Reasons for Living

Adam Phillips

  • Open-Minded: Working Out the Logic of the Soul by Jonathan Lear
    Harvard, 345 pp, £21.95, May 1998, ISBN 0 674 45533 9

If we picture the mind as an orifice then we cannot help but wonder what it should be open to and what it should be open for. And how it, or rather we, make such vital decisions. An open mind is not an open door: ‘open-mindedness’ merely describes what is, for some people, a preferred way of discriminating. This openness, once looked into, usually makes us seem rather more like connoisseurs than we might wish: more picky than free. After all, at its most minimal, the open-minded have to know what they must keep out of their minds to keep them open (sexual desire, religion and ideology are the traditional candidates). Religions and therapies help people to close out certain thoughts so they can be open to better ones. An open mind, as Northrop Frye remarked, has to be open at both ends. So when we think of ourselves as open-minded we think of ourselves as open to the right kinds of thing. We have doors in order to be able to close them. Our attention is not so much selective as exclusive.

People are radically perplexed and often go for therapy because they have been too open to something or other in their lives, too unprotected. Defensiveness is a reaction to violation. Freudians believe that we are inevitably violated both from within and from without: our egos are violated by our desires and by what happens to us. So the Freudian cannot imagine a life without defences, but only a life spent trying to find the best ways to protect himself from his life in order to be able to go on living it, with sufficient pleasure. But if survival and pleasure have been the more or less common-sense purposes of a Freudian life, some of Freud’s followers found this a rather drastic – not to say, secular – reduction of what a life might be. It was as though the aims of survival and pleasure needed the idea of progress in order to be taken seriously. So those who wanted more from life resorted to the ancient notion of a life having a telos, a purpose it is there to realise. We don’t merely change over time, we (more grandly) grow. In this collection of essays Jonathan Lear, a philosopher and a psychoanalyst, wants to show us that it is what he calls the ‘logic of the soul’ to want open-mindedness; and this is because, in his view (and in the tradition of psychoanalysis that he values), the logic of the soul is a logic of development. Above all, we want to grow up, to become who we have it in ourselves to be. And this entails understanding and being understood. ‘Each natural organism,’ Lear wrote in his wonderful book Aristotle: The Desire to Understand, ‘has within it a desire to do those things necessary to realising and maintaining its form ... the strong desire to survive, to sustain life, to flourish and reproduce is, from another perspective, a striving to become intelligible’. If, at its best, living your life means feeling you are getting somewhere, then reading Aristotle will be more reassuring than reading Freud.

What makes Open-Minded so compelling is that it is born of an improbable and sometimes rather inspired marriage of Lear’s two culture heroes, Aristotle and Freud. And even though his book has occasional longueurs of teacherly explanation – and very occasionally a distracting old-worldly donnishness (‘most people have the unfortunate fate of having to live with a preconscious misconception of Aristotle’s metaphysics’) – it is more often than not vividly illuminating both about its chosen subject and about the way it goes about getting the odd couple together. Its thesis – or perhaps its faith – is that the suffering born of closure is worse than the suffering born of (at least relative) openness. And the route to openness, Lear believes, is understanding: a key word in his theoretical vocabulary, and a more controversial word in psychoanalysis than he acknowledges.

It has been one of the more interesting legacies of Freud’s work to make analysts wonder whether there is such a thing as understanding between people, and if there is, how it works. Why we might want to believe that we are intelligible to ourselves and others was what interested Freud, not merely how we can get better and better at doing it. What is the wish for understanding a wish for? If understanding isn’t the best currency we’ve got, then what is? ‘Unconscious motivation,’ Lear wrote in his previous book, Love and Its Place in Nature,

can be thought of as striving to be understood. Of course, in the most basic sense, unconscious wishes are striving to get themselves satisfied. But the fact that love is a basic force in the world means that these primitive mental forces also incline towards higher levels of organisation ... in fact, the activity of understanding the wish ... is an expression of the wish itself at its highest level of development.

There are, perhaps, two facts too many here. It was that ‘most basic sense’ that Freud couldn’t get round, and believed that we couldn’t get round either, despite our talk of love and understanding; ‘higher’ levels of organisation and development – all those old-fashioned progress myths that kept the primitives away – were like so much pulp fiction, irresistible (even to Freud) but suspect. From a psychoanalytic point of view sophistication is just another form of nostalgia.

For Lear, then, the enemy of understanding need not be unconscious desire – all those clamorous, striving primitive wishes – but knowingness. There is, he believes, ‘a crisis of knowingness in the culture’. And it is knowingness as a fundamental form of self-deception that is the abiding preoccupation of the 12 essays that make up this book: our minds as always already made up, rather than always in the making. We are suffering, in effect, from prejudice and dogmatism and not from our own nature. Desire is not intrinsically a problem so long as it is helped by others – a mother, an analyst, a culture – to evolve towards intelligibility. ‘The point of a theory of drives,’ he writes in an essay on the remarkable American analyst Hans Loewald, ‘is to give us an account of the elements of mental life. We want to understand that from which mature mental life emerges.’ The body, as it were, aspires to the condition of mature mental life. Those of us who aren’t quite sure what mature mental life is may bristle at the terminology, but it brings with it a simple model of what the practice of psychoanalysis might entail if these are one’s ambitions. ‘The analyst,’ Lear writes, endorsing Loewald, ‘is more highly organised than the analysand. The psychoanalytic process facilitates a transmission of organisation across this field.’ I would guess that only a psychoanalyst would agree with this – or perhaps, someone in search of a philosopher-king. Of course the analyst must have, or rather be assumed to have, something of value that the analysand lacks. But to describe what mothers do for children and – by implication, given that this model is mother-child based – what analysts can do for their analysands as some form of organising activity begs too many (psychoanalytic) questions. A life conceived of as progressively structured in the service of greater intelligibility is not to be scorned, but at its worst it is a tautology bordering on solipsism: if the analyst already knows what the more highly organised person is like then he is only facilitating what he has previously invented. After all, how could the analysand even know what mature mental life was without being told by an analyst?

All this may just be a way of saying that the psychoanalyst – like Socrates, about whom Lear writes so well in this book – always runs the risk of being too knowing about knowingness. Inevitably, Lear’s confidence in psychoanalysis and philosophy – and psychoanalysis is often presented here as the consummation of a philosophical tradition – is underwritten by the belief that one can know knowingness when one sees it, and not turn that recognition into a higher form of the thing one fears. To write about self-deception with any gusto or subtlety one has to be able to imagine the self undeceived. This is, needless to say, a more plausible project for Lear’s Aristotle than for Lear’s Freud. Because Man, as we used to be called, was for Freud the self-deceiving animal, through fear of his own nature. Freud didn’t talk about ‘human flourishing’, he talked about compromise formations. ‘Aristotle,’ Lear has written, ‘had great faith in the world: indeed, his philosophy is an attempt to give the world back to creatures who desire to understand it.’ Freud, whose ‘world’ was rather different from Aristotle’s, did not have this great faith.

If it is somehow reassuring to discover that Freud has such (uncontroversially) great, culturally prestigious precursors – that psychoanalysis is part of a respectable tradition – it is at the same time interesting (and shocking) to see what links can be made between Freud’s disputed ‘science’ and the abiding monuments of Western culture, Aristotle and his necessary precursor Plato. Lear wants Freud and Aristotle to get on, and this requires a certain artfulness. ‘Philosophy, Aristotle said, begins in wonder,’ he writes. ‘Psychoanalysis begins in wonder that the unintelligibility of the events which surround one do not cause more wonder.’ So is it more wonder that we should want, or more philosophy? Is psychoanalysis our best way of keeping the wonder going? Lear’s questions in this book are so good that his answers don’t matter that much: what he asserts never gets in the way of what he wonders about. So his fundamental point – the formulation that the book keeps circling round – is, deftly, an assertion about a question:

Plato, one might say, is working out the very idea of what it is to be minded as we are. And he does this in the light of Socrates’ exemplification – a life spent showing – that one of the most important truths about us is that we have the capacity to be open-minded: the capacity to live non-defensively with the question of how to live.

  Human life in general is a study of why this capacity is not exercised: why open-mindedness is, for the most part, evaded, diminished and attacked.

One way to live non-defensively with the question is to go on asking it, even though, in doing so, we are defending the belief that it is a good question. ‘Non-defensively’ might imply that we had nothing to protect, that we didn’t need protection. And one form of protection we might crave is legitimation, being sanctioned by something or someone. The capacity that Lear is sponsoring, and that is so very difficult to be open-minded about, is something to do with not being bullied. Or not being bullyable. The paradox he hints at is that you can live non-defensively only if you feel sufficiently protected; and that the project of a human life is to question what the project of a human life is for. A life in this view – a life worth the name, so to speak – is essentially self-reflexive. I think about my life, therefore I am, therefore I have one. If this seems unduly restrictive, if self-reflexiveness often seems to be the problem rather than the solution, it is also, by the same token, a succinct statement of what has been held up as an exemplary form of life to us. Is the Socratic question, that Lear sees psychoanalysis as keeping alive, a good question simply because Socrates asked it? What, in short, makes it a good question?

It is probably better not to assume that our reasons for living – our best self-justifications – are the real value of our lives. And Lear himself has a sober and lucid sense of the limits of our good reasons. ‘What we work through,’ he writes in an essay on Wittgenstein’s later philosophy,

is a myth of legitimation: an illusion that giving reasons will provide an ultimate ground of our activity ... Having worked through the illusion, the philosopher in the kitchen may well still give reasons for his particular cooking activities ... but he no longer suffers a self-inflicted misunderstanding of what his explanation might do for him.

The philosopher no longer suffers from a ‘self-inflicted misunderstanding’ when he realises that the only thing his explanation does is explain something. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Wittgenstein, Freud: they are all engaged, in Lear’s view, in a high-level conversation about self-inflicted misunderstanding; and so about a self that keeps inflicting such things on itself, and is better off not doing so. Self-deception, they all agree (if for rather different reasons), is self-destructive. The truth is on our side; has our best interests in mind.

If Lear’s approach risks smothering the differences between these figures – and he is as attentive to questions of context as space allows in these essays – it also alerts us to one of the more intriguing subplots of his book: the issue of cultural transmission. Just as the analyst/mother transmits more evolved forms of ‘organisation’ to the child/analysand, so these figures seem, by implication, to transmit their preoccupations (and questions) to us: to organise our curiosity. But for Lear there is something equally, if not more important than this, which he refers to as ‘legacy as task’. ‘When we talk of a legacy’ he writes,

our speech is often tinged with an ambiguity which suggests ambivalence. There is, of course, the straightforward sense of a bequest – as with Freud’s passing on to us the idea of the repressed unconscious. But there is also a sense of legacy as that which a person did not hand down (but should have). Here the legacy is a task: it is the unfinished business which the child needs to complete in order to ... succeed the parent.

Whether he is writing of the apparent ‘jumble’ that is Plato’s Republic or the apparent ‘disparateness’ of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, it is Lear’s inclination to see these works as not so much incoherent as inevitably unfinished: they leave the reader with something to do (next). Freud’s legacy-as-task, or rather the task which Lear supposes he left us, and which he convincingly shows Loewald to have picked up on, was to develop a plausible theory of Eros. This was something of an oversight on Freud’s part: he effectively tells us that there are two instincts ruling our lives, love and death, but he doesn’t tell us what love is. ‘It is a corollary of the Oedipus complex,’ Lear writes, ‘that creativity requires that one come to grips with the legacies of one’s intellectual parents.’ But there is a jump here where there should be a bridge. What is it the corollary of to think of oneself as having ‘intellectual parents’? Or to put it more straightforwardly, what is the connection between the legacy-as-task of one’s real parents and that of one’s intellectual parents? It is noticeable, for example, that people are often rather more impressed by their intellectual parents than the other ones; the cultural re-parenting that goes on – the way children adopt new parents as they grow up – is a stranger process than Lear’s reference to the Oedipus complex allows. It certainly tends to dignify one’s affinities.

It is nevertheless more generous, and more truthful, to think of good writers not as somehow flawed, but as leaving their readers with unfinished business. As though these writers offer us irresistible invitations – to think, to write, to talk – and this is what keeps the story going. Another way of putting this would be to say that the dead are very demanding; and that we keep in touch with them, we keep them alive, by imagining they still want something from us (what we call a culture or a tradition becomes the way we go on running imaginary errands for the dead). But for Lear what the open-minded are open to, at their best, are the cultural and personal pasts they inherit. Unlike Harold Bloom’s anxiety of influence, to which it is clearly linked, Lear’s legacy-as-task speaks of the pleasurable challenge of influence. It is a less violent Oedipus complex he would wish on us.

It is perhaps inevitable that a book so haunted, and sometimes dogged, by affiliation and its attendant obligations, and so committed to understanding and development, would need to cut its teeth on tragedy and the idea of the unconscious – that is, a really unconscious unconscious, not one dying to be made sense of. It is the fact that terrifying and shocking and surprising things happen – that we do terrifying and shocking and surprising things – that is always tempering our hope for ourselves. A life that can be this daunting seems to need good stories about what might be going on. And Lear is surely right, in his brilliant essay ‘On Killing Freud (Again)’, when he says that

there is something which would count as a global refutation of psychoanalysis: if people always and everywhere acted in rational and transparently explicable ways, one could easily dismiss psychoanalysis as unnecessary rubbish. It is because people often behave in bizarre ways, ways which cause pain to themselves and others, ways which puzzle even the actors themselves, that psychoanalysis commands our attention.

The fact that there is such a thing as motivated irrationality, the fact that we are not transparent to ourselves (and sometimes want to be) makes Freud at least a plausible contender in the explanation game. The onus, as Lear rightly says, is on Freud’s critics to come up with a better story – if Freud was the loser in the so-called Freud wars, what have the winners left us with? But Lear’s book also, almost inadvertently, makes us notice how strange our idea of rationality must be if it leaves out so much that matters to us. Freud clearly was not merely showing us how irrational we are: he was showing us how irrational rationality is; that we are at our maddest when we are at our most plausible (to ourselves). This is what tragedy reveals again and again. So in wanting a psychoanalysis that is of a piece with the Socratic or the Aristotelian projects Lear is encouraging us to be more rational, even if his version of rationality is ample and nuanced. It is as though the question Freud couldn’t quite ask, and that Lear’s book prompts us to wonder about, is: if we don’t aspire to rationality what should we aspire to? For Lear Oedipus is too irrational: ‘Oedipus’ fundamental mistake lies in his assumption that meaning is transparent to human reason ... Oedipus assumes he understands his situation.’ Oedipus would have been more rational, wouldn’t have come to grief, Lear suggests, if he had taken his own irrationality into account. But this, I think, says less than it seems to be saying, and about as much as psychoanalysts too often say: real rationality fully acknowledges the significance of irrationality. ‘He who humbles himself wills to be exalted,’ Nietzsche said of Christ; and Christ here could be the enlightened ego, masterful to the end, rational even about his irrationality.

‘Can mind comprehend its limits?’ Lear begins the best essay in the book, ‘Testing the Limits: The Place of Tragedy in Aristotle’s Ethics’. And this is clearly a question both about whether it makes sense to imagine that there is an unconscious; and about whether we can say anything about tragedy that makes its catastrophe intelligible. One redescription of the question – can we comprehend more than we can comprehend – quickly turns it into nonsense; but the nonsense is instructive. There is a bind here that Lear lucidly expounds in his essay on Wittgenstein. ‘Our problem is that being minded as we are,’ he writes,

is not one possibility we can explore among others. We explore what it is to be minded as we are by moving around self-consciously and determining what makes more and less sense. There is no getting a glimpse of what it might be like to be ‘other-minded’, for as we move toward the outer bounds of our mindedness we verge on incoherence and nonsense.

This could hardly be better or more elegantly said. Our dreams and the poetry we write (and speak) verge on incoherence and nonsense; the moments when sense begins to turn, or fade, also define us. Going out of bounds might be as close as we can get to that recurrent fear of being other-minded which seems also to be a wish. The unconscious describes an apprehension that there are other minds – other, that is, than the one we easily recognise – going on inside us; that there is something inside us, and between ourselves and other people, that is forever verging on incoherence and nonsense. And whether we like it or not. But we only think something should be done about this when we suffer from it. Tragedy, at least in the first instance, is an irruption of incoherence. Lear’s essay on ‘Aristotle and Tragedy’ is his most lucid account of the problem, of the animating conflict that makes this book of so much interest. And of interest because of, not despite, its undisguised pieties; Lear is often at his best when his allegiances are slightly ruffled.

If psychoanalysis ‘hopes to chart how the individual emerges from less organised psychological states ... to understand how psychic organisation, in particular the healthy developed personality, develops from less organised states’, then tragedy might be just the thing to put a spanner in the works. Aristotle, ‘trying to work out an embodied conception of human reason’, and thereby becoming a kind of proto-Freudian, uses the example of tragedy as a laboratory to prove his hypotheses. ‘The philosophical significance of tragedy, for Aristotle,’ Lear writes, ‘is that it shows that reason can give an account of even the most apparently “unnatural” alogon, irrational acts which truly human beings commit. The Poetics, then, is an attempted vindication of his ethical and political realism: it aims to show that the polis is adequate to capture all of human nature.’

For Lear, Aristotle’s ‘attempt to reclaim the opacity of human destructiveness’ – ‘to lend it intelligibility and thereby confer upon it some political value’ – is unduly optimistic, doomed by its belief in the political power of reason. Aristotle wants everything that human beings do, all of human nature, to be reclaimable for the polis. If people are essentially creatures of the polis, then everything about them is a function of that fact. Like an over-zealous psychoanalyst, Aristotle believes that anything and everything we discover about people can be used, can be a contribution to the culture.

‘Aristotle,’ Lear writes, ‘wants to secure the autonomy of human nature ... By contrast, Plato and Freud are less interested in human autonomy and more interested in pursuing the darker threads of human behaviour, even if doing so points beyond the bounds of intelligibility. They thus have a more inclusive conception of human nature.’ That is, they acknowledge that there is something in human nature that wants, for no available reason, to destroy what we most value. A plausible version of human nature, then, has to include what our idea of human nature prevents us from making sense of. There is something beyond intelligibility that is causing all the trouble, and we are really up against it. So there are two kinds of people: those who believe that it’s just a matter of time before we work it all out (call them, say, technocrats); and those who believe that we never will because life isn’t like that. What Lear refers to as the ‘darker threads of human behaviour’ is a way of naming all those things that make us unhappy, and that show no signs of letting up. We may live by trading with the enemy, but we can’t force the enemy to trade. If there is meaningless destructiveness then we are all potentially inconsolable.

‘People,’ Lear writes, ‘tend to be at their most parochial when they speculate about the human condition.’ But Plato and Aristotle and Freud don’t sound parochial to us, perhaps because they tend to legitimate their claims rhetorically by universalising them, by speculating about the ‘human condition’ – or perhaps we do it on their behalf. Knowingness, that is to say, may be endemic to knowing. There is no reason to assume that the people Freud knew in Vienna were representative of anything other than themselves. Oedipus suffers as he does, Lear contends, because ‘the claim to already know pervades his search to find out.’ But everybody already knows something, even if what they know is that it is part of our intelligibility to ourselves – perhaps the essential part – to notice that we are unintelligible to ourselves; or, indeed, that open-mindedness is better than its alternatives, whatever those might be. But it is the virtue of Open-Minded to make us wonder whether knowing and understanding, however well done, should be the be all and end all. Madness is the need for everything to make sense, even if that sense is that everything is senseless. Perhaps good stories about our ignorance should not be too informative.