A Secular Age:

Psychoanalysis as spirituality

posted by Patrick Lee Miller

What are our moral and spiritual sources? In his magnificent and magnanimous recent book, A Secular Age, Charles Taylor investigates a wide range of modern worldviews that are “sources of fullness,” worldviews that enrich our lives with meaning, arrange our activities to serve higher goals, and thus motivate us at times to act beyond our narrow interests. They are, to borrow from the title of his earlier work, sources of the self. More precisely, they are sources of our highest self. As such, psychoanalysis should be among them.

In this form of therapy, after all, individuals find new meaning in their lives, become finally able to arrange their activities to serve this meaning, and are often thereby motivated to perform creative and noble actions. At the very least, when it works, it frees them from enervating repetitions. Taylor, however, denies that psychoanalysis is a genuine spiritual source. His personal source is Christianity, but his catholic understanding of it encourages him to permit the existence of rival but valid sources, even elaborating them into attractive alternatives no more problematic and susceptible to dilemmas than his own. Psychoanalysis, he nevertheless dismisses after a brief and partial examination.

His critique of psychoanalysis borrows from Phillip Rieff’s earlier critique of the “triumph of the therapeutic.” Thus, despite its brevity, Taylor’s critique is complex. The therapeutic suffers from three related problems, he argues, all reducible to a shift from the notion of sin to the notion of illness. First of all, Christianity sees sin as a normal condition with a certain dignity, since it is the preference for an apparent, albeit illusory, good. By contrast, in illness there is no apparent good, only “pure failure, weakness, lack, diminishment.” Secondly, whereas Christian redemption is achieved by conversion, therapy’s “healing doesn’t involve conversion, a growth in wisdom, a new, higher way of seeing the world; or at least, these are not the hinges of healing, though they may be among its results.” Thirdly, whereas the Christian conversion from sin, like the original fall into it, must be freely chosen, illness and then its cure may arise without any choice at all. “The original fall,” when it is a fall into illness, “is entirely in the nature of compulsion, or modes of imprisonment.” In sum, Taylor argues that secular humanism’s effort to rehabilitate the body and everyday life ends with the therapeutic triumph denying it a dignity it once had. “What was supposed to enhance our dignity has reduced it,” he concludes; “we are just to be dealt with, manipulated into health.”

All three of these criticisms mistake psychoanalysis for other, more popular treatments. Behavioral and pharmaceutical therapies, for instance, seek no meaning in illness, robbing it of any apparent good to which it might be responding. Nor do they effect cures by growth in wisdom, although new wisdom may become accessible after their alleviation of symptoms. When it comes to freedom, however, we must be careful to pinpoint where Taylor thinks it should be if a therapy is to count as a spiritual source. Must there be choice in the earliest origins of the illness, its daily preservation, or its possible cure? All three, it would seem, and Taylor is right that the more popular therapies fail to satisfy this high standard of freedom. Many illnesses treatable by them arise by compulsion, and the behaviors that deepen these illnesses become compulsive, too. Similarly, pharmaceutical cures require little or no choice, save to follow a prescription. But other illnesses best treatable by these popular therapies are arguably the products of choice—alcoholism in some cases—and daily choices do worsen the condition. Also, behavioral treatments of any illness require the daily cooperation of the convalescent, usually demanding great will-power to surmount painful obstacles. Yet, none of these choices are robust enough to satisfy Taylor, nor should they be.

Contrast them with the choices involved in psychoanalysis, which sees every treatable illness as at some level the product of choices, at some level maintained by daily choices, and cured ultimately by choices at another level. Most often these original choices have been infantile, and since then they have remained unconscious but operative in daily life. Psychoanalysis promises to bring them into consciousness, submitting them to re-evaluation and the higher powers of adult decision. If it be objected that the original choices discussed by analysis are involuntary because infantile, it must be said that they are no less voluntary than the choice inherited with original sin. If it be objected that the daily choices discussed by analysis are involuntary because unconscious, it must be said that their voluntary status enhances human dignity by expanding rather than diminishing the ken of its freedom. If it be objected that the final choices of cure are involuntary because suggested by the analyst, it must be said that were it so, it would be no less voluntary than the necessary intervention of divine grace. But it is not so: suggestion is an ever-present danger of analysis, to be sure, yet it is a perversion of its most essential aims. What are these aims?

Psychoanalysis strives, first of all, to reveal the meaning of symptoms (not to mention dreams, slips, free-associations, transferences, and anything else mysterious in someone’s mental life and behavior). But this meaning is none other than the apparent but illusory good sought by the analysand. He may inquire, for instance: “What is the meaning of my coming late to sessions every day?” The hard-won answer will be something of this form: “I want my analyst to feel as though I don’t need him; I want him to feel worthless, to snub him, so that he will know how he makes me feel.” When such an apparent good comes to light, it reveals itself as illusory: “My analyst doesn’t make me feel unworthy, he’s waiting there patiently for me everyday; I think the person I really want to snub is my father; he’s the one who made me feel worthless.” When the analysand exposes such illusion himself, he grows in wisdom, not least by the acknowledgment that he unconsciously chose that illusory good and has clung to it all the while. He grows further in wisdom when he recognizes that his boss, and no doubt many others besides, have been victims of his illusion, since he has sought its apparent good from other relationships as well. His character changes, finally, when he can relate differently to these others, seeing them not as ghosts of his father—or his mother, or his siblings, or whomever—but instead as the unique individuals they really are.

To avoid the objection of suggestion raised above, a proviso becomes essential at this point: the growth in wisdom will not be the content of these statements, or others of the same form, since he could have accepted them from a suggestive analyst without really understanding their significance for him. No, his growth in wisdom will be the way his character changes as a result of these recognitions. Psychoanalytic healing comes not from accepting as true certain interpretations of our lives, but rather from seeing our unconscious choices at work ubiquitously in our lives, distorting our perceptions of reality and thus our relationships with others. One result of a successful analysis, then, is the analysand’s recognition that he has chosen much of his life, especially the frustrating repetitions that have formerly appeared to him as inevitable. By bringing unconscious choices into consciousness, in the end, the analysand can now choose otherwise. Far from neglecting freedom, and thereby reducing human dignity, as Taylor argues, psychoanalysis augments it.

This is why analytic clients are analysands, properly speaking, not patients. The Latin suffix of the first means simply someone who is to be analyzed—whether by himself or another is not specified by the term, though in psychoanalysis it is: he analyzes himself with the help of an other, the analyst. By contrast, the second term (also from Latin) means someone who is suffering passively. The persistence of this inaccurate term is just one of the many obstacles—theoretical, stylistic, institutional, economic, to name a few—that psychoanalysis has inherited from its medical ancestry. To be fair, Taylor recognizes that “psychoanalysis may seem, and partly is, an intermediate phenomenon,” that is, between spirituality and medical treatment. For unlike behavioral and pharmaceutical treatments, “it involves a hermeneutic, an attempt to understand the meaning of our unease.” But according to him, its goal is nonetheless the same: symptom-relief, not understanding.

The hermeneutic delves into the unavoidable, deep psychic conflicts in our make-up. But these have no moral lesson for us; the guilt or remorse points to no real wrong. We strive to understand them in order to reduce their force, to become able to live with them. On the crucial issue, what we have morally or spiritually to learn from our suffering, it is firmly on the therapeutic side: the answer is “nothing.”

This is the nut of Taylor’s criticisms of psychoanalysis as a spiritual source, but it is just an elaboration of the second of those canvassed above: even if analysis involves a conversion, a growth in wisdom, a new, higher view of the world, this wisdom will be an effect rather than a cause of the therapy. After all, there is nothing morally or spiritually to be learned from our suffering itself. Taylor discounts psychoanalysis as a spiritual source because whatever growth of wisdom occurs in it is not among “the hinges of healing.” A spiritual source, in sum, must change someone by some new wisdom it generates in those who step into its waters.

This seems to me a very good definition of a spiritual source. Accepting it, then, we should count psychoanalysis as a spiritual source only if a growth in wisdom is among the causes of the transformations it effects. As it turns out, the precise cause of psychoanalytic healing—the so-called therapeutic action—is even more controversial now than it was when Hans Loewald first introduced the term of art in 1960. (A search of the field’s main literature-database for articles with “therapeutic action” in their titles yields seventy-two.) Most analysts still believe that a fully successful analysis requires not just the relief of symptoms, but also a deeper understanding of their causes—an interpretation, or rather, a series of interpretations. Of these analysts, many still believe, as Freud did, that these interpretations are the causes of this symptom-relief. The most prominent of the analysts who hold this cognitive position on therapeutic action nowadays is Peter Fonagy. Yet other analysts believe that the cause of psychoanalytic healing is not interpretation but the relationship with the analyst, arguing that this relationship engenders emotional changes that in turn enable intellectual insights. The first to propose this affective position on therapeutic action was Freud’s colleague, friend, and then apostate, Sandor Ferenczi, but it has been developed since by a disparate group of analysts up to the present-day. Most notably: James Strachey, Franz Alexander, Heinz Kohut, and Daniel Stern. Now, Taylor seems to adopt the affective position—or at least to neglect its cognitive rival—without an argument. To complete his case against psychoanalysis as a spiritual source, however, he must provide such an argument.

Awaiting this argument, we should meanwhile introduce a third position on the therapeutic action: cognitive and affective changes happen in tandem, each causing the other, or, properly speaking, neither causing the other, since they are in fact one. Here is an admittedly vatic way of putting this alternative—for now at least—by contrast with its rivals: the cognitive position holds that knowledge is therapeutic; the affective position, that it is emotion (and especially love) which heals; according to this third position, in their highest form, love is knowledge and knowledge love. For this third position, in short, the therapeutic action is their unification. Perhaps this is what Freud meant by once calling psychoanalysis a “cure by love,” eventually invoking Plato’s Eros, only later to exalt the work of “our god Logos.” From our pat example earlier we may catch of glimpse of this elusive position. The analysand understands that he has been seeking to snub his father, but this understanding is no mere interpretation; it is a change in his character, a change in his relation to the world, particularly to other people he loves. Put the other way round: this change in his relation to others he loves is his newly acquired knowledge. If this synthesis of knowledge and love, cognition and affection, can be made clearer, psychoanalysis would have a special claim to be a spiritual source, especially on Taylor’s terms, since it would effect transformation by the highest sort of wisdom: love-knowledge.

This peculiar synthesis is already arguably at the heart of Freud’s obscure notion of durcharbeiten, or “working through.” If some of the obscurity of this notion can be dispelled, then Taylor cannot maintain his stark contrast between the spiritual outlook, on the one hand, from which our “unease needs to be further understood, worked through, perhaps in prayer or meditation,” and the therapeutic outlook, on the other, from which this unease “needs to be got rid of, or at least rendered mild enough to be lived with.” For from the inception of psychoanalysis, when Freud first distinguished it from cures by suggestion (like hypnosis), this therapy has aimed to work through our unease, to understand it, not simply to get rid of it. With a better account of its therapeutic action at hand, now, psychoanalysis can propose a hermeneutic that—no less than the hermeneutic of Christianity—grants even flawed human action the aura of freedom, the luster of apparent good, and thus the dignity of responsibility. With a richer theoretical account of love and knowledge, psychoanalysis can also make more explicit the approach to the world that has been implicit in its practice from the beginning. Finally, with an account of the moral and spiritual lessons it generates within this practice, psychoanalysis can take its place alongside the modern worldviews that enrich our lives with meaning, arrange our activities to serve higher goals, and thus motivate us at times to act beyond our narrow interests.

In my view, psychoanalysis is uniquely poised to do so, since it carries into our own times—without yet recognizing this, but with many innovations to contribute—the best tradition of ancient philosophy: the quest for self-knowledge, producing the recognition that this quest is itself our highest self.

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12 Responses to “Psychoanalysis as spirituality”

  1. I think that while the psychological and spiritual are related, they are distinct aspects of inner life.

  2. avatar Joe Cimakasky says:

    Round one to Mr. Miller. Anxiously awaiting Mr. Taylor’s response…

  3. avatar Iljas Baker says:

    That psychoanalysis is a commodity bought from a psychoanalyst is problematic if we are to think of it as spirituality. If the analysand cannot pay, the relationship is immediately severed. Moreover, the therapy is locked into a very lengthy and profitable relationship between the analyst and analysand who meet for just under an hour weekly for years. This is too materialistic/mechanical for it to be called a form of spirituality.

    It does not (unless it is Jungian analysis) look to a higher source of help/grace than the reason of both participants. Psychoanalysis has no communal dimension. It doesn’t try to develop the spirit, it tries to solve problems so that the analysand can lead a more or less normal life. Spirituality uses problems to develop the spirit, often in a communal context.

    Psychonalysis has some similarities with spirituality, but it should not be confused with spirituality.

  4. avatar Robin Leslie says:

    Christian spirituality, when truly mystical, is communal and, as embodied in Thomas Merton, it is communal. Even though Merton developed a cenobitic life outside his Cistercian monastery, he always maintained that this was the mature development of his communal membership. The great fallacy in the so-called “post-modern” period is that spirituality is regarded as an extension of individualism, as in esotericism or New Age stuff. However, there is little depth or rootedness to hold and cohere and so perversions soon manifest themselves in all of this.

    The surrender of the ego is genetic to a communal spiritual life and an entry into the mystery of life, where it is beyond mastery. This does not necessarily entail ceasing to reason. What it does entail is seeing consciousness as an awakening in God, and not independent of that mystery.

  5. avatar Kimberly Thompson says:

    I have never posted here before, but I felt compelled to comment … as a doctoral student in clinical psychology, I was originally interested in psychoanalysis as a theoretical orientation because it seemed to be more holistic in nature than some of the alternatives. However, after reading some of the literature in this area, I concluded that it was too much of a religion for me, and that I already had a religion and wasn’t interested in another one, either in exchange or as an adjunct.

  6. avatar Marybeth Cohowicz says:

    First it is necessary to distinguish religion from spirituality. Durkheim defines religion as a set of beliefs and practices related to sacred things that unites adherents into a single moral community. Using this as a template, it would seem psychoanalysis may fall short. However, I would agree that it does offer the same psychological health that meditation or prayer might in a religion. William Irwin Thompson states “Religion is not identical with spirituality, rather religion is the form spirituality takes in civilization.” So as religion may be one avenue taken to reach spirituality, psychoanalysis proves to be just another. It would seem that both religion and psychoanalysis may offer the same results, such as self awareness, finding one’s true self, and establishing a connection with others, but I don’t think I would characterize psychoanalysis as a religion.

  7. Modern Psychoanalysis is a holistic treatment for relieving mental and emotional distress. Isn’t that exactly what people are looking for in their religion? Are some analysands atheists who believe? The Freudian approach to religion has more to do with anthropology than with theology. On the other hand, it is reported that C.G. Jung “… had never, he claimed, had a patient whose neurosis was not due to his lack of religion, nor had he ever cured a patient whose cure was not due to his return to religion.” (Bartemeier). And would we be talking about this if we believed that religion and psychoanalysis were completely irreconcilable?

  8. avatar Mark Logan says:

    Psychoanalysis designates concomitantly three things:

    A method of mind investigation.

    A therapy of neurosis inspired from the above method.

    A discipline based on the knowledge acquired from applying the investigation method and clinical experiences.

    Psychoanalysis or alike (known by many other labels), as a means to combat spiritual sickness may be possible, as spiritual problems seem to have a wide array of symptoms psychoanalysis may uncover and address.

    However, a true spiritual solution is forming an intimate bond….connecting with others and environment in a caring, nurturing way. This seems to be a method many are using with great success.

    RE: MC) I agree, it is very necessary to distinguish religion from spirituality, modern culture has confused the two for decades. However, they can be one in the same for some, not just an avenue.

  9. avatar David K. Allen says:

    Scripture is required to clarify psychoanalytic theory ontologically and epistemologically within precise biblical logic. The unconscious mind system, the heart and mind of in-depth analysis, formed within God’s grace and mercy. The first human lost relationship with God by disregarding concerned love relatedness. Having been warned he would ‘surely die’…in a fear-filled response, he evoked a projective identification enactment with God asking for mercy. It was granted in the capacity and use of unconscious repression in non-communion grace relationship, suppressing the death instinct out of the conscious mind. The negative effects when unconscious loss arousal is activated constitutes the foundation of human psychopathology.

  10. The self-knowledge and self-awareness encouraged in the psychoanalytic setting are necessary conditions for spiritual praxis, as in the consolidation of the ego or sense of coherent (i.e., not fragmented) self-identity. However, as Freud himself would have argued, psychoanalysis does not itself attempt to answer those sorts of existential and spiritual questions that are traditionally found within the boundaries of religious worldviews and some forms of philosophy (specifically, the ‘therapeutic’ varieties discussed by Pierre Hadot, Martha Nussbaum, and John Haldane). In this sense, then, I would prefer to see psychoanalysis as providing something along the lines of the necessary yet not sufficient conditions of spiritual praxis, especially insofar as it is (and was) intended to bring about a minimal condition of mental health and personal well-being.

    With Erich Fromm (and the Stoics…), I happen to think that low-grade mental pathologies of one sort or another are ubiquitous in contemporary affluent societies (in addition to but apart from the insidious effects on rationality that arise from the various biases and heuristics identified by cognitive and social psychologists), but these are, typically, nowhere near as personally and socially debilitating as the forms of mental illness that cry out for psychoanalytic or other forms of psychological treatment.

    Finally, with John Cottingham (among others; see his Philosophy and the Good Life: Reason and the Passions in Greek, Cartesian and Psychoanalytic Ethics, 1998: 104-166), I think psychoanalytic theory has much to offer by way of a critique and transcendence of philosophical ethics of a predominantly “rationalist” orientation that would likewise be intrinsic to the “necessary but not sufficient condition” of psychoanalysis to spirituality.

    (Incidentally…or not, I’ve put together a bibliography on ‘Freudian and Post-Freudian Psychology’ that should prove useful in addressing the questions raised by this post in a fairly sophisticated if not philosophical manner that does justice to the Freudian legacy.)

  11. avatar David K. Allen says:

    The foundational need…configure the integration of Christianity within the unconscious/conscious mind and the unconscious/conscious within Christianity. The need to be ‘born again,’ ontologically be a ‘new creation in Christ”, clarifies, enabling phenomenological epistemological reconstitution of unconscious/conscious relational emotional fault and conflict.

  12. avatar Deb McNish says:

    The strength of the psychoanalytic approach is in its emphasis on answering ‘why’ questions; Christianity doesn’t answer these, or, where it does, it gives an inadequate answer with respect to “a growth in wisdom and a higher view of the world.” Sin, after all, is a given and has no deeper ‘why’ to it than a biblical story of the Fall. It presupposes human failure as an inherent and inescapable fact of who we are, and therefore stifles moral development both for the individual and the community. We become focused only on our actions, not on the condition of what might be called our moral ‘soul’ or character.

    Understanding ‘why’ is both the cause and effect of therapy, and it interweaves matters of moral character, agency, self-understanding with personal transcendence. While it’s certainly the case that the founding practitioners took a pessimistic view of what might be called human nature (possibly influenced by Christian ideas of original sin??) psychotherapy as it is most often practiced today sees the unease and discontent in the human condition as products of a lack of both self-knowledge and the ability to pose ‘why’ questions, and the concomitant crippling of the faculty of self-transcendence, which a spiritual matter sine qua non.

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