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