In Treatment as a meditation on other minds

This is maybe a little too close to philosophy for one of these posts, but I’m very interested in the ways In Treatment almost seems to be a sustained examination of the problem of other minds and a way of forcing the viewer to confront this problem.

It’s true that pretty much all therapy engages this problem somewhat, since what the therapist is trying to do is by definition teasing out the contents of another person’s mind. But In Treatment appears to elevate the question of whether we can ever truly know the contents of another’s mind and, if not, how to deal with that knowledge, through its treatment (sorry) of Paul. His entire M.O. as a therapist seems to entail viewing his patients as puzzles to be solved, with secret “answers” in way that either dehumanizes them (a puzzle isn’t the same as complex human being with a mind as rich as ours/Paul’s) or suggests that Paul views finding the answers as equivalent to knowing another person. And all of Paul’s problems appear to stem from his inability to confront or truly know other people, as he starts to ignore the problems his family is going through in favor of retreating to a place where he feels like he knows his interlocutors.

The show invites us to treat the patients the same way – we talked about “diagnosing” the characters, and whether that even makes sense in the context of fictional characters. That additional level of remove just further complicates the problem of other minds for viewers: We are just as engaged in the game as Paul is (perhaps more so, since he’s another pawn for us but not for himself), but removed from the “reality” of the characters. Maybe this is just me, but watching the sessions (and Paul’s obvious inability to properly remember or characterize them to Gina), I felt a little frustrated by my attempts to actually know any of the characters, and maybe a little despair at the picture of human interaction the show seems to be painting.

Bea’s post seems relevant. Not only does the show go out of its way to present its characters as a collection of (relatively) easily identifiable psychological problems, that attitude toward the characters makes criticism of the show itself somewhat difficult. In a way that’s different from almost any other contemporary television narrative I can think of, In Treatment seems like it has only one thing on its mind (sorry again). Is it possible or useful to use In Treatment-as-text as a way of attacking that problem?

3 thoughts on “In Treatment as a meditation on other minds

  1. This might be giving the show too much credit, but don’t you think a lot of the “easily identifiable psychological problems” seem way too obvious for them to be the right diagnoses in the long run? I was thinking that especially regarding Sophie and her coach. It might be part of the show’s overall strategy to have Paul (and us) sniffing the wrong trail for a while before forcing us to rethink what we’ve previously seen after some new evidence appears. Even it turned out that her father was the one molesting her or something, maybe that is an equally predictable answer other minds-wise even if the show wasn’t explicitly pointing in its direction. But a show which would feature a character thinking he knows something about someone because of however many clues and then having to confront his own assumptions — dragging the viewer along with him in that process — might be one way of using a TV show to grapple with, rather than pretend to solve, a problem that’s actually impossible. And that’d also counter the stereotype that the psychoanalyst is unlocking the key to the analysand’s psyche rather than sort of coaching them to come to face themselves.
    (but then again, Sophie was cooking dinner…)

  2. I would argue that the show’s depressing picture of the disconnectedness and uncertainty in human interaction is more a statement about Paul than a general picture of how we relate to each other. I agree that the therapist-patient interactions are indeed frustrating. The show has us compulsively trying to understand characters who are often misconstrued by Paul and themselves. However, I do get a sense that the show means to offer some sort of solution, that it is not bleakly reporting on irreparable human short-coming.

    Part of the problem of other minds, is that we assume that other human minds are similar and function in ways that we can relate to and understand. Yet, Paul doesn’t seem to use identification as a means for understanding. Instead he plays the role of the detached intellectual (although we see on Fridays how affected he truly is). The show doesn’t seem to support this approach. We see this especially in the moments where Paul defers to outside theory. This is almost never appreciated by the other characters… we all remember the Barthes comment. More importantly, there was Gina’s accusation that Paul uses the external to avoid the internal. Paul’s problem is that he won’t lower himself to the level of the people around him. He has trouble accepting that he is just as confused and messed up as his patients.

    So, in a way, the show is encouraging us to lay the problem of other minds to rest. We can and should embrace common-ground. Disconnectedness lies in aloof analysis, not in earnest attempts to relate.

    To bring Maia’s post in for a second, to me, it is this focus on the other mind that makes the show compelling.

    • I don’t think we’re necessarily disagreeing – it sounds like you’re saying that Paul is struggling with the problem of other minds because he finds it difficult to view his patients as real, complex individuals, which the show (maybe?) wants us to be able to overcome. But just because the show seems to encourage the viewer to see the patients as complex individuals in a more engaging way than Paul (though I’d argue that this isn’t necessarily true), that doesn’t mean it also doesn’t want the viewer to think about the problem of other minds at all. My hunch (and it’s definitely a hunch) is that the show wants you to engage the problem and come out the other side, confident in the reality and complexity of not just the characters, but also other people, rather than being trapped in the fly jar like Paul. You just might have to be stuck in the jar with him, at least at first.

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