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Litowitz, B.E. (2009). Introduction. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 57(5):1121-1122.

(2009). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 57(5):1121-1122



Bonnie E. Litowitz

In the following section, a paper by William Meissner and a commentary by Leo Rangell address the topic of volition and will in psychoanalysis. Since ancient times philosophers and theologians have debated whether we have “free will.” That is, do we have the capacity for making choices in a world ordained by the gods; or, after monotheism, by God? If we do not, then what is our motivation to lead a good life, to avoid sin? If our actions are preordained, are we responsible and should we be held accountable for them?

The myths, epics, and dramas that form the foundation of the Western tradition provide cathartic and explanatory narratives for the anxieties these questions rouse in us. I think the historical Cassius would not have said to his fellow Roman that “the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves…”; yet by the beginning of modern times Shakespeare's audience understood that answers lie less in the laps of the gods than in the powers of human reason.

Three hundred years later Freud reread Sophocles’ classic drama through that modernist lens to hold Oedipus responsible, if unconsciously, for his tragedy. Freud turned the Oedipus tragedy into a universal narrative of the cost that humans pay for civilization: guilt over our unconscious wishes even when not put into action (as Oedipus's were). In his second model, Freud located the seat of decision making over the fate of unconscious wishes in the agency of the ego. Psychoanalysis as a treatment modality took as its goal then to strengthen and extend ego capacities through insight made possible through the analyst's mutative interpretations.

It is at this point that Meissner's paper engages the topic by asking, Is it enough that the patient gain insight, or must he or she have the will to put that new knowledge into action? Meissner suggests that in our focus on psychic determinism we have neglected the role of will and volition, ego functions that lead to action and, with action, to responsibility and accountability. In his commentary, Rangell reviews his own engagement with these topics over the course of numerous publications, many of which are cited in Meissner's paper.

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