SelfJohnston, A. & Malabou, C. (2013). Self and Emotional Life: Philosophy, Psychoanalysis, and Neuroscience. New York, New York: Columbia University Press. 276 pages. ISBN: 9780231158312.

Reviewed by Sue Roh, Columbia University

Adrian Johnston and Catherine Malabou in Self and Emotional Life coalesce two seemingly contradictory disciplines: psychoanalysis and neurobiology. While, historically, the two were disparate fields, neurobiology has made innovations that psychoanalysists can no longer ignore. Johnston and Malabou hypothesize that in the future, the field of psychoanalysis will see dramatic changes due to innovations in the life sciences; but the sort of change that will take place is where they diverge in opinion.

For this reason, Self and Emotional Life is not presented in a typical manner. Instead, it switches between Malabou and Johnston’s different arguments. Malabou believes that the future of psychoanalysis will be cut and overrun by neurobiology, but Johnston maintains that psychoanalysis will take into account the impressive advances of neurobiology and incorporate them into their methods of analysis. This disaccord can be attributed to their diverging opinion on the key role of psychoanalysis: While Johnston claims that psychoanalysis can theorize but not treat, Malabou affirms that analysis can neither theorize nor treat.

Johnston and Malabou explore the example of neural plasticity, which demonstrates neurobiology’s inability to elucidate all aspects of the brain. Even Damasio, a contemporary neurobiologist, implies that neurobiology is insufficient in studying the brain to its full capacity. Rather, our subjective experiences shape our brain in a significant way that cannot be ignored. Reducing the body to the brain is disregarding the importance of subjectivity.
The dual approach of neuro-psychoanalysis reconciles these two seemingly divergent fields, and, as Johnston notes, its emergence is a recent innovation. Never before has a coalescence of psychoanalysis, neurobiology, and Continental philosophy occurred. This coalescence will result not only in a new field of psychoanalysis but also innovations in neurobiology, a field which Damasio and LeDoux have spearheaded.

Self and Emotional Life fuses two seemingly opposing fields and is presented vis-à-vis two seemingly opposing arguments. The way the two authors introduce and contest each other’s arguments offers a nuanced and comprehensive understanding that allows the reader to conceptualize his or her perspective on subjectivity. Furthermore, it reaffirms the fact that one does not have to relinquish his or her philosophical soul in order to be engaged with neurobiology or the other life sciences.

Johnston, A. & Malabou, C. (2013). Self and Emotional Life: Philosophy, Psychoanalysis, and Neuroscience. New York, New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN: 978-0-231-15831-2.
Paperback. 276 pages. Includes index.

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