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Vassalli now gives his view of the “technical methods” that Freud employed in place of scientific experimentation. He finds Freud’s method to be a revival of techne, a term the ancient Greeks used for the process required for the practical production of a specific object. Vassalli distinguishes between techne and the modern notion of technique.

Technique is a term that may be applied to the activity of a dentist, or an accountant, or a surgeon. To say that a surgeon has good technique, or is a good technician, is high praise. Good surgical technique can be codified, taught and applied as a set of general operating principles good for any surgical problem. There is a one best way to perform a surgical procedure within the confines of existing knowledge and technology, and that way consists of the flawless application of good surgical technique.

Techne is a term that would describe the activity of an architect faced with a building site, a budget and a specified size and use for the proposed structure. There is no one best way to solve the problem, but only better or worse—more or less apposite, intelligent and creative—ways.

The result of the practice of techne is quite different from the result of the application of technique. While a surgeon may perform a very successful cancer surgery by the application of good surgical technique, he is unlikely to learn much either about cancer or surgery by doing so. But an architect has the opportunity to learn a great deal about the site on which he is building, about the architectural solutions to the specific problem that are possible on that site, and about new possibilities for applying existing building technologies to solve the problem he is facing.

Techne, unlike technique, not only provides the opportunity to learn about the problem as one tries to solve it, but requires that one learn approaches tailored to the unique and specific problem at hand. These approaches were not known beforehand, but have to be developed ad hoc. They cannot be codified for subsequent application to future problems (although they may be used in the future, after it is determined on an ad hoc basis that they are appropriate to the new problem).

Techne is, says Vassalli,

... thoughtful examination (theoria) of the way in which the production of a thing is carried out. This thoughtful observation is not abstract speculation; it accompanies the concrete process of production in the sense of a kind of savoir-faire ... [It] ... takes effect only in skillful activity and is contained in this. Such a technique is therefore an actual instrument of investigation and discovery ... when something is produced [by techne] the resulting work ... can be understood only as it emerges”.

(Vassalli, 2001, p. 19)

While the subject matter appropriate to scientific theory is the mechanical world of physics or physiology, the subject matter appropriate to techne is the animate world of the mind.

In the ancient Greek view,

in the area between science [where certain knowledge is possible] and chance [where no knowledge is possible] essential human activities develop along with their ‘subjects’, for which in Aristotle a particular form of skillful knowledge is appropriate. It is that of ethics and of the arts, especially the arts of healing and rhetoric. These arts (technai) develop on the basis of a characteristic and specific rationality.

(Vassalli, 2001, p. 19)

A “characteristic and specific rationality” means an idiosyncratic logical structure: each product of these arts evolves through a unique process of reasoning (understood as a site-specific working out of the appropriate means of accomplishing the task at hand) and their own raison d’etre. Vassalli goes on, “it is on this kind of use of reasoning that technique as understood by Aristotle is based. To the Greeks its kinship with chance [i.e., its inherent uncertainty] was no reason to devalue it” (Vassalli, 2001, p. 19).

Vassalli comments that Freud’s

... description of technical work [resembles techne in that] the subsequent theories [i.e., theories developed ad hoc during the investigation] should not be “made” in advance; “they must fall into one’s house as uninvited guests while one is occupied with the investigation of details” (Freud to Ferenczi in August 1915, (Grubrich-Simitis, 1987, p. 83).

(Vassalli, 2001, p. 22)

Investigation of “emergent” phenomena yields knowledge that does not have the kind of certainty that we associate with well-established scientific theories, but is rather “a hunch-based knowledge, for which a conjectural use of reason is appropriate. Techne, even when it is guided by an idea (eiders), cannot determine with certainty the success of a piece of work” (Vassalli, 2001, p. 19).

In many ways, an analyst working with a patient is like an artist exploring the aesthetic potential of a new medium. But there is a crucial difference: whereas an artist must mould his material into a shape that expresses a vision that is central to the production of the work of art, the analyst’s “vision” for the patient is an entirely subordinate and dispensable part of the analysis. The analyst’s interpretations are far less important than the patient’s response to them. The artist is trying to produce something by moulding his material. The analyst is only trying to understand the nature of his material (the patient’s mind), and he does so by doing something to it (making an interpretation) and then observing the response. An interpretation is less an attempt to mould the patient than a device for sounding his depths.

Although it may resemble the work of the artist more than that of the experimental scientist in many ways, psychoanalytic exploration is nonetheless an empirical investigation of the nature of the patient, in fact precisely the type of empirical investigation appropriate to the live, idiosyncratic world of the specific mind of a specific individual.


  • 1 “Er war kein Grübler, kein Denker, sondern eine künstlerisch begabte Natur, wie er es selbst nannte, ein visuel, ein Seher [He was no brooder, no thinker, but an artistically gifted nature, or as he himself put it, a visuel, a seer]” (Freud, 1893b, p. 22).
  • 2 Compare this to Bion’s exposition of Poincare’s selected fact unifying a constant conjunction of otherwise disparate sensations.
  • 3 In spite of, or because of?
  • 4 While some psychoanalytic theories have been subjected to formal experimental proof, the results of these investigations have in general not proven relevant to the day-to-day work of psychoanalysts in anywhere near the same way that the experimental investigation of a new drug, or a new putative cause for gastric ulcer has proven relevant to the day-to-day work of physicians.


International Psychoanalytic Association, Membership Handbook, International Psychoanalytic Association, 2001.

Joseph Breuer and Sigmund Freud. Studies on hysteria. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 2, 1895.

Sigmund Freud. Psychical (or mental) treatment. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psycho-logical Works of Sigmund Freud, 7, 1890.

Sigmund Freud. Charcot. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 3:11, 1893a.

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

Sigmund Freud. Two encyclopedia articles. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 18, 1923.

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

Sigmund Freud. Charcot. In Gesainmelte iverke, Co/urne I, 21—35. Imago Publishing Company, London, 1991, 1893b.

Sigmund Freud. Letters of Sigmund Freud, 1879-1939. Hogarth Press, London, 1961.

I. Grubrich-Simitis. A Phylogenetic Fantasy: Overview of the Transference Neuroses. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1987.

Giovanni Vassalli. The birth of psychoanalysis from the spirit of technique. The International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 82:3—25, 2001.

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