The Philosophy of Attachment—Going Where No Man Has Gone Before

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At the end of my post for January 4th, 2011, I mentioned that I was thinking about two possible routes. One, look more at the philosophical implications of Bowlby’s theory, or, two, take a look at an article by Dr. Carole Pistole wherein she frames the pressing social problem of unwanted teen pregnancy using The Grand Bowlbian Attachment Environment (which is my phrase). I’ve given it some thought and I’ve decided to take the first route mainly because I think it’s important for us to have a cursory sense for the philosophical implications inherent in Bowlby’s theory before we look at how Dr. Pistole uses Bowlby’s theory to frame the pressing issue of unwanted teen pregnancy. I know, I know … philosophy … how boring. If it’s any consolation, rest assured that I’m not a philosophy scholar (nor do I play one on TV), so my treatment of the subject of “Attachment and Philosophy” will be a hack at best. I’m suggesting that there may be some entertainment value in my hacking away at attachment and philosophy using a dull hatchet (especially if you own a Husqvarna chain saw philosophically speaking).

In my post of January 4th, 2011, I suggested that, philosophically speaking, Bowlby, in formulating his theory of attachment, was shooting for a true monism—a philosophical conceptual system whereby both body and mind could be conceptualized equally and at the same time. I mentioned that the authors of the 2005 edited volume Critical Thinking About Psychology—Hidden Assumptions and Plausible Alternatives nominate a naturalistic systems theory worldview (the same one, I argue, that Bowlby used) as a possible way toward a true monism. (I’d be remiss if I did not mention that this book has informed my thinking as far as attachment and philosophy is concerned—partial summary available.) Interestingly, the authors of Critical Thinking do not join me in my belief that Bowlby was trying for a true monism and, instead, place Bowlby’s work into the category of a one-sided dualism, one in which mind is pulled into body. I’m not sure why but the Critical Thinking authors take naturalistic systems theory thinkers—from Darwin, to the 18th century theorist Giambattista Vico, to Piaget, to Bowlby, and on the list goes—and essentially diss (e.g., disrespect) them by lumping them together under the philosophical rubric of developmentalism. Consider this excerpt from my partial summary of Critical Thinking:

As the authors put it, “The founders of developmental psychology, who were working at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries, were not simply concerned with the study of children but were attempting to empirically establish the universal laws of progress that applied to individual development, and in doing so, address moral and religious questions about the nature of God and the good.” The authors give us this “bottom line”: “[These efforts] gave rise to the pervasive use of biological metaphors in studying children [which Bowlby certainly did use], for ‘the child as developing organism’ situates the psychological study of children within a biological (progressive) evolutionary framework [and outside of a God framework], thereby affording a measure of security for inferences about the ethical nature of human life [i.e., secure attachment is good for development].”

My sense is that the Critical Thinking authors diss developmentalists (like Bowlby and Piaget) because they perceive them as essentially taking an anti-God, or, more specifically, an anti-God’s purpose position. And they do have a point: there’s nothing inherent in reductionistic empirical science that tells you “secure attachment is good.” The Critical Thinking authors contend that when a developmentalist deems a particular developmental endpoint as “good,” he or she is in essence playing God.

I may not agree with where the Critical Thinking authors go but I applaud their efforts to place Bowlby’s attachment theory within a discussion centered on philosophy. Frankly I’m a bit amazed that more authors have not taken up the topic of attachment and philosophy. In no particular order, lets look at a few attachment and philosophy topics. (Clearly from above, the topic of God’s purpose versus the “purpose” of biological developmentalism is a hot one—see the topic of Intelligent Design for more).

In my opinion, there is simply no way you can look at Bowlby’s attachment theory without looking at the philosophical implications of body versus mind. Most of us are able to recall from our school days that the 17th century philosopher René Descartes took a stab at resolving the body-mind issue. (As a side note, Descartes is arguably considered to be the father of modern reductionistic science). But what’s at the heart of mind-body dualism? Let me get out my dull hatchet (while you warm up your Husqvarna) and take a few chops at this question.

The reference to “body” is essentially a reference to the material world—rocks, bricks, tables, etc. The reference to “mind” is essentially a reference to the non-material world of mental constructs—beliefs, thoughts, mental images, etc. At the risk of reducing the body-mind issue to the point of libel, the body-mind issue asks the following question: “Within a single organism, such as a human being or other higher order primate, how do we go from body to mind and vice versa?” This question can be looked at a bit differently: “How do we go from the conceptual system that holds the material to the conceptual system that holds the spiritual (e.g., the world of mental constructs)?” You see, the Critical Thinking authors get a bit testy because they perceive developmentalists (like Bowlby and Piaget and Erikson) as expressing a desire to conceptualize both body and mind (both the material and the spiritual) using biological or material metaphors. The Critical Thinking authors would prefer to conceptualize both body and mind using spiritual or non-material metaphors. I hope you are beginning to get the sense that there is no right or wrong here. Empiricists hate the fact that there is no way to empirically prove that one conceptual system is better than another. Any attempt to do so would be a bootstrap operation: using a conceptual system to prove that one conceptual system is better than another—the result is still a concept not a truth. I digress.

Simply put, in the material world things can only go in one direction at one time. When Bowlbian attachment types say things like “the child moves out to explore the environment and returns to mother when afraid,” they are using concepts drawn form the material world. As we learned in school, two different pieces of material cannot occupy the same space at the same time. The worlds of physics and chemistry have come to define the material. Essentially, this is the world of Newtonian mechanics.

In the non-material or spiritual world (for lack of a better term), sure, you can go in two different directions at the same time. As a matter of fact, two different mental constructs can and often do occupy the same space. Simply put, Newtonian principles fall apart within the world of spiritual principles. And as Einstein discovered, Newtonian physical principles begin to get a bit shaky once you enter into the world of quantum mechanics—the world of atomic and subatomic matter. (As a side note, I think the central purpose of the 2004 movie What the #$*! Do We (K)now!? was to use quantum mechanics as a way of creating a one-sided dualism that pulls body into mind.)

“Please … if you mention the Stoics I’m out of here,” you protest. OK, OK. Hang in there a moment longer. Bowlby argued that if a child is fortunate enough to have a safe and secure attachment relationship with his or her mother (typically) then (if all goes well) he or she can expect to develop an open and flexible Inner Working (Cognitive) Model. Whether you agree with this statement or not, Bowlby is implying that the material can give rise to the mental (i.e., Bowlby’s Inner Working Model). OK … how? To a large degree, Bowlby totally sidesteps the body-mind philosophical dilemma inherent in his theory and basically says something like, “I don’t know how it happens but it does.” My sense is that Bowlby was aware of the body-mind implications inherent in his theory but just didn’t focus on them (which leaves his theory open to philosophical attack—the Critical Thinking attacks mentioned above would be an example). As an example, consider this 1956 quote by Bowlby (contact the Foundation for the reference):

Probably in all normal people [attachment] continues in one form or another throughout life and, although in many ways transformed, underlies many of our attachments to country, sovereign, or church.

OK, clearly Bowlby ends in the realm of the non-material, the mental, the spiritual—country, sovereign, or church. I will argue that he starts out in the physical. Further, I will argue that in the above quote Bowlby is essentially saying that the material aspects of attachment can give rise to the spiritual aspects of attachment through some process of body-mind transformation. Again, I think Bowlby was aware of the body-mind issues inherent in his theory but chose to gloss over them. Even though Bowlby chose to talk about body-mind issues obliquely I’m surprised that no one has come along and looked at them in ernest. We have the philosophy of Star Trek, why not the philosophy of Bowlbian Attachment Theory? Any takers out there?

Let me end this post by suggesting that early naturalistic systems thinkers—like Bowlby, Piaget, Erikson, Mead, and von Bertalanffy—were drawn to this new paradigm because, like Einstein, they witnessed phenomena that could not be explained or framed by reference to Newtonian principles and concepts alone. Consider this excerpt from my summary of von Bertalanffy’s 1969 book General System Theory:

von Bertalanffy spends a bit of time looking at the history of the mechanistic worldview, which was born of classical physics of the nineteenth century. Towards the conclusion of this section von Bertalanffy gives us this “take home” statement: “We may state as characteristic of modern science that this scheme of isolable units acting in one-way causality has proved to be insufficient.” He continues, “Hence the appearance, in all fields of science, of notions like wholeness, holistic, organismic, gestalt, etc. which all signify that, in the last resort, we must think in terms of systems of elements in mutual interaction.” If we advocate for secure attachment, we must, therefore, spend time advocating for a systems worldview. A central tenet of Bowlby’s attachment theory is the idea that attachment relationships are about dynamically balancing and harmonizing three behavioral systems: the attachment behavioral system, the caregiving behavioral system, and the sexual behavioral system.

Sadly, I do not see Bowlbian attachment types advocating for Bowlby’s theory using a naturalistic systems theory worldview. If anything, Bowlbians (or maybe we should call them neo-Bowlbians) advocate for his theory using mechanistic and even reduced frameworks. One of the reasons our Foundation commissioned an article by Dr. Gary Metcalf was to bring out the fact that Bowlby used a naturalistic systems theory frame to frame his work. It is only within this naturalistic systems theory frame that the true (in my opinion) challenge of Bowlby’s attachment theory presents itself:

A central tenet of Bowlby’s attachment theory is the idea that attachment relationships are about dynamically balancing and harmonizing three behavioral systems: the attachment behavioral system, the caregiving behavioral system, and the sexual behavioral system.

In my next post I’ll take a stab at trying to reveal how Bowlby came upon this naturalistic systems theory challenge of dynamically balancing and harmonizing often conflicting behavioral systems, and why, today, this challenge is given short shrift if any at all. My sense is that within naturalistic systems theory early adopters found a path toward bridging body to mind in a way approaching a true monism. I realize that the Critical Thinking authors are waiting for a true monism messiah (so-to-speak) to arrive, but I’d suggest that naturalistic systems theory thinkers are pretty darn close if not the real thing.