From a Notebook on Psychology (Part 1)
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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.