Healing the sickly vs. trying to understand another’s character

Recall that this is the invalid and deleterious argument that I have sought to examine:

5.) Because the human mind, like the human body, tends to be sickly and ill, it seeks healing or cures.

In the past couple of posts, I have been trying to say some things that I believe to be accurate about minding. Chiefly, I am concerned with the question of how we are in the world because I want to understand myself and others better and because I am convinced that we have an erroneous view of ‘the’ mind. The idea that the mind is like the body has held us so transfixed that we have come to believe that minds, like bodies, can be sick or healthy. How strange! And this, in turn, leads us to help, diagnose, treat, manage, and cure. My view is that this picture is incorrect. In much bolder terms, Nietzsche would say that this picture supposes a world of weak persons and proposes a regimen that will only make us weaker.

A new starting point is called for. One place to make a different sort of case–a better one–about minding would be to look at the place of the emotions in the context of character. Suppose I think that John is ‘depressed’; suppose, further, that I actually want to understand him (rather than change, reform, fix, manipulate, etc. him). Since I don’t in fact believe in depression, I put ‘depressed’ and other such terms between single quotes to denote what is commonly thought and said. Now, were I to leave the matter here, it would only be a question of the ‘etiology’ as well as the ‘severity’ of his ‘condition’ and, shortly thereafter, quick deliberations upon what ‘techniques’ can be used to ‘fix,’ ‘cure,’ or ‘heal’ him or else to ‘manage’ his pain. Were it to take this course, the whole enterprise would be concerned with doing something about him, and that is very strange.

Let us, therefore, begin more simply: namely, with trying to understand him. I observe John and think that he is sad. Let us suppose that I am right about this (namely, I think he is sad, and he actually is sad). Still, I want to understand at least (a) the way in which he is sad, (b) the particular qualities of his sadness, (c) the occasions when he is sad, (d) the reasons for his sadness, (e) the errors and assumptions he makes, etc., and quite frankly I do not know any of these things. It is quite possible that were I to ask him, he also would not know either–and that would be good, so far as it goes.

In this investigation, I am interested in his sadness and not in the cover concept (sad people). And I am assuming that his sadness is singular inasmuch as it requires an account given that is properly suited to his sadness and not to some other person’s. Notice that the sadness of someone who believes the world to be horrid is not even comparable in any significant respect with the sadness of the person who spends all his days with poor company. And neither, for that matter, is comparable to the sadness of the person who has no for-the-sake-of-which: perhaps this person is doing what the anthropologist David Graeber aptly termed a ‘bullshit job,’ and this person damn well knows it. Moreover, none of these persons feel quite what the individual who has lost something of incomparable worth feels. Thus, when I inquire of P’s sadness, I am focused on his only, on what makes his sadness what it is.

Therefore, we do a disservice to end our story about the person we seek to understand merely by saying that he is sad. Not much, so far, has been understood. Let us not pass him by in a hurry.

Were we to examine him philosophically, we would discover that his sadness would have to do with his metaphysical beliefs about the world (e.g., ‘Everyone is only interested in maximizing his self-interest, so nobody genuinely cares for anyone else (including me).’), the sorts of projects he undertakes in connection with the final aim of living (e.g., ‘The most worthwhile thing to do with one’s life–and the thing I would have liked to have done with mine–would be to achieve glory in war, but the heroic ages of which Homer speaks are long gone.’), the kind of company he keeps (e.g., ‘I am surrounded by dispiriting individuals from morning till nighttime–where are my true fellows?’), and with the relative weights he gives to any of these things. He may not know what he cares about, or he may have false views about what he cares about, or he may care about the wrong things, or he may not care about the right things, or he may care about the sorts of things that are not well-suited to the kind of person he is, or… His sadness, in any event, would therefore be grasped in terms of his specifiable mental activities, the qualities of those activities, the durations of those activities, the intensities, and the repetitions. One truism cannot be gainsaid: in whatever way he is sad, he contributes to his sense of sadness by continuing to be sad in the way that he is. He is indeed training himself in a specifically tailored exercise program which cultivates a particular shade, color, and kind of sadness. Which is not to say that he is aware that he is undertaking these mental activities at these times in these way for these reasons with these durations over and over again.

In closing, consider, briefly, another case. Suppose you think John ‘egoistical’ (another unhelpful cover concept). To say that John is egoistical is to say very little about John’s character. One is better off saying, ‘John is self-important. Now in what ways is he self-important?’ And it may turn out that John is (a) arrogant about P in context Q, (b) vain about R in context S, (c) stubborn about T in context U, and/or (d) trepidatious about V in context W. Until one knows these things, one will remain ignorant about him, will be training oneself in inattention and lack of circumspection, and will be breeding arrogance.

‘Oh, I just know narcissists like him.’ I don’t know what you mean.

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