Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Robert Stolorow - Heidegger and Post-Cartesian Psychoanalysis

From The Humanistic Psychologist, Robert Stolorow published a new article offering a glimpse into his personal and professional development in relation to the philosophy of Martin Heidegger. This article is posted at, on Professor Stolorow's page, in advance of its appearance in the journal.

This article presents an overview of some of the basic ideas in his book, World, Affectivity, Trauma: Heidegger and Post-Cartesian Psychoanalysis (Routledge, 2011).

Full Citation:
Stolorow, RD. (2013). Heidegger and Post-Cartesian Psychoanalysis: My Personal, Psychoanalytic, and Philosophical Sojourn. The Humanistic Psychologist, 41(3): 209–218. doi: 10.1080/08873267.2012.724266

My Personal, Psychoanalytic, and Philosophical Sojourn

Robert D. Stolorow
Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis


The dual aim of this article is to show both how Heidegger’s existential philosophy enriches post-Cartesian psychoanalysis and how post-Cartesian psychoanalysis enriches Heidegger’s existential philosophy. Characterized as a phenomenological contextualism, post-Cartesian psychoanalysis finds philosophical grounding in Heidegger’s ontological contextualism, condensed in his term for the human kind of Being, Being-in-the-world. Specifically, Heidegger provides philosophical support (a) for a theoretical and clinical shift from mind to world, from the intrapsychic to the intersubjective; (b) for a shift from the motivational primacy of drives originating in the interior of a Cartesian isolated mind to the motivational primacy of relationally constituted affective experience; and (c) for contextualizing and grasping the existential significance of emotional trauma, which plunges us into a form of Being-toward-death. Post-Cartesian psychoanalysis, in turn, (a) relationalizes Heidegger’s conception of finitude, (b) expands Heidegger’s conception of relationality, and (c) explores some ethical implications of our kinship-in-finitude.
Here is one section of the paper that I found particularly interesting (because it deals with my work, trauma).


From a post-Cartesian perspective, developmental trauma is viewed, not as an instinctual flooding of an ill-equipped Cartesian container, as Freud (1926/1959) would have it, but as an experience of unbearable affect. Furthermore, the intolerability of affect states can be fully grasped only in terms of the relational systems in which they are felt. Developmental trauma originates within a formative relational context whose central feature is malattunement to painful affect—the absence of a context of human understanding in which that pain can be held and endured. Without such a relational home for the child’s emotional pain, it can only be felt as unbearable, overwhelming, disorganizing. Painful or frightening affect becomes lastingly traumatic when the attunement that the child needs to assist in its tolerance and integration is profoundly absent.

Two years prior to beginning to study Being and Time (Heidegger, 1927/1962), I wrote a description of a traumatized state that I experienced at a conference in 1992, at which I relived the terrible loss of my late wife, Dede, who had died 20 months earlier. An initial batch of copies of my newly published book, Contexts of Being: The Intersubjective Foundations of Psychological Life (Stolorow & Atwood, 1992), was sent hot off the press to a display table at the conference. I picked up a copy and looked around excitedly for Dede, who would be so pleased and happy to see it. She was, of course, nowhere to be found. I had awakened the morning of February 23, 1991 to find her lying dead across our bed, 4 weeks after her metastatic cancer had been diagnosed. Spinning around to show her my book and finding her gone instantly transported me back to that devastating moment in which I found her dead and my world was shattered,1 and I was once again consumed with horror and sorrow. Here is how I described my traumatized state:
There was a dinner at that conference for all the panelists, many of whom were my old and good friends and close colleagues. Yet, as I looked around the ballroom, they all seemed like strange and alien beings to me. Or more accurately, I seemed like a strange and alien being—not of this world. The others seemed so vitalized, engaged with one another in a lively manner. I, in contrast, felt deadened and broken, a shell of the man I had once been. An unbridgeable gulf seemed to open up, separating me forever from my friends and colleagues. They could never even begin to fathom my experience, I thought to myself, because we now lived in altogether different worlds. (Stolorow, 1999, pp. 464–465)
In the years following that painful experience at the conference dinner, I was able to recognize similar feelings in my patients who had suffered severe traumatization. I sought to comprehend and conceptualize the dreadful sense of alienation and estrangement that seemed to me to be inherent to the experience of emotional trauma. The key that I found that for me unlocked the meaning of trauma was what I came to call ‘‘the absolutisms of everyday life’’ (Stolorow, 1999):
When a person says to a friend, ‘‘I’ll see you later,’’ or a parent says to a child at bedtime, ‘‘I’ll see you in the morning,’’ these are statements . . . whose validity is not open for discussion. Such absolutisms are the basis for a kind of na─▒ve realism and optimism that allow one to function in the world, experienced as stable and predictable. It is in the essence of emotional trauma that it shatters these absolutisms, a catastrophic loss of innocence that permanently alters one’s sense of Being-in-the-world. Massive deconstruction of the absolutisms of everyday life exposes the inescapable contingency of existence on a universe that is random and unpredictable and in which no safety or continuity of being can be assured. Trauma thereby exposes ‘‘the unbearable embeddedness of Being.’’ . . . As a result, the traumatized person cannot help but perceive aspects of existence that lie well outside the absolutized horizons of normal everydayness. It is in this sense that the worlds of traumatized persons are fundamentally incommensurable with those of others, the deep chasm in which an anguished sense of estrangement and solitude takes form. (p. 467)
Some two years after writing these words I read passages in Being and Time (Heidegger, 1927/1962) devoted to Heidegger’s existential analysis of angst, and I nearly fell off my chair. Both Heidegger’s phenomenological description and ontological account of angst bore a remarkable resemblance to what I had written about the phenomenology and meaning of emotional trauma. Thus, Heidegger’s existential philosophy—in particular, his existential analysis of angst—enables us to grasp trauma’s existential significance.

Like Freud, Heidegger made a sharp distinction between fear and anxiety. Whereas, according to Heidegger, that in the face of which one fears is a definite ‘‘entity within-the-world’’ (Heidegger, 1927/1962, p. 231), that in the face of which one is anxious is ‘‘completely indefinite’’ (p. 231) and turns out to be ‘‘Being-in-the-world as such’’ (p. 230). The indefiniteness of anxiety ‘‘tells us that entities within-the-world are not ‘relevant’ at all. . . . [The world] collapses into itself [and] has the character of completely lacking significance’’ (p. 231). Heidegger made clear that it is the significance of the average everyday world, the world as constituted by the public interpretedness of the ‘‘they’’ (das Man), whose collapse is disclosed in anxiety. Furthermore, insofar as the ‘‘utter insignificance’’ (p. 231) of the everyday world is disclosed in anxiety, anxiety includes a feeling of uncanniness, in the sense of ‘‘not-being-at-home’’ (p. 233). In anxiety, the experience of ‘‘Being-at-home [in one’s tranquilized] everyday familiarity’’ (p. 233) with the publicly interpreted world collapses, and ‘‘Being-in enters into the existential ‘mode’ of . . . ‘uncanniness’’’ (p. 233).

In Heidegger’s (1927/1962) ontological account of anxiety, the central features of its phenomenology—the collapse of everyday significance and the resulting feeling of uncanniness—are claimed to be grounded in what he called authentic (non-evasively owned) Being-toward-death. Existentially, death is not simply an event that has not yet occurred or that happens to others, as das Man would have it. Rather, it is a distinctive possibility that is constitutive of our existence—of our intelligibility to ourselves in our futurity and our finitude. It is ‘‘the possibility of the impossibility of any existence at all’’ (p. 307), which, because it is both certain and indefinite as to its when, always impends as a constant threat, robbing us of the tranquilizing illusions that characterize our absorption in the everyday world, nullifying its significance for us. The appearance of anxiety indicates that the fundamental defensive purpose (fleeing) of average every-dayness has failed and that authentic Being-toward-death has broken through the evasions that conceal it. Torn from the sheltering illusions of das Man, we feel uncanny—no longer safely at home.

I have contended that emotional trauma produces an affective state whose features bear a close similarity to the central elements in Heidegger’s existential interpretation of anxiety and that it accomplishes this by plunging the traumatized person into a form of authentic Being-toward-death (Stolorow, 2007). Trauma shatters the illusions of everyday life that evade and cover up the finitude, contingency, and embeddedness of our existence and the indefiniteness of its certain extinction. Such shattering exposes what had been heretofore concealed, thereby plunging the traumatized person into a form of authentic Being-toward-death and into the anxiety—the loss of significance, the uncanniness—through which authentic Being-toward-death is disclosed. Trauma, like death, individualizes us, in a manner that invariably manifests in an excruciating sense of singularity and solitude.

The particular form of authentic Being-toward-death that crystallized in the wake of the trauma of Dede’s death I characterize as a Being-toward-loss. Loss of loved ones constantly impends for me as a certain, indefinite, and ever-present possibility, in terms of which I now always understand myself and my world. My own experience of traumatic loss and its aftermath was a source of motivation for my efforts to relationalize Heidegger’s conception of finitude, to which efforts I now turn.


It is implicit in Heidegger’s ontological account that authentic existing presupposes a capacity to dwell in the emotional pain—the existential anxiety—that accompanies a nonevasive owning up to human finitude. It follows from my claims about the context-embeddedness of emotional trauma that this capacity entails that such pain can find a relational home in which it can be held. What makes such dwelling and holding possible?

Vogel provided a compelling answer to this question by elaborating what he claimed to be a relational dimension of the experience of finitude. Just as finitude is fundamental to our existential constitution, so too is it constitutive of our existence that we meet each other as ‘‘brothers and sisters in the same dark night’’ (Vogel, 1994, p. 97), deeply connected with one another in virtue of our common finitude. Thus, although the possibility of emotional trauma is ever present, so too is the possibility of forming bonds of deep emotional attunement within which devastating emotional pain can be held, endured, and eventually integrated. Our existential kinship-in-the-same-darkness is the condition for the possibility both of the profound contextuality of emotional trauma and of the mutative power of human understanding.

Critchley (2002) pointed the way toward a second, essential dimension of the relationality of finitude:
I would want to [emphasize] the fundamentally relational character of finitude, namely that death is first and foremost experienced as a relation to the death or dying of the other and others, in Being-with the dying in a caring way, and in grieving after they are dead. . . . [O]ne watches the person one loves . . . die and become a lifeless material thing. . . . [T]here is a thing—a corpse—at the heart of the experience of finitude . . . [which is] fundamentally relational. (pp. 169–170)
Authentic Being-toward-death entails owning up not only to one’s own finitude, but also to the finitude of all those we love. Hence, authentic Being-toward-death always includes Being-toward-loss as a central constituent. Just as, existentially, we are ‘‘always dying already’’ (Heidegger, 1927=1962, p. 298), so too are we always already grieving. Death and loss are existentially equiprimordial. Existential anxiety anticipates both death and loss.

Support for my claim about the equiprimordiality of death and loss can be found in the work of Derrida (1997), who contended that every friendship is structured from its beginning, a priori, by the possibility that one of the two friends will die first and that the surviving friend will be left to mourn: ‘‘To have a friend, to look at him, to follow him with your eyes, . . . is to know in a more intense way, already injured, . . . that one of the two of you will inevitably see the other die’’ (Derrida, 2001, p. 107). Finitude and the possibility of mourning are constitutive of every friendship.

In loss, all possibilities for Being in relation to the lost loved one are extinguished. Traumatic loss shatters one’s emotional world, and, insofar as one dwells in the region of such loss, one feels eradicated. As Derrida (2001) claimed, ‘‘Death takes from us not only some particular life within the world [but] someone through whom the world, and first of all our own world, will have opened up’’ (p. 107).
1. Borrowing a term from Harry Potter, I call such experiences portkeys to trauma (Stolorow, 2007, 2011).

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