The Metaphor of Dissociation: Teleological, Phenomenological, Structural, Dynamical

Ellert R.S. Nijenhuis


Dissociation as used in psychology and psychiatry is a troubled conceptual metaphor. The main problems include conflicting definitions and a lack of internal consistency of some of these formulations. Trying to mend the situation, Van der Hart, Nijenhuis and Steele (2006) revisited Janet’s original definition of dissociation, and referred to it as “structural dissociation of the personality”. This term is not meant to suggest that “structural dissociation” involves a particular kind of dissociation as is sometimes thought. To prevent or repair further misunderstanding, in the present article I highlight four inherent features of dissociation of the personality: teleological, phenomenological, structural, and dynamical. The article also
aims to bridge some metaphors that are commonly described and understood as dichotomies, implying dualisms that plague philosophy, science, and clinical practice. For example, personality is understood as an organism-environment system, involving subjects and “objects” (that may be other subjects) as co-dependent and co-constitutive partners. Regarding matter (brain/body) and mind as attributes of one substance reflects an attempt to avoid the problems of philosophical (substance) dualism, as well as the one-sidedness of philosophical materialism and idealism. The generation, maintenance, and elaboration of
dissociation is analyzed in terms of causing, that is, the mutual manifestation of a network of reciprocal powers. The joint analyses involve an enactive approach to life, and intend to achieve further conceptual clarity and consistency of the metaphor of dissociation.

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