A Conversation between Robert Hanna, Michelle Maiese, and Otto Paans
LONDON CALLING BACK, by Emre Kazim, is a series about philosophy, society, and politics, from a British and non-North-American point of view, emphasizing a new critical-dignitarian, edgy, and thoroughly push-backarian philosophical, social, and political ferment on the rise in London, recalling the heady days of politicized punk and The Clash.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, LONDON CALLING BACK has evolved into an online conversation group, aka The LCB Group, whose basic aim is to engage in philosophical dialogues, aka phildialogues.[i]
But as one of the group more informally put it, “I think that the pandemic, while stressful in many ways, has been a weirdly good moment to drill deep on patterns of thinking they’ve/we’ve had for a while, and seriously consider how they/we may want to smash these patterns.”
The LCB Group currently has 20 or so members–most of whom are 30-something, including of course people from London, but also from Germany, Mexico, The Netherlands, and the USA–and it meets weekly for an hour, with 10 or so participants at each session.
The first two sessions focused on the topic, “Is Philosophy Dead?”
What follows below is the lightly-edited transcript of a three-way meta-conversation about the third and fourth sessions.
Philosophy and Mental Health During The New Apocalypse
RH: Here are the preliminary thoughts about this topic that guided our conversation during the two sessions we devoted to it:
1. By “the new apocalypse” I mean the fourfold contemporary and global impacts of
(i) global technocratic corporate capitalism, aka “advanced” or “big” capitalism,
(ii) political neoliberalism, especially neofascist neoliberalism,
(iii) the digitalization of world culture via information technology, continuous surveillance, social media, and
(iv) an all-encompassing scientistic, technocratic, materialist or physicalist, ecologically-devastating, philosophical conception of non-human nature and human nature alike: formal and natural mechanism.
aka “The Four Horsemen of The New Apocalypse,” PLUS
the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020.
2. In Embodied Minds in Action, Michelle and I argued
(i) that creatures like us have irreducibly conscious and cognitive minds, and that the basic layer of our consciousness is emotional (desire, feeling, passion) and sensible, not intellectual, which is built on top of the emotional/sensible layer and
(ii) that minds like ours are necessarily and completely embodied in our living animal bodies.
That is, it isn’t possible to reduce a rational minded human animal, or human person, to either a brain or a body: the human person is a metaphysical and biological fusion of her mind and her living animal body.
3. And in The Mind-Body Politic, aka MBP, Michelle and I argued
(i) that the lives of rational essentially embodied emotional/sensible minds like ours are shaped by the social institutions we belong to, for better or worse, and
(ii) in the contemporary world (i.e., during The New Apocalypse) it’s often or even generally for the worse, i.e., many or even most contemporary social institutions are in various ways experienced as destructive and deforming by the people who belong to those institutions..
4. Correspondingly, in chapter 5 of MBP, we also argued that mental health, whether good/unproblematic or bad/problematic, is at least as much an existential and/or social-institutional issue as it is a biophysical issue, although of course we don’t deny that there’s a biophysical component: but we sharply criticize and reject the “medical model” of mental health treatment.
5. Given The New Apocalypse, it’s arguably contemporary civilization and its many deeply messed-up social institutions that are first and foremost literally insane, not primarily people with mental health problems, although of course it’s the people who end up suffering.
6. Michelle pointed out to me the other day that at least some people with mental health problems are finding the lockdown/quarantine period calming and helpful, precisely because it detaches them somewhat from the messed-up social institutions they normally belong to, e.g., their jobs.
7. But many other people are experiencing painful emotional and cognitive dissonance as the literally insane character of many or even most contemporary social institutions becomes glaringly evident during The New Apocalypse.
8. And another one of the Philosophy Without Borders circle members observed to me the other day that real philosophers are actually in a better position than most people to be/remain mentally healthy, or even flourish, during The New Apocalypse, precisely because
(i) real philosophers are generally intellectually and/or practically at odds with, and highly critical of, the conventional wisdom/messed-up ideology of many or even most contemporary social institutions, and
(ii) their critical and reflective practices, and their philosophical writing, conversation, teaching, etc., have an existential and even spiritual component that sustains them.
Now from a philosophical and practical standpoint, it makes sense to try to formulate a clear working conception of “mental health” and then say that anything that falls significantly short of that, or somehow inherently violates that conception, is in some sense mentally unhealthy or problematic.
One idea we’ve been exploring is that mental health is as much an existential issue and social-institutional issue, as it is a neurophysiological issue.
And another idea is that the existential notion of authenticity might provide a working model of mental health.
And yet another idea is that authenticity in the broadest sense is (i) a coherence among a person’s inner states (desires, feelings, passions, beliefs, memories, imagination, action-plans, acts, theories about the world, etc., etc.), including moral principles, and including basic and true needs of various kinds, for autonomously-chosen/freely-chosen and self-created meaningfulness and purpose, together with (ii) a coherence between the person herself and other people and the larger social world of social institutions, including political ones, together with (iii) a coherence between the person herself and the larger natural world, and also (iv) a global coherence across or among all those other kinds of coherence.
If that’s a plausible idea, then let’s say that authenticity in this sense provides a working model of good/flourishing mental health.
OP: The notion of authenticity seems plausible as a point of departure.
However, the most interesting ideas often pop up when an idea is stretched beyond its limits.
Therefore, the question whether we could have the case of a murderous psychopath who possesses (a degree of) principled authenticity still keeps me occupied.
If we respond by saying “the psychopath is clearly deranged,” we assume that we know already what mental health is.
It is also the easy way out: everything that does not fit the neat little circle of what the majority has deemed sane is labelled as deranged.
If we say “he is just differently principled,” we feel that something is wrong with that particular response as well.
The principles one applies in one’s life might be different, but if those principles include applying a box-cutter to someone else’s throat, we are well beyond the point where we can ascribe it as “a different outlook on life.”
Essentially, this is because (i) it is harmful in a very real way, and (ii) it overrides the agency/corporeal integrity of others.
Perhaps one way of answering the question is a Kantian one.
When Kant speaks about self-legislating entities, he does not just mean “entities who define rules for themselves, and stick to them.”
Applied to the case of the psychopath, that person may well think up a rule that he is allowed to kill anyone he wants to kill.
However, I take it that Kant would be very unhappy with that type of self-legislation.
Certainly, it flies in the face of the Categorical Imperative; second, even if the CI is of no concern to someone, it seems clear that any form of self-legislation opens up towards others.
If it does not, we end up with Hobbes’s “nasty, brutish, and short” way of living.
It would mean that everyone thought up rules for themselves, without taking the life or agency of others into consideration.
Thus, any form of self-legislation tells something about one’s relation(s) to others, and the value of the rules contained in the self-legislation is probably best measured by (i) how well it allows one to interact with others, and (ii) how it allows interpersonal/material relationships to develop over time.
This does not just mean that one has to be always self-sacrificing, altruistic etc.
It may equally well be that a morally acceptable form of self-legislation involves demarcating one’s own limits, or indicating that one will not cooperate with certain actions.
We can think here of soldiers who refuse to kill innocent people; or a police officer who refuses to follow orders that are clearly unjust.
But it may equally well be standing up to the office bully or an unreasonable employer.
RH: Yes, and yes again.
I was also thinking that each of the forms of coherence nested inside authenticity is quite like the homeostatic balance between the inner and outer states of a natural creature that is characteristic of healthy/flourishing living organisms.
I hesitate to call this a “biological model,” because that can easily be misinterpreted as reductionist and mechanistic.
But it’s definitely an organicist idea.
And of course, if we’re essentially embodied minds, then there will be a basic metaphysical continuity between our individual organismic life and our mental and social lives and larger environmental lives.
Moreover, from a purely practical first person point of view, there’s got to be something right about the intimate connection between, on the one hand, mental health, physical health, social flourishing, healthy sustainable living in the larger natural world, and, on the other hand, managing intrusive and threatening complexity by finding simplifying routines that maintain and sustain homeostatic balances along all the relevant boundaries, while also satisfying basic and true human needs that drive us to freely/autonomously engage in small and larger meaningful projects.
OP: There are some interesting medical initiatives in this direction.
Looking for alternative forms of treatment and an interconnected view of the mental/physical/chemical properties of bodies, KPNI Belgium has launched a program called “psycho-neuro-immunology.”
The idea is to view symptoms not as the problem, but to look beyond it.
Thus, a given symptom could be treated with drugs (basically the mechanistic approach of “treating the biological machine locally”), but could also be treated by looking at the patient’s stress levels, movement patterns, chemical imbalances, diet, day/night rhythms etc.
The idea is that the body is not reducible to a set of neatly decomposable subsystems that can be treated in isolation.
Of course, the mental component is tremendously important here, as factors like depression, guilt, anxiety, etc., can lead to a wide range of hard-to-categorize complaints, especially when they are suppressed over prolonged periods of time. Indeed, just prescribing drugs for a complaint that is vague is on this view immoral:it treats the human person just like a malfunctioning machine instead of as unified psycho-biological, organic entity.
This may seem radical, but it is a mild statement compared to the number of people who are proscribed Ritalin for a variety of mental complaints, with all the problems of addiction, medication-related complaints, chronification (i.e. prolonging the illness to a duration that is well beyond a temporary situation), and inhibition of social functioning as consequences.
RH: Yes to all that too.
Above all — and here’s the really hard part — how can it be possible to find these simplifying life-maintaining-and-life-sustaining routines that make it really possible for us to seek and create meaning, individually and collectively, according to non-violent, non-oppressive, dignity-respecting moral and political principles, when all around us the military-industrial-university-digital complex is always, well, complexifying everything beyond our ability to grasp and manage it humanely, and fucking us up with insane ideas like unlimited, infinite capital expansion and endless consumerism, 24–7 work and “connectivity,” then deathlike-sleeping-and-resting, followed by super-strenuous leisure, only in order to work more and more “productively,” and zillions of coercive authoritarian normative rules hemming us in, so that a few billionaires can exist, and a few politicians + the police + the military, etc., can enjoy pushing us around and threatening us or even torturing and killing us, etc.?
— I mean, the challenge for us really is very like the one faced by the unhappy protagonists of Terry Gilliam’s classic dystopian sci-fi flick Brazil….
My hunch is that a shift in subjectivity is in order.
One can find a lot of these thoughts in classical Marxism (i.e. the idea of class consciousness, being aware of one’s (collective) predicament, the role of ideology).
However, Soviet and Chinese communism have attempted to author a new subjectivity on a national/ethnic scale, ending up just as oppressive as the systems they claimed to overthrow.
So, the problem becomes how we can define “enabling systems” in which people can define their own subjectivity/attitude towards the 21st-century world.
The immediate objection here is that many people may not be able to consciously define their way in the world.
Nevertheless, true as this response may be, (i) it cannot be a reason to coerce, bully or browbeat everyone into obedience, and (ii) what if social institutions were enabling in the sense that they helped people making certain choices or pursue certain goals?
Instead of social institutions that avoid coercion, force etc., we might rethink of them as constructive, enabling entities.
Moreover, they should not be justified or legitimated according to the instrumental reasoning a State or insurance company — , for that would immediately turn them into tools of oppression, which isbasically the rise of social media we have witnessed over the last two decades.
MM: One thought I came away with after our conversation: In The Mind-Body Politic, we argue that people’s minds and habits are partially determined by social institutions.
The individual does not stand alone, nor completely separate from social institutions.
Perhaps one way to think about the general impact of a destructive, deforming institution is in terms of its tendency to be overly deterministic.
The individuals who inhabit those institutions are urged not to think for themselves or consider what they want and value, but rather simply to adopt the ways of thinking and acting demanded by that institution.
Alternative ways of being are not permitted and are often punished.
This violates their human dignity, as Bob says.
But even more centrally, it threatens their autonomy.
By their very nature, coercive institutions seek to absorb individuals into them; they demand heteronomy and this is what ultimately makes it difficult for people to fulfill their true human needs.
By framing things in this way, we don’t necessarily have to make many substantive claims about what true human needs are.
We only have to say that toxic institutions don’t allow individuals to stand somewhat apart from them.
Critical engagement, questioning, and openness to doing things otherwise is effectively closed off.
It’s because neoliberal institutions don’t allow this sort of autonomy and flexibility among the individuals who inhabit them that they end up being toxic, violating human dignity, and eroding mental health.
RH: Among the many interesting comments and thoughts expressed by members of the LCB group during the two sessions on this topic, I think that one particularly important and original idea emerged, which is this:
People’s mental health could be significantly or even radically improved if they/we designed, created, sustained, and belonged to social institutions that
(i) sufficiently respect everyone’s human dignity (including no one’s ever being manipulated/pushed around/coerced/oppressed/punished for the sake of “the greater good”),
(ii) aren’t authoritarian (which means: X is right just because I/we tell you it’s right and I/we control the means of coercion to force you to heed/obey X), and
(iii) at the very least cohere with, and perhaps even forward/scaffold/shape, what at least potentially realizes everyone’s (I mean, every person who belongs to, or falls under the scope of, that social institution) sincere, reflective answer to the question, “what would I choose to do for the rest of my life, if I were relieved of all financial worries?”
Supposing that’s true, then my follow-up questions are:
first, are there any actual, real-world social institutions that satisfy all three of these conditions, and if so, can we generalize from them/use them as models to design/create/sustain/belong to new social institutions?,
second, can we reverse-engineer new social institutions to meet these conditions, and if so, what would they look like, more specifically?
AGAINST PROFESSIONAL PHILOSOPHY REDUX 492
Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Monday 2 November 2020
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