Rules and games in science and psychoanalysis

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Despite these similarities, one major difference between experimental physical science and psychoanalysis remains. We have already touched on it: physical sciences have high-level general theories that psychoanalysis lacks. Does psychoanalysis have anything comparable? The answer, I believe, is yes and no. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein has likened certain kinds of human activities to games. A game is defined by a set of rules. If you follow all the rules, you are playing a certain game. If you do not follow the rules, you are not playing that game. A specific scientific discipline is an example of what Wittgenstein would call a game. The rules of a science game are certain fundamental premises— notions without which a given scientific discipline would not exist. For example, the notions of space, time and mass may be regarded as fundamental premises of physics. It is difficult to imagine what physics would look like if any of those notions were discarded. Similarly, the notion of natural selection is a fundamental premise in evolutionary biology: it is difficult to imagine any theory in modern evolutionary biology that does not depend, directly or indirectly, on the validity of the notion of natural selection.

What this means is that one may reject these premises, but it is difficult to imagine then going on to do physics or evolutionary biology in any form that would be recognizable. Like the rules of a game, one may accept these premises or not, but one cannot both reject them and still play the game for which they are the rules (although one may, of course, reject them and play another game, with different rules). These rules or fundamental premises are not subject to debate within a discipline. They are, so to speak, sovereign. They set the terms of the debate within a discipline, and, like the sovereignty of nations, they limit the legitimate criticism that one discipline can make of another that has different rules or fundamental premises. These fundamental notions define a certain game, a certain discipline, and all those who accept them are playing the same game, however much their activities within the game may otherwise differ.

In sciences such as physics, biology and physical medicine, these fundamental premises may be combined with new observations to produce theories. A physicist could say, “given the ideas of space, time and mass, what happens when we move masses through space over time?” Observations have pointed to certain regularities, which have been embodied in Newton’s laws of the motion of masses in space and time. Theories such as these are subsidiary to the fundamental premises in a field in the sense that they may turn out to be true or false (or only partly true, as, for example, Einstein’s revision shows Newton’s laws of motion to be). But even if subsidiary theories are shown to be false, the fundamental premises remain valid.

Subsidiary theories that have been verified many times in many different ways come to be regarded as well established, and eventually achieve the status of a fact within the scientific discipline. For example, the fundamental notions of space, time and mass in physics, when combined with experimental observation, yield Newton’s theory of motion, a subsidiary theory that has been tested and confirmed so many times in so many different ways that it is now regarded as a kind of fact, and called a scientific law. The fundamental notion of natural selection in Darwin’s theory of evolution, when combined with observation, gives rise to specific theories that are typically and characteristically part of evolutionary theory. These theories in turn give rise to certain predictions, which can then be tested against observation.

Psychoanalysis also has a set of premises that are shared by all psychoanalysts— ideas that seem to be basic rules of the psychoanalytic game. Among them are the notions of an unconscious and of psychological defense mechanisms (which are by definition unconscious). It would be difficult to imagine how a psychoanalyst would function if he did not accept these notions.

However, the resemblance between psychoanalysis and physical science stops there. Despite it, psychoanalysts, unlike physicists, biologists or physicians, have not been able to combine their fundamental notions with new observations to give rise to well established subsidiary theories. They have generated subsidiary theories, and have tested them against their clinical experience, but they have not been able to combine these observations with their fundamental premises to generate theories that, like Newton’s laws, have become part of a theoretical canon.

This point may require some elaboration. Consider the germ theory' of disease, which holds that certain illnesses are caused by microorganisms, that these diseases may be transmitted from one person to another by physical transmission of these organisms, that the disease in question cannot occur in the absence of these organisms, and so on. This theory' is not one of the fundamental premises of medicine, since we could imagine medicine without it (as it was before the mid-nineteenth century—very different from modern medicine, but still recognizably medicine). But as a theory, it has been tested in so many and varied situations that its validity is universally accepted by physicians. It is quite a well-established theory'.

With this in mind, consider any psychoanalytic theory, such as the theory of the Oedipus complex. Today, even this theory is not accepted by some analysts who still subscribe wholeheartedly to the fundamental premises of psychoanalysis (the unconscious and psychological defense). At the same time, there are other analysts who cannot imagine thinking psychoanalytically without this theory. For the former group, the Oedipus complex is a contingent phenomenon, arising only as a consequence of certain less-than-optimal childhood environments. For the latter group, it is part of the foundation of their psychoanalytic picture of the mind. Analysts in this group cannot picture psychoanalysis without it. In neither case is it a well established theory in the same way that the germ theory of disease is a well established theory in medicine: for one group it is a theory but not well established, and for the other it is well established, but not a theory (since it is for them a fundamental premise—an indispensable part of their approach to the patient).

Take, for another example, the theory of projective identification in psychoanalysis. There are many analysts who regard it as having questionable validity, and as not very useful in any event. There are others who would be hard pressed to practise analysis without it. I don’t mean they would find it difficult to treat only certain patients, the way a physician would if she didn’t have the germ theory. I mean they would be hard pressed to treat any patient without it. The former type of analyst regards projective identification as a more or less dispensable idea, while the latter finds it a fundamental part of their psychoanalytic concept of how the mind works, indispensable in all cases.

I could add to these examples. Others writers could certainly suggest other examples, and still others would quarrel with the ones I have chosen. But the point I am trying to make is that notions in psychoanalysis that are universally accepted tend to fall into the category of fundamental premises—ideas without which practising the discipline would be hard to imagine—and ideas that do not fall into this category tend not to be universally accepted. This is what I meant when I wrote above that psychoanalysts have not been able to generate subsidiary theories which, like those of physics or evolutionary biology, have won universal acceptance among workers in the field. In psychoanalysis, the only notions that are well established and universally accepted are fundamental premises.4

We must conclude that the fundamental premises of psychoanalysis do not act like foundational structures that can link with observation to generate subsidiary theories. Instead, they act like guidelines that dictate a general approach to patients. The psychoanalytic notion of the unconscious (like the Hippocratic notion of physical causation and physical treatment of disease) points to such a general approach to the patient, a certain way of listening to, observing and thinking about patients. The ideas of the unconscious and defense define the psychoanalytic approach to the patient, and distinguish it from the religious, magical or medical approaches, as well as from the approach taken by non-psychoanalytic psychologies.

Psychoanalysis does not have fundamental premises on which a hierarchical system of subsidiary theories may be built. Rather, it has in place of a rigorous theoretical system what might be called a set of conceptual tools, ideas that represent a certain way of looking at things, and that act as instruments that make certain kinds of observations possible. As the skilled craftsman has a set of tools that allows him to shape his materials in a certain way, the psychoanalyst has a set of tools that allows him to conceptualize her experiences in a certain way.

Psychoanalysis is not a theoretical structure, like Newtonian physics, only with Freud standing in for Newton. It is a practice that allows us to see certain things in a certain way, and to ask certain questions that were unaskable without it. It provides an approach to problems that we cannot even begin to formulate using the methods of physical science. In this way, psychoanalysis makes it own unique contribution to scientific knowledge.


  • 1 As Werner Heisenberg put it, “The existing scientific concepts cover always only a very limited part of reality, and the other part that has not yet been understood is infinite. What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning” (Heisenberg, 1958, p. 26).
  • 2 In John Kickman’s words, “no research without therapy, no therapy without research” (Rickman, 1957, p. 213).
  • 3 For example, there are at least three different, independent methods for arriving at the physical law known as conservation of energy—three different routes, starting at three different places, that arrive at the same destination.
  • 4 As the above examples have indicated, although certain fundamental premises, such as the notion of the unconscious and of defense mechanisms, are shared by all analysts, different groups of analysts share additional fundamental premises. Wittgenstein might say that these different fundamental premises are actually different rules of the game, and that the different groups of analysts are therefore playing different games. What this means for the status of psychoanalysis as a unitary discipline is an interesting question that I cannot go into now, except to say that it may have something to do with the historical tendency of psychoanalysis to fragment into different groups.


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Sigmund Freud. The interpretation of dreams. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 4-5, 1900.

Sigmund Freud. Three essays on the theory of sexuality. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 7:130-243, 1905.

Sigmund Freud. Analysis terminable and interminable. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 23:209, 1937.

Sigmund Freud. An outline of psycho-analysis. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 23:144—267, 1940.

Werner Heisenberg. Physics and Philosophy. Penguin Books, London, 1958.

John Rickman. Methodology and research in psycho-pathology. In Selected Contributions to Psycho-analysis. Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, London, 1957.

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