Monday, 28 July 2014

A few responses to N personality disorder blogs

I have written elsewhere of my view that much popular writing on narcissistic (N) psychopathology and N personality disorder satisfies itself with making of disordered individuals demons and evil-doers.

Typically writers employ language of ownership of personality disorder which conveys the idea that what is, for N-disordered individuals, a pervasive, wall-to-wall psychological defence (against narcissistic injury), is consciously deployed by a thinking and fully aware self somewhere "behind the scenes"; a homunculus operating a mask known as the "false self".
Adopting this language gives writers (and readers) the satisfaction of seeming objective and simultaneously presenting the N as outright wicked.

This kind of language is, in my view, inappropriate and inadequate to conveying the nature of disorder. My main reason for objecting to it is that I believe Donald Winnicott was right to identify a "false self" as emerging (in adverse conditions of infancy) where the true self ought to be. So, for a N to become aware of themselves as N-disorder, that is, become aware of their own psychopathology, is for them to become aware that the true self is lost, and was lost at some time in (early) childhood. Experiencing this loss and being able to feel sadness over it could be the beginnings of someone recovering from N-disorder.

I do not wish to excuse N-disordered individuals, or N-abuse. Personality disorder is a social phenomenon, and creates massive suffering for individuals and those with whom they are close. I say: don't put up with N abuse! Seek professional help! But after the rage and hurt and anger we may feel, compassion is called for.

Since 2012, when I first encountered it, I have been mindful of the work on personality disorder by Dr Hanna Pickard of Oxfird University. In a nutshell, her work encourages a clinical and general stance towards personality disorder (or what, significantly, she calls "disorder of agency") that stresses an individual's responsibility for harmful behaviours but without blame. For example, in her paper "Responsibility without blame: philosophical reflections on clinical practice" (Oxford Handbook of Psychiatry and Philosophy, OUP), Dr Pickard points to disordered individuals' awareness of their harmful behaviours. They have "conscious knowledge" of these behaviours and it is therefore right to assert that they have choice to desist from them. But Dr Pickard also makes it clear that by "conscious knowledge" she does not intend that disordered individuals necessarily know "why" they might behave in those harmful ways, or what those behaviours might be achieving in terms of protecting them against (for example) narcissistic injury.

[Dr Pickard is an analytic philosopher and clinician (psychotherapist). I seem to remember some of her writing addressing a problem that may be a characteristic pre-occupation of that school of philosophy, i.e. the question whether or not minds exist. It's never occurred to me to doubt that other minds exist. My view is informed by the practice of psychotherapy, in which "self-objects" (aspects of one's mind, one's personality) may be acquired through a therapeutic relationship that enable psychological growth. This points to some sort of merged infant-mother mind in early life. How can any mind be without other minds to act as it's container?]

So here are some responses I have given on the culprit blogs I have stumbled over. The comments I made appear out of context (I won't identify the blogs themselves), so it may be tricky to understand what I have been responding to. But the gist of my comments has been towards denying the idea that there is, in the N-disordered individual, someone else present behind the mask who, therefore, must be evil-doing.

In response to a blog on what James F Masterson called "Closet" Narcissistic Personality Disorder:

The word "malign" accurately describes the effect of personality disorder on lives. Unfortunately, it also encourages the idea that PD sufferers are also "malign", that they are self-conscious, that behind the narcissistic "false self" there is another, conscious self, manipulating things. I appeal to readers of this blog, which has attracted thoughtful comments, to consider that there is no self-consciousness in NPD sufferers (whether of the "closet" or "overt" kind). The damaging thought-feeling-behaviour patterns are sub-consciously driven. In total they are geared towards maintaining self-esteem, getting external validation/love/admiration of a false-self-image. The false self emerges in response to unempathic parenting (usually a mum who has her own un-met narcissistic needs). Disordered individuals lack real self-esteem, lack self-love, which is the same thing as lacking authentic "self" - something virtually unimaginable if not directly experienced. Personal setbacks, contradicting the false-self-image of the NPD sufferer, may drive the individual to seek psychotherapy. It's only in the therapeutic environment that the individual can achieve (with great pain) self-awareness, i.e. awareness of the disorder.

The blog author maintained that CN's "are aware of their traits but choose to repress them out of  denial which is one of the main characteristics of the disorder".
I responded with the following comment.

You are right to say that cheating on one's partner and maintaining a double life could not appear to an individual as anything other than wrong, whether they have a narcissistic personality disorder or not. (I would encourage anybody whose partner cheats to not tolerate the behaviour in any way. The same goes for any kind of "narcissistic" abuse - "passive-aggressive" or anything else - in a relationship. Don't put up with it!).
The denial and stress and tears and overall defensiveness, when challenged, reflects the anxiety induced when the N's false self-image is threatened.
(I would say that in "overt Ns, this image is typically of superiority or "greatness", in "covert" Ns, it is typically of perfection or saintliness. See V. Tonay at )
The intense anxiety is because there is nothing "behind" that self. If it goes, then there is nothing. For such a person, the false self has been a way of surviving childhood that has continued into adulthood. That self cannot be simply discarded, because no other (empathic) ways of relating are known.
You are right that CNs (and ONs) are aware of their traits. But the manner of speaking suggests the kind of awareness of a person who knows he is vain, or a perfectionist, or big-headed.
Thus, I would say, such a person, if he or she is an N, is aware of the traits of the false self.
But that, I would say, is very different to awareness that the self is a disordered or false self.
To put it another way, I am precisely saying that the N is unaware of the behaviours as narcissistic in the special sense of their being pathological.
Such self-awareness can only come through breakdown and psychotherapy.
I realise this sounds like I'm splitting hairs and I acknowledge that to highlight the lack of self-consciousness in Ns appears to "give them an excuse" to carry on or even encourages them to keep up their bad behaviour. I certainly don't intend this. But neither do i think it makes much sense to speak in those terms.
When I see a mum constantly using her children like objects to win admiration for herself, I might say to myself "Hm. Narcissistic abuse of the children". But I would be pretty sure that the mum feels, and would say, she is loving the children, and is precisely unconscious of the underlying compensation going on (i.e. her lack of self-love that compels her to derive others' admiration from things around her that she can say are "hers"). With that kind of lack of self awareness, the individual would not perceive some anonymous writing in a blog about narcissists' lack of self-consciousness as an "excuse" to continue the abusive behaviour. The N mum simply continues to "love" (pathologically). My point is that there is no conscious abuser there, but a person who thinks and believes her behaviour to be "normal".
My aim, in contributing to this blog, is to empower people in narcissistic or co-dependent relationships to not put up with abuse. Little children who are treated unempathically by parents can't not put up with it, they have to adapt to it in order to survive. The people who tolerate narcissistic abuse in a relationship, but stay in the relationship, must be getting some sort of compensation to make it worth while. Both partners, in this way, collaborate to maintain the status quo. (I'm saying that that's what goes on in co-dependency and other forms of damaging love relations. It might be asked here: to what extent would the abused partner of an N accept that he or she was self-consciously enabling the abuse?). If the abused partner has the strength to leave, or to challenge the abuse, that is a very powerful and potentially empowering act. (It might even bring about a change in the N). It is predictable, and understandable, that those who have been abused should demonise the abusers. But we should recognise that this reaction may itself be a form of denial of the part we have had to play in enabling (or, if you like, "excusing") the abuse.
I do not wish to excuse abuse, or let Ns off the hook. My aim is to shift the tone of discussion away from "good" and "bad" polarisation, towards a point of view that sees pathological narcissism as something that occurs in a thousand small ways (not just in violence and infidelity, though these are the extreme and horrible manifestations of abuse), and as a function of socialisation, in which we are all, to some degree, involved.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Popular writing on NPD

Popular writing on "covert", or "overt", "narcissistic personality disorder" is intended to provide information to people so they can recognise behaviours and traits of individuals in whom the disorder manifests (call them ONs and CNs) and possibly help them, if they are in close personal relationship with ONs or CNs, to understand what may be giving rise to hurt and damage in the relationship.

This is all to the good.

Of course the one who is in a relationship with a N is attracted to something, and it may often be the case that there is a great pay-off for that person in staying in the relationship, even if it means tolerating a lot of abuse.

This is difficult territory, because N disorder is a social phenomenon insofar as the self-image of the N requires constant mirroring and buttressing from others in the world. It may often be the case that the one who provides such constant mirroring (in a relationship) to a N is someone of low self-esteem and who derives esteem through his or her attachment to the N.
In this way maintenance of a defensive (special or inflated) self image - i.e. that of the N - may become the purpose of ways of relating in the relationship, and it may become "co-dependency", with an "enabler" tied to the N.

But popular writing doesn't often get this far. Authors seeking attention and web-hits know it is more attractive to general readers, who know little about NPD or other personality disorders, but who may have hurts deriving from relationship with a N, to harp on the outright "wickedness" of Ns.

This satisfies what is legitimate anger and desire for retribution when we have suffered abuse, but does nothing to promote understanding of N disorder or develop awareness of the parts we have had to play in sustaining disorder in our midst. It excuses is from thinking more deeply about the roots of personality disorder in our social and cultural life.

Indeed, in my view, much popular writing - even, or perhaps especially, from persons psychoanalytically trained - actively mis-represents N disorder by using language that coneys the notion that disordered individuals (Ns) choose to be N, for example, 'in order to' 'conceal' their 'true self'.

Beth K MacDonald examines an example of this psychologically loaded language in her MA thesis "Out of The Mirror: A Workbook of Healing for Children of Covert Narcissistis" (Adler Graduate School, October 2013).
The example is taken from "Trapped in the Mirror": Adult Children of Narcissists" by E. Golumb (1997), a work evidently concerned primarily with the "overt" N.

"They turn themselves into glittering figures of immense grandeur, surrounded by psychologically impenetrable wall. The goal of this self-deception is to be impervious to greatly feared external criticism and to their own rolling sea of self-doubts."
(E. Golumb, Trapped in the Mirror)

Here, for example, the use of the term "self-deception" implies a self that is lied to. But the character of the disorder is precisely that any such lied-to self is not present. There is what Winnicott called the "false self". Only breakdown and psychotherapy, I believe, is capable of revealing the disorder (the false self) to the individual in whom it manifests.

MacDonald writes:
"A reader who is not familiar with the complex nature and psychology of NPD might conclude that narcissists choose this personality disorder, and thus could choose a different way of living if they truly wanted to."

I follow Dr Hanna Pickard's view that there is indeed choice for the N. But I don't believe that this choice can be perceived without a co-incident breakdown of the false self.
In my view it is a mis-representation of disorder - a pervasive psychopathology - to suppose that it is a mask consciously worn by the N. The moment of realisation that there is choice is accompanied by the realisation that N disorder is where the true self, the "I", should be.

In other words, any individual who becomes conscious of themselves as manifesting N disorder must also become conscious of the loss of self they have sustained. There is no "real self" underneath or behind the disorder, no homunculus operating the mask from behind the scenes. At best there are fragments if self, around which some new self-image might form.
The individual in whom N disorder manifests is maintaining the self-image that arose for them in their childhood, winning the love of his or her mother which was otherwise withheld.

In these circumstances, what is called for is, yes, refusal and condemnation of narcissistic abuse in whatever form, but also sustained compassion for the individual for whom N disorder has been the route to psychic survival.

Among online resources on narcissistic psychopathology that I regard as compassionate and insightful, and would recommend to anyone interested, are academic papers such as:

McWilliams and Lependorf “narcissistic pathology of everyday life”:

Here is an extract from the McWilliams/Lependorf paper which indicates the care they take to avoid demonisation of disordered individuals, even while showing how abuse looks.

"[We] are departing somewhat from the tone of much of the
current literature on narcissism, which, because it is about
treating patients with pathological self-structures, observes
narcissistic processes from a position of sympathetic identification
with the person who manifests them. Our exploration of the nuances
of narcissistic operations will be conducted primarily from a
position of identification with the objects of these subtle and
often malignant processes. In explicating what might be considered
the typical dilemmas of "victims" of narcissistic operations, we do
not want to be misunderstood as minimizing the suffering of
the "perpetrators" of narcissistically motivated acts."

Monday, 14 July 2014

Images come before words

"Images come before words and images are created by passions, and passions are not analogous in men under different circumstances."

(From the essay on J G Hamann, by Isaiah Berlin in "Two Enemies of the Enlightenment")

I am interested again in the account Berlin gives, in this essay on Hamann, of Herder's prize-winning essay (Herder as follower of Hamann) that denies an idea emerging from certain contemporary French philosophes that language emerged from some sort of biological or physiological need: 

"human beings seeking to communicate, seeking to express themselves, and finding that incoherent noises and gestures didn’t perform this particular task sufficiently well, proceed in some almost conscious sense – almost, not quite – to invent language exactly as one invents a chair, a table, the screw, as one uses fire"

Herder opposes this: thinking itself is done in symbols, and therefore language must have emerged with thought.

"the whole systematic use of certain marks on paper, or certain sounds, for certain purposes could not have been used by human beings until and unless their consciousness, their reason, their faculties had developed to a certain degree; and when their faculties, their consciousness and their reason had developed to this degree, then the very development of the consciousness and the faculties to this degree was in fact the use of symbolism."
I'm interested in the similarities here with the very little I know of the work of Wifrid Bion, in which (so I understand) he explores this very development into symbolising (that is, thinking) during infancy.

I believe the process of symbolising can be cut off, the innate gesture can be stolen by the parent who envies the child and, it seems to me, thinking can become something removed from the life of the individual. I relAte this to the notion in Winnicott (if not also Bion) of the "false self".

Monday, 7 July 2014

Historical study of biology of value to biologists

Reading University's 2012 research publication "The Value of the Literary and Historical Study of Biology to Biologists" is available on-line.

It seems a very worthwhile piece of work towards breaking down specialist-isolationism in both literary and scientific practices.

I noticed (part 2.2iv of the document) that Karl Popper is mistakenly identified as one of the Vienna circle of logical positivists. Popper was an opponent of logical positivism.

It seems the great lengths Popper went to to have his work read and understood and accepted by the Vienna Circle of scientist-philosophers (by communicating to them in language they would accept) led not only his wider readership, but also members of the Circle itself, to believe that he was one of them.

I think Popper was justified when he claimed to have "killed off" logical positivism, even if, as he put it, "by accident". (See Popper's "Unended Quest: An Intellectual Autobiography", chapter 17).

That it was "by accident" is because his work comprised not a critique of Logical Positivism but an entirely different epistemology. The Circle interpreted his work as correcting their view, replacing verification with falsification, without realising that the whole trajectory of, and therefore the place of falsification in, his work was an attempt at demarcation between science and non-science, and not - as had been the aim of the Circle - at providing criteria for "meaningfulness". (See Bryan Magee's account of this misinterpretation in "Confessions of a Philosopher", 1997, p.54, or Malachi Hacohen's "Popper: the formative years", 2002).

Returning to the Reading University document, it strikes me that the potential in Popper's work for support in making the case for the value of historical and literary studies to biologists is contained in the same paragraph (2.2iv), which reads as follows.

"Before we go any further, it might be instructive to consider what historical contextualisation might have meant for the practice of science, and why it apparently had only this limited impact. For many historians, the argument that ‘meaning and context’ are inseparably intertwined has become almost the defining feature of the discipline [Tully, 1988]. ‘Meaning’, it follows, is by definition always historically constituted. Applied to science it suggests that it is impossible to elucidate the meaning of scientific statements in purely empirical terms, because all observation is theory laden, all knowledge is ultimately historical." 
(Section 2.2iv, "The Value of Literary and Historical Study of Biology to Biologists", Reading University 2012)

The words in bold contain, it seems to me, the core of Popper's work. Indeed, he uses these very words, in that order!

The jist of this paragraph is that the historical approach, in upholding an inescapably subjective aspect to knowledge, (i.e. that all observation is theory-laden) "challenged" "the 'common sense' approach of most practising scientists".

But here is a philosopher of science whose entire output, it could be said, makes the very same challenge.

As the Stanford encyclopaedia has it:

"following Kant, [Popper] strongly repudiates the positivist/empiricist view that basic statements (i.e., present-tense observation statements about sense-data) are infallible, and argues convincingly that such basic statements are not mere ‘reports’ of passively registered sensations. Rather they are descriptions of what is observed as interpreted by the observer with reference to a determinate theoretical framework."
Admittedly, I would venture, Popper would not have accepted that "all knowledge is ultimately historical". He is perhaps better known for work contesting "historicism". But his work does deny the positivist assertion that only what is "meaningful" is scientific, which is surely a typical response when people want to deny the value of non-science.

In a wider setting, I accept Marjorie Grene's criticism of Popper, that he clings to the ideal of certain knowledge (of error), even if he denies certain "positive" knowledge.

I'm going to plug a 2001 Masters Degree thesis by (now tenured professor at Lafayette University) Benjamin R Cohen, entitled "Uniquely Structured? Debating Concepts of Science, from the Two Cultures to theScience Wars".
This thesis was submitted for the degree of master of science in the science and technology studies at Virginia Polytechnic and State University. The thesis is available to be read online at the latter institution's website.
It seems to me to be very well written and researched, and it explores a theme relevant to Reading University's research document (above), namely the 1990s stand-off between scientists (or "science defenders" as Cohen calls them) and the science and technology studies (STS) community of historians, literary scholars and sociologists: the so-called "science wars". The thesis also examines whether and what similarities exist between this stand-off and the "two cultures" debate of the 1960s, about which I have written elsewhere.

The thesis has much to say on the assumption of special epistemological status of scientific knowledge, which science defenders claimed was under attack by "irrationalist" STS scholars, and the measures taken by the science defenders to safeguard that special status. I believe this fear, on the part of some scientists, of the loss or dissolution of science's special epistemic status to what was regarded as irrationalism in other non-science parts of the academy, contributed to the wave of 'New Atheism' in the 2000s. Of course some biologists and neuro-biologists were very vocal in this wave.

Reading the thesis I was surprised, given the importance to "science wars" of the epistemological status of scientific knowledge, that there was not more discussion to the philosophy of science. There is no mention of Karl Popper in the thesis, for example, whom one might have expected to have been a point of reference for both the science defenders and the STS community. That he seems not to have been such a point of reference I would put down to the general lack of interest in philosophy on the part if the science defenders, and the mis-characterisation of Popper as a positivist by the STS community.
Anyway, it's an interesting thesis.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Minds affect brains - Mary Midgley

From Mary Midgley's "The Myths We Live By":

"all reasoning is powered by feeling and all serious feeling has some reasoning as its skeleton"

From "Discussing Darwin", 2009:

Theos (interviewer): Would it be fair to say that we cannot think outside myths?

Mary Midgley: Yes, in the sense of an apparatus whereby you think. I suppose it sounds less surprising if one refers to ‘visions’. 

Minds affect brains as much as brains affect minds.
Here are edited highlights from a discussion with philosopher Mary Midgley at the Royal Society for the Arts in London.

In this talk Mary Midgley gives the example of the brains of taxi drivers as evidence that thoughts affect brains. In another talk (see "Mazes of the Mind"), this time as a questioner, she cites the thinking of Einstein as very much NOT an illusion created by the random accumulation of particles.

In the RSA talk a question comes from one audience member committed to "evidential truth". He seems to ask: What in minds (thoughts, emotions) is not reducible to an account of brain activity such as MRI-type technology can help to provide?

As I have written elsewhere, it seems to me to be naive to assume that our uptake of "evidence", our perception, in other words, is pure objectivity. But it seems to be an assumption of this kind that lends the questioner his confidence. Behind this assumption lies the history of philosophical work on the validity of induction, empiricism, Kantian epistemology and so on.

To judge by what I have read in Mary Midgley's books, she is not exactly a fan of Karl Popper, because (and I would submit, in spite of Popper's own wishes) his work on demarcation - between science and non-science - has contributed to the vaunting of the self-image of scientists, some of whom are prone, as Midgley says in this discussion, to think of everything, including our subjective life, as having an ultimate explanation accessible by science.

As Mary Midgley has pointed out, it seems a great pity that Popper could not have done such assiduous work on the proper place of, and status of, non-science in intellectual life: the standards we use to judge non-scientific thought. However, from my reading of Popper, the salient point is that he established that scientific knowledge has a metaphysical foundation which can never be known. His work was a criticism of the philosophical project of "logical positivism" which sought to eliminate metaphysics and create scientific philosophy.

Mathematics is not in direct contact with the world, but a very rich language of description.

That minds do affect brains should make such statements as this, in the British Medical Journal
by Lewis Wolpert and Paul Salkovskis, be regarded as silly:
"We suggest that it would be perverse to provide any place in modern mental health services for psychoanalysis."

(See "Does psychoanalysis have a valuable place in modern mental health services? No", BMJ 2012;344:e1188)

Here is a link to an article by Mary Midgley which appeared in New Scientis magazine in 2011.
It deals with more general themes of scientism (the notion that no questions are not answerable by science). Lewis Wolpert gets a mention.