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psychotherapy, myth and meaning

Brendan McMahon


    This paper explores the concept of truth in psychotherapy and argues that analytic therapy is best understood as a branch of hermeneutics rather than a natural science in the positivist psychobiological tradition. The distinction between primary and secondary process thinking is explored, and the importance of symbol formation emphasised, with reference to its capacity to connect the internal and external worlds. The related, special functions of myth and language are examined from a hermeneutic standpoint, and truth is distinguished from a supposed objective reality. Psychotherapy is seen as a shared act of creative imagination, of collaborative mythopoesis, in which negative intra- and inter-personal constructs are gradually replaced by more meaningful ego-syntonic paradigms. This contradicts both the orthodox, reductionist analytic view, which holds that the client must accept the analyst's truth i.e. his interpretations couched in Freudian theory, in order to change, and the behavioral view, based on learning theory, which focuses on behavior and ignores both affective and semantic contexts.


The purpose of the present study is to examine the concept of truth in the context of psychoanalytic therapy. In this study, this involves a consideration of the process of therapeutic change, and of the ways in which this process is mediated. In the context of analytic therapy truth is self-knowledge in obedience to the famous Socratic exhortation. In the narrow sense, truth is the dawning recognition of the particular unconscious conflict which gives rise to neurotic symptoms, such as anxiety or depression. It is contended here that psychotherapy may more usefully be seen as an act of shared mythopoesis, in which maladaptive ways of understanding the self in the world are gradually renounced and replaced by more positive constructs.

The research problem encompasses the following questions: firstly, what position does analytic therapy occupy in the spectrum of human knowledge; secondly, if therapy is about the uncovering of unconscious truth, then in what does that truth consist; and thirdly, what light can be thrown on these questions by examining what happens in psychotherapeutic practice? In psychoanalytic terms, the truth is the unconscious conflict which gives rise to symptoms, and which it is the task of the analyst to uncover.

In the fields of hermeneutics and philosophy, the notion of truth continues to be problematic. Debate has centred, in particular, on the question of reference: the correspondence, or lack of correspondence, between the word and that which it purports to express. At this point the philosophy of language blurs into epistemology: how do we know what we know, and how do we define the relationship between language and thought? Thompson (1981) examines this issue in some detail, and the relationship between language and experience in the specific context of psychotherapy, which is the principal focus of this paper, will be examined in considerable detail later, along with the related concepts of symbol and metaphor.

It is here contended that beliefs about therapeutic practice are most appropriately viewed as more akin to myth than to the natural sciences or the practice of medicine. This conceptual shift would, it is argues, both mitigate the tendency towards reductionism and the abuse of power, which is inherent in psychotherapy, as in other professions which potentiate dependency, and also open the door to a much greater degree of cross-fertilisation between analytic theory and practice and other cultural disciplines.

The medical biological model has proved to be of enormous durability and influence. Medicine has made very considerable progress in the treatment of physical illness and, though social factors, such as the widespread improvements in diet, housing and water supply may have contributed more to the overall decline in morbidity over the last hundred years, in the minds of the general public at least, medicine has taken much of the credit. In the process it has successfully maintained and extended its own hegemony.

In the last decades of the nineteenth century the medical profession succeeded in gaining control of the management of psychological disorder, which had previously been the province of idealists and private entrepreneurs. At a time when the causes of mental illnesses were little understood, the notion that they were in some way analogous to physical disorders gained ground in part because of the growing prestige of science, and of medicine in particular, throughout the century. It followed from this that mental patients should go to mental hospitals to be treated by doctors, even though the causes of the supposed illness were unknown, and no effective treatments were available in any case. Kraepelin and others attempted to remedy the first defect by defining illnesses, such as schizophrenia, in terms of symptomatology. To the present day, although various neurological changes have been found to be associated with specific conditions, such as schizophrenia or depression, no physical cause has been found for psychosis or neurosis.

Mental illness, as the very term implies, came to be seen nonetheless as analogous to physical illness and over time, the analogous as if quality of the concept was forgotten. The metaphor of mental illness was covertly transformed into a fact. However, from the late 1950s onwards, the idea that psychological distress is biologically determined, and should be treated by medical means, though still strongly defended, came under increasing question from a wide range of humanistic, moral and political perspectives (lllich 1975, Horobin 1978). In more recent years psychotherapy has also been attacked. Jeffrey Masson (1989) has viewed it as an oppressive abuse of power and, essentially, as an adjunct to an authoritarian psychiatric establishment. In Against Therapy he writes,

    Psychotherapy cannot be reformed in its parts because the activity, by its nature, is harmful. Recognising the lies, the flaws, the harm, the potential for harm, the imbalance in power, the arrogance, the condescension, the pretensions may be the first step in the eventual abolition of psychotherapy that I believe is, one day in the future, inevitable and desirable. (Masson 1989)
Though Masson's critique of psychotherapy is both personally driven and methodologically suspect he is right to point to the potential dangers of the therapy relationship. Psychotherapy is a powerful tool which can be used to the detriment of vulnerable clients. This paper is in part intended to counter the reductionist, authoritarian tendency in analytic therapy.

primary process

One of Freud's greatest contributions to psychology was his recognition of the system of thinking which underlies the rational, logical mode with which we are most familiar. In his 'Project for a Scientific Psychology', begun as early at 1895, he addressed the apparent unintelligibility of hysterical behavior and its underlying ideation. Such ideation can only be understood if we assume the existence of a different kind of logic from that with which we are familiar. Freud called this logic the primary process, to differentiate it from secondary process thinking, which is oriented to reality. Primary process thinking is to be found in psychotic states in dreams and parapraxes. It is also to be found in myth and ritual, though the precise relationship between primary process and external reality varies markedly accordingly to context.

In The Interpretation of Dreams which Freud considered his most significant work, he emphasised the importance of primary process in dreams, and drew a distinction between manifest and latent dream contents. Manifest content represented the series of mental events which is experienced while latent content, the deeper significance of those events, is characterised by omnipotence of thought, hallucinatory wish-fulfillment, representation of the whole by a part, of by its opposite, and by distortions due to displacement or condensation. Time and space have different significance as compared with secondary process thinking, and symbol formation is an important characteristic. Freud also emphasised the development and psychological primacy of the primary process:

    When I described one of the psychical processes occurring in the mental apparatus as the primary one, what I had in mind was not merely considerations of relative importance and efficiency, I intended also to choose a name which would give an indication of its chronological priority. It is true that, so far as we know, a psychical apparatus exists which possesses a primary process only and that such an apparatus is, to that extent, a theoretical fiction. But this much is a fact. The primary processes are present in the mental apparatus from the first, while it is only during the course of life that the secondary processes unfold, and come to inhibit and overlap the primary ones, may even be that their complete domination is not attained until the prime of life. (Freud 1953)

language and meaning

One can conceptualise primary and secondary process as two distinct ways of thinking. One can also think about them as two distinct kinds of language different not as English and French are different, but in a much more fundamental way. In the language of primary process the meaning of a word or symbol is multi-layered. One cannot say that a dream, fantasy or imaginative work of literature has only one meaning. This reductionist tendency in analytic thought is exemplified by Freud's several incursions into art, literature and dream interpretation. In therapy or analysis it can lead to the foisting of interpretations onto an unwilling client, who is then labelled resistant.

The interpretation may be true as far as it goes, but if it is based on the naive notion of a simple correspondence between the symbol and what is symbolised then it will necessarily fail to do justice to the richness and complexity of the client's communication determined by a subject/object relationship, which is quite different from that defined by Wittgenstein's picture theory, shortly to be discussed, where the word is nothing more than a picture of that to which it refers.

In primary process thinking a symbol can represent something which it does not in the least resemble, can arrange the meaning in different contexts, and has a potential meaning for whoever is perceiving it at the time. It partakes of a wider cultural and historical significance in addition to the unique response it evokes in the individual. This is necessarily so, since an utterly personal language is a contradiction in terms. It is through language that we bridge the gap between ourselves and other selves, between our present and our past as Hobson writes

    Language is the means by which human beings live together within the common life of a culture. In and through language an individual becomes more aware of himself as a unique person in relationships, of his distinctiveness, and of varied moments of aloneness/togetherness in intimate relationships, in families, in small groups and in society. Throughout his development a person uses and is used by a multitude of diverse and yet related forms of experience and action, of interrelated signals and symbols from which a more or less integrated personal language is progressively treated. (Hobson 1985)


Wittgenstein spent his entire life thinking about language and its relationship to meaning. In his early work the Tractatus, he developed what he called picture theory as a way of understanding this complex issue. According to picture theory the function of language is to name things, not to make meaningful statements about them. All propositions are either tautological or false. So one can say, for instance, that a brother is a male sibling, but all this really means is that a brother is a brother. Alternatively none can say that a brother is a female sibling, which is false. What analyst or therapist, in a vain attempt to bridge a perceived gap between truth and falsehood has not resorted to tautology? On the basis of his initial theory of language Wittgenstein reached the depressing conclusion that it is impossible to discuss important questions, such as whether life has meaning or whether God exists, at all. The theory is open to criticism on various grounds. It is, for example, impossible to imagine a purely representational picture; a picture with refers only to its ostensible subject and tells us nothing about its creator, its intended audience and the cultural and historical context which give rise to it. The analogy between the meaning of a proposition and pictorial representation crumbles if pressed too hard. Indeed in his later work Wittgenstein acknowledged that language transcends representation, as the Philosophical Investigations constitutes among other things, a revision of the picture theory outlined in the earlier Tractatus (Wittgenstein 1961).

Wittgenstein also addressed, in the Philosophical Investigations and elsewhere, the question of private languages in which words "refer to what can be known only to the person speaking" (Wittgenstein 1961). Private languages, and we may in this context, reflect upon the semi-private languages of psychosis, may or may not have a logical syntax and structured vocabulary, and may employ a large or a very limited number of symbols. He concluded that private languages might be so limited in terms of structure, rules and range of symbols, that they cannot be said to be true languages at all. This criticism is based upon three assumptions: that language is governed by rules, that language is necessary to thought, and that believing that one is obeying a rule is not necessarily the same as actually obeying it. These premises have been criticised by Castaneda among others (Castaneda 1971). For our present purposes it is sufficient to be aware, in a psychotherapeutic context, of the tensions between the private and public or interpersonal potentialities of language. Interestingly Wittgenstein frequently compared philosophy to psychoanalysis insofar as he believed that the function of philosophy is to uncover false, unconscious assumptions, in much the same way that analysis uncovers unconscious conflicts in order to begin to resolve them. Wittgenstein's sister was analysed by Freud himself, and she often discussed the experience with him (Wittgenstein 1967). His attitude to psychoanalysis seems though to have been somewhat ambivalent. Although "greatly impressed" by Freud, he warned

    Unless you think very clearly psychoanalysis is a dangerous and a foul practice and it's done no end of harm and comparatively, very little good. (If you think I am an old spinster, think again!) All this, of course, doesn't detract from Freud's extraordinary scientific achievement. (Hawley 1971)
Wittgenstein, in spite of this cautionary note, was particularly impressed by Freudian dream exegesis, to which we have already referred. This led him to view that dreams may be seen as languages. Although his view of analysis was distorted by attempts to relate it to his own philosophical system, his comments of the criteria for validating psychoanalytic interpretation are of continuing relevance, particularly to the present investigation of the nature of truth in psychotherapy. For Wittgenstein the truth of an interpretation depended on three factors:
  1. Whether the client accepted it or not
  2. Whether it had any therapeutic effect
  3. Its agreement, irrespective of the client's acceptance or rejection with other experience in particular, its corroboration by subsequent free associations (Hawley op cit).
The precise relationship between these criteria is, of course, problematic, and a number of possibilities suggest themselves:
  1. The interpretation could be true even though the patient rejects it
  2. The interpretation may be false, according to, for instance, criterion (iii) even though the patient accepts it.
  3. An interpretation may be either accepted or rejected on the basis of transference, i.e. for reasons which have nothing to do with its truth or falsehood.
  4. An interpretation may be made by the analyst on the basis of his own counter-transference out of desperation say, or a desire to appear omniscient, i.e. for unconscious reasons which have little to do with truth.
There are numerous other possibilities. The underlying source of this confusion is the premise that objective truth exists, and can be uncovered by the surgeon's knife of the analytic interpretation. On the other hand, transference phenomena can themselves be interpreted and in this respect the analytic method has the edge over the physical sciences.
    Because distortions in the process of free association caused by the transference phenomenon can be detected and corrected, once the transference is identified as such and dealt with, Freud is able to find the basis needed by psychoanalysis for the validation of interpretations by means of observation of free associations. In this respect psychoanalysis is more fortunate than the physics of sub-atomic particles for which there is no defence against the intrusions of the observer and no method for determining the nature and extent of the observer's influence. (Hawley 1971)
We shall now move on to consider the importance of symbolism and its relevance to our original contention, that psychotherapy can best be seen as a shared act of creative imagination.


For Freud the symbol was an image or concept existing in the unconscious, which represented a distorted unconscious desire. Distortion is necessary in order for the impulse to avoid the dream censor. Since the desire is unacceptable it is also inexpressible, hence the need for symptom formation. The analyst takes it upon himself to reverse this process to translate the symbol back into the impulse which, and which alone, it is presumed to represent. When a desire must be repressed because it gives rise to conflict then it is expressed symbolically and the renounced object of desire is replaced by a symbol.

In the Kleinian view symbol formation is an attempt by the ego to deal with its fear of losing good objects and its fear of persecution by bad objects. And it occurs by means of projection and identification. The infant projects aspects of himself into the object, which is then felt to be identified with those unacceptable objects. These early symbols are not however perceived as symbols, but as the original objects themselves, just as in schizophrenia symbols are perceived as being identical with the symbolised objects. The same thing happens in myth, but the schizophrenic the equation of object and symbol is personal and arbitrary, a truly private language in Wittgenstein's sense, and leads to increasing isolation. In mythology, the vibrant identity of symbol and object serves to connect aspects of the self, and to connect the self with other selves, living and dead. Further, in the Kleinian view the symbol allows the original object to be retained or restored by displacing hostility from it and thereby lessening guilt and the fear of abandonment. The formation of symbols in the depressive position allows sublimation to take place. Symbols, which are created internally, can be projected into the outer world which can then acquire symbolic meaning for the infant (Klein 1952).

Symbols are also vital in communication not only vis-a-vis the external world, but also between internal structures, and this may be the basis of verbal thinking. Donald Winnicott emphasised the importance of the mother in facilitating this process (Winnicott 1960). Chambers Dictionary describes a symbol as:

    An emblem: that which by custom or convention represents something else, a type: a creed, compendium of doctrine, or a typical religious rite, the Eucharist: an object or act representing an unconscious or repressed conflict (psychological), or the Greek word symbolon from the verb symbolien, to put together means each of two halves or corresponding pieces of an object, such as a potsherd.
So the essential feature of a symbol is that it comprises two or more parts, which, though separate, belong together in some significant way, and which can be recognised as such. Freud speculated about the relationship between a symbol and its object in Chapter Six of The Interpretation of Dreams.
    In a number of cases the elements in common between the symbol and what it represents is obvious, in others it is concealed and the choice of the symbol seems puzzling. It is precisely these latter cases which must be able to throw light upon the ultimate meaning of the symbolic relation, as they indicate that it is of a genetic character. Things that are symbolically connected today were probably united in prehistoric times by conceptual and linguistic identity. The symbolic relation seems to be a relic and a mark of former identity. (Freud 1953)
This is a highly speculative, and one is tempted to say that it is precisely Freud's vain quest for ultimate meaning which forces him into the position of having to offer the somewhat desperate explanation of genetic character, which explains nothing. It might be helpful to say that, since individual consciousness does not exist in a vacuum its contents and their significance are both modified by, and in their turn modify the cultural and historical context within which they manifest themselves. I cannot dream or hallucinate about, for example, a crucifix without my mental experience partaking of a rich and pre-existent cultural matrix. At the same time the symbol will have a unique personal meaning for me. The client's dream of a crucifix may be interpreted as a sexual symbol, and this may be true in the same sense that the interpretations in Freud's Dream book are true. It may also have something to say about his relationship with his father or community or origin, his experience of therapy and relationship with his therapist, his desire to make reparation, and a number of other things. It can be seen as a signpost rooted in the unconscious, a pointer towards new and more creative levels of functioning, and it is the role of the therapist to help the client explore the semantic possibilities of the symbol, to join the potsherds together rather than to ascribe an arbitrary significance to it on the basis of theoretical preconceptions.

It may be that the principal function of primary process thinking is to connect the irreducibly personal sphere with the outside world of social, cultural and historical significance, and by communicating with others to integrate our own experience. This process is mediated through dreams, imaginative literature, social ritual and the sacramental, numinous aspects of religion, and perhaps through the boundless creativity of language itself. It is perhaps our main safeguard against psychosis, assuming psychosis to be a lack of correspondence between the inner and outer worlds. Psychosis occurs when the symbol is divorced from the object. The individual becomes alienated from both external and internal reality as the capacity to symbolise is lost. In cultural terms communities cut the umbilical cord which connects them with the past. Symbols lose their richness and complexity and degenerate into mere cues for vaguely comforting feelings of nostalgia and sentiment. Once living communities fragment into monads or nuclear families in this way, for the individual and for society, the creative power of symbolism, its capacity to link the individual to other human beings and to the past, is lost. In psychotherapy the client rewrites the past through the symbolic use of language.

the archetypal symbol

For Jung (1934) the wider significance of symbolism was of the utmost importance. He postulated the existence of two layers of unconsciousness, the personal, relatively superficial stratum, which contains material derived from individual experience, and a deeper level, the collective unconscious, the receptacle of universal, archetypal symbols, which are thought to have the same characteristics everywhere, in all individuals and cultures (Jung 1934). These symbols have their roots in the infancy of the human race, rather than in the infancy of the individual, and Jung's theory is implicitly critical of the reductive monotony of Freudian dream interpretation, which is limited to discovering the repressed wish when the dream is assumed to fulfil. Jung (1956) believed that important parallels were to be drawn between ancient mythology and the similar thinking found in primitive religion, dreams, an the thought processes of childhood. He illustrates the point thus:
    Let us take as an example a typical adolescent fantasy. Faced by the uncertainty of the future, the adolescent puts the blame for it on the past, saying to himself, if only I were not the child of my very ordinary parents, but the child of a rich and elegant count, and had merely been brought up by foster parents, then one day a golden coach would come and the count could take his long lost child back with him to his wonderful castle, and so on, just as in a Grimm's fairytale which a mother tells to her children. There was a time, however, in the ancient world, when the fantasy was a legitimate truth that enjoyed universal recognition. The heroes Romulus and Remus were foundlings whose real parents had lost them. Others were directly descended from the gods, and the noble families traced their descent from the heroes and gods of old. Hence, the fantasy of our adolescent is simply a re-echo of an ancient belief which was once very widespread. The fantasy of ambition therefore chooses among other things, a classical form which at one time had real validity. (Jung 1956)
This does not of course explain why a particular adolescent has a particular fantasy at any given time. It may also be said that the number of possible narratives is limited by the range of human experiences (birth, maturation, marriage, ageing and death) which are the same in each generation. Nonetheless it does seem to be borne out by clinical experience. All psychotherapists encounter clients who have been cast, by others, by themselves or both, into the role of Cinderella, Rapunzel of the Sleeping Beauty. For Jung, symbols transform instinctual drives rather than merely representing them. So there is no simple correspondence between the symbol and some truth which may, in principle, if not in practice, be known. A symbol is an inevitably imperfect attempt to represent an archetype. Jung, borrowing a phrase from Bukchardt, described archetypes as primordial images which have imprinted themselves on the human mind over the millennia but which are modified by the specific circumstances of the period in which they manifest themselves. Among the key archetypes to be identified were: the persona, the mask we are required to wear in order to make ourselves acceptable to other people; the anima, or female side of the male psyche, and animus, the male side of the female psyche; the shadow, or animal side of the psyche, which bears some resemblance to Freud's concept of the id; the self, which is the organising principle of the personality (Hall and Nordby 1973).

These fundamental archetypes may be symbolised in a variety of ways. Jung believed, for instance, that the philosopher's stone, or lapis, was a particularly potent symbol of selfhood. In Jung's view the dilemma in which modern humanity finds itself is caused by the neglect of psychic reality, and that to escape from this dilemma we must return to the unconscious, to learn or perhaps to re-learn the symbolic language of the soul. This point seems to be a considerable social (and clinical) relevance. The individual, whose personality is too rigid, will function in a superficial, inflexible way whereas someone with an undeveloped personality may present as hostile or lacking in social skills; if the shadow, or primitive aspect of the personality is over-controlled it may erupt in violent, unpredictable ways. The man who is out of touch with his anima will have problems with nurturing and intimacy; the woman who is out of touch with her animus may be passive and unassertive; the person who is unaware of his self as an organising principle will remain conflicted and unintegrated. All these situations can contribute to psychological ill-health, as well as to the general malaise which, Jung believed, is a characteristic of our times.

The symbol expresses the unknown by making analogies, albeit imperfect, to what is known, and so transcends the split between the rational and the irrational. Dreams present us with conflicts, which need to emerge into consciousness, but they also suggest solutions to conflicts which may, from a rational perspective, appear to be insoluble. Psychic reality has a validity of its own, which should not be pathologised, and here the break with Freud is most evident. Jung states:

    The unconscious bases of dreams and fantasies are only apparently infantile reminiscences. In reality we are concerned with primitive or archaic thought forms, based on instinct, which naturally emerge more clearly in childhood than they do later. But they are not in themselves infantile, much less pathological. To characterise them we ought therefore not to use expressions borrowed from pathology. So also the myth, which is likewise based on unconscious fantasy processes is, in meaning, substance and form far from being infantile or the expression of an auto-erotic attitude, even though it produces a world-picture which is scarcely consistent with our rational and objective view of things. (Jung 1956)
Symbols do not merely designate – they also reconcile. Jung paid great attention to the analysis of mythology, which he considered to be the creative expression of the collective unconscious, shaped to a greater or lesser extent, by conscious processes. Myths are not mere explanations, as was widely held in Jung's time, of natural events, such as the phases of the moon or the rising and setting of the sun, but expressions of how natural events are experienced: the believer in myth does not simply observe the rising of the sun and then use myth to explain the events. He participates in an epiphany, and for him the sun god is truly risen from the dead. It is because myths spring from the collective unconscious that they show such close resemblances, however widely separated in time and space (Fordham 1953). We shall have more to say about myth and its relationship to psychotherapy later.

the nature of language

It is impossible to think about symbols without some consideration of the nature of language. Grammar and syntax exist primarily to serve the interests of secondary process thinking. It is not inconceivable that language had its origins as a response to magical or religious impulses, that is, as an expression of primary process thinking, and many cultures still have an hieretic, more or less secret language, for the celebration of religious rites or even for specialised secular activities, which is clearly distinguished from everyday speech. To this day Gaelic speaking fishermen in the Hebrides have remnants of a once-extended special vocabulary for use afloat, which is quite different from ordinary domestic Gaelic as spoken ashore, and it is considered bad luck to mix the two. Similar prohibitions are associated with the Sheila Thad, also known as Bog Latin, the Erse back-slang of Irish tinkers. The revival of Hebrew, that is to say, its transformation from a specialised sacred language into a multi-functional language with secondary process functions, is a fairly recent event, and Latin, which has not been a widely spoken secular language for many centuries, was the language of the Universal Church until the late 1960s. Latin, of course, was never only a sacred language. It was also the language of church law and administration. Some eastern European dioceses, which were untouched by the implementation of vernacular liturgies and other Vatican II reforms, still conduct their correspondence with Rome in Latin.

Language occurs in a social context which shapes its meaning, and this is as true of psychotherapy as it is of every other interaction. If two people are speaking different languages then they cannot communicate. If, in such a situation, one of the languages is felt to be more prestigious than the other, then the speaker of the inferior language will then attempt to speak the superior one. Since he does not know the language his grasp of the grammar, syntax and vocabulary will be poor, and he will not express himself well. In terms of therapy this can only mean unnecessary delay and difficulty. Received Standard English (RSE) as spoken by the professional classes, is a dialect derived from an East Midlands variant of English which, through a variety-of historical accidents, became de rigeur at Oxford and Cambridge during the late medieval period. Because it thus became the argot of the educated, rich and powerful it rapidly acquired unique status and this ensured its triumph over other dialects of spoken English. This victory was however more apparent than real, since most people do not speak RSE and large numbers speak it as a second language, that is to say they speak it at work or when communicating with the outside world, but use their inherited dialect at home and for social purposes. In some respects this parallels the different functions of primary and secondary process language. The development, though necessary to ensure the survival of local cultural patterns in an increasingly homogenised world, can have unfortunate consequences. The feeling grows that one's personal language, rooted in the family and community to whom one belongs, is less valid than the prestigious dialect spoken by, for instance, politicians and political commentators.

Most therapists speak standard middle class non-idiomatic English and clients for a variety of cultural and psychological reasons, have come to expect it. In our society expertise and an educated accent are assumed to be inseparable. This is not strictly rational. So far as professional peer group is concerned the correct dialect is often the price of admission. Ever since Freud began to treat affluent Viennese clients analytic psychotherapy has tended to be a middle class province, and this has had a great influence on the language in which therapy tends to be conducted.

The language of chemistry and physics is designed to achieve the objectives of secondary process thinking while that of poetry, which in many ways resembles religious speech, is much closer to the primary process and employs similar techniques of condensation, part for whole and so on. Symbolisation is typical of primary process thinking but is not confined to it. This is what we should expect, since the line between primary and secondary process is a blurred one. Nonetheless there is a real distinction. Unconscious mental activity differs qualitatively fromsecondary process thought with regard to wish-fulfilling fantasies, distortion or time and space, accessibility to consciousness, displacement and condensation. There is also a difference which may be seen as a complementarity of function, in that, while the secondary process has as its aim the mastery of objective reality, the primary process has a creative, integrative capacity, and a destructive potential, with regard to both the inner world and the interface between the internal and the external worlds.

The notorious ambiguity of utterance has been traditionally viewed by philosophers, Wittgenstein among them, as a problem – something which interferes with precision and clarity. In fact only the most banal utterances can be completely unambiguous. This is for three principal reasons: All utterances are shaped by, and in their turn modify, the context in which they are uttered. In the case of group therapy, for instance, an apparently simple statement by one member can only be fully understood in the context of the group matrix, the "total interactional field in which unconscious reactions meet" (Foulkes and Anthony 1947). So, for example, if the group has a history of gender conflict, then an apparently jokey reference to sexuality may resonate with hostility.

Languages which appear to function at a secondary process level may in fact partake of the primary process, insofar as it may be used to symbolise unconscious and intra-psychic states. A therapy group may commence the session by discussing an objective event, such as the war in Yugoslavia, but the discussion may also refer to interpersonal conflict within the group and to individual conflicts within the unconscious of its members.

All behaviors, including acts of language, are over determined, that is to say, they have more than one motive. Freud in The Psycho Pathology of Everyday Life (Freud 1901) explored at length the extent to which language can express unconscious material while simultaneously striving to conceal it, as in the following parapraxis:

    When I asked another woman patient at the end of the session how her uncle was, she answered I don't know, nowadays I only see him in flagrenti. Next day she began I am really ashamed of myself for having given you such a stupid answer. You must of course have thought me a very uneducated person who is always getting foreign words mixed up. I meant to say "en passant". We did not as yet know the source of the foreign phrase which she had wrongly applied. In the same session, however, while continuing the previous day's topic, she brought up a reminiscence in which the chief role was played by being caught in flagrenti. The slip of the tongue of the day before had therefore anticipated the memory which at the time had not yet become conscious. (Freud 1901)
In therapy, the primary process world of unconscious fantasy is translated into the language of secondary process.

psychotherapy and hermeneutics

The analytic literature contains a number of assumptions that symbols and fantasies have meaning that this meaning is unitary and that it can be discovered by the scientific procedure of the psychoanalyst who will then share his discovery with his patient, to the latter's benefit. This hidden truth is generally thought to be of a sexual or aggressive nature. It may be argued that by reducing symbols to narrow psychobiological reality in this way, the complexity of creative potential of the original is lost. My own contention is that psychotherapy is indeed a process of discovery, but that the truth it uncovers is not a correspondence between the symbol and an arbitrarily diagnosed referent. The truth revealed in therapy embraces all aspects of the client's experience as in the above example and is both dynamic and provisional. That is to say it points the way towards personal growth and a fuller, though perhaps still incomplete construct and eschews the static explanations of the psychobiological model.

In recent years attention has been given to the question of whether psychotherapy is a branch of hermeneutics rather than of natural science. Hermeneutics derives from a Greek verb to explain and it began life as a sub-division of philology, concerned with the construction and meaning to texts. With the onset of romanticism at the end of the eighteenth century, in particular the growth of such notions as individual liberty, intellectual property, and the unique, personal viewpoint of the creative writer, works of literature came to be seen as purposive. Hermaneutics began to deal with the uncovering of the text's hidden meaning, which could be seen as plausible or implausible, rather than true or false (Bauman 1978).

Of particular importance is the hermeneutic circle.

    Understanding means going in circles, rather than a unilinear progress towards better and less vulnerable knowledge . It is difficult to see how any of the successive recapitulations can claim to be final and conclusive" (Bauman 1978)
In this view understanding can only be inconclusive. While hermeneutics developed in this way, natural science was making great strides in the understanding of physical reality. The key hermeneutic principles are:
  1. polysemy, or multiple meaning
  2. the relationship of the parts to the whole
  3. the recognition of difference, the departure from the ordinary
  4. the function of corrected misinterpretation
The gap in the meaning of the text provides the opportunity for encounter between reader and author. In similar vein Casement writes of learning from the patient and Kohut of the therapist's need to tolerate uncertainty and postpone our closures (Casement 1985, Kohut 1982). The therapist also needs to cling to the concept of multiple meaning if he is to avoid the reductionist interpretations into which his inability to tolerate uncertainty or perhaps, to appear less than omniscient) might otherwise lead him. Indeed, while stressing the importance of interpretation in mobilising the clients' intellectual forces. Winnicott (1962) reminds us that even incorrect interpretations can be helpful, insofar as they deflate the fantasy that the therapist understands everything. What emerges, as in the case material above, is a provisional negotiated meaning which is frequently a function of corrected misinterpretation. Through misunderstanding we arrive at understanding. As Robert Steele puts it:
    Psychoanalysis through language constructs meaningful life histories, and does not provide causal explanations. We have seen that the foundation of psychoanalysis is observation and interpretation in the psychoanalytic situation, that reality resides in the analytic encounter, and truth is founded upon the co-understanding of analyst and analysand. (Steele 1979)


Myths operate at many different levels. They can be explanatory and account for, for instance, the origins of the world, of the tribe, or of some particular natural phenomenon. Sometimes they contain authentic historical accounts. Often they serve to define humanity in relation to the natural order and to the divine. At their best they provide a profound insight into the human condition. They also express unconscious fantasies in such a way as to render them acceptable to the ego as, famously, in Freud's reading of the Oedipus myth. Myth differs from dream in that it exists both within and as an expression of a particular cultural setting. Although bound by formal conventions which are often extremely ancient, its content is subject to change over time. An Irish folk tale, collected in the twentieth century describes Cuchullain, a mythical hero whose origins lie deep in pre-history, in the act of sending a telegram. The abiding life of myth depends on maintaining the tension between tradition and change, re-organising inherited material in the face of current needs, and imposing meaningful form on the apparent chaos of experience.

Myths which face hostility as persecution at their inception or subsequently, tend to sclerose and lose their analogic quality. We see this in the cases of Helmholzian materialism and psychoanalysis, two powerful myths in the sense that, in their day, they offered radical new ways of understanding human experience. The search for a one-dimensional, objectively verifiable truth necessarily both limits and falsifies experience. The more a belief system is based upon the notion of objective reality the more exclusive and distorted it tends to become, since any attempt to challenge it seems like a denial of reality; a blasphemy against the world as it really is, Inevitably this leads to the conclusion that what is scientifically inexplicable cannot exist. That which does not fit the scheme must be reduced until it does. So Cymbeline can be explained analytically as a denial of paternal aggression (Schwartz 1970).

Psychotherapy, as we have seen in the cases presented, is a search for truth, a distillation of meaning out of futility. Truth however is not an object but like myth, a creative act of the imagination in which human beings mutually engage. When therapist and client come together they co-operate in the task of fitting fragments of isolated experience into meaningful patterns. The task is mediated through language, and is only possible because context transforms and empowers language. The truth which emerges is shifting and multifaceted. Such a concept of truth might appear less than satisfactory compared to the certainty which science offers, but the difference is more apparent than real. In discussion on Greek myth Paul Veyne writes:

    If we think about it for a moment, the idea that truth does not exist is no more paradoxical or paralysing than the idea of a perpetually provisional scientific truth that will be proved false tomorrow. The myth of science impresses us. But do not confuse science with its scholasticism. Science finds no truths, either mathematised or formalised, it discovers unknown facts than can be interpreted in a thousand ways ... sciences are no more serious than the humanities and since, in history, facts are not separable from interpretation and one can imagine all the interpretations one wishes, the same must be true of the exact sciences. (Veyne 1988)
Psychotherapy is presented here as a branch of hermeneutics, specifically as mythopoesis. It is a re-organisation of the inheritance of the past in the face of present needs, a recognition of the relationship between form (the client's framework of understanding) and content, the vicissitudes which befall him and the choices he makes. The patient and therapist together create a "myth" which, like all myths, incorporates material from different historical strata, from the inner and outer worlds, united in a new pattern which replaces confusion and despair with meaning and hope. Paradoxically, such a myth will in fact constitute an adjustment to reality, since all good myths are true. Essentially, the central contention of this paper cannot be proved. I do hope though that it offers a useful contribution to a continuing debate.


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copyright © Brendan McMahon 2003

This article was previously published in The South Trent Training e-journal No.1 December 2003


Brendan MacMahon's new book The Princess Who Ate People: The psychology of Celtic myths is now available from Heart of Albion


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