Depsychologizing (the Erotic)

I have spent the better part of the last twelve years or so worrying about what it is to psychologize and to depsychologize something.  This has provided a specific focus for much of what I have written on Wittgenstein, who is, I believe, the master of masters of depsychologizing, master even of Frege.  I take very seriously Cavell’s notion that PI’s business is depsychologizing psychology, both one’s own  and others’.

A focus on Frege-influenced forms of depsychologism (re:  mathematics, logic) can hide the ubiquity of what Martin Buber, in a fascinating little essay, “On the Psychologizing of the World”, calls Naive Psychologism.  What he gives this title could be regarded as a form of egotism (where that is a moral failure) but that is not quite what or at any rate quite all that he is talking about.  What he is talking about rather is what we might call a common picture of oneself as beginning and ending at the skin, at the edge of the body.  What matters, all that could matter, is what happens on or under our skin.  That is all we’ve got.  Now, the Naive Psychologizer does not understand what happens on or under our skin in a clearly physical way; he is not clearly thinking of surface irritations or stimulations, or of sub-epidermal electrochemical events.  (If he were, he’d perhaps be moving in the direction of what Buber calls Scientific Psychologism.)  He is thinking of what happens “in his head”, of what he feels “inside”.  (Think of Naive Psychologism as a coarse empirical idealism.)  This is  what matters. And if anything outside the skin matters, that is only really a function of something on or under the skin mattering.

Buber asserts this Naive Psychologism has affected even the erotic.  Our erotic lives have become about nothing more than successive, differentiated “inside” feelings; the erotic partner’s role is to excite those feelings, and if the partner’s “inside” feelings matter, it is only for the sake of insuring more or future “inside feelings” for us.  (And of course we may have good “inside” feelings because they are having good “inside” feelings.) The possibility that the erotic could be a form of conversation–dialogue, a meeting of persons–and not merely a causal transaction (a hook up) is barely, if at all, imaginable. That it could edify the persons, well, that is unimaginable.  The erotic can satisfy, perhaps, on an “inside” model of that; but it cannot upbuild.

I mention this, and I mention Naive Psychologism, because I want to indicate just how easily psychologism comes to us, even in areas of our lives unlikely as locations for psychologism to disport itself.  Naive Psychologism is also important because it reveals that Philosophical Psychologism—about mathematics, logic, psychology—is aided and abetted by a common picture of who and what we are.

12 responses

  1. Are you familiar at all with the work of Alphonso Lingis? The phenomenology of the erotic is an ongoing theme in his work. Like many great phenomenologists, he’s a master of de-psychologizing-without-anthropomorphizing, and his talents are particularly fruitful in his discussions of eros.

    Beyond this, his prose can be magnificent, and he’s unusual among continental philosophers in that he’s almost entirely averse to neologisms and jargon more generally. His major influences, I think, are Merleau-Ponty, Levinas and Deleuze, and when I read his work, I feel like many of the real insights of these thinkers shine through without the terminological clutter. He’s simply my favorite phenomenologist…

  2. He was an early Anglophone promoter of Levinas and Merleau-Ponty: translated “Totality and Infinity” and some MP as well. When I get back I’ll look through my collection and lend you something…a lot of people consider “The Imperative” his best book. I for one think it’s great. There are two early books of his directly about eros: “Libido: The French Existential Theories” and “Excesses: Eros and Culture.” I’ve read the latter and recommend it.

    He also has a website if you want to check it out:

  3. this is in ‘a believing humanism’, yes? do you know if it’s located anywhere else convenient?

    since i started working on the other minds material in cavell, i’ve really acutely felt my own personal lack of facility for talking about desire and the emotions—it becomes apparent very quickly that a naively psychologized picture of ‘the inner’ renders any such emotion inert as soon as i try to think about it. (‘so, say… you’re sad.… and…?’) the ability to talk up and imagine all sorts of human situations, dynamically, seems so indispensable to me that i really regret not having read more drama, and less logic. if i think about it, no doubt absurdly, as a scholar or a culture-consumer, then it seems unbelievable to me that there isn’t a great big book out there called ‘the theory of eros’ that lays the groundwork for everyone to talk about desire.

    • Yes. I don’t know if it is anywhere else convenient. (If you need a copy of the essay, let me know.) I know what you mean about lack of facility. I feel that too. There’s some brief but helpful material on this sort of thing (roughly, Naive Psychologism about emotion, etc.) in C. S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy, if I remember correctly.

  4. Pingback: The object of desire « Practice and History of Philosophy

  5. I was thinking a little more about the Buber essay you mention (I haven’t read it), and it seems to me that the psychologizing of the erotic is closely connected with an idea about the aesthetic in general you come across in Marxist cultural criticism every once in a while. Thinking psychologistically about our aesthetic relations to things – works of art and sex being prominent examples – reinforces a sort of instrumental relation to them.

    For example, if we think of our relations to works of art primarily in terms of their capacity to produce sensations of pleasure and pain in us, the practical questions we tend to ask about art tend to revolve around how to produce these experiences as effectively and efficiently as possible. When we do this, our practical engagement with works of art tends to narrow until what we have is simply a continuous inquiry into techniques for the most effective way of producing entertainments.

    Or, when we think of our sexual lives primarily in terms of the production of sensations of sexual pleasure, again the range of practical questions about our sexual lives can narrow in alarming ways. Sexuality collapses into a preoccupation with techniques for efficiently producing titillation and sexual satisfaction.

    What’s interesting and alarming here is that in some sense, most of us know very well that there is more we need to ask ourselves about art and sex than how to most efficiently produce sensations of pleasure and pain. But – and here’s where the Marxism starts to rear its head – we also live in a time when we are shaped by our social worlds into consumers of our own pleasure and pains so to speak, and the ‘social lives’ of art and sex so frequently revolve around the captivation of we consumers. To take the most obvious sex-related examples, so much contemporary sexuality is shaped by sex-related marketing categories: genres of pornography, the use of sexual imagery in advertisements, the constant race to secure the sexual desire of others in our dress, etc. We live and breath this world, and this presents a challenge for figuring out exactly how to live the aesthetic dimensions of our lives in other ways…

  6. I can’t claim any knowledge of Marxism, but with the usual apologies for ignorance in place, I will say that your comments seem right to me. The challenge you mention at the end is especially challenging. Thanks!

  7. I like the idea of depsychologizing the erotic, and think the idea of making the erotic an aspect of communication is just right. This place of communicative affinity overseen by eros, a place where eros can dance and psychology drops out, reminds me of how we dance somewhat erotically with ideas we encounter, fall in love with, create new ideas with, giving birth (as the Symposium has it).

    In a recent essay on what I would now call “bringing eros into communicative space.” I put it this way: Unamuno discovers a Danish writer who can speak to his soul. He learns Danish to better hear and respond. He knows in his bones that Kierkegaard’s knight of faith is none other than the heroic (and anti-heroic) Quixote. Wittgenstein finds a writer who touches his soul, and seeks out a translator’s help in Minnesota for getting closer to Kierkegaard’s Works of Love. His notes in Culture and Value bring Kierkegaard alive in new ways. Nishida happens on words of Kierkegaard, entering a communicative exchange that brings both alive in unexpected ways, this time in Kyoto, Japan. It is as if we are suited to live in such communicative — now I’d say, erotic — mutuality.

    Here is an instance of what I am calling “communicative mutuality” taken from a classroom experience passed on by Stanley Cavell:

    Here was serious mirth in progress, and what I read
    as perfection was the projection of my utter faith,
    then and now, that the mirth was impersonal, that here
    a class had witnessed not the private defeat of an
    individual’s experience but the public victory of sweet
    and shared words—mirth over the happy fact that the world
    is working out and that we are made for it. [Little Did I Know,
    Stanford, p. 326.]

    The victory of ‘sweet and shared words’ is surely a victory of eros. The world works out as we come alive in a ‘we’ of dialogical and interpretative community that stretches back to the dead, even as the dead stretch forward to us. In affinity we entrust our restless questions and desire to live.

  8. Ah, too late and dark to be writing, Last sentence should be “In this affinity” — and in sentence one of paragraph two, the period after “space” should be changed to a comma.

  9. Pingback: The instruments of desire « Practice and History of Philosophy

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