Margins and Vitality

A good friend asked me a series of questions, which were meant to act as writing probes. One of them was: “Is psychology a dead-end or is it waiting to be born?”.

I decided to write an answer to it, because it is the only question on his list that bothered me. I sensed an urge to avoid it, and I was also inclined to see it as a personal attack. Notice this possible rephrase: Is what you have devoted your life to a dead end? Or is it a promise of birth? The question offers only two choices. Does it offer a false dichotomy? After all NOT {dead end} doesn’t equal {promise of birth}, and NOT {promise of birth} doesn’t equal {dead end}.

It is already apparent that I want to analyze the question, instead of answering it. I want to find a license to dismiss it, similar to how your question might be asking for a license to dismiss Psychology.

Notice the similarity in the way I perceive the question, and my own response to it. I feel that the questioner is asking for a license to dismiss Psychology. Or perhaps the questioner wants to confirm (or renew) a license he thinks he already has. And, when I entertain this judgment of the question, I am inclined to dismiss it. But I can’t.

I have to admit my thinking of this issue was extremely biased during my final two years in Toronto. And those were the days in which we regularly talked about Psychology, my doubts, and my strategies for overcoming the limits of the discipline. Context is important. Instead of University of Toronto, I could have been part of York University’s History & Theory of Psychology division. Had I been in a different place, in a different department, working with a different group of people, I might have been feeling differently about Psychology. I might have felt less frustrated, less critical, or less detached.

No, not necessarily. And this secondary, self-critical response comes from recalling Amedeo Giorgi’s analysis of his own position. In an autobiographical chapter, he argues against the idea that marginality is a choice we make after careful evaluation of our tradition (Giorgi, 2009). Instead of a choice, he paints a picture of marginality as destiny. The marginal figure is already marginal before coming to a full realization of the tradition. The disposition to resist, or fail to identify with, the mainstream is already there before one is able to consciously evaluate one’s tradition. It’s as if Giorgi says, “I see the problems, and I voice them out. But I am also aware that the drive behind my voice is probably supplied from somewhere other than seeing the problems themselves.” I’m telling you this to invite some degree of skepticism regarding how you might interpret my criticism of mainstream Psychology.

There is another, related way to re-think those last two years in Toronto. And to get into that I should first talk about another psychologist, Raymond Bergner. In one of his several under-appreciated papers, Bergner (1998) asks, what is it that makes an activity meaningful? He makes a taxonomy of three categories — An activity can be meaningful in three ways. It can be intrinsically meaningful (good for its own sake; not requiring any further justification); it can be instrumentally meaningful, i.e., it leads to some desired outcome (such as money, freedom, health, status, etc.); it can be spiritually meaningful. His concept of spirituality here isn’t supernatural, and it can be rephrased in terms of the concepts of character or integration. In the spiritual sense, an activity is meaningful if it fits the person’s broader sets of values and aims, or his/her superordinate intentions, as those values and aims have been evolving through the individual’s history.

So, those years I had became aware that what I was doing was instrumentally meaningful, and at times intrinsically meaningful, but it wasn’t spiritually meaningful. Why is that such a big problem? Why can’t I just enjoy the results of my work (status, career, etc.) like many others? We should consider the nature of marginality, once again, to make sense of my inability to be content with the instrumental meaning of my work.

Instrumental meaning, particularly the kind of instrumental meaning associated with academic success, exists only within a sub-cultural context, within a specific type of community. Academic success does not typically address any basic survival need, but is rather a kind of currency that can be appreciated only by virtue of membership in a cultural community. I claim that it is most meaningful at the mainstream of that cultural community, by individuals who most strongly identify with such meaning. The closer you feel to the mainstream, the more you can identify with the instrumental meaning (e.g., status), and the more that instrumental meaning can merge with your spiritual meaning. What about the marginal figure? It seems to me that the marginal figure, even when faced with instrumental success, cannot derive meaning from it. Again, we face Giorgi’s idea that marginality is destiny.

So far, I have avoided your question. I said I was inclined to analyze the question, but instead I have spent time analyzing my forthcoming answer (if I ever end up answering the question at all). I have spent time talking about why you should take my criticisms of Psychology with a grain of salt.

Moreover, if I were truly a marginal figure (as I sometimes think I am), would I still be irritated by your question? Would I still take your question as a personal attack?  My strong emotional reaction, despite my self-proclaimed marginality, is a demonstration that marginality is not a form of detachment, but a form of attachment. It is a form of affinity, a way to belong, a way to self-identify, a way to see oneself and one’s tradition. When Jacques Derrida said, “I never speak of what I do not admire”, he was responding to the misperception — that many, including Jordan Peterson, hold — that his lifework was a simply a destructive force against his tradition, whereas it was truly an effort to keep that tradition alive.

But Peterson himself holds that any tradition is always already dead. And the essence of marginality (or, liminality) might be the recognition of this lack of vitality, this frightening lack of vitality in a gigantic, organized machine that continues to move despite having no life. The promise of rebirth might be wishful thinking, but it might also be what constitutes the source of spiritual meaning.

I didn’t start by directly answering your question, because the context of the answer had to be prepared first. It would be reasonable to regard Psychology as (at least partially) dead, as much as it would be reasonable to see it as waiting to be (continually) re-born.

References:

Bergner, R. M. (1998). Therapeutic approaches to problems of meaninglessness. American Journal of Psychotherapy52, 72-87.

Giorgi, A. (2009). Professional marginalization in psychology: Choice or destiny? In L. P. Mos (Ed.), History of Psychology in Autobiography (pp. 131-157). Springer.