Luhrmann and the anxious American’s theory of mind

T.M. Luhrmann has done a great deal to make sense of modern American religion, writing as she does from an anthropologist’s viewpoint. Her study of present-day evangelicals, When God Talks Back, is useful for those of us outside that tradition who otherwise find it alternatively bemusing and just downright weird (no doubt the same way they feel about Buddhists, if they think about us at all).

I have, however, been trying to understand her latest column, The Anxious Americans. She links together a summary of some ideas from George Makari’s forthcoming book The Soul Machine, regarding the construction of the psychotherapeutic theory of mind, and how anxiety and other mental/emotional states are understood as inner experiences. Luhrmann then brings in the movie “Inside Out,” as an exemplification of this understanding of mind as inner. She concludes by noting that she is not saying that there is anything wrong with the science of emotions as shown in the movie (emotions giving experiences the significance they have for us and thereby changing the meaning of those experiences), but says that instead

I’m suggesting that there is something deeply cultural about the way this mind is imagined, and that it has consequences for the way we experience thoughts and feelings.

Our high anxiety, whatever the challenges we face, is probably one of the consequences.

There seems to be rather a large gap in the speculation here. Anxiety is attributed to a theory of mind, our theory of mind as inner experience, and the closely related “expectation that personal thoughts and feelings are the central drivers of human action.” Despite the gap in causal connections of Lurhmann’s attempt to link a theory of mind and anxiety, her point regarding the “deeply cultural” character of how we think about the mind, how we think about thinking, is a very important one.

(Personally, I’m all in favor of questioning the “mind as inner” model—thank you Brentano, Husserl, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty. However, how a theory of mind can be causally responsible for anxiety is left unexplored—and not even hinted at. Importantly, by focusing on the psychotherapeutic model of mind as itself the culprit for anxiety ignores so many other more directly related matters, such as financial insecurity, media induced fear, the constant drumbeat of war, environmental degradation, gun violence.)

For Buddhists invested in the notion that a Buddhist theory of mind (or more accurately perhaps the plural: Buddhist theories of mind) can make a positive contribution to individual and societal well-being, and to comprehending how the mind works, Luhrmann’s questioning of the “inner states” model of mind as a cultural artifact suggests some important considerations. When we consider such concepts as the two sets of obscurations (āvaraṇa): misplaced affections and mistaken conceptions (kleśāvaraṇa and jñeyāvaraṇa) do we automatically assume that these refer to “inner states” of mind? And if so, does this constitute a mismatch with the conceptions of the Indian Buddhists with whom these conceptions originated?

At this point, while the answer to the first question seems to be an unqualified yes, I don’t know the answer to the second.

It may be worth noting in this regard, however: in looking for information on the two obscurations, the search engine came up with a grammatical comment regarding them. Paul Griffiths notes that the grammar of the two compounds is different and cannot be simply translated, as they usually are, as exact parallels. He says that “their grammar is different: the former is a karmadhāraya compound and should be translated “the
obstacle which is kleśa“; the latter is a dative tatpuruṣa compound, and
should be translated “the obstacle to what is knowable.” (Paul Griffiths, review of Stephen Collins, Selfless Persons, in Philosophy East and West 33.3 [July 1983], pp. 303–305: 305.)

This is a very suggestive distinction, in that it could/would mean that these are not two parallel and distinct sets of things that are obstacles, one emotional and one cognitive. In other words, it may be that kleśas are obstacles and that they, and perhaps other things as well, are obstacles to what are knowable. The framing of these two as a paired set of categories may be the result of scholasticism, that is, doctrinal systematization. And although the latter may be well established (as perhaps in later Mahāyāna thought and in the way that the terms were translated into Tibetan and Chinese and then treated in commentaries on the basis of those translations) it may be useful to go back to the Indic texts with this nuance in mind and reread what is said there. One reason that this seems worth doing is that given how obvious the distinction between emotional and cognitive as two separate mental categories appears to be, it could well be one of those “deeply cultural” aspects of our own modern, post-Cartesian theory of mind to which Luhrmann refers. The clear separation of emotional and cognitive as characteristic of mind may well be simply another cultural artifact. Despite appearing to us to be obviously and universally true of all humans, perhaps it is we who have learned to think about ourselves in this way, and consequently experience the world divided into the emotional and the cognitive. This distinction is therefore not necessarily shared by the Buddhist thinkers we encounter by reading their texts, and we need to hold our own assumptions in question in order to be able to listen closely to what they are saying.

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