Saturday, March 05, 2011

Where is the Soul 1?

Internal versus External
Rubbish washed in on the tide, Sutton, June 2005
To make sense of our lives we have invented many elaborate lesser languages within whatever major or minor language we may speak to communicate with others of our neighborhood or country - those of literature, philosophy, theology, mathematics, architecture, engineering, medicine, psychiatry, sociology, anthropology, history, philosophy and a veritable legion of other "-ologies." There would seem to be no end to the explosion of knowledge and information, aided and abetted by the speed of communication allowed us by the Internet, satellite communication and so on and so forth.

Much of our modern thinking, both in the natural and human sciences owe much to the thought of the French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes (1596 – 1650) who spent most of his adult life in the Dutch Republic. He has been rightly dubbed the "Father of Modern Philosophy," simply because a lot of subsequent Western philosophy is a response to his writings, and these are studied closely to this day. Most important of all is his book entitled Meditations on First Philosophy which continues to be a standard text at most university philosophy departments to this day. Descartes's influence in mathematics is also apparent, for example the Cartesian Coordinate Geometry System - a system that allows geometric shapes to be expressed in algebraic equations - was named after him and he was also one of the key figures in the Scientific Revolution.

However, it is to Descartes' dualism that I wish to direct my attention in this post. Our man was a rationalist who doubted the veracity of the senses and who believed solely in the certainties given by his mind - "cogito ergo sum!" In his books Passions of the Soul and The Description of the Human Body he suggested that the body works like a machine, that it has the material properties of extension and motion, and that it follows the laws of physics. On the other hand the mind (or soul or psyche) was described as a non-material entity that lacks extension and motion, and does not follow these laws of physics. Descartes argued that only humans have minds, and that the mind interacts with the body at the pineal gland which is "the seat of the soul" because the soul is unitary, and unlike many areas of the brain the pineal gland appeared to be unitary (though subsequent microscopic inspection has revealed it is formed of two hemispheres). Now, this form of dualism or duality proposes that the mind controls the body, but that the body can also influence the otherwise rational mind, such as when people act out of passion. Most of the previous accounts of the relationship between mind and body had been one-directional or uni-directional.


René Descartes
 Even though both humans and animals had pineal glands Descartes strongly believed that only humans can possibly have minds. This led him to the belief that animals cannot feel pain, and we note that his practice of vivisection (the dissection of live animals) became widely used throughout Europe until the Enlightenment. Cartesian dualism set the agenda for philosophical discussion of the mind-body problem for many years after his death.






Over-emphasising the Internal: Legacy of Greco-Christian Philosophy and Cartesian Dualism

Perhaps the above introduction was a little long-winded, but nevertheless it serves as a useful background to our singular preoccupation in Western Thought with the internal as opposed to the external.  The ancient Greek and Early Christian philosophers and theologians had prior to Descartes heralded the primacy of the internal, that is the primacy of the soul which they would have seen as directly created by the Godhead.  In Christian thought the body became more that a mere husk or housing for the spiritual soul.  In fact, for most Christians the body became nothing short of vile, dirty and sinful.  We still suffer from the weight of guilt laid on our contemporary shoulders by these ancient philosophers.  In some contemporary religions the body is still despised.  Descartes built on this Christian duality as we have seen above.  Inner became way more important than outer.  I have argued many times in these pages before that the more holistic way of looking at the human phenomenon is as a Body-Soul, a Both/And rather than an Either/Or.  Our human-ness, our individuality is a Both/And a Body-Soul or a Body-Mind if you will, not a "ghost within a machine" as Descartes would have it, or a spiritual entity or soul animating an uninvolved husk which is the body as many Christian might see it.

In a wonderful book, which is essentially the edited transcript of a dialogue between the archetype psychologist James Hillman (1926 - )and the journalist Michael Ventura (1945-  )called We've had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy - And the World's Getting Worse (Harper San Francisco, 1993), the authors deal with roughly the same question as I am dealing with in this post, namely the over-emphasis on things of the mind (soul) - internal - rather than things of the body and of the world (all external).  They give us some wonderful insights in a conversational manner.  This makes this short work an illuminating and quick read (though sections of it can be profitably re-read and digested) that deals with interesting psychological and philosophical points about the goals and aims of contemporary psychotherapy.

In their introductory remarks they maintain that psychotherapy needs a good shake today.  I love the metaphor.  I remember one Catholic Religious Sister, head of her congregation remarking way more than twenty years ago now that the Roman Catholic Church needed a very good shake to knock the rotten fruit to the ground.  Now it was the adjective "rotten" not "ripened" that the good lady used, and wasn't she right!

Here are some of the preliminary remarks of Hillman to Ventura on their shared walk or journey, and isn't he right!:

We still locate the psyche  inside the skin.  You go inside to locate the psyche, you examine your feelings and your dreams, they belong to you... but the psyche, the soul, is still only within and between people.  We're working on our relationships constantly, and on our feelings and reflections, but look at what's left out of that. (Hillman makes a wide gesture that includes the oil tanker on the horizon, the gang graffiti on a park sign, and the fat homeless woman with swollen ankles and cracked skin asleep on the grass about fifteen yards away.)  What's left out is the deteriorating world... psychotherapy is only working on the "inside" soul.  By removing the soul from the world and not recognizing that the soul is also in the world, psychotherapy can't do its job anymore.  The buildings are sick, the institutions are sick, the banking system's sick, the schools, the streets - the sickness is out there.  You know the soul is always being discovered through pathology.  In the nineteenth century people didn't talk about psyche, until Freud came along and discovered psychopathology.  Now we are beginning to say, "the furniture has stuff in it that is poisoning us, the microwave gives off dangerous rays."  The world has become toxic. (Op.cit., pp. 4-5)  (Italicization by the authors!)

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