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The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and PsychoanalysisReview - The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Psychoanalysis
by Richard Gipps, Michael Lacewing (editors)
Oxford University Press, 2019
Review by Sebastian Petzolt, DPhil
Nov 5th 2019 (Volume 23, Issue 45)

With The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Psychoanalysis (OHPP), Gipps and Lacewing present a rich and well-edited collection that strengthens the connection, and clarifies the distinction, between the handbook's two title disciplines. OHPP will be of interest to both philosophers and psychoanalysts and is apt to inspire further dialogue between them.

OHPP consists of 33 chapters, divided into eight sections. (Intellectual Prehistory, five chapters; Twentieth-Century Engagements, four chapters; Clinical Theory, six chapters; Phenomenology and Science, five chapters; Aesthetics, three chapters; Religion, three chapters; Ethics, three chapters; and Politics and Society, four chapters.) The editors provide a brief introduction to each section, and a more substantive, general introduction to the volume as a whole. While the majority of contributors are philosophers, other subject areas are also represented including history, sociology, and literary theory. By my count, eight authors are practicing analysts or therapists, including one of the editors (Gipps).

How are philosophy and psychoanalysis connected? In their introduction, the editors suggest that both disciplines are "endeavours at self-knowledge" (p.2). Philosophers and psychoanalysts (and their patients) are united in the belief that in order to lead a good and worthwhile life, one must lead an examined and self-reflective life. Individual reflection on personal experiences must be mutually complementary with our reflection on the human condition, in which we all share. Gipps and Lacewing thus suggest that self-reflection and the search for meaning are "values that find expression not only in philosophy but also in the goals and methods of psychoanalysis" (p.2), thereby giving both disciplines a common agenda.

To give a first idea of how Gipps and Lacewing envision philosophy and psychoanalysis cooperating, consider their question of "how a merely talking cure could be thought curative" (p.4). The editors' answer combines philosophical anthropology with a particular view on psychoanalytic practice: "self-conscious social subjects [are…] constituted, in their emotional lives, by their self-interpretations" (p.3), while "psychoanalysis aims to attain or recover for us the very subjective sense of what otherwise appears not as meaningful" (p.5). Thus, since "matters of meaning" (p.3) are constitutive of who and how we are, the "meaning-apprehending methods" (p.5) of the psychoanalytic talking cure have the power to (re-)interpret our experiences and thereby refashion and cure the analysand on an existential level. – While this is by no means a complete answer to the above question, the point here is only to exemplify the powerful and thought-provoking work that can happen at the psycho-philosophical interface.

The picture that the editors are paining is no doubt bold, but also highly attractive: it promises the readers of OHPP an intellectually stimulating and personally rewarding read. This promise is kept for the most part: almost all chapters succeed in synthesizing philosophical and psychoanalytic interests and insights into a discussion that is relevant and intelligible to both parties. To illustrate the kinds of discussions that the reader of OHPP can expect, I shall review two of them, point out a connection between them, and then close with a few remarks about editorial choice.

In his Making the Unconscious ConsciousDavid Finkelstein asks: "by virtue of what is someone's anger, fear, anxiety, or desire, for example, rightly characterized as either conscious or unconscious?" (p.331) Finkelstein thus applies a key philosophical tool – conceptual analysis – to the main objective of psychoanalytic practice, viz. making the unconscious conscious.

Imagine Julia is frightened of her professor, Smith, who resembles her strict and austere father. As Smith enters the lecture hall, she pulls her shawl tightly around herself, much like she used to do as a child with her security blanket. As the case stands, Julia's fear of Smith is unconscious. Her pulling tight her shawl is an unconscious expression of her fear.

Imagine Julia beings to notice and evaluate her Smith-related behavior (pulling tight the shawl, tiptoeing past Smith's office, nightmares involving Smith, …). She considers all the evidence and eventually concludes: 'I must be afraid of him!' This is still not enough to call her fear conscious, according to Finkelstein. Put generally, merely inferential knowledge of our mental states and contents is not enough to render these states and contents conscious. Instead, Julia must achieve first-person awareness of her fear.

The hallmark of this are self-ascriptions that express the relevant unconscious material. Imagine again that, as Smith walks in, Julia pulls her shawl tight; she goes on to utter: 'Gosh, he scares me!' Julia's utterance is not merely an explanation of her shawl-pulling behavior, but a continuation of it. Both pulling her shawl tight and exclaiming 'He scares me!' express her fear: they co-express it, as Finkelstein puts it. Since one of these co-expressive acts is a linguistic act, and since we are "linguistic creatures" (p.343), Finkelstein concludes that this entitles us to say that Julia's fear is now conscious.

That Julia's fear is now conscious, does not mean that she won't express it unconsciously again at a later stage. If she has an appointment with Smith, whose office is on the third floor, and if Julia 'accidentally' takes the lift to the fifth floor, this is another unconscious expression of her fear. Having previously succeeded in making her unconscious fear conscious, she may find it easier to make sense of her parapraxis. Pressing the wrong button in the lift was nevertheless an unconscious expression of her (now conscious) fear.

Finkelstein's view apparently assumes that all (would-be) conscious mental content can be expressed linguistically; yet this seems controversial. On the philosophical side, Fodor's (1987) so-called mapping view sees (some) mental contents as narrow, while English sentences have broad contents. (Oscar and Twin-Oscar think the same when thinking that 'water' is wet, but do not say the same by saying: 'Water is wet'.) If so, it is not true in general that self-ascriptions accurately express our beliefs, at least not in the semantic sense of expressing. Fodor's view is controversial and Finkelstein probably has a slightly different sense of expressing in mind. Finkelstein's assumption nevertheless requires further philosophical investigation into the congruence, or otherwise, of mental and linguistic content.

The assumption may also sound controversial to psychoanalysts. On a broadly Kleinian view, unconscious phantasies are "the primary content of unconscious mental processes" (Isaacs 1952: p.159). Yet phantasies are present and active in the mind long before language is developed. "At first, the whole weight of wish and phantasy is borne by sensation" (ibid.: p.167). Later, "phantasies are able to draw upon plastic images as well as sensations" (ibid.: p.168), but they still do not take linguistic shape, even in the unconscious. If this picture is correct, Finkelstein must either hold that sensations and plastic images become linguistically expressible eventually; or else he must hold that early infantile phantasies cannot become conscious. Neither option seems entirely unproblematic.

Finkelstein assumption also has a clinical consequence, viz. that even the best interpretation is not enough to make the unconscious conscious. A co-expressive self-ascription is still required.

Although these are critical remarks, they show that both philosophers and psychoanalysts can engage with Finkelstein's view. His contribution has the potential to facilitate a dialogue philosophers and analysts. This facilitating potential is a welcome feature of many of OHPP's chapters, including the one I shall discuss next.

In his Psychoanalysis and ReligionJohn Cottingham challenges Freud's critique of religion and religious belief. As Cottingham summarises the Freudian stance, "religion is an illusion born of helplessness" (p.539), "an infantile piece of wishful thinking that we need to grow out of" (p.540). Against this, Cottingham wants to propose that "religious belief connects with something in our human nature of deeper significance than a mere neurotic or infantile impulse" (ibid.).

Why would psychoanalysis listen to this proposal, rather than dismiss it as the latest – albeit more sophisticated – instalment of said "illusion born of helplessness" (p.539)? Cottingham's answer is that both psychoanalysis and (the philosophy of) religion face the same epistemological charge, viz. that they "fail to pass [natural science's] tests for reliable belief formation, and thus do not deserve a place in our modern world view" (p.548).

One could respond to this charge by trying to develop more scientific versions of psychoanalysis and (the philosophy of) religion. Yet Cottingham argues that this would be misguided. Instead, he encourages us to embrace that there are certain aspects of life – close personal relationships and the appreciation of art, for example – that cannot be understood through "the impartial application of a mechanical technique" (p.550) alone, but instead require "affective and other transformations within the experiencing subject" (p.550). Psychoanalytic insight requires just this kind of affective transformation, says Cottingham. He further suggests that Freud agreed with this when he wrote (1916: p.22) that psychoanalysis can take place "only under the conditions of a special affective relationship to the physician".

Cottingham can now complete his argument: if psychoanalysis wants to insist that its truths are not "detectable via intellectual analysis of formal arguments or observational data" (p.549), and that its insights "resist external verification by a detached or non-involved observer" (p.550); that is, if psychoanalysis demands a special epistemic status for itself, then it cannot deny this same epistemic status to (the philosophy of) religion. The two disciplines thus converge in their "search for deeper layers of significance beneath the surface world of factual assertion" (p.551), and both agree that "quite different [from the scientific] modes of understanding are appropriate" (p.550) during this search. Once we begin to appreciate this convergence, Freud's accusation that religious belief is merely an "illusion born of helplessness" (p.539) quickly loses its sway.

Cottingham's (2014) and (2015) previous work elaborates and defends the epistemology of religion that he advocates in Psychoanalysis and Religion. For the reader who is not familiar with these works, the present chapter is somewhat difficult to follow at times. In fact, a number of chapters in OHPP presuppose a fairly extensive background knowledge of the topics and theories they discuss. Still, Cottingham's contribution to OHPP is a good example of what Gipps and Lacewing describe as "philosophy helping to sort out the wheat from the chaff within psychoanalytic theory [… by examining …] the cogency of the forms of reasoning used within psychoanalysis to support its claims" (p.10). Cottingham makes a convincing case that Freud's critique of religion is not cogent and belongs with the 'chaff'.

Cottingham's and Finkelstein's contributions link up: Julia's fear of Professor Smith will not be made conscious by Julia merely reflecting on her behavior as a "detached or non-involved observer" (p.550), the way a scientist observes and evaluates her test subject's behavior. Cottingham and Finkelstein are thus apparently in agreement that the psychoanalytic endeavor deals with truths which "disclose [themselves] only to those who are in a suitable state of receptivity" (p.551). The reader of OHPP will find many such links between individual contributions, which help shape the handbook into a coherent whole.

Let me close with a few remarks on editorial choice. In their introduction, Gipps and Lacewing stress that OHPP is a handbook "of philosophy and, not philosophy of, psychoanalysis" (p.17, emphasis in original). I must confess that I am not entirely clear on what they take the difference to be. By comparison with another philosophy of, Horsten (2019, §1) states that philosophy of mathematics "is concerned with […] the nature of mathematical entities" and our "knowledge of mathematical entities". It also "bring[s] mathematical methods to bear on philosophical questions".

If we substitute 'psychoanalytic' for 'mathematical' in this quote, we obtain a decent description of many of the contributions in OHPP. Lacewing's own chapter, for example, tries to resolve the dispute between the realists and the constructivists. The former hold that "unconscious mental states exist fully formed and with determinate intentional content" (p.407), ready to be discovered in analysis. The latter hold that "unconscious meaning of clinical material is constructed, not discovered" (ibid.). Isn't Lacewing therefore concerned with the nature of psychoanalytic entities (unconscious mental states) and our knowledge of them? If so, isn't he engaged in philosophy of psychoanalysis?

Perhaps the point is that OHPP is not limited to the philosophy of psychoanalysis, that some of its chapters fall outside the scope the philosophy of psychoanalysis. While this would be true, I still wonder whether, in wanting to produce a handbook of philosophy and psychoanalysis, Gipps and Lacewing have made some less fortunate editorial choices.

In particular, there is no section that is dedicated specifically to the philosophy of mind's take on psychoanalysis. All of OHPP's chapters involve some philosophy of mind, of course. A more explicit application of the philosophy of mind's tools and resources to psychoanalysis might nevertheless have been fruitful. Freud's theory of the mind resembles various higher-order theories of consciousness, for example, so that a closer look at this similarity and its consequences would have been interesting. Searle is a famous critic of Freud's theories, e.g. in his 1992, cap.2, and I would have welcomed a chapter that addresses his criticism. Either topic would presumably fall within the philosophy of psychoanalysis, but I don't see why this is a reason to exclude them from OHPP.

It would not be right to end this review on a critical note. OHPP is an excellent handbook. It illustrates the kind of work that can be done at the psycho-philosophical interface, and carries out some of this work. Like every handbook, it contains stronger and weaker contributions. This does not change the fact that OHPP is a valuable resource for philosophers and psychoanalysts alike.



--- References ---

Cottingham, J. (2014). Philosophy of Religion: Towars a More Humane Approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cottingham, J. (2015). How to Believe. London: Bloomsbury.

Fodor, J. (1987). Psychosemantics: The Problem of Meaning in the Philosophy of Mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Freud, S. (1916). A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, trans. J. Riviere, New York: Washington Square Press.

Horsten, L. (2019). "Philosophy of Mathematics", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2019 Edition), E. Zalta (ed.).

URL = <>.

Isaacs, S. (1952). 'The Nature and Function of Unconscious Phantasy', in: R. Steiner (ed.), Unconscious Phantasy, London: Karnac 2003, 145-198.

Searle, J. (1992). The Rediscovery of the Mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


© 2019 Sebastian Petzolt


Sebastian Petzolt, DPhil


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