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Wisdom Won from IllnessReview - Wisdom Won from Illness
Essays in Philosophy and Psychoanalysis
by Jonathan Lear
Harvard University Press, 2017
Review by Gregory A. Trotter
Oct 13th 2017 (Volume 21, Issue 41)

Jonathan Lear has done more than most to draw out the philosophical implications and import of psychoanalysis. In much of his work at the intersection of philosophy and psychoanalysis, Lear focuses on the practical, moral dimension of psychoanalytic theory and practice. He poses basic but far-reaching questions like: How does psychoanalysis work? What would it mean to affect psychical change? What are the conditions in which such a change can occur? This practical focus stems from both his experience as a clinician as well as from his vast knowledge of psychoanalytic and philosophic literature. The focus on the practical and ethical implications of psychoanalysis continues in his most recent volume, Wisdom Won from Illness: Essays in Philosophy and Psychoanalysis. Indeed, he highlights this emphasis when he writes, "However greatly psychoanalysis has contributed to our theoretical understanding of the human mind, in its essence it is a contribution to practical knowledge: it aims to intervene in human life at certain junctures in order to help people live better lives" (177).

The book consists in large part of previously published essays (only the introduction and the thirteenth chapter have not been published before). From one perspective, then, it may appear as simply a repetition of things already said, wisdom already won, and therefore offering the reader little in the way of fresh insights to be gained (at least for those of us who have followed his work). However, from another vantage, Wisdom Won from Illness presents the reader with a text that allows him/her to "work through" the problems that Lear has been addressing for many years. In short, I believe there is value in this repetition. Given the range of the chapters, I will not be able to address every aspect of Lear's philosophically rich book. Rather, I would like to focus on what I see as the primary theme of the work, namely, how to bring about psychical change.

Wisdom Won from Illness is marked by a strange structural feature.In addition to offering within a single volume a number of journal articles and book chapters initially published in other, disparate venues, Lear frequently juxtaposes chapters that address virtually the same question. Thus, the book is a repetition of previously published material, and, within the very book itself, ideas and questions are repeated, sometimes verbatim. For example, chapter one is concerned with "incorporating an unconscious, nonrational part of the soul" into one's conscious understanding of oneself (25). The very title of chapter two, "Integrating the Nonrational Soul," indicates that it will take up the same theme. Indeed, the second chapter addresses its topic with a similar set of philosophical and psychoanalytic resources, with both chapters appealing to the Aristotelian notion of practical wisdom (phronesis) and a similar clinical case history. This practice continues in other parts of the book. Chapters three and four, for instance, both consider the cultural losses inflicted upon the Crow Nation. These chapters powerfully elaborate what it might mean to lose one's very way of life, to lose the very concepts through which one understands the world. Individually, these chapters make for challenging and enlightening reading. But, why place chapters together that, in some cases, are structured almost identically? Is Lear merely trying to incorporate as much of his work as possible into a single volume? Is this merely an effort to pad the number of pages? I think not. Rather, the very organization of Lear's text is intended to serve a practical purpose, one which demonstrates crucial insights delivered by psychoanalysis.

In Freud's famous paper "Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through,"—a paper that Lear identifies in numerous places as being perhaps Freud's most important text—he elaborates the process of psychoanalytic work. Patients often find themselves on analyst's couches because they are stuck in repetitive patterns of thought and behavior. They may continually sabotage their relationships or employment opportunities. What they do not know and what psychoanalysis will show them is that their psyches have become ossified, stuck in time, repeatedly attempting to realize desires that have been with them much of their lives. Freud referred to this repetitive form of thinking as repetition compulsion. Human beings carry their pasts along with them and often unknowingly attempt to reenact them. This can develop into a neurosis and prevent people from living what they regard as a good life. The psychoanalytic process is intended to allow analysands to "work through" their neuroses and traumas. By allowing the individual to relive their past within the context of the analytic setting, what was once unknowingly repeated and acted out can be remembered and integrated into the individual's psyche.

How is this discussion of Freud's seminal paper relevant to Lear's book? To begin with, Lear himself is concerned to demonstrate the way in which psychoanalysis can have the effect that Freud insists it does, namely, a process whereby an individual can change the structure of his/her psyche. Lear makes several claims that someone disinclined toward psychoanalysis might regard as controversial. He states, "Psychoanalysis is a way humans flourish as the active, thoughtful, self-conscious creatures that we are" (27). He continues, "…psychoanalysis is the activity of thoughtful self-consciousness informing human life" (27-28). These claims are bold, but Lear's book is intended to bear them out. This is an intention that I think is largely successful, and part of the success of this project lies in the fact that not just the content but also the form of the book shows the reader how this can be so.

The chapters that comprise the book range from treatments of philosophical texts such as Plato's Republic to works of literature such as J.M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians to discussions of the of the psychoanalytic work of Hans Loewald. Though the objects of each chapter may differ, the theme remains virtually the same throughout, namely, the nature and activity of psychical change.

In the chapter entitled "Allegory and Myth in Plato's Republic," Lear addresses the centrality of myth-making in Plato's dialogues. Why does Plato use myth to do so much philosophical heavy lifting in Republic? The Noble Falsehood, the Allegory of the Cave, and the myth of Er with which the book ends each play pivotal roles in the dialogue. As Lear indicates, Plato's reliance on myth may appear as a kind of philosophical failure: "I have heard readers complain that, by ending the book with a myth, Plato is admitting a kind of argumentative defeat. After all, was not the challenge to Socrates to argue that the just life is the best one? And if his argument has succeeded, why does he need a myth to prop it up" (225)?  According to Lear, the use of myth is a strategy employed by Plato in order to instigate a change in the psyche of the reader him-/herself.

Though we can read the dialogue from a distance as a discussion between Socrates and his interlocutors, what Plato is doing, Lear argues, is establishing a model around which the reader can build, and eventually transmit to others, a new conception of justice. Lear contends that Plato accomplishes this by, first, elaborating a myth that cannot have a genuine effect on us. Within the context of the dialogue, the Noble Falsehood is constructed so that young inhabitants of the kallipolis can (unknowingly) develop a proper conception of justice within their psyches. This conception of justice is internalized at an early age and forms a kind of psychological structure that is subsequently externalized through the thought and action of the individual. In other words, the Noble Falsehood is intended to serve as a point of ethical orientation that will guide the child throughout his/her life; the child "takes in" justice so that he/she can "put out" justice into the community.

But, as Lear points out, it's too late for us. As adults, our psyches can no longer be shaped in the same fashion as a child's. Plato must find a way to transmit the same idea in a way that might actually be able to affect psyches that have grown rigid and recalcitrant to the kind of change he wants to bring about. Thus, the basic point of the Noble Falsehood is repeated but in a different form, namely, the Allegory of the Cave. As Lear puts it, "Glaucon, Adeimantus, and the ideal reader have been exposed to the Noble Falsehood. They are in a position to recognize that it could not possibly affect them as it is meant to affect the young members of the kallipolis. At best, they are left to imagine what effect it might have on a young soul in a good society. But now, when they hear the Cave, they are hearing basically the same story for the second time—only now they are hearing an age-appropriate version" (220). For Lear, the Allegory is intended to demonstrate to Glaucon and Adeimantus, but most especially to us that, though our psyches may be "deformed" in certain ways by inhabiting a less than just society, we can nevertheless set about molding our future society in the image of the form of justice, primarily through providing a moral education to our children:

Note also that someone in Glaucon's position who had been exposed to the allegory of the Cave would be in a better position to tell the Noble Falsehood to children. If the kallipolis is ever going to be established, it will have to be by someone like Glaucon…So it is someone like Glaucon who is the projected inaugural teller of the Noble Falsehood. Now the founder of the kallipolis will be the first-generation teller of the Noble Falsehood, so he is not in a position in which he can believe it, nor was he ever in a position in which he did 'believe' it. By contrast, the children who hear the Noble Falsehood will be able to transmit it to their children with added verve. (221)

          Lear demonstrates that, by repeating the point of the Noble Falsehood in a different way, Plato is able to catalyze a psychical change in the reader him-/herself. Tellingly, Lear repeats his own point in a different way in the very next chapter, "The Psychic Efficacy of Plato's Cave." Indeed, one could say that Lear repeats the point regarding how psychical change is brought about in each and every chapter in the book. In "Eros and Development," a chapter consisting largely of an examination of the thought of Hans Loewald, Lear concerns himself with the practical efficacy of psychoanalysis. For Lear, much of what is at stake in psychoanalysis is opening up "a possibility for new possibilities" (182). Importantly, opening up these possibilities is achieved through repetition and recreation: "In neurotic enactments, there is, as Freud showed, a need to repeat painful emotional experiences" (182). But, Lear, citing Loewald, indicates that what might be expressed in these repetitions is "'a wish for re-doing the past…a wish to experience, to deal with whatever happened in a different way'" (182). By allowing the patient to work through rather than repeat the past, neurotic repetition may be transformed into "restorative recreation" (183).

The psychoanalytic process, which itself deals in repetition (traditionally, four to five days a week, for fifty minutes often covering similar ground across multiple sessions), is intended to break apart rigid psychical structures that limit an individual's possibilities. For this reason, Lear insists that "Freedom is the final cause of psychoanalysis" (150). The freedom that psychoanalysis allows an individual to achieve is won through integrating parts of one's past with which one has not yet sufficiently dealt. In other words, psychoanalysis helps an individual to understand things that may have happened to him/her in a new way. By reactivating certain elements of one's past, one may be able to achieve a new understanding of oneself.

It seems to me that Wisdom Won from Illness can be read as a kind of "working through" of philosophical problems with which Lear has be grappling for much of his career. Lear's work can perhaps be seen as an attempt to answer a singular question: What kind of strange creatures are human beings? Each of the chapters pose this question in their own way. In a way, the book represents a "restorative recreation" in which familiar philosophical questions are posed again and again, but in a slightly different way.

Organizing the book in the way that he does, with multiple chapters addressing similar themes and in a similar fashion, allows the reader to see the concepts being discussed and then, in a second approach, to integrate them. In this way, Lear stages something of the "aha!-moment" that he argues is brought about through Plato's repeating the Noble Falsehood in the guise of the Allegory of the Cave. To be sure, there are important differences. Unlike the Noble Falsehood, each of Lear's chapters has the capacity to affect the reader, to convince (or fail to convince) through the movement of his philosophical argumentation. And, unlike Plato, Lear does not (explicitly anyway) employ myth as a tool to instigate psychical change. However, I do think his book can affect a certain conceptual shift for the reader. Repeating various elements of his philosophical corpus in this volume reactivates the philosophical claims at stake in Lear's work; he allows the reader to see them from another perspective and therefore to understand them in a different way.

This book will be of interest to anyone concerned with the nature of the human mind and its inner workings. It masterfully demonstrates the unique insights that a psychoanalytic approach can render with respect to certain philosophical questions and makes the case that psychoanalysis is one of the best possible guides for thinking about the nature of human subjectivity. This book, and Lear's work in general, offers a compelling account of the intimate relation between philosophy and psychoanalysis.


© 2017 Gregory A. Trotter


Gregory A. Trotter is a doctoral candidate in the department of philosophy at Marquette University. He is completing his dissertation entitled The Fantastic Structure of Freedom: Sartre, Freud, and Lacan. He currently resides in Atlanta, GA.


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