A Whiteheadian Enquiry Concerning Ethnopsychoanalysis

1. Assessing the Problem

This paper attempts to specify how far Whitehead’s speculative philosophy could throwlight on certain ethnopsychoanalytic practices and especially on the theory that supports them. [1] I am using the expression to throw light very carefully, because my point is not to validate (and even less to discredit) ethnopsychoanalysis on the authority of any one philosophy, and in particular Whitehead’s philosophy. Instead, what is important is to inquire dispassionately on a practice that is primarily a way of managing the difficulties experienced by migrants.

Ethnopsychoanalysis, particularly that of Georges Devereux, claims to have an applicability not limited to migrant populations. It aims at extending the conceptual and technical consequences of its core analysis to other populations, such as victims of violence and followers of sects. It has also affected the field of family therapy.

The immediate difficulty that one encounters when entering the psychoanalytic field lies in its heterogeneous nature. The practices as well as their supporting theories are not fully standardized; even the term “ethnopsychoanalysis” is sometimes replaced by “ethnopsychiatry” or “ethnotherapy.” It is difficult to determine if these different terms are caused by differences in practice or in theory: the sole criterion might indeed be the education and the status of the practitioners. Psychologists tend to use “ethnopsychoanalysis,” while physicians prefer “ethnopsychiatry.” In order to stick to the usage of the French-speaking founders such as Devereux and Nathan, this paper will use only the term ethnopsychoanalysis, even though some might object to it as more restrictive than ethnopsychiatry.

Like all practices intending to transform human beings, ethnopsychoanalysis possesses unexplored that do not represent limitations of the practice but rather conditions the possibility of its existence. One could display the “stroke of genius” of the authors and practitioners of ethnopsychoanalysis, but also show that certain aspects of their standpoint—perhaps those that paradoxically manifest themselves in the most intense way—are actually precisely those that are grounded in the less elucidated areas. But our inquiry proceeds in a twofold way: it is not unfair to Whitehead’s vision to argue that the founding intuitions of ethnopsychiatry can themselves throw light on the organic speculative philosophy. As a matter of fact, we have to understand, in Deleuze’s words, the Whiteheadian “becoming” of ethnopsychiatry and the ethnopsychiatric “becoming” of Whiteheadian philosophy. We have to understand each in terms of the other.

In order to do so, I propose to follow Whitehead’s claim that “the philosophic attitude is a resolute attempt to enlarge understanding of the scope of application of every notion which enters into our current thought” (MT 171). Accordingly, we have to examine the own statements of ethnopsychoanalysis and to ask ourselves what they actually mean. Of course, the statements of the ethnopsychoanalytic field receive, just as any other field, a conventional meaning more or less standardized, but their presuppositions are not usually discussed. To lead an enquiry on ethnopsychoanalysis amounts thus to recover the presuppositions that seem obvious for the theoreticians and practitioners in that field and to show the non-obviousness of these premises (cf. MT 172). The usefulness of that work is “to maintain an active novelty of fundamental ideas illuminating the social system” (MT 174).

Whitehead defines speculative philosophy as “the endeavour to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted” (PR 3). Accordingly, Whitehead’s system should allow us to interpret the field of applicability of ethnopsychoanalysis, which is (according to ethnopsychoanalysis itself) constituted by a type of individual experience that falls within the province of mental disorder and leads to somatic and psychic suffering. To remain faithful to the ethnopsychiatric project itself, however, one must also consider the therapist’s experience of a patient or a group of patients. The difficulty of this double interpretation derives from the fact that Whitehead does not deal with the therapeutical act, but aims at framing a system of ideas allowing the interpretation of the totality of our experience. Although his conceptual problems are not shared precisely by ethnopsychoanalysts, nevertheless ethnopsychoanalysis is a particular theory of experience—the theory of migrants as well as the theory of therapists—and, as such, it belongs to the Whiteheadian speculative territory.

Because Whitehead’s speculative philosophy is a rational endeavor, one may wonder whether one should or could question a care practice such as ethnopsychoanalysis in rational philosophical terms. Whitehead allows us to do that. He does not oppose the natural (physical) realm that would be reached by reason and the realm of life that could not be reached by reason. According to him, both inorganic nature and life—notably human life in its psychological and social dimensions—belong to the same world and to its various modes of functioning, modes that result from mundane organizational diversity and that are continuous with one another. As a result, we cannot pretend without endangering this continuity that only some of these functionings (such as the “physical” ones) are rationally accessible. Shamanism and ethnotherapeutic practices are rational endeavors—but their rationality is non-dualistic and it allows the understanding of phenomena that could appear irrational in other cultural spheres (such as possession or influence).

This entry has two main sources. First, it focuses on Nathan’s works, who is the heir of Georges Devereux who was himself inspired by Roheim (1978, 1988) and Freud (especially his Totem und Tabu). Although Nathan is both admired and controversial (because of his defense of migrants against French Republican values), he has the great merit of entering into dialogue with philosophers like Isabelle Stengers (1995) and Bruno Latour (1996). On the other hand, it benefits from the expertise gathered through the ethnopsychoanalytic association “Appartenances” in Lausanne, Switzerland (Jonckheere de, Bercher, 2003).

Nathan’s ethnopsychoanalysis differs from Devereux’s mainly because of its departure from Freudian orthodoxy. Devereux argues for the unity of the psychological functioning of human beings and for the universality of the Oedipus Complex (1977). In short, he claims that there is a cultural model that transcends all contingencies. Culture is defined from the perspective of psychoanalysis as a standardized system of defense correlated to the functions of the Ego. Nathan argues that the unconscious is nothing else than the culture of the subject, and that this unconscious is always particular. Those who intend to generalize psychological laws to all human beings commit a double crime: against reason and against morality. Together, these two crimes constitute real “war machines” (1993, 37) targeting traditional cultures.

Ethnopsychoanalysis was born in Western societies in order to try to meet the problems generated by human migrations. Some migrants suffer indeed from psychological and somatic problems that cannot be cured with traditional psychotherapies and drugs. Furthermore, these problems offer the opportunity to rethink the coherence and applicability of the traditional therapies. The migrants’ pathologies have obliged the therapists to construct the problems in the same way they are constructed in their original culture. Hence, ethnopsychoanalysis has summoned entities such as spirits, djinns, ancestors and other active forces that have been dismissed by most Western scientists and philosophers (with the notable exception of William James and Henri Bergson).

In brief, ethnopsychoanalysis embodies the attempt to understand mental disorders from the perspective of the cultural universe within which they manifest themselves. According to Devereux (1977), even though mental illness can be defined by an adaptation deficit relatively to a given cultural environment, there is no need to know the cultural environment at stake to understand the deficit! What matters is the “universal cultural model” that is embedded in each and every particular culture. On the contrary, according to Nathan, the therapist must acquaint himself with the cultural environment to be able to help the suffering individual. Hence the need to take seriously aetiologies exploiting supernatural (or at least invisible) beings such as spirits. The cure needs to be inspired by the practice that would have taken place in the original cultural environment of the migrant. It could, for instance, use divination in order to identify the entity involved in the disorder and the entity’s proper intentionality. The practitioner (usually a shaman-type medicine-man or woman) uses coffee grounds, cowries or melted lead. The shaman knows the power and the language of these substances; through them s/he can identify the spirit involved in the disorder and eventually force it to renounce to its harmful actions. Nathan does not see himself as a shaman or a healer but as a psychotherapist: he uses these techniques and their significance to contextualize the patient in her own culture. The patient is not an insulated individual, but the meaningful member of a complex social network.

The study of a curing practice such as ethnopsychoanalysis from the perspective of Whiteheadian speculative philosophy is a complex business because of the difficulties of relying on stable and clearly defined concepts—with regard both to Shamanistic practices, and the hermeneutical problems surrounding Whitehead’s writings. Rather than securing ethnopsychoanalysis to Whiteheadian categories with the help of a conceptual mapping of sorts, we need to embrace the Whiteheadian speculative standpoint. We must be especially aware of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness: what matters is the lived experience, not the abstractions used to asymptotically approximate it. In order to lead this Whiteheadian enquiry concerning ethnopsychoanalysis, three questions will be addressed. First, the nature of the Universe involved in the ethnopsychoanalytical practice, and especially in Nathan’s work; second, the nature of its healing practices; third, the nature of the process of influence activated in the cure.

2. The Ethnopsychoanalytic Universe

2.1. Continuum

Ethnopsychoanalysis, as seen by Nathan, involves a continuum of life, from organic life to psychological life. In other words, there is no bifurcation, either between body and mind, or between the subject and its environment. Nor is the mind an immaterial organ of sorts that grounds the possibility of standard Western therapies. On the other, the human being is not a closed subject, but a subject open to its environment, which is both human and non-human (animal, but also supernatural), through the organic and psychological planes.

According to Nathan (1995), Western societies understand the Universe as being “unique” and solely constituted by the experimental entities that science seeks to describe. To the contrary, traditional (“savage”) societies understand the Universe as being multiple, including the world of sense-perception as well as another, invisible world filled with supernatural beings. All these beings are endowed with intentionality and intervene in the visible world, either from their own will or at the request of human beings (usually a sorcerer). The two worlds, natural and supernatural, of “savage” thought are not discontinuous. In traditional practices, shamans invoke the spirits precisely because of the objectivity of their existence and their causal impact on the natural world. When one claims that only the natural world is “real,” one breaks that continuity.

Nathan’s distinction between Western and traditional societies springs from the necessity to rehabilitate non-Western therapies through his understanding of the continuum. Although Favret-Saada’s (1977) works have shown that contemporary Western people also resort to healers who invoke supernatural beings, the fact remains that standard Western therapies are built upon the refusal of the multiple world paradigm.

Whiteheadian philosophy is not foreign to this respect for the continuum of life. It too rejects reductionism and its dualistic consequences. Whitehead’s worldview is unitarian: the physical, inorganic dimension of nature cannot be understood apart from the mental, organic dimension. Although physical and mental poles are not bifurcated, they are distinguished. Mentality involves a conceptual experience that is only “one variable ingredient in life” (MT 166). We find ourselves “living within nature” (MT 156). To think interconnectedness properly, we need to understand the multiplicity of individuals and the process through which they achieve a real togetherness: “Life implies the absolute, individual, self-enjoyment arising out of this process of appropriation” (MT 150).

Because of their interconnectedness, all natural occurrences influence each other, require each other and lead to each other. Life has to be thought in continuity with matter and the soul in continuity with the body. There is no precise boundary for where exactly the body begins and external nature ends. Although our conscious experience of nature seems to involve only “vacuous bits of matter with no internal values and merely hurrying through space” (MT 158), this experience takes place through our body (especially our eyes); “thus if we wish to understand the relation of our personal experience to the activities of nature, the proper procedure is to examine the dependence of our personal experiences upon our personal bodies” (MT 159).

There is no discontinuity either between body and environment, body and mind or body and soul (cf. MT 161). The soul guarantees the unity and identity of the individual, and thus the continuity of its functions, while the body supplies the “stuff” of our experience. “All the emotions, and purposes, and enjoyments, proper to the individual existence of the soul are nothing other than the soul’s reactions to this experienced world which lies at the base of the soul’s existence” (MT 163). Please notice that “the soul is nothing else than the succession of my occasions of experience, extending from birth to the present moment. Now, at this instant, I am the complete person embodying all these occasions” (MT 163). The experience of my unity is a consistent pattern of feelings, “a unity of emotions, enjoyments, hopes, fears, regrets, valuations of alternatives, decisions—all of them subjective reactions to the environment as active in my nature” (MT 166).

The world is experienced by the soul through the body. The awareness of the world is nothing else than its bodily prehension. Since the body consists of a society of occasions of experience embedded in the wider society that is nature, “we have to construe the world in terms of the bodily society, and the bodily society in terms of the general functionings of the world” (MT 164). It is precisely because of his epochal theory that binding body and soul is so easy. To cut a long story short: the body is a physical event, the soul is a mental event and the human being is a physico-mental event. The interconnectedness of all natural events being secured, the experienced unity of the human being and of its environment is also conceivable. There are no more gaps between body, soul, human beings, society and culture, in Whitehead’s vision.

The suffering that the shaman or the ethnopsychoanalyst exploits during therapy amounts to the unified experience of the patient. In that experience, the patient’s complex unity is in contact with natural and supernatural realities. This raises the question of the status of “possessed” individuals. If possession is understood as a belief, the question becomes one of knowing how such a belief can in-form experience. It is quite risky to claim that human beings experience possession by spirits through their senses. Nevertheless, such a claim is common in some cultures. We have treated an Eastern European who claimed that he could feel the devil in his body (Jonckheere de, Bercher, 2003). Nathan’s team at Paris’ Centre Georges Devereux treated a young Bambara who claimed to be “taken” by a “supernatural husband” (1995).

According to Nathan, it would be reductionistic to understand supernatural entities as primitive beliefs or mere symbols (1995, 48). Although they have no “physical” existence, they can be grasped because they possess an efficacy that unfolds in the natural world and this efficacy is not limited to illness and recovery. It is of course possible to debate that efficacy in order to determine if these entities are really causing the disorder, or if they are invoked a posteriori merely by way of interpretation. From a Whiteheadian perspective, however, the question seems poorly formulated. These entities exist independently from human beings and each has a name that reinforces the conscious awareness of the nefarious process. These names carry a collective efficacy and endow the entities with a contextual meaning and significance. In their given environment, these entities could be understood with the help of Deleuze and Guattari’s “conceptual personalities” (personnages conceptuels) (1991). These conceptual personalities act upon the immanence plane and organize the fields.[2] They also have an existence and a name, but their character is to enable, to occasion, the existence of the other characters they meet, of the territories they cross, and of the ideas they encounter. According to Deleuze and Guattari, these characters work only within the philosophical field. However, if we import them in the psychotherapeutical field, they help us to contextualize the supernatural entities in action. These entities, qua conceptual personalities, organize the world in both natural and supernatural territories. By the very fact that they are located outside the natural realm (and although they are producing effects within it), they demarcate the within of the natural realm. They deterritorialize the responsibility of the illness in the sense that the reason of the illness is not attributed to the suffering individual. As we will examine below, these entities, qua conceptual personalities, organize the entire healing processes, which means the respective roles of the therapist or shaman, of the sick individual, and of the community.

2.2. Symbolism

The healing practices that inspire ethnopsychoanalytic cures, such as witchcraft and shamanism, have often been studied from the perspective of their symbolic efficacy (see Favret-Saada 1977; Frazer 1981; Hell 1999). The most well-known works are those of Levi-Strauss (1958), that take seriously the ritualistic healing process and the testimonies of the patients who claim to have been cured (totally or partially). Since such testimonies are available, it is important to understand how they are possible. Symbolic efficacy brings a possible answer that broadens the question to the entire social environment and semantic universe in which these practices take place.

Symbolic efficacy allows us to discriminate between a material—or rather, an energetic—influence and a formal, i.e., symbolic, one. We could have a healing due either to a direct impact of energetic flux from the practitioner or to an indirect symbolic impact (or a mixture of the two). In his Anthropologie structurale (1958), Levi-Strauss sees these practices symbolically: symbols, such as terrifying animals (but also sometimes plants or objects taken from everyday life) represent the forces of chaos that cause the illness. Through the narration of myths, i.e., rituals (gestures) and prayers (words), the shaman works at ordering that chaos. Levi-Strauss brings to the fore the following case: a pregnant Indian woman who could not give birth finds her physical pains unbearable and consults a shaman; the shaman reframes her suffering within the totally coherent mythology that they both take absolutely for granted.[3] The shaman acts upon the image of the body by giving meaning and significance to processes that otherwise appeared chaotic and meaningless.

The myth used embodies a knowledge that is common to all actors—the shaman, the patient and the community as a whole. All actors have internalized, usually unconsciously, the representation at stake in the cure: there is no need of an intellectual effort such as the one involved in the conscious belief. The myth functions as a language—or rather, as a theory—that provides universal meaning; through the shamanic ritual, it brings a language that enables the patient to immediately express feelings that would be otherwise unexpressed and even inexpressible (1958, 218).

Levi-Strauss proposes an analogy between shamanic cure and psychoanalysis: both aim to provoke an experience; both achieve that aim by reconstructing or piecing together a myth that the patient has to live and re-live. It is the nature of the myth that differentiates the two practices—individual in the case of psychoanalysis, social in the case of shamanism.[4] However, we cannot fully subscribe to this distinction: Greek mythology provides indeed a background not only to Freud’s analysis but also to a significant part of the Western culture; it has also become a collective Western mythology that articulates individual stories.

According to Wittgenstein (1953), since symbols have to be understood qua linguistic sign embedded in a semantic field peculiar to a given social group, there are no private meanings dwelling only in the minds of the patient and of the shaman. Whether the symbol works metonymically, metaphorically, analogically or even mimetically, it represents—for all the involved agents—the forces of chaos and the forces of healing (Levi-Strauss 1958, 221).

Nathan’s supernatural entities could be understood as symbols allowing us to “see as” (voir comme). These symbols would allow us to see suffering as the devil inside us. Or they would be images of sorts representing the fears common to individuals. But if they are understood as bare symbols or analogies, supernatural entities would no longer match the actual experience of the patients, who feel them as objective (external and efficacious) entities. More precisely: that feeling is both physical and conceptual. The patient who speaks of the devil in the context of the cure experiences both a bodily feeling (some form of unease) and a conceptual feeling that is not, however, reflective. Such a patient could say that his breath smells of sulphur. In Deleuzian terms, there is a form of “becoming-devil” of the suffering individual, or of “becoming-supernatural-husband” in the case of the Bambara woman. It is still possible, of course, to claim that the patient is lying or having a fit of delirium, but ethnopsychoanalysis and Whiteheadian organicism require that we take such propositions at face value.

Whitehead’s Symbolism (1927) can help us to understand how supernatural entities qua symbols are as efficient as all ingredients of experience are. According to Whitehead, it is indeed not necessary that an entity be “real” for it to participate in actual experience. Appearances are active as well: “The relation of Appearance to Reality, when there is symbolic truth, is that for certain sets of percipients the prehension of the Appearance leads to the prehension of the Reality, such that the subjective forms of the two prehensions are conformal” (AI 248). In human experience particularly, “there is an intimate, inextricable fusion of appearance with reality, and of accomplished fact with anticipation” (AI 212) so that perception almost always means “perception in the mixed mode of symbolic reference” (PR 168).

The symbolic relation contrasts the two “pure” modes of perceptions. In presentational immediacy, “perception which merely, by means of a sensum, rescues from vagueness a contemporary spatial region, in respect to its spatial shape and its spatial perspective from the percipient, will be called perception in the modes of presentational immediacy” (PR 121). Hence, “all that is perceived is that the object has extension and is implicated in a complex of extensive relatedness with the animal body of the percipient” (PR 122). In causal efficacy, the world is prehended through the body: “perception in its primary form is consciousness of the causal efficacy of the external world by reason of which the percipient is a concrescence from a definitely constituted datum. The vector character of the datum is this causal efficacy” (PR 120). The suffering that is localized (spatialized) in the body through presentational immediacy is given an aetiology through our visceral (even “gut”) feelings. Pain is perceived as a vector going from the external world, through the body, aiming at the mind (or soul). Presentational immediacy defines the present of the suffering; causal efficacy provides its historical depth, its emotional memory so to speak. Finally, percepts issuing from both modes intersect and complement each other in symbolic reference (S 49).

Now the fact is that disorders that are treated by ethnopsychoanalytic practices do not always involve an identified external cause. If an individual complains about her stomach, that organ is the cause as well as the seat of the pain. A mental operation of sorts is needed to grasp that an external cause such as food, a conflict with a fellow human being or with a supernatural being could cause the pain. According to Whitehead, such an operation belongs to symbolic reference. Symbols truly belong to experience; they act upon us and mediate our existence in a living cosmos.

Supernatural entities qua symbols in the Whiteheadian sense intervene in the experience of pain and suffering, be it of the body or of the soul. Nathan (1995) shows clearly that these entities, repressed as they are by positivism, are part of the worldview of almost all social groups (“savage,” Western or otherwise) and are strong agents of coherence within their respective cultural schemes. In order for the suffering subject to re-cognize the supernatural entity as the vector of the suffering, that entity must be cognized, known, prehended in the first place through causal efficacy; it must be so to speak a public figure in the cultural atmosphere at stake.

2.3. Eternal Objects

Since Whitehead specifies that the modes of presentational immediacy and of causal efficacy are connected through an eternal object that ingresses in both (PR 170), the symbols that activate such a bond can be understood as a particular species of eternal objects. Granted, the concept of eternal object is quite problematic in itself, but they suggest a very promising hermeneutical path. Because of the permanence they embody, they allow us to think the fluctuations of experience. Supernatural entities understood as complex eternal objects ingress in the experience of a subject and thereby lure the subject in a pathological direction. They are actual only in so far as they participate in the event of the subject’s illness

Eternal objects are required in order to extract the “how” of feeling from what has been felt. Hence the question of the existence of these objects is immaterial: it would make no sense to ask whether the color “red” (given by Whitehead as an example of an eternal object) is real or not; when we see a red object, “red” is just an ingredient of our experience. Needless to say, the question of the subject/object duality vanishes as well. It does not really matter anymore whether these devils, supernatural husbands, djinns, ancestors exist without or within the mind of the suffering subject: they possess an efficacy that allows them to unify the experience of the subject. Through these entities, the subject’s experience is one, and the subject is one with his or her community. This alleviates, even cures, the subject’s suffering.

Supernatural entities have been so far understood as (complex) eternal objects, not as intentional, volitional and enduring beings. If such were the case, another of Whitehead’s categories would be needed, and this would open a very complex debate: a society of actual occasions whose social order has taken the special form of serial “personal order” (see e.g. PR 34ff, MT 161).

According to Nathan (1995, 12), supernatural entities are endowed, just like human beings, with intentionality. This explains why and how they can be in “business” [négoce] with human beings (especially with shamans). But Nathan does not describe the operational mode of these entities and it is not always easy to know whether this intentionality is literal or speculative and metaphorical. In a 1994 work, he claims that the names of the entities represent the experienced fears of the patients. If so, the concept of complex eternal object would be more adequate to Nathan’s as well as Levi-Strauss’ (1958) vision.

We need to bypass the simple claim that would understand objects qua passive and subjects qua active. The process of ingression signifies the activity of both poles. On the one hand, the efficacy of an eternal object such as a supernatural entity does not depend only on the object itself: the event in which it ingresses is determinant. On the other, the object is such as it is because the events are such as they are. As a result, human beings and human communities actively welcome those entities and the latter actively lure the former towards a given unified experience.

Western therapies have understood supernatural entities as irrational phantasms and have replaced them by concepts like the unconscious, Oedipus Complex, Eros and Thanatos principles, and the like—all quite similar after all to the very supernatural entities they are supposed to advantageously replace. Whitehead’s ontological principle, for its part, urges us to take seriously the claims of the patients and of the shamans: “everything is positively somewhere in actuality, and in potency everywhere” (PR 40).

3. Healing Practices

3.1. Making Fears Live

A practice can be characterized by its power to “make live” [faire exister] its target. Nathan’s ethnopsychoanalysis make live a patient “taken” by entities from without—entities endowed with intentions with regard to a patient who stands at the edges of the natural and supernatural realms. This practice exploits devices that allow the identification of the entities involved in the disorder, their summoning, and the negotiation that should lead to the relief of the patient. These ritual practices create what Deleuze calls “arrangements” (agencements], which components can be human and non-human, but that have the characteristics of interacting creatively.

In “savage” therapies that influence ethnopsychoanalysis, the goal is of course to focus on a given patient, but the patient is never abstracted from her environment, social, natural and supernatural. The patient’s disorders are not his own; they express a collective disorder. What is at stake is the equilibrium between the natural and the supernatural worlds. More precisely, the equilibrium is both horizontal, i.e., between the natural entities, and vertical, i.e., between living human beings and spirits. As Nathan claims, the clinical work becomes at the same time very precise and very complex: precision is needed because a concrete technical knowledge is needed to negotiate with the spirits (the shaman needs to know their nature, ecology, modes of manifestation, taste etc.); complexity is involved because of the amount of relevant data entering the healing ritual (data from the patient, her house, parents, body, breath etc.).[5]

In ethnopsychoanalysis, the focus is on practitioners rather than on patients. What matters is the healing technique involved, not the category that might apply to the disorder per se. This makes the field akin to psychoanalysis because of the dialectic between transference and counter-transference: one cannot be analyzed without the other. A practice that focuses on the patient only involves the fusing of the symptom to the patient (Nathan 1995, 51: souder le symptôme à la personne) and the patient becomes defined by his pathological category. The suffering individual is at the same time dissolved in the generality of a category and isolated in the particularity of her symptom.

In savage therapies as well as in ethnopsychoanalysis, both the disorder and its healing, the patient and her therapist are understood as transformations of the human being qua eventful trajectory. It is a kind of Whiteheadian ontological adventure that is individual and collective (Deleuze and Guattari 1991, 152). According to Nathan, the shaman as well as the therapist is a negotiator or a diplomat of sorts who stands between the patient and the entities he perceives. In order to do so, the therapist establishes what Nathan calls a permanent trade counter (1995, 12: comptoir permanent de commerce) where the negotiation takes place. In a way the patient is ignored and the negotiation happens between the shaman and the entity. Strictly speaking, the biography of the patient, her affects, emotions and representations can be ignored. The negotiation is possible because of the intentionality of the entity involved (a characteristic that the Freudian unconscious does not possess). The objects that the shaman or the ethnopsychoanalysts manipulates participate in the negotiation though their power to oblige the entities to manifest themselves. The therapist’s art consists in dealing with the power relationship that she has initiated; it is a matter of cunning, diplomacy and respect—of persuasion—not of brutal force. One should not be unsubtle in dealing with fears.

The so-called technical objects (the one manipulated during the cure) allow the definition of a divinatory diagnostic. The shaman does not talk and interrogate the patient in the same way a Western therapist would: he manipulates the objects which are bound to the supernatural world, the very world from where the disorder originates. The divinatory process constitutes an act of creation that weaves knots between the worlds. Through that objectivization, the patient is not identified to the symptom but correlated to a collective structure that allows the cure (Nathan 1995, 18). Objects make the relationship between the therapist and the patient “routine, almost mechanical”: compassion as well as sympathy are excluded. In short, the ordinariness of the intersubjective link is transformed into a technical space susceptible to carry an action on both worlds. Actually, a seer working with these objects does not understand intuitively what is going on: during the cure process, the seer is in business with the spirits, she negotiates another destiny for the patient (1995, 18).

One cannot find in Whitehead a real theory of action that could allow us to describe the behavior of the shaman during the cure. More precisely, there is no specific theory of intentional action. However, the world is “in action” in the sense that it is defined qua activity and that activity means here creation. It is thus possible to associate action (in abstraction from will) to creation. The subject results from the activity of the world and not the reverse.

In the same way that illness happens to the patient independently of his will and responsibility, the recovery happens independently as well. Even the shaman cannot be held responsible. In Nathan’s world, only supernatural entities are acting intentionally in these matters. And this intentionality is inferred from the patient’s disorder. For reasons that are theirs, they impose the disorder on the patient. In other words, will is transferred from human beings to non-human entities. The advantage of such a transfer is that the symptom is not understood as the patient’s creature. The scientific observation and analysis of shamanistic narratives and ethnopsychoanalytic practices cannot but acknowledge the coherence of the actions involved, of the words involved, and of the systematic manipulation of the objects. The question is of course to know the reason of this coherence. Healers that we have met in the Jura say similarly that they do not effect cures, that they are only the instrument of a divine will.

3.2. Power

If we follow Whitehead’s suggestions, we should not worry about the shaman’s will to cure the patient. It goes without saying that the shaman works intentionally at the recovery of the patient, but her will is not the actual cause of the recovery—that is understood as the re-harmonization of the patient’s interaction with the mundane and supramundane environment. It is only a matter of power.

Whitehead borrows Locke’s concept of power: “The philosophy of organism holds that, in order to understand “power”, we must have a correct notion of how each individual actual entity contributes to the datum from which its successors arise and to which they must conform” (PR 56). A human being is not a substantial being; it is defined as a society of trajectorial societies of actual entities. In short, it is the concept of power that names the capacity of past events to influence present events. By extension, it names the capacity of the shaman to orientate the future by influencing both the patient’s experiences and the supernatural beings.

There is a creative synthesis between the settled past and the novel actuality: the new event is only partially determined by past events, it is neither totally creative nor totally determined. One could say that the powers play according to longitudes and latitudes, the result being a Deleuzian agencement. According to Whitehead, the concept of power as it applies to societies has a very wide ontological range: human societies or course, but also societies such as forests, deserts and the like. All have their share in the creative advance. Shamanic objects fully participate of course in that complex dialectic of power. The cure is not to be understood as the return to a past state or equilibrium, but to the creation of a novel one—and such a creation involves necessarily all powers at stake.

4. Processes of Influence

Nathan defines ethnopsychoanalysis and all forms of therapy (even psychoanalysis itself!) as the art of the technical handling of influence.[6] From the perspective of influence, human beings are not (primarily) autonomous and rational. Interestingly enough, it is because of such a faith in rational autonomy that Freud rejected hypnosis and thereby created the analytic process, supposedly totally free of any form of influence whatsoever. To take influence into account amounts to getting involved in the subject’s animal part, i.e., the subject’s preverbal or prehuman dimension that we share with other mammals. From this perspective, human beings are knots—nexus—made of threads that are as various and numerous as her fellow human beings, the world of living and non-living beings; they embody so to speak a peculiar position in an unlimited relational system.[7]

According to Nathan himself, influence is a principle active in all therapeutical relations—even if, in practices like psychoanalysis, one sometimes try to minimize or to control it. In sum, all agents, objects and events are interrelated; influence spreads all over the system. Since the power of influence rests upon a technical (ritualistic) use of words and objects, it belongs to both the material and the spiritual realms: the patient is integrated in an intellectual game that is devised for suffering individuals only.[8]

Whereas suggestion moves from the therapist to the patient, influence is a fluid of sorts that circulates at all levels and in all directions. Mesmer’s model itself is of course obsolete, but his vision remains. What matters especially is the importance of the objects to convey the influence: “one could almost claim that the objects are the sole actors on the therapeutical scene, producing demonstrations, recruiting patients and therapists, suggesting theoretical developments […]”[9] Objects exercise influence because they compel thought and action. Whiteheadian interconnectedness, as it is expressed through the concept of prehension, obliges us to take seriously the power of these objects. Nathan tells the story of a young Tunisian who had a nervous breakdown in the Parisian Underground. The psychiatric treatment through neuroleptics remained without effect and, upon his return to Tunisia, he consulted a seer who used melted lead in the cure (1994, 125). One reads how the lead objects actively participated in the identification of the spellbinding, in the vomiting of the spell and hence in the cure. Their destruction allows the disorder of the patient. From a Whiteheadian perspective, one can say that the melted lead is prehended by the seer, the patient and his family. It is through that prehension that the spellbinding is felt. The fact that the man vomits makes clear that the lead has influenced his body and it does not really matter whether the lead has influenced the body directly or through the mind. The prehension of the lead gathers together all the dimensions, existential or otherwise, of the actors, human or not, involved.

Such a broad understanding of the process of influence involves of course a partly undefined acceptation of the concept that exemplifies the Whiteheadian mutual prehensions and, beyond, Whitehead’s understanding of power and life: “It is the process of eliciting into actual being factors in the universe which antecedently to that process exist only in the mode of unrealized potentialities” (MT 151). Furthermore, the process is also shot through and through with creativity. In sum, influence actualizes what was only potential and brings something new into existence (cf. MT 166).

The process of self-creation, that can be safely used to depict all forms of therapy, involves the totality of the antecedent world: “The whole antecedent world conspires to produce a new occasion” (MT 164). Please notice that Whitehead writes “conspires,” not “causes”—not only because of negative prehensions, but also because of the pure eventfulness of the new occasion. Similarly, in the shamanic cure, supernatural entities, objects, the shaman’s theories, the shaman himself, and the environment conspire to bring change in the life of the suffering individual, who also somewhat anticipates that influence. The creation of the living by the dead is neither fully determined by a settled past nor by a strict teleology. But it is not totally open either: past experiences overlap and stabilize the identity-in-the-making of individuals. “There is nothing which floats into the world from nowhere” (PR 244).

Whiteheadian interpretation springs from the past, fixed world and goes beyond it. It is impossible to sharply distinguish the passive appropriation from the active creation of the interpretation of a given event. Ethnopsychoanalysis and Whiteheadian process thought agree that influence has to be understood holistically:

In fact, the world beyond is so intimately entwined in our own natures that unconsciously we identify our more vivid perspectives of it with ourselves. For example, our bodies lie beyond our own individual existence. And yet they are part of it. We think of ourselves so intimately entwined in bodily life that a man is a complex unity-body ad mind. But the body is part of the external world, continuous with it. In fact, it is just as much part of nature as anything else there—a river, or a mountain, or a cloud. Also, if we are fussily exact, we cannot define where a body begins and where external nature ends (MT 21).

5. Conclusions

Bringing together ethnopsychoanalysis and Whitehead’s speculative philosophy is important because it draws our attention towards an experientially unified world. All experiences matter; all must receive some elucidation within the interpretation

Ethnopsychoanalysis rehabilitates “savage thought,” i.e. a thought that does not bifurcate the physical and the spiritual. Modernity has argued (1) that the absence of such an operational distinction defines savage or magical thought; and (2) that this amounts to irrationality. On the contrary, Whitehead’s project includes the rehabilitation of holistic pre-Kantian thinking with the help of processes, flux, prehensions, eventful societies and the like. The apparent simplicity and clarity of sense-perception has to be grounded in the complex vagueness of an underground anchorage in our living environment. The togetherness between facts has to be brought to light, the intrinsic continuity of all events has to be underlined (cf. MT 149).

Whitehead allows us to conceive illness and healing qua processes or transitions, not qua stable states. Hence, “illness” and “healing” are simple tags given to momentarily stabilized processes. Interestingly enough, there are resemblances between this standpoint and Canguilhem’s. Living beings never stop fluctuating and indeed it is through their plasticity that they can survive in an ever-fluctuating environment. We would like to be able to rely upon permanence and immutability, but this would be death. Illness and healing are creative fluctuations that can be influenced through their being embedded in the (supra-) natural continuum. Healing never amounts to going back to the previous state of health: it amounts to a “social transformation” (Stengers 2002, 564). Whitehead insists on the necessity to see life as a flux (MT 99).

Whitehead also helps us to understand how ethnopsychoanalysis has severed the patient from psycho-therapeutical categories. The patient’s psyche does not matter anymore, only the societies of natural and supernatural entities—entities that are furthermore not understood as substances, but as powers that can be prehended. Nathan (1994) calls them “frights” [frayeurs] on purpose: it allows him to blur the difference between the effect (the fear, fright) and the cause (the entity) and thus to put forward the vivid experience itself and the universal eventful togetherness of entities and beings. Needless to say, the rejection of all bifurcations, whether between mind and body or between spiritual and material realms, has important consequences for the status of psychology itself. A discipline that would deal solely with the mind or with consciousness understood as a phenomenon in itself is rejected by the process standpoint. The required standpoint is more ethologic: one need to understand the individual as belonging to a community and to a (supra-) natural environment.

Ethnopsychoanalysis and Whiteheadian philosophy seek to understand life without reducing it to categories. Experience itself is what matters and experience always occurs within a holistic horizon. More precisely, Nathan focuses on practitioners and practices rather than to patients; Whitehead understands experience qua event, i.e., becoming. Togetherness and solidarity are not moral imperatives, but the ontological condition of all experiences whatsoever. There is a collective adventure that necessarily associates all existential trajectories. Like James before him, Whitehead has left open the question of the sense-awareness that conditions sense-perception per se: he would never have dreamed to consider it as a fraud (cf. AI 236). His late empiricism is a radical one: all experiences—and only experiences—are to be eligible as instantiations (or falsifications) of his categoreal scheme.

In essence, the question of the interplay of ethnopsychoanalysis and Whiteheadian speculative philosophy amounts to defining the type of world that we would like to inhabit. It seems doubtful that a substantialistic world build up of partes extra partes is livable. On the other hand, an organic world provides compelling meaning for all actors involved in its creative advance, even if they are not always fully in charge of their own becoming.


[1] This entry is an updated and slightly abriged version of a paper that has been published in Michel Weber et Pierfrancesco Basile (sous la direction de), Chromatikon II. Annuaire de la philosophie en procès—Yearbook of Philosophy in Process, Louvain-la-Neuve, Presses universitaires de Louvain, 2007, pp. 175-204.

[2] “Les personnages conceptuels ont ce rôle, manifester des territoires, déterritorialisation et reterritorialisation absolues de la pensée” (1991, 67).

[3] “Les esprits protecteurs et les esprits malfaisants, les monstres surnaturels et les animaux magiques font partie d’un système cohérent qui fonde la conception indigène de l’univers. La malade les accepte, ou, plus exactement, elle ne les a jamais mis en doute. Ce qu’elle n’accepte pas, ce sont les douleurs incohérentes et arbitraires qui, elles, constituent un élément étranger à son système, mais que par l’appel au mythe, le chaman va replacer dans un ensemble où tout se tient” (p. 218).

[4] “Toutes deux visent à provoquer une expérience; et toutes deux y parviennent en reconstituant un mythe que le malade doit vivre et revivre. Mais dans un cas, c’est le mythe individuel que le malade construit à l’aide d’éléments tirés de son passé; dans l’autre, c’est un mythe social, que le malade reçoit de l’extérieur, et qui ne correspond pas à un état personnel ancien” (1958, p. 220).

[5] “Le travail clinique devient dès lors à la fois très précis et très complexe. Précis, en effet, puisqu’il implique des connaissances les plus étendues possible sur la nature des invisibles, leur écologie, leurs modes de manifestation, leurs goûts et les négociations qu’ils peuvent admettre. Il ne s’agit plus alors pour le thérapeute de démontrer ses capacités d’empathie ou d’improvisation, mais ses connaissances techniques concrètes. Le travail est aussi bien plus complexe, car il nécessite une lecture attentive des signes que l’on ira alors chercher, non pas exclusivement dans les informations fournies par les malades, mais aussi dans toutes sortes de regards que l’on portera sur la maison, la parentèle, le corps du malade, son souffle, sa façon de parler, etc.” (2001).

[6] “L’art du maniement technique de l’influence” (Nathan, 2001).

[7] “Un point où s’entrecroise les fils du réseau formé par ses semblables, par le monde des vivants, par l’univers inanimé, il serait défini par une position particulière dans un système relationnel illimité” (Roustang 1990 p.161).

[8] “Le jeu intellectuel auquel ne sont admis que ceux qui souffrent” (Nathan, 2001).

[9] “L’on pourrait presque dire que les objets sont les seuls acteurs de la scène thérapeutique, produisant les démonstrations, recrutant des patients et des candidats thérapeutes, permettant le développement de la pensée théorique qui leur a donné naissance” (Nathan, 2004, p. 4).

Works Cited and Further Readings

Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Félix. 1994 [1991]. What is Philosophy, translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell (New York, Columbia University Press).

Devereux, Georges. 1977. Essai d’ethnopsychiatrie générale (Paris, Gallimard).

Hell, Bertrand. 1999. Possession et chamanisme: Les maîtres du désordre (Paris, Flammarion).

Favret-Saada, Jeanne. 1977. Les mots, la mort, les sorts: La sorcellerie dans le bocage (Paris, Gallimard).

Jonckheere de, Claude. and Bercher, Delphine. 2003. La question de l’altérité dans l’accueil psychosocial des migrants (Genève, Editions IES).

Latour, Bruno. 1996. Petite réflexion sur le culte moderne des dieux faitiches (Le Plessis-Robinson, Les empêcheurs de penser en rond).

Levi-Strauss, Claude. 1958. Anthropologie structurale, I (Paris, Plon).

Nathan, Tobie. 1988. L’animisme, la magie et le roi divin (Paris, Payot).

Nathan, Tobie. 1993. Fier de n’avoir ni pays ni amis, quelle sottise c’était. Principes d’ethnopsychoanalysis (Grenoble, La pensée sauvage).

Nathan, Tobie. 1994. L’influence qui guérit (Paris, Editions Odile Jacob).

Nathan, Tobie and Stengers, I. 1995. Médecins et sorcier. (Le Plessis-Robinson, Les empêcheurs de penser en rond).

Roheim, Geza. 1978. Psychanalyse et anthropologie: culture, personnalité, inconscient (Paris, Gallimard).

Stengers, Isabelle. 2002. Penser avec Whitehead (Paris, Seuil).

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1953. Philosophische Untersuchungen—Philosophical Investigations, translated by G. E. M. Anscombe (New York, MacMillan Company).

Author Information

Claude de Jonckheere
Haute école de travail social
Institut d’études sociales, Centre de recherche sociale, Genève 4

How to Cite this Article

de Jonckheere, Claude, “A Whiteheadian Enquiry Concerning Ethnopsychoanalysis”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <http://encyclopedia.whiteheadresearch.org/entries/thematic/psychology/a-whiteheadian-enquiry-concerning-ethnopsychoanalysis/>.