Consider this...

"Whatever we understand and enjoy in human products instantly becomes ours, wherever they might have their origin. I am proud of my humanity when I can acknowledge the poets and artists of other countries as my own. Let me feel with unalloyed gladness that all the great glories of man are mine." - Rabindranath Tagore

John’s interest was piqued lately by two articles he read on psychology and what it can tell us about living in a society which claims to foster individualism while it in fact employs all possible means to promote conformity.

The first article was in the French weekly magazine, Télérama. It concerned psychoanalysis, which it saw as a means of taking account of individual variations — as opposed to the psychotherapy method which tries to aid the individual to get along within the constraints of society. Indeed, it treated psychoanalysis as much as a philosophy as a method of treatment or a science (which, of course, it is not). The article was inspired greatly by “Civilization and its Discontents”, in which Freud explains what he sees as the fundamental conflict between individual desires and the rules of civilization (which Freud sees as synonymous with culture).

Psychoanalysis, according to the author of the Télérama article, allows us to see into the non-conscious workings of the mind and to understand this conflict, rather than blindly suppressing such urges in order to conform. The article actually sees psychoanalysis as a means for saving the individual in his struggle with collectivist requirements by making him aware of the source of the conflict between himself and society’s edicts and, by so doing, making possible the proposing of other means of attempting to resolve this conflict.

The second article’s consideration of psychoanalysis and philosophy was “Freud as philosopher”, by Gordon Marino (a philosophy professor), in the 11 October 2011 issue of the International Herald Tribune. Marino is concerned by the unconscious mechanisms behind our decision processes and sees Freud’s basic “wisdom” as saying, “those who are unaware of their feelings risk becoming puppets of those feelings.” He goes on to say that Freud’s “guidance was surely that anyone aspiring to think in a clear-headed fashion ought to strive hard to be honest about his or her emotional biases.” And he points out that “No group has appropriated this fundamental Freudian point more than the advertising industry.”

A problem for us today is to distinguish carefully between “true” individualism due to our basic drives and needs and the false individualism of today’s capitalist and ad-directed society in which one exercises this individualism by choosing between a limited number of brands of, say, shoes one can — and should — purchase. While it would be presumptuous to claim a conspiracy to make us all dunces, it seems clear that education which lauds and teaches conformity by teaching only how to pass standard tests on standard subjects with standard answers is not teaching anyone to think critically. And critical, even skeptical, thinking is more and more necessary to see through the claims of politicians (Will he really try to do all that?), high-tech vendors (Do I really need the new iPhone?) and even doctors (Should I really get a PSA test or take Tamiflu?)

At least here in France, the young study philosophy and are taught how to analyse a text and try to tease out its real meaning, although some standardization is probably inevitable here also. Do American youth get such education, with or without philosophy courses?

To close, here is a quote from a great skeptic, Bertrand Russell. It is from his book, “Skeptical Essays”:

“I wish to propose for the reader’s favourable consideration a doctrine which may, I fear, appear wildly paradoxical and subversive. The doctrine in question is this: that it is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it true. I must, of course, admit that if such an opinion became common it would completely transform our social life and our political system; since both are at present faultless, this must weigh against it.”

Vive la philosophie!