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by Robert M. Young

It is of the essence of explanations that their proponents should seek to make them account for all they can. Newton once said that the whole business of natural philosophy was: ‘from the phenomena of matter and motion to explain the other phenomena’. This is the locus classicus of materialist reductionism. It is the warrant in the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for the ambitions of molecular biologists as they get appointed to professorships of psychiatry and speak in disparaging ways about psychodynamic explanations and applicants. At the other extreme we find some speculations of Jürgen Habermas toward the end of his Knowledge and Human Interests, where he suggested that psychoanalytic explanation might well be the paradigm for all explanations and that explanations in physics might be the degenerate case of an explanation — just the opposite of the materialist reductionist pecking order of explanations.

I cite these two examples to give you a sense of what I am here to speak about. We have more candidates for explanations than we need. Each seeks to extend its writ as far as it can. I shall argue that this is okay if we think about reductionism and overdetermination in the right way. In the course of my argument I shall briefly explore some ambitious forms of explanation and try to show how they can legitimately claim vast areas while, at the same time, we want to claim much of that very same territory for other explanations.

One of the reasons I began to explore this topic was that I was very struck by a passage in Peter Barham’s marvellous book, Schizophrenia and Human Value. He says, quite simply, that he has never understood why the possibility that schizophrenia might have a genetic component or be biochemically based in some other way, should lead us to pay any less attention to the experiential dimension of mental illness. Why, indeed?

I suppose that it would not be an exaggeration to say that I have spent the better part of a decade each on four ambitious forms of explanation: Cartesian dualism, Darwinism, Marxism and Freudianism. I have expressed them eponimously. Put conceptually, as approaches to human nature, I mean philosophical analysis, biological explanations, the analysis of ideology and the sociology of knowledge and, lastly, the role of primitive processes and unconscious motivation in the inner world and their impact on the behaviour of individuals and groups. If I was being properly autobiographical, I would add a fifth determination: moral, including religious, discourse, but in doing so I immediately plunge myself into the conundrums which I am attempting to illuminate. By this I mean that it is part of my understanding of these matters that each seeks to encompass and account for the others, so that, for example, Descartes characterised the mind-body distinction as he did partly because of the place he wanted to maintain for responsibility and free will in the explanatory scheme which was being elaborated in the scientific revolution. That’s why he did not explain everything by recourse to extended substances and retained a role for thinking substances, thus creating a conundrum which has plagued modern thought: the problem of the relationship between mind and body. Something similar can be said of the other three forms of explanation. Darwin’s philosophy of nature drew heavily on Paley’s natural theology and Malthus’ moral strictures and his iron law of population. Marx stressed the role of economic and ideological determinations of the categories of knowledge and the role of the socio-economic base in conditioning what counts as an acceptable explanation in the superstructure of intellectual life. This approach was based ultimately on a moral critique of the capitalist mode of production. For me to say that, of course, is to take sides in a debate within Marxism, since there is a faction which holds, on the contrary, that Marx started life as a humanist but that his thinking underwent what is famously called an ‘epistemological break’, after which he thought scientifically. I am sketching these examples to make it clear that there are lots of explanations fighting over turfs. The scientific claims to be deeper than the moral, and the moral can be seen as deeper than the scientific.

Other systems of ideas drawing on the category of ideology can legitimately be seen as muted forms of Marxism, e.g., Karl Mannheim’s discipline of the sociology of knowledge, which pointed to the category of ‘interest’ — as in special interests and special pleading — the evaluative dimension in his critique of knowledge. Mannheim was called a ‘bourgeois Lukács’, just as Weber was called a ‘bourgeois Marx’. These quips point to the extent to which they were thought to stop short of the full version of Marxism. Georg Lukács, in the period in question, took the concept of ideology all the way to include nature. Mannheim was equivocal about how far his sociological explanations extended and did not root them in a Marxist view of the socio-economic. Indeed, he thought his sociologists of knowledge could adopt a position called ‘relationalism’ which was above the battle of interests, a vantage point not envisaged in Marxism. Max Weber also stopped short of a full socio-economic explanation with his notion of charismatic leadership.

Turning to Freud, it is well-known that the scientific aspect of his views coexisted with a deeply moral theory (as delineated by Philip Rieff in Freud: The Mind of the Moralist) and drew heavily on the Jewish tradition, about which he felt overtly ambivalent (as delineated by David Bakan in Freud and the Jewish Mystical Tradition).

Please take careful note of what I just did. I took one of the five candidates for explaining human nature — religion and morality — and mentioned the ways in which each of the others drew upon important aspects of it. A religious fundamentalist, whether pre-Darwinian or current, would seek to subordinate all other explanations to the religious and moral dimensions. In a sense I would agree with that view in that I believe that moral or evaluative discourse is more basic than any other kind. However, although I was once told that certain dandy Lacanians and postmodernists regard me as a fundamentalist (mind you, the reporter was a slavering follower of whatever the latest fashion might be) — although I have been so described, I trust that I am not merely reverting to the Calvinism of my youth. What I am doing is giving you a sketch of the first set of boxes in a matrix which, if I was clever and articulate enough, would take each of the five modes of explanation and show how it sought to account for the other four. This leads to a fulsome situation of overdetermination. I am sure that you know this in an intuitive, if not systematic, way. Here are some familiar examples. Psychoanalysis seeks to account for religion as a projection of infantile feelings, particularly the punitive superego, onto the universe. Marx sought to do something similar to religious thought, e.g., in the ‘Theses on Feuerbach’, and other forms of bourgeois morality throughout the writings of Marx and Engels. Freud mounted a critique of Marxism, which he claimed was incompatible with what we know about human nature, in the last of his New Introductory Lectures, entitled ‘The Question of a Weltanschauung’. Freud, displaying a perfect case of what Marx would call false consciousness, believed himself to be free of a world view.

Let us dwell for a time on the Darwinian mode of explanation. I hasten to say that much is said in the name of Darwin, as in the names of Marx and Freud and Descartes, which would surprise and dismay the man himself. Darwin, for example, is often characterised as the scourge of religious explanations. The fact is that he placed religious quotations at the front of On the Origin of Species and ended the text with a statement about life being breather into a few forms by the deity. It has been argued, by me, among other Darwin scholars, that Darwinism absorbed science into a more abstract deism and did not undermine religion at all. In case you think that is an anachronistic reading of the Victorian conflict between science and religion, it is worth recalling of Darwin, as it is of Newton, that his remains were buried in Westminster Abbey and that one of the authors of an important pre-Darwinian tract which advocated the uniformity of nature at the expense of the Biblical Flood, became Archbishop of Canterbury.

Even so, these days, ‘Darwinian’ tends to be used by scientists who delight in sticking pins in religious and moral explanations and gleefully argue that life and evolution are ‘nothing but’ meaningless self-replication. You might say that such people are meanies (or ‘memes’) and should not be attended to, but the truth is that they are the chosen pundits in these matters and have both scientific and cultural legitimacy. Lewis Wolpert is a Fellow of the Royal Society and holds a distinguished professorship, and Richard Dawkins was a Reader at Oxford and a Fellow of an Oxford College. He has recently been made a Professor of the Public Understanding of Science. Both delight in attacking humanistic values and philosophies. Dawkins likens religion to a virus and uses epidemiological rhetoric to write about it. He is so zealous in this endeavour that he had to be persuaded not to characterise all of culture in the same way. Wolpert is something of a Canute about social and conceptual aspects of science. He believes that science has settled all important matters in the theory of knowledge.

These men are, in my opinion, clowns, but make no mistake, they are highly respected and frequently called upon for talks, lecture series and for radio and television appearances. Theirs is the ‘nothing but’ school of life and humanity. Others trample on traditional values in the same mischievous schoolboy way, for example, Francis Crick. One of his collaborators, Sydney Brenner (who helped discover the genetic alphabet and has been knighted), played a similar role in my Cambridge college, King’s. Once, when I introduced him to a distinguished philosopher of science at a college feast, Brenner snarled, ‘Philosophy of science, eh? I thought they’d wound that up.’ When told this story, Wolpert exploded, ‘He was quite right!’.

These people take the line that we must separate facts from values and that the only certain knowledge is scientific knowledge. They are neo-positivists. There is knowledge and there is emotion, about which no rationality is possible. (I have often thought that this is why so many holders of this position have been philanderers, Alfred Ayer, for example.) Their inner worlds are based on a massive split. In fact, both Wolpert and Brenner have had serious psychological difficulties. Wolpert ‘solved’ his with drugs and lampooned psychotherapy, Brenner addressed his with Jungian analysis, which he kept secret for a long time.

There is a school of students of biology and of animal and human behaviour whose members are militant about the applicability of Darwinian ideas of competitiveness to all sorts of phenomena. They tend to be conservative politically. At the biological end we find an Oxford Professor of Genetics, the late C. D. Darlington, who, in his comprehensive tome, The Evolution of Man and Society, explained all of human history in terms of the survival of the fittest. Edward O. Wilson took the same line in creating the discipline of sociobiology, in which he argued that ethics should be handed over to the students of animal behaviour for a time to get a more realistic view of what is possible in social life. Most recently, we find one of his protégés, Frank Sulloway, arguing that all sorts of aspects of belief, innovation, political tendency and social philosophy can be attributed to a single explanatory factor: birth order. He conducts this argument as a militant refutation of all psychodynamic, particularly psychoanalytic, explanations. He set about this project (for which a publisher has paid a half a million dollars in advance royalties) after attempting to reduce Freud to a Biologist of the Mind (the subtitle of his book) by the simple expedient of legislating away the cultural half of Freud’s theory. No Oedipus complex, no Interpretation of Dreams, no distress about getting to Rome. All was explained through the lens of Freud’s relationship with Wilhelm Fliess and the (undoubtedly important but not all-encompassing) influence of Darwinian thinking on Freud.

The history of investigation of human nature and society has always had its biological reductionists, some academic, some popular, many with a foot in both camps. I have in mind Konrad Lorentz, Nobel Laureate for his ethological work, who was also an active Nazi. Or Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox, biologically reductionist anthropologists with conservative social philosophies. Or Robert Ardrey, an amateur whose social Darwinist books caused quite a stir. The person of this ilk who has had the greatest popular impact is probably Desmond Morris, though I would argue that Richard Attenborough and Walt Disney (particularly in his True Life Adventures) have had an even more widespread influence in making it seem common sense that evolution and animal behaviour show us more about competition then co-operation, more about the instinctual in humanity than the civilised. While we take in the quaintness of Jane Goodall’s gorillas, we are probably not on our guard about the version of humanity which is being propagated in the interstices of the perfectly legitimate story which links us to our evolutionary ancestors.

Please do not mis-hear me. I would be the first to argue for evolutionary continuity between humans and other animals. I could argue this both as a scholar and as a man. I have a healthy respect and fondness for primitive impulses and innate aggressiveness, as I do for erotic and dependent feelings and for erogenous zones. I can tell as good a story as the next student of evolution about why we have dependent children for as long as we do, why we dress as we do, care about the smells that we do, have our eyes and hands and tongues drawn to the parts of the body that we do, and so on. My purpose here is not to denigrate the animal or biological or evolutionary, much less the sexual, but to point to the efforts made by some to make those explanations colonise and dominate the territory of social and moral and political and ideological explanations. I am drawing your attention to the dialectic between reductionisms and overdetermination.

I want to turn next to Freudian explanations. There is a man at the LSE named Dilman who wants to make Freud into a biologist rather as Sulloway did. There is a book by Ritvo on the influence of Darwin on Freud. I have written about the influence of the British psychological evolutionist Herbert Spencer on Freud, and others have stressed the importance of his period as a comparative neurophysiologist and neurologist under the influence of John Hughlings Jackson, who thought of neurological symptomatology in terms of evolution and dissolution. Then there is the libido theory, with its relatively fixed developmental stages, linking erogenous zones and stages of sexual development pretty strictly to age bands and linking various forms of psychopathology to failure to negotiate the developmental tasks appropriate to those phases. I say all this to grant much to the biological in Freud. He argued in Civilization and Its Discontents that the veneer of civilization is thin and easily breached, that man is a wolf to other men and that only guilt and sublimation could curb our otherwise rapacious and polymorphously perverse sexual impulses. He also remained throughout his life a psychophysical parallelist and argued that the neurophysiologists would come along one day and fill in the base clef, as it were. My point for the moment is that Freud accepted a version of Cartesian dualism and attributed a great deal to the instinctual and the biological level of explanation, especially the neurological, which he appears to have thought would one day provide a more basic level of explanation than he had.

However, and this is the important point for what I want to claim for psychoanalytic explanation, he decided one day at the turn of the century to remain on psychological ground. When he did so he came increasingly to feel that psychoanalysis was sufficient for understanding humanity. He said at one point, ‘For sociology too, dealing as it does with the behaviour of people in society, cannot be anything but applied psychology. Strictly speaking there are only two sciences: psychology, pure and applied, and natural science' (p 179). No social psychology, no sociology, no economics, no politics — at least in the sense that none of these could, as he saw things, provide resting places in explanation. Everything goes back to id, ego, superego and the Oedipus complex. There is not a jot of exaggeration in what I am saying. Freud said of The Future of an Illusion and Civilization and Its Discontents, 'I recognised ever more clearly that the events of human history, the interactions between human nature, cultural development, and the precipitates of primeval experience (as whose representative religion pushes to the fore) are only the reflection of the dynamic conflicts among ego, id, and superego, which psychoanalysis studies in the individual — the same events repeated on a wider stage' (quoted in Gay, p. 547). His biographer, Peter Gay, concludes, 'He could not have stated the essential unity of his thought any more forcefully' (Ibid.).

There is no place in Freud's thinking for what the social scientists call 'the autonomy of the social', that is, for social causes operating at a different level from the psychological and deriving from genuinely social forces, even though they are mediated through the individual psyche. There is not even relative autonomy. One might have hoped that his followers would correct this regrettable reductionism. On the contrary, along came Klein and Bion, who made no move to bring in other explanatory factors. Indeed, they went deeper into the unconscious for their ultimate explanations and said that the real bottom line was primitive thought: psychotic anxieties and the defences erected against them.

The difference between the worlds of Freud and Klein may be described as one of level of explanation and of causality but this difference lies entirely within psychoanalytic explanation and makes no reference to other causal factors. Bion put the point clearly in the conclusion to his essay, 'Group Dynamics - A Re-view', He says, 'Freud's view of the dynamics of the group seems to me to require supplementing rather than correction' (Bion, 1961, p. 187). He accepts Freud's claim that the family group is the basis for all groups but adds that ‘I would go further; I think that the central position in group dynamics is occupied by the more primitive mechanisms that Melanie Klein has described as peculiar to the paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions. In other words, I feel... that it is not simply a matter of the incompleteness of the illumination provided by Freud's discovery of the family group as the prototype of all groups, but the fact that this incompleteness leaves out the source of the main emotional drives of the group' (p. 188). He then summarises the notions of 'work group' and the 'basic assumptions' that assail them — 'dependence', 'pairing', 'fight-flight' — and suggests that these may have a common link or may be different aspects of each other. 'Further investigation shows that each basic assumption contains features that correspond so closely with extremely primitive part objects that sooner or later psychotic anxiety, appertaining to these primitive relationships, is released. These anxieties, and the mechanisms peculiar to them, have already been displayed in psychoanalysis by Melanie Klein, and her descriptions tally well with the emotional states' of the basic assumption group. Such groups have aims 'far different either from the overt task of the group or even from the tasks that would appear to be appropriate to Freud's view of the group as based on the family group. But approached from the angle of psychotic anxiety, associated with phantasies of primitive part object relationships... the basic assumption phenomena appear far more to have the characteristics of defensive reactions to psychotic anxiety, and to be not so much at variance with Freud's views as supplementary to them. In my view, it is necessary to work through both the stresses that appertain to family patterns and the still more primitive anxieties of part object relationships. In fact I consider the latter to contain the ultimate sources of all group behaviour' (p. 189). In Bion's view, then, what matters in individual and group behaviour is more primitive than the Freudian level of explanation but it is the same kind of explanation. The ultimate sources of our distress are psychotic anxieties, and much of what happens in individuals and groups is a result of defences erected against psychotic anxieties, so that we do not have to endure them consciously.

Now I have to say that I have come to agree with them, yet I do not feel that I have disappeared up my own fundament. I have come to agree with them because of my experiences in analysis, in groups and, most importantly, in my participation on group relations events in this country and abroad. I believe that explanations at this level of primitiveness are the only ones which can hope to account or how people behave in war situations, in racism and as conquerors, i.e., in extremis. I am thinking of stories from former Yugoslavia, from Argentina under the generals and of accounts of the conquistadors in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Does this mean that I agree with Freud that only psychoanalytic explanations are valid? No, it does not. It leads me to the concept of overdetermination. If I read a good psychobiography (and there are few), it will combine deep insight into unconscious processes with familial, local, social, economic, regional, national, anthropological and other relevant levels of explanation. There are famous cases of psychoanalytic explanation which are reductionist, for example, Erik Erikson’s gripping book, Young Man Luther (which was made into an equally gripping play starring the young Albert Finney), which seemed to give us the Reformation from Luther’s bowel troubles. Ragnell’s The Mind of Watergate, about Nixon’s inner world, is not so sweeping, nor is Kakar’s exploration of the emotional problems of F. W. Taylor, the founder of scientific management. These balanced psychoanalytic biographies show that it can be done without succumbing to reductionism. One way of conceptualising a good integration of psychoanalytic with other forms of explanation is to look for the congruence between extrapsychic and intrapsychic factors, as Caroline Garland does when she attributes the intractability of the trauma of disasters to a homing missile relationship between aspects of the trauma with something in the victim’s early experience.

Attempts have been made to achieve too much with psychoanalytic explanations of large-scale events. That was the problem with Harold Lasswell’s Psychopathology and Politics in 1930 and with the school of psychoanalytic political theory which he created. The public became a rationalisation of the private without asking what social, economic and cultural forces had sedimented into the unconscious so as to constitute the private in the first place. There need be no reductionism if we look at the experiential origins of the inner world, at what I have elsewhere called second nature. Second nature is not biology; it is deeply embedded in the unconscious. I want to be able to look at the psychological motivations of world leaders, torturers, people such as Adolf Eichmann, Robert Maxwell, Howard Hughes, Henry Ford, Woodrow Wilson, Melanie Klein, Donald Winnicott, Anna Freud, my colleagues, my children, figures in my training organisation, as well as people I greatly admire such as Lincoln and Mandela, without feeling that I am traducing their full humanity or removing them from history, culture and politics. I think Victor Wolfenstein achieves this balanced overdetermination without succumbing to reductionism at the theoretical level in his Psychoanalytic-Marxism and at the level of the case study in his biography of Malcolm X, The Victims of Democracy, but these are rare achievements, requiring profound research and insight. Wolfenstein may be unique in being trained both as a political historian and as a psychoanalyst. He proves that it can be done — that reductionism can be avoided and that we need not be swamped by overdetermination.

The danger of being overwhelmed by overdetermination is what I think has led us to the cynicism of some forms of postmodernism. The subject was seen to be on the receiving end — nay constituted by — so many determinations, so many inscriptions, that there was no substance to have attributes. I think this is the bitter end of an admirable tradition leading from the critique of ideology to the sociology of knowledge to structuralism and deconstruction until — as it was recently put in a timely revival of a phrase from Marx — ‘all that’s solid melts into air’. The original French Idéologues had the profound insight that — as they put it — the ideas of science should be subjected to the science of ideas. You could say that Cabanis and Destutt de Tracy were, early in the nineteenth century, having a postmodernist insight — that scientific discourse is not foundational and that it should be accountable to philosophical analysis. However, their hegemony was short-lived, because they, having proudly had Napoleon as a member of their class at the Institute, fell out with their mentor, and ideology got a bad name from his mockery. You could say that ideology thereby became ideological in the sense that it came to be felt that the refraction of ideas through what came to be called ‘interest’, as in special interests, motives of class and economics and latterly sexism, racism and most recently heterosexism — all these were seen to pollute. I remember an orthodox communist attacking an early paper of mine on this topic, saying that science should be washed again and again in Persil until it was whiter than white and free from any stain or taint of ideology. She now embraces the ideas of Donna Haraway (of whom more anon) and still doesn’t have the faintest idea what this debate is about. What it is about is the social constitution of the categories, valences and meanings of ideas. When Marx and Engels said that the ruling ideas of a given epoch are the ideas of its ruling class, they said something we all believe at one level, which is why we speak of Greek science, Renaissance thought, Victorian sexuality, Postmodernist architecture or the Progressive Era. Things get tough is when you apply this analysis to concepts which are thought to transcend historical specificity, e.g., scientific ideas or, come to that, the theory of ideology itself.

However, when you do look at a scientific idea through the lenses of the history of ideas and (usually separately, as it happens in practice) those of economic and social determinations, you find that much is explained. In the history of science this was a raging battle in from about 1930 when Nikolai Bukharin, Boris Hessen and others brought this idea to London, where it was taken up by people like J. D. Bernal, Joseph Needham J. G. Crowther and Stephen F. Mason. By the time I heard about this debate in the 1960s there was a conspiracy of silence, broken and then revived by debates around the Vietnam War and the related cultural cold war. In the meantime, tame versions of the Marxist thesis had found their way into the sociology of science in the work of Robert Merton and other functionalist sociologists of science. However, they carefully separated the context of discovery from the context of justification, something which allowed them to remain on speaking terms with the Popperians. I’ll unpack that. Certain Marxists came to see science as ideological through and through. This, as the left-wing Marxists, Lukács and Gramsci, saw very clearly, wreaks havoc with any idea of nature per se. The concept of nature and all that follows from it in ideas in the science of an epoch, is a societal category. Science is inside culture, therefore ideological. Lukács had the touching belief that once we achieve communism, rather as the Bible promises we will no longer see through a glass darkly and reification will be transcended, a position which Gramsci and others lampooned. Merton and Co, on the other had, sought to explain the social forces which led certain thinkers, e.g., Protestant ones in the early Royal Society, to ask of nature what they did, though they carefully separated the understanding of the origins of the questions from the validity of the answers (which is why the Popperians did not eat them alive). In the 1960 and 1970s people like Habermas, Alvin Gouldner, Paul Feyerabend and the members of the Radial Science Collective, drawing on the ideas of the early Marx, Lukács, Gramsci and especially Herbert Marcuse, pushed the ideological constitution of scientific ideas, including the context of justification, to the limit and found no limit. This tradition has its apolitical side in the work of the people around the journal Social Studies of Science, and is in alliance with the anthropology of knowledge in the work of Mary Douglas and those inspired by her essays on nature. Her book, Purity and Danger, which explores the concepts of pollution and taboo has, along with Civilization and Its Discontents, been declared one of the most important books in the world in this century

The Marxist strand has come together with social constructivism in the history of science and has had its apotheosis in the writings of feminist historians of science, pre-eminent among them Donna Haraway, whose masterpiece, Primate Visions: Gender, Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science, is a paradigm case of balanced overdetermination without reductionism. She has taken a scientific discipline, the study of primates, and has shown how it was constituted by ideological determinations through and through, in its categories, staff, institutions, patronage, and ‘findings’. This approach is in perfect sympathy with postmodernist epistemology exemplefied in the work of Richard Rorty, which asserts that truth is made, not found, that nature is a societal category, that all facts are theory-laden and all theories are value-laden and constituted within an ideology or world view. Putting this development in other terms, the sociology of scientific knowledge went from the social construction of social reality to the social construction of all reality - especially nature, including, of course, human nature.

I commend the work of Donna Haraway to you. I do so not only because we agree about so much (this is not surprising, since we have been influencing each other’s writings for a long time) but because she makes it clear that to go to the depths of the ideological constitution of a research tradition is not to jettison the other determinations, especially those which she respectfully calls scientific. That is, you can be a good scientist and still understand the other determinations of your research problems, institutionalisation and findings. There need be no stark choice between science and ideology, between unconscious motivation and socio-political causation. (I should, to be scrupulous, add that Haraway has an acknowledged blind spot where psychoanalytic determinations are concerned. She is not opposed to them, just ignorant)

I have left Descartes until last. I have least to say about Cartesian dualism as an exemplar of philosophical analysis. Philosophy is, of course, amenable to all of the alternative forms of explanation — biological, ideological and psychoanalytic. I have just ordered Stephen Gaukroger’s new biography of Descartes in the hope of learning about some of them. In my experience, the distinction between mind and body, between what Descartes called extended substances and thinking substances, is one of the deepest ones in our world view, as refractory to transcendence as the related one between subject and object. Organismic thinking and phenomenology have tried and tried to go beyond ontological dualism, just as materialist reductionism has tried to abrogate thinking substances or demote thought to an epiphenomenon or dissolve it into that wonderful all-purpose solvent which tried to fuse biology and the human sciences throughout the first half of this century - the wonderfully question-begging concept of ‘function’. I don’t think the effort to solve the mind-body problem has got very far, but I confess to not yet having studied the wonderful solution which I am told has been wrought as a result of the philosophical work of Donald Davidson. What I do know is that minds and bodies and subjects and objects are pretty constant features of the modern world view and that when we try to go beyond them, we find them reasserting themselves. I think Peter Strawson showed that the concept of a person was ontologicaly prior to those of mind and body and that to consider mind and body as the bottom line ontologically was not a true reflection of our everyday metaphysics, yet we still operate with those abstractions in ways which characterise our academic disciplines and concepts, as well as our everyday speech. There are reductionists who say that one day the language of information theory will make all this passé. I may be too old to get it.

What I do get, however, is two thoughts. The first is the one with which I began: that we have more explanations than we need and that we should learn to live with overdetermination. Don’t think I believe that will bring peace, since fighting over which explanation legitimately occupies a given space gives us the most acute debates in the allocation of resources. Should the money go on drugs, community care or psychotherapy? Should we imprison people or re-house them? Should this vacant post go to a biologist or a social scientist or a hermeneuticist (a question only asked in our centre, I believe)? I mentioned Peter Barham at the beginning. He says that no matter what causes schizophrenia, the experiences of people who suffer from it are meaningful and should be attended to, just as we must become clear that they are not de-mented but rather relatively incapacitated but still people needing psychological and social succour with the most precise determination about what they can and cannot manage at the moment. That is, they must remain subjects, with stories to tell and rights to protect. Biologism has the besetting side-effect of reifying people.

This takes me to my last point. It is about what’s wrong with reductionism. It is amoral and therefore immoral. What’s wrong with all the reductionisms I have sketched — biological and materialist, psychological and unconscious, ideological and socio-economic — is that they filter out praxis and replace it with process. They take the relations between people and treat them as if they were relations between things. This was Marx’s definition of fetishism and became Lukács definition of reification. (If you are wondering how this definition squares with the psychoanalytic concept of reification, it does so by being a part-object relationship, treating the partner as an object of repetition-compulsion rather than an object of affection, a whole object.) Let’s look at each reductionism in turn. Biological reductionism is the easiest. since its advocates simply say that survival of the fittest is nature’s way. We usually say that scientific explanations separate facts from value, but to say that is to misunderstand what happened in the scientific revolution. The official story is that three out of the four causal factors in the Aristotelian scheme of explanation — the material and efficient and formal causes — were retained by the scientific revolution and that the fourth one, the final cause — the telos, purpose, goal, use - was banished into the realm of mind of man and God. Animals, on the Cartesian scheme, were pure machines; people were machines with minds. (Descartes would not have made it in Britain; here animals are given human attributes while people are not thought to have them.) But I — following my great mentors, A. N. Whitehead and E. A. Burtt — do not believe the official story of what happened in the scientific revolution. I think they made a botch of it with the doctrine of primary and secondary qualities, the banishment of final causes and the separation of subject and object. I think they left values, purposes, goals floating about, slipped in here and there, tacit, implicit, not open to inspection or contestation. What I think putative reductionist explanations do is to seek to achieve what I have called ‘the naturalisation of value systems’. They say, in effect, there are only my values or those of my class, gender, caste, nation, race. My values are nature’s values. Queen Isabella said the Conquistadors could enslave the natives of the West Indies because they were of a different order of humanity and, having enslaved them, the Europeans could save their souls. Hitler could call the Jews subhuman, just as the Americans could so designate the Gooks in Vietnam. Rockefeller could defend his monopolistic practices as the way to produce the best way to get and transport oil or produce the American Beauty rose. Various right wing ideologues can appeal to biology for their social theories which defend inequalitiy, neatly forgetting as they pull the rabbit out that they stuffed it into the hat in the first place. So-called scientific Marxists can justify genocide and the Gulag or the killing fields in the same way - the scientistic ‘necessity’ for successful revolution. They call it scientific Marxism. So-called Darwinian psychologists can do likewise with their theories of sibling rivalry, their courtship rituals, their food chains, their Malthusian notion of society which makes welfare a mistaken charity, much as the people about whom Dickens wrote thought, much as the architects of the Great Famine in Ireland and similar genocide in the Soviet Union when the farms were collectivised said, much as the modern business man says that it is ‘logical’ or even ‘rational’ when they mean that they are about to cheat you.

The dangers of psychoanalytic reductionism are not so easy to represent so that their reifying features are clear. In my experience, it is of course essential to suspend moralism in clinical work. But I also feel that moral categories and discourse must be re-admitted as the splits are coming to be healed. Otherwise, the mixture which constitutes the depressive position has no parameters, and depressive guilt has no object, the pain of existence where we bear life’s vicissitudes has no basis for giving dignity to suffering. Life would be hedonic, not meaningful.

As I near my conclusion, I want to tell you a story about a group relations conference I attended where this issue became very stark. For those of you who have no experience of such conferences, I will mention some of the features as I go along. The purpose of these events is to create a space where one can think under fire, that is, think about psychotic anxieties while they are upon one, or, at least, soon thereafter. Anxieties are deliberately evoked by the ambiguities of certain tasks which are set for the large group. One is told a task and left to pursue it in such a way that people exhibit the sorts of basic assumption phenomena which Bion and others have characterised as paradigmatic of group processes. In the conference in question there was the usual mix of members — some psychotherapists, some from business, some doctors, teachers, clerics, etc. But there was also a group of South African Christians, and it emerged that they were from a fundamentalist Protestant sect which had not renounced apartheid (all this occurred while Mandela was still in prison and the future was exquisitely unclear) and that one and only one among them was black. There is much I could tell you about this conference, including the fact that the conference director was a South African, but the fact on which I want to concentrate is that the conference could not deal with this situation.

The black, a young woman, was pretty tough and clear about herself. She got into an alliance with another person who was put off by some of the bullshit rhetoric and false bonhomie of the large group. It so happens that this person was a white American Southerner: me. The difference between me and her colleagues — who were also her patrons and bosses and employers — was that I had renounced the racism of my upbringing (which is not the same as being free from racism; in fact it lead to a form of inverted racism). This woman picked up a cohort of friends, but the main dynamic was one predicted by Bion: she and I paired and were paired by the group’s unconscious collusion. Some of her new-found friends were Scandinavians who had never known a black woman and were curious and determined to behave well. Another was also an American but one who had moved to Germany and had become a psychoanalyst and also had reasons to be seen as not a racist. Another, with whom I was also in a more intimate alliance was an American black woman. I am not impugning any these people’s motives, just showing that they were mixed. We formed a feared group and at one stage provocatively called ourselves ‘the master race’, only to find other groupings calling themselves, Jews, Gypsies, etc.

What happened in the conference was that all interpretations which bore on this woman’s position were kept strictly and anxiously at the level of unconscious motivation. The real world issues of apartheid and of her position in this fundamentalist sect simply could not be addressed in any sustained adult way. Nor could she speak her mind or anyone do so on her behalf for the obvious reason that her livelihood was at stake. What the conference did was to elect her a sort of idealised mascot of the whole group whose impossible task was to act on behalf of us all. Just as she was supposed to embark on this task, there was a violent scene in which a German member of staff was set upon by a screaming bunch of self-styled anti-Nazis until an Israeli woman started sobbing and shouting, ‘Not again!’.

I could speak much more about this set of events. The conclusion I drew from extensive discussions with her and from ruminations after the conference was that the setting of group relations conferences is one which cannot take on board the working through of social, economic, racial or other real world issues but reduces them all to unconscious dynamics and idealised, rather tableau gestures and acting out of primitive phantasies. The liberal values held by practically everyone there could not be drawn upon and instanced, because we were regressed and in a reductionist space. You could say that learning from such an experience is the point of a group relations conference, but I would have liked the group to have been able to have behaved better under fire.

Another example of the explanatory blinkers sometimes worn by psychoanalysts was a letter written to the press by some eminent analysts and psychotherapists a few days before the hostilities began in the Gulf War. They cited some unconscious mechanisms, notably ones involving splitting and projection, and urged the nations not to succumb to them. In some ways this was a touching gesture, but it’s causal analysis left rather a lot to be desired, as far as geopolitical factors such as oil were concerned. Yet, of course, there are psychoanalytic things to be said about how we think about Saddam Hussein, Hitler, Idi Amin, Mrs Thatcher, General Pinochet and Genghis Khan, just as there are about our treatment of Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela.

If there was time, I would canvass the burgeoning literature about other reductionisms, notably that which seeks to deploy Darwinism as a universal explanation, extending to evolutionary epistemology and, just recently in the hands of Daniel Dennett, to the point, as he explicitly puts it, of being a universal solvent. Nothing can contain it. This is the central thesis of his book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995). This book is part of a rapidly-growing genre. A few days after I wrote about Dennett’s book, I saw a message on the internet, referring to a forty-page bibliography (Cziko and Campbell, 1990), whose co-author described himself in the following terms: ‘I am a proponent of what I call "universal selection theory" which makes the claim that ALL forms of adapted complexity — from organisms and their antibodies to scientific theories and technological innovations — emerge from a processes involving blind variation and selective retention’. The occasion of this self-description was an updated version of the bibliography, containing 1100 items, which is available on the internet at


with hypertext links to quotations and other sources on the world wide web at


This way of thinking has grown dramatically since Donald T. Campbell coined the term ‘evolutionary epistemology’ in 1974.

Note carefully that a scientific theory is being offered as the basis for the theory of knowledge.


We have had such ambitious claims on behalf of evolution as an all-inclusive principle at least since the English evolutionist, Herbert Spencer, wrote about ‘The Development Hypothesis’ in 1852 and ‘The Social Organism’ in 1860. Indeed, his universal evolutionary formula became a wonderfully vacuous generalisation: ‘Evolution is an integration of matter and a concomitant dissipation of motion; during which the matter passes from a relatively indefinite, incoherent homogeneity to a relatively definite heterogeneity; and during which the contained motion undergoes a parallel transformation.’ This was rightly lampooned as gobbledygook, but Spencer was also given credit in the Dictionary of National Biography in 1912 for having put together ‘the best synthesis of the knowledge of his times’ (RMY in Victorian Values). Two decades later, the American functionalist sociologist, Talcott Parsons, who was himself no mean purveyor of biological analogies, could ask, ‘Who now reads Herbert Spencer?’ I offer this as my last example to show the likely fate of over-ambitious reductionisms.

I said near the beginning that If I was smart enough I could draw up a matrix in which each reductionism could claim to explain all of the others, leading to five complete sets of explanations of any phenomenon. I don’t have a very visual imagination, but perhaps there would be twenty-five boxes with five colours. Each would seek to colour all the others, in turn, or all at once. I think each should be allowed to have a go at doing so, while each should be required to get back into its cage at the end of the exercise. We are all biologically driven, unconsciously motivated, ideologically constituted, caught up in the categories of philosophical assumptions and born with both loving and destructive impulses, with the life’s task of trying to bear these mixtures and make reparation for our destructiveness and achieve depressive guilt and concern for the object — all at the same time.

Two final thoughts about ways of thinking which might help us in reflecting on these matters. First, I dare say that many of you perked up when I started to tell a story. It is becoming increasingly clear that story-telling may be the human matrix within which determinations should appropriately find their due weightings. Reductionisms don’t make good yarns. Second, it has been pointed out to me that one way of accommodating multiple causation is to think dialectically. I agree, but I confess that I have seen more programmatic statements about dialectical explanations than I have seen worked through examples. Both of these modes of accounting for things provide frameworks for complexity and multi-level causation.

Paper delivered to Centre for Psychotherapeutic Studies, University of Sheffield, 10 November 1995.


Cziko, Gary A., & Campbell, Donald T. (1990). ‘Comprehensive Evolutionary Epistemology Bibliography’, J. Social and Biological Sciences, 13(1): 41-81.

Rest of bibliography to be added..

© The Author

Address for correspondence 26 Freegrove Road, London N7 9RQ

email: robert@rmy1.demon.co.uk

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