Panel on What is Psychoanalysis?

Paul Marcus and Alan Rosenberg: Psychoanalysis as a Philosophical Way of Life

What is psychoanalysis? It is nothing really until we make it into something; our intention is to put forth a “thought experiment,” to imagine a psychoanalysis as a philosophical way of life.

While psychoanalysis can be usefully conceived as a discursive practice that “engages clinically with the suffering of the psyche” (Barratt, 2018, p.32), we honor the fact that psychoanalysis has meant different things to different people, in different places and at different times in its history. How one defines psychoanalysis will differ greatly depending on the assumptions that one starts with and where one is culturally, geographically, and linguistically situated. In a word, “there are many Freuds” (Elliott, 2005 p. 180). Thus, we regard psychoanalysis as a “floating undefined signifier,” a term that signifies that we read psychoanalysis, whatever it means, as historically contingent. What we are suggesting is in this paper is another way to understand psychoanalysis, as a philosophical way of life, one we hope sheds light on important problematics that other approaches may have not focused on or underappreciate.

Psychoanalysis conceived as philosophical way of life is a meaning-giving, affect-integrating and action-guiding resource for individuals who can appropriate the life- and identity-defining narrative of psychoanalysis when they seek to understand, endure and possibly gain some self-mastery over the problems that affect, if not assault their lives, such as despair, loss, tragedy, anxiety and conflict. In effect, such psychoanalytically animated individuals try to come to grips with the emotionally painful experiences of life through a psychoanalytic outlook and practice, whatever the version of psychoanalysis they embrace (calling to mind the competing ancient schools of Greek philosophy, we have for example, Freudian, Kleinian, Kohution, Lacanian and Relational perspectives, etcetera). Such a psychoanalysis is not only for those suffering from serious “problems in living,” including clinical conditions as mainstream psychoanalysis tends to define itself. In addition, as with ancient Greeks, it is for those who are not in intense distress but wish to develop greater lucidity in their lives amidst our very troubled and troubling world. That is, such a psychoanalysis is for those people who wish to achieve a better comprehension of who they have become in relation to the world they are embedded, in the service of greater self-mastery and crafting a flourishing life. Put differently, psychoanalysis can be viewed as a modern version of what Pierre Hadot and Michel Foucault described as the ancient Greco/Roman focus of philosophy, namely the “art of living” or “arts of existence,” an angle of vision that has not been systematically put forth in psychoanalysis as far we know. We will describe some of the component cognitive/emotional/behavioral processes that constitute the “art of living,” the practice of self-fashioning, of becoming the flourishing self-one chooses to be.