Friday, 20 January 2012

Metaphor and anomalous self-experience

I have been having a look at Josef Parnas et al’s EASE: Examination of anomalous self-experience with the hope of adding discussion of its attempt to codify, or at least increase the degree of codification of, a complicated diagnosis based on anomalous self-experience to my chapter in the OUP Handbook of Philosophy and Psychiatry. But before turning to that I’m intrigued by an initial comment in the context of the difficulty of patients putting such abnormal experiences into words. The difficulty is this:

The experiences may be fleeting, perhaps even verging on something ineffable. They are not like material objects that one can ‘take out of one’s head’ and describe them as if they were things with certain properties, or redescribe the experience at different occasions in exactly the same terms. The patient may be short of words to express his own experiencing. [Parnas et al 2005: 237]

Given that, then patients employ metaphors. And that prompts the authors to say the following:

Use of Metaphor
The patients employ metaphors to describe what they experience; this is also the case with healthy people – it is a universal process. A metaphor is usually defined as a transfer of meaning from one conceptual domain to another, like in the expression: ‘life is a journey’ (the concept of life is made meaningful by an appeal to a journey, belonging to another domain). In the context of a psychiatric interview, a metaphor should not be seen as ‘just a metaphor’ or ‘just a manner of speaking’ that somehow, distortingly or conventionally, stands for an underlying (more) true or authentic anomalous experience, i.e., a metaphor is not only a signifier (sign), distinct from, and contingently attached to the signified content (‘signifié’ = the sign’s meaning). Rather the following is the case: an experience (non- or prelinguistic), especially of the prereflective type, becomes progressively conceptualized, i.e. transformed into a conceptual (linguistic) format, in order to be grasped by the reflecting subject, thematized and rendered communicable to others. The metaphor should be seen here as a basic functional aspect of this symbolization process, where it operates as a linguistic vehicle or medium through which the experience first articulates itself and so becomes reflectively accessible. The metaphor is therefore the first stage of making a prelinguistic or prereflective experience explicitly accessible to oneself and to the other. The choice of metaphor is linked to the nature of experience in a noncontingent way, i.e., experience and metaphor are not entirely independent. [ibid: 237-8]

The picture is this. In the context of EASE, the use of a metaphor to express an abnormal experience is not mere metaphor where this normally involves either a distorting or a conventional representation which stands in for a true or authentic experience. So the first point of note is the idea that experiences of this (normal) sort could be true. I suspect that is not what is meant at all. A normal perceptual experience could be true if were representational and represented things correctly. (Lots of philosophers, including, eg., McDowell have thought this. Others deny that experiences themselves ever have any content.) But in this passage, there is no suggestion that this is the relevant dimension of truth (between the experience and the world). I think they mean just between the metaphor and the experience. It is as though if a metaphor is distorting or false, there must be a standard of truth and the thought here is that it is the thing for which the metaphor is a metaphor which is itself true. (As though: if a sentence falsely describes something, there is a fact which is true. Or if the sentence is true then there are two true things: derivatively the sentence and originally the fact. But facts are not true; they just are.)

Rejecting that thought – but not rejecting it as senseless – Parnas et al suggest that in the case of EASE, the metaphor is a basic feature of the symbolization process. It serves as vehicle through which the experience articulates itself (another fishy phrase) and thus experience and metaphor are not independent.

That seems very odd to me. Surely if one selects a metaphor to express one’s normal experience, the metaphor and the experience will not be independent. The one will be selected to fit, in whatever way metaphors fit, the experience. If, for example, one thinks that metaphors have content then the content of the metaphor will (be selected to) fit the experience. So the idea of saying that in EASE the two relata are not independent, and that choice of metaphor is instead linked to the nature of experience in a noncontingent way, seems not to distinguish it from the everyday case properly or normally understood.

So my hunch is that this is an attempt to dig deeper and say something like this: in the case of normal experiences, one might put them into words in a non-metaphorical way as well as in metaphorical ways. But in the case of EASE, all there is, is a metaphorical expression. If so, though, I have two worries.

First, ‘metaphor’ is the wrong word because, I suspect, there will be no possibility of unpacking how the metaphor applies to the abnormal experience. There will be no unpacking because there will be no way to weigh up the content of the metaphor and the content of the experience as potentially distinct matters. In fact, that is part of what Parnas et al are trying to say when they contrast the EASE case with normal cases where there is, they claim, by contrast no connection of content. That very closeness (in the EASE case) suggests that this is not a matter for metaphor, however.

Second, the idea of anomalous experience becoming conceptualised having initially been unconceptualised seems odd. Again I say this in part because of something they say: when they say that abnormal experiences are not like material objects that one can ‘take out of one’s head’ and describe them as if they were things with certain properties. For that reason, such experiences seem the wrong sorts of things to be first independent of, but then clothed in, conceptual form.

PS: Look here for a video made by Josef Parnas.

Parnas J, Moeller P, Kircher T, Thalbitzer J, Jansson L, Handest P, Zahavi D. (2005) ‘Examination of Anomalous Self-experience’ Psychopathology, 38: 236-258