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Alford, C.F. (2007). Levinas, Winnicott, and Therapy. Psychoanal. Rev., 94(4):529-551.

(2007). Psychoanalytic Review, 94(4):529-551

Levinas, Winnicott, and Therapy

C. Fred Alford

Like many great thinkers, Emmanuel Levinas has created a world so comprehensive that the only choice seems to live in it, or leave it for another, a land so different they share not even a lingua franca. But all lands have things in common. One is motherhood, a leading trope in Levinas, one of the ways in which he characterizes what he means by our infinite responsibility to the other. D. W. Winnicott has also written about motherhood, though it might be more accurate to say that Winnicott writes about mother- and babyhood, for he famously said he'd never seen a baby without a mother (Winnicott, 1975a). The lingua franca of motherhood may provide a common language, or at least a patois, by which denizens of different lands might communicate.

Winnicott's land is Athens, the land of emerging individuality and creativity, where the self-conscious psyche (the Greek term we translate as “self”) first emerged. Levinas's land is Jerusalem, the land of prophecy, faith, and worship of a being so infinitely other that it is beyond being. Nevertheless, philosophers and prophets have spoken to each other before. Does it matter that Winnicott is a psychoanalyst? Does that make the land from which he speaks even more distant and obscure? Not necessarily. Several Levinasians have found psychoanalysis a useful medium by which to think about Levinas, and it is not hard to see why. Much of Levinas's work is an attempt to put words to the ineffable, feelings and experiences not so much beyond as beneath words. In this he shares much with psychoanalysis. Still, we must be careful about bringing psychoanalysis to bear on Levinas, so that we do not combine incommensurables. Most important is to pick the right psychoanalyst. Winnicott comes closest, and it would be easy to underestimate the distance that remains.

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