"The soul of man is a far country, which cannot be approached or explored"- Heraclitus
Ian Hacking is one of those rare philosophers whose mix of interests makes his work generally attractive, even beyond the academic circuit. At the University of Toronto he is University Professor of Philosophy, and also a member of the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology. Rewriting the Soul gives full expression to the range and complexity of his thinking, combining a variety of preoccupations that have emerged in thirty years of reflection and writing.
The subtitle might suggest to some that the book debunks multiple personality theory from the perspective of scientific knowledge about memory. That would be a serious misconception of Hacking's explicit intention. In fact, one of the remarkable qualities of this study is that he manages to maintain a respectful distance from the pitched battles currently raging over the concepts of multiplicity and dissociation, not to mention "repressed" memories, "false memory syndrome", and the fashion for provocative speculation about the prevalence of sexual abuse, family violence, rape, ritual satanism, and the like.
We live in an era more intensely marked than usual by what Michel Foucault called "biopolitics". In Rewriting the Soul, Hacking has refined Foucault's concept further into related sub-categories, of which "memoro-politics" is his primary concern. Both these forms of politicized science can be traced to a period in the late nineteenth century when the organized project of studying and controlling human behaviour achieved a critical mass through the rise of experimental psychology, psychiatry, sociology, anthropology, and government population statistics.
The last quarter-century has witnessed the development of militant, activist forms of social science, and even of psychotherapy. The climate of cultural politics has evolved in such a way that vulnerable patient and population groups can easily be singled out, and sometimes mobilized as shock troops, in the ideological wars over "family values", and the "diseases" of the "social body". An enormous amount of free-floating aggression, confusion, and guilt has been channelled into these public crises.
It is difficult to address the intellectual content of biopolitics and memoro-politics without getting caught up in the furor. Hacking succeeds for the most part, by doing what a good psychotherapist strives to achieve in working with transference: to receive, contain, and metabolize powerful emotions in a way that promotes insight and understanding, and thus gradually absorbs the habitual cycles of projection and counterattack, impulsive action and self-righteous reaction.
The problem with straight debunking, at least when it is done in the style of saturation bombers like Frederick Crews or Catherine MacKinnon, is that it presumes for the debunker a degree of certainty about the truth, which is, frankly, paranoid. Hacking steers around this trap most effectively when he deals with the controversy over whether multiple personality is a "real disease entity" or not. His response is to negotiate a quasi-neutral position in the hope of finding a context that might encompass both sides of the debate. In this, he is rather like an old-fashioned psychoanalyst: "I am not going to answer that question," he rather baldly replies.
With this attempt to achieve a kind of neutrality, Hacking's approach diverges from his University of Toronto colleague, Edward Shorter, who tersely dismisses multiple personality as a scientific mirage. Shorter's judgement may be valid in the narrow sense that multiple personality is probably one of those clinical phenomena that turns out to be highly sensitive to cultural context. In the past, the incidence of certain exotic complaints, such as hysterical paralysis, has proved variable. There is no doubt that there are diagnostic fashions, and that the "symptom pool" shifts to some extent in relation to patients' representations of their bodily experience, which are influenced by cultural factors, and "especially vulnerable to medical `shaping'," as Shorter points out.
But the subtler point that Hacking wants to make is that we are not in a position to debunk multiple personality from a scientific point of view. To say that multiple personality is not a true disease entity is to assume that we know what a true disease entity is. Who can really say with confidence that we know that? To believe that there is "an important contrast between being a real disorder and being a product of social circumstances" is to take for granted, even as we question this or that culturally contingent syndrome, that there is some other, authentic form of mental illness that transcends history, culture, and custom. And perhaps there is: certain forms of psychosis seem to be promising candidates. The catch is that a thoroughly culture-free disease would, by definition, have so little psychological content, in the ordinary sense of that term, that the category "mental illness" would be emptied of meaning (unless all the contingent psychological complaints that fail to meet the criteria for a disease entity were put back into it).
The middle chapters of Rewriting the Soul provide a fascinating survey of the contemporary MPD "movement" and its colourful prehistory in the early days of French, British, and American psychiatry in the nineteenth century. Because he distributes his skeptical output rather evenly, Hacking's impartiality does not dampen his considerable talent for critical dissection and analysis. Unfortunately, regardless of the ultimate verdict on the causes and proper treatment of multiple personality, the MPD movement has produced more than its fair share of questionable claims, and he spares few of them.
To provide an example: Colin Ross, the noted Canadian psychiatric authority on multiple personality and "Satanic ritual abuse", claims that he has "never encountered a false positive diagnosis of MPD made by another clinician." In a fascinating documentary produced by the CBC's Fifth Estate, he claimed an MPD rate of 1 in 100. (In other contexts, as Hacking shows, he has claimed even higher rates.) Assuming a population of 30 million, this means that three hundred thousand Canadians have "dissociative identity disorder", as DSM-IV (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) now officially calls the multiple personality diagnosis.
Even if we accept multiple personality as a valid diagnostic category, there is considerable reason to doubt what the experts tell us about it. As John Fekete demonstrated in Moral Panic with regard to statistics on violence against women, it is quite easy for a skilled political advocacy statistician to fiddle figures into hugely distorted images of a problem. In Rewriting the Soul, Hacking provides some good examples of how this kind of statistical inflation works. Suppose, for example, that the incidence of a disease at any given time is one in 100,000 (the base rate). And suppose that somebody produces a screening test for this disease which is 99% accurate. This sounds like a very reliable set-up for the measure of a disease. But the actual screening results can be extremely misleading. If we blithely apply the test to 1,000,000 people, we will generate 10,000 diagnoses of the disease, when the actual incidence should be 10. What has happened is that the 1% rate of error has produced 10,000 false positives (and 1 false negative). If we did not know the base rate (as is the case with MPD), we would have difficulty identifying this thousandfold error.
So much for the credibility of Colin Ross's claim of no false positives; but so much also for the reliability of many scrupulous and carefully designed clinical studies of MPD.
Interesting as these problems are, Hacking's reconstruction of the MPD scene and its cultural prehistory has another motive: it provides the backdrop for staging a much more dramatic series of philosophical issues. The questions that he is really after go deeper than the legitimacy of this or that research program or clinical theory in the contemporary mental health field. He wants to know why we have a science of mind at all. More specifically, he wants to know why we are so ready to believe that there is, or can be, a science of memory in the decisive sense that would reveal the nature and laws of human psychology for all time.
There are several archaeological layers in Hacking's exploration of these questions, which I shall interpret freely in the following broad summary. At the first level of the dig, we could say that there is the concept of psychological trauma, whose "discovery" was clinched over a century ago. In the spirit of positivistic science, the mind was partially reconceived in the image of physiology. There emerged a description of mind which encouraged a new discourse of "lesions" and "injuries" to the "tissue" of thought and emotion. Freud's first attempts at theory were in this vein. Though his clinical imagination had already taken him well beyond the reductionism of his medical colleagues, his first formal account of the unconscious was based on the simple, quasi-biological image of the mind as a reflex arc. According to this model, when there is a surge of mental pain, the psychic apparatus discharges the excess stimulus. Thus trauma could be conceived, in the psychological sense, as the equivalent of an overwhelming mental stimulus. Freud was the first to suggest that the trauma in question might very well be the sexual seduction of the child; but, as he realized later, in some cases, it might also be the child's overwhelming conflict about his or her own unrealizable fantasies and emotional strivings.
(Unfortunately, even Hacking seems to have been led astray by the anti-Freud propaganda on this point. Contrary to the popular belief fostered by Jeffrey Masson and quite a number of prominent feminists, Freud never denied that incest and child abuse occur, and that they can be very harmful to the mental health of children. He was effectively the first to point out these problems in the late nineteenth century, and he was still drawing attention to them a year before he died in 1939. But his understanding of the vulnerability of the child went much further than the effects of overt mistreatment and exploitation, and it is for this deeper and subtler insight into the complexity of human motivation that the psychopolitical militants will never forgive him.)
The nineteenth-century biological metaphor of the mind remains at the heart of the MPD hypothesis, albeit dressed up in the fancy new garb of speculative neuroscience. What the latter sometimes lacks, however, is a sense of Freud's later refinements, which explored the internal role of fantasy, emotion, and defence, and thus reanimated the primitive concept of the soul in subsequent psychoanalytic (particularly Kleinian) theory.
The basic, popularized MPD theory is that the mind necessarily functions like a physiological reflex. The "host personality" has no choice but to spawn "alters" as a way of deflecting the painful stimuli of sexual abuse in childhood. In this way of describing human experience, there is little room for a "soul" to intervene between the stimulus and the response. What is left of the human spirit (what Hacking calls "character") is conceived as a passive and well-meaning innocence incapable of processing very much beyond the nice and the good. There is an internal void which is mechanically blocked out and filled in by whatever the environment happens to be pumping into people through the "dominant culture". So in spite of Freud's later efforts, the new popular theories don't give us much more than a moralistic melodrama. What carries over from the pre-rationalist, symbolic concept of the soul, which was so basic to most traditional cultural belief systems, is a bowdlerized version of the soul, formulated in a reductionistic, pseudo-scientific idiom which blandly classifies Newtonian mechanical relationships between quasi-material "entities" (such as disease entities and stereotyped behaviours). Roughly speaking, this is the first part of the process that Hacking describes as the "scientization" of the soul.
The second part is a recent spin-off from what Hacking calls the "looping effect of human kinds". Human beings have always shaped themselves (and therefore their minds and memories) in terms of a kind of tacit negotiation with the social milieu. We calibrate ourselves in relation to each other, and with reference to the social categories of persons, experiences, and interactions available in the environment. Every small child must begin to work out some "theory of mind" in order to make sense of the surrounding symbolic culture. In the process of elaborating ourselves as persons, we each become a kind of embodied variant of the local theory of mind.
But what happens when science and technology become dominant players in the cultural environment? The looping effect, which formerly encouraged a mutual adaptation between individual and culture, gets drawn into the processes of scientific research, criticism, and formalization. Knowledge is uprooted from the stable bed of symbolic culture and recontextualized in a global melting pot of expertly governed discourses. Eventually, the classification of experience becomes a self-conscious public duty. Culture and personality become the responsibility of governments, corporate bureaucracies, and trained professionals, who are charged with the practical tasks of administering, curing, codifying, and showing profitable results.
But the vestiges of the soul also become the grazing ground of the media; the modern project of rational administrative codification continually breaks down in the endless interplay between defiant new subcultures and the various unintended social consequences of this or that policy or artifact. Novel descriptions of possible behaviour are constantly being circulated and tested on mobile populations hungry for more effective and emotionally satisfying methods of securing their existence. Social scientists and government agencies (like Statistics Canada) frantically pump information about society back into the social environment; but they cannot possibly keep up with the demand, never mind the changes that their own studies make possible in the way people conceive themselves, and the way they decide, sometimes irreverently, to redefine themselves, their behaviour, and their minds.
So how does one have a science, in the sense of fixed laws and descriptions, of all that? Perhaps what the phenomenon of multiple personality reveals most about the nature of mind and memory is the possibility that, within the limits of what nature makes possible, mind and memory have no "nature" apart from what people choose to make of them, consciously or unconsciously (and across a shifting array of influences).
But mind and memory are not universal joints of the spirit with infinite degrees of freedom, and Hacking knows this. The natural limits within which the mind and memory function may be narrower than radical relativists seem to believe; and they may impose a definite enough structure on thinking, perceiving, remembering, and dreaming to justify the search for deep scientific truths which Hacking finds so problematic.
So why does he make such an issue of speculation and inquiry into memory? Does he think it is a misguided research program, with an object of investigation that will turn out to be chimerical? Of course not. Or at least, that is not his central point. For even if research into memory turned up nothing-no structure, no functional consistency, no cross-cultural map of mind-that would be an interesting and astounding scientific discovery in its own right.
What Hacking doubts about the science of memory, it seems, is not its object, which cannot be determined in advance anyway, but its ulterior motives. The usual motives for science are supposed to be validity and utility. In practical terms, both of these values are within the range of what can be achieved in piecemeal fashion, given sufficient time. But there are bound to be other excuses for doing research, and these may not always be so reasonable. Hacking suggests that in the case of memoro-politics, science may have gotten itself mixed up in the game of social and personal redemption, which is not one of the goods the knowledge industry is properly set up to deliver.
Of course, no science is pure, and every human endeavour is fused at the core with contradictory social currents and influences. To argue this point all over again in the case of memory research would have been a rather trivial exercise in the obvious. So what is Hacking up to? Like Foucault, he leaves the reader with the impression that he has discovered something new: that he has hit upon some paradigm shift or epistemological break. But he comes nowhere near proving his case, implausible from the start, that there is something epistemologically or culturally unprecedented about our preoccupation with memory, or about the claim that memory is centrally bound up with identity. Yet the impression holds that he is on to something, that he has asked some very good questions, even if the answers are less numerous and satisfying than we would like.
My own intuition, after absorbing this very engaging and wide-ranging philosophical study, was that the answers to the questions "Why biopolitics?" "Why memoro-politics?" "Why the scientization of the soul?" lie in the phenomenon of modernization itself. As Hacking, following McLuhan, suggested in an earlier book, Why Does Language Matter to Philosophy?, "the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century is a kind of spin-off from the invention of the printing press." We might say that it began as a process of speeding up and automation in the "looping effect of human kinds". If the result has been, as suggested above, an attenuation in the effectiveness of traditional cultural mechanisms of social and cultural regulation, then perhaps the quixotic search for scientific knowledge of the soul is an attempt to find a stable substitute for these symbolic cultural forms. Think of it: the overbearing symbolic authority of traditional culture is finally eroding, and we are trying to replace it with scientific facts which may not exist!
From this point of view, the whole cultural enactment of multiple personality, from its victims to its expert witnesses, appears as one of many confused ritual public expressions of the wish to make the mystery of human existence explicit and rational. It is a sort of "cultural metaphysics", in which we speculate, without foundation, but in increasingly explicit and rational ways, on the uncanniness of the human soul.
Charles Levin is a practising member of the Canadian Psychoanalytic Society, and also teaches in the Graduate Program in Communications, McGill University. His most recent publication is Jean Baudrillard: A Study in Cultural Metaphysics (Prentice Hall).