It seems lately that I’ve mostly been preserving things, finding scraps of paper here in there, rather than engaging in the synthetic activity of thought. I’m feeling as if my thoughts emerge only to trail off in a series of ellipses. I suppose I’ll go with that and see where it leads. In a beautiful passage from An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume writes,

If it happen, from a defect of the organ, that a man is not susceptible of any species of sensation, we always find that he is as little susceptible of the correspondent ideas. A blind man can form no notion of colours; a deaf man of sounds. Restore either of them that sense in which he is deficient; by opening this new inlet for his sensations, you also open an inlet for the ideas; and he finds no difficulty in conceiving these objects. The case is the same, if the object, proper for exciting any sensation, has never been applied to the organ. A Laplander has no notion of the relish of wine. And though there are few or no instances of a like deficiency in the mind, where a person has never felt or is wholly incapable of a sentiment or passion that belongs to his species; yet we find the same observation to take place in a less degree. A man of mild manners can form no idea of inveterate revenge or cruelty; nor can a selfish heart easily conceive the heights of friendship and generosity. It is readily allowed, that other beings may possess many senses of which we can have no conception; because the ideas of them have never been introduced to us in the only manner by which an idea can have access to the mind, to wit, by the actual feeling and sensation.

This passage occurs early in the text when Hume is defending the thesis that all thoughts or ideas originate with impressions. What I find so fascinating about this passage is not so much Hume’s observations about those who suffer from a defect of one of their sense organs, but rather the astute observation about “a man of mild manners” and one who has a “selfish heart”.

Read on

Within this simple passage Hume implies an entire psychology of interpersonal relations. In the clinical setting my ears are less likely to perk up with regard to an analysand’s descriptions of herself than with regard to her interpretations of others. There is a way in which the manner in which one attributes motives to others or understands the motives of others is far more revealing than a self-description and discussion of one’s own motives.

In self description we generally get a picture of the ideal ego or the person that someone would like to be for the gaze of a particular other (the ego ideal before whom one dances). However, when the analysand strives to grapple with understanding the motives of others we get a real sense of how their own interpersonal relations are structured.

Take Hume’s observation that a selfish heart and its inability to understand the heights of friendship and generosity. When witnessing an act of generosity or friendship between two other people, how might such a person interpret this act? How might they describe this enigma in the clinical setting? Would they be able to discern this act at all? In all likelihood the analysand’s associations would be about dynamics of power. Person A’s act of giving or doing for B would be interpreted as an act of seduction, or as aimed at instituting some sort of debt relation, or as trying to produce favor so as to align person B with person A’s aims and ambitions in the future.

When confronted with meditations on motives such as this the thing to avoid is getting caught up in questions of whether or not the analysand is accurately describing the nature of the relationship between person A and B. Rather than focusing on the persons being discussed or the referents of the assocations, the analyst instead should take a backward step, almost like the self-reflexive bending back of thought upon itself in transcendental inquiry, and draw inferences about the way in which the analysand himself experiences his interpersonal relationships.

In this case it is the analysand himself that experiences his world of interpersonal relations in terms of dynamics of power. Of course, this inference cannot be legitimately drawn unless it is a repetitive theme within the analysand’s discourse. Nor is it an observation that should necessarily be made within the analytic setting itself to the analysand: “You believe that dynamics between people are dynamics of power?” This is a situation in which it is best to keep one’s cards close to his chest, taking note of this structuration but avoiding a “meta-observation” in the analytic itself. If this insight is to come on the part of the analysand words are of little avail. Instead, the analyst must enact a praxis that assists the analysand in making this discovery for himself. This will entail the analysand discovering an opening, a hole, within the closure of how his interpretations and understanding of intersubjective relations are structured. In short, the analysand must encounter something missing from its place. Moreover, it should not be assumed that the analysand’s manner of structuring interpersonal relations entails that their interpretations of others is necessarily false or mistaken.

An Aside

This observation also complicates questions of ethics and politics. One of the shortcomings of deontological ethical approaches such as those we find in Kant or in Rawls’ utilitarianism is an assumption that there are rational agents that frame the world without these idiosyncracies. A similar case could be made with the role that game theory often plays in economics and other social sciences. What this misses is the manner in which agents frame their understanding of interpersonal relations or what counts as rational. Kant seemed somewhat aware of this in his claim that we must think of ourselves as acting in a kingdom of ends. That is, I must act as if everyone else will follow the category imperative as a way of subverting or short-circuiting the fantasy frame that organizes my interpretations of the motives of others in determining my own course of action.

To Resume

Rather, what an inference of this sort allows the analyst to do is navigate the manner in which he himself is situated in the interpersonal dramas of the analysand at the level of the transference. That is, if the analysand has a tendency to understand the motives of others in terms of dynamics of power where he measures himself in terms of whether he has the advantage or is at a disadvantage, the analyst too will be situated within the field of these dynamics such that the analysand will understand his various interventions, silences, refusals to diagnose and so on as plays for power with regard to his own person. Part of measuring progress in working through the transference over the course of analysis will then revolve around the analyst strategizing ways, based on the immanence of the analysands own discourse or the signifiers and concerns that populate that discourse, to evade the place to which the analysand would assign him. Not only would this consist in the refusal to take the upper hand, but also the subordinate position as well. Rather the aim would be that of an opening that could no longer be situated within this frame at all. Power dynamics are, of course, only one example of a transferential structure that might emerge in analysis.

Lacan liked to say that “all communication is miscommunication.” Hume’s understanding of the situatedness of exprience, its singular uniqueness resulting from its field of individuation, is one way of thinking about this aphorism. We can imagine a comedy in which two people, Hume’s selfish hearted person and his contrary, a generous hearted person, falling in love with one another and spending their entire lives with one another without being the wiser. The generous hearted person here encounters all the acts of the selfish hearted person in terms of genuine giving, and, being a kind hearted person, tends to ignore those actions and words that fail to fit this frame. The selfish hearted person is exhilerated by the constant and ingenious dynamics of power his generous hearted lover engages in, interpreting those acts of genuine generosity as devious strategems that, while incomprehensible, must serve some aim of increasing his lovers dominance over him. Both believe themselves to understand the other but only encounter their own reflection in the face of the other person. It is very easy to see something within a window frame– indeed, everything about a window frame draws our attention to its center –but what inevitably falls away in discerning what is in the frame is the frame itself. Genuine shifts in thought occur not so much when something new appears in the frame, but when the very nature of our frames are themselves transformed.