Achieving a Measure of Insanity

06 November 2017

Before moving to philosophy, I was a psychoanalytic psychotherapist who worked in the Freudian tradition, broadly construed. I know from my immersion in that field that (despite getting a lot of bad press these days) psychoanalysis is both clinically powerful and philosophically rich. I’ve written quite a bit about the philosophy of psychoanalysis over the years, so I thought I’d offer some blog postings on the philosophical significance of psychoanalysis for Philosophy Talk.

I’ll begin with an arresting remark by the British psychoanalyst and pediatrician Donald Woods Winnicott. Winnicott wrote in a review of Carl Jung's memoir Memories, Dreams, and Reflections: “I was sane, and…through analysis and self-analysis I achieved some measure of insanity.”

This statement might sound strange to you. Isn’t insanity an illness and something to be avoided?  Well sure, if we’re talking about conditions like schizophrenia, which is certainly not an achievement. But that’s not what Winnicott had in mind. To appreciate what he was getting at, you’ve got to think of his words in the context of his work as a psychoanalyst. That presents a problem right away, because most people—and I assume, most of the readers of this blog—get their impressions of psychoanalysis third hand from what they see on TV and in the movies, which is usually very far removed from reality. So, to make sense of Winnicott, I’ll need to give you a snapshot of what lies at the heart of the psychoanalytic process.

The psychoanalytic process revolves around what Freud called the “basic rule” of free association. Here’s how he described it in a 1904 article entitled 'Freud's psycho-analytic procedure':

He [the psychoanalyst] asks the patient to “let himself go” in what he says, “as you would do in a conversation in which you are rambling on quite disconnectedly and at random”…. [H]e insists that they must include…whatever comes into their heads, even if they think it irrelevant or unimportant or nonsensical; he lays special stress on their not omitting any thought or idea from their story because to relate it would be embarrassing or distressing to them.

This sounds like fun. Just lie down on the couch, chill out, and say all the crazy stuff that pops into your head to someone who is quietly and respectfully listening to what you have to say.  Just let your mind wander, and say where it’s wandering.

Easy, right?  


It turns out that following the basic rule isn’t easy at all. In fact, it’s impossible. Try it and you’ll discover that you can’t do it—or at least that you can’t do it for very long. Some people can’t even get started. They follow a structured, thought-out agenda or implore the analyst to ask them questions. Others start off smoothly enough, but soon get mired in ruminations instead of letting thoughts intrude unbidden into their mind. Others can’t help censoring their embarrassing thoughts, or drying up, or find themselves imprisoned in a state of mental paralysis and unable to speak.

Freud called these obstacles “resistance”.  Unfortunately, the term “resistance” is often used abusively in the mental health industries. A “resistant” patient is obstreperous and oppositional—someone who does not comply with the dictates of their counselor, therapist, or social worker. This is light years away from the psychoanalytic concept of resistance. In the psychoanalytic framework, resistance isn’t the same as an attitude of opposition.  Instead, it’s a kind of impedance or stuckness, analogous to the resistance of a conductor to the flow of electricity, or the resistance to being opened of a rusty hinge.

Once resistance appears, the aim of psychoanalytic work is to dissolve it: not by force, but by understanding. In doing this, the analyst’s attitude can be expressed as follows: “There’s something that’s frightening you about opening up to me. Let’s try to understand what it is.” There’s an immense literature on resistance, examining what it is, the forms that it takes, what causes it, and how it’s best dealt with. I want to discuss just one aspect of all this—an aspect that casts light on Winnicott’s striking statement, and highlights an important dimension of the significance of psychoanalysis for understanding what it is to be human.

Psychoanalysis teaches that everyone is subject to resistance. There’s no such thing as a resistance-free person, because resistance, and the psychological forces underpinning it, are aspects of the human condition. Looking at life from a psychoanalytic perspective, it becomes clear that what’s celebrated as psychological  “normality” is a kind of performance—a systematic pretense that all of us (or almost all of us) silently and unthinkingly embrace. It’s not for nothing that the word “person” is derived from the Latin “persona,” a word for the masks worn by actors.

The problem is that, for most of us, it is difficult or impossible to remove the mask. It is as though it’s become knit with the flesh of our real faces, so that—to a greater or lesser extent—we think that the face that we present to the world is our authentic face. The mask becomes the face. The periphery of our mental life appropriates its center, and we become estranged from ourselves.  Resistance is this estrangement in action.

As is the case with any performance, the performing normality is most effective when it’s enacted without any awkward awareness of pretense. So, we do “normality” best when we lose sight of the fact that the mask is not the face.  It turns out, ironically, that the mentally healthy person, by ordinary social standards, is the person who is most alienated from their inner life, and the mentally ill person is, by those same standards, one who cannot pull off the performance of normality seamlessly, or cannot pull it off at all.

What does this have to do with free association and the seemingly insane idea of achieving insanity?  When a person feely associates, they become acutely aware of how very remote their inner life really is from what’s regarded as normal. They discover the degree to which they are driven by bizarre anxieties, outrageous passions, and unrealistic fantasies. In other words, they discover how “crazy” they  are. Resistance happens because exposing this strange inner world to another person transgresses a fundamental social taboo. But even more profoundly, it is difficult because it reveals oneself to oneself, in all of one’s rawness, and shows that the mask is, after all, just a mask. To the extent that free association is unfettered, it reveals that each of us is, by ordinary social standards, insane. We lead double lives: outwardly performing normality while inwardly being carried along by the powerful currents of our decidedly non-normal emotional lives.

Finally, back to Winnicott’s achievement of a measure of insanity. Winnicott believed that this private realm is the source of much of what is richest and most significant in our lives—fueling creativity, play, passion, love, and imagination—and dipping into it, by whatever means, allows one to achieve a measure of benign insanity—for, as Winnicott also remarked, almost twenty years earlier, in an article on 'Primitive emotional development', “we are poor indeed if we are only sane.”