Interpreting Interpretation: The Limits of Hermeneutic Psychoanalysis is a book by Elyn Saks, best known for functioning effectively as a law professor while managing schizophrenia. She’s also into psychoanalysis:
The book elaborates on a straightforward argument: Psychoanalysts have written things that sound a lot like “Interpretations are stories we tell patients to make them feel better. We don’t care if they’re true or not.” Patients would be alarmed to know their therapists feel this way, and should reject such a form of therapy.
The book is VERY well-organized. Arguments are presented in strong and weak forms. Five perspectives on psychoanalytic interpretations are considered in terms of coherence vs. correspondence theories of truth, whether interpretations are understood to be causal explanations, and whether or not objective truth exists. It’s dry reading, but I liked her classification system.
- The Clinical Psychoanalysis Model. “If true, the interpretation is true in a straightforward way: the statement corresponds to the facts of the world.”
- The Story Model. “For example, to be told that one accidentally broke the vase because of unconscious anger at one’s spouse is to be given a story that makes one’s behavior intelligible; it is not to be given an account of an underlying cause of one’s behavior.”
- The Alternative Metaphysics Model. “Alternative metaphysics theorists thus tend to be nonfoundationalists both epistemologically and metaphysically…On this model, psychoanalysts do seek after meaning in the sense of psychological antecedents of behavior, but their interpretations revealing those antecedents are true only in a sense of ‘true’ alternative to the traditional sense.”
- The Metaphor Model. “Fiction and drama are true in the sense of speaking to one’s experience. And so psychoanalytic interpretations help one understand oneself better in the way that metaphors do.”
- The Interpretation-As-Literary-Criticism Model. “The idea is that a piece of behavior may signify many things about us even if those things do not causally explain that behavior…interpretation reveals unconscious mental states but does not suppose they are the causes of the behavior interpreted. Nevertheless, these states are unproblematically real, and statements about them may be true in the most traditional sense of ‘truth.'”
In short, her point is that it matters if your parents abused you or not, since this stuff has real consequences. It’s foolish to believe false things. It’s also funny that she calls people “hermeneuts.”
Allen Wheelis makes a case for what Saks would call the alternative metaphysics model:
In reconstructing a life story truth is necessary but not sufficient. Truth does not demarcate, cannot determine whether we should dwell upon cause or choice. Two histories of the same life may be radically different, yet equally true. If we have failed an examination we may say, “I would not have failed if the teacher had not asked that question on Cromwell, which, after all, had not come up in class,” or “I would not have failed if I had studied harder.” Both statements are addressed to the same experience, in the same effort to understand; both claim to answer the question “Why did I fail?” and both may be true. Truth does not here provide the criterion for selection; the way we understand the past is determined, rather, by the future we desire. If we want to excuse ourselves we select the former view; if we want to avoid such failures in the future we elect the latter.
Bruce Fink takes this idea further:
In a word, one might say that the analysand’s thinking (or his ego) recrystallizes around easily graspable interpretations, whereas the goal of psychoanalytic work with neurotics is to thwart such crystallizations.
The neurotic very often comes to analysis with all kinds of preformed understandings of his situation–understandings that block his ability to see what he is contributing to the situation and what his real stake in it is. The goal is…to get him to become suspicious of all meanings and understandings insofar as they partake of rationalization and fantasy. If he is happy to view things in a certain way, he likely has an investment in seeing them that way, for this way of seeing things props up a certain image he has of himself, whether positive or negative. The analyst’s concern is to emphasize the partiality of that image–in other words, the degree to which that image includes only a part of himself. Her concern is not to provide a new meaning of his predicament, but rather to unpack, unfold, and in a sense deconstruct the meanings he is inclined to attribute to it….
An interpretation that conveys a meaning that one can easily understand is simply not a psychoanalytic interpretation, strictly speaking. It is, rather, tantamount to suggestion. The point of a psychoanalytic interpretation is…to put [the analysand] to work.
It’s hard work. As Frantz Fanon says, “From time to time you feel like giving up. Expressing the real is an arduous job.”
Fink describes the goal of psychoanalysis very differently than Saks:
Truth, as experienced by the analysand in the analytic context, has to do with what remains to be said, with what has not yet been said. What has already been said often seems empty, whereas what is being said now for the first time is what has the potential to shake things up, is what feels important, truthful. To the analysand, the truth is always elsewhere: in front of him, yet to be found.
Insofar as it concerns “what remains to be said,” truth in psychoanalysis has to do with the experience of symbolizing what has never been put into words. With Lacan, I refer to “what has never before been put into words” as “the real” (it can also be referred to as “the traumatic real”). Interpretation by the analyst, then, quite obviously seeks–at one level, at least–to inspire or to provoke the analysand to engage in the process of symbolization, to put into words what has never before been put into words. Interpretation aims to hit the real.
Since the real is also, by definition, that which resists symbolization, it’s never possible to express everything and arrive at an ultimate truth. Accepting that is part of psychological maturity. The trick is that all this talking and symbolizing causes “the unconscious” to reorganize, in a way that reduces symptoms and changes what the patient desires. It’s beside the point whether the patient understands the “real reason” they changed. They don’t need to, an idea that’s elaborated upon in Against Understanding.
The Lacanians call what they do “oracular interpretation,” and the idea is that interpretations should be as evocative, multi-layered, and ambiguous as possible. The interpretation stimulates a useful mental process, and it’s beside the point whether the interpretation is “true.”
This has some resemblances to Zen. “Clinging to views” is discouraged, because none can be definitive. Great effort is spent trying to make sense of koans that will never make logical sense, but benefits come from struggling with them. There’s an important aspect of reality that’s non-verbal, whether that’s called “the traumatic real,” “suchness,” or “Buddha Nature.” There’s a ceaseless attempt to symbolize something that can’t quite be symbolized, much like in psychoanalysis.