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by Robert M. Young

Transcendence must be an interesting topic. Someone took one look at my title and invited me onto Radio Four’s ‘Start the Week’. That’s a first, and I have been responsible for some pretty pithy titles, e.g., From Asylum to Anarchy, Black Athena, Mental Space. They rang and asked me what transcendence meant, which was when I discovered that I didn’t know — or at least didn’t know in sound bytes.

Since then I have done some homework and was relieved to discover that my intuitive sense of the concept of transcendence was true, at least, to the usage of the American transcendentalists, for example, Ralph Waldo Emerson: a spiritual or divine principle in human nature. My private definition is rather less theological. I think of the search for the transcendent as an attempt to find a basis for believing in good, hopeful purposes, values and meanings. What, if anything, is the basis for believing in the meaning of life — that it has a higher purpose? How do we, why should we, carry on in the face of all we know about our species’ inhumanity to our fellow human beings? What’s the point?

Philosophers have been much more precise in defining the term. To transcend is to be beyond the range or grasp of human experience, reason or belief; to go beyond or surpass the limitations of the material universe. It has a connotation of God. It is the opposite of immanent, as in the Incarnation being transcendent — cutting through the ’is’ of mundane existence with the ’ought’ and the redemption and salvation of Christ. Put in secular terms, is life, are we, irredeemable or worth fighting for or bothering about and, if so, on what solid grounds?

I have searched in a number of places, which I’ll summarise and then explore in some detail. I was born into a fundamentalist Christian family and held those beliefs — or increasingly a rather less strict version of them — quite strongly until I was about twenty. After that I held a secular version of them and still do. I spent significant periods of research exploring the functions of the brain, Darwinism, various non-doctrinaire versions of Marxism, and have spent the last two decades working in the general domain of psychoanalytic psychotherapy and psychoanalytic studies. Lately I have been trying to distil what I can from these endeavours, and I am glad to say that I am not without hope. I say this in spite of the fact that I have felt sundered in recent times by the same things that I dare say will have demoralised many of you. My own list includes the Bulger case, Waco (very near my childhood home), Oklahoma City (also near), Dunblane (the home of my ancestors), Port Arthur, kicking in the head of a thirteen year old girl in Corby, and on a different scale, Ruanda, the Middle East and former Yugoslavia, where neighbours who lived in peace for decades kill and loot one another and call banishment ‘cleansing’. I heard the other day that torture is epidemic in forty countries — especially China, Mexico, Kenya, Turkey — and, according to Amnesty International, exists in sixty more. And then there is history. I have written elsewhere about the ongoing genocide — extending from the Conquistadors to the present — in the Americas (Young, 1994, ch. 6). Closer to here and now there are the inexplicable and unbearable things that people I know and with whom I work do to one another individually and in groups and institutions. In my case, this means groups and institutions concerned with alleviating suffering, mediating conflicts, helping people and trying to make the world a better place. What are we to do when the Good Samaritans are at each others’ throats?

When I say I was born into a fundamentalist family, I mean that my grandmother was a missionary in China and my father was a deacon in the Southern Presbyterian church. I went to Sunday School every week, ’Big Church’ when I was too young to understand what was being said, was baptised, went to Vespers most Sunday evenings and read my Bible voluntarily. I was exposed to Unitarianism but was sure it was the nearest thing to atheism. I did not have sexual intercourse with anyone of my own social background until I was twenty, by which I mean that there were serious hypocrisies built into the stern doctrines I was brought up with. I did have a strong feeling of sin and prayed recurrently to be able to stop masturbating; indeed, I often undertook to do so after winning the next swimming race, if, I could have just a little help as I swam.

I carried those beliefs with me to university and was deeply shocked when the Professor of Divinity told us that there were inconsistencies in The Bible. I took the trouble to go round and straighten him out on this point. As the years went on I broadened my horizons and studied both philosophy and various religions in some depth. I eventually got involved with the Society of Friends or Quakers, whose theology was far from fundamentalist and who were engaged in socially progressive projects around the world. I joined a group working in an old-fashioned state mental hospital in Arizona. At the end of the project we were asked to write up our experiences, and when we got to the question about having Quaker meetings we were surprised to realize that we’d had none. We’d forgotten to, yet we felt that our work and meetings had been in the spirit of the values of the Society of Friends, and I suppose that is the moment I knew I was no longer a Christian but was a humanist. The poem ’Abou Ben Adhem’ has always summed up this transition for me. When the angel first came into his room, it was discovered that Abou’s name was not on the list of those who loved the Lord. He said to put him down as one who loved his fellow men, and when the angel next came, Abou’s name led all the rest. I confess that this poem by Leigh Hunt hangs in the corridor outside my kitchen.

Among the things that had led me to want to work in a mental hospital were two ongoing forms of distress. The first was an acute sense of the gap between what I intended and what I managed to do as a moral being. The second was similar. My mother was suicidally depressed, and all of us had an agonising sense of the gap between what she envisaged and sought to do and how she was day by day. I have always experienced this gap between reach and grasp as the distance between is and ought, between vision and achievement, which is why terribly worthy mottoes appeal to me, such as Gramsci’s ’Pessimism of the intellect; optimism of the will’ or ‘You will not complete the task, but you may not give it up’ or Albert Camus’ ‘One must imagine Sisyphus happy’.

After finishing a degree in philosophy, including an over-ambitious project on the problem of self-knowledge, I set out to become a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. However, as my unconscious would have it, I had married a suicidally depressed woman, and we’d had a child, so it became increasingly hard to carry on in medical school. I availed myself of an fellowship programme and migrated to Cambridge, expecting to stay a year then two, then three then four and was there for sixteen years. The problem which preoccupied me was the relationship between the categories of human nature which concerned psychologists, moralists and philosophers, on the one hand, and those of the natural sciences, in particular, brain studies, on the other. I set out to work out the physiological basis of mind in the history of ideas about the localization of function in the brain. You may find this esoteric, but I focused on that because it was the place where human nature in its mental and moral sense meet human nature in its biological and physiological sense. You could say I was looking for the natural basis for human nature, human strengths and weaknesses, in the context of how people tried to solve the mind-body problem inside science.

What I found, of course, was that nature did not, contrary to the claims of natural sciences, speak in its own language. There is no natural classification of the functions of the brain analogous to the periodic table of elements in chemistry and the list of fundamental particles in physics. (Indeed, ’natural’ classification in the physico-chemical sciences is itself coming increasingly under philosophical scrutiny.) The questions we bring to the brain are a result of the psychological doctrines and concepts of human nature which we hold. Whence came they? This question led me to look in a series of ever-expanding and ever-deepening contextual studies at the sources of the categories of psychological then biological then physical categories. I spent a long time looking very closely indeed at the development of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection and the framework of issues and ideas which constituted his approach to the history of life and the mechanism for evolutionary change.

This is work which I like to think would have made my mother proud of me. In fact, my book on the brain was called a classic by the eminent historian Peter Gay only months after she died, and I was at one time called the worlds leading Darwin scholar. More recently I was described as ‘by far the most controversial figure in historical Darwin scholarship, and a man who, in addition, may well be the most influential practitioner in the history of the field’. Harold Searles says we seek to achieve and to serve in order to repair the damage we unconsciously believe we have inflicted on our parents. I agree and see my own research and clinical work in that reparative and atoning way.

What my studies of the history of brain research and of Darwinism taught me was that we do not find our values in nature; we project them into nature. The terms of reference, the conceptual framework, the world view of a period, conjure up the categories of its intellectual disciplines, including its concept of nature and the theories which dictate its research programme. We hear so much about the relationship between science and culture, between science and society, between the two cultures. I think this is a misconception. Our concept if nature is a part of our concept of culture and changes as our culture change its conceptual foundations. Science, too, is a cultural activity; it is inside culture, whatever the claims of its apologists and popularisers. I think its most outspoken advocates know this, which is why they are so aggressive. I am thinking, in particular of Louis Wolpert and Richard Dawkins, who are not very polite to apologists for religion or other cultural activities. Contrast Jonathan Miller, who knows that culture is the containing form, where values are husbanded and debated and where the agenda and terms of reference for how we think about nature and do science are born, evoked, elicited and constituted by the preoccupations and priorities of the times. That is why we have Renaissance thought, Enlightenment rationalism, Victorian science, the Information Society. Those modifiers stand for the different spirits of different ages; otherwise there would be no adjectives for periods, only the steadily advancing edge of objectivity.

The point I have just been making is a philosophical one. In my studies on brain research, as in the quite meticulous work I did on the development of Darwin’s theory, I found that values were intrinsic, not extrinsic, to scientists’ conceptions of nature. Indeed, it emerged that Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection — the theory which is so fundamental that it can be said to bind life to the rest of nature and human nature to the rest of life — is anthropomorphic (i.e., expressed in terms relevant to humans, not just neutral nature) and what he and his interlocutors have said about it is shot through with evaluative and teleological language. The claimed value-neutrality of science is a surface phenomenon; if you look deeper values are everywhere in scientific thought. What is important about this — and it’s also true of the deepest levels of explanation in physics and chemistry — is that there is not science and nature on one side and human values and culture on the other. Once again, we project our values into nature. We do not only seek transcendence in a divine visitation or incarnation or in extrapolations from science: we do it all the time.

Our valuing selves occupy a philosophically paradoxical space. Our humanity is both wholly natural and yet transcends nature. Human history is but an infinitesimally small chapter in the vast panoramic sweep of natural history. Yet what we think and know of natural history and how we conceive of it is historical in a strictly human sense. We conceive of nature and our natures in this mixed way. To think otherwise is either scientistic (i.e., overblown) reductionism or philosophical idealism. We have to live in this contradictory world where nature is independent of us, and we are its product, yet we only know it inside history and culture. We are conceived by it, yet it is our conception.

A passage from Pope’s ’Essay on Man’ (published in the early eighteenth century) always comes to mind as I contemplate these conundrums:


Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;

The proper study of mankind is Man.

Plac’d on this isthmus of a middle state,

A being darkly wise, and rudely great:

With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,

With too much weakness for the Stoic’s pride,

He hangs between; in doubt to act or rest;

In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast;

In doubt his Mind or Body to prefer;

Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err;

Alike in ignorance, his reason such,

Whether he thinks too little, or too much:

Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confused;

Still by himself abused, or disabused;

Created half to rise, and half to fall;

Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;

Sole judge of Truth, in endless Error hurled:

The glory, jest and riddle of the world!

(Pope, 1733, Epistle II, pp. 125-26)


This passage is at the centre of Arthur O. Lovejoy’s argument about The Great Chain of Being, the founding treatise of the history of ideas, which was concerned with the idea which held all of life and nature together before Darwin. If you don’t know this book, I commend it to you heartily.

There are many ironies abut the Darwinian and post-Darwinian periods. One is that while it is often characterized as the terminal conflict between science and religion, religion was actually hugely accommodating of evolutionary theory. It is important to recall that, far from being an outcast, Darwin, like Newton, is buried in Westminster Abbey. He died a hero of the Establishment. The irony which interests me at least as much is the fact that the very people, the original nineteenth-century Positivists, who celebrated the demise of the biblical literalist view of the history of life and who spoke of the evolution of societies in three distinct stages from Theological to Metaphysical to Positive Science — these very people proceeded to found a form of scientistic religion. Evolution came to replace old-style religion as the deepest source of meaning and values, both directly and metaphorically. It became directly so in the development of evolutionary ethics, looking to science to show the development both of conscience and of morals. Beyond that, nature was said to speak certain ethical truths and to dictate the laws of history. Some saw them as competitive and rapacious, as in the Social Darwinism of the American Robber Barons and their academic apologists. In more recent times we have seen the development of Darwinian psychology, a particularly competitive view of animal life, and of Sociobiology, whose founder, E. O. Wilson, specifically advocated that ethics should be handed over to the biologists for a time. But evolution did not serve only as a claimed biological justification for ultra-capitalist values. Prince Peter Kropotkin’s research led him to believe that he discerned in evolution the basis for altruism and co-operation — which he called ‘Mutual Aid’’. Indeed, there has recently been a book by Paul Crook (1994) almost exclusively devoted to pacifist renderings of evolutionary theory. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries have had innumerable advocates of a sort of secular religion rooted in what biology is thought to prove — from Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer to the writings of Karl Popper and Frank Sulloway. Comte derived a ‘Religion of Humanity’ from his positivism, while Spencer drew the conclusion that society is an organism. Popper thought he saw secure foundations of his theory of knowledge in Darwinism, while Sulloway seems to delight in drawing baleful conclusions about human beings from the most unpleasant ways birds and other creatures treat their siblings. The Dawkinses and Wolperts of this world are part of a huge movement of secular religion which, sometimes surreptitiously, substitutes science as a god in place of theological transcendence.

The metaphorical use of evolutionary and biological concepts has, if anything, been even more pervasive than the direct use of them. The founders of the modern psychological and social sciences drew their categories from the language of biology and physiology: structure, function, adaptation, organism. The most widespread version of this practice in our own time is known as ’functionalism’ or more broadly, Darwinism writ large. They seek to ground society in theories which are shot through with particular political ideologies. Mark you well, I am not saying that we should purge their language of its moral and political or otherwise evaluative concepts. On the contrary, I want them to own up to them and acknowledge that the transcendent values we claim to find growing out of nature’s ways is the transcendent values we planted there in the first place.

A huge family of disciplines — the modern human sciences, sometimes called the ’behavioural and social sciences’ — were developed from a small number of physiological and evolutionary analogies. The great names of modern secular thought in philosophy, psychology, anthropology, sociology, economics, cybernetics, systems theory, psychiatry, ethology, town planning, architecture, management theory, even molecular biology — come from this tradition. I am thinking, for example, of Herbert Spencer, Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, John Dewey, William James, Charles Peirce, Bronislaw Malinowski, Raymond Firth, A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, Walter Cannon, L. J. Henderson, Talcott Parsons, Maynard Keynes, Buckminster Fuller, Robert Merton, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Alan Turing, Norbert Wiener. The reigning approach to psychoanalysis until quite recently — Ego Psychology — is smack in the middle of this tradition. The movement is so large that it was coextensive with the disciplines at the heart of liberal thinking in the first half of the century and controlled practically every important institution in academic research you could mention. The major funding bodies based their grants strategies on this way of thinking.

Functionalist thought claims that society is so like an organism that we should think of it in organismic terms. It evolves or develops. It is in dynamic equilibrium. It has structures and functions; they are adaptive. What is maladaptive becomes extinct. And so on. Knowledge proceeds by conjecture and refutation, an epistemology modelled on random variation and natural selection a sort of conceptual survival of the fittest. Institutions, customs, social relations and the development of knowledge are analysed in these terms. We even have ’the anatomy of revolution’ and ’the adaptive function of social conflict’. The points of view and assumptions of psychoanalytic metapsychology as codified by David Rapaport and Merton Gill (1959) were conceptualised in precisely this rhetoric, right down to ’the adaptive point of view’. Structuralism in the social sciences sought to supersede this framework of ideas, as did a structuralist version of Marxism, e.g., Louis Althusser. What the structuralists sought to put in place of functionalism was a form of structural causation, along with language an binary oppositions as the bottom line instead of organic analogies. But it was and still is a scientism, i.e., the extrapolation of the methods and assumptions of natural science or something closely analogous, beyond their legitimate domain and their substitution for narrative and praxis (willed, planned human action). I saw a leading British Lacanian devote a full lecture a couple of weeks ago to an algebraic rendering of the unconscious and the analytic process. When his approach was challenged as a model, he insisted it was no model but an explanation of the bottom line. The book of nature is written in the language of mathematics, said Galileo, and some Lacanians are reaching — bizarrely, in my opinion — for what they consider to be the deepest level of quantified scientism.

I said I had spent a period concerned with various forms of Marxism. This was, of course, the period of the sixties and beyond, during which many liberal and radical intellectuals became engaged in protest over the Vietnam War and concomitantly subjected the theories and institutions of liberal democracy to an increasingly searching critique. I was a ready candidate for this trajectory, having already spent a considerable period of time studying the origins of ideas, I moved on to ask what forces led one set of ideas rather than another to be thrown up by the forces at work of a given period. A branch of the functionalist paradigm called the Sociology of Knowledge had taken us part of the way in showing that ideas served interests and that interest-bound knowledge was the rule and interest-free knowledge the exception, perhaps not there at all if intellectuals could not be above the battle and adopt what Karl Mannheim called a ’relational point of view’. The rest of the path to Marxism was marked by Georg Lukács, Antonio Gramsci and the ground swell of new radical periodicals in any discipline you cared to name, which coalesced into that universal solvent of all disciplines, Cultural Studies, until it, in turn, gave way to the cynicism of deconstruction without remainder which has left us with the study of ungrounded and paper-thin surfaces in postmodernism. I have not taken that last step. Like many children of the sixties I have turned instead to the unrepentant modernism of psychoanalytic object relations theory, an approach which still seeks to find the roots of a coherent idea of the individual, the group, institutions and societies.

What do I want to put in place of all the scientism, structuralism and cynicism?. The answers are decidedly prosaic and disappointing until you grasp that there is no alternative. If the certainties offered by religion and science are not rooted as securely as we hoped, we must admit that we have — rather like the little boy who discovered that he had been speaking prose all along — always rooted our transcendent values in culture. Don’t mis-hear me. I am not saying that there is no nature independent of human knowing and culture. I believe that we evolved by random variation and natural selection and that our erogenous zones are basically specified by nature, although we have a large range of modifications available to us through culture. What I am saying is that our conceptions of nature and our attempts to derive value systems from our understanding of nature are echoes of our own value systems. We are natural beings, but we have always been on our own in trying to determine what values inherent in life and society. One of the ways we deal with the pain of this knowledge is to try to project value systems deeply into the fabric of nature, just as we formerly did into God as the ground of being, in the hope that they will thereby be experienced as more deeply rooted, more ontologically grounded, in the way of knowing that has most prestige: natural science. It is not I who am ruthless, says the lifeboat ethicist or the Adam Smith Institute economist: it is ’Nature’s way’.

Where does psychoanalysis fit into this? First, of course, projecting into God was Freud’s account of the roots of religion in The Future of an Illusion and elsewhere. As for scientism, I said a moment ago that the most widespread rendition of psychoanalysis, Ego Psychology, fits well and truly into the functionalist tradition, Before that, as is well-known, Freud drew heavily on the available scientific tradition of his own day. He was working as a researcher in the doctrinaire school of Physicalist Physiology of Brücke, DuBous-Reymond and Theodor Meynert, his professor and teacher. In his first book, On Aphasia (1891), a study of speech disorders and the associated brain lesions, Freud drew on the theories of brain function of the English evolutionary neurologist, John Hughlings Jackson, who based his own approach on the evolutionary associationism of Herbert Spencer, who coined the slogan ’survival of he fittest’ and is (as I’ve said) the patron saint of functionalism, along with Auguste Comte. Freud also drew on the tradition of Natürphilosophie stemming from Goëthe. These three strands of scientism lay at the foundations of his thinking, as is plain in a reading of the ’Project for a Scientific Psychology’ (1895) and the theoretical foundation of all the rest, chapter seven of The Interpretation of Dreams (1900). Freud’s was a theory of structure and function, a metaphorical physiology, one which he always said would be verified by actual brain research, his first discipline.

But I want to take a different tack in the psychoanalytic tradition, the one we associate with his patients’ stories and his own centring of his theory on the Oedipus complex. Development is rooted in biology — the stages of psycho-sexual development of the libido theory — but around this core we weave our own variations. If you read Freud's 'Three Essays on Sexuality' with care, you will find quite a lot of latitude. He says, 'No healthy person, it appears, can fail to make some addition that might be called perverse to the normal sexual aim; and the universality of this finding is in itself enough to show how inappropriate it is to use the word perversion as a term of reproach. In the sphere of sexual life we are brought up against peculiar, and, indeed, insoluble difficulties as soon as we try to draw a sharp line to distinguish mere variations within the range of what is physiological from pathological symptoms' (Freud, 1905, pp. 160-61). His cases and his magnificent stories in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life and Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious were of the work of the associative process into narratives of human distress and the painful compromises we adopt in order to manage to live I am moving on to say that values and our painful relations with them lie at the deepest level of our unconscious mental processes.

I think I can illustrate this in a striking way with the example of the perverse. The perverse person lives in a morally inverted universe: fair is foul and foul is fair. As was the case with Lady Macbeth, she or he hates the good and is in the thrall of the love of destruction of what is tender and right. We see it in the pathological organisations of borderline states where there is a ‘gang in the mind’ (Rosenfeld, 1971, p. 249) keeping the patient in line, fighting the therapist on behalf of a pathological narcissism and addiction to near death (Joseph, 1981). We see it in work with manic-depressives where there are Jekyll and Hyde personalities cohabiting in the mind, something which this theory’s most ardent protagonists believe is in all of us. This state of mind is strikingly described in the writings of Herbert Rosenfeld and Betty Joseph (in Spillius, 1988, vol. 1) and in a moving paper by Margot Waddell and Gianna Williams (1991), where they describe a little boy named Nigel, whose perverse way of thinking is already deeply entrenched by the age of four. He said, ‘I want to eat pooh and grow up and live dying’ and ‘Baby dead, baby dead, killing babies’, as he ripped up a book (Waddell and Williams, 1991, pp. 203, 205).

My point about perversity is that at the most primitive level — all the way down in the patient’s most elemental impulses — lies a clear grasp of the moral, of the good and loving, of the eternal battle between love and hate, creativity and destructiveness. Nigel was ‘enslaved to an anti-developmental alliance with a destructive part of the self that he idealised’ (p. 204). The rudiments of the knowledge of good and evil are part of our most primitive level of humanity. Freud was quite clear about this. In his writings about civilization and culture he said that all of life is lived in the space between the two great instincts, Eros and Thanatos. It was his secularisation of the idea of original sin from the Judeo-Christian tradition. I have never understood why people think they have scored a point against Freud when they call psychoanalysis a secular religion. If it is going to make sense of our natures, surely it must draw deeply from the well of our cultural heritage?

Some people think that we have the psychoanalytic understanding of primitive processes as scientists and that we are then left with another set of questions about the basis of morality and whether or not the therapist should be abstinent with respect to moral issues. This is not my view. Those who take it base their objections on the idea of the objectivity and neutrality of science. Science should be objective and neutral (in the sense of disinterested) in its investigations and in its treatment of data and the reporting of findings, though, heaven knows, there are many pores in the processes and problems in the reports of scientists. But the frameworks of ideas, the philosophies of nature, of the natural sciences are in no way value-free. There is no neutral nature and no neutral human nature for values to transcend. The values are intrinsic. The same is true of psychoanalysis. What I do as a psychotherapist is applied morality — the vicissitudes of good and evil, the same gap I dimly grasped about my childhood church and my mother’s psychosis. I said earlier and of my own work that the wise psychoanalyst, Harold Searles, says somewhere that all people in the helping professions are really trying to repair the damage they unconsciously believe they inflicted on their parents. Well, that’s transcendence, and so is what we do for and with our patients. The search for transcendent values may take us all around the physical and intellectual world but the end result, as Kris Kristofferson says in a lovely song which is rather reminiscent of what Alexander Pope said over two centuries ago, the pilgrim is ’a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction, taking every wrong direction on his lonely way back home’.

A less country and western way of putting this is that the basic dichotomy of good and evil is in our instinctual endowment and at the most primitive level of the unconscious — as we saw in the case of perversity — but that the elaboration of this into mores and values and all other concepts of the transcendent come from culture. That is where it is lodged, and that is where we must preserve and defend it. Science is a mediation of culture, as is religion, and neither should be allowed to become arbiters of what we must look after and enhance by means of our cultural institutions and our arts. There is not a special place where the Ark of the Covenant between the transcendent and the mundane is lodged (whatever Indiana Jones may claim), any more than there is a special discipline or role in society with a pre-eminent mandate for developing and preserving values. In his excellent little book discussing Key Words in culture, Raymond Williams explores the meanings of the concept and draws our attention to those involving the verb ’to culture’ — husbanding and nurturing. This is not a form of cultivation we may safely leave to experts. The search for transcendent values is a task for each and all. That is why we had a Reformation and why we must preserve the locus of values in a sense of self which is not frittered away by Francophile or postmodernist deconstruction without remainder.

That notion brings me to my final point. Postmodernists argue that there are no essences in human nature, no foundational discourse, no transcendent values. Socialization, as they say, ’goes all the way down’ (Geras, ms p. 67), Many would also say that language goes all the way down (p. 146). I am myself of a social constructivist persuasion in the history and philosophy of science and believe, for example, that truth is made, not found and that every era socially constructs its conceptions of nature, life, human nature and society — not from nothing but not merely from value-neutral empirical findings, either. Nature has a history which is not merely natural history. As I have already said, Nature, as experienced, is inside culture, as are our ideas of human nature.

However, to be a social constructivist is not necessarily to be a relativist or to believe that values are not rooted. When I say that socialization goes all the way down, I mean that it takes us to deeply embedded sedimentations of the history of culture, so deep that we call them ‘second nature’. Many radical students of psychoanalysis have sought to embed deep values in human instincts. Wilhelm Reich did; Herbert Marcuse did; Freud did. That is what he claimed in the writings on culture and civilization, in particular, in Totem and Taboo, ’Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ and pre-eminently in Civilization and Its Discontents. He wrote, ‘The History of civilization [a term which he regarded as synonymous with culture] is the struggle between Eros and Death [from which aggression and destructiveness are derivative]. It is what all of life essentially consists of’ (Freud, p. 133 MS p. 23).

Second nature is deeply sedimented socialization — not just in the individual but via unconscious transmission in trans-generational inheritance, as Ilany Kogan (1995) has shown in her studies of the second generation of Holocaust survivors. These values or, more properly, the struggle between transcendent values and destructive impulses in their individual and organisational forms, acquire the transcendence they have by the nurturing of moral education and example. You may not think that takes us very far, but I want to offer a moving example of just how far moral cultivation can carry people.

In a book which has moved me as much as Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table has moved many people, Norman Geras explores the basis of human solidarity. It is entitled Solidarity in the Conversation of Humankind. He is arguing in opposition to Richard Rorty’s postmodernist anti-foundationalism with respect to moral values. The example he explores in depth is the reasons people who were not otherwise at risk gave for helping victims of Nazi persecution, thereby endangering their own lives (the Schindlers, you might call them). He has looked carefully through the available records. Rorty has argued that altruism and solidarity are highly contingent, based on helping people we know, are close to, have contact with. On the contrary, Geras finds that again and again (more than fifty per cent in some samples) people gave as their reasons universal principles. Some were religious, some political, some humanitarian (e.g., pp. 27. 29, 38, 43), but all invoked transcendent values: ‘it was easy to do because it was your duty’, ’I got such satisfaction... from keeping people safe’; ’you help people because you are human and you see that there is a need (p. 41). ‘Regardless of who they were, needing help was the criterion... Human life was at stake (p. 42).

Geras expands this argument in favour of a shared human nature and values to include a defence of the concept of truth and goes so far as to say that if there is no truth, for example, in the situation of bearing witness to the truth, then there can be no justice. ‘Stated less simplistically, if truth is wholly relativised or internalized to particular discourses or language games or social practices, there is no injustice. The victims and protesters of any putative injustice are deprived of their last and often best weapon, that of telling what really happened. They can only tell their story, which is something else. Morally and politically, therefore, anything goes’ (p. 138; cf. pp. 164-5). His short but elegant book has persuaded me that transcendent values are preserved and enacted even while history’s worst atrocities were being committed.

I have taken you with me in a personal pilgrimage from fundamentalist religious certainties through periods of my own research and my personal, cultural and political odyssey in brain research, Darwinian theory, history of ideas of human nature and society, sociology of knowledge, Marxism, and psychoanalysis. You could say that from my earliest memories of being in institutions — Sunday School where Sadie, a beloved black mammy, looked after us — I sought transcendent values in God then in Darwin, Marx and Freud. I now believe that I never left home in the sense that I never left the cultural field, though its domains were experienced as very different from one another and often made more or less credible competing claims to being the locus of the high moral ground. Even so, these are varying bases which share the foundations of transcendent values, values which go all the way down to the root instincts of our humanity and put the ’fellow’ in the notion of ’fellow man’ (or — as we would say today — human). I think that is why Abou’s name led all the rest. The poem sought, as I have done, to bring into a single compass the religious and humanistic versions of transcendent values and to reveal their common roots in that thin veneer covering our baser selves but nurturing our highest aspirations — culture.

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 Abou Ben Adhem


Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase)

Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace

And saw within the moonlight in his room

Making it rich and like a lily in bloom

An angel writing in a book of gold.


Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold.

And to the Presence in the room he said,

’What writest thou?’

The vision raised its head

And with a look made of all sweet accord

Answered, ‘The Names of those who love the Lord’

’And is mine one?’, said Abou,

‘Nay not so’, said the Angel.

Abou spoke more low,

But cheerily still, and said,

‘I pray thee then, write me as one who loved his fellow men’.


The Angel wrote and vanished.

The next night it came again with a great wakening light.

And showed the names, whom love of God had blessed

And lo! Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest.


-Leigh Hunt



This is a draft of the text of a talk to be given at a conference on ‘Religion and Psychoanalysis’ at the Freud Museum on 1 June 1996.




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All papers sited here without publication details are available at my web site:


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