Therapeutic Action: An Ernest Plea for Irony (Book Review)

Author:  Lear, Jonathan
Publisher: New York: Other Books, 2004
Reviewed By: Rochelle Kainer, Summer 2005, pp. 69-71

Jonathan Lear’s latest book is part of a distinguished oeuvre in which he casts a philosophical eye on the theory and process of psychoanalysis, and the nature of being, and of being human1. He is a philosopher in its essential meaning of “one who courts or loves wisdom.” To borrow from Descartes, Lear thinks and therefore he is, and we are the richer for it. He takes pains to show us his process of thinking, as well as the content of his thoughts, in a lifetime devoted to a search for meaning both epistemological and psychological. For him, to be “of the world” and to deepen one’s own “worldliness,” especially through love, is the essence of being. To have arrived at this understanding is no mean task; one he is up to by calling and by training.

His identity is primarily academic: at Cambridge, at Yale, and as the John U. Nef Distinguished Service Professor at the Committee on Social thought and the Department of Philosophy at the University of Chicago. Heady places where he engaged, and continues to engages in stimulating discussion, but his view of psychoanalysis is not from a distant shore. In addition to his philosophical vision, he writes as a graduate of the Western New England Institute of Psychoanalysis with experience both as an analysand and analyst. One does not have to be a Lacanian to be curious as to what that undertaking signifies in terms of the identifications he has made and how he thinks. My own exposure to Wittgenstein2 also made me curious as to what this experience means to Lear in terms of clinical analytic practice—his own and others. He allows us to address these questions through his generous sharing of this work.

Most important to his present book was that Lear sought out Hans Loewald during his Institute training – and proceeded to engage with him in private weekly discussion over the last six years of Dr. Loewald’s life. By this time, Lear recounts, Dr. Loewald described himself as having “gotten the hang” of analytic practice. This charming and courtly man was an original thinker who in the 1950s helped the analytic field with a necessary transition from, and synthesis of, Freud’s genius. One needs little imagination to know how rich those discussions have been, and this book, in its way, pays homage to him although Lear points out that Loewald wished for there to be no “Loewaldians.”

Perhaps of added importance to the why of this book, Lear also credits analyst-editor-publisher Michael Moskowitz, with first proposing the idea of “writing an extended essay on therapeutic action,” which is also at the crux of Loewald’s seminal thinking. Micheal Moskowitz, like Lear, is a fellow traveler in the love of the life of the mind and the sacred task of writing a book rich in intellectual content and psychoanalytically focused, and was instrumental in furthering my own analytic writing. His voice was a clarion call heard by Lear, who responded with this book.

In addition to the identification Lear may have with these stimulating figures, I believe the philosopher in him has long been on a quest to find his own “philosopher’s stone3” which for Lear is the striving for the pure gold of meaning. In this book it is the meaning of irony as well as that of therapeutic action, as well as the meaning of subjectivity, objectivity, and transference and his continued pursuit of the meaning of love (as he did in an earlier work, Love and Its Place in Nature).

Philosophers and analysts, by the nature of their chosen tasks, usually occupy a different pride of place. Philosophy has long been concerned with the understanding of its contemporary culture and one’s relationship to it. Philosophy does not have, at least overtly, a goal of healing. But Lear sees the therapeutic action of philosophy in “figuring out the difference between philosophy and sophistry (p. 35).” Analysts and philosophers do meet on the grounds of meaning --especially with a philosopher/analyst like Lear. I had as my own teacher Norman Malcolm, a student of Wittgenstein, with great benefit.

Even for those of us who are primarily identified with the clinical rather than the philosophical, one doesn’t ask if philosophy has a role to play, but rather what is philosophy’s useful role for us? Lear, as he wrote earlier in Happiness, Death, and the Remainder of Life (2000) sees “Philosophy as an activity of the soul.” It is exactly in this soul activity that psychoanalysis and philosophy cohere, even though it is well known that Freud did not wish psychoanalysis to become an arm of philosophy. Bettelheim4 said that Freud’s “psyche” is synonymous with “soul,” and this is echoed in Lear’s earlier work, Love and its Place in Nature (1990).

As Jon Frederickson5 notes about that work in relation to Lear’s theme of soul and love: “[Lear] takes Freud’s initial work on Seeleanalysis, Soul analysis (the original German translation which was anglicized as Psychoanalysis), and develops a philosophical anthropology of the soul. He suggests that the soul is not where we start; the soul is what we achieve through loving relations to other, to the world, to our past, and to our drives. The soul is a psychological achievement resulting from the progressive unification of oneself with he world, other, and oneself through the force of love.”

Lear returns to the theme of soul and love in this book. It is probably not too far off to think of our patients coming to us to find their soul, or in Lear’s terms “to develop its even more complex unities”, or perhaps sometimes, just to fine tune it. For Loewald, for Lear, love is the therapeutic healing agent. In thinking about the meaning of love in this context, I would add that it is a great act of therapeutic “love” to make your analytic mission that of understanding the subjective world of your patients and to let them freely use both your conscious and unconscious mind to do so. To know the other is our task, and to be truly known is one of the great gifts our patients can receive.

Lear responds to Loewald’s seminal work on therapeutic action6 and his idea that the clinical encounter is a chance for an individual to find –through the presence of the analyst -a new (and better) “object” than the internalized pathological object. Most importantly, the “good object” in the form of the good analyst, gives one the chance to form a new internal “object-relationship,” in effect a chance to see the world, and react to it, in a new way. This search, and the possibility of an expanded self is Lear’s analytic mantra. In one majestic sweep Loewald’s “worldliness” went beyond the clinical confines of classical psychoanalysis, but it is important to note that he did not need to entirely negate Freud. His theory building took him further along in the evolution of the culture of psychoanalysis without a wish to obliterate its past. He is no Peter the Great.

Loewald’s breakthrough indicates the analytic relevance of the “Hegelian dialectic: thesis, antithesis and synthesis.” When we study the culture of psychoanalysis, we are not studying an either-or fixed entity, but rather an evolving, self-correcting process. In this case, the thesis (Freud) gives rise to its antithesis (those splits and schools that arose from his work, but often with tribal-like acrimony, rejection and isolation of the “other.”) To some degree, there has been a synthesis of thought in our field. But Hegel teaches us that the antithesis always contains the original thesis and does not simply negate it.

On the basis of a belief that leaps of genius may contain false as well as true landings, and that no one theory or theorist can account for the complexity of the human psyche, it has been natural for me to identify with several of the more evocative ideas of often disparate schools, to arrive at a viable synthesis. In this way, my construction of a clinical metapsychology differs from Lear. He characterizes a use of ideas from varying psychoanalytic schools as using “a bit of this” and “a bit of that”—negating its true potential and perhaps necessity.

I would make a case, for example, for a synthesis of the antithetical reaction of self psychology colleagues to Melanie Klein’s basically brilliant but flawed construction of projective identification. Some wanted to “wish” the construct away, but that doesn’t make the phenomenon disappear. The question is rather, what are we observing when we experience a projective identification? I won’t limit it to the analytic situation for it occurs elsewhere. Klein had been stimulated by Victor Tausk’s brilliant grasp of the meaning of his psychotic patients’ idea of the influencing machine that had control over their lives, and made them feel increasingly diminished. She further illustrated her idea of projective identification using Julien Greene’s (1950) novel, If I Were You, where each time the (dying) protagonist projected himself and took over the persona of another, he became more weak and diminished. The flaw in her thinking was her view (as one of the few of Freud’s gifted followers who upheld his theory of the death instinct) that the phenomenon of projecting unconscious feeling into another was destructive.

This would lead an object relational theorist such as Betty Joseph to experience projective identification only as a “hostile object relation” which stimulates the hostility of the therapist –and that led to the blanket rejection by self psychology. But in my view it doesn’t spring from the death, or destructive, instinct. I experience the phenomenon as a way in which a patient whom we couldn’t understand through our usual empathic skills, tries to get us to understand through feeling the “unthought known” (Bollas). Rather than experience my discomfort with my identification with the projection as a hostile object relation, I saw it as form of “imaginative empathy” and had no need to be hostile or sarcastic back to the patient although stirred. I could wait for the clarity that comes from the containment and the results are what we mean by a good analytic outcome.

Lear says, “…I need a conception of objectivity that is appropriate to my being a psychoanalyst. This is a subjective use of objectivity” (p. 46, italics added). I think that what is also needed is an objective concept of subjectivity, for my experience shows me the clinical healing power of understanding the subjective world of the other. The therapeutic action comes from one’s subjective truth being understood and contained: it is a form of love like no other. If there is “love” in this understanding, it comes from the therapeutic diminishment of the analyst’s own narcissism.

Finally, Lear makes an “earnest plea for irony.” He despairs of dictionary definitions and makes clear that it is not sarcasm. It is indeed hard to define, but it seems to call forth our capacity for playfulness. When Woody Allen says in an earlier movie “Comedy is tragedy plus time,” it sounds like a send-up of irony and you laugh. When he recently takes (in Melinda and Melinda) the same life events and has his characters play it as comedy and then as tragedy, you think you are getting somewhere in your understanding of the different meanings of comedy and tragedy. When somewhere into the movie you realize you can’t tell which scenario you are watching—the tragic or the comic, the maestro of farce has finally made his point. Who would know better than Woody, except perhaps Clinton, whether the farcical aspects of your life as opera bouffe—are tragic or comic?

But irony means more than farce. A good example came indirectly through Lear when he spoke at the Washington School of Psychiatry. He referred to the two analytic figures who had been important to his thinking: Loewald and Paul Gray. Loewald was someone with whom I could willingly share in Lear’s identification. Paul Gray had a different association for me and quite opposite to Loewald. A paper of Gray’s had been assigned to the first class of the Advanced Psychotherapy Program at the Washington School. The original faculty (with some exceptions such as myself) were all classically trained but eager to overcome the existing problem of the lack of place for non-medical analysts to study, and to overcome the limitations of a rigid model; it was open and eclectic and remains that way.

A paper by Gray was assigned and it was disturbing to my supervisee. She brought it in to me to read, agitated by his assertion that “everything in the analytic hour was transference.” Not known for orthodoxy, I read the paper and said to her, “He’s right.” Her eyes widened and her face flushed slightly. “Yes,” I said, “he’s right: everything in the analytic hour is transference -- but not all the time.” She laughed with relief. Although my response was spontaneous, it was a send-up of what Lacan has called, “the Word of the Father7.”

What is ironic about Lear having two ideal figures who for me are opposite, at least to my mind? They are opposite because Loewald embodies opening up the creative possibilities of the analytic situation, and Gray’s stance seemed to me to narrow it. The irony then, as Lear would see it, is that I must now consider opening up my mind to take in the opposites, and widen my world and perhaps, deepen my subjectivity. Lear might agree and approve of my new objectivity

  1. Lear, J. (1990). Love and its Place in Nature: A Philosophical Interpretation of Freudian Psychoanalysis. Yale University Press, 1998; Open Minded: Working Out the Logic of the Soul. Harvard University Press. 2000; and Happiness, Death, and the Remainder of Life. Harvard University Press. 

  2. Ludwig Wittgenstein, German linguistic philosopher (1889-1951) noted for his idea of “Sprachtspiel” (wordgames), as the way meaning becomes attached to language. Thus, after a child hears, “throw the ball” repeatedly, a round object that is thrown comes to define “ball.” 

  3. That term from ancient alchemy, predating modern science, refers to the substance that would turn baser metals into gold. 

  4. Bettelheim, B. (1984). Freud and Man’s Soul. New York: Vintage Books. 

  5. Personal communication 

  6. Loewald, H. (1960). On the therapeutic action of psychoanalysis. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 41: 16-33. Reprinted in Loewald (2000), pp. 221-256. 

  7. Joyce McDougal once said, “I don’t think it is so much the Word of the Father, but the Voice of the Mother, that affects the child most.”

R.G. Kainer practices and writes in Washington, DC. A recent Fulbright scholar at the University of St. Petersburg, Russia to teach from her book The Collapse of the Self and Its Therapeutic Restoration.


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