Wednesday, July 30, 2008

A Phenomenology of Self, Psyche, and Soul: What Can We Learn from a Name?

This is an excellent article from the Metanexus Institute's The Global Spiral. As most readers of this blog know, I have an interest in psycho-therapeutic parts work (see the sidebar articles on subpersonalities). This article by Felicity Kelcourse takes a somewhat related approach to the intrapsychic structures of the self.

The author works with "self and psyche primarily from a psychological/clinical viewpoint and soul from a predominantly spiritual/theological point of view." She positions her point-of-view in the social constructionism tradition.

A Phenomenology of Self, Psyche, and Soul: What Can We Learn from a Name?

By Felicity Kelcourse

Describing the inner lifeZurbaran's St. Dorothy

In this paper I offer a descriptive analysis of ways in which we experience our own inner lives and those of others. I use the term “phenomenology” in the broad sense of receiving thoughts and sense impressions as they present themselves, the “da sein” of things. 1 An ability to describe fictive parts of what is in reality a seamless whole is a useful exercise because the act of naming allows us to better appreciate the dynamic functioning of our intrapsychic and interpersonal experience. Moreover, understanding our internal and relational “parts” suggests creative ways for dialogue to occur across boundaries of difference.

What is the practical value of “dialogue across boundaries of difference”? Difference is all around us—we each have unique fingerprints, unique DNA. We are obviously different from other men and women, and different as humans from other living and non-living entities that compose the web of life on earth some have named Gaia (Lovelock, 1979/1995). If we examine our subjective experience we find difference even within our own consciousness, different affective states, different patterns of thought and imagination in waking states, in REM sleep, in the natural (as opposed to drug induced) altered states of consciousness that figure in religious experience.2 In this paper I begin with the thoroughly postmodern assumption that no individual’s perception and no specific state of consciousness has an a priori claim to truth, legitimacy or certainty, but that we can find practical value in bringing a wide variety of perceptions into dialogue with one another, K moving towards O as psychoanalytic theorist Bion would say, where K is what we claim to know and O is the as yet unknown (Bion, 1970). On the continuum between positivism, constructivism, postpositivism and social constructionism, my starting point is closest to the latter (cf. Berger & Luckmann, 1967; Cooper-White, 2004, pp.35-56).

Naming my own context will give you some idea of where I’m coming from. For the past twelve years I have been teaching counseling and ministry in a seminary setting. My clinical work includes supervision for counselors in training and a part-time practice as a pastoral psychotherapist working with individuals, couples, families, and groups, and ranging from ego-supportive counseling to psychoanalysis. For seven years before that I pursued clinical training in various modalities and worked as a psychotherapist while engaged in a doctoral program and training analysis. And for eleven years before that I trained and served in ministry in the United States, England and Jamaica, West Indies. During this thirty year journey I have come to understand myself and others in an evolving variety of ways. Sometimes the emphasis has been on a spiritual understanding of self and persons, at other times the emphasis has been on psychological knowing that includes both intrapsychic (inner, subjective), interpersonal and intercultural components. I strive to bring these varied perspectives into closer dialogue because I recognize, both in my own experience and that of others, that their intentional interaction affords us greater access to healing and wholeness.

The parts of us I’d like to consider are named here as self, psyche, and soul. I will present self and psyche primarily from a psychological/clinical viewpoint and soul from a predominantly spiritual/theological point of view. Their interaction as “parts” of our existence contributes to a dynamic experience of wholeness when all parts are in dialogue. I’ll begin with “self” as the part that is most “experience-near,” then consider psyche and soul. Since the latter words share a common etymology, the case for distinguishing between them will need to be made.3

What I will not address here is the question of whether the soul is something that has an existence before this life and after death. That raises the problem of “substance dualism” which in turn leads to questions of hierarchical dualism—soul over body, mind over body, male over female, human over creation, etc. In making distinctions between parts of our experience, I do not intend to imply rigid separations between parts, much less a hierarchy of parts. Distinctions are made here for the purposes of discernment (Kelcourse, 1998).

Attempts to make distinctions between various aspects of human experience can readily be criticized as arbitrary. For example, we routinely speak of mind and body as if they were two distinct entities. Yet as neurologist Damasio makes clear in Descartes’ Error, there can be no such thing as a mind without a body (1994). A mind wholly bereft of the body’s senses has no means of interacting with the world to form what Daniel Stern calls RIGS (representations of actions that have been generalized) or structures of experience (1985). Yet we still find it useful to distinguish between afflictions that appear to have a primarily organic origin, as in congenital dispositions to depression or schizophrenia, and those that are apparently of psychological origin, as in physical symptoms that can be traced to specific traumas - insomnia following a car accident or chest pains following the loss of a loved one, for example. There is no specific boundary between body and mind in these cases, yet distinctions that allow us to consider the etiology of an illness are diagnostically useful.

If the routinely accepted division of mind and body is suspect, distinctions between self, psyche, and soul are even less verifiable in any objective sense. What I propose is that these distinctions, although ultimately arbitrary, are nonetheless useful ways of sorting out subjective phenomena that have a different 'feel' to the person experiencing them. The definitions we use do matter since they serve epistemic purposes. In other words, naming the subtle differences between ways of knowing can itself advance the project of internal and interpersonal dialogue, promoting broader awareness of self and other.

Before I proceed to offer my working definitions of self, psyche, and soul, it is worth noting that the distinction between 'self' and 'other' is ultimately arbitrary too. When pediatrician turned psychoanalyst Winnicott wrote that there's “no such thing as a baby” (1960, p. 39), he was naming an experience that we have all housed in some wordless region of our being, the amodal memories of our own infancy (Stern, 1985). We enter the “primary maternal preoccupation” as parents when we find ourselves mesmerized by the hourly care of a newborn (Winnicott, 1960a/ 1965/1987, p.147). This kind of boundary blurring between self and other is also a feature of 'being in love', especially in its more intense, quasi-hallucinatory forms. And we find the self/other boundary crossed in religious experience as shared by individuals in small groups or worshipping communities who recognize, however fleetingly, the “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). Freud describes this felt sense of spiritual unity in psychological terms: “each individual is bound by libidinal ties to the leader (Christ…) and on the other hand to the other members of the group” (1921/1989, p.35). Despite Freud’s overt rejection of religion, he displays in this passage a clear understanding of what the experience of spiritual unity in a group context affectively entails.

So what is it that makes us simultaneously separate in our skins yet mysteriously interconnected in other ways? Virginia Woolf captures this sense of interconnected lives, outward and inner dialogues in Mrs. Dalloway; one hears the cacophony of memories, the collisions of past history in present experience (1925). Woolf offers a phenomenology of consciousness that is closer to our daily lived experience than the illusions of separateness Westerners typically cultivate. The terms self, psyche, and soul have light to shed on both our individuality and our collectivity.

Read the rest of this article.

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