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Saturday, April 16, 2011

What IS that thing?

I am not a psychologist. Not by training, not by persuasion, not even (really) by inclination. But I have managed to surround myself with them. My dad, my sister, one brother, and several of my closest friends all majored in the subject. Personally I have only taken three classes in the subject (two undergrad) and am therefore not an expert. But I am a thinker and my last psyche class brought something to my attention. We don't have an anthropology. Now don't get me wrong, I am clear that we are nearly overrun with anthropology majors and anthropology books; I have taken a number of anthropology classes myself. But that is all cultural anthropology, the study of human cultures. What I mean when I say that we do not have any anthropology is that we do not have a clear concept of what a human person actually is. In this sense, an anthropology (usually called a philosophical anthropology) is a theory of humanity and person-hood. Someone's anthropology is their answer to the question "what exactly is a person after all?". We can grab this by analogy to theology in which someone's theology is their answer to the question "what exactly is a god after all?". We don't seem to have an answer.

I first became aware of this problem when I was taking one of those psychology classes. I was listening to the instructor and becoming more and more frustrated because it seemed as though she were going in circles. The class was educational psychology and she was explaining how wonderful it was to base educational practice on empirical research but when asked what theories were indicated by that research and how those theories might conform to an emerging picture of human nature from which we might then draw useful conclusions regarding the best way to educate people, she insisted that research wasn't there for drawing conclusions, it was only there to be recapitulated when we like the results. Thus research is good because sometimes it has results that educators like and that was important because we like them.

Now I am perfectly willing to grant that she may have simply been a bad psychologist, that psychologists as a whole do use their research to help construct and tweak their anthropologies, but all those psyche majors I have managed to surround myself with inform me that such is not the case. That in fact she is essentially representative of her field.

I think that this is horrific. I suddenly saw all these people going to get counseling from individuals who have no coherent, definable concept of what a mentally healthy person ought to be. This is effectively the same as a bunch of sick people going to a set of doctors who have never seen a physically healthy person. And what if these doctors were proud of thier ignorance as the psychologists seem to be? Who would choose a pediatrician who boasted that she has no basic concept of what a healthy child ought to look like and refuses to even take a stab at guessing because that might bias her towards some specific (and therefore narrow) school of ideology?

And this catastrophe has spread beyond counselors, psychologists and headshrinkers. Our general culture is loathe to come up with an anthropology. I suspect that this has more to do with a love for the "liberation" of subjectivism than it does with bad psychological training but the bad psych certainly hasn't helped things. Our culture holds pretty tightly to the "different strokes for different folks" mentality and does so with enough rigor to enable my students to defend the rights of a man to rape a woman so long as his type of "folk" (read culture) approve of the act.

I would like to propose an anthropology. I have already mentioned some aspects of my own beleifs about human persons on this site and I expect many more to come. Persons are of infinite value; this value is based on their identity as persons and not on their actions. Humans were originally good but have become twisted or wounded in a profound way. Persons have free will and are ultimately responsible for their actions and decisions. Persons are the proper objects of agape love. As C.S. Lewis pointed out, while we live at least, humans are perpetually becoming and that becoming will ultimately end in either overwhelming glory or unmitigated horror. Clearly I have a lot more work to do on this, this is only a beginning; but it is my beginning. I want to figure out what exactly we are. Please join me as I search for answers.


  1. i know i'm more of a monastic than a scholastic - which aren't necessarily opposites just differing parallel and overlapping trajectories - but regarding anthropology, i come down with augustine that we are primarily "desiring creatures" and desire drives us, shapes us and sets us on trajectories toward glorious or horrific ends. to that end James K.A. Smith's "Desiring the Kingdom" is a really, really great pitch for embracing a philosophical anthropology and being intentional about desirs-shaping habits that form us toward the end of the Kingdom of God rather than the "end of the Mall", etc.

  2. I like that, I have been thinking a good bit recently about the proper objects and intensities of our desires. I know it's not a particularly new observation to complain about the "apathy of our youth" or even of our culture as a whole but I think that rather than just a bad phase in our cultures corporate psychology, it may actually be a symptom of some much greater problems.
    Even among Christians, I wonder if the ever problematic obsession with heaven is problematic not because it is to strong and obsessive but because it is far to weak. If heaven is essentially the fullest possible actuality of relationship with Jesus, I think that valuing it as a sort of pie in the sky is a terrible devaluation. Which is one more reason I like Lewis so much, he presents our goal, our glory, heaven as fulfillment in Christ; and warns his readers that they had better be prepared for what an intense and even suffering laden (can you drink the cup that I drink?) road that is.
    Do you think it would be fair to diagnose the problem of desire in our culture by saying that we suffer from an acute weakness of desire. Some, are trying to numb desire with the world, and even the Christians who should know better have forgotten to desire Joy. OK that gives me my next topic; gonna have to go full on into sehnsucht and Joy.