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The Interpersonal School:

the roots and evolution of a

two-person psychology, mutual enactment, and intersubjectivity

(adapted from The Interpersonal Tradition, The Origins of Psychoanalytic Subjectivity, Hirsch, I., 2015)

Irwin Hirsch explains, in The Interpersonal Tradition: Origins of Psychoanalytic Subjectivity, that the origin of the core theme of the contemporary, intersubjective and relational schools, i.e., that the analyst-analysand dyad are enmeshed within an affective, interpersonal matrix, first originated with Harry Stack Sullivan, founder of the Interpersonal school. 


The theme of such psychotherapeutic, subjective engagement, which encompasses the analysts' countertransference and his/her theoretical stance, was further elucidated by many earlier theorists, prior to and contemporary with Kohut (The Restoration of the Self, 1977), and Stolorow, et al (e.g., Faces in a Cloud, 1979, and Structures of Subjectivity, 1984):


"...Unfortunately, because of the almost total absence of cross-fertilization between classical Freudian and Interpersonal literature until the 1980's, few of these scholarly  analysts were at all familiar with conceptions that they had essentially and innocently rediscovered...contemporary ideas influence between analyst and patient and the inevitable perspectivism and co-construction of narrative...all existed as developing ideas within the Interpersonal school between the 1940's and the 1970's..." (Hirsch, pp. 3,5).

Stimulated by the unorthodoxy of Hungarian born Sandor Ferenczi (1873-1933), "...Clara Thompson ...was dispatched by Sullivan to undergo a brief analysis  with Ferenczi...[and] can see how Thompson's thinking was a forerunner to conceptions of mutual enactment...The transference-countertransference matrix was seen by her as a vivid and immediate forum to examine how patients shape their current interactional life..." (Hirsch, p. 6). 


Thus, there were numerous American psychoanalytic authors, beginning with Sullivan, who  diverged from Freudian, ‘one-person’ orthodoxy, i.e., deviated from the ideas of therapist ‘neutrality’, and the purported objective examination, understanding, and treatment of a patient’s individual psyche. 


Sullivan (1940), followed by Thompson, prepared the foundation for most contemporary "post-modern" theories, i.e., that there is the:


mutual enactment and the irreducible subjectivity of all analytic engagement” (Hirsch, p. 8),


Authors in Sullivan's wake include Fromm (1941), Thompson (1950), Wolstein (1954, 1977), Leowald (1960), Searles (1965, 1979), Levenson (1972, 1991), Sandler (1976), Gill (1982, 1983), Greenberg & Mitchell (1983), Jacobs (1986), and Renik (1993) (Hirsch, pp. 6-10).

Hirsch describes an analysand of Clara Thompson, Benjamin Wolstein (1954, 1977), as "...years ahead of his time...[who]...argued that the thoroughly subjective engagement between two fairly symmetrical co-participants was the heart of mutative action..." (Hirsch, p. 6).

E. A. Levenson (1972, 1991), described as instrumental to the Relational turn, spoke of "transformation", which occurs when: "...the analytic interaction becomes a playground reflecting a representation of patients' internalized [...past and present...] self-other configurations...", and it was T. J. Jacobs (1986) who soon introduced the term "mutual enactments" (Hirsch, p. 8).

Hirsch's text, beginning with a comprehensive introduction summarized above, then presents 12 published essays and articles, spanning the years 1984 through 2014, each with an explanatory, introductory 'prologue', that sets the tone for what follows.


The core theme that emerges, consistent throughout the book, is that the unique person of the analyst is the key  to psychoanalytic understanding, whereby the analyst, as one of the co-participants of a dyad, is a " enactor...a subjective and idiosyncratic presence..." (Hirsch, pp. 2,3).


Evolving from Harry Stack Sullivan's 'participant-observer' concept, Hirsch traces an intellectual evolutionary path of 'observing-participation', whereby the analyst's countertransference, once eschewed as a nagging interference with treatment, is gradually understood as an inevitable and necessary therapeutic tool, within a bi-directional, inseparable matrix (Hirsch, p. 2).


Describing an intellectual path of decreasing rigidity towards adherence to a myth of therapeutic neutrality, evolving among the theoretical ideas of diverse American authors, Hirsch delineates how the ubiquitous presence of countertransference assists the analyst in the healing therapeutic quest.

The analyst serves as a mutative therapeutic agent, via the inevitable, unconscious entanglement of an irreducibly unique, intersubjective, dyadic field:

" Renik (1993) described, two irreducibly subjective participants..." (Hirsch, p. 4).


Patient and analyst, each harboring his/her unique, internalized, relational schema, relational configurations, rigid patterns of relatedness (Hirsch, p. 44), internal working models, or organizing patterns or principles (see definitions, below), engage in mutually embedded enactments, from which both analyst and patient must emerge, from a normally 'asymmetrical' relationship:


"...Awareness of enactment (see definition, below, in glossary) begins the process of both parties' winding their way out of the patient's characterological configurations..." (Hirsch, p. 44)...Although enactments imply a mutual transference...the analyst retains the role of observer ...more so than does the patient...[and secondly,] while patients speak fully about their immediate feelings...and so on...analysts generally do not..." (ibid., p. 63).

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