The Comforts of Unreason

Thursday, 01 September 2011 00:05

Published in Living Together ed David Kennard and Neil Small, Quartet Books, 1997

In my salad days when I was green in judgement I believed that universal enlightenment was possible. I saw that the body of human stupidity far outweighed the body of human knowledge and wisdom with the result that just about all of the vastness of human suffering derived not from natural causes but from what we do to one another and to ourselves. However, I believed that the forces of unreason (the kind of thinking which results when fear, greed, vanity and the desire for power are allowed to prevail over logic and scientific thinking) could be exposed for what they were and thus defeated. I thought that psychotherapy would be the means by which this would happen. Through psychotherapy we would come to understand that all we know is what we have constructed, and that out of this understanding we would develop new ways of living together based on tolerance, mutual dignity and knowledge informed by the search for truth rather than the fulfilment of desires.

Now I know that this has not occurred and might never occur. I no longer see psychotherapy as being as profound as I once thought it was. Moreover, the forces of unreason are not so easily routed, and, when they do suffer a defeat in some area of experience the forces quickly regroup and capture other territory. This happens because not only do these forces serve to keep power in the hands of those who would be powerful (in political thought such people are usually grouped together as the Church and the State, those organizations which determine through education and censorship what their citizens should know)(1) but they often secretly subvert those who believe that they are in the vanguard of enlightenment. Enlightenment requires a person to look with clear, unwavering eyes at the reality of our existence, but, as T. S. Eliot said, 'Human kind cannot bear very much reality.'(2)

When reality becomes too much to bear we can comfort ourselves with fantasies, which is wise provided we remember that the stories we tell ourselves are fantasies. If we fail to do this, if we think that our fantasies are real and true, we join the forces of unreason. In the ranks of therapists there are some who do just this. They develop a logic which conveniently ignores those constructions which do not fit their theories and thus they collude with the forces of unreason. Therapists whose model of therapy includes terms like transpersonal, spirituality, the soul, the religious, the transcendent, the numinosum, the sacred are prone to do this. Freud ignored much of the actual brutality which his clients had suffered, and many of his disciples over the following decades have done the same.(3)

Such collusion seems on many occasions to go beyond a mere failure of nerve. It seems instead to be an inability to understand and accept the peculiarity of our existence.

This peculiarity is that, while the world we live in seems to be solid and real and shared with others, what we each experience is our individual construction. We can imagine events which occur without any relationship to us, but what we have is not knowledge about such events but theories about such events. In fact, everything we know is a theory, a construction, and this construction is inside our head.

When I lecture about this I often quote or refer to the work of the scientist Ian Stewart when he wrote,

The problem is that human beings cannot obtain an objective view of the universe. Everything we experience is mediated by our brains. Even our vivid impression that the world is 'out there' is a wonderful trick. The nerve cells in our brains create a simplified copy of reality inside our head, and then persuade us that we are inside it, rather than the other way around.(4)

I then describe how, while it seems to me that I am here and my audience over there, actually what I am experiencing is inside my head. I can only hope that whatever is going on around me bears some resemblance to my construction. I go on to say that the same process is occurring in each person present, and that if it were possible to take our pictures out of our heads like a photograph out of a Polaroid camera, hang them on the wall and look at them we would see that each picture is different from all the others.

This is because our construction can come from nowhere other than our past experience, and no two people, not even identical twins, have the same experience.

As I describe this basic physiological process I watch the expressions on the faces of my audience. Some people look mildly interested, unsurprised because I am not telling them anything they do not know, but others, often people who would regard themselves as well educated, look confused, even anxious. They have never heard such an account of experience before.

In a workshop which I was running for some Australian psychologists and social workers and where I had given this account of how we create meaning, one young woman said, 'I am a committed Christian and I know that people are born bad.' A little further in the discussion another woman said, 'There's no doubt that depression can be caused by biological changes.' Both these statements reveal an ignorance of how we are, in essence, meaning-creating creatures.

The first speaker, like many theologians and philosophers, claimed to have a super-human access to the Absolute Truth, that is, a Truth which exists eternally outside time and space and human experience but which can be accessed by a special few. (Plato saw an elite of philosophers having such an access, while being inducted into the priesthood is in essence being given special access to God's power.)(5) This would be believable if Absolute Truths were rare and consistent with one another but there seem to be as many Absolute Truths as there are people claiming to be special. Such Absolute Truths are far from consistent.

The second speaker had failed to read with a psychologist's critical eye the research literature on the search for a biological basis for depression and had not realized that it is not bodily changes which determine our thoughts, feelings and actions but how we interpret our bodily changes. (To understand this it is necessary to remember that awareness and interpretation are simultaneous and that an interpretation need not be conscious for us to act on it.) A burst of adrenaline can be interpreted as fear or pleasurable excitement. A change in serotonin levels might be interpreted as, 'I don't feel well. I'm going to take it easy. Someone else can do my work', or, 'I don't feel well. This is my punishment for being so wicked. Everything is hopeless.' (This second example is pure speculation as changes in serotonin levels or any other biochemical change have not been shown to precede depression.)

Because all that we have are our interpretations, we are free to choose to acknowledge that what we have are theories and that we can use all means to test these theories (George Kelly, ever hopeful, spoke of man the scientist')(6), or we can insist that our theories are not theories but accurate representations of the truth.

Of course, acknowledging that all you know is a theory which might or might not approximate to reality requires the courage to live with uncertainty, and many people (some therapists included) lack such courage. It also requires courage to acknowledge that the theories we form do not range over the infinity of possible constructions but they are themselves determined by what can be said in the framework. For instance, each of the world's languages is a theory about the nature of reality. If you speak English you can construct theories only in terms of what English allows you to construct. Many of the most fruitless enterprises of psychologists and psychiatrists have stemmed from the failure to see how the English language prefers nouns to verbs, thus rendering it prone to reification, especially when its users believe that if there is a word there must be an object to which that word refers. Hence the futile search for imaginary things like 'intelligence', 'personality', 'depression' and 'schizophrenia'.

The failure to recognize that what can be said is determined by the framework of such constructions is not confined to psychologists and psychiatrists. Those who would be powerful and those who prefer fantasy to reality often fail to acknowledge or even understand that this is so. Thus a grocer's daughter can proclaim that value for money is a universal principle, and a devout Christian surviving a near-death experience does not see Shiva at the end of the tunnel into the next world.

What is this inability to accept and acknowledge the peculiarity of our existence? Over the past twenty years I have taught or tried to teach about this to a wide range of people, differing in nationality, culture, religion, class and education. I have found that some people have no difficulty in understanding the peculiarity of their existence while others remain baffled and confused or dismiss out of hand what I say. These responses do not relate to the person's level of education. Indeed, I feel that a tertiary education (or what passes as a tertiary education) is actually an impediment to understanding.

Most of the nuclear physicists I have encountered find what I say blindingly obvious. After all, physicists have been dealing with this issue in their science since the 1920s. It is other scientists who want to believe that somehow in doing science they step outside themselves, don the white coat of objectivity and perceive reality directly. They find the thought that they cannot measure anything absolutely accurately unacceptable. Many such scientists are psychologists.

Teaching psychologists and highly qualified psychotherapists I find the hardest chore of all. Many of them come with a set of mental boxes which they call psychological theories. As I talk I see what I am saying being popped into one of the boxes and the lid snapped tight. To pass examinations in psychology and psychotherapy you have to know the current theories and their accepted refutation or supposed refutation because more times than not the refutation of a theory is no more than name-calling, and there is nothing well-trained psychologists like better than polysyllabic abstract nouns. Such words can allow the user to ignore experience, especially those experiences which challenge the psychologist's favourite theory.

Of course highly educated psychologists and psychotherapists are not the only people who pop everything they encounter into a theory box and snap the lid shut tight. Listen to the pundits on Radio Four's The Moral Maze and you will hear them doing the same. Thus lived experience is ignored and what is enjoyed is the comfort of prejudice. As Freud once observed, intellectualization is the most reliable of the defences.

Is this inability to acknowledge and accept the peculiarity of our existence more than a result of an education aimed at moulding docile citizens rather than enlightening individuals? After all, it is never in the interests of the Church and the State to have their claims to possession of the Absolute Truth challenged in any way. As small children we are well aware that our way of seeing things is very different from that of our parents, but unfortunately for most of us we are not allowed to hold on to such an understanding. Instead we are told that our individual truths are silly, childish, wrong, wicked. If we accept such teaching and grow up believing that there is just one right way of thinking, feeling and acting we lead miserable lives because we have lost the one freedom which makes our life survivable, even happy and glorious. Such freedom comes from understanding that, though we can control very little of the circumstances of our life, we are always free to change how we interpret those circumstances.

The turning point in psychotherapy, so I have observed, is the moment when the person actually reaches such an understanding. This is an understanding which the person now knows through and through. It saturates and transforms the person's entire structure of meaning. If the person has only an intellectual grasp of this understanding then nothing is gained. Unfortunately there are many psychotherapists of different theoretical persuasions who pay lip-service to such an understanding but who imply in their interchanges with their clients that they are in possession of some Absolute Truth which, in time, they will disclose to the client.

Thus are those psychotherapists who want to be powerful seduced by the forces of unreason. The desire to be powerful reveals itself in many ways. It may be that the psychotherapist wants to secure a good income, or become famous, or simply assure himself of his self-worth by making his clients better. But as long as the psychotherapist is saying to the client, 'I know best. Do it my way,' the psychotherapist has yielded to the forces of unreason.

Hence psychotherapy has not transformed the world. Far too many psychotherapists have been seduced in this way. Such psychotherapists can be found in all schools of therapy, even in Personal Construct Psychology. Psychoanalysts were seduced right from the start.

When I was doing my diploma in clinical psychology at the University of Sydney in 1964 we studied in great detail Otto Fenichel's Psychoanalytic Theory of the Neuroses. I found the book fascinating. All my family and friends were in it as well as myself and it explained so much. I learned the jargon and tried not to be too discomforted by the way Otto talked down to me, implying that he and his fellow psychoanalysts not only possessed the True Knowledge but they were wise and wonderful people leading wise and wonderful lives. Certainly the psychologists and psychiatrists I knew who worked in a psychoanalytic framework were far from being wise and wonderful but they were mere Australians. What would they know?

In 1968 I arrived in England alarmed and excited by the prospect of meeting those wise and wonderful psychoanalysts who, unlike me, had life sussed out. I actually made a pilgrimage to see Joseph Sandler to ask if it would be all right to use Kelly's theory and techniques in my research. He said that it would.

Joseph Sandler was kind, as many psychoanalysts are, and from what I knew of him an admirable person. Now I know many Freudians, Jungians and Lacanians, some strict adherents to their faith, others liberal in their views. Some are eminently likeable and some decidedly strange. None, fortunately, has proved to be as power-mad as Freud or Melanie Klein, whose relationships with those who did not agree with them does not provide an edifying spectacle. But, alas, not one of these psychoanalysts has proved to be a wise and wonderful person who has really sussed life out. They manage their lives no better or worse than do the rest of us.

Not that this prevents many of them from talking down to the ignorant unanalysed. They believe that they are in possession of the Absolute Truth and so they can enjoy the comforts of unreason.

Unreason seeks to satisfy desires and to do so must frustrate the search for what is. Science seeks to establish what is, irrespective of our desires. Psychotherapy has not transformed and enlightened the world or even a small part of it because in seeking to understand ourselves we fail to be scientific. As the renowned naturalist Edward O. Wilson said:

To me it is remarkable that we do not live in a scientific age, as much as we might think otherwise. We live in an age in which we are at least people in developed countries are benefiting from remarkable advances in science and technology, but in our thinking, in our linguistic expression, in our way in which we deal with the universe intellectually, we are still prescientific. We might as well be agriculturalists in the Fertile Crescent, in terms of how we combine scientific knowledge with our daily idioms of thought, and I think that one of the great challenges, intellectually and in the immediate future, is to find a way of combining the best in scientific knowledge and thinking and concept and creativity, with the best of the humanities, and develop a scientific culture.(7)

The scientific culture of which Wilson speaks would be one which takes as its starting point the recognition that from some point in our gestation to our death, asleep or awake, conscious or unconscious, drunk or sober, in thinking, feeling and doing, each of us is creating meaning. Meaning is our being. We have nothing else other than the meaning we create.

Such an understanding should be the basis of psychology and psychotherapy. But it is not. Back in the 1960s an American psychologist called Rosenthal published his research which showed that if teachers thought certain children were intelligent the children behaved intelligently, that test results differed according to the gender of the researchers and of the subjects, and that psychologists got the results they expected even when the subjects were rats. In short, he showed that it is not what happens to us which determines what we think, feel and do but how we interpret what happens to us. I remember a friend, a lecturer at Sydney University, seeking to dismiss Rosenthal, saying, 'If his results are only half way accurate we'll have to do every experiment over again.' I thought that she was right and that psychologists should start again. But they did not. Status, as ever, was more important than truth.

It would be possible to construct a psychology and psychotherapy based on the knowledge that we construct what we know. Here we would recognize that emotion is not separate from cognition but is, as is our construction of metaphor and image, a way of creating meaning. We would understand that communication is not a matter of passing something (a communication, a thought, a feeling) from one person to another but a process of individual interpretations, full of opportunities for mutual misunderstandings. We would elaborate the methods of science in the testing of our personal, political, artistic and scientific theories. We would search for shared patterns of constructions and delineate the amazing variations of individual constructions. In all, we would celebrate the creativity of our inventions for we would know that, if there were one fixed reality and that was what each of us saw, how dreary our lives would be.

If only we would do this.

Must the meagre vanities of cowardice and the desire for power always prevail?


1. For a full discussion of this see Dorothy Rowe (1991).

2. 'Burnt Norton', Four Quartets, Faber, 1974, p. 20.

3. See the discussion of Freud's 'Infantile Mental Life: Two Lies Told by Children', in Dorothy Rowe (1994), pp. 123-7.

4. Guardian, 19 June 1992.

5. In the Church of England the chief argument against women being admitted to the priesthood is that women are incapable of coping with or are unworthy of the magical powers which enable the priest to act in God's name.

Edward de Bono (Guardian, 3 September 1994) gave a succinct account of Plato's views. Plato believed that just as Pythagoras had demonstrated ultimate truths in mathematics so there should be ultimate truths everywhere ... Plato could not abide the messy relativism of the Sophists many of whom were modern system thinkers because they were doctors, and as such knew that a substance given at one stage in an illness was beneficial but given at another stage was dangerous. Similarly, the right amount was curative and a larger amount could be fatal. So whether something was 'good' or 'bad' depended on the circumstance and the system.

Plato and, later, Christian thinkers knew that the world could not be run on such relativistic lines. Plato's Republic suggests a Utopia in which there is no voting but a scientific breeding of rulers. There are no families but government creches instead. Not surprisingly, the Nazi party had as their official doctrine the productions of guardians as specified by Plato.

6. George Kelly was the creator of Personal Construct Psychology. See, for example, Kelly (1963). A good introduction to his work is Bannister and Fransella (1968).

7. Guardian, 31 August 1995.


Bannister, D. & Fransella, F. (1986), Inquiring Man, Croom Helm

Fenichel, O. (1963), Psychoanalytic Theory of the Neuroses, Croom Helm

Kelly, G. (1963), A Theory of Personality, Norton

Rosenthal, R. & Jacobson, L. (1986), Pygmalion in the Classroom: Teacher Expectations and Pupils' Intellectual Development. Holt, Rinehart & Winston

Rowe, D. (1991), Wanting Everything, HarperCollins

(1994), Time on Our Side, HarperCollins