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Young-Eisendrath, P. (1999). No despair: A response to Dr Tougas's paper. J. Anal. Psychol., 44(3):331-336.
(1999). Journal of Analytical Psychology, 44(3):331-336
No despair: A response to Dr Tougas's paper
Polly Young-Eisendrath, Ph.D.
There is no despair in non-essentialism, neither in its ancient forms of the Indian philosophy of Buddhism, nor in its contemporary Western forms of constructivism. Because Tougas seems to regard constructivism - especially non-essentialism - as a by-product (almost a fashion) of feminism, I will respond mostly to her errroneous presumptions about non-essentialism and constructivism, and only passingly to the clinical implications of her position. Just as the theory of essence has a venerable tradition, so has the theory of non-essence.
Non-essentialist arguments revolve around the notion that our sensory and conceptual worlds are constructed rather than real and separate in themselves. As a practising Buddhist since 1970, I can affirm that the methods and teachings of non-essentialism in Buddhism are aimed at differentiating between conventional (conditioned) experiences and ultimate transcendence, with no hint of the despair described by Tougas. The experience of ultimate transcendence corresponds to the recognition that ‘Not only conditioned, relative things, but also unconditioned, absolute things are understood to be without self, without their own-being’, as contemporary Zen scholar Masao Abe (1992, p. 129) puts it. This is a recognition of the absolute interdependence of all that we experience as self and other.
In the second century, the Indian philosopher Nagarjuna founded the Madhyamika or Middle Path school of Mahayana Buddhism. His most important and best known text is Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way. The central topic of this text is emptiness: the lack of independent existence, inherent existence or essence in things. His argument, which is consonant with all forms of contemporary constructivism, is that any metaphysics that posits essences is ‘incoherent’ and ‘in the end, our conventions and our conceptual framework can never be justified by demonstrating their correspondence to an independent reality’ (Garfield 1995, p. 88).
The central claims of constructivism that I have cited in the texts referred to by Tougas make an identical argument: that we create and sustain our perceptual world through our human engagement with an environment that we can never know directly, beyond our fallibility.
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