Thoughts on Sartre, Lacan, and Contemporary Psychoanalysis
Abstract: This article is a reply to Blake Scott’s discussion of the Sartrean critique of Lacan that I present in three chapters of Sartre and Psychoanalysis. Here I revisit those chapters, written 25 years ago, with questions about how I might approach Lacan today. I also discuss how I might approach recent developments in psychoanalysis, some of which are influenced by both Lacan and postmodernism. While I still think Lacan does not give an adequate account of agency and responsibility, there are definitely parallels between Sartre and Lacan and even a significant, though ambiguous, debt that Lacan owes to Sartre, similar to the often-neglected influence of Sartre on postmodern philosophy. The rest of the article considers the influence of postmodernism and existential phenomenology on contemporary psychoanalysis. Despite certain theoretical difficulties, the relational and intersubjective emphasis in much of contemporary psychoanalysis, combined with a rejection of drive theory, is in some ways surprisingly compatible with Sartre’s requirements for an existential psychoanalysis.
Sartre and Lacan Reconsidered
At the time I wrote Sartre and Psychoanalysis, many of the writers Scott quotes in his essay were not available in translation––or, in some cases, they had not even been published. Indeed a great deal of Jacques Lacan’s own writings had not yet been translated into English. While I do not think I would have changed the fundamental nature of my argument, I would have taken this material into account had it been available. In a sense, I was writing in a vacuum since I did not at that time even know any Lacanian analysts to ask for a critique of my ideas. The literature on Lacan was also not as extensive as it is today.
What provoked me to undertake those three chapters was my awareness of Lacan’s intellectual stature together with my appreciation of the fact that he was the only major thinker other than Sartre who (in my estimation) provided a credible challenge to ego psychology and other misconceived initiatives in psychoanalysis. I was also struck by Lacan’s use of Sartrean concepts (desire as lack of being, the look or gaze of the other, the ego as illusory object rather than subject), even if, in contrast to Sartre, he takes them in the direction of postmodernism.
The question I ask myself in looking back at those chapters is this: What would I do with Lacan if I were writing the book today? The answer may be a little surprising. I am not sure that I would undertake such a thorough critique of Lacan, since he has not proved to be much of an influence on the development of my own approach, Applied Existential Psychotherapy (AEP). Deeply grounded in the philosophy of Sartre, AEP also draws insights from classical and contemporary psychoanalysis. Its interventions, however, are more often inspired by Gestalt therapy, body-oriented psychotherapy, and other experiential approaches. There is also an influence from humanistic psychology, especially the work of Carl Rogers.
There is very little interpretation involved in this approach. I agree with British object relations theorist D. W. Winnicott, who once observed that interpretations are more likely to serve the analyst’s vanity than the analysand’s needs. Or, as Sartre points out, interpretations, delivered as truth, can reinforce the position of the analysand as degraded object beneath the gaze of the analyst as omnipotent subject. Lacan was likewise suspicious of analysts who talked too much. I suppose one ought to be suspicious of therapists who intervene too much in any way, especially if those interventions are hierarchical and prescriptive rather than collaborative and exploratory. In the intervening years since writing Sartre and Psychoanalysis, I have found myself “returning” (to use Lacan’s famous phrase) again and again to some of the theorists discussed there––for example, to Winnicott, to R. D. Laing (who was a supervisee of Winnicott and a student of Sartre’s philosophy), and to Freud himself. I have not found myself very often returning to Lacan. In rereading some of Lacan as a prelude to writing this reply, I found myself more irritated than impressed with the obscurity of his phraseology. Although I tried to “work through” as much of Lacan as was available to me in translation at the time I wrote those chapters, I suppose I must classify myself as one of those people whom Badiou (cited by Scott) chastises for not appreciating the enormous relevance of Lacan to contemporary philosophy—or at any rate to the philosophical grounding of my own approach to therapy.
This wholesale rejection of Lacan is also probably not quite right. I still find echoes of Lacan in my work that stem from the enormous effort I put into understanding him in writing those chapters. They take the form of phrases and ideas that I sometimes reference. I likeLacan’s description of the analyst as “the subject supposed to know” but who does not know. I like his concomitant idea that while the analyst may direct the therapy, he or she should not try to direct the analysand. And I like his distinction between “full” or “true” and “empty speech” and his idea that analysis brings us closer to full speech ––though I am aware that Lacan’s definition of true speech would not be the same as mine or Sartre’s.
I also like Lacan’s predilection (like Sartre’s) for quoting Rimbaud’s line, “I is another,” as a way of exposing the illusory nature of the ego. And I like his rejection of the rigidification implied in the attempts of ego psychology to help the analysand build a more solid ego. For Lacan as for Sartre, the ego is an object based on a fundamental illusion (in Sartre’s case the illusion of substance and in Lacan’s, the illusion of a false wholeness based on taking oneself for another or an image in the mirror that forms the substratum for the ego in the “mirror stage” of development) rather than a subject or seat of reality orientation. Analysis ought to aim more at exposing or deconstructing that illusion than at constructing a better one. While we are probably not going to be free of having an ego (and while this is probably not even desirable), it is desirable not to mistake the ego as object for the subject who constructs it.
I find interesting Scott’s comparison of Lacan’s concept of “traversing the fundamental fantasy” with Sartre’s idea of uncovering the “fundamental project of being.” Both are explorations of the paths that a particular person’s desire has taken from infancy onward. Both define desire as “lack of being”––and indeed Lacan was undoubtedly influenced by Sartre in thus defining it. Both describe human reality as a temporalization attempting to move from present insufficiency to future fullness––though Lacan’s explanation for this “lack” differs from Sartre’s. And both emphasize the impact of the “look” or “gaze” of the other in human development. Lacan’s use of this concept is again influenced by Sartre, and he approvingly recommends to his students Sartre’s phenomenological account of the “look” of the other and the “conflict of consciousnesses”––though he maintains that the ultimate gaze is the look of the Other (A), the linguistic unconscious.
For different reasons, both describe the ego as a false representation of the self with which consciousness has “hypnotized” itself. In rejecting the idea that the task of psychoanalysis is to build a better ego, neither finds appealing the rejection of spontaneity implied in adhering to the “reality principle” over the “pleasure principle.” Lacan even rejects the usual translation of Freud’s famous dictum, “Wo Es war, soll Ich werden.” Translated as “Where id was, there ego shall be” in the Standard English Edition, 10 this has usually been interpreted to mean that psychoanalysis seeks to increase the dominion of the reality principle over the pleasure principle, to bring id impulses under the control and understanding of the ego. Lacan rejects this rendition, arguing that Freud did not mean that the “ego must dislodge the id.” Rather, according to Lacan, Freud meant to say, “There where it [the id or the linguistic unconscious as the conduit for desire] was, it is my duty that I should come to being.” Sartre, for his part, would say that I must dislodge the seeming solidity of the ego as a defense against spontaneity. And Lacan adds another term for pleasure as uncontained ecstasy to Freud’s idea of pleasure as emanating from the return to zero energy charge in the economic hypothesis. Lacan’s term is “jouissance”––usually left untranslated. I have sometimes wondered if his ideas on this are related to Sartre’s idea that it is play, rather than the “spirit of seriousness,” that brings us closest to recognizing our disavowed spontaneity.
Despite these parallels, I remain unconvinced that the Lacanian unconscious subject, as Scott argues, can be responsible for its actions––or perhaps even capable of radically reorienting its way of being in the world. It still seems to me difficult to account for change from a Lacanian perspective. After all, Lacan defines the unconscious subject, the linguistic unconscious, as that which makes each of us an “effect of the signifier.” Lacanian analysis, as I read Lacan, leads not to recognizing and assuming our freedom, but to a kind of Nietzschean amor fati––an acceptance/love of the fact of being the plaything of the signifying chain that moves down to us from our ancestors. Despite Lacan’s claim that the slightest alteration in an individual’s structuration of the symbolic order changes everything, the question remains: Who changes? For Sartre, of course, it is the individual subject who effects the change. Sartre, however, would not disagree that the subject is impacted by the exigencies of language as a “practico-inert” field. This is what he meant when he said in an interview: “In my view, Lacan has clarified the meaning of ‘unconscious’ as discourse which separates through language, or if you prefer, as counterfinality of the spoken word in which verbal groupings are structured through the act of speaking into a practico-inert grouping.” The practico-inert is Sartre’s term in his later philosophy for humanized matter––the inert (in the case of language, sounds or squiggles on paper) imbued with human meaning and purpose (praxis). Sartre continues by saying, “These verbal groupings express or constitute intentions which determine me without being mine.”
In the sense that language is practico-inert, it speaks us rather than we it. It brings the meanings of an alien other into our most intimate personal relations as well as into our reflective relationship with ourselves. This includes the meanings handed down to us through the generations from ancestors long dead. In fact, Sartre’s analysis of Flaubert’s “prehistory” in The Family Idiot is an analysis of the way in which the meanings created by one’s ancestors impact one’s insertion into a particular family and culture. Of course, none of this is “unconscious” in the Freudian sense. It is simply “unknown” in the Sartrean sense of being prereflectively lived but not reflectively conceptualized. It is an aspect of “le vecu” (the lived), which constantly overflows reflective conceptualization. All this is not too different, if one does not think of it as unconscious, from Lacan’s position. The difference is that Sartre makes a place not only for language as practico-inert, but also for speech as praxis. Indeed, the practico-inert, though it is a new concept in Sartre’s later philosophy, is an extension of his discussion of the impact of facticity on an individual’s project of being in Being and Nothingness. Sartre says there that freedom has no meaning except as it is imbedded in a particular life “situation,” which he defines as a combination of what the world brings and what I make of what the world brings. Sartre does not abandon this idea in his later philosophy, where he still wishes to investigate what I as a subject make of what I am made of, but it does become more complex with the addition of the impact of the socio-material world on individual praxis. True or full speech for Sartre would not involve, as it does for Lacan, returning to and accepting that place where one is the effect of the signifier (though it would partially involve recognizing the impact of the socio-material world, including the language one speaks, on one’s project). It would instead involve taking responsibility for speaking even in a situation where one is spoken by the very language that one speaks and inherits from others long dead. Sartre’s analysis of Flaubert in The Family Idiot as a subject “badly anchored in the universe of discourse” is a description of a person who experiences himself to be more spoken than speaking.
This is so, Sartre hypothesizes, because from earliest infancy Flaubert’s mother did not recognize him as an agent, treating him as an object to be cared for and ministered to rather than a person to be loved. Flaubert thus became more passive than active and his relationship with language became one in which words were mere objects handed on by the other that could never be made to speak his unique experience. Sartre presents Flaubert as a person captured by the imaginary and unable to live in the real world where one experiences oneself as able to act on objects and other people and thereby to find paths for realizing oneself. Hence Flaubert is incapable of true speech in the Sartrean sense. According to Sartre, Flaubert’s relationship to language is that of gesture rather than act––representation and playacting rather than agency. The young Flaubert, according to Sartre, misses the “transcendental indication” in words that is an invitation to “escape from the self toward” the world 19 for the simple reason that he has never genuinely learned to act. It is the absence of intentionality in speech, an absence that Lacanian psycholinguistic theory does not recognize, that has crippled Flaubert. Hence he is interested in ceremonies of naming, as when he has Emma and Leon go through their ceremony of invoking nature in the course of the ripening of their love in Madame Bovary. Or he will note indications that others, like him, are spoken objects rather than speaking subjects—as when he collects commonplaces in his Dictionnaire des idées reçues. But he will not experience speech as praxis.
True speech, a healthy relationship to language, is for Sartre exactly the opposite of the one that Lacan envisioned. From a Sartrean perspective, Lacan has got it backward. The “symbol” does not “beget intelligent beings,” as Lacan thinks. Rather, intelligent beings beget and sustain symbols, albeit in a world already filled with symbols and in which there is no return to a prior state of nature that preexists and retains its purity outside of the cultural-linguistic order. The problem for Lacan, as for Sartre’s Flaubert, is that sensitivity to language as “thought matter” (practico-inert) eclipses recognition of speech as praxis.
On the one hand, Sartre is aware that “every pronounced speech contains within it the counterfinality that consumes it” (a point with which not only Lacan but also Derrida would agree). He also notes (and this idea is very much in accord with the ideas of structural linguistics) that the word is “a ready-made idea since it is defined outside us by its differences from other words in the verbal spectrum.” But at the same time, Sartre points out that it is equally true that in another way “we are all intelligent,” even when we express ourselves in commonplaces in situations where “by using them we move toward a thought that is always fresh.” Furthermore, praxis as genuine creativity is always striving to find new ways to express (and create through expressing) novel experience. According to Sartre, “Invention characterizes speech––we will invent if the conditions are favorable; if not, we will have badly named experiences and live them badly.” Speech, after all, is behavior, and discourse and lived experience are changed by each other.
The reader may notice that what is implied here is a very different account of the “real” than that given by Lacan. When Sartre talks about signification, he (unlike Lacan) is interested in that which the signifier signifies––the real. Lacan, on the other hand, frequently refers to the real as the “impossible.” He says it is “the accident, the noise, the small element of reality, which is evidence that we are not dreaming.” At other times, Lacan defines the real as “plenitude,” observing that there is “no absence in the real.” Here and also when he insists that the world in which we live is always a “humanized, symbolised world, the work of transcendence introduced by the symbolic into primitive reality,” Lacan sounds quite Sartrean. But then we find that Lacan identifies the real with traumas and hallucinations. Indeed, Lacan insists that the real is “that which is unassimilable” —not in the Sartrean sense that the fullness of Being always escapes us (that our awareness is always limited by the “transphenomenality of Being”) but rather absolutely unassimilable.
For Sartre, the real is that toward which I must open myself. It is imbued with imagination in the sense that we encounter the real in the context of a movement toward that which is not yet but which we wish to bring into being. But this differs from that preference for the imaginary over the real, for which Sartre indicts Flaubert. Indeed, it is on the face of the world that, for Sartre, we carve the “circuit of selfness” through which we attempt to define ourselves. For Sartre, human reality is a relationship with Being and with other people rather than a relationship with the symbolic order represented by the linguistic unconscious. That relationship is impacted by the symbolic order, by language and culture as practico-inert, but it is not reducible to it.
Sartre, Postmodernism, and Contemporary Psychoanalysis
Sartre’s objections to reducing the person to the “effect of the signifier” is, I believe, not only the place where Lacan and Sartre part company, but also the place where Sartre parts company with post-modernism and social constructivism in general. A concept of praxis as freedom must be maintained, even as we acknowledge the impact of language and culture on the individual. We must not only understand language as practico-inert. We must also make a place for speech and other human world-making activity as praxis. If we are going to emphasize intersubjectivity, which Sartre like the postmodernists thinks we must do, it must be an intersubjectivity rooted in some kind of theory of the subject as something other than the play-thing of language and culture. This is a point well made by Roger Frie in his excellent book, Subjectivity and Intersubjectivity in Modern Philosophy and Psychoanalysis. Frie contends that the problem with postmodernism as applied to psychotherapy is that “without a psychological agent who develops, changes, and learns, the therapeutic process appears to lose its meaning.” To be a meaningful concept, intersubjectivity must be founded in subjectivity.
Is Sartre then a throwback to classical humanism, as a number of postmodern theorists claim? Christina Howells, 34 in the essay referenced by Scott, rightly contends that postmodern theorists have not adequately acknowledged their debt to Sartre. If I wanted to be Freudian about it, I might say that Sartre is the Oedipal father against whom they are all rebelling––in part because they owe so much to him that they cannot afford to acknowledge him. In any case, remarks like Foucault’s dismissal of Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason as an “effort of a man of the nineteenth century to think the twentieth century” or characterizations of him as a classical humanist are totally off the mark. It was Sartre (with the help of Husserl and Heidegger before him) who opened up that decentering of the substantive subject and questioning of Cartesian dualism that postmodernists have made a poster child for their theories. And it was Sartre and Heidegger who adamantly called into question the idea of the isolated individual mind of classical humanism. Also, Sartre, like Heidegger, never accepted classical humanist ideas about the inevitability of progress and so on.
These are points that Sartre makes clear everywhere in his philosophy, including the little essay “Existentialism is a Humanism” to which Heidegger objected in his “Letter on Humanism.” But “existentialist humanism,” as distinguished from postmodernism, does not throw the baby out with the bathwater. It still makes room for the decentered, non-egoical subject, for an understanding of unsubstan
tial consciousness as world-consciousness, at the heart of human experience. What must be deconstructed is not this consciousness, since it is process not content, but the ego as an object of reflective consciousness. Sartre’s position might therefore be described as lying somewhere between humanism and postmodernism while avoiding the pitfalls of both.
What then would I say about the influence of Lacan, postmodernism, and existential phenomenology on contemporary psycho-analysis if I were writing Sartre and Psychoanalysis today? To begin with, I would definitely want to consider from a Sartrean perspective the impact of Lacan and postmodernism on contemporary American “relational psychoanalysis”—especially on the work of Stephen A. Mitchell, 40 Philip M. Bromberg, Donnell B. Stern, and Jessica Benjamin. Although I like these theorists in many ways, I do not think this is always a salutary influence, especially when they privilege language over bodily lived experience and define intersubjectivity in terms of vague field that includes a merging of subjectivities in the “relational unconscious.” Furthermore, the relational analysts often accept the postmodern idea of the subject as multiple––discovering therein a variety of warring “self-states,” conscious and unconscious. While it is certainly true from a Sartrean perspective that the individual relates in a variety of (not always compatible and often conflicted) ways to the world, this does not mean that consciousness is multiple. This is so in part because consciousness is not substantive. Hence I would suggest that Sartre’s idea of the “project of being,” which is not a thing but a trajectory that shifts and changes and has multiple facets, might provide a unifying principle that is in line with postmodernist objections to the substantialized self while retaining consciousness as a center of reference for world-making.
In contrast to the postmodern leaning of relational psychoanalysis, which is undoubtedly the most influential force in American psychoanalysis today, there are other approaches in contemporary psychoanalysis that do acknowledge a debt to existential phenomenology. They include the “intersubjective psychoanalysis” of Robert Stolorow and his colleagues and the psychoanalytic approach of infant researcher Daniel Stern and his circle. While I think Stolorow and his colleagues might have done better to base their intersubjective theory on Sartre’s account of self and other, I do find very interesting and moving Stolorow’s writing on trauma from a Heideggerian perspective. And while his idea of the “prereflective unconscious” is not quite Sartrean, it is moving in that direction––making his approach close to what he himself describes as post-Cartesian psychoanalysis.”
Yet to my mind, what is far more interesting than either relational or intersubjective psychoanalysis from a Sartrean point of view, is the psychoanalytically oriented infant research of Daniel Stern and his students and colleagues. Stern’s work with infants seems to confirm the ideas of existential phenomenology regarding the lived body, intentionality, and intersubjectivity. In addition to Stern, this group includes Ed Tronick, Beatrice Beebe and her colleagues, and the participants in a group (including Stern) that has published collectively as The Boston Change Process Study Group. Many of these researchers, especially Stern and The Study Group, have been in creasingly explicit about embracing existential phenomenology, in addition to dynamic systems theory, as a theoretical base. Indeed Stern explicitly states that his idea of the “present moment” in his book by that title relies heavily on a phenomenological perspective.
Similarly, The Study Group, sounding quite existential-phenomenological, concludes that the “basic units of human communication are lived intentions”––adding that intentions are what make behavior, our own or that of others, “coherent and meaningful.” Stern and his colleagues also find that preverbal infants, like adults, have intentionality and are able to read intentionality in the facial expressions, movements, and gestures of their adult caregivers. And they acknowledge that their emphasis on the “embodied mind” owes a debt to Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty. Even their theory of change sounds existential-phenomenological, as when Stern’s idea of “now moments” seems to resemble Sartre’s idea of the psychological “instant” of radical change. Or when Ed Tronick writes: “Change for a patient means risking dissipation and experiencing fear or even the terror of annihilation and the dissolution of the self. But change also means hope.” Certainly he seems to be talking about existential anxiety.
The members of Stern’s circle have recently begun to expand their research and theory to adult psychoanalysis, perhaps presaging a major reorientation in an approach that has long conceived of itself as an exclusively “talking cure.” Beatrice Beebe, a former student of Stern, presents a remarkably Sartrean case study in which she applies the kind of frame-by-frame videotape analysis used to map infantmother interactions to nonverbal interactions with an analysand, whom she calls Delores. Beebe’s empathic face, in the course of the analysis, is finally allowed (partially through Delores’s viewing of the videotapes since she has trouble looking at Beebe) to provide a corrective experience to the faces of the original others from Delores’s childhood who were either tragically lost or monstrously abusive. Although body-oriented psychotherapy has long been familiar with nonverbal therapeutic interventions, this research could perhaps help psychoanalysts to appreciate the importance of ever-present nonverbal interactions and even begin to bring nonverbal interventions more deliberately into therapy.
In addition to these approaches, I would also want to consider the resurgence of interest in the work of Laing that has been spearheaded by my friend and Laing’s student and colleague, Michael (M. Guy) Thompson. I think this reevaluation of Laing is long overdue. Thompson’s previous work 58 provides a reappraisal of Freud that emphasizes the compatibility of existential phenomenology with the practice of psychoanalysis.
I would also need to consider from a Sartrean perspective two other research directions that are influencing contemporary psychoanalysis as well as other branches of psychotherapy. The first is a resurgence of interest in Bowlby’s attachment theory. Bowlby, as a practicing psychoanalyst, considered the role of attachment theory to be a reform of psychoanalytic theory, aligning it more closely with scientific findings (especially evolutionary theory) and with perspectives from related disciplines, such as ethology and cognitive psychology. He did not want to undermine, but to bolster psychoanalysis through this endeavor. Nonetheless, as Peter Fonagy notes, there has been a lot of “bad blood” 60 between attachment theory and psychoanalysis from the beginning and ever since: Bowlby’s challenge to Freud and Klein on the importance of drive theory and infantile fantasies versus bad parenting as explanations for the etiology of mental disturbance was neither appreciated nor rewarded. In the past 10 or 15 years, the resurgence of research on attachment theory as applied to adult problems and issues as well as to children together with some theoretical shifts in contemporary psychoanalysis have led to more congenial relations between the two. Morris N. Eagle in Attachment and Psychoanalysis: Theory, Research, and Clinical Implications and Peter Fonagy in Attachment Theory and Psychoanalysis provide good overviews of the significance of attachment theory for contemporary psychoanalysis. Indeed attachment theory supports the growing consensus in contemporary psychoanalysis that favors relational over drive theory.
From a Sartrean perspective, this resurgence of attachment theory, like the development of relational psychoanalysis, is both good and bad news. Certainly Sartre would agree with the attachment theorists that mother-infant relations are crucial to setting the stage for adult relationships. He demonstrates the impact of childhood again and again in his psychobiographies, and he is especially attentive to the effects of mother love (or lack thereof) on an infant in his biography of Flaubert. At the same time, Sartre might find this material somewhat disquieting because of its overemphasis on safety over challenge, predictability over freedom. This is particularly evident in couples therapists (some of them psychoanalysts) who take the perspective that adult relationships can be reduced to their infantile origins and that encouraging relational safety (attachment) is more important than encouraging the couple to recognize and nourish each other’s freedom––or even to let their desire be nourished by difference and its enticements as well as its challenges.
Actually several of the analysts already mentioned in this paper criticize current attachment theory for reasons similar to the ones I imagine Sartre would make. Ed Tronick notes that attachment theory, although useful, is somewhat reductive in failing to recognize the specificity of all relationships, including the unique relationships that infants develop with their various caregivers rather than with their mothers alone. Attachment theory has tended to assume that attachment styles (secure, insecure, avoidant, anxious, disorganized), which they consider for the most part to be stable throughout a life-time, originate in the mother-infant relationship. Tronick, on the contrary, observes infants developing very different interactional patterns in different relationships––for example, with their mothers and their fathers. And, although he concedes that the mother-infant relationship may have a greater influence on later relationships, he also notes that adult relationships are not reducible to infant relationships and that “each relationship [infant or adult] is unique and dynamically changing.” As for the therapeutic dyad, he thinks it important to recognize that the “patient and therapist co-create dyadic states of consciousness of mature minds” and have many more resources to do so than simply repairing mother-infant ruptures.
Stephen Mitchell, in Can Love Last? The Fate of Romance over Time, even more directly challenges attachment theory––especially its emphasis on safety or “secure attachment” for adults. He argues that too much emphasis on safety kills desire in ongoing relationships. And while secure attachment is important for children, it is not really possible (or even desirable) to have the kind of predictability that children need in adult relationships. Actually the idea of security based on predictability of self and other is itself an illusion. Relationships based on this idea become “collusive contracts of illusory safety.” It may be natural to long for certainty and absolute safety to protect our love, but the truth is that we cannot have them and opting for the illusion of safety creates boredom and stagnation. Mitchell thinks that this illusion is fundamentally a “defense against the vulnerability inherent in romantic love.” Indeed the sense of safety is not a given, but a construction, the sought familiarity “not based on deep mutual knowledge but on collusive contrivance, the predictability not an actuality but an elaborate fantasy.” Mitchell thinks this is so because the self (from a postmodern perspective) is much more “inaccessible, decentered, fluid, and discontinuous” than we like to think. Sartre would say instead that it is because we are free that both self and other are less predictable than we like to admit––and more full of surprises if we do not try to constrain our own and each other’s freedom. It is in that potential for surprise that desire lives and thrives. Reed Lindberg and I have discussed couples therapy from a similar perspective in a chapter, “The Challenge of Being Yourself While Being Part of a Couple: Bad Faith and the Couple’s Dilemma.” Bad faith involves the pretense that I and the other are not free––with the concomitant illusion that we are ultimately reliable. While freedom and commitment are both necessary in a relationship, a paradox that Mitchell also notes, we divest ourselves of the very desire that we wish to nourish if we overemphasize safety and predictability. Our theoretical disagreements with Mitchell’s book, which is one of the most beautiful he has written, are small but important. We have much more trouble with the overemphasis on safety in adult relationships in attachment-oriented couples therapy.
One last trend in contemporary psychoanalysis that I would want to address if I were writing Sartre and Psychoanalysis today is the impact of the current explosion in brain imaging and neuroscience research on “neuropsychoanalysis.” This research, like infant attachment research, could be seen as important in supporting the relational perspective of much of contemporary psychoanalysis. For example, the discovery of “mirror neurons” provides a possible physiological substratum for intersubjectivity. And brain research suggests that it is the right versus the left hemisphere that allows us to develop human connection and “implicit relational knowing.” At the same time, however, I am a bit taken aback by the sometimes reductionist language of neuropsychoanalysis. And I am absolutely horrified by the statement of a recent neuropsychoanalyst that we are now in a position to complete Freud’s posthumously published A Project for a Scientific Psychology. After all, Freud’s avowed aim there was to reduce psychology to neurophysiology. Recognizing that the science was simply not there, he abandoned this idea in favor of grounding psychoanalysis in “purely psychological auxiliary ideas.” Even if the science were there, we would still be dealing with different levels of discourse. We simply cannot grasp and truly understand human intentionality by reducing it to neuronal pathways. Sartre says it very well:
The nerve is not meaningful; it is a colloidal described in itself and which does not have the that is, it does not transcend itself in order to means of other realities what it is. Under no nerve furnish the basis for meaning. substance which can be quality of transcendence; make known to itself by circumstances could the It is this transcendence that existential phenomenology seeks to describe and understand.
Concluding Remarks on Sartre, Freud, and Lacan
I will stop here. Although I have only just begun to elaborate my ideas about current trends in psychoanalysis from a Sartrean perspective, I realize that an adequate treatment would make this “reply” far too lengthy. In fact, it would probably require another book. So I will instead end with a few remarks intended to address Scott’s questions about the durability of Freud and Lacan for twenty-first century philosophy––and perhaps also for psychology. Freud, I think, will endure. He is a great thinker and a great writer. despite disagreements about his mechanistic metapsychology, one can always mine him for more insight and more understanding about the
Sartre knew this––not just the later Sartre but also the earlier Sartre of Being and Nothingness. Existential psychoanalysis would certainly not have been possible without the prior invention of Freudian psychoanalysis. In Search for a Method, Sartre sums up Freud’s contribution very effectively:
Today psychoanalysis alone enables us to study the process by which a child, groping in the dark, is going to attempt to play, without understanding it, the social role which adults impose upon him. Only psychoanalysis will show us whether he stifles in his role, whether he seeks to escape it, or is entirely assimilated into it. Psychoanalysis alone allows us to discover the whole man in the adult; that is, not only his present determinations but also the weight of his history. I concur. Only psychoanalysis, or other depth therapy influenced by psychoanalysis, allows us to understand the impact of the weight of our history on our current lives.
Sartre also recognizes the importance of Freud’s attention to the elements of self-deception with which most of our lives are permeated––elements that Sartre explained differently but that he considered a great discovery. Indeed, Sartre portrays a very sympathetic Feud making a very exciting discovery of the unconscious in his posthumously published screenplay, The Freud Scenario. Interestingly, if we read that screenplay carefully, we find that the elements of self-deception that Freud discovers can be understood in two ways––according to Freud’s description of unconscious processes and according to Sartre’s ideas concerning bad faith and prereflective intentionality. Therein lie the theoretical differences between the two.
Finally, regarding Lacan and the postmodernists, it is probably abundantly clear from this reply that I do not put them in the same category as Freud. Neither, I think, did Sartre. Although he occasionally sounds more open than one might expect to Lacan, it is the insights of Freud, argued with and explained differently, that permeate his thinking from beginning to end. As Sartre’s friend, the eminent French psychoanalyst J. B. Pontalis, who edited The Freud Scenario, put the matter, “One day the history of Sartre’s 30-year-long [40-year-long by the time of Sartre’s death in 1980] relationship with psychoanalysis, an ambiguous mixture of equally deep attraction and repulsion, will have to be written and perhaps his work reinterpreted in the light of it.”
Sartre and Psychoanalysis was more of an attempt at reinterpreting classical and contemporary psychoanalysis from the perspective of Sartre than a discussion of Sartre from the perspective of psychoanalysis. But I have also taken into account there and elsewhere the impact of Freud on Sartre. 80 It is no doubt true, however, that there is a great deal more to be said on this topic.
B ETTY C ANNON , P H D, licensed psychologist, is the author of Sartre and Psychoanalysis and numerous articles and chapters on existential therapy. Her book is sometimes considered a classic in existential psychology. She is emerita professor of humanities and social sciences at the Colorado School of Mines, senior adjunct professor of psychology at Naropa University, and president of the Boulder Psychotherapy Institute. She is a member of the editorial boards of three professional journals: Sartre Studies International, Review of Existential Psychology and Psychiatry, and Existential Analysis. She is the founder of Applied Existential Psychotherapy (AEP), a Sartrean approach to therapy that interfuses the insights of existential philosophy and psychoanalysis with interventions inspired by Gestalt therapy, body-oriented psychotherapy, and other experiential approaches. She is the literary executor for Sartre scholar and translator, Hazel E. Barnes, and her book on Sartre and Psychoanalysis is dedicated to Hazel.