Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

'Though He Slay Me, Yet Will I Trust in Him': A Critical Reconstruction of Winnicott's Theory of Value

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

'Though He Slay Me, Yet Will I Trust in Him': A Critical Reconstruction of Winnicott's Theory of Value

Article excerpt

1

War provides an occasion for psychoanalytic thinking. A catalyst at various points in Freud's work (1915, 1933), war certainly played a part in the formulation of the final drive theory (1920), including the emphasis on the compulsion to repeat and the introduction of the so-called death or destructive drives. But this is a two-way street, insofar as psychoanalytic theories about war also form part of the discourse of war. Staying with the example of Freud, his "thoughts for the times on war" may be seen as a discursive intervention in the international debate about war, amounting to a direct engagement with the war effort. The emphasis on 'intervention' is especially important in clarifying the political role of psychoanalysis in the context of war.

By privileging the hypothesis of the death drive psychoanalytic ideas about war since Freud have adopted a particular, somewhat restricted, focus. The application of Freudian instinct theory to military conflict encourages a preoccupation with the 'psychotic factors' affecting war and institutional violence. Segal (1997) epitomizes this approach. And yet there are ways of addressing war from a psychoanalytic perspective that do not rely on the notion of innate sadism. In an attempt to explore an analytic perspective on war that doesn't ground human striving, aggression, and destructiveness in the death drive, the following discussion is based largely on Winnicott's 'Discussion of war aims' (1940). The paper was written ostensibly in response to war, although I shall consider the extent to which Winnicott's reflections provide an opportunity for a critical reconstruction of his theory of life-values in general.

To be clear, a systematic evaluation of various Freudian and post-Freudian perspectives on war is not my topic here. How far psychoanalysis may contribute to our understanding of war remains an open question (cf. Fornari, 1975), and I am not suggesting that Winnicott's reflections on war per se are particularly insightful. In fact, I don't think he had anything more or less illuminating to say about war itself than either Freud or Klein. The important point for me is that Winnicott articulated a psychoanalytic attitude to war in which the spontaneous violence of life is prioritized over the death instinct as a primary source of aggression. And I take it that the emphasis on ruthless living in early life, rather than destructive attacks directed towards oneself (primary masochism) or others, has important implications for our understanding of the most basic human values. Thus the decisive shift implicit in Winnicott's discussion of war aims - a shift from the power to hurt and damage one's early internal objects to the inherently violent nature of life itself - offers important and original insights into the question of human value.

It is worth noting straightaway that Winnicott himself did not necessarily draw out the psycho-ethical implications of his argument. Nevertheless, viewed in conjunction with his account of primitive emotional development and pre-primitive states, it seems to me that his reflections on war provide us with an outline for a theory of value. Essentially, my argument is that Winnicott's reflection on war articulated what makes life valuable for us and, moreover, how values rather than rights or norms underpin forms of life. I shall present this argument in terms of two overarching distinctions, concerning violence and brutality on the one hand and, on the other, maturity and necessity. The former relates to the basic existential values of survival, aliveness, feeling real, and the innate reach of spontaneity; the latter, to the more mature or maturing values of goodness, concern, justice, freedom, and truthfulness. Winnicott's theory of value differs from Freud's on both counts, particularly with respect to one's sense of reality. While an advance to maturity is implicit in the Freudian interpretation, nonetheless the discipline of necessity (Ananke) explicitly underwrites the 'reality principle' in Freud's late works (Ricoeur, 1970). …

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