Sunday, March 24, 2019

Fantasy and Phantasy in Psychoanalysis: why the “ph” and not the familiar f-word?

Patients in analysisfrequently confuse distinct cognitive mental states, one for another. For example, certain phantasies—attitudes with content that one phantasizes or imagines to be the caseare often regarded, experienced, and, in important ways, serve to function as beliefs. However, clearly, they are not beliefs; they are not regulated by evidence and do not aim at the truth. Take, for instance, a patient who, despite his own ample evidence to the contrary, fixedly believes that no one likes him and, in many ways, acts as though it is the case that no one does. I have termed these phantasy-laden mental states neurotic beliefs,’ maintaining that in part the most troubling, life-disturbing, pathological nature of neurosis is caused by this very mis-categorizing; e.g., when these phantasy-like neurotic beliefs are mistaken for beliefs-proper and thereby used to guide (really mis-guide) the patient’s real-world actions. Other patients make an even more serious categorizing mistake, confounding phantasies with knowledge. There are, for instance, patients who engage in physically self-mutilating behaviors such as cutting themselves. These are often very complex patients, and yet one common reasonfor their physically self-destructive behavior often emerges: cutters cut because theyknowthat this is the only way that they can feel better. That this sort of mis-typing (mistaking phantasies for knowledge) often contributes to more severe psychopathology derives from one of the important differences between belief and knowledgenamely, that knowledge, more so than belief, resists change and leads to persistence in acting with its content. – Linda A.W. Brackel, in Unconscious Knowing and Other Essays in Psycho-Philosophical Analysis (Oxford University Press, 2010): 23-24. 

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The following is from Jonathan Lear’s analytical introduction to a (or the) psychoanalytic distinction between fantasy and “phantasy” in his book, Open Minded: Working Out the Logic of the Soul (Harvard University Press, 1998), based on Freud’s well-known case of the Rat Man (in particular his ‘transference,’ Freud’s description of which Lear shares in detail), who was “riddled with phobic fantasies involving rodents.”* In the past, I’ve come across mention of this alternative spelling—with a “ph”—for what is ostensibly the same conceptual psychological state or phenomenon, with this or that writer more or less snidely dismissing the difference as something like if not actually a guild-crafted linguistic affectation signaling a thinly veiled pretension to occult (or occult-like) knowledge. More plausibly, a distinction has occasionally been made between “conscious fantasy” and “unconscious phantasy.” In my youth, I found the former explanation persuasive (perhaps because it’s easy, for one then need not pay close attention to the manner in which the different words are in fact being used by psychoanalysts, psychologists, and philosophers), but I have since learned two things: first, “phantasy” is commonly used in British psychological and psychoanalytic circles, probably owing to the singular influence of Melanie Klein, whose treatment of “phantasy,” while in the first instance inspired and derived from Freud’s early writings, soon began to distinguish itself as recognizably “Kleinian.” Second, Lear proffers an explanation and an exemplum of difference in these psychoanalytic terms that is, I think, more sophisticated than Freud’s but not, so to speak, simply Kleinian, as I trust the following will make clear. 

“In cringing, the Rat Man acts out of fear. And, to put it paradoxically, acting out isn’t a form of acting, it’s an activity which isn’t an action. It is the expression of phantasy. Why the ph rather than the familiar f-word? Psychoanalysts use the technical term ‘phantasy’ to draw attention to unconscious aspects of our imaginative life. The ordinary English word ‘fantasy’ is then used generically to cover a family of mental states and activities, but fantasies all have it in common that they are motivational, directed toward some kind of satisfaction, and either have some representational content, expressing a narrative, like a daydream, or express content. If there is a rationale for this distinction, it is that the power and shape of our imaginative life cannot be fully captured by attending only to the contents of our dreams and daydreams. … I shall argue that it is a peculiar type of mental activity, rather than whether it is conscious or unconscious, which distinguishes phantasy. This mental activity will tend to enact a meaning or put something on display, though it may also represent meaning in an imaginative scene. But phantasy will typically ‘show’ a meaning where it does not ’say’—and this is one way in which phantasy remains relatively cut off from conscious understanding. Phantasy may operate in relation to, but relatively free of, the rationalizing constraints of logos—the holistic system of an agent’s beliefs and desires, fears, angers, and other propositional attitudes. Indeed, it is this relative freedom from logos which helps to explain phantasy’s power. The kind of ‘fearful’ phantasy we see expressed in the Rat Man’s cringe is preserved though time precisely because it doesn’t have to interact with his beliefs—in this case with his belief that Freud is not going to hurt him. In this way, countervailing beliefs cannot tame or modify the reaction. Phantasies are experienced as powerful because there is no obvious or easy way to bring them into the domain of thought. Thus, however active the mind may be in creating these phantasies, it often experiences them passively, as though it is suffering an experience over which it has little control. Because phantasies can remain relatively unintegrated, the mind may regularly have to suffer its own activity.”

In a future post I hope to go into this particular case and the respective notions of phantasy and fantasy in yet more detail. In the book cited below, Patrick J. Mahony reveals the Rat Man’s real identity (although others have claimed he was someone else, while also providing us with a name), which I don’t think is necessary and may be unethical (‘To protect the anonymity of patients, psychoanalytic case-studies would usually withhold or disguise the names of the individuals concerned,’ e.g., ‘Anna O;’ ‘Little Hans;’ ‘Wolf Man’ …). Be that as it may, in his later work, Lear no longer refers to the “Rat Man” but to “Mr. R.,” “[t]o give him the respect he deserves.”
* See Freud’s “Notes upon a Case of Obsessional Neurosis.” See too perhaps the preeminent examination of this case: Patrick J. Mahony, Freud and the Rat Man (Yale University Press, 1986). For several introductions to “fantasy” and “phantasy” (with the distinction frequently ignored and the meanings sometimes conflated), I’ve found the following useful:
  • Arlow, Jacob A. “Unconscious Fantasy,” in Moore, Burness E. and Bernard D. Fine, eds. Psychoanalysis: The Major Concepts (Yale University Press, 1995): 155-162.
  • Brakel, Linda A.W. Philosophy, Psychoanalysis, and the A-rational Mind (Oxford University Press, 2009).
  • Hinshelwood, R.D. Clinical Klein: From Theory to Practice (Free Association Books, 1994).
  • Segal, Julia. Phantasy in Everyday Life: A Psychoanalytical Approach to Understanding Ourselves (Penguin Books, 1986).
  • Segal, Julia. Phantasy (Icon Books, 2000).
  • “Unconscious Phantasy,” in Spillius, Elizabeth Bott, et al. The New Dictionary of Kleinian Thought (Routledge, 2011): 3-15. 
Image: Joan Miro, The Escape Ladder (1940)


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