Protecting the NHS by Digby Tantam

  • The Existential Academy
  • Thursday 18th June 2020

Many years ago—too many to count, really—I gave Clausewitz’ ‘On War’ to my friend Tim  for his birthday.  He was not pleased.  He retaliated by insisting I read Berger and Luckmann’s ‘The social construction of reality’.  Luckmann was a mature student at the New School--not our new school, but the New School in New York.  Luckmann developed the ideas of Alfred Schütz, one of the founders of the New School.  Schütz was a banker by day, and a phenomenologist and sociologist by night.  Luckmann’s PhD was on religious belief to which he applied Schütz’ sociological phenomenology.

Luckmann anticipated something that has become increasingly manifest since he published his findings in  ‘The Invisible Religion’.  Religious beliefs are not determined by churches or institutions, he argued, but are privately formed under the influence of social relationships.  This led Luckmann to on to the idea that our beliefs and values are constructed and re-constructed in this way, too. 

I still remember the sentence from the Berger and Luckmann book: “Marriage is the crucial nomic instrumentality”.  Berger must have particularly liked this phrase, because it appears again in a co-authored chapter on marriage, published in an edited 1994 book on the ‘Psychosocial Interior of the Family’.   Nomic statements are the expression of laws that are unchallengeable because, like the laws of nature, reality would not be what it is for us if they were not true. Our dependence on such laws is challenged in the ‘Nomic’ game invented by a philosopher one of whose moves is to call for a vote to change the rules. 

Berger and Luckmann wanted to work out the source of  this intuition that certain propositions were apodeictic or, to use more everyday language, could be ‘taken as read’.   They recognized that what we take to be a law of nature can change without losing its status as something immutable. Scientific laws try to grasp laws of nature and influence the beliefs that each of us have about what are the laws of nature, but they are not accepted as ordinary people as unchallengably true without a further step of assimilation. Heliocentrism or the law that planets revolve around suns, began as a scientific proposition but it challenged what was then the natural law that it was obvious that the sun rotated around the earth as it clearly traversed the arc of the sky during the day.  More importantly it was resisted by both the church and the state who thought that the astronomical situation mirrored the social reality that although that now seems hard to understand.  It took a lot more adjustment to get to comfort with the rotation of the earth and even now we speak of the ‘sun rise’ rather than the ‘earth twist’.

Luckmann argued that religious laws originate in the private sphere of relationships.  Berger and he argued that our nomic perceptions, of how life is, originate in that sphere too.  They give the example of a married couple who gradually take over each other’s past.  One partner might say, “I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the Northern lights” and the other might say, ‘Of course you have.  Don’t you remember, we saw them when we went to Iceland”.  Even though the trip to Iceland occurred before the couple had met the other partner might say, ‘oh yes, I have a vague memory’.  A shared past has been created that also changes the ‘reality’ for each partner.  The driver for this is the strengthening of the relationship of the partners.  Their past has become longer with more shared experience.

Nomic beliefs are important for us as teachers, and as psychotherapists.  We find ourselves as teachers often undoing the laws that our students may have considered to be unquestionable, believing, like Socrates, that wisdom begins by recognizing ignorance.  As psychotherapists we are are also confronted by nomic propositions that are presented as necessarily true.  ‘Life is shit’, for example, or ‘Everyone is just out for what they can get’, or ‘There is no future for me now he’s gone’.  Tackling these requires recognizing that they are perceived as being incontrovertibly true, and that they originate in a relationship that was strengthened by the belief in the proposition. 

I think that Berger may have been wrong to make marriage the most influencial, nomic relationship.  Marriage may have been the most intimate relationship for many people in the past, but this is arguably no longer the case.  My own intuition is that celebrity is now a greater determinant of nomic belief.  In a another blog,  I consider how our shared reality has been reconstructed by the combination of the media and celebrity politicians.  Specifically, I question how the injunctions, ‘take back control’ and ‘we must protect the NHS’ acquired have acquired nomic status.