Psychoanalytic Introspection, between Descartes, Dewey, and Mead


Although multitudes of contemporaries use psychoanalysis to explain their actions to one another, we hardly manage to discern a social phenomenon in the widespread recourse to this analytical idiom.  For we have grown accustomed to the asocial image of psychoanalysis articulated by S. Freud: it would be born in a radical self-observation, by an individual who discovers her repressed desires by freeing herself from the expectations of others.  This image ultimately has its roots in a Cartesian conception of the relationship to oneself, according to which it precedes any relationship to others.  However, this hypothesis has been the subject of sharp criticism by J. Dewey and G. H. Mead, who argue that the relationship with oneself develops through interactions with social partners.  The confrontation of their “emergent” theory of the mind with the one implicit in the asocial theory of psychoanalysis enables us, by placing the analytical soliloquy in the context of the interaction in which it emerges, to replace this asocial conception (which in the end is nothing but a hypostasis of this soliloquy) with a more realistic approach of psychoanalysis.[1]

The current renewed interest in pragmatism aroused a radical re-evaluation of contemporary social theory. The basic model of pragmatism, first developed against the Cartesian conception of knowledge, contains the seeds of an “emergent” theory of the human mind, depicting it as being largely constituted through interactions, which itself allows the development of an original and fertile social theory (see notably Joas, 1999), escaping various dualist assumptions prevailing in social theory[2]. The sociological implications of the emergent approach do not end there. The sociological (re-?) discovery of pragmatism cannot develop in silo, in the specialized field of social theory, without transforming the study of concrete social phenomena, if only because the current study of many phenomena relies on Cartesians presuppositions. This is notably the case, as we will see, of the sociological study of psychoanalysis.

Multitudes of contemporaries resorted and still resort to psychoanalysis to account for their actions by attributing to them repressed desires. In doing so, they negotiate and reorder their interactions, try to monitor each other, etc. This practice is a social phenomenon calling for a properly sociological explanation. And yet, the very idea of such an explanation meets a fierce opposition among those who, following Freud, argue that psychoanalysis is an asocial phenomenon, born thanks to a self-examination hermetically sealed from demands by others.  In this article, I will offer a critique of this asocial conception. As set out further, this conception relies on a quasi-Cartesian image of the relationship to oneself, which portrays it as if it were radically separate from verbal interactions with others. The emergent theory developed by John Dewey and George H. Mead conceive in a quite different way the relationships to oneself and to others, and thus contain within itself the germs of a positive critique of the asocial conception: the analysis proposed by these two authors show that the testimony provided to oneself by the person who identifies her desire in self-examination cannot be separated from relationship to others, from which it is indissoluble. Therefore, we must say that the psychoanalytic self-examination, which is called upon to support the asocial conception, nevertheless depends on the “public” use of psychoanalysis, in the space of interlocution constantly recreated by the exchanges between partners of social life. And the emergent theory, as it helps us to see how the attribution of desires allows them to coordinate social actions by ordering them, allows us to see in what way psychoanalysis, invoked by contemporaries to attribute new kinds of desires, belong to a historically accountability system (implying the recourse to equally situated social norms), specific to the contemporary societies which developed and adopted the psychoanalytic idiom[3].

In short, I will propose here a critique of this asocial conception, through an exploration of the connection between the two contexts in which contemporaries attribute to themselves repressed desires: verbal exchange with others and silent introspection. To that end, I will compare the various ways in which Freud, Dewey and Mead critique the mentalist articulation of these two contexts. Thus, the present article can be read not only as a contribution to an “emergent” (historical) approach of psychoanalysis, which paves the way for its location in a specific sociohistorical context, but also as a contribution to the (exegetical) comparison of the thoughts of Freud, on the one hand, and Dewey and Mead, on the other.

Have things changed significantly since Hans Joas (1980/1985, p. 230) remarked: “we still lack a thorough analysis of the relation of Mead and Freud”?  It must be noted that such an analysis meets many obstacles. Freud and the theoreticians of the emergent approach only offered isolated remarks on each other—quite often cryptic ones. The wealth of questions addressed by these authors endowed with encyclopedic minds is vast. Many of the existing attempts of comparison broke on these obstacles. Unable to discern guiding principles in the thoughts of these authors, muffled by the wealth of material included, Morton Levitt (1960) vainly tries to develop an exhaustive comparison, which results in a chaotic inventory. The attempt by Guy E. Swanson (1961), just like the one by Rodney D. Elliott and Bernard N. Meltzer (1981), leads to a kind of eclecticism: Freud’s and Dewey / Mead’s theories would largely deal with different phenomena so that one should say they are complementary rather than contradictory. This compromise-like position, which cannot satisfy either the Freudian or the emergent theory, attests to a superficial grasp of both. Above all, this position shows that the analysis had not succeeded in identifying a theme addressed by the two approaches, which would enable the comparison to be undertaken (the absence of a vocabulary common to the different authors does not make the task any easier either). Thus, this comparison remains largely absent.

The comparison developed here in order to criticize the asocial conception of psychoanalysis makes it possible to avoid these pitfalls: firstly, it delimits the field of comparison, by addressing the question of the relationship between these two conceptions to a third position, mentalism; secondly, it concerns a precise question, the connection of the two contexts in which desires are named (the desire confessed to oneself in a soliloquy and the desire named in the conversation with others)[4].

I will begin by bringing to light the neo-Cartesian mentalist anthropology which underlies Freud’s reticence towards a sociology of psychoanalysis. I will then challenge this anthropology with the more realistic conception sketched by Dewey and Mead.Finally, starting from a somewhat unusual remark of Freud[5], which contains the seeds of an emergent approach to psychoanalysis, I will develop a new way of looking at the attribution of repressed desires, devoid of the mentalist presuppositions with which Freud accustomed us to view this practice, which could lead to nothing less than a sociological and historical research program on the remarkable and yet misunderstood situation of psychoanalysis in contemporary society.



Created in the consulting room of a Viennese doctor at the turn of the XXth century, psychoanalysis rapidly spread across all continents and various spheres of social activities. It was used not only by specialists of the human psyche, but also but countless amateurs, who learned the rudiments of analysis by reading books (starting with the ones Freud wrote), newspapers, magazines, or watching movies, etc. Psychoanalysis helped them to account for their actions to one another, by looking at them through what one could call psychoanalytic glasses. Serge Moscovici notes that these people “interpret what happens to them, form an opinion of their own behaviour, or that of those close to them, and act accordingly” (1961/2008, p. xxv). As they do so “by giving human actions and speeches new meanings”, psychoanalysis “becomes the raw material that every individual and every society uses to construct and reconstruct, after the event, their individual and social history”; thus, psychoanalysis “has penetrated interpersonal relations”; this “interpretative system” now “mediates between members of the group” (1961/2008, p. xxiv, 43 & 113).

And yet, despite the undeniable importance of the phenomenon, the sociological study of psychoanalysis remains embryonic.



This theoretical underdevelopment can largely be explained by the recurring objection met by the very idea of such a sociological examination: psychoanalysis would have nothing to do with the social-historical world. The psychoanalysis whose authority is invoked in social partners through their interactions could not be the true psychoanalysis, which would rather appear in a space beyond the social. The psychoanalysis described by these testimonials could only be psychoanalysis distorted by contact with the social-historical world: Jacques Lacan opposes the original psychoanalysis, concerned with the integrity of individuals, to a psychoanalysis “inflected toward the adaptation of the individual to the social environment” (1966/2006, p. 204); Paul Ricœur opposes the original psychoanalysis, which would be “a tactic for unmasking all justifications”, to false psychoanalysis, used “as a system of justification” (1969/1974, p. 154); Theodor W. Adorno opposes the original psychoanalysis, which dispels “rationalizations”, to deformed psychoanalysis, “which becomes itself rationalisation” (1951/2005, p. 65); even Moscovici writes that there is “discrepancy” between the original “conceptualization of psychoanalysis” and its social “representation” (1961/2008, p. 66); etc. Thus, it would be irrelevant to look sociologically at psychoanalysis itself. As Robert Castel perceptively remarks, according to this asocial conception,

[…] psychoanalysis, constructed at the moment of the Freudian discovery in a kind of social no man’s land, afterward finds itself confronted with the difficulties stemming from its institutionalization […] in a given society.  It is then disseminated, reinterpreted, flattened, distorted, even betrayed, by interests […] which remain fundamentally foreign to it.  […] When it comes to the social destiny of psychoanalysis, it is never its own truth that is at stake, but what happens at the convergence of the analytical experience and of a reality that would circumscribe it from the outside while penetrating it (by what mysterious processes?) to alter it.  (1976, p. 41, my translation)

The connection between analytic theory and its “uses” would be a connection “of pure exteriority” (Castel, 1976, p. 22, my translation).Thus, this paradigm radically opposes the “inner” development of psychoanalysis to its meeting with the social-historical world, portrayed as logically distinct and chronologically subsequent. The sociological study of the diffusion of psychoanalysis could only portray a travesty of psychoanalysis, a copy perverted by its incorporation in a social and cultural context.



This asocial conception is already present in the way Freud sets apart “the internal growth of psycho-analysis” (in its exploration of the unconscious) from “its external history” (in its encounter with the social world) (Freud, 1925/2001s, p. 48). The psychoanalytical cure would arise from and reinforce a purified observation of oneself.  Everyone could consider his inner world in two opposite ways: as a pure observer, who merely “look” at his thoughts and desires in himself, or as a critical observer, who refuses to see the thoughts and desires contrary to the requirements of the outside world. The person who manages to “concentrate his attention on his self-observation” and reaches “the elimination of the criticism by which he normally sifts the thoughts that occur to him” (Freud, 1900/2001c, p. 101) acts in a way opposite to the person who submits his inner world to this criticism from the outside world. One could oppose the person who puts himself in “an attitude of uncritical self-observation” (Freud, 1900/2001c, p. 103) and the person who is also “exercising his critical faculty; this leads him to reject some of the ideas that occur to him after perceiving them” (Freud, 1900/2001c, p. 101). The person who keeps a purely observational attitude to himself observes his internal process “without any reference to other people” (Freud, 1901a/2001d, p. 672); he remains “completely objective”, observing what comes to mind “whether it [is] inappropriate or not” (Freud, 1895/2001b, p. 154). In contrast, the one who observes himself with a critical eye is disturbed by the anticipation of the critical reactions of others: self-observation, then, “is only a preparation for judging and punishing” (Freud, 1933/2001u, p. 59).

The psychoanalytic cure would operate by neutralizing the action of the inner critique, thus reinforcing the attitude of uncritical self-observation (Lamarche, 2017a, p. 435-437). Hence Freud creates what Adolf Grünbaum (1984, p. 241) calls “the myth of catalicity”, according to which psychoanalysts would be “mere catalysts, expeditors of the unadulterated emergence of repressions previously bottled up by the walls of censorship”.  By portraying the inner critique as the effect and condition of culture and society (Freud, 1916-1917/2001n, p. 22-23), Freud implies that the (suspension of this criticism required by the) psychoanalytic cure would necessarily require a detachment from the social order as a whole.

Frank J. Sulloway (1992, see especially p. 492) notes that a large number of authors, following Freud, think that the creation of psychoanalysis would stem from the purely spectatorial introspection undertaken by Freud: his famous “self-analysis”, which in numerous studies supplies a “crucial historical paradigm” (Sulloway, 1992, p. 488).

The diffusion of the authentic psychoanalysis would stem from a similar uncritical self-observation, undertaken by the users of psychoanalysis. Such a self-observation would allow each of them to recognize the truth of the psychoanalytic portrayal of the inner world. The very wide diffusion of psychoanalysis, far from being a social phenomenon (the result of a joint commitment), would be nothing but the juxtaposition of countless solitary self-observations, which each user would undertake on her own, without taking others into account.

This asocial conception of the creation and diffusion of psychoanalysis is advocated in a luminous way by Bruno Bettelheim:

Freud told us about his arduous struggle to achieve ever greater self-awareness.  […] he told why he felt it necessary for the rest of us to do the same.  In a way, all his writings are gentle, persuasive, often brilliantly worded intimations that we, his readers, would benefit from a similar journey of self-discovery.  (Bettelheim, 1983, p. 4)

The uncritical self-observation by Freud would open the doors to the equally uncritical self-observation of her reader, which would, in turn, explain the trust he places in psychoanalysis.  Freud would have acted in such a way that his reader “apply psychoanalytic insights to himself, because only from his inner experience can he fully understand what Freud was writing about” (Bettelheim, 1983, p. 7). This asocial conception quietly shapes many historical accounts.  For example, Élisabeth Roudinesco and Michel Plon write that the favorable reception given to psychoanalysis in urban areas can be explained by the fact that urban residents experience more loneliness, “which is favorable to the exploration of the unconscious” (2006, p. 452, my translation). Likewise, Andreas Mayer argues that a sort of self-analysis opened the doors to analysis for Freud’s countless non-professional readers, who would have followed “the example given by the author”: by showing them how he had examined himself, he would have provided them a “demonstration of a new technique of observation on the basis of autobiographical material” (2020, p. 30, my translation).



The asocial understanding of psychoanalysis is based on a specific image of the relationship to oneself, that is to say, on a specific anthropology. It is essentially a Cartesian one.


4.1 Not master in its own house

This conclusion may come as a surprise. Descartes attributes to individuals a capacity to know their psyche immediately. Hasn’t Freud, by developing his theory of the “unconscious”, offered a radical break with this theory?  Freud himself offers this interpretation, in particular in a famous passage in which he describes psychoanalysis as a “blow” inflicted on the Cartesian dream of self-mastery and self-transparency: psychoanalysis, notably because it would show that the psychic does not coincide with what we are conscious of, would demonstrate, against the Cartesian theory, that “the ego is not master in its own house” (Freud, 1917/2001o, p. 143).

This interpretation has been endorsed by the numerous exegetes who describe the Freudian critique of Cartesianism as a radical one.


3.2 Aware only of his own states of mind

This hypothesis of a radical break is nonetheless contradicted by several of Freud’s statements.  According to the Cartesian theory, all the phenomenon of psychic life (thoughts, desires, emotions, etc.) occur in a kind of metaphorical “inner” space, closed on itself, available only to a kind of inner eye. “Mind was ‘consciousness’, and the latter was a transparent, self-revealing medium in which wants, efforts and purposes were exposed without distortion” (Dewey, 1927/1984, p. 299). The mind was thus depicted as something “complete in itself, apart from action and from objects” (Dewey, 1927/1984, p. 339). In that way, psychic life would be essentially private, available only to its carrier.  I alone could know my thoughts and desires, as I would observe them directly in myself. When I attribute thoughts and desires to others, I would suppose, relying on an inferential process, that their external actions and speeches are driven by internal thoughts and desires similar to the ones driving my own actions and speeches. “Now, each of us, on this view, is shut up in his own cell of consciousness, and knowing that there are other people so shut up, develops ways to set up communication with them.” (Mead, 1934, p. 6)

Freud unequivocally endorses this Cartesian theory:

Consciousness makes each of us aware only of his own states of mind; that other people, too, possess a consciousness is an inference which we draw by analogy from their observable utterances and actions, in order to make this behaviour of theirs intelligible to us.  (Freud, 1915/2001m, p. 169)

Desire would first be perceived in this inner space. Only afterward would each person be free to inform others (or not) of this desire, to carry out (or not) the action required to fulfill it. Thus, the confession of intentions would constitute a transmission to others of an essentially private observation, and the attribution of intentions to others would constitute a hypothesis about an internal event, which could only be confirmed by their confession.

Admittedly, Freud adds a corrective of the Cartesian theory: the person who has repressed his thoughts or desires “in” the unconscious could only know them in an indirect and inferential way.  For acts that are unconsciously driven by repressed motives would be approached by their own authors “as if they belonged to someone else” (Freud, 1915/2001m, p. 169). So, it is only when repression is operating that the Cartesian theory is considered invalid, and this very disability is imagined in Cartesian terms.


4.2 Hoping to eliminate the unconscious

In this model (one could call it a Freudo-Cartesian one), immediate and total knowledge of oneself is the default situation and the absence of this kind of knowledge is a defect, created by repression. Before repression occurs, each person could observe in oneself in an immediate, undeniable and total way her thoughts, desires, and wishes. Likewise, after the unveiling and “lifting” of repression, each person could once again achieve self-transparency.

As the psychoanalytical cure aims to put an end to the hold of the patient’s repression, Freud’s latent Cartesianism manifests itself most vividly in his therapeutic hopes. Alasdair C. MacIntyre comments in this regard:

Freud is so often presented as undermining the rationalist conception of man as a self-sufficient, self-aware, self-controlled being, that we are apt to forget that although he may have abandoned such a conception as an account of what man is, he never retreated from it as an account of what man ought to be.  (2004, p. 114)

The therapeutic “lifting” of repressions would allow the patient to reach a complete self-mastery and self-knowledge. The “ideal” toward which the psychoanalytic cure aims is an individual “devoid of all repressions” and therefore “one and undivided” (Freud, 1932/2001t, p. 223-224).  As Jean Laplanche notes, Freud “cherishes the hope that the cure can finally eliminate the unconscious” (2002, p. 1554 [my translation]).

This hope is allowed by the Freudo-Cartesian conception of the unconscious, which makes it a by-product of repression. “The repressed is the prototype of the unconscious” (Freud, 1923/2001r, p. 15), to the extent that the “psychical splitting” between the conscious and the unconscious is conceived as “an effect of a process of repelling” (Freud, 1914/2001l, p. 11).


4.3 At the core of the asocial theory: a mentalist conception

As discussed above, the psychoanalytic cure would help to restore the Cartesian relationship to oneself. This cure would help the patient to break free from critical self-observation, born from the anticipation of the critical demands of others. Thanks to this liberation, the patient could restore the spectatorial relationship to oneself which would have preceded the intrusion of the voice of others. In this way, the Freudo-Cartesian account of the cure supposes that the identification of desires in self-observation is radically distinct from the communication of this self-observation (portrayed as logically distinct and chronologically subsequent) to interlocutors located in the social-historical world. So, it is a mentalist conception of the psyche, radically separating the self-examination from the communication to others of the results of this examination, which is at the core of the theory separating the moment of the discovery of “the” unconscious and the subsequent diffusion of this discovery in the social-historical world. This theory locates psychoanalysis beyond the reach of sociological research by relying on a radical opposition between inner experience and external events.

As we can see, this mentalist approach of the psychoanalytic self-examination is based on the idea that the introspective relationship to oneself pre-exists the relationship to others, of which it would be independent. With this separation, this theory denies the creative dimension of communication. According to the mentalist conception, as Dewey judiciously remarks, “language acts as a mechanical go-between to convey observations and ideas that have prior and independent existence”; it “‘expresses’ thought as a pipe conducts water, and with even less transforming function than is exhibited when a wine-press ‘expresses’ the juice of grapes” (Dewey, 1925/1981, p. 134); in other words, “linguistic expression” is conceived by mentalism “as the mere transportation of an ‘internally’ preformed content of expression into an ‘externally’ perceptible form of expression” (Joas, 1992/1996, p. 79). It is precisely this denial that Dewey and Mead call into question with their “‘emergent’ theory of mind” (Dewey, 1925/1981, p. 207), according to which the introspective relationship to oneself arises thanks to communication with others and participation in concerted actions.



Let us turn toward the works of Dewey and Mead, so as to grasp the questionable aspect of the Freudo-Cartesian template. At the risk of repeating myself: I will focus here on the articulation of the link between the desire confessed to oneself in introspection and the one named in the conversation with others.


4.1 Fulfilling and naming the desire

Dewey uses the term “intellectualism” to designate “the theory that all experiencing is a mode of knowing” (Dewey, 1925/1981, p. 28) or the inclination to portray theoretical activity as an observation carried out by “a spectator beholding the world from without” (Dewey, 1929/1984, p. 232). The mentalist approach is intellectualist, insofar as it describes the experience of the individual as if she were from the outset in a position of self-examination. But an environment “is primarily the scene of actions performed and of consequences undergone in processes of interaction; only secondarily do parts and aspects of it become objects of knowledge. Its constituents are first of all objects of use and enjoyment-suffering, not of knowledge” (Dewey, 1938/1986, p. 152). This primal relationship to the environment only gives way to an intellectual relationship when one meets an “indeterminate situation”, that is, an “uncertain, unsettled, disturbed” one (Dewey, 1938/1986, p. 109).  Reflective thinking only appears “when existential consequences are anticipated; when environing conditions are examined with reference to their potentialities; and when responsive activities are selected and ordered with reference to actualization of some of the potentialities, rather than others, in a final existential situation” (Dewey, 1938/1986, p. 111). This anticipation procedure allows the “resolution” of the initial indeterminate situation (Dewey, 1938/1986, p. 111). “Ideas are anticipated consequences (forecasts) of what will happen when certain operations are executed under and with respect to observed conditions” (Dewey, 1938/1986, p. 113).

The contrast thus drawn between the “organic behavior”, which is primary, and the “intellectual behavior”, which is secondary (Dewey, 1938/1986, p. 51), enables us to distinguish the two modalities of expression of the will existing among human beings: the will that is fulfilled in the uninterrupted action which organic behavior displays, and the will that is verbalized, in the intellectual behavior. I shall therefore refer myself to the contrast between the mode of fulfillment and the mode of articulation. If all animals fulfill different desires, the verbalization of the desire is specific to human beings. For human being alone can “put himself in the position of commenting on what he is doing and what he intends to do” (Mead, 1934, p. 370).

In the modality of fulfillment, desire is expressed directly through action: the animal that accomplishes an action thereby expresses the will that drives this action.  For example, the animal who bites an apple simultaneously expresses his desire for that apple. This desire is an unreflective impulse, a hard-and-fast habit, which pushes to action (Dewey, 1939/1988, p. 218).  It is thoughtless, in the sense that the animal who by his action gives free rein to this tendency does not form a representation of its completed achievement. In other words, this impulse is not accompanied by a goal.

Conversely, the intention created in the verbal exchange is an impulse modified by reflection. It is named

[…] only when “there is something the matter,” when there is some “trouble” in an existing situation.  […] this “something the matter” is found to spring from the fact that there is something lacking, wanting, in the existing situation as it stands, an absence which produces conflict in the elements that do exist.  When things are going completely smoothly, desires do not arise, and there is no occasion to project ends-in-view, for “going smoothly” signifies that there is no need for effort and struggle.  (Dewey, 1939/1988, p. 220)

The creation of an “inner” intention anticipates a situation in which an action would be accomplished. The person who is wondering what she wants undertakes, instead of “giving way” to impulses, to remake them “in their first manifestation through consideration of the consequences they will occasion if they are acted upon” (Dewey, 1939/1988, p. 217). This anticipation of the consequences, which consists in the “projection” of an “end-in-view”, offers her a means of choosing between different ways of continuing the obstructed action (a “weighing of various alternative desires” (Dewey, 1939/1988, p. 213)), in order to develop a reaction to the uncertainty met; she can thus resolve the initial indeterminate situation.

After this general overview of the two modes of expression of the desire, let us have a look at the difference between the Cartesian and the emergent anthropologies.


5.1 An expression to the onlooker

As I have mentioned, Dewey and Mead demonstrate that the introspective relationship to oneself, in which one finds out one’s will, can only appear following a linguistic exchange with others. It is so because the mode of fulfillment does not involve self-observation. As Dewey emphasizes against the mentalist interpretation, the desire that is expressed by being fulfilled is not thereby communicated (Tiles, 1988, p. 86-92). The acting agent is not driven by the desire to communicate the desire that her action express. The unreflected act of a man certainly expresses the desire that it fulfills, but this expression is not intended “to say, to convey, to tell” (Dewey, 1939/1988, p. 198); in fact, this expression is “the last thing the man in question is thinking of” (Dewey, 1934/1987, p. 67). The individual who simply expresses his desire by fulfilling it, as he has not formed a mental representation of this desire, cannot have the intention to communicate it.

This expression is noticed by the witness of the action:

[…] the cry or smile of an infant may be expressive to mother or nurse and yet not be an act of expression of the baby.  To the onlooker it is an expression because it tells something about the state of the child.  But the child is only engaged in doing something directly, no more expressive from his standpoint than is breathing or sneezing […].  (Dewey, 1934/1987, p. 67)

Such an act “is expressive not in itself but only in reflective interpretation on the part of some observer” (Dewey, 1934/1987, p. 67); it is only a “signal” from “an external standpoint” (Dewey, 1925/1981, p. 140).

Mead takes up Dewey’s idea (Cook 1993, p. 81-82, 93; Joas, 1980/1985, p. 101), notably when he notes that if anger “expresses itself in attack”, this action only has “that meaning for us”, its observers: the anger is “revealed” by the attack, but we cannot say for all that that the animal whose gesture is driven by this emotion “means it” (Mead, 1934, p. 45); this animal “does not know that communication is taking place” (Mead, 1934, p. 253).  Likewise, we are “reading the meaning of the conduct of other people when, perhaps, they are not aware of it” (Mead, 1934, p. 14).


5.2 Creating a common perspective

The desire which is verbalized is expressed in a very different way. Let us note, in particular, that the verbal expression of the desire is not only an act of communication from the perspective of one of the interlocutors. It is missed neither by the person who hears the desire being named nor by the one who names it. One can indeed talk here of expression in a stronger sense of the term—of communication—because, as Mead remarks, the words that the speaker address to his interlocutor also reach her own ears. We hear our own words “as others hear them” (Mead, 1964, p. 287; cf. Cook, 1993, p. 61, 82ff.; Tugendhat, 1979/1986, p. 225ff.); we “pay attention” to our words (Mead, 1934, p. 65), just as the interlocutor to whom we address them. In this sense, the speaking directed to others implies the speaking directed to oneself.

The capacity to hear the same sound enables the capacity to grasp the same meaning: “the import of what we say is the same to ourselves that it is to others” (Mead, 1934, p. 62). As this meaning is “identical” in these “different perspectives”, these words create a “single perspective” (Mead, 1934, p. 89) and thus a common world (cf. Dewey, 1938/1986, p. 52ff.). So, the ear is a crucial vector of socialization (Dewey emphasizes the “connexions of the ear with vital and out-going thought and emotion” (Dewey, 1927/1984, p. 371)).

This common perspective makes possible what Mead calls taking the attitude of other(s) toward oneself:

[…] the very sounds, gestures, especially vocal gestures, which man makes in addressing others, call out or tend to call out responses from himself.  He can not hear himself speak without assuming in a measure the attitude which he would have assumed if he had been addressed in the same words by others.  (Mead, 1964, p. 145-146)

This capacity to grasp the same meaning is crucial.  It opens the door to the (phylogenetic and ontogenetic) development of a whole series of phenomena specific to the human world (the acquisition of “significant symbols”, the development of inner language and self-consciousness, the creation of concerted collective actions, etc.  (Cook, 1993, p. 92-98)).

Mead sometimes treats the response that the speaker provokes in himself as if it were a mere copy of the reply of others (the speaker who takes the attitude of another would “act toward himself as others act” (Mead, 1934, p. 171)).  This induces Charles Taylor to write that Mead’s theory, just as Freud’s theory of the super-ego (Freud, 1933/2001u, p. 60-65), grasps socialization as the endorsement of a pre-established consensus (Taylor, 1995, p. 64-65). But at other times, Mead offers another approach, when he writes that taking the attitude of others does not imply a reaction identical to theirs (Mead, 1934, p. 56, 71; Mead, 1964, p. 286) or even an agreement with them: whether it be for “approving or disapproving”, it is necessary “to take the attitude of the community” (Mead, 1934, p. 180); even disapproving implies the invocation of ideas and norms, which belong to the common world born from the linguistic exchange between social partners.


5.3 Naming one’s desire, committing oneself

On the issue at hand, let us note that the confession of a desire allows the “confessant” and the person she is addressing to come to an agreement on the nature of the desire at stake. The person who names her desire hears her words just like the person to whom they are addressed. The fact that these words reach not only the ears of her interlocutors but also her own ears, enables coordination of interactions that the expression of desire in the mode of fulfillment is far from permitting. As we saw, the expression of the desire eludes the person who is engaged in the action, as she does not pay attention to it. Whereas the person who confesses a desire to her interlocutor cannot avoid but take notice of this desire.

Besides, this assignment process allows this speaker to commit to the person which she addresses: the person who names her desire, quite often, makes a promise. So, the bride who, being asked about her will, utters the words “Yes I do”, gives her word before witnesses. Things are not as clear when the desire is expressed in deeds and gestures. Jane Austen draws our attention to this difference in Sense and Sensibility, by crafting the dialogue between Marianne and Elinor Dashwood regarding the past seductive behavior of John Willoughby toward Marianne. This conversation between these sisters takes place after John has informed a shocked Marianne that he has been engaged elsewhere. Marianne must admit that:

“He has broken no faith with me.”

“But he told you that he loved you.”

“Yes—no—never absolutely.  It was every day implied, but never professedly declared.  Sometimes I thought it had been—but it never was.” (Austen, 2006, p. 101)

In the absence of a spoken commitment, Marianne had little recourse left to protest against John’s betrayal. Austen shows, by staging this largely non-verbal seductive interaction between her and John, that the expression of the desire in the accomplishment of the action does not easily give rise to obligations.

Besides, marriage requires two individuals to provide an answer to a question about what they want (the ritual of marriage is performed thanks to this exchange of complementary prestation and counter-prestation). In many other situations in social life, social partners are similarly expected or required to explain what they want. Everyone must be prepared to be questioned on this matter.

The practice of verbalizing desire thus enables increased coordination, which makes possible the creation of “highly complex activity” (Mead, 1972, p. 375). As such verbalization allows the partners of concerted actions to anticipate the desirable or undesirable consequences of different courses of action, they can develop common reactions to the troubles that their interactions meet.  Thus, the participants of the social action treat language as a tool to coordinate concerted actions: as “a part of a cooperative process, that part which does lead to an adjustment to the response of the other so that the whole activity can go on” (Mead, 1934, p. 74; see also Dewey, 1938/1986, p. 52-53).


5.4 Mirroring a state of civilization

An overview of the way in which the child is introduced to this practice makes it possible to bring into focus the shared undertakings that it enables. “Genetically, motives are imputed by others before they are avowed by self.” (Mills, 1940, p. 909)

We commence life under the influence of appetites and impulses, and of direct response to immediate stimuli of heat and cold, comfort and pain, light, noise, etc.  The hungry child snatches at food.  To him the act is innocent and natural.  But he brings down reproach upon himself; he is told that he is unmannerly, inconsiderate, greedy; that he should wait till he is served, till his turn comes.  He is made aware that his act has other connections than the one he had assigned to it: the immediate satisfaction of hunger.  (Dewey, 1932/1985, p. 169)

The attribution of the greed motive to the action of the child directs his attention to some anticipated short-term consequences of the realization of his desire (others could get angry).  This attribution itself has practical consequences: by attributing “greed” or “selfishness” to the child who “grabs food”, “we induce him to refrain” (Dewey, 1922/1983, p. 85). This child is shown or reminded that he must pay attention to the short-term consequences of his actions on others. With this attribution, adults show him “that human acts have consequences upon others, that some of these consequences are perceived, and that their perception leads to subsequent effort to control action so as to secure some consequences and avoid others.” (Dewey, 1927/1984, p. 243); he is induced to replace many of his “unreflected acts” with “deliberate acts” (Dewey, 1927/1984, p. 247).

Those who attribute this motive to him are also attentive to the long-term consequences of the act for the child. “Adults are equally concerned to act so that the immature learn to think, feel, and desire and habitually conduct themselves in certain ways. Not the least of the consequences which are striven for is that the young shall themselves learn to judge, purpose and choose from the standpoint of associated behavior and its consequences” (Dewey, 1927/1984, p. 251). That is, adults pay attention to the formation of the child’s moral character. The attribution of motives makes possible a “becoming aware that our acts are connected to one another; thereby an ideal of conduct is substituted for the blind and thoughtless performance of isolated acts” (Dewey, 1932/1985, p. 169).

Hence, the attention of the attributers of the desire to the gesture is focused on the (negative or positive, short or long-term) consequences of this gesture from the perspective of the group, for the continuation of concerted actions:

[…] while singular beings in their singularity think, want and decide, what they think and strive for, the content of their beliefs and intentions is a subject-matter provided by association.  Thus, man is not merely de facto associated, but he becomes a social animal in the make-up of his ideas, sentiments and deliberate behavior.  (Dewey, 1927/1984, p. 251)

The verbalization of desires, being intertwined with various social expectations, takes various concrete forms in different societies. As the sociologist Charles W. Mills notes, building on Dewey and Mead’s insights, the practice of attribution of motives implies “vocabularies of motives”, that is, historically located repertoires of human desires. Each of these repertoires, in its specific way, is structured by the contrast between acceptable and unacceptable desires.

A satisfactory or adequate motive is one that satisfies the questioners of an act or program whether it be the other’s or the actor’s. […] A stable motive is an ultimate in justificatory conversation. The words which in a type situation will fulfil this function are circumscribed by the vocabulary of motives acceptable for such situations.  (Mills, 1940, p. 907)

The child to whom wishes are ascribed is thus taught these vocabularies. “Not only does the child learn what to do, what not to do, but he is given standardized motives which promote prescribed actions and dissuade those proscribed. Along with rules and norms of action for various situations, we learn vocabularies of motives appropriate to them.” (Mills, 1940, p. 909)

These “constellation of motives” are “components” of concerted actions (Mills, 1940, p. 908): the attribution of a motive allows one to line up conduct with the complementary system of roles that constitute these concerted actions, by implicitly invoking the rights and duties implied in each of these roles[6]. Thus, motives that are accepted in one sphere of social activity may very well not be admitted elsewhere (e.g., in our societies, the thirst for profit, accepted and recognized in market exchanges, will not be accepted as a marital motive). “Institutionally different situations have different vocabularies of motive appropriate to their respective behaviors.” (Mills, 1940, p. 906) A whole system of social norms and values can thus be embodied in the attribution of motives.

A vocabulary of motives, once it is established, can also be used in a purely rhetorical way. One can notably assign an “adequate” motive to an action to give it a veneer of justification. In other words, one can distinguish between the actual evaluation of consequences of possible action, aimed at producing a decision, and a false evaluation, aimed at finding an acceptable reason for a gesture or an action which actually has been undertaken or decided without that reason acting as a driving force (Dewey, 1922/1983, p. 157-158; Dewey, 1932/1985, p. 174).

In a nutshell, the attribution of desire is “a refinement of the ordinary reactions of praise and blame”, “an outcome of the attempt of men to influence human action”, one’s own or the others (Dewey, 1922/1983, p. 84-85); the motives “used in justifying or criticizing an act […] line up conduct with norms” (Mills, 1940, p. 908). The attribution of desires is “much more social than organic as far as the manifestation of differential wants, purposes and methods of operation is concerned”; the desires and aims which we mostly unthinkingly ascribe to each other are “socially conditioned phenomena. They are reflections into the singular human being of customs and institutions; they are not natural, that is, ‘native,’ organic propensities. They mirror a state of civilisation” (Dewey, 1927/1984, p.  299).


5.5 The relationship to oneself is born with the relationship to others

In a way, the contrast between the non-verbal and verbal expressions of the desire is a contrast between the animal who does not focalize his attention on his actions, and thus has not developed a relationship to himself, and the individual who, thanks to communication with interlocutors and participation in concerted actions, has developed such a relationship. The person who is not aware of the desire that his acts express is equally unaware of himself. “When one is running to get away from someone who is chasing him, he is entirely occupied in this action, and his experience may be swallowed up in the objects about him, so that he has at the time being, no consciousness of self at all” (Mead, 1934, p. 137). People first “live in immediate acts of experience”; then, “their attentions are directed outside themselves” (Mills, 1940, p. 905).

So, if the Freudo-Cartesian story treats self-consciousness as a given, Dewey and Mead, conversely, show that a kind of unconsciousness is elementary.  The mute relationship to oneself which gives rise to self-consciousness is a by-product of the communication to oneself implied in the words uttered out loud to others.

The self which consciously stands over against other selves thus becomes an object, an other to himself, through the very fact that he hears himself talk, and replies.  The mechanism of introspection is therefore given in the social attitude which man necessarily assumes toward himself, and the mechanism of thought, in so far as thought uses symbols which are used in social intercourse, is but an inner conversation.  (Mead, 1964, p. 146)

Self-consciousness involves “taking or feeling of the attitude of the other toward yourself” (Mead, 1934, p. 171). By borrowing the perspective of others, the individual acquires a distance from himself which allows him to see himself as a unified being: “the term ‘self’ is a reflexive affair. It involves an attitude of separation of the self from itself.  […] It must be able to come back at itself from outside” (Mead, 1972, p. 88). That is why “communication is fundamental to the nature of what we term ‘mind’” (Mead, 1934, p. 50): against the idea that the relationship to oneself precedes communication with others, the emergent position draws our attention to the fact that the relationship to oneself arises through this communication.



We are now in possession of the theoretical tools necessary to develop a better understanding of the nature of the connection between the attribution of repressed desires in introspection and in conversations with others. Armed with the theories developed by Dewey and Mead, we can take a fresh look at psychoanalytic practices. By sketching the role they play in the coordination of interactions, we shall be able to see in what way they are embedded in a socio-historical context.


6.1 The source of misunderstanding in human relations

In an introductory book to psychoanalysis, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Freud explains to his reader that the person who represses his desire loses the capacity to confess, acknowledge and recognize it, even though this desire drives many of his gestures (his forgetfulness, his missteps, etc.). Freud notes that this incapacity “must inevitably become the source of misunderstandings in human relations”: the “agent” who performs actions driven by repressed desires “knows nothing of there being an intention connected with these actions”; so, he does not feel that they are chargeable to him and does not hold himself responsible for them.  The second party, on the other hand, since he regularly bases his conclusions as to the agent’s intentions and sentiments on such actions among others, knows more of the other’s psychical processes than that person himself is ready to admit or believes he has communicated.

The first person concerned “grows indignant if these conclusions drawn from his symptomatic acts are brought up against him; he declares them to be baseless, since he is not conscious of having had the intention at the time they were carried out, and complains of being misunderstood by the second part.” (Freud, 1901/2001e, p. 211).

What Freud stages here is a disagreement on the nature of the desire driving an action. Before its witness (“the second party”) informs the person who carried out this action that he is driven by a certain desire, this difference of opinion is only latent: it is a disagreement which ignores itself, as the chief interested overlooks the non-linguistic expression of his will in his action. The person whose action expresses a repressed desire can only become aware of this non-verbal expression when its witness presents him “his conclusions”, “drawn from his symptomatic acts”, that is when his witness tells him that his action fulfills this or that desire. Therefore, the observer must address himself to the observed for the latent disagreement to get into the open. It is only then that the “agent” becomes aware of the perception of the observer and that he’s in a position to respond to him: he “grows indignant” and “complains” about this attribution of desire. The debate on the identity of the desire at issue can begin.


6.2 Sketch of a Freudo-Meadian account of repression

In this passage, Freud sketches a reflection strikingly similar to the one proposed by Dewey and Mead on the limits of the coordination of interactions allowed by the expression of the desire via its fulfillment, in comparison with the extraordinary potential allowed by its verbal attribution.  Freud shows there that the incapacity to acknowledge one’s intentions hinder this coordination.  The “chief interested,” being under the influence of repression, “does not hold himself responsible” for his own gestures; he does not recognize that they are “chargeable to him”.  Conversely, the observer holds him accountable for this gesture. Thus, the incapacity engendered by repression prevents the production of a common response to the gesture driven by this desire. This gap between the perspectives of the person engaged in doing something and the onlooker who watches him act is precisely the one which, according to Dewey, distinguishes the mode of fulfillment from the mode of articulation: only the observer of action can identify the desire expressed in it.

The resemblance to the approach by Dewey and Mead in this Freudo-Meadian passage does not end there, since Freud also makes it very clear, by arguing that this gap is a source of “misunderstandings in human relations”, that the repression of the desire in the unconscious creates a situation that is embarrassing or troublesome from the perspective of coordination of social interactions.


6.3 Losing the capacity to account for one’s actions

We can glimpse here that Freud’s theoretical investigation of his patients’ repression was far from being foreign to requirements of answerability: the analytic investigation he created responded largely to phenomena that were troublesome from the point of view of these requirements (and the therapy it led to sought to enable people to meet these requirements once again). He again and again invoked those requirements, by drawing the attention of his patients, interlocutors and readers to situations where people affected with repression were unable to account for their own actions by ascribing a motive to them[7].

For example, Freud stresses that, just like the sick person carrying out “obsessive actions”, who cannot articulate their meaning (these actions “seem quite meaningless” in her own eyes (Freud, 1907/2001g, p. 118)), the participant of ritual, as she performs it “without concerning himself with its significance”, cannot fully name “the motives which impel” her ritual action (Freud, 1907/2001g), p. 122-123). Similarly, he repeatedly draws attention on our inability to account for what might be called inconsequential micro-gestures (these include, for example, “playing with one’s watch-chain, fingering one’s beard”, or “playing with a stick or scribbling with a pencil that one happens to be holding, jingling coins in one’s pocket, kneading bread-crumbs and other plastic materials, fiddling with one’s clothing in all kinds of ways” (Freud, 1901/2001e, p. 194)); all these micro-gestures are “actions of a habitual nature which are performed with a minimum of attention” (Freud, 1901/2001e, p. 214), or even “without noticing them at all” (Freud, 1910/2001i, p. 37-38); the person who performs these gestures do it “automatically, unconsciously, without attending to them, or as if in a moment of distraction” (Freud, 1905/2001f, p. 76); he “is quite unaware that he is doing anything” (Freud, 1901/2001e, p. 194).  In such cases, patients were unable to name the motives underlying their actions. The sustained attention that Freud pays to these micro-gestures, which are in themselves devoid of practical consequences, clearly shows that this inability to account for one’s actions was in itself, in his eyes, an object of concern.

Even when the repressed person is able to assign motives to her actions, the situation would not be significantly different. For if “we examine with a critical eye the account that the patient has given us,” we shall “quite infallibly discover gaps and imperfections in it” (Freud, 1895/2001b, p. 293); “the patients are incapable of giving [coherent] reports about themselves” (Freud, 1905/2001f, p. 16).  When the patient “is asked why he is acting in this way,” the reasons he offers are frequently “unconvincing” and “inadequate;” he “feels compelled to invent some obviously unsatisfactory reason” (Freud, 1900/2001c, p. 147-148).

In these different ways, Freud claimed that the fact that people who repress their desire are no longer able to answer for their actions was a matter of concern.


6.4 Requesting the psychoanalytic avowal

In one place, Freud recalls the interrogation to which he subjected a patient who was repeatedly performing an obsessional action: “Whenever I asked the patient ‘Why do you do that? What sense has it?’ she answered: ‘I don’t know’” (Freud, 1916-1917/2001n, p. 261). Such questioning reminds us that Freud was not observing the disagreement between the person who carried out the action and her witness from the outside, as if he, or the psychoanalyst, were himself a third person: a meta-witness (a witness of the witnessing). For the witness who prompts the chief interested to express in his words the desire so far expressed in acts, in most cases, is his psychoanalyst. He must “compel” patients who experience a non-verbalized affect “to put this affect into words” (Freud, 1893/2001a, p. 35). And Freud endeavored to compel people to verbalize their desires, most notably by requesting reasons for various gestures and acts. When he met patients acting “without giving any reason” (Freud, 1905/2001f, p. 28), he was inclined to notice it and to ask for one. Besides, with the help of psychoanalysis, it was possible to ask for the reasons of “a whole number of actions which were held to be unmotivated” (Freud, 1906/2001g, p. 104): dreams, illnesses, slips of the tongue, etcetera. “Well, what do you do if I make an unintelligible utterance to you?  You question me, is that not so?  Why should we not do the same thing to the dreamer—question him as to what his dreams mean?” (Freud, 1916-1917/2001n, p. 100)

The people thus induced to examine themselves, in order to provide an answer that would satisfy their questioner, were obviously far from undertaking an uncritical self-observation. And even when the person who carried out a gesture spontaneously declares that this gesture expresses a repressed desire, it is as a result of a psychoanalytic instruction, which beforehand gave him the idea that this kind of gesture must be produced by such a desire. So a reader of Freud, “being familiar with the psycho-analytical method”, began to think that one of his gestures, at first glance unmotivated, was actually driven by a repressed motive: “he decided to investigate the matter” (Freud, 1901/2001e, p. 195); likewise, one of Freud’s patients, after he repeatedly questioned her about her motives, began “raising a number of questions about the connection between some of her actions and the motives which presumably underlay them” (Freud, 1905/2001f, p. 95).  In a way, Michel Foucault (1976/1978) is right to suggest that the confession of the repressed desire is required (contrary to what he maintains, however, this requirement is not the product of a ubiquitous and vague “power”).

All this amounts to say that psychoanalysts, far from being withdrawn spectators watching from the outside the conflicting interaction between an “agent” and an onlooker challenging him about his symptomatic acts, are themselves some of the questioners of acts who, as Mills remarks, play a key role in the creation, reproduction, and transformation of vocabularies of motives. As he also suggests, such psychoanalytic questioners, by making it known that they were not convinced by the motives that had hitherto been considered convincing, and by drawing attention to the deleterious consequences of the previous unacceptability of other motives, undertook to discredit inherited vocabularies of motives and to create a new one. “To converted individuals who have become accustomed to the psychoanalytic terminology of motives, all others seem self-deceptive.” (Mills, 1940, p. 912; on this replacement, see Lamarche, 2020)


6.5 A second look at psychoanalytic introspection

Let us reconsider the self-examination in which the repressed desire is confessed to oneself.  According to the Freudo-Cartesian story, this psychoanalytic introspection stems from the expulsion of the interiorized voice of others. If we rather rely on the indications provided by the Freudo-Meadian story, we can realize that this introspection, far from developing itself in a self-relationship enclosed on itself, emerges following interrogation by a questioner, or following an interaction with an interlocutor offering some sort of theoretical introduction to the theory of repression. Thus, this psychoanalytic introspection is not isolated from different social relations, and notably from the dyad constituted by the collaboration between the patient and the psychoanalyst. The psychoanalyst points out to the patient results which signal the authentic introspection (that is, as we saw above, the examination that would be untroubled by the anticipation of the expectations of others).The “patient’s symptom and pathological manifestations” are

[…] at bottom motives, instinctual impulses. But the patient knows nothing of these elementary motives or not enough.  We teach him to understand the way in which these highly complicated mental formations are compounded; we trace the symptoms back to the instinctual impulses which motive them; we point out to the patient these instinctual motives, which are present in his symptoms and of which he has hitherto been unaware.  (Freud, 1919/2001p, p. 159-160)

Mills notes in this connection: “When introspecting on the couches of Freud, patients used the only vocabulary of motives they knew; Freud got his hunch and guided further talk” (1940, p. 912). Thus, the trained patient has at his disposal the necessary information to figure out whether the results of the self-examination she is attempting are conform or not to … the expectations of his psychoanalyst. Which amounts to saying that the psychoanalytic introspection is not exempt from the interiorization of someone else’s voice. The self-examination in which the bearers of psychoanalysis attribute themselves repressed desires emerge downstream of interpersonal interaction. (Here is a straightforward rebuttal of the myth of the analyst acting as a mere catalyst.)

One could apply to this particular form of introspection what Dewey says of introspection in general:

When the introspectionist thinks he has withdrawn into a wholly private realm of events disparate in kind from other events, made out of mental stuff, he is only turning his attention to his own soliloquy.  And soliloquy is the product and reflex of converse with others; social communication not an effect of soliloquy.  If we had not talked with others and they with us, we should never talk to and with ourselves.  (Dewey, 1925/1981, p. 135)

Thus, those who, like Freud, think that the true relationship to oneself precedes communication with others convert “consequences of interaction of events into causes of the occurrence of these consequences” (Dewey, 1925/1981, p. 200; cf. Tiles, 1988, p. 43, 55-56, 88).



We are now in a position to provide answers to the two types of questions (exegetical and sociological) addressed here.


A precarious critique of mentalism

Those who undertook to compare the thoughts of Freud, on the one hand, and Dewey / Mead, on the other[8], are inclined to conclude that if the first of those authors emphasizes the unconscious and irrational dimensions of mental life, the last ones, contrariwise, focus on the conscious control of action (Swanson, 1961; Elliott and Meltzer, 1981). Dewey and Mead would thus remain closer to the mentalist conception than Freud. By thus depicting this contrast, those exegetes overlook not only the Cartesian background which shapes Freud’s thought but also the paramount importance, for Dewey’s and Mead’s anthropology, of the elucidation of “organic behavior”. The assessment proposed here, based on a methodical comparison of the critical reactions to mentalism, leads to significantly different conclusions. For the Freudian critique of mentalism, when it is compared with the one developed by the creators of the emergent approach, appears quite precarious and hesitant.

Michael Billig’s sharps insights largely concur with our analyses. He argues convincingly that Freud offers not one theory of repression, but two.  Freud “has surprisingly little to say directly” on the actual process of repression (Billig, 1999, p. 27) and when he does try to articulate this process, he offers a mentalist account, by falling back on the idea of a process occurring entirely “within the head” (Billig, 1999, p. 44): the “topical” displacement of an idea from one inner space to another (from the preconscious to the unconscious)[9]. But when he deals with actual cases, Freud shows that “motivated, but not deliberate, avoidance” of an undesirable idea can be carried out by changing the topic of a conversation (Billig, 1999, p. 53). It should be noted here that the person who thus avoids to talk about an unpleasant subject with a real interlocutor can also succeed in avoiding to think about it because the words distracting this interlocutor also reach her own ears: so she can manipulate her own attention by manipulating the attention of others. Such repression, being an “external” linguistic process, can be grasped directly by an attentive witness of a conversation: repression, then, is not “taking place behind the words” heard by the witness: it as rather “accomplished by these words” (Billig, 1999, p. 53-54) The reader will have noticed that this largely inarticulate understanding of repression (like that of a novelist, it is embodied in stories) is remarkably similar in its orientation to the one proposed by the creators of the emergent theory of the mind.

So, the critique of mentalism that Freud articulates theoretically is carried out within a mentalist frame[10]. As Lancelot L. Whyte judiciously suggests[11], the so-called discovery of the unconscious is simultaneously enabled and solicited by Cartesian theory, in whose eyes unconscious thoughts and desires represent what Thomas S. Kuhn calls theoretical anomalies: those facts which violate paradigm-induced expectations “attract the increasing attention of a scientific community”, which frequently tries to make it “conform” to the prevailing paradigm (1970, p. ix). Freud’s theory of “the unconscious” clearly offers a case of anomaly-management within the framework of a mentalist paradigm: this addition provided a way to preserve the endangered paradigm. By asserting that the action performed unconsciously by the individual was performed knowingly and deliberately by his unconscious, Freud was supporting the idea that every desire must be observed by its author. This theoretical complement to the existing theoretical system was similar to the various “epicycles” added to the Ptolemaic astronomical system to account for apparent astrological anomalies. For in this case, too, this innovation consisted of enrichment of the initial model through its multiplication: Descartes portrays consciousness as operating within a metaphorical “inner” space and Freud, by putting forward the hypothesis of another such space, deeper than the first one (“the unconscious”), redoubles this mentalist conception[12].

The examination that I developed here also allows us to see that Freud’s thought is pervaded by a tension between two diametrically opposed conceptions of human mind: between an emergent approach, which grasp the mind as something largely taking shape through the anticipation of reactions of others, that is to say, thanks to communication[13], and a mentalist approach, aspiring to a liberation of this anticipation, which implies, ultimately, that the individual mind pre-exists communication[14]. One can locate Freud’s heirs in relation to this tension between the mentalist and emergent approaches. While some of them are inclined to think that some kind of interiorization of the voice of others is a necessary component of the development of the sane person[15], others are rather inclined to see any such interiorization as violence committed against the pre-existing will of the individual, revealing by this reaction that their outlook is shaped by a mentalist horizon of expectations[16].

A similar differentiation could allow for a clearer comparison between the sociological traditions influenced by the classical pragmatists with those inspired by Freud.


The psychoanalytic reform of the attribution of desires

Furthermore, the confrontation of the Freudo-Cartesian and Freudo-Meadian approaches of the psychoanalytic introspection allows us to take a fresh look at the socio-historical question of the relationship between the social order and psychoanalysis. By neglecting the different interactions which create and fuel the psychoanalytic soliloquy, the Freudo-Cartesian story at the roots of the asocial picture offers a drastically intellectualist image of psychoanalytic theory: this theory would be a product of an observation carried out by a spectator beholding the world (and herself) from without. In this story, psychoanalysis appears as the product of an observation separated from the exigencies of action and interaction. The Freudo-Meadian story offers a welcome corrective to this utterly implausible fable. It allows us to recognize the facts that the Freudo-Cartesian account prevented us from seeing: we are now able to see that psychoanalysis emerges not in the metaphorical inner eye of the bearer of the desire, but in the ordinary eye of the witness of the action; that psychoanalytic introspection, far from being born in a self-examination hermetically sealed from interpersonal relationships, actually emerges from exchanges with interlocutors; that the observations conducted by the different users of psychoanalysis are never isolated from the practical imperatives of their coordination. The idiom of responsibility displayed in the Freudo-Meadian story (in which psychoanalytic witnesses remind those who would prefer to disown various actions they had carried out that they are chargeable or responsible for them) highlights that the attribution of repressed desires is far from being a practice foreign to the invocation of social norms (or to the sanctions that constrain partners of concerted actions and thus ensure the effectiveness of these norms). Psychoanalysis is not a purely subjective event, occurring in the heads of the individuals, leaving intact the objective world. The use of psychoanalytic theory does not produce

[…] a vague and precarious internalization, but an organization of conducts and perceptions.  The information at the group’s disposal penetrates everyday life and generates appropriate behaviours by putting interpersonal relations and the way they are lived into a different context.  (Moscovici, 1961/2008, p. 113 [translation amended])

When this theory is invoked by these partners, it really transforms the organized link between them.

Many philosophers (e.g.: MacIntyre, 2004, p. 82) have noted that the theory of repression extends the scope of phenomena needing an explanation by reasons. Thanks to this theory, dreams, blunders, forgetting, neurosis, etc., are not anymore treated as events produced by mechanical and blind causes (tiredness, heredity, etc.), but rather as actions endowed with meaning: they seem to be driven by motives, that is, there seem to be reasons for these actions. It is quite less often noted—again due to an intellectualist bias—that this shift is an expansion of the field of gestures that the individual can be asked to account for[17], that is, an expansion of the accountability system which the verbalization of the desire offers (this expansion made many excuses unavailable (Freud, 1910/2001i, p. 149-150; Freud, 1916-1917/2001n, p. 53)). The assumption that the consequences of what seems at first to be a fortuitous event reveal an unconscious but deliberate purpose allows a remarkable extension of the domain of individual responsibility[18].

By creating a psychoanalytic vocabulary of motives, Freud practically reformed the practice of attribution of desires. He created a novel way to order and negotiate interactions. To succeed in this reform, Freud had to educate his readers, by showing, relying on an almost novelistic staging of ideas, how psychoanalysis could be used to coordinate interactions (Lamarche 2012, p. 179).  The success of this demonstration required him to implicitly contradict his own Freudo-Cartesian myth, according to which psychoanalysis would develop outside of the social order. It is this latent rebuttal that I have endeavoured to make explicit, here, under the label “Freudo-Meadian story”.

Of course, if, as everything suggests, the psychoanalytical vocabulary of motives is one vocabulary of motives among others, comparable to them, and just as likely to be clarified in sociological terms, it is necessary to develop a properly socio-historical analysis of Freud’s reform of the attribution and confession of desires, of the conditions which made this reform possible or necessary, and of the consequences of its diffusion. A whole historical research program is opening up here (cf. Lamarche, 2012, 2017a, 2020, Forthcoming 1 & 2).  In which social context of interaction does the micro-practice at hand (the attribution of repressed desires to actions) emerge?  Which historically located norms and values does it embodies?  What new actions does it enable, which social needs does it fulfill?  Etc.


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[1]This work is a revised and enlarged translation of Lamarche, 2017b.


[2] This conception of the mind is connected to the holism put forward by Dewey and Mead, which led them to draw attention to the wider context within which different discrete phenomena have emerged (against the more widespread habit of reducing wholes to parts and of treating the parts as preceding the wholes) (Tiles, 1988). This holistic approach is at odds with the multiple theories treating the individual and / or society as given—which thus hypostasize one or the other of these phenomena.


[3] Naturally, one could also reach such a renewed understanding of psychoanalysis by starting from other critiques of the Cartesian conception of the mind (those proposed by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Ludwig Wittgenstein, etc.) or from other approaches of the psychoanalytic cure (notably the one developed by the “relational” school of psychoanalysis).


[4] Due to this very focus, I will have to leave unanswered the many important questions raised by this comparative exegesis, notably with respect to Dewey’s and Mead’s emergent conception of society.


[5] As will be discussed above, his writings offer many approaches to psychoanalysis.


[6] In a concerted action, “the different roles involve each other” (Mead, 1934, p. 256).  This also applies to the rights and duties implied in these roles.  Thus, as buying and selling “are involved in each other” (Mead, 1964, p. 284), the rights and obligations of the buyer correspond to the obligations and rights of the seller.  The rules that order such interactions are impersonal, as they apply not to the particular individuals (Peter, Paul or John), but to holders of positions (Mead, 1934, p. 167; Mead, 1964, p. 291).  On this aspect of Mead’s approach of social interactions, see especially Tugendhat, 1979/1986, p. 240ff.


[7] Whereas the witnesses of these actions could easily identify their motives: what at first seemed accidental consequences (mistakes, injuries, forgetting, etc.) seems rather, when looked under the psychoanalytic microscope, as goals secretly sought and wanted; apparent accidents “aimed at achieving the result they have in fact achieved” (Freud, 1912-1913/2001k, p. 121).  One could say that this explanation of mistakes, injuries, etc., allowed to question the articulation of desire proposed in a first-person narrative on the basis of a kind of expansion of the mode of fulfillment.


[8] Sometimes as funders or representatives of different theoretical traditions (e.g. psychoanalysis, symbolic interactionism).


[9] Cf. Ernst Tugendhat’s almost deweyan protest: “the fact that the intention is unconscious does not mean, as is suggested by Freud’s hypostatizing, ‘topographical’ manner of speaking, that the intention exists as a represented entity in a sphere of ‘the’ unconscious; rather, it means that no expressive utterance in the first person corresponds to what has been determined through observation” (1979/1986, p. 124).


[10] Dewey (1922/1983, p. 61) notes that the creators of psychoanalysis “cling to the idea of the separate psychic realm”.


[11] This theoretical innovation was “unnecessary” before Descartes; it was his theoretical system “that created the ‘problem of the unconscious’” (Whyte, 1960, p. 60).


[12] Both Tiles (1988, p. 79-80) and MacIntyre (2004, p. 98) remark that Freud reduplicates the mentalist conception of the mind (Freud anthropomorphizes the sphere of unconscious processes by portraying it as a double of consciousness: as a “second consciousness” or an “unconscious consciousness” (Freud, 1925d, p. 32)).


[13] See Mead’s approving remarks on Freud’s theory of “censorship” (Mead, 1934, p. 255, note 2).


[14] This tension frequently remains invisible in the existing attempts to compare Freud and Dewey / Mead.  For example, when Jean-François Côté (2015, p. 44-58) questions whether Mead understood “the” Freudian theory of the unconscious, he completely overlooks the heterogeneity of the uses of the word “unconscious” in Freud’s writings (aside from letting the absence of a common terminology stop the comparison of the theoretical approaches).


[15] Notably the theoreticians of so-called “relational” psychoanalysis (Mitchell, 1988).


[16] These expectations, which are frequently taken for granted, and thus remain in the background of the persons’ thinking, tend to come to the fore and get articulated when challenged or attacked—thus, the classical representatives of the Frankfurt School deployed a complex moral and theoretical defense of the mentalist perspective in reaction to the neo-Freudians’ attempt to challenge it (Lamarche, Forthcoming 1).


[17] Mills (1940, p. 911) alludes to the psychoanalytic “systematic motive-mongering”.


[18] This expansion suggests that the teleological explanation is closely linked to the social regulation of interactions (cf. Lamarche, Forthcoming 2); Mead notes that the teleological explanation responds to the interests of the “prosecuting attorney” (1972, p. 268-269, 276-277).


Jean-Baptiste Lamarche (Ph. D., Université de Montréal, 2014), currently teaches history at Cégep Édouard-Montpetit. He is notably the author of La grammaire intérieure ; une sociologie historique de la psychanalyse (Montréal: Liber, 2016). His work mainly aims at changing our perception of psychoanalysis. [].

Publication Date:

November 30, 2021

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