Kohut's Self Psychology, Ethics, and Modern Society

Authored by: John Hanwell Riker

The Routledge International Handbook of Psychoanalysis and Philosophy

Print publication date:  November  2022
Online publication date:  November  2022

Print ISBN: 9780367276454
eBook ISBN: 9780429297076
Adobe ISBN:


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In this chapter I will describe how Heinz Kohut in his work with narcissistic patients discovered that the essential psychological task for humans is to develop a core nuclear self, rather than, as Freud held, achieving a felicitous management of the drives. I will describe Kohut’s notion of the largely unconscious nuclear self with its bipolar structure of ideals and ambitions, how it develops in the first half decade of life out of primary narcissism, and why injuries to the self are the basis for most psychopathology. I will then show how this theory of self integrates concepts from Plato, Aristotle, Nietzsche, and especially Hegel, but also indicate why it differs from all of them in having an empirically based psycho/social theory of the development of the self, differentiating the self from the ego, and asserting the primacy of “selfobjects” (persons who perform self-functions when the self is unable to) in the construction and ongoing viability of the self. This theory of the self has profound implications for ethics, not only in offering a new vision for how best to live as a human being, but also in giving a compelling argument for why, if we want to have strong, vibrant selves, we should strive to be ethical human beings.

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