Of psychological depths

In my previous post about the way the mind’s automatic processes get things wrong (and how that point is important to Buddhists), I turned to the experiments of Daniel Kahneman (and Amos Tversky) on false cognition. I claimed that the kind of automaticity they describe is a better explanation of what Freud would have called the unconscious mind, citing the quip that “the unconscious is unconscious not because it’s repressed but because it’s not conscious.”

Some excellent comments from Patrick O’Donnell took me to task for this claim. Patrick is pointing to the importance of the distinction between cognitivist approaches like Kahneman’s on one hand, and a very different kind of modern Western psychology on the other. Freud is by far the best-known practitioner of this other kind of psychology, but I think that it encompasses a wider variety of thinkers including Carl Jung, and very likely going back to Nietzsche.

I treat these thinkers as practising one single kind of psychology with reference to a key comment of Patrick’s. He claims that “cognitive science is studying that which far closer to the surface of conscious awareness (hence its amenability to experiments) and thus, strictly speaking, does not treat the ‘unconscious’ mind.” I think that in this respect Freudian psychoanalysis is best placed within a larger group of psychological approaches that do claim to treat an “unconscious mind” that is much further away from “the surface of conscious awareness”. Kurt Danziger, in his interesting history of American experimental psychology and its vocabulary, uses the term “depth psychology” to describe such approaches – he names Alfred Adler as one of its main protagonists alongside Freud and Jung. That term seems entirely apt to me, in part because Freud himself appears to have used it as self-description (in his “Beyond the pleasure principle” and “The ego and the id”), and in part because of the very nature of what these approaches have in common: that they seek to get beyond “the surface of conscious awareness”, whose opposite must surely be “depth”. So while I acknowledge Patrick’s point that contemporary self-described “depth psychologists tend to frown on Freud, at least in comparison with Jung”, on reflection I think the description of Freud as a “depth psychologist” remains entirely apt.

The name aside, Patrick’s larger point is that Freud claims to be observing something very different than Kahneman &co. do. And I think this point is correct and of high importance – especially in reference to any comparison with Buddhism. For what we are dealing with here, I have realized from my exchange with Patrick, are two quite different kinds of psychological “depth”. In my first comment to Patrick I had said that “the hot motivational structures you describe are pretty widespread – a great deal of Buddhist thought and practice deals with the difficulty of rooting them out when they go down so deep.” His response is worth quoting in full:

habits are hard to break, and not necessarily because they’re unconscious, but because, through praxis (often over many years, beginning in our young adult lives if not earlier), they’ve become so ingrained (much like other things we learn): that they can be broken or changed is evidenced in many parts of life even if not as often as we would hope or like: such changes rarely require anything like psychoanalytic intervention, whereas those habits that are profoundly irrational or conspicuously distort our efforts to live a more or less “rational,” “normal” or “sane” life do strike me as having unconscious sources that require therapy of one kind or another (one, like psychoanalysis, with substantial pedigree).

I claimed that what Buddhists seek to eradicate is “deep” in the sense that it is deeply rooted – hard to root out, hard to eradicate. Psychoanalysts and other depth psychologists, by contrast, are claiming to find phenomena that are deep in quite a different sense: that they are hard to discover. There is an important commonality between the two approaches, which my initial comment had tried to note, in that both reject the Cartesian assumption that the conscious mind is generally in control of itself, master of its own house. That rejection is important because the assumption goes so far beyond Descartes: we tend to think of “belief” in a simplistic sense that identifies it with assenting consciously to propositions, not recognizing the important things in which we do not actually control the things we “believe”. All this was the main point of the original post, on which I don’t see any disagreement between Patrick and myself.

Yet the differences remain. And on this point what strikes me is that, as I understand them, the target of Buddhist practices may be closer to what is identified by Kahneman and Tversky than by Freud. That is: I don’t think Buddhists claim it is hard to know what is wrong with us. It is just hard to get rid of the problem – as Kahneman, I think, also shows. In part, I think, this is because Buddhists are less concerned than depth psychologists with individual difference: we all are suffering from the same delusions, which makes them, at some level, obvious. We might not have been able to figure out that suffering comes from craving until somebody told us that, but once they do, we are able to assent to the proposition without much difficulty. The hard part comes in getting that proposition to take root at a level beyond our fleeting consciousnesses, to be something we feel and act on rather than just articulate. In this respect, it seems to me, Buddhists may be considerably closer to Kahneman than to Freud.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

About Amod Lele

Amod Lele is Lecturer in Philosophy, Educational Technologist in Information Services & Technology, and Visiting Researcher in the Study of Asia at Boston University. He administers the technical side of the Indian Philosophy Blog, as well as running his own cross-cultural philosophy blog, Love of All Wisdom. He holds a PhD with a South Asia focus from the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. You can find out more about him than you ever wanted to know at his ePortfolio.

6 thoughts on “Of psychological depths

  1. An older word like ‘mentation’ may be helpful for describing the conscious or unconscious activity of our psyches,emotions,sensations-
    (as language sensation emotion thought are the means for meaning to us–they are experienced as words-mentations)…
    …That a self may be emerging when we see what in front of us “is what we actually are”, then perhaps a rooting of self can begin to occur towards a more permanent self and more observation…
    …And that Buddhist and others look to balance the activity of their lives in silent searching…

    Interacting esoteric and exoteric influences maybe the present direction of evolution…

  2. Amod,
    It’s encouraging and quite gratifying to have one’s comments thoughtfully addressed and considered. As for “deep psychology,” I need not quibble about its use but did want to note how those who came to have fundamental theoretical and practical disagreements with Freud, especially Jung and “Jungians,” have tended to appropriate this expression for themselves, and thus it is rare today to see those of Freudian provenance describe their work in these terms, however apt it may in fact be (so on that point we do agree).

    Leaving aside cognitive psychology,* I want at a later point in time to address the similarities and differences between psychoanalytic psychology and Buddhism, which I’ve long been interested in and about which we perhaps see things a bit differently: for example, you write, “I don’t think Buddhists claim it is hard to know what is wrong with us.” I think just the contrary, at least if such knowledge is not understood in simply propositional terms and thus is best viewed, in a manner of speaking, as “self-knowledge” (I don’t mean this as knowledge of a ‘self,’ but as David Velleman would use it: ‘a reflexive guise under which parts [as capacities, powers, etc.] of a person are presented to his own mind’). One might say, with some justification, and from the outside looking in as it were, that I “understand” the doctrines of anicca (impermanence), dukkha (dissatisfaction or suffering), anattā (no-self), and śūnyatā (emptiness), that I can make sense of what Buddhists are claiming in asserting the truth of such ideas, and indeed, that is what I was doing when I taught a course on “comparative religions,” speaking with authority and confidence to my students about the (semantic) meaning of such doctrines. But I always qualified my presentation with a proviso that such knowledge is not prajñā/paññā (‘wisdom’), or (nonpropositional) insight in the true nature of reality. This is one reason that the Eightfold Path has three dimensions. Thus, in so far as samādhi and śīla/sīla are part of this therapeutic regimen, such knowledge is indeed difficult to come by, it is extremely “hard to know,” that is, to truly understand what is wrong with us. To the extent that one is attracted to Buddhist doctrines and praxis one could say that one has some knowledge, some taste, inkling or intuition of the “truth” of these doctrines, but true knowledge or insight is, hard won, to put it rather feebly. Getting “rid of the problem” is inextricably bound up with the requisite knowledge on this picture, and so both are equally arduous. I think you appreciate this insofar as you state that “[t]he hard part comes in getting that proposition to take root at a level beyond our fleeting consciousnesses, to be something we feel and act on rather than just articulate.” So, perhaps we agree here too as well! And here I would want to say psychoanalytic therapy is in fact quite close to Buddhism (and not Kahneman or cognitive psychology).
    * I would like to quote from Jon Elster insofar as its point is apropos of cognitive psychology:
    “… [W]ith respect to an important subset of the emotions we can learn more from moralists, novelists, and playwrights than from the cumulative findings of scientific psychology. These emotions include regret, relief, hope, disappointment, shame, guilt, pridefulness, pride, hybris, envy, jealousy, malice, pity, indignation, wrath, hatred, contempt, joy, grief, and romantic love. By contrast, the scientific study of the emotions can teach us a great deal about anger, fear, disgust, parental love, and sexual desire (if we count the last two as emotions). [….] I believe…that prescientific insights into the emotion are not simply superseded by modern psychology in the way that natural philosophy has been superseded by physics. Some men and women in the past have been superb students of human nature, with more wide-ranging personal experience, better powers of observation, and deeper intuitions than almost any psychologist I can think of. This is only what we should expect: There is no reason why one century out of twenty-five should have a privilege in wisdom and understanding. In the case of physics, this argument does not apply.”—Jon Elster, Alchemies of the Mind: Rationality and the Emotions (Cambridge University Press, 1999)

    The Buddhist tradition, while lacking a term for the “emotions” as such, nonetheless come closer, I think, to the discoveries of the “moralists, novelists, and playwrights,” than “scientific psychology,” cognitive or otherwise: I don’t intend to include psychoanalytic psychology here largely because I think it is based on a qualitatively different kind of science, a science of subjectivity if you will, one that partakes of both the natural and social sciences, but is a peculiarly “human science” insofar as we accord fundamental priority to its therapeutic modality and telos (the latter as rendered by Jonathan Lear). And Buddhism might be characterized, in part, as a science of subjectivity as well, given its therapeutic goals.

    • Thank you for this, Patrick, and sorry for the delay in replying – I wanted to be able to take some time with this.

      I probably spoke too loosely when I said “I don’t think Buddhists claim it is hard to know what is wrong with us.” You are quite right that in the most important sense, Buddhists say it is very difficult to really know what is wrong with us, because their conception of knowledge is about seeing reality as it is, in a way inextricable from the rooting out of practices. But a crux of the point here, I think, is your “if such knowledge is not understood in simply propositional terms”. I think that for both Buddhism and psychoanalysis, what’s wrong with us can be expressed as a proposition. But for Buddhism, at least, assenting to that proposition is the easy part; it is not sufficient for seeing the situation correctly. It is not hard to acknowledge that you are full of a craving and anger that mires you in suffering; the trick is turning that acknowledgement into a deeper self-awareness. And I see that as a key difference from psychoanalysis (and other forms of “depth psychology”) as I know it. To my understanding, psychoanalysis tells us that for each of us it is really hard for each of us to a) figure out what the problem is, what the propositions are that describes our individual difficulty; and b) acknowledge that it is in fact the problem, in the face of our defence mechanisms of repression that tell us it isn’t. I don’t think either of these are an issue for Buddhists. The hard part for Buddhists is in applying the proposition what we know what it is; for psychoanalysts, it is at least as hard to find out the proposition in the first place.

      It is in this respect that I see Buddhism as more comparable to Kahneman than to Freud. It is not hard to recognize that you see things wrongly in the Müller-Lyer illusion; the hard part is trying to train yourself out of doing so.

  3. Oops, I wanted to comment on this as well: “Buddhists are less concerned than depth psychologists with individual difference.” This is something that, again, I hope to address at a later point in more depth, but for now will note that there is ample reason to view the Buddhist tradition as not distinguishable from psychoanalytic psychology in this regard, especially its Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna forms (to cite just one example, consider the manner in which kōans are employed in Zen), hence the stress placed on the need for a guru or a teacher (and one may come to have more than one such guru) for the Buddhist aspirant or student (despite the abuses such religious authority have been prone to, at least here in the U.S.), and hence the reason meditation practices are often at some point designed with a particular student’s personality, dispositions or character in mind, in other words, individuated, albeit within a repertoire of limited options. Assessments of “progress” on the path are also sensitive to individual difference. The precise manner in which individual difference is contextualized and conceptualized is of course not the same but I believe Buddhists are no less concerned about individual difference, at least with regard to actual therapeutic praxis.

    • This is an interesting point, and closely related to the previous one, I think. But I think the role of the guru may be overstated here. In most traditions that I am aware of, it is only a monk who would have a guru, not a layperson. For a monk the role played by that guru matters, but is relatively small, at least when compared to psychoanalytic practice, in which the role of the psychoanalyst is almost everything. Śāntideva, for example, refers to the importance of a kalyāṇa mitra (guru, literally “good friend”) a number of times in the Śikṣā Samuccaya, but if I recall correctly, in the Bodhicaryāvatāra it appears not at all. The meditation practices in that text are not at all individualized – everyone does the same thing.

      In a different context, at the Goenka vipassanā course I took, the teacher I spoke with personally was not even introduced by name. I talked to him individually for maybe five minutes a day, as opposed to the hours of videos from Goenka that were the same for everyone. There are probably significant inter-traditional differences to speak of, but it seems to me that there are multiple Buddhist traditions where the role of a guru is not all that significant. Individual differences matter, but much less than the basic problems that afflict everyone.

  4. Re: “overstating the role of the guru or teacher,” I’ll cite a bit from two different traditions:

    “In his Bodhimārgapradīpapañjikā, written … at the request of a king, Atiśa explicitly states that he will not give instructions about meditation or śamatha, for as he explains,

    ‘Instruction in meditation is the kind which relies upon the personal instruction of an experienced holy teacher. And that is because details of the teaching on calmness and insight must be explained, and because of the difficulty of learning meditation just from reading books.’

    Instruction on meditation must come directly from one’s spiritual teacher or guru. This implies that during Atiśa’s time instruction on the practice of meditation was given in a guru-paramparā, directly from teacher to disciple in a lineage of teaching. Atiśa gives the Madhyamaka instruction in the form of an upadeśa, ‘pith instructions,’ based on his earlier and much more extensive Ratnakaraṇḍodghāṭa, written in India.”
    —From James B. Apple’s contribution to a forthcoming volume, “The Spiritual Exercises of the Middle Way: Reading Atiśa’s Madhyamakopadeśa with Hadot,” available here: https://www.academia.edu/36313087/The_Spiritual_Exercises_of_the_Middle_Way_Reading_Ati%C5%9Ba_with_Hadot

    “In the Theravāda tradition there are forty subjects of meditation, classified according to types of persons [e.g., devotional, intellectual, passionate, angry, dull, etc.]—or perhaps also to the state or mood a person is in at a particular time—and in terms of the levels of the levels meditative achievement to which each subject can lead when properly meditated upon.”

    Ascertaining “personality types” or “moods” makes indispensable the role of the teacher (at least beyond a basic level of meditation praxis). And as some of the boundaries between the saṅgha/saṃgha and the laity are breaking down (notwithstanding that fact, the distinction remains important), most conspicuously when the laity engages in “ascetic” or disciplinary spiritual practices once thought to be the prerogative of the monk (e.g., meditation retreats and ‘empowerments’) or monks immerse themselves more actively in the social and political realm, the role of such teachers is enhanced beyond the life of monks (or would-be monks) proper (I’ll refrain from sharing my anecdotal experience in this regard).

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