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Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute & Society

Donnel Stern

Donnel Stern begins his book, Unformulated Experience: From Dissociation to Imagination in Psychoanalysis (The Analytic Press, Inc., 2003), with a quote from Merleau-Ponty that says that reality is indeterminate in itself. Later in his book he says, with the postmodernists, that reality is a social construction. These two views do not fit together so well because if reality is in itself indeterminate, how could it also be a social construction? If reality is like unformed clay, then what is real in a vase formed from the clay is the clay, not the vase. But perhaps Stern thinks that the underlying matter is real and indeterminate but the real form it takes is a social construction. The third thesis Stern holds is that unconscious experience is unformulated experience, not experience that has at one time been at least partially formulated and then repressed. I think his first two claims are false and have doubts about his third. I’ll say how I think people are misled into accepting the first two theses by failing to distinguish what we know, or are justified in believing, about reality from reality itself.

In the famous story of the blind men and the elephant, one blind man feels the elephant’s trunk and thinks it’s a snake, another feels its legs and thinks it’s a tree, a third feels its tail and thinks it’s a rope, a fourth feels it’s side and thinks it’s a wall. Having heard all these reports from the blind men, someone might conclude that what they feel is indeterminate. The thing is neither a snake, nor a tree, nor a rope, nor a wall; the thing is indeterminate. Of course, that would be a mistake. The thing is determinate; it’s an elephant. Each blind man might be justified in believing that it’s only a snake, only a tree, only a rope, and only a wall because relative to the evidence each has, it is reasonable for each to believe what they do, though not all of their beliefs could be true. We know that people can have justified false beliefs, for at one time people were justified in believing that the earth is flat and that the sun goes around the earth because relative to the evidence they had at the time, that is just what they should have believed. So all the blind men are justified in believing a proposition that is false. But we know that the elephant cannot be only a snake, only a tree, etc. And we know that there is some determinate thing that they are feeling, namely, an elephant. So why think that reality is indeterminate? A more plausible view is that reality is determinate but that different people have different evidence about its nature and so, naturally, see it differently.

Of course, even this view needs qualification. Some of reality is determinate, some not. There are two ways reality can be indeterminate. Because concepts are vague, sometimes there is no fact of the matter, say, about whether some pile of beans is a heap, whether some color is red or orange, whether some man is bald or not bald. In the gray area there is no fact of the matter, but outside of it there are determinate facts: some piles of beans are heaps, some roses are red, and some men are bald. Even if we grant the vagueness of concepts, it will not follow that all of reality is indeterminate.

A second way that reality can be indeterminate is due to ambiguity. Wittgenstein is famous for his duck-rabbit drawing, a line-drawing that viewed one way looks like a duck, viewed another like a rabbit. And all of you are probably familiar with the vase-two profiles drawing where the white part of the drawing can be seen as a vase surrounded by a black background, or the black background as two profiles in silhouette facing each other with the white space separating them. There is some reason to think that Stern believes that reality is indeterminate because it is ambiguous like these drawings, but I see no reason to think that all of reality is ambiguous in this way. There are drawings of giraffes or hippopotamuses that are not ambiguous. There are caricatures of Obama that are just caricatures of Obama. There are photographs of trees that are just pictures of trees. And who needs photographs? Go to some redwood forest and look at one of those giant trees! They are just very big trees!

When Stern gave his talk at MPI, he tried to defend against the view that a table is some determinate thing by saying that unlike other things in reality for which there is lots of wiggle room for seeing it in different ways, when it comes to tables there is not much wiggle room. But this remark seems to apply to how we see things, to what we take them really to be. There is lots of wiggle room for the blind men to take or see the determinate reality of the elephant in various ways, but that does not mean that there is lots of wiggle room about the reality of the elephant. We should not confuse our beliefs, or even our justified beliefs, about something with its reality. Jurors try to form justified conclusions about the defendant, but whether the defendant is really innocent or guilty is independent of their beliefs, and even of their justified beliefs. There is some determinate fact of the matter about his innocence or guilt regardless of what the jurors or anyone else thinks.

The postmodernists hold that reality is a social construction. Here, again, that seems true of only parts of reality. Marriage, law, and money are social constructions because there would be no such things if there were not societies that brought them into existence. But stars and galaxies, monkeys and mastodons, are not social constructions. They existed long before any human societies existed. The claim that reality, all of it, is a social construction is a massive over generalization. Even if no one conceptualized stars and galaxies, monkeys and mastodons, before there was a society, it does not follow that they did not exist before then. To believe otherwise seems to commit one to an unwarranted idealism according to which, for everything, thinking makes it so even if it is the thinking of societies, not individuals.

A more modest claim might be that when it comes to unconscious experience, it is indeterminate and reality regarding it is a social construction, even if it is only a construction between a very small “society” consisting of patient and analyst. And I think that Stern’s more specific view is that when it comes to the unconscious, reality is ambiguous, not that the unconscious can be seen any way someone wants (just as you can’t see the duck-rabbit any way you want, nor the vase-two profiles figure). He quotes Gadamer as having something to offer to both relativists and realists. I think Stern believes with the realists that reality is not completely unstructured but with the relativists that it is also not completely determinant, and he uses that general view to reach his specific view about the nature of the unconscious. But you could hold that specific view about the unconscious and not derive it from some more general ontological commitment.

Still, the same sorts of worry arise here as arose for the general view that reality is indeterminate. Why should we think that the unconscious is indeterminate rather than that it is determinate but, like the blind men, we can only see it from one perspective at a time? There must be some determinant fact of the matter about whether, say, a patient’s father molested her when she was young. There could be some determinate fact of the matter about whether now she unconsciously wants to sleep with her brother, her analyst, her female roommate, or all three! And if there are determinant facts of the matter regarding such things, it is at least possible for us to grasp the determinate reality of the unconscious by becoming aware of various perspectives on it. The blind men could form a coherent view of what they felt if either they came together to tell each other what they experienced or if any given blind man went all around the elephant and felt all its parts. It is consistent with Stern’s view of how analysts should conduct therapy to hold that they are like two blind men trying to gather evidence about the heretofore unnoticed elephant in the room!

The third view of Stern’s that I briefly want to discuss is not about whether the unconscious is indeterminant or not, but concerns whether the unconscious is always unformulated as opposed to having once been at least partially formulated and then repressed. I suspect that some of the unconscious is unformulated, as Stern maintains, and the some has been partially interpreted and then repressed. Maybe the patient had a glimmering that she wanted to sleep with her brother when she saw him in his speedo at the beach one summer, and then repressed the desire out of disgust with herself. Maybe given her strict religious upbringing, she never had a glimmering that she wanted to sleep with her female roommate even though she did: incest is bad but homosexuality is worse, she may have unconsciously thought! And her desire to sleep with her analyst could go either way.

I want to close by arguing that all the objections I’ve made to Stern’s views should make no difference to how therapy should be conducted. Whether unconscious experience is determinant or not should not matter to how a therapist conducts sessions because she should want to gather evidence from the unconscious about what her patient thinks and wants and feels about things, regardless of whether the unconscious is formulated experience or not, or partly formulated and partly unformulated experience. Likewise, it should make no difference whether the unconscious was at one time partially intepreted and then repressed, or never even partially interpreted. The point of therapy should be to gather evidence about the unconscious in order to help the patient better understand herself so she can live a more fulfilling and, if events cooperate, happier life. What is the best way to achieve this end is a practical question the answer to which seems open to empirical inquiry. Maybe Stern’s view that the presence of what he calls “relational freedom” is crucial to uncovering the relevant evidence about the unconscious. Maybe both patient and analyst must feel free to reveal themselves in order to make progress. But whether that is true or not is independent of whether reality in general, and the unconscious in particular, is indeterminant or not and whether the unconscious consists only of unformulated experience, only of previously interpreted and then repressed experience, or some of each. Metaphysics does not determine method.

Bruce Russell
Department of Philosophy
Wayne State University
5057 Woodward Ave.
Detroit, MI 48201