Love as plenitude: A prelude

Theodicy (Leibniz’s coinage) is a justification of the ways of God to man. To “justify the ways of God to man” was Milton’s project in Paradise Lost. This justification can seem urgent, and especially fraught, when one cannot deny the existence of evil but at the same time believes wholeheartedly in the existence of a benevolent, omnipotent being. How could it be that such a benevolent being would allow for evil to exist?

Theodicy may seem to be about God–his nature and attributes–but, in truth, it is about man and his ownmost concerns. The problem is an intimation of an even greater rational commitment that most of us have. I am referring to reason’s plea that we be able to see ourselves in the cosmos, that we be capable of being at home in the world. The Principle of Sufficient Reason holds sway whenever we postulate the claim that for any being’s existence there must be a reason for its so existing. For if this were not the case, then a being’s existence would be a “brute fact,” something that is simply there but that belies further investigation. And in the face of a “brute fact,” we would have to be mum or turn to repeating tautologies of the form, “It is what it is, it is what it is, it is what it is….” However, to grant that reality, at bottom, is inexplicable (it consists in or is identical with brute facts) or to hold that most of reality is explicable yet that there are “gaps” in reality that must remain brute facts only throws us further into arbitrariness, contingency, quite possibly into the depths of despair. Staring at brute facts, we are frightened.

(To see why the problem has teeth, imagine your child dying, as we say, well before his time. Calling this a “brute fact” will not provide you with any consolation. Nor could it. The problem, therefore, has a strong ‘vitalist’ dimension: it grips us during our darkest hours.)

The claim that reality is shot through with brute facts would have awakened Hegel’s ire. For him, “to be is to be intelligible” (this formulation courtesy of Robert Pippin, a Hegel scholar). The copula”is” should be regarded as an urge, a plea, or a demand: reason is called to see the world as intelligible. And the world can only be intelligible once we have grasped not one part in isolation from another but the Whole as a Whole. At least since Plato, the answer to the desire for intelligibility in general and to theodicy in particular has been sought in the metaphysical distinction between an intelligible and a sensible order. There is some higher order “behind” the order we perceive, and this higher order, in some fashion or another, explains the existence and nature of finite entities.

Last night, I was rereading Arthur Lovejoy’s magnum opus, The Great Chain of Being. I would like to share to you what has struck me as an appealing and perspicuous vision of man’s place in the universe. I do not say that this Neoplatonic vision of things is true, only that it is gripping and beautiful.

Lovejoy says that the Neoplatonic vision is grounded in a “principle of plenitude.” As I understand him, there are three main conditions to plenitude. First, the creative being creates the sensible world out of fecundity: he engenders the sensible order in order to manifest himself entirely. The “act” is one of logical necessity, not one of choice. To say that it is not a choice is to say both that there is no modality of possibility (i.e., no sense in saying that he created world X but could have instead created world Y) and that he did not “select” the best world from among a suite of possibilities. Rather, the god simply realized himself in and through finite, albeit imperfect, beings.

Second, there is the immediate demand that essence or idea be embodied or engendered. An idea, whatever it is, only becomes itself once it is instantiated. There is no sense in which any idea can be “left hanging” as an idea only. If that were to be the case, then it would be as if the idea were nothing but a phantasm. And what good would there be to having extra ‘non-material’ cloth lying around if it weren’t to be made into an actual robe, the fabric of the cosmos, the fabric that is the cosmos? In this second condition, we comprehend a certain thriftiness in the operations of the creative being.

Third and most importantly, the creative being creates all conceivable kinds. To the question, “Why this crocodile?,” the answer would be, “Because god had to achieve maximum diversity so that there could be no gaps whatever in reality. Every being would have a place in the sensible order, every being would be realized, and there would be no sense in asking about croco-hippopotamuses or man-trees or whatever.” Hence, every being from the ‘worst’ and ‘grotesque’ and to ‘best’ and ‘most beautiful’ would be made actual. If we focus our attention solely on this finite being in particular, then we cannot see why it exists or what place it has in this world. Yet if we ascend to god’s point of view, we thereby comprehend that no conceivable kind could have been left out. Indeed, we must see that we are all here, for where else would we be?

I leave you in mid-breath with a thought to mull over throughout the day. Would not this characterization of the Neoplatonic god as plenitude be a phenomenology of love: of love not as scarcity but as potency, love as fecundity, a love without the possibility of jealousy or envy, a love so filling and full that this filling fullness would be beyond measure?

On the suicide’s claims and the philosopher’s replies

I want to consider the question of suicide and I think a good place to begin is with a quote from the French writer Albert Camus. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus writes, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”

Camus is right. It is not that the suicide wants to die. It is rather that the suicide despairs of finding a reason for living. What can philosophy offer him by way of reply?

Before we answer this question in the affirmative, it would be wise to consider further why the suicide despairs of finding a reason for living where the reason, it should be added, is of the kind that the suicide can live, one, that is, that resonates in a strong ‘vitalist’ key.

The first claim the suicide can make is that the world is not and cannot be a home. The claim cannot be that he does not belong here (say, in New York), for if that were the case, then he would do well to move to, e.g., Boston or Vermont. Nor can the claim be that he does not belong to this family or workplace or social group for a similar reason: namely, because another more suitable family or workplace or social group might very well be suitable. Rather, the claim has to be that he cannot dwell in the world because the world, in some deep phenomenological sense, cannot be a home in which he can find his fit and dwell, in which he can belong, can just let be.

Let’s call this a “phenomenological claim” concerning one’s ill-at-homedness.

The second claim the suicide can make would be that he wants to lead a worthwhile life but no such life is possible full stop or possible for him. In the former case, the suicide adopts philosophical pessimism, the view according to which none of us has any reason for living and certainly no reason for reproducing. In the latter case, he makes an exception for himself, exempting himself from the human fold. That is, the fact that it is possible for others to lead fulfilling lives but not so for him may suggest to the suicide that there is something deeply the matter with him. Consequently, assuring him that this is not the case would hardly provide him with the consolation he needs since he is already convinced that others are so unlike him as to be living, effectively, in another moral universe and we happen to occupy the world from which he is estranged.

Let’s call this a “teleological claim,” a claim according to which there is and can be no final end toward which his life could be directed.

In light of either the suicide’s ill-at-homedness or his profound teleological pessimism, the only humane conclusion, it would seem, would be to appeal to medicine in general and to psychiatry in particular as the institutions of last resort. We must act on his behalf in order to save him from immediate harm. What good, after all, could reasoning with him do?

This will depend on whether the suicide is capable of self-reflection. If he is, then there is hope of the kind to be found in and offered by the philosophical life.

First of all, it must be impressed upon him that human life is the kind of thing that asks, as it were, to be brought into question. To claim this much is to claim that the lives of conscious beings–that is to say, of those beings who are capable of regarding their lives in the form of a question–is just the kind of activity we should undertake if we hope to live well in the first place. The oddity, we will want to inform him, is not that his life has been brought into question but that others have gone on as if living were the kind of thing best taken for granted. I do not say, the philosopher Robert Nozick relates, that the unexamined life is not worth living. I say only that the examined life is lived more fully. Yes, dear Robert, this is true.

Provided the suicide can learn to see life becoming a question in nobler terms, i.e., in terms of the grand epic of conscious human existence, it still befalls us to provide the rudiments of an answer to that question. For surely ours would be a tragic fate if our lot were to be only that of asking questions to which there could not possibly any reasonable answers. Absurdity indeed! Far better, it would be said, to remain bovine than to be an inquirer. Far better also to be a nihilist who says, muttering beneath his breath, “Well, why fucking bother then?”

It is here that a second logical point may open the suicide to further inquiry. The point here would be that the inference from the claim that this way of life is not suitable (in general or for him but doubtless the first) to the conclusion that life in general is not suitable is clearly invalid. From the claim that this way of life is unsuitable and from the claim that other ways of life (still) exist, it follows that some other way of life may be suitable.

The onus now falls on the philosopher to show that the suicide could live out some conception of a good life, i.e., a way of life that would be suitable for any good human life whatever. It seems to me that armchair reasoning has now reached its limits. For the suicide who acknowledges that life can be an object of inquiry and who also grants that some way of life could conceivably accommodate him is now hungry to be shown that this is so. It will not be enough, and rightly so, to grant that logical possibilities exist.

Perhaps only an exemplar could perform this lived demonstration and then too only by virtue of actually embodying a radiant way of being. The last may be misunderstood as saying that it is enough for the suicide to bear witness to the one who is, in his presence, leading a radiant life. But that may only make him feel as if he were the moon and the other the sun. The truth is that he wants to live, not merely to look on and experience secondhand. He does not want to be a hand-me-down, so to speak. Understood rightly, however, the philosopher, being radiant himself, is tasked with leading forth the suicide, with drawing him into a radiant way of life: yet drawing him not in a way that would run contrary to his will or his desires but in a way that would go according to the way. Furthermore, “leading him forth” does not imply “doing such and such for him” but bringing him walkingly alongside.

The suicide, in the presence of the philosopher, is learning about being radiant by participating fully in a radiant way of being. To be sure, it may seem ‘dim’ to him initially what exactly he is doing or why exactly he is doing this rather than that. Yet, if he is wisely guided, then he begins to feel an intimation that this way of life is not “out there” well and ever beyond his grasp but with him, within him, him, the best self that emerges as he learns to inquire further, as he continues to participate and partake and contribute more fully to a way of life into which he fits and in which he flourishes.

It is as if he has found himself for the first time such that the phenomenological sense of not-being-at-home and the teleological skepticism of not having a final aim have gone away, having receded slowly, having lost their shape and grip and fraughtness. They have gone away and are now visible far off in the distance, identifiable now as questions that are well at home in a previous way of life that has passed out of existence.

Indeed, one day it shall dawn on him that he is living an answer to the question of why one should live, and in so doing he is giving the only answer that could possibly be given. And that answer, just because it is so radiant, makes the question he once raised with such fervor come, from within this way of life, to seem almost silly. Once he arrives here with us, he and I and we spend quite a bit of time meditating and being silent and giggling.

A critique of CBT – Part 2

Kantian Critique as Just Generosity

Kant’s conception of critique is meant to give us an accurate assessment of the instrument under investigation: of its proper uses, overuses, and misuses. There is a generosity of spirit in showing a pupil how something is to be used as well as in admonishing her for using it in ways that cannot possibly work.

Yesterday, I set out to critique Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). It is worth recalling the method and aim of CBT:

“The central method of cognitive therapy,” Donald Robertson writes inThe Philosophy of CBT, “consists of monitoring one’s thoughts and challenging those ones that are irrational or unhelpful and the beliefs that underlie them” (169). The aim of this exercise (or set of exercises) is to move the ‘client’ from a state of mental disturbance to a state of mental equilibrium.

I suggested that, when properly used, CBT can be helpful in training us in the art of stepping back and taking second looks. First thoughts are not always good ones, and second thoughts may make all the difference. At the end of this post, I hope to be even more generous. I want to make the case that CBT can be good preparation for philosophical inquiry.

I also suggested, however, that CBT is quite limited in its application. In the following sections, I discuss the limits of CBT. There are 4 problems in particular that are worth canvassing. (Note: The 4 problems I discuss below do not line up exactly with those I mention in Part 1.)

4 Problems with CBT

1. “Are Facts really Distinct from Values?” On the Problems of Pollyanna and Psychological Development. 

CBT holds that our descriptions of facts qua states of affairs (“It is raining in NYC at 9 a.m.”) can be disentangled from our value judgments, which are mental projections cast over the world of facts (“Yuck! This rain will make for an awful day!”). CBT, like Positive Psychology, thinks that reality is the kind of thing that is up for value-added grabs such that it admits of different ‘takes’.

I’m not so sure that this concept of reality is right. Consider Robert Nozick’s thought experiment about a Holocaust survivor:

“A proponent of maximizing our own happiness might recommend we ignore these negative portions of reality and focus our attention selectively only upon the positive. Sometimes that might be appropriate; a person in a Nazi extermination camp might focus eventually upon memories of Mozart’s music in order to escape the horrors around him. But if this were his preoccupation from the beginning, smiling constantly in fond memory of the music, that reaction would be bizarre. Then he would be disconnected from important features of his world, not giving them emotional attention commensurate with they evil they inflict.”

There is something immensely bizarre about focusing one’s attention only on what would be ‘uplifting’ when having a good understanding of total reality would require us to see that there is something evil or disgusting or repugnant about the way things are. To say that we are placing value on a value-free reality is perhaps to say that we’ve got an emaciated picture of reality from the get go. And this is indeed to say something patently bizarre.

There is a another problem with the fact/value split, and it surfaced during a conversation I had a few years ago with an acquaintance of mine. She wondered whether this fact/value story wasn’t the endpoint of good story of psychosocial development. The well-intact, mature adult would be more likely than the poorly raised pseudo-adult to distinguish between the value judgments he makes and the way things are. My acquaintance’s point is a good one as it goes to show that something like a Capabilities Approach to human development (there’s a nice piece by Martha Nussbaum about this at Harvard Press Typepad) underlies CBT’s general accounting.

2. “How Much is Really Under my Control?” On the Problem of Coercion.

CBT begins from the premise that there are things within my control and things that are not. I take it that this distinction is also the product of good psychosocial development. However, it is also already ‘too psychologistic’ inasmuch as it does not take seriously–or does not take seriously enough–the problems presented by an unjust social world.

Bad institutions are bad in virtue of their being coercive. (They also be bad in other ways and for other reasons.) One way that coercion works is by degrading and corroding the hard distinction between an individual’s powers and his sense of powerlessness. E.g., I speak with conversation partners who are working for bad corporations that have taken on board the “great speedup.” Bad parents and bad schools abuse their charges by making them believe that there is only this way of living. Bad marriages, bad relationships, etc., etc. are all bad in virtue of their approaching, asymptotically, an act of torture.

The reply could be, “Well, now we need to relearn what’s within your power.” Perhaps. Or we need to acknowledge that the mental faculties of some persons may be “corroded” or “degraded” for good. Human life is plastic, true, but not entirely plastic and not so readily re-shapable.

CBT has no room in its moral universe for human tragedy.

3. “How Should I live?” On the Problem of Teleology.

One conversation partner I work with said that his CBT practitioner always told him to “act in accordance with your values.” He is sharp enough to know that (a) his values may not be intrinsically worthwhile (he could be wasting my life, his talents, and so forth), (b) his ultimate values may be in conflict (final end P being incommensurable with final end Q), or (c) he may have no idea whether he has any values of this sort. He can act, but why should he act? And in what way? And for what reason?

A thought experiment will make this more perspicuous. Suppose you are a master of CBT techniques. The problem is that you really could be mind-numbingly dull, boring, uninteresting, uncurious, exhausting to be around, or downright evil. (Practicing CBT techniques is not inconsistent with murdering activists during years of apartheid in South Africa.)

It is readily apparent, then, that CBT has no answer to and cannot even entertain the inquiry about how one should live.

4. “Is Peace of Mind Better than Truth?” On the Problem of Instrumentalism. 

CBT seeks to bring us back to a state of calm. All right. But is that the ultimate aim (or the only aim or the chief aim) of reasoning well?

Instrumentalism states that we do X for the sake of Y. According to CBT, we use reason and learn good habits for the sake of being calm. (You can see why CBT is now at the core of resiliency training for military personnel.)

Consider the instrumentalization of meditative practice. We now read in medical journals that one should meditate for the sake of being healthy. This is utterly puzzling not least because meditation is supposed to move one out of finite egoicity and into a state of a-egoicity. To say that you are going beyond the self for the sake of selfhood is patently bizarre. Furthermore, one might ask, “What’s the use of being in good health if one has no reason for living?” We circle back to point 3. And we have just toppled most self-help.

And what to make of my intuition that I value getting certain things right for its own sake despite the fact that getting things right for its own sake may cause me great pain. E.g., I value knowing that I have hurt someone period. (I don’t value the hurting someone bit.)

CBT as Good Preparation for Philosophical Inquiry

There are two things that can be said in favor of CBT. The first is that it provides us with good exercises, albeit of a limited kind, type, and duration. Doing CBT exercises, like doing push-ups or sit-ups, is good at returning us to a ‘zero state.’ This is much more than nothing.

The second is that CBT is good (though not necessary) preparation for philosophical inquiry. It’s good to know that other people might see things differently. It’s good to develop the capacity for second thoughts and third looks. It’s important to learn how to make relevant distinctions and to see that those distinctions can make a significant difference in our lives. And it’s good to recall the limits of human endeavor and the limited capacities of human beings. The virtues of patience, circumspection, discrimination, fallibility, humility, unhurriedness are of vital importance.

Finally, the lessons we learn from CBT could very well be the first steps on a long, remarkable philosophical journey into the depths of our being and out into the vast expanse of our all-too-human world. Perhaps, our critique of CBT should end, as it began, in gratitude.

A critique of CBT – Part 1

Update: I’ve written some later reflections on CBT entitled “A Re-Evaluation of CBT.”  The latter post is the culmination of over a year of working with conversation partners whose previous experiences were in cognitive therapies. Throughout, it should be borne in mind that I consider philosophical practice (for more about which, see here) to bear no resemblance to the therapeutic dispensation.

Kant’s Concept of Critique

Kant’s concept of critique should not be confused with a commonsensical notion of criticism. For Kant, a critique of reason involves a proper assessment of the powers of reason: an analysis of the nature of the instrument, an attention to the functions it serves, and a pellucid understanding of its inherent limits. We get in trouble, Kant thinks, when we seek to use an instrument without first examining its proper uses and applications. We get into a conceptual muddle because we expect the instrument to fulfill tasks that go beyond its inherent capacities.

In the spirit of Kant, I want to perform a critique of the powers of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Today, I want to analyze what it does, what ends it serves, what uses it has. Tomorrow, in Part 2, I mean to clip its wings. My general conclusion from Parts 1 and 2 will be that CBT provides us a highly limited set of techniques or tools we can use to achieve a state of equilibrium. The trouble with CBT is that it cannot provide us with any reason for living–that is to say, with any reason for using these tools in the first place. For this, we need philosophy.

Method and Aim

“The central method of cognitive therapy,” Donald Robertson writes in The Philosophy of CBT, “consists of monitoring one’s thoughts and challenging those ones that are irrational or unhelpful and the beliefs that underlie them” (169). The aim of this exercise (or set of exercises) is to move the ‘client’** from a state of mental disturbance to a state of mental equilibrium.

The Foundations of CBT

CBT is based on 3 fundamental assumptions.

1. The Ontological Distinction Between Control & Lack Thereof. Like the Stoics, CBT practitioners assume that there are some ‘basic things’ or ‘basic activities’ that are up to me and some that are not. The question, “What is within our control and what is not?” therefore looms large in any CBT session. According to CBT practitioners, many ‘psychological problems’** stem from running together what’s within our power with what is not; or from acting as if what’s not within our power should be; or from presupposing that there’s not within our power when, as a matter of fact, there is; or from expecting–outlandishly–thus and so without having reason to expect thus and so; and so forth.

2. The Axiological/Ontological Distinction Between Facts & Values. The natural and social world is the place of ‘facts’ whereas the mental apparatus is the place of ‘values’. (The mind as positer of value, the mind as ‘label maker.’) Hence, “It is cold outside” is not to be confused with “It is awful and unbearable outside.” Or: “P has bumped into me” is not be to confused with “P willfully and deliberately harmed me. P meant to do that.” CBT, therefore, teaches the ‘client’ to disentangle physical descriptions from value judgments and then to question the validity of these value judgments.

3. Cognitive Theory of Emotions. Our rational or irrational beliefs are constitutive of our emotions. (I’ve found the accounts of emotion rather muddled in the CBT books I’ve thumbed through. The philosopher Martha Nussbaum has written a lucid book, The Upheavals of Thought, in which she offers a clear account and defense of a Stoic-derived cognitive theory of emotion.) Take fear. Let’s say that fear is the belief that (a) I am not self-sufficient and (b) such-and-such can harm me or mine (or such-and-such poses a great harm). (Perhaps there is more to the definition of fear, but put that question aside for now.) The CBT practitioner could ask, “Are you not self-sufficient, or is there something that could be done to prepare you for this?” More fundamentally, he would ask, “Is this the kind of thing that can actually harm you, or are  you ‘catastrophizing'”?

The Importance of Habit Retraining

CBT insists that human beings have picked up bad reasoning habits that must then be identified (hence the importance of self-monitoring) and replaced with better reasoning habits. The ‘client’ learns to dispute negative emotions, which spring from lots of confusions in 1-3 above, seeking to substitute ‘healthy’ lines of reasoning for ‘unhealthy’ ones. The point is to make ‘healthy’ thinking second nature.

Examples Amenable to CBT Treatment

Mild forms of depression, social anxiety, irrational fears, deep-seeded regrets, and excessive demands are all ripe for CBT.

  • ‘Mild Depression.’ CBT’s Explanation: Perhaps you have underestimated your powers of acting or overestimating the ‘fatedness’ of the world (Assumption 1). Perhaps you have confused a misfortune with a horrible, life-altering event that you cannot overcome (Assumption 2). Or perhaps you have inherited a set of irrational beliefs that are ‘triggering’ your mood of always feeling sad or down.
  • ‘Social Anxiety.’ CBT’S Explanation: You are overvaluing the opinions of others when these are beyond your control. You have forgotten that, to a large extent, good or bad reputation is outside your ken.
  • Gnawing Regrets. CBT’s Explanation: The past, just because it is past, is beyond your control. You must learn to accept that, must learn that there is nothing that can be done or changed (Assumption 1). The only thing you can change is your attitude toward the past (Assumption 2).
  • Excessive Demands. CBT’s Explanation: Careful with the ‘shoulds’ and the ‘should nots,’ the ‘musts’ and the ‘mustn’ts.’ You are overestimating your powers of action, or you are engaging in wishful thinking (as if the world should bend itself to your whims) (Assumption 1).

CBT engages in a series of exercises–note taking, journaling, visualization, etc.–in order to retrain the mind to think more ‘heathfully.’

The Limits of CBT

As an exercise in confronting trying episodes, CBT can be incredibly useful. Yet as a philosophy of life, it offers some pretty thin gruel. In Part 2, I examine 4 fundamental problems that CBT faces and for which it can have no answers.

  1. The Pollyanna Problem. Can one learn to think ‘healthfully’ in the middle of the Holocaust? In hell? In the hold of a slave ship? When working for an exploitative corporation? (Contra Assumption 1)
  2. The Fact/Value Split. Are facts the kinds of things that are ‘over there’ and values the kinds of things that are ‘in here’? Moral realism, for instance, begs to differ. (Contra Assumption 2)
  3. Teleology. Suppose you’ve mastered every CBT technique. Do you have a reason for living? You could be a master of CBT, could have achieved this ‘zero state’ of equilibrium, yet could also be wasting your life. Or you could simply be a terribly dull or boring person. Etc. “What you should aim at” or “How you should live”: these are questions that CBT cannot answer and, worse yet, has no way of asking. (Contra lack of final end)
  4. Instrumentalism. CBT’s standard of good reasoning is ‘healthfulness.’ The reason I don’t get angry with Jane is that I have told myself that Jane is ignorant or misguided or isn’t malicious and so on. But is achieving a ‘zero state’ the same thing as being accurate or truthful? Is the only or main standard of reasoning that I feel better? What of truth and accuracy, of getting things right for their own sake? (Contra aim of reasoning)

End Note

** In this post, I’ve put common psychological terms between single quotes (‘ ‘). The reason is that I’m generally skeptical of the accuracy, validity, and usefulness of psychotherapeutic categories. I’m not sure, e.g., why “Jane is feeling rather sad” is any less accurate a description of Jane’s mental state than “Jane has been diagnosed with a mild form of depression.” I also don’t see why “Jane thinks that her mother thinks too much of herself and not enough of Jane” is a less clear description of her mother’s cast of mind than “Jane’s mother is a narcissist.” The second, however, does make us sound smart. It’s as if we’ve really gotten to the bottom of things and so need look no further. (Perhaps philosophical inquiry begins where dated labeling ends…)

There is a second problem with psychotherapeutic terminology. We seem to believe that “P is a narcissist” is an explanation when, in reality, it is just a re-description or a re-categorization. “Why is P this way?” “Oh, because P is a narcissist.” And why is a cat this way? Oh, because it is a feline. Ah.

In my philosophy practice, I’ve been following the sci-fi writer Ursula Le Guin’s poetic approach. How are our powers of discrimination–of perceiving what is going on with this person in this way at this time–strengthened once we unhook ourselves from worn-out categories and once we think in terms of poetic re-descriptions and conceptual constellations?