EXPLANATION IN THE HERMENEUTIC SCIENCE
Using clinical vignettes, we first examine the idea that psychoanalysis is, in Gill's (1991) phrase, a
hermeneutic science -- hermeneutic because it interprets meanings, scientific because the
meaning connections it deals with are also usually causal connections. Next we explore some
aspects of the structure of the kinds of explanation distinctive to psychoanalysis. Three kinds are
distinguished: conveyance of content explanations, which have been central in the accounts of
some recent philosophers of psychoanalysis, and two kinds of explanation in terms of
intentionality, in terms, that is to say, of what the psychic states in question are about. One deals
with forward-looking states such as wishes, in which the state is about some future, sought-after
state of affairs such as a wish-fulfilment; the other deals with backward-looking psychic states
such as memories, in which the state to be explained is about some earlier experience, fantasy, or
whatever, one often quite unknown to the analysand prior to analysis. The paper concludes by
making a quick case for the idea that good explanations in terms of meaning or intentionality
often also identify the cause of the psychic states being explained.
It is a truism to say that interpretations are the stuff of clinical psychoanalysis. It may be less obvious that virtually all interpretations are also explanations: to interpret some psychic state or behaviour is at least in some measure to explain it. The same is true of constructions and reconstructions. In general, all the standard tools of clinical psychoanalysis work by providing explanations of things not previously understood. The only significant exceptions are clarifications and mirroring. The kind of explanations offered by psychoanalytic interpretations have some special features, features that we will examine in what follows. To be sure, all three have features in common with other kinds of explanation: in particular, like other kinds of explanation, their purpose is to make something intelligible that is otherwise puzzling. However, the way psychoanalytic explanations do this is quite different from the way other kinds of explanation do it, explanations in the natural sciences work for example.
The kind of explanation at work in interpretations and constructions is usually called psychological explanation. Its special characteristics have been under investigation by researchers in a number of disciplines for over two decades. In this paper I will begin by putting together two results of this research that have come to be accepted by many psychoanalysts. The first is that behaviour and psychological states in psychoanalysis have intentionality and explanations in psychoanalysis typical start from this fact; a psychic state has intentionality when it is about something, directed at something. This point may seem too obvious to be worth making again. It is worth mentioning because, on the one hand, the metapsychology that Freud developed ignored the phenomenon but, on the other, Freud himself made extensive use of intentionality in his actual clinical explanations. We will return to this term shortly.
The second result is that the explanations psychoanalysis gives are nevertheless causal
explanations: they are about the causes and effects of psychic states and behaviours. Though this
idea came under close scrutiny in the 1970's and is still rejected in some quarters, the evidence in
favour of it seems very strong, as a brief examination of a couple of clinical examples will
strongly suggest. With these two points in place, we can then take up some of the special
characteristics of psychoanalytic explanation, illustrating them with a few clinical examples.
Psychoanalysis as an Intentional Psychology
The doctrine that psychoanalysis is an intentional psychology came into prominence in the early 1970's. Its original appeal lay in its apparent superiority to metapsychology, which many analysts had come to view as a seriously problematic conceptual framework within which to do psychological theory by then. Metapsychology is the idea that we can understand psychic material in a non-intentional language of energy, cathexes, barriers, discharges, etc. So far as I know, the first significant challenge to this doctrine from within psychoanalysis was Rycroft's influential 1966 argument that psychoanalytic explanation is not any kind of mechanistic explanation at all; rather, it is one type of semantic explanation. Since then, the view that psychoanalysis is an intentional psychology has increasingly come to dominate psychoanalytic thinking, to such an extent, in fact, that by the 1990's it had pretty much become the orthodox view, entirely displacing the metapsychology picture in the minds of many analysts (Strenger, 1991). Prominent advocates of the new vision include G. S. Klein (1969, 1976), Ricoeur (1970, 1981), Habermas (1971), Schafer (1976, 1978), Gill (Gill and Holzman, 1976), Parkin (1979), Spence (1982), Wollheim (1984), Edelson (1988, esp. Ch. 15), and Hopkins (1982, 1986).
At the heart of this vision is the familiar idea that psychoanalysis is not an activity of identifying mechanical forces and their effects; it is an activity of interpreting `meanings', people's reasons for thinking and feeling and acting as they do. This idea rests in turn on another, even more fundamental one, that psychological vocabulary is very different from the kind of vocabulary we find in the natural sciences. First, it is a language of representations: of perception, belief, desire, affect and psychic reality (dreaming and imagination). Second, and this is what makes it unique, the states it describes have or are described as having intentionality. Intentionality here means being about something, having an object (Brentano 1874, Searle 1983, Dennett 1987). A belief is about whatever is believed, a desire is about whatever is desired, a fantasy is about whatever is imagined in it, an affect is about whatever it is directed at, and so on.
The kinship of the term `intentionality' to the English word `intention' is largely accidental, though like almost all psychological states and activities, intentions also have intentionality. `Intentionality' is merely a technical term invented in the middle ages for the relation of something being about something else. There is also a technical term for the object of this relationship, namely, intentional object. It is important to note that intentional objects need not correspond to anything that exists; this feature of intentionality is important because it is what makes fantasies, mistaken beliefs, dreams, wishes, etc., possible. They all have intentional objects that do not correspond to any real object, event or state of affairs. Events and states of affairs, including psychological events and states, can be intentional objects just as well as objects strictly so called. Some theorists also call the intentional object of a psychological state its content.
It will be obvious that virtually all the states of interest to psychoanalytic interpretation and explanation have intentionality as it has just been defined. Moreover, contrary perhaps to the dreams of the metapsychologists, the clinical vocabulary used in day-to-day psychoanalytic practise has always been an intentional vocabulary, a vocabulary for states and processes in which intentionality is an essential feature. The working language of psychoanalysis has always been a language of beliefs, desires, emotions, attitudes, motives, fantasies -- the language of representations in psychic reality. All such states have intentionality.
Psychoanalysis has supplemented our common psychological vocabulary in a variety of ways, of course, introducing terms such as defense, repression, splitting, projective identification and so forth. But nothing in psychoanalysis has ever come close to eliminating or replacing it. There have been only two serious attempts to eliminate psychological vocabulary from explanations of psychological phenomena. We have already mentioned one of them: metapsychology as expressed in the nineteenth century quantitative, mechanistic vocabulary of energy and energy flows. The other is behaviourism. Though we cannot go into all the reasons here, both are generally conceded to have been failures.(1) The supplements to psychological vocabulary of psychoanalysis that we mentioned earlier are not like metapsychology or behaviourism in this regard; far from attempting to eliminate or replace the vocabulary of psychological states having intentionality, the new psychological states discovered by psychoanalysis also are themselves intentional states.
The official doctrine of metapsychology deals entirely in energies and energy channels and thus has no place for intentionality. Curiously, Freud himself seems to have gone both ways on the issue, however. It is well known that Freud attended lectures of the famous nineteenth century Viennese philosopher Franz Brentano. Moreover, he attended Brentano' lectures for two years, indeed was so deeply emmeshed in Brentano's work that for a time he contemplated doing a doctorate under Brentano's supervision (McGrath, 1986). Brentano, however, is the father of modern intentionality theory and Freud attended his lectures at exactly the time he was writing the 1874 book in which he reintroduced the concept into modern thought. Yet Freud never made any use of Brentano's ideas, indeed so much as refers to Brentano only once in the whole Standard Edition (1905b, 31 n. 6 and App.) and to a riddle of Brentano's, not to anything about his philosophy and certainly not to anything to do with intentionality. This curious state of affairs cannot be explained by any reluctance on Freud's part to refer to philosophers; he refers, for example, to all of Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Nietzsche at least a couple of dozen times each. One possible explanation is that his adherence to the doctrine that mechanistic metapsychology and the vocabulary of energy, energy discharge, etc. is the only respectable vocabulary in which to do psychology that he could not officially recognize any alternative.
Whatever, the puzzle about Freud's neglect of Brentano deepens when we notice that, his official view notwithstanding, he himself not only made constant use of intentional psychological language in his writing but modelled the special concepts of psychoanalysis upon it. As we will see later, he also repeatedly used the special kind of explanation that goes with intentionality, psychological explanation.
That Freud used intentional language needs little argument; barring the Project, almost all his works are written in the distinctive vocabulary of intentional psychology. Even more interestingly, the notion even creeps into metapsychology. Intentionality should have no place in metapsychology. The latter attempts to explain human thought, affect and behaviour in terms of movements, blockages, transformations and discharges of energy, but energy does not have intentionality. When the oxidation of gasoline in an internal combustion motor produces intense heat and pressure, for example, the heat and pressure are not about anything, do not have intentionality, though of course they have various effects. The same should be true of quantities and vicissitudes of psychic energy in the psychic apparatus. Yet elements of intentionality creep surreptitiously into the drive discharge theory at the heart of metapsychology as early as the very first mature statement of the doctrine, the famous 1905 schema of source, object and aim (1905a). Blind flows of energy certainly have a source; but an object and an aim? The energy released by the burning gasoline does not have either an object or an aim, nor does any other release, flow or transformation of energy. Something more than pure mechanical energy has already entered the picture: the kind of directedness to an object that is distinctive of psychological states, something that goes well beyond mere flows and transformations of energy. Whatever Freud's official intentions and pronouncements, the mature doctrine of metapsychology was far from a pure exemplar of a natural scientific framework that Freud wanted.
Another example of how intentionality tended to creep into Freud's work even early on can be found in his 1890's view that neurotics suffer from reminiscences. Reminiscences are thoroughly intentional -- they are about earlier experiences (and/or fantasies) -- and it would be hard even to begin to give an account of them in purely drive discharge terms.
That Freud modelled the special concepts of psychoanalysis upon concepts for intentional from our ordinary psychological vocabulary can be illustrated by considering Freud's favourite argument for the existence of unconscious psychological states. In outline, it goes as follows. Our inferences as to the psychic states which caused a person to behave in a certain way usually correspond, Freud begins, to what the person him- or herself is conscious of and believes to be the cause. But sometimes a person either grossly misidentifies what clearly seems to us to be the cause of some behaviour, or he or she is just not aware of any cause at all. Either way, there is a gap. At this point, Freud adds something new. In these cases too, he tells us, the cause of the behaviour is something psychological. This thought almost instantly generates the concept of the unconscious: since there is nothing conscious to be the cause, Freud infers, the cause must be some psychological state which is unconscious. As he put it,
[w]e have found -- that is, we have been obliged to assume -- that very powerful mental processes or ideas exist ... which can produce all the effects in mental life that ordinary ideas do (including effects that can in their turn become conscious as ideas), though they themselves do not become conscious [1923, p. 14].
This momentous conclusion, of course, changed both psychology and the way we view ourselves forever. Momentous though it was, it is striking that in this argument, the new concept of the unconscious is modelled entirely on the standard concept of consciousness, which obviously has intentionality. That is to say, Freud is modelling the most central notion of psychoanalysis, unconsciousness, on an intentional concept, the concept of consciousness, and he is doing so quite explicitly. Freud used this argument repeatedly, over a period of time stretching from 1909 to 1938 (1909, pp. 175-6; 1915, pp. 166ff.; 1923, pp. 14-18; 1938, pp. 196-7).
If Freud never explicitly accepted the idea that psychoanalysis is an intentional psychology, more recent psychoanalytic theorists certainly have. All the theorists mentioned earlier agree on two points: psychoanalysis is built out of intentional language; and the interpretations and explanations it uses this language to give are about `meanings': the often unconscious meanings that patients' perceptions and beliefs and feelings and fantasies and dreams and actions have for them. Interpretation of meanings being central to this new vision of psychoanalysis, it has come to be called the hermeneutic turn, a term used originally to describe a type of 19th century biblical research that looked behind the surface of the text to see the contexts and patterns within which the text is situated.
As well as having roots in the 19th-century notion of hermeneutic interpretation, the new view of
psychoanalysis as concerned with states having intentionality also has roots in the idea of
verstehen knowledge as articulated by Dilthey in 1911 and developed by Weber and Jaspers and
others in the early twenties. Their notion of verstehen (understanding) knowledge is the original
source of the idea that theorizing about human thought, feeling and action proceeds by finding
the meanings behind them. They contrasted this verstehen style of theorizing with erklären
(explanation) or kausal erklären (causal explanation) theorizing, whose aim is to find
generalizable theories about patterns of causal correlation. The entities and relationships
postulated by metapsychology and the flows and transformations of energy in neurons,
neuro-transmitters, etc., would be examples of the latter. Verstehen theorizing, by contrast, is
concerned with function or role, and with intentional states such as meanings, purposes, projects,
goals, ends -- in short, with teleology and related phenomena. (Verstehen knowledge has also
been associated with a distinctive method, the method of intuition or empathy. It too has had its
influence in psychoanalysis, especially in the work of Kohut.)
The Relation of Interpretation to Causal Connections
As was mentioned earlier, an increasing number of psychyanalytic theorists are coming to accept that even thought psychoanalytic explanations have a hermeneutic character, explaining things as they do in terms meanings, they are nevertheless causal explanations. By no means all psychoanalysts accept this view, however, not even all analysts who view psychoanalysis as an intentional psychology, so let us examine some of the reasons why some analysts reject the idea and the reasons why others accept it. Interpretations explain something by finding a person's reasons for doing, feeling or thinking that thing. The fundamental question is: Are reasons for something also causes of it?
This question is intimately connected to a larger issue. From Freud's time until quite recently,
psychoanalysis always thought of itself as a science, aiming like all science to establish facts and
causal connections. About twenty years ago, this self-image began to be called into question;
some people both inside psychoanalysis and out started to argue that if psychoanalysis is an
activity of interpreting meanings using the language of intentionality, then it could not be
concerned with causes at all. Any interpretationive activity concerned with meanings and reasons
could not, on this view, be conceerned with historical fact and causality. The idea that
psychoanalysis is science, in Habermas' notorious phrase, was simply a scientistic
self-misunderstanding. Theorists who subscribed to this new view included Rycroft, Ricoeur, G.
S. Klein and Schafer. Here is one argument Schafer gave for the view.
When one interprets unconscious conflict, ... never is one dealing with logically independent
variables and so never is one engaged in developing a causal account." Or again, "naming [an]
intention plays the part of giving the reason or sense of the action; it does not play the part of
stating its causal force" (1978, pp. 58 and 95).(2)
Schafer's position depends on a dichotomy: `either psychoanalysis is a hermeneutic activity of interpretation, or it is a causal science, but it could not be both'. More recently, a number of psychoanalysts and philosophers of psychoanalysis have come to reject this dichotomy, Gill, Wollheim, Edelson, and Hopkins, for example. I share their view. The point of view we share is that psychoanalysis is both hermeneutic and causal; as Gill puts it (1991), it is a hermeneutic science.
To see problems with the view that Schafer and others espoused, all we need to do is to look at
actual clinical practice. Consider this vignette:
Early in the analysis of Ms. A., it became clear that leisure time and even the simplest of
pleasures caused her to feel uneasy and distracted from something more important. Knowing
something of her deprived, traumatized and intensely religious childhood by then, I once said,
"Ordinary happiness may leave you feeling uneasy because it strikes you as shallow, a betrayal of
the high mission of your childhood".
There is nothing at all unusual about this vignette; indeed, I choose it precisely because it is so typical. In the interpretation I gave, that Ms. A. feels she is betraying something, it seems clear that I was trying to do two things. First, I was trying to explain Ms. A.'s uneasiness by finding its `meaning' for her, her reasons for feeling this way. This is entirely in line with the hermeneutic reading of psychoanalysis. However, I was also also trying to uncover the cause of her feeling, the feeling that she had betrayed something. This part of what I was doing is in line with the idea that psychoanalysis is about causal processes, that it is a causal science, and is not at all sympathetic to Schafer's view. Moreover, I was try to uncover the cause of the feeling -- what brought it into and sustained its existence -- precisely by discovering its meaning for her. That is to say, I was attempting to find both the reason for and the cause of her sense of having betrayed something, and I was trying to find the former by finding the latter. Thus this interpretation, at least, exemplifies the vision of psychoanalysis as both hermeneutic and causal -- of psychoanalysis as a hermeneutic science.
Here is another vignette that manifests the same pattern:
When Ms. B. was seven years old, she witnessed her mother having an almost fatal miscarriage.
The miscarriage was quite possibly self-induced and the baby was probably not her father's. Ms.
B. witnessed much of the scene, which was extremely bloody. Mother was then hospitalized for
a month. Ms. B.'s mother was difficult and Ms. B. enjoyed having her father to herself for that
time. As soon as mother returned home, she cut off Ms. B.'s beautiful long hair. I suggested to
Ms. B. that this bloody scene and its aftermath of sinful pleasure followed by humiliating
punishment had become her paradigm (a word she had used) of all experiences of sensual
Again, the aim of this interpretation was to find the reasons for something, in this case for the way Ms. B. experienced sexual pleasure as an adult. And again, contrary to Schafer's view, in finding the reason for her reacting this way, I was also finding the causes of the reaction.(3)
By finding the reasons, I thought I was also finding causes, and so did Ms. B. But were we right? There are at least two arguments that the reasons dealt with in these two vignettes at any rate were also causes. First, the statements describing the relation between the reason and that for which it was a reason support counter-factuals. The relations in question are the one between the unconscious sense of betrayal and the sense of unease, and the one between witnessing the bloody scene and the adult reaction to sexual pleasure. If Ms. A. were not to feel that she had betrayed old religious values, then, all other things remaining equal, it would be less likely that she would feel a sense of unease. Similarly, if Ms. B. had not experienced this bloody scene, then, all other things remaining the same, it would be less likely, indeed far less likely, that she would now feel the way she does about sexual pleasure.
The second argument is even simpler. As a criterion of causal connectedness, Adolf Grünbaum (1984, 1990) views making a difference as decisive. It is clear that Ms. A.'s unconsciousness sense of betrayal made a difference to her feelings of uneasiness, increasing the latter. Similarly, it is clear that Ms. B.'s having witnessed a bloody miscarriage made a difference to how she viewed sexual pleasure in adult life. By Grünbaum's criterion, this is enough to show that these reasons for the two women's feelings were also causes of them. in short, reasons can also be causes. This is what the hermeneutic picture of Ricoeur, Schafer, Spence, etc., seems to have missed.
In light of the implications of the two vignettes and the subsequent arguments, what motivated some theorists to believe that reasons cannot be causes? The view is so disastrous for psychoanalysis as a science that it should require very strong backing before it is to be accepted. In fact, it may rest on nothing more than a mistake. Central to the view is a conception that people can be treated as rather a lot like texts in certain respects; I think we can show that this conception is in fact a misconception. When we interpret a human being, we are doing something very different from what we are doing when we interpret a text. The interpretation of texts deals with semantic meanings: how the sentences of the text relate to other sentences and to underlying `sub-texts', and so on and so forth. Reference or signification and implication are the crucial notions here. But the interpretation of human beings is not like this.
When we interpret a human being, we are interpreting motives, fantasies, beliefs, values, attitudes, memories, etc. -- the person's reasons for feeling or doing as he or she did. To be sure, these too have meaning -- but it is a kind of meaning very different from the kind of semantic meaning contained in a text. Semantic meaning is about a word's or symbol's or sentence's reference, predications, and implications, and when we interpret semantic meanings, those are the things we are interpreting: significations and implications. A feeling or believe or actions meaning something to someone is not like this at all.
Notice, first, that completely non-symbolic states such a pre-verbal states or non-conceptualized
affective states can still mean something to someone, yet they could not possibly have the kind of
meaning a symbol has. Notice further that when I interpret what something means to someone in
the way I did in the vignettes just reported, I am not at all interested in matters of reference or
signification, predication, or implication, not in the semantic sense of `implication' at any rate. I
am after something quite different. Let us call the kind of meaning that a feeling or thought or
action could have meaning to a person. When we talk about meaning of this sort, meaning to a
person, we might be talking about any one of any one of a number of different things. Here are
some of them:
(1) What the psychological states in question are about, their content, especially if this content is hidden or unobvious.
(2) The state's or event's functional role in the psychic economy.
(3) The person's purposes in accepting or feeling the state or event, how the feeling or psychic state fits into the person's desires, anxieties, etc.; in short, conative meaning.
(4) What the person associates with the feeling or psychic state. Associative meaning is different from semantic meaning because the former is a matter of what something means to someone, whereas words and other symbols have a meaning that is quite independent what they might mean to someone.
(5) Emotional impact, motivation force, power to stir up longing or anxiety or guilt or hatred or
With the exception of (1), meanings of any of these kinds are something quite different from the kind of meaning that a symbol has.
We can grant that the kind of meaning that we find in texts, semantic meaning, is usually not a
cause of the things to which it is semantically related, but that seems not to be true of any of the
kinds of meaning something to someone just delineated. It seems clear that meanings of these
kinds do have causal force. When something means something to someone, that meaning was
caused to come into existence in that person by something and in turn has effects on other things
in that person. Gill tells us that he "does not understand why a reason cannot be a cause" (1991,
p. 17). Nor do I. The framework for thinking about psychoanalysis should not be causality versus
interpretations of meaning in psychic reality, but causality via interpretation of meaning in
psychic reality. Causality versus interpretation is a false dichotomy.
Psychological Explanation in Psychoanalysis
With the idea that reasons can be causes in place, we can turn to the question of what the
psychological explanations that make use of reasons are like. What makes it important that the
phenomena of interest to psychoanaalysts have intentionality is that this is what allows us to
explain them in terms of a person's reasons for them, their meaning to a person. We cannot do
this for phenomena which do not have intentionality such as energies and neurons. Freud's
official adherence to a non-intentional metapsychology notwithstanding, explanations in terms of
reasons were at the heart of his work, too. To illustrate the central role they played, consider this
comment from his study of the Rat Man:
When there is a mésalliance ... between an affect and its ideational content (in this instance,
between the intensity of the [Rat Man's] self-reproach and the occasion for it) ... the analytic
physician says `The affect is justified. The sense of guilt is not in itself open to further criticism.
But it belongs to some other content, which is unknown (unconscious), and which requires to be
looked for.' [1909, 175-6, emphasis in original].
Though Freud does not use the term `psychological explanation' here, he is clearly talking about the logic of this kind of explanation here. From the way he writes, there is little doubt that Freud saw this kind of explanation as central to psychoanalysis (cf. Sachs, 1982; for another marvellous example of this kind of explanation at work, cf. 1926, 117). Note that Freud does not argue that the Rat Man had reasons for feeling guilt; that he takes for granted. So automatic was his recourse to intentionality, he does not even feel a need to justify the assumption. He also clearly expects that when he finds the reasons, he will have found the cause. His innovation was to see that often people's reasons are unconscious. That is what made the very ordinary precept that there are reasons for what people think and feel and do such a powerful tool in his hands. Suddenly reasons could be the causes for vast ranges of thought, feeling, and behaviour which heretofore had seemed senseless.
What are psychological explanations in terms of reasons like? In its full generality, this is far too
big a question to tackle here (I have explored some aspects of it in Brook, 1992). Some forms of
psychological explanation are distinctive to psychoanalysis, however, and these we can examine.
As we will see, psychoanalysis makes use of no less than three distinct forms of psychological
explanation. the three have some important characteristics in common, characteristics they share
with other forms of psychological explanation, but they also differ in important ways. We will
start with the differences.
Explanations in Terms of Content
The first form of explanation distinctive to psychoanalysis is explanation in terms of content.
Recall the vignette from the Rat Man. One way of accounting for the linkage between the Rat
Man's earlier wishes and anxieties and his later sense of guilt is to say that some of the
psychological content of the earlier wishes and anxieties has been carried (causally carried, of
course) into the Rat Man's adult life, where he now reacts to it with a sense of guilt. To get clearer
what is carried forward, return to the language of intentionality. In that language, the intentional
object of the original wishes and anxieties gets carried forward, but that is not all. The original
wishes and anxieties directed to that object has also continued to live on in him. Since this whole
package of wish, anxiety and object is now unconscious, the Rat Man does not know what he
feels guilty about. The evidence that psychological content has indeed been conveyed this way is
the thematic affinities (similarities in psychological content) between the Rat Man's earlier and the
later psychic states. Edelson (1988, 135, 332), Hopkins (1986) and Wollheim (1984, Ch. II and III)
all treat conveyance of content as the central mechanism of psychoanalytic explanations
(Edelson says it is "central in the explanatory strategies of psychoanalysis" (p. 332)) and there is a
great deal to be said for this view. Moreover, the mechanism is probably the best characterized
mechanism for connected earlier reasons to later psychological states that we have. Taking a cue
from Wollheim, Edelson calls this mechanism idiogenic causality (1998, Ch. 6 and 8).
Explanation in Terms of Intentional Object
For the second and third kinds of explanation distinctive to psychoanalysis, return again to the
example from the Rat Man. The Rat Man's guilt does more than contain unconscious content
carried forward from his hostile childhood wishes. Still unconsciously, it is also about those
hostile wishes and anxieties. The earlier wishes and anxieties not only provide the content for his
adult sense of guilt, they continue to be what he feels guilty about; these wishes and anxieties
themselves are the intentional object of his current guilt (though, of course, the Rat Man does
not know that). They are the object of his current guilt in the same way that his father was
intentional object of the earlier wishes and anxieties. Similarly, in the clinical vignettes I
introduced earlier, Ms. A.'s sense of betraying an ideal is not only the content of her feeling of
unease and not only plays a role in her psychic economy, the earlier ideal is what she feels she
is betraying. Equally, the bloody miscarriage as Ms. B. experienced it not only provided the
content of her current way of perceiving sexual activity and played a role in her psyche, it is what
her perception of sex as bloody and sinful is about.(4) (Of course, prior to analysis, neither
patient was aware of this.) In general, the earlier experiences are not only the content of the later
psychic states and not only continue to play a role in the psychic economy, they are also what
these later states are about.
A way to bring out the difference between mere conveyance of content and full intentionality is
to notice that the conveyance-of-content account is a good account of dispositions to feel or act
in a certain way. However, it cannot give an adequate account of full intentionality, states like
desires and wishes, memories and repressed memories. Take, for example, a disposition to react
with fear in a certain kind of situation. By itself, this disposition does not refer to anything, earlier
experience or otherwise. Here it is plausible to say that conveyance of content from earlier
experiences to later psychological states so as to produce a stable disposition to react with fear is
the whole story. But when, for example, Ms. B. perceives sexual activity as bloody and sinful, her
current state is more than just a disposition to react. It also refers back to, is about, the earlier
experience of the bloody miscarriage, though until she entered analysis she was not aware of it.
Similarly, when a wish for something generates a fantasy in which it is obtained, more than a
conveying of content from the wish to the fantasy is going on. The wish is also directed to the
content of the fantasy. An earlier experience generating a disposition to react in a certain way is
different from a psychic state being about an earlier experience (Wollheim 1984, Ch. IV). The
difference is the difference between an experience causing a disposition in me and my
remembering that experience, between something being able to quell a wish and my wishing to
have that thing.
With the introduction of full intentionality, what Dennett (1987) calls the `aboutness' relation, we
come to the core of the psychic. Psychological states and events are directed to something: back
to past states, as in the examples above (when we no longer know to which past state, we have
the raw material of psychoanalysis); forward to future states, as in wishes and desires; and
outward, to the external world, as in perception, or to possible worlds, as in fantasy and
The examples from the Rat Man, Ms. A. and Ms. B all show that a large part of clinical
psychoanalysis is a process of restoring the intentionality of troublesome psychic states, of
finding out what they are really about. One of the most characteristic features of psychoanalytic
explanations is that they are designed to get behind surface intentionality, to restore the real
intentionality of a psychic state. They uncover what feelings, thoughts and actions are really
about. As Wollheim emphasizes, a large part of psychoanalysis is finding the fantasies behind
overt reactions (symptoms) and reducing their power; the therapy in psychoanalysis consists in
the "remission of fantasy and its dominance" (1984, 227). The notion of remission of fantasy
describes what I was trying to do with the interpretations I gave to Ms. A. and Ms. B. very well. I
would only add that as well as finding the fantasy, we must also, often as a separate step, find out
what it is really about.(5)
Let us call explanations that restore intentionality explanations of intentionality. They come in
two distinct kinds. Explanations in terms of conveyance of content was one of the kinds of
explanation distinctive to psychoanalysis. The two kinds of explanation of intentionality make up
the other two.
Restoring Forward-looking Intentionality
As I just said, explanations of intentionality come in two kinds. There are forward-looking
explanations such as explaining a fantasy by finding what wish the patient hopes to satisfy in the
surrogate form of a fantasy distorted to avoid various anxieties. There are also backward-looking
explanations, for example the explanation that Ms. B.'s experience of sexual pleasure is really
about her childhood experience of her mother's miscarriage and its aftermath. Forward-looking
explanations of intentionality have played a far greater role in recent accounts of psychoanalytic
explanation than backward-looking ones. Aims and goals are the clearest examples of states
whose objects are forward-looking, but desires and wishes, plans, and affects such as longing,
fear and anxiety all display forward-looking intentionality. (Some other affects are
backward-looking, for example envy, hatred and gratitude. We find the same duality in fantasies;
some of them are forward-looking and some are backward-looking, too.) Forward-looking
intentionality has been well discussed by Edelson (1988, 110ff., 148ff., 331ff., etc.), Hopkins
(1982), and Wollheim (1984, Ch. VI) in recent works, and I will say no more about it.
Restoring Backward-looking Intentionality
We turn now to the third form of psychological explanation distinctive to psychoanalysis:
explanations that restore backward-looking intentionality. In light of the attention that has been
paid to forward-looking ones, it is striking that all the clinical examples we have considered so far
were concerned primarily with backward-looking intentionality. Ms. A.'s sense of betrayal, Ms.
B.'s way of experiencing sexual pleasure, the Rat Man's guilt were all about something in the
past, as became clear when their real intentionality was restored. Historically, explanations in
terms of backward-looking intentionality have played a huge role in psychoanalysis, of course
(Strenger, 1991), and I think they deserve to be restored to some of their former glory. As I see it,
states directed to the past play at least as important a role in psychoanalytic explanation as
wishes, anxieties and other states directed to future events.
This view may remind some of Freud's early notion that neurotics suffer from reminiscences (a
view shared by Schopenhauer, incidentally; see Young and Brook, 1994). It might be thought
that Freud abandoned his belief in the neurotogenic powers of backward-looking psychological
states when he learned that what his patients had repressed were often early fantasies, not early
memories. To be sure, he abandoned something. But it was not the idea that current psychic
states are often painful because they are about something long past. To the contrary, he never
gave up the idea that one basis of neuroses is fantasies, feelings, affects, ways of perceiving, etc.,
that are really about psychic events of childhood, even though the patient is not aware of it. Ms.
B. illustrates the importance of the point. The real object of her experience of sexual pleasure as
painful was a bloody scene in her childhood (as, of course, she experienced it). Though she was
not aware of it, her current perceptions are really about that scene; her unconscious memory of
that scene and its continued effect on her is the source of her neurotic pain.(6) Psychic states that
refer back to experiences of childhood in this way have always played a major role in clinical
practice, but they have played a smaller role in recent theorizing about psychoanalytic
With the introduction of backward-looking intentional objects, we now have a fairly complete
picture of the forms of psychological explanation distinctive to psychoanalysis. If as many as
three different forms of psychological explanation are distinctive to psychoanalysis, that would
be interesting. Throughout the history of psychoanalysis, there has always been a tendency to try
to reduce all psychoanalytic explanation to a single form. In recent times, the most common form
of this tendency has been to see all psychoanalytic explanation as forward-looking. On the model
of explanation of actions by reference to the motives and beliefs of the actor, psychoanalytic
explanations are seen as explaining wish-fulfilling states such as dreams and fantasies by
reference to wishes (Edelson, 1988, Hopkins, 1986). Anxieties and counter-wishes and defences
against wishes are also central to the account, but all the elements in explanations of this kind are
forward-looking. (Edelson has clarified some aspects of this account for me in private
correspondence.) By contrast, I want to say that explanations that postulate wishes, fantasies,
counter-wishes and defences to explain observed acts and psychological states are only one kind
of explanation distinctive to psychoanalysis. Wishes are forward-looking. They look forward to a
fulfilment. In other psychoanalytic explanations, however, the intentionality at the heart of the
explanation is often backwards; that is true of both the clinical vignettes I gave. Among
contemporary theorists, the person who has provided perhaps the fullest materials for
understanding the idea of restoring intentionality is Wollheim (1984 and many earlier works).
Indeed, his picture of the way early desire, affect and fantasy live on in the dispositions and
intentionality of adult life has been a foundation of the current paper (see my 1987 discussion of
his work). However, even he makes no more than the odd remark about the specific topic of
Explanations of Intentionality and Uncovering Causal Connections
A great deal more could be said about the forms of psychological explanation distinctive to
psychoanalysis. In particular, these types of psychological explanation exhibit a holistic and
coherentist dimension that I wish I had time to explore. Instead, I will close with a few brief
remarks on another issue, one that we left hanging earlier: If psychological explanations in terms
of reasons are dealing with causal connections, how good a job do they do of uncovering such
As soon as we ask the question, we notice something interesting: the immediate aim of
psychological explanations is not to uncover causal connections. It is to find reasons -- for
example, the earlier experiences, fantasies, etc., that are the real content of current psychic states,
what those psychic states are really about, the wishes for which fantasies, dreams, etc., serve as
surrogate fulfilments, and so on. Wrongly construed, this fact about psychological explanations
has led some theorists to conclude that psychological explanations are not about causal relations
at all. If there is little to support this view, as we have seen, what is the relationship between
seeking to find reasons, seeking to find the intentionality of things, and uncovering causes? In my
view, explorations of intentionality just are explorations of causality. As Wollheim has put it in a
felicitous phrase, very often the cause of a psychological state "is traceable through the
intentionality of the effect" (1984, 126). Thus, a detailed, fact-based account of a person's reasons
for something will approximate pretty closely to the causes of it most of the time. (The situations
in which this relationship breaks down make an extremely interesting study all by themselves.)
In this paper, we first examined reasons for saying that psychoanalysis is an intentional psychology, then looked at some arguments that it is nevertheless concerned to uncover causal connections, and went on to explore some of the kinds of psychological explanation distinctive to psychoanalysis. Explanations in terms of conveyance of content, forward-looking intentionality, and backward-looking intentionality were the three kinds of explanation identified. It was argued that the latter deserve to be more prominent in psychoanalytic theory than currently are, and we concluded with a brief look at how explanations in terms of reasons can nevertheless uncover causal connections. There is a great deal more to be said about everything discussed in this paper, but I will stop.
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1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6.
1.On the failure of mechanistic metapsychology, see Schafer (1976) and the papers in Gill and Holzman (1976). On the failure of behaviourism, see Dennett (1978), Ch. 4). Schafer's (1976, 1978) attempt to do analysis in the language of action may appear to be a third attempt to eliminate intentional psychological language from psychoanalysis, but that appearance is misleading. Schafer does not attempt to eliminate psychological vocabulary and replace it with something else but to force one part of our psychological vocabulary (action language) to serve for the whole (the full range of psychological states such as belief, desire, affect and so on).
2.The theory of causality that Schafer is using here requires that causes and effects be 'logically independent variables', that is to say, that nothing could be a cause or an effect unless it could exist in the complete absence of anything else that could serve as a cause or an effect of it. This theory is now widely rejected by philosophers of science, but it would take us too far afield to go into the reasons here.
3.The picture of interpretation I am sketching also connects to some views advanced by Donald Spence. His 1982 account would urge that my interpretation was merely trying to identify an unconscious fantasy or other implicit narrative that Ms. B. had adopted about her sexuality (or perhaps I was even trying to construct one for her); I was not after real causes at all. It may be the case that all I could accomplish is one or the other of these narrative constructs but it seems quite clear that Spence's account is not at any rate an accurate picture of what I was aiming to do. What I was aiming to do was to figure out what had actually happened and thereby explain what had caused Ms. B.'s fantasies of sex as bloody and sinful to come into existence.
4.In addition to intentionality, Wollheim also distinguishes a second element which he calls subjectivity (what it is like to be in a psychological state). He combines the two as what he calls phenomenology. Strictly speaking, when I speak of intentionality, I am often talking about complete phenomenology in his sense.
5.Lest this all sounds too cognitive, let me hasten to add that neither the current psychic states nor the earlier experiences they are really about are cool, cognitive states. The earlier experiences, fantasies, etc., were laden with powerful affect, and this affect springs back into action at the first hint that a patient might recover any form of consciousness of them.
6.This theory of neurosis is another illustration, incidentally, of the extent to which Freud's actual work relied on intentionality, whatever he himself may have thought; reminiscences of early experiences or fantasies are thoroughly intentional.