Mind and Body:
From René Descartes to William James

Writing Descartes:
I Am, and I Can Think, Therefore ...

Story Evolution

an exchange triggered by Grobstein's Writing Descartes ...
29 August 2004

Shdaimah followed by Grobstein


The main concern that i raised in our discussion, and that always worries me when we talk about agency and the ability/potential to make changes comes from both a micro and a macro level. I draw on a sort of gut reaction and also on my experience interviewing legal services lawyers and clients and from what i see in the welfare and housing policy discourses. When we say that people have the potential to change (and is that the same thing as the power?) we do not take into account the structural conditions (and to extrapolate perhaps the biological parameters) within which change is possible. Marx talked about men (sic) making history but not being able to chose the circumstances in which they make it (off the top of my head, might have the skewed the quote) and C. Wright Mills also has a theory where people are the intersection of biography and history, i.e. their personal stories and choices (biography) and the larger social/political/economic backdrop in which they act (he too talked about men i think...)

Getting back to the micro and the macro levels: to tell an individual that they can change in situations where change is difficult or impossible (based on current situation/knowledge/medicine- even if in the future something might change) can be cruel in the sense that if they don't change (improve?) then they are at fault. And the implication here if we don't take the parameters or outside forces into account is that the individual just didn't try hard enough or believe hard enough or whatever. This message is one that reverberates throughout our social policies in the US, where individuals (or at least poor folks- people with connections are not expected to do this, just look at legacy admissions) are supposed to "pull themselves up by their bootstraps" and take personal responsibility. The 1996 welfare reform is telling. although the law is named "personal responsibility and work opportunity reconciliation act," the emphasis is clearly on the responsibility of beneficiaries, largely their reproductive behavior. There is little or no focus on the creation of work opportunities and it does not address or even really acknowledge the structural poverty such as lack of job opportunities and transportation and housing problems, or lack of affordable safe childcare.

It's not that I don't believe in the potential/possibility of change. I do in fact feel very strongly about the ethical/moral imperative of taking responsibility for ourselves and our actions, but this must be seen in context and our US context is so focused on individualism that I think we need to be careful not to pull too much that way. focusing only on personal change deflects our responsibility as a society for helping others and creating more opportunities rather than less.

This tension between personal and political change (clinical vs. policy) is perhaps the hallmark tension of the profession, and it comes up in all the policy classes I have taken and that I teach. It should not have to be an either/or, but somehow it seems to often play out that way. I think it's important to problematize this dichotomy and then to think practically about what it means, i.e. how do we actually keep our eyes on both in our personal and professional lives.


Thanks. With your background and expertise in law, advocacy, and the policy concerns of the social work community, your thoughts are particularly meaningful. If Descartes (and others reworking his story) is actually important, its largely on your turf that the stories are appropriately tested and refined. I've learned a lot from listening to your wrestling with the "personal and political change (clinical vs policy)" issue, and think others will too.

The touchstone problems, it seems to me are "to tell an individual that they can change in situations where change is difficult or impossible ... can be cruel in the sense that if they don't change (improve) then they are at fault" and "focusing only on personal change deflects our responsibility as a society for helping others and creating more opportunities ...". They are closely related but not, I think, identical problems, so let me see if I can tease them apart a bit and then look more at the relations between them.

The context, of course, is my "therefore I can change who I am" assertion. And, in this context, I fully agree it is important to not mislead people. The assertion is that "change" is always possible, but not at all that any particular change is within reach of any particular person over any particular time course. It is unquestionably true that the ensemble of possible changes is different for different people, for a whole variety of reasons, including both "biological parameters" and "structural conditions" (by which I assume you mean socio-economic and cultural factors). The folk myth (American?) that anyone can become whatever they put their mind to (and, hence, have only themselves to blame if they fail to achieve it) is indeed misleading and cruel (whether propagated by philosophers or social workers or politicians or ... parents).

The narrower assertion, that SOME kind of change is always possible for individuals (yes, within their "power") might seem trivial, particularly in practical contexts, and to be ignoring the posssibility/desirability of working towards social/political/economic change. In fact, I think attention to the individual capability to change, however limited it is in any particular case and circumstance, is not only of enormous importance in personal lives but is absolutely central to social/political/economic change.

We, as humans, are a social species. People often want help from other people with particular problems and it is all to the good when others are willing and prepared to offer such help. But people also want "agency", a sense of being a meaningful player in their own lives. And the most effective help is often that which provides a realistically enhanced sense of agency ("give a man a fish ... teach a man to fish"). The phenomenon is not only psychological "feel good" but also practical (the "agent", properly encouraged, is often the best source of knowledge about what changes are in fact possible under the circumstances), and political (enhancing a sense of agency, even in small ways, tends to increase the taste for agency). I'm not sure I'd use the term "ethical/moral imperative" (since it risks giving the impression of a complete self-responsibility that we both want to avoid), but there are, it seems to me, clear practical reasons to encourage people to aspire to the greatest possible level of "taking responsibility for ourselves and our actions". Letting people know they themselves can change, one way or another in smaller or bigger ways, seems to me appropriate and useful in that regard.

And I see less of a tension between that and a commitment to "political change" than you do. The key here, for me, is that "our responsibility as a society" is at bottom nothing more (and nothing less) than a complex amalgam of how we all feel about/see things as individuals. I very much doubt that a society made up of individuals who disbelieve in their own capacity for change would exhibit much commitment to change on a broader scale. And, conversely, I suspect that a society of individuals able to conceive change in themselves will be more inclined to conceive larger scale change. There is, of course, an obvious risk of individuals in such a society becoming preoccupied with their own interests and ignoring (or even accentuating) impediments to change by others. This though, it seems to me, needs to be dealt with as a separate problem, not be discouraging people from taking responsibility for themselves but by, in addition, helping people to better understand their mutual dependencies, both near term and long term.

Maybe its not "either/or", nor even some place of tension in between, but instead a situation where one can have one's cake and eat it too? Individuals, by virtue of their capacity to implement change in themselves, find it both conceivable and useful to try and implement social/political/economic structures that maximize the capacities for change of all individuals? Would that work?


You kind of end up and suggest what I actually write about in my dissertation. I write about lawyers and clients who have "learned" from their experiences and from the current political climate that the systems in which they work (courts, child welfare, TANF, whatever) are fundamentally unfair, unjust and unresponsive to change. However, they have not lost their capacity to imagine a better system, or some vision of what justice would look like. Nor have they stopped trying to change things in ways that they can, even while recognizing the limitations of that and the remoteness of the possibility of broadscale change. Together they snipe at the system in terms of the legal tactics they employ; they trash the system together in ways that help reinforce their belief in their own rightness or desert or at least help to remove some of the blame and pain they feel and to create a different narrative that tells their side and legitimates their stories; and they work to get some material relief on an individual basis which is a minimum pre-requisite to any kind of change or empowerment anyway (if your kids are hungry and you don't have a home, it might be hard to think of empowerment or systems change).

So I guess I agree with you in many ways that individual work and the belief that you can change something is important, that it "teaches" us that change is possible and helps us imagine other changes or other potential as well as gives us some of what we might need in the interim.

This is a focal point in my dissertation. It's entitled "working for social change" and it talks precisely about what lawyers and clients think about the potential for social change. One of the several understandings i have come to is that lawyers and clients see working at the individual level to make change as even more important - and perhaps more necessary to keeping the hope of change alive - precisely when they feel that real systemic change is impossible. An interesting paradox, that makes a lot of sense when you think about it.

To digress slightly, i also wonder about the self-selection (predisposition?) issue, i.e. those that can challenge or imagine change will be those that seek help; those that can't will not seek help (although some of the clients are referred, which means that they might not be able to imagine this but that the encounter can encourage it...). And even those who are "predisposed" to believe in the power of change (lawyers and clients) need each other and their colleagues/peers to help maintain this belief, especially when the political/social/economic climate is tough.


Do think we have gotten too quite similar places. Along quite different paths. Which always makes me feel more confident that there is actually a there there (you too, I hope).

Do think there is indeed a "self-selection" issue to be attended to, ie that some people are more inclined to imagine/expect change than others and the task is to encourage more of that in everyone. And there is an interesting issue to explore further in "any kind of change or empowerment" in relation to "hard to think of systems change". My (optimistic?) guess as a biologist/neurobiologist, for whatever it is worth, is that everyone is born with some capacity to imagine/work toward "change ... empowerment" in general, with this being more or less supported/encouraged by experiences/cultural context. But that "systems change" is something that, by and large, occurs mostly to people who "think". If so, the game is to develop cultures that sustain, rather than inhibit, a belief in personal ability to change (doable to some degree under any circumstances) AND that encourage the development of peoples' capacity as individuals (and groups of individuals) to contribute to "systems change".

Dissertation sounds relevant/interesting indeed. Maybe share an excerpt from it on Serendip?

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