The place of theory in science and psychoanalysis

Scientific theories

Both psychoanalysts and physical scientists use informal, ad hoc, disposable theories that they evaluate in a less-than-rigorous way in their everyday work. Natural scientists are always generating theories as a kind of ad hoc scaffolding, the purpose of which is to facilitate their empirical investigations by expanding the range of experience that they may explore and organize. The high-level, abstract theories that end up being canonized in the textbooks, and that form the popular conception of scientific theorizing, are relatively few and far between compared to this everyday disposable theorizing.

Physicists express their ideas in mathematical form which, because they are mathematical, appear quite formal and rigorous. However, the physicist Joe Weinberg once compared the mathematical formulas that physicists use to the temporary hand-holds that a rock climber establishes during his climb. Each hand-hold more or less dictates the position of the next hand-hold. “A record of that,” Weinberg said, “is a record of a particular climb. It gives you very little of the shape of the rock” (Bird and Sherwin, 2005, pp. 169-170).

Even a “hard” scientific theory of the kind that we naively regard as some kind of fixed truth is in fact only a map of a specific historic attempt to grapple with reality. Each step along the way is determined to a significant degree by the one preceding it. A rock hardly ever dictates a unique route by which it may be scaled, and there are almost always multiple routes up a rock. This means that a scientific theory is, as a rule, never uniquely correct. While a theory is far from being uniquely determined by the reality it is attempting to describe, it is, like the rock-climber’s sequence of hand-holds, determined in surprisingly large part by its own history.3

If rock climbing does not give us a unique map of the rock, or even a map of the only way to scale it, it does give us a kind of familiarity with the rock itself, a feel for it, together with a kind of know-how about rock climbing. This equips the climber to make another, probably more sophisticated attempt. The benefits of scientific exploration are a theory of the matter that has been explored, which is of provisional value, and an education about the lay of the land and about how to explore, which are of permanent (even if non-codifiable) value. To put this in another way, the theoretical edifice whose construction the scientific scaffolding serves—the theories that make it into the textbooks where they are presented as solid, fixed knowledge—is, paradoxically, of only temporary value. It is a snapshot of what the scaffolding has permitted the scientist to construct to date. What is of permanent value in science is the skill required to build scaffolding.

The practising scientist is constantly building new scaffolding and dismantling old scaffolding that has served its purpose. To the scientifically unsophisticated, the purpose of a scientific theory is to answer questions. For scientists the importance of a scientific theory consists mainly of its usefulness in posing new questions that could not even have been asked before its formulation. For the scientifically unsophisticated, science is an edifice that contains knowledge. For the practising scientist, science is a craft that allows us to get a better view of how much we don’t know by allowing us to ask questions we didn’t even know we had.

This working type of theorizing, trying something, discarding it, trying something else then discarding it, that in the short term produces a myriad of little, forgettable theories, but in the long term produces a feel for the lay of the land, is what psychoanalysts do as well. Freud often compared his theories to the temporary scaffolding that is erected around a building under construction—a temporary means to an end (1900, p. 159, 536, 568, 598, 610; 1905, p. 217; 1940, p. 159). He believed that it was the function of a psychoanalytic theory to render itself obsolete; that it was nothing more than a crude approximation that is useful as a way of getting things started, and that beyond a certain point, it became a hindrance.

What is true of psychoanalysis as a whole is also true of each analysis. The picture of the patient that emerges from an analysis is, like the scientist’s theoretical edifice, only a snapshot, and is therefore of transient validity. Freud himself reached this conclusion in his last paper, “Analysis Terminable and Interminable” (1937). What is of lasting benefit to the patient is not the picture itself, but the capacity to go on formulating new pictures over time—a feel for the rock and some know-how about climbing rocks. This point bears emphasizing: a successful analysis leaves in its wake a feel for how to observe certain mental states.

This familiarity and know-how are of lasting value. The main benefit of an analysis for the patient is that it makes the next analysis (or self-analysis) more sophisticated than the last one and more likely to have practical benefits. Despite the vast differences between psychoanalysis and physical science in terms of the nature of their formal theories, if we look at the ad hoc, scaffold type theorybuilding, which I would argue is the life-blood of any scientific investigation, even in the hard sciences, the two are surprisingly alike.

Intuition in science and psychoanalysis

The fact that so much of psychoanalysis involves intuition and guess-work does not, therefore, gainsay its status as a science. Weinberg studied physics at Berkeley under J. Robert Oppenheimer. Shortly after he had arrived there to begin his studies, Oppenheimer invited him to read one of his papers in place of a previously scheduled seminar that had been cancelled—a great honor for a young graduate student. But after he had delivered his paper,

as if to compensate for the flattery, Oppenheimer told him with a sneer that what he had presented was “kid stuff’. There was, he said, a “grown-up way to do this kind of problem,” and he suggested that Weinberg get onto it right away. Weinberg duly spent the next three months laboring to produce an elaborate calculation. In the end, he had to report back that he could find no trace of the empirical relationship that he had predicted from his initial and very simple-minded argument. “Now you have learned a lesson,” Oppenheimer told him. “Sometimes the elaborate, the learned method, the grownup method is not as good as the simple and childishly naive method.”

(Bird and Sherwin, 2005, p. 169)

Both the practising physical scientist and the practising psychoanalyst are like craftsmen using ad hoc and expendable theories to acquire a feel for the problems at hand. In this pragmatic approach, naive and intuitive theories may be of greater value than ones rigorously deduced from existing knowledge. The criterion for the value of a theory in both physical science and psychoanalysis is its usefulness in moving the investigation along, in allowing the investigator to pose hitherto unaskable questions. Most of the time, rather than enshrining knowledge in a theoretical edifice of what we know, natural scientists and psychoanalysts both use small theories, picking them up when useful and dropping them just as quickly when they have served their purpose—which is usually to show us what we don’t know.

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