A Commentary on Robert Stolorow (2011)

A Commentary on Robert Stolorow (2011). From Mind to World, From Drive to Affectivity: A Phenomenological–Contextualist Psychoanalytic Perspective. ATTACHMENT: New Directions in Psychotherapy and Relational Psychoanalysis, Vol. 5, March 2011: pp. 1–14. (La versión española de este comentario fue publicada el 12-12-12).

Carlos Rodríguez Sutil

One of the most important features of the work done by Robert D. Stolorow and collaborators is that it is a well philosophical informed work, in a great and courageous contrast with the classical Freudian position (see Orange, 2010, 2011; Orange Atwood and Stolorow, 1997; Stolorow, 2007, 2011; Stolorow and Atwood, 1992). Traditional Freudian theory is pervaded by the Cartesian ‘myth of the isolated mind’. Freud’s psychoanalysis expanded the Cartesian mind, the unextended ‘thinking thing’, to include a vast unconscious realm. Intersubjective-systems theory emphasizes that all such forms of unconsciousness are constituted in relational contexts. Stolorow and his group took the experiential world of the individual as its central theoretical construct. They shift from mind to world and from mental contents to relational contexts, from the intrapsychic to the intersubjective. Hence, for Stolorow and collaborators, the interplay between transference and countertransference in psychoanalytic treatment is characterized as an intersubjective process reflecting the mutual interaction between the differently organized subjective worlds of patient and analyst. In accordance with Cartesian thinking, one isolated mind, the analyst, is postulated to make objective observations and interpretations of another isolated mind, the patient. This philosophical dualism sectioned human experience into cognitive and affective domains. Such artificial fracturing of human subjectivity is no longer tenable in a post-Cartesian philosophical world. Interpretation does not stand apart from the emotional relationship between patient and analyst.
Their theory, the intersubjective-systems theory is a contextual one – a phenomenological contextualism - in that it maintains that the organizations of emotional experience take form, both developmentally and in the psychoanalytic situation, in constitutive relational or intersubjective contexts. Recurring patterns of intersubjective transaction within the developmental system give rise to principles that unconsciously organize subsequent emotional and relational experiences. The patient’s transference experience is co-constituted by the patient’s prereflective organizing principles and whatever is coming from the analyst that is being organized by them. The psychological field formed by the interplay of the patient’s transference and the analyst’s transference is an example of what they call an intersubjective system. “Intersubjective” denotes neither a mode of experiencing nor a sharing of experience, but the contextual precondition for having any experience at all.
Cartesian mind, the ‘thinking thing’, is isolated from the world in which it dwells, just as the world is deprived of all human significance or ‘worldhood’ (Heidegger, 1927). Heidegger’s existential analytic unveils the basic structure of our being as a rich contextual whole, in which human being is saturated with the world in which we dwell, just as the world we inhabit is drenched in human meanings and purposes. For Heidegger, Befindlichkeit – disclosive affectivity or attunement – is a mode of being-in-the-world, profoundly embedded in constitutive context. The young Ludwig Wittgenstein, at the time of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, (1917, 6.43) said on a similar vein: The world of the happy is quite another than that of the unhappy (Die Welt des Glücklichen ist eine andere als die des Undglücklichen).
As Stolorow notes, Heidegger’s concept of Befindlichkeit underscores the exquisite context dependence and context sensitivity of emotional experience. I take the English definition of this German term from Magda King (2001, pp. 55-56):
The existential concept of Befindlichkeit cannot be adequately expressed by any single English word. The common German phrase, Wie befinden Sie sich? means: How do you feel? How are you? Sich befinden generally means how one is, how one feels. Important also is the core of the word, sich finden, to find oneself. The whole expression may be explained as follows: Da-sein is a priori so that his being manifests itself to him by the way he feels; in feeling, he is brought to himself, he finds himself. The ontic# manifestation of Befindlichkeit are familiar to everyone as the moods and feelings that constantly “tune” Da-sein and “tune him in” to other beings as a whole. To avoid to coin some clumsy expression for Befindlichkeit, it is convenient to call it “attunement.”[1]

It is a central tenet of intersubjective-systems theory that a shift in psychoanalytic thinking from the motivational primacy of drive to the motivational primacy of affectivity moves psychoanalysis towards a phenomenological contextualism. Unlike drives, which originate deep within the interior of an isolated mind, affect — and Stolorow explains “that is, subjective emotional experience”— is something that from birth onward is regulated, or misregulated, within ongoing relational systems. Emotional experience is inseparable from the intersubjective contexts of attunement and malattunement in which it was felt. Traumatic affect states can be grasped only in terms of the relational systems in which they are felt. Psychological conflict develops when central affect states of the child cannot be integrated because they evoke massive or consistent malattunement from care-givers. Such unintegrated affect states become the source of lifelong emotional conflict and vulnerability to traumatic states, because they are experienced as threats both to the person’s established psychological organization and to the maintenance of vitally needed ties. The child’s emotional experience becomes progressively articulated through the validating attunement of the early surround. It is the absence of adequate response to the child’s painful emotional reactions on the part of the care-givers that renders conflicts durable and, thus, a source of traumatic states and psychopathology.
When a child’s emotional experiences are consistently not responded to or are actively rejected, the child perceives that aspects of his or her affective life are intolerable to the care-giver. These areas of the child’s emotional life must then be sacrificed in order to safeguard the needed tie. This mechanism have been described, among others, by Sandor Ferenczi (1932) as the confusion of tongues between the adults and the child, Ronald Fairbairn (1943) as the moral defence of the child,  Michael Balint (1968) as the basic fault. Repression keeps affect nameless.
The focus on affect and its meanings contextualizes both transference and resistance, and the patient’s resistance can be shown to fluctuate in concert with perceptions of the analyst’s varying receptivity and attunement to the patient’s emotional experience. In the language of intersubjective-systems theory, interpretative expansion of the patient’s capacity for reflective awareness of old, repetitive organizing principles occurs concomitantly with the affective impact and meanings of ongoing relational experiences with the analyst. A clinical focus on affective experience within the intersubjective field of an analysis contextualizes the process of therapeutic change in multiple ways. Only with a shift in the patient’s  perception of his/her analyst from one in which the analyst was potentially or secretly shaming to one in which he/she was accepting and understanding could the patient’s emotional experience of her traumatized states shift from an unnominated  bodily form to an experience that could be felt and named as terror.
“In shattering the tranquilizing absolutisms of everyday life, emotional trauma plunges us into a form of what Heidegger (1927) calls authentic (owned) being toward-death, wherein death and loss are apprehended as distinctive possibilities that are constitutive of our very existence, of our intelligibility to our selves in our futurity and finitude – possibilities that are both certain and indefinite as to their ‘when’ and that therefore always impend as constant threats. Stripped of its sheltering illusions, the everyday world loses its significance, and the traumatized person, as shown in my traumatized state at the conference, feels anxious and uncanny, no longer safely at home in the everyday world”.


Notwithstanding the kinship of Heidegger’s ideas with Descartes is shown in his reliance on the powerlessness and vulnerability in the face of the death. The pervasiveness and omnipresence of the death leads me to discover the unshakable certainty and truth of my sum (see the moribundus sum in Piotr Hoffman, 1993). The transcendence of death lies in the fact that we die alone. But in my opinion there underlies a great mistake. It is not that each of us dies alone but, just the opposite, the only truth is that death is the complete and absolute loneliness. Then, the transcendence resides not in the individual, not even in a figured beyond. The possible transcendence are the others, by the same token as for Sartre the hell are the others.
Siblings in the same darkness: ethical implications. Emotional trauma can gradually become integrated when it finds a relational home in which it can be held.
I hardly dare to expose a criticism of the definition of “affect” Stolorow offers to us: “that is, subjective emotional experience”. This expression could be tainted of the Cartesian isolated mind as long as it conveys the image of  an internal original experience, independent of the environment, identifiable trough a private language similar to that which Wittgenstein (1953, 243) demonstrated is (logically) impossible. A private language is that language used to describe those inner experiences supposed to be inaccessible to others, that only I understand, which no-one else can make sense of, that is, incapable of translation into an ordinary language. Hence, I suggest it is more suitable to talk about the “emotional behaviour”, despite its behavioural and positivistic resonances, taking note that by this expression I mean a significant behaviour having place in a human relational context. Using the words of Donna Orange (2010, p. 44): “… without community context, there is no way to find out the meanings of the words”.



Balint, M. (1968). The basic fault: therapeutic aspects of regression. London: Tavistock.  (La falta básica. Aspectos terapéuticos de la regresión. Barcelona: Paidós, 1993).
Fairbairn, W.R.D. (1943). The Repression and the Return of the Bad Objects.(With Special Reference to the ‘War Neuroses’). British Journal of Medical Psychology, 19, 3-4, 327-341. La represión y el retorno de los objetos malos. En Estudio Psicoanalítico de la Personalidad. Buenos Aires: Hormé, 1978.
Ferenczi, S. (1933). The Confusion of Tongues Between Adults and Children: The Language of Tenderness and of Passion. Sándor Ferenczi Number. M. Balint (Ed.) International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 30: Whole No.4, 1949.  (Confusión de lengua entre los adultos y el niño. En Obras Completas, vol IV. Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1982).
José Gaos, 1951, Introducción a El Ser y el Tiempo de Martin Heidegger. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica.
Heidegger,  M. (1927). Being and Time. J. Macquarrie & E. Robinson (Trans.). New York: Harper & Row, 1962.
Hoffman, P. (1993). Death, time, history: Division II of Being and Time.  In Charles Guignon, The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (Chapter 7).
King, M. (2001). A Guide to Heidegger’s Being and Time. Nueva York: University of New York Press.
Orange D.M., Atwood G. y Stolorow R.(1997). Working Intersubjectively.  Contextualism in Psychoanalytic Practice. Hillsdale, N.J.: The Analytic Press.
Orange, D.M. (2010). Thinking for Clinicians. Philosophical Resources for Contemporary Psychoanalysis and the Humanistic Psychotherapies. Nueva York: Routledge.
Orange, D.M. (2011). The Suffering Stranger: Hermeneutics for Everyday Clinical Practice. Nueva York: Routledge.
Stolorow, R.D. (2007). Trauma and Human Existence. Hillsdale, NJ:  The Analytic Press.
Stolorow, R.D. (2011). From Mind to World, From Drive to Affectivity: A Phenomenological–Contextualist Psychoanalytic Perspective. ATTACHMENT: New Directions in Psychotherapy and Relational Psychoanalysis, Vol. 5, March 2011: pp. 1–14.
Stolorow R.D. y Atwood G. (1992). Contexts of Being: The Intersubjective Foundations of Psychological Life. Hillsdale, NJ:  The Analytic Press.  1992. (Los contextos del ser. Las bases intersubjetivas de la vida psíquica. Herder. Barcelona).
Wittgenstein, L. (1917). Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Translated by C.K. Ogden. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Wittgenstein, L. (1953). Philosophical Investigations. Revised 4th edition by P.M.S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009: The German text, with an English translation. Edición bi­lin­güe ale­mán­‑espa­ñol de Al­fonso Gar­cía Suá­rez y Uli­ses Mouli­nes "In­vesti­ga­cio­nes Fi­lo­só­fi­cas"; Barce­lo­na: Crí­ti­ca, 1988.



[1] José Gaos (1951, p. 124) offered the Spanish version “encontrarse”, common in the instances “encontrarse triste”, “encontrarse alegre”, etc.

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