Psychoanalytic Interpretation and Unconscious Phantasies: Part 1


“In fact we are far from having to employ mere imagination or blind guess work, as even regards the first year of life. When all the observable facts of behaviour are considered in the light of analytic knowledge gained from adults and from children over two years, and are brought into relation with analytic principles, we arrive at many hypotheses carrying a high degree of probability.” (Susan Isaacs: The Nature and Function of Unconscious Phantasy, p. 2)

When one reads the work of Melanie Klein, one is struck by the bizarre phantasies that she attributes to the child. In her book ‘The Psychoanalysis of Children’ Klein interprets the behaviour of children in terms of the child unconsciously phantasizing about ‘ripping the mothers breast apart’, or of phantasizing about ‘burning and drowning his mother with his urine’ etc. When reading Klein’s views one is left with the impression that she is massively over interpreting the behaviour of the child. In Quine’s Radical Translation thought experiment he shows that when trying to translate the utterance from a native of a tribe who we have never had any previous contact with there are massive problems of indeterminacy[1] of the reference of observation sentence. Quine argues that if when a rabbit runs by and the native shouts ‘Gavagai’ we cannot automatically assume that ‘Gavagai’ means ‘Lo a Rabbit’. Furthermore if we try to interpret ‘gavagai’ as a term referring to rabbit our problems become worse because there from a behavioural perspective we have as much evidence that ‘gavagai’ refers to undetached rabbit part, particular instance of universal rabbit hood, or It rabbiteth (a feature placing term on a par with it rains) than we do that ‘gavagai’ refers to rabbit.  Some thinkers argue against Quine that interpreting  ‘gavagai’ as referring to Rabbit as opposed to the other options, has more intuitive psychological plausibility. Such thinkers argue that because of the innate structure of the human mind we will divide up the world similarly and hence we are justified in thinking the Underdetermination of the reference of ‘gavagai’ is overcome by our innate biases.  Now proceeding argument is not a proof that ‘gavagai’ refers to rabbit but it at least provides some kind of evidence that our interpretation of the reference of the native’s term is correct. However, Klein’s interpretation of the Childs unconscious phantasies is even more massively underdetermined by data of experience than Quine’s examples, and furthermore Klein’s interpretations are also wildly counter intuitive. The old saying goes that incredible claims require an incredible amount of evidence. So in this blog I will try to look at the type of evidence used by psychoanalysts to support their more elaborate claims about childhood phantasies and cognition.

One of the best expositors of the nature of Phantasy was Susan Isaacs. She made the following claims about the evidential procedure used by psychoanalysts when attributing to the child Phantasies:

“When we turn to children under two years, we bring certain proved instruments of understanding to the study of their responses to stimuli, their spontaneous activity, their signs of affect, their play with people and with material objects, and all the varied aspects of their behaviour. First, we have those principles of observation already outlined, the value of observing context, of noting precise details, and as regarding the data observed at any one moment as being a member of a series, which can be traced backward to their rudimentary beginnings and forward to their more mature forms. Secondly, we have the insight gained from direct analytic experience into the mental processes so clearly expressed in similar types of behaviour ( continuous with these earlier forms) in children of more than two years; above all, the evidence yielded by the repetition of situations, emotions, attitudes, and phantasies in the ‘transference’ during the analysis of older children and of adults.” (ibid, p. 8)

The evidence that Isaacs’s claims are relevant to interpreting the child is the primary tools of science, behavioural evidence and experimental evidence. However, she also appeals to evidence from analysis of older children and adults as a way of rationally reconstructing the childhood phantasies.

In his (1985) ‘The Interpersonal World of The Infant’ Daniel N Stern followed Isaacs’s method and expanded on it by combining insights from both developmental psychology and from the clinical experience of psychoanalysts. The psychodynamic approach is a technique which involves the analysand trying to rationally reconstruct his experiences with the analyst that he recounts them to.  Psychoanalysts from Freud through to Klein, and Bion have interpreted various different kinds of neuroses, and psychosis as resulting from experiences stemming from childhood which result in people getting stuck in some earlier developmental phrase.

So, for example, Freud’s model had his famous psychosexual stages of development at its core. He argued that through analysing patients it was clear that patients who were obsessional and controlling were stuck at the anal stage of development (which occurred between the ages of 18months and 30months). The anal stage of development occurs when the child is being toiled trained, if a child goes through harsh toilet training with their parents they may later develop an anal retentive personality. Stern correctly noted that one problem with Freud’s model is that it’s very specific predictions simply do not obtain. Another problem is that the contradictory models of Anna Freud, Klein etc all make different developmental predictions which also do not obtain. Stern argues that psychoanalytic models can be made more accurate by being merged with the empirical data which has been obtained by developmental psychology.

However he also thinks that developmental psychology can be enriched by the insights being gained daily in clinical practice. Developmental Psychology is great at constructing behavioural tests which can be used to show what the child’s preferences are. Habituation tests which indicates when a child is surprised by a change in their environment can be used to indicate the child’s expectations about the behaviour of the world and hence can be used to indicate the ontology that the child expects of the world.  We saw above that Susan Isaacs’ argues for a similar approach to Stern in her paper ‘The Nature and Function of Unconscious Phantasy’; she too argues that we need to merge behavioural/developmental data with psychoanalytic interpretation. She uses Freud’s 1922 discussion as a clear example of where psychoanalysts interpret the behaviour of a child psychoanalytically.

Freud spoke about a child who was very obedient and good at coping with being separated from his mother. He noted that when the mother was gone the child would gather all of his toys and hide them saying ohhhh (which Freud interpreted as meaning gone). For Freud the child was using the toys as a symbol of his mother. Later Freud noticed the child playing with a wooden reel with a piece of string wound round it. The child would throw the object away and say ohhhh (meaning gone) and then pull it back and say da which Freud interpreted as meaning back. Freud claimed that the child was using the game to cope with the loss of his mother. In the child’s Phantasy the wooden reel represented his mother and by being able to control the toy he was symbolically assuring himself that he has control of the mothers absence. Freud claimed that at a later stage he observed how the child dealt with a prolonged absence from the mother. When the mother returned from her absence the child was looking in the mirror and covering his eyes saying ohhhh (gone) and then uncovering his eyes and saying da (back). So by controlling his own disappearance and re-appearance the child in his Phantasy was giving himself control over an emotionally distressing situation.

Freud’s interpretation of the child’s behaviour has some plausibility to it. However, from a behavioural point of view there is little to recommend it over the assumption that the child is simply playing a game without any unconscious attempt to master emotional difficulties. Furthermore if one were to interpret the child as simply playing a game one would have a simpler explanatory theory than Freud’s more than elaborate reconstruction in terms of unconscious Phantasy.

One must therefore ask what is the evidence that Freud can bring to bear to support his more complex interpretation of the child’s behaviour? Freud can point to the fact that children are usually distressed when they are separated from his mother. He could further point to the fact that the child he is talking about has managed to deal with this stress in a successful manner (unlike a lot of other children), and the fact that the child games indicates a symbolic mastery over disappearance and re-appearance indicates a causal connection between the two behaviours. Furthermore various analysts could point to their own private practice with children which does indeed indicate that children play reveals their unconscious concerns and phantasies about reality.

However there is a serious difficulty with the above reply. Different theorists within the psychoanalytic community have different interpretations of the same behavioural patterns. So, for example, people using Klein or Lacan or Anna Freud’s theories will interpret the behaviour of children differently because their different theories result in them organising the data of experience differently. Typically analysts argue that their interpretation is proven to be correct because of the pragmatic success of their therapeutic interventions. However, the best empirical evidence we have so far does not indicate that any of the above theories outperform each other in terms of pragmatic success in analysis. Therefore we are presented with a situation where there are alternative interpretations of the childhood experiences which all cohere with observational data and which result in equally successful treatments. A possible way to decide between these alternative theories is to see which of them best coheres with current developmental data. This will give us some traction in the debate.

So in my next blog I will consider Lacan and Klein’s different theories of the childhood development between birth and 2 years old. I will consider their theories in light of current evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, and most importantly in terms of contemporary developmental psychology. The theory which best coheres with our current scientific knowledge is more LIKELY to be the more accurate theory and to stand up to further experimental tests. In my final blog I will consider Klein and Lacan’s different clinical theories of hysteria.

[1] For a detailed look at Quine’s Indeterminacy of Translation argument see my blog Indeterminacy of Translation and Innate Concepts.


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