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  • “There Has to be a Pattern”
  • P. G. Sturdee (bio)

Svenaeus’s paper is an impressive example of how philosophy and practice can cross-fertilize each other to produce fruits that provide intellectual nourishment for all who are to taste them. I have chosen a quote from J. B. Priestley’s Bright Day as the title of this commentary, because the phrase “there has to be a pattern” (the expression of perplexity Priestley puts into the mouth of the main character, Gregory Dawson) seems to sum up what it is that we face in trying to come to terms with the enormity of making sense of our own experience, and our feelings about it. And, of course, it is the same challenge that faces the clinician, the philosopher, the psychopathologist, the researcher, and also, if one is convinced by the argument of Svenaeus’s paper, the patient with alexithymia.

I want to focus on an aspect of Svenaeus’s analysis that is somewhat underplayed in his paper, and which, I believe, merits considerable further development, although I will attempt here only a sketch of the problem. This is not to criticize Svenaeus for restricting the scope of his own paper—he already achieves so much within the space available to him, and to have attempted more would be to have risked diluting his core message.

The Search for Patterns of Meaning

“There has to be a pattern” seems to sum up Svenaeus’s basic conception of the nature of the problem in alexithymia, as informed by the phenomenology of Heidegger. There are really two problems here, as Svenaeus indicates: first, how the observer can come to understand what it is that is different about the alexithymic, as compared with the rest of us; and second, there is the problem of capturing the way in which the self-experience of the alexithymic person differs from that of the non-alexithymic. There are attendant difficulties, which Svenaeus also acknowledges: the scientist or student of alexithymia cannot hope to experience how the alexithymic actually feels, and this difficulty is compounded by the way in which we are constrained to communicate or express our feelings through our behavior (including linguistic behavior).

Svenaeus argues that we can understand the self-experience of the alexithymic from the way feelings function as part of an intertwined set of categories or “existentials” of human existence—notably, in Svenaeus’s view, understanding (Verstehen), attunement (Befindlichkeit) and language (Rede). And yet, it seems to me, the Heideggerian framework of meaning-giving, directed at creating an intelligible bridge between our current predicament and motivations and our future prospects, is constrained, just as the approach of the natural scientist is constrained, by the lack of space for a subjective appreciation of the significance of the experience of feelings for the individual, as a component of our understanding of [End Page 95] their predicament. This is, of course, part of the Heideggerian message—that we cannot hope to capture the whole by merely citing parts of it, and the whole exists only insofar as it pertains in or for each individual. But here the essential irony and paradox in seeking to objectify the subjective begins to appear.

Irony and Paradox in Seeking to Objectify the Subjective

“There has to be a pattern” is for me the resounding message of Svenaeus’s paper—but it also captures the nature of the problem that he so subtly offers us for consideration as a subtext. This is because the basic problem of understanding lies with ourselves as interested observers of the alexithymic’s predicament. We conceive of the alexithymic as having a problem, because his or her behavior and expressions of feeling (or lack of them) are so different from our own. But the alexithymic’s own subjective appreciation of his or her situation may be quite different from ours—he or she may complain of psychosomatic ailments, or perhaps no obvious ailment at all, but merely display an incapacity to be perceptive of, and sensitive to, the emotional needs of others, together with an apparent lack of ability to experience and/or express feelings of his or her own.

It is Svenaeus’s evocation of...

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pp. 95-99
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