Cognitivism has become the dominant psychological system of our times. Its theories have swept aside Freudian mythology; its therapists, armed with treatment manuals, have taken over the NHS; its avant-gardists in the positivepsychology movement have infiltrated the US military. Yet cognitive psychology has made curiously little cultural impact. Empirical, clinical and imaginatively narrow: as revolutionary intellectual movements go, it’s rather boring.
- Philosophy for Life: And other dangerous situations
- by Jules Evans
Psychoanalysis may not have the same scientific credibility as cognitive therapy, but the Freudian unconscious was certainly a realm that people wanted to explore. Oedipal conflict, dreams, libidinal drives, the death wish: out of such stuff pictures were painted, movies were made, poetry was written. Who wants to explore the poetry of CBT?
Jules Evans – policy director at the Centre for the History of the Emotions – does. And when he starts doing so, it’s something of a revelation. The roots of this book lie in the author’s experience of being cured of a post-traumatic disorder by cognitive therapy, though he refers to personal experience only in passing. What really grips him are the philosophical origins of his treatment.
Can there be a more stirring philosopher’s story than the one Evans tells of the slave, Epictetus? Crippled by a cruel master, schooled by a good one, freed and then exiled, Epictetus bore out his ideas in his life. His fundamental adage – that we do not suffer because of events, but rather the thoughts we have about events – inspired the Meditations of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, spread Stoic ideas across the Roman world and, 2,000 years later, remains the essential precept of cognitive therapy.
From the birth of rationalism in Socratic dialogue and the life-training of the Stoics, Evans sets out to explore the range of ways in which ancientphilosophy still informs psychotherapeutic practice – via the living-for-the-moment Epicureans, the mystic contemplations of Heraclitus, the social anarchism of the Cynics, the patrician politics of Plato – culminating in the Aristotelian good life. It’s invigorating to be reminded that, even in the age of cognitive neuroscience, very few ideas about the mind are fundamentally new.
Philosophy for Life is presented as belonging to the highbrow self-help genre promoted by organisations such as Alain de Botton’s School of Life, which view philosophy not as academic study, but as training for existence.
As a survey of ancient influences, the book does a mixed job. Evans himself stays true to Socratic doubt by remaining sceptical of each movement, ancient or modern, that he encounters. He tells captivating personal histories and presents convincing critiques of Martin Seligman’s positive psychology and the politics of happiness. The problem of these later cognitive movements, he argues, is that they have taken Aristotelian precepts, applied scientific methodology and then dropped the philosophical inquiry. The result, as Evans effectively demonstrates, is a shallow, credulous scientism that infects much research and policy.
But one feels that, towards the end of his survey, Evans’s heart isn’t really in the job of pointing out how positive psychology and the politics of happiness are a shrill travesty of Aristotle. The book is structured as a conference and it’s the morning session with the Stoics that really bristles with energy. That’s because Stoicism – Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca – was a heroic struggle with adversity: its lessons sufficiently simple to be used as training techniques, its understanding of human nature sufficiently profound to be convincing, its literature elegant and moving. We do not need psychologists to design models of happiness (Freud did that in two words: “love” and “work”). But we do need them to design treatments for pathological misery.
It’s a pity Evans doesn’t go further into the methods devised by Albert Ellis andAaron Beck – the co-founders of cognitive behavioural therapy – to show how much they owed, or accidentally drew, from the Stoics. He rightly points out the limits of Stoicism: that acceptance of suffering may inhibit us from changing external circumstances.
Yet to understand that reason can have some influence on emotion, without idealising rationality; to distinguish the things we can control from those we cannot; to train ourselves to deal with suffering: these are the premises of true psychotherapy. As Evans writes, the ancient philosophers produced “self-help of the very best kind, that doesn’t focus narrowly on the individual, but instead broadens our minds and connects us to society, science, culture and the cosmos”.
Cognitivism has science on its side, but if the purveyors of CBT want to equal the Freudian genius for investigating human nature, they also need to persuade people that their system possesses philosophical and cultural depth. Evans provides a key manual.
(Bold emphasis is mine. ~ Thoughtful Cynic)