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  • Commentary on "Irrationality and the Dynamic Unconscious"
  • Sebastian Gardner

I would like to add to Paul Sturdee's extremely helpful dissection of the issues some brief comments concerning the importance, which Sturdee highlights, of the concept of self-understanding for psychoanalytic theory.

There is a widespread tendency to regard with suspicion the invocation of the demand for self-understanding as a ground of legitimation for psychological theory. Underlying this suspicion, which clearly has highly critical implications for any reconstruction of psychoanalytic theory along the lines that Sturdee and I favor, is the following view: in the context of psychological theory, conceived in strictly cognitive terms—that is, in contrast with psychological theory conceived as a framework for clinical intervention and an instrument for therapeutic ends—no more weight can properly attach to the interest in achieving self-understanding than it can in any analogous context in the physical sciences; to allow the demand for self-understanding to weigh with psychological theory is to allow theory to be determined by sorts of considerations that are logically extraneous to genuinely cognitive enquiry, and exemplifies a sort of regression to preobjective ways of thinking.

This would seem to be at least part of what is intended by the comparison of psychoanalysis with astrology and palmistry: the objection is that, however much one might like it to be true that certain phenomena bear a significance for us, the truth of things does not answer to this demand. To allow our desire to find things meaningful to influence our theorizing will lead us necessarily to hallucinate meanings where there are, in reality, none to be found. In this way, it will come to seem that psychoanalytic theory seeks to appropriate as psychologically meaningful terrain (disorders of thought and behavior) which is in fact intrinsically nonmeaningful and correctly explained in purely neurophysiological terms.

The question is to what extent and under what conditions this line of thought may stand as a reasonable ground of objection to psychoanalytic theory. Now, it is true that, if the demand for self-understanding is identified straightforwardly with a mere psychological need (to be released from mental conflict), or a mere desire to experience oneself in a certain way (as intelligible, transparent, and so on), then the demand for self-understanding has no legitimate role to play in forming psychological theory, conceived in strictly cognitive terms. But this is of course a misconstrual of the demand for self-understanding, as it is invoked in support of psychoanalytic theory: the demand that propels the formation of psychoanalytic theory either is itself a cognitive demand, or else incorporates a full-blooded cognitive component (it is a demand whose fulfilment is intended to be conditional upon correct explanation). It is, at the same time, a demand that reflects our interests—or so we believe, [End Page 175] thinking as we do that it is in our interest to know the correct explanation for our thought and behavior. But this fact hardly can discredit the cognitive aspiration intrinsic to the demand for self-understanding, since the connection of self-knowledge with the advancement of interests is constitutive for self-conscious agents, i.e., subjects whose action is premised on representations of themselves. What prompts the demand and seems to legitimate it is the fact that the explananda of psychoanalytic theory, unlike the data of astrology and palmistry, have a manifestly psychological character.

That then is outlined the argument for regarding psychoanalytic theory as proceeding from a demand for self-understanding to a legitimate extension of ordinary (commonsense, folk) psychology, and it appears to rest on sound general philosophical principles: it is part of the essential nature and concept of a psychological phenomenon; it comes into existence on the basis of conditions of a psychological kind; and, more generally, the nature of any given explanandum dictates or at least determines the parameters of the kind of explanation that it can receive. The application of such principles in the context of psychoanalytic theory of course may be contested—the point is just that they offer a prima facie solid philosophical foundation for psychoanalytic theory. The notion that the interest in self-understanding is something gratuitous, and essentially...


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