Relational Psychoanalysis and Epistemology


Toward a Mutually Informing Relational Psychoanalysis and Epistemology: A Phenomenology of Intersubjectivity


Andrew Nutt


In this paper I will define epistemology as an attempt to identify the basis of humanity’s shared knowledge. Epistemology then is ultimately relational because it seeks to uncover the foundational connection points or common ground of knowledge held by humans.

Understanding epistemology in a relational context opens an insightful dialogue with object relations theory and therapist/client relationship. The study of epistemology and therapeutic mutual recognition can be understood as parallel train rails that are interdependent and which support and guide the train of our knowledge and action. The goal of this paper is to show the overlap and shared insights between philosophy and psychology while proposing a dialectical method to view epistemology as mutual recognition. This dialectic will be informed by D.W. Winnicott’s child development stages and the poles of unity/certainty, isolation/uncertainty and intersubjectivity/resolution. The paper will close with a brief application for both philosophers and psychologists.


There are many connection points between continental philosophy and psychoanalytic thought. Within these disciplines I will primarily focus on the sub categories of epistemology and D.W. Winnicott’s mother/infant paradigm and how intersubjectivity links them together. I will work from the assumption that epistemology and psychotherapy are witness of the same human phenomenon (relationships) only from different theoretical perspectives. My thesis is: Understanding epistemology and the therapeutic relationship as mutually informing, results in a richer understanding of both, because both find their source in the intersubjective human experience. Application will be drawn by allowing epistemology and the therapeutic relationship to speak into each other’s discipline.

Subjectivism and Objectivism as Relational Categories

Epistemology is typically thought of as a discipline relegated to the ivory towers of philosophy, but I would like to propose that it is the base upon which all relationships rest. It can be viewed as an attempt to identify the basis of humanity’s shared knowledge. Epistemology then is ultimately relational because it seeks to uncover the foundational connection points or common ground of knowledge held by humans. The subject under study for epistemology is relationships. I would like to expand the definitions of subject and object to hold relational weight. I will construct two extreme poles of knowledge. The first pole is complete objectivity which equates to undifferentiated unity in relationships, the second pole is absolute subjectivism which is relational isolation. Within both extreme poles the sense of self is assumed into or alienated from the Other. The third pole is intersubjectivity which emerges out of mutual recognition with the Other. The poles of objective and subjective knowledge I will construct are extreme and not necessarily common or accepted ways to understand epistemology. I use these extremes for the sake of clarity understanding that the world of epistemology has far more gradation.

The intersubjective movement has drawn heavily on Hegel’s trifold dialectic (Benjamin, 1995). Intersubjectivity is comprised of, in the words of Stephan Mitchell, “the self pole, an object pole, and an interactional pole” (Aron & Harris, 2005, p.xvi).  Within each pole I will




cover the mother child relationship and the therapist client relationship from a Winnicottian perspective to illustrate this dialectic.

Pole #1    Undifferentiated Unity and Objectivity

Child Development

The first pole of knowledge is unity and epistemological objectivity.  The infant begins life so deeply imbedded within another life that even politically there is no consensus on whether the unborn infant possesses his own life or is really an extension of the mother’s life and ontology. An infant is born united to its mother physically through an umbilical cord and intrapsychically through an absence of any outside intersubjective encounters (Benjamin, 1988). The newborn infant who has never encountered another subjective entity, perceives he is the center of the universe which leads to a sense of omnipotence (Winnicott, 1962a). The good enough mother understands the infant’s feelings of omnipotence and does not see them as a threat (Benjamin, 1995). The infant believes he is completely united to a mother that thinks and feels the way he does (Winnicott, 1964). Laura Dethiville (2014) says the infant “sees himself as a unit in his mother’s face” (p.82). From the infant’s perspective he and his mother have an enmeshed relationship, neither have an identity outside of each other. The infant and mother share unmediated congruence. “Only gradually does the infant separate out the not-me from the me” (Winnicott, 1959, p.102).

Therapeutic Relationship

This type of deep unity is described by Lewis Aron (1998) to happen during the identification stage of the therapeutic relationship where client and therapist begin to “regulate each other’s behaviors” to the point where both “share a jointly created skin-ego/breathing self” (pp.25-26). Marie Hoffman (2011) expounds on how she engages a client in this category: “I strive to identify with the patient and thus narrate her story back in a way that can make sense and can aid in the growth of the patient’s own capacity for metallization” (p.29). In therapy the analyst becomes a sort of surrogate mother. Winnicott separates this mothering into two categories: environmental mother and object mother (Winnicott, 1963b). The environmental mother sets the physical space and boundaries for therapy while the object mother creates a holding environment for the client. A “good enough mother” (Winnicott, 1960, p.144) is in tune with the infants needs and desires “and so is able to provide almost exactly what the infant needs in the way of holding and in the provision of an environment” (Winnicott, 1964, p.54). The therapist acting like a good enough mother, offers congruency and unity to the client.


How does congruency and unity show up in epistemology? Through objective orientations to truth and knowledge which is the belief that humans possess completely overlapping existential and experiential perspectives of reality.  Objectivism, as used in this paper, represents a belief in the complete congruency of perspectives and interpretations between humans. The enlightenment and the celebrated the use of reason to obtain truth serve as two examples of this type of objectivity.

Although it begins with the isolated thinking man, Cartesian epistemology is part of pole

#1 because it functions under the assumption that there is unity between the isolated thinker and the rest of mankind. The goal of Descartes was to construct a universal epistemological system through the thought experiment of one man (Grenz, 1996). This stance presupposes a hermeneutic that emphasizes the objective or unified nature of reality shared by all people.

The three epistemological poles I will present can be illustrated through the phenomenon of a stop sign.  In pole #1 there is a belief that every person sees exactly the same thing through




the lens of objectivity. Every person approaches a stop sign the same way and is able to decipher what it means to the same degree and in the same way. In pole #1 the epistemological stance of objectivity mirrors Winnicott’s development stage of undifferentiated unity. Both of these fall short in their respective categories of describing reality which brings us to pole #2.

Pole #2

Child Development

Rupture in the infant/maternal dyad is a traumatic gift.  An infant creates his mother in his own image (fantasy) and then attempts to force her into that mold. When she does not comply his fantasy of omnipotent unity is destroyed and he discovers the subjectivity of his mother. The comfort of psychic unity with his mother is traded for the freedom of his own subjectivity through his mother’s acknowledgement and regard. Unless there is rupture, the infant’s false assumption of omnipotent congruence will go unchallenged and he will never experience mutuality (Hoffman, 2011). The infant will rage and cry attempting to exert his omnipotence and change his environment to bring it under his control, but to no avail. He must wrestle with his separate and ultimately isolated existence which is distinct from the object of mother. Hoffman (2011) says, “Only from a position of being differentiated will the infant be able to experience recognition and ‘use’ what mother offers.” The trauma of transitioning from “mother as an extension of the infant to mother as a person in her own right” provides the necessary ingredients for mutual recognition (p.99). It is the resiliency of a good enough mother that gifts the infant with differentiation after they have weathered the storm of their destruction. Benjamin (1995) explains the need for a mother to absorb a child’s wrath, “The mother is facilitating more than frustration tolerance or object consistency: she is helping her child to get a first glimmer of the momentous idea that mother is a person in her own right” (p.89). The infant attempts to destroy his uncooperative mother but instead it is his fantasy of unity that is destroyed.

Identity formation always requires boundaries of separation between self and what is not the self. This differentiation is a cut in the hide of human existence because it brings lifelong isolation into the picture. The point I want to emphasize is that the loss of omnipotence or everything being-for-me leaves a profound mark of isolation on the psyche of the human.

Individuation and actualization always carry with them the shadow side of isolation.

Therapeutic Relationship

Just as growth for the infant comes through rupture and subsequent feelings of isolation, healing in the therapeutic relationship requires challenge and differentiation. During the identification stage a therapist cultivates positive experience with the client, which leads to rapport. However, it is often through transference and rupture that a client’s relational hermeneutic can be identified and changed. Healing involves movement and change which is made up of both congruence and challenge.

Rupture within the therapeutic relationship can be an opportunity to experience a reenactment of infancy, only this time with a good enough mother who can weather the storm of being destroyed in the client’s fantasies. Winnicott (1962b) finds value in broken congruence, “[Therapists] become involved in the role of failure, and it is not easy for us to accept this role unless we see its positive value. We get made into parents who fail, and only so do we succeed as therapists” (p.239).


Just as congruence is not the full picture of therapy, objectivity is not the full picture of epistemology.  Pole #2 of epistemology is isolation, which is represented by radical




deconstruction and complete subjectivity. Phenomenologically no one knows exactly what it is like to live another person’s life. It is our subjective experience in the world that whispers to our hearts that were are alone. To connect or be known we must meet others through finite things like touch and language. The loss of infant omnipotence and undifferentiated unity has created existential distance between humans which is displayed through hundreds of years of perseverating over what an agreeable epistemology would be.

Going back to the stop sign analogy, pole #2 would emphasize that no two people are seeing the stop sign in the same way.  Every person brings their unique senses, histories, cultures, genetic makeup and current existential situation to bear on the stop sign. No consciousness is able to experience the phenomenon of approaching a stop sign in the same way as another consciousness. The unity and objectivity of pole #1 are shown to be as unhelpful as the isolation and subjectivity of pole #2.  This directs us to the intersubjectivity of pole #3.

Pole #3 Intersubjectivity

For both philosophy and the therapeutic relationship, the movement between subjectivity/isolation on the one extreme and objectivity/ undifferentiated unity on the other extreme is mediated through the dialogical stance of intersubjectivity. Intersubjectivity is a third pole that emerges from a dialectic between pole #1 and pole #2. It is an emergent state built on the interaction of two subjects that has the properties of a synergism or gestalt.

I use the term intersubjectivity in an ontological or innate sense, as the framework upon which both good and bad relationships rest. Benjamin’s (2004) use of intersubjectivity on the other hand, is more along the lines of mutual recognition which is a temporal experience that can be gained or lost. For Benjamin, intersubjectivity requires a volitional choice to surrender and participate in an encounter. I use intersubjectivity to generally describe the capacity to have relationships, while Benjamin uses the term as a description of a specific type of relationship.

Stolorow and Atwood (1992) defines intersubjectivity as: “Any psychological field formed by interacting worlds of experience, at whatever developmental level these worlds may be organized” (p.3). Epistemology is the study of commonalities shared by human worlds which is the same thing as saying: Epistemology is the study of the ways humans connect or more specifically relate.  Psychotherapy is simply one of those relationships that is specifically directed toward helping a client change their world of experience. In this way, psychotherapy is really about correcting faulty epistemology, while epistemology (implicitly) is the basis for all relationships including psychotherapeutic ones.

A helpful analogy for intersubjectivity is found in church history.  The church fathers used the term perichoresis to speak of how the three persons of Father, Son and Spirit are unique yet are found to be of a singular nature in God (Twombly, 2015). Theologian Alister Mcgrath (2001) explains the tension perichoresis captures:

[It] allows the individuality of the persons to be maintained, while insisting that each person shares in the life of the other two. An image often used to express this idea is that of a ‘community of being,’ in which each person, while maintaining its distinctive identity, penetrates the others and is penetrated by them. (p.325).

The perichoritic fellowship of the Trinity provides helpful language for how to understand intersubjectivity. The individual identities of each member are maintained yet each cannot be found without the others (Zizioulas, 2006). In the same way humans are separate, yet they possess a relational ontology. Mutual recognition has the power to change a person through intersubjectivity.




Child Development

In Winnicott’s paradigm the infant’s destruction of the fantasy mother is always for the facilitation of genuine relationship with her (Hoffman, 2011). The infant must correctly apprehend the reality that he lacks omnipotence, and worse yet, is alone, before he can encounter his mother as Other (Benjamin, 1995). Interestingly, it is only through this encounter that he is able to come to an understanding of his own identity.  Benjamin (1995) elaborates:

Intersubjective theory postulates that the other must be recognized as another subject in order for the self to fully experience his or her subjectivity in the other’s presence. This means that we have a need for recognition and that we have a capacity to recognize others in return. (p.30).


Winnicott presents development stages as chronologically linear in progression as the infant matures (Winnicott, 1963a). I would instead purpose that intersubjectivity is not linear but cyclical with increasing depth as the infant becomes more fully aware of his subjectivity and the subjectivity of his mother.

Therapist client relationship

Intersubjective theory proposes that relationships form a person’s concept of self because it is through relationships that subjectivity is acquired (Hoffman, 2001). If clients’ warped view of themselves come from the destructive relationships they have had, then the cure must heavily involve restoration within the therapeutic relationship. Therapy becomes an “interactive field” where the therapist “as good object can serve to challenge unhealthy relationships” (Clair & Wigren, 2004, p.168).

The task of intersubjective therapy is twofold: The first task is to identify patterns of bondage that keep the client from flourishing and explore the relationships that contributed to these destructive patterns. The second task is to help the client rewire their relational paradigms by being a good enough mother and weathering the storm of their attempted destruction.

Destruction in the Winnicottian sense is the client’s attempt to force the therapist into a projected mold. This is the opposite of approaching the relationship with openness, allowing the therapist to introduce the unknown of his or her subjectivity. Destruction can take many forms such as: Shame, “you will be repulsed by me;” anxiety, “you will also leave me;” or scorn, “you are unable to help me.” When the therapist does not capitulate, but retains his or her own subjectivity as the good enough mother, the door to mutual recognition will be opened and subsequent new intersubjective modes of being with it (Baraitser, 2009).  Change requires rapport (pole #1) and rupture (pole #2) for the intersubjective (pole #3) way a client relates to change.


Another way to understand intersubjectivity is through language. Language conveys human’s highest forms of objectivity through subjective symbolic interpretation. Language is neither completely subjective nor completely objective because it is a product of relationships which are intersubjective.

Linguistic theory and hermeneutics have dominated the study of epistemology in the last century. The transition toward hermeneutical philosophy is known as the linguistic turn (Rorty, 1967). Epistemology done in isolation without taking the Other into account is inherently Cartesian and ultimately self-refuting (Macmurray, 1969). At the core, language is really just currency in the economy of relationships. The idea of a private language is not possible because language is dependent on a community (Wittgenstein, 2001).  Language allows the individual to




interface with another’s consciousness, despite not being able to completely grasp the other’s experience.

To use language is to presuppose not only a community of shared knowledge (some objectivity) but also a listening, effectible, and learning community (some subjectivity.) To speak is to first believe that there is some shared “objective” ground of syllabic representation. Yet to speak is to also say there is a “subjective” knowledge personally held that the larger community is deprived of. Both poles make dialogue meaningless; subjectivism because no one will understand, and objectivism because everyone already understands. As long as the study of epistemology includes linguistic theory it will be in some part the study of relationships.

The relational connection a counselor has with his client is the substance of epistemological mutuality. As the relationship grows so does the epistemology base which supports the analyst’s judgment concerning pathology. Therapy and attunement are literally the process of rewriting the epistemological foundations for the client’s engagement in the world. A client may begin therapy feeling like he is a failure, filled with debilitating shame, (which is an epistemological issue) and find hope through changing his hermeneutic toward himself.

Pole #3 finishes the stop sign analogy. A police officer using an intersubjective approach would expect everyone to see the stop sign uniquely through their individual senses and paradigm’s but would not allow someone to treat it like a “Go” sign. The sign is not open to any interpretation but neither is it limited to a single interpretation.  A theory of epistemology must be able to hold both certainty and wonder, because these constitute the intersubjective world we live in.


For the Philosopher:

  • Philosophy has much to learn from the social sciences and in particular psychotherapy because both are often asking the same questions: What is the good life? How do we attain it? Who am I?
  • Phenomenology is very similar to therapeutic empathy. It is an attempt to understand the unique place and journey a person is

For the Psychoanalyst:

  • In the intersubjective paradigm, the therapeutic relationship is the center of what is curative not insight. Healing is therefore a co-creation with the
  • A therapist’s personal work is critical in the process of helping a client due to the mutual influencing that happens within intersubjectivity. A therapist can only take someone as far as he or she has
  • Mental illness should not be framed as people possessing “Abnormal representations of objective reality” but rather as people who have accurate accounts of reality according to their subjective lens (Maung, 2012, p.36). Though their accounts of reality are inappropriate they are not inaccurate which should lead to humility, curiosity, and empathy.
  • Transference and countertransference are deeply ingrained relational structures brought into the therapeutic dyad from previous relationships. Rather than attempting to eradicate them, they can indicate unexamined areas for the analyst and client to Transference, countertransference and projection are all types of relationship epistemology. The disposition of curiosity, awe, and wonder allows the Other to be encountered as they are unencumbered by categories superimposed on them.




  • A client (along with every person) projects an “intersubjective” persona that includes things like tone, force, disposition, and physicality which are a result of past and present relationships. A client’s style of relating (Allender, 2008) can provide a large amount of data to the therapist through the phenomenology of the therapeutic relationship. Does the client make me feel small or insignificant? Do I feel like somehow I’m attending a trial and the client is on the stand? Do I feel repulsed or drawn to the client? Why does my body tense when the client walks in? The phenomenology of the intersubjective exchange in a therapeutic relationship can guide the therapist toward significant areas of hurt.

Application for Both Philosopher and Psychoanalyst:

  • Both the philosopher and the psychoanalyst must approach their world with a Buber (1923) I-Thou stance which is filled awe, wonder and gratitude for the
  • There is something ontologically enriching when the other is encountered through mutual recognition. Intersubjectivity is happening whether we like it or not, the question is: how will we interact with the subjects we encounter on a daily basis?






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