Psychoanalysis in a new key

Image: Ermelindo Nardin


Commentary on the Book of Isaias Melsohn

Let's start at the heart of Isaias Melsohn's reflection on metapsychology: the reflection on the epistemological and ontological status of the concept of “unconscious representation”. What matters above all is the originality and richness of this approach to an otherwise perfectly classical problem. How to say something new after almost a century of debate on the subject? I risk a hypothesis right away: Melsohn's advantage was precisely that of dissolving apparent aporias by clarifying basic concepts and thus managing to pass unscathed between two unilateral and symmetrical ways of “reducing” the concept of unconscious representation.

To support such a hypothesis, it is necessary to outline schematically (just a brief overview) the historical horizon of the issue. Let's start with the small and genius Critique of the foundations of psychology, which G. Politzer published in 1928 (at the age of 25!). With regard to Freud, the thesis, which would make history, was clear and hard: the psychoanalytic interpretation is the Archimedean point of the psychology of the future, but metapsychology is nothing more than a seam of metaphysical-ideological notions to be dissolved by criticism. The mortal sin of metapsychology, implied in the idea of ​​unconscious representation, consists of its objectivism and its explanatory schemes “in the third person”. Before being assimilated by the French version of phenomenology, especially that of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Politzer's central idea had already been incorporated in the 1932 doctoral thesis (psychiatry thesis, not psychoanalysis) by Jacques Lacan, although neither the title of the Review nor the name of the author are mentioned therein.

Later, Lacan, already a psychoanalyst, would promote his “return to Freud” and commit himself (already against Politzer) to reconstitute the necessary metapsychology. But, after a brief flirtation with phenomenology, he would find, through Claude Lévi-Strauss, the good path of “structuralism”, ending up by radically “depsychologizing” psychoanalysis. It was about thinking about the subjectivity of the subject, discarding the romantic and “psychological” idea of ​​expression.

Behind the empirical subject and its “phenomenal” expression, a structure is set up that explains and relativizes both. Thus, beyond the genius and indisputable merits of Lacan, a true ideology of the “autonomy of the signifier” was installed, which disqualified any form of phenomenology and emptied notions such as “totality” or “expression” of meaning. Thus, starting from Politzer, but restoring the metapsychology that he had condemned, Lacan seems to prove, by default, the diagnosis of the author of the Critique of the foundations of psychology: metapsychology is necessarily linked to an objectivist and formalist way of thinking (think of the famous “mathemas”, where we ended up diving), which does not do justice to the subjectivity of the subject and to the practice of psychoanalytic interpretation.

Now, even if he resorts to phenomenology (Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Max Scheler), Melsohn does not need to align himself with it doctrinally to restore meaning and function to the notion of expression, without which the very idea of ​​interpretation loses meaning (how could it be show in part two of the book, in the clinical lessons, if we had the space and the necessary technical competence for that). The strength of his thesis – which goes beyond the field of theory and practice of psychoanalysis – is that, far from opposing each other, as in the Lacanian tripartition (imaginary/real/symbolic), the ideas of symbolism and expressive function can and should be understood as rigorously complementary.

This is a great feat, as the difficulty faced is enormous. To expose the magnitude of the difficulty, I turn here to an old text by Michel Foucault: his preface to the French translation of a work by Biswanger, Le rêve et l'existence (Ed. Desclée de Brouwer, 1954). There, he shows the central knot of the Freudian revolution in the redefinition of the relations between meaning and image. An ambiguity that seems to be susceptible to two – and only two – unsatisfactory solutions, as Foucault exemplifies with the symmetrical opposition Lacan/Melanie Klein: in one case, a theory of symbolism that erases the dimension of the imaginary, in another case, a theory of fantasy that makes sometimes the theory of symbolism.

For Foucault, in this context, Biswanger's existential psychoanalysis would appear as a kind of correction of the interpretive movement, in which the alluded gap is somehow corrected by resorting to phenomenology. The Husserlian theory of meaning and expression (particularly in the 1st and 6th logical investigations) would provide – without completing this missing theory – instruments for the desired theory of imagination as language.

I steal this scheme from Foucault, to situate the work of Isaias Melsohn or to support the hypothesis I am launching: we could say that, with our author, a “third way” is opened, like that of Biswanger, but with notable advantages, from the point of view point of view of philosophy. In the background, we have the hard debate between Ernst Cassirer and Heidegger, in Davos, 1922. While resorting to phenomenology, Melsohn is not obliged (as he never was bon ton) to turn to Heidegger to reestablish a bridge between meaning, on the one hand, and imagination or perception, on the other (between what Kant called analytics and aesthetics).

In fact, the more mature Cassirer of the 1930s, with the Philosophy of symbolic forms, had already been able to restore the unity of the critical theory of reason, disjointed, disject member, in the early XNUMXth century, between pure analytics (analytical philosophy) and pure aesthetics (phenomenology in its final form), restoring continuity between the world of life (the famous Living environment) and the world objectified by scientific knowledge; that is to say, he had been able, for some time, to re-establish the good continuity and the necessary discontinuity between immediate perception and expression and objective knowledge.

And Cassirer is capable of this feat, moving away from his purest neo-Kantianism of origin, surprisingly approaching Hegel himself, recovering, as a necessary step to critique of reason, some way of phenomenology of the spirit. It was a question, for him, of remaking the Review from the description of the pre-theorist: describing the most primitive forms of expression and symbolization (in immediate perception and in its mythical expression), one could discover that no abyss separates the subjectivity of the subject from the objectivity of the object.

But, to discover it, it is necessary to recognize the complicity between symbolization and expressive function, as Melsohn does, in the wake of critical thinking. It is necessary to recognize, beyond ideologies, that we cannot understand the world of language without referring to the pre-linguistic, just as it is necessary to recognize that there is nothing pre-linguistic in absolute terms, at least for a human subject.

In other words, against the grain of the dominant dualisms of the XNUMXth century, Melsohn and Susanne Langer (through whose work, Philosophy in a new key, our author began his almost neo-Kantian itinerary, which culminates in Psychoanalysis in a new key) allow us to say, with the help of the excellent Cassirer, that there is something like a “living form”, immanent in the most primitive forms of experience that is also revealed, but “sublimated”, at the highest levels of artistic expression, prior and subsequent, therefore, to the purely objectifying functioning of scientific knowledge. If not for this unexpected arc, how to understand little Hans or the father/horse short circuit? It is precisely with the help of Susanne Langer and, above all, of Ernst Cassirer that Melsohn opens up this “third way” of interpretation, beyond the false alternative pure expressivism/pure formalism.

If, as I have insisted elsewhere, philosophy has much to learn from psychoanalysis, here we see how a good use of philosophy can bring psychoanalytic theory and practice back to life. Even if this revival necessarily unsettles the guardian institutions of doctrinal or ideological orthodoxy, as shown by Melsohn's polemic with the writing of the International Journal of Psycho-Analysis. But, in this beautiful book, the censored text and the very work of censorship come to the public and to a wider audience than it would have, if published by the nominated periodical.

*Bento Prado Jr. (1937-2007) was professor of philosophy at the Federal University of São Carlos. Author, among other books, of some essays (Peace and Earth).

Originally published on Journal of Reviews / Folha de São Paulo, on January 12, 2002.



Isaiah Melsohn. Psychoanalysis in a new key. São Paulo, Perspective, 2001, 360 pages.


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