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From atom-splitting to mind-healing

I had to miss a session on The Two Cultures, at last month’s Literature and Science conference in Oxford, because I was myself speaking in a parallel session (see previous entry).

Never having read CP Snow’s original 1959 lecture before, I did so, and was struck by several things which seem to have been filtered out in the huge amount of media and academic commentary it has spawned over the last five decades.

Barely having made a few opening remarks, Snow the promoter of science and scientists puts the boot in to ‘literary intellectuals’ by saying that uncritical admiration for fascist sympathising poets such as WB Yeats, Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis was an important cause of Germany’s extermination program in the Second World War.

Well, I happen to have looked at some rather large books on the historical causes of the Holocaust recently, and they did not mention Yeats, Pound, Lewis, or any other poets. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Snow was wrong, of course, but his judgement does not seem to have ‘stood the test of time’.

When he talks about scientists, Snow mostly mentions physicists, such as the atom-splitting Nobel-Prizewinning Rutherford, who he had known personally. Perhaps that just reflects how the wider role of science was discussed in the 1950’s, but it’s interesting that having mentioned the Holocaust and its causes, Snow does not make any point about the very dodgy biological and medical science of Nazi Germany, or the rather less dodgy (and also quite often Nobel-Prizewinning) biomedical science which meant that Britain had little resembling an extermination program itself.

I’m fairly sure that Bad Science, rather than allegedly Bad Anglo-Irish-American Poetry, was more prominently in the minds of those who thought up the Final Solution. To some extent this relies on hindsight, as it was only in the 1980s and 1990s that the British Historian Michael Burleigh more fully outlined the importance of German biomedical eugenics, sterilisation and ‘euthanasia’ of the mentally and physically disabled, as necessary steps which then led to racial genocide.

And as euthanasia (or ‘euthanasia’, as the medically-dominated pressure group Care not Killing might still write it) is very much part of today’s public biomedical discourse, I think that a proper updating of Snow’s Two Cultures argument about ‘literary intellectuals’ would have to properly take account of the general shift of public interest in science, away from atom-splitting and towards …(allegedly) disorder-mongering mental health professionals, perhaps?

The Human Condition


This was the title of a talk by the philosopher and journalist Robert Rowland Smith, at London’s School of Life two days ago.

I have known Robert for a couple of years, during which he has published two books exploring how philosophy is relevant to the everyday dilemmas of modern life: Breakfast with Socrates and Driving with Plato.

The essence of the talk, I think, was that despite regular reminders throughout history of humanity’s less than fully rational nature, we still tend to overestimate our self-control. The constant development of technology not only distracts us from evidence to the contrary, but creates neurotic 
dissatisfaction which we tend to worsen by seeking relief in materialism rather than by improving our interpersonal relationships.

I’m not sure that Robert is right in seeing the Western rational “Enlightenment” as perhaps now needing some sort of counter in the form of an Endarkenment”, because I think that contemporary philosophies and psychotherapies, as well as older Romantic Western culture, offer a whole range of ways to explore what Jung called our “shadow aspects”. And some people who are stuck in over-rational ways of life are suffering from biologically-based problems such as depression (1) or autistic spectrum disorders: they may need medication or other treatments to fully take part in philosophical or psychotherapeutic discourse.

It might seem odd that medical technology is sometimes necessary to enable a less technologically-dependent life. But in my view this is just a particular case of science liberating rather than oppressing (2). Philosophy too contains many paradoxes of this kind, such as Wittgenstein’s recommendation that we should simply stop chattering about “things of which nothing can be said”: his non-silence was required first, so that therapeutic silence could follow.



(1) In general the more severe and long-lasting the depression the greater is the need for medication. But some severe depressions may respond well to psychotherapy and/or philosophy, and some mild depressions may respond only to medication.

(2) Of course, technology and science are often used oppressively, or at least with neglect, whether deliberately or by mistake. Antidepressants prescribed after a ten-minute consultation with a GP (rather than a much longer consultation with a GP, psychiatrist or clinical psychologist), including little or no discussion of psychotherapy, amounts to state-sanctioned neglect in my view.

Published at on 15th April 2011; transferred to on 7th October 2011

To be (Oliver James Part I)

Aware that this Blog has not covered psychotherapy as much as originally intended, I have spent the last ten days catching up with two best-selling books by the psychologist Oliver James: They F*** you up (2002), and Affluenza (2007).

My verdict? Very interesting, lively, recommended. But…

…perhaps the thing that struck me most were certain passages in Affluenza, which develop TFYU’s warning that the UK should not “follow in the footsteps of the most pathological developed nation on earth, the USA…[but should]…emulate the example set by so many of our European neighbours, like Denmark and France”(1).

By 2007, this trans-national analysis has focused on two particular evils: the “American way” of marketing, advertising and consumerism (2) and “the hollow ring of…American positive psychology”, with its “crude deletion of negative thoughts (3).

The basic idea is: “Studies from fourteen countries reveal that people who favour the key Virus values – money, possessions, physical and social appearances, and fame – are at greater risk of emotional distress”(2).

The author provides apparently clear answers: seek “authenticity” in activities and relationships; although beware that some apparently non-consumerist activities may be pursued for inauthentic “people-pleasing” reasons (4).

Conversely, if you “would like to be rich”, this may well be an authentic means to pursue such ends as “not to have to work all the time…[leaving] enough time to hang out with friends and family”(4). Presumably this applies to James himself, who happens to be in the “upper echelons” of society (5)
(although I doubt he would describe himself as “rich”).

To sort these pitfalls out is partly the task of psychotherapy, and I share the author’s approval of cognitive-analytic therapy (CAT), having myself had some experience of practising it in the early nineties, and knowing a senior CAT therapist for many years.

Few would argue that the US is not a world leader in marketing, advertising and consumerism, however I think there is a bit of grit in the oyster of James’ well-marketed argument. He relies on international data recording rates of distress and depression; but these are “soft”, difficult to make non-subjective, and depend on translation between languages and cultures.

The ultimate “hard” data relating to distress and depression are suicide rates, and the statistics have for decades indicated that Danish and French people deliberately end their lives much more often than Americans (6), despite living in cultures of “Being” rather than “Having”.

(1) They F*** you up (2002): paperback p300-301

(2) Affluenza (2007): paperback p12-14    (3) p142    (4) p180-2    (5) p97

(6) The suicide rate of Denmark has come down markedly since 1990,
and in 2005 was the same as the USA, whose rate has been stable (and not high in international terms) since the mid-1950’s. Oliver James states that
Denmark’s suicide rate is lower than that of Edinburgh (p109), but he gives no reference for this. The French suicide rate has also fallen, however in 2005 it remained 50% higher than that of the USA. The 2005 USA suicide rate for 15-24 year olds is double that of Denmark and 150% that of France: Affluenza mainly discusses older age groups, but it could be predicting sustained shifts in psychology and behaviour.

(Oliver James Part II: Review of Affluenza)

Published at on 4th February 2011; transferred to on 9th October 2011

‘(Oliver James Part I)’ added to title 29th March 2018

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