12 Questions about Psychoanalysis: Answers by Federico Leoni



1. As a philosopher, what is it that interests you in psychoanalysis, and why?

It seemed to me that psychoanalysis, above all psychoanalysis as a practice, as a concrete event, as something which happens during a treatment, may be during one single session, could be regarded to, as a sort of experimental ontology. Psychoanalysis shows with great clarity, that clarity we find in scientific experiments, which have always as Francis Bacon said something cruel, something which harshly interrogates nature, psychoanalysis shows the nature of what philosophy used to call the subject, which is the nature of a process, the nature of a process of subjectivation, of an operation in act, thus an operation which is also uncertain, unattainable, endowed with a certain plasticity, even if insistent, even if bound to a sort of theme, to a kind of obtuse core. Psychoanalysis is this open-heart ontological experiment. It is not, on the other hand, the only practice philosophy can interrogate, in order to interrogate this kind of processes. Cultural anthropology offers something very similar, with its descriptions of all kind of ritual aspects of a culture. But psychoanalysis has something peculiar, it is, for we, western people, an experiment in act, an ontology in act, in which we can observe, we can touch a process of subjectivation, with all its lines of fugue and points of resistance.


2.What is the most significant contribution that philosophy has made to psychoanalysis, at least from your personal approach to psychoanalysis?

I’m not sure philosophy in general gave a contribution to psychoanalysis. Maybe a psychoanalyst is the only one who can contribute to psychoanalysis.  But I think I could give two kinds of answers to your question. From the one side I could say that an extraordinary book on Lacan is Alain Badiou’s seminar on Lacan’s antiphilosophy. But I don’t know if this is a contribution of philosophy to psychoanalysis, or on psychoanalysis, and in this case to whom it is supposed to be addressed, whether to psychoanalysis or to philosophy itself. On the other side I could answer that we could find the best contribution of philosophy to psychoanalysis not in the book of a philosopher speaking about psychoanalysis, but in the book of a philosopher who treats in a philosophical way something that psychoanalysis also treats in its way, namely in a psychoanalytical way. In this case the contribution could be much more creative, insofar as it would be much more indirect. And here we have lots of books, but I would suggest one text, Logic of sense by Gilles Deleuze, which is a great masterpiece about repetition and variation. This relationship between repetition and variation, maybe this coincidence between repetition and variation, isn’t this the very question of psychoanalysis, the very object of every single treatment?


3.Apart from Freud, what other psychoanalyst, according to you, has contributed significantly to a philosophical reflection on psychoanalysis?

Lacan, no doubts, even if I also think his “antiphilosophical” declarations don’t help the discussion. It is clear that Lacan’s dialogue with philosophy is a very intense one, from many points of view what Lacan tries to do is to come back to Freud avoiding every trace of medicine, biology, positivism, and so on, and substituting in those same positions something he always takes from philosophy, or from what is a direct spin-off of philosophy, I know I’m saying something pretty retro, namely human sciences. But my point is not about Lacan and how much Lacan has taken from philosophy. My point is about philosophy and what philosophy can take from Lacan. Philosophy can’t read Lacan without discovering an amount of things about philosophy itself. It is as if psychoanalysis could return to philosophy something philosophy has always been, but has always risked to lose along the road, and still risks to lose, namely philosophy as an event and not as a system, as a practice and not as a theory, as an experience in act and not as a fact or a history of facts, although interesting, or illustrious. This something, is precisely the antiphilosophy that philosophy itself has always produced as the properly philosophical share, or element, of philosophy.


4.If you have undertaken psychoanalytic training, or if you are a practicing psychoanalyst, might we ask how you view what transpires in a clinical analytic practice? In other words, what is it that really happens during a cure? 

Yes, I have a first hand experience of psychoanalysis, although only from the patient’s side, because I have been in treatment with two different psychoanalysts in different periods of my life, two analysts that had very different background and techniques, a Freudian analyst and a Lacanian one. I never practiced psychoanalysis, partly because my interests lead me to philosophy. The closest I came to that field has been conducting some supervision groups. This happened when some psychoanalysts happened to listen to one of my conferences and ha d the idea to confront their clinical experiences with my approach. But  we must not forget that in Italy, according to the so called law “Ossicini”, only those who have a degree in Psychology can practice as clinics. It is a very arguable law, because it submits psychoanalytic training to a sort of necessary preliminary, a psychological one, and the reason for this necessity is not evident, since psychoanalysis is not a psychology and aims to be in every aspect antipsychological. However this is the law that rules this field in Italy. It is quite clear why psychology as a discipline has placed psychoanalysis under its preliminary surveillance, less clear why the psychoanalytical associations  accept this state of things. But if you ask me what could I say, from my point of view, about the sense of a psychoanalytical treatment, perhaps I would say that a treatment gives this possibility of converting the repetition in variation. Life is always variation, variation on one and only theme, but sometimes variation becomes so narrow, that we call it repetition and we live it as a repetition, maybe a repetition which leaves no way out. Psychoanalysis tries to enlarge this margin between repetition and variation, which on the other hand had never stopped happening, although imperceptibly. It does so, by freeing the powers of repetition, which from the other point of view is the only thing we have, the only thing we are made of. We could say this is the problem of the relationship between substance and modes in Spinoza. There is no other thing than substance, he says from one side. Sure, he answers from the other side, but this means that there is no other thing than the modes, the modalizations of the substance. “One” life, may be it is this game, these two sides which make one and only sheet of paper, or this sheet of paper which doesn’t exist without being divided into two sides. One day you can see, during your treatment, that repetition is variation and/because variation is repetition.


5.Nietzsche and Freud. Freud admitted having never really read Nietzsche, because he feared discovering that Nietzsche had already said everything essential that Freud himself thought he had said.  How do you view the relation between Freud and Nietzsche?

There are lots of similarities, also because when you start searching for similarities you are bound to find them, and the differences you find are also an effect of this search for similarities. Besides, it is obvious that Nietzsche and Freud are contemporary to each other, they live in a same world, they share a series of decisive authors they have directly or indirectly read, Schopenhauer for example, so those similarities emerge from a common background. I believe that it is more productive to read every single author or book juxta propria principia, as a monad which has its whole universe inside. What I could isolate as a great point of differentiation between the two authors is that in Nietzsche we find the central figure of Dionysus, but sex is always something very metaphysical, a sort of general drive with quite distant implications in the body of human beings and in their specific features. Freud on the contrary puts this thing he calls drive at the centre, but at the centre of what? At the centre of a science, and this is something Nietzsche would never have done. He can’t believe in science, he must believe in something else, which he calls a gay science. The psychoanalyst who tried to carry the psychoanalytic, Freudian science to the status of a gay science is, even if he didn’t love Nietzsche and he didn’t read Nietzsche, Lacan.


6.From its start, psychoanalysis—including Fenichel, Bernfeld, Reich, Fromm, and others—developed a Freudian-Marxist current among both analysts and philosophers, which still flourishes today. How should we view today the relation amongst Marx, Marxists, and psychoanalysis?

It seems to me that the main point of that encounter lies in the register of economics. Freud spoke of psychical economy, thus situated psychology out of itself, in a network of references which immediately reverse the psychological in a sort of exteriority, in a topological structure. But also the economy of Marx is far from being a neutral and specialised technique, it is a politics of experience, it is the psychic work of a whole society which creates sense and value. If we carry this parallelism to the extreme, from one side we should search for the place of machines within freudian psychic economy, and that’s what Deleuze somehow tried to do. And from the other side we should search the place of sexuality within a Marxist perspective on machines. In this direction we should study the question of production and reproduction of value through the bodies and their prosthesis, as it happened in the assembly line that was familiar to Marx, or in the superposition between our mental life and the informatics supports which we constantly use at work as in our free time. Isn’t this superposition between bodies and machines, between life and means of production a reformulation of human sexuality, a shift of the place a certain cultural assigns to the sexual event, namely to the possibility of reproducing life?


7.Do you believe that psychoanalysis can be a useful tool for interpreting political and social phenomena and customs today? And especially for interpreting gender issues and sexual orientations debate? And if yes, in what way?

Yes, I think psychoanalysis has always had this kind of possibility, and I think still today psychoanalysis can offer some instruments in order to interpret our political, social, economic context. What can support this transference is that superposition, which is not without gaps and discrepancies, between the economy in Freud’s sense, and the economy in Marx’s sense. But I would also underline that this transference of hermeneutic instruments is not so straight, is not so plain as it seems. Each level has its own characteristics. The quantitative scale of a phenomenon influences the qualitative functioning of the phenomenon. We cannot simply say that the individual subject is always plural and collective and extended, or that a collective subject is always a certain unity, a certain singularity. I think too often this difference is ignored, and the result is an ideological discourse, which is exactly the contrary of what we intended to construct.


8.A part of philosophical phenomenology has dealt with psychoanalysis.  Even those in Heidegger’s and hermeneutics’ wake have often theorized on psychoanalysis.  How do you feel about this phenomenological “appropriation” of psychoanalysis? 

It’s hard for me to answer because you are mentioning categories which are very wide. For instance Heidegger and hermeneutics don’t really superpose, and you can think psychoanalysis in a hermeneutic perspective but also in completely different perspectives, even anti-hermeneutical, which I personally would find more adequate, and which I could here and there support with Heideggerian categories. The same can be said about Husserl, any approach psychoanalysis coming from a Husserlian perspective, but what aspect of Husserl are we talking about? There is a phenomenology which is centred on empathy and a psychoanalysis which draws from that kind of discourse, and again I would not choose this path. But there is also a phenomenology which stems from the work of the last Husserl, that of The Crisis of the European sciences, which is in fact a general theory of traces, signs, writings, and I believe it could dialogue with a certain psychoanalysis, for instance Lacan’s psychoanalysis as we find it in Seminar IX on “Identification”, and this is what I’m presently doing. Sartre could be another interesting example. Being and nothingcontains passages very close to the first Husserlian phenomenology, but also passages on the nature of desire and its objects, on the discarded character of the object of desire, which are very far from Husserl’s phenomenology and absolutely close to Lacanian psychoanalysis. Is this a case of psychoanalytical appropriation of phenomenology? I think this kind of historical questions is what Nietzsche called a slave’s question, the only thing which is important is to do something with what we know, in spite of the names we have for what we know, or what we do…


9.Starting with Popper, over the past decades a trend of radical criticism of psychoanalysis has developed that denies its scientific plausibility, comparing it to a mythology, and contesting any validity of the analytic practice. Where do you fit in this debate, if you do at all?

I never had any interest in this kind of Popperian problems. They seem to me quite suspect from a philosophical point of view. Bergson once said you can recognize the amateur philosopher by the fact that he assumes a problem within the terms of common sense or of a certain kind of current discourse. Then his whole work is locked within these terms, and cannot see that the essential part of philosophical work is the construction of the problem and not the construction of the solutions, which go along the construction of the problem. So I would say that what lacks in Popper’s discourse is a question about his question. What does he want to verify, and more generally what does he want when he asks his question about psychoanalysis? My point is not only that it is not clear why, among the many human practices, only those who conform themselves to a certain human practice should be valid and valuable. My point is that Popper’s question assumes a fundamental homogeneity of procedures, methods, goals, while what we generically call the scientific enterprise is a huge archipelago, crossed by nothing more than family resemblances. Each isle produces its own idea of truth, its own system of procedures, its own effects of sense. Then the whole question should be put in this other perspective. For example we should study a certain group of psychoanalysts, in order to understand which role they assign to the idea of truth, how this idea of truth plays in their sessions, in their supervisions, in their congresses. And the same should be done with biologists, with physicist, and so on. We don’t need a philosophy of science, what we need is an ethnography of knowledge, or better said, as many ethnographies of knowledges as are knowledges in the world.


10.Do you find it important that psychoanalysis today confronts itself with biological knowledge (evolutionary sciences, neuroscience), and with science in general? 

I may only give my opinion as a philosopher, therefore it is not without some perplexity that I can speak about what another discipline should do. I would say that it is indeed very important that psychoanalysis confronts with neurosciences, precisely as much as it confronts with the history of right or mathematics. I mean that we shouldn’t see in neurosciences something as the truth of psychoanalysis, a truth we will reach perhaps in decades, but a truth on which psychoanalysis will converge, and not the other way around. It is often reminded that Freud said something like this, and this is reminded in order to attribute to him a sort of modernity. This seems to me a great ingenuity. I would use an image of divergence rather than an image of convergence. I would say that every form of knowledge is a polygon inscribed in a circle, that is a figure that states in its own way, through the number of its sides, in its own language, that very circle which the other polygons are also describing in their own way, through the number of their sides, in their own language. Therefore it not question of expect that one day the pentagon will resolve into the octagon, it is rather question of seeing that the pentagon is already the circle, and in this way, that is in its own way, has in itself the problems of the octagon, of the square, of the hexagon, and so on. The most interesting thing that a form of knowledge or a practice can do, is to express in the most radical way its singularity, and eventually implicate the other singularities inscribing them within its own track, in its own direction.


Federico Leoni (Novara 1974) is scientific coordinator of the Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Foundation. He studied and taught for ten years at the Department of Philosophy of Milan’s Università Statale. He is a member of Alipsi (Italian Lacanian Psychoanalytical Association) and Sgai (Italial Group Analysis Association), co-editor of the international journal “Chiasmi” (dedicated to Maurice Merleau-Ponty), co-editor of “Antropoanalisi”, and he writes for several Italian and International journals and magazines. His publications include: Habeas Corpus. Sei genealogie del corpo occidentale (“Habeas Corpus. Six Genealogies of the Western Body”, Milan 2008); Franco Basaglia. Un laboratorio italiano (“Franco Basaglia. An Italian Laboratory”, Milan 2011); Descartes. Una teologia della tecnologia (“Descartes. A theology of Technology”, Milan 2013); L’idiota e la lettera. Quattro saggi sul Flaubert di Sartre (“The Idiot and the Letter. Four Essays on Sartre’s Flaubert”, Naples 2013). [federico.leoni.novara@gmail.com]

Publication Date:

September 2, 2018

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European Journal of Psychoanalysis