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Psychoanalysis and Socratic Education


Dare to Know! (Immanuel Kant)

Abstract: A range of concepts are introduced to argue similarities between Socratic Education and Freudian psychoanalysis. The concepts are these: the talking cure; floating attention; knowledge and acknowledgment; judgment and intuition; (prior) theoretical understanding; attending for truth; acting in role; play; negative dialectics; the training of the self.

One of Freud's early patients, Bertha Pappenheim, known as "Anna von O" in Freud's writings, called his method of psychoanalysis a "talking cure." She had in mind not Freud's talking to her (the analyst is often silent) but rather the manner of her own talking as enabled by Freud. If psychoanalysis is a talking cure, then it is so because it pushes patients to talk about themselves in a particular way, which we might variously call "authentic" or "rooted" or "full" or "lived" or "existential." A patient talking in platitudes and rationalizations or in abstract and theoretical terms will discover that they are getting nowhere in an analysis. They will have to start talking properly if they are to get anywhere. And talking properly is daring to know oneself. Going into analysis is an act of daring.

In analysis it is the patient (the analysand) who sets the working agenda and does so simply by beginning to talk, perhaps sketching a fragment of autobiography to explain why they have come. The analyst listens with what Freud called "floating attention" - something he regarded as an important part of his technique. It is a mode of attention open to hearing significance in minor detail or in remarks that do not slip readily into the analyst's prior framework of understanding. In their training and their clinical practice, analysts are trying to attend to their patients in a way that is as free as possible from resistance to, and defense against, what they may find uncomfortable to hear, whether in virtue of personal anxieties or theoretical preconceptions.

Nowadays, an analysand may well know something (a lot) of the various theoretical orientations that inform and direct the practice of analysts. This creates the possibility of acting like any paying client and choosing an analyst to suit from among the range on offer: Freudians, Jungians, Kleinians, Lacanians (very expensive), eclectic counselors (cheaper). In such a context, clients may then begin talking in what they take to be ways appropriate to the practice of the analyst they have chosen. This may, of course, function as a defense against dealing with uncomfortable material, which is screened behind the rush of theory - laden talk. But the talking cure is not a theoretical discussion.

As I see it, psychoanalysis in general and Freudian analysis in particular evidently belongs to the tradition that we call "Socratic," even though it does not obviously use the technique of teacher's question and pupil's answer. It is Socratic, however, insofar as an interpretation of a patient's actions or feelings, regardless of whether it is offered initially by the patient or the analyst, is only validated when it is acknowledged by the patient as being true.

Acknowledgment of the truth of something is much more complex as an achievement than "mere" verbal acceptance or "just" knowing something to be true. In many therapies, acknowledgment may require or be accompanied by profound somatic disturbance, such as weeping. This may occur, for example, when a repressed memory is uncovered and the trauma of an original experience is, in some sense, relived or even lived for the first time. But it may also occur when something we think we know (may think we have always known) is "properly" acknowledged for the first time.

Philosophers often characterize what it is for someone to know something by writing "S knows that p" - that is, the subject (S) knows that such and such a proposition (p) is true. So we might also write as characterizing a different state, "S acknowledges that p is true." This state is a state of being or being - towards something expressible propositionally (that p). It is something we achieve, often with difficulty, as when we acknowledge our love for someone or our dependence on them. It may take time to acknowledge such things, and we may resist acknowledging them. The reasons for this may be intuitively obvious, but it may be worth sketching them out a little.

Suppose I think of myself as a caring person, but in some sense also know that this is not quite the whole story, and know that some of the things I do are not caring and are not motivated by caring feelings. To acknowledge this, and to acknowledge that my motivations may need to be called by such horrible names as spite, punishment, or sadism, is to undermine my settled self - conception and to convict myself of morally or socially unacceptable behavior. It also confronts me with a challenge to do something about what I have done and what I might do again. For what I have already done, I may now feel the need to make acts of reparation. It is all very upsetting, but what I know about myself hasn't necessarily changed very much. I knew these things before (according to the story I'm telling); it is just that now I am acknowledging them. Colloquially, we speak of things "dawning on us"; of "waking up to things"; of our "complacency being shaken"; and so on. This is what acknowledgment is all about. (There is a very fine discussion of such matters in Stanley Cavell's 1969 book, Must We Mean What We Say? )

An analyst who assists someone towards self - knowledge and hence towards an acknowledgment that involves discarding rationalizations and coming to feel what one knows is acting as a Socratic educator. There is common ground between what Freud depicts himself as doing and what Plato depicts Socrates as doing in works such as the Meno.

One way of characterizing this common ground is to say that both Freud and Plato are drawing a distinction between the exercise of judgment and the use of intuition. The exercise of judgment involves appeal to what I know or think I know at some articulate level of consciousness. Typically, judgment appeals to shared knowledge: what everyone knows or thinks. So rationalization and self - deception find ready - made support in all kinds of conventional wisdom. In contrast, intuition is the expression of a personally experienced connection, drawing on a reservoir of inarticulate consciousness. Intuition is the expression of how things look or feel to me, situated as I am and without regard to the niceties of what other people think or my own (sometimes better) judgment. Asked to comment on the grammaticality of an expression for someone else's benefit, we may say something like "it sounds all right to me" as an exercise of intuition. But if instead we say, "It sounds all right to me, but. . ." we will in all likelihood continue with an exercise of judgment that qualifies our intuition.

In a different kind of case, intuition will get us to a (correct) result well before we have the means to judge its correctness. This is what happens in the exercise of scientific and mathematical intuition. For example, mathematicians have the concept of a hand proof. In a hand proof, there is no (real) proof, just a lot of handwaving. But it gestures to an intuition that if we set out in the general direction indicated by the hand proof, we will get to the proof we want to reach. Intuition is then like a compass.

But intuition does not always work like this; sometimes it leads us astray. Shown the Muller - Lyer lines, I may intuit that one is longer than the other, but I am actually wrong; judgment is against me. But it still remains that the lines look that way. (The Muller - Lyer lines are the ones placed parallel to each other, but with arrow - heads pointing in opposite directions)

One might say that in psychoanalysis part of the task is to assist people habituated to exercising an excess of judgment to get in touch with how things look to them, how things feel to them. For what makes us the person we are just is our individual, idiosyncratic way of responding to the world. Psychoanalytic theory says that such responding is patterned and that our awareness (in conscious introspection) of such patterns is limited. Psychoanalysis assists us in bringing into awareness some of the ways we pattern experience in responding to our world. It enables us to connect consciously what was previously connected only unconsciously.

For example, an analyst may draw out from a patient patches of memory that when placed side by side show a recurrent pattern through superficial difference. Someone afraid of intimacy may be shown that, time after time, if they get too close for comfort to someone else, they respond by running away, literally or metaphorically. The next step is for that pattern to be acknowledged, as a precondition of changing it (if that is what is wanted).

This vignette can serve as an entry into consideration of the kind of understanding an analyst deploys in the practice of psychoanalysis. It may also help modify a common way of (mis)understanding what Socrates is up to.

At first glance, psychoanalysis seems so heavily theory - laden, theory - driven, theory - conscious as to make it an implausible exemplification of Socratic education, if this is understood as involving an educator who knows nothing (special) and who, just like the pupil, wishes to find out. But such a conception is, at best, oversimplified. Socrates is no naif, setting out on a first unguided and untutored philosophical journey every time we meet him. He has been on the journey before and knows at least some of the paths and pitfalls. His questioning of his companions is guided (informed and structured) by a prior understanding of the territory to be traversed and possible routes through it. This prior knowledge may be deliberately understated or held in a tentative fashion, but it clearly exists. Without it, Socrates would be useless as a guide.

Similarly, knowledge of psychoanalytic theory, internalized as a working competence, provides analysts with their guiding sense of origins and destinations, the recurrent connecting routes by means of which people end up in anxiety, depression, melancholia, obsession, paranoia, sadism - the whole Bosnia of psychopathology.

Psychoanalysts may well overstate or hold dogmatically to the prior knowledge that guides their work. But overstatement and dogmatism are obstacles to the good practice of analysis, just as it would be to any other kind of practice. Successful practice ("good practice") will be tempered by moments of doubt, of reflection, and of "common sense." A moment of laughter may open up an analysis to the unaccountable, the novel, and to material marginalized in the guiding theory. And that is how it should be.

Without laughter, there would be no progress in knowledge or self - knowledge. Socrates is always laughing.

The art of psychoanalysis is an art of attending for truth, an art of hearing the moments of honesty amongst the temporizing of rationalization, self - deception, and irrelevance. Though analyst and patient both have ears to hear, it is the analyst who is assigned as a primary obligation the foregrounding of such honesties as present themselves, representing them to the patient in ways and at times that maximize the chances of full acknowledgment.

Many educational practices are not so very different from psychoanalysis thus Socratically characterized. In a school English lesson or a Personal and Social Education session, the teacher's art is often enough that of hearing the moments of honesty and insight in among the chatter of cliche, conventional wisdom, borrowed opinion, easy prejudice. In all simplicity, it's about hearing the moments when pupils are thinking for themselves. Of course, what they are thinking and saying may not be novel; to the teacher it may sound familiar. But what one can still hear, if one is attending aright, is a tone, a phrase, a hesitation, which signals a mind at work in rediscovering and reinventing what for someone else may be already known and acknowledged. But for the young mind at work, it carries the clarity and distinctness of a revelation, an epiphany; generally small, occasionally large.

Similar things may happen in a wellconducted investigative Mathematics lesson or a Science experiment, where there is also an invitation, a demand even, to see things differently, to see them afresh for oneself and thereby to learn by a means other than what we call "rote." In other words, Socratic education can be looked upon as including some general pedagogic strategies that can be deployed even where there is a very rich subject content to be "transmitted" or "delivered."

But in addition to enabling something that we might want to call "genuine learning"as opposed to what we call "rote learning"Socratic education includes strategies aimed at ensuring the permeability of the core of a subject's content to new material, to new truths that may well require revision to some previously endorsed account of a domain. Such permeability is detached from individual psychological openness to new experience in this or that teacher, scientist, or psychoanalyst, and structured into a method of questioning. Centrally, the Socratic method of questioning assigns authority to the person (pupil, patient) questioned. It assigns the right to refuse assent until our own words in our own mouths convince us. Analogously, the physical scientist is to be thought of as putting questions to reality, which cannot be coerced into giving the answers that may be desired. The Socratic method is based on strongly realist assumptions about the nature of science: natural science is a search for truth about the outer world, just as psychoanalysis is a search for truth about the inner world.

The Socratic scientist accepts that you cannot coerce reality. The Socratic psychoanalyst accepts that you cannot force insight upon someone. The Socratic educator accepts that you cannot demand agreement from your pupils. All of them are stuck with being democrats.

However, it is sometimes justified and necessary to step out of the Socratic role. The teacher is obliged to say to the pupil who tries to deny plain historical fact, "Well, that's just not true." The analyst is obliged to say to the patient, "Well, you can't sleep with your mother." The scientist keeps on repeating the experiment until reality succumbs to what is expected of it. All three step out of role at these crucial junctures.

Now, the idea of "stepping out of role" comes to me from the work of the drama educator Dorothy Heathcote, and associatively it suggests to me connections between Socratic education and the practices of drama. For one might say of the Socratic educator that he or she is on occasion practicing a willing suspension of belief as if saying: "I know this, I guide my life by such - and - such beliefs. But now, for purposes of education I shall suspend those commitments and act `as if' I don't know these things and have no commitment to these beliefs. I will enter into a play."

The outcomes of such play are, however, perfectly real, since at the end some things really will be affirmed and acknowledged, just as at the end of the drama of a courtship, a romance, the lovers will stay together or part.

The play, the drama, isn't a pretense any more than a romance is a pretense. It is the creation of a space for open, joint exploration, prior to commitment. It has its rules, its own commitments, and its boundaries that mark it out as something other. Psychoanalysis is rather like that. Despite the fact that its aim is a certain kind of personal truth, its setting is a special, dramatic or theatrical one: traditionally, the patient recumbent on the couch, the analyst sitting just out of sight. There is a sense in which what is said by patients lying down cannot be held against them sitting up, even though the point of the analysis is to enable real change in the real, sitting - up world. But to enable such change, the psychoanalytic hour requires the protection of its boundaries and its rules if the patient and the analyst are to be freed up from some of the self - censorship, some of the repression which stands in the way of self - knowledge.

Now, the appearance of the idea of censorship may be taken as an intimation of another aspect of all Socratic practices: their radical edge. For although a Socratic pedagogy may sometimes be deployed to enable the transmission of accepted positive knowledge (what in Greek is the episteme), it is designed as a method for dispelling the false opinion of knowledge, our belief that what we (appear to) believe is the truth (in Greek, our doxa). The core of the method in Greek philosophy is that of negative dialectics.It is called "negative" because it aims to disabuse us of false belief, false consciousness.

The practice of such negative dialectics challenges, in different realizations, both the individual and the wider community. In the wider community, it can only flourish if there is a communal commitment to free speech, understood not as an "anything goes - say what you like" indifference, but as a highly charged recognition that the right to free speech is the right to cause us discomfort, because it challenges the supposed certainties of prevailing ideology. This is how John Stuart Mill understands free speech in his apologia for negative dialectics, the essay On Liberty. This essay is entirely indebted to the classical philosophy of Ancient Greece (on this website, see my essay "Liberty, Authority and the Negative Dialectics of J S Mill")

The negative dialectics of psychoanalysis challenges us to discard false perspectives on ourselves, and to know who we are. It dares us to know. The challenge is one to both patients and analysts. The latter are prepared for their roles through a training analysis in which the candidate analyst undergoes the patient's experience, learning in experience the obstacles to self - knowledge erected by transference and counter - transference, projection and introjection and all the other mechanisms by means of which we evade ourselves. The training analysis is a training of the analyst's self in the self - awareness without which the psychoanalytic encounter cannot be managed to the patient's benefit.

In this essay, I have sketched the shape of a number of concepts, all of which could have been analyzed at length. I have written about the idea of the talking cure; about floating attention; acknowledgment; intuition and judgment; prior (theoretical) understanding; attending for truth; acting in role; play; negative dialectics; and the training of the self. These all figure in the outline of Socratic practices, psychoanalytic and more conventionally educational, which I have given. Undoubtedly, these are not exhaustive of the concepts necessary to comprehend and situate all those endeavors in which humanity takes up the challenge of enlightenment.

Website version 2004. A first version appeared, under the same title, in a 1993 issue of Aspects of Education (University of Hull, England), number 49, pages 76 - 80. A second version, again under the same title, appeared in S.Appel, editor, Psychoanalysis and Pedagogy (Bergin and Garvey: Westport, Connecticut), pages 45 - 51.Copyright material used by permission.