Re-Thinking the Power of Language in the Field of Consciousness and Psychology
Dr. James Michael Nolan, Southwestern College, Santa Fe
Dr. Harold B. Pepinsky (Pep), a polymath, and my advisor taught me the most valuable lesson of my graduate school time at The Ohio State University:
“Nolan, beware the reification of hypothetical constructs.”
It was a sentence that would unpack itself over the next twenty-some years, but I knew immediately that there was something big in Pep’s mantric exhortation.
Reify. To “make real” or “to treat something as if it were real.” Something like that…
Hypothetical Construct: A cohort of inter-related phenomena, shepherded collectively into a noun form, where they are then presented as a unitary phenomenon in order to allow for a contained discussion of the complex assemblage of phenomena. The fact that it is “Hypothetical” suggests that it is not empirically, or scientifically or in any real way established as a “thing”, or as a hard noun, or a truth, or something we can put our hands on, like a poppy, or a car hood, or a warthog.
Not to mention the quantum physics angle, which broke the discombobulating news that things are no longer “things” anyway.
So to take what are still HYPOTHETICAL notions. or constructs. or hypothesized phenomena, and treat them as if they unmistakably “exist in the world”—without real doubt, or question, would be a mistake of some magnitude. Presumptuous at best.
So surely such conceptual sloppiness does not find its way into the field of Psychology? Ah, but alas, it does. In fact, the whole field is made up of such unicorns and jackalopes.
What are some of our time honored (and largely unacknowledged) “constructs” or “Psych-Nouns”?
Self. Ego. Personality. Self-Esteem. Depression. Anxiety. Bipolar Disorder. Complex. Spirit. Personality Disorder, Co-Dependency. Shadow. Consciousness. Mental Illness.
What, you say? Are you going to argue that “Personalities” do not exist??
Yes, I think I am. Pepinsky would argue (through me, here) that the noun “Personality” would be a “linguistic convenience for discussing an incredibly complex array of phenomena, processes, actions, decisions, decisions-in-contexts, and so on, that we “observe” over time, and which may or may not show consistencies or patterns and may or may not be predictable with any accuracy, but which someone finds to be reasonably representative of a given person’s way of being in the world.”
Over dozens of years, in literally thousands of contexts, we respond, act, behave, choose, in a certain way each time. Our culture likes the idea that these ways of responding show different patterns for each one of us to the point where we feel we can more or less predict how a given individual will likely respond to a given situation at a given time.
“He is impulsive.” “She has a depressive personality.” “He is Borderline. “
Life is a staggering weaving of literally billions of processes, fluidities, cellular and interplanetary janglings, intermingling and clashing all over the place, and all of this movement makes us nervous. It is hard to talk about. We want it contained. We want to give it a static name. It is like shooting point blank at a crazily moving target, as someone else has said.
The damn thing won’t stay still.
But if we throw a “Noun Net” over all these darting fishes, we feel like we have captured something enough to slow it down, pretend that the shapes of things under the net is the ACTUAL shape of those things, and that those things meaningfully can be said to be indeed ONE thing, as it were. We have captured a phenomenon. It becomes our pet concept, and like a pet, we get to name it.
But if we catch ten million minnows under one huge net, can we then say we have caught a whale? Or name it “The Whale”? No—we caught ten million minnows. Nothing more, nothing less. All together, they might be as BIG as a whale, or weigh as much as a whale, but it is important to remember that they are NOT, collectively, a whale.
Suddenly, we all have “Personalities” and, under unfortunate circumstances, these personalities can become “Disordered”.
And we each have a Self, and an Ego. Depression, a continuum of experiences, emotions, behaviors and thought patterns, also becomes a thing, a noun, and we have named it. The wildly dynamic becomes a stultifyingly static noun.
But hold on–we named other things in earlier iterations of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, but eventually we no longer liked the shapes of those things, and so they no longer “exist.”
Whole diagnoses disappeared.
Where did they go? What if your granny had been treated for one of those in 1967, but later it was decided that what she was treated for did not really exist? Should we sue somebody? Get our money back? I am confused….And I am being more than a Wise-Guy, I hope. This is serious business.
We ARE observing behaviors, seeming patterns, we ARE tracking decisions and decision-making styles. This stuff is real. There ARE minnows, and they ARE worth noting and discussing. But when we roll a bunch of these things together for convenience sake (and how else could we discuss this stuff?) and agree to “noun-ify” it, we have taken liberties. That, in itself, is OK. As long as we are conscious that that is what we have done, and as long as we remember that that is what we have done. And we must make sure that each newcomer to the conversation, each new graduate student in our field, be apprised of the fact that “we made this up” for convenience sake, lest she or he come to the mistaken conclusion (as beginning graduate students are wont to do) that these nouns really ARE something.
“Dude—Don’t forget—it’s reified.”
We forget to tell them that. We may have even forgotten that ourselves. I see colleagues every day who have forgotten. It alarms me no end.
So am I saying that ALL of the Psych Nouns are reified hypothetical constructs?
Yeah, pretty much. I know. This makes a whole bunch of people VERY nervous. It really does. I have presented these ideas at national conferences and training residencies, and I am viewed as a very interesting, albeit iconoclastic guy by a host of folks, and as out of my mind by others. But honestly, I am not even prepared to ENTERTAIN the possibility that I am wrong on this one.
You can refer to the Easter Bunny as many times as you want, write stories about the Easter Bunny, manufacture stuffed Easter Bunnies, put his or her image on cards and make little kid Easter Bunny outfits, but when all is said and done, there still ain’t no Easter Bunny.
And there ain’t no depression. No personality. No personality disorder. Even the people who write the DSM know this. Some of them have called the diagnoses “fictive placeholders.” They know they are not “diseases.” Go read Saving Normal and the Book of Woe if you have any questions about that.
The pharmaceutical people can tell you what substance (serotonin, for example) is impacted or manipulated, but they cannot tell you why the drug “works”. And much research calls into question whether it does work. And when anti-depressants (Paxil, for example) are suddenly found to be “efficacious” for treating “anxiety” or “social anxiety”, then what is going on there? Are depression and anxiety different “things”?
I know, this sort of messes up the whole field. What are we supposed to do? How are we supposed to talk about this stuff??
I would suggest (though here I am fully prepared to be wrong, or only partly right) that we do not necessarily have to do ANYTHING differently with our language. It is perfectly nice language, for the most part (though we should lose clearly terribly contaminated terms like “Borderline Personality Disorder.”
We just have to remember that these are IDEAS, not THINGS…
This caveat goes to our most sophisticated colleagues too. The Jungians have their own whole world of metaphors and nouns that they love better than anybody else’s collection of metaphors. They like seeing “shadows” and “archetypes” and so on, though from a more factual perspective, those are only so many more Easter Bunnies. And I actually happen to LIKE the Jungians’ collection of Easter Bunnies. I use the language myself sometimes. Good language.
Other traditions have their OWN favorite metaphors, Nouns, Hypothetical Constructs, Easter Bunnies, Shadows, what have you. And they, too, can be useful, as long as nobody forgets that they are metaphors, linguistic conveniences, ways of talking more simply about really complicated stuff.
Language is an incredibly powerful weapon. And it is easy to get hit by “Friendly Fire”. The metaphorical or hypothetical becomes reified, and huge, important decisions get made based on the language that has been used to describe or capture the phenomena.
So Pepinsky was on to something. Our whole field is based on “the reification of hypothetical constructs.” As I supervise or train professionals, I vow to remind them of this. And they do NOT need to agree with me, but they DO need to take this point of view seriously and explain to me how they think differently about it….and they NEED to look at that DSM and review it critically…
Yes, of course there is suffering. Just stop the nonsense of telling us that if you have 5 of these 7 kinds of suffering or experience that they then become this ONE other thing, which you may have just invented a few years ago or last week. Save yourself the trouble of having to explain to us how now Asperger’s does NOT exist. You sound ridiculous when you put yourself in that position.
The whole world is built, or viewed, at least, as resting on the metaphorical model of the most influential person(s) in the culture, or in your head, or what have you….The Celts knew the magical powers of language and accorded the Druids and poets powers and influence unimaginable. We have done the same, but call it “Science”.
Psychology and Science are not alone here. Many “Mystical”, esoteric or alternative systems (many that you will find in Santa Fe) use different Easter Bunnies, but to the extent that we are still in the “reification of hypothetical constructs” business, it really doesn’t matter. It is still language masquerading as, or claiming to be, “Truth”, capital “T.”
Ultimately, all language becomes a Consciousness issue.