Language and robbery

A lot of things are changing for me and I realize that on the fringes of my consciousness there are thoughts which are still too big for me. It is not a psychological blockade, it is an intellectual one. There are hunches, fragments of sentences, but ultimately I cannot put them into words yet, leave alone into clear statements. Still, every failed attempt at expressing such foggy thoughts acquaints me with them and ultimately helps me to gain clarity.

I´m finding myself thinking about language quite often lately. What I wrote in my last post was written in absolute confusion, but it laid the foundations for a small sense of clarity. And here is what comes to my mind:

I´ve several times read in one form or the other the sentence: “The way we understand ourselves nowadays is determined by psychological concepts.” When I tried to describe how I have lost the ability to freely express myself because I wasn´t sure anymore if my use of words corresponded to psychology´s use of words, I was starting to understand how the statement above applies to me – or what it means at all.

It appears like understanding ourselves depends on our ability to put our inner experience into words. At least this is what talk therapies rely on, and long before they came into existence there were diaries, literature, philosophy and discussions. So the tendency to seek understanding by putting thoughts, feelings, hunches into words seems to be fundamentally human. Feelings and mental processes, however, are abstract entities. We can only guess what is really happening inside of us, what is causing the observable phenomena, and even those phenomena can often just be described in metaphors. “Feeling empty” is a typical example of such figurative language.

Since we are talking about abstract entities who only give evidence of their existence through other things happening, these entities we talk about are mere concepts. The Ego, Id and Super-Ego are no concrete, observable instances somewhere inside of us. They are a model of explanation for observable phenomena.

Back in high school I despaired in my physics class because I didn´t understand the concept of force. I could memorize the formula, but I simply didn´t know what mental image to form of force. What was it, physically? If anybody had told me that “force” is not a known physical entity but something that must exist since the results are visible , and as such can be measured, I might have been much less confused. “Force” was nothing that could be independently observed, it was what the cause caused and what effected the effect. If damage to an object was what could be observed, force was what explained it.

The problem with psychology and putting inner life into words is that the explanandum itself is not directly observable. We cannot talk about it without relying on abstract concepts. The dominant concepts used today are those developed by psychoanalysis and other insight therapies.

Those concepts categorize people according to diagnoses. Laymen are not competent to diagnose others or themselves. Therefore, every self-conception that relies on diagnostical concepts is an act of hubris. This soon extends to symptoms, too. They way in which you describe symptoms determines which diagnosis will be given. If you are familiar with symptoms and diagnoses, you´ll easily feel like you´re being manipulative when describing yourself as “depressed” or as “feeling empty”. Unfortunately, though, those are the words you have learned to use for describing how you feel, precisely because the psychotherapy movement has such a strong influence on how we conceptualize and describe our inner life. We are forced to diagnose ourselves each time we talk about our feelings, but the jargon we´ve gotten used to is also a more or less scientific jargon, and it is a jargon that the psychologist, psychotherapists and doctors in question regard as their jargon, and the use of it as their privilege. Laymen are not allowed to define what depression is, only doctors and therapists are. Therefore, we now need experts to tell us “what we really feel”.

Most laymen today know various ways in which insight therapies categorize and explain our misery. When trying to understand their own mysterious misery they inevitably come back to those explanations, and when describing their feelings they use jargon which doctors and therapists want for themselves exclusively. First, a theory and jargon is imposed on us, then we are declared incompetent to use it. That way, our inner lives and our feelings are disowned. They are something we can no longer expect ourselves to make correct statements about. Parts of what we perceived as ourselves are now something alien, dark, something that has a life of its own which we can neither control nor understand on our own. We need the help of experts for that. Part of our identity is disowned and laid into the hands of mental shamans who might or might not feed it back to us.

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