Sunday, 13 January 2008

Analytic phenomenology

I attended a workshop on Thursday organised by Rachel Cooper on the philosophy of psychiatry. Though the papers were supposed to be works in progress there was, genuinely, a good spread of plausible arguments in a number of different areas the subject. Perhaps the most common approach was a kind of analytic phenomenology: the attempt to understand psychopathological conditions through philosophically laden descriptions.

My own presentation, very much a work in progress, concerned empathy. In the past I’ve simply assumed that empathy was a label for knowledge of other minds, perhaps more particularly on the model of simulation theory in the philosophy of mind. But even though that would be of key importance for psychiatry, it does not seem to explain the central importance ascribed to it. Jaspers stresses the central importance of empathy for psychological psychiatry in the same moment that he distinguishes it from (merely, as he sees it) rational understanding.

[I]f we understand the content of the thoughts as they have arisen out of the moods, wishes, and fears of the person who thought them, we understand the connections psychologically or empathetically. Only the latter can be called ‘psychological understanding’. Rational understanding always only enables us to say that a certain rational complex, something which can be understood without any psychology whatever, was the content of a mind; empathic understanding, on the other hand, leads us into the psychic connections themselves. Whereas the rational understanding is only an aid to psychology, empathic understanding is psychology itself. [Jaspers 1974: 83]

And thus I’ve begun to wonder what more might be added to mere knowledge of other minds to get this widespread assumption. My thought, at the workshop, was that a model of empathy could be turbo-charged in three ways:
1: Recognising the idea that empathy involves identification with, as well as understanding of, others.
2: Explaining knowledge of other minds (even when narrowly construed) as requiring a shared form of life, or form of minded. (This might also address Jaspers' odd antipathy to rational connections. That rational connections are central to making sense of others but - outside formal logic - cannot in general be codified in a theory (a theory one might set out from 'cosmic exile'), is the best argument advanced for simulation-theory by Jane Heal.)
3: Taking empathy also to be the way that the exploration of values, widely assumed to be of great importance to mental health care, is primarily conducted.

I’m not sure whether this route would, if worked out more thoroughly, work: whether it would help explain under what model of empathy it would be of such central importance to psychiatry. But one point raised in the questions (in fact by my Uclan colleague Floris Tomasini) concerned whether something less intellectual but perhaps deeper seated might by more important: some notion of recognition of others.

I like this idea. It is right to question the intellectual model I'm instinctively drawn to. But if it is the right direction, it raises principled difficulties for ‘analytic phenomenology’. Recognition in this sense looks to be prelinguistic, verging on the ineffable and thus not really the right sort of thing for philosophical articulation of the sort found in anglo-american philosophy of psychiatry. In other words, empathy so construed might be just what cannot be articulated in this way. (As some sort of Wittgensteinian, I'd be inclined to conclude from this: so much the worse for this construal of empathy.)