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by Robert M. Young

What follows is a talk which I gave to the Zangwill Club at the Department of Experimental Psychology in Cambridge in February 1989. Oliver L. Zangwill was Professor of Experimental Psychology from the mid 1950's until 1981 and supervised my doctoral research on 'Cerebral Localization and its Biological Context from Gall to Ferrier', which was later published as a book, Mind. Brain and Adaptation in the Nineteenth Century (Oxford 1970). Zangwill was a distinguished psychoneurologist and held a position at the National Hospital for Neurological Diseases and Blindness, Queen Square. He was strongly of the belief that psychology is a biological science and insisted that his department be made part of the biology faculty. His strategy was successful, the department is highly respected, and he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Before beginning the presentation of the body of my text, I said that I'd spent about an hour wandering around in Cambridge that afternoon and was struck by the extent to which it had become a city of boutiques in the fourteen years since I’d left. I feared that in an analogous way the surface of my paper might undermine the deeper point I was making, just as the surface of the city ran the risk of diverting one's gaze from the deeper functions of the university. The paper turns on a distinction between spatial knowledge, which characterizes the official paradigm of explanation of modern science since the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, and evocative knowledge. 'Spatial' refers to explanation in terms of extension — things which can be seen and measured in a public way. I distinguish the spatial from the evocative — knowledge which is primarily felt, experienced and shared in more intimate ways. Another way of drawing the distinction is that between knowing about things and knowing them.

The context in which the lecture was delivered is important, since that department, like most psychology departments in British universities, has a heavy bias towards a natural science model of psychology. This helps to explain my emphasis on the search for a 'natural classification' of human attributes, analogous to the more or less universally agreed fundamental principles of explanation in the natural sciences — the atoms and particles of physics, the elements of chemistry and the organic compounds of living systems. I have provided these preliminary remarks rather than rewrite the text, because I have a certain sense of occasion about the lecture and prefer to leave it as it stands. I hope that these prefatory words will help to make the lecture accessible to a wider audience.


It is nearly thirty years since I last gave a talk in this building. It was on ’The Psychoanalytic Theory of Memory and Its Relationship to Recent Memory Theories’, especially that of Professor Bartlett. It's pleasant to reflect that I've come full circle. It is about fifteen years since I last sat in this room. On that occasion Oliver Zangwill took me aside and said that objections had been made to my presence in the department, since it was thought that I was stirring up the students. His way of reminding me that I wasn't to do such things and should be grown-up, was to persuade me to accompany him immediately thereafter to a meeting of the Faculty of Medicine. I don't think I even knew that I was a member of the faculty at the time.

I owe a great debt to him. First, he introduced me to Charlie Gross, one of the great characters of psychology. It was Charlie who gave me, as he did many others, permission to explore — to take one's questions wherever they might lead. Second, Oliver left me in peace, even when I slept for a time in the lab and especially when I went my own way in my research. I still think that I remember him saying to me on the day that we met, 'Hello; Welcome. Charlie will look after you. Come back in three years and bring your thesis.' In fact, of course, he was available whenever I needed him. Third, he introduced me to certain English euphemisms which were very valuable to an American in 1960s. The first was 'If you don't mind my saying so'. Translation: something horrid coming up. Second, 'I don't think I quite understand you'. A devastating intellectual point is about to be scored. Third: 'I won't keep you'. Translation: Please go away now. He was especially good about pretentious people. The story was told that the students invited Hans Eysenck to give a talk to the Psychology Society. Oliver, with unfailing courtesy, met the train and found a very inflated Eysenck, who greeted him, saying, 'Ah, Cambridge; I'm told they burn my books here.' Oliver, whose Wykehamist speech impediment could wax and wane, depending on the circumstances, looked away in that way that he did and murmured, 'Books? What books?'

Going back now to that original paper on theories of memory, I was asking then, as now: what are the roots, the bases, the sources, the foundations for an understanding of human nature? I want to sketch certain sorts of answers, ending up, as my title requires, with psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. My remarks will take the form of an autobiographical narrative, but I hope you won't feel it is merely a self-indulgent one. The course of this research, like the course of laboratory research, is directed by an ongoing line of enquiry.

What kind of disciplined exploration is appropriate for gaining knowledge of human nature — the norms, the limitations, the potential? When I began thinking about this question in the early 1950s I turned to philosophy — especially to ethics and epistemology and, in particular, to the problem of self-reference. How can we know ourselves? From what vantage point can we reflect on our own natures? If our spectacles are tinted, from what point of view can we discover this? How can we transcend our subjectivity?

The answer seemed obvious at the time: we should root our knowledge of the subjective in objective science. By the time I began graduate work there was a ferment of ideas around the Limbic System based on the work James Papez, Wilbur Smith, Paul MacLean, Karl Pribram, Roger Sperry and others, who were tracing the neurophysiological correlates of emotional functions. It was a very exciting time.

What struck me most and brought me to Cambridge was the conceptual framework within which most of this research was being conducted: cerebral localization of function. The basic model was: one function — one localization. There was, of course, a theory at the other extreme — equipotentiality — and modifications of both views: schemes of connections, associations, substitutions, inhibitions, etc. But all of these were deviations from a reigning norm — a spatial, correlative one.

This was fundamentally at odds with another set of assumptions about experience and learning — that of associationism, whether in purely psychological terms or in terms of some version of reflexes and conditioning. Then, of course, there was the behaviourist model which required neither mind nor reflex, though the conceptual model was much the same, give or take an operant. Moving on, there were the primary sensory modalities, maps of motor functions, neuro-endocrine connections, proprioception, and so on.

In spite of this mixed bag, there was an optimism that functions could be mapped in spatial terms. Put in more philosophically appealing language, mind could be thought of as 'functions', which in turn could be correlated in a one to one fashion (though this might get complex) with physico-chemical science of physiology. Hey presto! Real science.

This scheme had — and as far as I know still has — great appeal. But there are two things wrong with it. First, things turn out to be very complicated. But second — and I think more important — there is no natural classification of functions. I want to dwell on this, because I think it makes the attempt to root mind, i.e., theories of human nature, in basic research a will o' the wisp.

I spent many years asking how the functions are localized — or otherwise represented — before it dawned on me that this was not the most important question. There is a prior one. Which functions? What questions do we bring to the brain?

I won't tax your patience with a potted history of the answers to this question, but, I do assure you that it has a long and complex history, rooted in Galenical physiology, medieval ventricular localization, various versions of pneumatic physiology, physiognomy, phrenology (a discipline in which I was for a brief while the world's leading expert), aphasia research, sensory-motor physiology. As we move into the modern era we find the names of Franz Joseph Gall, Pierre Flourens, Gustav Fritsch and Eduard Hitzig, David Ferrier, Charles Sherrington, who was able to say at the turn of the century, 'We are all phrenologists'. When we carry the story up to Lashley and the other figures I mentioned in the 1930s through to the 60s, the beginnings of my own odyssey are reached. It was a time when psychoanalysis looked like finding a physiological test and — hopefully — basis.

But if one looks not at the history of cerebral localization but at the history of questions, a very different sort of story emerges — a very untidy and multi-levelled one. Since Dalton and Mendeleev and since Rutherford and the discoveries which led to the postulation of neutrons, omegas, charm and other rather esoteric particles and features of them, chemistry and physics have had certain relatively settled terms of reference. I say relatively, because there are various semi-mystical variations on this orthodox tale.

Something similar is now common in biology. Under the banner of Rockefeller patronage, a version of living matter in terms of physico-chemical systems, has led to an increasingly well-understood molecular story which is emerging for our edification and (though I think we are a bit ahead of ourselves here) modification.

The answers to questions in the physical, chemical and biological sciences are — or should in the long term be — given in physical, chemical and molecular terms. Since humans are physical, chemical and biological organisms the same long-term goals can be applied to us. I believe this was Oliver Zangwill's deep commitment to psychology as a biological science. It was certainly the basis of my own doctoral research on the history of theories of cerebral localization: the search for a natural classification of functions — nature's own language. Yet, I have come to believe that a different set of terms of reference are at least as appropriate. How did I arrive at them? More odyssey.

Before embarking on the telling of that tale I want to remind you that the path I shall tread is — in a way that has only recently become fully clear to me — parallel to the one Freud trod. You'll recall that he was doing neurophysiological research in the 1880's, that his first book, written in 1891, when he was 35, was entitled, On Aphasia. It attempted to map brain function from clinical cases in the light of the ideas of Herbert Spencer and Hughlings Jackson. Four years later he sketched a whole Project for a Scientific Psychology, based on a neurophysiological model whose terms of reference he drew from the Helmholtz School of Physiology in which his mentors had been trained. Five years after that he outlined a theory of mind which was still based on neurophysiological concepts. Chapter Seven of The Interpretation of Dreams rested on the reflex concept and on a mental scheme of spatially localized functions, although the space — then, as in his later revision in 1921 — was a mental one. He remained true, however, to a metaphorical physiology which he believed would one day be completed with the parallel story in brain studies.

A philosophical principle he had drawn from Spencer and Hughlings Jackson allowed him to keep this faith in the principle of psychophysical parallelism — the belief that the mental and the physiological are parallel, that reduction of the one to the other is not appropriate and that a science of mental phenomena could stand on its own until neurophysiology caught up.

What Freud did in that parallel realm of a psychology was to ransack culture — classical myths, religions, everyday life, dreams, fairy tales and, above all, the stories of his patients. It is to the language of stories and the ways of thinking appropriate to them that my own odyssey leads.

The question I asked myself in the years following my research on the history and philosophy of brain function was: 'Where do the functions come from?', i.e., what sort of questions do we ask about mind, about human nature? That path led by stages, marked by publications to which I could refer you, to the reigning psychological theories of the nineteenth, eighteenth and seventeenth centuries and to the debate on ’man's place in nature’ which we associate with Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, Charles Lyell and the Victorian milieu. It leads on in two interrelated directions. The first is to the metaphysical foundations of modern science and how the biological and human sciences tried and failed to follow the rules laid down for the physical sciences. By this I mean that explanations in terms of purposes, goals and other analogies to human intention have never been purged from the biological and human sciences and persist in the concepts of function in psychology and physiology and in functionalism across a wide range of disciplines, for example, sociology, anthropology, architecture and metadisciplines such as systems theory.

The second path leads to the historical context of evolutionary theory and to notions of nature and human nature, of God and adaptation, in the leading intellectuals of Darwin's time. I am thinking of Thomas Malthus' ratio between arithmetic and geometrical progressions in population theory, of Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus, who applied associationist psychology to evolution, to William Paley who sketched a grand scheme of adaptation drawn from natural theology. Moving further, we find the origin of the concept of ideology in the French Idéologues, who wished to trace values to roots in physiology and inspired much work we associate with modern brain research along one trail and work we associate with political critiques of knowledge along another. The first path takes us through the history of science and the philosophy of science, while the second one takes us via Cabanis and Destutt de Tracy to Hegel, Feuerbach, Marx and Engels and on to Weber and Mannheim and the modern sociology of knowledge. This is the study of how evaluative categories persist in all thought, including and especially scientific thought, setting research agendas, defining acceptable terms of reference for explanations and reminding us of the historicity of our assumptions, which are more basic than the history of research and findings. This last path brings one full circle so that the theory of ideology and the sociology of knowledge come to be applied to empirical research traditions in science

I grant that these are long and complex paths and ones likely to be unfamiliar to experimental psychologists, but they lead to a convergence of conclusions: that nature is a societal category and that it is never free from human purposes. If the most empirical and empiricist scientific research is the carrying out of a research programme based on certain selected human purposes, then how can it behove us to turn up our nose at other serious approaches to human values and purposes — those of prose and experiential accounts? My aim in what follows is to broaden the articulations of human nature into the rest of culture and to deepen them by giving some vignettes to illustrate current thinking in psychoanalysis — ways of thinking about the inner world.

I want now to appeal to the work of the American philosopher, Richard Rorty, in an effort to open out what we consider psychology — the logos of the psyche — to be. In his searching volumes entitled Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature and Consequences of Pragmatism he challenges traditional notions of objectivity and scientific method, with the consequence that 'we shall be able to see the social sciences as continuous with literature — as interpreting other people to us, and thus enlarging and deepening our sense of community' (Consequences of Pragmatism, p. 203). Disciplines like philosophy and science become something other than 'the name of a natural kind'; instead they are 'just a name of one of the pigeon holes into which humanistic culture is divided for administrative and bibliographical purposes (p. 226). If, as he argues, we take seriously the notion of 'a culture in which the science/literature distinction would no longer matter' (p. xxii), we can look at other notions of humanity and grant them equal dignity with those of that discipline we call science. 'No particular notion of culture would be singled out as exemplifying (or signally failing to exemplify) the condition to which the rest aspired' (p. xxxviii). Science is then seen as one way of interrogating ourselves and nature, but we do not find at its foundations the language in which nature speaks to itself. Rorty argues that 'there is nothing deep down inside us except what we have put there ourselves, no criterion that we have not created in the course of creating a practice, no standard of rationality that is not an appeal to such a criterion, no rigorous argumentation that is not obedience to our own conventions' (p. xlii).

When he turns specifically to the topic of psychoanalysis in his Northcote Lecture on 'The Contingency of Selfhood', Rorty argues that at the centre of selfhood lies the human being as 'the creator of metaphor, rather than the contemplator of literal truth'. Metaphor becomes 'the paradigm of humanity' (London Review 8 May 1986 p. ll). Rorty follows Nietzsche in defining truth as 'a mobile army of metaphors' and argues that 'the idea of finding a single context for all human lives, should be abandoned' (ibid.).

He draws on the concept of 'the blind impress all our behavings bear' from a poem by Philip Larkin. The context is:


And once you have walked the length of your mind, what

You command is as clear as a lading-list.

Anything else must not, for you, be thought

To exist.


And what's the profit? Only that, in time

We half-indentify the blind impress

All our behavings bear, may trace it home.

But to confess,


On that green evening when our death begins,

Just what it was, is hardly satisfying,

Since it applied only to one man once,

And that one dying.


Drawing, as I said, on this concept he says, 'Strong poetry, common-sense morality, revolutionary morality, normal science, revolutionary science, and the sort of idiosyncratic fantasy which is intelligible to only one person, are all, from a Freudian point of view, different ways of dealing with blind impress: or, more precisely, ways of dealing with different blind impresses — impresses which may be unique to an individual or common to the members of some historically-conditioned community. None of these strategies is privileged over others in the sense of expressing human nature better. No such strategy is more or less human than any other, any more than the pen is more truly a tool than the butcher's knife, or the hybridised orchid less a flower than the wild rose' (p. 14). Therefore, in the ancient quarrel about whether truth is made or found, he comes down on the side of the former — 'the final victory of metaphors of self-creation over metaphors of discovery'. We then become 'reconciled' to the thought that this is the only sort of power over the world which we can hope to have. For that would be the final abdication of the notion that truth, not just power and pain, is to be found "out there"' (p. 14).

We have now reached the turning point of my argument. You may have noticed that I have allied myself with a certain fashionable trend in philosophy and the philosophy of science — one which argues that we cannot privilege knowledge about natural processes or the methods and assumptions of experimental science over other ways of knowing. My aim in doing so is to use this position to open the door to the psychological depths of psychoanalysis. It pleases me to draw on the work of someone who was a graduate student and taught me when I was an undergraduate studying philosophy and psychology at Yale. He is now perhaps the most eminent philosopher writing in English. (It's a pity that he declined the chair in the philosophy of science at Cambridge which was recently offered to him.)

There are, of course other doors that could be opened — a clinical one or a hermeneutic one. I could mount a case for clinical psychology in a university curriculum. I think it would be right to do this, but I'm not doing it today. I could also take you through recent debates which suggest that psychoanalysis could serve as a paradigm for all knowledge — more basic than natural science. That is to say, we could now go down a road with psychoanalysis on one side and the philosophy of science on the other — where Adolf Grünbaum beats up Jürgen Habermas' claims for psychoanalysis as a preliminary to his attack on Sir Karl Popper's philosophy of science, in the name of an enlightened empiricism. I mention this path only to pass it by as tedious and not on my way to where I want to go. Where I want to go is to a curriculum, to a sense of psychology that is more personal, more worldly, more in touch with people's lives, experiences, hopes and fears. So — to go back.

If my critique of the sufficiency and basic-ness of the natural science model of psychology is appealing, why do psychologists eschew the most searching method for looking into the human heart and soul when they teach and do research on human nature? How do I know it is the most searching method? Three ways. First, I have reflected on the alternative traditions in psychology and then searched for that will o' the wisp of natural classifications during nearly three decades. Second, because I found it profoundly, and I do mean profoundly, helpful with respect to my students, loved ones, colleagues, friends and myself. I'm speaking, quite precisely, of very lost people whose lives have been fundamentally changed by psychoanalysis and various psychoanalytic psychotherapies, including six and a half years of of my own analysis five times a week. Thirdly, my own research and clinical work beginning in 1955, and currently involving about thirty hours a week, plus a full programme of reading, researching and editing, lead to the same conclusions. What I want to speak about now is not these experiences but, rather, to go back to the problem of natural classification. What kind of account of human nature is most enlightening and satisfying? What kind of stories ring true? Which ones that make experiential sense.

How can I bring this alive for you? The first thing I want to say is very abstruse. When I began my account of the attractions of cerebral localization, I said that the reigning tradition in research in human nature was one which put things in spatial terms. I meant spatial terms of localization, as well as conceptual spaces as the in theory of id, ego and superego, of conscious, pre-conscious and unconscious. It is also true that the language of physiology that associationism designated as parallel — and this has been true throughout the associationist tradition, especially in the work of Locke, Hume, Hartley and the great nineteenth century associationists — was, in turn, based on a theory of contiguity, of impact, all founded on the fundamental analogy of a billiard ball universe, however subtly this has been modified in more recent theories which rely on a proactive rather than on a reactive model. The theories of proprioception in the nineteenth century — I'm thinking especially of the work of G. H. Lewes — could fully accommodate all of the terms of reference of operant, as opposed to classical, conditioning.

I suppose you may think it a piece of arrogance for me to say that more recent developments in cognitive psychology, in cybernetics, in computer modelling and even human ethology and personal construct theory and symbolic interactionism all lie within this spatial tradition. We could argue about this, but I don't think there would be much argument over the fact that people's stories — biographies, autobiographies, fiction, narratives, and yarns — get short shift in psychology departments in British universities. We live with the objection that psychology departments don't teach what people expect them to. But why don't they? Let's ask this question seriously. One answer is that science advances only where its methods allow it to, and this can lead to some fairly esoteric experiments. This is surely the basis for sensory-motor theories in physiology and their representation in brain research. It is the reason for all of those extraordinarily meticulous studies in the primary sensory modalities, in perception research, in the memorization of nonsense syllables, in the union of neurophysiological research with operant conditioning, and so on. Clinical psychology acts as something as a bridge between these traditions and the kinds of experiences about which I wish to speak. However, the goal is still one of correlation and quantification. I want to turn to an entirely different set of parameters — those of narrative, of plot, of told lives, reflected upon in careful and intimate ways. That is, I want to turn to psychoanalysis.

In the 1950's, I spent a period working in a mental hospital, followed by two years sitting behind a one-way mirror observing psychoanalytic sessions and attempting to classify the material. I then spent a number of years doing theoretical reading and playing particular attention to controlled research on dream material. I then turned, as I've already told you, to attempts to root psychoanalysis in brain research. All of these were designed to subject the material and concepts of psychoanalysis to quantitative and semi-quantitative research. I should perhaps also mention that I spent some time administering psychotropic drugs, worked for a period in electro-convulsive therapy, lived for a considerable time with a suicidally depressed person and with a manic- depressive person and have worked for many years in an out-patient department of a London psychiatric hospital with both individuals and groups, doing assessments as well as long-term therapy.

When I used to lecture on psychoanalysis in the Cambridge Social and Political Sciences Tripos I was primarily concerned with metapsychology — the most abstract level of models of the mind, as it happened, in those lectures, with respect to Freud, Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse. I tell you this, because my experience of the last decade or so was, it now occurs to me, on reflection, very little to do with much of what I then taught. What I have found relevant, interesting and moving in my recent work is not easy to explain, because it is not about explanation. It is about evocation. In technical psychoanalytic language, it is about the central role of counter-transference in clinical work and — it turns out — in the psychoanalytic theory of learning and experience. What I work with in my consulting room and in group therapy is very hard to grasp and then to think about. I find myself feeling things and have to sift them to find what is being put into me and evoked from the plenum of possible reactions in my inner world. Quite often it is the patient's need for me to feel — not only know about but be taken over by — her or his desperation or spite or inability to think. Wilfred Bion says somewhere that analysts wouldn't make good generals because they find it so hard to think under fire. That is what I'm trying desperately to do — to think while I'm being nearly overwhelmed by something unconscious which is being conveyed, usually not stated.

There is, as some of you will know, a burgeoning literature on counter-transference. In classical psychoanalysis it was something to be purged in order to provide a smooth mirror for the patient's projections in the transference relationship. But many of the most gifted analysts — especially Independent Group and Kleinians ones — have come to trust it more and more and make it the basis of interpretive work.

Having survived the patient’s assault on thinking and linking, one then has to find a way of interpreting the experience in a useful way. This can be tough, for example, if the patient is making you sleepy, impotent, stupid, violently angry, turned on, hungry, claustrophobic, manic or — especially — hopeless. I must stress that the experience has the quality of coming from within — of being mine. The discipline lies in interrogating oneself to learn what the dynamic has been- to interpret the counter-transference. It is always deeply interactive, dialectical; I/thou, never I/you or I/it (unless reification is the message).

I had a patient who spent months on the threshold of therapy — sometimes standing at the threshold of the consulting room door. It was an early training case, and it took me a long time to realise that his message was his — not just my insecurity, but a way of making me inward with his own vertiginous feelings, the imminent need to flee that was characteristic of his panic attacks. In another early training case I was made to feel drained, depleted, the way my patient felt when her mother — who had always been preoccupied when my patient was a child — used her up and got the daughter to mother her. Yet another used me as a memory bank and denied any reference to things I'd quoted from her own stories, so that I felt estranged from her memory, just as she did, while serving in the very role of linking her experiences when she could not bear to. She had a mother who put nasty feelings into her while refusing to accept my patient's projections and look after and detoxify them. In all of these cases, the task is to bear and contain the experience, holding on to it until the patient can stand to take it back, hopefully in a bearable form. One does not only 'look after' the feelings. One has them.

My next example comes from a classical psychoanalytic topic, that of parapraxes or 'Freudian slips'. Sometimes a patient's unconscious will dramatically advance the therapeutic alliance. I have a patient who has just begun three times per week psychotherapy. He is ever so willing and co-operative. He turns up on time, tells me his dreams, confirms my interpretations with, 'I dare say'; 'That may well be so'; 'I have to allow for that possibility', but I don't feel we're getting anywhere at all. He's affable, willing. Two weeks ago I gave him his first monthly account. He offered to pay on the spot. At the start of the next session he gave me an envelope saying, 'I thought of posting this, but I realised it would get here quicker if I brought it'. He proceeded to get down to some serious co-operating — a dream he'd written down over the weekend. The envelope was on my lap. My eye fell on it. My name was misspelled, my house number was wrong and the postcode was also mistaken. I mentioned these facts and said that perhaps he wanted me to know that he was not what he seemed. Indeed, his whole story of himself and his family felt like a facade, though I didn't say this. I thereupon opened the envelope and found the cheque post-dated by a month. So perhaps he's not as grateful as he seems, either, or as keen to get the money to me as soon as possible.

All this was, of course, quite unconscious. He protested he'd written it in a hurry and brought it ’to save time’. What he had told me as clearly as he could was that his co-operativeness was a defence. He also told me in that session and for the first time, some authentic, highly significant and painful material about his family relationships. These allowed us to connect to material based in the here and now of the session, rather than reported incidents about certain areas of his unconscious where he suffers from brittle and highly punitive guilt, so much so that he has a tendency to banish people from his life. He had presented me with an envelope displaying unequivocal evidence of his deviousness, ingratitude and false self.

One of the areas in which recent developments in Kleinian psychoanalysis have borne considerable fruit on a broad scale is that of projective mechanisms. I should like to give two examples of these and then to generalize them. The first is from the clinical work of a remarkable psychoanalyst, Arthur Hyatt-Williams, who has spent much of his career working with murderers. He tells of a patient who, because of someone's carelessness, had lost an eye as a child. During the days that preceded the murder, which happened many years after the accident, he had a temporary job replacing cat’s eyes on a main road. The mother of the young woman whom he wanted to marry had recently managed to estrange her daughter from him and had forbidden her ever to see him again. Coming back from work by train, the patient found himself alone in a compartment with a woman whom he experienced and saw as the mother of his beloved. When he begged her to change her mind about her daughter, she obviously said she knew nothing about it and was a stranger to him. He then became totally enraged with her, and the discussion became more of a row. He experienced hatred which became more and more murderous until he killed her with a knife — the very knife that he used to dig out the cat's eyes which he had to replace on the highway. This was a clear reference to the accident that had caused the loss of his eye when he was a child. He had total amnesia both of the murder and of the symbolic equation which had taken place. Hyatt Williams draws on the work of Wilfred Bion to say that in his distress the patient had evacuated with his eyes the unbearable image of the woman who had stolen his beloved from him and had stolen the apple of his eyes. He evacuated the persecutory object into an unknown woman who had perhaps a slight resemblance with his potential mother-in-law. In this way he attempted to obliterate the source of persecution. In this instance the patient had psychotically used his eyes not as a receptive organ but as an organ of projection. (Hyatt Williams, 'Kleinian Work - Post Kleinian Work', p. 9.)

I draw another example — this time of projective processes in social settings — from the work of Tom Main. He says that 'In simple projection (a defence mechanism) the receiver may notice that he is not being treated as himself but as an aggressive other. In projective identification (an unconscious phantasy) this other may find himself forced by the projector actually to feel and own the projected aggressive qualities and impulses which are otherwise alien to him. He will feel strange and uncomfortable and may resent what is happening, but in the face of the projector's weakness and cowardice it may be doubly difficult to resist the feeling of superiority and aggressive power steadily forced into him. Such disturbances affect all pair relationships more or less. A wife, for instance, may force her husband to own feared and unwanted aggressive and dominating aspects of herself and will then fear and respect him. He in turn may come to feel aggressive and domineering towards her, not only because of his own resources but of hers which are forced into him. But more; for reasons of his own he may despise and disown certain timid aspects of his personality and by projective identification force these into his wife and despise her accordingly. She may thus be left not only with timid unaggressive parts of herself but having in addition to contain his. Certain pairs come to live in such locked systems, dominated by mutual projective phantasies with each not truly married to but rather to unwanted split-off and projected parts of themselves. Both the husband, dominant and cruel, and the wife, stupidly timid and respectful, may be miserably unhappy with themselves and with each other, yet such marriages although turbulent are stable, because each partner needs the other for pathological narcissistic purposes. (Main, 'Large Groups', pp. 57-8)

I trust that it will be obvious that this model of projection, taken up and owned by the process of evocation and identification and then reprojected, has considerable potential for the understanding of how groups and subgroups treat one another, say, in a university department or laboratory; how tendencies in academic or clinical disciplines behave towards one another, for example, in the battles of ’schools’ in psychology and social science and the battles of tendencies or groups in psychoanalysis. Moreover, these processes can be seen to be importantly at work in racial prejudice and international affairs. I'm thinking of the ways in which people split-off disowned or forbidden parts of themselves and put them into the Other— whether the Other be a small group, a tendency, a racial group or another nation — and then find justification in the behaviour of the recipient of the projection when that recipient — whether individual or group of any size — lives up to the projected expectations. And so it goes in endless projective and reprojective loops.

I have a patient who had an unresponsive, preoccupied mother (the one mentioned earlier) who unconsciously put all of her own nasty feelings into the daughter who now acts as the custodian of these and spews them out into the world. In a recent session she filled the room so full with expressions of disgust that she experienced herself as disgusting. Since there was no space in the room she had not filled with her spew, she fled, lest she have to consume her own vomit, i.e., reintroject these violent projections.

I want now to say something more general. In my opinion the works of Donald Winnicott, Melanie Klein and Wilfred Bion offer the potential of a profound, alimentary view of human nature, of epistemology and of culture. Although their writings are not always mutually consistent and although the systematic exploration of these ideas is in an early state, a number of people feel that they have wide applications for how we think of ourselves, of culture, of knowledge and especially of science.

Let me begin by speaking about something with which many of you will be familiar: the theory of transitional objects and transitional phenomena of Winnicott. In two papers in the early 1950's and expanded in a book, Playing and Reality, he drew attention to the profound significance of the child's first 'not-me', which often takes the form of a blanket, a bit of rag, a teddy bear, but it can equally be a thumb, a shadow or the mother herself. What is important about this object is that it is neither objective nor subjective but partakes of both. Winnicott describes the role of transitional objects and their gradual relinquishment very movingly.

In the course of his analysis of the concept, he indicates an envelope and points out that within this space, many other phenomena, including those of play, culture, religion and science itself are pursued. I’ve reflected elsewhere on the implications of this view for the philosophy of science and for a theory of culture which articulates with the ideas of Wilfred Bion. The essence of Bion's thinking is that the primitive is never transcended. Reverting for a moment to Winnicott's ideas, this means that transitional phenomena persists into adult life, not only in the broadly-defined domain of culture but also in the ways in which we relate sensuously to design, to clothes and — in my view — especially to the highly enfolding experiences associated with high-fidelity, personal stereos, saunas, steam baths and the phenomena of the Body Shop. Mountain bikes and Porshes are in the same emotional domain — boys and their toys.

Bion has proposed an alimentary theory of knowledge, whereby we unconsciously continue to mediate all experience through the mother's body. Rather than analysing experience in Lockean terms such as sensation, perception, association and ideas, Bion refers to elements which can either be metabolized or are threatening and have to be batted away. The experiences can either be food for thought which can be digested, or poisons. We can learn from experience, or we can avoid doing so: we can attack linking, i.e., the connectedness of experience. Anxiety and psychic pain, if tolerated, can find a meaning and bear the potential to be modified and for psychic development to occur. On the other hand, when psychic pain is evaded, experience cannot be digested and can continue to be a problem or danger or both (Hyatt Williams, p. 5). Other aspects of the alimentary theory of knowledge and experience have to do with what we can take in and hold, what we push out and through which orifices and sense organs; the function of psychic skin and second skin; the phenomena of splitting and part-object relations and other dimensions modelled on the symbolism of the digestive tract.


My argument is that there is an important place in the human sciences for these modes of thinking about human nature. They are not spatial or even about conceptual spaces. They are experiential — stories with narrative structures, layered meanings. They communicate by evocation, symbolism, metaphors, associations. Furthermore, I think that such stories articulate with other studies of primitive mechanisms and group processes so that it behoves us to rethink the categories of psychology, family and social processes, and the public world in these terms. It also seems to me that, following Rorty, we should draw into the human sciences disciplines such as biography and social history. I am thinking, in particular, of the rich light shed on human nature by classical work such as Victor Wolfenstein's psychobiography of Malcom X, The Victims of Democracy, and the illumination which that work gives to the phenomena of charismatic leadership and of racism. The same can be said of Maynard Solomon's psychobiography of Beethoven and John Sutherland's forthcoming biography of Ronald Fairbairn, Fairbairn’s Journey into the Interior, in which Fairbairn's creative contributions to object relations theory in psychoanalysis are integrated with a detailed understanding of his psychopathology. Phyllis Grosskurth's biography of Melanie Klein is a flawed example of the same genre.

My argument is that if we cease to believe that we are speaking the language which nature uses to speak to itself, we open out our sense of disciplined inquiry and use other methods, including those of the psychoanalyst, the biographer, the student of culture. Psychology, social psychology, sociology and anthropology become humanistic studies and are thereby enriched by their articulations rather than drawing ever-closer the lines of demarcation between disciplines.

I do not wish to be heard to be speaking against brain and bahaviour research or any other discipline or sub-discipline in the human sciences. I do wish to say, however, that we impoverish our understanding of our humanity if we erect a criterion of scientificity which so blinkers us that we cannot complement the spatial with the evocative and thereby cannot even, to recall Phillip Larkin's words, 'half identify the blind impress all our behavings bear'.



This is the text of a talk presented to the Zangwill Club at the Department of Experimental Psychology, Cambridge University, February 1989.

Copyright: The Author

Address for Correspondence: 26 Freegrove Road, London N7 9RQ



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