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My limited, and very humble, cooking experiences have never involved a pressure cooker. However, I do understand a little about how they function and why they are used. For many dishes, it suffices to permit the steam generated by cooking to pass out of the cooking vessel, and permit the food to otherwise be finished by ordinary methods of heating. But some recipes require that the food be cooked in a more intense manner: the steam that might otherwise be released unused into the indifferent world are instead contained under pressure, and that pressure in turn forces that steam back into the food, to provide an especially deep, internal, and unremitting form of cooking. This is all just physics, lacking the resources and the motivation to attempt such recipes, I’ve no idea what the process or products actually look like. My motivation for mentioning it is quite different from culinary compositions.Pressure Cooker

Cooking is often used as a basis for metaphors for human psychology. For example, a person who is “fried” or “baked” is someone who is exploring better living through chemistry. “Scrambled” is great for eggs, but speaks to a chaotic and disorganized state of mind in a person. Steamed vegetables have a happy crunch, but a person who is steamed is likely to be poor company. So the effect on the person is often taken from the effect on the food, rather than our enjoyment of that effect. (Presumably, the vegetable derives no joy from being steamed.) But the usefulness of such metaphors is always limited, and sometimes just genuinely wrong. Such can be the case with pressure cooker images.

Philosophy (and this is a philosophical blog) moves by logic, but it is founded and driven by examples. So in order for my philosophical discussions to have something concrete to build upon, I will offer two examples (and briefly mention a recent personal event). But it is the nature of the beast that examples in philosophy will always be extremes. As such, they are not intended (or, at least, should not be taken as intending) to act or represent “paradigms” of the situations and experiences they are illustrating. Rather, they are marking out a clear and unambiguous set of boundaries within which the more normal reach of human experience is to be discovered. But these boundaries provide “pegs” upon which the threads of logic can be attached and strung (and metaphors can be wrought until they are overwrought; but that’s a different discussion.) Just to cover my “due diligence”, it then becomes a primary philosophical problem to determine if the examples chosen are so extreme that they cease to have any relevance to the discussion at hand. I’ll not address this issue, but simply take it for granted that my examples, while extreme, nevertheless retain their relevance, and move forward from there.

EXAMPLE 1: Persons suffering from extreme forms of depression – and by “extreme”, I mean life threatening – are in a circumstance that calls for highly qualified and nuanced counseling. We’re not talking about a “case of the blues,” or anything even remotely akin to such minor, emotional “down times” that we all occasionally experience. Depression, even at its lowest levels, is not something you just “buck up and get over it.” Regardless of how or if one chooses to buy into the psycho-chemical, pharmacological explanations (which, at the very least, teeters dangerously on the edge of a post hoc ergo propter hoc, or a hasty generalization fallacy), the fact remains that depression is not a “choice,” much less a “life style.” It is something that is imposed upon the sufferer from the outside, in whatever form that “outside” might happen to assume. But it still comes in various discernible “flavors” of severity. Without trying to cut with too fine a scalpel (more overwrought metaphors) one can still readily separate what might be called “laundry threatening” depressions, from those that are genuinely life threatening. The first is exactly what it sounds like: the weight of a real depression, but it leaves one too debilitated to wash the clothes as often as they need; taking the “E-ticket” to Jesus is not really on the list of things being seriously considered. Life-threatening depression is the latter. All of the preceding is just set-up for the main point. For persons dealing with life-threatening depressions, oftentimes the most dangerous moment in their therapy is when they begin to emerge from the depression. This seems so counter-intuitive; but when the pressure comes off is when the catastrophe sets in; just when the pressure is easing up, the stress becomes unbearable. Not always, obviously; but often.

EXAMPLE 2: Everyone these days has heard about PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD is not confined to just and only to military survivors of combat, but to keep my comments brief I will confine my remarks to just and only such persons. The situation here, being more familiar, is easier to describe. Military personnel exposed to combat for any length of time will generally manage their circumstances using their training and their reliance upon their fellow soldiers. But upon coming home, when the pressure of combat is no longer upon them, they often find themselves variously unraveling from the emotional stresses of what they’ve been exposed to. Once again, when the pressure is off, the stress can become unmanageable.

This is why the pressure cooker metaphor is misleading: for the cooker, when the pressure is relieved, that is the end of matters; but for persons, that is often when matters become most difficult.

I was reminded of this a little while ago when my own little sword of Damocles was removed, and in the absence of the pressure I began having very unpleasant stress reactions to everything about me. The details are unimportant, and the scale of matters was certainly nowhere within the scope of the examples I’ve presented above. But I did find it necessary to temporarily remove myself from interactions on social media, simply because I could not manage even minor disagreements with anything like finesse or dignity.

The promised philosophical interest, especially from a Whiteheadian perspective, is in those feelings that had been shunted aside while the pressure was on, but which never really went away; once the pressure was removed, or at least eased down substantially, those feelings which had been held in a kind of negative abeyance were once again present to be positively felt. My terminology in the preceding is deliberate.

Process philosophies such as Whitehead’s are necessarily relational. Whitehead, for his part, described the fundamental form of relational connectedness as “feeling.” This was in part intended to avoid the long-standing philosophical habit of reducing everything to some form of knowledge (though it is partly responsible for the erroneous characterization of Whitehead’s philosophy as “pan-psychist”). Whitehead recognized that some types of relatedness are “related in their absence”, a necessary fact in order to achieve the very real forms of graded relevance that we find in how matters are related to ourselves and to the world around us. The achievement of this absence is through what Whitehead described as “negative prehension”. Negative prehension is a difficult, technical concept that Randall Auxier and I dealt with at some length in our booki, so I’ll not attempt anything so reckless as to summarize it here.

There are people who are actively exploring potential applications of Whitehead’s process philosophy to psychology, but this is well outside my areas of specialization. Nevertheless, Whitehead’s system develops a way to understand how things can be “present in their absence,” and how the process of a developing situation (“the pressure is removed”) can change a negative to a positive (ap)prehension of relations that are genuinely felt, regardless of the modality. So for me, a small lesson and an easy path to minimizing the stress, and a thought about the pressure that acts in absence and negation.


i Which conveniently shares its title with the name of this blog, and inconveniently shares its pricing with that of other academic books. However, the book The Quantum of Explanation is now available in paperback, and I can send a coupon to anyone interested that should bring the price down to around $32.00. Feel free to use the contact form if you are interested. I should be able to track down the coupon code, and I think it is still valid.