Becoming a Subject: Reflections in Philosophy and Psychoanalysis (Book Review)

Author:  Cavell, Marcia
Publisher:  Oxford University Press
Reviewed By:  Ryan LaMothe, Vol. XXVI, 4 (Fall 2006), pp. 49-51

Psychoanalysis, as a subject, is enriched and vitalized by analysts who are able to engage in critical and constructive conversations with other disciplines. During the last two decades, Marcia Cavell, a philosopher and psychoanalyst, has been one of those voices that bring rigor and clarity to psychoanalysis. In reading her most recent work, I was reminded of another philosopher turned psychoanalyst, Hans Loewald, whose scholarly reflections shaped and enlivened the thought and work of numerous analysts. Cavell’s original, rich, and challenging book employs philosophy, neuroscience, and psychoanalysis to understand and describe the developmental and cognitive conditions that make it possible for human beings to think in the first person, to be and become a subject. Therapists, scholars, or students of psychoanalysis, possessing a philosophical bent, will benefit from reading this scholarly integrative investigation into human subjectivity.

A fundamental philosophical and psychoanalytical axiom that undergirds Cavell’s work is the belief that a subject “is embedded in, and fabricated from, interactions between world and mind” (p. 1). This interactionalist epistemology is evident in Cavell’s engagement with other disciplines and it applies to the process of reading Cavell’s book such that the reader, as subject, encounters and becomes immersed in the philosophical and psychoanalytic discourse, perhaps imperceptibly altering, if only a little, his/her subjectivity. To read Cavell’s book, as clinician or theorist, is also to find oneself watching and taking part in the creative subjectivity of a philosopher and analyst who cogently depicts the philosophical, neuroscientific, and psychoanalytic intersections and foundations for understanding subjectivity. This said, I recognize that a summary of Cavell’s work will not do justice to the intricacies of her reflections on subjectivity. Nevertheless, I hope that a brief overview will entice readers to immerse themselves in Cavell’s book.

Cavell begins her journey by stating that there are four psychoanalytic ideas that found any discussion about human subjectivity, namely, a) “much of mental functioning is unconscious... ; b) memory takes different forms, which carry with them varying degrees of conscious awareness... ; c) consciousness is often dictated by unconscious, defensive processes... ; and d) the past informs the present” (p. 2). These four ideas serve as the touchstones for a critical and constructive engagement with philosophy and neuroscience. In her first chapter, for instance, she argues that recent discoveries in neuroscience lend support to these four ideas. In particular, neuroscientific research points to the interrelation between numerous unconscious (and conscious) mental processes and memory systems, which make subjective experience possible. Through the prism of this research, Cavell returns to Freud’s ideas of repression and recall. The complexity of human subjectivity, she notes, is revealed in Freud’s idea of the dynamic unconscious processes and his theory of repression. Human beings, he argued, are quite capable of organizing experience outside of awareness and willfully, though unconsciously, keeping these memories at bay. While there are differences among neuroscientists, there is significant evidence to support Freud’s and other analysts’ (e.g., Christopher Bollas, Donnel Stern) understanding of memory systems and unconscious processes.

The next two chapters build on Cavell’s understanding of the human subject. In the second chapter, she speaks of human beings as anxious animals. Continental philosophers, Cavell points out, believed anxiety to be the central problem of human life and, of course, subjectivity. Freud concurred and Cavell briefly summarizes Freud’s views, noting the importance of the external world and interpersonal interactions vis-à-vissignal anxiety and the patient’s expectations and representations. The views of philosophers and those of Freud find corroboration in the research of neuroscientists who find that “pathogenic experience of anxiety in childhood, whether due to real trauma or to imagined expectations, changes not only the child’s memories but also his character” (p.39). Our anxious imaginings, which are yoked to expectations, beliefs, and memories, emerge in our engagement with the world and others, and, at times, these interactions give rise to neuroses and the constriction of agency and subjectivity.

Given the reality of anxiety and conscious-unconscious memory systems, how do we help this anxious animal? In the last chapter of Part I, Cavell discusses Freud’s healing process — remembering, repeating, and working through — as well as how subjectivity and time are implicated in psychological suffering and healing. For the sake of brevity, I highlight two points. First, early trauma is organized unconsciously in non-representational, affective memory systems, which continue to shape conscious memory, behavior, and character. Second, the “nemesis of memory is not forgetting... but repeating: insight is less a registering of what is before the mind than a process of mourning; mourning is both exploring a lost continent and saying good-bye” (p. 57). Psychoanalysis is a ritual that invites greater agency through mourning and remembering, which allows one to “acknowledge the past as past, the present as the moment of self-determination, and the future as what one can neither control or foresee” (p. 58).

The first three chapters (Part I) set the stage for Part II where Cavell considers two questions, namely, what does it mean to think in the first person and what are the necessary and sufficient conditions for this to occur? Engaging Descartes, George Herbert Mead, Semenovich Lev Vygotsky, and others (e.g., Davidson, Grice, Fonagy), Cavell makes clear that the capacity for first and third person thinking is contingent upon being in community with other human beings. It is not simply external reality that gives rise to thought, but external reality in the form of other persons. This said, each “I” constructs the world in relation to and with others, and no two constructions are identical. The dance between the analyst and patient — as subject of analysis — comprises the mutual construction of experience, emending memory and deepening one’s capacity for first and third person thought. My only quibble with Cavell in this chapter is that she does not differentiate between intersubjectivity and community or between external reality and personhood, much of which can be found in the philosophy of John Macmurray. In my view, this would have deepened her analysis of first person thinking and the conditions necessary for it to occur.

Having addressed the relation between external reality and first person thinking, Cavell reflects on the human capacity for judgment, which is necessary if one is “able to entertain propositional thoughts” (p. 73). Judgment suggests propositions regarding external and shared reality — what is real, what is true. Cavell also wonders how the capacity for judgment arises in development and, in particular, the issue of judgment and primary process thinking. Exploring and identifying limitations in Hume, Freud, Bion, and Klein, she notes that thought, reason, and justification require the concepts of true and false, though these ideas are absent in primary process thinking. This said, research has shown that the infant is already oriented toward reality, which suggests that the baby’s capacity for judgment is nascent.

Judgment, Cavell argues, is a necessary feature of subjectivity, emerging from our interactions with others and as we gain the capacity for symbolization. In other words, judgment is necessary for the capacity for self-reflection and the human ability to have a thought and to know one has it. Cavell notes that philosophers tend to take first person thinking for granted, overlooking the question of “what is required to be able to think a first-person thought” (p. 84). Our engagement with the external world and the quality of our interactions with significant persons give rise to the ability to think, to judge, and to be aware that we are thinking, which accompanies a unitary and continuous sense of self. Cavell takes this further in her discussion of desire and its relation to self, agency, and self-awareness. As agents we act in accord with desires, making judgments and providing reasons for our desires and actions. Of course, all of this is quite dynamic as we encounter reality, live in relationships, consciously and unconsciously organize experience, and form and reform memories. One feature of the dynamic nature of being a subject is the inevitable distortions of judgment, desire, and agency.

Psychoanalysis has always been concerned with problems of the self and change, and in Part III of her book Cavell reflects on irrationality, self-transcendence, freedom, emotions, and self-discovery in human life. There is, in first person thinking, the reality of persons’ providing ostensibly good reasons for acting, yet the consequences reveal the lack of sound judgments. How, then, are we to understand irrational behavior given first person thinking and rationality? After explicating Davidson’s abstract philosophical view of irrational behavior, Cavell returns to Freud. From this analysis and conversation she argues that, in the case of irrational behavior, a substructure of the mind, containing embalmed beliefs and desires that are alien to the present, is activated and “judgment is temporarily clouded, or in abeyance” (p. 103). The reality of irrationality in everyday human life is also intriguing when one considers that a person can make a judgment about his/her desires and intend to change his/her behavior, which Cavell calls self-transcendence. Constrained by temperament, habits, and memory, agency points to a reason in desire, to the capacity to form judgments, and the ability to act in relation to and over against desire, all of which reveals human freedom infinitude.

Human freedom has always interested philosophers and certainly analysts are concerned with the relation between freedom and unconscious processes and drives. “Freud and psychoanalysis,” Cavell writes, “describe many limitations on freedom, not by showing that everything we do and think is caused, not by showing us the reach of unconscious mentality, but by showing us psychological factors that make inroads on the ability to choose, suggesting at the same time ways in which the domain of freedom... might be enlarged” (p. 110). Yet, in relation to first person thinking, what is the connection between cause and choice? Cavell differentiates between reason and causal explanations. Reasoned explanations set an event in context, taking into account subjectivity, and justify a person’s choices, all of which help us understand him/her. These reasons, which are part of the domain of choice, judgment, responsibility, and desire, are a species of cause (p. 116). Cavell concludes this chapter with an interesting discussion about the implications of freedom and agency vis-à-vis forgiveness, understanding, and change.

Psychoanalytic and philosophic musings about freedom, causality, reason, irrationality, judgment, agency, intentionality, and will eventually come face to face with the importance of emotions in human life — emotions matter. Navigating through Darwin, Freud, James, LeDoux and others, Cavell argues that emotions are subjective states, which inform us about what matters to us and, it is in this sense, that they are objective. That is, emotions “help us know what matters to us, and sometimes why” (p. 137). In terms of first person thinking, emotional processes can take place outside of one’s awareness; “feelings, however, are always conscious, that is to say, felt” (p. 127). Also, consistent with her interactionalist epistemology, Cavell believes that our emotional life reflects human embeddedness, dependency, and vulnerability. Indeed, we are creatures who are aware of our vulnerability, “as we are in feeling fear, envy, shame, awe, or gratitude [and] we are also the only ones who wish to transcend it, the only ones to harbor fantasies of omnipotence or omniscience, to attempt to deny and cover over a painful nakedness in the world” (p. 137). To become a subject is to be embedded in the rich emotional life of being human, which includes our vulnerability.

In the last chapter, Cavell takes up the issue of self-knowledge, which involves first person authority. Criticizing the Western “ocular” view of first person authority, Cavell points out that we invest our own and others’ words and behavior with meaning. We come to know what we mean, in part, and we are able to make inferences about the meaning of the words and behavior of the other. The knowledge (“I know”) about the external, inanimate world and the knowledge of other human beings—attributions, interpretations — is third person or “objective” knowing. However, the knowledge of other human beings means, ideally, recognizing them as persons, i.e., as possessing first person authority. In other words, recognizing “another as having such authority is recognizing him as a creature with whom, in principle, we can engage in dialogue” (p. 144). In my reading of Cavell, self-knowledge and self-discovery represent the attribute of first person authority and it is inextricably yoked to our engagement with the external world and our mutual engagement with other persons. Psychoanalysis, then, may be conceptualized as a dialogic process that aims at increasing the patient’s first person authority and concomitantly his/her freedom. This said, it would have been interesting for Cavell to address the relation between the various forms of human violence (trauma) and first person authority and self-knowledge.

Cavell’s thoughtful and scholarly reflections on subjectivity are interesting and thought- provoking. Her fluency in several language games and her ability to engage each in a critical and constructive dialogue provide an intellectual rigor and depth to her work, which cannot be fully revealed in any book review. Thus, appreciation of Cavell’s work is only gained by reading her book and joining in a conversation with her.

Reviewer Note

Ryan LaMothe


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