in soul pursuit

in soul pursuit

Monday, 8 December 2014

Otto Rank and the Return of the Soul to Psychology

Dear All,

I am now coming to the end of the first draft of 'The Pursuit of the Soul' which I hope to have ready by Christmas. It is also a year since I started this blog, so I thank you all for taking the time to read and comment on it. I hope you enjoy these two extracts from 'Pursuit'. First from Otto Rank:


The Return of the Soul to Psychology

I have argued in this chapter that Rank’s work essentially reflects the ambiguity that lies in Freud’s writings (and indeed in ‘Freudianism’). On the one hand Freud throws open the ‘royal road to the unconscious’ with all its darkness and ambiguity. But, on the other hand, Freud, the 19th Century ethical master, decries the control of the ‘It’ over the conscious rational ‘I’ and sees the need to continue the ‘cultural work’ of the reclamation of the Zyder Zee. As Rank put it in ‘Psychology and the Soul’:

Recognizing the unconscious, Freud acknowledged the soul; but by explaining the soul materialistically, he denied it... The soul is neither brain function, as modern neurology believes, nor sublimated biological drives, as Freud conceived it. (PS:3)

 It is on precisely this watershed between ethical confrontation and unconscious descent that Rank’s work hovers and caused him so much trouble in his lifetime. Knowing that there is a dark ‘realm’ in the unconscious is one thing, wanting to plunge into it and explore it is another.[1] If, as Rank predicted, this is a problem in early Freudianism, how much more of a problem will it become to us the sons and daughters (and grandsons and granddaughters of Freud). How far might we simply ‘blame the unconscious’ and how far must we take ethical decisions to counter the effects of the darker realms? In many respects it is the old debate between free-will and determinism given a new postmodern, 21st Century twist.

Thus the ‘soulish’ for Rank emphasises the art of interpretation through relationship: ‘Psychology is no science in the sense of physics or biology, but a science of relationship (Beziehungswissenschaft). It is not an interpretation of facts (like physics or biology) but an interpretation of attitudes to oneself (sonder Interpretation von Einstellungen des eignen Selbst (check eignen) which in so-called objective psychology we project onto others. Psychology is self-interpretation through others, just as physics is self-interpretation through nature.’ (SP:193).

As psychology expands, suggests Rank (SP:7) so does the realm of the soulish diminish. For ‘the true object of psychology was originally something supernatural and beyond the human (Aussermenschliche): die Seele. (SP:7, my translation) and ‘the person became the object of psychological interest and investigation only when the original soul-concept faded from consciousness’. No great friend of religion, Rank concludes that ‘religion was and is as much psychology as our modern scientific psychology is, unavoidably, soul study (eine Seelenlehre).’ Thus psychology is for Rank a gradual evolution or loss of soul that was first and foremost expressed in religious terms: ‘psychology gradually evolved by denying and rejecting its first object, the soul’ (SP:8). Psychology, suggests Rank, will inevitably ignore the soul and all its ‘contradictions and irrationalities’ (PS:9) for ‘man, being a theological rather than a biological being, never lives on a purely natural plane’ (BP:196)

In summary, Rank seemed perturbed by the outlines in the mud of the unconscious left by the receding tide of religious consciousness. This is what he termed ‘the soul’/’the soulish’. Even if he had been a great advocate of religion (which he wasn’t), there seems no great desire in Rank’s writing to restore religion to its former importance in the intellectual and psychological life of his contemporaries.[2] Rather, it was as though we could follow the demands of the soul by descending further into the unconscious. Unlike Jung in the letter quoted earlier, Rank was always alert to psychology’s pretensions towards overcoming religion and realized ultimately this goal would be unachievable:


Psychology, which gradually displaced religious and moral ideologies, cannot fully replace them, for it is a negative, destructive ideology – an ideology of resentment in Nietzsche’s sense. (PS: 126)


Not surprisingly, considering what he had experienced between the psychological schools and the Nazis, Rank concluded in 1939, on the eve of World War Two, that human behaviour was essentially irrational despite all the best attempts of psychology to provide it with a rational basis (BP:11). Human nature ‘lies beyond any psychology, individual or collective’ (BP:12). Such irrationality, by definition, cannot be caught in the rational net of language thus leading Rank to return to the need for the creative artist to express that which is beyond the rational. Six months after writing this final credo in Beyond Psychology, Rank was dead:

Man is born beyond psychology and he dies beyond it but he can live beyond it only though vital experience of his own – in religious terms, through revelation, conversion or re-birth.(BP:16)

For Rank, the whole edifice of Freudian psychology was based on a flight from the ‘life-force’ as through rationalisation the Zyder Zee of the unconscious was corralled. This itself was based on interpretation, even though Freud claimed to be dealing with facts. Such a misunderstanding leads to the building up of the whole edifice of psychology which he effectively at the end characterised as the ‘flight from the soul’.[3] Thus, the ‘return of the soul’ was not just an intellectual exercise for Rank but one that lay at the necessary heart of the healing of Western culture. Freud’s real achievement for Rank was the establishment of the analytical situation itself ‘in which we can find epitomized the paradoxical workings of all the irrational forces in human nature’ (BP: 278), which, in itself, is sufficient, providing we do not get lured into the rationalised, pseudo-scientific theories that Freud projects onto his material.[4] Freud’s mistake, for Rank, was to not realise that the patient was already conscious of the material but had not chosen to verbalise it.[5] Therefore consciousness and unconsciousness are not static states of mind (with a supposed causality) but rather a function of the constantly changing and fluid dynamic psyche (‘In seelische life, there is no one stable viewpoint, as such’ WT:30). Rank’s view of analysis is one that must explore the irrational arena of the psyche without the moralising rationality of Freud’s ethical construct. This will be for Rank the therapy of the future: a ‘soulish’ therapy that will not just admit ‘our basic primitivity’ (BP:289) but allow dynamic expression of it in the practice of analysis. This dynamic balancing of the rational and irrational elements in the human psyche will be the ultimate goal of ‘soul-therapy’. Such a therapy will mean we shall ultimately be able to live in the present with all its contradictory and confusing emotional pulls:

What the individual does not know and will not know, is never the past but the present, the momentary emotional matrix which is perceived by the will as weakness and is denied accordingly...

(My therapy) allows the patient to understand himself in an immediate situation which, as I strive for it in therapeutic process, permits living and understanding to become one. As far as I know, this is the first time in the history of mankind, where we find a striving for an immediate understanding of experience, consciously, in the very act of experiencing. (WT:26/27)

With this concentration on the present, the dynamic active nature of the patient and the development of will held together in the development of creativity, we have the essence of Rank’s approach to therapy (see MP:268).

          Although non-theological in nature, Rank’s ‘return of the soul’ suggested an alternative future for nascent twentieth century psychology.


[1] ‘Deep down, we don’t want to observe ourselves and increase self-knowledge. First of all, the search for self-knowledge is not an original part of our nature; second, it is painful;and finally, it doesn’t always help but often is disturbing’ (PS:5). Perhaps, as he suggests in his last work ‘Beyond Psychology’, the rational desire to control the Unconscious (to reclaim the Zyder Zee) is a ‘fear of the life-force itself’ (BP:277)
[2] ‘For the Church and liberalism are incompatible, and the Hierarchy of the Catholic Church, with the doctrine of the Infallibility of the Pope (re-stated in 1870), is more akin to the Hierarchy of Dictatorship.’ (BP:194)
[3] ‘For (Freud’s) psychology is born of the spirit of inhibited and inhibiting negation of life and as such does not lead to life’ (BP:278)
[4] And as such Rank here prefigures the work of late 20th Century practitioners such as R.D.Laing who argued that the labelling of ‘neurotic’ or ‘psychotic’ was as much social (and perhaps arbitrary) as social norms demanded: ‘There really is no psychology of the neurotic as opposed to normal psychology, but only a psychology of difference, that is to say, the neurotic’s psychology is only pathological from the rational point of view prevalent in a given civilization’ (BP:280).
[5] ‘It is astonishing how much the patient knows and how relatively little is unconscious if one does not give this convenient excuse for refusing responsibility’ (WT:24). ‘The verbalizing itself, not the explanation or interpretation, is the specifically therapeutic agent in the sphere of consciousness’ (WT:23)

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