Category Archives: Crtical Psychology

On the Dialectical Structure of Dilemmas

On the Dialectical Structure of Dilemmas

Psychology by no means holds the “secret” of human affairs, simply because this “secret” is not of a psychological order.

Georges Politzer [1]

In over 100 cases where we have studied the actual circumstances around the social event when one person comes to be regarded as schizophrenic, it seems to us that without exception the experience and behaviour that gets labelled schizophrenic is a special strategy that a person invents in order to live in an unlivable situation. In his life situation the person has come to feel that he is in an untenable situation. He cannot make a move, or make no move, without being beset by contradictory and paradoxical pressures and demands, pushes and pulls, both internally, from himself, and externally, from those around him. He is, as it were, in a position of checkmate.

R D Laing [2]

Dilemmas result when people seek to psychosocially accommodate mutually incompatible alternatives presented to them in their lives. Each alternative in the dilemma contains both a desirable and an undesirable side to it, operating as a structured relationship of opposed alternatives mediated by choice. The  presentation of a choice to be made is intrinsic to dilemma and results from the condition that opposed, inwardly self-contradictory alternatives are presented under the compulsion of having to make a choice between one alternative or the other or, thirdly, to psychologically live with the dilemma as a continuously operative psychosocial relation.

It is the conflicting character of socio-cultural conditions and relations (intra-relational between different aspects of the same culture or inter-relational between aspects of different cultures), mediated by various factors including the ideological, which determines both the conceptual content of the thinking which animates the dilemma and the actual psychodialectical structure of the dilemma itself. The compulsive nature of these conditions and relations tends to move the individual to choose one of the two alternatives in a dilemma situation. We will see later how some (not all) dilemmas can be manipulated by attaching conditions to their actual ontology in the act of producing ‘counter-dilemmas’, etc.  More on this later.

Let us endeavour to fathom the universal dynamic of the dilemma. In order to do this, we must look at a continuously shifting paradoxical structure.

We have presented dilemma in this study as a choice between mutually opposed alternatives in which each alternative contains both a desirable and undesirable side to it. In choosing one alternative over the other, both its desirable and undesirable sides are embraced whilst this choice simultaneously excludes the opposed alternative with its desirable and undesirable sides. Therefore, this process of inclusion is simultaneously a process of exclusion and vice versa. Inclusion of the desirable side of one alternative (and hence its undesirable side as well) simultaneously negates (excludes) both sides of the opposed alternative.

In dilemma, the subjective condition prevails where the individual (or even group, collective, movement, etc) seeks to embrace the desirable sides of the opposed alternatives whilst, at the same time, excluding the undesirable sides of both alternatives. But the desirable and undesirable sides are inseparably and necessarily bound together in each alternative. The exclusion of the undesirable side of one alternative necessarily involves the exclusion of the desirable side of the same alternative because they are inextricably bound together. In choosing one alternative over the other, rejection of both the desirable and undesirable sides of the other alternative is posited.

Their necessary connection means that the exclusion or inclusion of one side of an alternative must mean the simultaneous exclusion or inclusion of the other side of the same alternative. Therefore, in being compelled to choose one alternative over the other, a desirable side of one alternative is accepted at the expense of excluding the desirable side of the opposed alternative. The ‘ideal desire’ of realising the desirable sides of both alternatives (whilst rejecting the undesirable sides in both alternatives) is negated (fragmented). The ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ sides within each alternative are inextricably bound together that to opt for an ‘positive’ necessarily carries its ‘negative’ along with it in the chosen alternative.

The choosing of one alternative is necessarily and simultaneously the rejection of the opposed alternative and thus only the partial, one-sided, satisfaction of the original desire. The unity of the opposed alternatives in the psychological structuring of dilemma means that the resolution of the dilemma can only take place by the exclusion of both the desirable and undesirable sides of one alternative in choosing the desirable and undesirable sides of the other alternative. In choosing one alternative, the opposed alternative is automatically excluded in both its ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ aspects.

This can be illustrated in the case of ‘love dilemmas’. Probably the classic example here is found in Shakespeare with Romeo and Juliet. The ongoing feud between the Montagues and Capulets forms the social basis for the  origination of the lovers’ dilemma. Both lovers, in embracing each other, are simultaneously rejecting their own bloodline and raising the antipathy of both their own and the other’s families. The dilemma is presented as a choice between lover and family in which the acceptance of one is the rejection of the other and vice versa. In the structure described above, each lover is presented with two conflicting alternatives each of which contains a desirable and undesirable side. One alternative is that if I maintain my love for the other, this must mean dissociation from the house of my family. The other alternative is that if I am to remain on good terms with my family, I must put aside my love for the other. The ideal, of course, is to be with family and lover. But the actual social relations of feud and vendetta between the families is the social basis for the exclusion of this ideal. What is fully desired is excluded by the character of the relations between the different houses.

In the play, the major factor was the eternal feud and vendetta between the two families of the lovers so that each lover, in embracing each other, was simultaneously seen as rejecting their bloodline. Each lover wanted to remain true to their family whilst embracing one of the enemy family. One alternative posed the choice that in order to remain true to your family you had to reject your lover. The other alternative posed the choice that in remaining with your lover you were rejecting your own bloodline. We find other dilemmas in Shakespeare, e.g. the one faced by Coriolanus. Shakespeare – beloved by Marx – was a (if not ‘the’) master in depicting the dilemma situation.

In the act of making a choice, the whole structure of the specific dilemma is only transcended, is superseded, only by choosing one alternative which simultaneously excludes the other. If no choice is actually made, the dilemma remains operative in the mind as manifestation of specific social condition. There are, however, ways of manipulating some dilemmas which we shall investigate later, some of which may be politically useful. The dilemma which Jesus is presented with in the New Testament on the question of paying taxes to Caesar is instructive in this regard. However, with some dilemmas – because of the recalcitrant and immovable character of their conditions – the choice is really one of either/or. In Romeo and Juliet, of course, the deaths of the lovers arises out of a series of misperceptions and the ensuing ‘tragedy of errors’. Their deaths resolve their dilemma and simultaneously end the feud beween the conflicting houses of Montague and Capulet.

An example of an either/or situation is the dilemma presented to the leading character in the William Styron novel, Sophie’s Choice. This demonstrates that the actual nature of the dilemma, and the response to it, is conditioned by the specific social circumstances in which people are located. Sophie Zawistowska is taken to Auschwitz with her two chidren and is forced by a camp doctor to choose which of her two children is to be gassed and which is to remain with her in the camp. She chooses to sacrifice her daughter. After release from Auschwitz, the decision determines the trajectory of the rest of her grief-stricken life which ends in suicide. Zawistowska was forced to choose one alternative which temporarily preserved the life of her son whilst simultaneously sending her daughter to her death. If we love, we feel the pain of loss. Grief. If we hate, loss itself can come as a relief from the conflicts and stress of hatred.

In the dialectical complexity of unresolved dilemma (resolved dilemma ceases to be a dilemma), the vacillations between the two alternatives means that the rejection of any one side of one alternative always produces the opposite emotion to its acceptance and vice versa. Thus, in the course of the vacillations of unresolved dilemma, conflicting emotions are being played out in their intrinsic relationship to each other. Each is always becoming transformed into the other and vice versa. This is inherent in the paradoxical psychodynamics of dilemma itself.

A continuous vacillation between emotional states takes place which is the product of the moving content of the thinking in dilemma structuring itself in its dialectical form, in its contradictory (paradoxical) psychological form. Thus a desirable side to one alternative in the dilemma can serve as both a source of conflicting emotions depending on whether or not it is a side of the alternative which has been chosen or rejected. This must also apply to the undesirable side of a chosen or rejected alternative.

The choosing of one alternative means that the acceptance of its desirable side is the rejection of the desirable side of the opposed alternative. The acceptance of the undesirable side of the chosen alternative simultaneous with the rejection of the undesirable side of the opposed alternative serves to posit at the same time conflicting mediations in emotional state. This is precisely why people state that they are ‘torn between alternatives’ or ‘on the horns of a dilemma’ when they are in dilemma and why ‘love dilemmas’ are the most painful of all to live.

Shakespeare, of course, knew this in his Romeo and Juliet. And, undoubtedly, it has been known for as long as people have lived in a state of antagonism with each other over periods of thousands of years in different societies. This constant unity and transformation of different and opposed emotional states into each other in the course of the vacillations of unresolved dilemmas arises out of the psychodynamic structure of dilemma itself as engendered by its conceptual-emotional content. But this itself arises out of the specific character of the social relations confronting and mediating which constitute the ontological ground of the dilemma itself. Hence, it is to the prevailing socio-cultural relations and conditions that we must look in order the identify the roots of the manyfroms of dilemma which mediate people’s lives. They constitute the socio-cultural ontological ground for the psychogenesis of the dilemma itself. We can formally illustrate the structure and dynamics of dilemmas by the diagram given below.


Dilemma Structure


Alternative 1 (A1)                 v                         Alternative 2 (A2)

(D1)   v   (UD1)                                                (D2)   v  (UD2)




Choice is A2 : A1 is rejected/ A2 is accepted


(D1) : loss (emotion x)  (UD1) : reaffirmation (emotion –x)                           


(D2) : reaffirmation (emotion –x) (UD2) : loss (emotion x)




Choice is A1: A1 is accepted/ A2 is rejected


(D1) : reaffirmation (emotion –x) (UD1) : loss (emotion x)                            


(D2) : loss (emotion x) (UD2) : reaffirmation (emotion –x)




D = desirable side to alternative


UD = undesirable side to alternative




The resolution of the dilemma must therefore posit an emotional state which contains contradictory elements or sides to it. Sophie Zawistowska is destroyed by the choice she is forced to make but she continues in the novel to seek to save her son by attempting to find him a place in the Nazi Lebensborn programme by prostituting herself (itself another dilemma) to the camp commandant in whose house she is working as a stenographer.

Dilemma is the direct, subjective, choice-mediated, psychosocial experience of the movement of specfic forms of living paradox itself within the psyche of the human individual. It is the given social contradictions – which individuals face and of which they are an active part –  which are both the cause of the psychogenesis of dilemmas and the ground on which individuals choose in order to pass beyond them. Such contradictions in the present epoch tend to preclude the simultaneous realisation of the desirable sides of the opposed alternatives without their undesirable sides, i.e. to bring the desirable sides (D1 and D2) to realisation together whilst negating the undesirable sides (UD1 and UD2) of the opposed alternatives in the dilemma. If D1 and D2 can be realised in the absence of UD1 and UD2 then a dilemma is not operative. Then the individual can ‘have their cake and eat it’ and no dilemma is operative.

Dilemmas are a psychological manifestation of specifically antagonistic relations and conditions and of their impact and dominating power in the life and interpersonal relationships of the individual, group, social movement, etc. This confrontation with a choice of opposed but equally undesirable alternatives arises out of the contradictory nature of the social conditions and relations under and through which the individual, etc, lives and which dominates their mode of social life. The totality of these conditions and relations can mediated by, for example, religious and other ideologies, political outlooks, personal beliefs, irrational conceptions, inter-cultural conflicts, etc.

Anybody familiar with the New Testament will know that Christ is presented with the question of paying taxes to Caesar. ‘Should we pay taxes to Caesar?’ is the question posed. The question was what nowadays we would call a ‘trick question’ intended for entrapment. It is the sort of question a Fox News (or even a BBC) journalist might put to a left-wing activist. If his says ‘Yes’ then he raises the wrath of the ‘taxpayer’ and the Sanhedrin and if he says ‘No’ then it is the Roman tax-gatherers he displeases. His answer was to ask for a Roman coin and show it to the questioner with a replying question : “Whose head is on this coin?” to which the questioner replied “Caesar’s”. Christ follows up with “then give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s”. [3]

This way of addressing the dilemma is a form of manipulation of the question itself rather than answering the posed question directly. In essence, Christ instructs people to pay their taxes to the Roman authority. He then directs the questioner to seek consolation in God. Pay your taxes then seek ye the kingdom of God for consolation. The questioner, nevertheless, goes away out of pocket whether or not he finds the glorious kingdom.

But what is Christ himself actually doing here on a thinking level when he is confronted by the question? Some would have simply answered ‘Yes’ and got stoned by the multitude whilst some would have answered ‘No’ and got arrested later by a Roman cohort for sedition. Christ conditions and qualifies his response (advocating a specific choice : pay your taxes to Caesar) with a parallel response which answers a question which has not actually been posed. Implicit in the question is, of course, another question : Is not paying taxes to Caesar contrary to the pharasaic law, against the laws of God and supportive of the Roman occupation?  In order to alter the subjective dilemma-status for himself, (i.e. the attempt by the questioner to place him in a dilemma) he actually qualifies his answer to the asked question with another answer to the implicitly unasked question which thereby addresses the other side of the attempt to place him in a dilemma : “and render unto God what is God’s”.

The answer was really two answers to two questions (one asked and the other implied but explicitly unposed) concealed as one answer to one question. The appearance is that he gives one answer to one question but this ignores the fact that his response contains an answer to a second unposed question which stops him from stumbling into the path of the stone-throwers. He conditions and qualifies his answer (within one and the same answer) with the answer from an unasked question. He shifts the terms of the original question so as to avoid falling into the trap actually set.

A wag of the time might have retorted : “So we still have to fork out money to Caesar regardless of our devotions?” To which his answer could only have been “Yes”. Accept the oppressions and imposed sufferings of the world and seek ye the comfort and consolation of the kingdom of the Father within. Barabbas was more of a realist than Christ. [Greek Barabbas, from Aramaic barabba, “son of the father,” or “son of the master.” In Hebrew, ben abh.] [4]. Like Spartacus a century earlier, he (and the Jewish insurrectionists in general throughout the period of Roman rule) recognised that an oppressive, tyrannical power can only be overcome in a direct military struggle against it. And not by a personal or social accommodation to that power by seeking ‘immersion’ and martyrdom within the ‘Kingdom of God’. Christianity itself only survived because it was, in the long term, historically adaptable to the political requirements of the Roman state of late antiquity. Those movements which were insurrectionary in nature were always eradicated by the Roman state. However, once established, Christianity itself later becomes reformable, adaptable and deployable as an ideological weapon of struggle against feudal tyranny in order to facilitate the development of capitalism and the interests of the rising class of capitalists. The English Reformation in the 1530s, Anabaptism in Germany, Cromwell, etc.

Strangely, and across the ages, this ‘qualificatory’ approach to dilemma situations may well become useful in revolutionary politics. The state power of capital presents a rising revolutionary movement with the ultimatum which it poses for the consumption of so-called ‘public opinion’, for reactionary or impressionable elements in the population : Are you to make the transition to the new society peacefully, by “democracy”, or by force of arms? It is the usual hypocrisy of the wretched, rancid morality of the capitalist class which historically deployed violence in its rise and has always resorted to it in order to maintain its rule.

What do we do? If we say “peacefully” then this opens us to an almost binding contract with a violent state power which is only too willing – at the most suitable time for itself – to drown an opposing movement in blood. If we say “by force of arms”, they will, with all the usual humbug and hypocrisy, appeal to ‘public opinion’ and reactionary elements, and accuse such a movement of “terrorism”, “spreading anarchy” and all the rest. They are seeking to place a revolutionary movement in a dilemma. Like our questioner did with Christ. But like Christ, we think before we speak.

Of course, we say peacefully but only on condition that the state power of capital permits us such a peaceful transition. If this state power goes to war against us, then we would have no other option but to mobilise for war against this state power (which would be dismantled anyway in the course of any unlikely peaceful transition). The implicit condition of the question (either a yes or a no answer) has been altered by attaching a condition to the question in the form of another question which we are asking ourselves, namely : Will the state power of capital permit us a peaceful transition to the new socialist society? In this way, the attempt to impose the dilemma –  by a power hovering threateningly above our class –  is rendered ineffective (it ceases to be a dilemma) because of a conditioning question which has been attached to it by the revolutionary class. The imposed dilemma arises out of the rule of an alien, dominating power bearing down on the revolution. It can only be opposed with a counter-dilemma thrown back at this power : Are you to permit us a peaceful transition or are you to deploy violence and war against us? If you permit us a peaceful transition, then stand aside whilst we dismantle you. But if you go to war against us, we assert the historical right of self-defence and a counter-mobilisation on a military footing. We invert your wretched morality and throw it back at you in your face, whilst preparing in advance for your response.

Yes, we want a peaceful transition. Nobody wants death and destruction. But if you mobilise for war against us, we will build a revolutionary army of social defence which will, necessarily, become a machine of a general social, political and military offensive on all fronts. That is why we must always prepare in words and deeds for that very likely manoeuvre. That must be our default position ; namely the state power of capital is a violent power always prepared to mobilise for war to crush any movement which aims to put an end to the rule of capital over humanity. A dilemma ceases to be a dilemma as soon as a condition is attached to it which deprives it of its power of vacillation and contradiction over its recipient.

The dilemmas which people or organisations, etc, face are as numberless as pebbles on a beach. The late, eminent Physicist Richard Feynman was appointed to investigate the Challenger rocket disaster in 1986. The outcome of the inquiry found that the rubber sealing ‘O’ rings on a rocket booster failed which allowed hot gases and flames under pressure to escape and disrupt an adjacent fuel tank with the catastrophic consequences which were observed by millions across the globe. In the course of the inquiry, Feynman identified a ‘disconnect’ in the liaison between NASA managers and engineers observing that…

Every time we talked to higher level managers, they kept saying they didn’t know anything about the problems below them. We’re getting this kind of thing again in the Iran-Contra hearings, but at the time, this kind of situation was new to me : either the guys at the top didn’t know, in which case they should have known, or they did know, in which case they’re lying to us. [5] 

Feynman exposed either the incompetence or the mendacity of the NASA management. Faced with the unremitting determination and scientific rationalism of an expert bongo-playing Physicist, they didn’t really stand a chance. If they had admitted their knowledge that the sealing rings were potentially fatal in cold temperatures, they simultaneously revealed their incompetence for not acting on that knowledge. And if they concealed this knowledge or simply forgot about it – and this was to be later revealed – this also demonstrated an incompetence which later led directly to the deaths of the Challenger crew in the catastrophic explosion. Feynman placed NASA managers in a recalcitrant, non-negotiable dilemma.

Shakespeare was the master of the understanding and depiction of the dilemma situation. The characters in his plays are often steeped in and agonised by dilemma in one form or another : Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Coriolanus, Mark Antony, Brutus, Hamlet (Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows…), etc. Here are a couple of examples. Macbeth was faced with the problem of dealing with Banquo after Duncan’s murder. If he permitted him to live, he remained a threat to displace him. In order to hold onto power, he had to eliminate Banquo as a potential threat. and thereby raised the opposition of Banquo’s allies. Coriolanus, rejected by his own city of Rome, goes to war against it on behalf of its enemy, the Volscians. As he prepares to destroy the city that rejected him, he is confronted by his mother not to destroy Rome. Here is the moment of dilemma for Coriolanus. If he destroys the city, he will forever live in the damnation of family and city. But if he spares it, he returns to the Volscians as a traitor. In opting for the latter choice, he invites his own downfall at the hands of Aufidius and the Volscians. Coriolanus is executed for betrayal. Caught in a dilemma between Rome and the Volscians, he makes a choice and faces the consequences. It is the sort of dilemma which a soldier would face if ordered to assault a city within which his cherished friends and beloved family reside. This is one of the major reasons why the Roman legions were posted on military duty to regions far away from their regions of recruitment. Hispanic and African legions in Britain, for example or legions recruited amongst the Britons stationed on the Danube.

The work of Laing and Esterson [6] in the 1960s and 70s gave us an insight into the sorts of dilemmas people face within the family structure itself. And how these contradictions can become the source of the diagnosis of so-called ‘mental illness’ and ‘Schizophrenia’.

In all dilemmas faced by the revolutionary movement against capital, the guiding baseline is the class interests of the proletariat and the future of humanity. What must be done will be done, regardless of the nature of the consequences for the enemy and its state power. The power of revolution must be asserted by all means possible and necessary and consolidated over the historic interests of capital. The revolutionary movement is determined in its perspectives and activity in its relationship to capital and its state powers. However, only in so far as the aim is their dissolution and irreversible defeat. In this way, the movement develops and elaborates its growing power against these ruling powers in order to undermine and weaken them and prepare the overthrow of the state power of capital and the transcendence of the global epoch of capital.Those dilemmas which become posited as a result these power relations are faced and fought out in the interests of the revolution to put an end to the current epoch.       

We can see that the dilemmas faced by people in their daily lives are microcosms of the contradictions of the bourgeois epoch containing suspended within itself the legacies of past ages. The tendencies of development of human society beyond this epoch can only point towards an age in which not only the dilemmas of the present age but dilemma as structure in the human personality as a whole becomes subject to transcendence as human relations become more integrated and the contradictions and legacies of previous class societies become resolved.

Dilemma in human beings only arises under social conditions and relations where human culture remains characterised by a multiplicity of determinate internal social differentiations and conflicts. We can see this illustrated by the examples given above which have various social mediations constituting their animating ground : family, class, religious, inter-cultural, hierarchical power, state terror, etc. Dilemma, accordingly, is not in its root origination, a function of the neurology of the brain itself but is history’s social creation reflecting and indicating the world of humanity caught in internal social contradictions with itself.

Animals do not experience the conflicts in the conditions of their natural existence as dilemma. Rather they ‘experience’ their response to such conditions as a simple alternation in behaviour according to the immediate demand placed on them. If an animal is subjected to two opposing forces at the same time, it will deploy all its inherent and learned behavioural resources and mechanisms to oppose both forces alternatively or simultaneously. There is no dilemma but merely a confrontation with the immediacy of the situation so that their behavioura response varies with and according to the changing immediate demands placed on them and to which they must necessarily respond immediately.

The natural mode of life of animals and that of the ancestral primates of humanity is and was, respectively, without dilemma. Dilemmas are features of human existence which arise with the emergence of human relationships out of the dilemma-free natural mode of life of ancestral primates. The conflicts and contradictions in human society – economic, social, political, cultural, ideological, religious, etc – constitute the historical ground for the psychogenesis of dilemmas.

Dilemmas as psychosocial structure is not an eternal feature of human existence. In the course of the transition to and evolution of global classless society, cultural differences will tend to become superseded and become integrated into a culturally richer, multifaceted single human culture without the class, cultural, economic, sub-racial, etc, divisions of class societies. Thus, in this higher singularity of human culture, the social conditions and relations which have historically given rise to dilemmas will tend towards supersedence and resolution.

It will be the identification, refinement and cultivation of the real needs of human beings in socialist society (as opposed to the ‘artificial’ needs generated by capitalist commodity society) – and the further development of the social and other conditions required to meet those needs – which will facilitate the emergence of psychosocial relations which are free of all forms of dilemma. Thenceforth  human life will cease to be characterised by one long, drawn-out series of dilemmas.

In other words, the dilemma structure in the human psyche is not an eternal structure. It is not the product of the neurology of the brain per se but rather a product of the contradictions of social and cultural relations which human beings face everyday in their lives today and have faced historically in ages past. Dilemma is not an intrinsic part of some nebulous, eternal ‘human nature’. When we inspect the specific content, relations and character of any dilemma, we can see that it would be resolvable under different, more favourable conditions which are truly worthy of people’s humanity. When human society has become globally integrated as a classless society, embracing within itself the synthesis of many different cultures into one singular, intensely rich human culture, the very social and cultural grounds and conditions for the psychogenesis of dilemma will start to vanish. Men and women will live their lives free of dilemma. It will revolutionise the human personality itself as a whole beyond that currently recognisable in the epoch of capital. 

Notes and References

[1] Politzer, G., Critique of the Foundations of Psychology. Paris, Editions Sociales, 1928. p.170

[2] R.D. Laing., (1967) The Politics of Experience and the Bird of Paradise. Penguin Books, pp. 94-95

[3] Matthew 22 : 15-22

Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  When they heard it, they marvelled. And they left him and went away.

see also  Mark 12 : 13-17;  Luke 20 : 20-26


[5] “What Do You Care What Other People Think?” – Further Adventures of a Curious Character, Richard P Feynman as told by Ralph Leighton., Afterthoughts, p.213.  Penguin Books, 2007. 

[6] Laing, R.D. and Esterson, A (1964) Sanity, Madness and the Family. London: Penguin Books.

Laing, R.D. (1970) Knots. London: Penguin

Laing, R.D. (1971) The Politics of the Family and Other Essays. London: Tavistock Publications.


Shaun May

March 2016 (revised)

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Filed under Crtical Psychology, Marxist Philosophy of Mind, Marxist Theory of Human Personality, Psychology, Radical Psychology

From a Notebook on Psychology (Part 1)

From a Notebook on Psychology (Part 1)


It is very clear that social relationships and the psychology of people are related. The areas of Social Psychology and Critical Psychology have plenty to say about this relationship. For example, if whole populations are subjected to oppression and terror in one form or another, this profoundly affects the psychology of the present adult and younger generation growing up under such conditions. We only have to look at what is happening to children in Syria at the moment as the civil war continues. If coercion and compulsion on threat of sanction are the order of the day, then this must have psychological effects such as anxiety, fear, depression, etc. If a person’s employment enables him or her to feed family and keep home, body and soul together, then the lurking threat of redundancy or dismissal must engender fear in the life of that person because the realisation of such a threat must mean the destruction of the structure of that person’s life or, at least, its complete alteration and disruption. It introduces conditions which carry the possibility of personal catastophe and the overturn of a previously stable and relatively secure personal existence. This is the same with domesticated animals such as pets, for example. A pet which is constantly abused and subject to cruelty will develop different behavioural patterns to the same pet which is fed, watered, medicated when sick and generally shown human care and affection. A child growing up in an abusive household will undergo a markedly different psychological development to one reared in a caring and nurturing environment involving a focus on the child’s individual human interests. The examples are too numerous to mention.

The “psychological” is a legitimate historical category but only in its relationship to the category of the “social”. It is not legitimate in isolation from this latter category.For example, the “psychopathic” personality is not the creation of the biological malfunctioning of the brain in the way a diabetic is the creation of a dysfunctional pancreas or a blind person of a defunct retina. The “psychopath” or child killer is an individualised creation of the society into which he is born and has developed. He has been created on the ground and within the social conditions of his own personal experience in this society.

The character of the prevailing and dominant social relations constitutes the foundation upon which the human psychologies of a given culture develops. However, the human mind has and must have – in its discreteness – its own laws of development which do not simply ‘reflect’ social development and also are not absolutely identical with this development Within their unity – the interrelation between society and mind (their interdependence) – subsists the discreteness of each.

In the sense that thought itself cannot take place without the organ of the brain, matter itself must be a material pre-condition for thought. And production itself furnishes the nutrients to feed the body and its various organs. Of course, the human brain itself is also, partly, a product of socio-historical development i.e. the brain itself has developed materially (plasticity) in the course of, and as a product of, the historical development of human society. However, in that it is the conceptual content of thought that ‘constitutes’ the ‘substance’ of the mind, it is the character of social relations that forms the basis and conditions for its origination and development:

socio-historical shifts not only introduce new content into the mental world of human beings; they also create new forms of activity and new structures of cognitive functioning. They advance human consciousness to new levels.

[Luria, A.R. Cognitive Development: Its Cultural and Social Foundations.(Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1976) p.163]


The awareness of the animal primates ancestors of humanity was a non-conscious awareness in contrast to the awareness of humanity which is a conscious awareness. This conscious awareness incorporates (supersedes) within itself the awareness of the animal ancestor as a unity of instinctual and learning capacities. This unity is raised (ascends to a higher stage) to the level of consciousness in humanity, with the emergence of beings possessing a conscious awareness.

If I state that I am conscious of this object in front of me, this conscious awareness of this object also involves the psychic mediation (psychological, neuropsychological, etc) of processes of which I am not conscious, of which I am unconscious. Therefore, conscious awareness simultaneously involves the mediation of these processes which are my unconscious. If I look at the object in front of me, its shape, colour, its texture, temperature, when I handle it, etc, I am drawing on mental powers which are a unity of the conscious and the unconscious. I am using my mind (which involves the physiology of the brain) and therefore this active process must necessarily involve indispensably contributing unconscious aspects.

The unconscious is expressed within and mediated by the conscious (otherwise it would not be the unconscious as such) but does not, in itself, originate entirely within the field of consciousness. In the dialectical moments of mediation of each by the other (intermediation) is expressed their mutual identity and distinction. The origination of human conscious awareness itself simultaneously gives rise to the human unconscious itself. It creates it and in the course of this creation establishes a relation with it so that they intermediate each other. But this human unconscious is created out of the instinctual material furnished by humanity’s primate ancestors and, therefore, cannot be simply the child of human conscious awareness. It contains elements of the pre-human sublated within itself but elevated into the human mind as a totality.

The human mind, accordingly, must have arisen and evolved, as a whole and as a unity of the unconscious and the conscious. This is what “consciousness” is in the complete sense and meaning of the word. It is a fully integrated form of awareness in the life of the human being. But, paradoxically, “consciousness”, as this integrated totality, is ontologically more complex than that of the “conscious” alone as the phenomenological expression of “consciousness” in the totality of its life-process. [“Consciousness” with an upper case ‘C’ and the “conscious” with a lower case ‘c’. We may also use the term “Mind” interchangeably for “Consciousness”]

The different aspects of Mind must be considered in their relation to each other i.e. they must be considered dialectically. In this way, the nature and function of each aspect is understood as being a part of, and intrinsic to, the life of the whole. Each aspect, function and facility affects and mediates the activities of all the others, constituting a unified whole which is higher than a mere aggregation of parts.

The origination of humanity is the process of an aware yet non-conscious primate becoming conscious of itself and of Nature. This process – which we may refer to as sapienisation – is a transition between the mode of life of the non-consciously aware animal primate and that of the earliest modes of human existence as a consciously aware existence. This transition brings with it – in sublated form – this form of awareness of the animal primate ancestry. It transcends this “animal awareness” only by preserving and re-positing aspects of it in a higher conscious form. For example, the hunger, thirst, energy, sex drive, etc, of the animal are transformed in this transition process of becoming human. They become human drives but they maintain a relationship with their animal ancestry in the course of their supersedence (sublation) i.e. insofar as aspects of these human drives which resemble those in our animal ancestors are carried over and preserved in the negation. An operative example of this is the ‘fight or flight mechanism’ inherited from our animal ancestors which, taken in its isolated abstraction, is many millions of years old, passed from generation to generation, from species to species and so preserved as advantageous for succeeding species in the course of evolution. Today passed down and operative in the various forms of human fear and anxiety.

Consciousness itself, as distinguished from the simple awareness of animals, is a social product of the human brain embracing and incorporating within itself an awareness of the ‘self’ involving the capacity to reflect. Reflection – i.e. thought consciously monitoring the progress of its own conceptual content – is an exclusive property of the human mind which is not found in animals or in higher primates. Animals are aware but non-conscious natural beings and do not possess this capacity to reflect. When an animal encounters its image in a mirror by chance it merely sees the image of its own physicality, itself as an object which it does recognise as ‘itself’. When a human being looks into a mirror it observes not only a physicality but also the ‘me’ or ‘I’. For the animal there is no ‘I’ to which this physicality is intrinsic. ‘I-ness’ is a function of the reflective capacities of human beings. This, of course, is not to assert that all animals do not possess sensitivity or awareness of their surroundings and that they orientate their behaviour according to their changing relationship to their surrounding conditions of life.


The mind is a complex synthesis of the social and the biological. Human thinking is a social product of the brain. If the neurology of the brain becomes diseased, degenerated or disordered, this can affect the capacity to think (e.g. Alzheimer’s Disorder). But the actual animating conceptual content of human thought is social in its origin. The brain does not produce political conceptions, for example, by a process of neurochemical secretion in an analogous way to the stomach producing acid or the liver producing bile. In a analogous way, to adopt a mechanistic example, the mirror does not produce the image by generating it out of its own materiality. Without the mirror there is no image, of course, but the the actual image in the mirror is dependent on the existence of the object reflected external to it. If the mirror is concave or convex, the image in the mirror will be a distorted reflection of the object.

Again, there is no emotion or feeling without its registration by the brain and body. ‘I’ ‘feel’ my anger or joy only insofar as I am a living material being with brain, nervous sytem, blood, organs, etc. But anger, pain (unlust), joy, etc, are not simply neurological products. They involve the mediation of thought, either conscious or sub-conscious. If I am elated because x and not y has happened, this involves and implicates the rumination of thinking, anticipation, even worry within my thinking. Examples are too numerous to give.

But does this link human emotion to the history of social relations? An obvious example of this is the feelings of jealousy and resentment in the interrelations between the sexes. This man ‘steals’ the wife of another man who is so enraged with jealousy, etc, and plans to kill them both? But in a different society where these monogamous relationships are transcended and the human mind has become accommodated to unconditional polygamy and the open character of sexual relations, what becomes of such emotions as jealousy? Are such emotions the passing attributes of a historically-conditioned human psyche? Are they subject to alteration and negation as these social relations change? So the woman takes different men (or women) to her bed and there is no jealousy, resentment or hostility mediating the changing relations?

It appears, therefore, that certain human emotions only arise with the emergence of definite social relationships and institutions. Thus, the emotion of envy/jealousy only comes into being with and accompanies the psychological interdependencies and acquisitiveness (‘possession’) of interpersonal relationships which are a social product of the rise of private property and the changing forms of the family corresponding to the evolution of private property.
Human behaviour – mediated by mental life – can only be comprehensively and scientifically understood on a socio-historical basis, within a socio-historical perspective. Implicitly, the conception that there is some nebulous, eternal psychological ‘human nature’ destined to characterise human beings in, at and for all places and all times must be considered untenable.

Moreover, we need to consider whether or not, at a physiological level in the brain, emotional states are correlated with definite neurological states. That rage and joy are associated with different neurological states of the brain. [I dare say that this has already been observed or even studied by the neuroscientists]. The subject individually registers anger or joy, for example, as a state of feeling. I “feel” angry, I “feel” happy, etc. The most fundamental question that radical psychology must address concerns the nature and quality of the emotional life of the human individual i.e. humans as ‘feeling’ beings. Feeling as the eternal focal point around which the nature and quality of the subjective life of the individual revolves. If I am suffering a terminal, malignant sadness, what does this say about the character of the social relations through and within which I am living my life? And this psychological state comes into relation with, and becomes manifest in, my behaviour, in my interpersonal relationships, in my perception and evaluation of self and others. Engels writes that..

How real people behave and did behave depends and always did depend on the historical conditions under which they lived

[Engels. From the Preparatory Writings for Anti-Duhring. Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol. 25. (Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1987) p. 605.]

The implication here is one of altering forms of human behaviour as ‘historical conditions under which people live’ change and become transformed. And hence the alteration of their psychology in the course of human beings altering their lives and creating new modes of living, higher ‘historical conditions’ more worthy of their humanity? So that the different forms of human behaviour and psychologies can only be understood relative to established and evolving socio-historical conditions and therefore not conceived as fixed and unalterable. The forms of human behaviour and psychology in any society therefore reflecting the prevailing socio-historical conditions and their dominance in the life of the individual.


Vygotsky proposes that in the psychological development of children…

Any function in the child’s cultural development appears on the stage twice, on two planes, first on the social plane and then on the psychological; first between people as an interpsychological category, and then inside the child, as an intrapsychological. This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory and to the formation of concepts. The actual relations between human individuals underlie all the higher functions.

[Vygotsky, L.S. Development of Higher Mental Functions. Psychological Research in the U.S.S.R. (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1966) pp. 44-45]

The psychological development of the individual involves the psychological assimilation of the actual social relationships and modes of behaviour ‘between human individuals’. These ‘actual relations….underlie all the higher functions’.

However, the mind is not simply a passive reflection of social relations but is a most active element in the development of these relations. Vygotsky’s proposal implies that the ‘inner dialogues’ of thinking are intrapsychological transpositions and transformations of the dialogues and social interactions between individuals. These interactions are psychologically internalised in the form of ‘inner dialogues’ thereby reflecting the social structure and content of the actual relations between human individuals.

Shaun May

December 2014

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Filed under Crtical Psychology, Luria, Marx, Marxist Philosophy of Mind, Origins and Evolution of Consciousness, Radical Psychology, Vygotsky