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Spence, D.P. (1984). Perils and Pitfalls of Free Floating Attention. Contemp. Psychoanal., 20:37-58.

(1984). Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 20:37-58

Perils and Pitfalls of Free Floating Attention

Donald P. Spence, Ph.D.

DESPITE THE VOLLEY OF CRITICAL ATTACKS on metapsychology and on the theoretical underpinnings of psychoanalysis, the standing of the psychoanalytic method has survived largely unscathed. Freud was so fond of his clinical invention that he referred to it as "an impartial instrument, like the infinitesimal calculus, " and subsequent generations of psychoanalysts have taken a similar position. Both free association and evenly-hovering attention have been taken to be above reproach, and the assumptions which lie behind these procedures are treated as if they were axiomatic and beyond discussion.

This evening, I want to look more carefully at what exactly happens when we listen with evenly-hovering attention. I will look with particular interest at the distinction between neutral and committed listening, asking whether the second kind is perhaps the most common and whether commitment is a necessary condition for understanding. If that conclusion should turn out to be the case, then we must re-examine the nature of free-floating attention; perhaps we will find it more of an evasion of responsibility and influence than a valid description of what we do when we listen to patients. If understanding requires commitment, and if we conclude that there is no such thing as free-floating attention, then we must ask what frames the commitment and what is the immediate context of understanding.

Concern about context brings us logically to the issue of projection. If we can show that contextless listening is an impossibility, then it follows that an enabling context is always being projected onto the material.

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