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Holmes, J. (1985). The Language of Psychotherapy: Metaphor, Ambiguity, Wholeness. Brit. J. Psychother., 1(4):240-254.

(1985). British Journal of Psychotherapy, 1(4):240-254


The Language of Psychotherapy: Metaphor, Ambiguity, Wholeness

Jeremy Holmes


Psychoanalysis is approached from the perspective of linguistics. It is argued hat analysis is concerned with a type of communication different in nature and logic from that of the natural sciences. The characteristics of analytic language are illustrated by comparing poetry and psychoanalysis. Transference is discussed as a special type of metaphor; ambiguity is seen as an intrinsic aspect of aesthetic language; wholeness is held to be a goal of both therapy and the arts. The relevance of this view to recent findings in neurophysiology and ethology is discussed.


Psychoanalysis has two faces. One is public, outer, claiming a place in the mainstream of scientific-rational medical culture. The other is the reverse: private, inner, courting the arts rather than the sciences, but conscious as it does so that this may, by the procrustean rules of our cultural divide, disqualify its outer aspirations. This ambiguity has internal and external repercussions. Critics have seized on the outer surface of psychoanalysis and sought to show that it does not measure up to the rigorous standards expected of a true science. Farrell (1981), for example, in a recent book, invokes a psychology of common-sense like Jane Austen's as an antidote to Freudian metapsychology. Psychoanalysts and their supporters often feel confused by this miscomprehension and have been tempted to retreat into their esoteric world, claiming as they do so that critics such as Farrell, with little direct analytic experience, have missed the point. They might, before disappearing into their consulting rooms, also remark that it is the very breakdown of commonsense solutions to their problems that drives people to seek help; that what we call ‘common-sense’ is a complex and mature psychological state, one certainly not possessed by infants and small children; and that Freud's stated aim of therapy, ‘where it is, there ego shall be’, might be seen precisely as an attempt to replace the uncommon and unbridled sensation of neurosis with the common-sense of normality.

The main internal repercussion of this ambiguity in psychoanalysis is that it n longer has an agreed and secure theoretical base.

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