SÁNDOR FERENCZI AND FIELD THEORY
Ferenczi never used the term “field”, but his pioneering contributions have been fundamental for the development of psychoanalytic field theories. Once again, it is not the case that he is usually quoted as such, but his once heretical ideas have seeped unnoticed into the contemporary psychoanalytic discourse, without the corresponding recognition. But his extended shadow can be found in the origins and foundations of interpersonal psychoanalysis, the Independent tradition of object relations theory, self psychology, the study of early mother-child relations, interpersonal psychoanalysis, and relational psychoanalysis, all of them contributors to the development of field theory.
There are actually three major areas in which Ferenczi’s thought is essential for any psychoanalytic field theory. The first is his firm conviction that society and its values and prejudices play a major role in psychopathology, and that psychoanalysis should free patients from the dire consequences of a repressive education. This requires some approach to the problem of accounting for the mutual influences between individuals and society, and this can be provided by a psychoanalytical field theory, such as the one adumbrated by Enrique Pichon-Rivière and later formalized by Willy and Madeleine Baranger.
The second is his exploration of the mutual unconscious influence between human beings, as in married couples, mother and child, teacher and student, analyst and patient. In his very first psychoanalytic paper, written in 1908 and called “The effect on women of premature ejaculation in men”, instead of focusing on the causes of such premature ejaculation, he highlighted the effects this had on the woman, inducing pathological responses in her (Ferenczi, 1908).. In the same vein, 25 year later, in his last paper called “Confusion of tongues between adults and the child”, he explored the impact of the analyst’s unconscious processes on the patient´s transference, viewed as a kind of countertransference to the analyst’s transference to the patient (Ferenczi, 1933).
Of course, Freud (1912e) had already described the unconscious communication between the two parties of the analytic situation, but only in unilateral terms —i.e., from the patient to the analyst— as if the patient’s unconscious were not able to “read” the analyst’s. But Ferenczi went much further and conceived such communication as being bilateral, and this led him to the concept of the essential unity of the transference-countertransference, which is a prerequisite for the emergence and development of interpersonal psychoanalysis, object relations theory, and relational psychoanalysis, as well as the various psychoanalytic field theories.
The third and most important of Ferenczi’s contributions to the bases of field theory is his postulation of an originary undifferentiated state of mind, which he called “Thalassal”, from which all other mental states, experiences, perceptions, and thoughts evolve, and which remains present but unseen, underlying the more differentiated states. Thalassa is the Greek name for the sea, and he chose it to refer to his bold bioanalytical speculation about the phylogenetic trauma suffered by all those living beings that were forced to adapt to a new life on earth, when the ocean waters receded, with the consequence that they preserved an urge to return to their original environment. In the same way, those viviparous animals, such as ourselves, that develop a prenatal existence in an aqueous environment within their mother’s body, which resembles the originary form of life in our planet, also have an urge to return to the womb, and this is acted out in coitus. Psychologically, the human drive for joining bodies and fluids with a mate symbolizes both the individual’s urge to return to the mother’s womb and that of the species to go back to the ocean.
Quite apart, from any appraisal of the validity of these bioanalytical efforts, there remains the idea that Mind starts from an undifferentiated original state, that such a state somehow persists in the more mature states of being, and that there is a yearning, perhaps a drive, to return to it. Whereas Freud (1930a) discarded what he called the “oceanic feeling” as a primitive state of mind, characteristic of infancy, to be left behind with growth and development, which would only persist in adulthood in pathological conditions, Ferenczi’s 1924 book Thalassa: A Theory of Genitality, which was published six years before Freud’s, conceived this undifferentiated phase of experience as primary, universal, and continuous.
In human beings, this is what makes possible the appearance of “Thalassal regressions”, which are the basis for sexuality, creativity, art, religion, and social life, and also, of course, the analytic relationship. This concept is also needed is order to account for the conception of the analytic field, as it makes sense of the unconscious resonance between analyst and analysand, particularly in those moments in which, as Ferenczi wrote in his Clinical Diary —written in 1932 but which was only published in French in 1985 and in English in 1988— “It is as though two halves had combined to form a whole soul. The emotions of the analyst combine with the ideas of the analysand, and the ideas of the analyst (representational images), with the emotions of the analysand; in this way the otherwise lifeless images become events, and the empty emotional tumult acquires an intellectual content” (Ferenczi 1985  p. 14, my italics).
Consequently, I strongly feel that it is high time for us to acknowledge Ferenczi as a precursor of our psychoanalytic field theories, and reap the benefits of the study of his many contributions and suggestions from the perspective of our clinical and theoretical interests.
Balint, M. (1968): The Basic Fault: Therapeutic Aspects of Regression. New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1979.
Bonomi, C. & Borgogno, F. (2014). The Ferenczi Renaissance: Past, present, and future. Web page of the International Sándor Ferenczi Network (visited October 25, 2017)
Ferenczi, S. (1908). The effect on women of premature ejaculation in men. In Final Contributions to the Problems and Methods of Psycho-Analysis (pp. 291–294), M. Balint (Ed.), E. Mosbacher et al. (Trans). London:Karnac, 1994.
Ferenczi, S. (1924). Thalassa: A Theory of Genitality, H. A. Bunker (trans.). London: Karnac, 2005.
Ferenczi, S. (1933). Confusion of the tongues between the adults and the child—(The language of tenderness and of passion). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 1949, 30: 225–230. Also in Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 24: 196–206. [Reprinted in Ferenczi (1955), Final Contributions to the Problems and Methods of Psycho-Analysis (pp. 156–167), M. Balint (Ed.), E. Mosbacher et al. (Trans). London: Karnac, 2011.]
Ferenczi, S. (1985 ). The Clinical Diary of Sándor Ferenczi, J. Dupont (Ed.), M. Balint and N. Z. Jackson (Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1988. [Originally written in 1932 and first published in French as Journal Clinique (janvier–octobre 1932), Paris: Payot, 1985.]
Freud, S. (1912e). Recommendations to physicians practising psycho-analysis. Standard Edition 12: 110–120. London: Hogarth.
Freud, S. (1930a). Civilization and its Discontents. Standard Edition 21: 64–145. London: Hogarth.
Freud, S. (1933c). Sándor Ferenczi. Standard Edition 22: 225-230. London: Hogarth.