Adam Phillips is a British child psychotherapist, literary critic and essayist. He is known for his books dealing with topics related to psychoanalysis. Phillips is also the general editor of the new Penguin edition of the selected works of Sigmund Freud and a contributor to the London Review of Books.
Phillips was born in Cardiff in 1954, the child of second-generation Polish Jews. He grew up as part of an extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins and describes his parents as “very consciously Jewish but not believing”. As a child, his first interest was the study of tropical birds and it was not until adolescence that he developed an interest in literature. He went on to study English at Oxford University and his defining influences are literary — he was inspired to become a psychoanalyst after reading Carl Jung's autobiography and he has always believed psychoanalysis to be closer to poetry than medicine: 'For me, psychoanalysis has always been of a piece with the various languages of literature - a kind of practical poetry'. He began psychology training soon after leaving Oxford and qualified to practice at the age of 27. He had a particular interest in children and began working as a child psychologist - 'one of the pleasures of child psychotherapy is that it is, as it were, psychoanalysis for a non-psychoanalytic audience'. For eight years he was principal child psychotherapist at Charing Cross Hospital in London. He currently divides his time between writing and his private practice in Notting Hill.
Phillips is a significant literary presence in Britain and a regular contributor to The London Review of Books. He has been described by The Times of London as “the Martin Amis of British psychoanalysis” for his “brilliantly amusing and often profoundly unsettling” work; and by John Banville as 'one of the finest prose stylists in the language, an Emerson of our time'. His approach to the new Freud edition is consistent with his own ideas about psychoanalysis, which he considers to be a form of rhetorical persuasion. He has published essays on a variety of themes, including the work of literary figures such as Charles Lamb, Walter Savage Landor and William Empson, as well as on philosophy and psychoanalysis; and has written Winnicott in the Fontana Modern Masters series'. He is deeply opposed to any attempt to defend psychoanalysis as a science or even as a field of academic study, rather than simply, as he puts it, “a set of stories about how we can nourish ourselves to keep faith with our belief in nourishment, our desire for desire” - 'stories [that] will sustain our appetite, which is, by definition, our appetitite for life'.
What comes across most clearly (to some) in Phillips’ work is his intelligence, his strength of character, his breadth of learning and, most profoundly, his humility; and he has certainly been described as 'perhaps the best theorist of the modes and malfunctions of modernist psychology'. For his intellectual resources, Phillips 'draws from philosophy, literature, politics amongst others. However, whilst this affords Phillips the opportunity to be expansive it also makes him a maverick', and others 'suspicious of his work', so that he has been called 'ludic and elusive and intellectually slippery'. Indeed 'To his critics...Phillips is little more than a charlatan about whom an alarming cult of personality is growing'. He himself was opposed to 'the idealization that is a refusal to know someone', and even in appraisal of the psychoanalytic greats thought that alongside 'thoughtful consideration...puerile consideration would not be the end of the world', in accordance with his enduring scepticism 'about psychoanalysis...it should be the opposite, the antidote to a cult'. We should therefore perhaps best assess him in the spirit of his own assessment of Freud as 'an interesting writer. Not a figure to idolize, but an interesting writer'.
Phillips constantly refuses to “claim” any particular patch of psychoanalytic territory or even defend the value of psychoanalysis itself. “For me”, he has said, “psychoanalysis is only one among many things you might do if you're feeling unwell - you might also try aromatherapy, knitting, hang-gliding. There are lots of things you can do with your distress. I don't believe psychoanalysis is the best thing you can do, even if I value it a great deal”. He has also been alert to the possibility that 'psychoanalysis...disempowers in the name of knowing what's best...at its worst it forces a pattern. It can make the links that should have been left to find their own way'. In the end, he claims, 'Psychoanalysis cannot enable the patient to know what he wants, but only to risk finding out'.
His knack for playful epigrams sometimes belies the fact that Phillips is always questioning, probing, thinking, examining, and second-guessing. Unafraid to revise his ideas, or to challenge those of others, he seems to have little interest in academic respectability and to do 'little to seek out the fame that he enjoys in the literary world'. But while prepared even in the heyday of neoliberalism to consider the possibility that 'we have been too successful at success and failure...in a culture so bewitched...by the idea of success', he is nevertheless realistic enough to acknowledge that 'personal development necessitates a certain moral opportunism'; and may even have been speaking from personal experience when he concluded in Going Sane that 'the best lives, like the worst lives, are driven lives'.