What Does Heinz Kohut
Mean by the „Self"?
Associations on a Theme
[ Self Psychology Bulletin Board ]
paper may also be downloaded.
The present version of this paper is based on a lecture
presented under the same title at a meeting of the "Society for the
Philosophy and Sciences of the Psyche" (Berlin, May 8, 1997) and
incorporates audience questions and suggestions, particularly in the
footnotes. A first version was presented in June 1993 at a continuing
education seminar of the Department of Psychotherapy and Psychosomatic
Medicine (Chair: Dr.med. E. Schiffer) of the Christian Hospital e.V. in
The following remarks, with all their digressions, address
a single question: what does Heinz Kohut mean by the "self"? We are
not primarily concerned here with Kohut’s contribution to research on
narcissism (Kohut 1971), nor with his specific therapeutic concepts
(selfobject transference and the like), but rather with his psychoanalytic and
anthropological theory of the self, which contains the conceptual foundations
of both his therapeutic practice and his intellectual excursions into
sociology, art, and history.
"Conceptual foundations" suggests Kohut’s
adversary: the metapsychology of Sigmund Freud. Freud’s own relationship to
his metapsychology was at once passionate and detached. With respect to the
problem of how the ego can control the drives, he wrote in 1937: "’We
must call the Witch to our aid after all.'1 That is
to say, the witch of metapsychology. Without metapsychological speculation and
theorizing—I might almost have said fantasizing -, one gets no further"
(Freud, Suppl. 365f).
The keystone here, and the stumbling block, was drive
theory. The ego—consciousness—is not master in its own house. Its
reactions are in perpetual conflict between instinctual wishes and the natural
or cultural adversities of external reality. Both are subject to an
epistemological qualification which Freud addresses in The Interpretation
"The unconscious is the true psychical reality: in its
innermost nature it is as much unknown to us as the reality of the external
world, and it is as incompletely presented by the data of consciousness as is
the external world by the communications of our sense organs" (1900,
This is also the source of the concept of the object
and the correlated (cognitive) subject, containing structures which
first constitute an object as an object. But what is important now is no
longer the structures of reason or the intellect, but rather those of the
instinctual drives. The source of the drives (which is inaccessible to
psychological knowledge) lies in the biological bedrock; its goal is
the release of tension. Objects exist chiefly for the purpose of
gratification; that is, they serve to remove tension. Their obstinacy and
recalcitrance, as well as the inner logic of drive development, not only
banish people from the oceanic feeling of their self-sufficient primary
narcissism, thus leading to the formation of ego structures responsible for
cognition and action; they also challenge its moral standards. The destiny of
the drives is to evolve the psychic structure of id, ego, and superego on the
rocky path leading from autoeroticism to the Oedipus conflict. But life in the
reality of nature and culture (the principle of reality) remains exposed to
the depredations of a force striving anarchically toward pleasure.
Psychoanalysis, as is well known, seeks to constrain this force: "Where
id was, there ego shall be."
"Guilty" and "Tragic": Man’s Double
Kohut does not reject this model of the psyche’s
structure. "Man lives inside the pleasure principle; he attempts to
satisfy his pleasure searching drives for, to relieve tensions which arise in
his erogenic zones. The fact that man is often unable to reach his goals in
this domain—not because of pressure from his environment, but primarily due
to inner conflicts—leads me," Kohut writes, "to term him Guilty
Man when regarded from this perspective" (Kohut 1977, 120).
This is the sphere of classical psychoanalysis, the
structural neuroses, and their therapy. But man does not live only in a world
of neurotic conflicts, or—in the best case—of drives sublimated into
creativity. A primitive core of spontaneity exists in him, a "life beyond
the pleasure principle," which strives for self-expression (cf. Kohut
1975, 269ff; 1977, 120f).
Kohut speaks of "the realization through action of the
(life) plan laid down in [man’s] nuclear self." Kohut writes,
"Here the undeniable fact that man fails more often than he succeeds
leads me to give this aspect of man the negative designation Tragic Man,
instead of ‘expressive’ or ‘creative man’" (Kohut 1977, 120f).
The individual whose self-expression is blocked experiences
himself as prevented from building a tension arc from basic strivings
(ambitions) to basic ideals (values, goals) using inborn talents and acquired
"This tension arc is the dynamic essence of the
complete, non-defective self; it is the conceptualization of the structure
whose establishment makes possible a creative-productive, fulfilling
life" (Kohut 1984, 21).
"Narcissism" for the most part still stands for
"self" in Kohut’s earlier writings (Kohut 1966 ff.), but two main
tendencies inherent in man are already beginning to become distinct—his
striving toward pleasure and his striving to give expression to the structure
of his self, tendencies "which can either work together harmoniously or
conflict with one another" (Kohut 1975, 273). There is no quantitative
equilibrium between them, but the possibility exists that "the weaker ...
sector may be able to play a supplementary role" (ibid.), just as there
may also be lifelong "trouble-free cooperation" between them. There
is no path leading from narcissism to object-love—selfobjects are not
replaced by love objects— the two interact.
Kohut writes, "I have repeatedly stressed ... that
object-love ..., like any other intense experience, strengthens the self.
Furthermore, it is well known that a strong self enables us to experience love
and desire more intensely" (Kohut 1984, 86).
So far we have only hinted at an answer to our question,
"What does Kohut mean by the ‘self.’" Let us take a closer look.
The Structure of the "Self"
Kohut is indefatigable in stressing the role of empathy,
that is, sympathetic understanding of the introspection of the Other. Though
he never says exactly what it is. Kohut intends empathy not only as a
therapeutic agent, but also as an instrument of theoretical knowledge2;
in many places in Kohut’s writings it even becomes a model of social
If we ask empathically what the self is, we get the
- "our sense of being an independent center of
initiative and perception,"
- of being "integrated with our most central
ambitions and ideals,"
- "and with our experience that our body and mind
form a unit in space and a continuum in time" (Kohut 1977, 155).
Here we have, in embryo, the essential features of the self—more
precisely of the bipolar self—to which we shall now turn.
If we leave the origins of the self unelucidated for the
moment and, in the manner of most psychoanalytic theory, start from a
hypothetical symbiotic phase, the course of events is as follows:
"The equilibrium of the complete security of the child
is disturbed by the inevitable limits of maternal care, but the child replaces
the previous perfection (a) by constructing a grandiose and exhibitionistic
image of the self, the grandiose self, and (b) by assigning the
previous perfection to a venerated, omnipotent (transitional) selfobject, the idealized
parent imago" (Kohut 1971, 43).
Kohut uses the linguistic monstrosity self-selfobject
relationship to designate this state of affairs. Selfobjects are thus
objects3 or functions of objects which arouse the
self-feeling, maintain it, or influence it positively.
Here only two clues—offered by Kohut—to the origin of
the self, a matter which we will discuss in more depth:
(1) The child’s environment (selfobjects) reacts to its
utterances as if it already had a self, or a self-experience of its own
initiative, integrity, and continuity. That is, if empathic care by the mother
is to be successful, she not only takes notice of some of the infant’s
requirements and achievements (e.g., the sucking reflex, thrashing, etc.), but
speaks to the child as an integral whole (see above).
(2) Psychoanalytical research has pushed back the
acquisition of a rudimentary self to an earlier and earlier point. For
Kohut, the child’s earliest expressions of narcissistic rage and anxiety
are indications of a rudimentary self. An active striving toward total mastery
and possession of the dimly perceived exterior of the selfobject manifests
itself (earlier than had been assumed)—or, complementary to this striving,
anxiety about the disintegration and fragmentation4
of the self (phenomena widely seen in the therapy of narcissistic personality
disorders, among others).
Kohut makes repeated reference to the mother’s empathic
care for the child’s entire self, by which he means not so much praise and
satisfaction of needs as a style, an atmosphere of acceptance. The embryonic
grandiose self is reflected "in the radiance of the mother’s
eyes"; its own grandiosity shares in the omnipotence of its selfobject.
The two are fused, yet take the form of a differentiated whole.5
Early on (in the first through third years of life), the
parents will supportively mirror the strivings of the child’s grandiose self
and not threaten their idealization as parents. Provided what Kohut calls the nuclear
self has established itself, a stronger movement toward disillusionment
begins. Margaret S. Mahler’s developmental model of separation and
individuation (normalized to self psychology) is applicable here.6
Kohut calls the incorporation of the self-selfobject experience into the
internal structure of the self transmuting internalization. What does
this mean more precisely?
"The selfobject which possesses a mature psychological
organization able to realistically evaluate the child’s needs and how to
meet them will be absorbed by the child into its own psychological
organization and rectify the child’s homeostatic disequilibrium through
behavior" (Kohut 1977, 84).
The first point of this response is important:
"absorption into its own psychological organization" is a more
technical way of saying empathy: sympathetic understanding (Einfühlung)
of the introspection of the Other. Rage and anxiety, for example, do not
derive from the primordial drives which the mother must tame through
love or strength (neutralized aggression); rather, they are "the
experience of disintegration [of a] formerly complete and complex
psychological unit of self-evident approval." The mother senses the child’s
anxiety and initially shares it with him, then "picks up the child, talks
to it while holding and carrying it, and thus creates conditions that the
child phase-appropriately experiences as a fusion with the omnipotent
selfobject" (ibid., 84f).
But fusion for the sake of transmuting internalization;
relationship is transformed (participant) into structure:7
The selfobject (the mother) responds to the progression of anxiety—disintegration
anxiety—experienced in the child’s self with slight anxiety, that is, with
an affect signal that leads to calm; the affect abates—i.e., the
anxiety fades. What applies in the early area of pre-linguistic affect is
equally valid later (e.g., in therapy): I perceive the anxiety, I share it in
a self-controlled, moderate fashion, and show how it can be made more
intelligible and how it might go away. (Kohut’s two-phase transference—understanding
and interpreting—and Winnicott’s holding function are both based on
A lack of fusion or harmful fusion, i.e., a lack of empathy
or inadequate reactions, leads to a weakening of the ability to curb affect or
to the acquisition of faulty, defective structures. In our example, if the
selfobject responds with a spreading of affect instead of an affect
signal. The disintegration anxiety of the self intensifies in the fusion with
the mother’s panic reaction. Disregard or ambivalence of reaction patterns
of selfobjects not only leads to disintegrating spreading of affect, but can
also deprive the child of the security of the self’s reality and the
appropriateness of his affect: "Is that really my feeling?"
To summarize: the nuclear self consists of strivings
(ambitions)—which spring from the grandiose self—and transmute ideals,
goals, and values—from the idealized parent imago. A tension arc exists
between these poles which mobilizes talents and acquired abilities. More
precisely: Kohut speaks of a tension arc as the "abiding flow of actual
psychological activity ... between the two poles of the self" and of
a tension gradient, an "action-producing state which arises
between man’s strivings and his ideals" (Kohut 1977, 157).8
Man is established in his life plan with the formation of a
specific bipolar nuclear self,9 which can succeed
or fail. We now see Tragic Man more clearly.
Kohut’s description makes use of highly questionable
metaphors from physics, such as electrical tension gradient (Kohut
1977, 156f). Somatically-related events are swiftly given meaningless causal
Merleau-Ponty, on the other hand, is at pains to describe operative
intentionality of an embodied incarnated consciousness.
"Conscious life [is] supported by an ‘arch of
intention,’ which lays out for us our past, our future, our human
environment, our physical situation ... our moral situation, or rather
brings it about that we are situated in all these relationships. It is this
arch of intention which makes up the unity of consciousness, the unity of the
intelligence, and the unity of the sensorium and motor activity. It is what
loses its ‘tone’ in illness" (Merleau-Ponty 1945, 164f).
The psychoanalytic reification of (briefly put) situated,
embodied, emotional, and cognitive achievements in concrete terms such as self,
object, and so on makes a dialogue with these phenomenological concepts
extremely difficult.11 We are entering
rough waters where even early Merleau-Ponty is questionable at points.
Let us return to Kohut. The bipolar self owes its
existence (constitution) to structure-forming self-selfobject relationships;
recall transmuting internalization. This never comes to an end.
Relationships of this kind never become superfluous, remain necessary
"A person experiences himself as a cohesive,
harmonious unit in space and time which is connected with its past and
directed toward a creative and productive future, [but] only if he has the
experience at every stage of his life that certain representatives of his
human environment react enthusiastically to him, are available as sources of
idealized strength and calm, present in nursing, but essentially always able
to undertand his inner life more or less correctly so that their reactions and
his needs are in tune and he is permitted to comprehend their inner life if he
requires such support" (Kohut 1984, 84).
By this yardstick, fragmented selves are almost all
Kohut can see in the ‘modern world’; he almost laments the disintegration
of traditional ideals and values. He speaks frequently of the lack of great
artistic or historical figures with the function of an idealized parent imago.
Beyond the ordinary case (Grundregel)—i.e., outside the analytical
situation—his alternative interpretative horizon is quite limited. Compare
"The frigidity of warm, subjective love persists in
its refusal to perceive the social mechanism which produces the frigidity.
Stubborn adherence to subjective love drives it to its opposite, to the
justification of a loveless world" (Jacoby 1975, 148).
This form of radical social criticism seems quite alien to
Kohut. He leaps from dual relationships (mother/child) over the great figures
and into "cosmic regions," speaks of "communing in a timeless
transpersonal existence" (Kohut 1966, 162); in this way he extricates
himself from complications reminiscent of his "leap" from physics
After so much self and (tragic) self-realization,
where is Guilty Man? Or is the recognition of drive-determined object
relations an empty promise? One of Kohut’s critics once made this accusation
in the form of a typical joke:
"A Hollywood film magnate is talking non-stop about
himself to a young actress. In a rare moment of self-awareness he interrupts
himself and says, ‘Enough about me. Let’s talk about you. What do you
think of me?" (cited in Eagle 1988, 79).
The "Self" and the Drives
Kohut’s definition of the relationship between drive
psychology and self psychology turns out not to be completely consistent. He
speaks of complementarity,12 meaning that a
psychic phenomenon can be expressed in terms of either, then gives clear
primacy to self psychology, which incorporates object relations.13
His model of the bipolar self seems analogous to
that of the instinctual drives. If we recall the introductory remarks
above, drives are determined by (psychologically inaccessible) source,
motivation, object, and goal (= release of tension). The most variable aspect—the
object with its oppositional or gratificational character—impinges on hardly
any important intraorganismic event. Otherwise Freud’s destiny of the
drives would have no tangible meaning.
A source—strivings—and a goal—ideals
and values—are also contained in the self, but they derive rather from the
respondent self-structures of the parents as from nature (the somatic). Just
as ego structures and achievements are based on inhibited gratification,
strivings bring out talents and abilities, polarized toward the realization of
ideals. Self-realization is not the release of tension, nor does is it
fulfilled in actual relationships with others (Intersubjectivity).14
Drive theory vs. self theory: What could this mean
exactly? According to classical drive theory, "oral-clinging
behavior" is characterized as "the manifestation of
(1) a drive fixation on oral fixation points and
(2) a corresponding developmental arrest of the ego, in
consequence of infantile gratifications to which the analysand’s
pleasure-oriented immature ego has become addicted" (Kohut 1977, 74).
But this is not the focus of psychopathology, neither
developmentally nor dynamically/structurally. As a consequence of the
disrupted empathic reactions of the parents, the child’s self was not
securely established. That is, in the case of a weak self threatened by
fragmentation, the attempt to make certain of oneself in one’s own
livingness leads to the "stimulation of erogenic zones, [which] then,
secondarily, brings about the oral (and anal) drive orientation of the ego’s
enslavement to the drive aims correlated to the stimulated body zones"
As with the character pathology of "anal
stinginess," the mother, in accepting, rejecting, or ignoring the
"fecal gift," is not reacting to the drive, but "to a self
that, in giving and offering, seeks confirmation iby the mirroring
selfobject" (ibid., 76).
Destructiveness (rage) is also not based on a
primary drive, but represents a disintegration product of self-experience.
According to Kohut (ibid., 88f), if a patient reacts to an interpretation with
rage, that does not show a relaxation of resistance in which a
neutralization is reversed and transmuted back into aggressive energy. It
would be more in keeping with experience to describe it as representing a
developmentally important traumatic situation which is recapitulated in the
therapeutic context: a faulty, unempathic reaction of the selfobject refers to
a state of affairs in which the child demands total control over reactions and
To summarize in general terms: "The establishment
of fixations and of the correlated activities of the ego occurs in consequence
of the feebleness of the self. The unresponded-to self had not been able to
transform its archaic grandiosity and its archaic wish to merge with an
omnipotent selfobject into reliable self-esteem, realistic ambitions,
attainable ideals. The abnormality of the drives and the ego are the
symptomatic consequences of this central defect of the self" (ibid., 81).
"Symptomatic consequences" means the formulation
of a compromise between the demands of the drives and the achievements of the
defenses. In self psychology, the latter corresponds roughly to the formation
of defensive structures (see, e.g., ibid., 20). They "paper
over" the primary defect. Compensatory structures, also
established in childhood, compensate for the weakness of the self pole or
sector by strengthening the other pole or sector; the self-perception of a
weakened self in the realm of ambition and exhibitionism generally encourages
the intense pursuit of ideals. We cannot discuss this point further here (cf.
Kohut 1977, 160ff). By forming compensatory structures, the individual gets a
second chance; according to Kohut, these too have repercussions in therapy.
Drive aims, defense mechanisms, and conflicts represent
subordinate areas of the self15 whose
disequilibrium can also affect feelings of self-esteem that do not have
primary defects. Here we may speak of secondary pathology of the self.
But because we do not wish to focus on the classification and therapy of
personality disorders, let us turn to another point: If drive-determined
symptomatic and character pathologies are disintegration products of a
defective self, it might be asked when, where, and how anything determined by
the drives becomes "integrated" into the self at all. This will be
discussed as part of our reflections on the origins of the self.
From the Virtual Self to the Cohesive Self
Kohut assumes "that the newborn infant cannot have any
reflexive awareness of himself, that he is not capable of experiencing
himself, if ever so dimly, as a unit, cohesive in space and enduring in time,
which is a center of initiative and the recipient of impressions" (Kohut
And yet his environment reacts to the emotions of the
newborn child ab initio as if it were a whole person, it
"anticipates the later self-awareness of the child" (ibid.). Kohut
speaks here of a virtual self, metaphorically described as
"corresponding in reverse to that geometric point in infinity where two
parallel lines intersect" (ibid., 96).
In Analysis of the Self (1971), Kohut still agrees
with traditional psychoanalytic theory and assumes that the self is formed
"through the fusion of its parts," in a sequence opposite to that of
the fragmentation that may later occur under adverse circumstances. The child’s
experience of himself as a somatic and psychological unit (see above)
"takes hold gradually through the fusion of experiences of individual (at
first still unassociated) body parts and isolated somatic and psychological
functions" (Kohut 1975, 260).
Before a cohesive self forms, "stages of the
fragmented self," isolated somatic and psychological fragments or nuclei—self-nuclei—must
exist (cf. Kohut 1971, 48). In his "Remarks on the Formation of the
Self" (1975), Kohut casts doubt on this thesis: there is no evidence, he
writes, for a process of fusion of self nuclei (cf. Kohut 1975, 262f). Here we
find the important claim that the development of the child’s self-experience
is independent of that of his drive-determined areas. But this
self-experience does not only arise independently, it grows in importance as
"the experience of the body parts and individual functions first assumes
a coordinate position, then a superordinate one. ... The parts do not make up
the self, they become incorporated into it" (ibid.).
It seems significant that a Jungian (M. Jacoby 1985) lays
particular stress on this importation of holism into psychoanalysis; others of
Kohut’s hypotheses also find echoes in holistic psychology.
In seeking the developmental roots of the self, Kohut
"obtained the impression that during early psychic development a process
takes place in which some archaic mental contents that had been experienced as
belonging to the self become obliterated or are assigned to the area of the
nonself while others are retained within the self or are added to it"
(Kohut 1977, 154).
This passage again refers to the significance of
selfobjects, which treat the child’s emotions and the child as an entire
self according to their abilities, their own structure, and the image of the virtual
self which they contain. The process of differentiation and expulsion
takes place in the self-selfobject relationship.
But the passage contains a difficulty. If we speak of
self-experience or self-development and the destiny of drive-impulses as
separate or posit their integration, the question no longer arises where
disintegrated or not yet integrated material is, if the self is in fact to
form the "center of a psychic universe" (ibid., 12) and not
"part of a psychic apparatus." The two aspects cannot be as
arbitrarily divided as Kohut believes. One would in fact have to speak of a self
in the self. In our view, however, this would again lead to metaphoric and
reifying talk of the self as an object with spatial extension and physical
To return to the main theme: the self is one thing from its
beginning;16 it is not the sum of its parts,
still less fragments (which would assume the existence of a former whole).
There are no separate, then patched-together parts, but rather (to use a
formulation related to the work of Merleau-Ponty) increasing inner
organization (via differentiation and expulsion) of an amorphous and
opaque original unity. Thus the entire body (Leib) at the beginning of
life has appellative character—it is all expression: crying, thrashing,
looking are all barely separate embodiments of one intention which becomes
differentiated later, permitting separation into gesture, mimicry, speech, and
acts of movement executed with causal and semantic purpose.
Thus speech does not develop by stringing together
meaningful sounds which are then syntactically and semantically joined to form
a language. The child babbles, it produces all the sounds of spoken language
(modulo its anatomical equipment and maturity), and, via differentiation and
expulsion, retains those which are relevant in its language. However, what is
expelled—nonsense—can later find its way into neologisms or other
For Kohut, the entire self precedes its elements (for a
qualification, cf. 1975, 281). But with respect to the "parts of the
body," the "somatic-psychological functions," and their
occupation by the libido for "erogenic zones," he make the quite
classical assumption that isolated parts are integrated into a whole.
Body, Self, and Beginninglessness
The virtual self (in the imagination) of the Other
is not the beginning of the child’s own self-experience; there is no
absolute beginning to reflexive experience, but beginninglessness. For
consciousness, every beginning is a assumed one, the achievement of a
consciousness with a past. We fall into an infinite regress or into the abyss
of German Idealism.
Kohut and others notice rarely notice this philosophical
problem because the perspective changes in ontogenetic thinking. When we
participate empathically, as Kohut asks, in self-experience recalling scenes
of childhood or infancy, such as disintegration anxiety, then—in the murk of
the earliest pre-linguistic impressions—we change point of view and
understand the putative pre-experience in the categories of a functioning
organism. "I hold, indeed, that the states existing before the apparatus
of the central nervous system has sufficiently matured and before the
secondary processes have yet been established must be described in terms of
tensions—of tensions increased, of tensions decreased—and not in terms of
verbalizable fantasies" (Kohut 1977, 96).
Kohut rightly rejects Melanie Klein’s assumption that
fantasies capable of verbalization exist in early childhood. Research on
"the competent infant" is emphatic confirmation of Kohut’s
position (cf. Dornes 1993). Self-experience of a vague spatio-temporal
existence (experiencing); or else an active organism (living).
Tertium non datur? I hazard two pieces of evidence for a possible answer:
This problem—from which the great battle over the origins
of "self-feeling" or self-experience, and ultimately of
self-consciousness, derives—seems to me to be one of the underdetermination
of the body and of what Merleau-Ponty calls "intercorporeality."
Embodied subjectivity avoids the subject/object split and protects itself by
formulating intentional (self-)achievements from reifying concepts.17
The reflexive "I am" is a loan from the Other to the active,
intentional, embodied achievements of the child. But the child also possesses
a center of urges and perceptions. Only this center, this self, is not one of
experience which is reflexive and thus capable of being remembered, but rather
one of embodied ability, of operative (fungierende) intentionality
One consequence of these reflections would require an
investigation of its own—in this respect it remains intentionally null (leerintentional).
Just one suggestive concrete example: "If I playfully take the finger of
a fifteen-month-old child between my teeth and give it a little bite, the
child opens its mouth. And yet it has hardly ever seen its own face in the
mirror and its teeth do not resemble mine. But its own mouth and its teeth are
directly perceived by the child—felt from inside—as tools for biting, and
my jaw is directly perceived by the child—seen from outside—as equipped
for the same purpose. ‘Biting’ has in fact an intersubjective meaning for
the child" (Merleau-Ponty 1945, 403; cf. 405).18
But "intercorporeality" also takes place in the
"mirroring" cited above, which would certainly not have to be
restricted to the "radiance of the mother’s eyes." Along with
empathy toward the child’s disintegration anxiety, mirroring and holding (Winnicott)
and "amodal affect attunement" (Stern) are also meant.
But the embodied union of experience is not an
adequate characterization of the context in which the self is born. "Even
before language, the baby’s body appears as a text of pleasure and pain ...
by which its parents are possessed, because they read their own destiny in
every sound, every uproar, every smile, and every tear. In this way, every
generation of parents is willingly subjugated by the majestic pantomime of
their children" (O'Neill 1986, 254).
Brazelton and Cramer (1990) develop the concept of an imaginary
interaction, which includes the directly observable interaction, the
subjectiv expectations and the unconscious fantasies of the participants.
"The expectations that parents cherish for their future child even before
it is conceived are rooted in their own ... history. ... This
context (fantasized relationships) is what the child enters when it comes into
the world; its spontaneous behavior ‘awakens’ these fantasies and gives
rise to interpretations and attributions. The child’s perception of itself
is conditioned by this interaction—its self-image develops mirrored in the
conscious and unconscious fantasies of the parents about themselves and about
the child" (Hamburger 1995, 66). Here the fantasies which make up the
child’s self are the parents’; the fantasies make themselves felt in the
parents’ ways of behaving with the child.19
That is, they form a structure which is hardly founded in natural conditions,20
but also not adopted in such a way that it is accessible to consciousness,
even potentially. The child’s virtual self is laid down in the Other,
in his or her plans, wishes, and fantasies—entrusted to it, so to speak.
This structure cannot be avoided, but must be called to account: all
projective plans inevitably "misjudge" the child’s self.21
Consciousness, self-experience, always comes too late for
its own beginning. This primordial lateness cannot be mastered
constructively, but there is a reprise, so to speak a heteronomous
spontaneity. The time before consciousness awakens—earliest childhood—is
not accessible to memory; it remains a dream, a realm of imagination (but not
one of willful fiction) in which the—sometimes traumatic—life history has
found expression in a style, in the individual limitations of the embodied
achievement. Thus this dream too has its (not insignificant) day’s
1 Goethe, Faust, Part I, Scene
6 [ return ]
2 Kohut’s ontogenetic hypotheses arose
from introspective, empathic therapeutic experiences, not from the results of
infant research. The "bipolarity" of the self is based on the
discovery of mirror transference and idealizing transference (cf., e.g., Kohut
1971). Wolf (1988)—in specifying and differentiating transference modalities—seems
to give bipolarity a background role. [ return ]
3 "Strictly speaking
... selfobjects are neither self nor object; they are the subjective
aspect of a function which is fulfilled by a relationship" (Wolf 1985,
271). Kohut’s self psychology does not want to be an object relations
psychology or interpersonal psychoanalysis in the sense of Sullivan or
Stolorow et al. (1987). However, misunderstandings continually arise (e.g.,
confusion of person and selfobject). But the dialogue structure of the
psychoanalytic setting cannot avoid the problems of intersubjectivity. Perhaps
the constant equivocations should be avoided by distinguishing the Other’s
specific intentional relationship (Vermeinensweisen) in each case
instead of speaking of reified "objects," "self," and
"relationships." However, this lies beyond our scope. [ return
4 This term does not necessarily refer to
psychotic phenomena, but to quite mundane, normal psychological experiences.
"If, for example, I meet a friend on the street who goes by as if I don’t
exist, it doesn’t seem to matter to me that the friend was deep in
thought. . . . For an instant I am less myself than
before." If someone surprises me by saying I don’t look well, I feel
"as if a piece of my self image, which requires but now lacks the
confirming resonance of my environment, had been taken away" (Wolf 1988,
29f). [ return ]
5 Contemporary infant research cast great
doubt on the metaphor of "fusion" or symbiosis and a substantial
lack of separation between self and object. However, this (older hypothesis)
bore on the anthropological premise that there is an original blissful
"perfection" which must be disrupted and replaced by an illusion of
grandiosity and omnipotence (see above and Kohut 1971, 43). The constitution
of world and the self supposedly owe their structure to the necessary
transitoriness of an original edenic state. This idea continues in the
psychoanalytic contributions to "natural religion."
The fact that the infant has an intentional relationship to
the world from the beginning, has curiosity and a desire for effectiveness (a
better term for omnipotence), speaks more for its "openness to the
world" than for what Mahler calls a "bursting of the autistic
shell." [ return ]
6 Self psychologists now seek their own
modification of developmental psychology which can also accommodate forms of
pathology (cf., e.g., Wolf 1988). [ return ]
7 This manner of converting interactive
experiences into embodied and psychic structure has a cognitive counterpart in
Piaget’s early theory. [ return ]
8 The entire hypothesis (repeatedly cited)
of a tension arc from (a) strivings and ambitions; (b) goals and values; and
(c) talents and abilities seems dubious and needs certainly some explication.
With respect to (a): What seems to be intended is something
like "the need for confirmation" or "striving for power and
success" (Wolf 1988, 224), or striving for self-recognition,
self-acceptance, ambition, attractiveness, and the feeling that one’s
existence has value. Passivity (becoming admired and recognized) and activity
(becoming the center of ambition and success-oriented initiative) are a
With respect to (b): If (a) represents, roughly, the pole
of potentialities relating to experience and action, then ideals and values
have a selective character, guiding experience and action. They are the
symbolic representations of functions of earlier selfobjects which were
incorporated into the self in the process of idealization/identification. The
consequence, seen as a critical thesis about ideals and values, recalls the
later Nietzsche: "The standpoint of ‘value’ is the standpoint of
conditions of preservation and enhancement for complex forms of relative
life-duration [here, the "cohesive self"] within the flux of
becoming" (The Will to Power, aphorism 715). [ return
9 We cannot go into the "typology of
the self" which could be interpolated at this point, e.g., the
cohesive, fragmented, empty, overloaded, or
overstimulated self. For an overview, see Wolf (1988), 225f. [ return
10 Metaphor of a "bipolar self"
with spatial and material structure has weaknesses similar to those of Freud’s
structural model. Stolorow et al. (1987) criticize, for example, the concept
of a tension arc as "a retreat into mechanistic thinking ... Tension
arcs, like drives, are not accessible to empathy. Empathy and introspection
can view strivings and ideals as systems of affective meanings which
are motivated according to their nature" (page 36). [ return
11 The crux of the reference to
Merleau-Ponty is the concept of intentionality, in which the relation (être
au monde) logically precedes the relata. Its own definition depends on an
act of abstract analysis whose conceptual instantiation must be continually
backed up by subjective acts. [ return ]
12 The complementarity thesis can be
basically rejected (e.g., Stolorow et al.1987). In clinical practice the
decision often seems to me to be a practical one, dependent less on (meta)psychological
background assumptions than on "private theories on the psychoanalytical
craft" (cf., e.g., Streeck 1995). [ return ]
13 Following Kohut, some self
psychologists (and other psychoanalysts) have thoroughly distanced themselves
even from modifications of the ideas of classical drive theory (cf. note 11).
A psychology of affect and its regulation (e.g., Krause 1983) or of
"model scenes" (Lichtenberg 1989) seems to emulate Kohut.
Interestingly, these models are similarly conceived in terms of the biology of
behavior and dress up the old problem of the relationship between energy /
causality and meaning (Ricoeur). [ return ]
14 See note 4. [ return
15 The neglect of sexuality in self
psychology was and continues to be an important bone of contention. Wolf’s
(1992, 113f) summary shows how sexual experience is interpreted:
"1. Subjective experience of sexual drive is
understood by self psychology as a realm of phenomena which express or protect
the constitution and cohesiveness of the self. 2. Sensual pleasure can
increase to the point of sexual excitement and then achieve a state of
temporary structural regression on an orgasmic level in which the components
of the self lose their cohesive integration. 3. A strong self emerges from
this ... regression with a new configuration of its components which gives it
stronger cohesiveness. 4. A vulnerable self can protect itself from the feared
regression by means of sexual inhibitions and compulsive configurations. 5. A
self with a defective structure which is not able to inhibit and control
orgasmic regression fills the structural defect with sexualized images of the
necessary selfobject configuration, which is associated with lascivious
selfobject experiences in fantasy and behavior." Wolf proposes "to
make parallel distinctions with respect to aggression, i.e., normal
self-assertive aggression, inhibited self-assertive aggression, and
narcissistic rage" (ibid.) [ return ]
16 If this thesis is correct—and there
are good reasons for it outside self psychology—clinical experiences of
radical fragmentation or fantasies of a "dismembered body" cannot be
interpreted as regression in the sense that they demonstrate a
lived/experienced stage of childhood. There would be no memory of
it. [ return ]
17 Cf. notes 4 and 12.
[ return ]
18 Chalking this up simply to the infant’s
competence seems as underdetermined as understanding interaction
in terms of the biology of behavior. Merleau-Ponty’s manner of speaking
(though he did hold a chair in child psychology) seems too speculative to most
"baby-watchers." Stern is perhaps an exception; for discussion, cf.,
e.g., Lichtenberg (1983). [ return ]
19 Brazelton and Cramer (1990, 162-190)
cite three typical interaction models in which the unconscious (and
preconscious) fantasies of the parents assert themselves: (a) "The infant
as a ghost from the past" (e.g., as a "reincarnation of an
ancestor," as a mother figure, or as a judge figure; (b) the
"restaging" of old relationship forms; (c) "the child as a part
of its parents (e.g., the "villain," the "disappointing
baby." Merleau-Ponty has similar observations in his Sorbonne lectures
from 1949-52! [ return ]
20 Here we encounter a formulation of the virtual
self which is supplements the concepts of Kohut and Wolf but which also
demonstrates the difficulty of making a strict separation between
introspective-empathic knowledge and that of social psychology. [ return
21 Here we leave ontological-scientific discourse behind.
But the above formulation is an invitation to the thoughts of Lévinas: ideas
and projective plans shatter before the Other’s "face". [ return
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Translated by Joel Rotenberg, he is
a translator living in New York.
(Last edition and responsibility for errors and
misunderstandings by the author)
The author, Dipl.-Psych. Rudolf Süsske
(*1953), studied Psychology, Philosophy and Social Sciences in RUB Bochum and
FU Berlin. Since 1990 he has been employed as a psychotherapist and supervisor
(Balint-Groups with nurses) in the Department of Psychotherapy and
Psychosomatic Medicine (Chair: Dr.med. E. Schiffer) of the Christian Hospital
e.V. in Quakenbrück (Germany). Nonclinical interests in hermeneutics,
phenomenology (Merleau-Ponty, Levinas etc.) and—at the present—"temporality
/ remembering in psychotherapy".
The author would appreciate any comments or criticisms
about this paper—please e-mail at R.Suesske@online.de
or visit his web site at http://www.suesske.de/vita.htm.
© The Author
[ Self Psychology Bulletin Board ]