Why Vitalism? Freud … Asked and Answered

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First, thanks to my blog readers for all the emails you have sent me in response to the BLT blog posts that I have written over the last many months. Now, if I could just get you to leave post comments as opposed to sending me emails (hint hint). I guess the blog format is still a bit intimidating for many. It was for me at first. In the mean time, I’ll continue to bring your email comments over to the blog for you.

I received a couple of emails on my January 14th, 2011, blog post entitled Hold the Presses—Why Are We So Attached to the Vitalism of Bowlbian Attachment Theory? At the end of that post I said that I would give some thought to why we are so attached to vitalistic explanations as opposed to scientific explanations. Well, a couple of readers offered up their ideas via email. One reader suggested that we only have to look at what happened to Freud to understand why vitalism is so popular. This reader pointed out that Freud started his career by pointing out the connection between abuse toward children (which, apparently, was rampant in the sexually repressed environs of Victorian life) and adult forms of neuroses and hysteria. This is known as Freud’s Seduction Theory. Today, the connection between abuse toward children and PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) later in life is clear and scientifically established. My reader pointed out that Freud, who was well versed in the area of mythology, abandoned his seduction theory and was forced to go over to vitalism—the id, the ego, the superego, the Oedipal conflict, etc.—because to stay in the realm of scientism would have been political suicide. This reader pointed out that it’s easier (and safer) to talk about the ills of society via myth (i.e., the mythical Greek character Oedipus) and vitalism than it is via fact and science. I would agree with this reader and add that through myth and vitalism, one can talk about the political milieu using a “wink wink, nudge nudge” approach (with a tip of the hat to a popular Monty Python bit). I would suggest that Frued used the “wink wink, nudge nudge” of vitalism and myth to talk about the politics that surrounded him so as to not draw undo repercussions. In addition, I’d say that he used “wink wink, nudge nudge” as a way to invite others (like a John Bowlby for instance) to put his vitalism into a scientific format, maybe when the political waters were not so hostile. Sadly, it seems the political waters remain perpetually hostile when it comes to society’s role in producing traumatic reactions in its citizenry.

Allow me to add to this reader’s comment. The “Freud pattern” repeated itself after WWI. Researchers tried valiantly to bring attention to the connection between the trauma of war and what was called back then “being shell shocked” (which today we call PTSD). For more on this theme, see the 1996 edited volume Traumatic Stress: The Effects of Overwhelming Experience on Mind, Body, and Society (in particular, Bessel van der Kolk’s introductory chapter on the history of PTSD). According to van der Kolk’s research, conservative thinkers during that timeframe (as now) were deathly afraid that if the “war–traumatic reaction” connection could be scientifically established, it would lead to a wave of malingering—large numbers of returning vets living off the fat of the land. Suffice it to say that any form of malingering terrifies most conservatives. This is why political characters such as the infamous “welfare mother” have been vilified by conservative groups (pulling from George Lakoff’s work here). Consider this passage from a blog post entitled Vietnam Veterans Suing DoD Over Wrongful Discharges (I added the links and my additions are in brackets):

Personality Disorders are thought to have their origins in a person’s youth and at times can show symptoms very similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The DoD [Department of Defense], then, sees personality disorders as pre-existing conditions. Therefore, the DoD does not believe these soldiers [returning from war] are entitled to the same benefits as soldiers “genuinely” diagnosed with combat disorders such as PTSD and traumatic brain injuries (TBIs).

The above points out that conservatives still fear setting off any flood of malingering, even to the point of denying benefits to returning vets. I would suggest that the DoD is using the scientific construct of personality disorder in a vitalistic way to avoid social responsibility. Am I missing something here: why can personality disorders be easily found after service but not before? The “malingerer myth” is probably the most powerful myth driving conservative thought today. Ira Chernus, writing in his article How the Power of Myth Keeps Us Mired in War, tells of meeting a conservative while doing a bit of political canvassing. He asked this conservative if he would be willing to give to people in need he didn’t know. His response speaks to the conservative belief in the malingerer myth:

Why should I give my hard-earned money to the government so they can hand it out to strangers who, for all I know, are good-for-nothing loafers and mooches? I want to be free to decide what to do with my dough and I’ll give it to responsible people who believe in taking care of themselves and their families, just like me. I’ll give my money to the government only to protect us from strangers in distant lands who don’t believe in the sacred rights of the individual and aim to take my freedom and money away.

My insightful reader pointed out that Bowlby went through his own version of the “Freud pattern.” This reader pointed to the article that Gary Metcalf wrote entitled John Bowlby: Rediscovering a Systems Scientist. This was the article that our Foundation commissioned to bring out the connection between Bowlby’s work and naturalistic systems theory (use the CONTACT US link above to request a copy). This reader specifically pointed to the section where Dr. Metcalf talks about how Bowlby, along with a number of other researchers, protested the policies of the UK that were put in place during WWII that were designed to evacuate children (especially orphans) from the cities to the countryside. Simply put, the British government did not want a scientific connection to be built between evacuating children and later traumatic responses (such as PTSD). Well, as Dr. Metcalf points out, it goes deeper than this. Just recently, the British government admitted and took responsibility for the real motivation behind the evacuation policies. Apparently, the British government was worried that there would not be enough white people in the UK’s various colonies, like Australia and Canada. (I’d be remiss if I did not point out that, today, Australia and Canada embrace Bowlby’s theory.) There was a eugenics component to the evacuation policies. Children were evacuated to the colonies and were received by various religious groups. Apparently many of these children were subsequently abused by their hosts. Dr. Metcalf suggests in his article that it would be unlikely that Bowlby did not know about what was really going on with these evacuations, which may explain why he and others protested them vociferously. Rachael Peltz, writing in  Psychoanalysis, Class and Politics, makes the following observation:

What emerged in Britain as a result of trying to accommodate the evacuated children of the Second World War years was the revision of psychoanalytic theories about childhood, attachment, and dependency. Interrupting the continuity of the relationship between children and their parents brought home to Bowlby and Winnicott, among others, the significance of what Winnicott called the “environmental provision.”

I’m glad that Peltz is trying to build a bridge between psychology and politics, but I have a problem with how she’s going about it. She’s right that the evacuation policies brought about a revision of psychoanalytic theories, but in Bowlby’s case, he moved away from such theories all together. As Dr. Metcalf’s article points out, Bowlby wanted to bring scientism to the vitality that is psychoanalytic theory. In my opinion, Bowlby probably thought that you can’t change policy without good science. Sadly, even with the good systems science that Bowlby came up with, attachment theory still isn’t influencing policy (more on why this may be below). Again, I appreciate that Peltz is trying to use vitalism (like Bion’s idea of “containment”) to change policy, but it still baffles me why people do not tap into Bowlby’s scientism. One possibility is that researchers are afraid to use scientism to change policy because of the political repercussions such efforts might bring.

The other reader pointed out that I have already answered my own question, “Why vitalism?” This reader pointed to my October 29th, 2010, post entitled Why Does Attachment Theory Have Such Low Self-Esteem? OK, I know what this reader is pointing to. Thanks for pointing this out to me. Here’s an excerpt from that post:

As noted feminist psychoanalyst Susie Orbach wrote in her 1997 paper (actually, a transcript of a talk she gave)  Why Is Attachment in the Air? (Psychoanalytic Dialogue Vol 9 no 1, 1999), U.S. feminists did look at Bowlby’s theory back in the early 1970s (not long after the first volume of Bowlby’s trilogy on attachment came out in the late 1960s). It was at this point that they summarily rejected his theory because they (erroneously) felt that it carried with it the potential to bring additional oppression to women. Feminist psychology types (of which there were many men) reframed Bowlby’s insecure attachment as a “lack of self-esteem.”  These early 70s feminists took the science of attachment and made it vitalistic by reframing attachment as esteem. By removing attachment from a scientific frame and putting it into a vitalistic or folk frame, it could no longer be looked at or evaluated empirically. No one has ever adequately operationalized esteem, and, as a result, you can say and do whatever you want because it can’t be adequately tested.

So, here the idea is fairly simple: if you can reduce scientism to vitalism, you can (hopefully) reduce it’s ability to oppress. According to Orbach’s research, 1970s feminists (mainly in the psychology and sociology arenas) viewed Bowlby’s theory as a threat because of its potential to oppress women. In her article (talk), Orbach expresses regret over this decision because the possibility that Bowlby’s theory might actually empower women was never seriously considered. Daphne de Marneffe, writing in her 2004 book Maternal Desire—On Children, Love, and the Inner Life, also bemoans the fact that 70s feminists reduced Bowlby’s work to so much vitalism (summary available). de Marneffe makes the case that Bowlby’s scientism may in fact enhance and bring women closer to the vital energy that is motherhood. But here’s where the plot thickens. de Marneffe argues that the real agenda of 70s feminists was to separate women from the vital energy of motherhood so that they would feel no compunction over entering the workforce en masse. For more on this theme, see Paul Stiles’s 2005 book Is the American Dream Killing You?: How “the Market” Rules Our Lives and Mary Eberstadt’s 2004 book Home-Alone America: The Hidden Toll of Day Care, Behavioral Drugs, and Other Parent Substitutes (summary available). 1970s feminists were acting in a rather conservtive way because they expressed a fear that women (mothers in particular) would end up being malingerers—comfortable living off the largess of men and bathed in the oxytocin glow of motherhood. Sadly, to make sure that women didn’t turn into malingerers, 70s feminists set out to break down the Grand Bowlbian Attachment Environment, which holds the behavioral systems of attachment, caregiving, and sex (see my December 21st, 2010, post, for more on the GBAE). Consider this excerpt from my summary of de Marneffe’s book Maternal Desire:

Within current prevailing cultural cognitive models, “desiring sex … confirms one’s standing as an independent woman; but desiring a child, or worse, a husband, reveals one to be pathetically contingent” (to quote de Marneffe). Notice that current and prevailing mappings hold that if a woman separates or divorces the sexual behavioral system from the other behavioral systems (attachment and caregiving), she becomes independent, even self-serving (e.g., she gains self-esteem). But if she adds attachment and caregiving to the sexual behavioral system, she becomes “pathetically contingent,” even other-serving. de Marneffe points out that “part of the problem is that before we [women] have children, it costs us very little to minimize motherhood’s potential effects.” She continues, “Indeed, it is hard to even imagine them.” And this is at the heart of the motherhood problem: current and prevailing cultural cognitive models (which were setup in large part during the 1970s) do not allow women to anticipate and imagine motherhood’s potential effects.

So, to sum up, here’s a listing of the various uses for vitalism that I have identified:

  • Vitalism may be used to capture an essence in “folk” form with the intention of placing that essence into a scientific framework. Examples here: land bridges moving to plate tectonics (see my January 14th, 2011, post), or Freud’s mythology moving to Bowlby’s systems science.
  • Vitalism my be used as a weapon against scientism. Examples here: 1970s feminists reframing Bowlby’s theory surrounding the formation of insecure attachment as “esteem” or “resilience,” or these same feminists breaking down the Grand Bowlbian Attachment Environment, or the Intelligent Design camp attacking the theory of evolution. (See this example: Creationists Have Gotten Clever, But There’s Still No Debate Over Evolution.)
  • Vitalism may be used to talk about social ills in a way that will not draw undo repercussions, whether political, economic, or social. Example: Freud abandoning his seduction theory (which we now know to be true) and moving over to mythology.
  • Vitalism may be used to avoid social responsibility. Examples here: the DoD using a vitalistic form of personality disorder, and the British government looking at attachment vitalistically so as to bring about their evacuation policies.
  • Vitalism may be the only way to get a message across to a group of people. In his work, George Lakoff makes the point that even the results of science have to be framed and “sold” in persuasive ways. Whereas conservatives believe in the malingerer myth (among others), liberals believe in what Lakoff calls the “rationalist myth.”  Here’s how Chernus (mentioned above) describes the rationalist myth (link and bracketed information are mine):

Political scientist David Ricci claims there’s not much progressives can do about [not being able to frame their science], precisely because they already have one very successful myth that prevents them—oh, the irony!—from taking the power of myths seriously. The progressive heritage, as he tells it, goes back to the eighteenth century Enlightenment, when the radicals of the day decided that fact and logic were the source of all truth and the only path to peace and freedom.

Chernus hits on an important point (one Lakoff also makes): even science depends on mythical constructs. Reductionistic science depends on the myth of reduction—reducing all phenomenon to simple cause and effect chains. Naturalistic system theory thinkers (like Bertalanffy and Bowlby) feel that the reduction myth is now preventing us from understanding the true nature of natural systems. Naturalistic systems theory may be a better mouse trap (“myth trap” perhaps) but very few are out there selling it.

So, thanks to my attentive readers for helping me take a first pass at why vitalism may be favored over scientism. If you can think of additional reasons or examples, please feel free to leave a comment (registration required). Keep in mind that once vitalism becomes dogma (i.e., the land bridge theory, Freud’s mythology, or even the rationalist myth) it will be defended heavily because, again, no one likes it when their particular worldview is up ended. Once vitalism becomes dogma, it’s hard to move it over to scientism. Right now reductionistic science is dogma. Again, this is probably the main reason that naturalistic systems theory has not taken off. As the Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr (who I talk about in my January, 4th, 2011, post) said to an audience once (and I paraphrase), “If you wish to know who will oppose a new view of things—like Jesus’s teachings—look around and see who will lose their jobs if that new worldview were to catch on.” Hmmmm … who would lose their jobs if either Bowlby’s theory of attachment or the worldview that holds it—naturalistic systems theory—were to catch on? Any guesses my trusty blog readers?