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Actions Louder than Words

A New Language for Psychoanalysis

by Roy Schafer
Yale University Press, 394 pp., $20.00

Although written by a psychoanalyst for other psychoanalysts and largely consisting of papers already published in the learned journals, this book should be of considerable interest to a wider public, since it proposes a radical reformulation of psychoanalytical theory which, if accepted, would render outmoded almost all the analytical jargon that has crept into the language of progressive, enlightened post-Freudian people—without, incidentally, providing them with an alternative set of in-words. If we accept Schafer’s thesis, we shall have to expunge from our vocabulary not only all specifically Freudian words such as ego, id, superego, impulse, cathexis, defense, but also and even such everyday words as love, aggression, guilt, and anxiety—though in the case of the latter group it will still be permissible to use their associated verbs and adverbs.

In order to understand why Professor Schafer is proposing such a radical change in psychoanalytical theorizing and, by implication, in the speech habits of both analysts and everyone else whose thinking has been in any way influenced by Freud, it is necessary to consider briefly the history of psychoanalysis. Freud was a physician and a scientist but not a philosopher, and as a result he translated his clinical experience into theories which accorded to the models provided by physics, chemistry, and neurology, postulating a psychic apparatus analogous to the brain, which consisted of structures—e.g., id, ego, and superego—which had functions, and within which forces endowed with energy were active.

Although Freud himself realized that this theoretical model was a fiction—a fact which Schafer omits to mention—it all sounded very scientific, it seemed to work as well as any theory was likely to, and it demanded no significant change in the habits of thought of those, mostly physicians, who trained to become psychoanalysts. As a result Freudian metapsychology became widely accepted as a scientifically respectable theory of mind, and it was not until after the Second World War that the suspicion arose among a few members of the psychoanalytical movement itself that there might be something amiss with the basic conceptual model that they were using.

The reasons for the emergence of this suspicion were various. One was the increasing complexity of the model itself as it became elaborated by theorists like Hans Hartmann who made heroic attempts to reconcile respect for the truth with loyalty to the Freudian model. If Hartmann was to be believed, sublimations could only be accommodated into Freudian theory by postulating that four different kinds of energy—libido, aggression, neutralized libido, and neutralized aggression—all circulated simultaneously within the psychic apparatus, and the imagination began to boggle at the circuitry implied in such an assumption. Another was the influence, greater in England than in America, of Wittgenstein and the linguistic philosophers, which led some analysts to feel that the fallacy of reification was involved in endowing abstract entities such as id, ego, aggression, and sexuality with attributes and propulsive powers and in evoking them as causal explanations.

A third reason was an increasing awareness of a major discrepancy between theory and practice; theory explained why people did things in terms of causation, while in practice analysts interpreted why their patients did things, even involuntarily, in terms of motive and meaning. A fourth was the influence of existentialism, which drew attention to the self, an agent who actively experienced things and initiated actions, but who could not be located satisfactorily anywhere within the psychic apparatus. And fifth, physics and chemistry ceased to be the sciences which it was natural to use as models for theories about human behavior, and they were replaced by the new disciplines of cybernetics and ethology; neither of these gave any support for the idea that there was any need to postulate the existence of mental energy which, by accumulating, produced mounting tension, except in so far as the energy was discharged, repressed, or canalized.

In view of these considerations, it was hardly surprising that a number of analysts began to question the validity of the basic Freudian model, without, however, usually wishing also to question the clinical data it claimed to explain or the techniques used by analysts in their day-to-day work with patients. But such was the force of tradition and orthodoxy that, in Great Britain at least, every analyst who publicly avowed his doubts about Freudian metapsychology and revealed that he had been influenced by linguistic philosophy, existentialism, cybernetics, or ethology withdrew from all further participation in the psychoanalytical movement—and also failed to spell out in convincing detail the full implications of the criticism of Freudian metapsychology that each had made. I am here referring to Marjorie Brierley, John Bowlby, H.J. Home, Peter Lomas, and myself—and also to R.D. Laing, who is, however, a very special case.

Professor Schafer, who is a rarity in being an American nonmedical analyst who was not trained in Vienna, has however had the persistence and courage to do more than voice in general terms his doubts about the continued value for psychoanalysis of Freud’s basic conceptual model. He has elaborated in minute, almost pedantic, detail his reasons for wishing to reject Freudian metapsychology and with it all physicochemical and evolutionary biological terms such as force, energy, cathexis, mechanism, sublimation, neutralization, function, structure, drive, object, and adaptation, and to replace it by a new language. This new language he has named action language; it is based on the assumptions that psychoanalysis is not a natural science but one of the humanities and that its central concept is the person as agent.

Persons are persons in so far as they act—thinking, feeling, imagining, deciding, and choosing being regarded as acts as much as are overt actions—and their actions have meanings, not causes; people perform actions because they have reasons for doing so, not because they are impelled to do so by causes. Leaning heavily on Oxford philosophers, notably Gilbert Ryle, Schafer argues that actions do not have causes, are not propelled by forces or impulses in the ego, the id, or anywhere else, for the simple reason that these forces postulated by Freudian metapsychology do not in fact exist. They are merely abstract nouns, and one is guilty of the logical fallacy of reification if one adduces them as causal agents. Nor is there really any place or structure called the mind or the psychic apparatus within which forces, drives, instincts, or mechanisms can be located.

Ideally action language would dispense with nouns and adjectives, and would be couched entirely in verbs and adverbs, all actions being described by verbs, and the mode in which they are performed being described by adverbs. For instance, egos do not use defense-mechanisms, people deceive themselves in specifiable ways. People do not have a strict superego or a weak ego, they act guiltily, self-punitively, anxiously, impulsively, etc.

Personally, I feel that Schafer has overstated his case by appearing at times to be trying to eliminate all nouns and adjectives from psychoanalysis. Although it is true that abstract nouns lend themselves to reification and that it is all too easy to persuade oneself that one has explained something by invoking substantive concepts like perverse sexuality, intense aggression, or severe superego when referring to the fact that people act perversely, aggressively, or self-punitively, Schafer seems at times unaware that many nouns are in fact the gerunds and participles of verbs, and that it is only a convention of syntax that transforms them into nouns; the words “agent” and “action” being themselves good examples of this process. What he is really rejecting, I think, is the use of nouns that cannot be referred back easily to a verb requiring a person as its subject. When he translates the metapsychological phrase “repressed impulse” into the action-language phrase “unconsciously maintained conditional action,” the merit of his version is that it invokes immediately a person who might under certain specifiable conditions perform the action consciously in a way that “repressed impulse” does not.

This is, however, a minor criticism. The really impressive thing about Schafer’s book is that it presents a convincing case for supposing that it may be possible to describe and classify all the forms of human action which analysts are in a position to observe and interpret in a language which dispenses with the assumption that there exist hidden, invisible entities controlling and propelling human behavior from behind the scenes—and which dispenses too with almost all technical jargon. If Schafer’s hypothesis proves right, psychoanalytical theory will be stated in the same language as analysts use when talking to their patients—and this language will be the same one we all use outside the consulting room—with one exception, the addition of a set of adverbs to describe those modes of action which classical analytical theory explains as the effect of infantile sexuality, e.g., orally, anally, phallically, oedipally.

It is this need to retain a set of technical terms, albeit only as adverbs, which is responsible for the slight note of reserve that I have deliberately written into the previous paragraph. Although Professor Schafer has, to my mind, been highly successful in demonstrating that mechanistic natural-scientific concepts can be eliminated from psychoanalytical theory without any loss of substance, and that ego processes can be better formulated in action language, he has, I think, yet to prove that evolutionary biological concepts are equally expendable or that it is possible to reformulate in action language those processes which led Freud to postulate the existence of an impersonal id or “it.” As it stands, Schafer’s new language for psychoanalysis remains too rational and intellectualist, and takes too little cognizance of the biological matrix within which persons-as-agents arise, to do full justice to Freud’s discoveries.

This failure to address himself adequately to the task of translating the psychosomatic “id” component of Freudian metapsychology into action language is reflected in the fact that his index contains no entries for:oral, breast, mouth; anal, anus, feces, defecation; phallic, penis, vagina; sex, sexuality, infantile or genital; symbolism, fantasy. These omissions are, however, due more, I suspect, to Schafer’s need to extricate himself from the toils of Hartmann’s ego-psychology than to any inherent difficulty in assimilating into action language the fact that the person-as-agent evolves from, and throughout life is maintained by, a biological organism.

Finally, the general reader must be warned that this book is both difficult and repetitious. It is difficult because it assumes that its readers are themselves analysts with an intimate knowledge of the American and a considerable knowledge of the British analytical literature. It is repetitious because it consists of a series of papers written over the last six years, not all of which refer to action language. A clear idea of what Schafer is getting at can, however, be gained by reading chapters one, six, seven, and sixteen.


Psycholanguage October 14, 1976

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