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Kirshner, L.A. (1991). The Concept of the Self in Psychoanalytic Theory and its Philosophical Foundations. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 39:157-182.

(1991). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 39:157-182

The Concept of the Self in Psychoanalytic Theory and its Philosophical Foundations

Lewis A. Kirshner, M.D.


Concepts of "the self" in psychoanalytic theory have important philosophic underpinnings which may not be adequately appreciated. Both self psychology and ego psychology, with their contrasting positions on the self as a mental structure, retrace paths taken by Western philosophy beginning at least with Hume and Descartes. They reflect traditional philosophic questions, notably of a homuncular self internal to consciousness and the isolation of the subject from other selves. Psychoanalysis has not utilized Hegel's conception of the intersubjective origins of the self, in which the self emerges only in an encounter with another subject, although this approach is implicit in the work of Winnicott on the mother-infant dyad. This movement from a one- to a two-person psychology also presents conceptual problems, as illustrated by the psychoanalytic theories of Sartre and Lacan, who take up opposing positions on the status of consciousness and on intersubjectivity in the formation of the self. Sartre's phenomenology, with its emphasis on the questing nature of the subject in search of an identity, resonates with contemporary theories of narcissism in which the painful isolation of self from self-affirming and mirroring objects is central to clinical practice. Lacan's insight into the role of acquisition of language helps us to understand the formation of the subject in pursuit of a virtual selfhood, as Sartre described, but embedded within an intersubjective matrix.

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