Promises, Oaths, and Vows: On the Psychology of Promising (Book Review)

Author:  Schlesinger, Herbert J.
Publisher: The Analytic Press
Reviewed By: Jeffrey H. Golland, PhD, Fall 2008, XXVIII, No. 4, pp. 50-51

In a year of presidential politics, promises abound. Is a candidate who goes back on a promise adaptive and responsive or a flip flopper? Is one who holds to a promise despite changed circumstances idealistic and principled or rigid? Simple answers are the stuff of promotional sound bites. This book is about psychology not politics, but its study of promises and their variations reaches conclusions about morality and integrity, traits that should be central to the politics of a free society.

While earning his Ph.D. at the University of Kansas 55 years ago, Herbert J. Schlesinger completed clinical training at the Topeka Psychoanalytic Institute. Among the first very small cohort of psychologists to be accepted for full training under the aegis of the American Psychoanalytic Association, he became a supervising and training analyst in 1960. After heading the Menninger Foundation’s psychology staff, he moved to academic, administrative and clinical positions at the University of Colorado Medical Center, and then to the training directorship of the clinical psychology program at New York City’s New School. He was appointed to a clinical professorship at Columbia University’s psychiatry department in 2001, and at its affiliated Weill Cornell Medical College. He is also a supervising and training analyst at the Columbia Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research.

Schlesinger’s first published paper was co-authored with George S. Klein in 1951. Subjects he has addressed alone and with colleagues include projective testing; memory, cognitive styles and defenses; gender, ethnicity and age effects; managed care and insurance, and specific training and clinical issues. More recently he wrote two widely acclaimed books: The Texture of Treatment: On the Matter of Psychoanalytic Technique (2003), and its sequel, Ending and Beginning: On the Technique of Terminating Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis (2005). These books condense his half-century of clinical wisdom in a jargon-free and practical style. I adopted the earlier book as the text for my psychoanalytic technique course, and I modified my own clinical work and teaching to incorporate some of what I learned from these volumes.

Schlesinger’s clinical practice provided impetus for the current volume. His curiosity was aroused by a patient’s broken (though uncalled-for) promises. He found both psychoanalytic and psychological literatures to be limited on the topic of promises (and the stricter forms, oaths and vows), so he set himself the task of filling the near void.

In doing so, he came to a conclusion reached by neither social nor developmental psychologists: making and keeping a promise “could be a, if not the defining act of moral maturity” (p xii).

The book’s organization reflects Schlesinger’s career as scholar, clinician and thoughtful theorist. Its first chapters comprise a critical conceptual review: various definitions and the reasons behind the act of promising are offered; the relationship of promising to mental development, especially from the standpoint of ego psychology is explored, and empirical studies of promising and moral development—the larger psychological category it implies—are surveyed (e.g., Piaget, Kohlberg, Lewin, Zeigarnik).

The next set of chapters is clinical: the implicit promises of analytic treatment; the disparate pathologies of promise-breaking and their compulsive keeping; mature and regressive determinants of promising; a character typology of promising, and specific clinical recommendations. While Schlesinger’s theoretical commitments are explicit, his examples are concrete and pragmatic as in his earlier books on technique.

The final set of chapters enters the realm of what is usually called “applied psychoanalysis.” Schlesinger provides a tour de force study of Greek drama and of Shakespeare through the lens of promises, oaths and vows, and he then deals with various forms of promising in religion.

The organization of this work brings to mind Freud’s progression from a masterpiece scholarly study of dreams, to clinical papers rich with recommendations, then to extending psychoanalytic ideas to the domains of literature, society and culture. In his conceptual review, Schlesinger’s basic training as a psychologist shines through. In his delineation of ego functions (memory, perception, self/object differentiation, the senses of time and of inner and outer experience, and language and action), his mastery of the Hartmann/Rapaport ego psychology in which he was trained is abundantly evident. In his clinical discussion, his debt to Freud’s theory of psychosexual development is clear. In his foray into literature and religion, Schlesinger joins the late Charles Brenner (2007) in relating clinical findings to cultural products, as well as understanding these products as sources of convergent evidence for psychoanalytic ideas.

On every page, Schlesinger’s commitment to a naturalistic worldview is most apparent. In his chapter on religion, he acknowledges that holders of faith-based epistemologies “may object to the very premise of my investigation” (p 176). This book also resembles an outstanding doctoral dissertation, albeit one written after a lengthy post-doctoral career. From this perspective, recommendations for a follow-up study might ask for greater detail contrasting pathological outcomes of promising (reneging or too rigid adherence) and its pathological sources (magical thinking, hubris) with the achievement of a moral maturational ideal.

Herbert Schlesinger has been a prolific contributor to psychoanalytic psychology. With his third book of our new psychoanalytic century, he demonstrates the continuing vitality of traditional psychoanalytic ideas and his own ongoing generative talent.

References

Brenner, C. (2007). Psychoanalysis or mind and meaning. New York, NY: Psychoanalytic Quarterly.
Schlesinger, H.J. (2003). The texture of treatment: On the matter of psychoanalytic technique. Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press.
Schlesinger, H.J. (2005). Ending and Beginning: On the technique of terminating psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press.

Reviewer Note

Jeff Golland is a faculty member in the Department of Psychiatry at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. His e-mail address is: jgolland@att.net.

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