CUSP, Psychology, Research in the School

The psychology of possibilities and potentials?

A new encyclopedia presents writing from psychologists and social scientists on ‘the Possible’. Prof. Paul Stenner from the School has written an entry with Prof. Tania Zittoun (University of Neuchatel, Switzerland), about the British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. The entry discusses Winnicott’s notion of a ‘potential space’. Here, Prof. Stenner introduces the entry.

The idea of possibility might sound a little vague compared to an actuality which is nice and concrete. The grammar of our language distinguishes an ‘indicative mood’ (“this is a cake”) from a ‘subjunctive mood’ (“this might be a cake”), and from the perspective of the hungry cake eater the subjunctive mood might seem frustratingly vague. But from a psychological perspective the capacity to occupy subjunctive ‘as if’ worlds (including worlds of play, of films, of day-dreams, of scientific hypotheses) is one of the most astonishing things about human beings. The newly published Palgrave Encyclopedia of the Possible (edited by Vlad Glăveanu) provides a comprehensive resource for psychological and social scientists who study how people engage with and cultivate possibilities in their personal and collective lives. 

‘The vital core of the human personality’, according to Paul Stenner and Tania Zittoun, ‘is something that is not personal at all, but which allows the person to continually become’. Their entry in the encyclopedia, on the late Donald Winnicott – a British psychoanalyst – explains his often misunderstood idea of a potential space and shows how the capacity to cultivate possibilities and to play with them is fundamental to human development. Indeed, Winnicott considered psychotherapy itself as basically a technique for creating a potential space to engage in a form of shared play. So before dismissing subjunctive worlds as trivial matters good only for wasting time, take a moment to pause: possibility may seem insubstantial like a puff of smoke, but without it, nice, concrete actuality might never come to pass. 

Zittoun, T., and Stenner, P. (2021) Winnicott, Donald. In V. P. Glăveanu (Ed.), The Palgrave Encyclopedia of the Possible,

Read about Paul Stenner here:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s