Playing & (Knowing the Other’s) Reality

Transitional Phenomena, Empathy & Epistemology

Alasdair Cannon
11 min readFeb 10, 2023

This is an assignment I wrote on Donald Winnicott’s work as part of the MA in Psychoanalytic Studies program at Birkbeck, University of London.

Donald Winnicott.

I Introduction

Donald Winnicott’s writings on ‘transitional phenomena’ and ‘objects’ describe all that exists in the ‘intermediate’ area between our ‘inner reality’ and the world’s ‘shared reality’: a place where ‘subjectivity and objective observation’ interweave and illusions mingle with real objects (Winnicott, 2005, pp.2, 15 & 86). These writings also address an area that intervenes between psychoanalysis and epistemology: the mind’s ability to know objective reality. In transitional space, we use imagination and perception to confront and resolve vital ‘epistemological question[s]’. We distinguish ‘reality’ from ‘representation’, disentwine the ‘object objectively perceived’ from our ‘subjective objects’, and — crucially — differentiate our perceptions of ‘the other’ from our ‘projections’ (Winnicott, 2005, pp.15 & 52; Benjamin, 2000, p.294; Benjamin, 1990, p.34; Elliott and Spezzano, 1996, p.76). Empathy — the last of these epistemic tasks — is an exemplary transitional phenomenon. With empathy, we come to know others by entering ‘imaginatively and yet accurately’ into their ‘thoughts and feelings’ via projective identification (Winnicott, 1965, pp.53–54; 1987, p.117; 2005, pp.134, 178 & 183; Freud, 1921, pp.108–110; Geist, 2013, p.267). Despite this, Winnicott’s work contains no treatment of empathy as a concept or transitional phenomenon. This lacuna is troublesome, and not least because the internal consistency of his developmental theory rests on the ‘good enough’ mother’s capacity for empathy with her child (Winnicott, 1965, pp.40–51; 2001, p.226; 2005, pp.134 & 183). His silence also suggests an epistemological assumption: knowing one’s ‘subjective objects’ from real objects, it seems, extends without issue to perceiving other subjects objectively. Given other analysts’ caution of empathetic knowledge — perhaps epitomised by Fink’s Lacanian argument that our projections and the other’s unconscious render ‘all understanding’ of others ‘misleading if not outright false’ (Fink, 2014, p.41; see also Hamburg, 1991, pp.349 & 360) — Winnicott’s tacit assumption and omission are unacceptable. Winnicott needs us to know the other via empathy: as such, we must evaluate the theory of transitional phenomena. Here we explain the theory and explore two destructive epistemic fantasies of omniscience and ignorance. Winnicott’s work, we conclude, is internally consistent for it accommodates a theory of empathy that allows for partial knowledge of the other’s subjectivity.

II Transitional Phenomena & Empathy

Winnicott’s work shows how a child develops ‘into a person who, as a parent, [can] recognize [their] own child’ (Benjamin, 2010, p.252). The infant’s path into recognising the other — a ‘crucial developmental attainment’ (Benjamin, 2004, p.6) — proceeds via transitional phenomena. It begins at an earlier point, however, when the infant’s mother enters transitional space to identify empathetically with her child. In its first days, the infant ‘lives in a subjective world’ of ‘maximal’ dependence where only hallucinations ‘feel real’ (Winnicott, 2018, pp.53–54 & 285; 2005, pp.135 & 204). During this period, its mother must make an ‘extremely sensitive adaptation’ to the infant’s objective needs and feelings via ‘projective identification’ or ‘empathy’. Her success here establishes a ‘reliable’ ‘holding’ and ‘handling’ environment where ‘good enough mothering’ secures the child’s development (2018, p.156; 1965, pp.33, 40, 48, 51–54, 70 & 76; 2005, pp.134 & 150). Held safely by its mother, the infant gazes at its carer’s face where — courtesy of the latter’s empathic identification with them — it finds a reflection of its objective qualities. ‘[T]he mother is looking at the baby’, writes Winnicott, and her face relates ‘to what she sees there’ (2005, p.151; Kirshner, 2011, p.336). It sees this objectively derived representation of itself and gains a basic sense of existential security, or ‘continuity’ in its ‘being’, that affords it the confidence to examine its environment (Winnicott, 1965, pp.33 & 52; 2001, p.248; 2005, p.109). ‘I can now afford to look and see’, Winnicott writes from the infant’s perspective, ‘I now look creatively and what I apperceive I also perceive’ (2005, p.154). Buoyed by the ‘confidence’ gained from the mother’s empathic and dependable support, the infant’s first intermingling of illusion and reality begins (2005, pp.18–19, 63, 95, 135–137, 146–148; 2018, p.205). It now encounters the earliest hints of reality’s ‘otherness’ (Rodman, in Winnicott, 2005, p.xiv) in ‘transitional phenomena’ and ‘objects’.

The infant’s early hermeticism is breached by the arrival of the ‘transitional object’: its first ‘not-me’ possession that is both a real object and a container for its projections (Winnicott, 2005, p.2–6). The infant’s transitional object is usually a tactile possession — often a blanket, cloth, or piece of wool — and they play with it using their mind and body. For the infant, its possession is both a fantasied ‘subjective object’ and an ‘object objectively perceived’: it is a ‘transitional object’ with projected meaning and physical existence that straddles the intermediate space between the child’s ‘inner reality and external life’ (2005, pp.3–5, 52, 95, 175; 2018, p.53; 1965, pp.45 & 180). Elsewhere, in the ‘potential space’ (2005, p.55) between mother and child, the hungry infant starts to ‘hallucinate’ the mother’s breast. At the same time, the empathetically attuned mother ‘presents’ her breast to the infant. The infant’s ‘illusion’ now overlaps with ‘shared reality’; a paradoxical moment thus occurs where it simultaneously creates and finds its object. The result: a gentle introduction to otherness that increases the infant’s ‘capacity to conjure up what is actually available’ and strengthens their ‘relationship to external reality’, but which maintains the infant’s sense of omnipotence (1945, pp.141–142; 2005, pp.12–16 & 95; 2018, p.205).

Winnicott believed transitional phenomena constituted the ‘greater part of the infant’s experience’ and that, by allowing the infant to gain the illusion that ‘objects in external reality can be real’, they initiate a relationship ‘between the child and the world’ (2005, pp.18–19; 2018, p.54). Transitional phenomena aim at reality: yet they also create a ‘magical’ early experience for the infant. Gradually, the mother must therefore ‘disillusion’ their child through failure and disappointment, lest they condemn it to a ‘permanent state of regression’ (2005, pp.15–17; 1965, p.51). A painful period that frustrates the child’s omnipotence thus begins. Objects fail to match the infant’s hallucinations: its hateful, destructive fantasies and actions are unleashed. Yet where the object survives the infant’s rageful fantasies, it learns that the object exists ‘outside the area… set up by [their] projective mental mechanisms’ (2005, p.127). In anger, their ‘reality principle’ transforms: they learn that the external world is not produced omnipotently or by their projective mechanisms (2005, p.121). Objects are objectivised and the infant learns to distinguish intrapsychic representations of ‘subjective objects’ and ‘objects objectively perceived’ (2018, p.239; see 2005, p.88). Far from reinforcing its omnipotence, then, the infant finds itself in a world of separate objects when their anger dissipates (2005, p.121). The subject thus gains from dissatisfaction and frustration (2005, p.14; 1965, p.181). Through fury it discovers ‘objects objectively perceived’: it finds reality’s ‘otherness’ outside itself. With its newfound recognition of objectivity, the infant can now ‘use’ the objects that survived destruction as ‘entitie[s] in [their] own right’, with objective qualities, ‘autonomy’, ‘constancy’ and independent ‘life’ (2005, pp.116, 120–121 & 126). Its omnipotence thwarted, the infant must now repeat its destructive fantasies throughout life to maintain the link between inner and outer reality (2005, pp.3 & 18). Yet their reward is access to ‘shared reality’ where it can be enriched by ‘other-than-me’ substance flowing from ‘independent’ real objects (2005, pp.119, 127 & 131) — and, indeed, other subjects.

Now knowing illusion from reality, the infant can willingly enter and exit transitional space. It can play creatively with subjective objects and objects objectively perceived; it fuses and defuses them as it pleases (Winnicott, 2005, pp.52, 129 & 135). As it grows and decathects its original transitional object, the capacity to engage with transitional phenomena diffuses through the ‘cultural field’: the results are ‘artistic creativity’, ‘religious feeling’ and the ability to use ‘symbols’ (2005, pp.7–8, 18, 54, 69, 135, 146–147 & 162; 1965, p.150; 2018, p.44 & 57–58). The same capacity also allows one to know ‘objectivity’ (1945, p.141) and do ‘creative scientific work’ (2005, p.19) — including, we must presume, Winnicott’s psychoanalytic writings. Contra Lacan, for whom ‘love’ is narcissistic (Žižek, 2012, p.773), this capacity also lets one feel ‘objective love’ and ‘hate’ beyond mere projection (Winnicott, 1949, p.72). But most importantly, it allows one to develop into a parent who can ‘recognise [their] own child’ (Benjamin, 2010, p.252). A mother who differentiates reality from illusion can ‘know accurately’ and objectively what her child needs and ‘feels’ through projective identification and ‘empathy’, giving her the capacity for adaptation, reliability, mirroring, and holding (Winnicott, 1965, pp.38, 44, 47, 54, 61; 2005, pp. 13–14, 147–152; 2018, p.156). In Winnicott’s eyes, then, transitional phenomena are the ground of mature functioning. Our capacity to know the infant through empathy, to hold and mother them well, to guide them into the space of transitional phenomena where they can play and eventually care for their own children: Winnicott’s developmental cycle is a circle that begins and ends with transitional phenomena and the capacity to know other subjects objectively.

III Winnicott’s Lacuna

‘[T]he self is first made real through recognition’, writes Phillips (2007, p.131), and we see that Winnicott’s developmental theory hinges on whether empathy is a true transitional phenomenon involving both subjectivity and objective reality. Yet outside a single brief and undeveloped reference to the ‘objective subject’ (2005, p.107), Winnicott’s writings do not account for the objective knowledge of subjectivity. Allow us, then, to explore some destructive epistemic fantasies to develop empathy as a transitional phenomenon.

Two epistemic fantasies establish the limits of empathetic knowledge. One is the omniscient fantasy of ‘absolute’ or ‘complete’ knowledge of the other (Fink, 2014, p.41); opposing this is the fantasy of pure ignorance. Omniscience is clearly illusory. Not only does the other’s unconscious ‘decomplete’ in advance ‘any understanding we may have’ of their inner life (Fink, 2014, p.41): our faculties of perception always structure and limit our knowledge of others. Empathy can only reveal the other as they appear to us, not as a thing-in-themselves (Kohut, 1977, pp.310–311; Winnicott, 2005, p.88; Stanicke, Zachrisson and Vetlesen, 2020, pp.289 & 295). ‘Absolute empathy’ (Hamburg, 1991, p.349) is impossible. Winnicott also recognised that trying to know the other’s core self too closely can traumatise them (Phillips, 2007, p.148). Meanwhile the over-perfect mother or too-knowledgeable analyst who tries to understand the subject’s needs perfectly can appear ‘dangerous’, overly powerful and traumatically unreal to the subject (Winnicott, 1965, pp.51–52 & 187). Omniscience is thus a fantasy, both destructive and illusory.

The position of complete ignorance is similarly destructive. Winnicott (2005, p.151) and Benjamin (1990, p.43) are very clear that trauma results if caregivers fail to recognise their child’s objective qualities and needs. To adopt the position of radical ignorance also moors one in the realm of the imaginary. As Kohut argues, the ‘idea itself of an inner life’ of others — and, indeed, of psychoanalysis itself — is ‘unthinkable’ without some minimal knowledge of what ‘others think and feel’ (Kohut, 1977, pp.305–306). To wit: even Lacan’s notion of the ‘mirror stage’, that moment that inaugurates the subject’s alienation from reality and which supports Fink’s (2014) arguments against understanding, is based on Lacan’s imagined, ‘vicarious introspection’ (Kohut, 1977, p.306) of what the infantile ‘subject feels’ when confronted with its specular image (Lacan, 2006, p.76, emphasis added). To argue against understanding, one must nevertheless understand. As such, both omniscience and pure ignorance are inadequate and destructive to our perceptions of the other, who exceeds and survives such epistemic fantasies.

‘Destruction,’ Benjamin writes, ‘essentially constitute[s] recognition’ (2000, p.298). It is therefore through the ‘negation’ (Benjamin, 1990, p.39) of our destructive epistemic fantasies that we find our knowledge of the other subject ‘objectively perceived’ (Benjamin, 1990, p.41). Like the transitional object, the objectively perceived subject has a paradoxical quality (Winnicott, 2005, pp.xvi & 19). We both cannot know the other fully and cannot fully not know them, so we must know and refuse to know them partially. Empathetic understanding in Winnicott’s work is thus a residual and intermediate knowledge, derived apophatically, that we must constantly parse from our illusions and reinforce through repeated destructive fantasies (2005, p.18). It is never complete or certain: nonetheless, if Winnicott’s theory of transitional phenomena is correct, we must also accept empathetic imagination can reveal something of the subject ‘objectively perceived’. Empathy delivers an understanding of others that hovers in that transitional space between knowledge and ignorance.

IV Conclusion

‘From birth,’ Winnicott once wrote, humans are ‘concerned with the problem of the relationship between what is objectively perceived and what is subjectively conceived of’ (2005, p.15). Though his writings fail to show how we come to know other ‘subjects objectively perceived’, Winnicott’s theory of transitional phenomena can accommodate the empathetic process that allows us ‘to grasp the other as having a separate yet similar mind’ (Benjamin, 2004, p.5). Transitional phenomena and destructive epistemic fantasies ‘make it possible to address the otherness of reality’ (Rodman, in Winnicott, 2005, p.xiv); they also make it possible to address the realness of others. Far from lacking in ‘epistemological innovation’ (Bitan, 2012, p.35), then, Winnicott’s work contains an internally consistent and original developmental theory of empathetic knowledge. With his theory of transitional objects, Winnicott confronts the ‘troublesome legacy of intrapsychic’ (Benjamin, 1990, p.34) psychoanalytic writings like Lacan’s that seemingly ‘preclude’ empathy (Hamburg, 1991, p.360) — perhaps the most essential of transitional phenomena that enrich reality with the imaginary.

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Alasdair Cannon

Writer / Author. Debut book, Holding Patterns, out now via Bonfire Books.