The Phenomenology of Obsessiveness

To talk about ‘modes of reflexivity’ can sometimes seem to suggest types of person or personality. Understanding reflexivity in this way misleads because its suggestion of divergent individual traits can too easily obscure the commonalities shared between all reflexive individuals. To postulate a mode of reflexivity entails a claim about an identifiable tendency in how some set of individuals deliberate about objective circumstances in light of their subjective concerns. What makes the difference is how this practical tendency manifests itself over time as the individual makes their way through the world. The variable life of the mind Archer’s account claims should not be understood as a claim about different types of mind but rather as an account of how individual differences in the exercise of a particular mental faculty (reflexivity) are both shaped by our circumstances and, in turn, work to shape those circumstances through the differing modalities of being-in-the-world and ensuing biographical trajectories which they engender.

It’s in this sense that I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the capacity to bring deliberations to a close. Communicative reflexivity constitutes a tendency to rely on others to complete and confirm deliberations: the individual will often draw some initial conclusions but relies on trusted interlocutors to validate these provisional thoughts in conversation before they feel comfortable acting upon them. Autonomous reflexivity constitutes a tendency to complete one’s own deliberations, not in the sense of precluding the input of others but simply that this is seen as a potentially more or less informative contribution to what is a fundamentally individualised process of working out what to do. Meta-reflexivity constitutes a tendency for deliberations to spiral because both self and circumstances are susceptible to further interrogation e.g. “is this really what I want to do?” or “why do I always react this way when this happens?”. Fractured reflexivity constitutes a tendency for deliberation to amplify affect without bringing the individual any closure to an action-orientation. 

What seems crucial here is the phenomenology of obsessiveness. For instance we often consider something such as ‘indecisiveness’ to be a personal characteristic. Whereas considered in terms of reflexivity, this can be better understood as a difficulty with concluding internal conversations. In this sense I want to distinguish between someone who doesn’t know how to start making a decision and someone who doesn’t know how to stop. The former might designate an inability to begin, an absence of criteria and/or of motivation, which lead to a straightforward inability to know how to approach the question in a practical way – perhaps leading to tossing a coin, rolling a dice or simply choosing arbitrarily. In contrast the latter might be understood as a lack of confidence in concluding a decision – “how do I know this is the right choice?”. Though I’ve gotten better with it over time, I still sometimes struggle hugely with decisions simply because I experience myself as very persuasive… I run through arguments in my head to do A and am persuaded, I run through arguments in my head to do B and am equally persuaded, I run through arguments in my head to do C and yet again I’m persuaded it’s a good idea. One of the striking things about my PhD data was how this seemed to be true of almost every meta-reflexive who took part in my research.

There’s an interesting section in Margaret Archer’s Being Human, written before her work on reflexivity had properly begun, which has provided a useful starting point for thinking through this issue in greater depth. It’s one I want to return to post-PhD to ponder this more at the level of phenomenology:

Why does the dialogue finish here: after all the subject may be making an unwarranted judgement about the worth of her concerns or a mistaken one about her emotional ability to live with them. She may indeed, for this is always possible with any judgement, but there is still no arbitrariness in deciding to end a sequence of potentially endless evaluations which could never conclude with certainty. ‘Terminating the sequence at that point – the point at which there is no conflict or doubt – is not arbitrary. For the only reason to continue the sequence would be to cope with an actual conflict or with the possibility that a conflict might occur. Given that the person does have this reason to continue, it is hardly arbitrary for him to stop.’ 

Archer (2000: 241) (italicised section quotes from Harry Frankfurt’s The Importance of What we Care About)

The important point here is that there is no necessary conclusion to deliberation. Particularly when it comes to momentous life decisions, there is a possibility for continual deliberation which is intensified because neither self nor circumstances remain static while the individual deliberates. Once we free our understanding of ‘inner life’ from Cartesian metaphysics and see it as a process always in movement, one which cuts across and threads through the embodied engagements of day-to-day social life, it becomes easy to see how obsessiveness can so frequently go hand-in-hand with inertia. At some point we have to decide. The deliberation itself can never engender certainty and, with the exception of more extreme instances of fractured reflexivity, we learn to act without it. But we do have proxies. For the communicative reflexive, the confirmation of significant others acts as a proxy for the certainty which is a phenomenological impossibility. For the autonomous reflexive, their confidence in their own reflexive capacities acts as a such a proxy. Whereas for the meta-reflexive and fractured reflexive there is, for different reasons, no such proxy and this is why decisiveness remains such a struggle.

This then raises an obvious series of questions about the developmental processes which will engender each of these tendencies. Much of Archer’s recent work has been concerned with the social conditions which tend to generate these tendencies and the effect, in turn, which their ensuing distribution will tend to have (aggregatively and emergently) on society as a whole. One of the main things I want to work on post-PhD is fleshing out this account at the level of the individual. I’d like to engage with the psychological literature to understood in more detail how doubt and certainty work as psychological phenomena, as well as empirical work on how people come to trust themselves.

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