Notes from sf author Stephen Palmer

Category: Inspirational Books

Beyond Fear by Dorothy Rowe

In my twenties I spent a lot of time in second hand bookshops, where I hoovered up works by Nicholas Humphrey and Erich Fromm, amongst many others. Dorothy Rowe’s books were placed in the same section, and so it was inevitable that I discovered her in the end…

An Australian by birth, Dorothy Rowe first worked as a teacher and child psychologist before arriving in Britain in her forties, working at Sheffield University and later as the head of Lincolnshire Department of Clinical Psychology. She spent much of her time working with depressed patients, and came to reject the medical model of mental illness, instead working within personal construct theory. Rowe believes that depression is a result of beliefs which do not enable a person to live comfortably with themselves or the world, notably the belief in a “just world” – that the bad are punished and the good rewarded – which exacerbates feelings of fear and anxiety should disaster strike. Part of recovering, Rowe says, is accepting that the external world is unpredictable and that we control relatively little of it.

Beyond Fear, the first Rowe book I bought, was published in 1987. It comprehensively sets out the various reasons why fear – whether consciously felt or not – affects our lives, and what the behavioural consequences are.

The opening sections deal with fear, how it is denied, and how we use our bodies as both reasons for fear and explanations of it. This chapter in particular had resonance for me, as I strongly think Western patriarchal society refuses to acknowledge thoughts and feelings in favour of the more obvious, more “present” physical explanations – thus, men are deemed to be violent in the main because they have a lot of testosterone, not in the main because they are taught by society to follow a particular gender identity.

The second section deals with how fear changes us mentally: turning fear into anxiety and phobias, into obsessions and compulsive behaviour, into depression, into mania and into schizophrenia.

The final section shows how fear can be turned into courage. All three sections use case studies to illustrate the main points Rowe makes.

I’ve read many of Dorothy Rowe’s works, but this one had the most to offer when I was a younger man. Its sheer clarity and insight regarding the human condition was an eye-opener to me. I read many of her other books afterwards. As Fay Weldon pointed out in the cover comment, “Dorothy Rowe shows us the path to personal and political, if only we would take it.” For compassionate humanity too, Rowe is exceptional; her compassion shines out of every sentence.

Readers of the Factory Girl trilogy will note that my three books are dedicated to Nicholas Humphrey, Dorothy Rowe, and Erich Fromm in memoriam. These three thinkers were my main influences as, many years ago, I began to ponder the world around me.



The Inner Eye

In 1986 I was lucky enough to watch the complete first broadcast of Nicholas Humphrey’s The Inner Eye, which introduced his social intelligence theory of consciousness. It was an extraordinary series, which recently appeared on YouTube – apart from episode 1, alas – on the author’s own channel.

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6 

Nicholas Humphrey began his lengthy, varied and influential career researching perception and other aspects of animal behaviour. In the 1970s he went to Africa, having already worked for some years as an experimental psychologist. In the mid-1980s he was asked to make the television series, which, in his introduction to the book, he describes as “difficult.” Simultaneous with the television series came the book, which I bought pretty much as soon as I grasped how exceptional the programmes were. The book asked some fundamental questions: What is human consciousness? How did it evolve? In addition to the inspirational text, cartoonist Mel Calman provided illustrations, but, unusually, he was asked to respond to the text rather than specifically illustrate it.

Nicholas Humphrey’s answer to the main question is very much set in the landscape of evolution. He says consciousness – the inner eye – allows us to feel and to understand what it is like to be ourself, and, crucially, to be somebody else. In other words, via our inner eye we use ourselves as exemplars to understand the behaviour of others. Tens, and probably hundreds of thousands of years ago that behaviour was becoming very complex, as the social life of our ancestors mushroomed into something never before seen on the planet. Consciousness was the unique evolutionary response.

After summarising the sheer complexity of our extraordinary social lives (which we all underestimate because we’re so used to the social environment) the book continues with a chapter on how consciousness might make a difference in our lives. Because it evolved, as did shells and eyes and wings, it must come with considerable benefits. The inner eye is the given answer. This inner eye allows us to make realistic guesses about the mental state of others; and therefore allows us to lie, to feel compassion for, or to trust others. The author then ponders whether any other animals have this inner eye, looks at children’s development, and looks at dreams. The book concludes with a chapter on how our extraordinary abilities allow us to be cruel beyond belief.

Alongside Erich Fromm’s The Sane Society this book was a launching pad for my own thoughts about consciousness and the human condition. Nicholas Humphrey is still writing remarkable books, and every one of these I can recommend.


The Inner Eye, Nicholas Humphrey

The Sane Society by Erich Fromm

First published in 1955, The Sane Society was the first of many of Erich Fromm’s books that really had an impact on me. I bought my precious second-hand Routledge copy around thirty years ago, and it still smells of damp second-hand bookshops…

I had already read a couple of his earlier books, including The Fear Of Freedom, to which The Sane Society was a kind of continuation. Fromm described the book in the foreword as trying to “show that life in twentieth century Democracy constitutes in many ways another escape from freedom, and the analysis of this particular escape, centred around the concept of alienation, constitutes a good part of this book.”

Fromm wanted to develop what he termed a humanistic psychoanalysis. He envisaged society as insane: he wanted to make suggestions for a sane society, hence the title of the book. The chapter headings all give strong clues: Are We Sane? Can A Society Be Sick? The Human Situation. Mental Health & Society. Man In Capitalistic Society (Fromm was a devotee of Karl Marx) … Roads To Sanity. But it was chapter three, The Human Situation, that most forcefully struck me. In it Fromm proposed five fundamental human needs that “stem from the existence” of human beings. They were Relatedness vs. Narcissism, Transcendence – Creativeness vs. Destructiveness, Rootedness (which he summarised using a psychoanalytic term), Sense Of Identity – Individuality vs. Herd Conformity, and Frame Of Orientation – Reason vs. Irrationality. This idea that the human condition could be deduced from the actualities of the existence of human beings was an extraordinarily strong concept to me.

Only a hundred or so years passed between Freud’s myth-shattering discovery of the unconscious and me picking up Fromm’s book; not much time for a scientific description of the human condition to be made. And indeed, twentieth century psychology seemed to consist of lots of mutually incompatible stances and developments. Were any of Skinner’s ideas valid? Freud’s? Jung’s? R.D. Laing’s? Where next to go?

At this time I was also reading the books of Nicholas Humphrey, whose social intelligence theory of human consciousness has much to recommend it. Thus was a template created in my mind: it should be possible to make scientific progress on the matter of consciousness rather than use worthless faith-based assumptions, and it should be possible to tie in that progress with the actualities of the human condition, the things we all experience in our lives, like emotion, love, perception of time, identity, meaning-framework and so on.

Not only should it be possible, it is the only way humanity is going to overcome its myriad of problems at source. For as long as we don’t understand why religion has such a strong hold over us, we won’t overcome it. For as long as we don’t understand the dynamics of emotion, we won’t understand ourselves and our reactions to world events. A full scientific understanding of the human condition is the prime necessity for permanent human progress.

Thank goodness understanding is one-way. In the West we’ve done away with much religion, only to replace it with trivial superstitions or wishy-washy agnosticism (“I’m sure there must be something out there…”) which does us no good. Science of course has had almost nothing to say on the matter of human morals, though some brave attempts have been made, eg. The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris. Science, most people would say, is amoral. But the modus operandi of science is to grasp that the world is real and autonomous, having existence independent of the human mind. We then have to test the real world to see how it works – we can’t impose our guesswork upon it. So let’s follow Erich Fromm’s idea of developing a full description of the human condition. I’m not sure he got it entirely right, and many commentators think he only got it a little right, but sixty years have passed since The Sane Society was published – almost as much time as between the book’s publication and Freud’s momentous discovery. We have progressed. And we can progress further.


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Inspirational consciousness

A week of inspirational books

I’ve added a new category today to my blog. It’s called Inspirational Books, and it will be an occasional item in which I blog about books which have inspired my work. To kick it off I’ve got a week’s worth of photos of some of the books in my collection, all of which have inspired me in some way. So, here goes with the genre books! Tomorrow, consciousness…


Inspirational: SFF