Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Psychodynamic pathologies

The ultimate purpose of higher learning is individuation - that wholeness of being which is the essential component of wisdom. The deep problem with this is that individuation is ontological, not epistemological. It is not about knowledge. It is about being. Modern universities are all about knowledge, and pay scant regard to ontology/being/experience/etc.

In many prestigious universities, the most powerful departments are medical or related in some other way to the life sciences. There are many professors within those departments whose achievements in academic life relate to their acquisition of large amounts of knowledge. These disciplines are dominated by epistemology: "higher learning" becomes equated with "knowing stuff" rather than anything ontological. It could be argued that medicine has never really been a discipline of higher learning - despite the fact that it was present in the academy since the beginning (although in earlier times, it had more of an ontological basis than it does now).

There is an interesting Freudian distinction to be made between those academics who are possessed with an "epistemic bias" and those possessed with an "ontological bias". It lies in the relation in the psyche of the individual in the dynamics between id, ego and superego. An obsession with "correct facts" is really domination of the ego by a rigid superego. Dreams and fantasies are repressed, kept away from conscious intellectual life. Formal Aristotelian logic keeps things in check: the superego says "you've got to do it like this, or it's wrong". Pedantry, lack of critique, conservatism, are all negative side-effects of this. Rigour, planning, organisation, delivery are all virtues. Richard Dawkins, together with politicians like Michael Gove, typify this.

The academic with ontological bias is sceptical and imaginative with knowledge. Most famous intellectuals fall into this camp, although it's usually balanced with something which ensures things actually get done. But it is because they have an ontological bias that they are celebrated. It is because of the dynamic relationship between the superego and the id that they are creative and do new world-changing things. David Hume, Paul Feyerabend, David Bohm, William Blake, Jean Piaget are among good examples.  Insight, creativity, openness and spontaneity are virtues. There is the risk that lack of focus could result in failure to deliver.

Universities today are more favourable to the "epistemically biased" academic. This is partly because management of universities has turned into a branch of politics where the skills of dreary politicians like Gove become useful in the University management too. Universities must 'produce' like factories, and this is the domain of the superego.

The problem is that while the hold of the superego over the ego destroys their own creativity, they then occupy positions of power where they amplify this ego-rigidity and inflict it on others. A psychodynamic pathology in one individual becomes  a psychodynamic pathology in the institution.

The warning is that this can happen anywhere today, in any institution - however prestigious. Prestige itself becomes the ruling superego, and if its measurement is seen to be the result of rule-following, rigour and "doing it properly", then the superego's grip on the institutional life will be tightened. This is precisely what happened (and continues to happen) in Bolton. It is a psychodynamic pathology.

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