Critique of a Book Used by Many Psychologists and Psychiatrists to Oppress Patients, Part Two


This is  the second part of a five-part series of posts that criticize a book that serves to oppress individuals, whether they have mental health problems or not.

As I indicated in another post (A Worker’s Resistance to the Capitalist Government or State and Its Representatives, Part Nine), I engaged in a partial critique of the book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David Burns, M.D. (1999). This book is used by many psychologists and psychiatrists as a basis for the psychological technique called “mindfulness”–and with reason since Dr. Burns defines human problems independently of social context–quite convenient for the class of employers since the economic, social and political oppressive and exploitative contexts are thereby ignored–or rather suppressed.

The reason why I read the book was that I was required to see a psychologist as a condition of receiving disability benefits from the Manitoba Teachers Society (a kind of union of unions for teachers) (see A Worker’s Resistance to the Capitalist Government or State and Its Representatives, Part Ten). As I pointed out in that post, Marxists and other radicals often fail to take into account how various professionals function to oppress members of the working class–such professionals aid the class of employers in maintaining its power. The radical left needs to address this form of oppressive power if it is to be more successful in organizing workers and convincing them of the need for a socialist society.

Mr. Alan Slusky, a psychologist in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, recommended the book and, in fact, it was supposed to be part of my “therapy”–bibliotherapy. According to Wikipedia:

Bibliotherapy is a creative arts therapies modality that involves storytelling or the reading of specific texts with the purpose of healing. It uses an individual’s relationship to the content of books and poetry and other written words as therapy. Bibliotherapy is often combined with writing therapy.

I refer occasionally to John Dewey’s philosophy of science, which I will look at in the last post of this series. I also refer occasionally to my dissertation. My doctoral dissertation compared the philosophies of human nature of John Dewey (an :American philosopher of education and author of, among other books, Human Nature and Social Conduct: An Introduction to Social Psychology, Democracy and Education and Logic: The Theory of Inquiry) and Paulo Freire (a Brazilian philosopher of education and author, among other books, of Pedagogy of the Oppressed).

Critique of the Contents of the Book

Let us now turn to the contents of the book and some of my criticisms. I do not present my criticism in the order in which I wrote it since the initial points are fairly abstract (I leave those for the fourth and fifth posts in this series).. My critical comments are usually either in square brackets or separate points : 

    1. P. 27: “Many individuals have the delusion that they are extraordinarily powerful and brilliant, and often insist that they are on the verge of some philosophical or scientific breakthrough or some money-making scheme.”

    2. P. 28: “Depression is not an emotional disorder at all!”

    3. [This claim is interesting—it is a problem of cognition—of bad thinking, of illogical thinking. Depression is—a cognitive disorder.]

    4. The sudden change in the way you feel is of no more causal relevance than a runny nose is when you have a cold. [Note the complete divorce of symptom and “cause.” Consequences are irrelevant in determining causes.] [This view of science contrasts sharply with that of Dewey. See my dissertation.] [A runny nose is just as relevant for the determination of the nature of the problem and for its solution as the “cause.” Burns’ conception of cause is probably similar to common-sense inquiry—something occurring before and producing the specific effect. However, the “cause” of the cold and the symptoms are what science attempts to unite in one descriptive-narrative process. See my dissertation. See also the complete account of malaria by Dewey in his Logic: The Theory of Inquiry—a logic grounded in scientific inquiry. See also Dewey’s remarks about induction and the nature of evidence or data as forming both a sign for the determination of the nature of the problem and a sign for the determination of a solution—that is to say, as having a double function.]

    5. Every bad feeling you have [Every? Such a generalization is unscientific. No scientist would say that every “cause” results in the same consequence regardless of mediating conditions. Furthermore, such a conclusion, if ever it were warranted, would be subject to massive research into the negation of conditions that might lead to the contrary conclusion.] is the result of your distorted negative thinking. [Bad feelings are “caused” by distorted negative thinking. Eliminate the distorted negative thinking and you will eliminate the bad feeling. Do not “bad feelings” portend a problem sometimes, though? Some “bad feelings” may indeed have no basis in reality, but others may. To assume that bad feelings are somehow “bad” is absurd.]

    6. Illogical pessimistic attitudes [note the conjunction of the adjectives “illogical” and “pessimistic.” To be pessimistic is, probably, to be illogical] play the central role in the development and continuation of all your symptoms. [I suppose, with the same logic, that if you hit a person constantly on the shoulder for days on end, it is your “illogical pessimistic attitude” that is causing you to experience pain for a number of days. And what of Sister Dianne Ortiz? Consider the case of Sister Dianne Ortiz (2002). She was an American nun who went to Guatemala in 1987 to do what for her was God’s work by working with the poor there. In 1989 she was kidnapped, gang raped, forced to cut another woman with a machete and tortured by being burned with a cigarette over 100 times—within a period of 24 hours. It could of course be abstractly said that she was in “unity with her environment” since she did not die. However, her own self was destroyed. She did not even recognize her parents at first. She reconstructed herself in various ways, such as by fighting against the Guatemalan government to find out who tortured her, by fighting against the American government to find out who was the American who supervised torture operations where she was tortured and by meeting others who also fought in various ways (such as the American woman who fought to find out if her Guatemalan husband was alive or dead). For many years, she was in conflict with herself and her environment. She kept a razor blade with her for years in case she needed to kill herself. Was there not an objective conflict between her and her environment that led her to expand her life in various ways? Her reconstructed self involved a process of clarification of her situation and, through that process, a substantially reconstructed unity.]

    7. Page 28: “Intense negative thinking always accompanies a depression episode, or any painful emotion for that matter.” Firstly, to say that negative thinking is the “cause” in the usual, common-sense way of thinking does not involve “accompanying” but antecedently occurring. If the negative thinking is accompanying, then it is simultaneous. So, which is it? Antecedent or simultaneous?

    8. Page 29: “You will learn … that the negative thoughts that flood your mind are the actual cause of your self-defeating emotions.” [Now, they are considered the cause. Before, they accompanied. What does he mean by cause, by the way? If not antecedent?]

    9. Your negative thoughts, or cognitions, are the most frequently overlooked symptoms of your depression.” Symptoms? Symptoms are end results of a process. Before, however, he wrote that negative thoughts are the cause of negative feelings. From page 12: “The first principle of cognitive therapy is that all your moods are created by your “cognitions,” or thoughts. … You feel the way you do because of the thoughts that you are thinking in this moment.” So: negative thoughts are the cause of all your moods, but negative thoughts are the symptoms of depression. Is cause the “independent variable” and the “symptom” the dependent variable in typical positivist terms? If so, he is simply contradicting himself—hardly scientific. Furthermore, the second principle is: “The second principle is that when you are feeling depressed, your thoughts are dominated by a pervasive negativity.” So, it would seem that it is not your negative thoughts that create your negative feelings, but your “feeling depressed” that causes your negative thoughts. Which is it? Or is there a dialectic here? If so, then he contradicts himself on p. 29: Page 29: “You will learn … that the negative thoughts that flood your mind are the actual cause of your self-defeating emotions.” On page 28, he also contradicts himself in this regard: Page 28: “Intense negative thinking always accompanies a depression episode, or any painful emotion for that matter.” Does he mean “simultaneous”? So, negative thoughts cause negative feelings, accompany them, and are a symptom of them? Is this his logic? His scientific thought? His claim to be logical?]

    10. From page 12: “…it is based on common sense….” He contradicts himself here as well. Common-sense and scientific inquiry have different problems, one concerned with the instrumental means and the other concerned with ends. To claim that cognitive behavioural therapy “is based on common sense” is to exclude scientific inquiry from the very beginning. The “data” of common sense inquiry must be reworked in order to perform inductive inquiry. See for example, the reworked data of the capitalist economy in Karl Marx’s Capital, where Marx begins with the commodity as the unit of analysis. See also Hegel’s description of the problem of a beginning in his The Science of Logic.

    11. P. 29: “Every [my emphasis] time you feel depressed about something, try to identify a corresponding negative thought you had just prior to and during the depression.” [my emphasis] [Which is it? If thought is the cause of negative feeling, then according to the conventional view of “cause” as the “independent variable and “effect” as the dependent variable, the cause occurs before the effect. If it occurs simultaneously with the “effect,” then it could be the depression which is “causing” the negative thoughts. Such imprecision and confusion from the “scientist.”]

    12. P. 29: “Because these thoughts have actually created your bad mood [a problem here that Burns is unaware of—a lack of cognitive thinking on his part. According to his own theory, then, he should be feeling something negative—but he evidently is not, so not being aware of your bad thinking does not necessarily “cause” you to feel in a bad mood. But this only by the by. Rene Descartes faced the problem of how to relate the “mind” as spiritual or intellectual, without physical space, with the “body” as physical and existing in space. How could they be related as cause and effect if they are in different dimensions? Descartes, if I remember correctly, used the pineal gland as a sort of mediator between the two. Burns does not even see that his reference to thought causing feelings might pose a problem if they are different dimensions. Are thoughts physical? What are thoughts? If thoughts are not physical, how can they “cause” anything at all? What of feelings? Are feelings physical? If thoughts and feelings are both not physical, why speak of “cause” at all? Are they causal in the same sense as the cause of a pen falling to the ground is the gravitational attraction of material things? Another problem is with the concept of “created.” Did thoughts magically engender feelings out of nothing? To create anything, it is necessary to have an object on which to work in order to transform the object into a different form. How can thoughts “create” feelings? What is the process that establishes the linkages?], by learning to restructure them, you can change your mood. [So, our lives in a capitalist society are not characterized by a lack of control over our own lives—which contributes to depression. It is rather our “interpretation” of it. What nonsense. This leads to a lack of control over our lives by not acknowledging the situation in which we live.]

    13. You are probably skeptical of all this [Burns mentions somewhere Epictetus—a Stoic. Now he refers to skeptic—the ancient opposition of skeptics and stoics in modern garb? Where are the Epicureans?] of all this because your negative thinking has become such a part of your life that it has become automatic. [A nice piece of defensive reasoning there. Any person who is skeptical of his so-called science is labeled irrational or illogical. Only Burns is rational; any who dare doubt or question his propositions are irrational.]

    14. p. 29: The relationship between the way you think and the way you feel is diagrammed in Figure 3-1.” [I will look at this in a moment.]

    15. This illustrates the first major key to understanding your moods: Your emotions result entirely [my emphasis] from the way you look at things.” [Which came first, feelings (let us use a different term for emotions, which are more concrete than feelings) or thoughts? Do animals think? Do animals feel? If animals—other than humans—feel but do not think, then the relationship historically is feeling first then the emergence of thought or cognition. Then cognition is related to thought in terms of the life process and not as some “independent cause”. Human beings are living beings—not pure cognitive objects. Burns in essence is reducing human nature to thought and knowledge—a nice trick. How impoverished a view of human nature he has. Human nature is much more complicated than that. Burns follows the school view of human nature—as beings of knowledge, like most philosophers as well.]

    16. [This whole approach is characteristic of philosophers throughout the ages—an approach that both Marx and Dewey fought against—to treat human beings as pure beings of cognition. From John Dewey, Lectures on Psychological and Political Ethics: 1898, pages 135-136): 

The result is that along with the growth and partly as a result of it, in the intellectual class at least, the emotional concomitants of the emotional process have become very much reduced.

We have no right, however, to take our typical illustrations from that sphere [which is what Burns and most philosophers in the past have done] because this marks a highly specialized development of attention; this is not a normal or average case of attention by any means; it is a technical case. What we call the sphere of prejudices and opinions is the normal and average case; and one only has to think of these prejudices and the part which they play—not simply for bad, but for good as well—in the life of the ordinary man, to realize how truly the emotional element is bound up with the intellectual. … The emotional agitation is harmful, disadvantageous, in a strictly scientific process because it tends to attach too much interest to the outcome [Burns obviously is emotionally concerned that his theory is valid] while the scientific man must be relatively indifferent as to what sort of a product he is to get. [Consequently, when a person opposes those who defend the capitalist system, that person should learn to become indifferent to the consequences.] He must be equally open to have his thoughts move in any line where there seems to be a fair prospect of reaching any conclusions. …

The story of Isaac Newton will illustrate the point. When his calculation regarding the moon upon which depended the verification of his theory of universal gravitation was approaching completion, he was obliged to give the calculation to somebody else to continue because he was in such an excited state he could not carry it on. That simply illustrates the disturbance when any tension is reaching its climax. [Burns, the Newton of psychology, undoubtedly became excited when his book was to be published and when it sold so well: “national bestseller—more than four million copies in print.”]

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