HARVARD DIARY
The Secular Mind III: Reductionism

December 1987Robert Coles



All during my psychiatric and psychoanalytic training I learned that whatever I saw and heard (people in their wonderfully intriguing variety) was a mere prelude to what I could know, eventually - if only I were willing to take a second and third look, to listen longer, and most of all, to figure out what is "really" happening. That adverb was such a constant presence in our young professional lives, as we tried to prove that we were no village idiots, no simple folk who took people at their word, who accepted their explanations or stories or memories at face value. We were aspiring to membership in the cognoscenti, those who truly knew and understood, those who could probe, who could push our way below the surface, well below.

Everything can be traced back, we learned. The whole point of psychoanalysis, of course, was to pick one's way back, against some considerable odds (the cognitive and emotional barriers that prevent remembering) to those important early days of life, where so much of importance is reputed to take place. If one doesn't aim to learn those early truths, about oneself and others, one can risk the designation of shallow, naïve, or perhaps "troubled," indeed so "troubled" that one oughtn't try look back, or simply can't psychologically do so to any effect.

I recall certain supervisory "sessions," or some of the talk we residents, we aspiring psychiatrists, had as we ate lunch or sat around waiting for conferences to begin. So-and-so is "phobic"; so-and-so is "basically psychotic." I recall presentations to one supervisor, followed by the constant reminder that one or another patient's behavior had to be "traced back psychodynamically." I noticed that when I did so, and arrived at an explanation, he likely as not would say: "True, but let's look at this case in a more basic way." What did that mean? We hadn't yet pushed our way far back enough - to the "origins" of this or that neurosis, psychosis.

I do not take issue with the need to take a careful history - to look back and figure out how things came to pass. Nor was Freud wrong when he emphasized the continuing importance of childhood experience in adult life. Nor would I want us not to try to explain human behavior by recourse to social or psychological theory, including the categorizations that can help us distinguish between various kinds of deeds or thoughts. The issue is not the more than occasional usefulness of formulations and generalizations, but rather what we in the secular world do with all that abstract thinking, all those theoretical constraints. Again and again many of us venture beyond the bounds, say, of reasonable psychological analysis and become almost absurdly reductionist, not only as clinicians but as everyday citizens. We call people an assortment of psychological or sociological names almost as a matter of habit. She has a "borderline character disorder." This president had X problem; another president suffered from Y difficulties. Much of this may strike many of us as foolish, but there are plenty of us who are gullible, or worse, consider ourselves "educated" by virtue of our willingness to use a host of psychological or sociological words in such a reductionist manner. Even members of the clergy do so - and I mean do so in connection with religious matters. We are told of "faith development," of "stages" in belief which correspond to "maturational stages," of prayer as being "cathartic," or church attendance as having a useful "psycho-social" purpose for a family's life. Ministers and priests and rabbis are all too anxious to guide their sick parishioners through the various "stages" that precede death, and God forbid if someone dying simply wants to hear a prayer recited, or the Bible read, rather than listen to some thickly and portentously psychological discussion.


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