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  • Toward a Non-Cartesian Psychotherapeutic Framework: Radical Pragmatism as an Alternative
  • Louis S. Berger (bio)

Postmodern criticism has identified important impoverishments that necessarily follow from the use of Cartesian frameworks. This criticism is reviewed and its implications for psychotherapy are explored in a psychoanalytic context. The ubiquitous presence of Cartesianism (equivalently, representationism) in psychoanalytic frameworks—even in some that are considered postmodern—is demonstrated and criticized. The postmodern convergence on praxis as a desirable alternative to Cartesianism is reported, and its relevance for psychoanalysis is considered. The severe conceptual difficulties entailed in formulating such an alternative are discussed, as are those difficulties that would be encountered were psychoanalysis to attempt the shift from explanatory mental science to praxis. The principal psychoanalytic problematics explored are: the paradoxical relationships between theory and therapeutic technique; the therapeutic action; and validation of clinical practices. Initial, nontraditional suggestions for addressing these problems are offered.


psychoanalysis, therapeutic action, representation, state space, praxis, hermeneutics, Descartes, Heidegger, Wittgenstein

“But the inability to bring one’s subject under conceptual control, fixing it propositionally, is not the end of thinking; on the contrary, it were better to say that the breakdown of concepts and the failure of words is an opening that takes us out of the realm where representation and calculation are all that matter to thinking. . . . [T]his is what happens in the Socratic dialogue where the negativity in which one ends up at a loss for words is at the same time that which sets thinking free.”

Bruns 1989, 9

“To evolve theory as though our methods and processes of study were essentially the same, or could be the same, as those of other sciences, or could be disregarded when it comes to theory, implies a view of reality that is no longer tenable, least of all in that ambiguous area which we call psychic reality. Nevertheless, all of us are still more or less captives of an erroneous understanding of objectivity and objective reality. . . .”

Loewald 1970, 45 [End Page 169]


Cartesianism still underlies and dominates much of today’s thought. It is the label for a network of interrelated ideas and themes:

the ontological duality of mind and body; the subjective individualism implicit in the ultimate appeal to direct personal verification; the method of universal doubt which was supposed to lead us to indubitable truths; the doctrine that language and signs are an external disguise for thought; the doctrine that vagueness is unreal and that the philosophic endeavor is one of knowing clearly and distinctly a completely determinate reality; and most fundamentally, the doctrine that we can break out of the miasma of our language or system of signs and have direct intuitive knowledge of objects. (Bernstein 1971, 5–6)

[The Cartesian assumptions] constitute a picture of science and the world somewhat as follows: there is an external world which can in principle be exhaustively described in scientific language. The scientist, as both observer and language-user, can capture the external facts of the world in propositions that are true if they correspond to the facts and false if they do not. Science is ideally a linguistic system in which true propositions are in one-to-one relation to facts, including facts that are not directly observed because they involve hidden entities or properties, or past events or far distant events. These hidden events are described in theories, and theories can be inferred from observation, that is, the hidden explanatory mechanism of the world can be discovered from what is open to observation. Man as scientist is regarded as standing apart from the world and able to experiment and theorize about it objectively and dispassionately.

(Hesse 1980, vii)

Hesse goes on to say that “almost every assumption underlying this account has been subjected to damaging criticism,” a view echoed by others: “Most contemporary philosophers have been in revolt against the Cartesian framework” (Bernstein 1971, 5); “A rejection of the Cartesian view is a central theme for both of the giants of twentieth-century philosophy, Heidegger and Wittgenstein” (Sass 1992, 444n 77); and “The notion of alternative conceptual frameworks has been a commonplace of our culture since Hegel” (Rorty 1982, 3).

These criticisms arise...

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pp. 169-184
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