Who’s on First, What’s on Second: Originality, Kohut, Stolorow (and Why Care)?

Introduction by Nathan Szajnberg, MD Managing Editor

 Charles Strozier presents below a meticulous historical study of idea evolution in psychoanalysis.  Previously, this careful biographer of Kohut, showed, given the limitations of historical research, that Kohut was his own analyst in the Mr. Z. case, something those of us in Chicago simply knew.  Now, Strozier presents a scholarly textually-tight study of the historical intellectual relationship between Stolorow, a father of intersubjectivity, and Kohut.  Strozier painstakingly documents how Stolorow borrowed much language and thinking from Kohut, at first citing Kohut, later omitting any mention.  Strozier presents Kohut as the originator of not only the study and treatment of narcissism — once almost an epithet among analysts, as “hysteria” was almost an eptihet among physicians in Freud’s era — but also when Kohut as a foundational thinker shifted to discussing the “self” between 1971-74. A keystone to Strozier’s argument is “What matters in foundational thinking is not first use of terms but the shifting of (the terms’) paradigms ….” (Strozier, personal communication).  This opens critical thinking about not only words, but the meaning behind words.  One of my teachers, David Marcus, a Kohut acolyte, asking us rhetorically around 1973, if one knew what a “self” was. 


Deciding who first used which term, or which concept is not an infinite regress, but a finite regress.  Giovacchini first used the term “selfobject” in a 1965 paper and even then, referred back to Edith Jacobson’s work on self and object and Winnicott’s ideas (even though he did not use the terms) as preceding his. Likely some more scholarly reader in the “Gotcha Gang” will find earlier uses of the term.  Nevertheless, Strozier’s work is careful scholarship and merits our careful considerations. 


Why care about who’s on first and what’s on second?  This is also for our discussion.


  1. Giovacchini, P.L. (1965). Transference, Incorporation and Synthesis. Int. J. Psycho-Anal. 46:287-296.


Robert Stolorow’s Myth of Originality

Charles B. Strozier, Ph.D.


             The intellectual history of psychoanalysis since Kohut has taken shape along two paths: on the one hand, the many variations of Freudians who cling to drive theory, and on the other, the host of approaches shaped in the shadow of Kohut.  For the most part, the latter group recognizes the seminal place of Kohut, even as they may formulate models that solve problems with the language and discourse of self psychology.  Such evolution of ideas is in the nature of things and represents welcome change.  Robert Stolorow, however, in his work on intersubjectivity, has laid claim to inspiration that is apart from and independent of Kohut.   I turn to these assertions of originality with a close-grained study of his texts.



Stolorow’s First Claim

For the decade and a half after Kohut’s death in 1981, Stolorow acknowledged Kohut’s work influenced him.  In 1978 he called The Analysis of the Self “far-reaching” and The Restoration of the Self a bold reformulation of psychoanalytic ideas “within a new theoretical framework.”  His 1992 Contexts of Being (with George Atwood) has 19 references to Kohut, though most are either critical or lump Kohut with other, mostly irrelevant, thinkers.  In 1994 Stolorow wrote of his “extensive use” of Kohut’s insights into narcissism in 1971 and the powerful impact of The Restoration of the Self in 1978 on him.  “It is difficult for me to convey the depth of satisfaction and intensity of excitement that I felt as I read this book.”  This “stunning new theoretical paradigm” paralleled his own work with Atwood and “fit like a glove” with his work with Atwood in Faces in a Cloud that would come out in 1979.  In 1995 Stolorow’s book, written with Bernard Brandchaft and George Atwood, is dedicated “To the memory of Heinz Kohut” and says on its first page: “This book could never have been written were it not for the landmark contributions of the late Heinz Kohut, to whom the work is dedicated.”  After that such acknowledgements to Kohut became perfunctory and eventually disappeared altogether from Stolorow’s writings and were replaced by critical dismissals.  In 2007, Stolorow waved off Kohut’s Analysis of the Self in 1971 as merely “Cartesian” and his formulation of twinship in 1984 as a “prewired developmental need” that fails to note the way it is context-dependent.  In his most recent book, World, Affectivity, Trauma (published in 2011), Stolorow lays claim to an entirely independent discovery of the “contextualist perspective” of borderline phenomena.

Early book dedications and occasional reverential references aside, the far more common claim to originality that Stolorow makes is that he developed his ideas about intersubjectivity independently of Kohut’s influence.  He says in 1994: “It should be clear from the foregoing account that characterizing the theories of the subjective world and intersubjectivity as ‘growing out of’ self psychology would be quite inaccurate.” Two years earlier, in 1992, Stolorow wrote in Contexts of Being that, “This book, is the culmination of some 20 years of collaborative work [with Atwood] elaborating what we have come to call the intersubjective perspective in psychoanalysis.”  Simple subtraction thus has Stolorow arriving at insights leading eventually to his intersubjective theory as early as one year after Kohut’s classic text, The Analysis of the Self, published in 1971.  Stolorow claims his work on intersubjectivity, in other words, emerged simultaneously and entirely independent of Kohut, a rather remarkable assertion, since Stolorow only graduated from college in 1964 and received his PhD in 1970, with a dissertation on a quite different subject (“The Theme of Voluntary Control, the Obsessive-Hysteric Dimension, and the Precipitation of Psychological Distress”).  He wrote nothing in the early 1970s that suggested themes in what he would come to call intersubjectivity.  In 1994 he acknowledges that he had not read Kohut’s 1959 ground-breaking article on empathy until 1978, and then only after reading The Restoration of the Self.  He found the paper “exhilarating” and it “continues to be my favorite of Kohut’s works,” which is not surprising since Kohut in 1959 anticipates virtually every idea Stolorow has had since 1978.


In fact, in the next paragraph after implicitly staking his claim to insight independent from Kohut, Stolorow modifies his assertions.  He writes that the “early germs of the theory of intersubjectivity” are clearly apparent in his 1979 book with Atwood, Faces in a Cloud, where “we concluded that, since psychological theories derive to a significant degree from the subjective concerns of their creators, what psychoanalysis needs is a theory of subjectivity itself—a unifying framework that can account not only for the phenomena that other theories address but also for these theories themselves.”  But this assertion goes beyond the facts.  The first edition of Faces in a Cloud was published in 1979.  Its subtitle was “Subjectivity in Personality Theory.” The book is a straight-forward series of psychobiographical sketches of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Wilhelm Reich, and Otto Rank, arguing that the personalities of theorists in psychoanalysis inform the ideas and insights of their metapsychologies.  That was hardly a radical idea in 1979; the book suffers from brief, superficial biographies, and skirts at the edge of the simplistic notion that psychoanalytic theories are mere projections of their founders’ neuroses (those faces in the clouds).  There is also nothing in the first edition about psychoanalysis needing a theory of subjectivity, i.e. of intersubjectivity.  By 1993 and the book’s second edition, however, much had changed, including the subtitle to “Intersubjectivity in Personality Theory” and the addition of a new, concluding section titled “From the Subjectivity of Theory to a Theory of Intersubjectivity.”


There are references in the first edition of Faces in a Cloud to Kohut’s 1971 book, The Analysis of the Self.  They represent a cursory reading of The Analysis of the Self, and every single reference in Faces is in fact to Analysis, which is also the only Kohut book mentioned in the bibliography, even though by this point he had published his far-reaching Restoration of the Self in 1977 and the first two volumes of his papers, edited by Paul Ornstein, in 1978, papers that have all kinds of ideas about creativity that would be relevant for a discussion of Rank and the other figures in Faces in a Cloud.  The scholarship in Faces is thus lazy and there does not appear to be a deep understanding of Kohut in the book.


Considering Stolorow’s later claim, however, does this first edition of Faces in a Cloud somehow implicitly articulate what Stolorow would later call intersubjectivity?  A close read of shows this is not true.  For starters one does not even find “intersubjectivity” or any variant of that construct anywhere in the book, which is rather surprising given its supposed significance.  Nothing remotely approaching the ideas of what Stolorow later calls intersubjectivity occurs in the introductory chapter that deals with general theoretical issues of metapsychology and subjectivity, nor in the subsequent brief and superficial psychobiographies of Freud, Jung, Rank, and Reich. So the only possible place in the book for creative breakthroughs that anticipate later theoretical formulations is the last chapter, “Psychoanalytic Phenomenology and the Psychology of the Representational World.”  But if it is there it lies hidden between the lines.


Personality, furthermore, Stolorow and Atwood say in Faces in a Cloud, is not an objective entity but consists of “interpretive principles” that guide experience and conduct: unconscious wish fulfillment and self-punishing, adaptive, restitutive-reparative, and defensive functions. Each of these “functions” is then further elaborated, e.g. defenses are discussed in terms of displacement, isolation, reaction formation, projection, incorporation, and splitting.  But displacement, isolation, reaction formation, projection, incorporation, and such ideas come directly out of the very drive psychology from which Kohut at this very moment was working so strenuously to liberate psychoanalysis.  Stolorow and Atwood in this first edition of Faces in a Cloud mix perfectly valid and even somewhat interesting discussions of narcissism and phenomenology with tired formulations from drive psychology (especially constructs like projection and incorporation).  This kind of thinking led Kohut to say in another context that earlier writers in psychoanalysis pitchforked the reader from one conceptual level to another without warning.

So intersubjectivity is nowhere to be found in the first edition of Faces in a Cloud.  Stolorow recognizes the problem but argues in 1992 that, while Faces in a Cloud does not actually use the term intersubjectivity, “it was clearly implicit in the demonstrations of how the subjective world of a psychological theorist influences his understanding of other persons’ experiences.” As I have argued above, however, the first edition of Faces in a Cloud is little more than a set of superficial psychobiographical essays and is not the stuff of new and original psychological theory.  Next, Stolorow tries another tack and asserts that the first use of the term, intersubjective, occurs in his 1978 article with Atwood and Ross, “in which we conceptualized the interplay between transference and countertransference in psychoanalytic treatment as an intersubjective process reflecting the interaction between the differently organized subjective worlds of patient and analyst.” What he says in that article, however, is rather more circumscribed.  “The interplay between transference and countertransference in psychoanalytic treatment can be conceptualized as an intersubjective process in which two basic situations repeatedly arise; representational conjunction and representational disjunction.” Who knows what that means.

But more importantly, Stolorow implies that his 1978 use of the term “intersubjective” was original.  In fact, the idea of intersubjectivity was by then in wide use by philosophers, psychologists, theologians, and some, especially European, psychoanalysts.  The first to formulate the concept and its layered meanings was Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, in his 1930 book Cartesian Meditations. Husserl, who also linked his profound insight into intersubjectivity with new ideas about empathy, says:  “Something that exists is in intentional communion with something else that exists. It is an essentially unique connectedness, an actual community and precisely the one that makes transcendentally possible the being of a world, a world of men and things.” And he continues: “To this community there naturally corresponds, in transcendental concreteness, a similarly open community of monads, which we designate as transcendental intersubjectivity.”  Intersubjectivity then entered the vocabulary of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jean-Paul Sartre and other French phenomenologists, as well as German thinkers such as Jurgen Habermas.  Such thinking specifically about intersubjectivity needs in turn to be located more generally in post-Kantian thinking about relationality.  Hegel, for example, had much to say about relationality, as did Alfred North Whitehead and Martin Buber on the “I-thou.”



The Second Claim

Perhaps the most noteworthy tenet of intersubjectivity is that within the field created between patient and therapist, empathy creates new possibilities for healing and can change someone deeply troubled into someone much healthier.  Stolorow dates his understanding of this psychological observation to his work with Bernard Brandchaft on borderline behavior that he says began in 1980 and culminated in an article they published together in 1984.  “The psychological essence of what is called ‘borderline’ is not a pathological condition located solely in the patient but phenomena arising in an intersubjective field, ‘a field consisting of a precarious, vulnerable self and a failing, archaic selfobject.’”  Stolorow, who was by then (1980) in close touch with Kohut, had already been on a number of panels with Kohut in Chicago and elsewhere, and served on the publications committee of the newly emerging self psychology group, shared those ideas with Kohut, who agreed.  As Stolorow told me in an interview I conducted with him in 1995 as part of the research for my biography, Kohut “came to agree with us [himself and Brandchaft] on the idea that if you establish empathic contact with a borderline patient he or she stops looking like a borderline and becomes more normal, more narcissistic.”


            The crucial assertions in the sequence that Stolorow establishes—a point he often makes in lectures as well–are that he and Brandchaft in 1980 came to the idea that a borderline in (good empathic) treatment becomes something more healthy completely on their own and without any reference to Kohut; that they wrote Kohut about this idea and he concurred (suggesting that Kohut learned it from them); and that Kohut warmly embraced the conceptual directions in which Stolorow and Brandchaft were going as a logical extension of his own work.


            In fact, the historical sequence is exactly the opposite.  The idea is entirely Kohut’s and Stolorow and Brandchaft learned it from him and made it their own.  For years, Kohut had spoken about how “psychosis is in the mind of the beholder”; if you establish empathy with the psychotic, he is no longer psychotic:  On October 25, 1974, he told a class of candidates at the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis (later transcribed and published in 1996): “What I’m saying is that, within certain limits psychosis is in the mind of the observer.  But if you can break through and understand something and build an empathic bridge, then the psychosis—at least that part of it you do understand—isn’t a psychosis anymore.”  Thus a decade before Stolorow published anything about the remarkable working of empathy in the clinic, Kohut had begun to talk about it.  And the always voluble—and generous– Kohut told one and all about his idea.  When Stolorow wrote Kohut in 1980 about his work with Brandchaft, Kohut replied in a long letter on February 16, 1981, that borderline pathology and narcissistic personality and behavior disorders were basically the same phenomena, though in context it is clear he thinks of borderlines as crypto-psychotic or actually psychotic and narcissistic personality disorders as something significantly less disturbed.  But the crucial passage in the letter says: “Insofar, in other words, as the therapist is able to build an empathic bridge to the patient, the patient has in a way ceased to be a borderline case (a crypto-psychotic) or a psychotic and has become a case of (severe) narcissistic personality disorders.”


            This letter expressed ideas that by then had become second nature for Kohut after talking about them since 1974 and were in fact to figure into his last book that he was then writing but, because he died in 1981, left unfinished and was published posthumously in 1984.  In How Does Analysis Cure? he says: “…the concept of ‘borderline’ pathology (which I define as analyzable cryptopsychosis [and he inserts at this point a reference to p.18 of The Analysis of the Self in 1971] is a relative one, depending, at least in a substantial number of cases, on the analyst’s ability or inability (a) to retain his attitude of ‘empathic intention’ despite the serious narcissistic injuries to which he is exposed and (b) ultimately to enable the patient, via the understanding of his or her experience of the world, to reassemble his or her self sufficiently with the aid of the selfobject transference to make possible the gradual exploration of the dynamic and genetic causes of the underlying vulnerability.”


            It is imaginable, of course, that Stolorow and/or Brandchaft came independently to the idea that empathy actually changes patients psychologically?  The calculus, after all, was discovered independently by Newton and Liebnitz. The discovery of empathy’s impact, however, would not seem in that category.  Kohut had been talking about the idea for six years before Stolorow and Brandchaft first started talking about it to each other in 1980, and both men were in extensive contact with Kohut and the circle of psychoanalysts around him between 1978 and 1980. Kohut’s lecture in 1974 to the candidates may not have been published until 1996, but Kohut’s ideas about the reach of empathy were widely known and talked about (something I experienced first-hand as a candidate at the time at the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis).  Stolorow also never even read Kohut’s fundamental 1959 paper on empathy until 1978, which shows how far behind the curve he was in the late 1970s.  But even aside from the 1974 lecture, Stolorow had in his hands the letter Kohut wrote him in 1981 that describes the idea.  And in the moment (unlike later elaborations based on conveniently faulty memory), Stolorow recognized it as Kohut’s idea.  On March 4, 1981, Stolorow asked Kohut for permission to quote the sentence from the February 16 letter in the article he and Brandchaft were writing.  On March 9 Kohut gave him that permission. The article appeared three years later, quotes the February 16 letter and generally recognizes the seminal insight of Kohut and the potential reach of empathy.  He and Brandchaft even dedicate their article to the memory of Kohut.  Stolorow’s claim now to independent discovery of the same idea is, shall we say, unconvincing.



There are two foundational (as opposed to merely important) thinkers in the history of psychoanalysis: Sigmund Freud and Heinz Kohut.  Between 1965 and 1981, Kohut’s paradigm shift freed psychoanalytic thinking from the drive model, but retained its multifaceted perspectives and located practice firmly in an empathic context.  Contemporary models and orientations, some more creative than others, from intersubjectivity, to the Relationalists, the constructivists, the post-modernists, and so on, have sought to extend aspects of Kohut’s work in their own terms.  Such extensions are entirely appropriate and commendable.  All of these contemporary thinkers in psychoanalysis, however, are children of Kohut.  While Freud created the core ideas of psychoanalysis and its first form of practice, the shift in perspective brought by Kohut energizes in new ways a very relevant tradition that begins with William James, runs through Pierre Janet, finds expression in some of late Ferenczi and aspects of Carl Jung, and re-surfaces with thinkers like Donald Winnicott.  For many years such thinking that is so relevant for understanding trauma and other issues ran like a submerged underground stream beneath the huge dyke of ego psychology.  Kohut released the waters.



Copyright Charles B. Strozier.  I am indebted to David Terman, Arnold Goldberg, Peter

Zimmermann, James Anderson, and the members of a seminar that met in Chicago on

January 7, 2012, to discuss an earlier draft of this paper for their helpful comments and

criticisms. None are responsible for my own conclusions. I am also grateful for the insights

and bibliographic tips of Catherine Keller and Lydia York.  This paper posted on internationalpsychoanalysis.net is a much briefer version of a 31-page paper.  I have deleted all the notes and some 2/3 of the text.  For the full version of my paper, please write me at charlesbstrozier@yahoo.com and I will be happy to send you a copy of that longer paper.


Books by Charles B. Strozier


Until The Fires Stopped Burning: 9/11 and New York City in the Words and Experiences of Survivors and Witnesses (Columbia University Press, 2011)—Pulitzer nomination The Psychology of Leadership, lead editor with Daniel Offer and Oliger Abdyli (Springer,


 The Fundamentalist Mindset: Psychological Perspectives on Religion, Violence, and History,

lead editor with David M. Terman, James W. Jones, and Katharine Boyd (Oxford, 2010) 

 Heinz Kohut: The Making of a Psychoanalyst (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001)—winner of

Gradiva Award from the National Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis, the Goethe Prize from the Canadian Psychoanalytic Association, and Pulitzer Nomination Apocalypse:  On the Psychology of Fundamentalism in America (Beacon Press, 1994, new  edition 2002)

 Lincoln’s Quest for Union:  A Psychological Portrait (Basic Books, 1982, revised edition in   paper from Paul Dry Books, 2001)

 Trauma and Self, senior editor with Michael Flynn (Rowman & Littlefield, 1996)


Genocide, War, and Human Survival, senior editor with Michael Flynn (Rowman & Littlefield, 1996)


The Year 2000, senior editor with Michael Flynn (New York University Press, 1997)

Explore posts in the same categories: Papers

2 Comments on “Who’s on First, What’s on Second: Originality, Kohut, Stolorow (and Why Care)?”

  1. Kyle Arnold, PhD Says:

    Strozier has done quite a bit of work to minimize the originality of Stolorow and his colleagues. However, unlike Kohut, who hardly ever cites anybody, Stolorow, Atwood and colleagues have loads of citations in their work. The influence of Kohut is there, as is the influence of Piagetian thought, Giorgian human science psychology, the various phenomenologists, Silvan Tomkins, the list goes on. Strozier is trained as a Kohutian analyst, so Kohut is the influence he notices. Those of us trained in phenomenological, humanistic, and other schools notice the influence of other thinkers as well. But there is more here than simple scholarship. Readers who follow as I do the work of both Strozier and Stolorow may have noticed the trail of bad blood between them that has lasted for years. Is it the best use of Strozier’s considerable scholarly abilities to continue to nitpick at Stolorow? I believe that it is not, and would suggest that Strozier could instead focus on continuing to develop his own originality unfettered by these distractions.

  2. Nathan Szajnberg Says:

    We posted Professor Strozier’s work because of its very careful scholarship. He helps us chart the origins of Stolorow’s ideas.

    Psychoanalysis tends towards a bifurcated disciplinary identity:

    1) on the one hand, it can be rigorous, exploring new approaches to problems at the boundary of its discipline, such as working with children (Klein, A. Freud and others) or working with severe character disorders (Kernberg, Giovacchini) or documenting its efficacy (Wallerstein, M. Leutzinger-Bohleber).

    2) on the other hand, psychoanalysis can go through fads that appear to be new approaches or concepts, but have more to do with a charismatic leader, or new language for old concepts or simply some stylishness (such as Jung’s distaste with Freud’s emphasis on sexuality, even as Jung was sexing his patients; Lacan’s later period of iconoclasm even as he created an icon of himself; and now, Stolorow’s claims of intersubjectivity as new and original). If we veer from fad to fad, we diminish our credibility as a serious clinical or scientific discipline.

    Strozier contributes to our intellectual honesty. If someone can challenge him on the substance of his argument, citing texts as does he, IP.net welcomes that: this builds our discipline.


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