On Kindness by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor
|On Kindness by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor|
|Category: Politics and Society|
|Reviewer: Trish Simpson-Davis|
|Summary: A slim treatise on how kindness has been perceived from the Stoics to Freud. A rewarding read that's robust enough to sustain an interesting argument.|
|Buy? Maybe||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 128||Date: January 2009|
|Publisher: Hamish Hamilton|
As a title, On Kindness doesn't pack quite the same punch as Adam Phillip's earlier: 'On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored'. It put me in mind of an eighteenth century treatise, and, give or take a couple of centuries, that is exactly what the book provides: a thought-provoking exposition on a currently unfashionable virtue.
Kindness is used today as an umbrella term for unselfish expressions or acts directed at improving another's well-being; according to the dictionary, they may be friendly, generous or considerate acts. Yet sprayshot vernacular usage makes the concept and its application difficult to pinpoint. Perhaps, though, the term kindness occupies a generalized psychological domain, with strands yet to be disentangled when scientists get round to measuring its various facets. In the first two chapters I found an interesting and concise account of the shifting sands of historical traditions of kindness. The authors themselves support the notion of kindness as connectiveness with others.
Phillips and Taylor, respectively a psychoanalyst and historian of women in society, explore two conflicting philosophical concepts. In the first interpretation, kindness traces its development back to Greek Stoic ideas of the necessity for those within a society to help one another. This devolved to caritas or neighbourly love in Christian and other religious traditions, and is a view still widely held today, thank goodness. Proponents of individualism and capitalism, however, defended self-gratification as the prime driver of society. Kindness was eschewed as selfishness. In truth, the Christian tradition of putting others first led to philanthropy of such energy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, that it became obvious that charity was sometimes a cloak for self-aggrandisement rather than kindness. On the other hand, without some moral imperative to kindness, self-seeking behaviour continues to threaten the structure of family and society. In folk parlance, balance is all.
The authors then turn to a psychoanalytic overview, which inevitably focuses on kindness within families. In two chapters, they wander from the domain of kindness into a close examination of the development from child into sexual adult, with reference to the contradictory poles of loving and hating. In Freud's view, the child needs to experience hatred from his parents to get past his reliance on an idealized body-wrap of love, while the adult needs to acknowledge his and his partner's vulnerability in order to love authentically. While I appreciate the insight that kindness can be seen as maladaptive, the rest seems a tenuous link in relation to the casual kindness we offer or meet from strangers on a daily basis. After wading through two chapters awash with Freud, I almost gave up on the book at this point. Fortunately I didn't succumb, as the authors do put Freud in his place eventually, and argue for a middle road of more 'ordinary, unsentimental kindness'. In retrospect, I feel that editing is needed to match the succinct writing of earlier chapters. I would be well-satisfied with a concise, psychoanalytic explanation of the nub: why people are frightened to be kind today.
I am also disappointed that the otherwise full account hasn't been brought up to date by discussing the present and future contribution of positive psychology, which is beginning to explore altruism in the context of how normal people flourish.
Finally, to find a place on academic bookshelves, I expect a sophisticated argument to be supported by scientific evidence where appropriate. For me, expert opinion alone is not enough for a modern treatise, even in post-positivistic times. Nevertheless, I think this slim volume presents a robust argument which many will find interesting and worthwhile to follow through.
The Bookbag would like to thank the publishers for sending this book.
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