on 'what makes correct' an interpretation

We're in the clinic. A psychoanalytical interpretation hits the spot. We might find ourselves wanting to ask: 'What makes it, in virtue of what is it, a correct interpretation?'

Before rushing to answer let's consider, first, how we might take the question.

1. One way of handling the question would be to quickly resolve it into a request for an explication of the being of unconscious thought. 'The patient's psychology is what makes it correct' - so goes the obvious answer. And then we might give an example of, say, Geoffrey's projection of his unconscious guilt into Margery, and elaborate the markers of that - his tetchy heightened need to blame her when he comes near anything which, as we see it, risks revealing to him his own blameworthiness, his mood, his shiftiness, etc. This way of taking the question sees it as a way of asking 'What is it to be labouring under what the interpretation interprets as obtaining?' It doesn't, say, take the raising of the question to be inspired by anything peculiar to the clinical situation of the patient's uptake of the interpretation. For sure, the criteria for unconscious guilt differ from those for conscious guilt, but the form of the question is the same in both cases, and spelling out the general similarities and differences in his or her dispositions etc. will answer the question understood thus.

2. Another way of handling the question reads it as an inquiry into correct psychoanalytical technique. 'What makes it the clinically correct thing for the analyst to say, here, now?' And here we would make reference to matters of timing, the defences not being too high for it to be meaningful to the patient, etc. - Geoffrey can now say 'Oh, God, yes, I can see now just how unfairly I've been treating Margery, and this guilt, yeah, it feels truly dreadful, how can I make it right?'. Perhaps we could even gloss 'correct' as 'that which enables the defence to be withdrawn'.

Such interpretations of the interpretative act are fine as far as they go, and so long as we keep saying what we mean and meaning what we say then we can of course say what we will. But there's a real question, for me at least, of whether they really get to the bafflement and unease that threw up my question for me. Perhaps they've merely temporarily gated the irritation of the real itch by scratching at a different point on the conceptual body.

3. At any rate, here is a different juncture where I am inclined to ask the original question. (But what do you think? Was this your predicament?) So, I am imagining an analyst making an interpretation to the patient, and the patient taking it up to avow his own feelings, or not. And I start to worry about how I can distinguish between the patient inauthentically receiving a mere suggestion and his now authentically avowing his inner experience.

One way forward I should now like to offer proceeds by first stepping back and reminding us of something about avowal. Avowal of one's feelings is not itself an act which it makes much sense to describe as correct or incorrect. Geoffrey's avowal of his guilty feelings is not the expression of his judgement that he has feelings of guilt. He is, if he truly is avowing, speaking from his guilty feeling itself. He is not, that is to say, avowing a belief that he has guilty feelings, but instead, now, avowing his guilty feeling itself. The avowal ('I feel guilty') can (unlike a mere  animal expression) accordingly (when it truly is an avowal of what it voices) be true or (if someone is lying or in denial) false, but is not helpfully described as correct or incorrect. (A fortiori there are no criteria of correctness for avowals.) (Acknowledgement of one's guilt itself is, however, at least often equivalent to avowing a belief that one is guilty.)

One way we could understand the analyst's interpretation is as the offering of a possible avowal to and for the patient. Seemingly aware of the instantiation here of the criteria for unconscious guilt, the analyst offers Geoffrey an opportunity of criterionless avowal, a chance at ownership. Nothing makes Geoffrey's avowal correct - for it neither is nor isn't. And what is it that makes the analyst's interpretation correct? Well, here, we can say various different things - we said some of them above already remember? - but - as it seems to me - what these would all do would be to tacitly - and perfectly respectably - specify what 'correctness' would actually amount to here.

Now we could also say 'It is Geoffrey's avowal (of his feeling of guilt) that makes the analyst's interpretation (about his guilty feeling) correct'. Wittgenstein wanted to say something like that. I think we can see what is being got at here, and not need to disagree with it, nor disagree with the idea that it is an apt answer to the question, whilst yet insisting that it only really works by stipulating one thing that 'correct' could amount to in this context.

4. However at this point my original bafflement and unease still rears its head. Sure, Geoffrey may take up the analyst's interpretation and use it now in avowal, but is he correct to do so? And what if he doesn't do so - must the analyst's interpretation now be seen as necessarily incorrect? On the one hand, I want to say, we don't want the correctness of the analyst's interpretation to be left hanging on Geoffrey's say-so. On the other there is a kind of infallibility which we don't do well to offer to the patient especially in such situations.

I think we can answer these concerns though, and show how Wittgenstein's suggestion can be taken up. This works through uncoupling the idea of a conceptual relation between analyst's correctness and patient's avowal from an epistemic idea about how can we tell that a voicing of what was previously unconscious really obtains. The point cannot be that whatever the patient offers by way of an avowal constitutes the truth of what is avowed. For we may not yet be 'in touch with' the feeling in question, or we might be offering a hysterical narrative about our feelings rather than really voicing our feelings themselves. The point is just that when someone is now speaking from his thoughts and feelings, and has taken up his analyst's interpretation to do so, then there is no further question of the correctness of the interpretation.

5. There is a perennial temptation when thinking philosophically about the mind to try to attain a kind of certainty in or guarantee for (what I will here describe whimsically as) the passage from delusion to truth. The question is in fact often posed in terms of what must be added to delusion for it to become truth. We see this in 'theories of' perception: what must be added to a mere inner image for it to become a veridical perception? (Cue: wild goose chase for causal mechanisms between objects and inner impressions of objects.) We see it in 'theories of' knowledge: what must be added to mere belief for it to become bona fide knowledge? (Cue: wild goose chase of attempts to solve the Gettier problem.) Or in 'theories of' action: what must be added to arm raisings to get arm risings? (Cue: quickly invent some inner acts called 'volitions'.)

My suggestion is that the current question ('What makes correct the analyst's interpretation?') springs forth, in my own case, from some similarly disturbing and disturbed territory. I would, as it were, like to be able to think my way to sanity and insight. That is the fantasy I think I'm labouring under. I would, it seems to me, like to be able to start with an interpretation-taken-up-or-not-in-avowal that yet may or may not be correct, and then to ask what it is that makes it correct in a certain instance. To borrow McDowell's terminology of 'disjunctivism', such an approach takes interpretations to be 'non-disjunctive': that they (like the putative 'volitions' in action and in mere tryings, or the putative 'inner images' in both 'veridical perceptions' and hallucinations) are to be thought of as  fundamentally self-same regardless of whether they happen to be correct or incorrect, and that their rightness or otherwise is something that can be spelled out in addition to their content.

Against this picture I will now stress again the significance of avowal itself. In avowal proper I am not talking about my thoughts and feelings. So we do not in our own case meet with a speech act - an avowal - which may or may not hit its target. Rather: if I truly am avowing my thoughts and feelings, there is no target to be hit: the arrow made of my words is being fired forth from the thought or feeling; it is not directed at them by mind. There are of course moments - hysterical moments, say -  when I simulate avowal. How can I tell the difference between these? Well, we already know this - we must just look out for the markers of, say, hysteria.

6. To recap: I don't have or need reasons to believe that, when I am speaking from my own thoughts or feelings, this is what I am doing. Given this we may say, when offered the question 'What makes the analyst's interpretation as taken up by the patient correct?', 'Well, nothing really' or 'The patient's use of it in avowal'. We can't just blankly say 'The patient's say-so' as a general rule since that would overlook those cases in which the say-so is not genuine, ill-considered, too based on positive transference; and we also have to consider those cases when the patient doesn't have the ears to hear what the analyst is saying. Or we may of course offer the criteria for the unconscious feeling in question, or refer back to matters of correct technique.

What we ought to recall though is that There are no criteria for authenticity! There are criteria for delusion and for belief; there are criteria for action and for mere movement; there are criteria for hallucination and for perception. However there aren't criteria for the genuineness of perception, criteria that can, as it were, be added to those for hallucination to get to the real deal. That's an ass-over-tit approach to the grammar of psychological predication.

One difficulty with a suggestion that 'what makes correct the analyst's interpretation is the analysand's say-so', is that it yet risks sanctioning the hunting around for something, some criterion, which certifies for us that we're living an authentic life, that we're authentically in touch with the feeling ascribed to us by the analyst. But this is daft because the whole premise of psychoanalysis is that we unwittingly yet motivatedly make shit up; that we defend against the truth of our feelings; that we tell ourselves untrue stories about what we feel.

This kind of answer reminds me of the idea that the absence of surprise is the criterion which distinguishes arm raising from arm rising. It's not a bad idea in itself. However it speaks past the motivation underlying the question about how to distinguish the two. So too with a suggestion like 'what makes an avowal true is the absence of self-deception'.

7. My analyst offers me an interpretation. It's a good'un. I now take it up as my own speech act. It is a new moment in my self-becoming, a new bodying forth of uncovered thought and feeling. But what makes it right? Oh come on! It isn't wrong or right: it isn't a judgement.

The above concerns may also be articulated in the language of 'fit'. We may raise these questions too for 'tip of the tongue' phenomena: 'What makes it the case that this is the word I was looking for?' is the question we may sometimes feel compelled to ask. We want to say that the new word fits the shape of the gap at the end of my previously thwarted self-expression.

In both cases, though, there is nothing which makes this utterance the right one. If we are forced to give an answer we might say 'It is my say-so that makes it right', but this puts the point rather poorly. Rather: avowal, speaking from my thoughts, faltered... and then it re-started. We would do better to say 'Nothing made it right; it's just that nothing spurious was added, I didn't change the subject'.

Geoffrey fluently says to Margery 'I was hoping we'd first have time to go home and pick up those cufflinks you got me'. What makes 'cufflinks' the right word to help express the thought he had? The question is absurd: the thought and its expression are, to borrow the idealist idiom, 'internally, not externally, related'. But then we put a hiatus in the sentence: the word 'cufflinks' won't come to him. But then Geoffrey recovers it spontaneously, or perhaps Margery, intuiting what her husband was wanting to say, supplies it for him.'Yes, pick up those cufflinks you got me!'

Now, why should the pause make us think the relation between the thought and its expression is any less internal? The thought is still that which is expressed thus. Similarly, I suggest, for the relationship between the analyst's interpretation and the patient's voicing of her own thought. The defences create a hiatus in our lives. The interpretation undoes the hiatus. Now life, thought, feeling, can go on.


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