World, Affectivity, Trauma (Book Review)

Author:  Stolorow, Robert D.  
Publisher:  Philadelphia, PA: Routledge, 2011
Reviewed By:  Carlo Strenger, Fall 2011, 136pp

Until the 1970s psychoanalysis was a major cultural force in most Western countries, and in the US it was also a central player in the mental health establishment. It has largely lost its standing with the wider public and in academia, partially because contemporary global culture is enamored with quick-fix methods that promise quick relief, and partially because psychoanalysis has not done enough to communicate with the scientific mainstream and has tended to insulate itself from other theories and approaches.

One of the most fruitful paradigms for the understanding of human existence throughout the 20th century was existentialism. There were early attempts to connect psychoanalysis and existentialism (for example, by Ludwig Binswanger), but the connection has not succeeded in capturing the attention of the psychoanalytic mainstream.

Robert Stolorow's World, Affectivity, Trauma: Heidegger and Post-Cartesian Psychoanalysis (Routledge 2011) is an important step in Stolorow's ongoing project of opening psychoanalysis to one of the most important approaches to human nature and existence: existential psychology and philosophy in its Heideggerian version. Stolorow's main objective is to show how integrating existential philosophy can enrich modern psychoanalysis, and to show this possibility through a phenomenology of traumatic experience.

Stolorow first introduces the psychoanalytic reader to basic categories of Heidegger's magnum opus Being and Time (1927/2010). Heidegger's basic thesis is that humans live in a world structured by links of significance that guide our day-to-day lives: we stick to an unquestioned acceptance of our social identity, our connection to those close to us and to the rest of our social world. We mostly move in a set of clearly defined obligations and roles we take for granted.

Behind this, Heidegger argues, lurks the existential structure of human existence: we are finite beings, making choices all the time, living within the horizon of our knowledge that we are finite. We will die at some point. The full realization of the truth of our existence generates unbearable existential anxiety. In reality, we are engulfed by nothingness. All our choices could be different; and all of them are utterly final: because time is limited, every choice we make annihilates all the options we did not realize.

Humans cannot possibly live with the existential anxiety that goes along with full consciousness of the deep structure of our existence. Hence, to survive psychologically, we live in what Heidegger calls a state of inauthenticity. We cling to the system of everyday significance that provides us with structure, meaning, and safety.

Robert Stolorow's World, Affectivity, Trauma elucidates the nature of trauma, making use of Heidegger's phenomenology of human existence. In trauma, the system of everyday significance we take for granted suddenly falls apart, and we are faced with the unprotectedness of our existence. Trauma tears apart the context of everyday certainties that sustains us.

Stolorow's phenomenology of trauma comes extraordinarily alive in his poignant description of a central traumatic event in his life: in 1991 his wife Dede died unexpectedly at age 34. Theirs had been a very close relationship. They were united by a rich, dense set of common meanings that included also professional cooperation.

Stolorow vividly describes how in the years that followed, his system of everyday significance collapsed time and again. For example, in the midst of a conference with esteemed colleagues of many years, the whole of the event and the people in it were suddenly completely emptied of all meaning: "The significance of my professional world had collapsed into meaninglessness. The conference and my friends offered me nothing; I was deadened to them; estranged from them. I felt uncanny: like a strange and alien being, not of this world" (p.43).

The great strength of Stolorow's book is to gradually unveil what trauma really means: the collapse of all meaning, the drastic change in the way we experience space and time, and the terrifying experience of the evaporation of everyday meanings that we take for granted. The reader is richly rewarded by this dense text that elucidates the deep structure of human existence. The book is a treasure for practicing clinicians of all styles, because it helps us understand some of the most central tenets of human life and the experience of trauma in great vividness and poignancy. But it will also be of great value for a wider-educated readership interested in a deeper understanding of the structures of existence and the nature of trauma.

I think that it is interesting to apply Stolorow's phenomenology of traumatic experience to the current state of psychoanalysis. Our discipline has gone through a disruption of world structures that, I believe, it has had difficulty recovering from. For more than half of the 20th century, psychoanalytic theory has been a central source for the self-understanding of the educated middle classes of the free world. It was also the preferred treatment for psychological suffering. This has changed dramatically and, I would say, traumatically. The phenomenal rise of the cognitive neurosciences is leading to the point where the lingua franca within which humans think about their selves and their lives is more and more biologically oriented.

This has led to a traumatic loss of status for psychoanalysis that has had very powerful implications in the field of psychoananlysis itself. One reaction is a phobic avoidance of the disciplines that are seen as threatening. This ranges from attacks on those who stress the importance of controlled research in psychotherapy (Hoffman, 2009) to a lack of attention paid to the spectacular developments in the cognitive neurosciences.

This was not the way psychoanalysis functioned at its heyday. Freud was immensely knowledgeable about and steeped in the science of his day. As Sulloway (1979) demonstrates in detail, Freud reacted to the latest developments in neurobiology and epidemiology as they were published. It was only in his old age that he no longer followed the latest developments most importantly, he never realized that, in the 1920s, Darwinism had become the leading evolutionary paradigm and Lamarckism, to which he had adhered all his life, had become defunct (Sulloway, 1979). Other thinkers, ranging from Erikson to John Gedo, were also deeply connected to other scientific disciplines.

Unfortunately, this open-ended conversation with the entire body of science has become quite rare in psychoanalysis. I think the reason for this is the tendency of psychoanalysis to insulate itself from other disciplines and other methodologies except cultural criticism, literary theory, and some adjoining humanistic disciplines. This tendency has long ago been diagnosed by Frank Sulloway (1979) as the assumption that psychoanalysis is epistemically autonomous.

In this respect it is quite instructive to compare the fate of psychoanalysis to that of existential thought. Existentialism, like psychoanalysis, has fallen out of favor with general culture for many years and for many reasons. In the mid-20th century, however, it was highly popular. Its emphasis on authenticity, its critique of encrusted ways of thinking and living, gave many an alternative to the bourgeois dream of making it and fitting in. Martin Heidegger's seminal analyses of the structure of human existence inspired a whole generation of philosophers and writers. Jean-Paul Sartre's writing contributed to existentialism becoming a cultural climate of great importance well into the 1960s. And Karl Jaspers showed the immense fruitfulness of existential thought for psychiatry in his seminal General Psychopathology (1997). But with the exception of the works of Irvin Yalom, it lost most of its impact on general culture and became academically marginal.

Existentialism highlights the tragic dimension of human existence: our relentless fight against realizing that our existence is finite, that we have limitations that cannot be overcome, that nevertheless we are free, but can only realize this freedom if we face personal and existential limitations. This tragic dimension is no longer popular in our culture, which perpetuates the myth of "just-do-it," and repeats the mantra that happiness is a birthright. The idea that dread, suffering, and conflict are built into the structure of human existence is not en vogue in an age that wants all problems to be fixed quickly, efficiently, and if possible without investing time and thought in a deep process.

Against this background it is quite fascinating to see that existential thinking is lately making a comeback in academic psychology. Intellectual history has its quirks. The revival of existential thought has little to do with the founders of 20th century existential thought, Jaspers, Heidegger, and Sartre. Since the mid-1980s, three social psychologists, Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pszyszynsky (Greenberg et al., 2004) began the empirical investigation of a version of existential thought: anthropologist Ernest Becker's elaboration of Otto Rank's thesis that the denial of death is one of the most powerful motivators of the human psyche (Rank,1930/2002). Becker (1974) claimed that one of the most important functions of all cultural systems is to support this denial by providing what he calls symbolic immortality to individuals. By being part of a larger meaning-system that will survive us, we can ward off awareness of our existential nakedness and animality.

In the last two decades, experimental existential psychology has become a flourishing discipline. It has empirically validated the core ideas of existential thought: the denial of death is indeed one of the strongest motivators in human nature. We all seek to avoid mortality awareness by immersion in daily life, in the goals taken for granted in our culture. Its core theory is called Terror Management Theory, and it has generated thousands of experimental investigations that pertain to identity, self-esteem, the function of cultural worldviews, the symbolization of sexuality, the function of attachment in modulating mortality awareness, politics, and many other topics (Greenberg et al., 2004).

It is an unsettling question how all this research has hardly been noted by the psychoanalytic literature. What could be more central to the concerns of psychoanalysis than identity, self-esteem, meaning, sexuality, and the function of culture? This is the very stuff of human existence; it is over-whelmingly important theoretically, and there is hardly a clinical encounter in which these themes are not central. So how has none of this reached psychoanalysis in the same way as the work of Heidegger is all too rarely studied in psychoanalytic institutes?

It is high time that psychoanalysis be less preoccupied with its own nature and specialness, and instead should see itself as an integral part of the increasingly dense and rich network of human knowledge (Quine, 1978). Being part of this network will change psychoanalysis but it will also impact and change the neighboring disciplines. This is the nature of the great adventure of human knowledge: it is an ever-changing and evolving enterprise.

I think that the question of what is the uniquely psychoanalytic vantage point is profoundly unproductive. As Stolorow's work shows, any attempt to understand the structure of human existence (being-in-the-world, as Heidegger would say) must take into account that this existence cannot possibly be elucidated by a single methodology. Humans, as Heidegger points out, are essentially embodied beings; hence we need to understand this embodiment biologically and biochemically.

Being-in-the-world is also irreducibly being-with-others; we are always embedded in a relational matrix that is structured, in turn, by cultural meanings, economics, and political relations. Hence disciplines ranging from economics and political science to sociology and history are as essential as biology to our understanding of human existence, because we need to understand the cultural meaning systems that provide us with meaning and symbolic immortality. Why should we deprive ourselves of the immense body of knowledge that is emerging in disciplines ranging from the neurosciences through sociology to existential psychology and philosophy?

The interaction between these disciplines is bound to generate insights into the human mind. I believe, for example, that Stolorow's elucidation of trauma can lead to fascinating research in the neurosciences. There are first indications that traumatic experience indeed creates a malfunction in which prefrontal control mechanisms of reactions in the amygdala are impaired (Shin, Rauch, &, Pitman 2006). It is very interesting to think about the question of how Stolorow's thesis of trauma as the crumbling of everyday structures of significance relates to this research.

Our understanding of human experience will deepen through the dialogue between close clinical observation and phenomenological analysis of the type Stolorow presents with surrounding disciplines, including the neurosciences. An intense dialogue between clinical phenomenologists like Stolorow and researchers in the neurosciences is bound to be enormously fruitful and to have a lasting impact on both sides. Researchers in the neurosciences also steeped in humanistic learning, like Antonio Damasio (2003), have shown how integrating scientific research, clinical observation, and philosophical thought can enormously enrich our understanding of human existence.

There is another interesting interface between Stolorow's presentation of our everyday understanding that structures our being-in-the-world and the work of other disciplines. The explosion in communication technologies and the exponential rise of social networks is changing everyday structures in radical ways. The relational matrixes that intersubjective psychoanalysis has been studying are impacted enormously by these changes. Doing so requires immersion in these new forms of life. Heidegger, with all his genius, was also a profoundly reactionary thinker. Every form of life different from the rural environment in which he had grown up and to which he retired for most of his adult life was both shallow and threatening to him. Psychoanalysis can of course not afford such reactionary reflexes. We are called to help human beings who live in the present, and their reality is changing irrevocably at a speed unprecedented in history.

There is, I believe, great potential in applying the type of phenomenological analysis Stolorow practices in World, Affectivity, Trauma to these changes. The most fundamental aspects of our social being are, after all, affected by the explosive impact of communication technology on our relationships, our work, and other pivots of our lifeworld, and psychoanalysis must address these changes if it is to understand contemporary human existence (Strenger, 2011).

One of the important contributionsthat psychoanalysis, particularly in synergy with existential psychology, can make to this enterprise is to insist on the importance of the tragic dimension of human existence. In doing so, it needn't deny the tremendous importance of the biological sciences, and need not insist on techniques that evolved in a different social reality.

Stolorow's book shows that the combination of psychoanalysis and existentialism has the potential to create an alternative for a culture enamored with quick fixes, mindless "happiness," and an obsession with spectacular success: to provide a language that allows embracing the tragic dimension of life without emptying it of meaning.


Becker, E. (1973). The denial of death. New York, NY: Free Press.

Damasio, A. (2003). Looking for Spinoza: Joy, sorrow, and the feeling brain. New York, NY: Harcourt.Greenberg, J., Koole, S. L., & Pyszczynski, T. (Eds.). (2004). Handbook of experimental existential psychology. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Heidegger, M. (1927/2010). Being and time (Joan Stambaugh, Trans.). New York, NY: State University of New York Press.

Hoffman, I. (2009). Doublethinking our way to "scientific" legitimacy: The dessication of human experience. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 57, 1043–1069.

Jaspers, Karl (1997). General Psychopathology - Volumes 1 & 2. translated by J. Hoenig and Marian W. Hamilton. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Quine, W.V. (1978). Essays on the Pshilosophy of W.V.Quine. ed. R.Shahan and C. Swoyer. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Rank, O. (1930/2002). Psychology and the soul (Gregory Richter, Trans.). Philadelphia, PA: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Shin, L., Rauch, S.1 & Pitman, R. (2006). Amygdala, Medial Prefrontal Cortex, and Hippocampal Function in PTSD, Annals of the New York Academy of Science, 1071, 67-79.

Stolorow, R. (2011). World, Affectivity, Trauma: Heidegger and Post-Cartesian Psychoanalysis. London, UK: Routledge.

Strenger, C. (2011), The Fear of Insignificance: Searching for Meaning in the Twenty-first Century. New York, NY: Palgrave.

Sulloway, F. (1979). Freud, biologist of the mind: beyond the psychoanalytic legend. New York: Basic Books.

Reviewer Note

Carlo Strenger is Chair of the Clinical Graduate Program, Dept. of Psychology, Tel Aviv University. He has published numerous books and academic papers, most recently The Fear of Insignificance: Searching for Meaning in the Twenty-first Century and Israel: Introduction to a Difficult Country (in German). A political commentator for Israel’s leading liberal Newspaper Haaretz. He maintains a part-time practice in existential psychoanalysis and is member of the Board of the Sigmund Freud Foundation, Vienna, the Seminar for Existential Psychoanalysis in Zurich, and the Terrorism Panel of the World Federation of Scientists.


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