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If Irvin Yalom Is A Gateway Drug, Then Brent Potter Is Pink Peruvian Flake [review]

brent potter new book pink perfuvian flake
Jason Dias
Written by Jason Dias

If Irvin Yalom’s work doesn’t get you high anymore, it’s time you check out Brent Potter’s Elements of Reparation. You’re ready for it.

jason-dias-anewdomain-amazon-kindleaNewDomain —  Science the way it is currently constructed hasn’t been around long.

Before we had Western Empiricism, we had natural philosophy.

 The Greeks practiced this manner of inquiry. Sages like Lucretius wrote epic-length letters to the people about how they thought things worked. They arrived at their conclusions largely through ad hoc reasoning and chose their phenomena of interest without much by way of rhyme or reason. Lucretius, for example, wondered how we see. He posited tiny particles that arrived at the eyes – right! Amazing!

But he thought those particles were tiny elementary particles identical, except in size, to the object radiating them. In other words, you are composed of billions of tiny little versions of you, and you radiate those particles all the time.

Sometimes they land in other people’s eyes, and then they see you.

elements of reparationsDuring the Dark Ages, we lost (and recovered) our ability to reason in this manner. Or, more accurately, our ad-hoc reasoning was dominated by the Church. The Church held onto all the knowledge that had been accumulated by ancient civilizations such as the Greeks and the Romans, collected it the way my son collect Pokemon cards, stored it away.

In the meantime, new reasoning skills began to evolve. Forgotten in a monastery, Gregor Mendel experimented with pea plants. His experiments began as trial and error, a primitive form of human reasoning most of us become capable of by age 8-10.

Many of us never move beyond this stage and into formal operation reasoning, the stage at which we begin to be able to reason abstractly, to experiment in a formal and methodical fashion.

natphil2From the time Mendel started his experiments to rule out any cause by inheritance for the variations he saw in the plants, spurred perhaps by improving conditions in the western world (fewer wars, less disease, higher standards of living) formal reasoning and experimentation began to take off.

 It wasn’t really until large-scale manufacturing of beer required a way to know a whole batch was good without opening every barrel in the batch that we started to use statistical reasoning as a method of inquiry.

Freud read the Greeks. This is very clear in his work, in his choice of myth structure to explain the phenomena he encountered in his work with human minds.

The fact that he got started really before science (as we understand it now) was in full swing, and the fact that his introductions to logical inquiry came from Lucretius an Aristotle and Plato, perhaps caused him to think and write in the manner he did.

  Freud’s work was never scientific. It is ad-hoc and sometimes post-hoc reasoning, explanatory frameworks created from air.

That isn’t bad. What is bad is reifying these explanations: treating the ego as though it is a real thing, treating people as though penis envy is a real disease that they have, and expelling people from our group of associates if they disagree with any of this reasoning.

elements of reparationIn existential circles, we sometimes say Irvin Yalom is the gateway drug to existential psychology. His theories are largely interpersonalist in nature: all psychological difficulties can be seen as problems of relationship and, therefore, can be addressed interpersonally. People like his crisp way of writing and his obvious care for other people.

Read much into existential philosophy or psychology, however, and one finds that Yalom is really only the beginning. We can follow him backwards to Rollo May and to Kirk Schneider, to Jim Bugenthal, backwards farther still to the Europeans. Into Kierkegaard, Sartre, Frankl and Heidegger.

And if Yalom is the gateway drug, Brent Potter is pink Peruvian flake.

His book, Elements of Reparation, attempts a rapprochement between psychoanalytic and existential thought and, perhaps, practice. It wouldn’t be the first work in this direction. Robert Stolorow, for example, is increasing well known to existentialists for some of his compelling work on grief – in particular, the first-hand phenomenology of traumatic grief.

natphil5Potter asked me to review his book for him and I have been putting it off a long time. Because I like Brent, and I think this is very solid work in his field, but the book didn’t do much for me. I had a hard time getting through it.

  The reason is that this is a work of natural philosophy. It follows in the footsteps of Freud. The objects of inquiry seem valuable enough: truth, faith and transformation. But the method of inquiry results in a great deal of abstraction.

Let’s go back to those Pokemon cards.

My son likes to collect them, which is fine. I can get housework out of him by rewarding him with a dollar here, a dollar there; and I can teach him discipline by helping him save up money to get what he wants. The trouble is, he wants to talk to me about them all the time.

natphil6To him, the characters in the cards, in the game, are real. They exist and have characteristics. He describes them in detail. They have made-up names and the characteristics are just as made-up: attack power, defense points, elements…

I rapidly lose patience with long explications of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the evolved form of Riachu.

When it comes to psychoanalysis and psychodynamics, I have equally little patience.

See, there is no such thing as an ego, or a super-ego. Or reparation, god, the soul. If you want to do soul work in psychology, we need to have an equivocating argument about souls.

 So, I’ve been struggling to get a handle on this thing for about three months. 

Here it is: the research (studies by Norcross, for example, and Bruce Wampold) strongly suggest that all psychotherapy is equally helpful. The primary factor in whether people get better in therapy is nothing to do with the myth systems we employ (and Potter is explicit that all this abstraction is indeed a myth system, a symbolic means of comprehending a person and their problems that is intended to help) but everything to do with how much we trust one another.

The quality of the relationship best predicts good outcomes in therapy.

Human – business evolution

  Being good at what one does is also important, and there can be no doubt that Potter is a master of his discipline.

  One could do a lot worse than to read through Elements of self destruction and Elements of reparation, both by Potter, if one wishes to examine psychoanalysis in a modern context, stripped of many of the more bizarre and unnecessary cultural artifacts in first-wave psychoanalysis.

  When it comes to that rapprochement with existentialism, I’d suggest a little less Heidegger and a little more Frankl, Bugenthal, and Rollo May.

  There is an additional problem here, possibly, one of confirmation bias.

  When we decide to follow the path of natural philosophy rather than statistically informed reasoning and experimental elements, it is easy to forget that science cannot prove things. Science can only attempt to disprove them and provisionally accept theories (explanatory frameworks that lead to testable hypotheses) that survive such testing.

  In forgetting this principle, one is tempted to make a case: to gather all the evidence in support of an opinion, and neglect all of the contrary evidence.

  When I listen to or observe discussions in which someone brings up Bion, I nearly always hear this comment: “Oh, I love Bion!” Now, if the person loving Bion meant, “Bion is my uncle, and I visit him twice a month, and he’s always very kind,” that would be one thing. Or even if the meant, “I have tremendous affection for empirically verified theories and Bion’s work has stood up to several attempts to falsify his theories,” that, too, would be great. Seems unlikely, though, doesn’t it?

What people seem to mean is:“Bion’s work confirms my biases.”

It’s like this. I went to a debate held in a large local church. The debate topic was, “Is Christianity good for America?”

The audience was packed, as one might imagine, with the faithful. The unfaithful are less likely to think this is even a question. So, whenever the person on the “yes” side of the debate said anything, there were smatterings of applause, or shouts of “Amen!” When he scored points with a snappy post-hoc argument, there were cheers.

He hadn’t really made any logical arguments, just faith statements. People were really saying he was smart and he agreed with them and therefore they were smart, too.

And I see this when people go gaga for Melanie Klein or Bion or see some meaning in Heidegger. (One can make the case there is no meaning to be seen in Heidegger

So I’d suggest less of the existentialists who seem to agree and more of the existentialists who can do the things your analysts can’t or aren’t explicitly doing. Heidegger is so vague that any meaning can be made from him. But Satir is much more about loving others well; Carl Whitaker is much more about using one’s own charisma to disrupt systems; Yalom is a great deal more about approaching people authentically, about being truthful.

Reparation, for Yalom, is all about the current relationship.

In the end, I think Potter’s conclusions are wholesome ones and are supported by clinical data.

Medications are not as good for us as the people selling medications want us to believe, for example. And we do indeed need symbolic or myth systems, a means of organizing our perceptions and formulating cases. And if Yalom isn’t getting you high anymore, maybe you’re ready for something harder.

For aNewDomain, I’m Jason Dias.

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About the author

Jason Dias

Jason Dias

Jason Dias, PsyD is an existential psychotherapist who breathes words. He's a senior columnist at aNewDomain.