Second-Decimal Arguments

Jon Elster

  • The Thread of Life by Richard Wollheim
    Harvard, 288 pp, £20.00, January 1985, ISBN 0 06 748875 7

Reading Richard Wollheim’s study of what it is to live the life of a person was a frustrating, painful experience. Perhaps it can best be summarised by saying that while the book goes to great lengths to ensure precision in the second decimal, it leaves us in the dark about the first. Wollheim has a marvellously knowledgeable and intelligent mind. Of the numerous topics discussed here, many are brilliantly illuminated and some receive better treatment than I have ever come across. Yet these displays of ingenuity and inventiveness take place against the opaque background of psychoanalytic theory, which the reader is more or less asked to accept on faith. There are two puzzles here. One is: why should I believe all this? The other is: why doesn’t Wollheim see that he must offer me reasons to believe it? Psychoanalysis is, after all, only one of a large array of theories of the mind, and Wollheim’s version of it only one of the many which are available.

Another, secondary cause of frustration is the elusiveness of Wollheim’s style, sometimes bordering on evasiveness. When he is expounding his own views, without polemical side-glances, he can be perfectly lucid and explicit, indeed a pure joy to read. When he takes a stand on current controversies, he tends to be cryptic and elliptic, briefly marshalling a series of arguments which are rarely elaborated to the extent that would have been necessary to make them persuasive. Moreover, he never engages in polemics against specific writers, books or quotations. His opponents are the shadowy world of ‘some philosophers’, ‘memory-theorists’, ‘contemporary philosophers’. No doubt the initiated will often be able to guess who is intended, but I suspect that no single person alive will be able to figure out all the references. Be this as it may, the indirect style combines with the taking for granted of psychoanalytic theory to create the impression of a book written for a very small circle of readers.

It is difficult to convey the purpose of the book – not only because of its elusiveness but also because of its richness. At one level, it is an argument for the reinstatement of the concept of a person as prior to the mental states which can be predicated of him. Here the implicit target of the polemic is Derek Parfit, whose recent Reasons and Persons offers the most complete statement of the view that the person is ‘nothing but’ a sequence of mental and bodily states related in a certain way. At another level, the book is about the temporal structure of ‘living the life of a person’. A proper understanding of this structure will both help us to explain cases of arrested or otherwise pathological development and suggest ways of coming to grips with our past and with the fact of death. An aspect of the second project is to replace the straitjacket of morality with a philosophy of personal liberation.

The two lines of argument are not fully integrated. Little of what Wollheim has to say about what it is to live the life of a person would be affected if he turned out to be wrong about the nature of persons. This lack of connection is fortunate, since his arguments for giving persons priority over their states are too sketchy to be convincing, and the other project is clearly more important to him. Of these arguments, Wollheim says that the following is the strongest: ‘If it is true that for mental states to arise, they must be appropriately linked to mental dispositions, then they must essentially belong to things that can house dispositions, and this is where the person is required.’ I can’t see why mental dispositions could not simply be lodged in the brain. A person, on this view, would be a series of mental and bodily states. The occurrence of a mental state would also be the occurrence of a certain physical state, which by physical causality would affect the probability of later physical states and the concomitant mental states. I am not defending this view, only using it as an instance of the kind of objection Wollheim would have to counter before his ambitious claim could even begin to persuade us.

To explain what it is to live the life of a person, Wollheim begins with an inventory of the mind, including an account of how the items – mental states, mental dispositions and mental activities – are related to one another. There is a long and somewhat confusing discussion of the relation between mental states and mental dispositions. The upshot, as far as I can understand it, is that Wollheim believes in a functional theory of the mind. A disposition tends to induce mental states and behaviour which reinforce it; moreover, these effects occur because they reinforce it. It is easy enough to find counter-examples to this view: following his disposition to eat sweets, a person may satiate his desire and lose the disposition. Later on Wollheim recognises this objection, without, however, going back to the original argument to discuss how much of it remains valid. From one of Wollheim’s examples it appears that his view is also functional in a different sense, as when he says that if a person has a disposition to fear snakes, ‘the role of this disposition is to keep a person who has it as clear of snakes as is otherwise possible.’ When the term ‘role’ was introduced earlier on, it meant simply ‘effect’; the further step from ‘effect’ to ‘function’ is not warranted by any argument. Again, it is easy to think of counter-examples: the effect of seeing a snake may be to freeze one to the spot, or to get one into such a panic that one runs in the wrong direction. It is a mistake to seek for a biological underpinning of each and every emotion. What is selected by natural evolution is a package solution, in which some elements, considered in isolation, may seem dysfunctional.

The discussion of mental activity is the most rewarding part of the book. Wollheim makes valuable observations about the difference between a mental activity and an action, suggesting that it does not stem simply from the difference between what is internal and what is external, since there are external activities – smiling in order to express pleasure – that differ from actions in the same way. Rather, the difference is that in explaining actions we need the conjunction of a belief and a desire, whereas there is no need to posit a cognitive element in the case of an activity. Wollheim then engages in a long and consistently illuminating discussion of the mental activity of imagining, through a daring analogy between this activity and writing, performing and watching a play. These pages are phenomenological philosophy at its very best. Were I to venture an objection, it would be that he underestimates two crucial features of imagining, as opposed to experience. There are no constraints on the activity of imagining: hence it often turns into a fuite en avant which lowers the satisfaction we can derive from it. Also, we cannot surprise ourselves when we engage in activities such as daydreaming. It is hard to understand, from Wollheim’s description, why people don’t engage much more extensively in the pursuit of this kind of vicarious satisfaction.

At the very introduction of the discussion of mental activity there is a remark that can serve to illustrate my main difficulty with the book. Having remarked that he finds mental activity a puzzling phenomenon, Wollheim adds: ‘Its existence is something I cannot doubt. Trying to perform an action, attending to something in the visual field, repressing a desire, introjecting a parental figure, seem clearly things that we do.’ Do they? Clearly? Here, doubt comes more easily to me than it does to Wollheim. The suggestion that introjecting a parental figure is a clear and uncontroversial example of mental activity is strange, to put it mildly. An earlier discussion of unconscious rage showed the same lack of sensitivity to the needs of the unconverted. Talk about the unconscious is a bit like talk about the dialectical method: so many nonsensical claims have been made in their name that their defenders ought to lean over backwards to be simple, clear and explicit. Donald Davidson and David Pears have recently made pioneering attempts to render elements of Freud’s theory in terms comprehensible to analytical philosophers and empirical psychologists. Instead of following their lead, Wollheim retreats to the more comfortable procedure of taking the meaningfulness and even the essential correctness of psychoanalysis as given.

The middle third of the book draws upon the concepts developed in the first, but with the difference that they are now mainly applied to unconscious states and activities. Much of it is devoted to an examination of Freud’s case-history of the Rat Man, and of the conceptual points which it is thought to illustrate. In particular, there is an extensive discussion of the ways in which early experiences set one’s life in certain rigid patterns, which resist or deflect attempts at self-examination. In my opinion, these are second-decimal arguments. As long as they are not anchored in anything which I am given reason to think is true, they appear as free-floating exercises. It is like watching a game without knowing what the ground rules are – or, indeed, whether there are any. This might have been an unobjectionable procedure had Wollheim written a book exclusively for internal consumption in the psychoanalytical community, but his aims are much wider.

Because of my lack of competence to address specific points in the exposition, I shall consider a more general problem: the properties that Wollheim imputes to the unconscious. I seriously doubt the coherence of the image one can reconstruct from his various remarks. Towards the end of the book he acknowledges that the unconscious differs in one important respect from the conscious mind. It cannot engage in long-term planning; it is incapable of waiting or of sacrificing present pleasure for the sake of a greater future pleasure. Now one might think – as I do – that this incapacity is explained by the inability of the unconscious to form representations. To act for the sake of a future state of affairs presupposes the capacity to form a mental representation of it: hence the inability to form representations would explain the myopic character of the unconscious. This, however, is not Wollheim’s argument. On the contrary, the unconscious, as he conceives it, is capable of having quite extraordinarily complex representations. There is, however, no inconsistency – but at most a tension – between this view and the view that the unconscious is inherently myopic.

Inconsistency does threaten, however, when Wollheim imputes to the unconscious what looks suspiciously like strategic thinking. At one point we are told that ‘for the purpose of representing the satisfaction of’ the desire to placate his father and the desire to assert himself against his father, ‘the Rat Man has resuscitated a belief that goes against the whole grain of his thinking – the belief ... that his father, while dead, still survives.’ At another point we read that an explanation of ‘counter-desires’ (desires whose only role is to produce conflict of desires) ‘is that brute conflict aims to spread through the whole psychology of the person the sense of confusion that one specific and highly intense conflict generates. It seeks to normalise confusion.’ Or again, crime promises the criminal ‘a way – through, that is, the punishment that the criminal act may be expected to bring in train – of purging his guilt’. My complaint is not that Wollheim here is clearly contradicting his later assertion that the unconscious is incapable of making sacrifices or acting for the sake of a future goal. To me it looks as if this is what he is doing, but then again perhaps it isn’t. We can’t know for sure, because we are not told what the ground rules are.

The final third of the book contains much that can be read with interest independently of its Freudian framework. The most important chapter concerns the growth of the moral sense. Wollheim does not believe in abstract moral philosophy. He indicates some sympathy with the communitarian conceptions of morality or Sittlichkeit which are currently enjoying one of their periodic resuscitations, but by and large the task he sets himself is a negative one. He argues that many cherished moral attitudes reflect responses to anxiety rather than the outcome of a reflective process equilibrating particular ethical intuitions and general ethical principles. To be precise, persecution anxiety is at the root of the feeling of moral obligation (the super-ego), while depressive anxiety is at the root of the notion of value (the ego-ideal).

The details of these constructions are, as usual, heavily dependent on the assumptions of psychoanalytic theory. One wonders why Wollheim never considers simpler explanations of the facts that he adduces in support of his view. He correctly points out, for example, that thoughts about what others ought to do often ‘aren’t in place, and then they represent the presumptuousness, the arrogance, for which morality is such a traditional medium of expression.’ Why should there be this asymmetry between oneself and others, so that one makes – or feels one ought to make – stronger demands on oneself than on others? Wollheim argues that morality – or the valuable core in moral sentiments – is essentially ‘self-directed, though it may be other-regarding’. Because of the way in which moral attitudes come about in the person, applying them to other people has ‘no clear root in our psychology’.

I disagree. I think that morality is impersonal, directed to others as well as to oneself. When applying moral principles, however, asymmetries appear. There are two sorts of obligation I can impute to other people: obligations towards me and towards third parties. In both cases, there is a cognitive asymmetry that provides a reason for treating others differently from oneself. My knowledge of the total situation of other people is less complete than my knowledge of my own, so I ought to give them the benefit of the doubt. In the first case, there is also a motivational asymmetry. Since the obligations of others towards me often further my self-interest, and my obligations towards them go against it, I ought to be aware of the scope for wishful thinking and, again, play the Devil’s advocate. These considerations are far simpler and, I think, have more intuitive appeal than those invoked by Wollheim. They also appear to be sufficient to explain his ‘fundamental intuition’, which I share, that first-person and third-person moral judgments differ in important respects. Moreover, this way of accounting for the limitations of abstract morality is itself based on moral considerations.

A further chapter discusses liberation from the tyranny of the past, and the correlative ability to feel a concern for the future. (He ought to have added, perhaps, the ability to be non-compulsively concerned about the future, since one way in which the past exercises its tyranny is by making the future dominate the present.) The core of the chapter is a discussion of self-concern, which is first defended on metaphysical grounds and then distinguished from various apparently related attitudes. Metaphysically, he argues, the notion of living in the present, without any concern for the future, is inconsistent. Living is always living the life of a person, and this necessarily includes a reaching-out towards the future which he calls ‘self-concern’. The attitude should not be confused with any of the following: egoism, selfishness, finding life worth living, finding life worthwhile, self-love. I am not sure that the somewhat laborious working-out of these distinctions repays the effort, although some valuable points are made in the course of the discussion.

The final chapter discourses on ‘death, madness, and loss of friendship’ – the three great misfortunes that can befall us. Friendship is, puzzlingly, defined through the moral asymmetry which Wollheim has earlier told us characterises the attitude of the mature person to everybody else – not just to his friends. Madness then, fittingly enough, is characterised by the impersonal, indeed depersonalised attitude to others that morality has sometimes been thought to endorse. There is an illuminating discussion of the relation between madness and friendship – the mad person being both incapable of showing friendship and in particular need of it. The book ends with some remarks on the life of a person who has come to accept death: ‘He enters into his mental states not just as a person, but as a mortal person.’ What has taken place in such a person is ‘the transformation of all desires and all emotions so that there is nothing left to prevent [him] from experiencing phenomenology as something inherently, essentially terminable’. I confess that I don’t understand what it means to experience life as terminable, let alone as essentially terminable. I remember having some such notions when I was 17, but I now think they were rooted in a confusion – of thought and experience – much as the so-called ‘feeling of freedom’ is an inconsistent amalgam of the thought that one is free and the absence of a feeling of constraint.