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World, Affectivity, TraumaReview - World, Affectivity, Trauma
Heidegger and Post-Cartesian Psychoanalysis
by Robert D. Stolorow
Routledge, 2011
Review by Mark S. Roberts
Jun 23rd 2015 (Volume 19, Issue 26)

Also reviewed: Robert D Stolorow, George E. Atwood, Donna M. Orange,  Worlds Of Experience: Interweaving Philosophical And Clinical Dimensions In Psychoanalysis New York: Basic Books, 2002.


The authors, Stolorow, Atwood, and Orange, form something of a psychoanalytic alliance studying the various aspects of inter-subjectivity, particularly the destructive effects of traumatic experience on human development. As a tight-knit group, they share membership in the Institute for the Psychoanalytic Study of Subjectivity. All three authors seem to collectively claim the invention of relational psychoanalysis, which places contemporary psychoanalysis squarely within the domains of affect, context and inter-subjectivity. They have also co-authored a number of books, and seem to share a mutual interest in the application of philosophical concepts to psychoanalysis, which is one of the major themes in the books reviewed here.

          Whether relational psychoanalysis is beneficial to their patients is probably best left to their patients and colleagues. Rather, what is central to this review is whether the framework they build for their philosophical connections is sound, and whether their applied psychoanalysis in the cases of Descartes and Freud is adequate to explain either their dismissal or acceptance of these figures? The answer to both questions is an emphatic no, and this "no" is based on a number of egregious errors, misreadings, and oversights that appear in both texts regarding these two questions. 

The Straw Men


          Both Worlds of Experience and World, Affectivity and Trauma begin with fundamental suppositions regarding the kinds of philosophical errors that have led to their proposed corrective and, ultimately to the solution to these errors. For them, Rene Descartes seems to be the original villain who bifurcated the world of experience into two incommensurable domains. In their view, mind and body or the world of mental experience and physical objects was, at least within the Cartesian tradition, forever severed. Descartes simply created a fundamental schism that had a profoundly negative affect on the sciences and particularly on the development of psychology--an affect that lasted well into the modern era. Moreover, Descartes' thinking seemed to severely limit the possibility of inter-subjective relations, which, in turn, created a trend toward this same bifurcation in psychology. The main and most famous practitioner of this trend was apparently Sigmund Freud, who, following Descartes, appeared to further seal the subject in an isolated mind largely incapable of interacting with the world.  This trend lasted into the early part of the 20th century, at which point, Edmund Husserl's invention of phenomenology and phenomenological investigation began the demise of the isolated Cartesian subject. Later, by expanding on these Husserlian insights, his student, Martin Heidegger, dealt the final blow to the Cartesian bifurcation and Freud's isolated subject. Heidegger was, according to their reckoning, Descartes' foremost critic. In both books, he serves as the originator of existential inter-subjectivity, and he is also the subject of a kind of psychobiography, one pertaining mainly to his relationship with Hannah Arendt and his political alliance with the Nazi Party.

       Relational psychoanalysis, on one level, is dependent on correcting what the authors consider the abovementioned colossal mistake by Descartes. In brief, all the authors, more or less, claim that both philosophy and psychology subsequent to Descartes' error are to a large extent based on this mistake. Descartes, in his obsession with clarity and certainty, locked all human extensions into the surrounding world within the narrow confines of the mind. Physical objects and thus other subjects stood up against the isolated subject-- a subject created, it appears, by the Cartesian rupture.  The authors characterize this schism in extraordinary simple terms:  "The Cartesian mind, almost immediately after being 'discovered' through the method of systematic doubt, begins to undergo a reification, that is, a conversion into an objective entity that takes its place among other objects." (Stolorowet al., 2002, p. 4)  Following this, the authors go on to state, "Although Descartes told us that the mind lacks extension in space possessed by material things, he nevertheless called it a 'thinking thing'…" (Ibid, p. 4)

       These claims, other than being literarily descriptive, are largely incorrect regarding the philosophical intentions of Descartes' text. The full title of the text is Mediations on First Philosophy, which indicates that Descartes had set his sights on redefining and to a large extent undermining the previous thinking about metaphysical questions, particularly those concerning the existence of God and the human soul. Moreover, he intended to accomplish this by resurrecting Platonist principles. Thus the Meditations is an extraordinarily complex and elaborate deductive proof that proceeds by stages and is intended to advance a position directly contrary to the then popular Scholastic (Aristotilian/Thomistic) doctrine of the so-called Schoolmen.  As such, his claim that he is "a thing that thinks" is simply an attempt to remain consistent with his stated purpose in the First Meditation, which is reiterated in the Second, that is,   "At present I am not admitting anything except what is necessarily true. I am, then, in the strict sense only a thing that thinks." (Descartes, Med.  p. 19) Thus, the claim by the authors that Descartes is somehow in error calling himself a thinking thing when they assert that "the mind lacks extension in space possessed by material things," totally disregards the fact that Descartes cannot predicate anything about his existence other than he is "a thing that thinks."  If he were to claim that he was, say, an object in space that thinks or a thinking body that would seriously undermine the consistency of his whole project, which must inevitably proceed on the basis of what is "necessarily true."   Thus nothing could be necessarily true about the mind other than what occurs in the mind and can be indubitably determined as true and real. This also counters another of the authors' criticisms of Descartes' notion of the thinking thing, which states:" . . . .he (Descartes) nevertheless called it a "thinking thing" and moreover located psychological faculties as existing somehow "inside." (Ibid., p. 4) These "psychological faculties, of course, were not just elements inserted in the mind as one would insert tools in a box, but, rather, mental processes whose existence he was able to determine with certainty since they were inherent to a real, existent, and already established mind.  In short, the mind could not have become an object at this stage of the proof, since no objects could possibly exist with necessity.

       Following their strained attempt to demonstrate the "reification" of the mind in the Second Meditation, the authors indulge in a textbook case of a variant of the intentionalist fallacy, which holds that knowing the intentions and background of a writer or artist is inadequate in fully understanding the work of art. Similarly, the authors attempt to continue their critique of Descartes by claiming his quest for certainty must be seen against his background and as largely a result of his personal struggles. On this, they write:

The biographer Stephen Gaukroger described Descartes as having had a persistent tendency toward melancholia and paranoia, linking this disposition to the loss of his mother and his home, and to the later separation from and loss of his grandmother. Could these early upheavals in his life been the source of his life-long need for something unassailably certain, something that would be absolutely solid and secure? In Descartes's philosophy, certainty and security are finally found, not in relationships with other human beings but rather in the isolated workings of his own mind, envisioned as a rational, self-contained, self-sufficient entity. (Ibid., p. 6)

        What the authors have done here in claiming that the fundamental project in the Meditations (certainty in metaphysics, particularly in proofs for the existence of God and the soul) is simply a reaction to Descartes' life crises, reduces his entire philosophical project to merely a reaction to these crises. This, in turn, radically limits the extraordinary complexity of Descartes' life history, philosophical project in the Meditations, and thought in general, reducing it to a series of "traumatic" events. The need for indubitable clarity in metaphysics--which is the fundamental project of the Meditations-- was really the result, not of this philosophically significant project, but of the death of his grandmother, which, in the end, doesn't seem to follow.  Given this logic, we could say that Melville's Moby Dick was written strictly as a reaction to being frightened by an enormous white whale. Or that Van Gogh's tortured later canvases were the result of the pain of his severed ear. Or, to continue the painting examples, we could claim the French Impressionists painted that way because they needed eyeglasses.

       This reductive tendency continues in Worlds of Experience, now directed at Descartes' stress on "inner" causes for mental and physical problems, and the cures for these problems being situated entirely in him. On this, they write:

The proneness to sadness and depression and sadness resulting from the losses incurred in early life highlight the vulnerability of a man who could not find security and well-being through connections to the human world outside of himself, and who was driven instead to find contentment and peace on the terrain of his own inner soul. (Ibid, p. 7)

       Given that Descartes was a Catholic, trained in a Jesuit school, and completely versed in the theological traditions of the period, it would seem very odd that he would not turn inward and find solace, "peace and inner contentment" within his soul. Where else might he turn, since Christian practice at that time was overwhelmingly directed toward contemplation, and particularly in Descartes' case, since he viewed himself as a later disciple of St. Augustine (the father of inner contemplation)? Besides, with medical science in its infancy, and discursive therapeutic interaction limited to the pastoral, there was very little "contentment and peace" available outside the person's inner religious experience.

       In more quotes from letters to Princess Elizabeth, the authors point out Descartes' tendency to avoid external causes for disease and depression, focusing rather on his own interiority:

I take the liberty of adding that I found by experience in my own case that the remedy I have suggested cured an illness almost exactly similar, and perhaps even more dangerous. . . .From her I inherited a dry cough and a pale colour which stayed with me until I was more than twenty, so all the doctors who saw me up to that time condemned me to die young. . . .But I have always had an inclination to look at things from the most favorable angle and to make my principal happiness depend on myself alone. (Ibid. authors' italics)

        The authors' interpretation of this quote is that Descartes retreated into himself because he could not find happiness outside of himself and that this was somehow proof that he was completely isolated from the outside world. This example might make sense if it was set in the modern world where one could identify external causes for certain disorders like "dry cough" and "pale colouring." But in the early to mid-17th century, external causes for disease or mental illness were largely unknown. Most medicine at that time was derived from the theory of humours, first proposed by Galen, the Greek physician, and later expanded by Paracelsus and others. Bad humours caused virtually all diseases, and the inner movements of the body, like the flow of blood and bile, carried them. It would thus be common sense therapeutic advice given by Descartes to Elizabeth, not based on his tendency to retreat into himself, but, rather, on the very limited medical science of the period. After all, William Harvey had just discovered the circulation of blood in 1616, while it wasn't until 1854 that Louis Pasteur expounded the germ theory of disease.

       Further quotes from the letters to Princess Elizabeth continue this line of arguing for inner contemplation as an example of the "isolated self."

In another letter to Princess Elizabeth, Descartes extolled the virtues of becoming detached from the passions (that is, intense affects) and from the pleasures of the body,because they inevitably involve us with the world of transitory things. True happiness, according to his discussion, "is to be found not in the "passing joys which depend on the senses," but rather on an inner consciousness," a mental satisfaction and contentment" in which one guards against the false appearance of the goods of the world." (Ibid., p. 8)

       This quote makes little sense--other than serving as a poorly conceived reference supporting their philosophical positions--with regard to the claims about Descartes' thinking. What he expresses here is a standard position of the Platonist and Neo-Platonist tradition. Perhaps Plato's most famous example, the "Allegory of the Cave" in the Republic, entails precisely the same thing. Appearances are deceiving, and sensory experience yields only shadows. This is the core of the idealist, Platonist and rationalist positions, which inform the work of thinkers like Plotinus, St. Augustine, Boethius, and, later, Spinoza and Leibniz, among many others. So, Descartes' journey into the isolated mind was not at all, as the authors argue, an example of his tendency to separate himself from the world of experience, but, rather, the result of his long-term experience in and his adherence to a tradition that gives preference to inner intellectual understanding above the contents of sensory experience.

       They go on. "The second prominent feature of Cartesian-mind thinking is the infamous subject-object split. Cartesian ontology claims that the object is real (existing independently of any knower) but that the subject (cogito ergo sum) is even more fundamentally real because self-evidently known." (Ibid., p. 23) Disregarding epithets like "infamous," this set of statements is just wrong. The authors tend to completely disregard one of the main points of the                                                                                                                           Fourth Meditation, in which Descartes establishes a link between subject and object, by means of the concept of clarity and distinction. One can be certain of the existence of what is perceived clearly and distinctly because whatever is perceived in this manner must be real. "This is because every clear and distinct perception is undoubtedly something, and hence cannot come from nothing, but must necessarily have God for its author." ( Med., p. 41) Descartes reiterates this claim in the Sixth Meditation, where he is concerned to prove the existence of material things and to further clarify the relationship between mind and body. In the first case, he can be certain that material things exist because he is able to perceive them clearly and distinctly and has done so for his entire life. These clear and distinct perceptions must be real since a non-deceiving God--a point that was already established in the Fourth Meditation-- guarantees them.  If it is the case that the mind and external reality share the same source of certainty (i.e., God), there must necessarily be some connection between the two; therefore the object, in this sense, cannot exist "independent of any knower." In the second case, Descartes is very clear in presenting a significantly altered version of what the authors are calling "the mind-body split." Here he is simply stating that the mind and body differ in the specific modes of thinking that form their essences. The mind is self-evident, whereas external bodies must be apprehended through the senses, and therefore have their source in the external world.  This does not mean, however, that they are "split," only that they are apprehended differently, for, one should remember, Descartes is still only "a thing that thinks" even at this late stage. He is still speaking about the operations of the mind, but does not deny that the external world exists or that there are no factors--like God's perfection--that might unify the two.

       There are many more errors and oversights in the treatment of Descartes' philosophy in both books. However, an exhaustive study of these problems is really unnecessary, since the references to Descartes in these works are not really concerned with Descartes' philosophy per se, but rather, with establishing a basis for their own work.  This becomes evident in several passages from the authors' works, none so clear, though, as the following: "We would contrast the solitary reflection that led to Descartes' philosophical ideas with the dialogue out of which our inter-subjective approach was born." (Stolorow et al., p. 9)

       The contrast they speak of in the above quote really does not exist. In the superficial and often wrong, often a-historical accounts of Descartes' work, the authors merely invent a distinction without a difference. Although it is certainly true that Descartes introduced a dualism into his philosophy, the dualism was not the result of his "retreat from the real world," but rather an attempt to reconstruct philosophical reality in terms of proofs that incorporated the subject as a fundamental actor in this reconstruction. In fact, one of the most common theological objections to Descartes' Meditations is that in the order of reasons the apprehension of the human mind precedes the proof for God's existence.  This being the case, one could argue that the dualism has very little to do with Descartes' life crises, attitudes, and mental states, but serves as a necessary step toward establishing the certainty in metaphysics he sought in the First Meditation. This certainty is by no means merely a symptom of his insecurity, functioning as a kind of security blanket for a seriously disturbed man, as the authors would have it. Rather it is a necessary step toward reconstructing a world without the tripartite soul inherent in Aristotle's philosophy and continued well into Descartes' time by the Scholastic/Thomistic tradition. Moreover, not only does the question of a shift away from the Aristotelian notion of the soul dominate the Meditations,but it is also a major factor in a great deal of Descartes' other writings, including L'Homme and Le Monde, his two most important scientific works. "In Aristotelianism the domain of the living stretches from the lowly plant to the perfect being; in Cartesianism there are two desperate domains, joined only by the way of the union of the human soul and its body. . . . Descartes' program, then, is to explain all those functions of the body that occur in us without thought." (Des Chenes, 2001, p. 3)

       The promotion of the idea that Descartes was a solitary person, friendless and adrift in a self-imposed mental isolation is also quite absurd. It is a blatant confusion of a philosophical project with a personal one. Using the selective evidence presented in both books regarding Descartes' personal behavior, one could apply this to any philosopher or theologian who thought in terms of inner experience, reason, religious contemplation or idealist deliberation in general. We could argue that Plato and Socrates were isolated, self-involved individuals because they sought understanding through intellectual contemplation and argument rather than sense experience. Obviously, neither were personally withdrawn. Neither was Descartes by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, Descartes was perhaps one of the most sociable characters of the 17th century. He had numerous close friends and associates, including such important figures as Marin Mersenne, Pierre Gassendi, Princess Elizabeth, Queen Christina of Sweden, and Isaac Beeckman, to name but a few. He also engaged in lively, sometimes raucous correspondence with many of his critics, which included Thomas Hobbes and the great mathematician Pierre de Fermat.  More important regarding his character, though, was his personal correspondence, which showed clearly his concern with others and their problems.  As a major scientist and doctor of a kind (Genevieve Rodis-Lewis, 1998, pp.127-28) he was often sought after for cures and information regarding disease and various family and personal crises. He answered many of these requests, and in most cases showed deep compassion for the correspondents. A particularly poignant example of this type of concern appears in a letter written to Alphonse Pollot, who had suffered bereavement due to his brother's death:   

I have just learned the sad news of your loss, and although I do not undertake to say anything in the letter which could have any great power to soften your pain, I still cannot refrain from trying, so as to let you know at least that I share what you feel. . .Not long ago I suffered the loss of the two people who were very close to me, and I found that those who wanted to shield me from sadness only increased it, whereas I was consoled by the kindness of those who I saw to be touched by my grief.  So I am sure that you will listen to me better if I do not try to check your tears than if I tried to steer you away from a feeling which I consider justified. . .Now I certainly do not want to advise  you to use all your powers of determination and steadfastness to check the internal agitation you feel straight away--for this would perhaps be a cure more troublesome than the original sickness. . .I ask you merely to try to alleviate the pain little by little, by looking at what has happened to you from whatever perspective can make it appear more bearable, while at he same time taking your mind off it as much as you can by other activities.  (Grayling, 2005, pp.154-55)

       This hardly seems the advice of a man  "who could not find security and well-being through connections to the human world."(Stolorow et al. p.7) In fact it seems more like the observations of a man who has learned much from his own experience of that world and is willing to exchange that experience with others. Once again, there are many passages like this from many letters, but it is really unnecessary to continue referring to examples. The authors' straw man has been constructed outside the most basic parameters of both Descartes' life and work. He was simply squeezed into a mold that fit the needs of the authors' aspiration to create a strikingly new form of psychoanalytic theory.  Oddly enough, it was precisely this Cartesian move away from the inflexible, antiquated and all-inclusive Aristotelian system that dominated the western world into the 17th century that created the very ground on which strikingly new scientific theories could and would be built.


       The next figure to be knocked over as a sacrifice to the novelty of relational psychoanalysis is Sigmund Freud. It appears that the authors view Freud, much like Descartes, as a figure who isolated the mind within the human subject, disallowing the integral and intersubjective approach breached by Heidegger and continued by the authors. The treatment of Freud and his theories, however, is strictly limited to the most basic contours of his thinking, and this, much like the case of Descartes, serves as a means of limiting Freud's enormous project to one in uncomplicated disagreement with that of the authors.

       If we total just about everything said about Freud in the two books, it amounts to the "fact" that Freud applied the Cartesian mode of isolation, and that his early and his so-called meta-psychological works were fully exemplary of this trend. On this Stolorow writes: "Traditional Freudian theory is pervaded by the Cartesian 'myth of the isolated mind'" (Stolorow, 2011, p. 24). Elsewhere he states more or less the same thing, but in greater detail:

Freud's psychoanalysis expanded the Cartesian mind, (Descartes's (1641) "thinking thing," to include a vast unconscious realm. Nonetheless, the Freudian mind remained the Cartesian mind, a self-enclosed worldless subject or mental apparatus containing and working over mental contents and radically separated from its surround. (Ibid., p. 20)

       From the above quotes and indeed from most of the material on Freud, one gets the impression that all Freud did was expand on the Cartesian notion of the isolated subject. But this is erroneous, and in several ways.  To begin with, Freud had only a tangential connection with Descartes' theories. That is to say, his formative work was based on the clinical European psychology, physics and biology of the latter half of the 19th century, particularly on the experiments of Jean-Martin Charcot. One could then argue that European experimental psychology had some connection to Descartes' work, but only through the ascendancy of Enlightenment reasoning and something of a second scientific revolution that emerged in the 19th century. Moreover, as a neurologist, Charcot spent most of his time studying disorders of the nervous system rather than psychical functions.  He was, primarily, a clinical scientist. As Freud's medical degree was also in neurology, his relation with Charcot tended to focus on certain types of brain and spinal lesions that might cause hysteria and other mental disorders, though he was also quite interested in the effects of hypnosis on hysterical patients. In this respect, the so-called "isolated subject" was the result of an interest in a medical model that began traditionally with the human body, and was just beginning to extend to the mind. This interest in 19th century science also extended to the mechanical theories then popular in physics, and it was quite clear that Freud's so-called "hydraulic theory" was for the most part influenced by the works of mid-century scientists, particularly Helmholtz's principle of the conservation of energy. Freud was also profoundly affected by the work of Charles Darwin, who seemed not at all concerned with establishing an "isolated individual."

       What, in the context of philosophy of mind, also clearly distinguishes Freud's thinking from that of Descartes is his discovery and explanation of the unconscious. On Freud's concept of the unconscious, Stolorow argues, as in the above quote, that in its ability to separate itself from "its surround," the unconscious is largely the same as Descartes' mind or the "thinking thing." This could not possibly be the case, and for several reasons. To begin with, the unconscious or a mental state that could not be readily known through reflective reason was precisely what Descartes wished to avoid. The "thinking thing" is not, as the authors assume, a thing, but rather, a realization of self-consciousness that is determined indubitably through argumentation. This, after all, is one of the primary objectives of the Meditations, as well as many other of Descartes' works. In the synopsis that precedes theMeditations, for instance, he states this point quite succinctly: ". . .the arguments which lead us to the knowledge of our own minds and of God, so that the latter are the most certain and evident of all possible objects of knowledge  for the human intellect." (Descartes, Med. p. 11- italics mine) Clearly, the existence of what Stolorow, when referring to Freud, calls  "a 'thinking thing,' to include a vast unconscious realm . . .a self-enclosed wordless subject or mental apparatus," (Stolorow, p. 20) would contradict the very project of theMeditations. How, one might ask, could this vast unconscious realm be known evidently and with certainty and ascertained by logical argument? This is particularly problematic when Freud describes the unconscious in the following way:

Thus the childhood impression is stirred, made active, so that it begins to show effects, though it does not appear in consciousness, but remains unconscious. . .If some thinkers wish to dispute as unreasonable the existence of such an unconscious, we think they have never occupied themselves with the psychic phenomena in question and are under the spell of the common experience that everything psychic becomes, at the same time, conscious. (Freud, 1956, p. 69)

       The irrational nature of the unconscious becomes even more evident when Freud writes on dreams, the fount of the unconscious:

Dreams are only a form of thinking: one can never reach an understanding of the form of reference to the content of the thoughts; only an appreciation of the dream-work will lead to that understanding (Freud, 1961, p. 65)

       Clearly, these passages entail a direct criticism of just about everything Descartes believed about the human mind and its capacity to achieve a direct and clear perception of reality, through conscious understanding.

       Moreover, one might argue that Freud consistently and aggressively opposed most types of philosophy and philosophers in general throughout his career. For him, they represented, along with certain schools of psychology, the main threat to his central notion of the unconscious. For example, in his later work, The Ego and the Id (1922), he disparages traditional philosophical thinking in defense of the unconscious:

I should also be prepared to find that at this point some of my readers would already stop short and go no further; for here we have the first shibboleth of psychoanalysis. To most people who have been educated in philosophy the idea of anything psychical which is not also conscious is so inconceivable that it seems to them absurd and refutable simply by logic. I believe this is only because they have never studied the relevant phenomena of hypnosis and dreams, which--quite apart from pathological manifestations--necessitate this view. (Freud, 1960, pp. 3-4)

       And not only did Freud think little of philosophy in general, he also argued against the efficacy of applying logic to the unconscious, the basic science undergirding Descartes' philosophy: "The governing rules of logic carry no weight in the unconscious; it might be called the Realm of the Illogical." (Freud, 2014, p. 112)

       Given his obvious opposition to the philosophical resistance to the unconscious, it would make little sense to draw such a distinct parallel between Descartes and Freud. It would seem more likely that Freud sought the explanation of what had been considered inexplicable behavior by understanding the unconscious, rather than the conscious motives for these behaviors. If, as Freud argued, the unconscious defied logic, he could hardly be compared with Descartes who embraced the clarity of logical argumentation in order to establish the indubitable existence of the mind, soul and God.

        Freud's supposed tendency to situate the unconscious within what Stolorow refers to as having "taken its place among other objects" (Stolorow, 2011, p. 24), is also largely incorrect. In point of fact, the unconscious is not a "thing," but, rather, a certain type of theoretical construct.  As a thinker influenced by the deterministic trend in virtually all of the mid to late 19th century scientific theories, Freud introduced the unconscious as a systematic way of understanding the cause of certain neurotic manifestations. In this respect, it can be seen as a means of tracking the causal elements effecting mental illness. Freud's reasoning behind the idea of the unconscious is thus quite simple: the principle of causality requires that such mental states must exist. And since there seemed to be no satisfactory explanation regarding the cause of mental illness, Freud simply assumed that the unconscious provided a much better explanation than had heretofore been offered by psychology. As a force that lies above or below consciousness, it is clear that the unconscious changes the very definition of mind, in that "the mind is not, and cannot be, either identified with consciousness, or an object of consciousness." (Thornton, 2014, p. 6) This description, in turn, indicates that the unconscious mind cannot be either a "thing" or object that lies within the individual, but rather, a force exerting "a dynamic and determining influence" (ibid) on the individual.

       Another of Freud's theories, that of transference, tends to also run counter to the authors' contentions that Freud created an isolated subject. Although the concept of transference seems at first to be limited to analyst and subject, its range is in fact far more social. In traditional theory, transference serves to create an analytic condition in which the subject attaches a significant person's image to the analyst. The representative figure is usually a parent, but may be another individual who has had some strong affect on the subject. The mechanics of the transference relation are simple: by representing the analyst as someone either hated or loved, the subject opens a dialogue that both reduces the inherent distance in the analytic relation and produces some emotional state--either negative or positive--that can be employed by the analyst in therapeutic treatment. The relation is thus a paradigm for the interaction of individuals or groups, since it establishes the interdependence of all individual social relations. This relation therefore also implies that the psychoanalytic situation conceived by Freud was not merely an attempt to seal off the subject within the relation--"isolate" him or her-- but, on the contrary, open the subject to sets of social relations that are, as Freud argued, universal in nature:

An analysis without transference is an impossibility. It must not be supposed, however, that transference is created by analysis and does not occur apart from it. Transference is merely uncovered and isolated by analysis. It is a universal phenomenon of the human mind, it decides the success of all medical influence, and in fact dominates the whole of each person's relations to his human environment. (Freud, 1925, p. 37)

       Yet another convenient oversight by the authors regarding Freud's theory is the later body of work covering social psychology. Counted among these works is Civilization and Its Discontents (1930). Here Freud examines the effects of social interaction and social conventions on the individual, drawing the rather odd conclusion that civilization itself is the main source of everyone's unhappiness.  Whether one agrees with this thesis or not, the social implications of the work are clear. Freud sets out to explain how we interact with one another and how certain repressive institutions are the dire result of this interaction. Certain instincts, according to Freud, are in fundamental conflict with the restrictions of civilization. Sexuality, guilt, desire, etc. are, in a certain respect, the architecture of civilization, and the repression of these instincts leads to the sorts of aggression Freud opposed so strongly in his later life. The book is pessimistic in nature, though the conclusion allows for civilization eventually overcoming this destructive stage. This type of theory clearly undermines, at least in part, the authors' suggestion that Freud had followed exclusively a narrow path to the unattached interiority of the individual. Here the individual is not a lone, entirely separate sort of entity, but rather a figure interacting with millions of other individuals to form civilizations, albeit, in Freud's opinion, rather dismal ones.


       When one reads both of the above works in a historical perspective, a simple question arises:  Why the aggressive rejection of the work of both Descartes and Freud?  After all, the major strains of modern and contemporary thinking, including that of Heidegger, are to a certain extent derived from the work of those two thinkers. Indeed, we would not have psychoanalysis as it developed in the 20th century and beyond without Freud. Nor would we be able to draw from the remarkable insights of the European Enlightenment without Descartes' prescient emphasis on reason and human progress, on the centrality of science and subjectivity.

       The answer to the question, at least from my perspective, is relatively simple. The future of their particular species of psychoanalysis requires uniqueness, and this in turn must issue from what they stress as an entirely new direction in this discipline. But this direction is not new at all. Nor is Heidegger the sole founding source of this direction. It is quite true that he was enormously influential regarding the formation of existential thought in the earlier part of the twentieth century, but the history of this thought was diverse and complex, containing a great number of more or less traditional ideas wrongly proposed as unique by these authors. This history is, moreover, followed through only the German passage, particularly in reference to the work of Medard Boss and Ludwig Binswanger. But there has been an equal if not greater emphasis on inter-subjective relations in psychoanalysis within the French tradition, which the authors tend to avoid entirely.  For instance, Jean-Paul Sartre in a short essay on existential psychoanalysis writes: "The result is that complexes uprooted from the depths of the unconscious, like projects revealed by existential psychoanalysis, will be apprehended from the point of view of the Other." (J-P. Sartre, 2000, p. 73) Similarly, followers of Sartre's brand of existential psychoanalysis, particularly R.D. Laing and David Cooper, stress the social and inter-subjective passages between individuals, often stressing family and societal dynamics. In Self and Others, Laing writes: "A person's own identity cannot be completely abstracted from his identity-for-others. His identity-for-himself; the identity others ascribe to him; the identity he attributes to them; the identity or identities he thinks they attribute to him." (R.D. Laing, 1990, p. 86) All this sounds much like an outgrowth of Daseinanalyis, but one that emerges in somewhat different context. Despite the connections, however, there are absolutely no references in either Worlds of Experience or World, Affectivity, Trauma to French existentialism, to Sartre, Laing, Cooper, or any other figure who emerged from this parallel tradition.

       In the end, both books demonstrate a double identity. On the one hand, they may contain important clinical and therapeutic directions for patients and therapists who require a broader context in which to function. On the other, however, they are organized and structured on very shaky grounds. Why, one might ask, is it necessary to dismiss two of the most important thinkers in the Western intellectual tradition in order to establish that your theory is novel and, one might presume, better than their theory? This "exclusionary diagnosis" just does not work. The authors often misrepresent the work and thought of both Descartes and Freud, and these errors are in most cases directed at establishing the centrality of their own ideas. It would have been much more productive spending the time enlarging their own theories than reducing Descartes and Freud to mere mind "isolationists," which, ultimately, is quite untrue. In this respect, the authors could probably take a suggestion from Descartes himself: "Conversing with those of past centuries is much the same as traveling. It is good to know something of the customs of various peoples, so that we may judge our own more soundly and not think that everything contrary to our ways is ridiculous and irrational." (Descartes, 1988, pp. 113-114)



Descartes, Rene (1988) The Philosophical Writings. Vol. 1 &2. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Des Chene, Dennis (2001) Spirits and Clocks: Machine and Organism in Descartes. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press.

Freud, Sigmund (1960) The Ego and the Id. New York: W. Norton & Company

Freud, Sigmund (1956) Delusion and Dream. Boston: Beacon Press.

Freud, Sigmund (1930) Civilization and Its Discontents. W. Norton & Company.

Grayling, A. C. (2005) Descartes: The Life and Times of a Genius. New York: Walker and Company.

Laing, R.D. (1969) Self and Others; New York: Penguin Books.

Laing, R.D. (1960) The Divided Self. New York: Pantheon Books.

Rodi-Lewis, Genevieve (1998) Descartes: His Life and Thought. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

Sartre, Jean-Paul (2000) Existentialism and Human Emotions. New York: Citadel.

Stolorow, Robert D. (1979) Faces in a Cloud: Subjectivity in Personality Theory. Northvale, N.J. : Jason Aronson.

Stolorow, Robert D. (2011) World, Affectivity, Trauma: Heidegger and Post-Cartesian Psychoanalysis. New York: Psychoanalytic Inquiry Book Series. Routledge.

Stolorow, Roberts D., Atwood, George E., Orange, Donna M.  (2002) Worlds of Experience: Interweaving Philosophical and Clinical Dimensions of Psychoanalysis. New York: Basic Books. .

Wilson, Margaret Dauler (1982) Descartes. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.



© 2015 Mark S. Roberts


Mark S. Roberts has published numerous works in the fields of 20th century continental philosophy, modern psychoanalysis, media studies and aesthetics. He has also translated a number of works from the French, including those of Julia Kristeva, Jean-François Lyotard, and Felix Guattari. He is presently working on a book entitled Social Asphyxia: The Criminalization of Poverty. 



Received June 28, 2015.


Reply to the Mark S. Roberts Review of Worlds of Experience and World, Affectivity, Trauma

Robert D. Stolorow

George E. Atwood


We do not wish to respond to all the detailed claims made by Mark Roberts in his dismissive and mean-spirited review of our books. We have chosen instead to address four of his critical points, which in our view significantly distort our thinking and overlook aspects of our scholarship.

     (1) Nowhere do we make the arrogant claim that Roberts attributes to us to have invented relational psychoanalysis. In our chapter of Worlds of Experience identifying certain remnants of Cartesian thinking in a number of relational theories, we trace the historical development of the relational perspective, going all the way back to the formulations of Harry Stack Sullivan and W. R. Fairbairn.

     (2) Roberts misconstrues our discussions of isolated-mind thinking in Descartes and Freud as if we were making the absurd claim that neither author recognized the existence of such commonplace phenomena as social interactions—relations between persons and their social surround. To say as we do that for both of these thinkers the mind is ontologicallyseparated from its world is not to speak of an empirically "isolated self" or "isolated individual." Rather, we are making a claim about their failure to recognize how individual experience is always co-constituted by the world in which it is embedded.

     (3) In one of the books under review, we have sharply distinguished the sort of reductionistic intent that Roberts attributes to us from the aims of our psychobiographical conjectures. We have also commented on why we think such analyses often evoke ire from so many academics. We wonder whether Roberts read or fully understood these passages:

     "In studying the psychological sources of philosophical ideas, we go against a pervasive opinion in contemporary intellectual circles that is rooted in Cartesianism.  This opinion, perhaps surprising in its prevalence so long after the life and death of Descartes, arises from a continuing belief – one could almost say a mystical faith – in the autonomy of the life of the mind.  The products of the mind are in this view to be treated as independent, self-sufficient creations, verified, falsified, or otherwise evaluated according to criteria that exist apart from the personal contexts out of which they arise.  Any attempt to bring considerations of origin to bear on the understanding and development of intellectual works is seen to exemplify the unforgivable fallacy of ad hominem reasoning.  It is therefore said that the study of the individual details of a thinker's life, although perhaps of some limited interest as simple biography, can in principle have no relevance to the broader enterprise of the development or evaluation of that thinker's work in its own terms.  Intellectual constructions are claimed to have a life of their own, freely subsisting in the realm of public discourse, above and beyond the historical particularities of specific contributors' personal life circumstances.

            "Seemingly well-founded cautions about the fallacy of ad hominem reasoning are sometimes accompanied by a view that reinserting intellectual works into the lives of their creators inevitably diminishes those works, by "reducing" their actual or potential significance to the terms of mere individual biography.  Let us regard this separation of creative constructions from their personal contexts of origin as a form of madness – a Cartesian madness – that splits asunder the unbroken, organic unity of life and thought.  Let us also imagine that a seeing of a work in its full context, wholly embedded in the life it expresses, would add to our appreciation of that work and assist in its understanding, evaluation, and further development.  The madness of isolating thought from life thus itself can be seen to diminish the works that become its victim, draining them of their lifeblood.  Whence comes the idea of this separating in the first place?  What purpose can be discerned in the insulating of thought from being, of establishing a barrier between the thinker and the products of his or her labor?  We believe this purpose is widely one of solidifying the identification of the creator completely with the creation, so that he or she then becomes able to live vicariously, on a kind of ethereal plane beyond the personal limits of his or her situation as an individual.  Who the creator has been prior to the work— that sad, mortal, perhaps deeply devalued or even despised human being—is overcome, transcended, and jettisoned.  The identity of the creator has thus undergone a transformation and reinvention, and he or she may even imagine that the escape has been total as the work completely supplants the life from which it grew.  Such an image inevitably turns out to be illusory, however, since traces of the conditions of the creation of any idea inevitably adhere to the idea and are carried forward into each of its applications and extensions.  Moreover, to the extent that the rift between work and life becomes profound, the work necessarily must become too abstract, stilted, and bloodlessly intellectual.  What finally eventuates is a sense of despair and fragmentation as the pull of all that has been disavowed begins to reassert itself.  A circular movement thereby comes into being, in which the exhilarating identification with one's creations alternates with an intensifying, disturbing feeling of inner disunity.

            "Post-Cartesian psychoanalysis forever reminds us of our own finitude, challenging us at every stage to understand how the structures of our personal worlds reappear in our theories.  The effort to achieve a forgetfulness of individual existence through identification with one's work is thus undercut, and we are driven instead to remember, to re-involve ourselves with our histories, to become aware of how our discoveries in the psychoanalytic study of human existence are inevitably also rediscoveries of ourselves" (World, Affectivity, Trauma, pp.  101-103).

     (4) In another oversight, Roberts wrongly claims that we "avoid entirely" the French tradition. World, Affectivity, Trauma references Sartre's work on shame and Atwood's psychobiographical study of Sartre, criticizes Levinas's account of Heidegger's ontology, and makes good use of Derrida's work on friendship and mourning, and Worlds of Experiencecites Merleau-Ponty. Here is a partial list of other works in which we discuss aspects of the French tradition:

Atwood, G. E. (1983), The pursuit of being in the life and thought of Jean-Paul Sartre.    Psychoanalytic Review, 70, 143-162.

Atwood, G. E. & Stolorow, R. D. (1984/2014). Structures of Subjectivity: Explorations    in Psychoanalytic Phenomenology and Contexualism, Chapter 1. London: Routledge.

Stolorow, R. D. (2010). Friendship, fidelity, and finitude: Reflections on Jacques

   Derrida's The Work of Mourning. Comparative and Continental Philosophy, 2, 143-


Stolorow, R. D. (2004). The relevance of early Lacan for psychoanalytic

   phenomenology and contextualism. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 21, 668-672.



© 2015 Robert D. Stolorow and George E. Atwood




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