Ritual And Spontaneity in the Psychoanalytic Process: A Dialectical-Constructivist View (Book Review)

Title:  Ritual And Spontaneity in the Psychoanalytic Process: A Dialectical-Constructivist View
Author:  Hoffman, Irwin Z.
Publisher:  Hillsdale, NJ, 2002 (Reprint of 1998 Issue)
Reviewed By:  Peter N. Maduro, Winter 2005, pp. 71-74

Ritual and Spontaneity, originally published in 1998, has been reissued in paperback format. It is the product of Irwin Hoffman’s effort to express the “implicit” theory at work in the way he, “almost as far back as I can remember in my career as a therapist” (p. xi), experienced the psychoanalytic process. Hoffman tells us that the writing project that produced Ritual was not a “linear” expression of his natural way of working. Instead, it emerged out of a “dialectical constructivist circle” (p. xii) within which the “principles and assumptions” of his clinical perspectives were co-constructed in indeterminate ways from the interaction of his unformulated potentials, his pre-existing determined and chosen constructions, and their myriad “personal, professional, theoretical, and cultural” contexts. In this way, Hoffman’s book project, and the theory it formulates, is deeply grounded in Hoffman as a clinician and person. Similarly, this book review is grounded in my reading of Ritual. I spontaneously and deliberately organize my understandings and articulations in ways that reflect my contextualist theoretical and clinical sensibility.

Dialectical Constructivism is Hoffman’s theoretical framework for understanding the psychoanalytic process and psychoanalytic knowledge. By extension, the framework is not only an instance of Hoffman’s own subjectivity, but also a theory of subjective experiencing itself, the subject matter of analytic processes and knowledge. Central to Dialectical Constructivism is Hoffman’s critical reaction to the “objectivist, technically rational stance” on the psychoanalytic process. To Hoffman, objectivism reflects an explanatory paradigm that is at odds with all that feels “alive and prominent in my clinical work” (p. xii). The objectivist perspective, and its associated classical theoretical paradigm, fail to account, he writes, for “the analyst’s personal, subjective involvement, for partially blinding emotional entanglement, for the uniqueness of each interaction, for uncertainty and ambiguity, for cultural bias, for chance, for the analyst’s creativity, for the moral dimensions of choice, and for existential anxiety in the face of freedom and mortality” (p. xii). In so many ways, the chapters that follow these introductory words couple a critique of the inadequacy of objectivism in psychoanalysis with the elaboration of Dialectical Constructivism as an alternative paradigm, epistemology, and psychoanalytic sensibility.

One of the challenges facing any paradigm for psychoanalysis is the problem of the “given” and the “made.” One formulation of the problem entails two contrasting positions. In one, subjective experience corresponds to and/or is structured by the constraints of external, biological, social, or other realities; here, the contents of experience preexist our knowledge of them and are thus discoverable. By contrast, in a second position, personal experience is indeterminate, dynamically emergent, non-linear, constructed, and understandable only in non-reductionistic, phenomenological terms. In Dialectical Constructivism, Hoffman takes his own unique stance on this problem, one that has much in common with, but is nonetheless distinct from, kindred relational frameworks.

In Ritual, Hoffman expounds an overarching given-made dialectic. Framed by the psychoanalytic process, the deeply social aspect of Hoffman’s constructivism conceives of the patient’s experience as taking form in a multiplicity of relational contexts, including the patient’s personal history, the patient’s intra-psychic structures, the patient’s present interpersonal relationships, and the analyst’s immediate personal participation in the psychoanalytic process (the latter being a context that Hoffman formulates with extraordinary theoretical and clinical refinement).

For Hoffman, in the confines of a particular psychoanalytic relationship at a particular time, the structures that organize the patient’s and analyst’s respective subjectivities interact with, and mutually and reciprocally affect one another, in the co-construction of a kind of experiential and “social reality” (p. 16). Each of the patient’s and analyst’s constructions or subjective structures, and their co-constructing interactions, are delimited by the patient’s and analyst’s respective pre-constructed pasts, or preexisting structures; in turn, the present structures and their co-constructed products contextualize future constructions. In this way, pre-existing constructions and subjectively entrenched structures serve as kinds of social “givens” that shape and constrain the possibilities for future co-constructions. Presumably, experiential constructions that are repeatedly confirmed and reconstructed might manifest in the patient’s relatively invariant tendency towards painful, repetitive, conflictual, and probably resisted meanings and experiences. Co-constructions that derive from new forms of relating, perhaps with a Dialectical Constructivist analyst, might produce meanings, experiences and subjective structures that constitute something new and therapeutically expansive.

Others can share in credit for introducing and explicating the constitutive involvement of the analyst’s own subjectivity in the co-construction of the patient’s experience, and vice versa. Hoffman, however, is especially skilled at articulating his critical thought process on this subject—of formulating the clinical considerations and choices presented by objectivist versus Dialectical Constructivist driven epistemologies. I often found myself distracted from the substance of his ideas and taken up, instead, in a mixed experience of excitement from his thought-provocations, discouragement at the prospects of emulation, and enjoyment of the aesthetics and agility of his shrewd psychoanalytic intellect. His theoretically sharp, yet clinically grounded, language pulls the reader into a seemingly effortless, yet highly purposive and alive writing.

Hoffman elaborates with originality a number of clinical implications that follow from the relational interactions of the patient’s and analyst’s subjective worlds. First, Hoffman discards the objectivist notion of the analyst as ontologically differentiated observer who is able to stand completely apart from the psychoanalytic relationship or process. Instead, as a constitutive contributor to the psychoanalytic process, the analyst might as well enjoy what he is spontaneously and inevitably a part of, and even step further into the fray. He is encouraged to recognize the contextual nature of the patient’s interpretations and experiences of him, and to release himself into relationally saturated enactments, like those that emerge within transference-countertransference dynamics.

Hoffman allows that as an expert, the analyst can claim (and be idealized as having) some privileged perspective on the social realities that produce, and are produced by, the complex and dynamic co-construction processes. This process is nonetheless ambiguous, since it is not (or only partially) built upon underlying preordained realities. Whereas in the objectivist paradigm the analyst is presumed to have a radically privileged and perspectiveless knowledge of psychoanalytic truth, in Dialectical Constructivism psychoanalytic truth and realities are predominantly, albeit not exclusively, co-constructed subjective experiences. In this way, the analyst is called upon, and arguably liberated, to hold his experiences of truth and reality lightly, and to abstain from universalizing them into absolutes that are insulated from challenge and dialogue. He is asked to view himself as clinically and theoretically fallible and, without abandoning his perspective to the patient’s, to listen to, to take seriously, and to learn from the patient’s interpretations of what is happening and true in a given session and in the therapeutic relationship.

Vested with a dialectical constructivist understanding of the patient’s experience, the analyst embodies a new kind of ethical and moral duty to act, choose and take responsibility (in ways that can be painful and easy to resist) for his part in the co-construction process. He acquires a kind of duty to reflect critically on how he conducts the analysis, and on the content and manner of what he does and says to the patient. Co-extensive with this responsibility is the patient’s responsibility for choices he or she makes in the “‘space’ between the source of influence and its impact” (p. xi). The result is an understanding that the process and realities that emerge in psychoanalysis can take innumerable forms, determined by a myriad of potentials and factors, including the mix of choices (especially choices of interpretation) that the patient and analyst each makes along the way.

This sort of duty is buttressed by the power and authority of the analyst as a modern version of those, like clergy, who have held idealized positions historically associated with privileged relationships to truth. There is a dialectic between the analyst’s spontaneity and his ritualized obligation to make good clinical choices, and, in conjunction with the patient’s subjectivity, an associated dialectic between spontaneity and ritual in the psychoanalytic process. Dialectical Constructivism crystallizes as not only concerned with psychoanalytic knowledge but also with clinical responsibility and what patients need. What patients need their analysts to do, and what analysts are responsible for choosing to do, is to know the contents and processes of their patients’ subjective emotional experiences in deeply relational or Dialectical Constructivist ways. Analysts are called upon to know the contingencies and vulnerabilities of socially constructed emotional life and the complex multiplicity of contexts in which such life is embedded, including, for Hoffman, the existential contexts and “givens” of choice and mortality, a subject to which I now turn.

For Hoffman-the-existentialist, the patient’s subjective experience (primarily a social reality) is embedded not only in social contexts but also in existential ones. These contexts, he contends, entail realities that are not (entirely) constructed, namely, the patient’s existential agency and mortality. These two existential contexts are among the most theoretically distinctive elements of Dialectical Constructivism and constitute the principal asocial “givens” of Hoffman’s given-made dialectic.

Hoffman puts unique emphasis on mortality as an existential and experiential context. “What emerges as a kind of ‘psychobiological bedrock,’ as the immutable, transcultural, transhistorical truth, is that human beings create their worlds and their sense of meaning in the teeth of the constant threat of nonbeing and meaninglessness” (p. 16). Reminiscent of other existential thinkers, the relative imminence of death, and a related urgency in life, represent the supraordinate experiential context --the context within which meaning is always co-constructed and “made”, and without which meaning is hard to imagine (p. 18). Although Hoffman uses language that is predominantly experiential, an implicit, and I believe problematic, ontological basis is manifest: “[M]ortality … is an objective fact in the background at every moment, regardless of the respective eschatological beliefs of the participants” (p. 22).

I am taken by Hoffman’s phenomenological elaborations, including in particular that of the dialectic of meaning and mortality. Nevertheless, I believe it is philosophically unnecessary and inconsistent to effectively decontextualize, or de-socialize, existential agency and mortality as “transcultural, transhistorical truth[s]”(p. 16) and “objective fact[s]” (p. 22). By what special method does Hoffman acquire such asocial knowledge? That free will and immortality have been debated throughout history, and continue to be debated not only between cultures but at contemporary Western holiday parties, without anyone conclusively putting the issues to rest, seems to me evidence enough that apodictic truths in this area are hard to come by. This is to say nearly nothing about how culturally loaded the notion of “mortality” is when equated with “the loss of the self” (p. 31, emphasis added).

If Hoffman wishes to ground his constructivism in a sound epistemology, as I believe he generally does, he cannot, while still being philosophically or even experientially consistent, shift gears and assert that in some special domains (such as the domain of his theorizing) his subjective process is exceptional and without context. Yet Hoffman does this sort of thing, I believe, under the cover of the dialectical principle (and its purported dissolution of unnecessary dichotomies) as he integrates the existentialist-in-him into his theory of knowing. He does it by establishing personal agency and mortality as metaphysical “givens” or objective facts that he knows in ways that do not involve the constructions so pervasively present in other forms of knowing (where knowledge is deemed one form of experiencing). Here, I call into question the subtle way that certain kinds of knowledge or experiential contents, for example psychoanalytic or philosophical propositions relating to so-called objectivities (existential or other), get exempted from their status as inevitably (at least partially) constructed subjective products. Hoffman’s integration of his existential “givens” into his framework as objectively or asocially knowable results in mixing fundamentally inconsistent positions: experience is social; experience is asocial. That his asocial givens are situated within a dialectic involving a pole of constructivism appears to me to avoid a difficult theoretical choice (or, like an attempt to have his cake and eat it too), rather than a successful marriage of otherwise incompatible partners.

However transcendent the propositions and contents of a psychoanalytic epistemology aspire to be, as products of the theorist’s subjectivity, they are always nonetheless inextricably embedded in the theorist’s personal subjective world. Hoffman would appear to concur with this thesis, yet claim exemption with respect to certain theoretical positions. An ironic process of decontextualization (dys-constructivism) is at work in Hoffman’s otherwise careful elaboration of a context-based epistemology. While at once building a theory of psychoanalytic knowledge, i.e., a theory of how we know experiencing-- that integrates context as constitutive of subjective experiencing (e.g., the context of the analyst’s “personal participation” and subjectivity is constitutive of the patient’s current experience), he contemporaneously elevates certain products of his own (presumably contextual) subjectivity, namely, theoretical propositions about human existence, to the status of contextless absolutes.

I do not object to the notion or asocial factuality of realities such physical death, but only to the conviction that we can know them asocially, without the contribution of our own constructions, or from a perspective that is not embedded in context. What is insufficient about knowing existential givens only partially or from socially co-constructed perspectives on them? This is not solipsism, but rather perspectivalism. The alleged and purported universality of Hoffman’s existential “givens” is not (at least not entirely) a product of their ontological status as asocial absolutes but instead is a product of a highly co-constructed, contextual, yet emotionally and rhetorically decontextualizing process that I call “universalization”—specifically, Hoffman’s universalization of his perspective and experience of agency and death.

My philosophical objection has, at best, unclear implications for the way Hoffman, or any dialectical constructivist, practices psychoanalysis. Nevertheless, it refers generally to a subjective process the structure and employment of which can, I believe, be domineering in developmental and clinical contexts. Hoffman’s epistemological exception (vis-à-vis agency and mortality) to what otherwise would be a more philosophically consistent (yet still “critical” (p. 21)) constructivist stance potentially could lead, in the clinical setting, to disavowals or invalidations of contextual dimensions of one’s own or others’ subjective emotional experiences. This might be especially problematic for those whose sense of experiential validity and differentiation is not yet established or is otherwise vulnerable.

Even though I suspect the depth of Hoffman’s theoretical and, more importantly, clinical social constructivist sensibilities override any privileging of his own existential experiences, I remain concerned that the form and content of central aspects of Dialectical Constructivism re-institutionalize subtle varieties of objectivism’s dark side, namely, the decontextualization of personal experience. It may be more problematic, not less, that this decontextualization occurs stealthily within an otherwise profoundly contextualizing framework.

Ultimately, what was more interesting to me than the centrality of mortality to human psychological life and to the psychoanalytic process, was the centrality of mortality to experience and psychoanalysis in Hoffman’s theory. I felt a strong desire to ask, “What about Irwin Z. Hoffman as a person and theorist informs this aspect of his theory?” “What meaning, if any, does this all have with respect to the way Hoffman relates as a clinician and person?” Although I respond critically to the way Hoffman-the-existentialist integrates himself into his epistemology, I am deeply affected by his refined descriptions of his various dialectics. Perhaps most powerful for me, however, are two of his big-picture messages: identifying and reflecting on the epistemological presumptions that underlie our analytic doctrines and clinical work are critically important activities; adoption of deeply relational, if not Dialectical Constructivist, attitudes about psychoanalytic processes and knowledge is what we clinicians should strive for, and is what our patients need.


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Reviewer Note

Karen Zelan has written extensively on the psychology of children’s learning. She is the author of Between Their World and Ours:Breakthroughs with Autistic Children.


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