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.

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