Essential to meaningful psychotherapeutic intervention in the life of another human being is an understanding of human nature. It is often outside of academic psychology that we find the deepest springs of insight.
In particular I value a massive three-volume work that I acquired when I lived in Germany during the 70s: Ernst Bloch’s Das Prinzip Hoffnung. On the face of it what this Marxist philosopher deals with is the utopian and social-revolutionary current running through history and culture. At its base, however, there is more. This is evident in the poetic and prophetic tone, especially of the opening passages.
Mankind begins empty, and is in restless pursuit of fulfilment. This is not so much Marx as Hegel. Our waking dreams are of improvement, of harmony, of a life worth living, of a home-coming to a society entirely humane: Heimat.
It is when this most basic desire is thwarted that humanity is bitterly disappointed in the world, and feeling rejected by it in turn spitefully rejects the world. Mankind is then ashamed of its own impotent being.
The philosophic foundation of Adlerian psychotherapy lies in its dialectical understanding of the soul in the world. This is expressed by Gustav Emil Mueller, who probably had no connection with Adler or his movement, in his book Dialectic: a way into and within philosophy.
An action is always perceived as being purposive. It is characterised by meaning or intending something beyond itself. Tell me what you believe in, what you strive for, and I can tell you what you are. An action begins with a feeling of discrepancy between my wishes and the situation. If my wishes are frustrated by an obstacle I am compelled to take a look, to form a clearer perception of the obstacle, whereupon I build my plans to remove or alter the obstacle in order to suit my desire. … The soul is perceived in its actions as individuated. Individual means unique and indivisible. You cannot separate any action of feeling, desire, thinking, dreaming, and so forth, from the self which is inseparable from them as their unity.
Colwyn Trevarthen is a practised and astute observer who can home in on the meaning of commonplace interactions of children and adults. In a recent lecture he talked about a photo taken in 1907 of a Blackfoot couple with their young daughter standing between them. The child is evidently well cared for and is proud of her central position between her parents. Trevarthen insists on identifying the child’s feeling as pride.
This is striking because of the negative connotations of pride. Here we are invited to think of a pride unconnected with the sin of pride. The child feels proud to be herself, to enjoy the love and attention of her parents, and to belong in their company, to feel confirmed.
Such a child, possessing the imagination to create counterfactual fictions, also knows, even without direct and harrowing experience, what it would mean to experience the loss of pride and confirmation, shame. Shame is our basic anxiety as social beings.
Alfred Adler identifies this as the Selbstwertgefühl, the feeling of self value, the self evaluation. This lies at the core of the self and is its root preoccupation. The child and the adult that have been deeply discouraged and led to feel deep and lasting shame have a desperate need for pride, for a positive self evaluation, and will construct one from any material at hand or invented for this purpose. Unable to experience the pride of confirmation of self value that comes from belonging and shared meaning, a pathological, easily offended pride is produced, aggressively directed at others and in competition with them. Instead of a pride in belonging, a pride in not belonging!
Alison Gopnik shows us in her book The Philosophical Baby how the child playfully builds up its map of the world, always seeing the counterfactual alternatives, alternative possibilities. Instead of seeing the child as some kind of defective, unfocussed adult, she demonstrates that childhood is the Research & Development stage of our lives.
“Human beings don’t live in the real world… we live in a universe of many possible worlds… that we call dreams and plans, fictions and hypotheses. They are the product of hope and imagination.”
Learning and imagination are two aspects of the same process of the soul’s movement into reality, towards absorption and mastery of it. At the same time as learning how the world is, the child is learning to see what the world could become, how it could be changed. The child is by nature an active participant in the world, an insatiable learner and imaginer of worlds.
The evolutionary advantage of counterfactual thinking is that it allows us to change the world.
This activity of learning, imagining and acting is the basis of all human creativity and productivity. From the many possible counter fictions we choose the goals of action.
Over the course of childhood we establish a causal map of the world, both of the physical world and of human relationships.
The Soul’s drive is to live out its enmeshment in the World. In particular it will live out its enmeshment with the World of Mind.
Its outward urge, drives it to understand the World and comprehend its meaning. In the social sphere the soul is driven to take its place as a meaningful participant, to contribute and to belong.
The implication for Psychotherapy is that we and our fellows are not hermetically sealed life capsules that have to suffer collisions and impacts in order to render us capable of living in communities. We do not need to suffer a process of socialisation; we are social by nature.
The soul’s movement has a sense: forward. It is in transit between two states, forward and behind. There is unity in moving forward but a necessary duality.
Forward is the goal. We are more than goal-driven. We are our goals. We are driven to anticipate.
To comprehend the duality in the unity is to embrace the dialectic. Without dialectic we cannot really grasp the essential unity in the life of the soul. The sense of our forward movement is its meaning. We view the reality in which we move through that meaning, and thus reality has meaning for us. As Alfred Adler said: We live in a world of meanings.