Karl Figlio (2000). Psychoanalysis, Science and Masculinity. Whurr Series in Psychoanalysis. Edited by Peter Fonagy and Mary Target. London & Philadelphia: Whurr Publishers. 236 pages. ISBN: 1 86156 203 9.
In Psychoanalysis, Science and Masculinity, Karl Figlio addresses what he sees as the unconscious phantasies that underlie the relentless pursuit of scientific knowledge of both the external and the internal worlds and the unconscious guilt that he thinks both results from and, in turn, motivates this quest. He sees Western culture as obsessed by the scientific drive to get to "the beginning of the beginning." Paradoxically, however, hand in hand with our confidence in rationality and our technical mastery comes anxiety and a resurgence of magical thinking. Figlio sees such dread and the irrationalism to which it gives rise as rooted in the phantiasies accompanying the quest for knowledge, a drive he associates with a phallic masculinity that seeks to invade, dominate and colonize (mother) nature. The inherent destructiveness of this phallic drive gives rise to primitive guilt and fears of retribution that, in a vicious cycle, motivate further defensive phallic attempts to know and dominate. Science seeks relentlessly to get to the beginning but fears ruining the sources of nature. "This duality of science leads me to the conclusion that the relentless spirit of science both drives ever more deeply into nature and at the same time proclaims its innocence, that each new discovery is both the outcome of a foray into nature and a demonstration that everything is okay so far: that we are innocent. Science is a moral quest as well as an institutionalized process of discovery" (p.3).
Noting that Freudian psychoanalysis associates castration with loss of the phallus rather than loss of the testicles, Figlio follows Donald Meltzerís distinction between phallic and seminal masculinity and between the phallic and the testicular father. Whereas the phallic drive into nature stimulates persecutory anxiety and guilt (associated with Kleinís paranoid-schizoid position), seminal masculinity (associated with Kleinís depressive position) may sometimes be assimilated to the phallic quest and give rise to even greater anxieties--such as the loss of male identity through identification with the semen absorbed by the female, as well as the fear of having destroyed the loved object and thereby ruined the source of life itself. Against such anxieties, phallicism is redoubled as a defense.
In Figlioís view, "Scientific inquiry has become relentless. It cannot stop; nor can it be limited. The more relentless it becomes, the more persecuting nature becomes. The more inanimate nature becomes for science, the more animate it becomes for the culture" (p. 212). Relentless science, for Figlio, involves, in phantasy, "Seizing the mothersís capacities simultaneously from the outside (phallicism) and from the inside (seminality)" (p. 215).
Late in his text, Figlio acknowledges that "The argument has been long and complex" (p. 211). That is an understatement. This is a difficult book that while addressing fundamental and important issues, operates on a level of theoretical abstraction that will be difficult for many readers to sustain. In addition, it assumes familiarity with the concepts of a broad range of contributors to the field of psychoanalytic studies (Freud, Klein, Bion and Meltzer, among others) without always adequately explaining these ideas for the uninitiated. Even those who are familiar with the psychoanalytic perspectives the author utilizes may be frustrated by the sustained abstraction of the argument which is seldom grounded in or supplemented by vignettes drawn from clinical practice or applied psychoanalysis, except for a brief study of the character structure of scientist Robert Boyle in chapter ten.
For this reader, Figlioís theme is engaging, but his argument is not always clear and many of his assumptions and premises seem questionable. Why are the phantasies underlying science necessarily, destructive and guilt-inducing? Why does the author view science as motivated by a wish to "get to the beginning of the beginning" (a wish he seems to see as inherently destructive) rather than an obsessive primal scene curiosity that has less to do with the mystery of origins than with jealousy, envy and resentment, and perhaps a wish to deny the fact that one was the excluded third? And in any case, canít the wish to know sometimes be motivated more by libido than aggression? Is all love of mother destructive or incestuous? Is it valid or necessary to generalize in these ways? Can we not seek to distinguish different types of motivation underlying scientific curiosity? Some scientists, for example, seem to have associated their curiosity with their love of God and with an attitude of awe and wonder in the face of His creation.
Although it is not a book for either the clinician or the beginner in the field of psychoanalytic studies, and despite the questions it leaves unanswered, Figlioís book represents a serious attempt to bring psychoanalysis to bear upon questions of great importance to our culture.
Donald L. Carveth, Ph.D.
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