But then the question arises, are fields and processes real or just useful conventions? This question has also been applied to theoretical constructs in general, such as “gene”, “atom”, “social class”, or “the unconscious”. In the past, they were all assumed to be real, meaning that they have an actual existence before and apart from our cogitations. Nowadays, many epistemologists and scientists hold the nominalistic and pragmatic view that they are merely useful instruments for thinking about experience.
But what does “real” mean? For realistic positivism, this refers only to material reality, hence being subject to materialistic metaphysics. But taking such assumption as the only “Reality” reveals an absolute lack of philosophical sophistication. Unfortunately, this is the case with many scientists, as well as in the ordinary common-sense conception of the world.
In ontology, there are many kinds of entities, all of them real. Feelings, ideas, theories, rules, values, relations, and collective entities such as groups or communities exist quite apart or even in spite of our will, have effects on other entities, and require an effort in order to change them, and this makes them as real as rocks, rivers, billiard balls, machines, or individual organisms (Tubert-Oklander, 2016).
Now, do we need to believe in the reality of our concepts? The answer of realistic positivism is definitely “Yes!”, because it strives to attain truth by correspondence —i.e., to formulate propositions that correspond in every relevant detail, to “what actually happens”, in other words, “facts”. In our discipline, such positivistic view demands that, in order to be true, a psychoanalytic construction of the past origin of any human expression or trait should be “a picture of the patient's forgotten years that shall be alike trustworthy and in all essential respects complete” (Freud, 1937d, p. 258), or that a psychoanalytic interpretation of unconscious phantasy should correspond, in every detail, to the actual phantasy that is active in the patient’s unconscious at that very moment, in the Kleinian conception of psychoanalysis (Etchegoyen, 1974, personal communication). This implies the belief that interpretations or constructions are only therapeutic if they are true.
On the other hand, those who hold the nominalistic view can dispense with such belief, and keep and use them as long as they are expedient. In other words, they rely on what William James called “the cash value of an idea”. Hence, in the field of psychoanalysis, it is not important for them that an interpretation or construction correspond to “the facts”, but only its transformative impact on the patient.
Obviously, both extreme positions have their own drawbacks. The positivistic view relies on a univocal interpretation of experiences and theories, and this breeds dogmatism. On the other hand, the nominalistic view applies an equivocal interpretation, which leads to a relativism in which anything goes and the only possible basis for choosing an interpretation or theory over others is personal taste or practical convenience. This implies forsaking any search for truth.
Which one should we choose? Both positions have assets and liabilities. The univocal interpretation offers certainty, but at the price of narrowness and dogmatism. The equivocal one provides a much wider and nuanced view, but is plagued by uncertainty. Of course, those researchers, thinkers, and practitioners who believe in the actual reality of their theoretical constructs are much more comfortable than those who do not, but this seems to be a case of Hobson’s choice.
Fortunately, these are not the only alternatives. Analogical hermeneutics, which is the theoretical proposal of Mexican philosopher Mauricio Beuchot, with whom I have been collaborating for many years now, poses a third way: that of analogy (Tubert-Oklander, 2014; Tubert-Oklander and Beuchot Puente, 2008). Where univocality emphasizes the reference —i.e., the non-verbal reality our discourse is speaking about and which gives it a meaning— and equivocality highlights the sense —i.e., the meaning given to a certain expression by the whole linguistic system from which it emerges— analogy strives to strike a balance between reference and sense, that is, between the ontological reality we are trying to fathom and our awareness and understanding of how our view of it is constructed by our language, perspective, and thought.
Coming back to our present problem, when we speak about the field, we are talking about an ontological reality —i.e., something that exists apart from our perception, thinking, and will— and that is the enormous and ineffable complexity of human existence, but our idea of the field is not that reality, which is not in itself knowable, but the picture we have managed to construct of some aspect of it, by means of our linguistic system and personal and theoretical perspective. And this is only one of the possible (partial) views of that reality, which is not directly accessible to us. Each view depicts a different aspect of that complexity, and some are better or more relevant than others.
Something is actually happening in our consulting rooms, something we do not know and cannot control —i.e., it is unconscious— and we can only strive to understand it partially by means of analysis, which is carried out by our inner reflection and the interpretative dialog with our patients. In this, we are bound to use some of the various perspectives that have been developed in more than a century of collective analytic inquiry. Field theories are one of these perspectives, and one that has shown to be quite useful in perceiving, understanding and dealing with what happens between our patients and us.
So, is the field real, or is it not? The field concept refers to something real, and this is the basis of its validity and usefulness, but this ontological basis is not identical to and is more complex and wider than the image of it provided by our theory. And this is even more so when we consider that we presently have at our disposal several psychoanalytic field theories and each of them focuses of some aspect of the actual events that we try to account for with the field concept.
The map is not the territory and the theory is not the reality it tries to describe and explain. The relation of our concepts with their ontological reference is similar to that of a portrait or a biography with the person portrayed. Several painters or writers may depict a same person, but the images they create will be quite different, as each artist will see and interpret a different view of the object of their efforts. And, of course, some will be better and more enlightening than others, but none of them will be the definitive truth. Nonetheless, some of them at least will provide a true insight into the character of the person they are dealing with. This is not Truth with a capital T, but only a modest, partial, temporary, and humble truth, and yet true enough for us to keep thinking and working from it. As Winnicott would have said, we will have to make do with a good-enough truth.
The person portrayed does not always like or acknowledge the image provided by his or her portrait, but it may still be a truthful version of some aspect of her or his being. Winston Churchill hated Graham Sutherland’s portrait of him. He had intended to have an image of himself as an icon of Britain’s majesty, as an Empire and the newly created Commonwealth that replaced it, and he had instead a portrait of the decaying old man that he was (see picture below). The picture was sequestered and allegedly ordered to be burned by Lady Churchill (Furness, 2015). No wonder our patients frequently hate us on account of our interpretations!
Etchegoyen, R. H. (1974). Personal communication during supervision.
Freud, S. (1937d). Constructions in analysis. Standard Edition 23: 255–270.
Furness, H. (2015). Secret of Winston Churchill's unpopular Sutherland portrait revealed. The Telegraph, 10 Jul 2015. Downloaded 16 May 2018 at
Tubert-Oklander, J. (2014). The One and the Many: Relational Psychoanalysis and Group Analysis. London: Karnac.
Tubert-Oklander, J. (2016). The quest for the real. In Legorreta, G. & Brown, L. E. (eds.) (2016), On Freud’s “Formulations on the Two Principles of Mental Functioning”. London: International Psychoanalytical Association / Karnac, pp. 185–200.
Tubert-Oklander, J. & Beuchot Puente, M. (2008). Ciencia mestiza. Psicoanálisis y hermenéutica analógica [Hybrid science: Psychoanalysis and analogical hermeneutics]. Mexico City: Torres.