October 9, 2012
I’m currently leading the second phase of my ongoing series, “The Thought Leadership of Fred Newman,” at the East Side Institute. For this coming Monday’s session we’re going to play around with two of Newman’s “Psychology Plays”—written expressly for performance at APA (American Psychological Association) annual conventions during the 1990s. Titled “The Myth of Psychology”, the play consists of two acts, each one a therapy session with Lev Vygotsky and Ludwig Wittgenstein and a social therapist.
I love these plays! They are delightfully comic and educative, no matter whether you are familiar with the characters or get the many, many in jokes or not. Of course I’m rereading the text of the play in preparation for my class and thought I’d share a favorite section from Act 2.
Vygotsky and Wittgenstein are now the best of friends and have come to understand each other well except on one issue: they can’t understand how the other is (in Vygotsky’s case) and is not (in Wittgenstein’s case) a revolutionary. We pick up at the point in the session where they ask the therapist Bette what she means by being a revolutionary.
BETTE: To me, being a revolutionary has more to do with how you believe or understand than with what you believe. Now, of course, the two are connected in complex and ever-changing ways. Still, how you connect or relate your subjective life with the world determines what I mean by being a revolutionary.
WITTGENSTEIN: So revolutionary refers then to a way of looking at things?
BETTE: Yes, you might put it that way, Dr. Wittgenstein.
VYGOTSKY: But doesn’t how we look at things depend at least to some extent on how those things are?
BETTE: Yes, Lev. But how those things are also depends on how they are looked at.
WITTGENSTEIN: So you’re saying that things — or whatever — have no objective nature independent of their being related to by conscious beings? Doesn’t that simply raise the old idealistic philosophical saw about whether the tree falls in the forest if no one sees or hears it?
BETTE: Well, Dr. Wittgenstein, I’m not saying that things — or whatever — have no objective nature independent of their being related to by conscious human beings. I’m saying — following your work on these matters — that the language game of objective-subjective can be and often is a no-win game — a metaphysical confusion.
WITTGENSTEIN: Well, tell that to your comrade — and my friend — Vygotsky over here. Because he believes in some Marxian notion of objective historical laws.
VYGOTSKY: I do, Bette. He’s right. I cannot accept that everything is subjective.
BETTE: Nor can I, Lev. Nor can I. But I also cannot accept that everything is objective. Indeed, I can’t even accept that everything is. And no one has made that clearer than Karl Marx and … Lev Vygotsky. Psychology, you insisted — if I understand you correctly — is a cultural understanding of becoming, not a pseudo-scientific understanding of what is.
WITTGENSTEIN: So the puzzle, if you will, has to do with that funny little verb “to be.” “To be or not to be, that is the question.”
BETTE: I think not, Dr. Wittgenstein. That is the problem. Shakespeare’s Hamlet gives us, perhaps, the purest expression of modernist alienation when he says, “To be or not to be.” For if we are, like everything else, becoming, then “to be or not to be” denies what we are by apparently exhausting all the possibilities (being or not being) without realizing that we are both — and neither — namely, we are all forever becoming.
I’m eager to see what I and 30 ordinary people from many different walks of life—all “non-philosophers”—make out of this.