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Becoming a SubjectReview - Becoming a Subject
Reflections in Philosophy and Psychoanalysis
by Marcia Cavell
Oxford University Press, 2006
Review by Laxminarayan Lenka, Ph.D.
Oct 31st 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 44)

Delving more into psychoanalysis than philosophy, Marcia Cavell explores certain issues on memory, anxiety, emotion, thought, judgment, self, self-knowledge and freedom in her attempt to look into the reflections made in philosophy and psychoanalysis on the problem of becoming a subject. She advances a neo-dualism that argues for the mutual irreducibility of 'subjective' and 'objective' and, at the same time, proclaims the inevitability of the social dimension as well as that of the external world for the constitution of a human subject. Cavell understands a human subject as to be a creature that can see and be seen 'both from a third-person point of view and from a first person point of view' (p. 3). She grounds this understanding on the indispensability of a triangulation- of the self, other selves and objects of external world- for our becoming the subjects that we are in this world. Cavell attempts to show how certain neurological, philosophical and psychoanalytic reflections (findings) on the nature and functions of emotions, anxiety, memory etc. display the validity of her said understanding of human subjects.

Cavell claims it to be a running theme of her work that the 'psychological space demands physical space; that the inner world is embedded in, and fabricated from, interactions between world and mind' (p.1). With an endorsement of philosophical frameworks of later Wittgenstein and Davidson, she claims the constitution of human subject to be impossible without its social and inter-subjective dimensions. She attempts to uphold this claim in theoretical as well as clinical psychoanalysis. The viewpoints from psychoanalysis on varying issues that she has discussed include those of Bion, Winnicott, Loewald, Stern, Renik, Fonagy, Ledoux, Weiss and Westen. However, her frequent referral to Freud on almost all the issues may lead one to interpret the present book as a reinterpretation of Freudian psychoanalysis, in the line of her previous book The Psychoanalytic Mind: From Freud to Philosophy. Yet, of course, the book contains enough material to stand on its own.

The book contains philosophical views, though very sketchy, on anxiety, memory and emotion. Further, the last part of the book contains discussion on issues like freedom of the will (in Chapter 8), value of emotions (in Chapter 9), self-transcendence (in Chapter 7) and self-discovery (in Chapter 10) pertaining to moral philosophy and certain other issues (in Appendix) like 'justified true belief', 'certainty', 'consensus' and 'reality' that come under epistemology and metaphysics. However, Cavell aims her discussion of those other issues at psychoanalysts rather than philosophers.

The first three chapters deal on memory, anxiety and time. Cavell asserts that 'without memory there could be no mind at all' (p.10) and endorses to some continental philosophers (like Sartre, Heidegger and Kierkegaard) idea that anxiety is 'the central problem of our lives' and it is 'not to be eased or dispelled, but lived' (p.27) in the becoming of authentic selves. In the light of Freud's "Remembering, Repeating and Working Through" (the main paper Cavell discusses on in Chapter 3) the role of psychoanalysts in 'mending time', in bringing a neurotic in terms with reality by getting him/her live in the present, by replacing the rigid 'melancholic' attitude by a flexible 'mourning' attitude. The theoretical viability of 'mending time', of course, depends on the 'multiple memory systems', different kinds of unconscious and memory systems (described in Chapter 1) crisscrossing each other  and 'the external world' and 'the interpersonal' (discussed in Chapter 2) crucial for the formation of anxiety.

Cavell grounds the social dimension of becoming a subject on the social character of thoughts (in Chapter 4: "Triangulation: The Social Character of Thought").  Advancing her concept of triangulation through an explanation of Davidson's concept of triangulation, Mead's concept of symbolic communication and Grice's account of meaning, she explains the social character of thought. Further, to underline her realistic account, to include the reality of the external world along with that of the self and other selves, she distinguishes her concept of triangulation from that of Britton and Green. Although none of our constructed pictures of reality is identical with another and each is subject to revision, for her, 'what keeps pulling us back to the drawing board is the world itself' (p.72). 

The social dimension has been emphasized further with respect to the intentional aspect of human thoughts (in Chapter 5: "On Judgment"). Cavell argues that neither sensations nor symbols stand as the building blocks of our judgments and considers 'building-block' theory of judgment 'hopeless' (p. 80). In her assessment, Bion's idea that thought precede thinking (judgment) and Freud's idea that 'fantasy and its prototype, hallucination' precede judgment are unsatisfactory insofar as they subscribe to the said theory.

Cavell presents her conception of a psychoanalytic self as to be a temporal continuum of 'I', developed through beliefs, desires, emotions, perceptions and knowledge, in Chapter 6, and argues for the social dimension of self and self-reflection. She refutes an understanding of self and self-reflection (held by Descartes, Locke and Hume) that takes 'first-person thinking itself granted' (p.84), ignoring the background conditions, the 'long and intricate pre-history' of a first-person thinking (p.85). In her assessment, even Frankfurt's idea of a 'caring', 'volitional' and 'autonomous' self is erroneous because, though it underlines freedom of the will and a sense of moral agency fundamental to subjectivity, it omits something 'crucial to selfhood: our relations to other persons' (p. 93). Moreover, for Cavell, even the reality of external world is inevitable for self-reflection. In her words, "The line between what is my self and what is not, between the authentic and the false self, cannot be drawn with the external world on the other side" (p.94).  

In Chapter 7, "Irrationality and Self-Transcendence", after explaining the inadequacy of Davidson's theory of irrationality, Cavell argues that self-transcendence is a process of creating 'a different first-person point of view' (p. 108). At the root of irrationality, there are deep-rooted beliefs and desires, unsuitable for the subject's present experiences but the subject acts in accordance to those beliefs and desires. Establishment as well as the removal of those beliefs and desires is not possible at one go, it requires a long process.

In Chapter 8, "Freedom and Understanding", Cavell hopes 'to show that there are no good arguments of a general nature to establish that freedom is an empty concept' (p. 110). Arguing for a kind of 'explanatory dualism', she maintains that an 'understanding of human behavior requires two mutually irreducible languages, a language of body, or matter, and a language of mind' (p. 115). From an irreducibility of the language of mind to language of body, she infers that 'freedom' cannot be ruled out. Even if there could be sufficient explanation for every human act such that a rational subject turns out to be a non-reactive subject, to be non-reactive means to be 'self-annihilating' (p.120). She says, "If to understand is to forgive, then I suggest that the understanding in question is this reactive objectivity" (p. 123).  She asserts that there is no absolute freedom, but there are degrees of freedom. Similarly, there is no absolute understanding, desiring, loving etc. (p. 121). She tries to argue that moral freedom is indifferent to physical determinism, sensitive to the possibility of understanding morally suitable acts. With our freedom, we cannot change the past but the understanding of the past to enable ourselves to 'change how we live our lives now, precisely because we are the sort of 'objects' in the universe that have minds, reflect, and make choices." (p. 124).

In Chapter 9, "Valuing Emotions" Cavell aims 'to show that emotions are quintessentially subjective states that nevertheless have important objective and public aspects' (p. 126). She holds the view that we are not human subjects without emotions; there is no emotion without 'caring' and no 'caring' without 'beliefs', 'attitudes', feeling' and an appraisal of the reality. As beliefs are rationally assessable, reality is publicly accessible, feelings are linguistically expressible, and attitudes as well as suitable reactions to different realities are educable, so also, emotions can be public, linguistically expressible and educable.  

Chapter 10, "Self-Knowledge and Self-discovery" examines the difficulties involved in the 'First Person Authority' view and in the ocular view of self-knowledge, Cavell presents an alternative view that she claims of resolving 'the seeming contradictions between the subjectivity demanded by self-knowledge and the publicity demanded by self-knowledge, in distinguishing what I know from how I know it' (P. 144). For her, self-discovery requires dialectic between the first-person and the third-person points of view in relation to one's self'. (p. 138)

Searle's Rediscovery of Mind and John Greenwood's Realism, Identity and Emotion, are two important works in philosophy of mind and philosophy of psychology, respectively, which argue for conclusions thematically close to those Cavell has attempted to defend. However, Cavell has not referred to these two important works.

Greenwood advances a realist account of social psychology; Cavell does a realist account of social psychoanalysis. Although one account is in psychology and another in psychoanalysis, both are attempts to show that the social dimension of self and the reality of external world are necessary for the formation of a subjective identity.

From the perspective of philosophy of mind, although much of what Cavell says is anti-Cartesian, her dualism is not free from what Lyons (in Modern
Philosophy of Mind
) characterizes as the Cartesian vein responsible for survival of philosophy of mind. This Cartesian vein is there too in Searle’s understanding of mind that denies a reduction of consciousness to physical things and ‘meat machines’ and, at the same time, denies it to be a ghost in the machine. Searle and Cavell share the common objective of upholding the idea that subjective consciousness is not reducible to the physical things of external world, though one upholds it in philosophy of mind and another in philosophy of psychoanalysis.

As the concept of triangulation is crucial for the present work and a methodological account of mutual supplementing between philosophy and psychoanalysis is involved, a link from Quine to Davidson would have made things more clear than a switching on to Grice from Davidson does (in Chapter 4).

Methodologically, Cavell pleads for a 'reciprocal containment' between psychoanalysis and philosophy. Although Quine does so with respect to natural science and philosophy to advance naturalism, Cavell does not naturalize psychoanalysis, nor does she put philosophy as a chapter of psychology or psychoanalysis. Moreover, although she depends much on Davidson's idea of triangulation, she is away from Davidson's 'anomalous monism' and goes with explanatory dualism.

This scholarly piece of work on understanding human subjects from philosophical and psychoanalytic points of view can be of immense academic help to philosophers, psychoanalysts, neurologists and cognitive scientists; an invaluable piece for people working on Freud.


© 2006 Laxminarayan Lenka


Laxminarayan Lenka, Ph.D., Department of Philosophy, North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong, India.


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