Professor John Forrester: Philosopher and historian widely celebrated for his work on Sigmund Freud and much-loved as an inspiring teacher

Forrester was a scholar and teacher of astonishing warmth and inexhaustible enthusiasm

Simon Schaffer
Thursday 26 November 2015 01:18
Forrester: he discharged his role as department head with typically charming vigour
Forrester: he discharged his role as department head with typically charming vigour

A pre-eminent historian of psychoanalysis and much else besides, John Forrester was a scholar and teacher of astonishing warmth and inexhaustible enthusiasm, and a comrade and partner of keen intelligence and boundless curiosity. He joined Cambridge University's Department of History of Philosophy of Science in 1984 and was its head between 2007 and 2013.

Born in London in 1949, he graduated in 1970 in Natural Sciences with part II in History and Philosophy of Science at King's College, Cambridge. He pursued graduate studies under a Fulbright Scholarship at Princeton, publishing an early essay supervised there by TS Kuhn on the joule and energy conservation, before returning to Cambridge. There he delivered talks on the doctor-patient relationship to the Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine, and his first seminar at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science in 1976, a paper on psychoanalysis' boundary conditions.

In 1978 he completed his brilliant PhD thesis, examined by Frank Kermode and John Wisdom, on the roles played by linguistic sciences and philology in the development of Freud's programme. The work was published in revised form as the groundbreaking Language and the Origins of Psychoanalysis (1980). In the same year he launched his long engagement with the work of Michel Foucault, whose lectures at the Collège de France he had attended in 1977-78, with a precocious essay on Foucault's relation with the history of psychoanalysis.

Between 1976 and 1984 Forrester held research fellowships at King's, then joined the History and Philosophy of Science Department, becoming Professor in 2000. He was a figure of great international repute, his work translated into at least eight languages. He held visiting chairs and fellowships in Brazil, France, Germany, Switzerland and the US, and from 2005 edited the journal Psychoanalysis and History. On the death of Peter Lipton in 2007 he became head of department, a role he discharged with typically charming vigour.

His intellectual achievements are immense. In 1988, with Silvana Tomaselli, he translated and annotated Jacques-Alain Miller's edition of Jacques Lacan's 1953-55 Seminar, a work that set out a radical critique of ego psychology and provided an entry into the potent mixture of subtle pedagogy and penetrating analysis that characterised Lacanian performances.

In 1992, he and Lisa Appignanesi, his lifelong partner, who became his wife in 2013, produced their remarkable study of Freud's Women, a magisterial, witty and accessible account of Freud as Lear. Now in its third edition, the book addresses fundamental questions of feminism and misogyny through the roles and experiences of Freud's patients, disciples and friends, from Marie Bonaparte and Anna Freud to Muriel Gardner and Lou Andreas-Salomé.

Many of Forrester's characteristic passions and projects can be followed in three essay collections on a range of issues in the history and philosophy of psychoanalysis and the human sciences, astutely titled and cleverly organised: The Seductions of Psychoanalysis: Freud, Lacan and Derrida (1990); Dispatches from the Freud Wars: Psychoanalysis and its Passions (1997); and Truth Games: Lies, Money, and Psychoanalysis (1997). Each essay represents the distillation of intense thought and reflection in ways that move beyond disciplinary confines: the relation between story-telling and the rhetoric of argument; what it is to be embraced, or to be trusted, or to dream of being so; what is at stake in making a collection, and how to cope with its threatening growth or tragic loss; the uneven powers and strange affinities of teacher and student, therapist and patient.

Forrester saw the virtues both of solitary study and of collaboration. He stayed admirably hostile to overweening managerial dictates that would impose inappropriate co-ordination or frustrate fruitful partnerships. None knew more of the arcana of regulation, clauses and paragraphs of Statutes and Ordinances, or found all this so evidently risible. This gave his intellectual and institutional leadership, within and beyond his university, some of its many strengths and successes. His restorative diligence often settled the nerves, and helped secure the reputation, of the group of colleagues with whom he worked and for whom he acted at a decisive and crucial period as head.

He helped found the Cambridge Group for the History of Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis and Allied Sciences, and the London Psychoanalytic Forum; he organised conferences, lectures and seminar series with support from the British Psychoanalytic Society, and led strong and impressive groups of colleagues and students in intense, productive and memorable debates, training sessions, classes and lectures.

In London and Paris, he became a central figure in discussions on the place of analysis and its cultural meanings, his broad cultural command put at the service of friends and co-workers, of a host of innovative projects in publications, film, broadcasting and the arts. A leading member of the Wellcome Trust Strategic Award Generation to Reproduction, he initiated fascinating studies of histories of gender reassignment and assisted reproduction. Generations of undergraduates learnt first from Forrester of the marvels of the human sciences; many of his doctoral students became leaders in philosophy, history and the sciences.

One of his finest essays is a 1996 meditation, "If p, then what? Thinking in cases". This would be a theme that long preoccupied him, evoked through a virtuoso opening passage that moves effortlessly between a set of common passions: gardening, casuistry and trouble-making. He had been working with Laura Cameron on a study of the reception of psychoanalysis in Cambridge, which is soon to appear.

Reflect on the apt words of JD Bernal, cited in Forrester's fine recent essay on the Marxist scientist's psychoanalytic passion in Cambridge back in 1921: "He talks psychology, rhapsodies and metaphysics, and is immensely inspiring, though he instils in me the spirit of contradiction. We go out inspired, full of life and love." John Forrester died without pain surrounded by his family.

John Forrester, philosopher and historian: born London 25 August 1949; married 2013 Lisa Appignanesi (one daughter, one stepson) died 24 November 2015.

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