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  • The Genealogy of Psychoanalysis
  • E. James Lieberman
Michel Henry. The Genealogy of Psychoanalysis. Translated by Douglas Brick. Originally published as Genéalogie de la psychanalyse: Le commencement perdu, 1985. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1993. xxviii + 353 pp. $39.50.

To me, a philosophically minded reader who seldom reads philosophy, this book presented a major challenge. Well-acquainted with histories of psychoanalysis, I expected to find here a collection of essays on eminent Freudians. But this genealogy traces the descent of an idea from Descartes, through Malebranche, Leibnitz, Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Scheler, to Freud.

Michel Henry, professor of philosophy at Université Paul Valéry, Montpellier, Canada, has written other books, including Essence of Manifestation (1973) and Marx: A Philosophy of Human Reality (1976). Translator Douglas Brick has done a remarkable job: one can tell that the English text is no more difficult than the original French. Terms such as “ob-jection” and “ek-stasis” (Heidegger) and “eidetic” (Husserl) are defined in chapter notes, which include clarification of translation issues. There is a bibliography but no index. The book begins with a prefatory essay, “A Philosophy for Psychoanalysis?” by François Roustang, who writes: [End Page 167]

Henry’s central thesis, tirelessly reiterated, bears on the radical distinction between representation and life. Representation is incapable of seizing reality, because reality then only offers itself through a visibility in which it reveals itself while at the same time concealing itself. Being is not visible and does not represent itself. Thus whatever partakes of the problematics of subject and object must be declared to be unreality or illusion. In other words, no ontology of representation can be developed except to demonstrate its impossibility: a propostion which is accomplished with Kant. On the other hand, if we cease to conceive of consciousness as experience understood as the relation of a subject to an object, but understand it rather as an appearing to itself or as auto-affirmation, then beneath the phenomenality of the visible, the original essence can be grasped. It is this that Descartes termed the “soul,” that Schopenhauer named “body,” Nietzsche “will to power,” Freud “the unconscious,” and what Michel Henry prefers to designate “life,” that is to say affectivity, that which is experienced in itself as pure immanence.

(p. x)

The reader is expected to know terms like “ontology,” “phenomenology,” and “hermeneutics,” explications of which can be found in a number of accessible sources. 1 The writing, while abstruse, is forceful: “Is the original essence of revelation reducible to the ek-stasis of ontological difference? In no way!” (p. 19). The prose is often lucid, if not simple: “individuality belongs to and originally determines will. This original connection of will and individuality is first recognized in the body, which is nothing but will’s inner experience” (p. 149).

Extensive discussions of soul and will remind us that these concepts are essentially missing from psychoanalysis, a point addressed by psychoanalyst/philosopher Otto Rank (not present in this work). Freud’s unconscious is the partial repository of these ideas, but “every thinking that confines Being to the gathering of memory is prey to contradiction” (p. 326), and Henry finds psychoanalysis hamstrung by a tendency to override affect—life—with an overly cognitive theory and therapy, derived ultimately from a mistaken idea of Descartes’s Cogito .

The student of psychoanalysis who is not steeped in philosophy might benefit from reading the introductory material and then the last two chapters. I found much stimulation and enlightenment here; clearly there are few writers capable of such a sweeping review of Western thought, coming to focus on the dominant psychology of our time. Undoubtedly this book will itself be the focus of learned and passionate discussion for some time to come.

E. James Lieberman
George Washington University School of Medicine


1. R. J. Anderson, John A. Hughes, and W. W. Sharrock, Philosophy and the Human Sciences (Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble, 1986).


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