Adam Phillips on Self-Knowledge and the Unconscious

Adam Phillips, psychotherapist and essayist, can be a frustratingly elliptical writer. There are allusions, suggestions, shadings and hints in every passage. (I seem to dimly remember a frustrated reviewer in the New York or London Review of Books complaining about this characteristic slipperiness.) From these though, the diligent reader can often find a perspicuous insight, and perhaps even more interestingly and appropriately–given the very indirection of the prose–raw material for speculation of his own.  The following passage is an interesting sample: sometimes direct, sometimes suggestive, sometimes inclined to a mysterious universalization:

If the Enlightenment Freud instructs us in a new science of self-knowing–of familiarizing ourselves–the post-Freudian Freud suggests that the problem of self-knowledge is itself the problem, the symptom masquerading as the cure; as though we have turned the self into an object (the project of the Enlightenment Freud), even an idol, and psychoanalysis can now help us unlearn this modern religion of self-hood. The unconscious–whatever is strange, or seems foreign about ourselves–is exactly what makes our old habits of self, like knowing and understanding, sound irrelevant, off-key. An inner revisionist, it disarms our competence, like someone suddenly pointing out to us that we have been playing chess with the rules of draughts. The unconscious, in other words, is what stops self-knowledge turning, it always does, into self-caricature (self-definition  is always complicit with self-mockery). When we make a slip of the tongue, something in us speaks out of turn. It does not speak more truthfully, but it speaks as well. And at that moment, we don’t know where it came from. It gives us pause. In psychoanalysis, as the critic Mark Edmundson says of poetry, ‘one must affirm invention at the expense of argument.’

First, the mysteries: what does it mean to say that ‘self-knowledge always turns into self-caricature’ or that ‘self-definition is always complicit with self-mockery’? Perhaps that attempts at total self-knowledge runs the risk of constructing distorted images of ourselves? But why the ‘mockery’ and the ‘caricature’? Why not idealization and praise? Phillips goes no further than the bare statements he provides us. What makes them tantalizing–or frustrating, depending on your perspective–is that Phillips had the option of making a much weaker and more plausible claim but chose not to. We are left to puzzle this out.

Second, more interestingly, a  conception of the unconscious as the grab-bag term for whatever is unknown about ourselves. Though it is not clear what is meant by the unconscious being our ‘inner revisonist’ it is transparent what role it plays in our view of ourselves: where we find mystery or inexplicability in our understandings of ourselves, where are our attempts at self-knowledge come to a grinding halt, we point to the unconscious. It is a universal explanans of sorts, one that points to the uncomfortable fact that we are strangers to ourselves and will remain so. And as the closing quote suggests, it is the unconscious that gives us grounds for being inventive about ourselves, for imagining that within us lurks far more complexity than we might have imagined, many more selves than the one(s) immediately visible.

Excerpt fromTerrors and Experts, Faber and Faber, London, 1995.

5 thoughts on “Adam Phillips on Self-Knowledge and the Unconscious

  1. I really like Adam Phillips because I appreciate reading an intellectual analyst writing about clinical practice in a literary way. Any of those descriptors could be switched around. Maybe that’s what most people like about him. When his new book came out in January (which I haven’t read yet) several reviewers made similar comments. I think I read these two.

    My instinct is that even idealizing oneself could still be a ‘self-definition… complicit with self-mockery.’ Could he be suggesting that attempts to label and self-define are always a kind of arbitrary limitation that would in some way be exceeded by the ‘self’ ? Are you bothered by his focus on more ‘negative’ assessments of the self?

    Finally I love that he focuses on the possibilities of invention and that you highlighted this section. That suggests Phillips offers one way out of the constant critique and negation that so much theoretical writing (esp cultural studies) insists on.

    1. Deborah,

      Good to see you here; thanks for your comments. I think I was not bothered by his focus on negative assessments as much as puzzled as why he chose to make as strong a statement as he did. But I think your interpretation might salvage it, perhaps if ‘self-mockery’ is understood as a kind of constant failure to capture the complexity of the self.

      Thanks for those links – they’ll make for interesting reading!


  2. I love his view that “the unconscious is what joins in without every fitting in”. His style is superbly psychoanalytic – taking you to the edge of some precipice of meaning and halting – and you fill in the ending yourself. But you are on to something Samir – the negative hue implicit in is assumption that self-definition entails mockery or caricature. The affects that drive self-reflection seem to be implicitly negative in his model. Nice. As for the inner revisionist – don’t know. Will think about it. This is one of my favourite books that he has written. Thanks for reminding me.

    1. Doris,

      Thanks for the comment. I found Deborah’s comment interesting as an attempt to salvage that line by Phillips.

      Also, I like that you describe his style as psychoanalytic itself – a pointing and gesturing without supplying the conclusions to be drawn. Well put.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: