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  • Psychoanalysis as Spirituality
  • Patrick Lee Miller (bio)

Is psychoanalysis a spirituality? The question typically polarizes those who care about either. Psychoanalysts who are suspicious of spirituality—not to mention its sometime relative, religion—answer this question firmly in the negative, often assuming that Freud dispensed with all of this nonsense with The Future of an Illusion (1927). Many proponents of spirituality ironically agree: they will likewise deny that psychoanalysis should count as one. Their reasons vary, but most often they assume that psychoanalysis is an authoritarian anachronism, inimical to the freedom and individuality characteristic of spiritual growth. But as each side recognizes when faced with its caricature by the other, these denials are really just rhetorical ways of neglecting the question. For those interested in both psychoanalysis and spirituality, for those willing to see each in the most generous and sophisticated light, and for those who believe that both can profit by their comparison, this question cannot be so neglected. This paper is written for anyone with such an interest; it attempts to consider this question in such a light, and hopes that such a profit can be won by even so brief a treatment.

It begins by considering the most sophisticated account of spirituality in our times, Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007). Just as every school of psychoanalysis has its own way of defining this complex practice, so too is there a different definition of spirituality for nearly every spiritual practitioner. Taylor’s magisterial book—which has itself become the focus of discussion among many of today’s leading philosophers, historians, and social scientists—thus helps by providing a comprehensive definition of spirituality, at least for the purpose of beginning our inquiry. Taylor investigates a wide range of modern spiritualities, worldviews that are “sources of fullness,” enriching our lives with meaning, arranging our activities to serve higher goals, and thus motivating us at times to act beyond our narrow interests. They are, to borrow from the title of his earlier work, sources of the self (1989). More precisely, they are sources of our highest self.

As such, this paper argues, psychoanalysis should be among them. In this form of therapy, after all, individuals find new meaning in their lives, become able to arrange their activities finally to serve this meaning, and [End Page 31] are often thereby motivated to perform creative and noble actions. At the very least, when it works, it frees them from enervating repetitions. Taylor, however, denies that psychoanalysis is a genuine moral and spiritual source. His personal source is Christianity, but his catholic understanding of it encourages him to permit the existence of rival but valid sources, even elaborating them into attractive alternatives no more problematic and susceptible to dilemmas than his own. Psychoanalysis he nevertheless dismisses after a brief and partial examination (Taylor 2007, 618–23). This paper will begin by calling his brief examination into question. The goal of its first section is not so much to criticize Taylor’s misunderstanding of psychoanalysis, although this misunderstanding is common enough even among academics of his stature and sympathy to merit the critical attention of every psychoanalyst interested in engaging with humanists and social scientists. Instead, the goal of this first section is to elicit his principal criterion for a genuine moral and spiritual source. According to Taylor, as we shall see, such a source must transform and heal character through a growth in wisdom.

We shall argue that this is just how psychoanalysis works, which is not to say that precisely how it does so is clear; on the contrary, the so-called therapeutic action of analysis is controversial, even among analysts. Subsequent sections of this paper will thus present an account of the therapeutic action by coming at the problem from an unusual direction. The American existentialist philosopher Robert Solomon spent much of his abbreviated but fertile career articulating a theory of the emotions rich with possibilities for the enhancement of psychoanalytic theory. We shall thus consider, with Solomon, the relationship between the emotions and meaning in the second section of this paper. In the third section, we examine the specific polarity of the emotions of love and resentment, and in...


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