This article, part of a larger project examining the significance of Donald W. Winnicott’s contributions to research, teaching, and clinical care across psychology, religion, and theology, unfolds in mind of the broad question, What are Winnicott’s writings about? It draws from a study carried out by this author that concludes that Winnicott’s writings can be understood in terms of two “readings” (Ricoeur 1970)—expressing (a) a developmental-existential point of view and (b) a notion of being religious—of a network of six “theoretical ideas” (Stausberg 2009): early experience in infancy, transition, connecting and disconnecting, creative space, holding (and being held) and holding onto, and facilitating. The essay outlines the contours of the second reading of the third set of theoretical ideas—connecting and disconnecting expressing being religious—and spells out some implications.
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Ryan LaMothe (2014) recent article, “Winnicott and Helplessness: Developmental Theory, Religion, and Personal Life,” offers a remarkably creative and unusually astute analysis of Winnicott’s “view of religion.” It is worth noting some general resemblances between that article and my own articles on readings of Winnicott’s writings and “being religious.” Both LaMothe and I approach the topic area in mind of developmental and existential sensibilities, consider the formative place of early experience, note the profound influence of the ego/self as fundamentally connected with (m)other and reality (though at the same time distinct), and consider the notion of paradox as crucial to the entire project. At the same time, there are notable differences between LaMothe’s effort and my own. He is interested in constructing “Winnicott’s view of religion” (p. 885), especially “the relation between religion and existential helplessness” (p. 886), not only as “descriptions of reality” but also and more significantly as “expressions of his own understanding of life” (p. 890). One could say, in different words, that LaMothe is coordinating a way of reading Winnicott’s professional writings—on psychic life but also on the topic of religion—with a brief survey of events in Winnicott’s own life, especially his “confrontation with his own physical decline and impending death” (p. 890). In contrast, drawing from research and scholarship in “the study of religion” (and theology) I propose a working definition of “being religious” and reflect on how I may offer a “reading” of Winnicott’s writings that in some ways is in the vicinity of this working definition. I do not examine Winnicott’s commentary on the topic of religion, his own personal religious life, or make inferences about the connections between his biography and his theorizing. I do, however, consider this kind of intellectual study to be especially valuable (see, for example, two other outstanding contributions in this genre: Homans 1979 and Toulmin 1992).
Many people regard being religious as participation or membership in a “religious” community and tradition, and for them, clearly, only some people are religious and their being so is a matter of choice (it is neither universal nor unavoidable). Some people equate being religious with believing in unicorns, that is, with thinking and acting irrationally, and thus they appropriately take offense not simply at being labeled as religious by someone else but also at being regarded in such a pejorative manner (for a relevant discussion of the former, see Gustafson 1975). I invite readers to suspend, temporarily, accepting competing definitions and to be open to the analysis as plausible. Only then can the argument be considered at all persuasive.
Demonstrating by example that both automatisms and religious experiences came from if not through a “wider self”—a “subliminal self”—James concluded that the origins of religious experiences, natural or otherwise, could not be definitively expressed nor explained. (This agnostic conclusion left space for his “over-belief” that religious experiences could, in fact, be of divine origin.) Freud reflected upon similarities and differences between (neurotic) obsessive actions and (religious) ritual practices and, in contrast to James, argued that the resemblances betrayed an underlying analogy, an analogy that could be reinterpreted finally as an identity: Obsessive acts and religious practices were, for all intents and purposes, of the same nature and origin.
Discussions reveal the ambiguity of this subject matter. It appears that in some cases psychological and religious terms refer more or less to the same phenomenon (they have a common or identical referent) but in other cases refer to different phenomena. It is difficult, in many cases, to distinguish whether one may be seeing the same thing differently or seeing different things. (See the discussion by Russell Hanson (1969), building upon Ludwig Wittgenstein’s (1953/1958) comments on aspect seeing.)
The contemporary pragmatic philosopher Richard Rorty’s reflections on language and reality are directly pertinent to this discussion. Reality is sufficiently complex and dimensioned that it has engendered various kinds of inquiry involving a wide range of vocabularies. In “The Contingency of a Liberal Community” (1989a), Rorty suggests that “every specific theoretic view comes to be seen as one more vocabulary, one more description, one more way of speaking” (p. 57). We are then left to consider how those descriptions, by way of their respective vocabularies, may be related to one another. At times, vocabularies may be more or less mutually exclusive (for example, climatology and linguistics); proximal but only marginally in competition or conflict (for example, neuroscience and linguistics); cognate and potentially in periodic competition or conflict (for example, neuroscience and psychotherapy); or regularly intersecting (for example, religious studies and theological studies).
Several of Rorty’s observations are especially pertinent to the subject matter of this study. When inquiries, vocabularies, and descriptions are more than marginally related, it may be helpful to regard their relationship in terms of redescription: “We must follow Mary Hesse in thinking of scientific revolutions as ‘metaphoric redescriptions’ of nature rather than insights into the intrinsic nature of nature” (p. 16). For Rorty (1991), “redescription” is a matter of “recontextualization”: “As one moves along the spectrum from habit to inquiry—from instinctive revisions of intentions through routine calculation toward revolutionary science or politics—the number of beliefs added to or substracted from the web [of beliefs] increases. At a certain point in this process it becomes useful to speak of ‘recontextualization’” (p. 94). By the same token, despite the claims that some theorists make—that their descriptions “mirror nature” or that one redescription and recontextualization is entirely sufficient and subject to no further redescription—there is no final vocabulary. Rorty argues this claim in an essay entitled “The Contingency of Language” (1989b): “The fact that Newton’s vocabulary lets us predict the world more easily than Aristotle’s does not mean that the world speaks Newtonian. The world does not speak [emphasis added]. Only we do” (p. 6).
Perhaps not unexpectedly, clinicians find themselves in a situation that resembles that of the academy: being educated, trained, and later practicing within more or less independent guilds, each with its own theories and practices corresponding to its own domain of reality. So, the contemporary psychiatrist intervenes with medications targeting genetic and organic dysfunction; the psychologist follows a manual of treatment in an evidence-based approach to address specific symptoms (for example, forms of anxiety); the social worker is particularly mindful of and responsive to larger familial, community, and social factors; and the pastoral counselor, chaplain, or spiritual director attends more directly to religious and spiritual needs and problems.
The project of psychoanalytically understanding religion, following Freud’s example, has often devolved into psychoanalytically “explaining away” religion. Freud engendered inhospitality to religion at best, hostility and derision at worst, having used his theorizing to dismiss religion as an illusion, a neurosis, something to be understood solely on naturalistic—that is, psychological—terms (see, for example, Freud 1907/1959, 1913/1953, 1927/1961a, 1930/1961b, 1939/1964). As a result, conversations between psychoanalysis and religion have not been especially welcome in some circles in religious studies (nor are they particularly sought in analytic circles). Some scholars have, regrettably, peremptorily dismissed anything having to do with psychoanalytic theorizing.
W. W. Meissner notes that “most analysts would balk at this [reading]” (personal communication, September 21, 2004).
Resemblance has to do with similarity in external appearance—what an observer or spectator notes, visually, as “being like” (Oxford English Dictionary, hereafter OED). Affinity has to do with a relationship or kinship, having a common purpose or intent—what may be inferred, and felt, as “bordering upon” (OED). Of course, affinity does not mean “identity” or “equivalence.” Space does not permit consideration of the various differences between psychoanalysis and religion.
Members of different religious communities and traditions hold competing versions of who and whose we are as well as of what ought to be held dear. It is hardly surprising, then, that differences in such primary judgments and commitments give rise to conflict and at times to violence. Remarkably, a parallel situation has arisen in the academy: researchers and scholars in the study of religion and theology are mired in turf battles and border wars, stuck in seemingly unceasing competition and conflict about the right way to understand, interpret, and explain “religion” and “religious phenomena.” In the midst of the varieties of ways of making sense of the subject matter, no definition or characterization will be satisfying to more than a few in one or another interpretive community. As such, the scholar ought not seek to construct a view that would be final or to achieve consensus; those objectives are misguided and futile. Rather, I believe that her or his task is to proffer an unavoidably particular working definition and make a case for its viability.
In this regard, all approaches, including the one I have outlined, inevitably display limitations. For example, some readers may be confounded or even offended by my claim that to be human is to be unavoidably religious, precisely because in doing so I am asserting that every reader is “religious.” I fondly recall and personally support the position expressed by a well-known passage in James (1902/1982) Varieties where he writes, “Probably a crab would be filled with a sense of personal outrage if it could hear us class it without ado or apology as a crustacean, and thus dispose of it. ‘I am no such thing,’ it would say; ‘I am MYSELF, MYSELF alone’” (p. 9). On a personal level, I believe that every individual has the authority and responsibility for and privilege of characterizing her or himself. “I decide what “religious” means and I decide whether, according to my own definition, I am religious.” In this spirit, I am not intending to legislate a final meaning and use of “religious”; rather, I am—for purposes of this research—proposing a plausible and (hopefully) reasonable way of understanding the term.
I should note, also, a second limitation. I have outlined an approach to being religious as having to do with forging a sense of oneself-in-the-world and what one believes in—what determines one’s being and not being—in conjunction with or response to an unseen order, a something more. This characterization will be unappealing if not entirely unconvincing to those readers for whom religion is fundamentally a social, communal, and institutional phenomenon. For them, my psychological approach focusing expressly on developmental existential dimensions of a person’s awareness, experiences, ideas, beliefs, and practices is too individualistic. I have taken pains to explain how, in Winnicott’s theorizing, every self emerges and forms within relationships and thus within communities and traditions. That I invite examination of these matters from the point of view of the interior life of an individual is hardly the same as explaining being religious as nothing but or as primarily an individual phenomenon. I am, in other words, not (tacitly or explicitly) substantively delimiting the essence but rather outlining a methodological route for exploring the multidimensional subject matter of being religious.
It may be helpful to consider terms that bear some resemblances to or affinities with going-on-being, in William James (1950) discussion of “stream of consciousness” “or of subjective life” (p. 239). More specifically, James writes that “this central part of the Self is felt. . . . It is something with which we also have direct sensible acquaintance, and which is as fully present at any moment of consciousness in which it is present, as in a whole lifetime of such moments (pp. 298–299). He elaborates, “The only question for us is as to what the consciousness may mean when it calls the present self the same with one of the past selves which it has in mind. We spoke a moment since of warmth and intimacy. This leads us to the answer sought. For, whatever the thought we are criticizing may think about its present self, the self comes to its acquaintance, or is actually felt, with warmth and intimacy” (pp. 332–333). We may be aware of “going-on-being” as felt, with warmth and intimacy.
As you, the reader, are reading these words, you are for the most part focusing on making sense of what is said. You have some awareness of yourself reading, or of you as “I” present in this activity—the “I” who had previously been engaged in something else and later will turn to another task—yet until you read these words you were likely not especially conscious of yourself, or self-conscious. Nonetheless, embedded in your reading, and in all activities, is some sensate awareness of the continuity of your experiencing, your own going-on-being.
Adam Phillips (1989) writes:
Winnicott characteristically joins up the extreme, fear of breakdown, with the ‘more common’ fear of death. In his autobiographical account he wanted to be present at his own death. He feared the death he might not experience, the death that might happen without his being alive to it. But the patient who compulsively looks for death is reaching in this way to a memory of a previous death.
The death he describes in ‘Fear of Breakdown’ as having already happened is the psychic death of the infant, what he calls the ‘primitive agony,’ of an excessive early deprivation that the infant can neither comprehend nor escape from. (pp. 20–21)
Caldwell and Joyce (2011) offer this assessment: “Winnicott subscribes to the view that some aspects of madness are known to us all [emphasis added], but it is the one that may arise in an ongoing treatment that is the focus of this paper. A fear of breakdown in analysis is the fear felt by some patients, not by all. Winnicott states simply that this fear of clinical breakdown is the fear of a breakdown that has already been experienced, a fear of an original agony which produced the defence organization the patient displays as an illness syndrome” (p. 197).
Similarly, Winnicott states, “I once risked the remark, ‘There is no such thing as a baby’—meaning that if you set out to describe the baby, you will find you are describing a baby and someone. A baby cannot exist alone, but is essentially part of a relationship” (Winnicott 1964, p. 88, as cited in Hughes 1989, p. 133).
Winnicott (1960/1965c), in an essay entitled “Ego Distortion in Terms of True and False Self,” suggests this notion of a continuum when he writes:
Immediately it becomes possible to classify False Self organizations:
At one extreme: the False Self sets up as real and it is this that observers tend to think is the real person. . . . At this extreme the True Self is hidden.
Less extreme: the False Self defends the True Self; the True Self is, however, acknowledged as a potential and is allowed a secret life . . .
More towards health: The False Self has as its main concern a search for conditions which will make it possible for the True Self to come into its own. If conditions cannot be found then there must be reorganized a new defence against exploitation of the True Self, and if there be doubt then the clinical result is suicide. Suicide in this context is the destruction of the total self in avoidance of annihilation of the True Self. . . .
Still further towards health: the False Self is built on identifications . . .
In health: the False Self is represented by the whole organization of the polite and mannered social attitude, a ‘not wearing the heart on the sleeve’, as might be said. (pp. 142–143)
The concept of ‘A False Self’ needs to be balanced by a formulation of that which could properly be called the True Self. At the earliest stage the True Self is the theoretical position from which come the spontaneous gesture and the personal idea. The spontaneous gesture is the True Self in action. Only the True Self can be creative and only the True Self can feel real. Whereas a True Self feels real, the existence of a False Self results in a feeling unreal or a sense of futility. (p. 148)
Winnicott uses the heading Degrees of False Self in italics (p. 150).
This “envisioning” or “anticipating” follows patterns or habits of mind. It is usually carried out rapidly and more or less unconsciously. For example, “I” could subjectively conceive of something in the “surround” that is inhibiting not going-on-being and/or facilitating going-on-being of true self. That could later take the form of whatever diminished danger and harm and enhanced safety and well-being, for example, a divine being, a good enough other (on the model of the good enough mother), a network of relationships, or a community having shared mutual investments, but it could also take the form of something that could provide security, such as power or wealth.
Heinz Kohut’s (1984) account of this process, drawn from Freud, is helpful to take into consideration. “I” must, in order to mature and develop, experience “frustration.” “I’s” needs must be met neither with “traumatic frustration” on one extreme nor with “no frustration” on the other. “Optimal frustration” is what facilitates development. Good enough mothers disillusion by way of “optimal frustration.”
Winnicott (1971a), in “Creativity and Its Origins,” writes, “Our theory includes a belief that living creatively is a healthy state, and that compliance is a sick basis for life” (p. 65).
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The author wishes to thank Nancy Devor, Courtney Goto, Leonard Hummel, Ron Nydam, Steve Sandage, George Stavros, and an anonymous reviewer for critical responses to earlier drafts of this article.
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Schlauch, C.R. Readings of Winnicott II. Pastoral Psychol 65, 395–426 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11089-016-0688-2
- True self
- False self
- Being religious