Finding Words

Stanley Cavell

  • Terrors and Experts by Adam Phillips
    Faber, 128 pp, £6.99, February 1997, ISBN 0 571 17584 8

EARLY in his lovely and useful book on D.W. Winnicott, published in 1988, Adam Phillips gives a sketch of certain aims and fates of that increasingly treasured figure of British psychoanalysis which maps certain of his own directions in his recent collection of psychoanalytic essays, Terrors and Experts. Winnicott

would also enjoy playing off a language of common-sense against a language of professional expertise. In 1970, in a talk he gave to Anglican priests, he was asked how he would tell whether a person needed psychiatric help. ‘If a person comes and talks to you,’ he said, ‘and, listening to him, you feel he is boring you, then he is sick and needs psychiatric treatment. But if he sustains your interest, no matter how grave his distress or conflict, then you can help him all right.’ There is a commitment here, unheard of in psychoanalysis, to affinity between people rather than to a technique of professional help. Winnicott’s almost religious commitment to an idea of simple and personal truth, to an ordinary-language psychoanalysis, was inevitably to make his institutional loyalties problematic.

The self-portraiture in narrative portraiture is hardly uncommon, but Adam Phillips is uncommonly fortunate in this choice among his precursors, since independence from, or playfulness with, precursors – refusing to comply with them is a way Winnicott liked to put matters – is part of the surface and of the depth of what Winnicott stands for. Two ways catch my attention in which Phillips’s writing departs creatively from his sketch of Winnicott ‘playing off a language of common-sense against a language of professional expertise’: first, Phillips’s specification of the play of language as entering into ‘an ordinary-language psychoanalysis’, in alluding to so-called ordinary language philosophy, is an invitation to think further of psychoanalysis in connection with philosophy, specifically with the work of J.L. Austin and of the later Wittgenstein; second, Phillips’s own manner of writing is openly literary, suggesting not only a wish to play off the ordinary against the technical but to keep in view the competition, as it were, insisted on by Freud, between psychoanalysis and literature. I find this invitation to philosophy congenial and find this way of writing attractive, and I shall accordingly let these departures in Phillips’s Terrors and Experts guide my responses to those essays.

I would understand if someone felt right off that I take too solemnly the allusion to ordinary language philosophy. It seems clear enough that Phillips repeatedly invokes such ideas as Wittgenstein’s of language games and Austin’s of how to do things with words. But, it may be felt, Phillips’s use, for example, of the idea of words ‘doing something’, as in ‘Symptoms’, the second essay in Terrors and Experts, is not Austin’s, as when we find there: ‘It is always worth wondering, as a prelude to a case-presentation such as this’ – a young boy with eczema – ‘what picture we have of what words can do to someone’s body, of how they work inside him.’ This is not the sort of thing Austin would be likely to say, or to find philosophically palatable, yet it is interestingly seen as a call for a development of, hence a response to, something in Austin’s sense of words: Austin’s account of the ways in which to say something is to do something, in How to Do Things with Words, requires an unheard of study of what Austin called the performative utterance; this provides one path ‘in the long-term project of classifying and clarifying all possible ways and varieties of not exactly doing things’ (from ‘Pretending’). (This project is pushed aside in the recent development of Austin’s work in what is called Performance Theory.) But an unhappy performative utterance – e.g. saying ‘I bet’ when no one within earshot is eligible to take up the bet – is describable both as not exactly doing something (placing a bet) and not exactly saying something (placing words into the world).

In his presentation of the theory of performativity, the danger of not exactly saying something that Austin wards off, more than once, is the danger of not speaking seriously, which he specifies, with disastrous and uncharacteristic incautiousness, as speaking poetically or as part of theatre. One reason for Austin’s impatience is that he, unhappily, felt he already knew why philosophers did not exactly (or could readily be shown not exactly to) say things, namely that they are lazy, impatient, drunk with pretension, heavy with conformity etc. Another reason, perhaps, is that the description ‘not exactly or really saying’ risks blurring the very motive of Austin’s theory of the performative, namely to counter the philosophical assumption that fully meaningful sayings are statements, that is, are always (and essentially only) coherently assessable as true or false. But the motive, judging by Austin’s reception, seems to have become blurred anyway.

A further reason, I conjecture, is that failing exactly to say something (where it is not artful or obtuse) is understandable as suffering from words, a matter Austin may have felt philosophy could help prevent (as well as cause) but not treat (unlike Wittgenstein). And suffering from words is a way of describing something Adam Phillips takes as the subject of his work (but still unlike Wittgenstein’s) – a particular work of listening. (‘The patient who comes into the analyst’s consulting room, always comes because he cannot speak.’) It was evidently to devote himself to this work that he went through the training to become a psychoanalyst.

But Phillips is not devoted to the way psychoanalysis tends to think of itself as a science or as a field of expertise. It is importantly to counter this tendency that he writes his psychoanalytic essays, which accordingly do not sound like most psychoanalytic writing. It is heartening to go through his struggle with psychoanalysis, within psychoanalysis, on this ground, particularly in a time when further depressing attacks and defences on and of psychoanalysis as such, leading intellectually nowhere, are rather to be expected. (Like, and unlike, attacks on philosophy or religion or science as such.) But what Phillips has against psychoanalysis’s picture of itself is not always clear to me.

‘In so far as the psychoanalyst becomes an expert on how people should live – becomes, that is to say, any kind of guru, any kind of official or unofficial expert – he has complied.’ ‘Complied’ is that Winnicottian term for a person’s having given up on finding their spontaneity, or True Self. (For good reason Phillips cites Emerson on his first page of epigraphs. It is, however, worth saying that Emerson rather denies the idea of a True Self.) Yet Phillips allows himself to remark: ‘The psychoanalyst is an expert on the ways in which the patient pretends to be an expert on himself; the ways, that is, in which he gravitates toward consensus.’ Why the air of paradox? Why say more than that ‘the psychoanalyst uncovers, or helps the patient see, the ways in which ...?’ Because, presumably, neither analyst nor patient is willing to let it go at that: the patient persists in craving belief and authority, and the analyst is always drawn to play to it – not necessarily, I suppose, because the analyst takes himself or herself to be authoritative, but because he takes psychoanalysis to be.

In the concluding paragraph of Phillips’s first collection of essays, On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored, he had said: ‘With the discovery of transference Freud evolved what could be called a cure by idolatry; in fact, potentially, a cure of idolatry, through idolatry.’ We have heard – have we not? – or said to ourselves, roughly similar things, both about psychoanalysis and about philosophy: they are the overcoming of seduction through seduction; the defeat of mastery by mastery. Isn’t this the ancient paradox of teaching? Socrates in the Protagoras complains against his disciples that they want to shed their own voices, and at the same time he awaits their agreement. Nietzsche promises to return to his disciples only when they have denied him. And the paradox is enacted on every page of Wittgenstein’s Investigations, in its sometimes maddening oscillation between arrogance and innocence.

Has psychoanalysis taken no further step of its own? Well, didn’t Phillips just point it out? Freud’s discovery of transference. And is Phillips claiming that transference is never really resolved? Or claiming that it is not resolved if the patient becomes an analyst – in which case mightn’t idolatry be overcome by finding true belief in the one God? But I seem to have met analysts who are so fearful of fetishising the Freudian text that they no longer study it. And ones who refer to Freud’s contributions to psychoanalysis as pre-scientific. You might as well smash the idol and then worship the rubble.

Sometimes there are rather neutral or somewhat deflationary formulations that affect to lower the rhetorical heat: ‘From my point of view a psychoanalyst is anyone who uses what were originally Freud’s concepts of transference, the unconscious and the dream-work in paid conversations with people about how they want to live.’ There is nothing here about the requirement of having been on the receiving end of those conversations, that is, having your own analysis, as a way of acquiring Freud’s concepts. And nothing about what entitles you not so much to the money but to the interventions. Why toy with formulations that pre-empt the words that people who have no love for psychoanalysis might be amused to say?

But this deflationary mood passes when a patient enters the picture. It is when he is about to present the case of a seven-year-old boy that Phillips gives his most straightforward answer to his recurrent question of the analyst’s entitlement:

But what kind of expert, then, it the psychoanalyst? What, if anything, does he know that the patient or his family don’t know? ... If a family brings their child to see me, I can make available to them my knowledge of child development, my clinical experience of child and family therapy (informed by an array of theory), my willingness to listen, and my moral sense of how children and families should live. I might think of myself as something of an expert on children, or even on life. Or I might think of myself – mindful, in so far as I can be, of the potential for mystification, for covert seductions – as someone enabling the family to learn their own language.

That he does not know more than the family knows about its own language is, in a sense, so true and so important that, if you like, you can insist on it by saying that the analyst is not an expert. But who fails, in such a case, to know this? The other’s dream is the other’s, and its meaning is the other’s to deliver. And what if someone replies to Phillips’s distinction between making available certain knowledge he has and enabling the family to learn more than he knows (an instance of the distinction Phillips marks by speaking of the Enlightenment Freud and the post-Freudian Freud), that what Phillips calls ‘enabling’ here is indeed all that expertise can mean, or should, in this science?

Then Phillips will, I can imagine, wish to say that this pictures his relation to his patients as, if effective, one of knowledge, and pictures, what is more, the relation he attempts to enable them to achieve towards themselves as, if healthy, one of know-ledge, and these pictures he deplores. But does this opposition require the denial of expertise? It requires telling the difference between knowing someone and acknowledging that they matter to you (and you to them – though they may get the wrong idea of the subjects in play, or call them ‘objects’). Sometimes Phillips sounds to me as if he wishes to correct the idea that acknowledgment is a function of expertise, on the ground that you have in each case to find out what is to be said, what is responsive to whatever demand/summons/call you discern. And sometimes he sounds as if he wishes to correct the idea that knowledge of another is such a function, on what I might call a double ground – that no set of facts about another (any more than about yourself) is exhaustive of subjectivity, and that the way these facts are not ‘exhaustive’ is not the way facts about an object are not exhaustive. The more you know about an object the less likely that what you know, barring a crisis of knowledge, will be completely overthrown, that what you have grounds to claim is a hawk will turn out on further examination to be a handsaw; but about a human subject, likely or not, perhaps never more unlikely than not, overthrow remains in question, crisis is around the corner, redescription may at any time be called for, the duck turns out as in a dawning to be a swan. Horror movies anxiously toy with this realisation; melodramas act it out; comedies revel in it.

Perhaps the difference between these occasions for, or temptations to, false claims of expertise can be measured, for further study, by adducing two sites of philosophy, one in an Anglo-American mood, one in a, let’s say, Continental.

In speaking of listening for a cue of response (often called supplying an interpretation), Phillips warns that psychoanalysts ‘are always tempted to become the experts on the canon of plausible interpretations, of what should be said when’. This echoes a rare passage by Austin from ‘A Plea for Excuses’ in which he is giving reasons (even somewhat theoretical ones) why with certain topics it is attractive ‘to proceed from “ordinary language”, that is, by examining what we should say when [Austin’s emphasis], and so why and what we should mean by it’. A very good reason for Phillips to echo, or allude to, the passage is this: it is fundamental to Austin’s practices with language (and, with due differences, to Wittgenstein’s) – ways of getting us to imagine what we should say under various circumstances – that our responses to his invitations to speak require no more than the (native) mastery of a language; linguistic expertise, in a word, is not only unnecessary, but stands to be corrected by listening to us. (It of course takes more than mastery of a language to produce Austin’s examples on which we are to exercise our mastery. If this something more were expertise, there would be more people producing Austinian examples. It is obvious that it takes a knack, call it talent. But since it is sometimes awkward to recognise that a practice proposed for university study demands a knack or talent, you may try thinking of it as expertise.)

But there is an equally good reason to be wary of the application of Austin’s formula for ordinary language procedure (examining what we should say when) to the psychoanalytical procedure of interpretation, or intervention. The reason is given, or implied, in the continuation of Austin’s sentence: ‘and so why and what we should mean by it’. In the philosophical case, we can (each of us) say, speaking far ‘us’, arrogating this power, why and what we mean by what we say when. If someone finds me to be wrong in a given case, he or she may correct me. But in the psychoanalytical intervention the analyst speaks exactly neither for an ‘us’ nor for himself or herself. Sometimes, even characteristically, one could say, he means nothing and has no reason for what he says; or better, what he means and whether he means anything depends entirely on what the patient had in mind when the analyst’s words were prompted, and on what, if anything, the patient does with that response.

This comes out in the brief but deeply engaging glimpses Phillips gives of his therapeutic exchanges:

Mother told me that Tom’s eczema was much better but that they were all concerned with their poor housing conditions ... above all the starlings ‘kept banging at the window like they want to get in’ ... Tom started frantically scratching his arms for the first time ... He was, she told me, terrified of the starlings. I asked Tom if the starlings felt left out. He stopped scratching as though the question had concentrated him, and said: ‘No ... they’re pretending ... they like being outside really.’ I said: ‘Perhaps they are worried you’ll forget about them?’ And he agreed and suited furiously scratching. I asked him if it was the question or his answer that made him scratch. He shrugged his shoulders despondently and said, ‘The answer’, and I suddenly felt a great pull of sadness. I said: ‘Sometimes boys are worried that their mums will forget them and sometimes they wish their mums would forget them.’ He giggled, as though I had told him a rude joke ... I suggested that they might both be in a muddle; they weren’t sure whether they wanted to be together all the time or apart all the time ... I suggested that the eczema made her look at him, but made her unable to do anything for him ... She interrupted with a kind of relish of disgust: ‘But it’s revolting!’ Prompted by something, I immediately asked how Tom’s dad fitted into the picture ... I wondered whether Tom was holding on to his father by making himself revolting. Tom, coming to life, stopped scratching and shouted ‘No!’ and told me his dad was a pig and he never thought about him and never would ... There was a great deal of anxiety in the room and quite quickly we found ourselves talking about their housing problem.

In philosophical exchange, as I have had occasion to put a founding experience of ordinary language procedure, we are all in the same boat, I know no more than you, nor you than I, about what we say. In psychoanalytic intervention, it seems, the analyst hears cries, jumps in the water and tries to get taken aboard, asks after the crew, and sees if he can get those implicated to wonder what their bearing is and who they imagine he is that he has a right to hear.

The arrogance of philosophy is to show that I can speak universally, for all talkers. The confidence of psychoanalysis is to show that I do not so much as speak for myself. To claim expertise for either of these demonstrations is empty. There is no knowledge of what and when something is to be said beyond the capacity to say it then. The claim of expertise in the matter not of knowledge but of what is to be acknowledged, is evasive. Not to acknowledge what is said may be a refusal of its appeal to a relationship, or a refusal of compliance with its bearing. The other may know herself as an ugly duckling, not seeing the possibility of a redescription; it is worth refusing to co-operate with such knowledge.

The opposing site of philosophy I had in mind in connection with false expertise is Heidegger’s claim that the understanding of the human life-form takes the form of attributing to it not predicates of identity but existentials of possibility. To come into terms with Tom is not to know that he is a child and has eczema but to follow how he conceives being the child he is, the needs and demands of this needy, judging mother and that judged and flighty father, and what solution his eczema expresses. He has, and there is reason to suppose he wishes for, other possibilities. Heidegger’s idea is a systematising of the German Romantic notion, announced and pervasive in Emerson, of becoming who you are, the perspective of moral perfectionism. It is a perspective on the human. As is Freud’s idea that he expresses, in the Dora case, in these terms: ‘He that has eyes to see and ears to hear may convince himself that no mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his finger-tips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore.’ (Compare Phillips, in the opening sentence of the essay that presents Tom: ‘People come for psychoanalysis ... when they find that they can no longer keep a secret.’) How ‘convince oneself’ of this? By what expertise? By what evidence? Freud introduces it with the Biblical threat, ‘he that has eyes to see ... ’, implying that the failure to find this perspective is not a competing perspective but a damning failure to witness the human. In the citation I gave from Phillips in which he is prepared to offer his patients his ‘moral sense’ of what a family should be, I take him to mean that he is prepared first and last to convert the register of description from actuality into possibility. It is on a small scale the sort of thing Emerson calls ‘experimenting’, or ‘unsettling things’, as when he announces, ‘A man is a golden impossibility.’ That is: it is for the human to transmute what is called an impossibility into what is called an opportunity, proverbially recognised as, at its best, golden. It is ground on which I could wish to see philosophy and psychoanalysis meet.

Experimentally is rather how Phillips welcomes psychoanalysis itself, in his unflagging redescriptions of it, and thus offers it his moral sense – as something that fails to see its own further possibilities, as more creative than it knows. (That its discovery was what makes such a discovery possible is one more opportunity for evading it.) The truth of the offer is that psychoanalysis exists only in its (re)discovery.

I believe Winnicott testifies that this is true of the analyst (I cannot find a citation for this at the moment); I can testify, I hope without undue illusion, that it is true of the analysand. The process can seem all words; sometimes it is; then sometimes you find you have arrived elsewhere. Over the years I have named an analogous condition of the existence of philosophy, sometimes saying that it demands its own mood, sometimes that it has to be turned to, as by conversion. It is not everyone’s idea of (even one condition of) philosophy. For me it is another way of locating ground on which philosophy and psychoanalysis might meet, if to begin with just to articulate their ample grounds, or opportunities, as they stand, for mutual antagonism.

Philosophy and psychoanalysis can both be said to be about the mix-ups between necessities and contingencies or, say, ordinariness and extraordinariness. Philosophy will characteristically portray the strangeness of our ordinary lives – Plato of our cave of compliance, Thoreau of our cage of woods (even after putting a certain distance between ourselves and the phantasmic self-mortifications of neighbours), Wittgenstein of our resemblance to a trapped fly, or to one stranded on a field of ice, or to a builder building, so far as we know, nothing. Psychoanalysis will characteristically trace the unstrangeness of our extraordinary expressions of desire (in our eruptions of words, or giggles, or skin). Some writing does both.

I pick two of Phillips’s redescriptions to suggest certain further lines in which philosophy as I care about it most might do well to encounter his work, one of which I find most promising, the other mostly not.

The unpromising line is Phillips’s repetitive insistence that psychoanalysis tells itself, as we tell ourselves, stories. Fashionably, someone says that we tell ourselves stories in response to someone else’s claim that we must tell ourselves the Truth, accompanied by an offer to provide us with some portion of it in which to Believe (that language mirrors the world? that language does not mirror the world?). Even in this role of response (which hardly prepares us for the powers of fable or parable), the idea of theories as stories has its creative use in keeping the mind open – to further judgment, to redescription. But it becomes useless as it becomes indifferent, with everything and nothing becoming a story – Darwinism is a story, the inheritance of acquired characteristics is another; Divine Right is a story, consent is another; patriarchy is a story, the equality of women and men is another. Becomes useless, say, in telling a story from a rumour, or testimony from a tip.

One good use of the idea of a story is to prompt us to ask who is telling something to whom in the service of what. It is a version of the question why or how I find something worth saying. (This is a question of guiding significance for Austin and Wittgenstein and Heidegger, in their different ways. But no more than for Kierkegaard and Marx and Emerson and Nietzsche and Freud.) This is not what I get out of the following passage:

Psychoanalysts are well placed to take a strong stand against the enemies of ambiguity. But when psychoanalysts spend too much time with each other, they start believing in psychoanalysis. They begin to talk knowingly, like members of a religious cult. It is as if they have understood something. They forget, in other words, that they are only telling stories about stories and that all stories are subject to an unknowable multiplicity of interpretations.

In response to the phrase ‘stories about stories’, I wish to say that psychoanalysts are also well placed to take a strong stand against ambiguity. The concept of story is different in the two occurrences and in a way that seems to me to falsify (or lessen the value of) what Phillips goes on to reveal of his practice. When Tom’s mother recounts her and her son’s early times together Phillips reports: ‘It sounded as though Mother had brought Tom home, given him to her mother – by whom he had been very well loved – and in considerable confusion and distress resumed her “wild” adolescence. It was a palpably desolate story.’ Phillips makes a judgment about the grandmother and registers the pain in the mother’s words. Is this his story about her story? Is anything here to be called his story? And when, as he records, he responds in the words, ‘So you and Tom have had to find a way of getting to know each other?’ can’t we say that he is showing a way to understand what has been said? Psychoanalysts are well placed not to give in to an overly philosophical picture of what understanding must be, something always like deriving something from some more general something, but to take seriously the picture of understanding as the word seems to picture it, as bearing up under something, as if sharing a burden.

The promising line of redescription is well articulated in a passage from Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored: ‘The art of psychoanalysis, for both participants, is to produce interesting redescriptions; redescriptions that the patient is free – can bear – to be interested in.’ Terror and Experts suggests a further step: ‘Psychoanalysis, as theory or practice, should not pretend to be important instead of keeping itself interesting (importance is a cure for nothing).’ The linking of interest with an idea of distrusting or destroying representations of importance, as prelude to or consequence of reconceiving philosophy, is given in one of Wittgenstein’s characterisations of his later work in Philosophical Investigations: ‘Where does our investigation get its importance from, since it seems only to destroy everything interesting, that is, all that is great and important?’ Austin, in the paper I cited on excuses, in effect chimes in: ‘I owe it to the subject to say that is has long afforded me what philosophy is so often thought, and made, barren of – the fun of discovery, the pleasures of co-operation, and the satisfaction of reaching agreement.’ But for Austin the pain in reaching what both he and Wittgenstein conceive as freedom (Austin speaks of unfreezing, Wittgenstein of our being held captive) seems to require less passage through the pain and confusion of renouncing old certainties (or uncertainties). Now Phillips, in his apparently casual, humorously catty observation about psychoanalysis keeping itself interesting (as if with age the enterprise had rather let its appearance slide), invokes the implied concept of boredom, a concept I believe neither Wittgenstein nor Austin ever makes explicit. (Even though nothing is of greater concern to Wittgenstein in the Investigations than to determine wherein the interest of philosophy lies: ‘Philosophy simply puts everything before us ... For what is hidden, for example, is of no interest to us.’) Philosophers, who do not shrink from using terms of criticism about one another’s work such as that it is crazy, or nonsensical, seem to shrink from going so far as to call one another’s work boring. But Phillips treats the mood of boredom, following Winnicott on the topic, with great and telling respect.

The essay entitled ‘On Being Bored’ (in On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored) discovers convincingly the creative drive in the capacity for boredom, for both patient and analyst – that is, for anyone.

Is it not, indeed, revealing, what the child’s boredom evokes in the adults? Heard as a demand, sometimes as an accusation of failure or disappointment, it is rarely agreed to, simply acknowledged. How often, in fact, the child’s boredom is met by that most perplexing fear of disapproval, the adult’s wish to distract him – as though the adults have decided that the child’s life must be, or be seen to be, endlessly interesting. It is one of the most oppressive demands of adults that the child should be interested, rather than take time to find what interests him. Boredom is integral to the process of taking one’s time.

It is indeed, I find, revealing; and I might recommend this essay to someone looking for a place to begin with Phillips. I might also recommend, to someone with unusual amounts of time for the taking, taking a look at the massive bearing on this material of Heidegger’s study of boredom in The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, hence of course considering, at the same time, the pointed bearing of the Phillips-Winnicott material on Heidegger’s study. (That Heidegger’s is the most detailed study of the topic known to me is not much of a recommendation for many philosophers, I realise, either of philosophical reading or of the topic. Then it will not help to say about this lately published text that if you never finished Being and Time, and have some inclination to try again, start this one instead.)

But is Phillips’s essay on boredom a piece of psychoanalysis, or does it at least require an interest in psychoanalysis? To my ear, it almost ostentatiously neglects to raise the question whether boredom may be a cover not only for discovering an interest but for denying a forbidden interest. It is true, as I noted, that Phillips speaks here of the analyst as well as the patient: ‘So the paradox of the waiting that goes on in boredom is that the individual does not know what he was waiting for until he finds it, and that often he does not know he is waiting. One could, in this sense, speak of the “analytic attitude” as an attentive boredom.’ But while the rest of us are not in a position to assess this proposal, neither is it necessary to do so to assess what this essay says about us adults. And it is true that Phillips quotes Freud from ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ and makes a superb connection: ‘What, we might ask, following Freud’s approach in this extraordinary paper, is the work which boredom performs for the child?’ But I do not see that the answer Phillips gives, about the child’s giving himself time to find what interests him (which Phillips once words as ‘waiting for himself’), is one that a differently trained reader of Freud’s might not, with very good luck, have found for him/herself. And when Phillips notes Freud’s remark about mourning that ‘it is really only because we know so well how to explain it that this attitude does not seem to us pathological,’ we might well ask of Freud, is this psychoanalysis? Shouldn’t anyone with an exploratory command of a language and an interest in his or her own experience in principle be capable of such an observation?

What is psychoanalysis? Taking this as the question of Phillips’s essays whose answer is never assumed, but is always in question, I have suggested that his recurrent redescriptions of his profession are meant to keep the question alive, and I shall conclude by suggesting that this aim is also served by the manner of the writing, its tendency – as I suppose everyone notices who cares about such things – to, let’s say, the epigrammatic or aphoristic. More or less at random from the opening section of ‘Symptoms’, from which I quoted earlier: ‘Suffering, like desire, is the secret we may not be able to keep’; ‘Because desire is always, in part, constituted by the forbidden, every wish is ambivalent, its own best enemy. In this psychoanalytic picture we can’t help but communicate, and we can’t help but be baffled by each other’; ‘People are only ever as mad (unintelligible) as other people are deaf’; ‘The analyst can be useful as someone who can say something at once odd and pertinent (which is what the patient does all the time without noticing).’

I can see that one might take these recurring moments as signs of an overconfident assertiveness, claims well in excess of any evidence in evidence. I take them otherwise, according to the theme of finding and refinding interest, as instances of themselves. Each is, or would be, a little baffling, and a small confession of madness linked with the insinuation of the reader’s deafness, and a brief instance of saying something at once odd and pertinent. All are intriguing – miniature intrigues – baiting allure with a passing promise of conspiracy. In short they are offers of moments of analysis, in a form to be made good so far as (this) writing can, can create its audience. To the extent that Phillips’s audience is to include other analysts, he is offering his psychoanalysis to psychoanalysis. Which is to say, he is claiming that what he does is part of the history of psychoanalysis, as he is claiming that the Freudian event is not just an event within psychoanalysis. (The necessity and difficulty of finding a cultural location from which to enter this double claim seems reason enough for his citing in his Acknowledgments the journals Raritan and the London Review of Books for having ‘made the kind of things I write possible’.)

This is on the way to saying how I take his remark, ‘A good-enough environment’ – another concept of Winnicott’s – ‘can only be constituted by putting it at risk (like a good-enough theory).’ If putting at risk is subjecting to test, then Phillips is in effect claiming that what tests psychoanalytic theory is not exactly what tests other theory, and this is something that the repeated denial of the requirement of expertise is, I suppose, meant to cover. Does the seriousness of Phillips’s denial of expertise to the analyst not demand the provision of an alternative, positive account of the analyst’s powers, and impotencies? And would this not amount to the demand for an alternative account of analytical training? But then, can Phillips not insist that this is exactly, though not concretely, what he has given measures for, along such lines as these: analytical training is what leads to a practice, and to the understanding of the effects of the practice, of what Phillips (re)describes as ‘attentive boredom’; it puts one in a position, intellectually, practically and emotionally, to test the environment of psychoanalytic thinking, to put it at risk, which is to say, to determine what it is that ‘holds’ (Winnicott again) this thinking (in its exchanges with other texts and practices, psychoanalytic and non-psychoanalytic) and rewards it well enough with pertinent responses to its responsiveness (its responsiveness to fantasied demands placed by its readers, its subjects, analysts and others).

Disparagers will like contending that what can present itself as the lack of expertise betokens the lack of intellectual grounding altogether, hence that psychoanalysis deserves no further holding environment. It may be that the cause of disparagement now, after a hundred years, is less a function of intellectual threat and resistance than of intellectual weariness and projection. What is true, I believe, is that the inheritance of the psychoanalytic experience, like inheritance elsewhere in the life of the mind, becomes increasingly hard to secure. And it is hard for me not to see as one reason for this, or redescription of it – in our era of the increasing academisation of intellectual life, which in turn contributes to the transfiguring of what the academy is – the persistent inability of psychoanalytic institutes (with exceptions) to conceive the training they require in conjunction, if necessarily in tension, with the differently inheritable, differently chancy, work of universities.

Reports of Adam Phillips’s celebrity suggest that his redescriptions are being rewarded. What I have noted here, in considering the relation of certain of Phillips’s texts and practices with certain philosophical others, are various cues for finding, so far as my present competence and time have served, that this cause for raising a glass is well placed.