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Kavanaugh - Rethinking the Influence of Philosophical Premises in the Psychoanalytic Moment

Rethinking the Influence of Philosophical Premises
in the Psychoanalytic Moment  ©


by Patrick B. Kavanaugh, Ph.D.
Copyright, 1998



Of what practical relevance might anything philosophy have to offer be to psychoanalysis?   Rethinking the Influence ... is a summary of a discussion group considering the influences of philosophic assumptions in the analytic moment.  The discussion group consisted of participants at the MSPP Fall Conference '97 titled What Have We Been Thinking?!? Discovering Hidden Assumptions in Theory, Research, and Practice.   This recounting of the discussion considers the role of linearized assumptions of time, place, logic, and causality in psychoanalytic theory and practice.  This recounting describes the project of the group as organized around Thinking About Thinking and includes the group's thinking about... a World View that contextualizes mainstream psychoanalysis;... a Dominating Rationality in the analytic culture; ... Modernistic Systems of Thinking; and some questions generated in rethinking our thinking while thinking about our rethinking.


Just Thinking about Thinking? What is there to think about? . . . philosophy and psychoanalysis? philosophic premises? assumptions? Isn't philosophy for those who like to play with words? And, if taken too seriously, doesn't it lead to ridiculous logical absurdities? violate common sense and the usual conception of the natural order of things? and deeply offend the logic and sensibilities of thoughtful people who live in the real world, meet with real people, and deal with real issues? Of what practical relevance or significance might anything philosophy has to offer be to psychoanalysis?

Last November, I was privileged to participate in a most unusual, exciting, and stimulating conference sponsored by the MSPP at Oakland University. Dr. Brent Slife presented the keynote address, "Challenging Our Cherished Theoretical and Therapeutic Assumptions" in which he spoke to certain largely unquestioned, if not unnoticed, cherished assumptions of modernistic systems of thinking. These hidden assumptions—determinism, linear time, universalism, atomism, materiality, and amorality—comprise a way of thinking constitutive of an organizing world view which helps to structure our world(s) and, in so doing, make our lived experience(s) more comprehensible and coherent.

As noted by Dr. Slife, social scientists have looked to the applied natural sciences, primarily medicine, as their model for psychopathology and psychotherapy. These same cherished assumptions have been united in the Medical Model; have played a central and organizing role in the development of the modernistic systems of thinking in psychoanalysis such as, for example, the psychologies of Drive, Ego, Object, and Self; and have organized the facts of one's experiences in psychoanalytic theory, scientific research, and practice. The Medical Model has been emblematic of a world view and has constituted the dominant rationality in the psychoanalytic culture.

I had been asked to serve as a moderator of one of the discussion groups following Dr. Slife's presentation. My own assumptions, beliefs, and ways of thinking, which I brought to the conference and to the group, situate psychoanalysis in the humanities, philosophy and the arts in contrast to, for example, biology and medicine.

Psychoanalysis, from this perspective, is considered to be a way of thinking about people, the world, and life which assumes a philosophic premise of a radicalized subjectivism, derives from the cultural sciences, and develops from the study of the psychoanalytic arts. By the psychoanalytic arts, I am referring to the Arts of Communication—such as language, prose, poetry, music, and semiotics; the Arts of Continuity—such as history, mythology, religion, tradition, and folklore, which link a phenomenal past with an anticipated future; and the Arts of Critical Thinking—such as philosophy and philosophic inquiry.

In recent years, much emphasis has been placed on the role of theory in shaping, organizing, and influencing how one might listen, understand, and respond in the analytic moment. However, there has been an increased recognition of late that the basic epistemological premises and assumptions regarding one's theory of people, the world, and life have an even more profound organizing impact on one's understanding of psychoanalysis and each aspect of the analytic process.

In "Challenging Our Cherished Theoretical and Therapeutic Assumptions" and their influence in the psychoanalytic moment, our group met to consider how one's philosophic premises and assumptions influence how one might listen, understand, and respond in the analytic hour. More specifically, a classical epistemology of rational objectivism structures certain basic assumptions and preconceptions as to the nature of the world, life and people. Our group project was to consider, discuss, and raise questions as to the organizing influence of this classical epistemology in theory and the analytic moment.

As our group's contribution to the discourse of the conference, I presented later in the afternoon a summary version of our discussion and, also, a series of questions which we had thought might be significant in the rethinking of our thinking when proceeding from different philosophic premises and assumptions. Our thinking went something like this:

Thinking about a World View. In its essential state, the world is understood to be continuous and orderly with its events being interrelated and linear in organization, universal in its laws, and as providing an objective frame of reference that exists independently of the observer. A linearization of time, place, causality, and logic is part of the natural order of things in this mind-independent world.

These cherished assumptions have been foundational in the empiricists’ doctrine, in which universal and natural laws regarding the world and people could be discovered through a Newtonian based science, method, and explanation. As a way of thinking, this scientific method was to provide the paradigm in which Truth could be discovered "out there" in the data. Truth would be revealed through the application of the scientific method and the empirical establishment of these independently existing patterns of regularities. This doctrine of empiricism has profoundly influenced psychoanalytic theory and practice.

Thinking about a Dominant Rationality. Much of contemporary psychoanalytic theorizing and thinking continues in the philosophical-theoretical tradition suggested by Freud and Breuer in the "Studies on Hysteria" (1895). In their pathogenic memory model, behaviors considered to be abnormal were understood to be symptoms (symptomatology) caused by past archaic traumatizing events (etiology) which interfered with current adaptations to the objective and knowable world (psychopathology).

This organizing conceptual framework of symptomatology-etiology-path-ology presumes a linearity of absolute and categorical time in which past traumatizing events were understood to have occurred at specific points in time existing in Anna O's actual linearized past. These past events were presumed to be continuous with and related to those symptomatic behaviors occurring later in time. Put another way, that which preceded in absolute categorical time is understood to be related to that which follows in a causative, deterministic, and evolutionary manner.

Behaviors considered to be pathological are viewed as a consequence of developmental arrest or developmental anomaly due to objectively existing, real live people and events which impacted development long ago in the person's past. Transference, archaic and otherwise, came to be understood as the current subjective distortion(s) of this mind-independent and objective world, caused by and transferred from past significant traumatizing object(s), place(s), and/or event(s) occurring at earlier time(s) in life.

Thinking about Systems of Thinking. Modernistic psychologies of psychoanalysis have continued to develop this world view and this dominant rationality in their attempts to more fully elaborate the natural course of development, infer the causes of pathology, and articulate the curative factors in a normalizing and reparative psychoanalysis. Modernistic systems of psychoanalytic thinking and theorizing have understood psychoanalyis from a paradigm of biology, medicine, and the natural sciences. As a way of thinking, the scientific method has provided for psychoanalysis a system of thinking which, in many respects, has become paradigmatic for listening, understanding, and responding in the analytic moment. This system of thinking presumes the same linearization of time, place, causality, and logic.

The scientific method provides a formulary in which one listens "out there" to the data from the patient/analysand, formulates a hypothesis based on naturalistic, sequenced observations made during the analytic hour; makes an intervention in a timely, "empathic" manner as one might manipulate the independent variable; and rules out or confirms the accuracy of the observations-inferences-hypotheses-intervention(s) as determined by the subsequent datathoughts/associations /states of mind. Confirmation and efficacy of interpretation are organized around movement towards an empirically constructed Idealized Normative, contained in one's theoretical reality, that guides the analysis to its theoretically anticipated outcome.

A system of thinking has developed in psychoanalysis which validates itself through this linearization of theory and methodology and which presumes its etiology and results in its very way of listening, understanding, and respond-ing. The normalizing purposes and reparative goals and objectives of psychoanalysis have been organized around these linearized assumptions and these ways of listening, understanding and responding. Such linearized assumptions of time, place, causality, and logic in the analytic process also underlie developmental theory, basic psychoanalytic concepts and technique, and various universal understandings of the essential nature of people and their motivation(s).

These cherished linearized assumptions have been central in establishing for psychoanalysis the dichotomous parameters of an outer-objective actual reality and an inner-subjective psychic reality. These conceptual parameters have determined the discourse, debate, discovery, and directionality of psychoanalysis and, further, have decided the relevance of those questions which would arise and direct further inquiry. Such a conceptual framework assumes an unspoken ideology which invites further elaboration in analytic inquiry along certain lines of questioning while suppressing those other lines of questions which do not follow from the ideology, the world view, and the dominant rationality of modernistic psychoanalytic thinking. Such a conceptual framework—resting on these linearized notions of time, place, causality, and logic—in effect seeks, finds, and claims its empirical validation through the very systems of thinking which these assumptions produce and reproduce.

Rethinking Our Thinking. Some Questions: Does cause always precede effect? Does the past always determine the present? What if, in the analytic discourse, effect precedes cause and cause precedes effect, at the same time? Are there multiple systems of thinking and levels of discourse ongoing at the same time? Is the intervention an evocative response/association to that which precedes it?

Is one's assumption of a tensed-sequence of time a way of ordering, structuring, and making material more unified and comprehensible? and, making possible cause-effect explanations? How do these linearized assumptions play out in the "what must have happened" of genetic reconstruction? or the "what will happen" of predictive, anticipatory interpretations?

Are linearized and universal assumptions of time, location, causation, and meaning in psychoanalytic thinking an institutional(ized) form and version of "physics envy" of a classical physics and science long since discarded by most physicists? Do we construct the past in the service of confirming pre-existing images of self? of conforming to pre-existing images of self? Do the phenomenal past, the lived experience of a multi-leveled, multi-layered present, and the hopes, wishes, and fears of an anticipated future co-exist, co-occur, and co-determine experiences and behaviors?

Is there a difference between intrapsychic and inter-psychic when considered from a premise of subjectivism? Do we speak, think, listen, understand, and respond in the lived experience of the present moment of the past? In analytic discourse, does meaning derive from the context within which a symbol makes its appearance? And, what does that mean?

Does the traditional concept of transference, archaic or otherwise, invent a linearized past? with real events? real people? and real consequences? Is there such a concept as transference in a conceptual system of thinking such as semiotics? Does language speak us as we speak language?

Thinking about Our Rethinking. Does philosophy have anything of practical significance to offer psychoanalysis? It seems to me that the very form of the question assumes philosophy and psychoanalysis to be two separate disciplines. The very structure of the question emerges from the world view, ideology, and dominant rationality called into question during the conference. And, in many respects, the very structure of the question reflects and perpetuates the dichotomous division of labor between the natural sciences and the humanities in which, in modernistic psychoanalytic mythology, amoral scientific propositions and axiomatic truths blend with humanistic compassion and values.

It seems to me that the discourse of this conference provided and encouraged a basic, necessary and vital kind of freedom to place into question such seemingly self-evident and foundational assumptions in theory, research, and practice in the psychoanalytic culture.

It was a most unusual conference in which a passionate group of rustbelt philosophers convened with an equally passionate philosopher from Provo, Utah to think about some of the implications for psychoanalysis which follow from the pivotal assumptions of a dust-bowl empiricism. There are many further implications to be considered, it seems, in the project of rethinking psychoanalytic theory, education, research, and, for that matter, rethinking the question of ethics in psychoanalysis and its medicalized Ethic of Caring, which also has its roots in the classical epistemology of the 19th century. Indeed—Whatever have we been thinking?!!?

Philosophy, it seems to me, is inseparable from one's theory and interpretive design of the world, people, and life. As well as of one's understanding of psychoanalysis. As we enter the 21st century, there have been emerging versions of psychoanalysis understood as being a philosophic discourse. One such version, for example, would be a skeptical phenomenalism in which one has the freedom to question the natural order of things in one’s world(s) and why it might be so. Such a philosophic psychoanalysis of skeptical phenomenalism might be, perhaps, a more personal version of Just Thinking about One's Thinking.

Dr. Kavanaugh received his doctorate in philosophy (psychology) from the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada.  Since the completion of his doctoral studies, he has been active in the academic, organizational, and practice areas of the psychoanalytic-psychological community.  In the academic area, he has served as Director of Clinical Training and member of the core teaching and supervisory faculty in the doctoral program in psychoanalytic psychology at the University of Detroit; as a member of the teaching and supervisory faculty in the Program for Advanced Studies in Psychoanalysis in Wyandotte, Michigan, an interdisciplinary program for the study of the analytic discourse; and, as a member of the teaching and supervisory faculty in the pre-and post doctoral educational programs at the Detroit Psychiatric Institute, the Wyandotte General Hospital, and the V.A. Medical Center in Detroit.  In the organizational area, he is the founding and current president of the Academy for the Study of the Psychoanalytic Arts; past president of the International Federation for Psychoanalytic Education; the Michigan Psychological Association, and the Michigan Society of Clinical Psychologists.  In the practice area, many of his professional interests during the past 35 years are directly related to experiences in the discourses of various residential treatment facilities.

Dr. Kavanaugh is a recipient of The Distinguished Psychologist Award  from the Michigan Psychological Association and the Master Lecturer Award from the doctoral students at the University of Detroit.

Currently Dr. Kavanaugh is in the private practice of psychoanalysis in Farmington Hills, Michigan:

Office:     31805 Middlebelt, Suite #305
               Farmington Hills, Michigan, USA  48334
               Phone: (248) 626-6460
               Fax:      (248) 626-4808