Unformulated Experience: From Dissociation to Imagination in Psychoanalysis, 1st Edition (Paperback) book cover

Unformulated Experience

From Dissociation to Imagination in Psychoanalysis, 1st Edition

By Donnel B. Stern


310 pages

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In this powerful and wonderfully accessible meditation on psychoanalysis, hermeneutics, and social constructivism, Donnel Stern explores the relationship between two fundamental kinds of experience: explicit verbal reflection and "unformulated experience," or experience we have not yet reflected on and put into words. Stern is especially concerned with the process by which we come to formulate the unformulated. It is not an instrumental task, he holds, but one that requires openness and curiosity; the result of the process is not accuracy alone, but experience that is deeply felt and fully imagined.

Stern's sense of explicit verbal experience as continuously constructed and emergent leads to a central dialectic at the heart of his work: that between curiosity and imagination, on one hand, and dissociation and unthinking acceptance of the familiar on the other. The goal of psychoanalytic work, he holds, is the freedom to be curious, whereas defense signifies the denial of this freedom. We defend against our fear of what we would think, that is, if we allowed ourselves the freedom to think it.

Stern also shows how the unconscious itself can be reconceptualized hermeneutically, and he goes on to explore the implications of this viewpoint on interpretation and countertransference. He is especially persuasive in showing how the interpersonal field, which is continuously in flux, limits the experience that it is possible for participants to reflect on. Thus it is that analyst and patient are together "caught in the grip of the field," often unable to see the kind of relatedness in which they are mutually involved.

A brilliant demonstration of the clinical consequentiality of hermeneutic thinking, Unformulated Experience bears out Stern's belief that psychoanalysis is as much about the revelation of the new in experience as it is about the discovery of the old


"Unformulated Experience is not the usual pastiche of poststructuralist and hermeneutical theories stuck onto psychoanalysis like so many bandaids. Stern has evoked a magisterial, coherent theoretical frame of reference that places psychoanalysis (particularly post-Sullivanian interpersonalism) firmly within the postmodern critique of language; and he elaborates with great clarity and wonderfully frank vignettes the clinical implications of this position for contemporary psychoanalysis. The book will surely find its audience among those interested in psychoanalytic theory and practice. Even the most pragmatic clinician will find its clinical implications clarifying and useful. Unformulated Experience is a major contribution."

- Edgar Levenson, M.D., William Alanson White Institute

"Unformulated Experience is a book of complexity, courage, and verve. Donnel Stern combines Gadamer's hermeneutics and Sullivan'e interpersonal psychoanalysis in a move that separates him from the crowd of theorists who claim to integrate postmodern theory with psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. By doing so, he is able to guide us in confronting, understanding, and treating some of the most puzzling phenomena in the field today, such as trauma, dissociation, and multiplicity. Our ideas about memory, language, and the self will never be the same after this book - neither will our therapeutic practices nor our individual lives. At long last, our profession has produced a book worthy of being linked with the best of modern hermeneutic thought. Savor it."

- Philip Cushman, Ph.D., author, Constructing the Self, Constructing America

"Donnel Stern tackles issues that so often fall in the seams of psychoanalytic thought. What kind of intentionality is there in the act of verbalization; in using one set of words rather than another; in actively but unconsciously avoiding certain sets of words, and with them, certain meanings? To answer these and other challenging questions, Stern skillfully weaves together an extraordinary tapestry of ideas, drawing on philosophy, literature, psychoanalytic theory, and a rich array of clinical experiences. For its brilliant illumination of issues that are fundamental to all clinical theory, and for its cogent, systematic development of the author's own constructivist viewpoint, imaginatively applied to the psychoanalytic situation, I believe this book will emerge as a landmark contribution to the field."

- Irwin Z. Hoffman, Ph.D., Chicago Center for Psychoanalysis

Table of Contents

I. Experience Formulated and Unformulated

- The Given and the Made: A Constructivist View

- Unformulated Experience: An Introduction

- Familiar Chaos: Unformulated Experience as Defense

- Creative Disorder and Unbidden Perceptions: Unformulated Experience as Possibility

II. Reconsidering Self-Deception: Toward a Theory of Dissociation

- Imagination and Creative Speech: Thoughts on Dissociation and Formulation

- Not-Spelling-Out: Dissociation in the Strong Sense

- Narrative Rigidity: Dissociation in The Weak Sense

- The Problem of the Private Self: Unformulated Experience, the Interpersonal Field, and Multiplicity

III Unformulated Experience in the Work of the Analyst

- Interpretation and Subjectivity: A Phenomenology of Resistance

- The Analyst's Unformulated Experience o f the Patient

- Gadamer's Hermeneutics: A Philosophy for the Embedded Analyst

- Courting Surprise: Unbidden Perceptions in Clinical Practice

About the Author

Donnel Stern, Ph.D., is Training and Supervising Analyst, William Alanson White Institute, and Faculty, NYU Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis. He is on the editorial boards of Psychoanalytic Dialogues, Psychoanalytic Inquiry and Psychoanalytic Psychology, and is the former editor of Contemporary Psychoanalysis.

About the Series

Relational Perspectives Book Series

The Relational Perspectives Book Series (RPBS) publishes books that grow out of or contribute to the relational tradition in contemporary psychoanalysis. The term relational psychoanalysis was first used by Greenberg and Mitchell (1983) to bridge the traditions of interpersonal relations, as developed within interpersonal psychoanalysis and object relations, as developed within contemporary British theory. But, under the seminal work of the late Stephen Mitchell, the term relational psychoanalysis grew and began to accrue to itself many other influences and developments. Various tributaries—interpersonal psychoanalysis, object relations theory, self psychology, empirical infancy research, and elements of contemporary Freudian and Kleinian thought—flow into this tradition, which understands relational configurations between self and others, both real and fantasied, as the primary subject of psychoanalytic investigation.  

We refer to the relational tradition, rather than to a relational school, to highlight that we are identifying a trend, a tendency within contemporary psychoanalysis, not a more formally organized or coherent school or system of beliefs. Our use of the term relational signifies a dimension of theory and practice that has become salient across the wide spectrum of contemporary psychoanalysis. Now under the editorial supervision of Lewis Aron and Adrienne Harris with the assistance of Associate Editors Steven Kuchuck and Eyal Rozmarin, the Relational Perspectives Book Series originated in 1990 under the editorial eye of the late Stephen A. Mitchell. Mitchell was the most prolific and influential of the originators of the relational tradition. He was committed to dialogue among psychoanalysts and he abhorred the authoritarianism that dictated adherence to a rigid set of beliefs or technical restrictions. He championed open discussion, comparative and integrative approaches, and he promoted new voices across the generations.  

Included in the Relational Perspectives Book Series are authors and works that come from within the relational tradition, extend and develop the tradition, as well as works that critique relational approaches or compare and contrast it with alternative points of view. The series includes our most distinguished senior psychoanalysts along with younger contributors who bring fresh vision.

Learn more…

Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
PSYCHOLOGY / Applied Psychology
PSYCHOLOGY / Psychotherapy / General
PSYCHOLOGY / Mental Health