Two-Body Psychology: Progress and Regress

Donald L. Carveth, Ph.D.

   Review:  Robert D. Stolorow, George E. Atwood & Bernard Brandchaft (Eds.).
   The Intersubjective Perspective. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1994.  220
   pp.  ISBN 1-56821-053-1.  $22.00 paperback. Contemporary Psychology, Vol.
   41, No. 4 (April 1996): 382-3.

Although all but two of the fourteen papers composing this collection have previously been published, for those curious about the so-called intersubjective perspective in psychoanalytic theory and therapy (Atwood & Stolorow, 1984, 1993; Stolorow, Brandchaft & Atwood, 1987; Stolorow & Atwood, 1992), this reader provides an accessible, comprehensive and representative introduction.

In seeking to transcend what Stolorow and Atwood (1992) regard as "the myth of the isolated mind" characteristic of traditional psychoanalysis and to evolve a more fully interactional perspective, the intersubjectivists contribute to a tradition including a wide range of object- relational, interpersonal, bipersonal, attachment and developmental systems perspectives, each of which advocates in one way or another a more thoroughly social understanding of human nature, of the self, and of the therapeutic encounter.

In his Introduction to the present volume, Stolorow describes intersubjectivity theory as "... a field theory or systems theory in that it seeks to comprehend psychological phenomena not as products of isolated intrapsychic mechanisms but as forming at the interface of reciprocally interacting worlds of experience."  In this framework, he continues, "intrapsychic determinism gives way to an unremitting intersubjective contextualism" and the focus shifts from the isolated individual mind to "the larger system created by the mutual interplay between the subjective worlds of patient and analyst, or of child and caregiver" (p.x).

The volume opens with three essays (two by Stolorow and one by Stolorow and Atwood) which clearly and comprehensively outline the intellectual origins and central tenets of the intersubjective approach.  Although commonly considered an outgrowth of self psychology, they locate its roots in existential phenomenology, hermeneutics, structuralism and the personological psychology of Henry Murray and argue that it subsumes and transcends selfobject theory.

Chapters four to eleven apply intersubjectivity theory to a range of clinical issues: the therapeutic action of psychoanalysis; the difficult patient; aggression in the psychoanalytic situation; masochism and its treatment; countertransference; and the conversion of psychotherapy to analysis.

In "To Free the Spirit From Its Cell" (chapter 5), Brandchaft discusses and illustrates "highly organized and unyielding internal structures" (p.69) that constitute metaphorical "ghosts", "prison cells" and "gulags" of the mind.  While highlighting what other psychoanalytic traditions have long recognized as the role of introjects, internal persecutory objects, the internal saboteur, etc., in the deepest resistances to therapeutic change--thus illustrating the ongoing process whereby self psychology comes to reinvent the wheel--it is unclear how this relates to the intersubjective emphasis upon the influence of the analyst's organizing principles upon the therapeutic interaction.

In "Self Psychology and Intersubjectivity Theory" (chapter 6), Jeffery L. Trop distinguishes the latter from perspectives that one-sidedly celebrate relational factors in the therapeutic process by its emphasis upon the need for both patients and analysts to achieve self-reflective awareness of the underlying principles organizing their experience.  Just as Brandchaft's rediscovery of the introject implies a rapprochement between intersubjectivity and object-relations theory, so the renewed emphasis in the former upon the role of insight in analytic therapy might promote a degree of reconciliation with mainstream psychoanalysis.

The final section of the book concerns the "broader implications of intersubjectivity."  It is difficult to understand the inclusion here of Atwood's "The Pursuit of Being in the Life and Thought of Jean-Paul Sartre" (chapter 12), since this exercise in applied self psychology lacks any distinctively intersubjective focus.  As a typical "pathography" reducing the life and work of a great philosopher to his character pathology--this time conceived in self-psychological rather than Freudian terms as in Hanly's (1979) earlier study--Atwood's account is guilty of the fallacy most clearly diagnosed by Sartre (1943) himself: while it is no doubt true that Jean-Paul Sartre suffered from a self disorder, not everyone with a disorder of the self is a Jean-Paul Sartre.

The final two essays in the collection, Donna Orange's "Countertransference, Empathy and the Hermeneutical Circle" and Maxwell Sucharov's "Psychoanalysis, Self Psychology and Intersubjectivity" each address epistemological issues arising in connection with the rejection by intersubjectivity theory of objectivist epistemology which, according to Stolorow, "envisions the mind in isolation, radically estranged from an external reality that it either accurately apprehends or distorts" (p.xi).  As an alternative to such (I would say naive as distinct from sophisticated) objectivism, Orange proposes a dialogical or perspectival realism and a philosophical hermeneutics.

Viewing Kohut's essential lesson as an epistemological one concerning the essential inseparability of the observer and the observed, Sucharov sees self psychology and intersubjectivity theory as reflections in psychoanalysis of the new quantum world view that is working its way through our culture.  For Sucharov, "the placing of the observer inside the field of observation (in contrast to the Cartesian split) forbids an objective description of a quantum system.  Therefore, in a psychoanalytic encounter, the notion of distortion has no operational meaning ..." (p.194).

In my view it is unfortunate that the intersubjectivists have chosen to link their otherwise valuable contributions to a fashionably postmodern, subjectivist epistemology.  As I have recently argued (Carveth, 1994, 1995a, 1995b), while claiming to represent a perspectivalism transcending both naive objectivism and naive subjectivism, in reality the intersubjectivists fail to adhere to such a dialectical stance, falling back into a one-sided subjectivism and relativism that is both philosophically untenable and socio-politically irresponsible.


Atwood, G.E., & Stolorow, R.D. (1984).  Structures of Subjectivity:
    Explorations in Psychoanalytic Phenomenology.  Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic

-----. & ----- (1993).  Faces in a Cloud: Intersubjectivity in Personality Theory,
    2nd ed.  Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson.

Carveth, D. (1994).  Selfobject and intersubjective theory: A dialectical critique.
    Part I.  Monism, dualism, dialectic. Canadian Journal of
    Psychoanalysis/Revue Canadienne de Psychanalyse 2, 2: 151-168.

-----. (1995a).  Selfobject and intersubjective theory, Part II: A dialectical critique
    of the intersubjective perspective.  Canadian Journal of Psychoanalysis/Revue
    Canadienne de Psychanalyse 3, 1:43-70.

-----. (1995b).  Self psychology and the intersubjective perspective: a dialectical
    critique.  In A. Goldberg (Ed.), Progress in Self Psychology, vol.11.  Hillsdale,
    NJ: Analytic Press, 1995, pp. 3-30.

Hanly, C. (1979).  Existentialism and Psychoanalyssis.  New York: Int. Univ.

Sartre, J.-P. (1943).  Being and Nothingness: A Study in Phenomenological
    Ontology, trans. H.E. Barnes.  New York: Philosophical Library, 1953.

Stolorow, R.D., Brandchaft, B. & Atwood, G.E. (1987).  Psychoanalytic
    Treatment: An Intersubjective Approach.  Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press.

----- & Atwood, G.E. (1992).  Contexts of Being: The Intersubjective
    Foundations of Psychological Life. Psychoanalytic Inquiry Book Series,
    Vol.12.  Hillsdale, NJ & London: The Analytic Press.


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