Winnicott And The Capacity to Believe

by Brooke Hopkins, Ph.D.

November 14, 2003


Like Freud's, Winnicott's writing displays an enormous interest in words, in their histories as well as their current usage. This paper discusses Winnicott's use of two words, "capacity" and "belief," combined in the phrase "capacity to believe." The paper's argument has two strands that are woven together throughout. The first is Winnicott's concern for words and how a knowledge of their etymology can enrich their current meaning. The second is his concern for the nature of belief, "the capacity to believe," and his conviction that in exploring this capacity psychoanalysis might have something to say about culture, including religion and the arts. These concerns are interrelated in a number of ways in Winnicott's writing and are ultimately connected to his notion of a "cultural field," a place to grow, where "inventiveness," even verbal inventiveness, is "just one more example...of the interplay between separateness and union," that is, the separateness of individual language users but also their union through the language they share.


Winnicott And The Capacity to Believe1

          If this word be allowed to talk, it can be expected to tell a story. Words have that kind of value, they have etymological roots, they have a history: like human beings, they have a struggle sometimes to establish and maintain identity. 

          D.W.Winnicott, "Cure" (1986b) 

          This feeling, forced on us we know not whence, that by obstinately believing that there are gods (although not to do so would be easy both for our logic and our life) we are doing the universe the deepest service we can, seems part of the living essence of the religious hypothesis

          William James, "The Will to Believe" (1956)

Throughout his writing--and despite his primary concern for the pre-verbal dimensions of human experience--Winnicott displays an unusual interest in words, in the stories they have to tell etymologically and in the kinds of truths contained in those stories that may have been forgotten by their present users.2 He not only displays an unusual interest; he uses words himself in unexpected ways, to get them to reveal aspects of themselves that may have been hidden from view. More often than not, the words he uses are extremely simple ones, ones we use all the time. 

Because they are so familiar to us, he explains at one point, we need to keep reexamining the words we use, to find out where they came from and how they found their current usage:  

We get so used to words through using them and become so dulled to

their usage that we need from time to time to take each one and to look

at it, and to determine in so far as we are able not only how the word

came into being through the poetry of etymology, but also the ways

in which we are using the word now (1989a, p. 233). 

For example, the verb "use" contains antithetical senses that are both productive and destructive at the same time, as in "to put into service, to employ" or "to exploit, to waste (and eventually destroy)" (as in "to use up"). This is the paradox behind Winnicott's argument in "The Use of an Object" (1969): there comes a time in the psychoanalytic process (and in analogous contexts where things like transference and counter-transference take place) when the patient is able to "use" the analyst in both senses of the word combined--make use of and waste or destroy; that is, when the patient's fantasized destruction of the analyst makes genuine, creative use possible. Only then will the patient become capable of being used him or herself (in both senses of the word again): "it is the greatest compliment we may receive if we are both found and used" (1989a, p. 233). Something similar goes for words: "we get so used to [them] through using them and become so dulled to their usage," as he says, that we need to breathe life back into them occasionally by discovering something about their origins. That way, presumably, they can breathe life back into us.

This paper is concerned with Winnicott's self-conscious use of two other words, "capacity" and "belief," combined together in the phrase "capacity to believe" (1986a, p. 143).3 What he has to say about the "capacity to believe" is important not only for a deeper appreciation of various aspects of religious experience, but of cultural experience generally (including the arts), what happens within what Winnicott likes to call "the place where we live" (1971), the "potential space" (1967, p. 103) where all sorts of vital creative activity goes on.4 This would include religious activity--any activity, in fact, that requires some sort of belief to become actual or, to use one of Winnicott's favorite words, "real"--even those varieties of psychoanalytic practice in which the capacity to believe may play a vital role for both the practitioner and the patient alike.

There are two strands to the argument here, which will be woven together throughout. The first is about Winnicott's interest in language and in the texture of specific words, how a knowledge of their roots can enrich their current meaning. The second is about his concern with the nature of belief, specifically, the capacity to believe (not just the ability, as we shall see, but something much richer), and his sense that in exploring this capacity psychoanalysis might have something to teach religion, "something that would save religious practice from losing its place in the civilization processes, and in the process of civilization" (1963b, p. 95). These are interrelated in multiple ways and are ultimately connected to Winnicott's notion of a "cultural field," a place to grow, where "inventiveness," even verbal inventiveness, is "just one more example....of the interplay between separateness and union" (1967, p. 99), the separateness of individual language users, yet their union through the language they share.

The aim of the paper, then, is to tease out a concept that is embedded in Winnicott's writings and to do so through a close examination of his own style of presentation (inseparable, really, from what he has to say), particularly his use of and attention to "the poetry of etymology" itself. To this end, the paper will follow its own developmental approach, tracing Winnicott's use of words like "capacity" and "belief" through the skein of his own writing, and concluding with some broader reflections both on the relationship between Winnicott and Freud and on Winnicott's complex attitude toward culture generally and how culture is embodied in language itself (even the word "culture").  


The seminal paper for any investigation of Winnicott's idea of the capacity to believe is "The Manic Defense," an early tribute to and partial critique of Melanie Klein's vastly important "Contribution to the Psychogenesis of Manic Depressive States" (delivered in the same year that Klein's paper was published, 1935). With its autobiographical opening, this paper has the air of a psychoanalytic conversion, Winnicott's own conversion from a Freudian to a Kleinian model of the psyche, and with it the lifting of his own "manic defense": 

In my own particular case a widening understanding of Mrs Klein's concept

at present named 'The manic defense' has coincided with a gradual deepening

of my appreciation of inner reality. Three or four years ago I was contrasting

'fantasy' and 'reality." which led my non-psychoanalytic friends to tell me

that I was using the word fantasy in a way that was different from the ordinary

use of the term ... Gradually, however, I find I am using the word fantasy more

in its normal sense, and I have come to compare external reality not so much

with fantasy as with inner reality (1935, p. 129) 

The conversion is a terminological one, from a Freud's oppositional "fantasy"/"reality" model to a Klein's complementary "inner reality"/"external reality" one (as well as towards an "ordinary language" psychoanalysis, one free of the defensive jargon his "non-psycho-analytic friends" could not understand). As Winnicott puts it: for him "the change in terminology involves a deepening of belief in inner reality" (1935, p. 129). This deepened belief is connected to the overcoming of the "manic defense," because "it is a part of one's own manic defense to be unable to give full significance to inner reality" (1935, p. 129), to be able to believe in it as something real. The suggestion is that the lifting of the manic defense is what makes "belief in inner reality" possible, and vice versa, that such "deepening of belief" contributes to the lifting of the defense--that the two are somehow part of the same process.

Winnicott's use of the word "belief" here is significant, especially in a paper that is so concerned with the way a "change in terminology" involves deeper changes in attitude. On one level, of course, it means "belief in the existence of," "belief in the truth of" (as in the case of assertions or propositions), but there is also the suggestion of a kind of trust or faith, as if Klein's work had given him something new to believe in, a new way not just of conceptualizing psychic structures, but of experiencing them himself. This sense is echoed in the paper's later formulation: "As the depressive anxieties become less as the result of analysis, and the belief in good internal objects increases, manic defense becomes less intense and less necessary, and so less in evidence" (1935, p. 131).

"Belief in internal good objects," trust "in internal good objects" are Kleinian ideas. They designate what takes place when one overcomes the "depressive position," after one has begun to make reparation for destructive fantasies. But already Winnicott is putting his own special spin on them, beginning to use them to explore aspects of human nature that Klein's relational yet relatively static terminology of "positions" still leaves inaccessible, what Winnicott will term "capacities."

"The development of a capacity for" is one of Winnicott's most characteristic formulations: a "capacity for concern" (1963a), a "capacity to be alone" (1958b), a "capacity for a sense of guilt" (158a). However, "capacity" is not, for Winnicott, a casually chosen term. "The poetry of etymology" reminds us, as it must have reminded Winnicott, that the English word "capacity" derives from the Latin capere, meaning "to hold, to contain," and is related to the adjective capax, which means "roomy or capacious." In addition, "capacity" shares its Latin root with the English words "capable" and "capability," able to do things, the ability to do things (like "potential"). "The emphasis on capacity in his work allows for individual differences," Adam Phillips remarks: "'capacity', with its implication of stored possibility, and its combination of the receptive and the generative, blurs the boundary between activity and passivity" (1988, p. 58). It also suggests that there is a relationship between the ability (the capacity) to hold or to hold in and the ability to do something, that the two are, somehow, contained in one another, contained in the word itself when the word is re-embodied through a deeper understanding of its root. This is what Winnicott means when he talks about "the poetry of etymology," its ability to put us in touch with the concreteness of a word, the character it may have had at an earlier stage of its history.

The concept of space, "inner" space (capaciousness), is essential to this exploration. According to Winnicott, such capaciousness is not something human beings are born with, except potentially. It is something that has to be nurtured over time and within a facilitating environment that trusts itself enough to allow the maturational processes to follow their course. This notion of capacity is a developmental one. It takes time.

But our current discourse--the way we "use" words at the present time--can lead to confusion in our thinking about human capacities.5 Consider the confusion that arises when two words, for instance, "deep" and "early," are taken to mean the same thing, as they are in Freud's model of the unconscious. As Winnicott puts it: "I wish to deal with the confusion that I think may arise through acceptance of the word 'deep' as synonymous with the word 'early'" (1957, p. 109). Winnicott is engaged here in a type of linguistic analysis or (to borrow a word coined by Coleridge) "desynonymization" (1982, p. 82), keeping the meanings of words separate so that we can be clear about what they are trying to tell us. He wants to make sure we do not confuse something spatial and qualitative with something temporal and quantitative. "Deep is not synonymous with early, because an infant needs a degree of maturity before becoming gradually able to be deep" (1957, p. 111), before being capable of depth. "In two words," he concludes his paper by emphasizing his point with another spatial metaphor, the journey, "an infant must travel some distance from early in order to have the maturity to be deep" (1957, 114).

Here the word "deep" refers to "capacity" in the spatial sense of the word, as in having an inside, having a place to put things, to hold them until they are ready to be used. But it also has more generally descriptive connotations, as when we talk about a person who is "deep," a person who has attained a certain profundity. The point is, you cannot be deep without having attained a certain psychological depth. But this takes time, and it cannot be made to happen. That way, according to Winnicott, you will get only what looks like depth, a simulacrum of depth, and not the real thing. This simulacrum is Winnicott's concept of the "false self" (1960b), the self that is established on the basis of compliance and not the exercise of genuine spontaneity.

Part of the way such depth is attained is through the infant's experience of a reliable environment (more technically, its building "a structure on the accumulation of introjected reliability" [1968, p. 196]), an environment reliable enough to give the infant the illusion that it is creating the objects around it--including the mother and the mother's breast--and that those objects will survive its destructive urges, that they will neither disappear nor, worse, retaliate. This way what we call "guilt," which for Winnicott implies "a degree of integration in the individual ego that allows for the retention of good-object imago along with the idea of a destruction of it," is transformed into what we call "concern." This implies "further integration, further growth....[in] the individual's sense of responsibility, especially in respect of relationships into which the instinctual drives have entered" (1963a, p. 143). A sense of object-constancy is built up, a sense of trust, resulting in what Winnicott eventually calls "a capacity to believe." But it is important to stress here that, for Winnicott, the attainment of this capacity is something that will develop naturally, given the proper environment, given the ordinary devotion of good-enough parents and the infant's inborn urge to create, to make of the objects it finds things that have significance, things that can be used.

As we have seen, the word "belief" appeared early in Winnicott's writing, but he does not seem to have used it with any degree of self-consciousness, with any deep sense of what it stood for, until relatively late, reflecting, perhaps, the continued deepening of his own beliefs. In "Morals and Education," he writes that "analogous" to the study of  

the human child's development of a capacity for having a moral sense,

for experiencing a sense of guilt and for the setting up of an ideal ...

would be an attempt to get behind such an idea as 'belief in God' to the

idea of "belief," or (as I would prefer to say) "belief in." To a child

who develops "belief in" can be handed the god of the household or

of the society that happens to be his. But to the child with no "belief in,"

God is at best a pedagogue's gimmick, and at worse a piece of evidence

for the child that the parent-figures are lacking in confidence in the processes

of human nature and are frightened of the unknown (1963b, p. 93, italics mine).6  

Here Winnicott is trying to "get behind" something--in this case, an "idea" such as "'belief in God'"--to something he considers psychologically and morally more fundamental, the "idea of 'belief'" itself, the capacity (although he doesn't use the word at this stage) for belief. He is trying to suggest that the development of that capacity must come before whatever it is that is eventually believed in.

In trying to get behind this idea, Winnicott coins the _expression "belief in" to clarify what he is talking about. This sort of linguistic play is fairly characteristic of his later writing. It often involves the creation of a word-phrase out of a noun or verb (usually a present participle) and a preposition (sometimes with a hyphen, sometimes without). Other examples include "contribute-in" (1969, p. 90), "separated-off" (1967, p. 97), "separating out," and "merged in" (1971, p. 107). The aim of such coinages is to suggest a spatial process, a process that involves an inside and an outside, that involves either putting things in or taking them out or both, something analogous to play or the projective-introjective process itself. In this case, "belief in" further suggests a kind of potentiality, something waiting to happen, waiting to be completed (like capacity). "I cling to this ugly, incomplete phrase, belief in," Winnicott writes,  

because in order to complete that which has been started up, someone

must let the child know what we in this family and in this bit of society

at the present time happen to believe in. But this completing process is

of secondary importance, because if "belief in" has not been reached

then the teaching of morals or religion is mere pedagogy, and is generally

accepted as objectionable or ludicrous (1963b, p. 94). 

In other words, there can be no "believing in" (1963b, p. 95) without the child's first having developed the capacity for "belief in," an interior space to put beliefs. And that takes the attainment of a certain depth, depth enough to recognize that there are things worth believing in at all.

Winnicott's objection to religion--"(or is it theology)," he wonders (1963b, p. 94)--is couched in the same spatial terms, those of the container and the contained. It is reminiscent, in a way, of Blake's formulation that "all deities reside in the human breast" (1982, p. 38) (not surprising, since Blake and Winnicott share the same non-conformist Protestant tradition, a tradition that places enormous stress on the creative possibilities contained in each individual). Winnicott writes:  

The saying that man made God in his own image is usually treated as an

amusing example of the perverse, but the truth of this saying could be

made more evident by a restatement, such as: man continues to create

and re-create God as a place to put that which is good in himself, and which

he might spoil if he kept it in himself along with all the hate and

destructiveness which is also to be found there (1963b, p. 94). 

In psychoanalytic terminology this is called "splitting," and it occurs because of the difficulty of reconciling contradictory, sometimes violently contradictory, elements in the human psyche. So, through a process of projection, which Winnicott describes in terms taken from observations of the child at play, "God" becomes the repository for all that is "good," and "man" continues to contain all that is "bad" ("original sin"), with the possibility of "salvation" coming only from the "outside," through the creation of "an artificial scheme for injecting this that has been stolen back into the child." This "artificial scheme for injecting [what] has been stolen," for forcibly thrusting it "back into the child," is ironically "called....'moral education'" (1963b, p. 95). But from Winnicott's point of view, it is not "moral" at all, since it deprives the child of its original goodness, that which by being gathered together in the idea of God is at the same time separated off from

the individuals who collectively create and re-create this God concept (1963b, p. 95). The result is an enormous depletion of creative energy and an undermining of the capacity to believe itself, that which would have made whatever the object of belief or whatever the religious practices in question worth believing in or practicing in the first place.

Such is Winnicott's critique of conventional religious systems and practices--a far cry from, among others, Freud's, who found them almost entirely delusional. This paper will say more about Freud and Winnicott shortly, but for now it is needs to return to Winnicott's use of the word "belief" and its various cognates, "believe" and "believing." "If [a] word be allowed to talk," he writes of the word "cure" in a talk of that title, it can be expected to tell a story. Words have that kind of value, they have etymological roots, they have a history: like human beings, they have a struggle sometimes to establish and maintain identity (1986b, p. 112).

Sometimes they even have to do so by allowing themselves to be brought back to their original use, which (with obvious help from the Oxford English Dictionary he must have consulted) Winnicott attempts with "cure." "I believe cure at its roots means care," he notes. "About 1700 it started to degenerate into a name for medical treatment, as in watercure" (1986b, p. 112): 1704, to be exact, which is the first citation in the OED of the word's being used in that sense (although it had been used to refer to medical treatment prior to that).

What "story" would the words "belief" and its cognates tell if they were "allowed to talk," and how would that story relate to the issues we have been exploring here? For one thing, the word "belief" might protest that its predominant modern usage, "a certain conviction of the truth or veracity of something that falls short of absolute proof"--an inferior form of knowledge, in other words--is really the product of the empiricist revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries. The word "myth" suffered a similar fate during an earlier period of western culture. And then the word "belief" would certainly want to remind us that its roots go back to words in Old Teutonic that mean "to hold dear" or "to trust in" (galaubian, from galaub- "dear, pleasing"), and further that its root,"-lief," comes from the same root as the English word "lief" (which means "gladly, willingly," but one of whose meanings used to be "dear, beloved") and the German word "lieb" ("love")--all of which verbal forms can be traced back to the Indo-European "lubh-," "to hold dear, to love" (OED). The claim he is not that Winnicott knew all this in detail, but his enormous respect for words and the stories they have to tell--he tends to treat them at times with the same care as he seems to have given to his patients, listening to their stories, helping them to maintain their identities--suggests that he must have known some of it, and that his use of the word "belief" and its cognates was etymologically self-conscious, part of an effort, subtle to be sure, to restore (as he does with "cure") some of their earlier meaning or, one could almost say, their earlier goodness.

In this case, his use of "belief" or "belief in" suggests the capacity to trust, to put trust in something or to hold something dear, an activity that can only be carried out on an individual basis, though in the context of some kind of community. This activity implies the existence of a place from which that trust originates, an inside, a space where things can be held. But it also implies something upon which such trust may be bestowed, something to place such trust in.7

Winnicott's playful, psychoanalytic version (given in the 1968 talk, "Playing and Culture") of one part of the "ontological argument" in response to the question, "is there a God?" (1989b, p. 205) is framed again in terms of the container and the contained as a rhetorical question: "If God is a projection, even so is there a God who created me in such a way that I have the material in me for such a projection?" (1989b, p. 205). A paraphrase might go: granted that, according to psychoanalysis, God is only a projection, even so doesn't this imply the existence of a God who created me with the capacity for having such a projection?

This is a parody, of course, but like many parodies, it has its serious aspect. In this instance, it points to some sort of relationship between our capacity to have the idea of something and its prior existence, the existence of something upon which that idea is founded or, in traditional Christian imagery, which contains us. Winnicott comments: "Aetiologically, if I may use a word here that usually refers to disease, the paradox must be accepted, not resolved" (1989b, p. 205)--"aetiologically," because the capacity to accept paradox is a positive outgrowth of a healthy human beginnings. This acceptance takes a certain "capacity to have faith" (1961, p. 14). He uses the same terms at the conclusion of his speculation, playing on the English phrase "have it in you" to suggest the double sense of "capacity" as both room and strength: The important thing for me must be, have I got it in me to have the idea of God?--if not, then the idea of God is of no value to me (except superstitiously)" (1989b, p. 205, my italics).

If so, he might have added in a way that would have complemented William James' formulation of "the living essence of the religious hypothesis," then "the idea of God" is of value to me, because it is mine, because it is the result of my capacity to believe, to trust, to hold something dear. "The important thing" is to "have" it in oneself "to have" something, a capacity. (Try imagining a world in which no one had it in themselves to "have" the idea either of a God or of gods. Would it be possible to continue to "have" it in oneself to "have" such ideas? What would such a world look like? What would it be like to live in such a world?) Of course, this goes for other ideas as well, ideas in which human beings invest their belief--the idea of justice, for instance, or the idea, not necessarily connected with an afterlife, of a soul.  


Religiously, Winnicott remained a skeptic. At one point, in fact, he expresses gratitude that his own religious upbringing--Wesleyan Methodism--"was of a kind that allowed for growing up out of" (1986a, 143). If he had faith in anything, it was in the essentially pragmatic process of scientific discovery, and there are times in his writing when one can hear echoes of Pierce and James. Comparing the reactions of the two institutions, science and religion, to what happens "when a gap in knowledge turns up," he asserts that "the scientist does not flee to a supernatural explanation," but instead maintains "ignorance" for as long as possible while "a research program is devised" (1986c, p. 14). The very "existence of the gap" is what provides "the stimulus for the work" (1986c, p. 14). This means, ironically, that it is the scientist who possesses "a capacity to have faith." In contrast to the need for "certainty that belongs to religion," the scientific attitude is characterized by a "learned ignorance" reminiscent of Cusa, a "negative capability" (1972, p. 193) reminiscent of Keats. Winnicott says,  

Religion replaces doubt with certainty. Science holds an infinity of doubt, and implies a faith. Faith in what? Perhaps in nothing; just a capacity to have faith; or if there must be faith in something, then faith in the inexorable laws that govern phenomena (1986c, p. 14). 

Here, of course, Winnicott stands very much in the tradition of open-ended, "scientific" inquiry into the nature of the psyche (or "psyche-soma") established by Freud's work.8 In fact, he even expresses dissatisfaction at one point  

with the idea that is often expressed by otherwise well-informed persons

that Freud's mechanistic approach to psychology ... interferes with the

contribution psycho-analysis might make to religious thought. It might even

turn out that religion could learn something from psycho-analysis,

something that would save religious practice from losing its place in the

civilization processes, and in the process of civilization. (1963b, p. 95) 

(Note the emphasis on "processes" and "process," to suggest the open-ended and ongoing nature of "civilization"--literally, what makes genuine human community possible, from the Latin, civilis.)

What religion might learn from psychoanalysis that would save it "from losing its place in the civilization processes, and in the process of civilization" has, in part, been the topic of this paper. Where Winnicott differs from Freud and from Freud's enlightenment model of intellectual progress, however, is in his belief that religious practices and the capacity to believe in their efficacy are worth saving at all. Winnicott's references to religion, unlike Freud's, are never dismissive. Religion, religious beliefs and practices, Winnicott holds, play a role in human experience that can never be dismissed as mere "illusion," any more than works of art can be dismissed as mere substitutes for more direct instinctual gratification, or myths as mere primitive forms of representation. "Freud's flight to sanity," he once speculated, "could be something we psycho-analysts are trying to recover from, just as Jungians are trying to recover from Jung's 'divided self....'" (1964, p. 483). In fact, in a direct reference to Freud's use of the word "illusion" to mean something empty, contentless, almost crazy, Winnicott asserts in his paper on "Transitional Objects" that he is studying the substance of illusion, that which is allowed to the infant, and which in adult life is inherent in art and religion....We can share a respect for illusory experience...This is a natural root of grouping among human beings" (1953, p. 3, his italics).

There is a verbal paradox in the first part of this passage, because "illusion" is a word we usually associate with something false (its Latin root means "to mock" or "to ridicule": illudere). And yet, in answer to Freudian skepticism, Winnicott says he is studying the substance of illusion, what stands underneath it, what underlies it and gives it content--illusion in some positive sense, as art constitutes an illusion, but an illusion that somehow brings its participants together in a vital way. (Note the subliminal echo of St. Paul's definition of faith in the King James version of The Epistle to the Hebrews: "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen" [11:1-2]--not a surprising echo in a paper that uses the symbol of the Eucharist, differently conceived by Catholics and Protestants, to illustrate the difference between transitional objects and symbols.) The developmental continuity is clear: such substantive illusion is "allowed to the infant" and "in adult life is inherent in art and religion," inseparable from them. To "share a respect for illusory experience" is to participate in a view of such experience as something essential to human existence, not something that can or necessarily should be grown out of. As "a natural root of grouping among human beings" it is something that cannot be belittled. As part of human nature, it presumably performs a positive evolutionary function ("the process of civilization"), although it can become "the hallmark of madness when an adult puts too powerful a claim on the credulity of others, forcing them to share an illusion that is not their own" (1953, p. 3), as in various forms of religious fanaticism.

Winnicott once described himself to a correspondent as "a natural Lollard" (Phillips, 1988, p. 38). Since he was interested in words, one assumes by this that he meant in part both that he was a Lollard by nature and that he was a Lollard who, according to the theological distinction, learns from nature and not from revelation, the object of whose faith was not a supernatural divinity, but "the inexorable laws that govern phenomena," nature itself. ("Lollard" was the name applied to the members of the various medieval heretical sects, particularly the followers of John Wycliffe, who anticipated the Protestant reformation.) "I am even interested in the word Lollard," he confessed, "but it would be very complex to describe to you in one letter how this comes in in connection with my work" (Phillips, 1988, p. 38). The word comes from the same root as the verb "to lull," to make a lulling sound, "lu lu," to quiet a child to sleep, as in to sing a lullaby, and refers to the tendency of the Lollards to lollen, or to mutter their prayers softly under their breaths. Adam Phillips speculates that his interest in the word must have stemmed from his interest in infants and how they develop, "in those who mew, bawl, and eventually begin to mutter" (1988, p. 38). Winnicott's exploration of the capacity to believe is certainly in line with his natural Lollardism, the somewhat iconoclastic tendency, manifest everywhere in his writing, to try to "get behind" the surface of things, to look at the inexorable laws that govern phenomena--here, natural, psychological phenomena, such as the development of capacities and in particular the capacity to believe.

The two strands of the argument in this paper ultimately converge in the issue of culture. Here, too, Winnicott exhibits an interest in the meaning of the word "culture" as he explores the phenomenon in "The Location of Cultural Experience." There he says that he is "using the word culture" to mean an inherited tradition....the common pool of humanity, into which individuals and groups of people may contribute, and from which we may all draw if we have somewhere to put what we find (1967, p. 99).

"Somewhere to put what we find" suggests a kind of shared "capacity," a space where things can be stored collectively and drawn on whenever appropriate. What interests him "as a side issue," however, is even more relevant. It has to do with the paradoxical nature of originality, "that in any cultural field [note the pun on the root of "culture" as tilling" or "cultivating"] it is not possible to be original except on a basis of tradition" (1967, p. 99), a tradition the most concrete embodiment of which is words themselves, words like "culture," which still contains a residue of its original religious or communal meaning (as in "cult," which comes from colere, "to inhabit, to till, to protect, to honor with worship"). "Conversely, no one in the line of cultural contributors repeats except as a deliberate quotation, and the unforgivable sin in the cultural field is plagiarism" (p. 99). 

We (since the 18th century, anyway9) acknowledge the originality of other people's contributions linguistically, through the conventions of citation. The best illustration of this paradox would be Winnicott's relationship to his own traditions, first, Wesleyan Methodism, which "allowed for growing up out of," and then the psychoanalytic tradition established by Freud, which gave him a field for developing his own ideas and making his own original contributions to the study of human nature. As we have seen, both traditions are alive and well in Winnicott's writing, yet that writing still expresses something unique and different from either of them.

In his self-conscious use of the word "culture," however, Winnicott reminds us that in exploring "the poetry of etymology," one is exploring the very possibility of a "cultural field" within which myth, religion, and other cultural products which require a "capacity to believe" can develop and flourish (provided, of course, that they are well cultivated!). This is the way in which the two strands of our concern with Winnicott, his interest in words and his interest in the nature of phenomena like believing, weave together. It should come as no surprise, perhaps, that his views on this matter resemble those of his fellow countryman, the English poet, John Keats, for whom genuine poetic speech is only possible for one who has "lov'd/And been well nurtured in his mother tongue" (Keats, 1978, p. 478)10. For Winnicott, "the interplay between originality and the acceptance of tradition [is] just one more example...of the interplay between separateness and union," separateness from primary objects yet union with others through the various and sundry cultural objects that come to inhabit "the place where we live" including the "mother tongue" itself (as embodied in a phrase like "capacity to believe")--a never-ending source of nourishment for those who are willing to be "nurtured" by it, as Winnicott's writing exhibits and this paper has tried to demonstrate.  


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1 Reprinted with permission from The International Journal of Psycho-Analysis (Vol. 78, Part 3, June, 1997) pp. 486-497.(BACK TO MAIN TEXT)

2 This interest is continuous with Freud's, summarized for instance in the final sentence of his "Antithetical Sense of Primal Words": "And we cannot dismiss the conjecture, which forces itself on us psychiatrists, that we should understand the language of dreams better and translate it more easily if we knew more about the development of language" (1910, p. 161). Winnicott's knowledge of "the development of language" seems to have been facilitated by his use of the Oxford English Dictionary, which appeared in its entirety in 1928. Although he never cites the Dictionary by name in his writing, there is at least one occasion--his discussion of the word "cure" cited above--on which it would have been indispensable to him (see below, p. 14). (BACK TO MAIN TEXT)

3 This phrase seems to be analogous in Winnicott's discourse to Erikson's "basic trust" (1963, p. 247)) in his and Benedek's "confidence" (1973, p. 119) in hers. All three provide their creator's a way of talking about a state that is a precondition for healthy development in the child and, later, the adult. (BACK TO MAIN TEXT)

4 "Potential," presumably, because it is a place where potency resides, the Latin root of which, potens, comes from posse, "to be powerful or able," another example of Winnicott's self-consciously etymological use of terms.(BACK TO MAIN TEXT)

5 Cf. the opening sentence of Winnicott's 1960 paper, "Counter-Transference": "I think that the use of this word counter-transference should now be brought back to its original use. We can use words as we like, especially words like counter-transference. A word like 'self' naturally knows more than we do; it uses us and can command us. But counter-transference is a term we can enslave, and a perusal of the literature makes me think that it is in danger of losing its identity." (1960a, p. 158) (BACK TO MAIN TEXT)

6 Cf. Erikson's remarks in Childhood and Society: "The parental faith which supports the trust emerging in the newborn, has throughout history sought its institutional institutional religion. Trust born of care, is, in fact, the touchstone of the actuality of a given religion" (1963, p. 250).(BACK TO MAIN TEXT)

7 An example of the word being in this earlier sense is found in Juliet's response to Romeo's question, "What shall I swear by?" in the second act of Romeo and Juliet

Do not swear at all

Or if thou wilt, swear by thy gracious self,

Which is the god of my idolatry,

And I'll believe thee. (1974, p. 1069) 

Here, "believe" connotes "trust" and is inextricably tied to Juliet's overwhelming affection for Romeo. Her "capacity to believe" does not require any external proof of her lover's affection. All he has to do is to "swear by [his] gracious self," the object of her worship, and she will "believe" him, trust in the truth of his oath. (Her belief in Romeo is only matched in Shakespeare's drama by Cleopatra's belief in Antony as manifested in the dream of him she relates in her play's final act. But then Shakespeare's theater as a whole can be experienced as a test of its audience's "capacity to believe.") (BACK TO MAIN TEXT)

8 Cf. his remarks on his debt to Freud in the informal talk he gave in January, 1967: "...I just feel that Freud gave us this method that we can use, and it doesn't matter what it leads to. The point is, it does lead us to things; it's an objective way of looking at things and it's for people who can go to something without preconceived notions, which, in a sense, is science" (1989, p. 574)(BACK TO MAIN TEXT)

9 When the word "plagiarism" and its cognates, "plagiarize" and "plagiarist," came into active use in the English language (along with copyright laws).(BACK TO MAIN TEXT)

10 Almost inseparable, as an image, from the nursing mother's breast. (BACK TO MAIN TEXT)

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Brooke Hopkins, Ph.D. "Winnicott And The Capacity to Believe". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available March 3, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: November 9, 2003, Published: November 14, 2003. Copyright © 2003 Brooke Hopkins, Ph.D.