Sunday, 8 March 2015


At Phil Hutchinson’s workshop at MMU on Wednesday Tim Thornton questioned whether I really need to go all ‘darkly Heideggerian’ in order to do justice to the intuition that the core understanding psychoanalysis offers us of its object – the dynamic unconscious – is not best understood as scientific in character. Why couldn’t we achieve all we wanted to with Wittgensteinian talk of a ‘rule of representation’ or a ‘framework proposition’?

Michael Lacewing was troubled by my suggestion that no inference was involved in the grasping of the temporally extended gestalts of unconscious affects and motivations. My claim was that the best understanding of what it is to appreciate the presence and character of, say, projection is in terms of ‘just getting it’, seeing it in the living shape of someone’s behaviour and expression. We are not, I claimed, typically involved in ‘inference to the best explanation’. Michael, however, was concerned that this leaves us unable to justify or persuade someone who doubted the presence of, say, projection either in a particular instance or in general.

In what follows I want to address both of these concerns.

Here was my basic claim: We can’t understand psychoanalytic theory in its elements (‘there is a dynamic unconscious’; ‘people project’, ‘repression results in deadening of the self’, ‘psychic suffering follows from splitting’ etc.) as scientific, I claimed, because the articulations of the elements are too primordial for science. That is, we can’t understand their meaning independently of an understanding that they obtain. Our coming to understanding the meaning of these terms is of a piece with our deepened understanding of human nature. We do not first grasp their essence, then infer on the basis of empirical evidence that they do or do not exist or obtain. Similarly for what goes for understanding itself here. Elemental psychoanalytic understanding is not, I claimed, a general psychological type of understanding that just happens to be directed at a particular object. Rather the object (the unconscious) is to be grasped with a mode of understanding (psychoanalytic understanding) apt for it. A natural Wittgensteinian tack – taken by Charles Elder in his ‘The Grammar of the Unconscious’ – is to claim that the non-representational form of knowing I am after here is to be explicated in terms of ‘grammar’, ‘rules of representation’, ‘conceptual truth’, ‘framework propositions’. The idea is that these are truths about what it makes sense to say, rather than truths about objects. We are involved in grasping meaning, and not in seeing that something obtains.

Now, whether or not this is going to be acceptable will, I think, turn a lot on what we mean by a rule of representation. For what I don’t think is that these core psychoanalytical terms are to be grasped through non-ostensive definitions. Nor do I think that they are to be grasped in terms of ostensive samples. In short they are not to be explicated in terms of sufficient conditions. And there is an important reason for this. This reason has to do with the sui generisity of the concepts. The concepts are irreducible precisely because they have to do with a distinctive form of knowledge directed at a distinctive form of object. Our intellectual understanding of such concepts will therefore often best proceed negatively – in line with Wittgenstein’s(/ Shakespeare's King Lear's Earl of Kent's) ‘I’ll show(/teach) you differences’. The concepts just wouldn’t be at all interesting if they were reducible to other concepts. It is because they articulate a new kind of object that they are worthwhile – and philosophically interesting too!

When I asked Tim what he would count as residing ‘within grammar’, he suggested that 'a way to grasp what ['sacrifice'] means would be to steep oneself in the Tarkovsky film of that name. To grasp the rule for that word, though, requires a profound change in one’s own character. Rules for the use of words, for the articulation of concepts, may require profound change opening one’s eyes to new tracts of the space of reasons.' Now if by rules of grammar we mean something immersed and particularistic in this way then, yes, I am more than happy to acknowledge that we can collapse revelations of the being of the psychoanalytic object into descriptions of the grammar of the key terms. What I don’t accept is something which Elder accepts – that the rules of grammar give us new ways of articulating or arranging what we already know. This, I think, radically underplays the radically essential value of the psychoanalytic concepts in articulating a distinct object and a distinctive understanding of the distinct object. I also want to stress one other thing about what is required for grasp of this or that ‘grammatical rule’. For, especially when it comes to psychoanalytical knowing, I think it is particularly clear that ‘getting the knack’ or ‘hang’ of, e.g., reading the patient’s unconscious, or of reading the counter-transference, is a matter of a development of sensibility. This has to do with ways of seeing (rather than inferring and explaining one thing in terms of another), modes of attunement, that are distinctively bodily, affective, moral, and require a good deal of reflective self-awareness and maturity. I also think that it is important that we hold onto the idea that what psychoanalysis articulates in its core understanding of human nature are truths about human nature. It does not simply offer us rules for representing something; it articulates how human beings fundamentally work. However what is not true, I believe, is that we can understand what ‘fundamentally working’ even amounts to here without already using psychoanalytical concepts.

Let me turn now to Michael’s concern. Michael is rightly impressed by the need to defend psychoanalysis against its myriad critics, and is at the forefront of important work defending psychoanalysis against philosophical misunderstandings and in laying out the evidence for, e.g., the effectiveness of psychoanalytical therapies. I too think this important, and certainly don’t want to be taken as laissez faire about this. However there is a bullet I must bite here, because I simply don’t think that inference to the best explanation is the right model for understanding the relationship between general analytical claims about the unconscious and claims about the kinds of behaviour that express unconscious affect and motivation. It would be very satisfying if we could use reason to out-smart the opponents of psychoanalysis by establishing that the only way to be rational in emotional-behavioural situation is to accept psychoanalytical claim Z, I just don’t think this is possible. (I don’t think it is possible for reasons articulated above: I think that the only relevant characterization of what we could misleadingly call the ‘data’ already draws on the psychoanalytical understanding: the relation between the two is internal and not external, and so cannot be bridged by inference to best explanation. As Joel Backstrom observed: 'we can only ever establish what are trivial matters; regarding matters of import one cannot establish a fucking thing'.)

As a mere matter of fact, I don’t think that anyone is ever really convinced of the truth of psychoanalytical claims in the way that Michael desires. I know that I wasn’t. Instead I gradually developed a sensibility, a living grasp of what the core psychoanalytical concepts mean, a grasp that took root over time in my own self-understanding and in my understanding of my patients and colleagues and friends. Case studies, stories, self-reflection, films, chance observations, learning from painful interactions in a relationship: these are the teaching fields of psychoanalytical theory. Furthermore, if someone is emotionally closed to such understanding, and either will not or cannot engage the psychoanalytic sensibility or mode of knowing, then I think that no amount of rational argument or attempted demonstration will be able to convince them. The meaning of the key psychoanalytical terms presupposes and cannot found the psychoanalytical sensibility - or they are at best internally related to one another. I don’t think this makes it any kind of closed circle, however – any more than psychological or musical or ethnographic or aesthetic or mathematical understanding is closed. Thankfully we can enter into the spirit of this or that human enquiry through routes other than inference! The same goes for allegations that it is a cult. The irreducible sui generisity of, more generally, humane understanding cannot make it a cult, and neither does it make for cultishness in psychoanalysis.

In fact isn't it like this: The person worried about cultishness thinks that viewing psychoanalytic discourse as a language-game with its own rules of representation and norms of correctness risks immunising it from criticism. But what are they thinking? Perhaps they are imagining that a language-game is some kind of description of an aspect of reality, or is correct or incorrect. Perhaps it does or does not cut 'nature' (whatever that putative generic object is supposed to be!) at its joints. (Talk of 'nature' already smacks mightily of a subliming of the logic of one's language!) But the whole point of talk of 'language games' is an acknowledgement that here we are having to do not with representations but with rules for representation. Standards of correctness are not themselves correct or incorrect - for that would just, weirdly, presuppose further standards of correctness which are, presumably, on pain of infinite regress, not themselves helpfully thought of as correct or incorrect. So whereas a cult believer is claiming a correct representation of how things really are, the psychoanalytic pundit is instead, in their core claims, articulating what things really being so amounts to, as regards our unconscious life. In the end, not only does psychoanalysis give us the psychological concepts to explicate just what cultishness itself consists in (i.e. splitting, projection, idealisation, identification, delusion, wish-fulfilment, etc.), but the 'grammatical' rather than 'representational' character of its core claims is precisely what makes for particular judgements made in psychoanalytic mode themselves being thought of as, intelligibly, correct or incorrect. Without logically inviolable rules of representation we are never going to come upon empirically violable representational judgements.