Transcription and analysis of a consultation – The case of Kim
Kim came to participate to a philosophy festival, organized around the theme of love. She is a professional translator. Once there she heard about the practice philosophical consultation and decided to give it a try.
1 – Oscar: Do you know that when one comes for a consultation, one usually raises a question. Were you told that?
Kim Ha: No
O: OK, it doesn’t matter. But do you have some topic that you would like to think about? It can be about anything, about you, about the world. Some issue where you tell yourself: “I would like to think about it”.
K: Well, since the topic is about love (nervously laughs)
O: And do you have a question about love that you would like to ask?
K: Yes. Is long lasting love possible?
When Kim first comes in, she presents herself in an assured way; she is calm and collected, clear and coherent. Until she announces the subject she wants to discuss, which visibly seems delicate and painful for her, by the manner her behavior changed drastically. The presupposition we can derive from her attitude and question is that her love stories – or story – do not last, at least not as much as she would wish, she most likely gets abandoned and feels betrayed. This makes her doubt of her strong desire or expectation: that love would sort of last forever.
O: OK, I will write it down. (writes down the question). So, “Is long lasting love possible?” This is the question that interests you?
O: Since French is not your native language, does the word presupposition speak to you?
K: Presupposition? Yes.
O: What would be the presupposition of someone who asks: “is long lasting love possible?”
K: (Laughs) The presupposition would be that the answer is “no”.
O: That means you have reasons to think it is not possible, do you agree?
O: What could be the main reason that makes you think that long lasting love is not possible?
K: It is through experience
O: Is it your experience or in general experience of human beings?
K: Mine, life experience.
Oscar writes the question, a gesture that has both a practical and symbolic function. The practical dimension is to remember the initial question, which indicates the starting point, the crux and the anchorage of the discussion. The symbolic dimension is to indicate that this question is important enough that time and effort should be taken in order to transcribe it. And the short interruption provoked – the question could have been written while speaking – for doing this creates a certain tension ensuring that some thinking take place. Sometimes, the subject enounces a “false” question, some superficial, disconnected or side issue, used consciously or not as a decoy. Even then, it is worth marking strongly the question, underlining thus what it stands for.
The question on presupposition is geared at verifying the degree of consciousness of the interlocutor, as well as his general literacy, for example his capacity of analysis. This will give us some indicators for determining the nature of our strategy in the development of the discussion. And visibly, Kim is rather awake: she is well educated, smart and relatively conscious of her own speech. She knows what is a presupposition and can identify one quite rapidly, knowing very well that the formulation of her question rather implies certain despair, through the negative answer. Although this negation could as well be a sort of exorcism, expressed in order to get reassured or to magically dispel the horrible possibility. Her laughter at that moment is rather ambiguous, but it rather confirms the emotional tension she is undergoing in this discussion.
Since she confirms that indeed the answer is most likely negative, we investigate the reasons for her thinking in such a way. And of course, she tells us that her personal experience points definitely in that direction, a conclusion that was rather predictable and confirms our hypothesis of her suffering.
10 – O: Did you notice that the question you are asking is general? The question “Is long lasting love possible” is a general question, do you agree?
O: So you’re answering a general question with a particular experience? Do you agree?
O: And do you consider legitimate to answer a general question with a particular experience?
K: It is a little piece of it…
O: But in French, the word “piece” indicates an important proportion or very little?
K: (shakes her head) Very little
O: Very little. Do you know the principle of induction?
K: (nodding). Induction, deduction
O: Yes. What you are saying looks like saying “I have seen such a tree, therefore all trees are like that”.
K: (nodding). Exactly.
O: So it is very limited. Do you agree?
O: And when you answer a general question with a particular experience, can we as well think that it is a bit limited?
K: Yes, yes
O: Does it surprise you that your argumentation is a bit limited?
O: And why doesn’t it surprise you?
K: Because I am not a great thinker. (Laughs)
20 – O: Ok, you are a little thinker. (Laughs). I don’t know you very much, but I asked you if you knew what induction and presupposition is and you said you knew. Do you realize that such knowledge would already exclude a lot of people?
O: I am not asking if it is “maybe”…
K: (interrupts) But I cannot know the others
O: Oh, so you don’t know the others?
K: One cannot know if the others know…
O: Right, right. Do you have a hard time knowing the others?
K: (nods affirmatively) It is possible
We attract Kim’s attention to the fact that if her question is general, the answer or proof for the answer is of a particular form. Visibly she understands the idea, but immediately she tries to justify it, instead of simply acknowledging it. This indicates a certain anxiety, a desire to look good, especially to look smart, since this deals with intellectual matters. Most likely, she fears being caught making a mistake.
Of course her justification attempt, like most quick reactive justification, is of rather low quality. In this case, it is a weak argument since, as she further realizes, the experience she mentions is a very reduced aspect of reality. Including the fact that our personal experience is generally a warped one, deprived of objectivity. The choice of using one experience as an answer to a general problem tends to show a certain dose of egocentrism and excessive subjectivity.
Kim agrees that her argument is rather a limited one. But she justifies it with the avowal that she is not a great thinker. But this happens after different statements showing that is an intellectual: she knows what a presupposition is, she is familiar with types of reasoning, like induction and deduction. And again she laughs when she makes this claim. This shows a certain ambiguity and worry about her intellectual status, between a desire to look smart and realization she says things that are not so smart. She probably suffers from the good student syndrome: looking smart, giving proof of knowledge, but afflicted by a fear of thinking, a fear of making mistakes, a fear of insufficiency and failure, a desire for perfection.
We try to investigate her statement of not being a “great thinker”, by transposing it to being a “little thinker”. It is always interesting to transform a negative statement in a positive formulation. Since those negative forms often are used to produce a euphemism effect, putting it in an affirmative form will have the opposite effect of creating a strong effect, more striking to consciousness. We then show her the contradiction there is between such a statement and her previous admittance of intellectual culture. There, she gives a very evasive answer, a “maybe” attesting that this issue is a rather perturbing one. Of course, it is always possible in general to answer maybe, but in this particular case, like in all cases of rather evident statements, pronouncing a “maybe” indicates an emotional reaction: something is here bothersome, consciousness is deranged, there is some cognitive dissonance. Although all answers which show a clear discrepancy with logic tends to indicate such a cognitive dissonance.
When confronted to this situation, the level of tension goes up one notch. First she interrupts me, which is out of profile with her behavior so far. Second she answers with a very radical statement about the impossibility for her to “know the others”. We see here a drama unfolding, telling us the solitude that she is plunged in, the relational impotence, rendering the others inaccessible to her. We start seeing the amplitude of her initial question, about the eternity of love: it echoes the eternity of her loneliness. Again we confront her about this ignorance of others, which she confirms by generalizing the problem: “One cannot know if the others know.” Therefore it is the whole of humanity that is plunged in this deep solitude, showing the strength and radicality of her emotional glut. We try a simple question to therefore get her to admit in a different formulation her difficulty to understand others, but again we stonewalls our question with the evocation of a mere possibility, a classical dismissal, apparently soft but actually rather aggressive. She is manifesting her passive aggressive behavior.
Although, interesting feature, through nodding, her body admits more freely the problem. Often gestures of the body more readily tell us some truth that words deny, ignore, try to evade or dilute.
O: Have you noticed it already before? That you are rather ignorant of the other one?
K: (starts to wonder, her eyes go up) Not ignorant…
O: Visibly the word “ignorant” bothers you
K: (interrupts) It is just that I don’t see many things in others
O: Well, that is what is called being ignorant. Unless you have another word that you would prefer
K: If you want (laughs)
O: It is not if I want, it is for you to decide. Do you have another word beside ignorance? You told me that there are a lot of things you don’t see in others. Do you prefer another word beside ignorance?
K: Unconscious (with a questioning tone)
O: You are unconscious (writes down the word). Generally, when someone is unconscious, will he be rather ignorant or no?
K: Yes, it is true. If you want
O: No, it is not “if I want”. I don’t know if you know but in French when we say “if you want”, it means we want to get rid of the other one (shows a sending away gesture with a hand)
K: (laughs) I would agree that I am a bit constrained here
30 – O: So in this way you get rid of the constraint. Do you agree?
K: (laughs) Yes
O: You see, you are not conscious of the others. But when I talk to you, you tell me: “you bother me, stay away from me” (shows a sending away gesture with a hand)
K: (protests) No, you don’t bother me. (keeps speaking indistinctly)
O: (stops her with a gesture) Slow down, slow down. To be constrained, in your vocabulary, is it rather something positive or rather something negative?
K: It is rarely positive
O: (laughs) You are answering me with “rarely”. Is it rather positive or rather negative?
K: Rather negative
O: Ok. When someone constrains you, you are not happy. It doesn’t please you very much. Do you agree?
O: So one makes these signs, it means he is not too happy. Do you agree?
K: (smiles) Yes
Now that the subject has been evoked, we invite the subject to realize in a plain way her difficulty to know others, by naming it with a crude word: ignorance, a word that of course we expect her to dismiss in some way. And she does not fail to do it: ignorance” in an unbearable qualifier, especially when applied to her. She interrupts again, to claim “she does not see much”, a formulation that seems more palatable to her, and after this she proposes “unconscious”. But we insist, in order for her to become conscious of an important problem, connected to her initial question: her ignorance of others. She wiggles and jiggles, troubled emotionally and cognitively, and finally her defense system becomes clearly aggressive with the “if you want!”, a classical indicator of rejecting other.
Again she half admits the violence of her reactions but justifying it. It is a classical way that children learn very young: the “it’s because”, where one replaces the admittance of a personal fault or a problem by right away attempting to give the reasons for their action. They replace the “what”: the phenomenon or objective fact, with the “why”: the genesis, the cause, the circumstances. They short-circuit the immediate harsh reality by diverting the discussion to the general situation or context. And in the present case, the context is “constraint”, a term that indeed makes sense: it explains her pain and her instinctive desire to get rid of the interlocutor. And when this desire is outrightly mentioned, she admits it with a chuckle, showing a certain embarrassment coupled with some pleasure or relief.
So now comes the time to show her a major problem in her functioning: the coherency between her not understanding or knowing others and her rejection of others because she feels constrained by the relation and discussion. Even though the type of discussion we are having is a bit particular, it indeed bears constraint, the performative dimension of it reveals the patterns of behavior she tends to fall into. There, she protests, because her rational or moral side rebels against the idea she would be rude or rejecting me. She mumbles and speaks fast, which means she speaks to herself, displaying the tension of her internal debate. So much that we have to calm her down in order to reestablish the dialogue.
We then question her about the concept of “constrain”, about its connotation. To interrogate someone about the connotation of her word, positive or negative, pleasant or unpleasant, and other criteria, is always a useful way to make some conscious of his words, thoughts and being. In our choice of words, we most likely are not deliberately choosing our words in this way, aware of the semantic field, identifying the harmonics of the terms chosen, its overtones and echoes in the mind.
Of course, she uses again the euphemistic form to answer me, with a “rarely positive”. This shows her difficulty with reality: negating the negativity of things, repudiating the dark side of the world and self, is the most common form of reality denial. Although the reverse exists as well, a sort of depressive or paranoid vision of the world, where everything is bad and dangerous. And those two extremes can easily join: the negation of the negativity, in order ton hide or disguise the fundamental horrible nature of the world. And on insisting, she admits that the constraint is negative, showing that is still capable of reason, she is not overwhelmed by emotions. Some other persons would remain much more adamant about refusing the evidence of their words’ content. She even smiles, granting full status and reconciliation to the perspective that she is not happy about what is going on. A mental shift implying that she now can deal with it: accepting that we don’t like the nature of reality is one step toward accepting this reality. Denying we don’t like it or despise it indicates a very strong conflict within self.
O: I will propose to you an idea that meeting with the other one usually implies constraint.
K: It is possible
O: I am not asking if it is possible, I am asking if it is probable. (Kim is silent). You see, your “it is possible” is another way of getting rid of me
K: Ah really!
O: Now it is “Ah really!”. Do you notice, you have several techniques to get rid of the interlocutor?
K: (laughs) Well, I learned it with French language. (reaches out for her bag on the floor)
O: Now you are trying to justify yourself, saying it is the fault of the French language. Do you notice?
K: (takes out the fan out of her bag) If you allow me, it is very hot here… (starts to move it next to her face)
40 – O: So you said that you learned it with French, right?
O: So it is like saying “I was not like that before and they made me like that” do you agree…
K: (starts to make a resisting face, moves away with the body)
O: (stops her because of the face she makes). Stay with me, stay with me!
K: (interrupts) it is some kind of rhetoric…
O: Exactly. Right now I don’t manage anymore to talk to you. Each one of your answers after another is rhetoric. Do you agree?
K: (doesn’t answer)
O: Yes, no?
K: (doesn’t answer)
O: You have used this term “rhetoric”. Do you agree?
O: So with me you are using these rhetoric tricks. Do you agree?
K: (unwillingly nodding, speaking in a low voice) Yes
Since she is reconciled with her own concept of “constraint”, we decide to work on it, though a common technique of banalizing it, universalizing it, examining its global sense and operating power. We will ask if it applies globally to all human relation, a perspective that dedramatizes the term, depersonalizes it, and allows it to be thinkable. She admits it, but in a weak way, again as a mere possibility. When something obvious is only granted a status of possibility by a subject, this implies that this subject does not appreciate very much the idea, it is a way of pushing it away, as a mere toleration rather than full acceptance, because if would be too difficult or impossible to deny it totally.
In this affair we use a rather important distinction in order to determine the ontological or practical status of a phenomenon. The gradation between fours terms: impossible, possible, probable and necessary. Often they are confused, and we slide easily from one to the next. For example we take as impossible what is in fact possible with difficulty, making ourself blind and impotent. We declare possible what is probable, just like if we hoped it not happen when in reality it most likely will take place, a situation that can be called wishful thinking. And we judge necessary what is merely probable, a mistake that implies that we refuse to examine the possibility of failure in our expectations, which can be called an absence or lack of critical thinking.
So we try to make her think further her “constrain” concept by checking its application in human relation, through the distinction between its mere possibility of presence and its probability. But we don’t do it though a question but through a provocation: telling her that by using the term “possible”, she is trying to get rid of me. Of course, the pedagogue which wants to apply the Vigotsky principle of “zone of proximal development” will assess that we are overwhelming our dialogue partner, since it makes in theory makes the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he can do only with help. Maybe indeed we go too quick and jump over some logical steps. But for one we have sufficient trust in her that she can fill the gaps by herself, and it is useful to challenge her, even at the risk she does get the point and feels frustrated, misunderstood or even attacked. Furthermore, like Socrates, the cynics or the Zen teacher, we think provocation, even in its absurd dimension, is a healthy principle to make someone go beyond himself, facing the uneasiness, perplexity and destabilization, with the confusion deriving from it, as a way to break the usual patterns of thinking and allow new connections to be established, creating space for new schemes to take place.
Indeed, Kim perceives the problem, she laughs again, a usual strategy, and this time she dodges the issue by convoking the French language as an argument. By learning it with the language, it is not her responsibility anymore, but some vague cultural or institutional authority; it was imposed on her. And when we try to make her conscious of her last avoidance strategy, she suddenly feels very hot, which from our standpoint does not really make sense from an objective standpoint. We can probably say she is now feeling the heat of the discussion. And when we insist by telling her that she has some passive or victim position, “she was made like that”, her faces contracts unhappily and she backs away. We invite her to stay with us, but she accuses us of manipulating her, implying we would have some bad or minimally suspicious intentions, by claiming it is “some kind of rhetoric”.
The mind is a very strange operator. A person is using rhetoric as a way to escape, initially rather unconsciously. As we make her conscious of her functioning, making the tricks rather expensive, the concept of rhetoric surges in her mind, and she uses it, against us, as her last trick. We can call it a sort of projection, projecting our own scheme upon the interlocutor. But in this case, since out client is still rather rational, when confronted to this psychological phenomenon, she rather accepts it, even though her low voice and tense look express some kind of shame or embarrassment. We say Kim is quite rational, because most clients, taken in this situation would rather deny totally or at least resist for a while before acknowledging this kind of tendency in themselves: after all, their whole strategy is based on this technique, revealing its nature makes it totally inoperative.
O: Are you stubborn?
K: I don’t know. It is possible
O: (sighs) It seems you are pulling again the same trick on me, with this possibility? Look, you have lived with yourself for quite a few years, no?
O: So should you know if you are stubborn or no? Or you really don’t know
K: (looking sad) I would like to answer you with the answer…
50 – O: (interrupts) And you are doing the same thing. I am asking you a question and you want to answer me with “I would like to answer you with the answer”. At the very beginning you were answering me, but since a little while you abandoned me. You are not answering anymore and you are using rhetoric. Do you notice it?
K: (smiles sadly) No, I do not realize it
O: (starts to speak)
K: (interrupts) It is because I cannot answer with one hundred per cent certainty
O: Did anyone ask you here to answer with one hundred per cent certitude? And answer me with yes or no
K: When you ask me “yes or no”…
O: (interrupts) If you don’t want to answer my questions I will stop, because I cannot do it anymore. Did anyone ask you here to answer with one hundred per cent certitude?
O: Give me a term that I used that would indicate that I am asking 100 per cent certitude
K: “Are you stubborn? ”
O: Ok, then when…
K: (interrupts) If I answer with yes…
O: (interrupts) wait, wait. Do you realize now what you are doing? You want to add things, to complicate things.
(During this latter time she has been vigorously agitating a Spanish style fan)
O: You know, it is not an accident that you want to ventilate yourself now. I am glad that you refresh yourself, but do you know what it as well indicates?
K: (doesn’t answer)
O: (picks up a sheet and starts to ventilate himself). If you are talking to someone and he does that, what can it indicate to another person?
K: (shakes her head, showing she doesn’t know)
O: Come one, it is easy. What can it indicate?
K: (doesn’t answer, her face looks sad and stuck)
60 – O: You see, you don’t answer me anymore. If I talked to a child 8 years old, he would have answered me. “If a teacher does that, what do you think happens in her head?”.
K: (doesn’t answer)
We decide to straightforwardly ask Kim if she gets stuck in her own mind, therefore taking a fixed position in the dialogue, what is commonly called being stubborn. First she pleads ignorance, than admits the possibility, a slight progress in her mindfulness, but still resistant. Since she pleads a relative ignorance, we use a familiar trick where the subject is invited someone to consider his life as a whole and make a judgment about himself. This came about by noticing how much people ignored themselves, since when they are asked to determine is they are endowed with some specific quality, they don’t seem to know, or they commonly tell us to ask other people than know them. Just like if those people had more competency or authority, and just like if those people had never told them anything about it, even though they are close to them. Or they answer it depends, referring us to a case-by-case situation, instead of making a judgment on their global personality as a whole. The know thyself is not very popular.
As we are putting more pressure on her t take the risk of answering, she starts wanting to set her own agenda, express her frustration and desire. She realizes her attitude is a problem, since she is giving up on the process, so she looks sad. But she cannot resist trying to say what she would like, the way she would like, undergoing a strong desire to express herself. We don’t let her get away with this abandon, trying to maintain the tension. This results in an interesting outburst on her part, the fascination with the “one hundred per cent certainty”, haunting her mind. “When you ask me yes or no” implies total certitude in the answer!
At this point, we have to outline a phenomenon that we have discovered throughout years of philosophical practice. In our endeavor to invite subjects to answer clearly to our questions, we provide them with some alternative such as “A or B?” or “Yes or no?”, to which they have to answer in a determinate way. Taken aback by the resistance of most people toward this form of question, we tried to investigate the reason for their resistance to something that constitutes a mere exercise. And we discovered, among other reasons, that most people are obsessed with certainty, coupled with a fear of mistake. Thus, when they are asked a question that needs a clear answer, they freeze and cannot answer because they are not “one hundred sure”. Just like if life or thinking had anything to do with certainty! But most human beings have a certain phobia about uncertainty, which is probably why they want guarantees and insurance, and why they are often disappointed with others and themselves. And being this desire for certainty, we see some expectation of perfection, of some earthly paradise, a rather unrealistic perspective that makes their life rather heavy and painful, that makes their relation difficult. Thus, sometimes, we soften the question by asking if it “rather yes or rather no?”, but we realized it does not modify so much the problem.
To make her conscious of the problem, we ask her to give a term I use that would indicate a necessity for the answer to be one hundred per cent certain”. And predictably, she takes the question are you stubborn, that with her perfection scheme she reads unconsciously as: “Are you totally sure that you are stubborn?” For her, it is not a matter of thinking and hypothesis; it is a matter of knowledge and certitude. But through our different questions and her answer, she probably understood the problem, since when we want to question her further, she suddenly interrupts the process, not waiting for the question to come, with the beginning of an explanation starting with a conditional conjunction: “if”. This simple word is characteristic of an attempt to complicate things, to get away from commitment and enter some undetermined process where we get lost in a series of conditional clauses. Of course, there are moments when going shifting fro the categorical to the conditional can be useful, but in other situations like this one it is only an attempt to complicate the course of the dialogue and create confusion in order to protect oneself. We call this the strategy of the octopus, projecting ink in the water in order to blind his enemies and fly the coup.
We in turn interrupt her to make her realize what she is doing. We raise the issue of the refusal to answer and escape the dialogue through the attempt to complicate the discussion. But we notice that she is more vigorously agitating her fan. Her gestures seem so violent that we choose to attract her attention on this behavior, quite revealing of her own internal mental state. We ask her what such a gesticulation would indicate to the interlocutor one would be talking to. But she first remains silent, then nods to answer she does not know, two different ways to refuse consciousness, reflection and dialogue, and remain stuck. As a way to get her out of this slump and invite her to reason, we try to delocalize her thinking, to decenter herself, a strategy we periodically use to help someone escape the trap of his own subjectivity. We invite to person to become someone else, like a little boy, a proposal that sometimes create a mental shift and resolves the problem. But this time, to no avail. She prefers to remain stuck. The wager is too high.
O: So you don’t want to answer me anymore. (looks at the notes). Your question was: “Is long lasting love possible?”. I have been talking for 10 minutes with you, do we see a problem in your functioning that can create a problem for a long lasting love?
K: (nods with a sad look).
O: Yes, right?
K: yes. I don’t dare answer anymore
O: Look at that: “I don’t dare answer anymore”. When someone says it, do you know what she says to the other person?
K: (doesn’t answer)
O: I will translate in vulgar terms. She is saying: “get lost”
K: Not at all! Not at all!
O: Do you know that when you say something, you cannot control the interpretation someone gives to it?
K: For sure
O: I will repeat: “when you say something, you cannot control the interpretation someone gives to it” Do you know that?
O: So when you say something, the other one interprets based on how it appears, or how he feels, but your intentions do not count, the other person does not care here about what you want
K: (shakes her head in a protest) It cannot be the same thing…
O: Well! Do you know that it is rather hard to talk to you?
K: It is the first time…
O: (interrupts) Try to answer. Do you think it is easy to talk to you?
K: In general?
70 – O: Let’s see differently. You know, in my work, I speak with a lot of people, and lead this activity in a number of countries. For example, I do evaluations for businesses where I must make a judgment on how a person is. Do you believe me?
K: Of course, yes
O: Try just yes or no.
O: Do you think that my judgment could be useful for you?
O: So if I find it difficult to talk to you, do you believe me or not?
O: Am I the first person who tells you “It is difficult to talk to you”? Or someone else has told you before?
O: When this person told you this, you said: “you are right or you are wrong?”
K: (sighs) I didn’t answer
O: Ok. Do you know that not answering to someone is a way to send this person away?
K: (smiles) Yes
We now decide it is time to go back to the initial question. There always comes a moment when this becomes useful, and necessary, since the initial question is after all our anchorage, what we are dealing with, at least formally. In this case, the deadlock in the dialogue we arrive at, coupled with the emotional climax, indicates a good moment for making the shift. We do it in a classical way: we ask if there is connection between the past exchanges and the problem in question. Kim acquiesces with a sad look on her face. We insist to get a clear vocalized answer. This is important for two reasons. First of all to force the person in front not to stay half in himself and be totally present in the dialogue. Second is to induce some consciousness of what is being said, in this case awareness of the affirmation and what it stands for: the connection between the behavior in the dialogue and the question about love. And since some problems clearly showed up, the subject prefers not to think about the connection, not to establish any link: probably they would be too painful.
When the answer is articulated, “yes”, it is accompanied by an interesting comment: “I don’t dare answer anymore”. This statement is rather ambiguous. On one part it means “You are bothering me. You are not letting me speak the way I want. Therefore I won’t speak to you anymore.” But as well it signifies: “This is too painful. I don’t want to get involved in this discussion anymore. I refuse to participate from then on because I am scared.” Does the responsibility lie with the subject or with his interlocutor? The formulation remains vague, but the refusal to discuss is clear. And in general, when there is an ambiguity with no clear orientation toward either possibility, we conserve the option that both make sense simultaneously.
In order to force the issue and clarify the stakes, we choose to radicalize the statement by interpretating primarily as a dismissal of the interlocutor, and observe the reaction of the subject. But she protest, meaning either that she wants to remain polite and well behaved, or that she wants to maintain the dialogue, which for her has probably some interest. But to continue her reflection, which has to deal with relation to other persons, we invite to examine a new angle of it, which is probably a blind spot for her, since she does not see or understand other persons. That is the perception they might have of her behavior. She is so self-centered that she must have no clue about the messages she sends through her way to talk, respond and handle herself. She is full of her desire and intentions, and if she does not see others, she does not see herself. First because she is not used to look at persons from an objective standpoint, that is looking from outside: she only feels her own perceptions. Second because the mirror others incarnate for all of us does not function for her: she ignores what they would tell her about herself. Either she does not listen to their signals, does not understand them, or she forgets them. And when the signals disappear because the persons are gone, she wonders why reality is so cruel and mysterious.
So we try to put forward the idea that there is an objective factual reality of her behavior, and that is what persons perceive, not her inner feelings or intentions. But at this point she seems to be a bit gone. She shakes her head as a sign of protest, and pronounces a cryptic sentence: “It cannot be the same thing”. The probable interpretation we can give of this statement is that reality presented to her does not fit her idea of things, or what she would like this reality to be like. Whatever it is, at this point Kim is folded on herself and being largely emotional. The other is evidently a threat.
So we invite her to wonder about her behavior, just by asking if it is easy or hard to speak to her, although the question is almost rhetorical: the answer is obvious. But she first tries to justify herself by speaking about the “first time”. It is an excuse we hear periodically in our work. When people have a hard time reasoning or admitting things, or get overemotional, they claim that is the first time they do a philosophical consultation. They just ignore or forget that even though this type of dialogue is more tense or formal, it involves the same competencies and attitudes that are necessary on a daily basis to maintain relations, think adequately and function in life. Their claim to the exceptionality of the experience only manifest how little they use those functions in their daily life, a lack which explains their difficulty in the present situation. The second time we ask the question, she answers with another classic. Answering the question with a pretended specification question: “In general?”. Of course, in the absolute, the question could bear about the specificity of the present moment, but most likely it is asked as general principle. The rhetorical trick is here to answer the question with another question. For one, by keeping in mind a quite remote possibility and not going with the most probable interpretation. Second, by trying – or seemingly trying – to ensure oneself about the meaning of the question. It is a way to not take any risk, by being both not thoughtful and not generous, while pretending to be rigorous.
One element of analysis we should give about rhetorical answers is that they are neither a straightforward or honest answer, nor an outright lie. They are a contradictory or paradoxical way to say the truth while not saying it, or to lie while not lying. Such statements – or questions – are often a mixture of truth and honesty with more “impure” elements, often said indirectly to better deceive the listener, or they use irrelevant issues, sliding of meaning, preempting, pretense and other gimmicks. Often rhetorical speech says the truth but on different subject. But in spite of all, in the practice of rhetorical answer, there is a sort of moral concern, be it in reality or in appearance. Blatant lie is an arduous endeavor, morally and cognitively: there is a compulsion to somewhat fit the truth, to coat the lie as much as possible. Be it lie of commission or omission, one feels rather compelled to say something that would at least be possible to accept, something plausible. Although in spite of the disguise, we see the lie, or we can see it. But since social habits prohibit confronting one’s neighbor when he pretends to be “good”, since critical thinking is little practiced, an since by a principle of reciprocity a pact is made whereby fellow citizens as much as possible do not confront each other in the matter of dialogue, in order to maintain peaceful relations, we learn to accept the rhetorical truth, the packaged lie. This way we feel protected.
Since the questioning does not seem to function, we decide to operate more straightforwardly, somewhat using indirectly the argument of authority. So we tell the client we are experienced in making professional judgments. We ask her if she trusts us on this matter. She does, showing her connection to authority. As well she first adds “of course”, to insist on the trust or respect. We ask her to “try yes and no”, as a way to make her conscious of those superfluous words she often uses as a way to prove something and reassure herself. Then we state that it is “difficult to talk to her”, which she believed, and then asked her if anyone had ever told her, to which she responded again by the affirmative. Here we have to mention that this particular question: “Has anyone ever told you that…” is one we use regularly and is rather efficient. The principle behind this question is that whatever strong trait of character we have, has necessarily been remarked by people surrounding us, because it is a noticeable feature and most likely because it must have engendered a relational problem at some point in life. When people deny any such comment from other, I insist: “Father, mother, grandparents, spouse, children, colleague, friend, no one has ever said anything on this matter, in those words or in other words, or even by reactions they had?”. And in general, quickly or with lag, we finally get an “Oh yeah! Now that you mention it!”, periodically with a funny grin. Then we ask them how they said it, which word they used, and if at that moment the subject told them they were right or wrong, to which most admit that they denied the problem at that point, with a certain a posteriori embarrassment. Often this subterfuge touches some visibly important relational issue.
And this is the case with Kim, which readily admits that she was told the problem. Then we a sigh, indicating heaviness or pain, she remembers that she answered nothing, a likely familiar scheme in her life. And she accepts to interpret this behavior as a way to reject the other person. Of course, all this echoes the problems that she encounters in her love life, expressed in her initial question. As often, the point is to make persons realize how they have a way to send away relation partners, sometime coldly and brutally, like in this case, sometimes in a more violent and agitated fashion, to make them see their rejection stratagem, instead of acting and speaking as an important victim.
O: So you have a way of sending people off. When someone tells you there is a problem, you don’t answer him, it is his problem
K: (doesn’t answer, looks pensive)
O: Did you do something of the sort to me?
O: And if I tell you that you did it many times, you will think it is false, right?
K: (sighs heavily)
80 – O: I will take your sigh as an answer. Does this sigh indicate that there is pain?
K: (doesn’t answer, starts crying)
O: Let’s go back to your question: “Is long lasting love possible?” Is it possible there is a necessary condition for this “long lasting”, called “generosity”?
O: Do you know generosity?
K: Of course!
O: In your way of talking to another person, do you think you are generous?
K: I don’t know
O: Is it that you don’t know or that you don’t want to give an answer?
Do you know what is a performative answer?
K: (shakes her head)
O: It is when you don’t answer with content, or words, but you answer with a gesture, an attitude. And here again you answer with a non-answer.
K: (nods silently)
O: It is the least generous act, when we don’t even answer.
K: (keeps nodding)
O: So I think you have an answer to your question about “the possibility of long-lasting love”, and the answer in your case is “no”, because you are not generous. Does this conclusion surprise you?
K: In words, in gestures?
O: Ok, you don’t want to answer me, no problem. We will stop here. I just want to ask you two or three questions. Did you like our discussion or no?
O: Tell me, why didn’t you like it?
K: It is not that I didn’t like it…
O: So, did you like it or not?
90 – O: So let me know why you didn’t like it. It is the last act of generosity I will ask you for today.
K: It is because it hurts (smiles with tears in her eyes)
O: Did some reality appear in our discussion?
K: Yes (keeps crying)
O: But now, when you see it and you notice that there is some reality in in this description, there is a choice to be made. Either we say “It is like that and I will learn to accept it”, or you prefer: “I want to change something”. So what do you want to do?
K: This I don’t know
O: You should know there is a principle in love: taking risks. We don’t know, but we take risk. An act of generosity means to take a risk. Did you know it?
K: No (smiles sadly)
O: So let’s stop here. Do you want to add something else or ask something?
The Idea of “sending people off” seems to bring memories back to pour client. But when I ask her if she did this to me, she denies, which probably implies that what she did to other persons was harsher than with me, since she is still talking to me. We insist on the repetition feature of the phenomenon, since when a strong feature appears in a personality, the expression of this feature and the problematic consequences it entails must reiterate themselves frequently. The sigh which answers the question confirm the hypothesis, and sates the painful dimension if the affair. A pain that when explicitly stated provokes tears in our client.
Having gathered enough elements on Kim’s functioning, we decide to back to the initial question, and examine what insights we now have on it. If the subject was more lively and responsive, we could ask him to relate her behavior to the question and produce a concept, but this is not case right now. It was doubtful she would give us anything, and such a request would only intensify her doldrums. So we prefer to produce a concept, the one most striking to us at this point, very present through its absence: generosity. For it seems indeed that the act or attitude of “giving” this fundamental dimension of love, is rather absent in her existential dynamic.
We ask Kim if she is generous in the way she speaks to other persons, and she answers: “I don’t know”. Such question indeed can be considered difficult, since we are not used to make general judgments about ourself, and we feel slightly embarrassed about the tension it creates in our conscience when time comes to make such judgment. We can call this the Osiris judgment, or weighing of the heart. The old Egyptian story told hat the soul of the dead was placed on a scale, with a feather of Maat – goddess of truth – on the other side. If the soul was heavier that truth, it would be devoured by a monster, if it was lighter, it would live forever among the blessed in paradise. Thus comes a moment where we have to make a simple and clear assessment on our “whole” or “undivided” being. But when we try to execute such an appraisal, different parameters enter in conflict, rendering difficult or minimally complicating the formulation of such an assessment. Here are some elements of this complexity, without any hierarchical order. The desire to be sincere or truthful. The attempt to give a precise, certain or absolute answer. The difficulty to answer generally about our being and not refer to a case-by-case or situational context. A tendency to be good to ourself, or complacency. A pretention to complication, nuance or depth, repulsive to any simple or clear predication of our being, the attribution of a simple adjective, viewed a reductionist endeavor. The fear or being judged or even condemned by others, or by our own glance. The difficulty to analyze our own functioning. Still, or for these reasons, we find interesting and revealing to ask thus type of question and observe the reaction and answer of the subject. Beside the fact that it is a rather healthy exercise on the path to know ourself, to confront ourself.
One thing we have noticed about the question “Are you X?”, X being some adjective, when persons answer say “I don’t know”, they are bothered, it is something that is a problem and preoccupies them. It is a refusal to answer, rather strong. Stronger still is another answer: “You have to ask others!”. Therefore the issue of generosity is a problem for the subject. As well, we can take the performative dimension of the answer: very few words, no content. “I don’t know” Is not a generous answer, far from it, and that’s the way Kim tends to answer. Either she says what she wants, or she resists, pouts, closes herself. And as often, we try to check the meaning of the answer, through a verification question: “Is it that you don’t know or that you don’t want to give an answer?”, and the ensuing silence confirms the problematic dimension of generosity concept in the life of our client. We tell her the implications of her answers or non-answers from this standpoint and she nods affirmatively. And at this point, we decide, that it is time to stop, since the subject seems to have reached her limits and the discussion has some elements of conclusion.
So we use this absence of generosity as a way to answer the initial question. Starting from the standpoint that love has to do with generosity, the lack of generosity can easily be a reason for the dying out of love. Indeed it is a common feature we have observed in couple ruptures or in family feud: the absence of giving, the tightness of self, the not giving oneself. Unless the other partner – especially women, since men are less good at this “art” – is capable of a strong abnegation attitude and a sense of sacrifice, the absence of generosity makes the relation rather unlivable. When we propose this hypothesis to Kim, she understand rather well the suggestion, it means something to her, since she asks a specification question about the lack of generosity: she wants to know if this means in words or in gestures. Just like if she could escape the question by problematizing it, a typical “intellectual” trick. At the same time, as usual, she found a way not to answer, although she expresses her worry, her insecurity. Visibly, at least one of these two aspects – if not two – shows in her usual behavior a clear lack of unselfishness, kindness, compassion, benevolence, decentration, charity, big-heartedness, free-handedness, goodness or whatever one wants to call a form of altruism.
She did not like the discussion, she says, but there is a “but”. She did not like because it hurts, but when we ask her, she has the courage to admit the truth of what came out, and it hurts because it brings the pain of reality, a cruel reality. We ask our usual question: “Do you want to learn to accept it or do you want to change it?”. There again, mixture of trouble, impotence and lack of generosity, Kim answers “I don’t know”. The “this” just insists on how crazy it is to ask her such question and moreover expect an answer. She tells her she is far from taking such a decision. We propose to her as a last shot that to love is to take risks, and she answers with a sad smile. Visibly, she understood something, which is a bit much for her.
This dialogue with our client is rather asymmetric. Such an encounter naturally tends to be this way, since someone comes for help, advice, coaching, or whatever assistance, and is ready to pay for it. But in this case it is particularly accentuated. We provide most of the content, and when the subject wants to speak it is to move elsewhere, to justify herself or concede a minimum lip service, to look like she is answering. We have to use to the maximum her rare words, although her behavior answers rather more than her words, a rather unusual situation, since interpretation of gestures or demeanor constitutes in general a minimal part of the exercise. We usually function more in the production of ideas and concepts. But in this case, the question initially announced already warned us, the issue is so much about subjectivity that there is not much room for articulation of ideas. We are left working primarily with and attitude problem, with a psychological issue. Although it invisible that our client is following the process, she has access to the reasoning, So in that sense, in spite of the strong emotional dimension of the problematic, we are still engaged in a philosophical work, since the process is largely determined by rationality.
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