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  • “Living Together Alone or Together”: Commentary on Tzvetan Todorov’s “Living Alone Together”
  • Stephen A. Mitchell (bio)

Tzvetan Todorov traces the dialectic within Western intellec- tual history between a major current in which humans are defined essentially as isolates and a minor current which points to a social dimension in human nature. From Rousseau to Smith to Hegel, Todorov charts a line of theorizing in which relations with others are regarded not as an option for living but as constitutive of the human species. The contrast Todorov is drawing recalls Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between the concept of “negative liberty” developed within British political philosophy (Hobbes and Locke) and “positive liberty” developed within Continental political philosophy (Rousseau and Hegel). But Todorov is trying to focus our attention beneath political categories to basic motivational principles: a fundamental need of human beings for other human beings (“consideration” for Rousseau; “attention” for Smith; and “recognition” for Hegel). And Todorov ends with a moral and therapeutic plea: by undervaluing the social dimension of our experience we remain caught with others in self-mutilating struggles for dominance.

This argument is of particular significance vis-à-vis theorizing in contemporary psychoanalysis. In demonstrating why this is so, I hope to illustrate the way in which current psychoanalytic thought may add a novel dimension to the kinds of issues Todorov is struggling with.

The philosophical shift Todorov is depicting and calling for has been mirrored almost exactly in the history of psychoanalytic ideas. The classical psychoanalysis of Freud and his contemporaries was based on a view of the individual as isolate. Freud’s basic unit of analysis was what he termed the “psychic apparatus.” He was concerned with the mind of the individual and the psychodynamic processes operative within. The basic motivational forces within mind, for Freud, were instinctual drives, arising within the individual and demanding discharge. Social factors and other people played an important role in Freud’s psychological accounts, but as vehicles for the more primary drives, as either a source of gratification or a threat to or punishment for gratification. In this [End Page 35] sense, Freud’s approach to the relationship between the individual and society was distinctly Hobbsean.

The most fundamental feature of the movement from classical to contemporary, postclassical psychoanalysis has been a shift from what has been termed a “one-person” to a “two-person” framework. 1 There is a wide variation in contemporary psychoanalytic schools of thought (ego psychology, self psychology, object relations theories, relational psychoanalysis) but, in one fashion or another, they have all transformed the basic unit of study from the individual driven by instinctual drives to relational units of self vis-à-vis others. This is also true of contemporary Freudian revisionists like Hans Loewald (who rewrites Freud as an object relations theorist) and Jacques Lacan (who embeds the individual in a transpersonal world of language and symbolic structures).

This shift in the basic psychoanalytic conceptual unit parallels exactly the contrast Todorov draws between a view of others as secondary and peripheral to the individual’s fundamental concerns and a view of others as constitutive of the basic human project. In classical Freudian metapsychology, others are means toward more primary ends (instinctual discharge or defense against instinctual discharge). In contemporary psychoanalytic metapsychology, relations with others are the very stuff out of which mind develops and sustains itself.

Probably the most important single concept that has made possible the shift from a classical to a postclassical framework in contemporary psychoanalysis is the concept of the internal object. Freud’s notions of the ego-ideal and the superego were precursors to this concept. In the first two decades of his clinical work, Freud understood his patients to be rent by conflictual affects and impulses. But early in the nineteen-teens, he began hearing something different in his patient’s free-associations. What he heard were voices other than the patient’s voice, residues of early childhood relationships: parental prohibitions, affirmations, and ideals. When Adam Smith speaks of the “spectator that lives within” he is referring to the same experiences that led Freud to establish the superego as one of the three basic agencies of mind (along with the id and...

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