Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Feeling One's Way in the World: Making a Life

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Feeling One's Way in the World: Making a Life

Article excerpt

This paper introduces the ecological psychology of James Gibson and enlarges upon it by incorporating Susanne Langer's examination of 'feeling,' arguing that the combination of these two radical perspectives is relevant to contemporary psychoanalytic concerns with the development of the human infant. Ecological psychology stresses both the embodiment of the child's mind and the embeddedness of it within her environment as she develops increasing expertise in her engagement with the world. From this perspective, the development of mind is a process of increasing differentiation in sensorimotor capacities, as indeed the two great developmental psychologists, Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky, argue as well. The infant's experience of her sensorimotor engagement with the world, conceptualized in Langer's terms, entails an increasing differentiation in organic feeling states, and it is these feeling states that provide the basis for the eventual launch of the child into the symbolic domain of her culture. Langer's great insight is to understand that symbolic behavior is built upon the projection of personal feeling into intersubjectively shared forms of actions and perceptions. This insight uniquely captures the continuous seamlessness between human biology and culture, the mystery of which Freud both recognized and struggled to understand.

Gibson and Langer each situate their work in a larger evolutionary framework of animal agency and cognition. They focus on mentality as what animals do, in Gibson's case examining how animals tune into the affordances of their environment, in Langer's case examining how animals feel their way through their encounters. Weaving together these two bodies of work that provide unique perspectives on both human biology and culture provides a comprehensive picture of the developing human mind in all its embodied, embedded and ultimately symbolically transformed wonder. The human infant is born with an innate and felt readiness to encounter the world in a social environment. Her development proceeds by her motivated seeking of information about resources to enable her thriving, in particular information about others. Her felt encounters are elaborated by the symbolic language in which she is immersed even prior to birth and into which she will ultimately transition as she acquires the capacity to project her feeling states into cultural forms.

This paper has three sections. The first section discusses at length Gibson's ecological psychology as presented and extended by Edward Reed's 1996 book, Encountering the World. The second section provides an overview of Langer's conceptualization of feeling to integrate it within Gibson's work and demonstrate its important contribution to an ecological understanding of mind. The final section of the paper lays out the argument for the psychoanalytic relevance of combining the work of Gibson and Langer, drawing on both psychoanalytic and developmental literature. It illuminates the dynamics of the young child's growing capacity to regulate her felt experience within her early social environment. Ideally this environment mirrors, expands and helps the infant to regulate her emerging feelings in ways that promote encountering a world that is experienced as both safe and exciting as she develops a mind of her own and launches herself into the symbolic domain where she will make a life for herself among others. Indeed, it is her continuing felt experience that will enable her to remake her life in a therapeutic environment should she find encountering the world neither safe nor exciting.

Gibson's ecological psychology

Psychology has suffered for decades from mechanistic concepts, offering causal explanations of passively stimulated creatures with no intrinsic agenda of their own. The other more recent extreme in theories of human psychology has emphasized interpretation, where mind escapes its embodiment altogether. For Gibson, the subject matter for a science of psychology is "animacy" and "sentience" (Reed, 1996). …

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