Journal of Analytical Psychology, 2007, 52, 433–447

The ethical dimensions of life and analytic work through a Levinasian lens

Robin McCoy Brooks
Seattle, WA, USA

This paper contextualizes Jung’s method of amplification within the larger history of philosophical hermeneutics and most particularly within the relational ethics of the post-modern, post-phenomenological and post-Heideggarian philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. While finding the epistemological assumptions (foundation- alism) of subject formation guiding Jung’s interpretative method incompatible with the extra-ontology perspective of Levinas, this paper underscores the necessity for revitalizing our theory and practice by bringing back the unthought in Jung’s corpus so that the truly ethical dimensions of life and analytic work are in alignment with our present epoch. Finally, one enigmatic analytic moment demonstrates how the radical Levinasian primacy of ethical experience in subject formation can emerge in a contemporary clinical encounter. The Levinasian sensibility will be shown to open up new perspectives that contrast with the formulaic ways in which we tend to understand the effects of counter- transference, transcendence, time and ethics.

Keywords: Jung; hermeneutics; amplification; Levinas; Heidegger; ethics; epistemology; extra-ontological; phenomenology; transcendence; counter – transference; time


One may understand transcendence as deriving from a surplus of meaning and there are different ways to approach this surplus. Jung most often interpreted it through the lens of a secure, over-arching theoretical system, implying that the ground of human experience is something that could be ultimately known. (Brooks, 2011; Hinton, 2011; Mills, 2013).1 Contrast this view with post-modern theories that portray subjectivity as ‘always part of a larger linguistic-cultural process, a web of layered significations’ that constantly remind us of the unfathomable enigmas of alterity (Derrida, 1999; Kearney, 2011, p. xvi; Lacan, 1992; Levinas, 2008).2 The themes (if we can call them that) of post modernity continually destabilize our understanding of unity, subjectivity, epistemic certainty (basis of knowledge), difference, historical progress, univocity of meaning, aesthetics, politics and ethics and hence subjectivity. In contrast, Jung’s foundationalist problematic generally adhered to the view that there was an ultimate basis for knowledge and that this basis was derived from a priori (universals) postulates.

Even while Jung continually eschewed the knowability of the psyche, particularly in his alignment to Kant’s idea of transcendental noumena, in other instances he theorized with an implicit certainty and permanence that repudiated singular, impermanent and provisional realities in his alliance with empirical phenomena.3 This duality of purpose can be strikingly observed in his later and seminal essay, On the Nature of the Psyche, where he reformulated his theory of the archetype, and in the Tavistock Lectures, where he discussed his method of interpreting the archetypes in analysis (Jung, 1947, 1935), as will be seen later. Contemporary Jungian theorists have continued to challenge Jung’s basic assumptions about the conditions of subject formation that are embedded in a foundationalist problematic such as the ‘Self’. There has been an increasing emphasis on inter-subjective approaches and an ethos surrounding the crucial presence of ‘the other’ that cannot be completely understood (Austin, 2009; Gullatz, 2010; Hinton, 2009, p. 638; Horne, 2008).

In this paper, I work backwards with our predicament, beginning with the quandary in which analytical psychology seems to find itself, that of both belonging and not belonging to the era of modernity in which it was born or to the post- modernity in which we find ourselves now. I turn to the relational ethics of the post- modern, post-phenomenological and post-Heideggerian philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, whose work illustrates what is lacking in analytical psychology. My use of Levinas is intended to be critical of analytical psychology in two important aspects. First, I will establish that Jung’s epistemological assumptions, or ‘foundationalism’ regarding subject formation is generally incompatible with the hermeneutics of philosophic phenomenology exemplified by the work of Heidegger and especially the extra-ontology of Levinas. In this vein, I will critique Jung’s signature interpretative method of amplification that is often referred to as hermeneutic. When Jung’s hermeneutic style most noted in his method of amplification is contrasted to the hermeneutic-phenomenology of Heidegger and the extra-phenomenology of Levinas, one can clearly view the profound leap in perspective between the former and the latter. This is evident when one contrasts the epistemological presuppositions regarding subject formation that guided Jung’s interpretative method with Heideg- ger’s ontological subject and Levinas’ extra-ontological account of the subject. Levinas asserted a pre-cognitive heteronymous relation towards the other person that involved a primal unknowability and responsibility. For him, this primal relationship with alterity is the nexus of ethics and of subjectivity.

Finally, I will share my struggle with one enigmatic clinical moment that suddenly and unexpectedly emerged after a three-year period of sitting together with a patient’s terrible sorrow. It was to the ethical sensibility of Levinas that I turned to endure her boundless suffering, a suffering that could not be born in thought or understanding but through bearing pain’s enigma. This sensibility is rooted in the non-reciprocal relation of responsibility that emerges in the ‘face to face’ encounter with the other’s alterity.

The thought of Levinas particularly invigorated my belief that psychoanalysis is at root an ethical undertaking. Among other things, he opens up new perspectives that contrast with the formulaic ways in which we tend to understand the effect of counter-transference, transcendence, time and ethics. This final section will focus on exploring the nuances of this extraordinary clinical predicament through a Levinasian lens.

Historical context in the history of ideas relevant to our study

Some developments in philosophy and psychoanalysis can put the work of Levinas into historical perspective and illustrate his relevance to contemporary analytical psychology. Though often unacknowledged, moments and extended periods of enigma are commonplace in the analytic process. This awareness underlines the radical difference between the epistemological premises of classical analytical psychology and the perspectives of Heidegger’s philosophical phenomenology of Heidegger and the post-phenomenology of Levinas.

Contemporary philosophy: a sketch
In 1927, Martin Heidegger famously completed his grand opus Being and time, a work that would radically recount how being revealed itself in the phenomena of everyday social contexts.4 For Heidegger, understanding one’s existence was dependent upon how it connected to everything else – an understanding that emerged from the contextualization of one’s historical and contemporary ethos. This was a radical step away from the Cartesian presuppositions and the dualisms tacitly adopted in the epistemologies of both Jung and Freud, which maintained the picture of an isolated mind with its various innate structures in relation to its internal and external ‘objects’ (mind/matter, subject/object, conscious, unconscious, transcendent/ phenomena).5 While Heidegger did not totally disavow that such dualities existed, following Husserl he held that they actually abstracted theoretical notions remote from the concrete flow of everyday existence. Husserl and Heidegger both viewed subjectivity as world-constituting. For Heidegger, the phenomenology of the concrete immediacy of existence was revealed via hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is the art of understanding a discourse in the light of the influences of the text in all its forms as it relates to the interpretive heuristics of the interpreter. Heidegger extended this to include existence itself as ‘texts to be interpreted’ or as he has famously said ‘let what shows itself be seen from itself, just as it shows itself from itself’ (1962, p. 34).

Heidegger combined Edmund Husserl’s phenomenological research with Wil- helm Dilthey’s theory of understanding ‘life world’ and for the first time brought a combined use of the traditions of both hermeneutics and phenomenology.6 The range of the philosophical-phenomenological tradition embraces many differences about the important questions concerning method, focus and the status of the existence of a self (Zahavi, 2008, pp. 1-29)7. Scrutiny of the phenomenal complexities of the consciousness of the subject, the structures of experience, time-consciousness, intentionality, body and self-awareness, and with Heidegger the ontological placement of being-in-the-world through language and ‘care’ are core concepts associated with a philosophical phenomenology.

As a post-Heideggarian phenomenologist, Levinas extended the range of what human experiences could be concretely interpreted by introducing sensible responsibility for the other person as well as transcendence (alterity, otherness, that which cannot be known) into the continuum of time and being.8 This, he called the ethical relation. He emphasized the ubiquitous feeling of strangeness that pre- dominates in human experience due to the continual and shocking experience of otherness pervading everyday life. For Levinas, the very sense of selfness is shaped by the trauma of this reality (Levinas, 2008, p. 111). His oeuvre was devoted to an extensive exploration of the face-to-face relation that is prior to thought, action and being at the affective-sensuous level. This was a crucial departure from Heidegger who privileged ontology (being) over metaphysics.9 In other words, Levinas inverted the relation between ethics and ontology making ethics the first philosophy (Levinas, 1969, p. 47). The Levinasian project creates a phenomenology of subjectivity that located at the precarious and pre-theoretical nexus of subjectivity prior to its emergence.

Levinas’s most strident critique of classical psychoanalysis was in what he viewed to be Freud’s reduction of subjectivity to ego consciousness as is depicted in Freud’s famous maxim: ‘Wo Es war Soll Ich werden’ or roughly, ‘Where Id was, there shall Ego be,’ (Levinas, 1996, pp. 82-83).10 Jung, like Levinas considered the ‘Self’ to be affectively and pre-cognitively perceived and separate from ego consciousness. However, Jung’s ‘other’ consisted of the archetypes and his foundationalism bound him to a subject that could be known, represented and observed, in contrast to post- modern views.11 Levinas’s ethical subjectivity is not unlike Jacque Lacan’s relation to the real. Lacan interpreted the Freudian Es as the subject who is articulated in relation to the order of the ‘real’ or ‘Where It was, I am to become’ (Critchley, 2007, pp. 63-68; Žižek, 2007, p. 3). For Levinas, the ‘it’ is alterity located in the ethical relation and the site of subject formation, not in ego-consciousness.

Consciousness, for Levinas was a belated ‘trace’ (nachtr ̈aglich) of a pre-conscious sensorial affect, an affect that is due to the traumatization of being ‘held hostage’ to the primal, enigmatic (transcendent) command of and responsibility towards the ‘Face’ of the other who is commanding me (Levinas, 2008, pp. 99-129; 1996, p.142). We do not choose to be responsible, as thi