Philosophy, Psychodynamics and Ways of Thinking



A central issue in the human sciences remains the conceptual difficulty in ‘thinking about thinking‘ as the nature of the thought resulting is affected by the thought process engaged in by the thinker – a subjective and emotional process. (particular reference to this difficulty in scientific discovery is in a paper here)

I encountered the ‘thinking about thinking‘ difficulty early in my studies in history and philosophy of science, and it was one of the motivations towards my initial interest in psychoanalysis and the work of Wilfred Bion, a psychoanalyst who was also interested in problems of knowing and thinking. This interest in science and scientific thought is a thread through all of my thinking. Why are there so many conflicts and misunderstandings between those whose backgrounds are different, arts, sciences, cultures, religions etc. A better understanding of thought/theory/living could be arrived at, however still partial, if one had understanding of the irrational motivations within the psyche. [I am now aware that an irrational ideal lay behind this aim, but it served well as a starter to engagement with psychoanalysis, and more holistic ways of allowing myself to have a thought which was also a feeling.]

l3_vast_universeMy personal background to this was as a mathematician (First Class Honours, Belfast) enjoying intellectual interests in philosophy and history of maths and science. However, at the same time, I was naive (not just young), lacked realistic self-confidence, and was fairly confused by the sixties views of what women did, in or out of work. I had two young children, and I had become a nursery teacher, while my then husband trained as a psychotherapist. I then studied history and philosophy of science (Ph.D. London, 1985) and, for a time, this strand of my learning was also my professional work area.

Another motivation towards psychoanalytic ideas, besides being surrounded by therapist friends, was that I had worked with young children. In daily contact with them, I was interested in early indications of differing abilities, spatial, numerate, literate, visual, etc. as well as being influenced by variety and diversity in human development generally. And, I had discovered I liked being with children, that relationships with them took no account of age or intellect. I was fascinated by both similarities and differences between individuals and between cultures. Cognitive psychology, sociology and linguistics offer ways of describing what one sees when working with children, but do not explain the impact of relating to a particular individual or the shifting atmospheres and moods which one experiences in groups, particularly as the adult in a group of young children. These emotional matters need introspection, empathy, reflection and acceptance. Psychodynamic ideas like ‘transference’ and ‘projective identification’ help enormously. Of course, that is when they are ideas with meaning, not just unusual words. It is well worth looking at books like Margot Waddell’s Inside Lives (Duckworth,1998) to get help understanding psychodynamics in the present day.

postSo, I moved from my split intellectual and practical involvements to more coherent study of philosophy of science, and its history (see the history of science page). This happened in 1974, when in a very uncertain exploration of what and where to study, I met Heinz Post who was Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at Chelsea College, University of London (now absorbed into Kings College). I have never regretted the choice to work with this inspiring and exacting teacher, who enabled those who came to Chelsea Seminars, students and scholars, to value intrinsic worth in knowing and ‘always to find out and understand what someone is saying – then you can criticise – if you so wish!’. Heinz was my doctoral supervisor, and I will always be grateful to him for his wisdoms, as well as for enabling me to write a thesis which was my own way of seeing Faraday’s discoveries via the work of Wilfred Bion. Much later, I published a paper in Free Associations (the papers I have published are listed here).


Psychodynamic theory now has a public understanding:
* we wonder if behaviour, decisions and actions might be motivated by hidden personal agendas, e.g. by unconscious patterns from past or present;
* we know that many words: ego, self-esteem, idealistic, paranoid, defensive etc., have definitions concerning mental emotional states, even if we do not know the particular definitions, nor what kind of inner world they represent;
* we know it is important that people (babies, children, adults) are offered human relationship as well as physical care and mental stimulation, even if we argue about who or what kind of offering;
* we know that there is something some people do, the ‘talking cure’, counselling or psychotherapy or psychoanalysis or whatever, which is supposed to get people in touch with parts of themselves they had not consciously known about before, and create an actual change in their well-being;
* we know we have feelings: hope, fear, trust, doubt, curiosity, scorn, interest, disinterest etc. or an ambivalent mixture of many feelings

However, psychodynamics also has a public distrust, which I believe is well-founded in the “if it aint broke, don’t fix it” model, as well as fear of madness. People, including me, know we have got to where we are by cobbling together ways to survive emotionally as best we can. We do not take kindly to the instinctive realisation that changing those patterns might leave us adrift for a while.

This reminds me of the Irish joke about the visitor who asked the way to Ballybeg. The Irishman replied that of course he could tell the visitor the way, “but if I was going, I wouldn’t be starting from here”. Distrust is neither wrong nor stupid. It knows the field called ‘psychodynamics’ is about going to the unknowns of the ‘psyche’ and the dynamics of change within a self, and unknown effects on others. It might be more sensible to stay where one is, rather than ask the way, especially as when one does ask, each of us hears that it would be better to have started differently somehow. The information received is somewhat ‘Irish’. Psychodynamics is about ‘being human’, accepting ‘not-knowing’ and ‘not being in the best place to start’. Psychodynamics is evolutionary, moving and changing from the place one is at. It involves RISK, not an idea of risk, but really stepping out of the frame which has been what one knows already.

Psychodynamics is mutual, not outside a relationship, looking into it with words and ideas, but inside it as a whole self, with feelings and emotional processes, phantasies, observing this as it happens. The effect is that a sorting out of ‘your response’, ‘my response’, ‘the way we interact’, can take place, at least partially, a view of the present moment we are in. This is a change in thought perspective, analogous to the change in perspective on motion offered by Galileo when he found a way to consider instantaneity, studying velocity rather than speed. We are in the dynamic we are studying, rather than looking at consequences of the dynamic from elsewhere. This is the essence of psychodynamic practice, the place where we begin is here and now. (If the ghosts of the past are there, if personal intrusion or need or greed is there, it is because we bring these with us, into now.)

We realise that human beings have an ongoing unconscious conflict as they need to bond with others to survive, and they also need to establish themselves as individuals. The dilemma cannot ever be resolved but instead forms the impetus to maturation, that is to the ability to relate dynamically and dialogically with ‘other’, without being permanently taken over by other or permanently taking over and using other as an extension of oneself. Paradoxically, health and continuing to grow happens when we can bear this internal ambivalence about dependence and independence without trying to resolve it. The processes of identification (two-way communications between self and other) and the present-day understanding of the Oedipus Complex (three dimensional relations, self and other and their relation to other others) describe what happens, and give a way of understanding the processes of thinking, or of learning to think.

The psychoanalytic way of regarding creativity or difficulty in thought takes account of dualities and dialogues expressed in epistemology, philosophy, or education, say, yet it is of a different order. Bion put this difference into words when he declared that the thought came first, before the thinker. The mind of the person, baby or adult, takes something in (is impinged on by the environment, or by something more physiological, say), then, thinking is a process which has to develop to cope with the thought. A variety of such processes are possible. Some will link the thought with TRUTH, that is thinking will be in relationship with reality of self and other. However, some will LIE, which is not the logical opposite of ‘truth’, but just a different process, one which has no regard for reality. For example, a ‘lie’ would protect a phantasy of self, such as omnipotence. A child might learn to read to keep this phantasy, not to understand or enjoy what was in the book. An adult might research a doctorate thesis to keep this phantasy. Whether the phantasy is omnipotence, or some other narcissistic need, for emotional purposes the intellectual discovery is secondary and split off from caring for the truth.

Thus the inner motive of the thinker matters. Although it is quite possible to create considerable cognitive achievement and/or technocratic skill by amassing ‘knowledge’ through the ‘lie’ process, such knowledge cannot develop or adapt in use. This sort of knowledge might be arranged and rearranged, trotted out to please parents or appointments boards, but the meaningful connections with something other are missing. New discovery cannot be made. Understanding thought in this way is in agreement with findings regarding more conscious cognitive processes of strategic or deep thinking, and with findings that learners who are emotionally attuned learn in ways which enable critical and creative thought.

This is a very brief survey of some wonderful ideas. The background – notions of symbol formation, say, or Winnicott’s ideas on play and culture in the ‘in-between’ space, and the whole range of how people form pictures of their world and the world – bring life, value and hope into dark and dreary spaces. Daily news bulletins are often despairing, or worse, destructive of human good, but perceiving thought and play and culture and science together as ‘truth’ activities makes meaning and hope re-emerge.

I would like to engage further in discussion re the practice of enabling and encouraging better understanding of thought from an emotional process/psychodynamic basis. A recent attempt [2007] at a paper is here (I am disappointed by it, help wanted!).


Recently I have once again explored more philosophical thinking. In 1997, at Calgary I met the members of the Saskatchewan Process Philosophy Research Unit (SPPRU), at their symposium on the thought of Alfred North Whitehead. The idea of comparing Whitehead with Bion was born when I heard the discussion of Whitehead’s thought, particularly the idea: the fallacy of misplaced concreteness (FMC), and felt that I knew it from Bion’s work. I was encouraged to follow this comparison by Bob Regnier, Mark Flynn, Ed Thompson and Howard Woodhouse of SPPRU and joined them in Exeter in 1998 for one of the most rewarding three days I have ever engaged in. Like psychodynamic thought, process philosophy is challenging. Demands are made on awareness of how thinking happens, as well as on the nature of the thought. Also like those who work psychodynamically, followers of process philosophy spend a great proportion of their time in practical work with trainees or students, or others. They work with organisations regarding ethics and values, or are involved in the needs of business and industry seen as human activities. (For example, Whitehead himself was involved in the founding of the Harvard Business School.) For discussion, or information about publications, please make contact.spprugp2

Some of the participants at the International Research Seminar, “Education, Ecology and Science”, co-organized by the Saskatchewan Process Philosophy Research Unit, which took place at the University of Exeter, England, June 24-26, 1998.