Friday, April 04, 2008

Beyond anti-essentialism in psychology

A strong trend in modern psychology is anti-essentialism. Drawing on post-structuralism and social constructionism, it posits that people do not have fixed and unitary selves, no essential or universal natures. Instead, multiples selves emerge and play out positions in various contexts and discourses; selves are constructed (Foucault, Harré, Gergen). The existential and humanistic psychologies of yesteryear are said to postulate such an unchanging self or person.

That’s all very well. Of course there is no fixed self.
It is true that humanistic and existential psychologies have paid little attention to the processes by which a self is constructed, and they have had no interest in identifying multiple selves in the same person, seeing them rather as evidence of pathology.

The anti-essentialist position is, I suppose, meant to be liberating in the sense that people, especially those previously marginalized or oppressed by traditional categories, may realize their arbitrariness and try to invent and use others. To realize for the first time that “woman” or “gay” or “black” is not an essence you are locked into, once and for all, must feel wonderful.

(Indeed, in the first paper I published on constructivism some twenty years ago, I explored its potential for extensive social redesign: “Creating futures, constructing realities”. General Systems Yearbook, vol. 29: s. 7-15, 1985-86.)

However, soon the next question presents itself: What shall I be, then? What selves should we prefer? Does it matter; are all selves equally acceptable? Essences gone, what is the criterion for authenticity? What becomes of personal truth? Is it no longer possible to be true to oneself or lie to oneself? What is psychological health? What basis for normativity? Indeed, what should guide reality construction?

So, holding on to a psychological essence as well as completely letting go of it presents serious difficulties. There must be a third position that goes beyond both. This will be a position that acknowledges that what people “are” is very much a construction, yet accepts some of the recent insights of evolutionary and cognitive psychology (e.g., Pinker) that we are, finally, not completely blank slates, either.

In my work (Flux and Forskning i sammenhænge; English précis), I see human beings as recent products of a very long process of physical, biological and social evolution that started all the way back at the beginnings of the universe. Our self-organizing cosmos has generated still more complex systems which at some stage evolved into biological organisms that reproduce by inheritance of genomes and the various cytoplasmic structures of the seed or the egg fertilized during conception.

Evolution works on this inherited material, subjecting it to slow, but constant change over thousands of generations. This piece of biological order enclosed by a cellular membrane is what natural philosophers used to call our “nature”.

However, seen in the light of modern biology, human nature is not the fixed, let alone divinely given essence of older times. Our biological inheritance (to repeat, not just the genome, but the whole biological and structural/informational context in which it is embedded) constitutes the set of possibilities with which we start our very lives. It a system of enabling constraints on our future actions, in-forming and shaping our visceral, motor, mental and social activities.

Some of these inherited constraints are fairly rigid: universally, humans have the capacity to walk unaided, but not to fly unaided. Some are stable yet dynamic: universally, we can learn to speak a language, but locally, we will pick up just the language of our culture. And some are extremely open: we are probably innately disposed to play as children, but we will play with pretty much anything our culture offers, toy guns or dolls. In other words, culture and biographical accidents shape the trajectories that our lives take; they bring to fruition some of our inherited possibilities and potentials and not others.

Now, I would argue that it is possible to distinguish between trajectories, life histories or selves that are more authentic to a particular individual than others. It is meaningful to think and talk about a person’s various activities from the perspective: Is this a good thing for her to do? Or is she maybe lying to herself? Is the self she is presenting now doing her any good or is it mostly pretense? Is her positioning just play and nonsense, or is she really trying to make the best of her talents? Is she wasting her time or is she more or less on the right track? Is she playing mind games, is she out of his mind, is she going bonkers—is her psychological health in doubt?

None of these questions makes any sense if we cannot assume there is a unique set of potentials (and I don’t mean an essence) that Mary “really” possesses or could cultivate, a latent and promising future that she is currently inattentive to or positively ignoring. We clearly cannot refer to any metaphysical essence or transhistorical human nature, because none such exists in the flow of biological and human evolution. However, this is not to say we are left with nothing, that our lives are made out of thin air.

What a person truly is or can be is probably best seen as a mixture of evolution and ontogenetic development on the one hand and environmental and cultural influences and constraints impressing themselves on the fertilized egg, the embryo, the infant and the person on the other. A couple conceiving a child next to a Chernobyl-like nuclear accident will expose their genomes and the embryo to radiation that is not easily classified as either nature or nurture, just as piano sonatas being played to the unborn baby may dispose the child “innately” to a career in music. A childhood of violin lessons may be so internalized by the child that she will later feel her very being betrayed if she is denied the opportunity to practice and perform music. Or it may have the opposite effect: she will positively hate it. We can’t say, and that uncertainty constitutes a central question of life: What should I do with my life? Who am I? What is really me?

Whatever the source of the sense of authenticity and inauthenticity, we are indeed able to ask such questions. It may be difficult to answer them, people may go to their graves still wondering about them, but the questions are meaningful, it makes sense to ask and ponder them. This quest for what I really am, what my purpose in life is and what my contribution shall be, seems so quintessentially human that I can scarcely conceive of human existence without it. Absent this quest, we would either be whatever we happened to be without bothering to change our ways, or we would flitter among a thousand selves any of which would be as good as any other. Either alternative seems absurd. Would we call such a person mature? Fully human?

So, while anti-essentialism in psychology seems to be concerned with allowing multiple selves instead of the single self and the oppressive categories offered by “innatist” psychologies, a post-anti-essentialist psychology would indeed allow for all this flexibility, given that nature is not as fixed as was believed by pre-evolutionary psychology. However, it would also look for the stabilities and constraints of our personal ontogenetic and autobiographical histories that could provide a basis for the sense of authenticity, the sense of becoming what I am and doing what is right that seems so intrinsic to human existence, society and ethics.

I am currently exploring the Aristotelian notion of human flourishing (suitably updated to include evolutionary biology and psychology) as a term for this position beyond the relativism of constructionism and post-modernism. Humans do not possess essences, but fluid sets of possibilities serving as enabling constraints on human action. If we put our minds to it, we may unfold these unique possibilities in such a way that we flourish and say to ourselves: “Now it feels right, this is me, this is where I want to be,” knowing full well that next year or next week we may see things differently again.

Much more is possible, Horatio, than was previously dreamt of in your philosophy, but not everything is possible, either.


Mike Gottschalk said...

Hi Ib, I came across your blog today by googling autopoiesis. I'm enjoying your writing and thinking; did you stop? are you writing somewhere else?

I'm interested in social transformation and am currently thinking about our collective imaginal frameworks in which we ultimately see ourselves.

I hope you're still around- I'd enjoy conversing with you.

My best to you, Mike Gottschalk

Minnesota USA

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your interest, Mike. Have been busy doing other stuff, like real-time, F2F, with clients. More of my writing here: and here
Best, Ib

Unknown said...

Great topic for writing academic Psychology paper in school.

Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

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