Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Jonathan Lear on the Science of Subjectivity (and the modern ‘therapy of desire’)


“The idea of a science of subjectivity seems, at first, paradoxical: how could there be an objective study of subjectivity? And yet, Freud realized, there had to be such a study if we were to understand human existence. For human reality is significantly constituted by subjectivity: what it is to be a person is shaped by what it is like for that person to be. The meanings, emotions and desires alive in a person’s soul [psyche] play a crucial role in determining who that person is. There cannot, then, be a science of human life without its including subjectivity within its scope. That is not easy to do. For, as Freud realized, the deeper meanings which shape a person’s soul and structure his outlook are not immediately available to his awareness. A person is, by his nature, out of touch with his own subjectivity. [….] The only way to get at these deeper meanings is through a peculiar human interaction, the like of which never before existed in the world. It is in the structured setting of a psychoanalytic therapy that the deeper strata of a person’s subjectivity emerge.

If this is so, the conception of science into which Freud was born and to which he tenaciously adhered must be inadequate for the study of human life. For that conception requires that an observer remain detached from and non-intrusive with respect to the reality he is observing. This is a conception of observation that has worked out in the study of purely physical objects. There was no question of trying to capture the subjectivity of those objects: they had none. And the demand that an observer be detached gave content to the idea that he was investigating a reality that exists independently of the investigation. Now, the analytic situation is, of its essence, therapeutic. There have been no interesting psychoanalytic observations of human nature that have not arisen out of an attempt to ease human suffering. Analytic therapy demands that the analyst embody a unique blend of empathy, sympathy and distance. Psychoanalysis is nothing if not a (special) emotional relationship between analyst and analysand.

[….] As a practitioner, [Freud] was a therapist who helped himself to empathic understanding; as a theorist, he tried to fit psychoanalysis into the scientific image of his day. He never came to grips with the full force of the idea of a science of subjectivity. Neither have we. And that is why…most criticisms and defenses of the validity of psychoanalysis are beside the point. For this point cannot be to show that psychoanalysis does or does not conform to this or that model of science. A more promising strategy is to say that the idea of a science of subjective reality is so new that we do not have any fixed model to which it should conform. Indeed, the idea of a science of subjectivity—like the idea of the unconscious mental—is at first so strange as to seem almost a contradiction in terms. If one listens carefully, one can hear the faint echoes of Viennese professors proving the unconscious mental absurd: ‘The mental,’ I hear them saying, ‘must be conscious!’ Rather than take up a similarly antiquated stand with respect to the ideas of our time, we should leave ourselves open to the possibility of a science of subjectivity. Antecedently to the working out of psychoanalysis, we have little idea of what it would be to study subjectivity objectively. If we can conceive of psychoanalysis as a science of the first person, the I, we must conceive of Freud as standing at the beginning of this science, not at its end.”—Jonathan Lear, Love and Its Place in Nature: A Philosophical Examination of Freudian Psychoanalysis (1990)

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