Thursday, 1 January 2015

Phenomenology and metapsychology (April 1915 – April 2015). A note on the polarity at the heart of the Inner Circle Seminars

Phenomenology and metapsychology

April 1915

Sibelius, Schoenberg, Joyce, Heidegger/Duns Scotus – Freud

Holiness,  EpiphanyHaecceity – Unconscious

A note on the polarity at the heart of the Inner Circle Seminars

Anthony Stadlen

(April 2015)  

Sibelius.jpg (960×1344)
Jean Sibelius
Arnold_schönberg_man_ray.jpg (1163×1540)
Arnold Schoenberg
Kazimir_Malevich,_1915,_Black_Suprematic_Square,_oil_on_linen_canvas,_79.5_x_79.5_cm,_Tretyakov_Gallery,_Moscow.jpg (1718×1724)
Kasimir Malevich
Black Square 1915

One hundred years ago, in April 1915, the first world war was raging. On 22 April the Germans released a cloud of poisonous gas on the first day of the second battle of Ypres. On 24 April, the deportation of intellectuals had started the Ottoman genocide of the Armenians.  On 25 April, British, French and ANZAC troops landed on the Gallipoli peninsula with heavy casualties.

Meanwhile, Freud, in Vienna, was writing six papers on what he called ‘metapsychology’: his speculative theory of ‘drives’, ‘repression’, the ‘unconscious’, dreams, mourning. and the transference neuroses’. He may have written six more papers in the series but no more have been found.

Composers (Sibelius, Schoenberg), writers (Joyce, Lawrence, Rilke), artists (Malevich, Bomberg, Brancusi), philosophers (Husserl, Heidegger, von Hildebrand, Stein) were also struggling for meaning – but of a different kind – in a world whose foundations were shaking.

On 21 April, when working on his fifth symphony, Sibelius wrote in his diary: Today at ten to eleven I saw 16 swans. One of my greatest experiences! God, how beautiful! They circled above me for a long time. They disappeared into the haze of the sun like a shining silver ribbon. The sounds are like a kind of woodwind, the same as the sound of the cranes, but without the tremolo. The sound of the swans is closer to the trumpet, even if it clearly recalls the timbre of the sarrusophone ... A low refrain, which is like the crying of a small child. Nature mysticism and the pain of life! The finale of the fifth symphony ... Ligature in the trumpets!! ... So I've been in a holy place today ...

Schoenberg had finished the third of his orchestral songs Opus 22, to words by Rilke, and was working on Jacob’s Ladder. Joyce was writing the first chapters of Ulysses. Heidegger had completed his thesis on a work he mistakenly thought was by Duns Scotus. All these existential quests had to do with what Hegel called the phenomenology of spirit. Sibelius spoke of the ‘holy, Joyce of ‘epiphanies, Heidegger of Duns Scotus’s notion of ‘haecceity(‘thisness’).

Freud, later in the year, in his brief essay ‘Transience’ (which we explored in a seminar in 2013) also wrote phenomenologically, affirming the value of the transient beauty of a flower. But he mixed this with metapsychological natural-scientistic and mechanistic discussions of ‘libido’. Rilke, who visited Freud around this time, made it clear that, in Freud’s words (after Schiller), there could be no lasting bond between them.

When, decades later, Medard Boss introduced Heidegger to Freuds ‘metapsychological papers, Heidegger, according to Boss, felt physically ill – so far removed did this speculative quasi-natural-scientific language seem from the phenomenology of human being-in-the-world. Yet Boss and Heidegger knew the value of the phenomenological part of Freud’s work.

Freud himself used the term ‘metapsychology in a letter to his friend Wilhelm Fliess as early as 13 February 1896; and in another letter to him, on 17 December 1896, he called it ‘my ideal- and pain-child’. In 1937, he insisted that, like Mephistopheles in Goethes Faust, he must bring in the witch’: the witch metapsychology.

Virtually all the Inner Circle Seminars raise, directly or indirectly, the question of the relationship – crucial for the practice of psychotherapy – between phenomenology and ‘metapsychologyHave Freud, his followers, and psychotherapists of all schools been bewitched by metapsychology’, and in turn bewitched their patients? Or was Freud right that ‘metapsychological speculation’, even if, as he said, open to revision, is an essential complement to phenomenology, in theory and practice?

To attend seminars apply to: Anthony Stadlen, ‘Oakleigh’, 2A Alexandra Avenue, London N22 7XE
Tel: +44 (0) 20 8888 6857 E-mail: 
For information on seminars, visit:

The Inner Circle Seminars were founded by Anthony Stadlen in 1996 as an ethical, existential, phenomenological search for truth in psychotherapy. They have been kindly described by Thomas Szasz as ‘Institute for Advanced Studies in the Moral Foundations of Human Decency and Helpfulness’. But they are independent of all institutes, schools and colleges.

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