Human Experience

John Russon draws on concepts from European Continental Philosophy to argue that neurosis is fundamental to the human condition itself.

Russon, John. Human Experience: Philosophy, Neurosis, and the Elements of Everyday Life. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003.

I have to admit, this book flew over my head quite a bit. While the text is written in a very accessible way, the concepts are complex and not always easy to comprehend. I clearly need to read this text at least one more time. In the meantime, here are some of my thoughts on what I think is going on. They are jottings from my notebook and are meant to be read that way.

The fundamental struggle that defines the life of a person is the pursuit of self-esteem and self-understanding.

The identities of human bodies, memories, and things are experienced as existing in relation to surroundings, other people, or past and future.

For Russon, the core of one’s identity is the core of our embodiment and our intersubjective experiences with others. He prioritizes the body and its intersubjective relationship to the world. Our everyday bodily activities reveal who we are. The fundamental capacity of our body is the capacity to care about other things and other people. Our personality is shaped through family and social experience. In this work, he develops a sense of “I Can” (borrowed from Edmund Husserl) which is based off of Martin Heidegger’s concept of Dasein. “I Can” represents an existential and phenomenological development of existence and being. Russon’s construction of “I Can” is future-oriented and open to an array of possibilities. He writes, “We are our possibilities for interactions with things, and things are their possibilities for our interaction” (p. 31). This suggests that the core of our identity contains our unknown and embodied possibilities of interaction with others. The fundamental capacity of our body is the capacity to care about other things and other people.

Education and therapy provide possibilities for self-transcendence. He writes that:

The project of therapy is precisely the project of engaging the erotic, expressive sphere for the sake of facilitating the self-transcendence of the neurotic determinacies of our habitual situatedness. In therapy, we use expression—we cocreate with the other—to determine what our habitual comportment already expresses, for the sake of transforming this fundamental expression. Therapy seeks empowerment through liberating our expressive capabilities, creating a new identity for ourselves beyond the repetition of our clichés of habitual behavior and self-interpretation. (p. 120)

Russon argues that neurosis is fundamental to the human condition itself, an early construction of identity based on our initial introduction to intersubjectivity. Neurosis is the conflict between two interpretations of reality. It is simply how we function as embodied, interpretative beings. This does not mean that neurosis is not unproblematic, however. Russon uses the example of a woman choosing to break a diet in which she had previously been faithful to illustrate this:

Her behavior enacts a memory—or rather, it is the memory—of who she is, but it is out of step with the self she has become. Her memory is a remembering of originary events—self-transcending, creative strategies for making contact—but it remembers them as static inasmuch as these strategies are no longer living, interactive strategies whose viability is under debate; rather, they are fixed habits. Furthermore, these are strategies based on narratives—interpretations—of her situation that other sectors of her life have superseded, but that have not themselves been superseded on their own terms, that is, in their local terrain. To eat is to remember a certain self, a certain “I can” of intersubjectivity, that is “behind the times” of her current intersubjective reality. (pp. 87-88)

When we claim that we want something, but we are compelled to do the opposite, we are frustrated and puzzled. The true problem, however, is that we are simply unaware of our habits that compel us towards actions and behavior that are at odds with what we actually wish to do with our lives. Philosophy is itself a self-conscious, educative process by which our unconscious habituation to our intersubjective reality is brought into our view for conscious deliberation.

Interpretation focuses on the way in which we are active in making sense of our experience. Patterns of memory and expectation are crucial to understanding how we make sense of our experience. Embodiment suggests that the patterns of memory and expectation that shape our human experience have their own terms set by our bodily capacities. All modes of experience are bodily engagements with the world. Through the process of habituation, we are allowed ever more sophisticated ways of experiencing ourselves and the world.

We have a tendency to construct our lives and our memories through the process of habituation. Our being-in-the-world must be thought of in the present as an “engagement with the world of objects” where “we are fundamentally continuing to engage with our own past” (p. 47). Habituation develops when our bodily interactions come to operate for us without reflection of self-consciousness. When we develop habits, we are able to direct our attention elsewhere because the behavior becomes automatic. We also see the progression from basic bodily actions to more sophisticated possibilities. Habituation is the process by which we build up through our embodiment progressively more complex behaviors that become automatic to us and thus the “I Can” with which we make contact with objects and the world becomes more complex and sophisticated.