Quaternary Analysis (2017)


Quaternary Analysis

We are a binary consciousness. Perhaps the most striking outcome of psychoanalysis is the formalization of this fact in the notion of the distinction between the conscious and the unconscious. Whether we follow orthodox Freudian readings of the unconscious as the repressed remainder of all that is rejected from consciousness, or the Jungian line of thought which sees the unconscious as the primary ground from which the conscious sense of self we call the ego emerges, we are left with the simple fact of a bifurcation between what we consider us, and what is not us, but nevertheless lives within and through us. Descartes was not yet psychological. His famous formula for the supremacy of the ego, cogito, ergo sum, is to be understood as the declaration of our sense of self-regard as being correct — there is nothing else, besides what we know of ourselves. Nietzsche was perhaps the first depth psychologist, and from his time to ours, we have entered into a decidely psychological era. We might distinguish between pre-psychological and psychological views of self and world: pre-psychological asserting that it is what we know of ourselves which is ultimately true, and psychological asserting that our vastness, or depths, to use the popular metaphor, can only be known in glimpses. It is not simply that the unconscious remains repressed. The bar of repression is a swinging door. Psychic contents emerge from unconsciousness into consciousness, as if through this door, or, to use the metaphor Jacques Siboni, a student of Jacques Lacan’s, provides: a conveyor belt.

This conveyor belt from the “other half” of our consciousness can get stuck. It can move too quickly, or too slowly, or not at all. When it moves too quickly, we may suffer from an inflation of consciousness — by identifying with affect-laden psychic contents being delivered up into consciousness, we may lose our reasonableness — that same reasonableness which is the hallmark of the ego. I am not advocating for all of the unconscious to be made conscious, as if such a thing were possible. Even if it were (it isn’t), that would scarcely be desirable. Rather, the unconscious continues to operate, on its own, with its own consciousness that is just as alien to us as another person. We are all double. We have ourselves and another passenger, as it were, within us. Or perhaps a better way to articulate this would be to say: we share the vehicle (the body) with another person within us. While we might think we’re the driver, we are truly the passenger. The unconscious is the driver.

What I propose in what I’m calling quaternary analysis is a methodology which may be applied generally to any psychic content, although perhaps most effectively to those deeply personal issues where we are all-too-often stuck, unable to proceed. Perhaps the conveyor belt has slowed down to the point of halting. Quaternary analysis would not be the acceleration of the conveyor belt that delivers unconscious contents to us for conscious perusal, but rather a way of getting the belt unstuck, so to speak, so it keeps moving, at whatever speed. The goal is not to accelerate the movement of psychic contents from the unconscious to the conscious mind, but rather to remove any impediments to its movement.

What is quaternary analysis, then?

Quaternary analysis is a way of thinking which proceeds by first elaborating a series of oppositions which seem intractable, or rather, which seem to rely on the sheer force of will to overcome one term in the duality. And then, doubling these oppositions, such that the oppositions themselves are opposed by other oppositions. That is to say, the dualities are redoubled into quaternaries.

Such a method should not be altogether too surprising, since it will be claimed here that all dualities already contain a minimum of 4 terms. Any time we distinguish 2 terms from each other — even our starting distinction between conscious and unconscious — but extending to any distinction, such as pre-psychological and psychological, for instance — we are already in the realm of the quaternary. Why do I make this claim? Because as soon as we have 2 terms, the terms are already available to be mixed and matched.

Marie-Hélène Brousse, the French psychoanalyst, tells us that a small child already knows that the category of boys and girls is a category of 4, not 2. It is 4 because as soon as we can distinguish boys from girls, we have 4 distinctions: boyish boys, boyish girls, girlish boys and girlish girls.

Such a statement, of the quaternary of terms automatically yielded by any binary, may be true, but it is not yet quaternary analysis. To practice what I am calling the method of quaternary analysis, these terms must be arranged in a specific way, and moreso, to be imaginatively generated through acts of intuition such that we find the right combination of 4 terms that acts to unlock a movement of the bar of repression, such that new perspectives, ideas, epiphanies &c arise into consciousness.

Quaternary analysis is not an epiphany machine. There are no guarantees. It is an art as much as a practical methodology for attempting to surpass seemingly intractable problems, or problems which, in Jung’s terms, may be better outgrown than solved. This “outgrowing” or maturation would render the old terms of the problem obsolete. In this sense, quaternary analysis is like a reframing, in the sense that the sociological study of frame analysis uses the term.

There is a fundamental ideological assertion inherent in quaternary analysis. First, it is that any framing of a problem in two terms places one in the superior and the other in the inferior position. One of the two terms is preferable. This is not an original idea. Indeed, the whole project of Derrida’s deconstruction is to assert that, for instance, when we contrast the spoken and written word, the spoken is given preference to the written. Or, in the opposition between presence and absence, preference is given to presence. The preferential treatment of one term over the other is not at stake here. Let us assume, moving forward, that any two terms will always be weighted such that one or the other is given preference. And, for the sake of making it easy, let’s simply say that one is considered good, and one is considered bad. It does not matter which term is preferred. While Derrida may have made a point that, in the history of Western civilization, the term presence in the opposition presence-absence is given preference, for our purposes, it does not matter which term is preferred.

The second aspect of the fundamental ideological assertion of quaternary analysis is what is unique, and it must be stated carefully, so as to convey the nuance. This second aspect is namely that whichever term is preferred, we must, through an act of imagination, be able to conceive of a negative version of it — and the dispreferred term, likewise, must have a conceivable corrollary in positive form. Let me state this again in the interest of utmost clarity. In the case of, for instance, presence and absence, we must be able to imagine both a good and a bad presence, and both a good and a bad absence. Or, even better, a presence which is preferred to a given individual, along with a presence which is dispreferred by them — and an absence that is preferred, along with an absence that is dispreferred.

Why? How come it should be important that we assert both a good and bad form of each term in a dyad which already includes within it the implicit value judgment that one term is preferred, and the other, a mere parasite of the first, originary term?

The reason for this will become clear. For now, let me say that my interest is in stimulating our imagination, more than anything, to always redouble a binary with another binary — to solve the problems of binarism with binarism itself.

Let me provide an example, now, of quaternary analysis, after which we can discuss the method in more depth.

I will begin by describing how I first came across this method, a method which, in the beginning, did not have a name.

For many years, I have been familiar with Carl Jung’s famous method for confronting one’s shadow, for the purposes that the shadow may be brought into consciousness — i.e., that those aspects of ourselves which are unpalatable to the tastes of our ego might be slowly delivered on that conveyor belt, the bar of repression, so that we might analyze them in the conscious light of day. I am referring to that same method that Jung presented to perhaps his greatest disciple, Marie-Louise von Franz, when she first met him at the age of 18. One of the first things Jung had Von Franz do when they met was to make a list of all the qualities she disliked in other people. Once she had come up with the list, Jung told her: don’t you see, this is you. These are qualities within yourself that you cannot accept.

Now, there are easy critiques of Jung’s method that miss the point. If someone writes down that they dislike the quality in others of, for instance, committing crimes, and that individual is not secretly a criminal, then how would the quality of being a person who commits crimes somehow be a part of that person that they cannot accept? Certainly just because I write down that I dislike others who commit crimes does not mean that I myself am a criminal. No, we must read Jung’s statement as a challenge and impetus for our own imagination to come up with how exactly these qualities are within ourselves. And, moreso, why did I write down these qualities, and not those ones? The qualities that I choose to write down as those that I especially dislike — not merely qualities that are rejected by society at large, but qualities that I personally dislike — will say more about me than about the other people who ostensibly bear those qualities.

Starting with a list, then, of qualities that I dislike in others, I am confronted with the perplexing statement that these qualities I have identified in others are actually qualities of myself that I reject.

We must also note here, that these may be qualities that I do not express, but that are nevertheless within me, so to speak, in potentia. For instance, I may be a virgin, and I may greatly dislike promiscuity in others. Does that mean I am secretly promiscuous? No, but it could very well indicate that I have such a promiscuity within me, in potentia. That is, just as much as my virginal puritanism judges promiscuity to be bad, so, too, is a compensation within me that yearns to experience precisely what it is that I reject.

Where I began to formulate what I eventually came to term quaternary analysis is the initial deadlock, when confronted with such a list of rejected qualities (which I am told are truly aspects of myself that I reject): what to do? What might I do with such a list? Certainly I can begin the imaginative work of asking myself how these qualities might find their home in my heart, without me realizing it, but besides this imaginative work of trying to see how I may be repressing such things, what can I do?

For the purposes of psychoanalysis, perhaps there is nothing to do — indeed, the doing may be so much sound and fury aimed at avoiding the work of watching.

For my purposes, though, which, as you will see aim to expand beyond the purview of psychoanalysis to a generalized philosophical method, I began to experiment with what might be done with such a list.

Let me provide, here, an initial list of qualities that one might dislike in another. I have made many such lists over the course of my life, and they always seem to change. Perhaps the psychological process of “working through” renders the old lists obsolete. In any case, this list will not reflect my personal dislikes, as much as a list which I hope will be easy to relate to and serve the purpose of illustrating the method I here set out to describe.

Shirking responsibility

All right. For now, these 5 items will suffice.

Let us begin with selfishness.

It should first be pointed out that each of these items is obviously dispreferred. Going back to what I said about how each term in a dyad will either be preferred or dispreferred — good or bad — it is obvious that each term here is considered bad. So, let me formulate the “good” counterpart to selfishness. I will draw it below, like so:


Of course, even this step has already involved an act of imagination. I could have chosen another word. The choice of the word selflessness as a “good” counterpart to selfishness will be made clear presently. Suffice it to say that at this first step in the quaternary analysis, we are not yet looking at what is good about selfishness. We are rather trying to position selfishness in opposition to what it is not, while retaining the original value judgments. Selfishness is bad; selflessness is good — at least for the purposes of this initial step. As we will see, it is not quite so simple.

The next step is to indeed ask precisely this question. What is bad about selflessness? What word could we imagine that summarizes the negatives of being too selfless?

Here, I will add a word that comes to mind, horizontally across from the bottom left corner, which will now begin to form a square, as you will see:

Selflessness — — — — — — Self-harm

I could have easily replaced self-harm with self-sabotage, or else, self-denial, or a longer description such as obliviousness to one’s own well-being.

What is the opposite of self-harm?

Again, there are any number of words we might imagine, here, but for me, the term that comes immediately to mind is self-care. And we have simultaneously solved that term which is the “good” form of selfishness:


Selfishness — — — — — — Self-care
¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨ |
| ¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨ |
Selflessness — — — — — — Self-harm

Our production of a quaternary of terms is complete. All that is left is to formulate some statements which we might make about this quaternary.

For instance:

I run away from selfishness within myself, but in overshooting my goal (to be selfless), I end up self-harming. By realizing the need for my own self-care, I redeem what was good about the previously-rejected selfishness within myself, and I find that I am able to achieve a more sustainable and less one-sided selflessness.

I am able to be selfless only insofar as I maintain self-care.

I rejected selfishness wholeheartedly, without realizing that there is a “good” form of selfishness which I call self-care. In rejecting both selfishness and self-care, I was unable to sustainably reach my goal of selflessness, and ended up in self-harm.

We can move through the quaternary in other combinations, as well, but the most apparent path that I see goes something like this:

The idea is that I can only reach my goal of (sustainable, well-rounded) selflessness when I have seen the merit of self-care — perhaps even, seen that those I had previously rejected as being “merely selfish” were, in some cases, practicing self-care. Before I have gone through this realization, I will have been unable to distinguish between selfishness and self-care. They both seemed identical, to me. As I meditate on the distinction between the two, I am better able to embrace what I previously rejected as selfishness, without simply “becoming selfish.” I become self-caring.

Allow me to write out some imaginative examples for the other terms. I am using my own imagination here to decide which terms seem appropriate to me. I fully expect that each individual will have their own associations to different terms, and that it is most important to choose terms which have significance to the individual. It is also important that we imagine “all-good” and “all-bad” terms, in the sense that, in the above example I consider “selfishness” and “self-harm” to be all-bad, while I consider “selflessness” and “self-care” to be all-good.

Here are my attempts at formulating the other terms in the original list:


Withdrawnness — — — — — — Good boundaries
¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨ |
| ¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨ |
Sympathy — — — — — — — — — — Poor boundaries


Pushiness — — — — — — — — — — — Doesn’t get pushed around
¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨ |
| ¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨ |
Politeness — — — — — — — — — — — Gets pushed around


Shirking responsibility — — — Enjoying freedom from responsibility
¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨ |
| ¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨ |
Being responsible — — — — — — — — Hypervigilance

This one might appear strange. How could enjoying freedom from responsibility be compatible with being responsible? To me, it is the idea that I can personally only really take responsibility if I can also enjoy not having responsibility. If there are situations in my life where I don’t have responsibility, and I dislike not having it, then I am actually ironically unable to really take it where it matters. In other words, if I make myself responsible for everything, I end up only being hypervigilant, or overly controlling, paranoid, etc, which compromises my ability to actually meet my duties in those areas of life I am responsible for.


Careless — — — — — — Relaxed
¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨ |
| ¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨ |
Careful — — — — — — — Anxious

In all of these examples, we could easily come up with many other pairs of opposites which would highlight different aspects of the initial pair. Why should pushiness and politeness be opposed to getting pushed around, or not? These are admittedly indicative of my own idiosyncratic understandings of the terms involved. This is why, by listing 5 examples here, it is my hope that at least one of them will make sense to the reader, and the others may be freely dismissed as irrelevant. I have also freely moved between the forms of the terms such that we could just as easily write careful contra careless as we could oppose carefulness and carelessness. This is in part to highlight the fact that it is more important that the words chosen are sufficiently resonant in the individual’s imagination, moreso than achieving some level of formalism that is, truth be told, unnecessary for such a method. We shall not try to square the circle, here, despite the name of our undertaking.

The method of quaternary analysis is inherently imaginative. As such, I do not expect it to always be useful, or to necessarily “work.” But when it does work, it is due to the imaginative capacities of the one carrying it out, and it may yield helpful results insofar as it can deliver a new perspective to a seemingly intractable problem. If I’m trying so hard to be careful and keep getting mad at myself for those times I am careless, however rare they are, I am stuck in a deadlock between carelessness and carefulness. It is only when I introduce another pair of terms, whether I call them anxiousness and relaxation or whichever terms I choose that seem suitable to me, that I am able to relieve the tension of the opposites that have maintained the deadlock. Where I was before crucified between the careless and the careful, I now find myself pondering the anxious and the relaxed, and in finding this secret dyad that underpins the first dyad, I may, it is hoped, achieve some progress in my understanding of the problem.

Another way to look at the square is to see it as two diagonals, the “bad diagonal” (from top-left to bottom-right) and the “good diagonal,” from top-right to bottom-left. Where previously I was struggling to get from the top-left term to the bottom-left term, now the struggle has shifted. I no longer strive for a single term. Now, I strive to move from the bad diagonal to the good one. I am trying to shift the diagonal away from the two bad terms to the two good terms. In doing so, I necessarily retrace my steps.

The philosopher Terence Blake once said that I practice what he called redemptive critique. This was some years ago. He said, and I paraphrase, that my method of critique is to go back and find what is worthy of retrieving, what redeems the object of critique. I personally find resonances between this idea and what James Hillman calls cultural retrieval. The idea of cultural retrieval is that we might go back to what has been thrown away, culturally speaking, and find value in the past that may better prepare us for the future. It is not only by venturing forth into the future that we create the future. Indeed, we just as readily discover in the past what was lost to our generation because it was not distinct enough. By making it more distinct, by creating a new distinction where previously there was none, we are able to retrieve and make use of materials that have long since been thought worthless.

It is here, in quaternary analysis, that there is always an element of such retrieval.

When I reject selfishness, I may go for years striving to be selfless, always finding myself in the same intractable situation. It is only when I have hit my dark night of the soul in the area of self-harm — when I acknowledge the self-harm inherent in my overreaching rejection of selfishness — that I might go back to what it is I classify as selfish and ask myself: can I distinguish between “bad” selfishness and its good form, that I call self-care? Can I find what may have been truly self-care, that which I misidentified as pure selfishness?

Only when I have revisited what it is that I rejected wholesale and am able to tease it apart may I find the lasting resolution to such a seemingly intractable problem. Surely, I do not accept selfishness wholesale. The practice of quaternary analysis is not about wholesale acceptance or rejection. It is about making distinctions. As an imaginative method, such distinctions are subject to change — they are subject to being relevant to us one moment and irrelevant the next. Words gain and lose resonance. A profound quaternary that I made last year may be revisited in the present day only to find that it has lost its magic, so to speak. It no longer appears rich in meaning to me. This is as it should be. In part, there is a trick at work here: as soon as we have worked through a particular problem, those words become depotentiated. While it may have seemed profound to me at one point in my life that selfishness is distinct from self-care, I must admit, at the time of this writing such a distinction seems rather trite. It is for this reason that I have included 5 examples, and for this reason I urge the reader to come up with their own. Again, there are no guarantees that such a technique will produce epiphanies. But it might. In my case, it most certainly has. And isn’t it the fate of all epiphanies to one day be ignored as mere commonplaces? Be that as it may, the goal is not to produce a lasting profundity. The goal is simply to regulate that conveyor belt which is the bar of repression, slowly or quickly delivering its contents from the productive unconscious to the ego for conscious perusal. Insofar as this is the goal, I believe quaternary analysis to be a useful technique in one’s psychological arsenal.