not arbitrary or of my own invention. It lies at the base of C. S. Pierce’s pragmatism and early psychology. Alexander Bain, a founder of the New Psychology in Britain wrote: “Belief is that upon which a person is prepared to act.” William James wrote in 1890: “The whole plasticity of the brain sums itself up in two words when we call it an organ in which currents pouring in from the sense-organs make with extreme facility paths [habits] which do not disappear.” Modern cognitive science is confirming this observation. Pierce wrote: “The essence of belief is the establishment of a habit, and different beliefs are distinguished by the different modes of action to which they give rise.” and “Beliefs are to be distinguished by the habits resulting from them. Belief is, or contains, a resolve to act in a specified way under certain conditions.” More from Pierce:

The whole function of thought is to produce habits of action [beliefs]…To develop its meaning, we have, therefore, simply to determine what habit it produces, for what a thing means is simply what habits it involves…What the habit is depends on when and how it causes us to act. As for the when, every stimulus to action is derived from perception; as for the how, every purpose of action is to produce some sensible result. Thus we come down to what is tangible and conceivably practical, as the root of every real distinction of thought, no matter how subtle it may be, and there is no distinction of meaning so fine as to consist in anything but a possible difference of practice.

But what are beliefs but stories in language that express some configuration of the brain. When the story in some part of the brain is not accessible to the motor functions of the brain that produce linguistic behavior, we cannot discover the basic story. Psychoanalysis, in particular, and psychotherapy in general seek to uncover whatever story is driving behavior that the patient or a societal arbiter deems abnormal and seeks to change it. Analysis assumes that the “true” story lies under a vast pile of veils emplaced to hide the truth from the human agent. The most basic story that underlies action is the class of “beliefs.” The are the ultimate answer to the question of “Why did you do this or that.” More generally, “Why did that happen?”

Talk psychotherapy, that is, therapy directed to ease suffering and/or change behavior without use of drugs, works by changing the beliefs somehow. When one’s story changes, so may/does behavior. The challenge of psychotherapy is discovering the right story to change. Now, please do a small thought experiment. Think of a society or organization as a person. This shouldn’t be too hard since that’s how the Supreme Court thinks. Then think that the “person” seeks relief from some behavior that is producing “suffering” or some failure to produce the desired outcomes persistently. By analogy, the cause of the suffering or failure lies in the underlying story that drives normal behavior. Kuhn might call it a paradigm. Giddens calls it structure and includes beliefs, norms, and resources that actually produce the normal outcomes in the social world. In both, beliefs, a particular kind of story, lie at the base of behavior. Change the beliefs, change the outcomes.

Cognitive behavioral therapy goes at it a bit differently. They work on behaviors first, presuming, I guess, that, if behaviors change routinely, so do the underlying beliefs. Ether way, the key is the connection between beliefs and behaviors. As I reflect on what I have been doing for the past 10 or so years, it is some form of societal psychotherapy. Much of the first few years were spent on “psychoanalysis” probing the societal persona to reveal the underlying beliefs on which primary societal institutions are based. That’s the core of my first two books. Now I have moved to the psychotherapy phase offering up a set of different beliefs that I anticipate will reduce the suffering and produce more desired outcomes. In individual therapy, the patient often has the job of coming up with the beliefs, but in this case the patient is too unconscious and addicted to the current set that only an intervenor (me) can supply them.

This is where existentialism comes in. The basis of the field is that human existence is unique for every individual. No categorical, abstract models have the certainty to serve as generalized predictive models to be used in designing practices and institutions. We really do have a form of free will; we can and, according to existentialists, should make our own life choices, drawing on our experiences in life, but not conforming to them. The authenticity that comes from such free choices is freeing, the real kind of existential freedom. Such existential freedom is, however, subject to the constraint that everyone is capable of similar choices and, so, the ethical consequence of acknowledging the other is immediately obvious. Living authentically does not mean always coming from the inside person; we cannot avoid conforming to norms from time to time. But if we generally put ourselves on a path following our life choices and carry out the projects necessary to stay on the path, we are living up to our human potential and can say we are flourishing. Even on the bad days.

Back to the analogy with society. The idea of free choice doesn’t work quite exactly, but if we look at the grounding documents of the US, for example, we can see a vision emerge. If we look back even further to the beginning of the modern era, we can see more clearly, the set of fundamental beliefs that will put us on the progressive path to human perfection. If one believes we are still on the original path to reach perfection, then all we need to do is tinker here and there. If however, one believes we have strayed far off the path beyond the point where tinkering can put us back, then it is time for some social psychotherapy and the introduction of new foundational beliefs. This is where I am now, with some efforts to sharpen the analysis. Other models of design may also workl. Kuhn’s paradigm model of change is similar, but anticipates that new ideas will perforce be needed. I believe that such “new” ideas already exist.

One big difference, however. An individual can make new choices freely in the course of a therapeutic regimen. While the metaphor of society as a person may be helpful in thinking about change, there is no single mind to change. If fact, unless you are a Jungian or similarly believe in the collective unconsciousness, there is no mind to change at all. Only the appearance of a “mind” that represents the concatenation of consciousness of many individuals operating from the same set of ideas. What this realization means to me now is that I have been writing as if society was a single person, but any change in its metaphorical mind, can only come individual-by-individual until that critical moment when the combination pushes the system into a new world. So, if you are convinced by my work aimed at the system, please begin by working on the individual: you. A final realization, most self-help and coaching is some form of tinkering and is subject to the above limitation. It cannot put you on the path to flourishing.