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A Philosopher and a Psychoanalyst: Eric Voegelin and Donald Winnicott on the In-Between of Human Life

A Philosopher And A Psychoanalyst: Eric Voegelin And Donald Winnicott On The In-Between Of Human Life

The literature on the work of the philosopher Eric Voegelin includes no studies of the relevance of his philosophy of order for psychiatry and psychotherapy.  There are at least two reasons why such studies are worth doing.  First, for Voegelin the philosopher is a diagnostician of disorders of the soul.  His work abounds with sensitive analyses of the order of the souls of philosophers, saints, and sages, and acute diagnoses of the disorder of the souls of gnostic intellectuals and ideologues.  Psychiatrists and psychotherapists have much to learn from these analyses.  Second, for Voegelin philosophy is the therapy of order.  Philosophizing is a healing process in which ever greater insight into the disorder of one’s soul goes hand in hand with ever more open responsiveness to the pull of transcendent truth. The psychiatrist and psychotherapist should be attracted to such a conception of philosophy, since it promises to help further his own personal healing and that of the people who come to him for help.

A fruitful way to begin such research is by interpreting the work of a major figure in contemporary psychotherapy in the light of Voegelin’s mature philosophy.  In this paper I use Voegelin’s work to interpret the theories of human development and psychotherapy of the pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott (1896-1971), whom I regard as the most important psychoanalyst since Freud.  The major theme of the paper is that we can use Voegelin’s concept of the primary experience of the cosmos to clarify Winnicott’s ideas about the experiences of being and play that are the core of psychological health.  A second theme is the similarity between the core problems addressed by Voegelin and Winnicott and the remarkable equivalence between many of their symbols.  I conclude that Voegelin and Winnicott offer complementary insights that can be incorporated into a theory of the psyche, psychopathology, and personal healing that reflects the full range of human experience.

Voegelin defines philosophy as “the love of being through love of divine Being as the source of its order,” and says that the proper object of philosophical inquiry is the logos or order of being. (Voegelin 1956, p. xiv)  The philosopher does not start his inquiry from scratch but from the symbols in his social environment that have been developed to articulate that order.  Philosophizing involves a meditative descent into the depths of the psyche in search of the experiences that motivated such symbols and a meditative ascent from the depths in search of a more differentiated language with which to interpret those experiences and symbols and, thereby, bring the order of being to essential clarity.

The Experience of Participation

Voegelin interprets the history of ancient Hellenic philosophy from Heraclitus to Aristotle as the gradual discovery and symbolization of the order of man’s participation in being.  By “participation,” which is the key symbol in his philosophy, Voegelin means “the reality of being in contact with reality outside myself.” (Voegelin 1989, p. 72)  For Voegelin, as for Gabriel Marcel and Karl Jaspers, the experience of participation involves our whole being and is, therefore, not an intellectual problem to be solved but a mystery to be lived.  We cannot “look at” participation in the way we look at objects in the world around us or “know” it in the ways we “know” such objects.  We can only illuminate our participation in being from within through the analogical symbols and narratives of myth and the more differentiated symbols of philosophy, revelation, and mysticism.

In an important essay, “What is Political Reality?” (Voegelin 1966), Voegelin interprets certain passages of Aristotle’s Metaphysics as providing a precise exegesis of the movements by which the consciousness of the philosopher, in seeking to become explicit to itself, illuminates its own order as a mutual participation (metalepsis) of the human and divine entities that Aristotle calls nous. The following passage from Voegelin’s analysis illustrates his understanding of the order of man’s participation in being and, therefore, is worth quoting in full:

“In the experience of Aristotle man finds himself in a condition of ignorance (agnoia, amathia) with regard to the ground of order (aition, arche) of his existence.  He could not recognize his ignorance as such, were he not in the throes of a restless urge to escape from ignorance (pheugein ten agnoian) in order to seek knowledge (episteme).  Since the term anxiety, which in modern language symbolizes this restlessness, has no equivalent in Greek, Aristotle uses specific terms in order to characterize the questioning in confusion or doubt (diaporein, aporein).  “But whoever is perplexed (aporon) and wonders (thaumazon) is conscious (oetai) of being ignorant (agnoein)” (Met. 982b18).  From questioning restlessness there arises man’s desire to know (tou eidenai oregontai).  The restless search (zetesis) for the ground of all being is divided into two components:  the desire or grasping (oregesthai) for the goal and the knowledge (noein).  Similarly, the goal (telos) itself is divided into the components of desire (orekton) and the known (noeton) (1072a26ss).  Since the search is not a blind desire but rather contains the component of insight, we may characterize it as knowing questioning and questioning knowledge.  Although the quest implies a component of direction, it still may miss its goal (telos) or be satisfied with a false one.  That which gives direction to the desire and thus imparts content to it is the ground itself, insofar as it moves man by attraction (kinetai).”

“The tension toward the ground, of which man is conscious, thus must be understood as a unity that may be interpreted but not analyzed into parts.  Tracing the exegesis backward, we therefore must say:  Without the kinesis of being attracted by the ground, there would be no desire for it; without the desire, no questioning in confusion; without questioning in confusion, no awareness of ignorance.  There could be no ignorant anxiety, from which rises the question about the ground, if the anxiety itself were not already man’s knowledge of his existence from a ground of being that is not man himself.  This directional factor of knowledge in the tension of consciousness toward the ground Aristotle calls nous . . . Aristotle adds to the exegesis of the noetic desire for the ground and the attraction by the ground the symbol of mutual participation (metalepsis) of two entities called nous.  By nous he understands both the human capacity for knowing questioning about the ground and also the ground of being itself, which is experienced as the directing mover of questions.”  (Voegelin 1966, pp. 148-9)

This interpretation of Aristotle indicates Voegelin’s view that man’s participation in being is not random or diffuse but is structured from within as a movement or tension toward divine Being.  A philosopher like Aristotle or Voegelin articulates the directional movement in consciousness, the tension toward the ground of being, in experience-near symbols.  Aristotle speaks of the concrete experiences of being ignorant; questioning in confusion, doubt, and perplexity; wondering; desiring; searching; grasping; and being attracted.

In interpreting such experience-near symbols, a philosopher will inevitably use more abstract symbols in sentences that have the grammatical structure of everyday language, in which we use verbs to link subjects and objects.  It is possible to be led by such sentences to interpret the more abstract symbols as if they refer to objects in the external world.  This is the most basic of philosophical errors, according to Voegelin.  We must not let the character of everyday language lead us to miss the function of the concrete symbols in articulating an immediate experience in which the awareness of subject, object, and verb is not present.  However differentiated the language we use to interpret the experience of participation, we must not forget that participation has an immediate dimension.  Voegelin’s view on this issue was influenced by his reading of William James and Plato:

“In developing his concept of pure experience, James put his finger on the reality of the consciousness of participation, inasmuch as what he calls pure experience is the something that can be put into the context either of the subject’s stream of consciousness or of objects of the external world.  This fundamental insight of James identifies the something that lies between the subject and object of participation as the experience.  Later I found that the same type of analysis had been conducted on a much vaster scale by Plato, resulting in his concept of the metaxy-the In-Between.  The experience is neither in the subject nor in the world of objects but In-Between, and that means In-Between the poles of man and the reality that he experiences.” (Voegelin 1989, pp. 72-73)

Voegelin refers to James’ essay, “Does Consciousness Exist?”, which Alfred North Whitehead said marks the end of modern philosophy just as Descartes’ Meditations marks its beginning.  The thesis of James’ essay is that we need not assume any fundamental ontological division of reality into two substances, as Descartes did, in order to account for the facts of experience.  Voegelin inferred from this view that we commit what Whitehead calls the fallacy of misplaced concreteness if we interpret our language of subject-verb-object as reality itself.  The alternative James proposes is to assume that we experience reality prior to our thoughts and feelings about or images of it:  “the instant field of the present is at all times . . .  the ‘pure’ experience.  It is only virtually or potentially either object or subject as yet.” (James 1904, p. 23)  Our attention to the more differentiated language of a subject of cognition intending objects must not obscure the fact that, in addition to apprehending reality through the mediation of language, we also experience reality immediately as what James calls a “simple that.”  In James’ view, “experience . . .  has no . . .  inner duplicity; and the separation of it into consciousness and content comes, not by way of subtraction, but by way of addition . . . ” (p. 9)  Following James, Voegelin takes the view that both dimensions of experience-the immediate and the symbolically mediated-are real and must be acknowledged if we are to understand the knowing-from-within that we achieve through symbols.

Mythical Symbolism and the Primary Experience of the Cosmos

Voegelin contends that all philosophical exegeses of the experience of participation must employ mythical symbolism.  In the passage quoted, Voegelin notes that Aristotle uses the same term, nous, for both the human capacity for knowing questioning and also for the ground of being itself that is experienced as the directing mover of the questions.  According to Voegelin, this usage employs a form of mythical symbolism in which “synonymity of expression means equality of genus by genesis” (Voegelin 1978, p. 149).  Aristotle assumes that the apprehending participation of the human nous in the ground of being is only made possible by “the preceding genetic participation of the divine in the human nous” (p. 150).  The reliance on mythical symbolism is not just the plight of Aristotle.  The more differentiated language of Voegelin, for example the statements that man is “part of the whole” and a “partner in being” and indeed the more abstract term “participation,” also employs metaphor.  According to Voegelin, a philosopher must inevitably use metaphors to articulate his differentiated understanding of reality, and those metaphors differ from the more compact narratives of mythical symbolism only insofar as they reflect a greater critical awareness of the symbolizing process and render more explicit the meanings expressed more compactly in the myth.  Why is this so?

According to Voegelin, mythical symbolism and its refinement in more abstract metaphors are the precise instruments for articulating the single experiential constant that is expressed in all forms of symbolism of human participation in being.  That constant element is the experience of all the areas of reality as consubstantial.  In his later work, Voegelin calls this constant the primary experience of the cosmos.  This experience is primary in the sense of being “the historical and personal starting-point for all interpretations of reality.” (Hughes 1998, p. 3). The experience is of a cosmos in the sense that reality is experienced as an embracing oneness that comprises all that is.  As Voegelin describes the experience in the fourth volume of his magnum opus, Order and History:

“The cosmos of the primary experience is neither the external world of objects given to a subject of cognition, nor is it the world that has been created by a world-transcendent God.  Rather, it is the whole, to pan, of an earth below and a heaven above-of celestial bodies and their movements; of seasonal changes; of fertility rhythms in plant and animal life; of human life, death, and birth; and above all, as Thales still knew, it is a cosmos full of gods.” (Voegelin 1974, p. 68)

Voegelin’s historical studies led him to conclude that, in societies such as ancient Egypt, where the breakthrough to the more differentiated language of philosophy or revelation has not yet occurred, mythical symbolism is the sole means of illuminating man’s participation in reality.  In such societies, reality is symbolized as an embracing whole that is comprised of the four areas of the gods, man, the world, and society, all of which are symbolized compactly in terms of analogies with each other.  Thus, a king’s rule over a territory and its people may be symbolized as an analogue of divine rule over the cosmos, or the king himself as a god or perhaps a son of god.  Reflection on such intracosmic analogies reveals, according to Voegelin, an important truth about the relationship between mythical symbolism and the primary experience of the cosmos.  The intracosmic analogies used by ancient societies make sense only on the assumption that the various partners in the community of being are consubstantial.  That is, the validity of the analogies is not self-evident but derives from:

“the experience of an underlying, intangible embracingness, from a something that can supply existence, consubstantiality, and order to all areas of reality even though it does not itself belong as an existent thing to any one of these areas.  The cosmos is not a thing among others; it has reality in the mode of nonexistence.  Hence, the cosmological play with mutual analogies cannot come to rest on a firm basis outside itself; it can do no more than make a particular area of reality . . . transparent for the mystery of existence over the abyss of nonexistence.” (p. 72)

For Voegelin, philosophical symbols that seek to explicate the consubstantiality of man and the reality of which he is a part, including the reality of other men, have their source in the primary experience and emerge from and are continuous with more compact mythical symbols. The cosmic primary experience is also the source of all differentiated revelatory symbols about man, such as those developed by the prophets of Israel to articulate the experience of the presence under God as their essence (Voegelin 1966, pp. 150).  Voegelin’s view is made clear in his interpretation of perhaps the most famous Aristotelian statement of sameness, the claim at the beginning of the Metaphysics that “all men by nature desire to know.”

The statement that the known nature is not merely the nature of one person who concretely has the experience of his essence, but rather that of all men, implies the premise that all men are equal qua men, regardless of whether or not they experience their human essence in the clarity of differentiated consciousness.  The knowledge of the premise, however, comes not from the concrete experience of essence on the part of the respective noetic or pneumatic person, but from the cosmic primary experience, in which things are already experienced as participating-men as men, and gods and gods-even when we do not know too well what precisely they are.  Without that premise, the noetic experiences would remain a biographical curiosity; only with the premise as background do they attain their ordering function in society and history, inasmuch as the premise is the basis of the claim that they are representative and binding for all men.  (pp. 150-1)

In the last quotation Voegelin refers to noetic and pneumatic experiences.  A brief summary of his distinction between experiences and acts of transcendence (Voegelin 1963, p. 5) will help to clarify his understanding how noetic and pneumatic experiences differ from the primary experience of the cosmos.  As I understand it, the term “transcendence” refers most broadly to those experiences in which, as we focus our attention on any aspect of reality, a “more” emerges into our awareness.  Voegelin generally speaks of “experiences of transcendence” in which the “more” that emerges is experienced and symbolized as holy, sacred, divine, or the equivalent.  He uses the term “act of transcendence” to refer to the culmination of a process of meditation in which an experience of transcendence ends in the pervasion of consciousness by transcendent Being.

According to Voegelin, experiences of transcendence occur in ancient societies that symbolize reality solely in mythical terms, but the various realms of being are not clearly distinguished and acts of transcendence are not recognized as such, if they occur at all.  In both Hellenic philosophy and Israelite revelation acts of transcendence dissociate the cosmos-full-of-gods of the primary experience into a world of existing things and a transcendent, divine reality that in philosophy is symbolized as Being and in revelation is symbolized as a personal, creator God.  Beginning with the essays written in the 1960s that were published in Anamnesis (Voegelin 1978), Voegelin begins to speak of “noetic” and “pneumatic” experiences and to use those terms as synonymous to the philosophical and revelatory differentiations, respectively.  In the fourth volume of Order and History he makes clear that both differentiations always include a pneumatic core and a noetic periphery.  I interpret the pneumatic core as the experiences of transcendence, especially the acts of transcendence, and the noetic periphery as the experience of making the differentiating event explicit to itself through discovering and symbolizing its structure.

An important achievement of the Hellenic philosophers was the differentiation of the psyche as the area in reality that becomes luminous to itself in the noetic exegesis of the tension toward the divine ground of being.  To clarify the relations between the psyche and the ground, the philosophers developed the symbols immanent and transcendent to symbolize what Voegelin calls the human and divine poles of the tension.  The abstract terms “immanent” and “transcendent” and human and divine “poles” articulate in more differentiated form the truth compactly expressed in the mythical symbolism of mortal men and the immortal gods.  At the same time, the terms are metaphorical symbols that articulate the primary experience of the cosmos just as do the more compact symbols of the intracosmic myth.

The Existential Virtues and the Depth of the Psyche

Heraclitus was the pre-Socratic philosopher who first differentiated and explored the order of the psyche in its tension toward the divine ground.  For Heraclitus a man can augment his psyche by exploring it.  He states, “I explored [or: searched into] myself” (B 101).[1]  This exploration is both an activity of the logos and a means of increasing a man’s participation in it:  “The soul has a logos that augments itself.” (B 115)  The process is unlimited because the logos itself is without limit:  “You could not find the limits of the soul, even if you traveled every path, so deep is its logos.” (B 45)  It seems to me that this play with the meanings of logos as both a divine and a human thing involves mythical symbolism in same way as Aristotle’s play with the term nous.

According to Voegelin, Heraclitus uses the symbols of pistis (faith) and elpis (hope) to articulate the sense of direction that makes possible the psyche’s progress toward the “invisible harmony,” which is “better [or: greater, more powerful] than the visible.”  “Through lack of faith (apistie) the divine [?] escapes being known.” (B 86).  “If you do not hope, you will not find the unhoped-for, since it is hard to be found and the way is all but impassable.” (B 18)  Voegelin interprets these fragments as emphasizing the difficulty of finding the divine that we seek and stresses that the “the anticipating urges” of hope and faith orient the psyche’s search in the right direction.

Heraclitus calls the divine “the alone wise” (B 32) and says of it that “the Wise is apart from all things” (B 41).  He appears to have predicated wisdom of men but contrasted it to the divine One who is wise.  He also was the first to use the term “philosopher.”  Voegelin interprets the fragments as indicating that “human wisdom consists in the consciousness of a limitation in comparison with the divine” and the “philosopher” for Heraclitus as one who is engaged in the search for the One that is wise (pp. 225-6).  With the symbol “philosopher” Heraclitus adds philia (love) to pistis (faith) and elpis (hope) as a third experience that orients the soul toward the divine ground.

In an important essay, “Equivalences of Experience and Symbolization in History,” Voegelin relies on the Heraclitan symbols to search meditatively for the experiential constant that is the source of validity of our judgments that mythical, philosophical, or revelatory symbols are equivalent (Voegelin 1970).  Voegelin argues that Heraclitus, Aeschylus, and Plato, by carefully observing the process by which “they arrived at more differentiated experiences engendering more differentiated symbols,” developed the “symbol of a ‘depth‘ of the soul from which a new truth of reality can be hauled up to conscious experience  . . .” (p. 124)  Interpreting Plato in the Timaeus, Voegelin identifies the reality of the depth not with any of the intracosmic partners of the primary experience, but with “the underlying reality that makes them partners in a common order, i.e., with the substance of the Cosmos.” When we judge two symbolisms to be equivalent, “a truth of reality emerging from the depth recognizes itself as equivalent but superior to a truth previously experienced” (p. 131).  What is constant is this process of truth emerging from the depth that “leaves a trail of equivalent symbols in time and space” (p. 132).  According to Voegelin, we have immediate knowledge of this process “only in its presence.” That raises the question of how we know that we participate in the same process as every other human being.  Voegelin argues that:

“the faith in this premise . . . is . . .  engendered by the primordial experience of reality as endowed with the constancy and lastingness of structure that we symbolize as the Cosmos.  The trust in the Cosmos and its depth is the source of the premises-be it the generality of human nature or, in our case, the reality of the process as a moving presence-that we accept as the context of meaning for our concrete engagement in the search of truth.” (p. 132-3)

This passage expresses Voegelin’s view that the sources of man’s knowledge of the reality in which he participates are the experiences of faith, hope, love, and trust.  In the “Equivalences” essay, he calls faith, hope, and love “the virtues of existential tension” and says that those terms are “constant symbols from the pre-Socratic and classic philosophers, through St. Paul and St. Augustine, to the present.” (p. 122)  This statement expresses Voegelin’s own trust in the reality that he symbolizes as the Cosmos and his faith that what he calls the primary experience of the cosmos is the source from which the differentiated symbols of Heraclitus, St. Paul, and St. Augustine emerged.

Play and the Freedom of the Philosopher’s Myth

For Voegelin play is an irreducible element of man’s participation in reality.  He acknowledged his debt to Jan Huizinga, whose Homo Ludens:  A Study of the Play Element in Culture (Huizinga 1965) he credited with recovering and deepening the Platonic insight that culture originates in play (Voegelin 1948; 1957b, pp. 257-9).  Huizinga observed that play is not peculiar to man but is to be found fully developed in the animal world, where it already appears as a superabundance that transcends the realm of material forces.  This led Huizinga to conclude that play is a manifestation of the spirit.  In Voegelin’s words:

“It is an independent factor, a form arising from the animal level of being which is fit to become a carrier of cultural worlds of meaning; by virtue of its transcendence beyond existential necessity it links the spirit with animal nature without determining it pragmatically.” (Voegelin 1948, p. 185)

Voegelin sounds the theme of man as a player, as homo ludens, at the very beginning of the first volume of Order and History.  There he symbolizes existence as “the drama of being” in which we play our part while knowing fully neither what the drama itself or we ourselves are. (Voegelin 1956, p. 1).  Yet the drama includes our effort to illuminate its meaning from within through the play of symbols, to participate metaleptically in the divine authorship of the drama.  This metaphor continues the symbolism of Plato’s Laws of God playing with man as his puppets or as pieces on a board, and of man conducting his life as a serious play in following the pull of the golden cord in the psyche. (Voegelin 1957b, p. 259-61)

Mythical symbolism, with its rich field of sensuous images and tales, is permeated by play, but lacks critical awareness of the function of play in creating worlds of meaning.  As the early Hellenic philosophers explored the order of the psyche, they achieved this critical awareness, which enabled them to play with mythical symbols with greater freedom than their predecessors.  According to Voegelin, Plato’s myth of the myth in the Timaeus represents the maximal expression of this freedom.  The myth reflects Plato’s insight into “the nature of the myth … as the upwelling, from the unconscious, of psychic forces which blossom out into assuaging expression,” and that “the myth remains the legitimate expression of the fundamental movements of the soul.” (Voegelin 1957b, p. 186)  In the following passage Voegelin comments on the freedom of the play of mythical symbols that was achieved by Plato and that, he argues, must be achieved by anyone who seeks to understand mythical symbols and use them to illuminate our participation in reality.  The passage, in which Voegelin plays in his own distinctive way with some of the symbols of the early Hellenic philosophers, reveals the process that it symbolizes:

“Freedom of the myth . . .  implies the recognition that the conscious subject occupies only a small area in the soul.  Beyond this area extends the reality of the soul, vast and darkening in depth, whose movements reach into the small area that is organized as the conscious subject.  The movements of the depth reverberate in the conscious subject without becoming objects for it.  Hence, the symbols of the myth, in which the reverberations are expressed, can be defined as the refraction of the unconscious in the medium of objectifying consciousness.  What enters the area of consciousness has to assume the “form of object” even if it is not object.   The symbols, therefore, do not denote an unconscious reality as an object, but, rather, are the unconscious reality itself, broken in the medium of consciousness.” (p. 192)

The In-Between

For Voegelin, the philosopher is critically aware of mythical symbols as the indispensible means for illuminating the order of his participation in reality, is open to the depth of the Cosmos from which symbols emerge in his psyche, and can engage freely in the play of symbols in partnership with all of reality, which Voegelin symbolizes as the Whole (Voegelin 1974).  Through an existential openness that is grounded in the virtues of trust, faith, hope, and love, the philosopher participates in the revelation of the truth of the Whole.  One of the most beautiful and comprehensive symbols for this process, for Voegelin, is the In-Between (metaxy) of which, the Platonic Socrates tell us in the Symposium, he has heard the goddess Diatoma speak:

“In the myth told by Diatoma, Eros is the son of Poros (riches) and Penia (poverty); he is a daimon, something between god and man; and the spiritual man (daimonios aner) who is in search of truth is somewhere between knowledge and ignorance (metaxy sophias kai amathias) . . . ‘The whole realm of the spiritual (daimonion) is halfway indeed between (metaxy) god and man . . . ‘” (p. 185)

The myth told by Diatoma and reported by Socrates articulates the erotic tension in the soul of the philosopher, his longing for truth that is both an awareness of ignorance and poverty and an anticipation of fullness and knowledge.  Living in the truth symbolized by the myth, as a partner in the play of symbols, the philosopher lives between and participates in the mortal and the divine.

The Pneumapathology of the Divided Self

Voegelin often uses the term “pneumapathology,” but as far as I know he never clearly defines that term.  Among his analyses of disorders of the soul and the processes that maintain them, perhaps the clearest are contained in the essays on “Hegel:  A Study in Sorcery” (Voegelin 1971) and “The Eclipse of Reality” (Voegelin 1969).  Both essays reflect Voegelin’s adaptation and extension of The Divided Self of the existential psychiatrist R.D. Laing (Laing 1965).  That work reflects the influence of Winnicott’s ideas, and Winnicott read it in typescript and praised it highly in correspondence with Laing.  Voegelin takes from Laing the idea that a person who functions fairly well in society may suffer from a schizoid condition, that is, a profound division in his experience of himself and others.  In this condition what Laing calls a person’s “inner self” is occupied in fantasy and observation, observes the processes of perception and action, and attempts to be unaffected by events in the world, at least to a degree.  The individual’s actions do not express this “inner self” and, thus, are not creative.  Relations with the world are conducted by what Laing calls “the false-self system.”  The schizoid condition is accompanied by a feeling of being unreal and the absence of intimate relationships.  Laing calls the experiential source of this condition “ontological insecurity” and argues that schizophrenia is an extreme version of the schizoid condition.

In the first of the two essays, Voegelin argues that Hegel is a representative modern thinker in that his existence is characterized by the coexistence of two selves.  Hegel has a true self that lives in open participation in the first reality of the tension toward the divine ground of being, and a false, contracted self that lives in an imaginary second reality that eclipses the first reality of the tension.  The pairs of symbols “true self-false self” and “first reality-second reality” are equivalent to the Platonic pairs “philosopher-philodoxer” and “episteme-doxa.”  Voegelin refers to the task of the philosopher as gaining “the stature of his true self as a man under God.” (Voegelin 1969, p. 216)  The true self exists in open participation in the first reality of the tension toward the divine ground.  The false self and the second reality it inhabits are imaginary constructions motivated by “existential insecurity, anxiety, and libido dominandi.”

Analyzing Comte in the second essay, Voegelin indicates that the fantasy of the second reality is created through the “imaginative projecting of … [the] contracted self.” (Voegelin 1969, p. 143)  In one part of his experience, the thinker has withdrawn from and lost contact with the tension of existence.  The result is a fantasy of a wholly immanent, contracted self that may relate to the world of existent things, but is unrelated to the ground of being and, therefore, cannot have contact with the true selves of others.  Parts of this fantasy are then compulsively projected onto the first reality, including the part of the thinker’s experience that is still open to the ground.  In effect, the false self tries to kill the true self, an attempt with which psychotherapists are quite familiar.

According to Voegelin, one reason why masses of people are attracted to a comprehensive but false ideological system elaborated by a Hegel or a Comte is that it “permits the assuaging of anxiety by removing, with a show of legitimacy, the expressions of existential tension to one of the more or less deep cellars of the unconscious.”  The result is the loss of the life of reason, since “the critical center of rational discourse-i.e., the luminosity of existence-has been suppressed” (p. 157).  As a consolation, the projective operations appear to bestow on the false self imaginary versions of all of the parts of the psyche:  reason, imagination, spirit, etc.

At the end of “The Eclipse of Reality,” Voegelin indicates that he has “eliminated the issue of psychopathological sanity or insanity by treating the whole work [of Comte] as a problem in the pneumopathology of projecting” and returns to “the question of the difference between pneumopathological and psychiatric phenomena,” which is raised earlier in the essay (p. 158).  He suggests that part of the answer can be found in the phenomenon of play:

“Sanity is a play . . .  [T]he imaginator will stay on the side of sanity in the psychiatric sense as long as he can sustain his play of honest dishonesty.  The exasperating dishonesty of the Second Realities is the factor of play that holds the imaginator’s personality together; if he were to believe seriously in what he says, his personality would fall apart and he would become a neurotic [psychotic] case.  As long as the Second Reality carries the index of “bad faith,” as long as it remains a play at insanity, we have to speak of a spiritual disorder; when the Second Reality acquires the index of “good faith,” the play will change over into an honest psychosis.” (pp. 161-2)

The mysterious movements in the depth of the psyche find symbolic expression even in the play of lying.  As long as those forces emerge in some form in play, the higher sectors of the personality will have some contact with the truth of the Cosmos.  But if the movements in the depth no longer reach the psyche, the person will no longer have any experiential basis for judging what is true.  For Voegelin, at the opposite end of the spectrum of mental health from the true self of the man under God is the man who no longer is homo ludens because his psyche has lost touch with the truth of the Cosmos.  These formulations are consistent with the psychotheraeutic literature that has been influenced by Winnicott.  For example, Frederickson (1991) illustrates how recovery from delusional psychosis begins when the client starts to play with symbols playfully offered by the therapist as potentially useful for articulating experiences that have heretofore been too overwhelming for the client to symbolize.

Donald Winnicott

Over the course of several decades Donald Winnicott articulated a detailed theory of the infant’s development in the first year of life.  The first period, extending from birth to about five or six months, he refers to as the period of “primitive emotional development” (Winnicott 1945).  Winnicott emphasizes that the mother’s devoted care is a necessary condition of the infant’s successful maturation during this earliest period.  In 1942 he jumped up in a professional meeting and exclaimed, “There’s no such thing as a baby!”  Reflecting on this outburst, he realized that he had come to believe that, at the beginning of life, there is no such thing as an individual, only an individual related to an interpersonal environment.  As he put this insight ten years later:

” . . . if you show me a baby you certainly show me also someone caring for the baby, or at least a pram with someone’s eyes and ears glued to it.  One sees a nursing couple … [B]efore object relationships [that is, before the infant relates to the mother as a separate, whole person] the state of affairs is this:  that the unit is not the individual, the unit is the environment-individual setup.  The centre of gravity of the being does not start off in the individual.  It is in the total set-up.” (Winnicott 1952a, p. 99)

Winnicott uses the terms holding, handling, and object-presenting to refer to three aspects of the ordinary, good-enough mother’s care of her infant that are necessary conditions of his primitive emotional development.  Holding, handling, and object presenting each support the infant’s development of a distinct psychological capacity that Winnicott believes to be fundamental to healthy living.  Holding supports the achievement of integration, handling supports personalization, and object presenting supports object relating (Winnicott 1945, 1952a, 1952b 1960b, 1962).  The three capacities develop synchronically.  Winnicott could “find no clear sequence in development that can be used to determine the order of description.” (Winnicott, 1971a, p. 99)

When the period of primitive emotional development has gone successfully, at about six months the infant’s interactions with his mother (or other primary caregiver) and his nonverbal play show that he is aware of having an inside and an outside, that things come from outside, and that he can be enriched by them, physically and psychically.  The infant relates to his mother as a separate, whole person, assumes that she has an inside, and is starting to be concerned about her and her moods.  Moreover, he is able to grasp an object that he sees and put it into his mouth and can get rid of it when he is done with it.

Holding and Handling Leading to Integration and Personalization

Holding “includes especially the physical holding of the infant, which is a form of loving.” (Winnicott 1960b, p. 49).  But it is more than a physiological process:

“The term ‘holding’ . . . denote[s] . . . the total environmental provision prior to the concept of living with .  . . It includes the management of experiences that are inherent in existence, such as the completion (and therefore the non-completion) of processes … which from the outside may seem to be purely physiological but which belong to infant psychology and take place in a complex psychological field, determined by the awareness and empathy of the mother . . . ” (pp. 43-44)

Holding “includes the whole routine of care throughout the day and night, and … is not the same with any two infants.”  It “meets the infant’s physiological needs” and protects him from “physiological insult,” “takes account of the infant’s skin sensitivity,” “is reliable … in a way that implies the mother’s empathy,” and “follows the minute day-to-day changes belonging to the infant’s growth and development, both physical and psychological”  (pp. 48-9).

Holding is made possible by the ordinary mother’s intense but healthy unconscious identification with her baby, which emerges towards the end of her pregnancy and during the infant’s first weeks of life.  In this period, to a large extent she is the baby and the baby is her.  There is nothing mystical about this.  After all, she was a baby once, and she has in her the memories of being a baby; she also has memories of being cared for, and these memories either help or hinder her in her own experience as a mother. (Winnicott 1966, p. 6). When the mother’s own experience has been good enough, her identification with her infant enables her to be extremely sensitive to his experience and to adapt nearly perfectly to his needs for a time.  She then gradually adapts less perfectly as he becomes able to tolerate greater frustration.

Holding allows the infant to integrate his experiences.  Initially the baby’s life consists of unconnected and disorganized states.  There is a biologically-based tendency for this “primary unintegration” to coalesce in more connected and organized form. In the ordinary course of development, this tendency is supported by the mother’s holding and by “acute instinctual experiences” such as feeding that “tend to gather the personality together from within.”  With adequate support from these two sources, “[t]here are long stretches of time in a normal infant’s life in which a baby does not mind whether he is many bits or one whole being, or whether he lives in his mother’s face or in his own body, provided that from time to time he comes together and feels something.”  Winnicott goes on to say that, “[i]n regard to environment, bits of nursing technique and faces seen and sounds heard and smells smelt are only gradually pieced together into one being to be called mother.” (Winnicott 1945, p. 150)

“Handling describes the environmental provision that corresponds loosely with the establishment of a psychosomatic partnership.” (Winnicott 1962, p. 62)  The good-enough mother’s touch facilitates the baby’s development of a sense of having a skin and “indwelling” in his body.  Personalization is the process by which the baby’s person comes “to be linked with the body and the body functions, with the skin as the limiting membrane.” (p. 59)  It is the capacity for satisfactory “localization of one’s self in one’s own body,” “the development of the feeling that one’s person is in one’s body.” (Winnicott 1945, pp. 149, 150-1)  Instinctual experience and the repeated quiet experiences of body care contribute to the gradual build-up of satisfactory personalization.

Holding and handling together protect the infant from excessive experience of the most primitive anxieties.  Winnicott viewed the baby as “an immature being who is all the time on the brink of unthinkable anxieties,” which concern “going to pieces,” “falling for ever,” “having no relationship to the body,” and “having no orientation” (Winnicott 1962, pp. 57-8).  These anxieties are aspects of the most primitive human anxiety of “annihilation” (Winnicott 1960, p. 47).  The opposite of annihilation is “continuity of being” or “continuity of going-on-being” (Winnicott 1962, p. 60).  The infant experiences  sufficiently disruptive breaks in maternal care as a threat to his existence to which he must react.  Winnicott refers to such breaks in care as impingements:

“The alternative to being is reacting, and reacting interrupts being and annihilates . . . .The holding environment . . . has as its main function the reduction to a minimum of impingements to which the infant must react with resultant annihilation of personal being. “(p. 60)

For Winnicott, this picture of the infant at the beginning of life as poised between being and annihilation is more faithful to clinical experience than Freud’s view of the infant from the start as a whole person who can experience hunger and the frustration of that instinct.  The experiences of being a person, desiring satisfaction, and being frustrated are developmental achievements that cannot be taken for granted at the beginning of life.  The ordinary, good-enough mother’s holding and handling of her baby keeps his experience of annihilation anxieties at tolerable levels and, in interaction with his inborn maturational tendencies, allows the infant to come into existence as a person who can desire and experience frustration.  The mother’s care gives the infant sufficient existential security to be able to tolerate gradually greater degrees of satisfaction and frustration.  Impingements caused by inadequate holding and handling result in late or incomplete development of the capacities for integration and personalization.  In that event, the infant’s sense of self is based on reaction to annihilation anxieties rather than being.  As an older child and adult, he will be prone to excessive experience of those anxieties.  For Winnicott, disintegration and depersonalization are defenses used by an individual to avoid the experience of annihilation anxieties, and extreme use of those defenses is an essential feature of psychosis.

The Moment of Illusion and the Existential Virtues

Winnicott argues that the good-enough mother’s holding, handling, and object presenting together enable the infant to develop the capacity to interact with the mother and others as separate, whole persons.  Critical to Winnicott’s account are the related terms “fantasy” and “illusion.”  To make sense of what he says, I argue that he is using those terms in two different ways.  With one set of meanings he points to what Voegelin calls the primary experience of the cosmos, which Winnicott himself calls the experience of being.  With the other set of meanings he points to the infant’s capacity to symbolize his experience-at first with movements, gestures, and the use of physical objects, and later in words and fantasies.  In normal development the experience of being supports the emergence of symbolization and is its experiential source throughout life, whereas in pathological development the experience of being is intermittent, anxiety-filled, or altogether absent, and symbolizing is accompanied by anxiety and may never become well established.  The following passages from Winnicott’s writings will provide a starting point for developing this interpretation:

” . . . T]he baby has instinctual urges and predatory ideas.  The mother has a breast and the power to produce milk, and the idea that she would like to be attacked by a hungry baby.  These two phenomena do not come into relation with each other till the mother and child live an experience together . . . I think of the process as if two lines came from opposite directions, liable to come near each other.  If they overlap there is a moment of illusion, a bit of experience which the infant can take as either his hallucination or a thing belonging to external reality.”  (Winnicott 1945, p. 152)

The mother, at the beginning, by an almost 100 percent adaptation affords the infant the opportunity for the illusion that her breast is part of the infant.  It is, as it were, under the baby’s magical control.  The same can be said of infant care in general, in the quiet times between excitements.  Omnipotence is nearly a fact of experience.  The mother’s eventual task is gradually to disillusion the infant, but she has no hope of success unless she has first been able to give sufficient opportunity for illusion. (Winnicott 1953 in 1971b, p. 11)

The pattern is thus: the baby develops a vague expectation that has origin in unformulated need.  The adaptive mother presents an object or a manipulation that meets the baby’s needs, and so the baby begins to need just what the mother presents.  In this way the baby comes to feel confident in being able to create objects and to create the actual world.  The mother gives the baby a brief period in which omnipotence is a matter of experience. (Winnicott 1962, p. 62)

We are concerned with an infant in a highly dependent state and totally unaware of this dependence . . .  Where the complications are not too great something very simple happens.  It is difficult to find the right words to describe this simple event; but it can be said that by reason of an aliveness in the infant and through the development of instinct tension the infant comes to expect something; and then there is a reaching out which can soon take the form of an impulsive movement of the hand or a movement of the mouth toward a presumed object.  I think it is not out of place to say that the infant is ready to be creative.  There would be a hallucination of the object if there were memory material for use in the process of creation but this cannot be postulated in consideration of the theoretical first feed.  Here the new human being is in the position of creating the world. (Winnicott 1971a, p. 102)

The first step toward interpreting these passages is to examine Winnicott’s assumption that at the beginning of life the infant is “totally unaware” of his separateness from and dependence on the mother.  This assumption creates a philosophical problem:  how does the infant move from that state to subsequent states in which he experiences himself as separate from but related to others (Ogden 1990)?  If we drop the assumption of initial unawareness of separateness, a second problem remains:  how do we know that the infant’s experience is like ours?

With respect to the first problem, recent research by developmental psychologists suggests that the infant has some awareness of self and other from the beginning of life.  Interpreting such research, Stern (1985) suggests that in the first two months of life the infant experiences primitive patterns of experience emerging and coalescing into larger “self-invariant and other-invariant constellations” (p. 67).  At about two months the emerging self and other constellations coalesce into an organizing experiential perspective that Stern calls a sense of a core self and other.  This is a sense of self “experienced as a coherent, willful, physical entity with a unique affective life and history that belong to it” that is related to mother and others who are experienced in the same way (p. 26).  At about seven to nine months there emerges a third organizing experiential perspective, which Stern calls a sense of a subjective self and other.

Sense of self and other are no longer only core entities of physical presence, action, affect, and continuity.  They now include subjective mental states-feelings, motives, intentions-that lie behind the physical happenings in the domain of core relatedness. (p. 27) Thus, from the beginning the infant experiences self and other emerging, and this experience continues to be present when his core sense of self and other emerges.  Similarly, both the emergent and core senses of self and other remain when the subjective sense of self and other emerge.  These three senses of self and other (as well as a fourth, the verbal sense of self and other, which begins to emerge between 15 and 18 months) are present throughout life.  Stern’s theory has the advantage of eliminating the problem of the infant transitioning from a state of unawareness to a state of awareness of relatedness to others.  The problem of how we know that the infant’s experience is like ours remains.

Winnicott addresses that problem by assuming that from the beginning of life the infant has the capacity to experience fantasy and illusion.  I think that most of the time he uses fantasy to mean the capacity to symbolize, and he uses illusion to mean the sense that a symbol is identical to what it symbolizes.  Thus, he talks of the illusion created in the infant’s play that he and the mother are one.  The problem with applying these meanings of fantasy and illusion to the infant’s experience in the first two months is that they presuppose the existence of core and subjective senses of self and other, which do not both emerge until seven months or later.  Yet Winnicott claims that the infant experiences the “moment of illusion” from the beginning, when the mother first presents her breast and herself to him.

In my view, we can best make sense of Winnicott’s writings on these matters by assuming that, in addition to the meanings of fantasy and illusion indicated, Winnicott uses those terms to symbolize the infant’s experience of participation in reality, without being critically aware of the difference in meanings.  Thus, he uses the terms fantasy and illusion to refer to two quite different experiences, one of which emerges chronologically before the other.  (Ogden (1990, p. 210) also observes that Winnicott uses the term illusion in two ways, but interprets those usages somewhat differently.)  In my view, what the good-enough mother makes possible in what Winnicott calls “the moment of illusion” is simply the experience of participation.  This allows us to make sense of Winnicott’s statements that “[f]antasy [participation in reality] is more primary than reality [the world of existent things], and the enrichment of fantasy [symbolizing] with the world’s riches depends on the experience of illusion [participation in reality],” and that the moment of illusion is “a bit of experience which the infant can take [when his capacities have matured sufficiently] as either his hallucination or a thing belonging to external reality.” (Winnicott 1945, p. 153, 152)

This interpretation is consistent with Winnicott’s insistence on the experiential unity of the moment of illusion for the infant.  He remarks:

“. . . no sense of self emerges except on the basis of this relating in the sense of BEING . . .  [which is] perhaps the simplest of all experiences . . .   This sense of being is something that antedates the idea of being-at-one-with, because there has not yet been anything else except identity.  Two separate persons can feel at one, but here at the place I am examining the baby and the object are one.” (Winnicott 1971b, p. 80)

Here we see Winnicott’s solution to the problem of how we know that the infant’s experience is like ours:  he simply affirms that it is so.  In so doing, he appeals to our experience of the oneness, continuity, lastingness, and order of reality-that is, to what Voegelin calls the primary experience of the cosmos.  In Stern’s theory, all the infant experiences in the first two months are primitive bits of experience emerging into self- and other-invariant constellations.  Because Stern can infer nothing else from data collected through observation of infants, that is the only dimension of the infant’s experience in that period that he talks about.  Winnicott, in contrast, draws on his own trust in the Cosmos to infer that the infant has what he calls the experience of being.

A key thesis for Winnicott is that, when the infant has the experience of being to a sufficient degree, the maturational processes of integration and personalization can take place, he can begin to find the objects that the mother presents, and he can begin to elaborate imaginatively the bodily processes and the subjective life of himself and others.  Since healthy individuals continue to exercise those capacities throughout life, I interpret him as saying that openness to the cosmic primary experience is the foundation of psychological health.

That Winnicott’s position is equivalent to Voegelin’s is suggested by the symbols Winnicott uses to articulate the infant’s orientation toward reality that arises from the experience of being.  He says that the infant develops a “feeling of confidence” or “trust” in his environment (pp. 100, 103).  The infant has “hope” about his state of extreme dependence (p. 30).  In using these symbols, Winnicott is assuming that the infant’s experience is the same as his own.  As Voegelin argues, the source of that premise is Winnicott’s trust in the cosmic primary experience and faith that it is common to all persons.  It is also relevant here that Winnicott frequently insists that a good-enough mother’s care is more than a machine-like operation (Winnicott 1950).   One cannot teach a mother to hold, handle, and present herself to her baby sensitively and lovingly, but she can discover the capacity to be sensitive and loving if she trusts herself and her baby and has faith in their ability to get to know each other and to get along well.  These experiences emerge from the good-enough mother’s experience of being.  Here we touch on the existential virtues in Voegelin’s sense as the experiential source of human community, a theme first sounded by Heraclitus (Voegelin 1956a), and the roots of those virtues in the primary experience of the cosmos.

Creativity, Play, Transitional Phenomena, and the In-Between of Potential Space

For Winnicott the infant’s capacity to be creative also emerges from the experience of being.  “To be creative,” he writes, “a person must exist and have a feeling of existing, not in conscious awareness, but as a basic place to operate from.” (Winnicott 1970, p. 39)  By the term “place” Winnicott symbolizes, I believe, the cosmos in Voegelin’s sense.  Since the primary experience of the cosmos is present in everyone’s consciousness if they can apperceive it, any human being can be creative:

“Creativity is . . . the doing that arises out of being.  It indicates that he who is, is alive . . .  Somewhere in the scheme of things there can be room for everyone to live creatively . . .  In creative living you or I find that everything we do strengthens the feeling that we are alive, that we are ourselves . . .  [F]or creative living we need no special talent.” (pp. 39-44)

For Winnicott play is another word for the creativity that emerges from being.  Anyone who enjoys young children is familiar with the experience of helping a child transform his fear that an experience will be overwhelming into an experience that can be fun by turning it into a game.  Ogden (1990) provides the example of a mother helping a boy of two-and-one-half years take a bath, after his head has gotten under the water on a previous evening, by inviting him to “pour me some tea.”  Emerging from a tense, fearful state, the boy picks up an empty shampoo bottle and begins to use it to pour “milk” into his mother’s “teacup” to cool her “tea.”  The child has a sufficient capacity to experience being to be able to relax and become absorbed in the drama of the play.  As this example suggests, play emerges from being, and an invitation to play from a trusted other can reverse what Voegelin calls “the fall from being” and what Winnicott calls “annihilation.”  The mother’s invitation to play enables the boy to recover the cosmic primary experience, and then the play itself elaborates the meaning of that experience and strengthens it.  Repeated experiences of this type build the boy’s capacity to be, to play, and to generate symbolic meanings.

Winnicott’s most important book is Playing and Reality, which expanded the themes first stated in his important essay on “Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena” (Winnicott 1971b, 1953).  By the term transitional objects Winnicott refers to the infant’s and child’s not-me possessions, such as a blanket or stuffed animal. By transitional phenomena he refers to all the aspects of human experience that involve and emerge from the infant’s use of transitional objects.  The “transition” in these terms refers to the period in infancy from about two months, when the baby begins to engage in sensorimotor and preverbal play, to about seven months, when his subjective sense of self and other emerges and he begins to engage in symbolic play.  In this period the infant is transitioning from having the moment of illusion in the first sense noted above to beginning to be able to use symbols to generate illusions in the second sense.  The infant’s capacity to symbolize is emerging from his experience of being.

During this transitional period the infant does not have a subjective sense of self and other and is not yet able to be aware of and think about himself, his symbols, and the objects they symbolize as separate parts of reality (Ogden 1990).  For this reason Winnicott stresses that during this period we must not force the infant to have a premature awareness of his physical separateness from and dependence upon other people.  This would fill him with annhilation anxiety and force him to withdraw his awareness from shared reality.

The transitional object and the transitional phenomena start each human being off with what will always be important for them, i.e. a neutral area of experience that will not be challenged.  Of the transitional object it can be said that it is a matter of agreement between us and the baby that we will never ask the question:  “Did you conceive of this or was it presented to you from without?”  The important point is that no decision on this point is expected.  The question is not to be formulated. (Winnicott 1953, p. 12)

When impingements do not force the infant or young child to become prematurely and traumatically aware of his separateness and dependence, he can experience being and explore the interpersonal and physical world around him through play.  The primary experience of the cosmos continues to be the background of his foregound experiences of moving his body, making gestures and sounds, relating to others, and symbolizing the meanings of his experience. For Winnicott transitional phenomena occur in an intermediate area or potential space.  “This potential space is at the interplay between there being nothing but me and there being objects and phenomena outside omnipotent control.” (Winnicott 1971b, p. 103)   This space “initially both joins and separates the baby and the mother” (p. 103).  In the safety of this playground, the infant and young child enters and begins to participate in a shared interpersonal world by playing with its meanings.  Out of such interactions and his bodily tensions and processes he creates an inner fantasy world that comes to be manifested and elaborated in his dreaming, imagining, and symbolic play.

Winnicott contrasts the potential space of play with both “inner or personal psychic reality” and “the actual world in which the individual lives” (p. 103).  The task of relating these two areas never ends and is manifested in all of human culture:

“It is assumed here that the task of reality-acceptance is never completed, that no human being is free from the strain of relating inner and outer reality, and that relief from this strain is provided by an intermediate area of experience … which is not challenged (arts, religion, etc.)  This intermediate area is in direct continuity with the play area of the small child who is ‘lost’ in play.” (Winnicott 1953, p. 13)

This aspect of Winnicott’s work is the most important psychoanalytic theory of culture since Freud and has elicited the interest of scholars in disciplines such as literary criticism and theology.

It would be wrong, I think, to interpret “inner or personal psychic reality” as the unconscious in the sense in which it is used by Freud or Melanie Klein, the two psychoanalysts whom Winnicott always implicitly addresses in his writings.  Rather, Winnicott was symbolizing both the set of unconscious meanings that a person develops by participating in a mother-infant dyad, a family, and a culture, and the infinite unconscious depths of the psyche that are continuous with the depth of the Cosmos.  On this view, potential space for Winnicott is in between our experience of participation in the Whole of reality and a human community in the world.  We fill this intermediate area with symbols that articulate the various dimensions of this one experience.  This interpretation of Winnicott’s use of the term inner psychic reality is supported by a poem entitled “Sleep” which he wrote near the end of his life (C. Winnicott 1978, p. 32):

Let down your tap root

to the centre of your soul

Suck up the sap

from the infinite source

of your unconscious


Be evergreen.

The poem’s metaphors indicate that Winnicott was aware of the depth as the source of the symbols that emerge in the psyche and of the necessity of diving into that depth in order to recover the luminosity of existence.  The metaphors are equivalent to the Heraclitan symbol of descending into the depth that is so important for Voegelin.

We now are in a position to ask, what can we discern as the experiential sources of Winnicott’s work?  It is important to note, I think, that he was an artistically gifted person who drew, painted, played the piano, and wrote poetry all his life.  He was raised a Methodist and converted to Anglicanism while at Cambridge, but apparently did not attend services regularly as an adult.  Although there are few discussions of spiritual experience in his writings, on more than one occasion he observed that contemplation is an important source of a rich inner life, and his negative remarks about religion are always directed at dogma of one kind or another.  By all accounts, he was delightfully playful.  He worked nearly all his professional life as a pediatrician, treated upwards of 20,000 children, and is regarded as among the most gifted child psychotherapists.

In my reading I have seen no evidence that he was a mystic in the sense of someone who experiences acts of transcendence.  However, one gets a clear sense from the poem above, from Winnicott’s writings, and from the immense creativity of his clinical work that he had a deep experience of the transcendent source of creative human living.  He participated openly in the divine play that creates experience anew each moment, but did not explicitly differentiate that play as a mutual participation of the divine and the human poles of reality.

The True Self and the False Self

Winnicott uses the symbols true self-false self in a way that is close to Voegelin’s.  Through Pediatrics to Psychoanalysis, a collection of Winnicott’s essays published in 1958, used those terms and influenced Laing’s The Divided Self, so Winnicott may actually be an indirect source of Voegelin’s use of those symbols.  In a subsequent paper, Winnicott says that if the infant suffers repeated impingements that disrupt the experience of being, resulting in a predominance of annihilation anxiety, then a compliant False Self reacts to environmental demands, and the infant seems to accept them:

“Through this False Self the infant builds up a false set of relationships, and by means of introjections even attains a show of being real, so that the child may grow to be just like mother, nurse, aunt, brother, or whoever at the time dominates the scene.  The False Self has one positive and very important function:  to hide the True Self, which it does by compliance with environmental demands . . . The False Self . . .  can now be seen to be a defence . . . against that which is unthinkable, the exploitation of the True Self, which would result in its annihilation.” (Winnicott 1960, pp. 146-7)

Winnicott appears to equate the true self and the infant’s sense of physical aliveness.  The symbol “does no more than collect together the details of the experience of aliveness” and at the beginning “means little more than the summation of sensori-motor aliveness.” (pp. 148-9) The equivalent to the false self in normal development is “that which can develop in the child into a social manner, something that is adaptable.” (p. 150)  In health there is both a compliant aspect of the personality and a capacity to be creative and to symbolize.  However, when there is a high degree of split between a person’s true and false selves, there is found a poor capacity for using symbols and a poverty of cultural living. Instead of cultural pursuits one observes in such persons extreme restlessness, an inability to concentrate, and a need to collect impingements from external reality so that the living-time of the individual can be filled by reactions to these impingements.

The false self is constructed by way of “fantasying,” a disordered counterpart to healthy fantasy that “the individual creates to deal with external reality’s frustrations.” (Winnicott 1945, p. 153)  Fantasying involves “omnipotent manipulations of external reality . . . The individual gets to external reality through the omnipotent fantasies elaborated to get away from inner reality,” the experience of which is made unbearable by excessive annihilation anxiety (Winnicott 1935, p. 130).  Winnicott’s symbol fantasying is equivalent to Voegelin’s symbol imaginary construction.

In a later paper (Winnicott 1963), Winnicott argues that psychoanalysts must allow a positive role in development and therapy for silence in the presence of others, which he says is a nondefensive form of not communicating with them.  To reach this statement, he assumes that “in health there is a core to the personality that corresponds to the true self of the split personality.”  This “incommunicado element” at the center of the person “is truly personal,” “feels real,” and is sacred and most worth preserving . . .   [T]his core never communicates with the world of perceived objects, . . .  and the individual knows that it must never be communicated with or influenced by external reality . . .  [E]ach individual is an isolate, permanently noncommunicating, permanently unknown, in fact unfound.” This part of the person communicates with what Winnicott calls “subjective” objects or phenomena.  I believe the term subjective has the same range of meaning for Winnicott as do the terms fantasy and illusion.   Such communication “alone gives the feeling of real” and is, “like the [silent] music of the spheres, absolutely personal.  It belongs to being alive.  And in health, it is out of this that communication [with others] naturally arises.” (p. 187-90)

Winnicott seems to me to be saying four things in this important paper.  First, he symbolizes the fact that our experience of participating in reality transcends all that we can communicate with language that refers to objects in the external world.  Second, he identifies this transcendent dimension of the person as his essence:  it is truly personal, gives the feeling of being real, and is the source of all healthy communication.  Third, he says that an essential feature of healthy interpersonal relationships, and especially of psychotherapy, is our tolerance and respect for the transcendence of the other.  Fourth, by writing the paper he is communicating his faith that this transcendent dimension that is each person’s essence is common to all and can be articulated in symbols.  The paper is very close to being a philosophical meditation on the reality of mutual divine and human participation in the In-Between.

Psychotherapy and the Search for the Self

For Winnicott psychotherapy is a form of mutual play that occurs in the potential space between the therapist and the client.  Through his reliability and concern, the therapist enables the client to relax “in conditions of trust based on experience.” (Winnicott 1971b, p. 56)  This process involves a therapeutic regression to the dependent state of early development that was disrupted by impingements and annihilation anxieties (Winnicott 1954).  If all goes well, the client is able to reach a state of “desultory formless functioning” (Winnicott 1971b, p. 64) that corresponds to the unintegrated but nonanxious states that occur when the mother’s holding enables the infant to have the experience of being.  From this formless experience the creative physical and mental activity of the client can eventually emerge in play.  By reflecting this activity back to the client, the trusted therapist enables him to “come together and exist as a unit, not as a defense against anxiety but as an expression of I AM, I am alive, I am myself.  From this position everything is creative.” (p. 56)  Psychological development can resume at the point where earlier trauma occurred if the client can surrender, in the presence of a trusting other, to the primary experience of the Cosmos and develop the trust to descend into and ascend from the depths of his own psyche.


The table below summarizes the two previous sections by listing side by side the parallel symbols encountered in the work of Eric Voegelin and Donald Winnicott.  The comparison indicates the remarkable overlap between the experiences articulated and the areas of reality explored by the philosopher and the psychoanalyst.  Winnicott’s horizon is more restricted than Voegelin’s because he did not have a philosophical education and, as I argue above, was not blessed with as broad and deep a range of experiences of transcendence.  These limitations prevent him from exploring the In-Between, the true self, and the existential virtues as completely as Voegelin does.  But the limits of his theorizing should leave us even more impressed by the scope of his achievement, which comes so close at points to the heights of authentic philosophizing.  In addition, by using Voegelin’s philosophy to interpret Winnicott’s terse and often paradoxical language, we gain important insights into how psychotherapists can broaden their experiential and symbolic horizons.

I suggest that it is possible to incorporate the insights of Voegelin’s and Winnicott’s analyses of the true and false selves into a broad taxonomy of the order and disorders of the soul.  Specifically, the previous sections suggest three general types, and several subtypes, to include in such a taxonomy:

1)   The mature person who lives in the tension toward the ground of being, in playful openness to the depths of his psyche and the symbols that arise from it, on the basis of the existential virtues.  Voegelin argues that this person need not be a philosopher but must possess common sense (Voegelin 1978).

2)   Persons whose existence is characterized by a division into a true and a false self.  This group includes a range of people who vary in terms of the degree to which their defensive operations are intended to protect the true self and preserve the possibility of relationship with first reality in Voegelin’s sense, or to dominate and kill the true self and replace first reality with a second reality.  Among those whose false self is relatively weak are persons who are actively engaged in the search for their true self.  Even those who are in rebellion against the order of being will engage in what Voegelin calls the honest dishonesty of pretending that their contracted false self is real.

3)   People who have lost their ability to play, believe that the second reality they have constructed through pneumapathological projecting is true, and suffer from a delusional psychosis.



Parallel Symbols in the Work of Eric Voegelin and Donald Winnicott

             Voegelin                                                         Winnicott

Primary experience of the cosmos                           Experience of being, moment of illusion


Existential virtues of faith, hope, love,                      Trust, hope, faith

and trust


Play, freedom with mythical symbolism                     Preverbal and symbolic play/fantasy, creative living

In-Between (metaxy) of mutual human                     Potential space, transitional

and divine participation                                            phenomena, culture


True self under God, open to first reality;                 True self/sacred, silent core of self

false, contracted self and second reality                   expressed in creative living, play,

that result from imaginative projection and                and communication with subjective

eclipse first reality                                                      objects; false, compliant self that lives through fantasizing

feels unreal, and is not creative


Finally, in writing this paper I have become aware of two related topics that deserve further empirical research and philosophical analysis.  Such research will move us further along the way to having an adequate theory of the healing of the psyche that takes place in philosophy and psychotherapy.

1.a) the role of pneumatic experiences, in Voegelin’s sense, in the formation of the order of the soul of the philosopher, the psychotherapist, and the person who seeks healing in the company of either of them. Voegelin occasionally mentions the importance of regular meditative practice to the maintainence of an open psyche (Voegelin 1974).  Winnicott mentions contemplation favorably, but as far as I know there is no evidence that he engaged in regular meditative practice (although the practice of psychotherapy involves experiences of transcendence that nourish the psyche).  Inquiry in this area would include exploration of the differentiation of the height of the psyche as part of the healing process.

2.b) the role of the existential virtue of love in psychotherapy. Although Winnicott refers to the mother’s holding as an aspect of her love and refers repeatedly to her devotion to the infant, he says little of the therapist’s or the client’s experiences of love.  Psychoanalytic commentators frequently criticize this omission by observing that he generally neglects the dimension of mature adult sexuality.  I believe we have just as much to learn about psychotherapy by exploring love in the senses of philia and agape.  I have always been quite struck, for example, by the passage in Racker’s classic work on the psychoanalytic process (Racker 1968) in which he appeals to St. Paul’s symbol agape in 1 Corinthians 13 in support of his view that, for healing to occur, the therapist must have faith that the client’s actions have a positive intention.  A meditative exploration of the experiential sources of our knowledge that each person is worthy of love would contribute to our understanding of the healing process.



Frederikson, J. (1991), “From Delusion to Play,” Clinical Social Work Journal, Vol. 19, No. 4, Winter, 349-362.

Hughes, G. (1998), “Twilight of the Gods:  The Problem of Divine Presence in the World After Differentiation” (unpublished paper delivered at the meeting of the American Political Science Association, Boston, MA, September).

Huizinga, J. (1955), Homo Ludens:  A Study of the Play Element in Culture (Boston:  Beacon Press).

James, W. (1904), “Does Consciousness Exist?” in Essays in Radical Empiricism and A Pluralistic Universe (Gloucester, MA:  Peter Smith, 1967), 1-38.

Laing, R.D. (1965), The Divided Self:  An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness (London:  Pelican Books).

Ogden, T. (1990), The Matrix of the Mind (Northvale, NJ:  Jason Aronson).

Racker, H. (1968), Transference and Countertransference (New York:  International Universities Press).

Stern, D. (1985), The Interpersonal World of the Infant:  A View from Psychoanalysis and Developmental Psychology (New York:  Basic Books).

Voegelin, E. (1948), “Review of Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens:  Versuch zu einer Bestimmung des Spielelements in der Kultur.  Basel:  Burg, 1944.”  Journal of Politics 10:  179-87.

Voegelin, E. (1956), Order and History, vol. 1, Israel and Revelation (Baton Rouge, LA:  Louisiana State University Press).

Voegelin, E. (1957a), Order and History, vol. 2, The World of the Polis (Baton Rouge, LA:  Louisiana State University Press).

Voegelin, E. (1957b), Order and History, vol. 3, Plato and Aristotle (Baton Rouge, LA:  Louisiana State University Press).

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Voegelin, E. (1966), “What is Political Reality?” in Anamnesis, pp. 143-213.

Voegelin, E. (1969), “The Eclipse of Reality,” in What is History? and Other Late Unpublished Writings, 111-162.

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Voegelin, E. (1971), “On Hegel:  A Study in Sorcery,” in Published Essays 1966-1985, 213-255.

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Voegelin, E. (1990b), The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, vol. 28, What is History? and Other Late Unpublished Writings, ed. T. A. Hollweck and P. Caringella (Baton Rouge, LA:  Louisiana State University Press).

Winnicott, C. (1978), “D.W.W.:  A Reflection,” in Grolnick, S.A., and Barkin, L., eds., Between Reality and Fantasy:  Winnicott’s Concepts of Transitional Objects and Phenomena (Northvale, NJ:  Jason Aronson), 17-33.

Winnicott, D.W. (1935), “The Manic Defense,” in Through Pediatrics to Psychoanalysis, 129-144.

Winnicott, D.W. (1945), “Primitive Emotional Development,” in Through Pediatrics to Psychoanalysis, 145-156.

Winnicott, D.W. (1950), “Knowing and Learning,” in Babies and Their Mothers, 15-21.

Winnicott, D.W. (1952a), “Anxiety Associated with Insecurity,” in Through Pediatrics to Psychoanalysis, 97-100.

Winnicott, D.W. (1952b), “Psychoses and Child Care,” in Through Pediatrics to Psychoanalysis, 219-228.

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Winnicott, D.W. (1954), “Metapsychological and Clinical Aspects of Regression Within the Psychoanalytical Setup,” in Through Pediatrics to Psychoanalysis, 278-294.

Winnicott, D.W. (1958), Through Pediatrics to Psychoanalysis (New York:  Basic Books).

Winnicott, D.W. (1960a), “Ego Distortion in Terms of True and False Self,” in The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment, 140-152.

Winnicott, D.W. (1960b), “The Theory of the Parent-Infant Relationship,” in The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment, 37-55.

Winnicott, D.W. (1962), “Ego Integration in Child Development,” in The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment, 56-63.

Winnicott, D.W. (1963a), “Communicating and Not Communicating Leading to a Study of Certain Opposites,” in The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment, 179-192.

Winnicott, D.W. (1965), The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment (Madison, CT:  International Universities Press).

Winnicott, D.W. (1966), “The Ordinary Devoted Mother,” in Babies and Their Mothers, 3-14.

Winnicott, D.W. (1970), “Living Creatively,” in Home is Where We Start From, 39-54.

Winnicott, D.W. (1971a), Human Nature (New York:  Schocken Books, 1988).

Winnicott, D.W. (1971b), Playing and Reality (London:  Tavistock Publications Ltd).

Winnicott, D.W. (1986), Home is Where We Start From, ed., C. Winnicott, R. Shepherd, and M. Davis (New York:  Norton).

Winnicott, D.W (1987), Babies and Their Mothers, ed. C. Winnicott, R. Shepherd, and M. Davis (Reading, MA:  Addison-Wesley).



[1]  All translations of the fragments of Heraclitus, which are cited using the Diels-Kranz numbering system, are from the second volume of Order and History (Voegelin 1957a, pp. 220-240).

Robert S. SeilerRobert S. Seiler

Robert S. Seiler

Robert S. (Robin) Seiler, Jr., is a psychotherapist in private practice in Maryland. He studied political philosophy at the University of Virginia and clinical social work at the University of Maryland. In 2016 he retired from thirty-six years of public service as a legislative, budget, and policy analyst, researcher, and manager for U.S. the Congress, the Congressional Budget Office, and two federal financial regulatory agencies. He has presented papers at several meetings of the Eric Voegelin Society.

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