Schopenhauer’s porcupines

Several years ago, I read Schopenhauer’s porcupines: Dilemmas of intimacy and the talking cure: Five stories of psychotherapy, by Deborah Anna Luepnitz.

It’s a fascinating book, and you don’t need to be a Schopenhauer scholar, a zoologist, or a psychotherapy patient to get a lot out of it. The entry card instead is being someone who relates to others or would like to do so.

It was there that I encountered Schopenhauer’s parable of the porcupines, the last of many from his Studies in pessimism:

A number of porcupines huddled together for warmth on a cold day in winter; but, as they began to prick one another with their quills, they were obliged to disperse. However the cold drove them together again, when just the same thing happened. At last, after many turns of huddling and dispersing, they discovered that they would be best off by remaining at a little distance from one another. In the same way the need of society drives the human porcupines together, only to be mutually repelled by the many prickly and disagreeable qualities of their nature. The moderate distance which they at last discover to be the only tolerable condition of intercourse, is the code of politeness and fine manners; and those who transgress it are roughly told—in the English phrase—to keep their distance. By this arrangement the mutual need of warmth is only very moderately satisfied; but then people do not get pricked. A man who has some heat in himself prefers to remain outside, where he will neither prick other people nor get pricked himself.

Schopenhauer presents his parables as telling us just how life is, but Luepnitz takes this one in a constructive way. She shows through five case studies how we all have simultaneous needs and fears for intimacy, thus creating a dilemma for full living. As she puts it (p. 19):

Psychotherapy cannot make us whole, but it does allow us to transform suffering into speech and, ultimately, to learn to live with desire.

I was impressed with the book. Coincidentally, shortly after reading it, I had dinner in Philadelphia with a couple, one of whom was her patient.


  • Luepnitz, Deborah Anna (2002). Schopenhauer’s porcupines: Dilemmas of intimacy and the talking cure: Five stories of psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.
  • Schopenhauer, Arthur (1891). The essays of Arthur Schopenhauer; Studies in pessimism (tr. Thomas Bailey Saunders). London: Swan Sonnenschein.

The land of forms

form_1040_us_individual_income_tax_return_form_imageFar across the sea, there’s a certain land in which curious practices began to emerge some time ago. These practices began with the idea of documenting the work people were doing. Someone had the brilliant idea to ask each person to fill out a form to show how much they had done at such and such a time. It was never clear that the information so collected had any bearing on the work or the people involved, but the form was beautiful and quickly evolved from a few simple questions into a formidable document.

Soon, it was decided that forms would be useful in health care, asking all kinds of questions about the body, regardless of whether that information would be used. There were then forms for voting, for taxes, for getting a job, for running a business, for schools, for shopping, for clubs, for religion, for travel, for sports, for software, indeed for every aspect of the people’s lives. In the early stage, the typical form would fit on a sheet of paper. But that stage was short-lived. The forms began to grow, soon needing special, long sheets of paper, or multiple sheets. Then, online forms appeared, with checkboxes, open fields, Previous and Next buttons and all sorts of other helpful features.

prc-health-form-eAn especially useful feature was “Are you absolutely sure that the information you have entered is accurate and complete? Severe penalties for non-compliance will ensue.” This one was good because the forms were inevitably obscure and self-contradictory, making it a challenge to know what one had just filled out, much less whether it was accurate and complete.

A major advance in the practice of forms was to create forms to determine whether you were filling out other forms properly. Ethics compliance forms were established to check that other activities, inevitably themselves involving forms, were properly conducted. As with the other uses of forms, the genesis was quite understandable. For example, people had been incorrectly filling out forms to issue driving licenses, thus endangering the public. A new form arose to ensure more ethical behavior. The fact that ethical abuses escalated following the introduction of the new ethical form led to a now-familiar phenomenon: The form was expanded. Again, the link between ends and means was tenuous at best.

An especially interesting aspect of the forms culture was that some forms could not be completed without first doing another form. Completing the second form would lead to the production of a control number to be entered on the first, assuming of course that it, the second one, could be properly completed, submitted, and reviewed. This practice reached its zenith with the realization that form number two could itself require the completion of another form, and so on.

In this way, the forms began to come alive, each connected to the others though a complex, essentially unknowable rhizomatic network. Forms naturally spawned other forms in an ever-growing ecology of forms in multiple

As the forms ecology grew, some people began to raise questions about whether it was possible to complete a form if doing so entailed completing other forms in an endless succession. Fortunately, there were philosophers and mathematicians to weigh on on this question. One school of thought, the Infinitists, began to argue that the chains of forms were infinite, meaning that some forms were uncompleteable, a seeming tragedy in the forms world. Others claimed that the total number of forms had to be finite, but that there were circular chains such that a form could be completed only by being already completed.

This latter view is reminiscent of Schopenhauer’s demand on the reader in his The World as Will and Idea. Schopenhauer says that his book has but one idea. That idea is an organic whole that cannot be expressed by a book with “a first and a last line.” His compromise solution to this conundrum is to ask the reader to read the book twice or not at all. The Circularists,  as those who believed in the circular chains of forms came to be called, adopted a similar view: They argued that although the circular topology prevented the form from ever being completed, repeated revisitings could lead to a kind of oneness with the form akin to groking Schopenhauer’s one organic idea.

Pragmatists, of the Peircean variety were quick to see the ever-increasing complexity of the forms ecology, with its convoluted topologies and possible lack of finitude. But they emphasized an additional wrinkle that had passed by even some of the great connoisseuers of forms. The forms were not static; they could change in small and large ways at a moment’s notice. This meant, among other things, that having completed a form on one day was no assurance that one would not be required to complete it again the next.

autofill_formThere was also a curious aspect of the storage of forms data. I’ve remarked on the separation of the forms from the dally life and purposes they purported to address. But beyond that, they spoke to themselves in what some deemed to be a fractured dialect. Forms completed at a doctor’s office could not communicate with the apparently similar form at the physical therapy facility whose purpose was to implement the doctor’s prescription. And neither of those forms could speak to the pharmacy forms or those of the medical supply.  This occurred even when the facilities were all part of the same organization.

On the other hand, even though the forms were disconnected from daily life and each other, they had a remarkable ability to retain and communicate data in a dysfunctional fashion. For example, no matter how grudgingly and circumspectly people had revealed details of their lives or how many assurances had been made, these details were regularly transmitted throughout the land. The word for “privacy” disappeared from the language, as it no longer had a use.

Despite the massive accumulation and dissemination of data engendered by the forms, people seemed to know less and less about one another or the concrete problems they faced in their lives. The reason was clear: Police spent time on forms, not on preventing crime; health providers likewise became adept at forms, but not at ensuring health; teachers knew every line and checkbox, but had little time for details such as students.

Over time, the people learned that nothing was real in their lives unless it could fit on a form–their wealth, their citizenship, their job, their spouse, and so on. What could not be form-alized did not exist. The forms became the reality they originally sought only to document. They infiltrated every aspect of the people’s lives and slithered with ease across natural and political boundaries. While the forms ecology had a beginning in specific times and places, it warmed the hearts of forms afficianados to know that there was no way to stop their spread.

I welcome comments on this little story. There’s a form below for your convenience.