One good feature of meeting Adam Phillips was that I got to ask him about Grothendieck’s use of the phrase “the capacity to be alone,” generally associated with the psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott. Winnicott was Phillips’s analyst’s analyst, and Phillips has written extensively on him, so I thought I’d run the quote by him. Phillips told me:
- Grothendieck’s conception of the capacity to be alone as “a basic capacity in all of us from the day of our birth” is certainly not that of Winnicott, who was talking about a capacity that’s acquired later via the developing relationship between infant and mother.
- Familiarity with psychoanalytic terminology was fairly common in France at the time, and doesn’t necessarily mean Grothendieck was psychoanalyzed or had any particular interest in analytic theory; in particular, the French analyst Francoise Dolto had a radio show in the 1970s which helped popularize Winnicott’s ideas in France.