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 EPISTEMOLOGICAL CONSIDERATIONS ON BOWLBY's THEORY OF ATTACHMENT
 
by
Juan Carlos Garelli


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Enough evidence has been forwarded to assess Bowlby's epistemological stance as 'empiric rationalism' (Bowlby, 1969, A & L1, Chapter 1: Point of View) where he addresses himself to a scientific methodology whereby,

1. Prospective approach;

2. Direct observation of children;

3. Separation as a traumatic agent;

4. Ethology, form the very bases of his theory of attachment.

First and foremost rationalism emphasizes the attitude that seeks to solve as many problems as possible by a resort to reason; i.e., to clear thought and experience rather than by an appeal to emotions and passions. Ultimately, rationalism boils down to an attitude of readiness to listen to critical arguments and to learn from experience.

The fact that the rationalist attitude considers the argument rather than the person is of far-reaching importance. It leads to the view that we must recognize everybody with whom we communicate as a potential origin of argument and reasonable information, regardless of the personal or institutional source. Conversely, the irrationalist will overlook the argument and enhance the source.

Furthermore, true rationalism is the awareness of one's limitations, the intellectual modesty of those who know how often they err, and how much they depend on others to have these mistakes corrected or even for the little knowledge they may eventually possess.

This must be teazed apart from pseudo-rationalism, which implies the immodest belief in one's superior intellectual gifts, the claim to be initiated, to know with certainty and with authority. An Attachment Theorist and Researcher should stick to the scientific method as adopted by Bowlby, and expounded by him clearly and distinctly, setting clear-cut differences between his stance and his contemporary fellow psychoanalysts. He states: "...most of the concepts that psychoanalysis have about early childhood have been arrived at by a PROCESS OF HISTORICAL RECONSTRUCTION (my emphasis) based on data derived from older subjects"... "Freud (and) virtually all subsequent analysts have worked from an end-product backwards"... "Thus, whereas almost all present day psychoanalytical theory starts with a clinical syndrome or symptom... and makes hypotheses about events and intrapsychical representational processes which are thought to have contributed to its development, the perspective adopted here starts on the opposite end, e.g., loss of mother-figure in infancy and attempts thence to trace the psychological and psychopathological processes that commonly result. It starts with the traumatic experience and works prospectively" (op. cit. pp 23-25). Exactly in the same way as any other scientific discipline does.

The preceding paragraphs lead us straightforwardly to what has become the most important intellectual issue of our time in general and of Attachment Theory in particular: the conflict between rationalism and irrationalism. Regrettably, during the last 25 years or so, a grat deal of intellectuals have warned us of a looming intellectual decadence. Saul Bellow, Allan Bloom, Susanne Langer, Thornton Wilder, Von Hayek, Sir Karl Popper, William Golding, Julian Marias, and so many others, have vouched their concern on human immediate future as regards what can significantly be labelled the Revolt Against Reason.

This rebellion against common sense, against reasonableness, against evidence, in support of self-proclaimed "creative minds" which advance totally unsubstantiated theories has grown up to become a fin-de siecle fashion, so powerful as to shadow purely determined logical arguments on the apparent brilliance of perfectly nonsensical blunders. We watch the ludicrous spectacle of brilliant interpretations in the face of obvious facts. Reality is simply overlooked to give way to personal brilliance or "creativity", to use the word in vogue.

Now this implies a choice of the utmost importance. The choice between rationalism and irrationalism, which is not simply an intellectual affair or a matter of taste. It is an ethical decision. For the question whether we adopt a rational stance as opposed to irrationalism will deeply affect our whole attitude towards other members of mankind and towards the problems which concern us most: the problems of social and emotional life. Rationalism, I believe, is closely tied to the belief in the unity of mankind. Irrationalism, which is not bound by any rules of consistency, may blend with any kind of belief, and especially for its proneness to support a romantic belief in the existence of an elect body, in the division of people into leaders and led, into natural enlightened ones versus humble learners, into intellectual masters and material slaves, into almighty parents and childish selfishness, into "freeing attachments" and "stifling attachments", and so on. All the above shows clearly that an ethical decision is involved in the choice between irrationalism, in whatever form it is disguised, and rationalism.

I intend further to elaborate on the issue of irrationalism versus rationalism because of its crucial role in the understanding of the difference between the epistemological status of Bowlby's Theory of Attachment and other approaches, either before or after Bowlby's scientific output.

I deem Bowlby's approach the first to take socio-emotional issues seriously; which is totally in keeping with the rationalist attitude to take arguments seriously.

For this is the fundamental difference between the two views: for irrationalism will use reason too, without any feeling of obligation and thus will use it or discard it as it pleases. In other words, the irrationalist uses reason either to amuse himself or to manipulate others. He never feels that reason is above him.

Typically irrationalists will argue that human nature is in the main not rational. Men and women, they hold, are more than mere rational animals, and also less.

Much of the criticism Bowlby's approach has arisen is in exactly the same vein as other rationalists have gathered ever since the Middle Ages! (the opposition between scholasticism and mysticism). If you care to confront Bowlby's statements with Nagel's, you will become aware of the parallelism both lines of arguments share. Bowlby states: "Data drawn from direct observations is currently (1969) regarded as of peripheral concern... it can provide only superficial information in sharp contrast with the direct observation of mental intrap`sychical functioning that obtains during psychoanalytic treatment. (Not that I attack psychoanalysis, I simply see no reason why psychoanalysis must remain static and thereby proto-scientific). Nagel expresses: "To the irrationalists, the rationalists, and especiallly the rational scientist, are the poor in spirit, pursuing soulless and largely mechanical activities, and completely unaware of the deeper problems of human destiny and of its philosophy".

Needless to say, no rational argument will have a rational effect on somebody who does not want to adopt a rational attitude.

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REFERENCES

Ainsworth, M. (1982) Attachment: retrospect nad prospect. In: CM Parkes & J. Stevenson-Hinde (eds.) The place of attachment in human behaviour. New YorK: Basic Books.

Ainsworth, M. et al (1978) Patterns of attachment. Lawrence Erlbaum.

Bowlby, J. (1969/82) A&L, vol. 1: Attachment. Basic Books.

Bowlby, J. (1973) A&L, vol. 2: Separation. The Hogarth Press.

Bowlby, J. (1980) A&L, vol. 3: Loss. The Hogarth Press.

Darwin, C. (1859) The Origin of Species. Pelican Classics (1979).

Dawkins, R. (1976) The Selfish Gene. OUP.

Garelli, J.C. (1983) Bases biologicas del miedo y la angustia (Biological bases of fear and anxiety). Buenos Aires, Psicoanalisis, 5, 477-503

Garelli, J.C. (1984) Bases etologicas de la teoria del apego (Ethological roots of the theory of attachment). Buenos Aires, Psicoanalisis, 6, 119-145.

Leakey, R.E. (1981) The Making of Mankind. The Bumbridge Publishing Group.

Maynard-Smith, J. (1975) The theory of evolution. Pelican.

Trivers, R.L. (1985) Social evolution. Bejamin/ Cummings.

Wilson, E.O. (1975) Sociobiology: the new synthesis. Harvard University Press.


Dr Juan Carlos Garelli
 
Attachment Research Center - Department of Early Development
Universidad de Buenos Aires