The craft of psychoanalysis

... we must conclude that education is not what it is said to be by some, who profess to put knowledge into a soul that does not possess it, as if they could put sight into blind eyes. On the contrary, our own account signifies that the soul of every man does possess the power of learning the truth and the organ to see it with; and that, just as one might have to turn the whole body round in order that the eye should see light instead of darkness, so the entire soul must be turned away from this changing world until its eye can bear to contemplate reality and that supreme splendor that we have called the Good. Hence there may well be an art whose aim would be to effect this very thing, the conversion of the soul, in the readiest way; not to put the power of sight into the soul’s eye, which already has it, but to ensure that, instead of looking in the wrong direction, it is turned the way it ought to be.

—Plato, The Republic, Book 7 (518c)

... we must do away with all explanation, and description alone must take its place. And this description gets its light, that is to say its purpose, from the philosophical problems. These are, of course, not empirical problems; they are solved rather, by looking into the workings of our language, and that in such a way as to make us recognize those workings: in despite of an urge to misunderstand them. The problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have always known. Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.

—Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §109

In 2001, the Swiss psychoanalyst Giovanni Vassalli published “The Birth of Psychoanalysis From the Spirit of Technique” (Vassalli, 2001). It addressed the issue of the scientific status of psychoanalysis from a unique and compelling perspective.

Vassalli points out that, although most psychoanalysts believe that psychoanalysis is a science, and that they are themselves scientists, in reality they do not behave like scientists and never have.

In science, progress is typically achieved through a kind of cycle or spiral: someone proposes an hypothesis about something, someone devises an experiment to test it, the results of the experiment then either support the hypothesis, or suggest a modified hypothesis (or an altogether different one), which someone then subjects to further experimental testing, and so on.

This means that, if psychoanalysis is indeed a kind of science, psychoanalysts should propose hypotheses about the human psyche, which they should then test by some appropriately designed controlled experiment, which would then lead to new hypotheses and experimental tests. This they never do.

Vassalli enlisted Freud’s support for the view that psychoanalysis is fundamentally different from the experimental sciences:

In 1930, the physicist Heinrich Lowy asked Freud to write a contribution to a collection of solutions to problems in science. After some effort, Freud replied that, “in trying to find some suitable examples I have encountered strange and almost insuperable obstacles.” At first, he seems to have felt that these obstacles were due to a block or a resistance within himself, causing him to feel that “certain procedures that can be expected from other fields of investigation could not be applied to my subject matter” (Freud, 1961, p. 395).

(Kism/Zi, 2001, p. 3)

But after further soul-searching, he concluded that this was not a block, but an insight instead, and that in fact, “within the methods of our work there is no place for the kind of experiment made by physicists and physiologists” (ibid.).

Psychoanalysis and science

Vassalli says that Freud had such difficulty coming up with a good example of a scientific solution to a psychoanalytic problem because to do so would have meant discarding some of his deep and unwavering convictions about psychoanalysis. The first of these was that “the discovery of the unconscious has swept away all previously formulated problems” (i.e. all problems in psychology as previously formulated, which now needed to be reformulated in terms of the unconscious; Vassalli, 2001, p. 4). The second was that knowledge of the unconscious can be gained only by a method of observation unlike that of experimental science.

Let us stop to consider how radical these claims are: Freud claims to have discovered something—the unconscious—whose role in the operation of the mind is so fundamental that all questions in psychology must be reformulated to take it into account, because what had theretofore been regarded as the mind was only a part of the mind—the conscious part—and that this conscious part was like a leaf floating on the surface of the unconscious. Trying to explain the activity of the conscious mind without reference to the mind’s unconscious dynamics was like trying to account for the motions of the leaf floating on a stream without reference to the motions of the stream. He said furthermore that this unconscious part of the mind, so crucial to understanding anything important about the mind, was so utterly uncanny—so different from anything that science had yet considered—that it could not be investigated by any accepted scientific method.

It is hard to overestimate the boldness of these claims. Freud was saying, in effect, that he had discovered something about the mind without which one simply cannot understand anything important about it, and that only he knew the method by means of which it might properly be explored. It is easy to see why critics of psychoanalysis might feel that these claims, taken in their stark simplicity, were simply mad. Supporters of psychoanalysis have tended to respond to this criticism by becoming apologists, arguing that things are not as bad (i.e., as radical) as they seem—that psychoanalysis really is a science like other sciences, but an embryonic one whose eventual experimental validation was only a question of time. Other analysts have argued that the scientific status of psychoanalysis is moot, because it is really a form of some other discipline such as hermeneutics or linguistics. Both approaches remove psychoanalysis from the radical position in which Freud placed it.

Vassalli suggests that neither the critics of psychoanalysis nor its apologists have thought seriously enough about what Freud actually wrote, that they have treated his texts “in an unconsidered and eclectic way” (Vassalli, 2001, p. 4), and that they have not considered carefully the question of the method by means of which psychoanalytic constructs are validated in practice. He argues that this method is neither that of experimental science nor of philosophy, and says that its blueprint can be found elsewhere, in the Greek idea of techne, a form of investigation that was recognized in classical times, but which faded from European thought around the time of Descartes.

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