Symbolisation has both an abstractive, formulative, or conceptual aspect, on the one hand, and a suasive or communicative aspect, on the other. A psychotherapist may err in preferring to understand a patient’s symbolisations almost exclusively in interpersonal terms, that is, as messages, opines the renowned psychiatrist, Prof. Ashoka, in the fifth part of his erudite research, in the weekly column. A Different Truths exclusive.
An alternate notion of psychoanalysis would have the patient making a symbol such as the transference neurosis to represent his conceptions of his inner reality, so that in the contemplation of such an objectification of his conceptions of inner reality he and the psychoanalyst may come to understand these conceptions. Psychoanalysis above all, then, studies and treats the patient who is animal symbolicum — maker, user, and the misuser of symbols. You appear to have been put off by my enthusiastic description of psychoanalysis. You have questions.
What kind of method of investigation confines itself to the study of a single individual? You wonder if I have become the idealist now. The psychoanalysis of a single individual encompasses an empirical realm of many thousands of observable events, among which one may discern regularities, occurrences that under controlled conditions repeat themselves as predictably as experimental phenomena in any laboratory. What kind of method is it whose observations can be checked by so few others?
Surely, you who know something of science, of the highly specialised conditions essential to the making of a single crucial observation, available under no other conditions, of the intricate and laboriously achieved skills—both conceptual and technical—required of the scientist, surely you will not regard the special circumstances in which psychoanalytic observations must be made and the skills required to bring these circumstances about and maintain them as arguing against psychoanalysis as a method of investigation.
I join you, however, in warning of the conceptual risks intrinsic in the use of psychotherapy — I include psychoanalysis — as a method of investigation. Since treatment is the primary task of psychotherapy, the psychotherapist tends to focus upon what is relatively mutable and to ignore or to consign to residual categories that which is relatively immutable. Since attention is riveted upon the symbolisation function, a bias exists in the direction of attributing meaning, intention, purpose, and aim, at the expense of recognition of the impact of non-subjective, non-symbolic elements.
As we have seen, symbolisation has both an abstractive, formulative, or conceptual aspect, on the one hand, and a suasive or communicative aspect, on the other. A psychotherapist may err in preferring to understand a patient’s symbolisations almost exclusively in interpersonal terms, that is, as messages; in this case, he may miss the extent to which the patient is representing in symbolic form his own conceptions of reality—is representing, that is, his inner reality in order to give it form, to hold on to it, to contemplate it. Or a psychotherapist may err in preferring to understand a patient’s symbolisations almost solely as a representation of the patient’s reality without regard to suasive intent in relation to the psychotherapist. The latter inclination is likely to be associated with a tendency to reify the patient’s history as if there were one true history gradually being revealed to the psychotherapist. In fact, as I have just mentioned in discussing the transference neurosis, depending upon the patient’s own state and relation to the psychotherapist at a particular time, the patient will create many histories, or, if you prefer, recreate his history many times, during psychotherapy. As he changes in psychotherapy and as his relation to the psychotherapist changes, so will his conception of his own history change. (Incidentally, do you think that such a change perhaps should be of more interest to us as psychotherapists than our current preoccupation with changes in what we call the patient’s social adjustment?) Freud, referring to the intensification of sexual feelings in adolescence, suggested early in his work that previous life events are reinterpreted and invested with meaning in the light of later feelings and interests: does, then, retrospectively, such an earlier event take on the status of external trauma or pathogen in the patient’s mind and in our own minds? As investigators, we should be wary of coming to simple conclusions from our psychotherapeutic work that the history of a schizophrenic person was “really” such-and-such, or that no doubt this event or that relationship as we hear about it now actually occurred in that way, then, and initiated the illness.
Let us see what Freud’s model of mental illness looks like in the light of our view—also, as I have suggested, ultimately his view — of man as animal symbolicum. The etiologic or pathogenic event in all psychological illness is, according to Freud, “damming up of libido,” by whatever process. I see that we are in difficulty because now you will find terms such as libido alien, difficult to understand, and even more difficult to accept. Let me try to translate this phrase “damming up of libido” in terms of the frame of reference we have been developing together.
We know that the animal symbolicum strives to bring about, as we say. “In reality,” imagined or symbolised end-states of affairs. Such end-states are certain kinds of relations with objects— that is, other entities — conceived to be gratifying in and of themselves. Such ends are not valued as means to any other end and there is no incentive to change such an object-relationship or state of affairs should it be attained. We may conceive that a quantity — a degree of value — is attached to this kind of end-state, which is part of its significance to its creator. An index of the value attached to an end is the extent to which a particular personality system gives priority to its attainment over the attainment of other ends. Another related quantity is the energy or effort that is allocated by the personality system or expended by the behavioural organism to overcome obstacles to realising a valued end. Perhaps the degree of value attached to any one of a class of end-states that we characterise as sexual or as involving sexual gratification, and the energy expended or allocated to overcome obstacles to realising such valued ends, are aspects of what Freud meant by the concept “libido.” You will no doubt want to challenge these partial translations. Are such ideas really what Freud had in mind? Barring a prolonged justification with arguments from many passages in Freud’s work, with inferences concerning not only the conceptual systems from which his ideas sprung but the never-realised conceptual system to whose creation his ideas contributed — a justification which is beyond the scope of this presentation, if not my present powers as well—I can only reply to your question that I do not know, but I do not think we shall be led too far astray in adopting such translations tentatively. “Damming up of libido,” then, implies that a tendency to actualise one of a certain class of imagined or symbolised ends has met an obstacle has been, as we say, frustrated. This tendency persists in the personality system, despite the obstacles to its fulfillment. The intensity of the tendency is represented by the value attached to the end in the sense just given, or the energy or effort the personality system continues to mobilise and direct to its realisation.
(To be continued)
Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad
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Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad is a physician /psychiatrist holding doctorates in pharmacology, history and philosophy plus a higher doctorate. He is also a qualified barrister and geneticist. He is a regular columnist in several newspapers, has published over 100 books and has been described by the Cambridge News as the ‘most educationally qualified in the world’.