Tuesday, March 05, 2013

In praise of the unexamined, unlived life?

I was sufficiently interested by two reviews of a new book by British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips (“Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life”), one in the NYTimes (Sheila Heti), one in The New Yorker (Joan Acocella), that I downloaded a Kindle version to look over. I totally regret having spent the 11 bucks. There are two main messages noted by reviewers, one is the dressing up of homily common to many self help books. From Acocella:

Instead of feeling that we should have a better life, he says, we should just live, as gratifyingly as possible, the life we have.  Otherwise, we are setting ourselves up for bitterness.  What makes us think that we could have been a contender?  Yet, in the dark of night, we do think this, and grieve that it wasn’t possible.  “And what was not possible all too easily becomes the story of our lives,” Phillips writes.  “Out lived lives might become a protracted mourning for, or an endless trauma about, the lives we were unable to live.”
OK, fair enough. It can be an error to spend our  time thinking on what we might have been or want to be or ought to be or be doing, rather than just living  and being who we are, getting on with it.  Just doing things. The rub is that Phillips is completely unwilling to write simple sentences with simple ideas. He generates complex elliptical sentences designed more to illustrate his erudition and mental pyrotechnics than to inform, lost in a world of abstraction.

I completely lost it with his second chapter "On Not Getting It," where he essentially argues that we are better off not understanding ourselves, or others. His correct contention that we can never really understand ourselves or others is beside the point. Our illusions of understanding ourselves and others are a feature evolved by our social brains that has proven its utility in enhancing and passing on the genes of groups of humans who share common illusions. And, we sure have gotten a lot of mileage out of trying to understand. Otherwise we wouldn't be attempting to read psychoanalytic babble like Philips' or write things like MindBlogs.

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