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Levine, H.B. (1998). Understanding Mental Objects. By Meir Perlow. Volume 22 of The New Library of Psychoanalysis (general editor, Elizabeth Bott Spillius). London and New York: Routledge, 1995, 206 pp., $19.95.. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 46(3):944-946.

(1998). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 46(3):944-946

Understanding Mental Objects. By Meir Perlow. Volume 22 of The New Library of Psychoanalysis (general editor, Elizabeth Bott Spillius). London and New York: Routledge, 1995, 206 pp., $19.95.

Review by:
Howard B. Levine

As noted by Meir Perlow in his introduction, the term mental objects refers “to a group of concepts which have been used in the psychoanalytic literature to refer to various mental organizations, structures, processes and capacities in an individual which relate [to] his or her perception, attitude, relationship with and memories of other people” (p. 1). Beginning with Freud's description of the object as the target of the drives, the concept of mental objects in the work of Fairbairn, Klein, and a host of other authors has acquired increasing significance in most psychoanalytic formulations of mental functioning. Its origins and meanings, however, are neither universally agreed upon nor constant over time.

In particular, Perlow's work calls attention to the fact that uncertainties and debates abound concerning whether or not—and to what extent—mental objects are to be considered depersonified, structural aspects of mind incapable of being even unconsciously experienced (often referred to in the literature as “representations” or “schemata”) or personified, fantasy “presences” (often referred to as “introjects” or “internal objects”) that function dynamically, often unconsciously, as motivational affective forces.

According to Perlow's reading of the analytic literature, one I find most persuasive, the key difference between the two sets of concepts is that while the structural aspects of mind organize and reflect experience, providing a context for present perceptions and fantasies and for recall of the past, they are not subject to being experienced in and of themselves. Representations and schemata may influence one's unconscious expectation of what life may hold in store. In contrast to introjects and internal objects, however, they lack the accompanying potential for creating in the mind of the subject a feeling of immediate motivational influence exerted by an internal “other.”

As attested by the many attempts in the literature to define and draw distinctions between representations and “presences,” the proposed differences between these two sets of concepts are often subtle and confusing.

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