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Reversal – Beyond the clever machine

300-2In psychoanalytic theory, reversal is a Freudian defense mechanism.

A broader idea than turning against the self, reversal takes place when the ego converts an instinctual impulse into behavior appearing as its opposite. The miser becomes a philanthropist, the pervert a prude, the hater a lover.¹

Remember that Freud bases most everything on the instincts of life (eros) and death (thanatos). So reversal involves aspects and combinations of both waking and dreaming life:

The expression reversal into the opposite refers to the transformation of an idea, a representation, a logical figure, a dream image, a symptom, an affect, or the like into its opposite.²

Freud’s entire model is predicated on the belief that the psyche behaves like a clever machine or, in more contemporary terms, an adaptable computer program. For Freud, a variety of internal attempts are made to reduce anxiety and increase overall functioning. Sometimes the “program” works well. Other times it gets buggy (neurosis) or caught in a downward spiral where the machine crashes (psychosis), requiring a reboot.

Reversal is just another example of the clever machine trying to make things optimal, given its paradoxical life/death nature.

My main critique of this view is that all of the regulating is done within the machine. Even dreams that play with, combine or synthesize different moments in space-time are seen as originating from within the neurological system (mainly brain processes).

Compare this view to most religious and mystical traditions and it seems to fall short. A recent example, given the time of year, is how the three wise men in the New Testament are told in a dream to not return to King Herod³ after they find the Christ child. So the three wise men go home another way (Matt 2:12).

Granted, this is a religious story and we have no way of publicly demonstrating its truth. But it does suggest possibilities: Dreams could come from God or otherworldly agents beyond the clever machine. The brain could simply be reading a story, just like a media player plays a video or a radio plays a station. Not many would say a video player actually directs a movie or the radio writes the tune.4

Being a materialist atheist, Freud would not have seriously considered this perspective. And  I think that this, despite his obvious genius, was his greatest shortcoming.

¹ We see this with some religious people who talk about love but underneath harbor hateful, violent thoughts that sometimes erupt into deadly action.

² See http://www.encyclopedia.com/psychology/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/reversal-opposite

³ Beforehand, Herod lies to the wise men, saying he wants to honor instead of kill Jesus.

Freud’s student Carl Jung mentions the latter analogy, well before the idea of “channeling” becomes mainstream.


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Plato’s Republic – A far-reaching attempt to understand life and eternity

Allegory_of_the_Cave (Plato)

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave (Wikipedia)

The Republic is a political, philosophical and literary work by the ancient Greek Plato. Written in dialog form around 380 BCE, it reads more like a play than a dry treatise on philosophy, maths, political theory or the arts.

Plato writes a fictional discussion among Athenians and foreigners. The outcome of these contrived debates advances Plato’s ideas, as presented by the literary character of Socrates,  Plato’s real-life teacher.

Questions like the nature of justice, virtue, truth and beauty are examined. Also, a contrast is set up between the world of becoming (our visible world) and the world of being (an eternal world that informs our visible world).

This dialectic permeates the entire discussion. Not unlike some of the ancient Chinese sages, Plato’s eye on eternity influences how he understands society, rulers, and the arts.

For Plato, the philosopher-king is the best kind of ruler. So the Republic does not advocate democracy (Greek: strength of the people), even though democracy is an ancient Greek invention, traceable to the 6th century BCE.

Today, many take the idea of democracy as a good in itself. We hardly stop to think if there might be a better way (except for tyrants, communists and non-democratic socialists). But it is conceivable that the majority isn’t always right or best.¹ And that’s how Plato saw it.

From the House of T. Siminius Stephanus, Pompeii

Plato’s Academy – Roman mosaic from Pompeii, 1st century BCE (Wikipedia)

Just as a doctor is specially trained to heal citizens, for Plato an enlightened ruler is uniquely endowed to govern subjects. But not everyone is able to recognize the best ruler. And for Plato the vast majority of citizens are ill-suited to the task of selecting one.

The Republic groups society into four classes of gold, silver, bronze and iron. Individuals (ideally) fulfill the duties that nature has allotted to their social class.

This is reminiscent of the Indian caste system, although Hinduism traditionally legitimizes social inequality through myth and spirituality, not so much through nature.

via Vimeo

via Vimeo

Christianity too speaks of different members of one spiritual body, each having his or her own role: Hands, feet, head, heart, etc.²

On a deeper level, The Republic also presents Plato’s popular ‘cave analogy.’ This illustrates his views about a link between worldly change and eternity. The cave analogy goes as follows:

Prisoners in a cave have been there since birth. Bound to a chair, they face a wall with a fire some distance behind them. Their captors come and go, always walking between the fire and the prisoners’ backs. So the captors and the stuff they transport are always seen by the prisoners as shadows on the cave wall. The prisoners cannot see anything else so assume the shadows are reality.

If a prisoner were dragged up the slope leading to the cave entrance, his or her eyes would be temporarily blinded by the sunlight. Once their eyes adjusted, however, the free prisoner would see a far greater reality than the world of shadows.

Supposing the prisoner were to reenter the cave, they again would be temporarily blinded, this time by a lack of light. When their eyes readjusted to the darkness, the shadows would reappear. But the prisoner now knows these are mere shadows and not reality, as he or she had previously believed. And he or she would probably feel sorry for those who did not know the difference

A Renaissance manuscript Latin translation of ...

A Renaissance manuscript Latin translation of The Republic (Wikipedia)

In this analogy, the shadows represent the ever-changing world of daily life. The world above the cave entrance represents an eternal, unchanging reality that Plato calls the realm of the Forms. For Plato, only the Forms are real because our mundane world is subject to change and lacks permanence.

Toward the end of The Republic, “The Myth of Er” outlines Plato’s belief in reincarnation and the immortality of the soul.

Many see The Republic as a landmark in literature, education, philosophy, politics and theology. Influential throughout Europe in the Middles Ages, it continues to inspire in the modern age.

For me, this was one of the first ‘mind-blowing’ books that I encountered in my youth. And even though I’ve moved beyond it in my own thinking, I will always respect Plato because he provided a model, however embryonic, to help make sense of my early spiritual experiences.4

¹ Consider how the vast majority of scientists – at least, those who have received funding – maintain that climate change is bad for the planet. But what if, say, an asteroid hits which causes a deep freeze, and that extra ½º of temperature saves humanity from extinction? Far-fetched, to be sure. But like Plato’s scenario, a hypothetical example where the majority would not be correct.

² Funny how this photo has a white hand on top. A little bit racist? The Christian notion of “one body” can also be used by sexists to suggest that women and men have definite, different roles.

³ This is my retelling, partly based on philosophy lectures given by Dr. Robert Carter at Trent University. See original text: http://www.historyguide.org/intellect/allegory.html

4 A sampling of some of the topics covered in this diverse work:

pl1

(studyplace.org)

Related » Archetype, Archetypal Image, Aristotle, AtlantisSri Aurobindo, Blessed Isles, Boethius, Church Fathers, Dionysius the Areopagite, Gorgias, Meno, Neoplatonism, Plotinus, Proclus, Socrates, Skepticism, Solon, Sophists, Timeus, Universalism


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Repression – Freud’s master defense mechanism

defend-444565_640We’ve probably all heard the psychological term “repressed” without stopping to think where it comes from.

The idea of repression usually turns up in sentences like, That bible thumper is so repressed, he can’t get it on with anyone. And in other insinuations like Billy Joel’s lyric, You Catholic girls start much too late.¹

I’ll talk about these examples a bit later but first, let’s understand what Freud meant by the idea of repression.

Freud believed that repression is widespread, leading many Freudian psychoanalysts to call it the “master” defense mechanism. Repression apparently occurs when anxiety provoking impulses or ideas are banished to the unconscious by the ego or superego.

  • Primary repression takes place when instinctual impulses are blocked before they reach consciousness.
  • Secondary repression occurs when camouflaged versions of an initial impulse are relegated to the unconscious.

An example of secondary repression would be a respected religious figure’s inability to remember a dream image of himself as an axe-murderer. The image generally would represent thanatos or the death instinct and, specifically, a desire to depose a threatening object (Freud’s use of ‘object’ includes other people). This violent desire is inconsistent with the dreamer’s conscious self-image, so the dream image is repressed.

Repression can be healthy when preventing the ego from being overwhelmed by anxiety. But it becomes unhealthy when fears and neuroses are never dealt with. Unresolved neuroses contribute to psychological rigidity and, in some instances, may impair overall functioning and quality of life.²

Image via Tumblr

Image via Tumblr

That’s the theory in a nutshell. With regard to sexuality, from a theological standpoint it’s hard to know when someone is merely repressed or if they’ve been called to celibacy, a perspective Freud could not understand. Also, some geneticists and physiologists theorize that people with low to non-existent sex drives are simply put together differently.

So the next time you hear a sexual joke about that “frigid” so-and-so, maybe think again. For all we know, the so-called “repressed” person might simply be different from most and possibly operating on a level that many are too conventional to appreciate.³

¹ Billy Joel, “Only The Good Die Young” on the album The Stranger.

² Freud began as a neurologist before founding psychoanalysis. For some decades supposedly “scientific” psychologists generally discredited his views but more recently neurology is turning its gaze back to the idea of repression and other Freudian concepts. This time, instead of flatly debunking Freud’s ideas, some researchers find them at least partly compatible with modern research. See:

³ Andy Warhol and saints from different world religions come to mind.


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Representation – A subtle power for good or ill

Radar is a unique type of representation that helps in war and peace

Radar is a unique type of representation used in war and peace

In the literary and artistic sense, representation refers to depicting a psychological, social, natural, political or spiritual idea or condition through language, music, visual art, multimedia, CGI or dance.

In the sciences, abstract ideas like numbers and their interrelationships are represented through numerals and other symbols.¹

In psychology, Carl Jung argues that representation is essential to the healthy growth of the psyche. For him, the conscious ego is like a control center that, through representation, must express and manage the formidable powers of the archetypes of the collective unconscious. Jung believes it is potentially dangerous to not express unconscious attitudes, tendencies and desires in some socially acceptable way.

One of the classic examples of this danger in today’s news would be pedophile priests. These are mostly gay men, not too spiritually aware nor advanced, who have taken a vow of celibacy. They’ve also pledged themselves to God in an organization that says homosexuality is disordered. For Jung, this would be double trouble, involving

  • the harsh repression of physiological impulses for sex
  • a strange, twisted hypocrisy concerning one’s sexual orientation²

No wonder the US Church, alone, has paid out several billions of dollars in sex abuse lawsuits to victims over the past 65 years.

Postmodern thinkers question to what degree representation actually represents and to what degree it creates or colors something. For them, social power comes into play in describing and defining. Representation does not only denote something. It also connotes meanings. Compare the following two sentences:

He had a distinguished career with an Honorary Doctor of Letters from Oxford.

He read and wrote a lot of stuff that people at a British school for continued learning liked, so they added more letters to his name.

These may denote the same thing but they connote very different meanings. Thus we see the power of representation.

A wealthy couple having breakfast via Wikipedia

A wealthy couple having breakfast via Wikipedia

Sociologists like Pierre Bourdieu say that elites use certain terms, ways of speaking and manners to separate themselves from others, and to remind the “lower classes” of their apparent vulgarity and powerlessness. Choice of clothing has the same effect. And funnily enough, the lower classics often buy cheaper, less fine versions of that expensive “look” in a failed attempt to measure up to their apparently elite superiors. Bourdieu calls these non-economic assets that elites possess cultural capital. From head to toe, inside and out, elites have a lot while the lower classes have far less.³

In anthropology, philosophy and theology, the idea of representation has been broken down into

  • first-order sense data, where human beings create an internal representation of something seemingly “out there”4
  • second-order conceptualizations and images

Within Platonic philosophy and the scholastic theology of the Middle Ages, different questions are raised about the possibility of eternal, unchanging essences or ideas that are imperfectly represented in our everyday, impermanent world of change and decay.

With abstract art, some argue that the personality and personal message of the artist may be entirely absent in the representational message of an artwork. Others say this is impossible—that is, the artist, artwork and viewer always exist in some kind of relationship.

To sum, representation is a fascinating phenomenon. In junior high school I once wrote a paper differentiating mankind from animals on the basis of our ability to make tools. But when I hit university I was introduced to the power of language, symbols and signs. And many argue that this representational aspect of mankind is what makes us truly human. For better or for worse, we live in a largely symbolic universe with diverse meanings.5

¹ Most of us don’t think about it too much. But the concept of number as a discrete, definite unit is not as simple as it might seem. See https://www.philosophytalk.org/shows/what-are-numbers and https://welovephilosophy.com/2012/12/17/do-numbers-exist/

² I have no idea about the causes of hetero- and homosexuality. I am just reporting Jung’s view. Non-abusive instances of gay religious may involve a bewildering confusion or secret dual life concerning one’s sexual orientation. Concerning the first bulleted item, some Catholics believe that the Holy Spirit gives brothers, nuns and priests a supernatural gift of celibacy, lifting them to a higher level of operation and giving them power over their natural desires. In reality, though, I don’t think it’s always that clear cut.

³ This is not to say that the economically poor cannot be highly intelligent nor spiritually rich. But I think some religious people create a stereotype about this based on Luke 6:20. Just because someone is poor does not, imo, mean they always have a rich inner life and good ethics. And by the same token, just because someone is rich does not mean they are always cruel, superficial snobs. This is a silly, superficial view in itself, I think based on a particular interpretation of the New Testament.

I say seemingly “out there” because solipsism suggests we cannot prove the reality of anything beyond our own internal experience. I don’t agree with taking this view but thought I should mention it.

5 I say largely symbolic because some sociologists fall short by saying that we live in a mere symbolic universe. I’m not convinced that religious experience, before the interpretive stage, is symbolic. I believe the Holy Spirit can touch us directly. So part of our experience, provided we’re open to religious experience, can be direct and non-representational.

Related » Active Imagination, Archetypal Image, Roland Barthes, Rudolf Bultmann, Bruce Cockburn, Emile Durkheim, Emic-Etic, Icon, Object, Participation Mystique, Surrealism, Wittgenstein, Yoni


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The Renaissance – Some were punished, others outsmarted authoritarian powers

Renaissance fair near Pittsburgh

Renaissance fair near Pittsburgh (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A term that literally means “rebirth,” the Renaissance brought on a flowering of the arts, architecture, music, literature, philosophy, religion, science and scholarship.

Prefigured in the 12th century, what some call the High Middle Ages, most agree that the Renaissance began in Florence, Italy and spread through Europe from the 14th to 17th centuries. Several factors were involved in its genesis. One of the more prominent was a weakening of the Christian Church’s cultural and economic grip over the lives of men and women.¹

Geographers, astronomers, and map makers during the Renaissance and Baroque periods were very interested in observing and mapping the heavenly bodies and theorizing about their relationship to the Earth – Norman B. Leventhal Map Center via Flickr

Instead of Europeans following the dictates of authoritarian personalities and their organizational structures, beauty and truth were sought after in fresh new ways.

The clergy had lost its stranglehold on learning and aptitude in languages like Latin, Hebrew and Greek, making any person with means and ability free to study and ask new questions about society, history and Biblical scripture.

Some were severely punished for their new found freedoms. Authoritarians in power rarely enjoy challenges to their rigid mindsets and regimes. Other freethinkers distanced themselves or entirely renounced authoritarian beliefs and structures so as to minimize repercussions. And yet other shrewd figures like Erasmus Desiderius knew how to find balance and equilibrium among competing political forces.

It’s not for us to say whose approach was right or wrong. Each had their own way, just as today some are called to blend in while others stand out.

Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci, Galleria d...

Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci, Galleria dell’ Accademia, Venice (1485-90) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


¹ This entry doesn’t really touch on sex-role stereotypes during the Renaissance. If you are in the know, feel free to add to it.

Related  » Fortuna, Medieval, Scholarship


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Freud’s Reality Principle (German: Realitätsprinzip) – Is that all there is?

Hanging man artwork, in Prague, Czech Republic, a work by David Cerny intended to depict Sigmund Freud.

In Sigmund Freud‘s personality theory, the reality principle is a learned psychological function that seeks to gratify instinctual desires (id) through adaptation to the external world.

The reality principle exists in a state of tension with the innate pleasure principle. The instinctual id always wants instant gratification. The rest of the psyche (ego, superego) limits and directs the id so that its incessant demands are appropriately expressed, both personally and socially.¹

That is Freud’s theory of normality. Sadly, however, we often we hear in the news instances – and lawsuits – where the id reigns supreme by eclipsing or habitually overshadowing the rest of the psyche. And if an imbalanced person happens to have power over others, say in the workplace, sometimes they can get away with abusive behavior and, perhaps, other crimes for quite some time before victims come forward.

I have great respect for Freud as a true pioneer in trying to systematize the psyche. However, my main critique of Freud’s view has to do with his understanding of external “reality.” For Freud, external reality is limited to the material and the social. Freud was openly hostile to religion and religious ideas. This hostility put him at odds with his star pupil, Carl Jung, whose analytical psychology also became a leading force, especially among writers, artists and depth psychologists interested in more than just sex, aggression, secular life (Freud’s eros) and death (thanatos).

¹ I took a memorable first-year humanities course at York University directed by a Freudian analyst, Dr. Don Carveth. Although soaking up the professor’s wise words as far back as the early 80s, I remember the general theory very well. Reading Kendra Cherry’s excellent summary also helped to flesh out this short entry » https://www.verywell.com/what-is-the-reality-principle-2795801, as did Charles Rycroft’s clear and concise » https://www.amazon.com/Critical-Dictionary-Psychoanalysis-Penguin-Reference/dp/0140513108


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Reification – Are things always as they seem?

State Theater, Congress Avenue

State Theater, Congress Avenue by Dave Wilson via Flickr

Reification is a sociological, philosophical and literary concept concerning language and symbolization.¹

For Marxist, Weberian and postmodern sociologists, reification also involves social power. It occurs whenever ideas, concepts or theories are falsely assumed to accurately represent some entity or thing.

While many folks get heated up over political debates, and rightly so, few go a little deeper to question the political entities that we have constructed and continue to construct on a daily basis. Yes, we sometimes question what “democracy” means. But how often do we deconstruct the very notion of the “state”?

When you think about it, it is valid to ask: What is “Canada”? or What is “The United States of America”? For postmodern theorists, these are abstract ideas with potentially different meanings for each person. So the notion of the “state” is a human construction with many, interpreted meanings that do not point to an absolute existence of the thing in itself.

Another example of reification is often given in discussions about religious rules and regulations. These not only have legal but moral and emotional power over individuals. “Forgive me Father… it’s been 10 weeks since my last confession…” For non-Catholic reification theorists, the idea that a man can stand in place of God and that Catholics must regularly check in to a small booth and confess to a man/God is totally silly. It’s just a set of man-made rules that, although fictitious, have real power over the lives of men and women. Catholics are conditioned into believing the rules are part of a sacred tradition. A magisterial teaching authority. So the man-made thing becomes real to the extent that it is believed in.

From the perspective of believing Catholics, however, confession is far from silly. It’s a way to confirm that God has heard and forgives sins. Confession is a “sacrament.” It’s not a mere social construction legitimized in writ and replicated through conditioning because Catholics believe the teaching authority is holy. So, for them, the rules are functional truths from God.

Funnily enough, some folks talk about their country’s laws in a similar manner. Fundamentalist Americans, for instance, who speak of manifest destiny, often link the holy with their nation’s activity. And this is not only in the Bible Belt. Some “New Age” Americans speak the same way. The French social theorist Roland Barthes points out the close emotional and symbolic connection between the ideas of the “American Spirit” and “The Holy” in his 1957 book Mythologies

Critics of the idea of reification would argue that different countries are distinguished by laws, citizenship, culture, the landscape and geographic boundaries. However, reification theorists could reply that laws are often applied differently to the rich and powerful than to the poor and powerless. Statistics support this. The rich spend less time in jail for the same offences. So do the laws truly exist?

It may be difficult to appreciate the notion that landscape and geographic boundaries are not absolute, indisputable markers. But when we deconstruct the idea of physicality, as quantum physics does, even ideas like “the land” and geographic “boundaries” become less clear cut.

Democriet (laughing) & Herakliet (crying) by C...

Democriet (laughing) & Herakliet (crying) by Cornelis van Haarlem, which Lievens copied at 12. (The copy is lost) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In philosophy the ancient Greek Heraclitus alluded to the idea of reification when he wrote that we cannot step into the same river twice. What is a river if we can’t pin it down?

The 20th-21st century philosopher Willard Quine touches on the idea of reification by saying that empiricism contains “two dogmas.” The first dogma involves the distinction made between intellectual constructs and facts. This is related to the second dogma of “reductionism.” Reductionism is the belief that naming and meaning are the same.³ Likewise in rhetoric, it is commonly debated whether reification is applied appropriately.4

In the literary world, reification may occur whenever a metaphor is employed; although in literature a metaphor is accepted and encouraged; it is also evaluated for its effectiveness.5

To sum, reified ideas may be simple or complex. They may involve legal entities like “corporation” or “state.” But the question remains as to whether the thing written and talked about truly exists as described.

¹ Wikipedia lists several meanings for this term. Of particular interest is the meaning within Gestalt psychology, which I haven’t really emphasized here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reification

² Barthes focuses on America here, but I think individuals and groups in any country can get high and mighty about the alleged superiority of their nation.

³ Quine’s language may be difficult for laypersons. Understanding what he says depends on some knowledge of Kant’s particular language games (although Kant probably wouldn’t have seen it that way). Here’s the original Quine quote:

Modern empiricism has been conditioned in large part by two dogmas. One is a belief in some fundamental cleavage between truths which are analytic, or grounded in meanings independently of matters of fact and truths which are synthetic, or grounded in fact. The other dogma is reductionism: the belief that each meaningful statement is equivalent to some logical construct upon terms which refer to immediate experience. Both dogmas, I shall argue, are ill founded. One effect of abandoning them is, as we shall see, a blurring of the supposed boundary between speculative metaphysics and natural science. Another effect is a shift toward pragmatism.

Source: http://www.ditext.com/quine/quine.html

4 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reification_(fallacy)

5 See examples.

Related » Sociology, Unconscious