Feelings of Being: Delusions, Poetry, and Propositions (Part III)

So after the first couple of posts in this series, that involved mostly setting the stage, but let’s talk more about the implications of existential feelings as a framework for understanding mental illness and experience in general.

Just as a summary from last time, existential feelings are feelings connected to how we constitute the world, how our horizon of experience and possibility is constructed. One of the big insights of this book is realizing that instead of a single Husserlian “natural attitude” we all share there are many different possible orientations towards the world.

The book applies this framework towards the experience of what are generally called delusions. The two he deals with most explicitly in the text are the Capgras delusion, where someone says that the people around them have been secretly replaced, and the Cotard delusion, where someone says that they are dead or do not actually exist.

Here’s where we start to get into the connections to the madness movement. Feelings of Being makes the strong, but I think accurate, claim that a lot of psychological attempts to understand these delusions misunderstand what’s happening. The typical approach involves seeing delusions as propositional claims about the world. Thus, a person who says “my spouse has been replaced with another person” is literally claiming that their spouse is not the same person but rather an imposter who looks identical. A person who says “I am dead” must literally be claiming that they are in a state of death.

Of course, assuming statements are always literal propositional claims is a little odd when you think about it, right? If someone were to say “my heart is breaking” we would all understand that this isn’t a literal claim that their heart is breaking apart like an egg shell. We don’t read the work of poets and think they’re all mad, delusional, for their attempts to describe the world and their feelings.

This is actually a point made by Merleau-Ponty in The Phenomenology of Perception. He argues that hallucinations, by which he means something very similar to how we use delusions now, are not judgments and need to be met on their own terms. We don’t need to believe them but we need to believe in the experience that the person is having. One of his examples is someone who says they can feel the branch of a tree outside passing through their head. You don’t have to believe that the branch is magically extending through solid objects in order to agree that they are, in fact, experiencing that feeling. Merleau-Ponty even makes the argument that people experiencing delusions don’t “believe” their delusions in the sense of judgments about the state of the world, which you can tell from the fact that they are willing to acknowledge contradictory aspects of their delusion: for example something that happens frequently in the Cotard delusion you can show someone they have a pulse and they won’t argue with it yet still say that they’re dead.

So if someone doesn’t really “believe” that their family has been replaced, or that they’re dead, etc. then what is happening? Feelings of Being, much like The Phenomenology of Perception, is making the argument that a person is attempting to convey experiences rather than express propositions. In this model, the goal isn’t to convince someone of a correct view of the world but to help them with the distress they’re experiencing.

Feelings of Being fits this into existential feelings rather neatly: the Cotard delusion is, if we take their descriptions of how they feel and interact with the world seriously, an existential feeling on the same spectrum as depression and depersonalization. The person is alienated from feeling capable of affecting the world around them, from feeling connected to other people and even to their own body. The only truly notable thing about the Cotard delusion is that the distress from this existential feeling so is great it’s no longer possible to convey how they’re feeling but in poetry. Now, to be clear I’m the one drawing the connection to poetry not the text. But I think it’s a useful one to make, especially drawing off of Graham Harman’s argument that poetry is a way of making contact with objects in the world.

Similarly, the Capgras delusion is an attempt to convey feeling like a fundamental aspect of their horizon has changed: namely, the relationships to loved ones. It’s a kind of alienation where the people you know well feel like strangers. You may want to say “but the person is the person is the person” but think about how different your memories of someone are from before you knew them well? They seem similar but not the same, much the same way your neighborhood doesn’t feel the same in your memories as it does now. Your experiences and the possibilities you can imagine shape the way you experience literally everything around you, including the presence of loved ones.

Now, what does this all mean? Largely that we get a much more useful, understandable, way of talking about experiences that otherwise seem puzzling if we just focus on what is being conveyed rather than taking a propositional view. Existential feelings give us a useful framework for thinking about what these experiences might be and how to connect them to other forms of mental illness and distress.

Next time we’re going to take this further into talking about how existential feelings relate to trauma. It’s going to be, uhh, fun.

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