We would like to respond to Richard Wollheim’s review (nlr 93) of Juliet Mitchell’s Psychoanalysis and Feminism. The Left and the women’s movement traditionally reject Freud as a biological determinist. Mitchell’s book sought to redeem him by presenting a social and cultural reading of psychoanalytic theory. The basis of Wollheim’s criticism is that Mitchell overestimates ‘culture’ and ignores ‘biology’. According to him, human psychology is, in essence, biologically determined, and this is the basis of psychoanalytic theory.

Insofar as Mitchell’s book falsely polarizes ‘biology’ and ‘culture’ in an abstract and extreme manner, we agree with Wollheim’s criticism of it. But Wollheim merely reverses this fallacy; to him ‘culture’ has little significance while ‘biology’ is of overwhelming weight. It is clear that neither position is based upon a social theory developed enough to encompass (and integrate) both biological and cultural considerations. But if Mitchell’s account is limited and schematic, it nevertheless moves us in the right direction. Wollheim’s harping on biology leads him away from any study of society, into pre-psychoanalytic conceptions of the mind and, ultimately, into a political approach to sexism that ends up affirming it.

Wollheim’s rejection of the relevance of social factors is clear and explicit in his review. It is clear in his wish for a ‘self-sufficient account of sexual development’ (i.e. one that does not resort to social factors), in his claim that Freudian theory (or any theory seeking to replace it) ‘bases itself on no more than biological considerations and how they are internally represented’ and in his assumption that feminine psychology in the psychoanalytic view derives from introjected sexual organs (i.e. the woman’s mental representation and experience of these organs alone, rather than as aspects of her internalized relationships with others). It is explicit in his totally unargued assertion that any psychological explanation that invokes culturally determined concepts is ‘necessarily less satisfactory or more superficial than a psychological explanation which invokes internal representations of biology’. Less satisfactory for what? For understanding ourselves, our lives and our history as inevitable outgrowths of our physiology, in the case of ourselves as men and women, as inevitable outgrowths of our penises and vaginas?

Wollheim takes us back to nineteenth-century theories of the sexes. Freud’s discovery that social experience (actual, historically specific object relations and not some vague notion of ‘culture’) determined what we make of our biology and of our sexual needs formed the original and core insight of psychoanalytic theory. This theory studies the complex relationship between biology and its internal representations, a relationship formed in society (the family, in the first instance). Wollheim writes as if this relationship was one of simple determinism, the influence all extending in one direction, rather than being reciprocal and mutually determined. But there is nothing self-evident about biology. How we understand, symbolize and internalize our biology may be shaped by considerations completely apart from biology itself. One example comes from the research on gender identity that suggests that our internal representations of biology develop according to the gender we are labelled, rather than the reproductive organs or genitalia we possess.

Wollheim writes from the point of view of a philosopher basically uninterested in society. He urges us to resort to ‘cultural’ concepts only when biological explanation ‘does not grind fine enough’. We believe it can never grind fine enough. Wollheim forgets that the biological objects that he views as determinant are not just bodily organs, but are attached to real people, every one of whom has a specific historical, gendered and class-based identity. Wollheim’s rather snide equation of social factors with ‘social conveniences’ is revealing. What drops out of Wollheim’s account is not only class, the sexual division of labour, history, production—all that Marxism has to offer any theory of human development—but the family, primary object relations themselves, as well. The ‘biology’ internally represented in the psychoanalytic account consists not only of the infant’s own body but of social objects—mother, father, siblings, peers—all in determinate social relations. Wollheim is concerned to explain the internal mechanisms (e.g. introjection) through which our biology is represented, but these mechanisms operate only in and through social interaction.

Wollheim’s account rests on an extremely impoverished conception of the contributions of psychoanalysis and of the nature of the human ego. He portrays the ego as a bodily ego, generated through the biologically determined shifting of erogenous zones. But Freud’s accounts of ego development and his later structural theory move far beyond assimilating mental function directly and solely to ‘inbuilt biological tendencies’ as Wollheim argues. The ego is more than a bodily ego; it has an inner core, based on a continuity of (social) experience, as fundamental to it as the boundaries of the body. The work of Winnicott and others shows how the ego develops through a fundamental sense of continuity of care. Bodily and sexual experiences are introjected and given meaning in the context of specific object relations, especially those with a primary parenting figure. For Freud, and for later psychoanalysts, each stage of libidinal development is shaped not only by inbuilt biological imperatives (such as the early emphasis on the mouth or the resurgence of sexuality during adolescence) but as stages in the formation of the child’s social relations, and therefore of the child’s sexual and personal identity as well. It is unlikely that contemporary psychoanalysts would identify Wollheim’s portrayal as the ego. In fact, in some respects it approximates a portrait of the id or, more precisely, what Fairbairn calls the ‘libidinal ego’. It is true that the id is a development product, structured and regulated by biological considerations in the first place, and which organizes and expresses internal representations of biology (though through the primary process and not through the defence mechanisms of the ego).

Mitchell’s emphasis on the social basis of psychoanalytic thought gives her book force and marks it as a genuine advance. Wollheim, on the other hand, deals with social questions by portraying a world divided between biology and vague, overgeneralized notions of culture and social convenience. In this way he ignores the actual social relations experienced by the child in the family, yet this is precisely the sphere of society that psychoanalytic theory has most profoundly illuminated.