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Anscombe, R. (1981). Referring to the Unconscious: A Philosophical Critique of Schafer's Action Language. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 62:225-241.

(1981). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 62:225-241

Referring to the Unconscious: A Philosophical Critique of Schafer's Action Language

Roderick Anscombe


Schafer's attack on metapsychology and his attempt to erect an alternative to it depends on a strategy of replacing other sources of agency (for example, introjects, the superego, resistance, the emotions, and so on) by translating these terms

into discourse about the person. This process of elimination appears to leave the person as sole agent who acts for reasons and who is not acted upon by these fragmentary psychic agents which, rather, are viewed as aspects of the person's own activity.

However, the concept of the person is inadequate for the purpose. Conceptually, it is confused because its sphere of application cannot be circumscribed, and because the 'translation' of unconsciously-determined acts is only metaphorical. Empirically, 'the person', regarded as a general explanatory theory applicable to all behaviour other than that which is biologically or reflexively induced, cannot cope with commonplace clinical phenomena.

The scheme of Schafer's argument makes it appear that there are few alternatives to the kind of redescription he advocates, but an examination of his treatment of the emotions reveals that the philosophical assumptions underlying his argument profoundly restrict the range of psychological questions which may be asked and the kind of psychoanalytic theory which might be constructed.

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