notes for a seminar presentation in Manchester this Wednesday...
1. Posits and Poiesis: Is the core understanding of psychoanalysis a scientific model? Do our articulations of the being of the unconscious amount to inferential posits, explanatory of human thought and action? Is their role fundamentally one of explanation, or is it one which provides us with a new form of comprehension revelatory of a distinct dimension of our existence? (I leave aside the issue here of whether science can be brought to bear on the question of whether psychoanalytical therapy works, focusing instead on the logical character of the core concepts of the unconscious.)
2. Vs. I want to avoid the following way of framing the debate. (How easy it is to slip into it!) This frame construes the debate as between meanings versus causes, hermeneutics versus science, understanding versus explanation. This would be a debate in the metaphysics of mind, in the philosophy of science, etc., where we'd have to do with allegedly distinct side-by-side categories, and picking the right one. We do well, I suspect, to deconstruct some of these alleged either/or's. (My sparring partner in this debate, Michael Lacewing, does an excellent job of this.)
3. Instead I will frame it as one of Primordiality. Ur. (Not, I hope, Er, or Err.) Underlying representational forms of knowing, where essence and existence are kept clearly apart, where we create a space for nature the space to answer for herself the questions we put to her, we have I believe a more fundamental form of knowing. Truth and knowing here as i) disclosure, evocation, revelation - rather than as ii) adequation, judgement, representation, correspondence. (The latter as dependent on the former. Metaphysics is a forgetfulness of the former; philosophy as its recovery.) Explanatory posits in science have to do with ii) an encounter structured by representational judgement. But unconscious motivation, unconscious emotion, inner conflict, compromise formation, repression, projection, sublimation etc. are, as concepts, more fundamental than ii). They frame our knowing, delineate our inquiry, revealing its objects to us in its sui generisity.
4. On What is Science. Well, we can say whatever we like. Thus, if by something being 'scientific' we just mean that it involves a reasonably internally coherent body of knowledge, then clearly psychoanalysis (and the study of mythology, literary theory, etc.) is a science. I am more than happy to think of psychoanalysis as a science if we count anthropology, say, as a science. (Not much turns on it, other than the rhetorical and political dimensions of funding applications etc.) But here what I offer as important as a necessary condition for something being scientific is the separability of conceptual essence and material existence: such that we can clearly understand what it is for something to be an X and yet for it to be a matter of inquiry as to whether X obtains. Thus Freud on the unconscious: we need to posit unconscious desires, emotions and motivations, he says, to make sense of the observable phenomena of dreams, slips, suggestion effects, and symptoms. It is the best explanation we have of such phenomena. The separability of essence and existence, this 'logical gap', allows us to stand back from and put a question to nature without it having already been answered; the resultant answer will then be the central understanding provided by 'psychoanalysis'. By contrast with this I urge that the central understanding of the unconscious etc., is not an answer to an already articulable question, but rather a revelation which affords us the possibility of asking new questions.
5. Bone-Picking and PaleOntology. (Riffing on an example provided to a somewhat opposite end by Michael.) There's a pile of bones in the clay. We can arrange them however we like - for aesthetic purposes perhaps. As yet there is no correct or incorrect arrangement of them - it depends on what we are trying to illustrate or express. But we may also be trying to understand what animals they belonged to, and desiring to devise an adequate taxonomy of these animals (dinosaurs). So we arrange them this or that way, undertake further studies, integrate and constrain these arrangements with what else is understood. We arrive at two possible patterns, and then further evidence and theoretical modelling takes us to prefer one over the other. There may be no 'direct access' to the dinosaurs. But yet we know what talk here of a correct arrangement of the bones consists in: it consists in arranging them according to which brutes they actually originally belonged to. We can get this wrong or right - i.e we are operating here with a normative conception of truth.
6. Matter, Volume, Narrative Structure. By contrast with our bones example, we don't explain anything in chemistry or physics or sociology by saying that objects are made of matter, that audibility is partly a function of volume, that objects have centres of gravity, or by delineating something called narrative structure. Thus we can come to understand what someone says over time by bringing it under a concept of narrative structure; the comprehensible gestalts their discourse embodies are thereby made intelligible. (Please note that I am here offering the concepts of 'narrative structure' etc. as merely analogous for the concepts of the unconscious, defence mechanisms, inner conflict, etc. I am not propounding a hermeneutic theory of psychoanalysis!) But we are not explaining sayings by invoking the concept of narrative structure.
7. Importantly, what will count as understanding here, in these sub-scientific cases, is I believe itself already delineated by reference to the core concepts on offer. One might (cautiously) say that the concepts (matter, narrative structure, centre of gravity) form part of the 'window we look through', or they form the 'terms of agreement' which specifies what is to count as what. (A danger of these visual metaphors is that they risk steering us towards a kind of transcendental idealism, since now the concepts seem to speak nothing of the objects of experience themselves but only of the form of our encounter with them. The same is true of Wittgensteinian metaphors to do with frameworks; hence the value of a Heideggerian alternative which stresses the revelatory relation of the concepts to the sui generis being of the objects.) They partly determine what is to count as explanatorily satisfying here. They set up or constitute norms, they themselves form the accounting system, and so are not themselves intelligibly thought of as normatively accountable (correct or incorrect). (Charles Elder, p.46: 'the proposition "There is an unconscious" is internal to the logic of psychoanalysis.')
8. There are various possible illicit motivations for a treatment of the core concepts of psychoanalysis as scientific posits. (I leave aside possible good motivations here to instead dissect the dubious!) a. Mentalism. b. Inferentialism. c. Introspectionism. d. Conceptualism. e. Sublimation. I will focus here mainly on the last, but first:
9.a. Mentalism. Mentalism is the literalisation of the 'mind is inner' metaphor; it is sometimes combined with materialism to generate the 'mind is brain' equation. If the mind is understood as inner - i.e. as constitutively (and not merely occasionally - as when we keep to ourselves what we are thinking) hidden behind behaviour, comportment and expression rather than (properly as) immanent within them - then it will be natural to suppose that we observers of behaviour - behaviour now construed as outer - will require inference to take us from outer to inner. (Either the 'theory theory' or the 'simulation' approach to so-called 'theory of mind' threaten to rear their ugly retro 1990s heads.) We are now essentially required to posit, to theoretically reconstruct the inner causes of, what we encounter in visible behaviour. If 'folk psychology' (everyday understandings of one another in terms of desires, knowledge, intentions etc.) is to be understood as lay science in this way (and the very name 'folk psychology' does rather give the game away as to the unargued metaphysical bent of this whole 'black box' approach to everyday interpersonal understanding), then all the more so for psychoanalysis.
9.b. Inferentialism. Mentalism is not the only driver of the view that core psychoanalytic concepts are inferential posits. Another is the view that our experiences occur in distinct temporal episodes, so that since what we experience when, for example, we encounter someone's unconsciously motivated disavowal, is a pattern of behaviour extending over time, then inference is required to knit together the temporally extended episodes. (During this time we may after all be perceiving a range of behaviours which are not germane to the understanding in question - so from this rather optional point of view there may be said to be 'gaps' in our experience.) On the view I propose the registering of someone's defensive operations will amount to the grasping via know-how of a gestalt shape to their affective interactions, and it is certainly true that such an experience of them may extend over a good stretch of time. For example it might stretch over 15 minutes in a session. However whilst our experiences of one another may be composed of long stretches of engaged interaction, this does not entail that they are knitted together through inference. What knits together the gestalt is instead a range of ongoing subpersonal processes. When we come to 'just see', to 'get the knack or hang' of, someone's unconscious life, we have become sensitised to a gestalt. But just as for grasping the meaning of what an author is saying through a reading experience that extends over, say, a couple of paragraphs, it is not I believe obligatory to call here on the concepts either of inference or of explanation to knit together and delineate the form of our comprehension.
9c. Introspectionism also comes along naturally with mentalism but may not be an obligatory bedfellow. At any rate, Freud appears to have been gulled by an introspectionist idea of consciousness (e.g. in his essay on The Unconscious section 1 (justification for the concept)). This is the idea that conscious, non-repressed, thoughts and feelings are thoughts and feelings that can readily be accessed through themselves being inwardly experienced - i.e. where they are the objects of an inner attention. The mentalist gives us a picture of the mind as a black box, but the theorist who believes that it is helpful to construe conscious thoughts as those which we are aware of will be inclined to think of consciousness as a revelatory light that can shine, in our own cases, into the workings of our minds which minds may yet be black boxes to others but which are bathed in a Cartesian glow in our own cases. The unconscious, on this reading, is what escapes the light of introspection - it is a black box even to us. Hence the need for posits that go beyond what can be inwardly observed - beyond what is 'accessible to consciousness' as the access-to-the-interior metaphor has it. This however traduces the grammar both of consciousness and of the dynamic unconscious. Conscious mental states are in truth those which can be spoken from, and which are largely integrated into the rest of our psychology. Avowability, not introspectibility, is the criterion of consciousness (David Finkelstein). Unconscious mental states are not avowable and are unintegrated. In neither case, conscious or unconscious, are we typically transitively aware of our own mental states - or if we are it is typically not all that helpful to us! Rather our mental states (our desires, feelings, intentions) are themselves forms of our relatedness to - including sometimes our awareness of - various states of affairs. Other people can however encounter both our conscious and unconscious mental states - since they find expression in our behaviour (as Freud so comprehensively demonstrates).
9d. By 'conceptualism' I have in mind that understanding of the constitutive significance of language for experience which frames language as a mediator of experience. In other words, of language as something which picks up, stands between, and carries over, what is pre-conceptually provided by the senses and delivers it to the understanding. In this view of the reach of concepts which has them not, as it were, as themselves extending all the way out to the world (to deploy a McDowellian trope), it may come to seem more than natural to start to talk of conceptual posits and inferences regarding a non-conceptual beyond: in effect this kind of conceptualism is of a piece with mentalism itself. It seems to me however that this psychologised Kantianism unwarrantedly superimposes two scenarios: the one having to do with the biomechanics of - the material basis of - experience and thought, and the other having to do with the normative relations between experience and judgement (cf Susan Hurley).
10 Narcissism and Sublimation. The concept of 'sublimation' I am calling on here is the Wittgensteinian, rather than the Freudian, one (i.e. when LW talks of the temptation to 'sublime the logic of our language'). Have an example: We talk of whether bank notes, smiles, monsters, fairies, coffee, love, Picassos, etc. are real or fake or unreal or mythical. What it means for a smile and for a monster to be real is of course intuitively rather different. If however we 'hypostasise' or 'sublime' the concept of 'reality', then we wrench it out from its diverse conceptual homes and posit some super-object (Reality) to which all of the above concepts allegedly stand in a conceptually univocal relation. We might then start to wonder whether our individual conceptual schemes 'pick out anything 'in reality''. The ways in which our conceptual schemes (for feelings, money, facial expressions etc.) themselves proffer rather different reality-establishing procedures for their specific objects becomes forgotten. Furthermore - and this is the 'narcissism' of metaphysics - we start to imagine that we can within our own heads provide and hold onto meanings for the terms of our metaphysical questions in abstraction from a participatory immersion in such reality-establishing practices.
A result of this metaphysical drift of the participatory sense-making human (i.e. of 'Dasein') into a domain of Representation (Essence) and a separate domain of Reality (Existence) is that particular examples of non-instantiated concepts get used as licenses for extrapolation to the putative logical possibility of most any concept not being instantiated. For example: it is an intelligible suggestion that monsters and fairies do not obtain: their essence and existence are separable. But in truth this possibility is parasitic on our grasp of concepts like person and animal. Yet it is in no way obvious that it makes sense to suggest that we might be right or wrong to think that the concepts of 'person' and 'animal' pick out anything real, anything that, as we might put it, actually obtains. And this is because it isn't at all obvious that concepts like these work to 'pick out' anything at all. (To grasp the philosophical meaning of 'pick out', imagine that you're left standing outside of some situation looking over at it, and you offer someone various patterned sketches on a piece of paper, sketches that allegedly correspond to some patterns manifesting in the situation you are looking over at. … And now try to imagine that a comprehending reality contact is itself thinkable in such terms…) Concepts like these are not first set up in a representational space and then brought to bear on a domain outside. Rather they articulate aspects of our engagements with the natural and social world. They are, one could say, unanswerable. Only by splitting our engaged, immersed, enacted, expressive lives off into always separable domains of the Representation and of the Real do we start to imagine that our concepts are always up for adequation.
(Starting with this idea of mind as Representation, and despairing of the epistemic predicament that a Realism about External Reality places us in, and lacking in confidence that we can intelligibly offer Such and Such an External Real as, say, the 'best explanation' for our Representations, we can even be tempted by Idealism, imagining that our only option to bring mind into contact with reality is to reconstruct the latter out of the former….)
Some of the key concepts that readily get sublimed in the philosophy of psychoanalysis are, I believe, those of patterns, behaviour, understanding and the mind. Thus psychoanalysis gets offered as a 'theory of how the mind works'. It is said that its concepts 'pick out patterns' in human behaviour. It supposedly helps us to 'understand' what couldn't otherwise be understood. However these truths are, I believe, actually disguised truisms, and so the philosophical discussion therefore too readily runs the risk of an unwarranted 'smugness' (this again is the 'narcissism' I mentioned above). The truth of the propositions gets proffered as having a justificatory significance for the psychoanalytic endeavour. However psychoanalysis simultaneously adjusts our understanding not only of the explanans but also of the explananda. What is meant by mental, what now counts as an understanding, what a pattern amounts to here, and what now is to count as intentional behaviour, all subtly change in their meanings. Thus it won't do to say that the extensions of folk psychology offered by psychoanalysis can be warranted in terms of their explanatory payback, since psychoanalysis is also extending our sense of what here counts as legitimate explanation. Psychoanalysis articulates new experiential gestalts, new objects, and new modes of comprehension.
11. Inceptual versus Representational Thought. It's tempting to articulate the above critique of a representational conception of central psychoanalytical truth claims simply by using a Wittgensteinian discourse of language games, rules, framework propositions, etc. Charles Elder does this and suggests at times that psychoanalysis offers us new ways of describing what we already know. The trouble with this way of trying to spell out the inadequacies of the view of core analytical concepts as posits is, it seems to me, that it ends up reinstating a dualism of 'not always the facts, but rather sometimes how we describe the facts'. It supposes, one could say, that either we have to do with representations of what is or with rules of representation; in both cases we are firmly in the representation game. There is something right, as I see it, in the impulse to resist the urge to assume it is intelligible to ask 'but are dreams really wish fulfillments?' or 'are symptoms really compromise formations?' But this, I want to suggest, is not because we meet here with rules for representing what we otherwise know, but rather because we have to do with a more founding notion of truth as an unconcealment in which there is, as such, no room for adequation - i.e. no room for the question 'does what is said correspond to what actually obtains?'
On this vision of truth as revelation, intuitions may be said to correspond to concepts only because there is a more primordial level of unity from which they both emerge, a level of grounding attunement specific to its diverse objects. The question for psychoanalytic training is how to cultivate such an attunement in the social animal that is the analytic trainee - how to get the knack of reading the countertransference for example - and how not to get pulled back into the forgetfulness of the necessarily unaccountable, sui generic, being of the unconscious that representational thought encourages.
A final remark. There is I think every reason to suppose that representational thought graduates off into rule articulation and into inceptual thought. Science and phenomenology need, in practice, not always be utterly distinct; whether we have to do with explanation or with articulation in some particular case will not always be decidable. This however does, I believe, nothing to warrant the claim that it is all best theorised in non-representational or in representational terms, nothing to warrant the idea that it is all inceptual or all posit. What we must do is decide in particular cases what we have to do with, and acknowledge grey areas for what they are. The contrast is useful, I suggest, partly because it helps provide a sense to talk of 'science' and 'phenomenology' themselves here. In this talk I've not so much been concerned to demonstrate that the core understanding of psychoanalysis is inceptual rather than representational - is poiesis rather than posit - but rather to make clear what is meant by claiming this possibility. (Interesting to think too what it would mean to practice psychoanalysis in an alethic rather than representational mode: perhaps it would amount to offering the patient ethical recognition rather than in descriptively recognising what is going on in his mind as an instance of this or that.)