Action-Thought (H. Kohut)

views updated


Action-thought is the expression of a concrete, creative kind of thought merged with action. This category has its origin in pioneering experiments that illustrate a new scientific principle by which psychoanalytic patients reveal insights they are in the process of acquiring. In the psychoanalytic context, action-thought is creativeand thus quite distinct from resistance, from acting out, or from the thinking that replaces memories dismantled by interpretation. The notion is part of the theory of the autonomous development of narcissism, as worked out by Heinz Kohut and his followers.

Action-thought was first considered by Kohut in The Analysis of the Self (1971), where he spoke of a kind of sublimation presupposing the modification of archaic narcissistic fantasies. He expanded on the idea of nonreplicable scientific experiments expressing the concrete, creative thought of genius in his later work The Restoration of the Self (1977, pp. 36ff; see also Koyré, Alexandre, 1968). The notion advanced was that creation sometimes takes place in such a way that thought and action are indistinguishable, as when scientists believe they have gleaned knowledge from external reality when in fact that knowledge was already a part of their own mental reality. Kohut addressed the clinical relevance of action-thought in a letter written on May 16, 1974, in which he recounted that a patient prone to concrete thought carried out a meticulous exploration of the analyst's office; this in no way involved an expression of childlike curiosity, but rather of thinking in and through action.

In 1977, when Kohut was proposing a generalized self psychology, action-thought was a crucial concept that clearly set his approach to the treatment of narcissistic patients and its termination apart from that of ego psychology. Returning to the analogy of scientific discovery and advances in knowledge of reality, Kohut alluded to the moment when facts could not yet be distinguished from theory since thought and action were not yet differentiated.

The concept of action-thought was emblematic of Kohut's new theory of narcissism, according to which the patient acted out the stages leading to a new mental equilibrium dependent on a modification in his or her narcissism. In the clinical context, this changed narcissism was the vehicle of messages interpretable by the patient, messages that would not be ignored but could be transformed. This was a sign of progress, for psychoanalytic treatment could not arrive at change by interpretation alone, but called too for a "transmuting internalization" of the narcissistic functions as assumed and verbalized by the analyst (Kohut, 1977, pp. 30-32).

Action-thought was thus cardinal for Kohut, who felt that narcissism was a factor in all creativity, which he understood to be a positive transformation of some aspect of the individual's narcissism. The repair of narcissismthe essential goal in the psychoanalysis of narcissistic personalitiestended to be seen as the universal road to therapy. And neurosis itself, Kohut felt, was at risk of being reduced to narcissistic weaknesses left over from the oedipal period.

AgnÈs Oppenheimer

See also: Kohut, Heinz; Narcissism; Self-analysis


Kohut, Heinz. (1971). The analysis of the self. New York: International Universities Press.

. (1977). The restoration of the self. New York: International Universities Press.

Koyré, Alexandre (1968). Metaphysics and measurement: Essays in scientific revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.