What is Anthropathology?

What should we be asking about the social, cultural, historical and evolutionary contexts in which compromised mental health arises and how it is compounded? Has humanity lost its way somewhere? Is it heading for its own imminent destruction via anthropogenic climate change, exhaustion of planetary resources and geopolitical conflict? Professor Colin Feltham is taking the dark view seriously. Here, he shares a precis of his new book, “What’s Wrong With us? The Anthropathology Thesis”.

About the Precis

The precis below was sent along by Professor Colin Feltham, author of What’s Wrong With us? The Anthropathology Thesis, published this year by Wiley . Many thanks to Professor Feltham for sharing this overview of his new book.

What is Anthropathology?

Anyone who stops to think about the human condition probably comes to the conclusion that two or three main views are prevalent. First, there is the status quo view that things are pretty much satisfactory or unchangeable as they are. Another take on this is that for many people the human condition may seem futile or difficult to think about, and therefore a pragmatic, ‘getting on with it’ attitude prevails. Second, there is the view that things are getting better and better. This progressivist attitude can encompass business, religion, counselling and personal development, technological and medical advances, space exploration and so on. The third view is darker and more negative. Here, humanity is seen as wayward, as having lost its way somewhere historically, as being quite dysfunctional and damaging, perhaps heading imminently for its own destruction via anthropogenic climate change, exhaustion of planetary resources and geopolitical conflict.

In my book What’s Wrong With us? The Anthropathology Thesis (Wiley, 2007) it is on this last view that I focus. If you suspect even for a moment that our many gradualist attempts to reform ourselves are too piecemeal, too slow, self-deceiving and somehow missing something important, perhaps even being part of the problem themselves, then you might want to ask, with me, how this state of affairs came about. If you are involved in counselling and psychotherapy, you might want to ask serious questions about the social, cultural, historical and evolutionary contexts in which compromised mental health arises and how it is compounded. Why do we have warring schools of therapy and turf wars between rival psychological professions, for example? Why is it that no amount of personal therapy can bring most of us anywhere near to a state of enlightenment?

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Some (including the Reichian James deMeo in Saharasia and the personal development writer Steve Taylor in The Fall) explain our dysfunctionality as originating in the turn from a hunter-gatherer to a settled agricultural lifestyle about 6,000 – 10,000 year ago and all the territoriality, patriarchy and aggression that has accompanied it. Others, including Stevens and Price in Evolutionary Psychiatry, offer convincing evolutionary hypotheses. Too many of our counselling theorists focus on putative parental and intrapsychic factors, while ignoring the socioeconomic context of capitalism. David Smail is an exception here. Many psychotherapeutic writers, including Freud, Jung, Fromm, de Mause and Hillman, use therapy concepts to analyse the dark aspects of society and civilisation. Yet much of this discourse is disowned and disliked by counsellors because it paints a negative, deficit-heavy picture of humanity.

Arguably, in the context of climate change (in which environmental writers like Mark Lynas in Six Degrees give us a mere eight years to bring carbon emissions under control) and resource depletion, an explicit and realistic view of human nature and of the human condition is sorely needed. For those who want to face the human condition in all its grim finitude, many scientific accounts now exist that argue that we have between decades to millions of years until the earth becomes uninhabitable regardless of our actions. Unless we wish to remain Pollyannaish in our counselling theories and practices, we may have to prepare for life getting worse or harsher rather than better and better. Either way, far greater consciousness-raising and a sense of urgency is required of all.

About Colin Feltham

Prof. Colin Feltham is Reader in Counselling at Sheffield Hallam University. He is the author or editor of 20 books on counselling and psychotherapy, Fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy and former co-editor of the British Journal of Guidance and Counselling. A long-time critic of the myopic and over-individualised features of his subject and profession, he has increasingly turned towards socio-economic, historic and evolutionary explanations for our chronic malaise and current human crisis. He is a member of Crisis Forum (www.crisis-forum.org.uk).

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