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Project interview with Adam Phillips

Adam Phillips is a leading psychoanalyst and essayist. Phillips was educated at Clifton College, and studied English Literature at Oxford University. He trained to be a psychoanalyst at the Institute Child Psychology. Across the course of his professional career he has worked at Guys Hospital, with a school for ‘Maladjusted Children’, at Camberwell Child Guidance Clinic, and at Charing Cross Hospital in the Department of Child Psychiatry. He now works in private practice. Phillips is the author of many works including Terrors and Experts (1997), In Writing: Essays on Literature (2016), Attention Seeking (2019), and his most recent book, The Cure for Psychoanalysis (2021). He also served as the General Editor of the New Penguin Classics Translations of the works of Sigmund Freud.

Emma Williams is Associate Professor in Education at Warwick University and leads on the project 'Mental health, education and philosophy'.

Emma Williams: We are currently living through the Covid-19 pandemic and people have come to talk about this in relation to mental health. To what extent do you think that this interest in mental health has to do with the pandemic, and how far is it to do with larger processes of change in society and culture?

Adam Phillips: The phrase ‘mental health’ of course is itself very weird, because it’s hard to know what the ‘mental’ refers to, and when presumably people use this phrase, they’re talking about how they feel emotionally––what their thoughts are like, how anxious or agitated or depressed they are. I think it isn’t surprising when people are in lockdown and isolated––whether by themselves or their immediate families––that two things happen. One is of course that people are left living in their minds much more than they usually do. But also they’re prone to regress with the people they’re with. And I think people begin to start feeling things they don’t remember having felt before.

I think the other side of this coin is that in order to manage being locked-down, and therefore being isolated, people have to shut down themselves. So what happens is that people adapt by closing down and then they feel empty and closed-down. So they then become preoccupied, of course. Because everybody lives in a state of frustration, everybody becomes very preoccupied with what they don’t have––with their frustration––and at a certain point to stop the frustration turning into rage people then begin to give themselves a psychic anaesthetic. So people become a bit blank or bored––or something like that.

To put this as crudely as possible: I think that capitalism drives people mad.

EW: Do you think the current levels of suffering and unhappiness are the signs of a crisis that is entirely new, or do you think these are problems that have been around in one way or another for some time?

AP: I think that there’s a crisis in the sense of people finding it more and more difficult to live. So there’s a crisis in health, so to speak, and obviously we live in a very polluted environment as well. But the scale of envy and competition in this culture is too much for them to bear.

To put this as crudely as possible: I think that capitalism drives people mad. Once you live in a world in which competition trumps collaboration, it’s as though there’s no shared project; we’re all competing with one another for limited resources. So I think it’s good that it’s become a matter of concern in the public realm that people are really suffering. I think it’s also important that there are many descriptions of what they’re suffering from, because the risk is of thinking that what we need are solutions to mental health problems, whereas actually we need political solutions, and the mental health problems are symptoms of a political catastrophe that is occurring.

EW: Then it’s not as though the pandemic has suddenly caused this mental health epidemic?

AP: No. We’ve got to differentiate between symptoms and causes here. People express their distress in symptoms, in unhappiness, and, at one level you can think that there’s a certain amount of unhappiness that everyone has to bear by virtue of being a person, but then there are culturally sanctioned unhappinesses.

There’s a reason why there’s a huge mental health / drug industry––partly because a lot of people are suffering and partly because a lot of people are being exploited by it.

EW: I’d like to talk to you about the idea that schools today might be a kind of ‘culturally sanctioned unhappiness’, but before that perhaps I can ask you about your own experience working with schools and in young people’s mental health services for the NHS.

AP: This was during the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. I was working as a child psychotherapist for the NHS in child guidance clinics and hospitals, child psychiatry departments. But of course we did a lot of outreach work and I also worked in a school, which was then called a school for maladjusted children (of course it wouldn’t be called that now) but these were all children who were not yet in prison or in hospital––so, troubled children. In that school I didn’t see the children. I saw all the teachers for an hour a week to talk about their work. So I got very interesting bulletins about the children.

Then I did groups in other settings. In those days and in the areas I worked in there was a great deal of material deprivation so most of the children I saw and most of the teachers I worked with were working in schools where a lot of people were really very poor and had suffered trans-generational exploitation, brutality, etc. Not everybody, but a lot of people. And a lot of the children of course came from very unhappy families and homes so there were a lot of what we would call traumatised people.

When I worked at Camberwell Guidance Centre which was on the North Peckham estate there were a lot of very impoverished people. A lot of the children I saw were African-Caribbean and the extraordinary thing in those days was of course that there were no Black workers and there was no discussion of racism at all. And I also worked in what was then called the Juvenile Bureau, which was with the police who worked with children who were underage. They referred children to us and the children had to come, so it was a non-starter in terms of psychotherapy. So I would say to the children, ‘I wouldn’t come if I were you, but you’ve got to’ and I would then tell them what I could do, and would get them to decide if there was anything I could do with them.

EW: You mentioned that many of the young people you saw were Black. Could you say more about how psychoanalysis can help in discussions of race and mental health?

AP: Yes, but the trouble is that psychoanalysis came out of a white supremacist culture as a lot of things do. It is very striking how little psychoanalytic writing there is about racism. When I trained there was no discussion about racism at all. But I do think that psychoanalysis has got useful accounts of why people hate people, and of what people do with the unacceptable parts of themselves. You can’t explain it all by projection obviously it is not as simple as that. But I do think that psychoanalysis is essentially about how we manage the unacceptable in ourselves and in other people. That it seems to me would have a lot to say potentially, but, or and, it needs to be re-described and translated out of some of its origins I think to be able to engage properly. Because the risk is that psychoanalysis colonises racism. That it appears to be the total explanation of racism and it isn’t that simple.

I think that psychoanalysis is essentially about how we manage the unacceptable in ourselves and in other people.

EW: What were some of the positive aspects of your work with young people during that time?

AP: There were a lot of opportunities, and there were a lot of very good people who worked in the services in those days who were quite idealistic. So, for example, at Camberwell we started a drop-in clinic, so you could literally walk in off the street and be seen by somebody, often seen by somebody several times. And these were wonderful clinics. I don’t mean that everyone was cured; I just mean that they were good and they were valuable. As always demand was way in excess of supply, so there were quite long waiting lists. When I started I could see children and families for as long as I wanted to. By the time I left people were saying, ‘We’ll pay for three sessions.’ In other words, capitalist neo-liberalism had taken over and it became all about outcome studies and profitability. And therefore it was really depressing, and I left.

EW: It sounds we could draw a parallel between what was happening to healthcare as a result of ‘outcomes studies’ with what was happening to education at that time.

AP: Yes. It was happening everywhere. The thing that we are now drowning in was beginning. The, the key words were ‘outcome studies.’ And psychotherapy doesn’t work by those criteria––it’s a different thing. So effectively what was being studied was our efficiency and the model was to cure people as quickly as possible and get them back to work or school. There was no interest in the meaning of the symptoms or no sense that the symptoms themselves might be a protest against the system. The assumption was: the world is fine but people have got to get back into it. So anybody who was suffering from anything was deemed to have a problem as though the machine had gone wrong, as opposed to them communicating very important thoughts about the world they were living in.


EW: Perhaps it will be helpful at this point to look more specifically at your conception of what psychoanalysis is. Indeed it is noticeable in your work that you see a connection between psychoanalysis and (a certain idea of) education. How important is that relation in your conception of psychoanalysis? Is it part of what drew you to work in this field?

AP: Of course, I don’t really know the answer to why I was drawn to psychoanalysis. I’ll obviously say something about it, but I don’t know why I was drawn to it except that I was really interested in it. I knew I didn’t want to be an academic. I don’t mean I had a choice (I don’t know if I was then clever enough), but I was choosing between being an academic––I thought then I might become an academic––and then I discovered psychoanalysis. Then it became clear to me that, in both, I would be using texts to talk about the meaning of life with people.

I thought that psychoanalysis was really another version of education. I thought it started where education stopped. It was very much about what stopped people digesting their experiences––what the obstacles were to their sociability. And I loved my education, and I really believe in education. I think it’s the best thing going––not all kinds, but some of it.

EW: Perhaps we could try to pursue these ideas a little further. In your introduction to The Penguin Freud Reader you have written that: ‘Freud is the writer for people who want to find out what words may have done to them, and may still be doing.’ii Can you explain what you mean by that?

AP: It’s obvious in a way––I don’t mean your question is obvious––but the picture that is being presented here is obvious which is that we do live in a world of words before we understand them and can use them. And I don’t know whether you know of a philosopher called Michel Henry who wrote a book called The Genealogy of Psychoanalysis? It’s anti-Lacanian in the sense that it says both that the capacity of representation is useful and that it’s the problem too. We have an affective bodily life that is way in excess of our representations of it and just different from our representations of it. It’s as though language is both our best tool and a foreign body we take into ourselves. I think that’s very compelling: that there really is a bodily life that eludes our capacity for representation. And things go on between people that are just other than the verbal exchange––as well as the verbal exchange. That seems to be both interesting and true. Also it seems to be very important to include that. So with psychoanalysis––the ‘talking cure’––Freud is very interested in the effect of people’s words on other people and on themselves. And of course what we’ve made of the words we’ve heard and overheard because we’ve been talked to all our lives and this must be extraordinary to begin with. I think that clearly this is what Freud––and this is what Lacan picks up on––is really exercised and interested in: the fact of how powerful words are, how hypnotising they are, how transformative they can be. When you move from hypnotism to psychoanalysis you move from trance either to another kind of trance or to a belief in verbal exchange. It’s as though Freud is trying to work out what are the limits of verbal exchange. What can we do for each other with words?

EW: Does this also involve the idea that we are not fully in control of our words––they can betray us and get away from us?

AP: Yes––or, in other words, they speak on our behalf. And also there’s obviously an experiential mystery here, which is that words just occur to us. For example, you may have written certain questions, but we have not prepared this conversation because we couldn’t. And in this conversation all these words have occurred to us to exchange. That’s extraordinary––obviously the most ordinary thing in the world, but weird––because obviously they’re coming from somewhere and we depend upon what occurs to us.

EW: Does this help to explain why psychoanalysis for you is closer to the concerns of literature and philosophy, than to medicine, then? The interest it takes in language and words and what they can do in psychoanalysis is what makes it less like a medical profession?

AP: It just seems to me that there’s an obvious progression here, or overlap. It’s weird in a way that psychoanalytic writing is so often so boring. Because the material of psychoanalysis is the material of art: that is what literature, music and painting are made of. So that for me it’s a continuum; there are differing and competing forms of representation and descriptions of who we are and who we want to be.


EW: Perhaps we can move on to look at some of your essays, and some of the things you have said about education. One example is your essay ‘Psychoanalysis as Education.’iii There, you talk about Nineteenth Century ideas of education as ‘ideological programming’ and you say it is a story about education we have inherited. Could you say some more about that?

AP: Well, it’s the difference between––it isn’t the right word but––brainwashing and learning. That’s to say, if I’m being compelled to learn something off by heart and I’m being intimidated into doing this, then I’ve got to invent a self that can manage this demand. It’s an extrinsic demand to my nature. I have to do it because I’m frightened if I don’t. As opposed to whatever it is I find myself wanting to learn, and in that sense the student chooses the teacher. I think you know pretty quickly who’s got something to teach you. You have to manage the people who’ve got nothing for you and you learn from the people who have. And I think it’s the difference between compliance and genuine interest. So I may learn lots of things that I’m not particularly interested in but that I need to learn if I want to sustain my relationship with an institution or a person. And then there’s everything that’s non-compliant. It seems to me non-compliance is where the action is––is where there’s a feeling of enhanced aliveness or enhanced possibility. Everything that unduly pre-empts a sense of possibility or everything that smacks of omniscience is to be distrusted.

EW: And a certain approach to education adopts an omniscient position with respect to the child?

AP: Yes. We’re stuck with the asymmetry of adults and children. Adults have to know what’s best for children and no adult knows what’s best for another adult in my view. Broadly speaking it’s to do with the difference between the need to coerce and persuade and convince somebody, and being interested in them.

EW: But what about the idea that there is a received body of knowledge that children should learn––‘the best of what has been thought and said’––and that this is something good for them?

AP: I know––but I wonder about this. I mean, clearly children are being acculturated into a particular society. But we know that it is a political issue about what people assume people need to know to become members of society. The moment that I am interested in is when children (or indeed adults) come across something that they feel enlivened by. They don’t know why, but they’re suddenly really interested in stamp collecting, Proust, the weather, whatever––it’s something that gets to them. And that seems to me the moment of education. Everything else, I think, you have to develop a false self to manage it. So, for example, I was not interested in or good at maths. If the world had been designed according to my needs I would obviously have learned the basics but they would have been very basic. I wouldn’t remotely have considered doing O Levels. I thought a lot of my time was wasted given how much pleasure I found in other things I was interested in. It seemed to me murderous to have to spend time doing things one was not interested in or moved by.

The moment that I am interested in is when children (or indeed adults) come across something that they feel enlivened by.

EW: Are there better or worse things to be interested in? Is it a good thing if a young person gets very interested in shopping, or their appearance, or posting pictures on Instagram, for example?

AP: This, it seems to me, is when education comes in. Whoever we are we decide – we’ve decided on our experiences––that we don’t like shopping, or we don’t like pornography, or whatever it is. So I think the onus is on us to present and provide a compelling account of an alternative––and not to stop them doing it, not to be bullied out of it. That is what education should be doing. It should be offering alternative versions. Not with a view to coercing people but with a view to interesting them and seeing if it comes to life.

EW: So schools should be places for young people to find things to value and take an interest in?

AP: Yes, and for re-describing the things they are interested in such that they can be seen in different aspects.

EW: In your book Attention Seeking you refer to John Stuart Mill’s idea of ‘experiments in living’.v Could you say more about your interest in that idea? Where and how might there be places for ‘experiments in living’ in schools?

AP: Yes. I think it’s a great idea, because I think that people should be taught–– made interested in––risks. And it’s really useful (and of course psychoanalysis is good on this) on the one hand to know what are the conscious risks that one shies away from but also on the other what one’s unconscious repertoire of risks is––and what’s inhibiting them? And these are useful things to know because that’s where the unknown future exists. The future exists everywhere but it’s there in terms of action. There’s a very interesting psychoanalyst called Roger Money-Kyrle; he was an early Kleinian. He talks about what he calls ‘the irrelevance of inhibition’ and it’s a very interesting thought because in a way inhibition is of course very relevant but also it may not be. And so if you’re encouraging children and adults to make experiments in living you’re not programming them, you’re giving them the opportunity to try something out and come to their own conclusions about it. And what it discloses is, of course, that everything’s an experiment in living. What else could it be? But it’s useful to be aware of this because then one can more intently embark upon this––if one wants to.

EW: I assume, though, that what we are talking about here is not something that one could have as a project. It’s not like someone should wake up in the morning and think ‘today I’m going to have an experiment in living!’, or something like that?

AP: No, you can’t do that. But you can live your life as if and when possible experiments in living turn up, you take them––try them out.

EW: I wanted to ask you something about your essay ‘Should School Make You Happy?’vii What that essay was responding to? What ideas are you looking to develop?

AP: I imagine that that essay must have come out of many things: my own experience of school, my children’s experience at school, and all the children I saw who were at school. I do think the question of happiness in relation to education is very interesting: whether it has to be our primary value, and if it is our primary value, what do we then have to do? Because you could think that school is an education in being happy, or education is finding out what makes you happy––which would be a perfectly useful, plausible way of thinking about it. But of course there are a lot of good things that don’t make us happy and that seems to me the thing that needs to be opened up here.

EW: So happiness shouldn’t be understood as an agenda for schools or educational institutions?

AP: It could be really rather disturbing in a way because school could be like a benign version of Mao’s training camps, forcing people to be free. It seems to me that happiness is not a great aim––it’s a great side effect.

EW: There is also the question about what happiness is, how do we define it?

AP: Yes of course. Freud says happiness is very subjective. But the idea here is collective happiness. We all have to share what makes us feel better.

EW: From a more cynical perspective we could say the happiness agenda (and the mental health agenda, for that matter) is just a way of ensuring young people function appropriately in a neo-liberal society. ‘Curing’ people is really a matter of getting them to be more productive––

AP: ––and get them back into the consumption cycle.

EW: This brings us around to some of the things discussed at the start of the conversation and the problems that were affecting the young people you were seeing when you were working for the NHS and with schools.

I didn’t think that the children were the problem exactly. I thought that the children in their inhibitions and disabilities were voicing something about what was going on in their world.

AP: It seemed clear pretty quickly that a lot of the problems children have in school were either emotional problems to do with their homes or they were genuine critiques of the school as an institution. In other words, I didn’t think that the children were the problem exactly. I thought that the children in their inhibitions and disabilities were voicing something about what was going on in their world. They didn’t know that but that was what actually was happening.

For me the only point of going to school is to have friends and find out if there’s anything that interests you. Just that. Education is all about sociability. You go to school to make friends and practise sociability. The learning bit is pretext. It is really about what you enjoy about other people, how you get to enjoy people’s company and what inhibits you from doing that. Now obviously schools are not orientated to that, but I think this should be their thing. All the learning stuff … the priority should be about relationships, about how people get on with each other, and all these subjects we learn are mediums through which we do this. That would be my bias, if I was in charge.

EW: Adam Phillips, thank you very much.

This is an abridged version of an article that originally appeared as Phillips, A and Williams, E. (2022). “‘Psychoanalysis is one more way of taking people seriously’: Adam Phillips in conversation with Emma Williams’ in Journal of Philosophy of Education Special Policy Issue: Philosophy, Mental Health and Education (56:1).Link opens in a new window