| Home - Robert M. Young | What's New | Search | Feedback | Contact Us |
Robert M. Young Home Page
Index of writings by Robert M. Young
Email Robert M. Young
Process Press
Science as Culture
Free Associations
Kleinian Studies
Human Relations, Authority and Justice

The Writings of Professor Robert M. Young

Mental Space

by Robert M. Young



| Contents | Preface | Acknowledgements | Chapter: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | Bibliography |

Chapter One


How can we 'place' psychoanalysis in the broader framework of modern thought? In the closely interrelated set of changes associated with the Scientific, Capitalist and Protestant Revolutions, a definition of knowledge was put forward. It defined real knowledge as concerned with spatiality or extension, in the sense that what could be scientifically known was restricted to what we loosely call 'things' that can be seen (perhaps with help from instruments) and measured. The world was divided into 'thinking substances' - the phenomena of mind - and 'extended substances' - the phenomena of bodies or matter, with extension, shape and dimensions. This formulation is called 'Cartesian mind-body dualism' and was formulated by René Descartes in his Discourse on Method (1637), which is often described as the founding document of modern thought. The spatio-temporal became coextensive with Nature.

The reason this book is about space is that I want to locate psychoanalysis in culture, and, conversely, the place of culture in psychoanalysis. Yet reliable knowledge is said to be spatial, and it is hard to work out the sense in which it is appropriate to think about the inner world in spatial terms. Most attempts to do so have tried to treat the mind as if it was a special sort of matter - by analogy. I think this has had very baleful consequences for the ways we think about ourselves and how we treat one another - often like objects or things.

This may seem a terribly abstruse project, but it has all sorts of practical consequences. For example, we find it puzzling when we try to think about physical disorders caused by emotional problems - notably ulcers or hysterical paralyses. These get a hyphenated designation: psycho-somatic. We do not have a coherent language for thinking about them or for thinking through treatment regimes to alleviate the suffering they cause. The unclear location of psychoanalysis in conceptual terms means that those who divide the world into departments for administrative purposes don't know where to put it. This problem of classification reflects one of philosophy and cultural location. Is psychoanalysis arts, science, hermeneutics (the science of meaning)? Is it dialectical or didactic; is it about subjects and objects? Is it exclusively about the inner world? What is a 'real event' in psychoanalysis? It is no accident that psychoanalysis has no secure home in the departmental structure of universities and the grant-giving categories of research councils. Its object of study is ineffable. The psychologists don't want it; nor do the social scientists or the biologists or the medics - not even the psychiatrists. Indeed, one of the most heated controversies in early psychoanalysis concerned whether or not one should be a medical doctor in order to be a psychoanalyst. The Americans said yes; the British said not necessarily; Freud (1926) said no; a recent lawsuit in America has said no. Some of this was about status in a professional sense; some of it was about the conceptual status of psychoanalytic objects in an epistemological sense. It's a conceptual Flying Dutchman. I hope I can shed some light on the philosophical and conceptual bases for the lack of a clear location for psychoanalysis in the broader culture and offer some quite simple suggestions for clarifying its place.

This search for a framework of ideas within which we can locate psychoanalysis is part of a larger project concerned with the question: How is it appropriate to think about ourselves? What language, what rhetoric, what conceptual framework makes sense for the understanding of human nature? I've been at this for over forty years. I spent a long time studying philosophy and went on to investigate work on the nervous system, trying to root the understanding of the emotions that seem to make us human in the scientific study of the organism. The point, as it then seemed to me, was to find a way of testing our ideas about human nature and human frailty in something that could be measured and tested by the canons of the most reliable form of enquiry available to us: natural science. In the course of writing a book about the history of ideas about how mind relates to brain (Young, 1970, 1990), I began to wonder whence come the questions we ask the brain. The question moved from 'How are the functions of the brain localised?' to 'Where did we get the questions we ask the brain?' This is just another way of asking where the categories of psychology come from. Is there a natural classification of aspects of human nature which is in some way analogous to the classifications of the taxonomists in biology or the table of elements or fundamental particles in chemistry and physics? For reasons I shall go into, I think the answer is no.

This line of enquiry took me into the History and Philosophy of Science and the history of ideas in psychology and about (what the Victorians called) 'man's place in nature'. This led, with the help of the work of people like David Ingleby, Karl Figlio and Donna Haraway to questions about what sets of values bring people to ask the questions they do in science and medicine. Those scholars have done pioneering work on the forces in society that evoke or constitute or set agendas for scientific enquiry. Ingleby looked into the ideological forces at work in psychiatry (1972); Figlio studied the social determinants of disease categories on the boundary between the somatic and the psychic (1978, 1985); Haraway explored the boundary between the human and the animal - how the ways we think about primates serve as pedigrees for what we want to say about human families and societies (1989, 1990, 1992).

My own enquiries into these matters began with psychoanalysis (Young, 1960), and my subsequent research added a series of expanding contexts and deeper levels. I returned to thinking primarily about psychoanalysis as a result of my own analysis and a growing sense that analytic work is the last refuge of those who would wish to change the world but have learned that to change oneself and perhaps a few others is quite a lot to be getting on with, while not losing sight of the grander goal.

Modern thought has - at least officially - only one answer to the question of how we should think about ourselves. If we want reliable knowledge, we should think about ourselves in scientific terms. And real knowledge is about matter, motion and number. It is cast in spatial terms. There was a profound change in ways of thinking about natural knowledge and about humans in the revolutions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Protestant Revolution focused on the individual as a centre of moral accountability. The Capitalist Revolution isolated an individual's labour power as a commodity which could be split off and sold, and was deemed to be separable from that person's social relations, moral essence and welfare. The Scientific Revolution separated out the moral, purposive and evaluative dimensions of the world and shoved them into the conceptually separable realm of thinking substances, the mind. What was left could be treated as material bodies in motion, whose formal features were to be represented in purely physical terms - as forms in space ('extended substances') and by formulas which could be mathematically specified and manipulated.

This piece of cosmic surgery raised at least as many problems as it was supposed to have solved. Having designated as science that which pertains to bodies, how were we supposed to think about mind? Mind was negatively defined as that which does not pertain to bodies or matter. That definition left the representation of mind with no language of its own. As I've already said, mind was always spoken of by analogy to the ways we speak of matter. Some analogies have come from physics (the mental atomism of the association of ideas), others from chemistry (mental elements and compounds), more recent ones from biology and physiology (structures, functions, sensory-motor theory and conditioning) and metaphors drawn from or linked to biology, functionalism and systems theory. This has proved very awkward for the official account of the history of science which describes it as an advancing edge of objectivity, whereby physical explanations progressed from celestial physics to terrestrial physics to the chemical elements to the history of the earth to that of life and on to society and mind (see Young, 1979a). The three great blows to human arrogance went from heaven to earth to humankind. We learned that our planet was not the centre of the heavens, that our species was not the pinnacle of special creation and - with Freud - that we do not even have direct access to the greater part of our own mental processes.

What is awkward for this official account is that it is only a small part of the story. Triumphalist accounts of the advance of materialist explanations have large components of lies and nonsense. The mendacity inheres in the fact that much that constituted admired explanations in science continued tacitly or surreptitiously to invoke the banished aspects of explanation which referred to purposes, goals or analogies to human intentions - anthropomorphism. This is true of such celebrated figures as William Harvey, whose account of the circulation of the blood was praised by Descartes as a triumph of materialist explanation, whereas Harvey saw it as purposive or teleological. The same can be said of the father of modern physiology, Albrecht von Haller, whose explanatory categories - 'irritability' and 'sensibility' - defied materialist reduction (Young, 1989). And Charles Darwin routinely employed analogies to human intention at the heart of his theory of evolution by natural selection (Young, 1985a, ch. 4). Thus, the great heroes of physiology and biology were breaking the official rules of scientific explanation in their undoubtedly fundamental scientific discoveries. The official account of scientific progress left out important aspects and distorted what actually happens in some of the most significant scientific explanations (Young, 1989, 1993).

Aside from this economy with the truth, there was the sheer nonsense of the official account of the relations between body and mind. A philosophical scandal lies at the heart of modern thought. Cartesian dualism says that humans are made up of two utterly basically (ontologically) different kinds of substances: body and mind. Yet they are defined so that interaction between them is literally inconceivable. We cannot, in principle, explain how a thought can cause a muscular motion or how pressure on our skin or light impinging on our retinas can cause a sensation, much less a thought. At the heart of Cartesian dualism lies the mystery of interaction - how a mental event can cause a bodily event or a bodily event can cause a mental one (Young, 1990).

Freud's way around this was a form of agnosticism: we don't know how these events are related, but we do know that they occur in parallel. Whenever there is a mental event, there is a bodily one, and certain bodily ones are paralleled by mental ones. This position is called 'psychophysical parallelism', and he adopted it in his first book, On Aphasia (1891; esp. Freud, 1891a), under the influence of the English neurologist, John Hughlings Jackson (Riese, 1958). Freud continued to maintain this position throughout his life and repeated it in his last book, An Outline of Psychoanalysis (1940), written in his last year.

But Freud left us with a bewildering legacy - a confused and inconsistent amalgam of nineteenth-century physicalist physiology projected onto an ambitious metaphorical anatomy and physiology of the mental apparatus. This was deployed alongside magnificent gifts as a story-teller. (It was not a Nobel Prize for science he won; it was the Goethe Prize for literary style.) To top it all off he added wonderfully moving accounts from great literature, most notably from Sophocles' version of the Oedipus myth, and gripping accounts of speculative prehistory of civililzation. Add to this a delightful sense of the meaning to be wrung from jokes, events of the day and the dream as 'the royal road to the unconscious', and you have a fair jumble of languages and terms of reference (Young, 1986b).

One of my main aims is to shed light on Freud's problems with language, but I have only been able to make some sense of his difficulties by seeing them in the context of a much wider and deeper set of issues involving the place of mind in nature and writings about the mess created for mind by the scientific revolution. I don't suppose many psychoanalytic practitioners would spontaneously go off and read a book entitled The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science, but I promise you that it is well worth the effort - especially the last chapter. The author, E. A. Burtt, points out that the paradigm of explanation of modern science leads to a mess whenever you try to apply it outside its original context of the exact mathematical treatment of physical processes. He says, 'But when in the interest of clearing the field for exact mathematical analysis, we sweep out of the temporal and spatial realm all non-mathematical characteristics, concentrate them in a lobe of the brain, and pronounce the semi-real effects of atomic motions outside, they have performed a rather radical piece of cosmic surgery which deserves to be carefully examined' (Burtt, 1932, p. 202). A high price was paid for modern physical explanation: 'To get ahead confidently with their revolutionary achievements, they had to attribute absolute reality and independence to those entities in terms of which they were attempting to reduce the world. This once done, all the other features of their cosmology followed as naturally as you please. It has, no doubt, been worth the metaphysical barbarism of a few centuries to possess modern science' (p. 303).

Having shown why they created a mess, he turns to the consequences for the study of mind: 'But when it comes to the question of replacing this impossible doctrine by a positive theory of mind, there has been a radical diversity of opinion and a philosophy which will be fair to all the data and meet all the basic needs clamouring to guide their interpretation is yet to be invented' (p. 318). He mentions two approaches. The first seeks to know mind as an object of scientific study according to the canons of scientific research. It is first necessary to jettison the mind-body dualism and treat what was formerly considered to be mental as something bodily, i.e., materialist reductionism. The other alternative is to keep mind special and separate - idealism.

'To put ourselves briefly at the point of view of the former group, it does seem like strange perversity in these Newtonian scientists to further their own conquests of external nature by loading onto mind everything refractory to exact mathematical handling and thus rendering the latter still more difficult to study scientifically than it had been before. Did it never cross their minds that sooner or later people would appear who craved verifiable knowledge about mind in the same way they craved it about physical events and who might reasonably curse their elder scientific brethren for buying easier success in their own enterprise by throwing extra handicaps in the way of their successors in social science? Apparently not; mind was to them a convenient receptacle for the refuse, the chips and whittlings of science, rather than a possible object of scientific knowledge' (pp. 318-19).

An equally eloquent critique of the problems raised for the understanding of nature and humanity by the philosophical scheme of modern science was written by A. N. Whitehead in his Lowell Lectures, given at Harvard in 1925, Science and the Modern World. He focuses on the absurdity that what was regarded as real was only the primary qualities - spatiotemporal entities and relationships. What of the secondary qualities - sensations of colour, odor, taste, sight? These are seen as the qualities of the mind alone. The mind somehow projects them onto external nature. 'Thus the bodies are perceived as with qualities which in reality do not belong to them, qualities which in fact are purely the offspring of the mind. Thus nature gets credit which should in truth be reserved for ourselves: the rose for its scent: the nightingale for his song; and the sun for his radiance. The poets are entirely mistaken. They should address their lyrics to themselves, and should turn them into odes of self-congratulation on the excellency of the human mind. Nature is a dull affair, soundless, scentless, colourless; merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly' (Whitehead, 1925, pp. 68-9).

Whitehead grants that this is certainly an efficient system of concepts for scientific research. It reigns without a rival. 'And yet - it is quite unbelievable. This conception of the universe is surely framed in terms of high abstractions, and the paradox only arises because we have mistaken our abstractions for concrete realities... The seventeenth century had finally produced a scheme of scientific thought framed by mathematicians for the use of mathematicians' (pp. 69-70). Such abstractions are useful, as long as material processes are what you want to think about, but, as Burtt points out, there are other things to think about. Whitehead concludes: 'The enormous success of the scientific abstractions, yielding on the one hand matter with its simple location in space and time, on the other hand mind, perceiving, suffering, reasoning, but not interfering, has foisted onto philosophy the task of accepting them as the most concrete rendering of fact.

'Thereby, modern philosophy has been ruined. It has oscillated in a complex manner between three extremes. There are the dualists, who accept matter and mind as on equal basis, and the two varieties of monists, those who put mind inside matter, and those who put matter inside mind. But this juggling with abstractions can never overcome the inherent confusion introduced by the ascription of misplaced concreteness to the scientific scheme of the seventeenth century' (p. 70).

We are left with a metaphysical scheme of things which has proved successful in some ways but within which our humanity cannot be understood. I commend Burtt and Whitehead's books to you. I think they make sense of the metaphysical defensiveness and the insecure conceptual and cultural location of psychoanalysis. Surely there must be a better way. The only alternative, according to the official philosophical system of modern thought, is humanism, according to which categories appropriate to humanity are philosophically prior to and deeper than scientific categories. Some forms of humanism apply it to human nature, society, history and culture; others (and I am one) extend it to ideas of nature and all attempts to know it, even - especially - science (Young, 1973, 1977, 1979, 1981, 1981a, 1985b, 1992a). But if we accept that, we have to live with the uncertainties and forms of subjectivity and doubt that the scheme of modern scientific philosophy was designed to avoid. I shall argue as we go along that this is not only bearable but that we have paid a high price for some of the apparent certainties afforded by the scientific world view. To anticipate my conclusion, I shall end up by trying to make it plausible that those putative certainties are part of the Kleinian paranoid-schizoid position, while the uncertainties are part of the depressive position, but I mustn't get ahead of myself.

The connection of all of this to psychoanalysis is not far to seek. Freud trained as a neuroanatomist and physiologist in the school of physicalist physiology of Hermann von Helmholtz and Ernst Brücke (Amacher, 1965; Bernfeld, 1944, 1949, 1951; Kris, 1950). His first publications were detailed studies of the nervous system, and, as I have indicated, his first book was an attempt to localise functions in the brain. It was a close study of speech disorders, in the context of which he adopted a functional approach to the mind. But he was schooled in the discussion of mental matters in bodily terms.

He was so steeped in this tradition that his first attempted formulation of a theory of mental functioning was cast in strictly neurophysiological terms: 'Project for a Scientific Psychology' (1895), which begins: 'The intention is to furnish a psychology that shall be a natural science: that is, to represent psychical processes as quantitatively determinate states of specifiable material particles, thus making those processes perspicuous and free from contradiction' (Freud, 1895, p. 295). Here we find Freud setting out on the path which Burtt and Whitehead argue could only lead to confusion, and it is certainly true that he took this direction with decreasing conviction. Indeed, he asked that the manuscript of the 'Project' be destroyed, but he entrusted it to Marie Bonaparte, who rightly disobeyed him. In the text he set out in good heart to discuss satisfaction, pain, affects and wishes. the ego, primary and secondary processes, cognitive thought, remembering and judging, sleep and dreams, consciousness, and the topic which he was investigating in his clinical work as the key to the unconscious - hysteria.

Freud's attempt to express his proto-psychoanalytic ideas within the paradigm of explanation of modern physical science was not an aberration, and the appeal of this approach has remained for his followers, especially those who emigrated to America in the 1930s and came to be known as 'ego psychologists'. A succinct exposition of their attempts to treat the mind in metaphorically physicalist terms is 'The Points of View and Assumptions of Metapsychology' (1959) by David Rapaport and Merton Gill, which is an epitome of Rapaport's The Structure of Psychoanalytic Theory: A Systematizing Attempt (1959). The inner world is described according to five points of view: structural, topographic, economic, developmental and adaptive. Each has its physicalist concepts: mental structures, mental forces, mental energies, mental origins, mental adaptations (see below, pp. 51-2). We are here rooted in physics and biology. Indeed, an equally ambitious attempt was made by Frank Sulloway (1979) to claim that Freud was fundamentally a 'Biologist of the Mind' (the subtitle of his much-acclaimed book, which I have criticised in Young, 1986b).

I remind you that Cartesian dualism leaves us with no language for speaking about mind. Yet the overall project of psychoanalysis, in most of its manifestations, has been an attempt to think scientifically. The structuralist versions of psychoanalysis have tried to find formal systems and formal features without succumbing to the metaphorical physiology that represents ego psychology. My understanding of the work of Lacan is that it was an attempt to find formal structures - ways of making the mind correspond in some essential way to the requirements of the scientific revolution. The path of the ego psychologists' metaphorical physiology was anathema to Lacan, so he sought in the formal structure of language an equally reliable and rooted basis for mind.

As I said, there must be a better way. I think we can find it by attending to the aspects of psychoanalysis which defy scientific or linguistic normalisation. There is another side to Freud. There are the classics - the Oedipus complex, the primal horde, totem and taboo, Michaelangelo, dreams. Recalling his Goethe Prize, what he was really good at was telling a cracking good story. As my argument moves on, I shall offer narrative and storytelling as an alternative to scientistic and structural notions as a basis for psychoanalytic understanding. I learn most from those who can write evocatively about patients, for example, Freud's case studies, Theodore Reik, Robert Lindner, D. W. Winnicott, Melanie Klein, W. R. Bion, Harold Searles, André Green, Donald Meltzer, Nina Coltart.

I hope I have said enough to justify centring my reflections on ideas of mental space. I want to conclude this introduction by mentioning another dimension of space - between knower and known. The subject-object distinction is as important at the mind-body dichotomy and related to it. According to the theory of knowledge closely associated with Cartesian dualism, the mind knows its objects for knowledge in a way which creates an epistemological space between subject and object. This is, in my opinion, as pernicious as mind-body dualism. It was formulated by the philosophers of the scientific revolution in order to overcome subjective bias. We operate with an implicitly spatial model. I, the subject, am here, gazing across a metaphorical or physical space, at an object which is in some sense out there. We can also imagine introspection in these terms: the knowing subject viewing the known self as object.

Mind-body dualism and the subject-object distinction are basic to a list of dichotomies which plague our sense of humanity and its place in nature. I shall not deal with most of these in the following chapters, but I shall list them here and suggest that those who may wish to explore the connections or articulations of my argument to wider issues should pursue some of the writings by Figlio, Haraway, Jordanova and me which are listed in the bibliography:

science - arts

nature - culture

fact - value

science - morality

animal - human

mechanism - purpose

outer - inner

determined - free

(or, at least, responsible)

I shall argue that we can - and inescapably must - retain spatial ways of thinking but that we need not treat what we know as alien from us, like a thing - reified. The distinctions between mind and body and between subject and object also lie at the heart of modern thought's versions of the two most basic questions in philosophy. The first is the study of what is ultimately real: ontology. The second is how we can know it: epistemology. Both the mind which is 'in' the body and the subject which knows objects 'out there' are capable of being conceived in very different ways. I think psychoanalysis has an important contribution to make to those reconceptualisations and that psychoanalytic theory and practice can greatly benefit from the resulting ways of thinking. Esoteric though some of my explorations may seem, my aim is to humanise our ways of thinking, so as to diminish the gap between thinking and feeling.

The Human Nature Review
© Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

US -

Amazon.com logo

UK -

Amazon.co.uk logo

 | Human Nature | Books and Reviews | The Human Nature Daily Review | Search |