bookReview: Beyond Doer and Done to: Recognition Theory, Intersubjectivity and the Third

Jessica Benjamin
Routledge, 2017


Reviewer Brad McLean

Trained as a journalist long before becoming a therapist, it took me many years to shake loose my negativity towards modern psychoanalytic writing. However as time went on and my psychoanalytic reading hours grew, I discovered something new and very exciting that my binary of good and bad writing had previously prevented me from observing. As complex as it might be, when modern analytic writing is good it can mimic some of the processes of analysis itself. Good psychoanalytic writing makes my mind move about, rendering images and evoking associations that float up between the words and the lines of the writing and into my awareness, acting as a springboard to a deeper level of engagement. What I thought was a distraction was actually a kind of magical enrichment, in that the writer is working with the reader on many levels, making the reading itself both personal and interpersonal at the same time.

Jessica Benjamin’s most recent book Beyond Doer and Done to – Recognition Theory, Intersubjectivity and the Third (Routledge, 2017) is an excellent case in point. Considered a ground-breaking Psychoanalytic academic and practitioner, Benjamin is one of the most significant psychoanalytic thinkers of the modern era. Her influence, along with that of her peers, altered the course of psychoanalytic theory and practice, and recalibrated the psychoanalytic domain in profound ways that have become standard today.

To get a concrete sense of Dr Benjamin’s influence on psychoanalytic theory and discourse, I highlight that her 2004 paper, Beyond doer and done to: An intersubjective view of thirdness (Benjamin, 2004: 5-46), which the title of the book being reviewed here references, ranks as number eight on the list of most popular articles on the Psychoanalytic Electronic Publishing (PEP) website (a spot on a list otherwise featuring only Winnicott, Klein, Bion, Kohut and Ogden). The same paper is ranked fifth in the list of most cited psychoanalytic journal articles. Her latest book covers diverse and complex territory including the paradox of play and enactments, sex (excess, affect and gender complementarity), mutual recognition, responsibility, vulnerability and the analyst’s surrender to chance.

Underpinning the book is Benjamin’s theory of intersubjective psychoanalysis, which is based on the concept of recognition. As she puts it in the introduction to the book, this position has emerged from the study of early development and the practice of relational psychoanalysis and ‘… aims to integrate thinking about the mutuality and bi-directionality of relationships in both the analytic and developmental process of change’ (Benjamin, 2017, p.1).

Benjamin’s exploration and re-articulation of the concept of the ‘Third’, perhaps her most significant contribution, is elaborated in different ways and contexts in the book. For those who are not familiar with the concept, it concerns creating space between two people that involves agency where free expression is possible, avoiding the expected complementarity of predictable roles and positions. The concept is complex, and the book is worth reading to get to grips with Benjamin’s thinking on this concept alone, which is fundamental to current relational theory and practice.

In the book’s first chapter, the concept of intersubjectivity is identified as a space in which the experience is of the other as ‘a separate yet connected being with whom we are acting reciprocally’ (p.22). In incredibly simple terms, we could say the concept is of subject and subject communication (both conscious and non-conscious) rather than the relationship of subject (doer) and object (done to). The third is a place outside the bi-directionality of two expected and limited roles and perspectives or places that represent much more than observation from the outside. Instead it is one that involves a form of surrender, or ‘letting go of self’ (p.24) and taking in the other’s reality, leading to recognition of the client: “Surrender [involves] being able to sustain connectedness to the other’s mind while accepting his separateness and difference … [and] implies freedom from any intent to control or coerce,’ writes Benjamin (p24).

Thirdness is conceptually broken down into constituent parts, the first being ‘The Rhythmic Third’. This is based on the notion of non-verbal interactive patterns with their origins in the reciprocity of the mother-infant dyad, which creates an environment of attunement, accommodation and a sense of mutual regulation and recognition. ‘The Differentiating Third’ is a space in which difference can be held in mind, while ‘The Moral Third’ requires the recognition of failures, disruptions and the acknowledgement of injuries, which also references ‘larger principles of lawfulness, necessity, rightness and goodness’ (p.37). At the heart of the concept of the intersubjective third is the capacity for mutual vulnerability, and the therapist’s capacity to reveal this vulnerability while holding the asymmetrical therapeutic relationship together. To quote Benjamin; ‘My clinical theory of the Third is an attempt to formulate a process that embraces and ultimately requires binocular vision of both the rhythmic and the differentiating or symbolic principles of interaction. The Third grows through actions that consist of fitting/accommodating/joining and differentiating/articulating’ (p. 154).

Chapter five in the book, ‘The Paradox of Play – The use of enactment’, explores how recognition occurs through enactment and play, and how this movement works in parallel to the movement back and forth between complementarity and thirdness. Benjamin illustrates how enactments, or dramatisations of dissociated self-states arising from unformulated experiences, can paradoxically both hinder and advance psychoanalytic therapy, while play and meta-communications can offer ways through by allowing the integration of procedural and symbolic channels countering dissociation (p.155). The powerful impact of movement from enactment to play and its resulting movement forward and towards the Third is powerfully illustrated through the case of Hannah, a distressed young woman whose life has been profoundly impacted by early relational failures.

The last chapter of the book, ‘Beyond Only One Can Live – Witnessing, acknowledgment and the moral third’ (p.215- 248), moves Benjamin’s theories and practical application of the concepts of the moral third and intersubjective recognition beyond the therapy room and onto the world stage, where collective trauma and violence have been experienced in the past and are experienced in the present. These final chapters illustrate the ‘big picture’ power of the application of Benjamin’s theories, and sharply illustrate the potential and potency intersubjective psychoanalysis can offer cultures and places wracked by trauma. This chapter is exceptionally powerful and deserves very wide attention.

To return to my comments at the beginning of this review, I caution that this is not altogether an easy book to read. The writing is complex and it references many theories and concepts that are explorations of their own, side roads that can run you off the highway if you’re eager to understand the depth of what you are reading. The book weaves sharp and engaging clinical material and relational psychoanalytic theory together, and offers insights into the depth and complexity of the interchange between clinician and patient and, more broadly, the social realm. Benjamin’s work is an exposition of what is at the heart of the human relational experience, from perspectives you might not have considered before.

While the reader may have to move slowly and mindfully through the book, as I mentioned, this is the sort of psychoanalytic writing that has your mind wandering into thinking about clients, countertransference, fantasies, our own histories, and the movement between impasses and reparations in the therapy room and in political culture at large. Reading the book evokes complex phenomena and, I think, in the style of the best of psychoanalytic writing, it is indeed designed to do just that.

Brad McLean is a relational psychotherapist based in Sydney, Australia. He can be contacted at