Pathologies of Ultimate Satisfaction

This is the eighth in a planned series of posts on Worlds, as understood by Descriptive Psychologists.

Descriptive Psychologists understand psychopathology to be “a significant restriction in a person’s ability to participate in the social practices of their community.” This is among the most powerful and useful formulations in the Descriptive Psychology canon, connecting to many practical therapeutic approaches.

Notice a few things about this formulation of pathology (let’s drop the “psycho-” part for the sake of brevity):

  • It does not “locate” pathology within the person, that is, it does not require that something important is wrong with the person’s physiology or character or developmental history or skills. While these certainly can be involved in a particular pathology, it is not required and in fact observably is not so in many instances we recognize as pathology. Pathology is a state-of-affairs involving the person and their participation in the world of their community.
  • It does not imply that pathology is an enduring condition. Some pathologies do endure over time; many, perhaps most, do not. Just because a person was once in a particular pathological state says comparatively little about whether this will recur. Some pathologies have what we might appropriately call a “root cause” that endures; many simply do not.
  • It does not imply that pathology is an abnormal condition. This is perhaps the most beneficial aspect of the Descriptive Psychology formulation; it specifically eliminates the confounding of pathology with abnormal. Depression, for instance, is a significant restriction in participation that varies from moderate to severe, but it is hardly abnormal in any sense of the term: a majority of people suffer from depression at times on their life, and it is often part of an adaptive response to significant loss of eligibility. Pathology is not inherently abnormal.

But pathology is strongly connected to ultimate satisfaction.

One way a person can find themselves in a pathological condition – and I want to emphasize this is only one of the ways this can happen – is to lack the experience of ultimate satisfaction. They find themselves as Actor in a world that seems to have no fitting place for them; their world does not hold together in a strong sense; what they are called upon to do yields no real satisfaction. They may well “play their role” to avoid the consequences of not doing so, or to gain a reward, but their motivation is entirely extrinsic.

What do pathologies of ultimate satisfaction look like? Let’s begin with the broad conceptual view and work our way into specifics.

Ultimate satisfaction is the direct experience of how the world I am in makes sense. Remember, it’s not something we deduce or figure out or believe or even know to be true – those are all Observer/Critic ways of knowing. It is Actor’s knowing, a direct experience of recognition. With that Actor’s knowing as foundation, we can describe our world.

But what if, in fact, we do not experience our world as making sense? How would we describe that world?

  • One pretty direct description of something that does not make sense is, “it is absurd.” Authors such as Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus described the world that way, in the wake of decades of war and destruction of long-established institutions. Their world made no sense; they disavowed any place in their communities and explicitly put the individual at the center of existence. The world is absurd; perhaps I am as well; but I am. Their Existentialist approach was widely studied and debated; its efficacy for living in an inherently absurd world came up short for most.
  • Another clear description of something that does not make sense is “meaningless.” In the wake of the collapse of faith occasioned by the Nazi Holocaust, Viktor Frankl wrote Man’s Search for Meaning. Speaking for many who found themselves unable to genuinely participate in traditional spiritual communities, he articulated “meaning” as a primary human need for which we search. He identified – I believe correctly – the lack of meaning as an essential pathology of his age.
  • One more historical note: What is the experience of finding yourself in a world that does not make sense, where you have no clearly fitting place from which to act and thus no certainty as to what action is called for? It’s a small step to recognize that as an experience of anxiety, which permeated much of American and European life in the 20th century. Remember, this is a direct, experienced recognition which precedes any description of our circumstances; anxiety, seen this way, is why we see threats to our existence all around us, rather than a response to seeing threats.

All three of these pathologies of ultimate satisfaction – absurdity, meaninglessness and anxiety – stem directly from the lack of ultimate satisfaction in participating in the community. Again, another way of saying that exact same thing is, they stem from the experience of not belonging, of having no place in the community from which to authentically act. (Authentic in this usage refers to the satisfying awareness that who I am being is well-suited to me – again, direct Actor’s knowing rather than a belief or deduction.)

All three of the above also share a single misstep that makes dealing with the pathology particularly difficult: They focus on the individual’s experienced lack of authentic place, and not on his participation in the practices of the community. Indeed, community, if it is included at all, is commonly seen as a contrast, even an antagonist, to the individual’s satisfaction in living. The inextricable connection between the most deeply personal – a person’s ultimate satisfaction – and the most explicitly external – the practices of their community – is a fundamental contribution of Descriptive Psychology, and it is what makes this formulation essentially original.

Recall: pathology is a matter of a person and their participation in the world of their community. When all a therapist sees is the individual and their dilemmas, all she has to work with is part of the picture – so it’s not surprising if she is only partly successful. We will look at working with the whole picture in a later post, Ultimate Satisfaction and Therapy.

So far we have taken a broad-stroke cultural approach to pathologies of ultimate significance. There is still much to be said about specific pathologies of individuals, and how ultimate satisfaction sheds light on them. That will be the topic of the next post in this series.

Note: The relation between the individual person and her community, and how authenticity enters into it, is articulated at length in my 1998 paper Being, Becoming and Belonging.


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