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.

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