30 April 2007

Constructing the Self

Filed under: Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 3:08 pm

[My primary source for this post is The Construction of the Self, 1999 by Susan Harter]

The young child becomes able to recognize her own reflection in a mirror at about the same time that she begins saying things like “that’s mine” or look at me” or “my name is Anna.” Also at around the same time, the child begins using language to represent parental rules and expectations and her ability to meet them. By about age 3 1/2 the child becomes able to construct a verbal self-narrative that includes both self-evaluations (“I am a good girl”) and remembered events (“Mommy yelled at me yesterday”). Self-description enables the child to develop a stable sense of self, but it also drives a wedge between self as lived and self as verbally represented, which can be distorted to conform to others’ expectations and to one’s own fantasies.

In general, young children feel pretty good about themselves. As they develop they get better at doing things that matter to them. They tend to confound actual with desired competency, leading them to overestimate themselves. Beginning in middle childhood, the perceived gap between actual and ideal self widens. Increasingly they compare themselves with their peers, and this source of evaluation comes to compete with (though not to usurp) parental evaluations. In adolescence children become increasingly introspective and morbidly preoccupied with what others think of her. The adolescent realizes that she presents herself differently, and is evaluated by others differently, as she passes from one social context to another. By observing and internalizing multiple perspectives on the self, the adolescent simultaneously develops a more accurate understanding of her strengths and weaknesses at the same time as she develops higher standards for herself. Self-concept becomes unstable, self-contradictory, multiple: “Which one is the real me?” By late adolescence self-esteem tends to go back up, as the individual exercises greater autonomy, chooses to elicit social support from those who hold her in high regard, and becomes more adept at balancing multiple social roles.

Children evaluate themselves largely in terms of competencies valued by themselves and significant others (parents, close friends, peer group). In Western cultures those valued competencies are, in order: physical appearance, scholastic competence, social acceptance, behavioral conduct, and athletic competence. Perception of one’s competency in these domains is more important than the person’s actual competency.

More physically attractive infants get more positive attention from adults. In middle childhood kids generally think they look pretty good. The importance of appearance to self-worth increases through adolescence. Boys don’t tend to change their ratings of their own attractiveness as they get older; girls, on the other hand, show a continual deterioration throughout adolescence in their own perceived attractiveness. Girls also regard physical attractiveness as more important than do boys. Not surprisingly, girls’ perceived self-worth deteriorates through the adolescent years. This is especially true for stereotypically feminine girls; self-estem among more androgynous girls is less closely related to physical appearance and doesn’t decline significantly over adolescence.

Kids with higher levels of approval and support from significant others have higher self-worth. Through evaluations of changes over time, child development researchers have constructed a causal model for predicting adolescent self-worth and mood:

  • Physical appearance, likability by peers, and athletic competence lead to peer approval and support.
  • Scholastic competence and behavioral conduct lead to parental approval and support.
  • Approval and support from peers and parents lead to self-worth, hopefulness, and cheerfulness.

Depression and anger are associated with low self-worth. Adolescent depression tends to be caused by the same factors that cause low self-worth: dissatisfaction with one’s physical appearance, competence, or social interactions. Rejection from and conflict with peers is a primary source of depression, anger, and low self-worth. Parental conflict and rejection is much less strongly associated with adolescent anger and depression.

28 April 2007

The Specular Image and the Social Self

Filed under: Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 2:19 pm

In 1949 Jacques Lacan wrote an essay called “The Mirror Stage,” in which he outlined a theory of how children develop a sense of self. The idea derives from the young child’s ability to recognize his own image in a mirror.

This event can take place, as we have known since Baldwin, from the age of six months, and its repetition has made me reflect upon the startling spectacle of the infant in front of the mirror. Unable as yet to walk, or even to stand up, held tightly as he is by some support, human or artificial, he nevertheless overcomes, in a flutter of jubilant activity, the obstructions of his support and, fixing his attitude in a slightly leaning-forward position, in order to hold it in its gaze, brings back an instantaneous aspect of the image.

Lacan offers a nicely nuanced empirical observation. Problem is, it’s not true. Researchers have consistently found that a child doesn’t recognize his reflected image until 18 to 24 months (see yesterday’s post) — after standing, after walking, after the beginning of language acquisition. But we continue. Lacan says that the child identifies with his own reflection.

This jubilant assumption of his specular image by the child at the infancy stage, still sunk in his motor incapacity and nurseling dependence, would seem to exhibit in an exemplary situation the symbolic matrix in which the I is precipitated in a primordial form, before it is objectified in the dialectic of identification with the other, and before language restores to it, in the universal, its function as subject.

Again Lacan’s developmental sequence is off. A few posts ago we saw how as early as 9 months the child enters into the referential triangle of self and adult jointly orienting themselves toward the world. Learning within the triangle, the child already participates in the “dialectic of identification with the other,” seeing himself as being similar to the other in intentionality and orientation toward the world. Thus the child can follow the adult’s pointing finger to an object, and even the verbal instruction to look at the named object, long before the child can recognize his own reflection.

The important point, says Lacan, is that this specular self-image situates the agency of the ego, before its social determination, in a fictional direction. It is the “ideal-I,” a sense of the self as a whole and integrated being rather than a chaotic assembly of body parts and the seeminly random motion that animates them. But it’s an exterior, two-dimensional view, an “image,” an imaginary unity. Whatever the child subsequently learns about himself through social interaction and language will never replace the specular image. He ends up internally doubled, the socially-constructed I forever alienated from the specular I, the I of reality always lacking in comparison with the ideal-I that precedes it. Subsequently the child attempts to construct a unified and autonomous self to match the ideal-I. But it’s futile, resulting in an ego that is a rigid, dead, hollow superstructure, like a fortress or a mannequin, accompanied by the paranoiac fear of total self-dissolution.

But emirical findings summarized by Tomasello strongly suggest that the self-image first emerges in social interaction. In early infancy the child learns to take the other’s perspective in jointly attending to the world. If the other points to the child, then the child begins to see himself as something in the world that the other can recognize. It’s likely that this prior social self-pointing gives the child the self-objectification necessary to recognize himself in the mirror.

So, Lacan locates the origin of neurosis in the sense of loss: a primal self-integration and plenitude that’s been lost, perhaps stolen, in social and linguistic interaction with others. The self then becomes motivated both to recover the lost sense of self and to compensate for the hole in the self where the integrated self used to be. But if the sense of self emerges first from social-linguistic interaction, then this specular, imaginary, fictional, ideal sense of self, if it exists at all, would have developed after and as an artifact of the socially constructed sense of self. The cascade of effects for Lacanian psychopathology would seem profound.

27 April 2007

Complexity is Built on Scaffolding

Filed under: Culture, Ktismata, Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 10:05 am

It is a point so obvious that it is seldom, if ever, mentioned. If children did not have available to them adult instruction through language, pictures, and other symbolic media, they would know the same amount about dinosaurs as did Plato and Aristotle, namely, zero.

– Tomasello, The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition, 1999

What we know depends almost entirely on the accumulated knowledge of the cultures we live in, transmitted mostly through language. Even our own experiential knowledge is shaped largely by conceptual categories we acquire through language, categories we probably wouldn’t have come up with on our own. Kids learn quickly, but not automatically. People don’t always agree, so the child is exposed to alternative explanations. The child may be misunderstand or disagree with what someone else has to say, so she may seek clarification or argue in an effort to refine her understanding. The child’s knowledge is also subjected to verbal critique by adults who (presumably) know better. Knowledge acquisition isn’t just linear and cumulative; it also demands evaluation and alignment of perspectives.

Children reach 3 to 5 years of age before they realize that others have different ideas and beliefs from their own. Still, the process for acquiring this sort of knowledge about other minds is similar to acquiring knowledge about the world: joint attention, contextual framing, dialogue, exposure to alternative views, clarification, argumentation, critique. Exposure to conflicting ideas of other young children seems particularly important in understanding that others have minds similar to, yet different from, their own.

Understanding other minds requires the child to take the perspective of the other, simulating in her own mind the thoughts the other might be thinking. Between 5 and 7 years children begin monitoring and managing the impressions they make on others: “She thinks that I think X.” This observation requires perspective-taking at a second remove: my perspective on her perspective on my thinking. I remember my daughter asking her friend at around age 7: “Do you know how you sound when you say that?” This is third remove: my perspective on her perspective on my perspective on her thinking.

The child also begins to develop the ability to view something from multiple perspectives in mind at the same time. For example, analogy and metaphor depend on grasping the literal meaning of a verbal expression and simultaneously applying it in a figurative context. The child also becomes reflexively self-aware, observing her own perspective, describing it to herself, consciously trying to make it more systematic.

It’s possible that a child develops a sense of self by seeing and imitating how others see her. It seems more likely, based on the natural progression of cognitive development, that the child develops a sense of others by simulating from within the self what it might be like to be the other. Then, from within the simulated other’s perspective, the child can begin to see herself as others see her. Finally, the child can self-reflect, seeing herself as if she were an other. The child’s understanding — of others, of culture, of self — advances from simple to complex, always building on joint attention and contextual framing within the basic referential triangle of self, other, and world. Learning depends on scaffolding — just like Odile has been telling us.

26 April 2007

The Veil

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 10:59 am

[I previously posted one of our brochures from when we sold our house in Colorado. Here’s the first one in the series — photo by Anne Doyle. For me it evokes heterutopia and apokalypto and the eternal return.]

sconcebottomlit.jpgImagine a part of the world where houses are indistinguishable one from another. (I have been to such places.) Every house the same architectural style, the same color. All the houses on a block run together: it’s not clear where one house ends and the next begins. No street addresses.

Encountering the indistinguishable exteriors, an onlooker is tempted to infer that the occupants of these houses likewise are indistinguishable one from another.

This would be a mistake.

Inside, each house explodes in a riot of diversity. Strange food preparation rituals bring forth delicacies unknown in the bazaars. Harem girls sigh behind perfumed silken curtains, while eunuchs play games of chance for stakes meted out in drams, essences, human souls. Someone writes a history of times that never were in a language that has never been spoken. To one entering such a home no personal favor can be denied, for this visitor has been inside and can never forget.

When the Jews entered the land of promise, their God instructed them to build a tabernacle. Rare and beautiful decorations were to be placed in the tabernacle: purple and scarlet cloth, acacia wood and porpoise skins, altars for burnt offerings and peace offerings, anointing oils and fragrant incense, onyx stones and golden rings. Within the tabernacle God would establish His dwelling place. In His home were placed the Ark of the Covenant, containing the stone tablets brought down from the mountain. The Ark was crowned by the mercy seat, from above which Yahweh had spoken to His people during their long desert sojourn. Ark, tablets, mercy seat – all were to be placed behind a veil, separating the Holy of Holies from the place of meeting. None but the high priest could enter behind the veil and live, so overwhelming was the presence of the Most High.

From outside, the Holy of Holies revealed none of its mysteries. All power and glory were concealed from view, behind the veil.

* * * *

5695 Aurora Place, Boulder

A modest exterior cloaks the mystery residing within.

  • Architectural features and color schemes accentuate the horizontal axis, subtly disguising what is actually the tallest structure on the street.
  • The bumpy texture of the stucco exterior creates a virtually nonreflective surface, a principle embodied in “stealth” technologies for surveillance aircraft and in acoustically optimized sound stages.
  • Taupe — drawing from the palette of the Flatirons and surrounding grasslands, the home camouflages itself without resorting to neutrality.
  • Wood shakes, grandfathered into compliance with code, naturalize the two-level roof line.
  • Positioned at the “back of the sac,” the home is veiled from the onlooking gaze of pedestrians and motorists traversing the through street.
  • All interior spaces are up, back, to the side — concealed from street-level view.
  • Trees shield the front porch from the passing parade; you can see without being seen.
  • Open space in the back — even voyeurs equipped with high-powered telescopes positioned on the other side would find it impossible to verify the presence of nudes in the hot tub.

25 April 2007

Language and Contextual Framing

Filed under: Ktismata, Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 11:18 pm

Invoking language as an evolutionary cause of human cognition is like invoking money as an evolutionary cause of economic activity… Just as money is a symbolically embodied social institution that arose historically from previously existing social-communicative activities.

Yesterday’s post discussed Tomasello’s “referential triangle” of infant and adult jointly attending to objects in the world. It is on this social formation that the child learns to use language. Language is a social act, where participants in the referential triangle invoke socially shared symbols for construing phenomena that are the object of joint attention. In order to use language effectively, the child must not only be able to manipulate the linguistic symbols effectively. She must also be able to see herself from the adult’s perspective in joint attentional scene in which language is being used.

In learning by imitating an adult, the child effectively substitutes herself for the adult. But when the adult uses a new word in reference to an object, imitation doesn’t work. That’s because the adult uses the word to direct the child’s attention toward some aspect of the world. If the child imitates the adult’s language use, she ends up speaking the new word to herself. What’s needed is “role-reversal imitation”: the child must direct the word toward the adult in the same way the adult directed the word toward the child. Besides substituting herself for the adult in using the word, the child must also substitute the adult for herself as the target of the intentional act of speaking.

The joint attentional scene is the child’s learning laboratory for acquiring language. Children who spend more time with their mothers in joint attentional activities between 12 and 18 months of age have larger vocabularies at 18 months. Vocabulary growth is even stronger if the mother describes in language what the child is already attending to rather than using words to redirect the child’s attention. This maternal tracking of the child’s activities has scaffolding value in very early language acquisition, but it fades in importance as the child becomes more adept at determining communicative intentions in more ambiguous and varied learning contexts. Children quickly learn to use words appropriate to the contextual frame in which the conversation is embedded; e.g., by calling the same piece of real estate the shore or the coast or the beach; or to refer to a particular object as wet or blue or mine. A child can overlay a given scene with any number of alternative contextual frames, choosing language accordingly.

The point is not just that linguistic symbols provide handy tags for human concepts or even that they influence or determine the shape of those concepts, though they do both of these things. The point is that the intersubjectivity of human linguistic symbols — and their perspectival as one offshoot of this intersubjectivity — means that linguistic symbols do not represent the world more or less directly, in the manner of perceptual or sensory-motor representations, but rather are used by people to induce others to construe certain conceptual/perceptual situations — to attend to them — in one way rather than another. The users of linguistic symbols are thus implicitly aware that any given experiential scene may be construed from many different perspectives simultaneously, and this breaks these symbols away from the sensory-motor world of objects in space, and puts them instead into the realm of the human ability to view the world in whatever way is convenient for the communicative purpose at hand.

Tomasello’s empirical evidence strongly suggests that joint orienting of interpretive horizons isn’t just a hermeneutical device for bridging cultural gaps in understanding one another. Joint orientation is the foundational context for infants’ language acquisition. Language users don’t just see the world from a single perspective; they can frame the same situation in many different ways, depending on conversational context. This capacity for contextual flexibility, combined with the ability to take the other’s perspective in the joint attentional scene, are the skills necessary for learning to understand each other in conversation. These are skills we all acquired in early childhood when we were first learning to use language. Consequently there’s hope that the adult therapeutic client can draw on these basic skills in becoming a more effective interpreter of others’ behaviors and intentions — as well as his own.

24 April 2007

The Referential Triangle

Filed under: Ktismata, Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 2:10 pm

What is the self? Philosophers, theologians, and therapists offer various perspectives. I’m going to summarize some of the empirical findings related to self, beginning with Michael Tomasello’s book The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition.

There’s a 99% overlap in the DNA sequences of humans and chimpanzees. There’s just one major difference, says Tomasello, and that is the fact that human beings “identify” with conspecifics more deeply than do other primates. The young child comes to recognize herself as an “intentional agent,” with goals and strategies for attaining her desires. Soon thereafter, the child experiences herself as a “mental agent,” having thoughts and beliefs that differ from other people and from the rest of the world. The child thereby comes to recognize that others are also intentional and mental agents like herself. This is the big difference from other apes, who individually are intentional and mental agents but who don’t seem to realize that their fellow apes are too. In interacting with the physical world, humans understand cause-effect relationships at a much deeper level than do other primates. Because of the unique human ability to understand intentionality and causality, people can make tools, learn from one another, and cooperate in performing complex tasks.

At first the human infant’s developmental trajectory isn’t much different from other apes. Then comes “the nine-month revolution,” which begins the cascade of developmental achievements that definitively mark humans as unique. At six months an infant will interact with objects in the world, and she will interact one-on-one with another person. At around nine months the infant begins attending jointly to objects and people, forming a referential triangle of child, adult, and the object or event to which they share attention… In short, it is at this age that infants for the first time begin to “tune in” to the attention and behavior of adults toward outside entities.

Joint attention triggers a series of related achievements. By 12 months a child can follow the adult’s point or gaze toward an object or event — even adult chimpanzees can’t do that. By 15 months the child can direct the adult’s attention by pointing. The young child develops an awareness of intentionality in herself and in the adult, but it’s not clear whether self-awareness or other-awareness comes first. The sense of both self and other as intentional beings seems to emerge simultaneously. Tomasello elaborates on the importance of joint attention:

Human beings are designed [sic] to work in a certain kind of social environment, and without it developing youngsters (assuming some way to keep them alive) would not develop normally either socially or cognitively. That certain kind of social environment we call culture, and it is simply the species-typical and species-unique “ontogenic niche” for human development.

Through joint attention the child enters into the “habitus” of the people among whom she grows up — the kinds of living arrangements, routine activities and normal social practices that comprise the child’s “raw materials” for learning. The adult human inducts the young child into the habitus by drawing her attention to its components, demonstrating routine behaviors of the culture, and helping her perform some of the ordinary childhood activities. Tomasello believes that joint attention also facilitates the development of self-awareness during this same revolutionary developmental interval:

The idea is this. As infants begin to follow into and direct the attention of others to outside entities at nine to twelve months of age, it happens on occasion that the other person whose attention an infant is monitoring focuses on the infant herself. The infant then monitors that person’s attention to her in a way that was not possible previously… From this point on the infant’s face-to-face interactions with others — which appear on the surface to be continuous with her face-to-face interactions from early infancy — are radically transformed. She now knows she is interacting with an intentional agent who perceives her and intends things toward her. When the infant did not understand that others perceive and intend things toward an outside world, there could be no question of how they perceived and intended things toward me… By something like this same process infants at this age also become able to monitor adults’ emotional attitudes toward them as well — a kind of social referencing of others’ attitudes toward the self. This new understanding of how others feel about me opens up the possibility for the development of shyness, self-consciousness, and a sense of self-esteem. Evidence for this is the fact that within a few months after the social-cognitive revolution, infants begin showing the first signs of shyness and coyness in front of other persons and mirrors.

The empirical evidence supports the idea that a child simultaneously develops an awareness of causality, of others’ intentionality, and of the self. Joint attention in the referential triangle of child, adult, and object is the spark that sets off the developmental explosion. This developmental synchrony sets the stage for language acquisition…

23 April 2007

Becoming a Really Good Other

Filed under: Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 3:29 pm

I’ve been assuming that a therapeutic relationship is tilted toward the client. The therapist establishes a context of caring and trust for the client; topics of conversation stem from the client’s experiences; the process is intended to enhance the client’s life. And yet I have a sense that to focus too much attention on the client is to locate both the problem and the solution inside the self. If I believe that problems stem from misaligned interpretations between the client and others, then the solution seems to lie in interpretive realignment. This doesn’t mean that the client has to change his outlook; it does mean that the client has to become a more astute interpreter of his own and others’ words and actions. The therapist’s job, then, is to enable the client to loosen up his rigid interpretations so as to be able to see and create alternative interpretations.

Zeddies talks about the importance of the therapeutic relationship in making change possible.

The view that therapist and patient coconstruct meaning and understanding reflects the idea that the material that is recognized as meaningful, how it is discussed, and the understandings reached all emerge from the therapeutic relationship and dialogue… The clinical focus is expanded from that of trying to locate meaning inside the patient to include a thoroughgoing exploration of the relentlessly expanding and contracting relational process between therapist and patient. In this view, there is no strict division between inside and outside, here-and-now and then-and-there, fantasy and reality, intrapsychic and interpersonal.

Zeddies proposes that the relationship is a milieu that facilitates not just understanding of self and other but also the creation of new experience. This seems reasonable. If the focus of therapy is to enhance awareness of misaligned interpretations between people in relationship, what better way to explore the challenges of realignment than in relationship?

The implication is that the therapist’s job isn’t just to realign his interpretive alignments so as to be able to see what the client sees. The therapist also must be the other in the conversation, manifesting an interpretive outlook that is different from the client’s. If the client is to become a more astute interpreter, he must learn to see what the other sees. In therapy the therapist is the other. To bring the client along in the process, the therapist needs to be self-aware of his otherness. He should be able to communicate his interpretations not as expert dispenser of truth but as an other who knows how to communicate his otherness. He should be able to respond to the client’s questions without defensiveness, knowing that the client needs to learn how to ask such questions of the other. Only through the openness of the therapist-as-other can the client gain understanding, realign his own interpretive horizons, and reduce the frustration and alienation of chronically irresolvable misalignment with the other.

The therapeutic relationship can remain tilted in the direction of the client’s problems, experiences, understanding, loosening, realignment. But the therapist can’t just align his interpretive perspective with the client’s in order to offer care, safe support, empathy, and interpretation. The therapist also has to be an idealized other in the relationship. He must be able to recognize how the client responds to him as other, to see the client as the other sees him, to be able to explicate this other perspective with patience and openness. Only by retaining his otherness while also seeing the relationship as tilted toward the client can the therapist offer an opportunity for the client to get out of his own head and to negotiate a creative relationship. The therapist need not become the independent observer nor the client’s double; rather, the therapist needs to become a really good other.

20 April 2007

Bicycle Traces

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 1:41 pm

As I was walking along the beach yesterday I came across a little girl sitting on her bicycle. All of a sudden she tipped over. The first thing she did when she hit the ground was to turn her head and look over to the side. I followed her gaze. There, sitting on a bench, was a woman who was probably the girl’s mother. She smiled at the girl. The girl smiled back, picked up her bicycle, and hopped back on. No words were spoken.

You can imagine other reactions. Probably the most typical one is the mom with a worried look on her face running up to the little girl to see if she’s alright. Or perhaps a quick lecture on how to keep from falling over again. Maybe scoffing at the kid for falling. Or the mom might not have been paying attention, and so she wouldn’t have met the little girl’s gaze.

I mentioned this event to Anne. She said she witnessed a nearly identical circumstance earlier in the day. A little boy riding his bike, training wheels still on, took a corner and fell off. His mom was with him. The kid got up, whimpering a little, and glanced at his mom. The mom, a stern look on her face, smacked him upside the head. The kid got up, righted his bike and climbed back on. No words were spoken.

A little while after seeing the girl fall off her bike I heard a kid crying. A little girl was holding her dad’s hand as they headed toward the beach. The dad, grim-looking, held a tricycle in his other hand. I wonder what their story was.

The Father of Logos

Filed under: Ktismata, Language — ktismatics @ 9:08 am

Socrates engages in a dialogue with Phaedrus about the propriety and impropriety of writing:

Socrates: At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis is sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters. Now in those days the god Thamus was the king of the whole country of Egypt; and he dwelt in that great city of Upper Egypt which the Hellenes call Egyptian Thebes, and the god himself is called by them Ammon. To him came Theuth and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them; he enumerated them, and Thamus enquired about their several uses, and praised some of them and censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them. It would take a long time to repeat all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts. But when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific (pharmakon) both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific (pharmakon) which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality…

I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence. And the same may be said of speeches. You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer. And when they have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not: and, if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves.

Phaedrus: That again is most true.

Socrates: Is there not another kind of word or speech far better than this, and having far greater power — a son of the same family, but lawfully begotten?

Phaedrus: Whom do you mean, and what is his origin?

Socrates: I mean an intelligent word graven in the soul of the learner, which can defend itself, and knows when to speak and when to be silent.

Phaedrus: You mean the living word of knowledge which has a soul, and of which written word is properly no more than an image?

Socrates: Yes, of course that is what I mean.

* * * *

In “Plato’s Pharmacy” (1972) Derrida (psycho)analyzes Socrates’ mythic tale. Theoth presents his invention to Thamus as a gift offered by a vassal to his lord. He extols its value as a mnemonic aid. The king doesn’t know how to write, but he doesn’t need to: he can speak. He rejects and demeans Theoth’s gift, saying that its purported benefit is actually its greatest flaw. The cure (pharmakon) is really a poison (pharmakon).

The lord is the father who speaks the word (logos), says Derrida:

Not that logos is the father, either. But the origin of logos is its father. One could say anachronously that the “speaking subject” is the father of his speech… Logos is a son, then, a son that would be destroyed in his very presence without a present attendance of his father. Without his father, he would be nothing but, in fact, writing. At least that is what is said by the one who says: it is the father’s thesis.

In speech the word comes forth from the speaker like a son from a father. The spoken logos depends on the father’s wisdom and memory as the son depends on the father. But writing cuts the logos off from the speaker, the son from the father. You could even say that writing depends on the absence of the father — in effect, writing is patricide. Logos the son, now orphaned, is free: he no longer needs to rely on the father to be brought forth as speech. The son no longer needs the father’s memory — he no longer needs to remember the father — because he has absorbed the memories of the father into himself. Logos the son becomes autonomous.

Socrates agrees with mythical king Thamus about the inferiority of written words: “if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them.” There’s a hidden threat in Socrates’ speech, like a mafia don offering his protection from a violence that he himself might inflict. But Socrates is also expressing his own fear and vulnerability. Writing is a poison, reaching back into the king’s memory and erasing it, killing the king from inside himself:

From the position of the holder of the scepter, the desire of writing is indicated, designated, and denounced as a desire for orphanhood and patricidal subversion. Isn’t this pharmakon then a criminal thing, a poisoned present?

Derrida sees in Socrates’ discourse the mythic origin of the “metaphysics of presence” that has dominated Western thought ever since.

In contrast to writing, living logos is alive in that it has a living father (whereas the orphan is already half dead), a father that is present, standing near it, behind it, within it, sustaining it with his rectitude, attending it in person in his own name. Living logos, for its part, recognizes its debt, lives off that recognition, and forbids itself, thinks it can forbid itself patricide… For only the “living” discourse, only a spoken word (and not a speech’s theme, object, or subject) can have a father… the logoi are the children. Alive enough to protest on occasion and to let themselves be questioned; capable, too, in contrast to written things, of responding when their father is there. They are their father’s responsible presence.

Already half dead, says Derrida. For Socrates, writing is cut off from the speaker, from the life that animates the writing. Yet the writing still speaks and remembers even in its father’s absence, even after his death, even after the son kills the father by emptying him of his words and his memories. Speech ends and memory fails, but the written word and the archive can go on forever. Half-dead eternal killer, never really present but not absent, writing is the speaker’s uncanny double. For writing has no essence or value of its own, whether positive or negative. It plays within the simulacrum.

Socrates recounted this myth of writing in a conversation with his student Phaedrus. The king, the father of speech, has thus asserted his authority over the father of writing. Plato, another of Socrates’ students and the father of the metaphysics of presence, is also the one who kills his master and father by writing down his logoi. So the metaphysics of presence from the beginning already contains its own death.

In Derrida’s interpretation, writing is no longer an expression of the author. A text is an autonomous thing, capable of speaker for itself without remaining under its father’s protection. But, Derrida insinuates, once you make the move of detaching the writing from the author, why stop there? What about speech? The speaker is the father of logos, but no one would know the father unless the son reveals him. Why not entertain the possibility that logoi reveal themselves from the beginning, that the speaker comes into being through the words that he speaks, that the father issues forth from the son?

18 April 2007

Derrida on the Metaphysics of Presence

Filed under: Ktismata, Language — ktismatics @ 9:51 pm

Of Grammatology, one of Derrida’s earliest works, is in part an apologetics of writing in response to a long historical preference for the spoken word.

Spoken words are the symbols of mental experience and written words are the symbols of spoken words. – Aristotle

A persistent attribute of Western thinking is the “metaphysics of presence.” Truths are eternal, but in temporal human existence the eternal manifests itself as presence. Humans live in the present; therefore any eternally true idea has to make itself known in the present. The true idea appears before our conscious minds in the immediacy of our thinking of it. Truth is eternal logos; speech is verbal representation of logos. Once truth comes to mind it can immediately be spoken. Speech and thought are nearly inseparable in time; there is no delay between thinking an idea and speaking it. Speech is characterized by presence: it is produced in the ongoing stream of moments that characterize human existence. Consequently speech has been regarded as the most authentic way of representing truth. Writing is deferred speech: there is a delay between the thought and the hand’s inscription of the words representing the thought. Writing, being not present, is not as “true” as speech.

Derrida observes other aspects of speech that lend it authority and priority. Historically, spoken language emerged before writing. Children learn to speak before they learn to write. Writing is tangibly external: it requires inscribing marks on a material surface in the world, a world that is not eternal or ideal. Speech is internal, produced inside the mouth and throat; it comes out with the breath that is intrinsic to living. I hear myself at the same time that I speak. Speech takes place in the presence of a listener, whereas text might not be read until long after it was written, if ever. Speech is present, immaterial, transparent, alive.

Derrida doesn’t try to argue that writing is as close to the moment, as present, as speech is. Rather, he directs his critique against presence itself. He doesn’t try to step out of the moment into eternity; instead, he embeds presence in a broader temporal and spatial context, undermining it from within.

The movements of deconstruction do not destroy structures from the outside. They are not possible and effective, nor can they take accurate aim, except by inhabiting those structures. Inhabiting them in a certain way, because one always inhabits, and all the more when one does not expect it.

– Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, 1967

In deconstructing the metaphysics of presence Derrida leans heavily on Heidegger, who contended that human existence isn’t a continuous presence, a perpetual living in the moment, but is rather a duration. Being in time means being embedded in an interval whose temporal horizons stretch into the past and the future. It means having been born in a particular place and time and inevitably dying in some unpredictable place and time. These horizons inevitably influence the way we live in the moment. Ideas aren’t always present either; they take shape from prior ideas and memories, work themselves out, come to fruition, become transformed into different ideas. Ideas have history and trajectory — just like human lives. The present moment is only a trace of temporal duration as it moves from the past into future.

Again from Heidegger, Derrida rejects interiority as a criterion for truth. For humans, to be is to be in the world. In earthly existence there can be no transcendence of materiality, of incarnation, of place. The Western metaphysics of presence isn’t just temporal; it’s also spacial: it presumes the direct presence of eternal truths before the mind. But if being means being-in, then human truths, like human beings, are in the world. To uncover truths in the world requires investigation, movement, interaction with the world in its extension.

Truths, rather than being always already present in the mind, move through space and time. Truths are dynamic, taking shape not only in the unchangeable and the atemporal, but also in the play of differences across space and time. There are irreducible differences between idea and word, word and speech, speaking and hearing. Human thought depends on memory, which is the trace of past moments inscribed on the mind — so in a way even memory is exterior to thought. Likewise the signifiers of language are inscribed in memory — so speech depends on the temporal delay between learning the language and using it.

In a Heideggerian framework presence no longer has priority over deferral and spacing. Material that is immediately available to consciousness doesn’t take precedence over material retrieved from memory or self-reflection or investigation. Speaking/listening isn’t a more authentic means of communication than writing/reading. Derrida doesn’t propose that writing take precedence over speech, that reflection dominate spontaneity. Rather, he calls for an end to the represssion of pluri-dimensional symbolic thought. All conceivable ways of thinking and communicating should be explored and encouraged to the fullest.

Implications? In psychotherapy, it might be less important to close the gap between client and therapist. Therapy need not concentrate solely on the present moment of client-therapist conversation; memories, dreams, reflections, even writings, can find a place in the therapeutic relationship. In Biblical study, the spatio-temporal gap between writer and reader can become a source of meaning rather than just an obstacle. And an event in which God’s presence was experienced in real time doesn’t necessarily take priority over the event’s subsequent commemoration in text.

17 April 2007

Language is Not Linguistic?

Filed under: Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 8:50 pm

Poststructuralists contend that all human experience is linguistically mediated — or, less dramatically, mediated by interpretive matrices that are structured like languages. That’s because humans think linguistically, and impose linguistic-type structures on everything. Language is such an all-pervading medium that we can have no assurance that human understanding of the world is true, that it directly corresponds to the underlying phenomena to which it refers. In linguistic terms, the linguistic signifiers don’t necessarily signify anything outside language itself — or, as Derrida puts it, there is nothing outside the text.

Humans are the only language-using animals that we know of. Other creatures interact with the world, but since they’re not language-users it seems pretty darned unlikely that they structure their experiences linguistically. For example, all creatures react instinctively to potential food sources, being drawn by sensory receptors specifically to stuff which that particular species can digest and metabolize. We can describe this instinct linguistically, but that doesn’t mean the creatures themselves operate according to our linguistic description.

We humans also react instinctively to foods. Newborns, who can’t yet structure their experiences linguistically, instinctively eat nourishing food and reject other stuff — though they do have the unsettling tendency to put weird things in their mouths. It’s possible that, once higher-level thought processes kick in, young children no longer react to food out of pure instinct, that thinking about foods linguistically becomes integral to their reactions. We can override our instincts; e.g., by not eating that second piece of cake and developing a refined palate for wines. Still, the taste buds and salivary glands continue to work automatically. I don’t know whether psychological research has been able to parse out the intricate interrelationships of instinct and cognitive-linguistic processing. I would tentatively speculate that at least some aspects of human experience operate non-linguistically, but that any human experience can be described linguistically if we think about it.

Once we’ve framed an instinctive reaction in cognitive-linguistic terms, can we ever again have the raw instinctive experience? I suspect we can. Much of what we do is automatic. We might be able to arrive at a conscious awareness of an instinctive act, an awareness that we may be able to retrieve at will, but meanwhile the instinct continues to operate automatically just as it always has. We can talk about going on a diet, but that doesn’t mean we don’t salivate at the sight or smell of a nice juicy steak.

We react instinctively, just like all other animals, bu we also perform distinctively human cultural acts without being consciously aware of them. Consider something like personal space. Americans feel comfortable speaking to one another up to a certain proximity; if someone gets too close we get nervous. Other cultures tolerate, even prefer, getting right up in each others’ faces. Though our reactions seem instinctive, clearly this is at least partly a cultural phenomenon, an element of social etiquette, like shaking right hands or hugging or kissing each other’s cheeks as a greeting. If personal space preferences were instinctive, they would be pretty much universal. Still, it’s possible to go through a lifetime without ever being aware of our cultural personal space preference. Once it enters our awareness we can describe the parameters of personal space in structural linguistic terms, but is it intrinsically structured this way? I doubt it. I think human interactions generate emergent collective structures that aren’t the result of conceptual-linguistic operations of the people involved. Consequently there’s no reason to assert that these emergent phenomena structure themselves like language.

Even language itself is mostly automatic. You can overhear people talking and, without even listening or thinking about it, you can understand what’s being said. You take this automatic language processing for granted until you go to a place where people don’t speak your language. You know they understand each other, but you cannot understand them. The language processing centers of your brain don’t even get activated. To you it’s a stream of human vocalization without linguistic meaning. You become more aware of the raw sounds (the strange r and u sounds in French), the rhythm (English accentuates syllables, French accentuates phrases) the volume (Americans generally speak more loudly than French people). Language is an emergent human artifact that is structured linguistically, and it operates linguistically in automated brain activities that don’t require conscious attention. A foreign language in which you’re not fluent doesn’t affect you the same way. You can pay conscious attention and try to understand as best you can, but once you stop paying attention the words and phrases recede back into nonlinguistic sound streams.

French schoolchildren study with intensity the structure of their own language — the grammar and verb conjugations and syntactical structures — in a way that American students never do. French people claim it’s because French is a more complicated language than English, but that seems unlikely. It’s just that they subject their language to more conscious scrutiny than we do. French people can probably tell you when they’re using the pluperfect, but just because we Americans can’t name it doesn’t mean we don’t use it — and use it correctly. In a way language is like personal space: a cultural medium that we don’t have to think about in order to participate in it. Language-using is second nature, automatic, unconscious — a lot like instinct, or like personal space. Language is a structured medium, but the cognitive structures by which we describe language aren’t necessarily intrinsic to language itself. The words we use to describe the structure of language are part of the vocabulary of that language, but it’s not clear we use grammatical rules when we happen to use a pluperfect construction in the flow of speech. In that sense you could say that language isn’t linguistic.

What are the implications for psychotherapy? We do a lot of things automatically, without consciously thinking about them. Instincts, cultural practices, even speech operate mostly at this automatic level, perhaps without our ever having paid any conscious attention to what we’re doing and saying. These activities may be well-structured to the point of rigidity, but the structures aren’t directly accessible to conscious scrutiny. Calling attention to someone’s behaviors and describing them in words is to impose an interpretive framework on these behaviors that may be completely alien to the structured matrix in which the behavior patterns take shape. Even calling attention to the words and phrases a person uses means imposing a different kind of cognitive-linguistic structure on language itself. This sort of reframing of behavior and speech can be done, and we can get skilled at it. But we should have less assurance that cognitive-linguistic reframing will readily translate into the automated “languages” that govern behavior and speech on an everyday basis. Bringing a maladaptive reaction into awareness, making sense of it, assigning words to describe it, doesn’t mean that the automated structures generating the reaction will realign themselves appropriately, spontaneously making our reactions more “sensible.” This is a sad fact of which we’re all too well aware.

16 April 2007

I’m a Real Good Listener

Filed under: First Lines, Movies — ktismatics @ 9:29 am


What the hell?
– Sam Shepard, Paris, Texas, 1984

Even if you’ve never seen this movie you might feel like you had. It begins with aerial scenes of the bleak and iconic majesty of the American Southwest. Ry Cooder’s slow slide guitar dominates the soundtrack. A man walks: he looks bad, but his stride is strong. He stops, drinks the last swig from a water bottle, drops it, walks into the void that stretches endlessly before him. He comes upon the barest outpost of human habitation. He steps inside a dark and forlorn bar; Mexican music plays on the juke box. He grabs a handful of ice and eats it, passes out. A man sitting by himself drinking a beer sees him fall and speaks the first line, almost five minutes into the film. The main character, Travis, the walking man, doesn’t say a word until twenty minutes later. That word is Paris.

Paris, Texas is one of those films about alienation in America, where the cities are as empty as the endless desert, where people are as isolated from one another as the stone buttes and mesas standing mute sentinel. This variation on the theme, written by playwright-actor Sam Shepard and directed by the German Wim Wenders, is a really good one.

Travis’s brother picks him up and drives him back to L.A. It turns out nobody’s heard a word from Travis in four years; Travis’s wife Jane is gone too — it’s obvious that something terrible must have happened. Their son Hunter, now eight, has been staying with Travis’s brother and his wife ever since. Slowly, gently, Travis becomes reacquainted with his son, who had all but forgotten him. One day Travis buys an old junker car, picks Hunter up at school, and the two of them begin the long drive back to Houston to find Jane.

Travis and Hunter follow Jane to what looks like a warehouse in a scruffy part of town. Leaving Hunter in the car, Travis goes in the warehouse. It’s broad daylight but inside it seems like nighttime. Several women are lounging; one is partially undressed. A man tells Travis he’s in the wrong place, escorts him upstairs. Two ranks of booths line a central corridor; each booth, numbered, is entered through a cloth curtain. Travis tries booth 10. He takes a seat in a dimly-lit room. He picks up the receiver of a telephone that sits on the table in front of him and places his order: a blonde girl, about 25 years old. There’s a glass partition separating Travis from the other half of the booth, which has been decorated to look like a poolside: beach chairs, umbrella, inflatable toys. A girl comes in wearing a nurse outfit. “Why aren’t you looking at me,” Travis asks her; “can’t you see me?” “Listen sweetheart, if I could see you I wouldn’t be working here.” The glass partition is a one-way mirror: Travis can see the girl but she can’t see him. She’s not the right one: Travis gets up, walks down the corridor, goes in booth 6, sits down.

Travis sits in the dim light, his eyes closed, his hand shielding his face. We hear the door on the other side open, then the girl’s voice, electronically distorted, as if we’re listening through the phone with Travis: “Are you out there? That’s okay, if you don’t want to talk, you know. I don’t want to talk either sometimes. I just like to stay silent. Do you mind if I sit down?” “No,” Travis replies. Now he looks through the glass and sees Jane, dressed in a long fuzzy pink sweater. This booth looks like a cheap motel room without the bed: she stands next to a side table on which are placed a lamp, a telephone, and an intercom speaker box. A wall-mounted TV flickers over Jane’s right shoulder.

“Am I looking at your face now,” Jane asks. Travis doesn’t answer. Jane laughs: “Oh God, it don’t matter. If there’s anything you want to talk about, I’ll just listen, all right? I’m a real good listener.” Travis is silent. “Is there something… I don’t know, is there something I can do for you?” Pause. “Do you mind if I take off my sweater?” No reply. “I’ll just take off my sweater.” She reaches for the hem and begins lifting it. “No, no, don’t, please, please leave it on.” She does. “I’m sorry,” Jane says, “I just don’t know exactly what it is that you want.” “I don’t want anything.” “Well, why’d you come in here then?” “I want to talk to you.” Pause.

Jane, who has been looking directly at Travis, even though she can’t see him, now turns her head to the side. “Is there something you want to tell me?” “No.” Jane faces forward again. “You can tell me, I can keep a secret.” “Is that all you do is just talk,” Travis asks her. “Well, yeah, yeah, mostly. And listen.” “What else do you do?” “Nothing really. We’re not allowed to see the customers out of here.” Now the perspective changes. We’re still seeing Jane, but now we see the frame of the glass, bordered by raw insulation. We realize we’re now on the other side of the glass looking at Jane’s reflection. This is what she sees: when from the other side she seems to be looking at Travis, she’s actually looking at herself. Now it’s Travis’s voice that’s distorted; we’re hearing it through the intercom in this fake motel room. He gets aggressive, essentially accusing her of being a whore. She looks frightened, says she’s sorry, maybe he wants to talk to one of the other girls; she gets up to leave. “No no, please please please don’t go.” “I just don’t think I’m the one you want to talk to,” Jane says. We flip back to Travis’s side of the glass wall. We see Jane sit back down; Travis, teary-eyed now, apologizes. “All right,” Jane says soothingly through the earphone; “that’s okay.” Travis lays the receiver down on the table and stands up.

Now we’re back on Jane’s side of the glass; her voice is undistorted, open, clear. “I know how hard it is to talk to strangers sometimes. Just relax. Relax and tell me what’s on your mind. I’ll listen. To you. I don’t mind listening. I do it all the time.” We see what she sees: dimly illuminated in the lamplight, the phone receiver sits on the table in the otherwise-dark compartment on the other side. Jane doesn’t know if the faceless man has left, or if he’s standing there, or what he’s doing…

14 April 2007

Which Machine?

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 4:50 pm

machine billboard

11pm: Samantha plays herself Videotronic. Choose the machine you resemble!

Most people want pretty much the same things: happiness, comfort, affection, community, health, esteem, entertainment, pleasure, money. The common wants can be fairly predictably satisfied. If you don’t know what you want, you look around and see what other people seem to want, people who seem happy, comfortable, successful — people you want to be. Demand generates more demand. The marketplace serves largely to satisfy these wants.

Then there are the “higher” and “deeper” things: knowledge, beauty, excellence, virtue. Climbing up or digging down demands effort, persistence, perhaps even self-denial. Instead of converging on what the others want, those who pursue higher and deeper endeavors diverge onto unexpected and divergent directions. Because they’re exploring the unknown, there’s no telling what will satisfy them. This a small, non-cohesive, discriminating and unpredictable smattering of individuals.

Suppose two psychotherapy shops open on the same street. One shop sells happiness, health, success, support, self-esteem. The other shop sells understanding, meaning, discipline, discovery. Both shops put a listing in the phone book, both charge the same fees. Which shop is likely to get more business? Which shop is more likely to satisfy the customers?

12 April 2007

Temporal Unveiling

Filed under: Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 10:23 am

Being human means being in the world with one another. It also means being in time. The present dominates everyday life, enmeshing and engaging us in a complex medium full of things, events, other people, activities, settings, and so on. The present exceeds our ability fully to come to grips with it. Besides, the individual’s temporal horizon always overflows its bounds; past and future intrude on his interpretation of the present. Each person’s interpretive framework is shaped largely by the sociocultural context into which he is born and his individual history. But life leans into a future of potential, uncertainty, and eventually death: this future horizon beyond experience also shapes the way an individual interprets the present.

The medium in which we live day to day isn’t just an array of raw stuff. Human culture and a multitude of individual conscious agents organize the stuff, linking it structurally and dynamically into meaningful patterns that extend across the world. It’s like an extremely complex verbal and nonverbal language spoken by the world. The individual can never master this language because he is embedded in it, part of its grammar and syntax. The individual can become partly aware of the language that speaks him — the norms, expectations, social interactions, and behavior patterns that shape his life. Most often this awareness results from a glitch, a kind of structural anomaly revealed when the individual finds himself out of sync with the medium he lives in. Traces of the anomaly may register as an emotional or behavioral reaction that clashes with the world and that is not immediately available to conscious understanding or verbalization. The client’s individual reaction is like a finger pointing to the world. The analyst’s job is to follow the pointing finger back to the anomaly that triggered the client’s reaction, bringing it into awareness.

The past shapes the present. Instincts that had survival value to our forebears in the evolutionary environment may or may not prove adaptive in the contemporary world. Our perceptions and understanding are shaped by the particular time and place we were born into, equipping us with a shared interpretive framework that seems like “second nature” to us. Each person’s individual history and experiences also influence the ways he interprets subsequent events, resulting in idiosyncracies in the framework that are persistent and unique but that can also be stereotypic, repetitive, inflexible. Battles fought in the past can leave scars, and the psychological battlements survive in the form of frequently-rehearsed and ritualized personal “creeds” by which we explain to ourselves why things are the way they are. The analyst, by aligning his horizon with the client’s, can expose components of the client’s interpretive framework that he carries with him from the past. By leading this joint exploration in an interpersonal context of trust and care, the therapist can help the client loosen up his framework, making it possible to experiment with alternatives.

The future also shapes the present. There’s a forward lean to life, a sense that events are always in the process of unfolding. The void looms before us, beckoning us toward the protean emptiness that is also the wellspring of pure potential. Desires and interests push us in uncertain directions toward unknown ends. Ideas are taking shape; we can’t quite grasp things; we search for the right words; awareness is dawning but hasn’t arrived yet. We have an “aha” experience – or an “oh no” experience. What does it mean? We have no words because we have no understanding – yet. The therapist can help the client bring events to their resolution, transforming ambiguity into an awareness that can nudge or totally reshape the client’s interpretive framework.

The ways in which we interpret the world, other people, and ourselves are to a large extent unavailable to our conscious awareness. We may have repressed some of it, pushing it deep underground where it lurks like a malignancy until the therapist, like a surgeon inserting some sort of psychoscope into the client’s subconscious, illuminates it and burns it away. But for the most part our interpretive process is so rapid and automatic that we aren’t even aware we’re doing it. It’s implicit; it’s “second nature;” it “goes without saying.” Because we exercise our personal hermeneutic outside of conscious awareness we can’t think about it, talk about it, evaluate it. Through conversation, through the gradual alignment of interpretive horizons, through triangulating on the world together, the therapist and the client can make at least part of the client’s interpretive framework available for conscious consideration. Once it’s out in the open, the framework becomes subject to change.

11 April 2007

Interpersonal Hermeneutics

Filed under: Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 5:50 pm

In prior posts about Biblical exegesis we’ve addressed hermeneutical considerations. How should texts be interpreted? Can the reader discern the author’s intent? Can we identify the interpretive community in which the text is embedded? Does every reader impose his own meaning on the text? In comments on prior posts we’ve also alluded to the importance of trying to understand what people mean by what they say and do. What are their intentions? What is she trying to tell me? Am I missing something? Am I reading things into the situation? Are we talking past each other? Does anyone really understand me? Figuring out how to “read” social interaction can framed as a kind of interpersonal hermeneutics.

Donald Davidson asserts the indeterminacy of interpretation, such that multiple interpretations can make sense of the same behavior or utterance without there being any absolute basis for determining which of the alternative meanings is the right one. Interpretation occurs within a holistic framework that includes ideas, behaviors, language, attitudes, and relationships. The interpretive framework affects the way an individual maps ideas and words onto phenomena in the world. However, the phenomena do exist independent of interpretive frameworks, so interpretation cannot float free of contact with the world. Because there is correspondence between meaning and the world, interpretations can be evaluated in terms of the individual propositions about the world. What would it take to understand what someone else means? Davidson proposes a process of triangulation, by which two people orient themselves to the same phenomenon in the world. Through triangulation it becomes possible to arrive at knowledge about one’s own interpretive framework, the other’s framework, and the world. Language is the primary medium in which triangulation takes place. Self, other and the world are inextricably linked in frameworks of meaning; knowing any one of them entails also knowing the other two.

Gadamer likewise proposes that a person can know only from inside a particular interpretive framework, which establishes the “horizon” of what the person can understand. Whereas Davidson focuses on individual interpretive frameworks, Gadamer looks at cultural frameworks that shape the understanding of individual members of a culture. Stanley Fish refers to “interpretive communities,” groups of people with shared attitudes and beliefs who essentially “write” the ways in which behavior and speech are to be interpreted. While the shared framework of an interpretive community defines meaning, the framework itself is usually unstated and inaccessible to conscious awareness. For Gadamer, the interpretive framework can be detected and critiqued only through conversation with someone who comes from another community, who understands the world through a different interpretive framework. In conversation differences in the interpretive horizons of the two people emerge, resulting in misunderstanding. Through questioning one another it becomes possible for two individuals operating within different interpretive frameworks to converge, extending the horizon of understanding for both of them.

The client in a therapeutic relationship may have an inadequate interpretive framework for understanding himself, other people, and the world. Further, he may not interpret things the same way as other people around him do. Others may interpret his behavior in ways he does not intend or realize or grasp. These interpretive gaps can result in confusion, anger, failed expectations, and a sense of isolation. There is no way to know which interpretive framework is the right one, or even the best one. However, it is possible for people with different points of view to “fuse” their horizons. Through conversation and questioning the therapist can align his own interpretive framework with the client’s, in effect seeing the world the way the client sees it. He can thereby help clarify gaps between the client’s framework and other possible frameworks. Through triangulation the therapist can evaluate individual elements in the client’s evaluative framework. By comparing understandings of worldly phenomena, the therapist and client can jointly identify differences in the ways their ideas and expressions correspond with the world. Through this conversational process, alternating between community and individual levels and between the holistic framework and the individual elements of that framework, the therapist and the client can explore the client’s difficulties in interpreting himself, others, and the world.

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