On Evacuation Flyers, the War in Gaza and Erdogan’s Comments


, , , ,

This is the text, as published in ‘Jerusalem Post’, of the flyer distributed this week by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) warning Gaza residents about tank shelling and urging them to evacuate:

“To the residents of Shuja’iya and Zeitoun: In spite of the ceasefire, Hamas and other terrorist organizations continue to fire rockets. Therefore it is the intention of the IDF to carry out aerial strikes against terror sites and operatives in Shuja’iya and Zeitoun. A high volume of rocket fire at Israel has originated in this area. For your own safety, you are requested to vacate your residence immediately and head towards Gaza City before 08:00 AM on Wednesday, July 16, 2014. The IDF does not want to harm you or your families. The evacuation is for your own safety. You should not return to the premises until further notice. Whoever disregards these instructions and fails to evacuate immediately endangers their own lives, as well as those of their families.”

According to the same source, many residents did not heed the warnings, following instead Hamas’ beckoning to stay put – hence also the high number of casualties following today’s offensive. By contrast, the UN speaks of around 50,000 displaced persons.

Disinformation and propaganda are elements of war – and Israel and the Hamas are no exception. Evacuation flyers regularly thrown at Gaza residents announcing air strikes are part of this machinery. It is doubtful whether they must read the text carefully in order to know they are in danger. Hence, it is valid to raise the question: to whom is the evacuation flyer really addressed? My guess: it is meant for Israeli citizens and the international community. Its real purpose: to appease us and deny blame for the bloodshed.

But bloodshed it remains.

The question as to who was the first to pull the trigger is not relevant. What is relevant is that people are dying on both sides of the border, many of them civilians, the majority Palestinians. The conflict’s flare-up only benefits the extremists of both sides who have been looking for an opportunity to side-track recent attempts to establish a unity transitional government on the Palestinian side, with the participation of Hamas, around the moderate Fatah political agenda. The move has been officially criticized by Israel and all international stakeholders – and yet, as we know from other community conflicts, notably the one in Northern Ireland, peace processes are not neat and tidy, and warring factions do not simply disappear or transform themselves over night. It takes painstaking political dialogue courageously sustained despite provocations.

In the middle of the havoc, Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan came out yesterday to condemn Israel for its barbarity, which he compared to Hitler’s. The comparison is abstruse to even deserve response, one other manipulative move using anti-Semitism to serve domestic politics (given Turkey’s upcoming presidential elections). In fact, a more pertinent comparison would have been with the Turkish invasion of Cyprus 40 years ago to the day.

The Disinclined European Voter


, , ,

Last night, prior to going to bed, I placed the notice with information on my polling station for the European elections on the kitchen table — to remind myself to go and vote. Afterwards, I was surprised about my behavior.

Given that I am a politically informed and conscientious citizen, a regular consumer of news, and, besides, a political scientist – I was shocked by my assumption that I may forget to vote, which clearly was meant to disguise my disinclination to vote.

Obviously I am not alone with my ambivalence. The electoral turnout for the European elections remained low, below fifty per cent in most European Union countries. This is no novelty and the explanations are equally well known: Europeans do not care enough about Europe; Europe is too big and ‘far away’ for citizens to grasp; trust in political institutions is on the decline; and, the financial crisis may have tired us out and contributed to our disenchantment.

The above list of reasons is based on various surveys about political attitudes and is valid to a certain extent. However, it does not fully account for what is going on.

There are at least two other issues that require further reflection:

• The first is specific to European Union politics. The European Parliament (EP) as the legislative branch of EU government displays a weak link to the executive branch of government as represented by the European Council. Even though the influence of the European Parliament on policy decisions has progressively increased during the last decades, the fact that the electoral results do not directly affect the distribution of power works against voter mobilization.

(The decision this year to use the results to additionally determine who is elected President of the European Commission has only marginally changed matters. This is because formally the EP vote is not binding; and because the Commission has itself only partial executive powers)

• The second issue is more far-reaching than the first. The existing evidence suggests that the lower turnout in European elections is only symptomatic of a more general trend. In turn, this correlates with the declining capacity of political parties to mobilize their potential voters or attract new ones. Extremist parties have less of a problem than mainstream parties in this respect, albeit only occasionally.

What both issues highlight is the mismatch between electoral politics (and mobilization strategies), on the one hand, and real politics, on the other hand.

The problem faced at European level is how to ensure citizen input into a supra-national polity that is functioning according to a complex inter-governmental model of decision-making. It is not enough to behave as if this system was equivalent to a traditional parliamentary democratic system. Either we adjust the polity to better fit existing models, or, if this is not possible or desirable, we come up with new procedures of representation of political opinion.

As to the more general decline of the capacity of political parties to mobilize (their) voters, this has a lot to do with their insistence to continue packaging their messages according to ideological narratives (on the left-right spectrum) that are no longer relevant other than in normative and symbolic terms. Single-issue mobilization, which for some years served as an alternative, is also beginning to display fault lines.

There is, of course, no clear answer to this complex set of problems. But maybe it is not so much about finding solutions, but rather about improving political communication.

The Ukrainian Stage for Bungee Jumping


, , , ,

Conflicts like the one presently raging in Ukraine and the dismal reactions to it are a sad confirmation of how international relations continue to operate re-actively rather than pro-actively, driven by tactical considerations rather than strategic thinking, and operating with a remarkable short-term memory, hence lack of historical consciousness (and conscience).

Ukraine displays all the elements for an explosive community conflict – of which there are more than several around the global, all of them ugly and sadly pedestrian despite resort to grand ideologies:

• It is a country that is linguistically and ethnically divided according to relatively clear territorial lines.
• It has a clearly delineated contested area, i.e. Crimea, with a history of ancient hatred.
• It borders two regional powers with conflicting economic and geopolitical interests.
• It is a transit to crucial gas pipelines and adjacent to key transport corridors.
• Its recent past, since independence, has been characterized by factional interests, political corruption and weak social institutions.
• Its political elites – across the spectrum – have repeatedly displayed little concern about exploiting citizens’ anxieties and wishes for their own interests and agendas.

One further characteristic of such conflicts, once they enter an escalation phase, is their denial of time and process.

Both the call for a referendum on the status of Crimea and that for new parliamentary elections across the country are legitimate. However, from the perspective of conflict resolution, what is counter-productive is that they should happen at such short notice.

The Crimea referendum is now scheduled for next week whereas the parliamentary elections are due to take place in May contrary to an agreement, arrived at with the help of the European Union last week, that they should take place at the end of the year following a much needed restraint phase, under the auspices of a transitional government, during which political parties prepare, and international assistance helps set up procedures for democratic oversight.

Once in a phase of escalation, it is very difficult to arrest the chain reaction of thinking (and acting out) according to partial perceptions and categorical definitions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. It is, therefore, important to contain this conflict before it erupts further to then gradually seek its peaceful resolution.

Containment may represent a burdened policy term dating back to the Cold War era. Nonetheless, it is now necessary if we are to avoid returning to times past and no longer desired.

On Philosophy’s Modern-Day Relevance: Plato at the Googleplex by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein


, , , ,

The following review appeared first in New York Journal of Books, March 4, 2014

The idea behind this book is both elegant and knowing. Imagine the old Greek philosopher Plato being in possession of a time machine and using it to travel to the twenty-first century to check out what has become of his Academy and human endeavor more generally. Imagine further the first place he lands on is Googleplex, the corporate headquarters of Google Inc. and home to some of the most inquisitive minds engaged in the construction of complex algorithms in search of information.

What would Plato think? And would that what he thinks be relevant?

These are the two questions that Rebecca Newberger Goldstein sets out to answer thus hoping to elucidate the relevance of philosophy for contemporary life, both individual and collective. At the same time, and parallel to Plato’s journey through our world, she takes us on a trip to Antiquity in order to familiarize us with the context of emergence of ancient Greek philosophy and how that influenced its contents.

True to Plato’s method, his journey is told in the form of dialogues, mostly open-ended, as there never can be a definite yes or no when it comes to truth. By contrast, the chapters on the Antiquity are told in scientific prose with extensive excursions in Plato’s famous dialogues such as The Republic, Symposium, Phaedrus, Timaeus, Meno, Sophist, and Statesman, and other works like Letters and Laws.

Each historical chapter is followed by a fictional dialogue, the interchange serving to exemplify the commonalities between our times and those of Plato despite the many and varied differences with respect to technology, politics and social relations. In the background, always there, both past and present: the figure of Socrates and his relationship to Plato.

Ms. Goldstein thus draws attention to that what is essential about philosophy, namely exchange, which, by definition, requires a counterpart. Doing philosophy, even more so living philosophy, requires relating to another (person, thought, argument, point of view, perspective etc.), and ultimately this is why philosophy should not or will not go away.

Plato first visits Googleplex in California, where he engages in discussion with a female media escort and a male computer scientist, about the relationship between knowledge and information and the question whether it will ever be possible, and/or desirable, to rely on an algorithm for reaching ethical decisions. He then travels to New York, 92nd street, to debate with two women scientists and mothers about child rearing and the question what is an ideal form of education and how far a parent is justified in steering his or her children’s ambitions.

There follow a series of consultations with a woman columnist advising other women on matters of the heart; an appearance on cable news to discuss the good life; and finally, a visit at a neuroscience lab to have a brain picture taken whilst contemplating the mind-brain question with a female cognitive scientist and a male neuroscientist.

The historical chapters provide likewise opportunity to reflect about subjects that were relevant in the past and remain so today: the links between science and humanities; the construction and implications of virtue in public and private life; the role and limitations of (democratic) politics; the variations and significance of love; and the meaning of life and death.

To write a book that is scholarly and accessible, and at the same time entertaining, is a tremendous achievement. As demonstrated by this book, there is indeed a role for philosophy today, therefore it is all the more unfortunate that fewer lay persons, but also students, go back to the original texts – an issue not only for philosophy. Books like Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s Plato at the Googleplex are of the rare type that contributes to the popularization of knowledge and makes appetite for more. After reading this book you will want to read Plato’s Dialogues – but might also question your views and knowledge about politics, psychology, science, history and ethics. Socrates would be amused, Plato content – mission accomplished.

Should the Humanities Fear Science?


, , , ,

In August / September of this year The New Republic published a debate between the experimental psychologist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker and its own literary editor, the writer and critic Leon Wieseltier, on the relationship between science and the humanities.

The debate was launched with an article by Steven Pinker published August 6, 2013 entitled ‘Science is Not Your Enemy: An Impassioned Plea to Neglected Novelists, Embattled Professors and Tenure-Less Historians’. This was followed a month later by an article by Leon Wieseltier entitled ‘Crimes Against Humanities: Now Science Wants to Invade the Liberal Arts – Don’t Let it Happen’. The third round appeared September 26, 2013 under the more dry but no less attention-catching heading ‘Science vs. The Humanities: Round III’.

The debate is worth reading – both for its contents and passionate comportment. A brief summary and my comments below:

Steven Pinker’s essay starts by pointing out that the great thinkers of Enlightenment were philosophers and scientists. They were not against science unlike contemporary representatives of the humanities, who are concerned about the presumed reductionist and positivist logic of science and think this will lead, via abuse, to genocide or war and, for sure, to the loss of moral and spiritual health. From there, Pinker goes on to defend ‘scientism’ (and not just science), intentionally “appropriating the pejorative” to make his case.

Scientism, argues Pinker, is committed to two ideals: the idea that the world is intelligible and the idea that the acquisition of knowledge is hard work. Intelligibility is about seeking to explain a phenomenon or complex happenings according to principles, which is not equivalent to reductionism. ‘Hard’ he uses in the sense of following a robust method of research and analysis:

“The world does not go out of its way to reveal its workings, and even if it did, our minds are prone to illusions, fallacies and superstitions … To understand the world, we must cultivate work-arounds for our cognitive limitations, including skepticism, open debate, formal precision and empirical tests, often requiring feats of ingenuity … nurturing opportunities for falsification of … own beliefs.”

The contempt cultivated vis-à-vis science from within the humanities is based on misconceptions that are similar to those professed by religious institutions.

And yet, in actual fact, both science and humanities stand to gain from closer collaboration.

“The humanities would enjoy more of the explanatory depth of the sciences, to say nothing of the kind of a progressive agenda that appeals to deans and donors. The sciences would challenge their theories with the natural experiments and ecologically valid phenomena that have been so richly characterized by humanists.”

Leon Wieseltier does not agree. Science he writes “confers no special authority.” Insofar as the fields of morality, politics and the arts are concerned – “these are philosophical matters, and science is not philosophy.” What is more, “the errors of religious fundamentalism must not be mistaken for the errors of religion.”

Wieseltier fears that science is not genuinely interested in collaborating with the humanities; rather it wants “the humanities to submit to the sciences and be subsumed by them.” Pinker’s ideal or principle of intelligibility, argues Wieseltier, is shorthand for ‘scientific intelligibility’ and this is equivalent to conflating scientific knowledge with knowledge as such.

“The translation of non-scientific discourse into scientific discourse is the objective of scientism … The scientizers do not respect the borders between the realms; they transgress the borders so as to absorb all the realms into a single realm, into their realm. They are not pluralists.”


“In literature and the arts, there are ideas, intellectually respectable ideas, about the world, but they are not demonstrated, they are illustrated. They are not argued, they are imagined, and the imagination has vigors of its own.”

Philosophers of science and sociologists of knowledge will recognize in this debate old cleavages that have hampered the collaboration between science and humanities for years – and likewise the fruitful blend of empirical and theoretical research or quantitative and qualitative approaches.

This is a difficult subject and more so because the debate confounds different levels of analysis:

At one level this is about competition over resources. In this respect the humanities have reasons to fear the rapid ascendancy of science. Science already now gets the lion’s share of research and institutional funding and, therefore, the fear is legitimate that closer collaboration will aggravate this trend, leading among else, to the complete marginalization of those subfields within humanities that have little to offer to science.

At a definitional level the debate has to do with the structural semantics of interdisciplinarity, namely whether the latter is to be conceptualized on equal terms (as Pinker envisages) or within a hierarchical framework (as Wieseltier fears).

Related to the above is the issue of vocabularies and metaphors that are used by different disciplines, in other words the mental and imaginative schemata available to each to guide exploration. Such schemata are mostly helpful devices that fulfill the function of signposting. But under specific circumstances, such as in inter-discipinary discourse, they often function as barriers to communication and understanding leading to cacophony. When this occurs there can be no way forward without translation – which implies the need for translators.

At a deeper level the debate is about meaning and different forms of experience. Here we are confronted with the fear that science will make the arts obsolete by explaining away beauty and aesthetics – treating then dismissing them as intermediary or derivative variables with no value of their own.

In other words: do we risk losing our feelings, emotions and all that we associate with the ‘human spirit’ once we have grounded them in material ‘scientist’ understandings? Does science take away our ability to write, paint, or make music? Worse still: will passion, pleasure and enjoyment then be gone – eventually replaced by some artificial intelligence?

These fears are unfounded yet real. Perhaps the more relevant question at this point is why they should arise in the first place. But this is the topic for another blog – some other time and place.

When Spies Turn into Whistleblowers …


, , , ,

… there is usually a good reason

Last week Edward Snowden was finally granted temporary asylum in Russia. If he is the man he claims to be, namely a supporter of democracy and an advocate of human rights and, especially, of the right to privacy, then he is unlikely to feel happy about this turn of events. On matters of surveillance Russia is as bad, if not worse, than the United States. Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, was a former official of the KGB, the most feared and hated security agency of the Cold War Period.

It should not come as a surprise that very few countries have been willing to consider granting asylum to Snowden. That just goes to show how widespread surveillance practices are. In order to run PRISM, the NSA is dependent on the collaboration of other national security agencies as well as that of corporate actors like Facebook and Google.

The global threat of terrorism has been employed to justify these massive incursions into the private sphere. The recent closing of several American Embassies around the world has been useful as an illustration of what it is presumably all about.

Others point to the declining value of privacy in modern societies: if people have no second thoughts when disclosing details of their private lives in talk shows, on Facebook or on YouTube, why should they mind—or anyone else for that matter—if their telephones and emails are tapped? (1)

There is a grain of truth in both of the above arguments. Besides, there is also no doubt that more (or new) intelligence can be gained from the fast processing of huge data sets. Let us not forget that this is what underpins advances in modern science and technology, including genetics and synthetic biology; the advertising success of the Internet; as well as the recent strategic turn of political campaigning. (2)

And yet, this does not legitimize surveillance programs like PRISM. The NSA, like other national security agencies, is a public institution and as such cannot be exempt from democratic controls. There is—unfortunately—a case to be made for surveillance. However, this is not a question of either/or; but a question of degree and, most significantly, of accountability.

Respect for privacy remains one of the pillars of democratic societies. That is so even at times when societies do not seem much concerned about it. Failure to regulate the use of private data information—whether for surveillance or other purposes—is characteristic of totalitarian regimes. An inquiry into NSA surveillance practices and a review of current regulation is, therefore, the minimum that can be expected of the Obama administration.


(1) On the changing role of publicity and a thoughtful reflection on surveillance politics, see Jill Lepore ‘The Prism: Privacy in an Age of Publicity’ in the June 2013 issue of The New Yorker

(2) On the use of big data by the Obama political campaign see Sascha Issenberg’s feature article in the December 2012 issue of MIT Technology Review entitled ‘A More Perfect Union’

Which Way for Egypt?


, , ,

Egypt is heading towards a military coup.

The terms used during the last twenty-four hours by Morsi and the military in defense of their respective positions suggest so much: Morsi has vowed to protect his presidency with his life; the military to “sacrifice even our blood” for Egypt and its people.

Both sides are going with the times and using Twitter and Facebook to broadcast their nationalist threats and propaganda – a reminder that new communication technologies are not a democratic accomplishment in and for themselves.

Those demonstrating against the Morsi government have good reasons to fear the slow Islamization of Egyptian society. The governing coalition led by the Muslim Brotherhood has failed to implement political and institutional reforms based on democratic, that is to say secular, principles.

Having the military take over state control is, however, not the solution to this problem, contrary to what some of the militant anti-Morsi demonstrators may think. This is equally dangerous and will not contribute to Egypt’s transition to democracy. The example of Turkey, still struggling to overcome the legacies of its political history in-between military coups and factional governments, is a warning and not a role-model.

The only way forward in the short-term is for Morsi to resign to make way for an expert-led transitional government representing moderates from all sides to work out constitutional reforms, as was originally the plan after the 2011 revolts, to  then pave the way to new parliamentary elections.

Let us hope this will be a ‘one step back, two steps forward’ type of game and not the other way around.

On the Medicalization of Normality: ‘Saving Normal’ by Allen Frances


, , ,

The following review first appeared in New York Journal of Books on May 16.

The medicalization of ordinary life has been a slow process in the making and the sad result of a combination of factors. Diagnostic manuals like the DSM have contributed to this process and so have the reimbursement procedures of health and social insurances. Careless science reporting, advertising excesses and the lowering of scientific standards in clinical and field trials are other contributing factors.

Having chaired the task force that prepared DSM-IV, Allen Frances knows what he is talking about. Some of the criticisms he fares against DSM-5 also apply to his own work and he is sincere enough to admit these. But DSM-5 displays several new and more serious problems, besides accentuating those of the past. This is the subject of the book Saving Normal: An Insider’s Revolt Against Out-of-Control Psychiatric Diagnosis, DSM-5, Big Pharma and the Medicalization of Ordinary Life (William Morrow, 2013).

Diagnostic inflation is number one problem on the list. This occurs “when we confuse the typical perturbations that are part of everyone’s life with true psychiatric disorder.” Trouble is, this ‘confusion’ often takes place willfully in order to maximize profits: “The much fuzzier distinction between the mildly ill and the probably well is easily and frequently manipulated.”

The chapters that focus on the fads of the past, present and future are the strongest part of the book. Fads of the present include attention deficit disorder (ADD) and autism. Insofar as adults are concerned, depression is the big cash-cow. In actual fact, many of the diagnosed depressions would pass on their own given some time and attention. “Sadness should not be synonymous with sickness … Our capacity to feel emotional pain has great adaptive value equivalent in its purpose to physical pain – a signal that something has gone wrong. We can’t convert all emotional pain into mental disorder without radically changing who we are, dulling the palette of our experience.”

DSM-5 takes even a step further and proposes to consider tantrums as ‘disruptive mood dysregulation disorder; normal aging as ‘mild neurocognitive disorder’ and gluttony as ‘binge eating disorder’. According to Frances, this is pointing in the wrong direction. Tantrums may sometimes be difficult for parents to bear and cope with, but they are part of child development; forgetfulness in older age occurs without necessarily leading to Alzheimer’s; and excessive eating is unhealthy but not a mental disorder. Other problems with DSM-5 include the introduction of an ‘adult attention deficit disorder’ category and a loose definition of ‘somatic symptom disorder’ for tapping on psychosomatic medical problems.

Taming diagnostic inflation, thus “getting back to normal” will require a number of reforms in public policy (such as barring direct-to-consumer advertising) but also changes in the medical practices away from fast diagnoses based on few consultations towards “stepped diagnosis,” defined as follows: “Definite diagnosis should be made in the first session only in clear or urgent cases. For everyone else, the first several visits would be for fact finding, education and let nature take its course. Diagnosis would be made only after the dust has settled. This is the most direct and efficient way to stop diagnostic inflation in its tracks.”

Additionally, patients are advised to adopt a more self-critical approach: “The key to psychiatric diagnosis is self-report, and this is impossible without careful and persistent self-observation” – a useful piece of advice that does not always work in practice since it takes for granted that patients know what constitutes a symptom and how symptoms tend to cluster together. However, most patients do not have this knowledge and do not wish to obtain it, especially not when in a situation of psychical stress.

It is in this connection that Saving Normal—otherwise a good guide through the intricacies of psychiatric diagnosis—falls short of expectations. What goes missing in the book is what is missing in psychiatric diagnosis more generally, namely a deep understanding of mental disorder as a state of psychical strain resulting from inner conflicts. Such inner conflicts tend to be debilitating, often affecting precisely those cognitive and emotional skills that make a patient a “smart consumer.”

The core problem of all diagnostic manuals is that they operate with manifest symptoms. These are counted together and assessed in terms of their intensity and duration. Such an approach is inherently prone to unreliability besides confounding different analytical levels. More importantly, it completely ignores the hidden psychodynamics driving symptom formation. In the end, that we must today fear the medicalization of ordinary life has something to do with our having excessively medicalized mental disorder.

In Search of the Holy Grail of Consciousness: ‘Consciousness; Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist’ by Christof Koch


, , , , , ,

The advances of neuroscience during the last years have given fresh impetus to the search for the material base of consciousness besides fuelling the debate as to what reigns supreme: the brain or the mind, the body or the soul – or are the two mere reflections of each other or, perhaps, one and the same thing?

These questions have occupied philosophers since time immemorial. They underlie the human quest for meaning, which is closely interlinked with that of life and death. Insofar as consciousness is about having an internal perspective, it is unsurprising that we should occasionally wonder how that comes to be and whether it goes on existing, in some or another form, after the body disintegrates.

But before that question is answered – and that might take some time – it is first important to explore how our body, in this case our brain, enables consciousness.

The biggest part of Christof Koch’s book Consciousness; Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist is devoted to the brain sciences and what they reveal about the nature, location, degree and scope of consciousness. Below a summary of the most interesting research findings he reports about:

  • Brain science uses the term ‘quale’ to refer to the feeling of experience that is elicited by consciousness. For years, research had focused on mapping experiences to specific brain regions. This turned out to be a dead end. Experiences cannot be clearly mapped to brain regions. Rather, they appear to be network specific.
  • At the same time our brains display extreme capability at specialization. Thus we apparently use different parts for capturing the gist of a scene, i.e. its overall character, as opposed to its details. Then again we have concept cells which are extremely particular or concrete in their approach – for instance, we have brain cells for recognizing our favorite film stars.
  • Parts of our brains are in charge of integrating information. In doing so, they fulfill an enabling function. This is the case of the thalamus and hypothalamus and possibly of other regions as well. When such regions are lost through brain damage consciousness may be impaired to a significant degree.
  • Attention-demanding tasks are performed by the pre-frontal cortex, which also plays a role with respect to learning. Once we have internalized knowledge our brain tends to shift processing to the cerebellum. This applies to automatic sensor-motor activities like moving our hands; but possibly also to social biases or set psychological mechanisms or re-actions.
  • For such actions experiments have shown that our brain precedes our sense (or quale) of agency. This is called ‘readiness potential’ and implies that our brain ‘knows’ our intentions before we do – a finding that could also mean there is no free will, and a source of both fascination and exasperation for a romantic reductionist like Christof Koch.
  • This said, the ability of our brain to transform what it considers fixed knowledge into routine, automated, and, seemingly unconscious, procedures is also what explains virtuoso performances in sport, the arts and, even, in science.

Christof Koch is of the opinion that the theory that best explains these findings is Giulio Tononi’s integrated information theory, according to which consciousness is a measure of our brain’s combined ability to both integrate and differentiate information. The integrated information theory also implies that all sentient beings possess consciousness to a certain degree; and likewise computers and the World Wide Web. What the integrated information theory does not explain as of yet is the unconscious – since unconscious processes, like automated behaviors or feelings, are quite complex without necessarily being synergistic.

It is in this latter respect that Christof Koch and his colleagues would stand to gain from paying more attention to the mind sciences (as opposed to the brain sciences), namely psychology and psychoanalysis. The mind sciences, as well as psychiatry that operates at the interface between brain and mind, have produced a wealth of knowledge on the mechanisms of both conscious and unconscious processes and about how these are more diverse than they are uniform. Combining the knowledge of these different disciplines, or to use Tononi’s terms, integrating their information, will bring science further, not least by providing a reference framework for formulating hypotheses.

Ultimately – who knows? – it might even turn out that the holy grail of consciousness is, in fact, the unconscious.

On the Past and Future of Psychoanalysis: ‘Shrink: A Cultural History of Psychoanalysis in America’ by Lawrence P. Samuel



The following review first appeared in New York Journal of Books on April 2, 2013

If you are interested in the unconscious, like interpreting your dreams, enjoy literature but the movies even more so, Hitchcock and Woody Allen in particular, like watching The Sopranos and In Treatment, fantasize about the couch or are currently experimenting with it – above all, find psychoanalysis intriguing, maybe brilliant yet also amusing in a way, then you will probably enjoy Lawrence Samuel’s book Shrink: A Cultural History of Psychoanalysis in America.

Many books have already been written about Freud and psychoanalysis. Indeed, the elderly Viennese gentleman represents one of the major inspiration figures of the twentieth century and, as Mr. Samuel’s book proves, the interest in him does not look like subsiding. On the contrary, that it has survived this long despite crazed idolization and even crazier censure suggests that the science he invented is more than just a fad.

The distinctiveness of Shrink lies in its focus on popular culture.

Mr. Samuel is not so much interested in the academic discourse on psychoanalysis and the various theoretical contributions to Freud’s work. The fact, however, that he does not ignore these completely lends credibility to his analysis. The question driving his book is how psychoanalysis became so “deeply embedded” in American popular and consumer culture.

The media, later also the movies, played a significant role in this process and, therefore, Mr. Samuel’s decision to systematically rely on print sources was a good one. His sources include serious journalism and science writing but also entertainment literature like women’s magazines. By tracing what has been reported in the media about psychoanalysis over more than a century, a pretty good picture emerges about the field’s fascination but also the main contestation areas.

The hype days were the 1920s and it felt like love at first sight. The reason was a three-letter word, namely sex, “against the background of changing mores and women’s emancipation.” People were keen to have sex uninhibited and talk about it, and psychoanalysis appeared to make both possible. As Lawrence Samuels notes, that was a rather “too basic” understanding, under which psychoanalysis as a science subsequently suffered.

Thus demand for psychoanalysis grew faster than the supply of psychoanalysts, and this led to the unfortunate situation of self-assigned analysts popping up everywhere, charging some 30 USD per hour, then a huge amount, for the provision of “talking cure” that was more talking (about sex) than cure.

The medical profession reacted first to this state of affairs and began in the 1930s to provide training. That was important in terms of professionalization. The downside was that for the next sixty years it became impossible to divorce psychoanalysis from psychiatry, and that despite Freud’s own views on the subject.

Psychoanalysis continued to gather momentum in popular culture throughout the twentieth century, and, gradually, it also achieved high status within the humanities in academia. But otherwise, namely as a science in its own right and as a form of therapy, it has been an uphill struggle.

There are four main reasons for this. The first was the afore-mentioned subjugation of psychoanalysis by psychiatry, which was removed only in the late 1980s when the American Psychoanalytic Association began admitting non-medical candidates. (A few years later, gay candidates also became eligible for training.) The second was the constant challenging of its scientific status in conjunction with epistemological and normative attacks from the strangest of bedfellows, namely the Vatican and second-wave feminism. The third constraining factor had to do with competition as new cheaper and shorter forms of therapy emerged, taking advantage of some of the horror stories about psychoanalysis floating around since the 1960s. Finally, the biggest blow came from advances within pharmacology.

And yet, psychoanalysis has survived and is again on the ascent. There have been internal reforms. One has already been mentioned, namely the admittance to the profession of non-medics. Equally important has been research on the effectiveness of psychoanalysis, alone or in combination with other treatments and in comparative perspective. Finally, there is now available the so-called psychoanalytic or psychodynamic therapy, which is based on psychoanalysis but requires less sessions (per week and over time).

By far the biggest boost has come from neuroscience. The rapprochement between the two fields began in the 1980s when known neuroscientists came forward in favor of Freud arguing that they expected his theories to be confirmed by their research on the brain and the workings of the mind. The predictions have been largely confirmed and more is under way. Another potentially useful alliance has been that between behavioral therapy and psychoanalysis for the treatment of specific disorders.

So much for the serious stuff, which Lawrence Samuel’s book describes very well. But an American book on America and psychoanalysis would not be complete without the extras: the re-telling of horror and wonder stories that made news in the nineteen-fifties, sixties and seventies; the review of the popular terms that emerged to capture the psychoanalytic moment – from getting ‘psyched’ in the 1920s to ‘hitting the couch’ in mid-century; the discussion of films dealing with psychoanalysis; the treatment of the topic in women’s magazines, etc. etc.

Last but not least, since ‘to sofa is to suffer,’ what couch an analyst buys is also of importance and that story is also among the many Shrink has to offer, perhaps an additional incentive to read this book.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 132 other followers