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  • Projective Identification, Clinical Context, and Philosophical Elucidation
  • Adam Leite (bio)

The clinical concept of projective identification encompasses both unconscious fantasies of putting aspects of oneself into another person, as well as interpersonal processes aimed at evoking a corresponding response in another person ("actualizing" the projection), all for purposes of defensive evacuation, control and/or communication.1 In thinking about this complex situation, we need to consider its interpersonal dimensions as well as the intrapsychic processes that take place in each party. Louise Braddock's paper is thought provoking, far-reaching, and important in its use of concepts from analytic philosophy to attempt to bring clarity on both fronts. Her account makes use of two crucial philosophical notions in particular: central imagining (intrapsychic), and speech acts and their uptake (interpersonal). Both can be helpful in understanding certain aspects of projective identification. Still, I doubt whether, in the end, either notion can do precisely the work that it is being asked to do.

Speech Acts

I begin with the place of speech acts in theorizing about projective identification. As Braddock acknowledges, there are many and various things a person might do with the unconscious aim of bringing it about that another person takes on thoughts, feelings, and motivations that the first person cannot tolerate in herself or is not able to make known in any other way. Still, Braddock places speech acts at the center of her account, thus apparently buying into the thought that some particular form of interpersonal activity or another is conceptually, structurally, or explanatorily central here. I have significant doubts on this score, because (as I discuss below) clinical examples point in quite the opposite direction. Moreover, insofar as Braddock aims at a philosophical reconstruction or explication of the concept of projective identification in terms of speech acts, her account leaves us without resources for explaining closely similar clinical phenomena, commonly referred to as projective identification in the literature, that do not centrally involve speech acts at all. In fact, I suggest that this may be true of Braddock's own central example.

It is helpful to begin with the theoretical notion of a speech act. Speech acts are ways of doing things with words, such as warning, promising, asserting, blaming, praising, or accusing. However, [End Page 81] the term does not encompass any and everything that one might do, aim at, or accomplish through speaking. Consider the difference between (a) He urged me (ordered me, requested me to) do such and such, and (b) He convinced me (offended me, made me laugh). Very roughly, the former are things one can do just by saying what one does, whereas the latter are further effects one might (or might not) manage to bring about (Austin, 1962, p. 101 ff.). I can urge you to do something just by saying what I do, but I cannot succeed in offending or convincing you just in saying what I do: whether or not I succeed is a further matter that depends on how you feel about what I have said. Only acts in the first category are speech acts, as that term is used in contemporary philosophy of language. If I matter-of-factly describe my gorgeous flat in South Kensington with the intent of making you envious, the speech act performed is simply assertion.2 That I intend thereby to make you envious is a further goal that I aim at in performing the speech act that I do.3 Moreover, not everything we accomplish through speaking is effected by means of a speech act. If I recite a tongue twister to make you laugh or impress you with my superior pronunciation, I have not performed any speech act at all, in the technical sense of that term: I have not made an utterance with a certain intended force (such as asserting, warning, praising, accusing, etc.). Speech acts, then, are just some of the myriad ways in which we can do things to others through the use of language. The latter are, in turn, just some of the ways in which we can do things to others, because not everything we do to others is done through the...


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