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.
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.
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.
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'.)
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.