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Steven J. Ellman

When Theories Touch

A Historical and Theoretical Integration of Psychoanalytic Thought

Karnac 2010

New Books in Intellectual HistoryNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books in PsychoanalysisNew Books in Science & TechnologyNew Books Network December 9, 2015 Anna Fishzon

There are theorists who seem to strive for integration and those who insist on fundamental differences, incompatibilities, and unbridgeable gulfs. Some write from an...

There are theorists who seem to strive for integration and those who insist on fundamental differences, incompatibilities, and unbridgeable gulfs. Some write from an interdisciplinary position, exulting in hybridity and increased potentiality, while others, no less passionately, police disciplinary boundaries, urging seriousness and rigor. The argument to integrate is rooted in the assumption that a theory only can be enriched through the incorporation of varying perspectives; a multiple factor model is inherently more flexible and practicable. Proponents of disciplinary and theoretical purity counter that true integration is impossible: synthetic efforts often fall short, resulting in pastiche, lists of superficial similarities, or vitiated “middle positions.”Steven J. Ellman, in When Theories Touch: A Historical and Theoretical Integration of Psychoanalytic Thought (Karnac, 2010) unapologetically declares his allegiance to the first camp. As Ellman explains in his preface, the blending of various theoretical models in the service of expanding and deepening clinical practice has long been his preoccupation, one might even say, his ethical stance.

When Theories Touch is divided into three loosely delimited sections (“Freud Chapters,” “Major Post-Freudian Theorists,” and “Contemporary Issues in Psychoanalysis”) and eighteen chapters featuring readings of an array of psychoanalytic giants, including Anna Freud, Heinz Hartmann, Melanie Klein, W. Ronald D. Fairbairn, D. W. Winnicott, Harry Stack Sullivan, Margaret Mahler, Heinz Kohut, Otto Kernberg, Wilfred Bion, and Stephen Mitchell. Most of the integrative labor is contained in the commentary sections of each chapter, as well as the concluding chapter, modestly titled, “A Tentative Developmental Model.”

In many ways, Ellman is building on the work spurred by the baby observers of the 1980s and 1990s. Those decades not only witnessed the challenge to classical technique by relational theorists but also epistemic convergences founded on object relations theory and the studied infant-caregiver dyad. Insights from Klein, Kohut, Bion, and Winnicott were framed and woven together by shared assumptions about the structuring influence of early mother-infant interactions. Ellman echoes and enlarges these prior efforts. He includes clinical material, indexing implications for technique. He also introduces the relational viewpoint of Mitchell while maintaining a place for drives (or what he prefers to call “endogenous stimulation”), both in his developmental model and his practice. With surprising ease Ellman is able to stake out a theoretical position that complicates (or, arguably, obviates!) age-old psychoanalytic debates about object-seeking vs. pleasure-seeking infants, the centrality of the Oedipus complex, the timing and necessity of transference interpretation, and a host of metapsychological and clinical questions.

The relevance and value of Ellman’s book, I believe, rests less in its integration (which is partial by the author’s own measure) than in its brave and convincing advocacy of the merging of causes that previously have done violence to one another. During our interview and in the book, Ellman approaches each body of theory with rare openness and curiosity. He enables theorists as discordant as Stephen Mitchell and Charles Brenner to enter into productive conversation, enhancing the contributions of both through new and unexpected syntheses.