Ott - On Being Human

On Being Human

(Thoughts on what it is to be Human
And on the Role of Psychoanalysis for becoming more fully so)


by Maxa Ott, Pasadena, CA 2011


Tiger got to hunt,

Bird got to fly;

Man got to sit and wonder ‘why, why, why?’

Tiger got to sleep,

Bird got to land;

Man got to tell himself he understand.

(Kurt Vonnegut)


La réponse est le malheur de la question.

(Maurice Blanchot)



This meditation on the general question of what it is to be human (and, loosely, on the role of psychoanalysis for becoming more fully so) constitutes in its entirety a preliminary consideration for the development of an ethic of compassion. Such an ethic – as a general normative ethic and as a specific ethical stance for clinicians – suggests itself to me as a consequence of this exploration into the nature and deeper development of our humanness. What follows, then, is a look at the fundamental question of what it is to be human, leaving the more detailed development of a resulting ethic of compassion for a later date.



What is it to be human?



I want to begin by separating this question into an experiential and an explanatory dimension, such that we now have two questions: one that asks after the experience of what it is like to be human (what is the subjective experience of being human) – and another that asks after the explanation of how that experience comes about.[1]


The existence of any human being always presupposes the existence of at least one (m)other, so that we can say that to be human is to be part of the human community.[2] This fact constitutes – on the explanatory level – the fundamental contextuality of any human being (and thus of being human.)[3]


In the following I am not concerned with the ways any given specific human context contributes to who (and how) any given specific human being turns out to be who s/he is. Instead, I will focus on the experiential (or: phenomenological) dimension when asking which (subjective) basic experiences we might name as being specifically human, as well as considering the explanatory dimension of the general context at hand and the capacities that arise from it. However, I ask you to hold in mind that even where I do not make specific mention of it, a contextual, explanatory dimension giving rise to the experience or capacity under discussion is always implied.


With this understanding let us return to the initial question: what is it to be human? What is specifically human about us human beings, or: what is specifically human about the human experience?



Being (a human being) is first.

To be (at all) is to feel.

Feeling – as being – simply is.[4]

The fact (the that) of feeling is primary.

The content (the what) of what is felt is secondary.[5]



If feeling is first, thinking is second.[6]

For thinking we look to language.

We look to meaning and making sense.

That is: we look to wondering why why why?



True (that is: not idle) wondering has to do with noticing, with interest, with attention, with felt thinking, with thought feeling. Here, in true wondering, is one area[7] where thinking and feeling meet. To be human, then, is to do with both thinking and feeling, is to do with true wondering.



Thinking is to do with language, even as language does not define the outer limits of thinking – or the depths of it.[8]  It is within and through language that we humans are making sense and meaning (of the world, including ourselves.). In this way we create a (human) world via a languaged interpretation of what presents itself to us as world, or, in other words, we humans are hermeneutically engaged creatures. As such, we know ourselves as of the world, and thus knowing ourselves as of the world we are the world knowing of itself. We might even say that we humans are where the world knows itself, just as birds are where the world flies – so that we humans add the feature of consciousness, of wondering, of knowing, of interpreting ourselves and the world, of making sense, just as birds add the feature of flying on feathered wings. Without birds, the world would be a world without the feature of such flying. Without humans, the world would be a world without the feature of such wondering and such knowing of itself. How the world knows itself, then, is as a human world – since any human knowing can only ever yield a humanly known world.


All (human) knowing is limited by what we can perceive – such perceptions being the phenomenologically derived raw-material for feeling, thinking, knowing, wondering and making sense. This does not mean that what we can constitute thus is all the world there is, merely that it is all the known world, which is (knowing being a human activity) by definition human.


There is no primacy in value of the human world over the, say, avian world. All of it simply amounts to what we (humans) can call “the world” (comprised of a plurality of worlds, as it were) of which the humanly perceived and constituted world is but a part. “The world” is in large part nothing to do with us and entirely beyond our grasp.



We humans, then, are hermeneutically engaged creatures. And we are that: creatures. We are (and do not simply have) bodies. It is via our creatureliness, via our bodies, that we are of the world,[9] that we encounter the world, that we feel the world, that we think and interpret the world – that we think and interpret what we feel (and that we feel.) And we do this, each one of us, within the matrix of and informed by the relational and historical context of what has made us who we are, who we have become during our idiosyncratic development, and who we continue to become within the context of our present, thus actively creating our future.


It is this relationally determined – embodied (felt) and minded (thought) -- contextuality whence the human capacity for empathy, care and concern for our fellow creature (and not just our fellow-human) derives.[10] Ultimately, this capacity can lead to the freely chosen ethical stance of living the human capacity for empathy as concern for the other in an ethic of compassion.[11]


In other words, the subjectively experienced basic human capacities of feeling and thinking taking place within a good enough relational context[12] eventually allow for the development of these higher order capacities of empathy, concern, compassion and care.



From this vantage point psychoanalysis[13] is fundamentally about opening up (creating) a space for a person to be: by way of a full, passionate engagement first within the relationship to the analyst, then, internalized, within the patient’s own solitude in the world (which is always also a relationship to the world, including in the form of other human beings.) Psychoanalysis (the relationship called psychoanalysis) can thus be understood as being about helping a person to feel and know of being contingent with their surroundings, of being of a context –  that is, of relating –  and to feel and think and choose this relating ever more deeply and freely (as opposed to being compelled in both fact and form).


Here I am making a value judgment: that knowing oneself (and learning to welcome and take into one’s tender care each newly emerging facet of such knowing) is better than not knowing oneself, not only because (in the subjective lived experience) ultimately that way a measure of peace lies (incidentally, the goal of many a spiritual practice), not only because such knowing is a prerequisite for sustained empathy, compassion, concern and care for our fellow creatures (potentially leading to a lived ethic of compassion – of utmost importance for the context and, it would appear, continued fact –  of our very existence), but also because part of what makes us uniquely human is to create meaning. And if this is so, then creating subjective, personal meaning (knowing oneself) is a way to be more fully human.


We could, therefore, say that psychoanalysis aims by way of an increase in a person’s capacity for engagement (that is, for relating) at opening up the space and furthering the capacity for silence and for solitude – which in its turn allows for more engagement. [14] 


A capacity for solitude is crucial for the development of the capacity for joy and creativity, for joyful engagement of the world qua world, and not merely as a means to an end. Much of the western public and political idiom is based on the idea that the world is to be used as a means to an end, and that joy is only available as the endpoint of a process of acquisition, in short: as a by-product of greed and envy. This is not only not true, but is in fact actively misleading: greed and envy actually preclude joy (understood as a capacity to revel in being qua being.) The process of being creatively engaged, on the other hand, can be understood as a way of simply being joyful – a way of being and reveling in being. A capacity for empathy and an adoption of an ethic of compassion based on the capacity for joy of being qua being will allow for joy of a secondary order (in its causation, not in its experience): joy derived from being for the other. However, the primary joy of being qua being is fundamental for the development of the capacity for empathy and a freely chosen ethic of compassion, the practice of which is joyfyul – as opposed to being motivated by guilt.



As a psychoanalyst, I spend a large portion of almost every day with patients. What is it we are doing together in my office, my patients and I? My patients (as any clinician’s patients do) come to me for help – even if they may not know exactly what they want help with or what that help might look like. The truth is (and it is a truth as frightening, painful and paradoxical as it can liberating, both for the analyst and for the patient) that we as analysts ourselves do not really know what we are there to do – and how to do it. Or, put differently, we do not know exactly who we are there to be (who we will find ourselves being, becoming) vis-à-vis any particular patient and at any particular time.[15]

And since it is for help our patients come to us – what is it they want help with? In the broadest sense we can answer that they come to us for help with being who they are. And who are they, fundamentally and most generally? Our patients, most fundamentally, are human – and so, of course, are we, their analysts. On the most basic level our patients, then, come to us for help with being human. But, as we have seen, it is not a given and far from clear what that means: to be a human being, to be human – even as I have said to be human is to do with feeling and thinking within the human community.



It appears that in order to get a general sense of what it is to be human, we ultimately have to approach this question from the vantage point of the singularity after all: what does it mean, what is it to be this particular human being?


In fact, we could posit that the whole of the analytic venture consists in exactly this: for patient and analyst to engage in the process of wondering together what it is to be this particular human being. No theory can answer this question a priori.  However, since theories are frameworks organizing perceptions and thought, they do generate understanding, so that the question arises: are all theories equally well suited to help me understand a particular human being? And indeed, they are not. How “well” a theory is suited in any given case will depend on many things: that it be couched in a language the patient and I both understand is but one aspect. That it acknowledge the (general and specific) contextuality of the clinical venture is another.[16] A fundamental (often unquestioned) aspect of enormous impact is precisely that of how any given theory defines (explicitly, but more, if not most often implicitly) the general nature of being human.[17]


I have written elsewhere: there is no right way or wrong way to be human, there is only my way and your way.[18] This statement implies that to be “human” in general is to be a particular human being. And with this assertion we once again (and seemingly inevitably) arrive at the fact of the defining context: that there are always historical, social and cultural dimensions to be taken into account, relational contexts large and small – circles within circles, as it were. In other words: to be human is to be a particular human being. And just so in clinical work: it is always contextual. What we tend to in clinical work is a small piece framed out of a larger context, always informed by that larger context – whether we know it and whether we know of it, or not. It is a fundamental paradox of clinical practice that while we need a general sense of what we mean by “being human”, in the actual clinical work we are only interested in the nature of this particular, singular human being.


It would appear, then, that any “general sense of being human” is always a post hoc generalization derived from the actuality of any (and all) particular, specific human being’s lived life.



I started by asking: what is it to be human? We can now see that this question only seems to refer to the ontology of being human (what is it to be human?) – but that anything approaching an answer can only be found in the phenomenology of the lived experience of a particular human being (how is it to be this human being?)


For each of us it is our own subjective lived experience that allows us to actually know anything: I can know only what comes to me (what is me, in a sense) by way of my lived experience, so that we can say that I am that which I experience.[19] In this way, I am world incarnate, I am of the flesh of the world, I am the flesh of the world – just as surely as this mountain I am looking at, or a bird on an island where no human has ever set foot, or Berkeley’s tree in the forest that falls without my hearing are the flesh of the world.


However, my way – my human way – of being in the world, of being of the world, of being the world, is to feel and to think. It is first to be affected by the world (to feel being) and then to think my being affected.[20] In distinction to Heidegger who speaks of  thinking Being (where Being is primary and independent of human thinking), I believe that we humans create Being by thinking (can think the wonder of the fact of something rather than nothing) –  that Being (the ontological) is ever only thought, and is, hence, an abstraction. It is being – the ontic, the particular, subjectively experienced (that is: felt) instance – that is both the aim and the source of thinking. We can say, then, that it is deeply human to relate thinking and feeling, so that we think what we feel and feel what we think.[21]

The fact, not just of feeling, but of feeling being (of feeling myself be, in whichever way) I will, if sustained, call passion. Passion has a central role for a human being being human: being passionate means being moved, affected, touched, it means that the world reaches me, anything in the world: the other, myself, an activity, a thing, an action, anything at all. It is here – within the passionate engagement of the world -- that meaning is made. Here is the source of sense (any sense at all), in the passionate engagement (in the relating to the world) and not in the world as the (unknowable) thing-in-itself. The ontology of any ‘thing’ can ever only be apprehended through the lived subjectivity of a particular mind/consciousness and can never be grasped ‘in-itself’. This is not to say that it is not – just that it cannot be apprehended (and is therefore not relevant for us humans.)


Here, then, is the limit of what we can know of ourselves: we humans, as things-in-themselves, cannot – ever – access who we are other than from within ourselves. Not only can the eye not see itself, but it is a part of a whole that it can, therefore, never fully apprehend. Just so are we humans contextually constituted, even if we do not subjectively experience that fact. This does not mean that we should give up knowing ourselves and the world. It simply means that knowing in itself is a uniquely human activity and makes available a uniquely (and uniquely limited) human world (and not “the world”.)  In other words: what we grasp is just and only that: what we grasp. And we can never know if that is all we are. Only: it is what we know we are.[22]


Here is where we reach the limits of knowing (and thus of thinking, as it were.) 


Such limits do not apply to feeling. As human beings, whether we can think it or not: we feel, we are being affected, we are moved. If we do not feel, if we are never or rarely moved[23], something has gone as surely and as (maybe more) seriously awry as it did for someone who does not develop the capacity to speak and think, or to look and see, or to stand and walk. It seems to me that for us human beings living fundamentally and primarily is feeling, so that feeling is first, and thinking is second.



Feeling is the first and the final, the ultimate, dangerous, unknown wilderness, feeling is where the beasts live, the angels and the demons, the unknown quantities, feeling is where the surprises are (perhaps the only surprises for some), feeling is where being alive is subjectively experienced. Feeling and knowing that (and sometimes what) one feels can take much courage: feeling and following that feeling where it leads; feeling and knowing it, and speaking it: to oneself, and, also, to others; and, likewise, to hear others speak thus – and feel what one hears thus spoken.


What is not felt is very often useless and can be worse than useless, can actually be an obstruction to living fully and passionately and joyfully. What is merely thought and not felt has the capacity to prevent the free unfolding of feeling. What is merely thought but is not felt is not truly lived. This is not so for what is felt but not thought: while what is not thought is not fully lived, it is truly lived (since feeling is first.)


Difficulty with feeling (and this includes thinking feeling and feeling thinking) – if it is not primary in the sense of it being a result of either a congenital or a developmentally caused physical abnormality or an injury – can be understood as a way of coping with traumatic contexts, that is, contexts that give rise to feeling-states that are overwhelming and unbearable in the absence of a good-enough relational context that helps make them bearable.[24]


Here, then, is another way of describing the psychoanalytic venture: we psychoanalysts aim to create such a good-enough relational context with and for our patients in which they can feel ever more deeply and ever more freely, and where they can develop the capacity to think what they feel and feel what they think[25] – in short, where they can become more fully themselves and in so doing, being human, become more fully so.



I have said elsewhere that we are not human because we speak, but that we speak because we are human. I still believe this to be true, but I believe the inverse is equally true: that we are, indeed, human because we speak just as much as we speak because we are human. What I mean by that is: in order for us humans to be fully human, to be what we are most deeply, we must speak.[26] Speaking always presupposes an (external or internal) other who is being addressed, so that when we speak, we always speak to someone – of something. What is it we speak of? Most generally, we speak of the world (ourselves included) – thus speaking the world.


To speak (of) the world, we must notice it. To be human, then, is to notice the world: to notice it and be affected by it, to feel it and feel it deeply, that is: passionately. And to speak what is thus felt, as well as hear others speak their felt experience of the world.


For us this world is a human world, just as for a bird the world is an avian world. The bird is not a bird because it flies, but it flies because it is a bird. However, to be fully a bird, the bird must fly. A bird with clipped wings is still a bird, but it does not engage in its fullest bird-ness (so to speak) of the lived experience of itself as a bird, in flying. Just so are we humans most fully ourselves when we engage passionately with the world, just so are we most fully human when we speak the world and hear it spoken to us.[27]

Here originates what I want to call the primacy of ethics (and why I advocate for the choice of an ethic of compassion): since there is no inherent necessity for any particular thing to be felt or be passionate about, a freely chosen ethic is of utmost importance. I believe that the limits of my passionate engagement must be considerations regarding my impact on the other (in compassion, empathy and responsibility.) These considerations are not inherent in the ‘structure of the world’, that is, they are not a priori, they are not truths inherent in the world but are a consequence of the human capacity to engage passionately in a way that implicates and affects the world – and self-imposed limits resulting from a basic stance of caring about the world as the other. [28]


For us humans, one way of being passionately engaged in the world, of noticing the world, is in making sense, that is, in making connections and creating patterns, in trying to understand. Understanding itself (having understood) is only marginally important. The process of trying to understand, of wondering, of relating bits of experience, perception, thought, feeling – that is what matters. It is the process of making sense, making meaning – as opposed to finding sense or meaning and then stopping the making of sense as if it were now settled, once and for all. Meaning is not a ‘thing in the world’ – meaning (making meaning) lives as a verb, not as a noun, and is a way the human being is being human, so that making meaning is a way of engaging passionately. And this is how thinking (and speaking) – which is how we make meaning – can be a way of feeling passionately, of being passionately engaged in the world.


Thinking passionately, feeling passionately – these are ways to experience the world passionately, to engage passionately with being qua being. [29]



For the world to know of itself by way of our human experience we must be conscious of our experience – we must have it and know of having it, feel it and know of feeling it, or rather: feel and know that we feel. What we feel and know what we feel is secondary – that we feel and know that we feel is primary.


Our experience, while being constituted contextually, is nonetheless felt within ourselves – subjectively, in solitude. Just as there needs to be a receptive other to hear what I have to say for me to develop a sense that anything – in principle and specifically – is sayable, just so does there need to be space – solitude – in which I can notice the world (including the other), in which the world can notice itself in me, in which I can feel the world and think it, in which I can be engaged passionately with the world to then be able to passionately speak it (to the other).


Only when we have become capable of such solitude – via our engagement with a sufficiently receptive other[30] -- only when we have become who can thrive in solitude, who can use solitude, who can feel solitude, only when solitude is not the threat of an empty isolation but the blessing of a private fullness, only then can we be fully human, only then can we turn our attention to the world in curiosity and wonder, in concern and compassion and welcome it into our care – and in this way welcome ourselves.



The human mind is a unique feature of the world just as the raven’s wing is. Wondering is a way of being just as flying is. I do not believe that there is a purpose for either. In fact, I understand the notion of a purpose itself as a feature of human thinking (of wondering why.)[31]


In the absence of a purpose everything simply is.


If everything simply is, we must learn to accept the fundamental tautology of all being: that it is – and nothing more (and nothing less).


Being is.

Being is because it is.

Only because it is, is it.[32]

If it weren’t, it would not be.


When we disallow this tautology (when we insist on a because to our why that goes beyond the why we experience) we close rather than open ourselves to the noticing, the experiencing, the passionate engaging with the world – usually because the absence of a because is so unbearable that it causes us to cease to question and wonder. If we can see the absence of the because as a condition of being capable of questioning (wondering) in itself – that a definitive because would end the why –  then we can engage the why more fully, knowing that we are not aiming at ending it, but only at penetrating more deeply into the experience of it.



This is what we humans do: we make sense of our lived experience.[33] The sense we make lives as a process – it is not the what but the that of making sense that matters most. Or, put differently, it is the making in making sense that is its defining feature. As we have seen, prior to making sense is the wondering, is noticing and being affected by, that is: is the passionate engagement with the world, is the world being passionate in the form of wondering and making sense.


If being human is the world being passionate, is it conceivable that it is passionate in other creatures (and features) that constitute it? Can a crow be passionate about flying? Perhaps. Perhaps we are not the only creatures thus engaged with the world – engaged with a world of which we are a part. However, I venture that we humans are the creatures that can passionately engage more features of the world than any other creature currently living on the planet – as well as being the creature that can feel for the most features (and creatures) currently being on this planet with compassion. The dark side of this fact is that we humans are the creature that can – and does – wreak the most havoc for the most creatures (and features) on this planet (including ourselves and the planet itself.) Here originates an ethic of compassion (extending beyond the human to all creatures) as a natural consequence of our passionate engagement with the world as the creatures capable of empathy we are. Here, too – in our capacity for destruction and the imperative to harness it – originates the reason why such an ethic of compassion is a necessity.


To be passionately engaged in the world (including by making sense of our subjective experience of the world) is a way of being more fully human. To be as fully human as possible is a biological imperative: the organism will naturally tend to express the genotype as fully as possible in the phenotype. Thus, the development of the specifically human brain and mind (including language) is genetically programmed. Once developed[34], this mind (this minded body, this embodied mind, this human being) will engage in making sense of all available world, but particularly the world marked by feeling – that is, the passionately engaged world. Paradoxically, the world available for making sense will in turn be made available by making sense. That is: as bits and pieces are brought into relation to each other (via feeling and thinking), more bits and pieces become available to be brought into relation to each other – in principal ad infinitum.



In practice we must develop and safe-guard our capacity to feel and thus apprehend world and make it available for and by freely thinking and making sense. We can only think what we perceive and feel when we are within a certain range of regulation. Dysregulated, there is no perceiving, feeling or thinking that is not concerned with regulating back into equilibrium.[35] Thus the world (that is: the human world) is for us only fully available within the range of regulated being – thinking (and thinking feeling) can only take place here.


For such thinking to take place we need solitude – solitude understood as a capacity, specifically, the capacity to be alone: to be (that is: to feel) and to notice (perceive) and to think as deeply, as passionately and freely as possible what presents itself to us as felt experience, what arises in us from the lived context of our subjective experience.


Paradoxically, the capacity for solitude presupposes a good enough relational context that gives rise to it. It is in this way, too, that the other is primary, that the self presupposes the other: there can be no subject without an a priori object. However, the other is not perceived a priori. The perception and experience of the other as other (not myself), as a subject in their own experience, is a developmental achievement.


I am referencing here once more the discrepancy between what is (and why) and what is perceived. What is can only be inferred from what is perceived – since knowing itself is based on the irreducible subjectivity of the human mind (or: is itself a human activity.) All we can know of being – is what we can perceive of being. In this way, phenomenology does away with ontology. In other words, the ontological is merely inferred from the phenomenological. Epistemology – what pertains to knowing and knowledge – is always based on the phenomenological perception and apperception (and thus constitution) of the world as a human world via the human mind. Since the human mind, in turn, develops within relational matrices, (the experience of) subjectivity is always based on (the foundation of the context of a priori) intersubjectivity – which latter is not perceived as intersubjectivity until solitude is possible (solitude as opposed to abandonment or despair).


Psychoanalysis, then, might also be understood as attempting to provide the developmentally necessary relational circumstance/environment for the development of the capacity for solitude, or, put differently: for thinking what one feels, for feeling what one thinks. All so-called “pathology” can be seen as the attempt to maintain an equilibrium in the absence of this capacity for solitude.



We are at once less alone than we think – and more so.


Less alone because the fact that I am presupposes that you have been. The fact of my individual existence presupposes at least one m/other by whose care I am: the one is always also the many. My very brain is testament to the fact that where I am – you have been. And so, too, my mind – both in the fact of its existence (understood, with Searle, as a higher order feature of the brain) as well as in the idiosyncratic particularity of my individual mind (which arises out of particulars: the actual engagement/relating to actual others.) The mere fact that I am who can regard herself as a separate entity in the world implies that there are others and that there is a world. This is the a priori context of my existence.


But I am more alone in that I can only experience (feel) this being-ness of the other and the world – but I cannot know (think) or communicate it in a way that allows me to know that the other truly knows him-/herself known. Likewise, I can never know if the other truly knows me – truly experiences my being. I can think it, but that is all. Language fails here. The only kind of knowing that comes close is something like the biblical, carnal knowing: I can know you through my and by your flesh – and you can know me by mine and through yours.


The distinction between explicit and implicit knowing may help here. Implicitly (involving procedural, body-based – carnal, as it were – knowledge, including empathy) perhaps I do know – although the use of the term “knowing” may be debatable. Explicitly, in a languaged, declarative way, I can never know. This is one of the limitations of language: knowing fails to encompass all of what we can think (imagine) knowable. In fact, we can say that knowing denotes less certainty than we are accustomed to associate with this term, being itself a process, a way of being, and never arriving at a “once and for all.” This means, paradoxically, that certainty itself is not static but contextually determined and changeable.


Heidegger speaks of not speaking a language but language speaking us – and he is both wrong and right. We do speak a language in that we are that which we can say – we do say ourselves and the world. But our language is speaking us in that we can only use what has been made available to us via the language we have acquired within a certain limited context. What we say and how we say it means in ways that are not solely dependent on us,[36] but on what can be meant in a dialogue (that is, what can also be understood) – and that in turn will depend on what actual experiences we have had with engaging in dialogue (hence psychoanalysis as dialogue in which new ways of meaning become possible). This is the more nearly synchronic aspect of our situatedness in language.


And then there is language in its historicity (not simply in mine or yours): how has it been used and what have words meant through the ages (here the Heideggerian etymologizing). In that respect, too, language is speaking us: that we do not know (are not aware of) what the words we use have meant in the past (meanings which are, according to Heidegger, contained in the current usage)[37]. This could be seen as the diachronic aspect of our situated-ness in language.


It is imperative that we as psychoanalysts are aware that our usage of language is idiosyncratic in at least two ways: in the ways of the analyst’s personal history (as the personal history of language usage and meanings, the personal associative structure, subtended by and shot through with felt associations, conscious and not conscious) – as well as in the particular metaphorical idiom of any given theoretical approach, itself an abstraction from and generalization of actual lived experiences into a pattern.[38] None of this goes without saying. It is constituted in saying – and must be made explicit in saying. We are, as analysts vis-à-vis a patient, in the same situation in which two speakers of different native tongues find themselves, neither knowing the tongue of the other: we learn each others language. We learn from each other what we mean – how we use language down to the mood/Stimmung we express, what is evoked associatively and how it feels and what these feelings mean to us.[39]


What is crucial to keep in mind is that there is no right or wrong way to mean – there is only meaning, yours and mine: experienced subjectively by each of us, but made intersubjectively by both of us together.



Tiger got to hunt,

Bird got to fly;

Man got to sit and wonder ‘why, why, why?’

Tiger got to sleep,

Bird got to land;

Man got to tell himself he understand.


Many of us never get off the ground to actually do some sustained wondering, being determined to understand and rest in the certainty of the familiar. In psychoanalysis, we are not offering more (or even different) resting ground – instead, we try to help our patients free themselves from what prevents their freely wondering. We try to help them develop their capacity to question. We try to help them loosen their compulsive need for the familiar.[40] It is the wondering that makes us more fully human, the questioning – not the answering, the why – not the because.[41] The answer – the because – is like the landing of the bird and the sleep of the tiger, is necessary because wondering cannot be sustained indefinitely, and “understanding” is the resting place, itself a form of sleep (if not, perchance, a dream.)


When it has rested a while, the tiger goes hunting again.


The bird takes to the air.


And we humans resume our wondering why.



Pasadena, CA




[1] William Coburn has brilliantly developed the idea of dimensions of discourse, viz. the explanatory (how something comes to be) and the experiential (what it is like to be, the felt experience.) See Coburn (2009) Attitudes in Psychoanalytic Complexity. In: Frie and Orange (2009) Beyond Postmodernism.


[2] See the burgeoning literature on infant research, attachment theory, relational and intersubjective psychoanalysis, as well as complexity theory in psychoanalysis.


[3] Much clinical theorizing takes place on this level: how particular contextual circumstances impact human beings in particular ways and account for particular “pathologies” and ways of approaching treatment.


[4] Primary, prenatal, immediate, unmediated.


[5] Even as feeling is always feeling something. On the most basic level we could name this, with Freud, pleasure and unpleasure, or, less psychologically: pleasure and pain. However, whatever we want to call it, this something may never be narrated or conscious – and at first simply is. The question of the function of pain and the consequences of its failure I will explore at a later date.


[6] Secondary, mediated, more complex, a developmental achievement. I do have to be first in order to think, but the same is not true for feeling: being, I already feel.


[7] There are others. I will come to that further down.


[8] Compare the literature on explicit and implicit ways of knowing, or, put into a different idiom, the literature on declarative and procedural knowledge. Referencing the explanatory level, language (and thinking) are made available (are made possible) through the other and only exist as a function of relating.


[9] With Merleau-Ponty: that we are flesh of the world.


[10] In a nutshell: it is the move from the (m)other as the world to the world as the other. I will not pursue the function of this capacity for empathy and the consequences of its failure at this time.


[11] This is compassion extended to all beings – not just human beings. See Rifkin (2010) The Empathic Civilization.  Also Goertzel (2004) Universal Ethics, and much Buddhist writing, including the Dalai Lama’s (2004) Ethics for the New Millennium.


[12] See Siegel/Hartzell (2004) Parenting From the Inside Out as well as Wallin (2007) Attachment and Psychotherapy for what makes for such a good enough relational context, including in the clinical relationship.


[13]When I say psychoanalysis I actually mean to include all clinical engagement, as I do not consider any particular theoretical approach to clinical work as fundamentally exempt from these considerations See On Relating (Ott, 2006) and The Autobiographical Dialogue (Ott, 2005), both in the online-library at Academy for the Study of the Psychoanalytic Arts, 2011.


[14] The how of this venture is where the theoretical approaches differ and are of variable efficacy (always within the fit of a particular dyad.)


[15] I can only presume it is because of this fact that some clinicians deny that psychoanalysis is a helping venture. Some claim it to be an intellectual engagement. And while it is assuredly that, it is also – and more importantly -- an emotional one and it is primarily one in which the analyst takes another into his or her care. As I have said elsewhere: I do not speak of cure here – no one can (or needs to) be cured of being themselves and of being human. To the contrary, we all need help with becoming more fully ourselves, more fully human. What I am speaking of then, is agreeing (as the analyst) to enter into a (mutual if not symmetrical) relationship with the patient and to reliably attempt to (and to a good enough measure succeed in) privileging the patient’s experience. And furthermore, to do this without giving or having any guarantee or, in fact, knowledge of what the outcome will be.


[16] Since the analytic venture is profoundly relational, I believe in the superior efficacy of an approach that acknowledges and actually thematizes this fact.


[17] It is important to have a sense of what it means “to be human”, since this will determine which processes we as analysts are trying to facilitate in order to allow our patients to be more fully themselves, more fully human, as it were.


[18] I reiterate here the caveat of limiting my freedom where it harms another. Limiting myself thus amounts to using the information empathy delivers (and serves, ultimately, the preservation of the species. See Footnote 21.) In positing and claiming this caveat as a value (values never being sui generis and always being thus constructed) I actively live my humanness: letting what I feel inform what I think and thus thinking my (felt) self and the (humanly known) world. However, this particular value – a principle of the ethic of compassion –  I can only choose if I am capable of feeling and thinking the other as my concern.


[19] Thinking and feeling are both modi of lived experience. I do not need to have actually experienced any particular thing for it to inform my lived experience, but I do need to have been able to feel and/ or think (and this includes imagine) it.


[20] Thinking in itself also has the power to affect me – and then I will think that and how I am thus affected.


[21]  And indeed, this is something we have long been aiming at in clinical work: the integration – the relating – of feeling and thinking. The general capacity to integrate these two is a necessary (if not sufficient) prerequisite for the development of compassion. To be able to feel and think that the world is my concern (to be capable of empathy and compassion) in its turn is a necessary prerequisite for choosing the ethical stance of compassion and care for the other, a stance we might call passionate empathy. Subtending these is the territory of pain: the fact of pain and its function to signal danger to the organism. The suffering that ensues when pain fails to summon a response that will allay the cause for it. And the grave disability of not being able to feel pain and its potentially deadly consequences: in the case of my inability to feel my own physical and emotional pain in the form of serious damage to body and soul (including, possibly, death); in the case of my inability to feel the other’s pain – that is, when I am incapable of empathy that results in compassion – in the form of serious damage for the community of life (human and not) the individual is a part of, potentially endangering the world as we know it. We could say that in our capacity for empathy lies the human species’ pain-alarm-system (akin to the systems of physical pain and fear in the individual), designed to preserve the species by preserving the environment (human and not) that sustains us – this latter necessary because of our vast impact on so many features of the world. I will explore this matter more deeply at a later date.


[22] In the same way in which, living, we can never know what it is to be dead – but know only what we, living, construe death to be. As Wittgenstein said: “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darueber muss man schweigen.” (Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.)


[23] By something, by anything – no preference as to content is implied.


[24] The coping strategies meant to render subjectively unbearable feeling-states bearable are compensatory for the absence of good-enough-relating that would help with making those states bearable. This is often referred to as “defenses”, a term I dislike for its pejorative connotations for both clinicians and their patients.


[25] This is not always possible. Sometimes the biological consequences of the absence of good-enough-relating cannot be successfully repaired (viz. sociopathy and its biological underpinnings, as well as reactive attachment disorders and the like.)


[26] And I mean speak, not chatter – in what Lacan referred to as full as opposed to empty speech. Also, and equally, we must hear. Hence the idea of the dialogue.


[27] I mean by this “speaking the world” not only the literal speaking, but any kind of symbolizing to another who “hears” (understands) and responds.


[28] I will return in the future to the question of ethics, which is central as a consequence of the human capacity to engage with more and more of the world (and thus with enlarging the world.)


[29] I am leaving out for the moment the manifestations of thinking and feeling passionately in the form of creative endeavor, of communion with nature, and of erotic engagement – three other areas of passionate engagement with being qua being.


[30] See On Relating (Ott 2006.)


[31] All documented religious teachings have to do with the why and wherefore and how of being human.


[32] It is not quite the biblical “I am who I am” – it is saying “I am because I am”.


[33] Donna Orange has written extensively and beautifully about making sense together.


[34] And again, it is important to have in mind how this brain/mind is developed within the fundamental dialogue of early attachment relationships. See my essays On Relating as well as The Autobiographical Dialogue (in the latter the footnotes detailing the current literature on the issue). In a nutshell, the brain/mind is a result of relating (including via language) made flesh. Paradoxically, language itself is a result of relating (yes, including via language) as well – and so, indeed, is empathy.


[35] This is what happens with physical pain: when it is extreme, it narrows the entire world to the perception of that pain. Emotional pain, when it is traumatic (that is, overwhelming and un-metabolizable) has a tendency to sever and fragment feeling and thinking, so that what cannot be borne is either not thought or not felt, and hence not available to be fully engaged (if at all.)


[36] With Wittgenstein: there is no such thing as a private language. In fact, a private language is a contradiction in terms since language is always acquired within a relational context and always also means that context – including in its feeling-tone/mood/affective coloration/Stimmung.


[37] Heidegger also claims that some languages mean more or more deeply than others – he in fact privileges certain languages (Greek and German) over others. I reject that notion. Languages mean differently, create different worlds, but do not mean fundamentally better (Steiner makes this case beautifully in his Errata, 1997.)


[38] We must never forget the metaphorical character of the theoretical language we use as analysts.


[39] The focus is on the analysand as we attempt to help the analysand with the problem of being human, of being this specific human being.


[40] I am speaking here of loosening too rigid an investment in the familiar (not of aiming at the absence of the familiar itself), of developing a capacity to welcome change, where the anticipation of change does not cause overwhelming anxiety and the fact of change can be adjusted to. This capacity presupposes a good-enough attachment relationship (either in the past or in the present, the analytic relationship potentially being one) that literally is terra firma from which wondering takes wing and to which it returns.


[41] There can never be a definitive answer to the questions of being: why something and not nothing? Why that (at all)? Why what (this particular thing)? Why why? If these were definitively answerable – we would cease to be human in the way we are now. I don’t know what we would be. But we would not be the creatures wondering why and ceaselessly making sense anymore.



Maxa Ott is a psychoanalyst in private practice in Pasadena, CA, where she is a also a Training and Supervising Analyst at the Newport Psychoanalytic Institute. She holds a Ph.D. from the Southern California Psychoanalytic Institute (now New Center for Psychoanalysis) in Los  Angeles, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, and holds an M.A. in both Linguistics and History from the Friedrich Alexander Universitaet Erlangen-Nuernberg in Germany. She is the author of “First Steps in the Clinical Practice of Psychotherapy.” This is Dr. Ott's original publication for her paper "On Relating: Thoughts on Psychoanalysis, Speaking, Madness, and Hope".


Dr. Ott may be contacted via email at: