University of Cambridge > > HPS Philosophy Workshop > You can get here from there: 'thick' communication, interpretation, and projective identification explained

You can get here from there: 'thick' communication, interpretation, and projective identification explained

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‘How exactly does a patient succeed in imposing a phantasy and its corresponding affect upon his analyst in order to deny it in himself is a most interesting problem….. In the analytic situation, a peculiarity of communication[s] of this kind is that, at first sight, they do not seem as if they had been made by the patient at all. The analyst experiences the affect as being his own response to something. The effort involved is in differentiating the patient’s contribution from his own.’ Bion (1955) ‘Language and the schizophrenic’.

The term projective identification originates with the work of Melanie Klein, and names a psychoanalytic concept at the centre of Kleinian psychoanalytic psychology. The activity of the mind it refers to has the dual functions of communication and defence, while implicated also in curiosity, coercion and control. Psychoanalysts who employ the concept of projective identification are able to describe the ‘micro-moments’ of these human interactions with a high degree of sensitivity, and of consensus. The sociologist Michael Rustin has written of the ‘craft skills’ of clinical psychoanalysis as the ability of psychoanalysts to train and be trained in the detection of those psychological processes which fall under the concept of projective identification. This training proceeds however unaccompanied by an adequately clear theoretical account, the concept remaining in need of clarification for the following reasons.

First, questions about the methodological validity of these skills, and about the reality of the mental activities they claim to detect, become acute when the issue arises as to how to explain projective identification (which analysts reliably and confidently discern in the clinical setting) to: the lay person, the sceptical mental health professional, the philosopher, and others who may have little inclination to be tolerant of psychoanalysis. Second, within psychoanalysis itself projective identification has become a portmanteau concept suffering from over-use to the point of forfeiting its explanatory usefulness: in explaining everything it explains nothing.

The paper’s title ‘You can get here from there’ promises to show a way of clarifying the concept. ‘Here’ is where we ordinarily stand in our psychological understanding; ‘there’ is the problematic psychoanalytic concept. Getting here from there means both retrieving the concept of projective identification in an form explanatorily useful for lay people and for clinicians, and showing how , with an understanding of what projective identification is, the analyst enables the patient to communicate his state of mind . My approach follows the ‘extension of ordinary psychology’ strategy pioneered by Wollheim for the defence of psychoanalysis. Its methodological claim is that we can only investigate the phenomena referred to by the theoretical terms of psychoanalysis by building on our ordinary practices of psychological observation.

The paper’s first part is (mostly) psychoanalytic and provides an expository account of projective identification which, while based in Kleinian psychoanalytic theory and clinical material draws only on accessible psychoanalytic theses. I show how two psychological processes, projection and identification, come together in projective identification and how this makes projective identification a form of communication. In the second and third (mostly philosophical) parts I clarify the two component psychological concepts. In the second part I draw on the theory of the speech act to describe the ‘thick’ communication formed out of the patient’s projections, his identifications, and his psychoanalyst’s response. I answer Bion’s question about how the patient ‘succeed(s) in imposing a phantasy and its corresponding affect upon his analyst in order to deny it in himself’, by explicating projective identification as a complex piece of linguistic communication involving the analyst’s imagination.

This talk is part of the HPS Philosophy Workshop series.

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