The ghost in the machine

The idea of homo psychologicus is that of the ‘little man’ (or woman) inside the human body which directs its affairs. It is related very closely to the idea of the Cartesian cogito and also to the notion of the ego or self.   Homo psychologicus is a very lonely, isolated individual.  He or she exists in a Kantian universe of observable phenomena, forever barred from the world of noumena, that which lies beyond representation.

Although they may not recognise it, both CBT and person centred therapy adhere to the idea of homo psychologicus. Both have a notion of self/ego which is in some way disembodied from the rest of the world.  There is particular irony here, because person centred therapy would always claim to be opposed to the idea of human beings as being glorified data processing machines, which is essentially the CBT model. Rather, the person centred approach focuses on the lived experience of the individual, with a particular emphasis on the here and now of the person’s world.

However, the ‘person’ in person centred therapy is essentially an imaginary construct. Rather than being a ‘core, real self’, the person is a set of imaginary identifications (which is one definition of the ego).  And ultimately, this is no different from the data processing self of CBT. The self in CBT is also an imaginary construct; one which is forever trying to make sense of the world by interpreting phenomena.

Unfortunately, there is a widespread perception that Freud invented this idea the self or ego which is now so prominent in many schools of psychotherapy.   Certainly there have been a number of ‘post’ Freudian developments which privilege the ego; and especially the idea that psychological health revolves around a ‘strong’ ego – which is usually developed through an identification with the ego of the analyst.

However, as Lacan spent much of his life pointing out, this is a travesty of Freud’s work; and one very much promoted, especially in the USA, in order to ‘sanitise’ and ‘de-radicalise’ the subversive nature of Freud’s ideas.

A critical point to remember in (Lacanian) psychoanalysis is that the ego does not equate with the subject. As pointed out above, the ego is a set of imaginary identifications, and which has its origins in what Lacan defined as the mirror stage. This occurs when the infant (proto) subject is between six and eighteen months old and is the process by which he or she comes to recognise him or self as a complete bodily image.

However, the critical term here is image: this is the subject of narcissism, of reflected images. The idea of a ‘core’, or’ whole’, or ‘real’ self so beloved of the humanistic therapists (and I would argue by CBT therapists as well) is an image, a phantasm.  The Freudian subject is somewhere else.  Lacan argued that the subject is a divided subject (not to be confused with the notion of the divided self). The subject is divided by language, by the Symbolic order. But by the same token, this is the subject of the unconscious…