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Colloquia Topics Index [link]Philosophy & Religion Index




Cognition and Community: The Scottish Philosophical Context of the "Divided Self"1
Gavin Miller
University of Edinburgh

This article aims to place the work of R.D. Laing into the context of Scottish history of ideas. It is possible to clarify and strengthen Laing's arguments by situating them alongside the work of Scottish philosophers such as David Hume, J. B. Baillie and John Macmurray. In particular, it can be shown that Laing is not philosophically naïve. Philosophy - and this is readily apparent in Hume's account of human nature - tends to say that we are indeed divided selves. The work of Baillie and Macmurray helps to defend Laing from the charge that the "divided self" is, in truth, the logically inevitable account of human being. The study of Laing's Scottish precursors also has a further consequence. The side of Laing that values social relations emerges in greater clarity, and in greater consonance with his sympathy for the marginalised and the alienated.

Philosophy and Ontological Insecurity

Ontological insecurity is a particularly important term of art in Laing-s work. It pertains to the "unreal," inauthentic individual, whose life is without spontaneous expression:

The "unreal man" learnt to cry when he was amused, and to smile when he was sad. He frowned his approval, and applauded his displeasure. "All that you can see is not me," he says to himself. But only in and through all that we do see can he be anyone (in reality). If these actions are not his real self, he is irreal; wholly symbolical and imaginary; a purely virtual, potential, imaginary person, a "mythical" man, nothing "really." (Laing, Divided Self 37)

To the ontologically insecure individual, for whom life is an empty performance, day-to-day existence seems futile. Laing glosses in the following manner this peculiar affliction:

The individual in the ordinary circumstances of living may feel more unreal than real; in a literal sense, more dead than alive; precariously differentiated from the rest of the world, so that his identity and autonomy are always in question . . . He may feel more insubstantial than substantial, and unable to assume that the stuff he is made of is genuine, good, valuable. And he may feel his self as partially divorced from his body. (Divided Self 42)

Ontological insecurity is therefore primarily a term for the affective life of a certain kind of individual. One can be ontologically insecure without holding an explicit opinion on such issues as the status of universals, or the reality of mind and matter. Nonetheless, there is also a strongly cognitive connotation to the term; one may indeed be ontologically insecure because of a consciously held ontology. This is particularly evident in the relation between ontological insecurity and a dualism of psyche and soma: "ontologically insecure person[s] . . . seem . . . to have come to experience themselves as primarily split into a mind and a body. Usually they feel most closely identified with the 'mind'" (Laing, Divided Self 65). The philosophising mind may therefore be regarded as an instance of the impoverished inner self of the ontologically insecure individual: "The body is felt as the core of a false self, which a detached, disembodied, 'inner,' 'true' self looks on at with tenderness, amusement, or hatred as the case may be" (Laing, Divided Self 69).

The dualism of the philosophical self is well exemplified by the philosophy of David Hume (who is, of course, also Scottish). In Hume's philosophy, the ontology of mind and body plays a particular epistemological role, and in order to clarify this function it is firstly necessary to follow the philosophical history which leads to his conclusions. Philosophers, as lovers of wisdom, would seem advised to consummate this relationship by thinking hard and thoroughly. They therefore typically discipline themselves to obey the following principle advanced by Aristotle:

he whose subject is being qua being must be able to state the most certain principles of all things. This is the philosopher, and the most certain principle of all is that regarding which it is impossible to be mistaken . . . Which principle this is, we proceed to say. It is, that the same attribute cannot at the same time belong and not belong to the same subject in the same respect. (Metaphysics 1005b)

The principle of non-contradiction is so powerful because it is a condition of all intelligible theorising. Anyone who attempts to deny it, "can neither speak nor say anything intelligible; for he says at the same time both 'yes' and 'no'. And if he makes no judgement but thinks and does not think, indifferently, what difference will there be between him and the plants?" (Aristotle, Metaphysics 1008b).

The same premise re-appears later in philosophical history when Descartes asserts that, in all the seemingly various kinds of thinking, we essentially follow the Euclidean model in which a set of implications are deduced from self-evident axioms:

Those long chains of reasoning . . . of which geometricians make use in order to arrive at the most difficult demonstrations, had caused me to imagine that . . . provided only that we abstain from receiving anything as true which is not so, and always retain the order which is necessary in order to deduce the one conclusion from the other, there can be nothing so remote that we cannot reach to it, nor so recondite that we cannot discover it. (Discourse 92)

For Descartes, we find epistemic security by that same confident procedure with which, for example, we infer, from our knowledge of axioms concerning parallel lines, that the sum of the angles of a triangle cannot on pain of self-contradiction be other than 180 degrees.

Descartes also employs an ontological vocabulary which, too, is formed by the principle of non-contradiction. De Wulf elucidates this traditional terminology for the distinction between primary and secondary being: "The substance or substantial being is the being that exists without needing any other being in which to inhere for its existence, and which serves as subject or support for other realities. Man, horse, house, are substances; whereas the virtue of the virtuous man, the colour of the horse, the size of the house are accidents"(§62). A substance is an independent being, a thing that may, without contradiction, be conceived as existing without relation to any other thing. On the other hand, an accident is a dependent being, a thing that may be conceived as existing only in relation to some other thing.

The language of substance and accident therefore appears when Descartes examines the ontological status of his own being according to the principle of non-contradiction. He has, he believes, legitimate doubt in those cases where he may conceive of his existence without some other existent:

examining attentively that which I was, I saw that I could conceive that I had no body, and that there was no world nor place where I might be; but yet that I could not for all that conceive that I was not. On the contrary, I saw from the very fact that I thought of doubting the truth of other things, it very evidently and certainly followed that I was; on the other hand if I had only ceased from thinking, even if all the rest of what I had ever imagined had really existed, I should have no reason for thinking that I had existed. From that I knew that I was a substance the whole essence or nature of which is to think, and that for its existence there is no need of any place, nor does it depend on any material thing. (Descartes, Discourse 101)

Descartes asks if one may conceive that there are no other people, or other things, or that one does not have a body, and that one yet exists. His answer is affirmative: one is a substance independent of other people, or things, or a body. However, if, by doubting that one doubts, one attempts to conceive of the absence of thought, then one finds that this is nonsensical: a thing cannot be both A and not-A at the same time in the same respect; the "I," therefore, cannot both be doubting and not-doubting at the same time. The property of a substance without which it cannot exist is its essence, and thus one is a substance the essence of which is thought.

We have here a significant intimation of the schizoid position in philosophy. The first step in Descartes' thoughts is to uncover the true self. He finds that he is a "mind" of imaginary (but logically well-formed) symbolisations, which is disengaged from the illusory goings-on of the body, space, and community. Fortunately for Descartes' peace-of-mind, he manages to escape this uncomfortable position by a remarkable sleight-of-hand. He purports to show that his apparently conceivable doubts are, in fact, nonsense. As is well known, the crucial step in this demonstration is the ontological argument:

on reverting to the examination of the idea which I had of a Perfect Being, I found that in this case existence was implied in it in the same manner in which the equality of its three angles to two right angles is implied in the idea of a triangle; or in the idea of a sphere, that all the points on its surface are equidistant from its centre, or even more evidently still. (Descartes, Discourse 104)

The concept of the absolutely Perfect Being includes existence; otherwise that Being would be less than perfect. The statement "the Perfect Being does not exist" is consequently self-contradictory; therefore, God exists. The benevolence of the Perfect Being assures Descartes that his initial doubts about other existents were unfounded:

it is impossible that He should ever deceive me; for in all fraud and deception some imperfection is to be found; and although it may appear that the power of deception is a mark of subtlety or power, yet the desire to deceive without doubt testifies to malice or feebleness, and accordingly cannot be found in God. (Meditations 172)

It is unnecessary, in the present context, to subject the ontological argument to an extensive critique. It is sufficient to note that the same sort of trick can be performed by making-up words for necessarily-existing dragons, unicorns, and chimeras. That a necessarily-existing thing should not exist is certainly unintelligible, but this implies only the intelligibility - and not the truth - of the contrary proposition, "a necessarily-existing being exists."

A more important point is that Descartes' logical method is an inadequate account of everyday knowledge. Hume recognises that statements about the world are not deductive. To postulate, for example, the existence of a cause without its effect is not to violate the principle of non-contradiction; in ontological terms, cause and effect are substantial existents:

as all distinct ideas are separable from each other, and as the ideas of cause and effect are evidently distinct, ...twill be easy for us to conceive any object to be non-existent this moment, and existent the next, without conjoining to it the distinct idea of a cause or productive principle. The separation, therefore, of the idea of a cause from that of a beginning of existence, is plainly possible for the imagination; and consequently the actual separation of these objects is so far possible, that it implies no contradiction nor absurdity. (Hume 79-80)

Hume, though, is untroubled by the inability of philosophical reasoning to reconstruct everyday belief in causality; he assumes that such apparent knowledge is mere psychological certitude. In this, however unwittingly, Hume elaborates Descartes' account of error. The latter refers to habituation to account for his difficulties in believing only the dictates of pure reason: "ancient and commonly held opinions still revert frequently to my mind, long and familiar custom having given them the right to occupy my mind against my inclination and rendered them almost master of my belief" (Descartes, Meditations 148). Hume develops this account of error by arguing that what is apparently knowledge of the world is no more than such insistent opinion: "Reason can never satisfy us that the existence of any one object does ever imply that of another; so that when we pass from the impression of one to the idea or belief of another, we are not determin'd by reason, but by custom or a principle of association" (97). An expectation of a certain effect upon a cause is therefore merely an opinion which "may be most accurately defin'd, A lively idea related to or associated with a present impression" (Hume 96). Indeed, phenomenological vivacity is also essential to Hume's account of belief in a world beyond thought. This, he claims, is grounded in the distinction between impressions ... "those perceptions, which enter with most force and violence" - and ideas - "the faint images of these in thinking and reasoning" (Hume 1). The distinction between the world of things and the world of subjective experience is merely this variation in vivacity: "When I shut my eyes and think of my chamber, the ideas I form are exact representations of the impressions I felt" (Hume 3).

Because of this disjunction between what is taken as rational belief in everyday existence, and what is rational belief when measured against the canon of pure reason, the consistent application of the principle of non-contradiction leads to an essentially schizoid conception of the self. A person is partly a rational ego which believes only what is given by pure logic. The mind, however, is incessantly badgered by sensory thoughts. Some of these are merely muttered sotto voce ... such as "here is a unicorn," or "carpets can fly." Others, though, are bellowed at the mind: "HERE IS MY ROOM!" "FIRE HEATS WATER!" The latter are opinions, and are the source of our pretensions to rational knowledge about the world. Belief in the reality of such logically separable existents as other things, other people, and cause and effect, is understood as a kind of akrasia by which the soul of the philosopher succumbs to the force of habituated opinion.

In the Cartesian-Humean model of subjectivity, the real self is therefore a logically consistent ego that has lost hold of the reins which guide the body. This account of selfhood is a paradigm of the ontologically insecure self described by Laing. The philosopher - guided, as she must seemingly be, by the principle of non-contradiction - is forced to limit her ego to a realm of phenomenologically-attenuated imaginary symbolisations. Only in this impoverished mode of being can she exist in rational autonomy. Similarly, in Laing's description, "the unembodied self, as onlooker at all the body does, engages in nothing directly. Its functions come to be observation, control, and criticism vis-a-vis what the body is experiencing and doing, and those operations which are usually spoken of as purely 'mental'" (Divided Self 69). The philosopher therefore pays for epistemological security with existence in a world of ghost and phantoms distinct from the vivid realm of illusory-people and seeming-things impressed upon the soul by the body. This is exactly the position of Laing's ontologically insecure, "schizoid" individual:

there is an attempt to create relationships to persons and things within the individual without recourse to the outer world of persons and things at all. The individual is developing a microcosmos within himself; but, of course, this autistic, private, intra-individual "world" is not a feasible substitute for the only world there really is, the shared world. (Divided Self 74-75)

The futility of the schizoid position is, perhaps surprisingly, also intermittently recognised in the philosophical tradition. Even Hume concludes that, however philosophically secure he knows his conclusions to be, they are existentially inadequate:

nature herself . . . cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium . . . I dine, I play a game of back-gammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hour's amusement, I wou'd return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strain'd and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther. (269)

The Insufficiency of Theory: J.B. Baillie and John Macmurray

Laing's discussion of the schizoid personality can therefore be seen to subsume Hume's account of subjectivity. The Humean self, like the schizoid, dwells in a world of imaginary conclusions and phantastic doubts. So long as action and interaction are held at bay, observes Laing, then one may indulge in the far-fetched speculations endemic amongst philosophers:

The self, as long as it is "uncommitted to the objective element," is free to dream and imagine anything. Without reference to the objective element it can be all things to itself – it has unconditioned freedom, power, creativity. But its freedom and its omnipotence are exercised in a vacuum and its creativity is only the capacity to produce phantoms. (Divided Self 89)

Laing's terminology of "the objective element" is openly indebted to G.W.F. Hegel's discussion of the attractions of interior life: "It can readily be understood why the schizoid individual so abhors action as characterized by Hegel. The act is 'simple, determinate, universal. . .' But his self wishes to be complex, indeterminate, and unique . . . He must never be what can be said of him. He must remain always ungraspable, elusive, transcendent" (Divided Self 88).

The text from which Laing quotes is a revised edition of J.B. Baillie's 1910 translation of Hegel's Die Phänomenologie des Geistes. Baillie was an extremely significant Scottish philosopher who, though nowadays neglected, had a great influence on his native tradition. In Studies in Human Nature, published in 1921, Baillie shows that he is, in a quite proper sense, an existentialist. He insists that thought is not the essence of human being: "Truth . . . is certainly not all that the mind in its varied life strives after; by itself truth does not fill the cup of life to the full. The mind feels and perceives, it acts and it adores; and for such activities, truth, in the sense just stated, is neither relevant nor satisfying" (Baillie 226). Baillie therefore argues that thinking is pathological when detached from day-to-day life: "while the procedure of thinking has its own peculiar laws and aims, as the laws of seeing are different from those of hearing, the function is fulfilled in connection with the whole scheme of the individual life, separation from which leads not to healthy development but towards disease and dissolution" (Baillie 216). The precise form of this "disease" is the division of the self between a portion that lives in the here-and-now, and a remainder which infers unbelievable conclusions. Baillie, to be sure, is unlike most philosophers because he identifies the self proper with the putatively "non-cognitive" component. Nonetheless, the end-point is the same as that later described by Laing, and earlier suffered by Hume: "the thinking agent is turned into a quasi-external spectator of his own processes, watching the revolutions of his intellect as it produces concept, hypothesis, and inference, and having neither the power nor the interest to participate in its operations" (Baillie 215).

Since, as Baillie notes, the logic of two millennia of philosophical analysis can be so readily abandoned, it may be that the "processes" involved are rather less compelling than they are supposed. This possibility may be approached – and related back to Baillie – by an examination of Aristotle's meta-philosophical speculations. He starts from the plausible assumption that the love of wisdom should produce an epistemology by which dogma and fancy may be distinguished from the genuine knowledge provided by true belief, theoretically justified. Aristotle notes, however, the objection that such a putative theory of knowledge could only be properly known by use of another, prior theory, and that this prior theory would, in turn, require another and so on: "one party . . . claims that we are led back ad infinitum on the grounds that we would not understand what is posterior because of what is prior if there are no primitives" (Posterior 72b). An alternative to this infinite regress would be the hypothesis that the theory which guides the investigation is also that which the investigation produces: "The other party . . . argue that nothing prevents there being demonstration of everything; for it is possible for the demonstration to come about in a circle and reciprocally" (Aristotle, Posterior 72b). But this, to Aristotle, is quite unacceptable: "that it is impossible to demonstrate simplicity in a circle is clear, if demonstration must depend on what is prior and more familiar; for it is impossible for the same things at the same time to be prior and posterior to the same things" (Aristotle, Posterior 72b). The supposed criterion of knowledge therefore creates a dilemma: the theory of knowledge cannot be validated by the employment of another theory for this leads to an infinite regress of distinct criteria; nor, however, can the criterion be justified by itself, for this would be circular.

If the epistemological enterprise is to escape this dilemma, then it seems to Aristotle that we must have an immediate knowledge of the theory of knowing: "if it is necessary to understand the things which are prior and on which the demonstration depends, and it comes to a stop at some time, it is necessary for these immediates to be non-demonstrable" (Posterior 72b). This leads to the metaphysical quest for first principles: there is supposed a kind of knowing which imposes itself on the thinker as undeniably true, and within this kind of knowing there is known the theory of knowledge. The preferred candidate for intuitive knowledge is as we have seen the principle of non-contradiction which for both Aristotle and Descartes is so obvious as to be indisputable. As the insufficiency of this principle is discovered, however, so there develops, as in the work of Hume, a sceptical philosophy detached from the consequently downgraded interests of everyday life.

Yet the schizoid philosophy, and its attendant divided self, are far from inevitable. Foundationalism is not only existentially impoverished, it is also cognitively inadequate, for, insofar as anyone presents a convincing philosophical principle, it is by a willingness to argue. But for a consistent foundationalist, argument is unnecessary, and philosophy trivial; there is no need to philosophise if one must, in fact, already possess an intuitive cognition of the theory of knowing. This problem is recognised by Baillie in a remark on the insufficiency of a theoretical answer to the question "what is truth?": "the complete answer to the question," he tells us, "cannot be found by postulating a 'criterion' of truth. A criterion of truth must itself be a true criterion, and we are thus at once in an indefinite regress in the search for such an instrument, or we already have it in our hands all the while" (14). In other words, if philosophy is to avoid such dead-ends as infinite regress, dogmatic assertion (or, unmentioned by Baillie, logical circularity), then it must give up the primacy of theory in order to recognise that thought is necessarily subordinated to a fuller human life.

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Janus Head
The Legacy of R. D. Laing
Special Issue: Spring 2001

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