Human Beings Shining
Therapeutic practice unveils the poetry of emotional understanding.
Posted May 22, 2012
“I shall not cease to practice philosophy, to [care for] the best possible state of your soul [psyches therapeia].”—Socrates
Philosophers Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly have written a scholarly and reader-friendly book, All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age (2011), that, although intended for a non-specialist audience, holds significant implications for contemporary psychotherapeutic and psychoanalytic practices.[i] Although their explicit references to Heidegger are surprisingly scant,[ii] in my reading the authors draw heavily both on his (1927/1962) elucidation of human existing as a rich contextual whole, being-in-the-world, and his (1954/1977) analysis of how entities, including human beings, have come to be intelligible to us in our technological era as mere “standing reserve”—resources to be measured, manipulated, and exploited. The book presents a fascinating historical account of how the intelligibility of entities has evolved—or devolved—from Homer’s ancient world through the Middle Ages to the nihilism that became heir to Enlightenment thought:
The world used to be … a world of sacred, shining things. The
shining things now seem far away. The book is intended to bring
them close once more…. [and] to uncover the wonder we were
once capable of experiencing. (Dreyfus and Kelly, 2011, p. xi)
Dreyfus and Kelly examine and seek to resuscitate a kind of sacred practice, still marginally available to us, that the ancient Greeks called poiesis:
Until about a hundred years ago, the cultivating and nurturing
practices of poiesis organized a central way things mattered. The
poietic style manifested itself … in the craftsman’s skills for
bringing things out at their best…. This cultivating, craftsman-like,
poietic understanding of how to bring out meanings at their best
was alive and well into the late nineteenth century, but it is under
attack in our technological age. (p. 206)
Using woodworking as their principal example, Dreyfus and Kelly show that poietic understanding is both practical and embodied and that it enables us to see distinctions of meaning and value that those without such poietic understanding cannot see. Poietic practice makes it possible for us to apprehend entities and situations in their uniqueness and is thus a source of care, respect, and even reverence. Poietic skill is far richer than mere technical proficiency and the “intelligence” of machines.
As Dreyfus and Kelly observe, advances in technology have diminished the importance of poietic skills in contemporary life:
To the extent that technology strips away the need for skill, it
strips away the possibility of meaning as well…. Skills reveal
meaningful differences to us…. To the extent that it takes away
the need for skill, technology flattens out human life…. Flattened
out along with [the] worldly loss of meaning is our understanding
ourselves. Moods of affection and reverence—born of close and
skillful attention to distinctions of worth in a domain—are nearly
lost to us [as is our] understanding of ourselves as cultivators of
meaning. (pp. 213-214)
Technology, the authors claim, breeds dehumanization and nihilism, and they make a strong plea for the retrieval and preservation of poietic practices that resist a technological way of life.
Such reflections are highly relevant to psychotherapeutic and psychoanalytic practices, which are perpetually at risk for falling into the abyss of nihilism. In our insurance-company-driven Age of the Quick Fix, manualized procedures—like those of cognitive behavior therapy, for example—for modifying measurable “variables” are increasingly replacing caring engagement with suffering human beings. In psychoanalysis, Freud’s scientism and Cartesian objectivism (Askay and Farquhar, 2006; Stolorow, 2011), which have cast a shadow on psychoanalytic practice since its inception, have once again come to the fore in the form of neurobiological reductionism, exemplified in caricature in the classic oxymoron, “neuropsychoanalysis,” and in the call for “evidence-based treatment,” a slogan remarkably devoid of any philosophical questioning as to what is the proper “evidence” for guiding the therapeutic approach to a suffering human soul (psyches therapeia).
Dreyfus’s and Kelly’s contrasting of technical proficiency with poietic skill is strikingly similar to Donna Orange’s, George Atwood’s, and my (1997) application of the Aristotelian distinction between techne and phronesis to psychoanalytic practice. Techne or technical rationality is the kind of method and knowledge required for the uniform production of things. It is exemplified in the traditional, routinized rules of psychoanalytic technique, especially as these are claimed to apply for all patients, all analysts, all analytic couples, and all situations. We argue “that the whole conception of psychoanalysis as technique is wrongheaded … and needs to be rethought” (p. 21). We further suggest that what is needed to ground psychoanalytic practice is not techne but phronesis or practical wisdom. Unlike techne, phronesis is a form of practical understanding that is always oriented to the particular, to the uniqueness of the individual and his or her situation.[iii] Psychoanalytic practice as a form of phronesis seeks dialogically to explore and illuminate individual emotional worlds in all their richness, diversity, and context-embeddedness. It is the poietic/phronetic nature of psychoanalytic practices that constitutes our best defense against invasion by the reductive “neuroism” (Brothers, 2002) and scientistic objectivism that threaten the humanity of our calling. In such practices, emotional worlds are enabled to shine with a kind of sacredness that calls forth an ethical, respectful, and caring engagement (Orange, 2011; Stolorow, 2011, chapter 8).
Askay, R., & Farquhar, J. (2006). Apprehending the inaccessible: Freudian psychoanalysis and existential phenomenology. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.
Dreyfus, H., & Kelly, S. D. (2011). All things shining: Reading the Western classics to find meaning in a secular age. New York: Free Press.
Engberg-Pedersen, T. (1983). Aristotle’s theory of moral insight. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and time (J. Macquarrie & E. Robinson, Trans.). New York: Harper & Row. (Original work published 1927)
----- (1977). The question concerning technology (W. Lovitt, Trans.). In The question concerning technology and other essays (pp. 3-35). New York: Harper & Row. (Original work published 1954)
Orange, D. M. (2011). Beyond individualism: Philosophical contributions of Buber, Gadamer, and Levinas. In R. Frie & W. Coburn (Eds.), Persons in context: The challenge of individuality in theory and practice (pp. 43-57). New York: Routledge.
----- Atwood, G. E., & Stolorow, R. D. (1997). Working intersubjectively: Contextualism in psychoanalytic practice. Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press; link: http://www.amazon.com/Working-Intersubjectively-Contextualism-Psychoanalytic-Practice/dp/0881633607/ref=la_B001IXOF6S_1_5?ie=UTF8&qid=1337702903&sr=1-5
Stolorow, R. D. (2011). World, affectivity, trauma: Heidegger and post-Cartesian psychoanalysis. New York: Routledge; link: http://www.routledgementalhealth.com/world-affectivity-trauma-9780415893442
[i] Appeared in DIVISION/Review: A Quarterly Psychoanalytic Forum.
[ii] I suspect a reluctance to reference Heidegger extensively may have arisen in the context of the exposure of the extent of his involvement in the Nazi movement. In a chapter written with George Atwood and Donna Orange, we commented on the “enigmaticity of Heidegger …, the philosopher who contributed so much to liberating our view of humanity from the prevailing rule of dehumanizing objectification but who also gave himself over to a ghastly mass political movement unmatched in history for its de-individualizing and annihilating objectifications” (Stolorow, 2011, p. 85).
[iii] It has been suggested that phronesis has a poietic aspect in that it cultivates sophia (wisdom) in the human domain (Engberg-Pedersen, 1983).
Copyright Robert Stolorow