Abstract for Rethinking Mental Disorders: Educating leaders on the ethical implications of psychopathology

(This abstract was accepted by the Society for Ethics Across the Curriculum for the 2017 Conference which will be taking place in Grand Rapids, Michigan, October 5-7, 2017. I will be presenting a paper based on this abstract. I am honored to be accepted and eagerly anticipating the conference.)

With the rising number of mental disorders in our communities, it has become increasingly important for leaders to have a clear understanding of the nature of mental disorder and to be given the appropriate tools to help those who are suffering. Leaders, both inside and outside the psychological community, are struggling with how to treat people with mental disorders and how to provide them the best care possible.

This paper will suggest a fresh way of viewing those struggling with mental disorders by seeing their experiences as not outside the common human experience, but actually arising from the human condition itself. I will turn to the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a philosopher and psychologist, to demonstrate how cases of psychopathology must be understood as an opening to the horizon of human experience, an expression of the human condition and a way of still using structures of being-in-the-world. We will find that this inclusive account of psychopathology aids in a better understanding of mental disorders as well as a better understanding of the human. We cannot, however, conflate the distinctions between healthy and sick ways of experiencing the world, as the suffering from those with mental disorders is weighty and real. Thus, while recognizing the magnitude of the suffering, this account provides a way to relate to the person struggling, as opposed to perceiving their experiences as inaccessible.

With this inclusive account of psychopathology, leaders can then be equipped both (1) to help those struggling with mental disorders and (2) to incorporate them into the life of their community. For the first, leaders will be reminded of the importance of holistic care: not only is it crucial to offer medical care, but also physical, spiritual and emotional support. And second, although certain times of separation from the community are needed, during times of hospitalization or mental health retreats, leaders can also look for ways to engage those struggling with the community. I will close this paper by looking at several examples of this kind of community engagement, such as sports programs at local recreational centers, art and music workshops at non-profit organizations, educational opportunities at charter high schools, and social and volunteer activities at state hospitals.

Abstract for Merleau-Ponty on Habit With Possible Implications for Psychopathology

(This abstract was accepted by the North Texas Philosophical Association for the 2016 Conference which will be taking place in Dallas, Texas, April 1-2, 2016. I will be presenting a paper based on this abstract. I am honored to be accepted and eagerly anticipating the conference.)

Habits are part of our daily lives and something that all of us act upon – whether we want to or not. Merleau-Ponty takes a broad approach to human habit claiming that it is a key to all of human behavior. In this paper, we will walk through Merleau-Ponty’s description of habit and discover the integral role it plays in how we learn and how we encounter the world. Furthermore, we will discuss Merleau-Ponty’s radical claim that humans do not just have habits, but are habits. Taking these ideas further, I suggest that such an understanding of human habit is particularly beneficial for the practice of psychopathology by recognizing that those struggling with mental disorders are still operating according to habit. I conclude the paper by offering four possible ways that this recognition may provide fresh avenues to understand, help, and heal them as fellow humans.

Myth and the Human Condition: Merleau-Ponty and Tolkien (Part 1)

I will be doing a two part series on myth. This first post will focus on myth and the human condition and refer to French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty and the British novelist J.R.R. Tolkien. The second post will focus on myth and religion and refer to the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

IMG_2347Maurice Merleau-Ponty discusses the purpose of myth in his Phenomenology of Perception:

[M]yth is a projection of existence and an expression of the human condition. But understanding the myth does not mean believing in it, and if all myths are true, this is insofar as they can be put back into a phenomenology of spirit that indicates their function in the emergence of self-consciousness and that ultimately grounds their proper sense upon the sense they have for the philosopher.[1]

There is truth in myth, Merleau-Ponty argues, but it is not found in establishing the historical validity of the myth. A myth is true when it illustrates something true about the human condition, when it represents the true spirit of the human consciousness seeking to understand the world. He often uses the word “magical” in describing how a human puts together the facts or sensations of the world to establish a cohesive whole. There is a magical or mythical element to the way we are in touch with the world.

Tolkien, author of the great mythical stories found in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, also believes in the truth of myths. Before his creation of middle earth, Tolkien is first famous for his work on the myth of Beowolf. In a lecture on Beowulf, Tolkien gives an analogy of a man who built a tower from old stone only for it later to be mocked and torn down. But, before it was destroyed, the man who built it had been able to climb the tower and “look out upon the sea.”[2] (See the picture above of the beautiful sea at Muriwai Beach on the North Island of New Zealand.) Tolkien relates this to Beowulf, who built a tower, his poem, only for it later to be criticized so severely. And yet, the building of the tower was not in vain as the man was still able to look out at the sea.

This is the benefit of the myth: the opportunity to look upon something great. Those who write myths are part of pointing us toward something great. Tolkien writes in his poem, “Mythopoeia”: “Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme, of things not found within recorded time.”[3]

The blessing of “looking out upon the sea” is like the blessing of looking upon truth. Myth reveals parts of our world to us and the way humans interact with the world. Tolkien believes that the best myths and fairy stories will provide the reader with euchatastrophe, unexpected joy. This will all the more take place when we encounter the greatest true myth, the incarnation of Christ. For Tolkien, the God-becoming-man myth is the key to understanding the human condition; this myth is where, according to Tolkien, “Legend and History have met and fused.”[4] When the man looks out at sea, Tolkien may be imagining him facing this incredible, infinite Truth of redemption. He may be thinking of the Psalmist who writes how such truth is greater than the ocean and deeper than the sea.[5]

Although Merleau-Ponty would not see redemption as part of the truth of myth, he, along with Tolkien, believe in the mythical element in the human condition. From his approach, Merleau-Ponty finds that pure objective thought does not account for the real way that humans live in the world. For example, humans live in what he calls a “mythical space.”[6]. This is why we can physically be in one place but that place “not necessarily [be] the landscape of our life.” He continues, “I can ‘be elsewhere’ while remaining here and if I am kept far from what I love, I feel far from the center of real life.”[7]. Homesickness, for example, is a way for us to be dwelling in the mythical space of our home while being physically somewhere else. Anyone who has been in love or has observed someone in love has seen that while that person may be in one location, perhaps even doing something enjoyable, he or she is not fully engaged because of the desire to be with his or her lover. Even dreams, as Merleau-Ponty points out, demonstrate the way that humans have a connection to the mythical. We escape to the myth in our sleep.

These mythical elements of the human experience are not peripheral, but integral to the very way we interact with the world. We approach objects, not as mere appearances, but as actual essences, because we believe, somehow, that there is a sense or meaning to all things. The world of myth invades are world of perception. Merleau-Ponty writes, “The myth fits the essence into the appearance; the mythical phenomenon is not a representation, but a genuine presence.”[8]. We experience objects as having a mythical presence, react according to that presence, and create our lived space in this world.

In summary, Tolkien finds mythical element in the human condition because it reveals our pursuit of truth. Ultimately, our love for myth, he argues, will drive us toward the highest form of truth, a religious form of truth. (We will find a similar notion, although not in accordance with the Christian religion, when we turn to Nietzsche’s notion of myth in the next post.) In a different way, Merleau-Ponty finds the mythical element in the human condition to explain the way we interact with the world. We are not mechanical, calculating robots but experience places and people according to mythical relationships. Both are revealing the integral part myth plays in the human.

  1. [1] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Donald A. Landes (London: Routledge, 2012), 306
  2. [2] J.R.R. Tolkien, a lecture to the British Academy in 1936 in Essays, pp. 7-8, quoted in T.A. Shippey, J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), 162.
  3. [3] Tolkien, “Mythopoeia,” in Tree and Leaf, including the Poem Mythopoeia (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1988), 144, quoted in Bradley Birzer, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-earth (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2003), xxi.
  4. [4] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in Christopher Tolkien, ed., The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, 109, quoted in Birzer, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, 40.
  5. [5] See Psalm 36:5-7: “Your love, O Lord, reaches to the heavens, your faithfulness to the skies. Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your justice like the great deep . . . How priceless is your unfailing love!”
  6. [6] Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 298
  7. [7] Ibid., 299.
  8. [8] Ibid., 303.

Abstract for The Dialectic of ‘Meaning’ in Merleau-Ponty’s The Structure of Behavior

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(This abstract was recently accepted by the North Texas Philosophical Association for the 2014 Annual Meeting which will take place at the University of North Texas, April 3-5, 2014. I will be presenting a paper based on this abstract. I am honored to be accepted and eagerly anticipating the conference.)

Drawing on Merleau-Ponty’s first major work, The Structure of Behavior, this paper explores how the concept of meaning can be both connected to the human and to the world. We first look at how the world offers us meaning as displayed in reflex and animal behavior and then turn to the unique human capacity to seek out this meaning. From these descriptions, I argue that meaning is not imposed on the world by the human nor is it intrinsic to the world, but is found in the relation between them forming, what I call, the dialectic of meaning.