Psychotherapy Bulletin

Psychotherapy Bulletin

Psychoanalysis as Evolution

Beyond the Cobwebs of Unthought Known

In this time of crisis where people feel isolated in an interconnected world, the mind is brushing from an “electrified tightrope” to take Eigen’s word (Eigen, 2004). Mind in the line of fire reflects the breaking of links. In “attacks on linking” lies the pathology of limiting relationships between two objects (Bion, 1959, p. 308). Adding to Bion’s emphasis on truth (Bion, 1992), love and care would ease the mind in discomfort. Joseph Campbell, a comparative mythologist, simplified Immanuel Kant’s understanding of the “dual.” He writes, “a is to b as c is to x” (Campbell, 2002, p. 29, author’s emphasis). It is not about an imperfect resemblance of two things but “a perfect resemblance of two relationships between quite dissimilar things” (Campbell, 2002, p. 29, author’s emphasis). In other words, psychoanalysis (a) and evolution (b) are related to one another in the way Bion’s experience (c) resulted in him formulating the concept of O (x). “x” is not only “unknown,” but “absolutely unknowable” (Campbell, 2002). This is something Bion also attributed to O (Bion, 1992).  

Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection was first published in 1859 (Darwin, 1859), three years after the birth of Freud. Freud grew up in the aegis of Darwinism. Freud worked in the research laboratory of Ernst Wilhelm von Brücke in Germany (Scharbert, 2009), a passionate Darwinist from the Helmholtz School of Physiological Psychology. Freud was trained in comparative anatomy and physiology in Johannes Müller’s tradition (Scharbert, 2009). From Darwin, Freud absorbed the idea of development through discrete evolutionary stages. This is radically distinguished from social Darwinism stemming from the reactionary ethnocentric social theorists who took Darwin’s idea of natural selection and survival of the fittest to create an ideology whereby certain people were considered primitive, and western white civilization was seen as the pinnacle of the evolutionary process. It likewise assisted in exploiting Darwin’s idea of the survival of the fittest to provide a spurious justification for competitive capitalism and rugged individualism.  

For Freud, the focus is not on the survival of the fittest but on the idea of biological development, in Darwin’s case, through discrete stages—much as we can trace the stages and phases of the development of the fetus as it moves from full-term and birth. Freud developed this idea of epigenetic development on the psychological rather than the biological plane. Freud gave us the oral, anal, phallic, latency, and genital stages of psychosexual development (Lear, 2005). It is somewhat analogous to the stages of biological evolution: unicellular organisms, multicellular, invertebrates, vertebrates, mammals, primates, and homo sapiens. In The Life Cycle Completed, Erik Erikson expanded Freud’s theory following an epigenetic principle. He extended it to old age, stating that humans go through certain stages to develop (Erikson, 1982) fully. Three years after Erikson’s death, his wife, Joan M. Erikson, published an extended version of the book where a ninth stage was added (Erikson & Erikson, 1997). The eight stages in his theory were about evolution, and the ninth stage was about devolution.  

We learn to walk, control our urination, learn bowel movements, and acquire a capacity for intimacy with others. In the final stage, one becomes less capable of achieving intimacy because those with whom one was intimate may often die in old age. One is increasingly alone, especially in western civilization. As we continue to devolve, we become less autonomous and less able to look after ourselves; one might end up in a wheelchair or unable to walk and may end up in diapers on the way to death. Erikson adds the idea of devolution in extreme old age (Erikson & Erikson, 1997). Sociologically, Talcott Parsons began to speak about stages of social evolution (Parson, 1977) which was later extended by the psychoanalytic vigor of Eli Sagan: from hunter-gatherer societies and tribal societies organized through kinship to what he calls complex society (kingdoms, as in Tahiti, Buganda, Hawaii), to ancient civilizations (Sumeria, Babylonia, and Egypt) to classical civilizations (such as Athens) to early-modern monarchies to finally the societies that are increasingly democratic (Carveth, 2011). Just as the Eriksons recognized devolution and evolution, social devolution seems to be happening worldwide as authoritarian regimes increasingly threaten democracies. Psychoanalysis itself, therefore, is a type of evolutionary theory. Freud, Erikson, and Wilfred Bion conceived of the evolutionary process in psychology as an evolution toward truth (Freud, 1915; Erikson, 1982; Bion, 1992).  

Freud was interested in developing the reality principle, ego growth. The function of the ego is reality testing—the growing ability to differentiate between facts and fantasies, to differentiate between wishful illusions and accurate perception of what is real, and the surrender of wishful illusions. Freud saw science as the reality principle in operation, trying to distinguish truth from error, reality from fiction, illusion, and outright delusion. Freud sees the mind as a development toward truth. In all emphasis on truth, we see Bion’s commitment to rationalism, which he shared with Freud. Bion said the human mind needs truth, like a plant needs water (Bion, 1962). An adequately developing mind is increasingly acquiring the capacity to move closer to an ultimate incompletely knowable truth which he symbolizes as O. Bion is far from being an intellectual nihilist saying that O is incompletely knowable. He does not mean to deny that progress can be made. It requires the ability of the mind to link and separate to achieve greater integration and more complex ways of understanding and to draw closer to what is an ultimately only incompletely knowable O.  

An unhealthy mind seeks prematurely to devolve away from the truth because sometimes the truth is unbearable. People differ in their capacity to bear the truth. A healthy mind can bear more truth. The unhealthy mind cannot bear it. Instead of evolving towards it, the mind devolves away from it. It withdraws, it regresses, and it avoids. Bion’s symbol for knowledge is K. The mind can move towards K, but it can also opt for -K—a retreat from the truth to illusion, delusion, or various kinds of distraction from the march toward truths that are found unbearable (Bion, 1962). In this manner, psychoanalysis is an evolutionary theory conceptualizing a dynamic evolution toward truth. What, then, is a psychoanalyst? Someone who seeks to assist the patient in resuming their development towards truth. The patient may have become fixated at a particular phase of their evolution and unable to move on, or they may have moved on and then regressed—fallen back. They seek an analyst; the analyst tries to help them get the evolutionary process going again.  

Just as an individual may become fixated or regressed, I think society, to move back to the social evolutionary theory thinking, may become fixated or regressed. I would say we are in a significant worldwide phase of regression. Societies that had managed until some point in the 1950s-60s had managed to evolve in the direction of greater and greater democracy and equality. Things were moving progressively until Lyndon Baines Johnson’s war on poverty and his celebration of the good society ended in the face of imperialist adventures conducted by the military-industrial complex in the U.S. Then came Ronald Reagan with his ideology of free-market economics, free-market fundamentalism—essentially a religion. In the distant past, people thought God’s invisible hand occasionally affected human affairs. However, in free-market economic ideology, the invisible hand is that of the free market. It did not work. We have this rise of authoritarianism, and we have a society that, instead of evolving toward truth, is evolving away from it—the so-called post-truth society in which there are always alternative facts. What constitutes truth on this side of the mountain is not considered truth on the other side, and there is no way of discriminating which of these versions of truth is correct. This is the slide into extreme social constructivism, an extreme cultural relativism. All of this is a regression on the social level. Hence, we need psychosocial therapists to help reverse this regressive trend in society, get societies to pull out of this regression, and return to a healthy evolution towards truth.  

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies gives us a deeper insight. In the novel published in 1954 (Golding, 1954), Golding writes about Ralph and Piggy as rationalist leaders who are trying to save boys by keeping the signal fires burning, knowing how to make fire, knowing not to eat certain fruits—all of this is a celebration of reason. However, there is a third leader that Golding recognizes, i.e., Simon, who stands for the humane values of caring and Caritas (love). He cares for the dying captain and the creatures of the forest. He is essentially a Jesus figure. He was coming to tell the people the good news to ease their paranoia that no monster exists. Jack had spread the myth of the monster. There was no monster, it was simply the dying captain’s parachute blowing in the wind. Before he could tell them the good news, he, of course, is killed, crucified as it were, by Jack’s crazed horde. In addition to the rational leader, Golding recognizes a social and emotional leader (Simon) who brings the values of the heart in addition to those of the head.  

Regression is a regression not just from the truth towards lies, from reason towards unreason; it is a regression from Caritas (love), caring, and kindness towards either indifference to the needs of others or outright rejection of their needs. The regression we are currently undergoing is not just a regression of reason; it is a regression away from caring, essentially from love towards indifference, narcissism, and hate. To evolve, then, to use Bion’s O is not to develop a capacity to love but to be l(O)ving. What cures, then? Is it insight or relationship? Perhaps both. We need to reflect on the capacity for listening from the therapist’s end. The work is in confrontations, hiatuses, and awkward moments of the therapeutic relationship. We need not only good enough mothers (Winnicott, 1971) but also good enough therapists to evolve towards being l(O)ving.  

Vineet Gairola is a Ph.D. Candidate in Psychology at the Indian Institute of Technology, Hyderabad. His research focuses on ritual practices and processional journeys of devī-devtās (Hindu deities) in India’s Garhwal Himalayas. Most recently, Vineet Gairola received the Stephen Mitchell Award given by APA (Division 39), the Psychoanalytic Research Exceptional Contribution Award by IPA, and the Student Research Award by APA (Division 36).

Cite This Article

Gairola, V. (2023). Psychoanalysis as evolution: beyond the cobwebs of unthought known. Psychotherapy Bulletin, 58(2,3), 20-23.


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