Int J Psychoanal (2009) 90:331–345

doi: 10.1111/j.1745-8315.2009.00136.x

Education Section Is truth an illusion? Psychoanalysis and postmodernism1

David Bell
Flat 4, Mullion Court, 112 Finchley Road, London NW3 5JH – davidlbell@ hotmail.com; dbell@tavi-port.nhs.uk The sort of reflection that I have been engaging in is just the sort of reflection that both Comte and Rorty see as pointless. For Comte, such reflection is a throwback to a pre-scientific age; for Rorty, a reluctance to enter fully into the postmodern one. Some of you will probably agree with one or other of these thinkers. But in my view reflection on just what it is that makes thinkers like Rorty doubt the very idea of representing the world, and I think there is a Rorty as well as a Comte in each of us, however suppressed, is part of understanding ourselves, and not just part of understanding certain sophisticated and influential thinkers. For what is common to Rorty and Comte is the idea that much of what we think we know cannot have the status it seems to have. For Richard Rorty the recommended response is to take a more ‘playful’ attitude to what we think we know; and for August Comte it is to sternly restrict ourselves to ‘positive knowledge’. But understanding the temptations and seductions of the idea that Comte and Rorty share, so that we can live with those temptations and seductions without succumbing to them, is far more important, and more valid as a response, than pretending that the world is either just a playpen or just a scientific laboratory. (Hilary Putnam, 1995, pp. 309–10)

*** The philosopher Susan Haack tells the following story:
Not long ago I heard my Dean, a physicist by training, express his unease at the suggestion that the Mission Statement for the College of Arts and Science included the phrase ‘concern for truth’. The word makes people nervous, he warned, and they are bound to ask ‘‘whose ‘truth’ ’’. A sociologist colleague seconding the Dean’s reservations remarked that, while of course his research advances knowledge, he isn’t concerned with ‘truth’. A couple of us pointed out that unless your conclusions are true, they aren’t really knowledge, only purported knowledge and I did my best to explain that it doesn’t follow from the fact that people disagree about what is true that truth is relative to perspective. (Haack, 1999, p. 12)

Such conversations represent an important sea change in attitude. The recognition of the fragility of truth-claims, of how easily they are overloaded
1

A shortened version of this paper was presented to the 46th IPA conference, Berlin 2008.

ª 2009 Institute of Psychoanalysis Published by Blackwell Publishing, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford, OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA on behalf of the Institute of Psychoanalysis

the link between what is held to be knowledge (that is. what Susan Haack calls ‘purported truth’. do and may turn out to be false. The relativization of ‘truth’ brings not a recognition that there are no ultimate truths. truer than the one that preceded this understanding. and misrepresentations also lose their foothold. however. resulting in important challenges to orthodoxy. that expresses an extreme form of relativism. Here the principal figure would be Marx. which may be very hard to come by. therefore there are no facts. as truth is not something 2 The term ‘postmodernism’ has a very wide range including literature. But this process had undergone an important transformation and a peculiar new orthodoxy had gained hegemony. one might say. namely deceptions. This exposed the importance of ideology and power in what is claimed as ‘knowledge’. lies. serve certain internal. Postmodernism2 dispenses with any conception of truth. art. What has been accepted as ‘known fact’ turned out to be no such thing. each of which has their value. only ‘purported truth’. architecture. This explanatory structure is still underpinned by a conception of truth. and powerful interests on the other. but a world in which the very terms ‘truth’ or ‘reality’ should themselves be abandoned as they have no meaning. etc. more properly. This paper. do not depend on perspective. its various counterparts. to show that individuals and groups have vested interests in perceiving or. amongst other things. What is at issue here is a confusion between what is true and what is held to be true. In a way that has truly advanced our knowledge. so it is claimed. has been increasingly subjected to deep and illuminating scrutiny. different perspectives. But what we suppose to be true. misperceiving the world. When we talk of ‘your truth’ and ‘my truth’ we speak loosely. are all essential to the pursuit of knowledge. and often do. What I hold to be true may be incompatible with what you hold to be true. What a depth psychology or depth social explanation might look like without such concepts is very hard to understand. turn out to be false. And this is in line with psychoanalytic explanation which endeavours. There is here a slippage from the understanding that certain claims as to what is true might. claiming that no distinction can be drawn between what is claimed as truth and preference or fashion. music. but from this it does not follow that incompatible truths can both be true. as a legitimation of power by those who claim to ‘know’. vested interests. Truths about the world. purported truth) on the one hand. ª 2009 Institute of Psychoanalysis Int J Psychoanal (2009) 90 . Uncovering ideology and self-deception brings a world that is broader. human beings have a powerful tendency to substitute for truth wishful illusions that. to the claim ‘therefore there is no such thing as truth’. a substitute that serves certain vested interests.332 D. Similarly Freud showed how. Bell with individual. addresses not these aesthetic forms (of which the author is an admirer). associated with postmodernism. But the relativization of all truth is something entirely different. only serving. at an individual level. but instead an epistemological position. Where there is no conception of truth. social and political preconceptions. Social theorists have shown that what is held to be true often turns out to be a substitute for truth.

a psychoanalyst. live in North London. to a black working-class woman. A further difficulty of such ‘perspectivalism’ can perhaps be seen from the following. I could perhaps sharpen up my position further by adding that I am 58. and not discourses about the world. In a similar way the clearly correct assertion that any view is a view from somewhere. It lies in the issue of where to stop. immediately apparent. a doctor. Extreme relativism thus reveals itself as a kind of solipsism. there being no perspective-free position. Claiming that one view might be broader. and this accounts in part for its attraction. (As Bion [1970]3 has pointed out. All such discussions collapse into discourses about discourses. what is offered is a great ‘democracy of truth’. Similarly no perspective can clash with reality. claiming. that we cannot judge between them. It is only the lie. for example. until in the end I give such a complete picture of the perspective within which my assertions must be judged that the only person to whom they can be directed is myself. say at being white and middle-class. p. and reality as it ‘really is’.Education Section: Is truth an illusion? Psychoanalysis and postmodernism 333 that can be possessed by any individual but is something we apprehend. that the shaman and the physician are both true in their own ways. or understood within there own social context. The point here is that the place at which this stops. non-masculinist non-scientific standards are better’’ (Haack. The difficulty here is. non-western. between wish-fulfilling views of the world mistaken for reality. No perspective can clash with any other. Here there can be no place for differentiating between the world ‘as it is’ and the world ‘as we know it’. that I am not necessarily making any claims that would be relevant. for example. that can be possessed. ª 2009 Institute of Psychoanalysis Int J Psychoanal (2009) 90 . No perspective should be ‘privileged’4 over any other. as each is right from its own point of view. It believes itself to be possessed of a higher order truth (the truth that there is no truth). as it is a personal construction. and so I could go on as there is no obvious place to stop. truth is not a possession but something that we apprehend alongside others. a ‘higher dismissiveness’. The apparent egalitarianism of this position and its opposition to absolutes is rather offset by the universalism and absolutism of its own position. 1999. I think. I might have started this paper by saying that I am male. is removed at a stroke. There is a certain righteous tone or. whilst also claiming that their ‘‘non-white. slips into the assertion that all perspectives are equal. maybe I should add that I live in Crouch End in that Crouch Enders may have a different perspective on truth than those in Hampstead or Brixton.) The ‘relativizers of truth’ seem at one and the same time to be saying that there can be no epistemic standards as to what is to count as knowledge. as Susan Haack has put it. But. a tyrannical assertion that there are no truths and that all views are equal. I will have reason to return to this later in the paper. Instead. 101–3. It is worth noting here the moral tone. Thus one of the fundamental bases of human conflict. would rest on the unquestioned 3 4 See especially pp. white and middle-class – the implication here being that the claims I am about to make should be understood only within that socio-cultural framework ⁄ context. more accurate than another is understood as giving it a special ‘privilege’. that one view cannot be more objective than another. 13). as reality is a fiction.

one might take modernism to refer. sometimes called ‘High Modernism’. Bell assumption that. But psychoanalysis occupies a paradoxical position in relation to the Enlightenment project. A number of authors have suggested that bringing psychoanalysis within the postmodern liberates it from what is characterized (caricatured) as its making omnipotent claims for objectivity and Truth. in two distinct ways. to the movement from the 17th century onwards that is characterized by the view that human knowledge derives from reason and that understanding of the world must be based on accurate observation of it. have as their main context the turn of the last century. as opposed to Truth as worked out. This was the time of a major break with classic modes of thought. Another conception of modernism. In this sense psychoanalysis is a child of high modernism. and so man. ‘Modernism’ is used. I think.5 But Freud’s discovery of the importance and influence of the ‘irrational’ in the psychological life dealt perhaps the most devastating blow of all to man’s narcissism. the celebration of multiplicity. its naïve scientism. struggled for). It is also worth remarking here that the person who insists that he is only talking from his own point of view surrenders the possibility of being wrong.334 D. in other words. Further. I think. First was Copernicus who removed the earth. from being placed at the centre of the universe. pluralism and the abandonment of a conception of truthfulness opposes some features of psychoanalysis that are. say. and very germane to my theme. This view of psychoanalysis is. namely the novel that locates its principle scene of action in the interiority of individuals. Such an assumption could not be justified without appealing to a logic that has already been ‘outlawed’ from this relativistic perspective. in art (the break with realism and the birth of cubism) or in literature. ª 2009 Institute of Psychoanalysis Int J Psychoanal (2009) 90 . Its influence has been wide especially within the humanities and it has been considered by some as a natural philosophical ‘home’ for psychoanalysis. Even in his 5 Freud rightly saw himself as following the other ‘Great De-centrers’. central to its world-view. Here modernism is counter-posed to religious and mystical notions which view knowledge and understanding as given by God (truth as revealed. the project of the Enlightenment. I believe. be they in music (with the breaking with classical form). An underlying credo of the modernist movement is that it is through knowledge that human beings can emancipate themselves. refers to those momentous upheavals which. Psychoanalysis and postmodernism The postmodernist relativization of all truth marks a final break with the modernist project. Next came Darwin who removed man from his central place in nature. It constitutes the last of a number of critical ‘decentrings’ of Man’s view of his place in the world. though starting long before. with the psychological novel. Firstly. broadly. Making the stronger claim that one believes a statement to be true has an important modesty because implicit is the possibility that one may turn out to be wrong. my being a psychoanalyst is less relevant to the matter under discussion than my being white and middle-class. a gross misrepresentation.

important though it is. thus. recognizing the importance of subjectivity is part of an attempt to be more objective. Freud and Marx. may make it appear to belong within such a postmodernist framework. the soil from which psychoanalysis sprung. In this sense. Firstly. is extremely limited. Secondly. In fact this tension between the importance of subjectivity and the struggling for objectivity is an essential tension of our subject. but observed that behind the apparently nonsensical there lay deeper truths.6 Some characteristics of psychoanalytic thought There are a number of core features which are both constitutive of psychoanalytic explanation and which locate it firmly within modernism and 6 This and many other related epistemological and cultural points (too many to mention) touched on in this paper. whilst labouring under difficult conditions. It is important to disentangle a commitment to recognizing the importance of the subjective. its nature and the laws that govern its functioning. which broke with old forms that constrained knowledge to discover deeper truths. such as the belief that knowledge brings freedom. The critical thinkers of this period. but brought about a revolution in our understanding of the limitations that we labour under to acquire such knowledge and also put the seal on the possibility of any knowledge being absolute. there is no necessary connection between complexity and relativization of truth. from the doctrine of Subjectivism. In fact. no necessary connection between deep involvement with human subjectivity and subjectivism as a philosophical position. then. but might find the argument more persuasive when it comes to human experience itself. which is complex and many-sided. One might add that it is also constitutive of what it is to be human. Postmodernism as an epistemology. of course. at the same time maintains a commitment to objectivity. which claims that subjectivity is all there is in the world (in other words. truth or reality. profoundly mistaken. did not hold up his hands and surrender to the dominion of the irrational.Education Section: Is truth an illusion? Psychoanalysis and postmodernism 335 own mind he is moved by forces beyond his control. High Modernism. There is. Idealism). he reclaimed the irrational for the house of reason. That psychoanalysis has as its primary concern inner experience. ª 2009 Institute of Psychoanalysis Int J Psychoanal (2009) 90 . are discussed at length by Terry Eagleton (1996) in his brilliant The Illusions of Postmodernism. illusions which conceal from us necessary truths of our condition. whilst always maintaining that the knowledge arrived at. This is. giving an account of its history. Yet Freud. is not a child of High Modernism. was not a break with certain core features of modernism. but instead stands in opposition to all claims of knowledge. a deep involvement with it. The postmodernist argument refers to all truth-claims whether they refer to the natural or the human sciences. sought to expose the illusions we create and live by. whilst asserting the enormity of the factor of subjectivity in determining any human being’s understanding of his world. psychoanalytic explanation. I think. Some may find this a difficult position to sustain in relation to the Natural Sciences.

Psychoanalysis is a ‘critical activity’ both at the level of theory and practice. It both expresses and obscures conflict. Postmodernism. if they are to be credited with real explanatory value. when examined more deeply and in more detail. when probed reveals deeper realities. though at a less manifest level. have to do work. through the concepts of repression and resistance.and post-breakdown state is an important part of the work. The laws of planetary motion show that the earth is not an unmoving body in the centre of a universe that rotates around it. as is the less welcome discovery that recovery is not recovery from the difficulties that brought about the illness. which. In fact the capacity to help the patient integrate his pre. These continue. 8 The finding of continuity in the apparently discontinuous extends beyond the individual patient to broader concerns. A distinct but related feature of psychoanalytic explanation is its commitment to historical continuity. of course. part of the task will be to show continuities functioning but at a less apparent level. can also account for the fact that this does not appear to be the case. shows in bizarre and distorted form conflicts and preoccupations that were part of the personality prior to the breakdown. Physics shows us that in solid matter there is more space than solid. A firm distinction between ‘personality’ and ‘illness’ cannot hold from a psychoanalytic perspective. apparently.336 D. within the character structure of the individual patient. in general. Freud’s understanding of symptoms characterizes the symptom as only the outward appearance of a deeper structure. of why it is that we are pulled towards settling for appearance. Freud showed the normal in the abnormal: even the most bizarre symptoms had as their content concerns which are universal to humanity. eschews all such universalist claims. again. Where discontinuities occur apparently.7 Such forms of explanation are committed to the view that seeing beyond mere appearances is a potentially emancipatory activity. which is central to psychoanalytic explanation. This commitment to the restoration of continuity to that which appeared to be discontinuous reflects the developmental perspective. whether it be at the level of the individual patient or at the level of theory. This is true. Thus a breakdown manifests itself as a most impressive discontinuity. And this is the way that knowledge advances. a personality development brought about under the stress of certain internal and external conditions. but. of scientific explanation. as what appears as illness is also understood as continuous with personality. a compromise between hidden forces within the mind. At one and the same time the theory gives an account of the phenomenon and. Similarly. They have to explain the phenomena addressed and at the same time have to explain why these deeper causal structures are not self-evident. they also show why it appears as if this is the case. Appearance. Bell which are inimical to postmodernism. Further. These deeper realities reveal structures. that which is manifest. but.8 7 This mode of explanation is also characteristic of ‘depth sociology’ where manifest social phenomena are viewed as the outward expression of deeper structural forces. ª 2009 Institute of Psychoanalysis Int J Psychoanal (2009) 90 .

My patient. which analysis will make me own. a way of keeping him alive. First case Mr A’s thinking was dominated by a relativistic perspective. He would avidly agree with any interpretation that he could take as implying that he was projecting aspects of himself into external objects. only views and facets. discussed above. When this procedure was no longer available to him. he collapsed into the most terrible despair. though not manifest. trapped with objects whose badness was now an unalterable fact. He was in this sense a Subjectivist. but goes further. that is. is that such problems cannot be dealt with without a deep appreciation of the powerful emotional factors that bind us to a worldview which. who suffered from a kind of solipsism. and only meaning. Then I will become able to see my objects as good. He might decide that his objects have certain unpleasant characteristics but then. it becomes clear that ‘restoration of continuity’ is really a further aspect of the ‘appearance– reality’ distinction. For him there are no determining characteristics of an object. in apparently excessively fair-minded way. would treat this 9 The reduction of psychoanalytic explanation of symptoms to meaning.10 The cause of the disease was not the doctrine per se but the attitude to the world that it revealed. the reality of his objects could be altered purely by changing the way he thought about them. 1978). This type of understanding not only imparts meaning to symptoms. The understanding of the meaning of the symptom displays at one and the same time its causal structure and its causal history. His understanding of analysis might be put in the following way: ‘Through analysis I can learn how I distort my objects by projecting into them aspects of myself. provides no place for this developmental perspective. A man may develop the symptoms that were originally manifest in his recently dead father and this may express his identification with his dead father. deeply influences our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.Education Section: Is truth an illusion? Psychoanalysis and postmodernism 337 Given that the continuities I refer to are not manifest. in other words ‘the hermeneutic turn’. this taking place in an atmosphere highly charged with ‘moralism’. He thought this view was quite consistent with the aims of psychoanalysis. 10 ‘‘The philosopher is the man who has to cure himself of many sicknesses of the understanding’’ (Wittgenstein. For him.9 Wittgenstein viewed certain types of philosophical error as akin to a disease of understanding and his philosophical approach as a kind of therapy. however. ª 2009 Institute of Psychoanalysis Int J Psychoanal (2009) 90 . instead of bad’. although he was not fully aware of this. All of us suffer from various kinds of epistemological malaise when it comes to facing certain unwanted aspects of reality. suffered from the related disorders of ‘perspectivalism’ and ‘multi-facetedness’. In his sessions there was a sort of energetic exposure of himself. as well as expressing his guilt (making himself suffer) arising from the realization of his own death wishes towards the father. What we have learnt.

but also ushered in a capacity to have a broader view of himself and thus also of the world around him. Mr B knew of the primal scene as a fact but gave it no significance. say an envious perspective. We can conceive of someone having a truer relation to the world. I am in a more objective position than I was before. For example. This sort of move underlies the capacity to learn from experience. but is more inclusive. no different from ‘going to the cinema’. we all become able to have a more objective and more complex view of ourselves and of the world. When he did come to apprehend the significance of the primal scene. Mr A could not bear the awareness of bad objects which could not be altered and tried to change their nature through thinking of them differently. we accept them and do not accept them. Central to his model is the act of recognition of certain truths of the world. it transcends it. Second case Mr B led a very limited and utterly joyless life. which is both good and beyond our control. depends upon the capacity to negotiate what Money-Kyrle (1971) described as certain facts of life. such as the awareness of the object. but that knowledge had no significance for him. as it did not take into consideration certain features of the world that. Full recognition is an emotional experience. One might say he knew of the primal scene. I now realize. and the awareness of our own mortality. He had relationships with women who had other partners and his activities with these women consisted mainly in ‘going to the cinema’. Int J Psychoanal (2009) 90 ª 2009 Institute of Psychoanalysis . or at least one that is less untrue. I had not wanted to think about. as a result of the psychic moves made possible through development. relatively speaking. it brought awareness of exclusion and the attendant unbearable pain. via these two vignettes. it marks development and is a precondition for it. without having to think that this new expanded relation to the world provides truth in any ultimate sense. This learning. I can examine the world from one particular point of view in which I am heavily invested. this viewed as completely abstracted from the human relationship within which it takes place. Bell as ‘only an aspect’. The new perspective contains within it the old. Now that I think of them I widen my frame of reference and so. having decided that his analyst was using him perversely he also claimed that this was something that could be ‘put aside’. as he might gain something from ‘the analysis’. The patients described above in different ways tried to accommodate certain difficult facts without being affected by them. is that. as he considered sexual intercourse as ‘another activity added on’. It does not exist alongside it as an alternative. and then realize that my perspective has been very limited. At one and the same time.338 D. Discussion The point that I am making here. however. All of us have a tendency to put a kind of ‘spin’ on these facts. It did not seem to matter to him that these women had lovers. His view was limited in this way for various profound and disturbing reasons.

His belief in his freedom may be an illusion. As Terry Eagleton has put it: ‘‘Science and philosophy must jettison their truth claims and view themselves more modestly as just another set of narratives’’ (1987. The epistemological position of postmodernism is necessarily relativist. illusion. so to speak.) What is new is the penetration of this form of thinking into society and culture as a whole defining in Raymond Williams’s memorable phrase a new ‘structure of feeling’ that informs the age. Postmodernism provides no place for false consciousness. Appearance is. for these derive their meaning from the contrast with truth ⁄ reality. It sounds the death knell of ‘grand theory’. but rather the correct opinions conform to that which exists’ [quoted in Norris. does not allow the possibility that experiences may derive from poor understanding. fluidity and plurality. that his master is good to him. and so render them inconsequential. false consciousness. This form of existence does not bring the emptiness and despair which one might imagine as its counterpart but instead becomes a basis for A slave may say he is happy. The privileging of subjectivity.Education Section: Is truth an illusion? Psychoanalysis and postmodernism 339 Both patients attempt to make un-negotiable facts into negotiable ones. Truth collapses into ‘what works’. Postmodernism celebrates ‘transitoriness’. and allows him one whole day off in thirty days and treats him in a kind fatherly way. lies and other forms of false consciousness. p. tells us: ‘That which exists does not conform to various opinions. or at least more true. it is as old a philosophy itself. as such a category can only make sense in a world in which something may be true. His happiness. 9). which is a fact of his life. by which they mean fragmented and alienated (quoted in Harvey. Perhaps the most important of these concerns the acceptance of the inevitability of limitation. 1995] and Plato’s Thaetetetus contains a prolonged discussion of the question of whether ‘Man is the measure of all things’. Hassan. The problems of Mr A and Mr B serve to show how a person’s understanding of his world may derive from false consciousness. ‘all there is’. But the privileging of subjectivity. for example. its ethic pragmatism. ª 2009 Institute of Psychoanalysis Int J Psychoanal (2009) 90 11 . is his subjective condition but in itself tells us nothing of whether or not he is oppressed. 1990). Eagleton and others have pointed out that the world as depicted is profoundly schizoid. characteristic of postmodernism. The attractions of relativism When I tried to think about the excitement generated by postmodernism it struck me that what made it so attractive was the very fact that it claimed to transcend just those features of life which Freud emphasized as central to the human condition. giving experience itself a special status which cannot be gainsaid. raises a thorny problem for this kind of understanding. The epistemological problem addressed by postmodernism is not new. In such a world the idea of depth (in the sense outlined above in terms of explanatory structure) is only a convenient myth for manipulating texts. This might be based on a judgement of factors such as how much real freedom and control he has of his conditions. (Aristotle.11 But in a world that provides no place for a conception of truthfulness there is no place for selfdeception.

As in everaccelerating ways all human activities are brought under the hegemonic domination of the market. Bell celebration. p. and to be disposed of when they are past their ‘sell-by date’. 1999. I think.340 D. when he says: ‘‘Reason floats free. In this sense. Truths about ourselves and the world are likely to be highly complex and difficult to grasp. is superseded in postmodernism by the illusion of infinite freedom. But what manifests itself as freedom is. What is post-modern about this theoretical scheme is its assumption that only historical anachronisms stand in the way of full human autonomy and self determination’’ (Rustin. Ideas and beliefs can be ‘bought into’ to be used as we need them. with the inevitable feelings of loss that this brings. partners. a world where all ‘reality’ is merely construction. life as a shopping expedition. David Harvey writes: ‘‘Postmodernism swims. consumer choice. for what is offered is the deadening of experience as all shopping malls look the same. The painful difficult struggle for limited understanding is replaced by the ‘pick and mix’ of the shopping malls. positing pure relationships of selfrealization ‘‘established for (their) own sake. What is offered. Choice can only be choice in any strong existential sense of the word. an apparently limitless world without objective constraints. in this world. as if that is all there is’’ (1990.12 Where choice does not impose limitations to further action. relationships. ideals. is quite illusory. transcended. where ideologies. I think.13 This world of limitlessness bears all the hallmarks of omnipotence. 116). can only have real meaning when it brings recognition of the breaking with other possibilities. even wallows in the fragmentary currents of change. Michael Rustin captures both the epistemological and its personal implications of postmodernism. 44). has important consequences for the understanding of identity. Int J Psychoanal (2009) 90 ª 2009 Institute of Psychoanalysis . In this type of thinking there is. having to discard his illusions to become himself. My reference to the shopping mall here is not accidental. really an enslavement to narcissism. then this is not really choice at all. a confusion between complexity and relativism. without necessary limit or obstruction. In a world where identities can be chosen to suit one’s preference. clearly a very attractive proposition. in the postmodern world. When this fact is 12 This issue and others closely related to this theme are more fully discussed by Christopher Lasch (1984) in his somewhat prophetic book The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times (see particularly pp. 13 As in the shopping mall the appearance of plurality. The constraints that arise as a result of being human are. 1999 p. and this is a fact of life. p. Freud’s tragic vision of man engaged with the inevitable disappointments and pains of life. 112). 34–8). Postmodernism minimizes the obstacles to self-understanding and the inevitable constraints on self-realization. identity ceases to exist as an enduring characteristic. commitments are all easily cancellable. even philosophical positions can be chosen in the same way that one may choose any commodity. beyond the constraints of family and ascribed social roles’’ (Rustin. postmodernism is the penetration of the commodity-form into epistemology. Frederic Jameson (1991) has suggested that postmodernism is nothing more than the ‘cultural logic of late capitalism’.

There is a certain sort of deep freedom that arises when individuals who have spent their lives trying to escape all constraints come to accept some of the inevitable limitations of being human. the apprehension of complexity becomes ‘the world can be what I want it to be’ and so all painful struggle is disposed of at one blow.’’14 Theory and practice These considerations are not just abstract or purely scholastic questions as what we conceive psychoanalysis to be has profound implications for how we carry out our work. There is thus an inevitable limitation to what can be known. But when this is met with by a personality dominated by more narcissistic forces. not least those that derive from the materiality of our own bodies. ‘‘Freedom is the recognition of necessity. Further. 14 This quotation is from Hegel (1812) and was cited by Engels in ‘Anti-Duhring’. can only make sense if underwritten by a realist ontology.Education Section: Is truth an illusion? Psychoanalysis and postmodernism 341 apprehended by a personality in which the forces promoting development are uppermost. particularly the appearance–reality distinction. There is an intrinsic relationship between a world-view which accepts inevitable limitation and an epistemology that is realist in this sense. ‘Necessity is blind only insofar as it is not understood’ ’’. But from this he derives the following. the result is the painful struggle to comprehend this complexity – ‘the ragged untidy process of groping for and sometimes grasping something of how the world is’. what can be known is not co-terminous with what we experience. To him. The mental structures investigated by psychoanalysis are in this sense real and the assumption of such ‘unobservable’ structures is necessary in order to make the project coherent. From such a realist perspective the observations we make of the world are causal effects of objects that have a reality independent of our experience of them. committed to a view that the world ‘as it is’ is not reducible to the world ‘as I see it’. 1998). the ‘‘idea of unconscious constraints on individual psychic freedom’’. The postmodernist framework brings a view of analytic work well represented in the work of Renik. inescapable mental structures. our inevitable vulnerability. Psychoanalysis. as Michael Rustin (1999) has pointed out. The full quotation reads as follows: ‘‘Hegel was the first to state the relation between freedom and necessity correctly. and to distinguish awareness of these ordinary limitations from imprisonment. that is. ª 2009 Institute of Psychoanalysis Int J Psychoanal (2009) 90 . It seems to me that this is just the sort of error made by postmodernists. emphasizes the inevitable constraints to human freedom. For our purposes here I will only pick out one or two points that are relevant to my main theme. The features described above as being central to psychoanalysis. aspects of our own characters that we are not happy about but have to live with. Renik in a way that is quite uncontroversial emphasizes the irreducible subjectivity of all interpretive work. when underwritten by this realist position. as Susan Haack calls it. His views are expressed clearly in his paper The analyst’s subjectivity and the analyst’s objectivity (Renik. presupposing the existence of such structures captures. freedom is the recognition of necessity.

the difference between trying to take other perspectives into account. the oedipal configuration. All explanatory systems are layered. Bell He states. Lastly. good arguments and bad. present and past that worked. 491) For Renik there are no truths that are ‘out there’ to be discovered. at the highest level. discussing his work with his patient. for example. p. 492. at certain levels what appears to be true or real might be highly conjectural and capable of being replaced without causing any serious problems to the general theory. 1998. she states: [the relativist says] all I can know is how things appear to me. where the recognition of the need to maintain ordinary boundaries as part of the psychoanalytic setting is misunderstood as a rigid assertion of authority and disregard for the patient. and not reflecting at all. Those who maintain a belief in the centrality of truth ⁄ truthfulness are misunderstood by relativists such as Renik as making omnipotent assertions of ‘Truth’ with a capital ‘T’. concerning the principal anxieties and conflicts that dominate an individual patient’s character. What this conclusion overlooks is the distinction between good reasons for belief and bad reasons. For a coherent consistent narrative of one’s life that serves one well and promotes happiness (‘what works’ in Renik’s terms) may arise from self-deception and thus cannot promote development. whilst postulates at other levels within the system may be much more robust. in clinical psychoanalysis as in the rest of science. His pragmatic approach to truth cannot distinguish different levels in a theory. there is the general theory of mind that psychoanalysis embodies (represented by. 1998. As I see it. 1998. etc. (Cavell. now. say.342 D. truth is what works. Renik’s paper was subject to a penetrating critique by Cavell (1998). We evaluated the validity of our understanding entirely on the basis of therapeutic efficacy. This misunderstanding at the level of theory has its counterpart at the level of practice.. but we may have considerably more confidence at a higher level. between thinking wishfully and fantasying. p. I think. in other words crude scientism. but only ‘what works’. At another level still there are more general clinical facts such as transference and projection. the model of conscious/unconscious. nothing in the theory or the practice appears to have more grounds for belief than anything else. (Renik. that helped him feel better. p. Those who view psychoanalysis as involving only narrative truth face exactly this problem. Relevant to my theme. For Renik. The understanding of a particular session might be easily altered as things develop. immediately clear: for how are we to distinguish ‘what works’ from illusion and wish-fulfilment. 1l99) There is a further problem in Renik’s position. Goldberg Int J Psychoanal (2009) 90 ª 2009 Institute of Psychoanalysis . (Renik. as ‘what works’ is all that matters. it refers to objectives .). italics in original) [Or] objectivity is a pragmatic concept. Ethan: We were trying to devise a new way for Ethan’s life.. The problem this creates is.

she pointed out. when it was presented to the British Psychoanalytic Society. that is at the core of the psychoanalytic understanding of psychic change (for an excellent discussion of this. I believe. First. it is difficult to understand how such knowledge could have any existence independent of its practical use.15 In the discussion of his 1998 paper. social theory. suggested that the analytic setting is too rule-bound and that we need to be more flexible and adapt our procedures to suit the patients needs. that is that the objects to which psychoanalytic theories refer are only existent within the psychoanalytic setting. ª 2009 Institute of Psychoanalysis Int J Psychoanal (2009) 90 .g. Renik made it clear that. whether or not unconscious fantasy was an important part of mental life? For. see Wollheim. not the knowlege of facts. The last point I wish to make I have made before (see Bell. 1986).Education Section: Is truth an illusion? Psychoanalysis and postmodernism 343 (2000). quite implausible. Matters having been misrepresented in this way. e. given to the Nice Congress. in his paper Postmodern psychoanalysis. I have suggested that the postmodernist relativization of truth cannot provide a framework for psychoanalysis. 1993). the latter relativism. for psychoanalysis is I believe committed to a realist ontology. 2000) and will touch only briefly on it here.16 Conclusion By way of conclusion I will firstly summarize the main argument. namely are such ideas helpful to patients. Grunbaum profoundly misunderstands Freud. Although proceeding from a completely different standpoint. A view of psychoanalysis that collapses its truth-claims to merely pragmatic concerns creates some difficulty for understanding the validity of the theory of mind that it represents. My argument is that the former is crude absolutism. I have attempted to outline certain core features of psychoanalysis that locate it within modernism: here I gave emphasis to the idea of depth expla15 Interestingly. as he believes that according to Freud’s theory psychic change should result simply from knowledge of facts. How could one decide. He does not seem to understand that it is the overcoming of resistance. philosophy. and that judgement of its value lay only in its success in helping patients. given that he equated psychoanalysis with therapeutic activity. offering them the opportunity to judge for themselves the value of the explanatory system it offers. a similar position is taken by many of the critics of psychoanalysis. he had to assert that psychoanalysis can have no distinct status as a body of knowledge. which is. gives important access to it for those who are not analysts and have no wish to be analysed. The ‘pragmatic’ version of truth of psychoanalytic interpretations is wedded to an epistemological position. if the only criterion is pragmatic. Irma Brenman Pick pointed out that the speaker misrepresented rules of analytic procedure as deriving from a position of omnipotent authority. by re-examining Freud’s cases (see Grunbaum. separable from its practical use as a therapy. etc. left only two possibilities available: either mindless submission to the ‘law’ (father) or complete opposition to all law (psychically equivalent to murder of father). on purely pragmatic grounds. 16 Esman (1998) has helpfully pointed out that the engagement of psychoanalysis with literature. they have looked for validation of the core claims of psychoanalysis only within the accounts of treatments.

that is it captures what it expresses and displays its causal structure and its causal history. Bell nation. p. that such a (radical) scepticism as this is the ‘‘flip-side of a craving for an unintelligible kind of certainty’’ (p. Yet it seems to me that really they are opposite side of the same coin. Often the personality. 178. creates difficulty in accounting for its broader (that is interdisciplinary) relevance. 300). referring to Richard Rorty. italics in original). He points out that we do not decide whether or not a person is a person like us: ‘‘My attitude towards him is an attitude towards a soul. The collapse into pragmatics and subjectivism leaves no place for psychoanalysis as a body of knowledge of mind separable from the effectiveness of that knowledge in helping patients. which at one moment appears to accept only subjectivism. I believe. I have further suggested that the understanding of a symptom at one and the same time grasps its meaning.17 It is at least plausible that relativism is a radical turning away in disappointment from the unfulfillable demand of certainty.344 D. Following Jameson. appears to be a long way away from the absolutist assertion of objective reality. appearance and reality. and our struggle with these apparent polarities is constitutive of 17 Wittgenstein makes a related point in connection with the problem of other minds. which can easily become the basis for identification. Relativism opposes itself to a crude scientism seen as authoritarian and absolutist. I have attempted to discuss postmodernism and its relativizing discourse from a psychoanalytic perspective suggesting that its celebration of plurality. 14). Hilary Putnam (1995) states: ‘‘Whether there is a reality or not is not something on which we can form an opinion. the world as it is and the world as we perceive it are all inescapable. He goes on to say. a world where claims can never (by definition) be right. Int J Psychoanal (2009) 90 ª 2009 Institute of Psychoanalysis . p. the hallmark of postmodernism. Yet relativism can be asserted with an absolutism that betrays its origins. As Susan Haack says: ‘‘The ragged untidy process of groping for and sometimes grasping something of how the world is is not a male thing or a white thing. the crucial distinction between appearance and reality. the fundamentalism of its original demands. I do not think that whether there is truth or not is a purely scholastic question. in the next reveals itself to be threatened by an absolutism. The turning away in radical scepticism retains. The disappointment and living with uncertainty that might have resulted. however. This again commits it to a realist ontology. and so. The celebration of subjectivity and plurality. it is just a given of our lived life’’. The distinctions between objective and subjective. inner and outer. fluidity and limitlessness reveals an omnipotent system freed from the constraints of reality. and the commitment of psychoanalytic explanation to continuity beneath discontinuity. I am not of the opinion that he has a soul’’ (Wittgenstein. is instead replaced by an attack on all truth-claims. but a Human thing’’ (1999. and so can never be wrong. 1953. I have suggested some links between postmodernism and the market form which supports the powerful human tendencies to discard the limitations of reality and seek solace in a world of infinite possibility.

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