Wittgenstein, Tsongkhapa, and Interpretation

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Wittgenstein, Tsongkhapa, and Interpretation

Richard Toft, Ph.D.

Ah, but we die to each other daily.

What we know of other people

Is only our memory of the moments

During which we knew them. And they have changed since then.

To pretend that they and we are the same

Is a useful and convenient social convention

Which must sometimes be broken. We must remember

That at every meeting we are meeting a stranger.

llllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll- Unidentified Guest

T.S. Eliot, The Cocktail Party (Act I, sc. 3)

Verbal interpretation holds a prominent position in the psychoanalytic process. Although different analysts will attribute to it differing degrees of emphasis, these variations in importance are outside of the present purpose. Herein, interpretation will be used to refer to verbal interpretations within an analytic process.

In philosophical discussions it is not unusual to follow through a particular line of thinking, and then, in the end, to consider the ramifications that said line of thinking has for a particular subject of interest. This paper will present a cursory example of this process in regard to interpretation. Although the resultant ideas will, hopefully, be of interest to psychoanalysts, just as is the case in a psychoanalysis, the process of arriving at those ideas is the more important purpose in that the process itself produces an integration of the traditions of philosophy and psychoanalysis. As will become clearer after discussing Wittgenstein, the final conclusions which follow from this reasoning can easily lead to misunderstanding if they are not considered in the context of the reasoning process itself.

Interpretations, as considered herein, are verbal statements. Being verbal statements, they are a form of language (a specific subset of language, but, nevertheless, language.) The 20th century philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, wrote extensively about the nature of language and its impact upon thought. Two of his sets of writings, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and Philosophical Investigations, are particularly useful. In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein leads the reader through a series of ideas in order to demonstrate the limitations of language. Although there is some significant change in his thinking about language in Philosophical Investigations from that which he presents in the Tractatus, the portions of most interest here are consistent with his later writings.

In the following discussion, an attempt will be made to refer to interpretations when possible, both to avoid some of the encumbrances of philosophical discourse, and to make clearer how this material relates to our work as analysts. This does not go against Wittgentstein’s ideas, for, as already stated, interpretations are merely a subset of language, not something outside of language. To begin, consider the following statements:

4.023 ... A proposition is a description of a state of affairs.

4.024 To understand a proposition means to know what is the case if it is true.

4.027 It belongs to the essence of a proposition that it should be able to communicate a new sense to us. (Wittgenstein, 1974, pp. 21-22)

If we substitute “interpretation” for “proposition,” there is probably little in these statements with which any of us would disagree. First, this would say that an interpretation is a “description of a state of affairs.” We might disagree which state of affairs we should be, or are, addressing, but regardless we are attempting through our interpretation to put into words a particular state, whether we consider that to be an unconscious state, a transference state, an interpersonal state, or a genetic state. We may also be doing, or attempting to do, other things in our interpretation, but one of the things we are doing is putting into words a particular description.

Wittgenstein’s next statement means that if an interpretation is accurate, and if our patient understands the interpretation, then our patient has come to know the particular state of affairs to which we are referring. This, too, is nothing mysterious. When Wittgenstein says that a proposition, or interpretation, conveys something new, this, too, seems consistent with the role of interpretation. There is little need for us to tell our patients what they already know and understand. Even if we make use of many of our patient’s own words in our interpretation, we are doing so in a manner which is different from the patient’s use of them, and it is an attempt to refer to a state of affairs of which the patient was not previously aware. Having laid this groundwork, Wittgenstein takes us a bit further.

4.116 Everything that can be thought at all can be thought clearly. Everything that can be put into words can be put clearly. (ibid, p. 26)

There are some implications of this statement that are inconsistent with his later writings, but a portion of it is consistent. At first glance, this statement may sound as if Wittgenstein is telling us that we can accurately describe anything and everything, but in actuality he is saying something quite different. He is attempting to introduce the idea that both thought and language are limited. Rephrasing his statements, we could say that only what can be thought can be thought clearly, and only what can be put into words can be put clearly. In our case, not everything in the analytic session can be interpreted. This is not to say that other things in the analytic process are of no use or no importance, but when focusing on interpretation, there is a limit to what it can do, and it is a limit inherent in language. Furthermore, no interpretation is identical to another interpretation, nor is it identical to the state of affairs being interpreted. An interpretation is language, and thus it cannot be identical to something which is not language.

5.303 Roughly speaking, to say of two things that they are identical is nonsense, and to say of one thing that it is identical with itself is to say nothing at all.(ibid, p. 52)

We may believe that we can take a particular proposition and use it in different contexts and that it remains the same, but consider these statements:

“5.541 John has the thought that p is the case, John believes that p is the case, John says that p is the case” (ibid, p. 53).

Initially, we may be inclined to see as identical the three propositions “p is the case,” but Wittgenstein argues that they are not identical, and that they cannot be identical. Equally important, “John” is not identical in each of these statements either. And since we cannot equate as identical these three Johns, we have no one subject to whom we are referring. The subject who is speaking is not identical to the subject who is thinking, nor is it identical to the subject who is believing. Nor can we separate off this John from the thinking, believing, or saying. “5.631 There is no such thing as the subject that thinks or entertains ideas” (ibid, p. 57).

Instead, when making an interpretation, we are correlating two or more states of affairs, such as the patient telling a dream and something else. However, we cannot further state that one of these is the necessary result of the other.

6.37 There is no compulsion making one thing happen because another has happened. The only necessity that exists is logical necessity.

6.371 The whole modern conception of the world is founded on the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena. (ibid, p. 70)

If you tell your patient that he is angry at you for canceling a future appointment, you are not describing a necessary state of the world. If your interpretation is true, you are stating a relationship among several propositions, including John, the cancellation, the anger, and the analyst. The difficulty with this line of reasoning, however, is that in talking about this limitation to language, Wittgenstein seemed to be saying that there really was something else there, but it just couldn’t be described. This he repudiates in Philosophical Investigations.

In the Investigations, Wittgenstein raises numerous examples, often in the form of questions, of how we tend to use language as if we are referring to something when we can’t actually find something to which we are referring. He analyzes language through these examples.

I describe a psychological experiment: the apparatus, the questions of the experimenter, the actions and replies of the subject — and then I say that it is a scene in a play. — Now everything is different. (Wittgenstein, 1958, p. 180)

Between the beginning and the end of this example, something significant has changed, but it is difficult to put our finger on exactly what has changed. In the transition in this example, although we might have thought that we understood what the words referred to in the beginning, we now are not quite so sure. From this example we can see that Wittgenstein does not agree that words are inherently attached to objects, nor to meanings. “The meaning of a word is its use in the language” (ibid, p. 43).

Words do not have a necessary referent to them, but only have meaning within a particular use in a particular proposition. It is critically important to realize that Wittgenstein does not assert that there is nothing existing, that there are no actual referents. However, if we examine carefully what we think we are referring to, ultimately we cannot find anything.

It is not a something, but not a nothing either! The conclusion was only that a nothing would serve just as well as a something about which nothing could be said. (ibid, p. 304)

It is like the relation: physical object — sense-impressions. Here we have two different language-games and a complicated relation between them. — If you try to reduce their relations to a simple formula you go wrong. (ibid, p. 180)

Just as with the relation between physical objects and sense-impressions, psychological states and language have no clear or necessary connection. In fact, if we attempt to find one, we come up empty-handed.

Wittgenstein provides us with no answers to these issues. Instead, he is attempting to help us to think about what we are doing in our use of language. We continually are making assumptions of which we are unaware, and which affect our thinking and which are not what we think they are. Words and sentences have no findable object, or psychological state, behind them. This is not to say that they have no meaning, but that the meaning exists only within the nature of language, (i.e., its use in the language). (This is visually represented in devanagari, the written form of Sanskrit. In Sanskrit, words, and often sentences, are not written separately from one another, but, rather, as a continuous line of script. Furthermore, the beginning and ending syllables of words often change because of the ending of the previous word, or the beginning of the following word.)

Wittgenstein’s reasoning then asserts that interpretations, as a subset of language, have no necessary referents. But then what are we interpreting, and for what purpose? In order to consider these ideas further, I turn to the writings of the 14th century Tibetan philosopher, Tsongkhapa.

Tsongkhapa was a philosopher within the Prasangika Madhyamika school of Indo-Tibetan philosophy. He wrote extensively, producing a body of literature which provides an extremely thorough examination of the Prasangika philosophy. However, the Prasangika school differs in quite significant ways from all other schools within the Indian philosophical tradition, and the technical definitions from those schools cannot be accurately substituted for these. In his writings, Tsongkhapa emphasizes two complementary ideas in order to explain his thinking.

The first idea is that of sunyata (Tibetan: stong pa nyid), which is usually translated as emptiness, and the second idea is that of pratityasamutpada (Tibetan: rten hbrel; to hold, adhere, lean on + connection, union, conjunction), which is awkwardly translated from Sanskrit as dependent arising, or relational origination. Robert Thurman, the holder of the Jey Tsong Khapa Chair at Columbia University, has proposed translating it as “relativity,” which is less cumbersome, but it is perhaps even more prone to misunderstanding. In that the two approaches (sunyata and pratityasamutpada) both lead to the same place, and since the idea of sunyata is easier to follow for psychoanalysts who are more likely to be unfamiliar with this literature, I begin with it. It is extremely important to keep in mind that these two ideas are complementary, and that neither is accurate without the other. These words are technical terms, and they were created within the languages for this purpose. In that there is currently no English translation of these terms which is clear, accurate, and unencumbered with quite misleading English associations, for the most part I will retain the Sanskrit and Tibetan terminology. What follows is but a very rough sketch of lengthy discussions which are complex and subtle.

As far as Tsongkhapa is concerned, the first formal presentation of the conceptualization of sunyata (Tib. stong pa nyid) is to be found in the Mulamadhyamakakarika, written by Nagarjuna sometime around 400 BCE. In the Lam Rim, Tsongkhapa frequently quotes not only the writings of Nagarjuna, but also subsequent commentaries on Nagarjuna, in particular those written by Bhuddhapalita, and a later set of commentaries written by Chandrakirti.

It is asserted in the larger body of literature of which this school is a part that it is only through a thorough understanding of the mind that one can hope to alter its debilitating effects. As such, the goal of Tsongkhapa is similar to that of psychoanalysis insofar as both aim to understand the mind so as to free the patient from some of its encumbering effects. In psychoanalysis, methods of observation and analysis are employed, as they are in the Prasangika methods.

In these writings a critical differentiation is made between everyday, or conventional, views of the mind, and an analyzed view of the mind, often referred to as an “ultimate” view. This differentiation is not dissimilar to that in psychoanalysis, where we are interested not in just how people view themselves in an everyday sort of way, but also how these views appear when subjected to the psychoanalytic process. The Prasangikas are interested in exploring this nonconventional, or ultimate, view, and this discussion is focused on that aspect of mind, not the normal day-to-day view.

Nagarjuna initiated this discussion by applying the tools of observation and logic to a critique of diverse phenomena such as perception, time, and action (which we would more usually refer to as behavior). The procedure in each case is the same, and one example is sufficient, for the moment, to demonstrate how he proceeded.

Although the terminology of transference is not present in the writings of any of these authors, it is a term familiar to all of us, and thus more readily approachable. An application of Nagarjuna’s reasoning to transference might run as follows: If the transference event (relationship, thoughts, feelings or whatever is being referred to as being transferred) happened in the past and then ceased happening, then that event could have no effect upon the present. We cannot find a current connection because something that ended cannot affect anything later on. Alternatively, if the event in the past continues on into the present in some manner, thereby being able to affect the present, it would be a permanent condition. As a permanent condition, it does not need new causes to create it, and it continues on by itself from the past into the present. If this were the case, the event is not alterable because it is permanent. Another alternative would be that the event could be both over and done with, and be continuing on into the present, but this would be contradictory and illogical. The only other logical alternative is that it could be neither completed in the past nor continuing on into the present, which would mean that it could not have any possible effect on the person in the present. As a result of following this line of argument, we cannot establish any observable or logical proof for the existence of transference. We could try to split hairs on this further by describing transference as something which is passing away in the present, but we will run into the same contradictions and difficulties in attempting to find the point at which it started to pass away, how it continues to pass away, and so on. It must again be emphasized that just as with Wittgenstein, Nagarjuna is not asserting that there is nothing useful in talking about transference, but it does mean that transference has no ascertainable, inherent existence, in and of itself.

Nagarjuna uses an often-quoted example of the relationsip between wood and fire. He says that fire is not identical with the wood which it is burning, nor can the fire exist without the wood which it is burning. Furthermore, the fire is not something inherent in wood, or all wood should be burning. If, instead of wood we substitute the self, and instead of fire we speak of feelings, it can be seen that the relationship between the self and feelings is ultimately not ascertainable either. Using Nagarjuna’s reasoning, anger does not exist separate from the self, nor is anger identical with the self, nor is it lodged within the self, else then it would always be present. There may be some utility in viewing our patient as angry with us, but ultimately we can find no inherent relationship between our patient and his anger.

Before proceeding further, it may be helpful to attempt a clarification of what is meant by inherent existence. In the Lam Rim, Tsongkhapa quotes Chandrakirti:

Thus, regarding any object, the meaning of its [inherent] production is its coming, its transferring from another place. And likewise, the meaning of the [inherent] cessation of an object is its going, transferring to another place. [In both cases] there is no such thing. [Hence] that object definitely does not exist inherently, that is, it is not established from its own side. That is, things do not inherently exist because if they did, when a thing was produced, it would have to be demonstrated that it came from such and such place, and similarly when it ceased one would have to demonstrate that it went to such and such place, but such is not the case. (In Napper, 1989, pp. 397-398)

Inherent existence is what was referred to by Plato as sunyata. Ideal Forms are not produced or created, and, according to Plato, the objects in our world include the Forms in their existence. For example, a chair is a chair because the Form chair is a part of it. It is this inherent existence of things which is disputed by Tsongkhapa, not the mundane existence of conventional life or chairs.

Another example from the literature which is employed by Chandrakirti is the analysis of a chariot. Chandrakirti’s purpose is an analysis of all existence, especially that of the mind, or self. His application of reasoning to a chariot is merely a more easily graspable visual application.

Chandrakirti’s analysis runs thus: if a chariot exists on its own merits, i.e., inherently exists, then exactly what is the chariot? There are a finite number of possibilities.

Tsongkhapa quotes Chandrakirti:

A chariot is not asserted to be other than its parts,

Nor non-other. It also does not possess them.

It is not in the parts, nor are the parts in it.

It is not the mere collection [of its parts], nor is it

[their] shape.

[The self is] similar. (In Hopkins, 1987, p. 224)

A chariot is not the same as its parts because, if it were, there would be many chariots just as there are many parts. It is not something different from its parts, because then it would be an object separate from them, and it should be able to be found separately, which it is not. The parts do not depend upon the chariot for their existence, for then they always would be separate things. The chariot does not depend upon the parts for its existence for the same reason, i.e., that they would have to be totally separate entities. A chariot does not possess its parts like a person owns a car, for then they would be different things. A chariot is not the shape of its parts, because their shape is the same before and after arrangement, which would mean that the chariot is there before the arrangement. And, finally, it is not the collection of the parts, for if it were, a pile of chariot parts would be a chariot. The same reasoning can be applied to the self.

Without going further into the details of this reasoning, it suffices for present purposes to state that each of these possibilities can be shown to lead to contradictory conclusions. Thus, upon analysis it is shown that an inherently existing chariot cannot be found. Again, this does not mean that one couldn’t get into a chariot and go for a ride, but, ultimately, one is forced to admit that he cannot point to anything that is, in and of itself, i.e., on its own accord, a chariot. When I attempt to find it through analysis, all that I find is sunyata (Tib., stong pa nyid).

In our system, when a chariot is analyzed in these seven ways, it is not found, and it is not found either as an ultimate truth or as a conventional truth, but this does not make a chariot non-existent. For, (1) the assertion of a chariot is not made due to [the chariot’s] being established by reasoning analyzing whether it inherently exists or not, but is established by only a non-defective, ordinary, worldly — that is, conventional — consciousness without any analsis that searches for the object designated, and (2) moreover, the way in which [a chariot] is posited is that it is established as only existing imputedly in the sense of being designated in dependence upon its parts, wheels and so forth. (Jang gya, in Hopkins, 1987, p. 244)

As analysts we are interested in more than the conventional, everyday view of things. Consequently, the question for us must go beyond conventionality and look towards a greater understanding, which includes the question of the inherent existence of the mind, or self.

Applying Chandrakirti’s reasoning about the chariot to transference, we can similarly state that transference is not the same as the thoughts and feelings being expressed; it is not something separate from them; it neither depends upon them for its existence, nor they upon it for theirs. Transference does not possess the thoughts and feelings, it is not the composite shape of them; nor is it the sum total of them. Transference only can be said to appear in dependence upon conditions, but not to exist in and of itself. Transference to some degree involves memory, about which Tsongkhapa quotes the following from Aryadeva and Chandrakirti.

Therefore, the memory which arises is only an unreal [subject]. Having an object which is unreal. Therefore, the object of observation of a remem-bering consciousness is a past thing. If [the past thing] did exist by way of its own entity, then because the memory of it would be observing an object that [inherently] exists, [that memory] would be established by way of its own entity. But, when that past thing [is shown to be] without inherent existence, then the remembering consciousness observing it also is without inherent existence. (In Napper, 1989, pp. 203-204)

Statements about transference therefore can only be relevant in the moment, and they have no validity in and of themselves separate from that. The parallel with Wittgenstein’s discussion of language is readily apparent. Just as with language, Tsongkhapa’s examination of the mind leads us to the same place that Wittgenstein’s analysis of language led us. In both cases we cannot find anything to which we can point as something which is existing in its own right. We can only see things in relationship with other things. This similarity is not coincidental. Language as a mental process reflects in its very structure the actual nature of the mind, which is ultimately unfindability, or sunyata.

As has already been emphasized, sunyata is the complement of rten hbrel, and an understanding of one must equally involve an understanding of the other. In order to demonstrate a bit more clearly what is meant by the rten hbrel nature of the mind, consider another example from the Indo-Tibetan tradition. In the literature of annuttarayoga tantra, which is the form of tantra promulgated in Tibet, there exist a large number of detailed descriptions of mandalas. In Tibetan, they are called khil khor, which is a compound formed from the words for “point” and “circle” that captures an important aspect of them. A mandala is something that takes up no space, such as a point, and it is also something extended out into space, as shown by the two-dimensional circle. Although mandalas are usually portrayed in paintings, they also have been portrayed in three-dimensional structures, one of which still exists in the Kalachakra mandala in the Potala in Lhasa, and, more recently, in 3-D computer-generated videos. A mandala, thus, is something which both has no extension and, at the same time is extended in space and time. Depicted in each mandala is a series of circumscribed areas emanating from a center, much as ripples in water after dropping in a stone. Within these various areas are numerous symbols and psychological characters. Although the technical use of these mandalas is a separate topic, the image is useful for clarifying the idea of rten hbrel. Each symbol, or character, only has meaning in its dependent and relative placement within the mandala. None of these are asserted to have any meaning or value on their own outside of the mandala. (Jung incorrectly viewed mandalas as examples of archetypes, which is contradictory to their actual dependent nature.)

Another visual representation that may be useful in understanding rten hbrel comes from Marcel Duchamp. From 1915 to 1923, Duchamp worked on the painting, “The Bride Stripped Bare by the Bachelors, Even,” also referred to as “The Great Glass.” An interesting characteristic of this painting on glass is that it is to be displayed within the room, not against the wall. Thus, in viewing, one is meant to see not only the glass and the images on it, but the room, its contents, its light and shadow and other people, all of which are part of the painting. The painting then has no one content, let alone one meaning. The content and meaning arise dependent upon everything else present at the same time.

It is because language, just as the mind, has no definitive, ascertainable referents that interpretation, as a subset of language, is of use in psychoanalysis. If this were not the nature of language, interpretation would be totally ineffective. Interpretation brings the patient to a slightly clearer understanding of the nature of the mind, i.e., sunyata and rten hbrel. What are considered symptoms, traumas, memories, and conflicts are states which the patient believes have existence in and of themselves, i.e., that they are permanent and unchanging. Psychoanalysis, through the process of interpretation, shows the patient how he is acting in accordance with these beliefs. To the extent that the patient becomes aware of this and the dependently arising basis of his specific thoughts, the patient sees more clearly the dependently arising nature of his mind, and, as a result, his adherence to the erroneous and debilitating beliefs are lessened. Thus, the purpose of interpretation is not to provide the patient with alternative beliefs or meanings. Ultimately, all meanings are antithetical to true understanding. Patients, of course, will create new meanings over the course of an analysis, but the goal of interpretation should be to lessen the adherence to the meanings the patient generates. To do otherwise would be anti-therapeutic. Interpretation is an antidote to erroneous belief. Metaphorically, interpretation is more in the nature of a catalyst which affects a process but does not become a part of the result.

In order to be effective, an interpretation must stand in relation to a specific state of mind. As a metaphor, the catalyst image from chemistry may be helpful. In a chemical reaction, the original molecules have particular shapes and structures. If a catalyst that has a structure which can exactly connect with parts of the other molecules is introduced, a reaction can take place. If there is no match, nothing happens. Either way, the catalyst remains outside of the resultant molecules. If the eventual goal of psychoanalysis was the same as that of Tsongkhapa, it would be to show to the patient in exacting and thorough detail the minutiae of his beliefs in both their sunyata and rten hbrel existence. (It is commonly believed that the goal of meditation is the cessation of thoughts, but as can be seen here, the actual goal is quite different. In order to counteract the effects of thoughts, the thoughts must be known in as precise a manner as possible. Meditative technique strives for, and then employs, such awareness.)

When we speak of transferring contents from other objects onto the analyst we are obfuscating the process. The patient speaks to the analyst, and it is always a dependent-and-relational speaking. The patient makes propositions and relates them to one another in particular manners. The analyst, in turn, listens to the propositions and adds his own propositions in the form of interpretations which are statements to the patient about the way the patient is relating them to each other. In interpreting the relationships, the analyst can also indicate to the patient that the patient is believing that his relating of propositions is ultimately true and accurate, whereas his propositions only have meaning in the rten hbrel context of other propositions. As was seen in the image of the mandala, our conceptions of reality are called into question, and the rten hbrel nature of our mind and self is asserted.

Interpretation is not translation. Rather, it is putting into language what the patient is doing in a way understandable to the patient, and in a way which calls into question his own beliefs. The value of interpretation in psychoanalysis arises from the fact that the patient, in order to accept the interpretation, must to the same extent let go of his adherence to his current beliefs as having some independent reality to them.

Instead of viewing the patient as resisting the awareness of the unconscious, the patient is seen as believing in the reality of his conscious propositions. However, when the patient understands the interpretation, he must, because of its inclusion of sunyata and in its dependent-and-relational communication, give way to his adherence to his proposition. The benefit to the patient derives from the gradual loosening of his adherence to propositions as being inherently real and as having some concrete reality to which they point.

In order for this process to be effective, the interpretation must be as clear as possible about the state of affairs to which it is referring. Again, using the image of the mandala, the more clearly the objects are seen in their rten hbrel positions, the more effective the process is.

To tell my patient before a weekend break that he is angry at me because I will be with other people and he will be left out may appear to be helpful, but it can also lead the patient to view his anger and rivalry as inherent characteristics of himself.

These ideas are relevant not only to our patients, but they are also relevant to ourselves as analysts. Wittgenstein, in discussing language, tried to show how much of philosophy is actually what he called “language games,” and how, through understanding this, the philosophical problems themselves were dissolved. In this process he demonstrated that philosophers think that they have found something real when they have come up with an idea, as if the idea created the reality. An example of a language game would be a problem discussed by Berkeley, one form of which is, when a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it, does it make a noise? Wittgenstein says that philosophers stretch and twist these terms, and in the end believe that they have discovered truths about reality. However, if we see that it is a language game that is being played, the problem and the resulting conclusions disappear. Psychoanalysts at times fall into these same traps as do philosophers.

As analysts, we frequently talk about understanding our patients as if there is a real, underlying patient there for us to find if we look hard enough, and we seem to talk about there being equally real, underlying parts of him to be discovered and understood. But the nature of the mind and language is contrary to this, and, as analysts, we need to direct ourselves to undermining the patient’s beliefs, not in uncovering the real patient.

Another example is that for over the past one hundred years, psychoanalysts have been interested in exploring the usefulness of conceptualizing the mind as consisting of conscious and unconscious parts. These investigations appear to have been extremely fruitful theoretically, technically, and practically. However, there is a recurring risk in this conceptualizing that subtly creeps in, wherein we begin to think that there really is a findable unconscious mind, and a findable conscious mind separable from our process.

In The Concept of Anxiety, the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard (who wrote extensively in criticism of Hegel, the philosopher upon whom Lacan relies heavily) discusses the idea of eternity in order to demonstrate the limitations of man’s knowledge. Insofar as we are finite beings, Kierkegaard states that we can have no knowledge of eternity, we can only have knowledge of the finite. In mathematics there is talk about the properties of infinite numbers, but infinite numbers are not numbers, and the term only has meaning in a relativistic way. In a similar manner, we can have no knowledge of the unconscious. The unconscious can be viewed in a dependently relational sense as affecting the conscious mind, but we cannot know what the unconscious is. We can only observe conscious permutations. To speak of unconscious thoughts, unconscious fantasies, or unconscious feelings is similar to speaking of infinite numbers. Although at times there may be utility in doing so, we can have no idea what the unconscious really is separate from the conscious mind, and when we talk of unconscious fantasies (or phantasies), we play a language game while believing that we have discovered a new reality.

In a similar fashion, we begin to believe that there really are wishes, part objects, split objects, and whole objects some place, that there is a paranoid position, and that there is an oedipal complex. Upon reflection, some of us might agree that such structures don’t really exist, yet there are ways in which we work, and in which we express our interpretations, that in fact do reinforce for ourselves and for our patients ideas and perspectives that such structures are real rather than dependently arising.

Our psychoanalytic concepts are, of course, of great use to us. However, questions such as do we interpret defenses first, or do we interpret the deepest available anxiety, can easily lead us off track, for they subtly support the belief in an underlying continuum of mind which is solid or substantial. Similarly, when we talk of interpreting the transference as opposed to extra-transferential material, it is important to remember that these are relativistic ideas as well. The patient can never perceive us accurately, because there is no analyst there separable from the process. Furthermore, it is important for us to attempt to convey this to our patients sufficiently so that we do not encourage them to see our interpretations as descriptions of a separable reality.

Our models remain of use only if we do not get caught up in believing them to have some separate, ascertainable existence. At the same time, as has been repeatedly demonstrated, this is not nihilism, for there are two people in the room engaged in an analytic process even though, if pressed, we can never find them, nor can we ever find the process. The analytic process, is in the end unknowable because it, too, is unfindable.

An analytic understanding which incorporates sunyata and rten hbrel allows us to move beyond a psychoanalysis which is fundamentally developmental, for development is also a mirage to which we may cling. To say to my patient that he is seeing himself as someone who had an overprotective mother, which leads him to fear intimacy with me because he perceives himself as dependent upon me, and that he also sees the two states as being the same, may be an accurate interpretation. However, we must not also believe, nor convey to our patient, that there is a person currently on our couch who in his past was actually in a dependent relationship with a mother who was overprotective. The interpretation may be a useful interpretation of what the patient is currently experiencing, but we can never state that he is feeling this way because he actually experienced this in the past.

In short, psychoanalysis could be even more productive if we stopped believing in our own language games. They are all misleading if they claim to describe a substantial reality, and they are potentially helpful if they are accurate interpretations of a moment in an analysis. At the same time, they are not lenses to be put on or taken off, for lenses are not only distortions, but they also presuppose that there is an actual object on the other side which the lens is making visible. To actually move beyond memory and desire, we must let go of our belief in a nonconstructive memory, and let go of our belief in some permanent, persisting entity doing the remembering. Interpretation, however, can put into words what we are seeing and what we are feeling to the best of our abilities at that moment, while also being cognizant that what we are seeing and feeling may be true, but it is ultimately without substance and it has only a rten hbrel existence.


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Richard Toft, Ph.D., 550 Hamilton, Suite 240, Palo Alto, California 94301

© Richard Toft 2013