Friday, August 28, 2015

The Ends of Psychoanalysis

Call it an occupational hazard, but psychoanalysts are mired in the question of the lives we haven’t lived. Eminent analyst Adam Phillips has addressed it in his book: Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life.

If psychoanalysis is nothing more than “overpriced storytelling” as I have said in my book The Last Psychoanalyst, then it must help you to craft fictions of the lives you haven’t lived, the lovers you lost, the chances you missed, the riches you did not accumulate.

It’s not about what was, but about what might have been. Of course, it must also concern what might not have been. By that I mean that it’s one thing to say that you missed out on joining the army because you preferred to have your student deferments. It’s quite another to say that you missed out on being born at the time of King Arthur's court.

Keep in mind, Phillips is the best writer and probably the best thinker in the dying field of psychoanalysis. Obviously, he does not have very much competition, but still, he writes clearly and well. He has made a career of offering philosophical meditations that rationalize psychoanalysis— that excuse it while making it seem rational.

While others labor under the illusion that modern neuroscience will rescue a moribund practice, Phillips offers the best defense that today’s psychoanalysis can offer. In the end the defense is flawed. More than anything, it shows us why psychoanalysis has failed. Still and all, it is far more cogent than what passes for theoretical work in today’s psychoanalysis.

Psychoanalysis directs its focus toward the past, toward your past history and your forgotten fantasies. And yet, as Freud himself stated clearly at the onset of his brainchild, it cares far less about what happened than about what you wanted to have happen. It’s not about the past that you can study as history but about the past you never lived, about what did not happen. 

Unfortunately, Phillips unintentionally makes clear, once you get caught in the quicksand of the past—whether it is the one you lived or the one you did not live--  you can no longer plan for the future. If you get trapped in the unlived past you have no reference to any objective reality and thus will inexorably get stuck into a fantasy world.

If psychoanalysis teaches you to introspect, to regret the lost past or to desire the past that never was, Phillips is attempting to rationalize the process—to make it seem rational and to excuse it, at the same time.

In the end, he claims that it’s about knowing who you are:

Our lived lives might become a protracted mourning for, or an endless tantrum about, the lives we were unable to live. But the exemptions we suffer, whether forced or chosen, make us who we are.

Of course, Phillips wants us to be more philosophical about the process, as he is. He wants us to vacillate between our lived lives and our unlived lives... taking time off from our nostalgia to offer a few gestures in reality. But, if we are really that obsessed and that nostalgic for our unlived past lives, we might very well wallow in a semi-permanent depression (or mourning), mixed with “an endless tantrum.”

But, what does it mean to engage in an endless tantrum? Since tantrums have a beginning and an end—even if the end is exhaustion--the phrase has no meaning. And, how is it possible to be in mourning at the same time that we are having an endless tantrum? Is there anything quite so unattractive as a temperamental child wallowing in self-pity for his unlived lives while striking out in rage because he cannot live them all.

Some therapists want you to get in touch with your inner child? Phillips, a far more sophisticated thinker, is saying that you can stay in touch with your infantile self by throwing an endless tantrum. How well do you believe that that will help you to live your life as an adult?

If this is really the way you spend your time, then clearly you are not going to do very well in a future that you seem incapable of confronting. If you mind is as preoccupied as Phillips wants it to be with your unlived life, you will have very little capacity to plan for the future, to use your imagination to consider alternate outcomes to your actions.

Nonetheless, Phillips does offer a philosophical meditation about what amounts to a dissatisfaction with psychoanalysis. Of course, he does not call it that, but the conclusion is inescapable.

It is easy enough to criticize cognitive therapies for being unwilling to probe the root causes of your problems and to criticize coaching for directing its attention toward the future, but if the alternative is to leave you chronically depressed while throwing endless tantrums, psychoanalysis does not have very much to recommend it.

For his part Phillips offers a path to redemption by waxing poetic about the process:

The unexamined life is surely worth living, but is the unlived life worth examining? It seems a strange question until one realizes how much of our so-called mental life is about the lives we are not living, the lives we are missing out on, the lives we could be leading but for some reason are not. What we fantasize about, what we long for, are the experiences, the things and the people that are absent. It is the absence of what we need that makes us think, that makes us cross and sad. We have to be aware of what is missing in our lives — even if this often obscures both what we already have and what is actually available — because we can survive only if our appetites more or less work for us. Indeed, we have to survive our appetites by making people cooperate with our wanting. We pressurize the world to be there for our benefit. And yet we quickly notice as children — it is, perhaps, the first thing we do notice — that our needs, like our wishes, are always potentially unmet. Because we are always shadowed by the possibility of not getting what we want, we learn, at best, to ironize our wishes — that is, to call our wants wishes: a wish is only a wish until, as we say, it comes true — and, at worst, to hate our needs. But we also learn to live somewhere between the lives we have and the lives we would like.

When you have suffered through the experience of psychoanalysis, when you have failed to escape its clutches, when you exit analysis being a true believing Freudian, you will have to find  some use for the skill you have acquired about regretting lost opportunities.

To add a little much-needed perspective—because Phillips is a semi-hypnotic writer—I would emphasize that each time you make a choice—to go to this or that college; to live here or there; to marry or to break up with him or her—you are discarding possible lives.

It’s a normal part of everyday mental processing. Leave it to psychoanalysis to disembarrass you of normal mental process in favor of a useless activity that risks leaving you manic and depressed.

If you are a normal individual you might recall the ones that got away but you will not belabor the point, because belaboring it will prevent you from engaging in your current life and will become an obstacle to seeing the future, from making plans and taking actions. Many psychoanalysts do not quite understand it, but you cannot look forward and backward at the same time.

The more you worry about what you are missing, the less you will be able to enjoy what you have.

Since psychoanalysis, as I have been wont to explain, is first and foremost about desire, it must emphasize about what you do not have. It could be something that you have lost but it could also be something you never had.

By definition you cannot desire what you have, so focusing on what you do not have and cannot ever have is a way to manufacture desire, artificially. It’s a gamble on the possibility that a mental process, even an act of will, can sustain your desire, permanently.

On the other hand, such a desire is really an artifice, borne of desperation and rage. I mentioned this in my book because I find it to be fascinating: psychoanalysis cannot distinguish between desperation and desire. The fact that you are desperate to have her (or him) does not mean that you desire her (or him.)  Even though, in both cases you do not have her (or him.)

Human experience, at the most elementary level tells you that if you are engaged in an amorous pursuit of her (or him) and if you appear to be desperate to have her (or him), you will cause her (or him) to reject your advances.

Phillips continues:

We refer to them as our unlived lives because somewhere we believe that they were open to us; but for some reason — and we might spend a great deal of our lived lives trying to find and give the reason — they were not possible. And what was not possible all too easily becomes the story of our lives.

As I said, “overpriced storytelling.” Good psychoanalyst that he is, Phillips cares about producing a narrative explanation for his life, one that will sustain a form of desperation that he can take for desire. Yet, the most important part of this text is the phrase: “for some reason.”

This should not be a mystery. When we choose to turn right we are necessarily precluding the future that would unfold had we turned left or driven straight or turned around. What Phillips fails to notice, and I consider it a major symptom of psychoanalysis, is the fact that we make many of our life choices freely and that, whatever influences and temptations we suffered, we are responsible for them. What is missing in Freudian theory is the notion of free will.

Without recognizing that people have free will, psychoanalysts like Phillips can forge ahead and concoct a narrative that seems to explain their lives. But this assumes that there is only one possible narrative. We ought to know that there are many, not one, and that they are all unsatisfactory. They assume that our lives follow predetermined scripts, thus, that our decisions and choices-- our ability to take responsibility or to evade it-- do not determine the course of our lives.

Phillips seems to be especially drawn to the idea that we are all nothing special.

In his words:

This, essentially, is the question psychoanalysis was invented to address: what kind of pleasures can sustain a creature that is nothing special? Once the promise of immortality, of being chosen, was displaced by the promise of more life — the promise, as we say, of getting more out of life — the unlived life became a haunting presence in a life legitimated by nothing more than the desire to live it. For modern people, stalked by their choices, the good life is a life lived to the full. We become obsessed, in a new way, by what is missing in our lives; and by what sabotages the pleasures that we seek.

One sees herein the Freudian mania about diminishing and demeaning human beings, depriving them of their self-respect, their dignity and their propriety. And, as a good Freudian Phillips has no real take on life in society, life in a group, life with more than one other person.

For a Freudian, perhaps, there is nothing more to life than seeking pleasures, but one understands that if that is your choice you will be missing out on a great deal of what matters, to yourself and to others. You are not going to be able to fulfill your duties and obligations to others if you are focused on seeking pleasure. 

Were you to wonder about the relationship between your lived life and the lives you might have lived, Phillips offers this analysis:

There is nothing more obscure than the relationship between the lived and the unlived life. (Each member of a couple, for example, is always having a relationship, wittingly or unwittingly, with their partner’s unlived lives; their initial and initiating relationship is between what they assume are their potential selves.) So we may need to think of ourselves as always living a double life, the one that we wish for and the one that we practice; the one that never happens and the one that keeps happening.

One admires the cleverness. For those who are barely present in their lives or their relationships, who are trapped in nostalgia, Phillips provides them with an easy excuse.

And yet, there is also the life that might be, depending on the plans we have, and how we implement them. The Freudian obsession with the past effectively deprives people of the tools necessary for building a brighter future.

Just in case you were wondering why psychoanalysis can’t work as a clinical practice.


Ares Olympus said...

I wondered if Philliips was also influenced by Jung, and apparently so...
He went on to study English at St John's College, Oxford and his defining influences are literary – he was inspired to become a psychoanalyst after reading Carl Jung's autobiography and he has always believed psychoanalysis to be closer to poetry than medicine: "For me, psychoanalysis has always been of a piece with the various languages of literature—a kind of practical poetry."
On psychoanalysis and science he says, "I don't think psychoanalysts should have bought into the scientific model with such eagerness. I don't think psychoanalysis is a science or should aspire to be one."

In regards to his quote "There is nothing more obscure than the relationship between the lived and the unlived life." That is, we have to make decisions in life, without having sufficient information to know which direction will bring desired rewards, and which should be abandoned, and when or how do you abandon a long held path when its not working any more, perhaps like an occupation such as psychoanalysis itself!

Anyway the question is interesting to me because it represents what Schumacher calls a "Divergent problem", where there are different sorts of criteria you can find for success, and if you optimize towards one criterion, you abandon another equally important one.

And Carl Jung's idea of the shadow fits right in as well, anything we affirm creates its opposite which we reject, and so you could say our "shadow" contains things we've rejected from our past, but may need to be reclaimed someday in our future.

And I think of such predicaments in wider society as well. If culture is heading towards its own destruction, then various individuals within that culture will struggle to look towards the past, and reimagine it from the present, and see if they can see what lessons were forgotten in some modern zeal for modernity, but will soon again be necessary for our collective survival.

So you can say the work of the subjective big-picture poets or priests or objective big-picture system engineers are both equally frustrating, and not for ordinary folk to follow, perhaps because 90% of what the poets attempt will be ignored, and 90% of what the engineers want will be wasted on trivial applications that undo all the economy of scale advantages in Jevons paradoxes of greater destructiveness.

So most of us, in our personal choices, will choose to take whatever path keeps us closest to the herd of the collective, and as long as that seems to work for the majority, culture can move toward one more generation that is slightly more blind than the last one.

Or I should say, eventually you get Crisis, danger and opportunity, and more people must awake, and reclaim responsibility for what you know, but have trained yourself not to know. I'm pretty well convinced that's where we are now, AND when things stop working, and many of us will spin our wheels in the mud anyway, then perhaps going towards the poetry of the unlived life, or the ideals that can't exist in reality at the moment (myths like camelot), at least, such mental meanderings get you through the long muddy road ahead that is slow for everyone.

Whatever name we give story-telling, it would seem to be useful.

Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: What is missing in Freudian theory is the notion of free will. Without recognizing that people have free will, psychoanalysts like Phillips can forge ahead and concoct a narrative that seems to explain their lives.

This is an interesting conclusion, but I don't feel confident to believe it, or at least in general. And if you'd like to reduce psychoanalysis to story-telling, then it might as well be the greatest expression of free will.

A story allows you to place a map over an experiences and our place in those experiences, and see how that map fits. But since no single story is sufficient to express all aspects of experience, we clearly create a large number of contradictory, incomplete stories on top, and through these reflections of this incompleteness, we can express our free will, to decide which aspect best integrates our understanding in the moment, and can move us forward in a decision.

In contrast, the greater flaw is when all our stories are unconscious, expressed in every moment of passion, and forgotten the next, like perhaps animal consciousness lives, then we would truely have no free will. I remember reading somewhere that Jung considered Archetypes as the human expression of instincts. So that makes sense to me, and we know instincts are helpful, but limited, and at times a higher awareness is needed to step out of our reactive, instinctual responses.

We might agree ideologies and religions easily become dogmatic and try to reduce experience to interpretations that fit a narrative, and that is trouble, or it is "efficient" when it works, and disasterous when we've filtered out information that is necessary to see the reality that the ideology can't account for. And it makes sense any psychological ideals risk this.

Another Blog I like is "The Archdruid report", and one of his ideas goes back to a 2006 blog:
Knowing many stories is wisdom.
Knowing no stories is ignorance.
Knowing only one story is death.

So that would seem to be helpful. Many stories allow our free will to test our understanding from many points of view. No stories mean we're running on autopilot when we are just following whatever path of least resistance presents itself. And knowing one story means we've glomed onto a single ideology that feigns to explain everything, which can't see through its own blind spots.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I wrote a book about this. Apparently you haven't read it. You would do better not to offer uninformed opinions.

Ares Olympus said...

Maybe I should trust your authority, but I don't like assuming things without understanding the context, to know where they're true, and where they are not true, or partially true. The exceptions are as important as the rules.

What do other say?

.... I might agree with this below, i.e. "soft determinism" can expression human behavior, a whole lot of unconscious expression, salted with moments of self-awareness where free will can help us go beyond what we've been in the past, for good or ill.
At first sight Freud seems to be a supporter of determinism in that he argued that our actions and our thoughts are controlled by the unconscious. However the very goal of therapy was to help the patient overcome that force. Indeed without the belief that people can change therapy itself makes no sense.
Psychologists who take the free will view suggest that determinism removes freedom and dignity, and devalues human behavior. By creating general laws of behavior, deterministic psychology underestimates the uniqueness of human beings and their freedom to choose their own destiny.

There are important implications for taking either side in this debate. Deterministic explanations for behavior reduce individual responsibility. A person arrested for a violent attack for example might plead that they were not responsible for their behavior – it was due to their upbringing, a bang on the head they received earlier in life, recent relationship stresses, or a psychiatric problem. In other words, their behavior was determined.

The deterministic approach also has important implications for psychology as a science. Scientists are interested in discovering laws which can then be used to predict events. This is very easy to see in physics, chemistry and biology. As a science, psychology attempts the same thing – to develop laws, but this time to predict behavior If we argue against determinism, we are in effect rejecting the scientific approach to explaining behavior

Clearly, a pure deterministic or free will approach does not seem appropriate when studying human behavior. Most psychologists use the concept of free will to express the idea that behavior is not a passive reaction to forces, but that individuals actively respond to internal and external forces. The term soft determinism is often used to describe this position, whereby people do have a choice, but their behavior is always subject to some form of biological or environmental pressure.

And wikipedia gives me another new word for the day. I apologize if your book mentioned all of this, and I am left unaware. I know you've mentioned the Stoics of course.
Compatibilism is the belief that free will and determinism are compatible ideas, and that it is possible to believe both without being logically inconsistent. Compatibilists believe freedom can be present or absent in situations for reasons that have nothing to do with metaphysics.

Compatibilism was championed by the ancient Stoics and medieval scholasticism, such as that of St. Thomas Aquinas, and by such modern philosophers like David Hume and Thomas Hobbes. The term itself was coined as late as in the 20th century. Contemporary compatibilists range from the philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett, particularly in his works Elbow Room (1984) and Freedom Evolves (2003), to the existentialist philosopher Frithjof Bergmann.

Ares Olympus said...

Here's another short article on Freud and determinism. It is curious. At least Freud's definition of determinism (as the unconscious) is completely at odds with scientific physical determinism which only believes in mechanical cause-and-effects, i.e dead energy, forces, momentum, entropy, etc.

For the moment I might as well assume Freud would believe in "soft determinism" since it is completely subjective, internal, and hidden intrinsic motives of the unconscious.
Sigmund Freud defined determinism in terms of the unconscious and contended that behavior is caused by internal, mental mechanisms. In some ways, Freud was more extreme than Skinner, who acknowledged that some behaviors are not predictable. The main difference between Freud and Skinner involved the origin of causation; Freud believed in underlying physiological processes while Skinner opted to focus on external causes. Thus, even though Freudians and Skinnerians differ on almost every conceivable dimension, they have at least one commonality in their reliance on determinism.

Ares Olympus said...

And since we know Adam Phillips was influenced by Jung, we can consider Jung's views on free will, as this paper does, concluding three internal sources of motivation, only one of them being the conscious mind.
In examining Jung's theory in order to discern whether he believed in determinism or free will we have to examine the way in which Jung viewed the relationship between the conscious mind, the personal unconscious mind and the collective unconscious.

Jung did not view either the personal unconscious mind or the collective unconscious as all powerful. He emphasized his belief that there should be a balance between each of the three portions of an individual's mind in order for the individual to live a healthy life.

This emphasis on balance suggest that Jung believed in neither determinism or free will exclusively. Each person is partially influenced by both his personal unconscious and his collective unconscious but is completely controlled by neither of them. Everyone is capable of making conscious decisions but in Jung's perspective these decisions are not made in a vacuum without some influence from both the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious.

Balance is the key to understanding Jung's concepts. Jung believed in a balanced relationship between the conscious, personal unconscious and collective unconscious. Feist and Feist (2009) describe the balance of Jung's theory by stating that “people are motivated partly by conscious thoughts, partly by images from their personal unconscious, and partly by latent memory traces inherited from their ancestral past”.

This balance between the three levels of the mind means that Jung's outlook on life was partially deterministic and partially defined by free will.

Unknown said...

Ares-Give it a rest.

Stuart Schneiderman said...


Ares Olympus said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Remarkable how a leprechaun-like contrarian critic can vomit wiki links, while prattling on about... context.

Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: Without recognizing that people have free will, psychoanalysts like Phillips can forge ahead and concoct a narrative that seems to explain their lives. But this assumes that there is only one possible narrative.

Deleted? I'll have to try again.

I continue to feel uncomfortable with the assumption that Phillips doesn't recognize free will or the possibility of multiple narratives.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

David Spence @August 28, 2015 at 12:39 PM:

Say it again, please. I don't think he heard you the first time. Nor Stuart's second.

KCFleming said...

Great post.
The key for me, at least in judging these issues, was in this sentence;
"How well do you believe that that will help you to live your life as an adult?"
I will make use of that one.

Ares Olympus said...

Alas, the internet is a wide place, and I found a reading from Adam Phillips. Adam Phillips: 'Against Self-Criticism'
And the text here:

He made an interesting claim about Freud, block-quoted blow. I would claim this claim is about denying the "single narrative", that is, by recognizing many interpretations, it is more difficult to fall for any single interpretation as the final say.

The context of this discussion is to challenge the super-ego, or our interpretations what we think it's saying to us. Anyway, it makes sense to me, and agrees, Stuart fears, following "one possible narrative" is trouble.
------------ @17:09
...You can only understand anything that matters – dreams, neurotic symptoms, people, literature – by over-interpreting it; by seeing it, from different aspects, as the product of multiple impulses. Over-interpretation, here, means not settling for a single interpretation, however apparently compelling.

The implication – which hints at Freud’s ongoing suspicion, i.e. ambivalence, about psychoanalysis – is that the more persuasive, the more authoritative the interpretation the less credible it is, or should be.

If one interpretation explained Hamlet we wouldn’t need Hamlet anymore: Hamlet as a play would have been murdered. Over-interpretation means not being stopped in your tracks by what you are most persuaded by; to believe in a single interpretation is radically to misunderstand the object one is interpreting, and interpretation itself.
Conscience, that is to say, can seduce us into betraying ourselves. Freud’s super-ego is the part of our mind that makes us lose our minds, the moralist that prevents us from evolving a personal, more complex and subtle morality.
Conscience is intimidating because it is intimidated. We have to imagine not that we are cowardly, but that we have been living by the morality of a coward; the ferocity of our conscience might be a form of cowardice.

But what other kind of morality might there be? If we have been living by a forbidding morality, what would an unforbidding morality look like? There are moralities inspired by fear, but what would a morality be like that was inspired by desire?

It would, as Hamlet’s soliloquy perhaps suggests, be a morality, a conscience, that had a different relation to the unknown. The coward, after all, always thinks he knows what he fears, and knows that he doesn’t have the wherewithal to deal with it. The coward, like Freud’s super-ego, is too knowing. A coward – or rather, the cowardly part of ourselves – is like a person who must not have a new experience.

Dennis said...


I have to admit that I gave up trying to make sense of Ares, strange screen name considering the general leanings, a long time ago. I thought for a while he would try to bring some order, but alas it hasn't happen. What one of us when we were young did not have a formed idea of how and what reality is or works and that we have to be careful, hard to do, with how we interpret that we have learned with our real experiences in life. Lord knows that I have been hoisted on my own petard a few times. If one is not making mistakes then one is not learning and people are never what we believe they are.
One has to be suspicious of a profession that tries to create neat little categories that everyone can be classified. One also has to understand that all those nice theories one learned in academe are just that theories that will be ridiculed by a future generation, just as we did to those who came before us, or have very limited applicability.

Lee Katt said...

Very difficult to read. True, but hard.

I wasted a lot of time on inner child work, and it accomplished absolutely nothing. I have raged every day for probably 22 years, going over the same problems again and again.

I was a mess by 24 and I got sober in AA. Initially, I did some therapy and got a lot better. But then I backslid, and never really progressed from there.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy helped. I never did psycho-analysis, but did do inner child work. As I said, accomplished nothing and even was regressive.