What Virtuous Epistemic Regulation Aims to Avoid: Interpretive Force-Fitting

A virtue epistemologist argues that while self-knowledge is not guaranteed, we foreclose on its very possibility if we make a less than virtuous effort to attain it. One aspect of this effort is to make therapy accurately fit the suitable patient instead of resorting to what Jopling terms an “interpretive force-fitting” by which the patient is made to fit the theoretical framework of the therapy.47 This refers to the long-standing criticism that psychoanalysts “stuff the unconscious with all manner of things which to no one’s surprise they then find there when they look”48 The history of psychoanalysis affords some illustrative examples. One thinks of Freud’s insistence that Dora’s disagreements about the accuracy of his interpretations were actually covert avowals. When she denied being in love her father, Freud took this as proof that his interpretation was correct. “If one takes this ‘No’ not as the expression of an impartial judgement, of which the patient is in fact not capable, disregards it, and continues the work, proofs will soon appear that ‘No’ in such a case signified the desired ‘Yes.’ ”49 Gay notes that “Freud thus opened himself to the charge of insensitivity, and worse, of sheer dogmatic arrogance: . . . he was not listening now, but forcing his analy- sand’s communications into a predetermined pattern.”50 A virtue epistemologist need not deny the dynamic of resistance to claim that we need more than a patient’s disagreement with an analyst’s interpretations to confirm it.

Consider as well the recollections of psychoanalyst Sandor Rado, who was analyzed in 1910 as part of his clinical training. He claimed that analysis in those early years “was not the study of the life of a person, digging out what the turning points, what the problems were. ... It was a search for the opportunities to apply certain Freudian insights . . . [e.g.,] castration complex, Oedipus complex, narcissism, oral eroticism, anal eroticism . . . the patient’s production was very soon oriented by that, because he saw that what is fruitful is if he talks about these matters”51 It might be argued that Rado was not above some interpretive force-fitting of his own. Some of his later work on female masochism revolved around claims that any woman who expresses castration fantasies is reflecting the “salient, precipitating” trauma that allegedly follows “with striking frequency” after a young girl first “catches sight of a penis.”52 She experiences the “humiliating reflection” that she lacks one, which “produces severe psychic pain, and terminates in something like a paralysis of feeling”53 These ideas provoked an interesting debate about evidentiary standards and the assessment of evidence. Rado’s claims were criticized by Karen Horney as “unwarranted generalization^] from limited data” that did not account for the influence of broader factors inherent in “the culture-complex or social organization in which the particular masochistic woman has developed,” e.g., “social conditioning" and stereotypical attitudes toward females.54 Horney notes that Rado assumes this trauma to be the cause of female masochism, as opposed to its expression, without offering “evidence of its factual occurrence.”55 While Horney conceded that Rado’s ideas might be theoretically “stimulating,” she objected to the assumption that they are the exclusive links “in a chain of proof.”56 In resisting this effort to make patients fit what she took to be a limited theory, Horney warned against overestimating the importance of “anatomical-psychological-psychic factors” in the analysis of women.57

One might well be wary of therapists who do not think beyond the limits of their own theories and of patients who are unwilling to question them. Donald Winnicott’s wife Claire became enamored with Melanie Klein’s theories after reading one of her papers. She sought a Kleinian analysis and expressed frustration with her first analyst when she did not receive “Kleinian interpretations” of her dreams. Of her later analysis with Klein herself, Winnicott recalled the predominant application of theory over clinical exploration: “She implanted her own theory on what you gave her. You took it or left it.”58 Claire Winnicott was capable of leaving it. She recalled her disillusionment with Klein when she related a “thoroughly Kleinian dream” that it took the formidable analyst twenty-five minutes to interpret. A number of Klein’s colleagues felt that her lengthy interpretations were “too coloured by a wish to defend the accuracy of her theories” at the expense of exploring the material that her patients presented.59

It is tempting to speculate on the extent to which Claire Winnicott might have colluded with Klein in an uncritical acceptance of her theories. And yet it appears that she retained a sense of her epistemic autonomy and could question the relevance of the Kleinian interpretations she sought. I concede Jopling’s point that there can be cases in which a patient starts having psychodynamic dreams after being inculcated in psychodynamic theory by a therapist.60 But that does not negate the possibility that a patient might be having dreams that she only comes to understand after reflecting on a psychodynamic interpretation. One can just as easily imagine philosophy students having moderately skeptical thoughts after reading skeptical theory. We cannot endorse a view from nowhere. Surely any person engaging in self-inquiry through dialogue with another brings a truckload of assumptions and beliefs about her motivations and behavior to the encounter. It is difficult to imagine a revelation of self-knowledge occurring in isolation or absent the background context of these assumptions. Even if it could so occur, the subject of this revelation would have to re-contextualize her newfound insight in either the background assumptions she had before the revelation, a new set of background assumptions that she would somehow create after the revelation, or some combination of the two. If motivations and behavior are the objects of inquiry, then they are connected intimately to the inquirer and affected by the process of inquiry. As Code might put it, neither self-knowledge nor justified true beliefs would be a product of inquiry “that stands alone in the sense that details of the processes of its production are irrelevant to its structure, content, and/or evaluation.”61

The anecdotes about interpretive force-fitting indicate a deliberate effort by therapists to subordinate patients to the predetermined dictates of theory. They implicate credulous patients who might be duped into theory adherence. Others might collude in this subordination while others might question it. A virtue epistemologist would argue that interpretive force-fitting does not constitute an intellectually conscientious attempt at accurately understanding the patient. There is arguably no epistemic virtue in Freud’s admission that “Quite often we do not succeed in bringing the patient to recollect what has been repressed. Instead, we produce in him an assured conviction of the truth of the construction, which achieves the same therapeutic result as a recaptured memory”62 This is precisely the type of remark that raises a red flag for the skeptic, and well it should. Interpretations made on the basis of persuasion can amount to the kind of self-serving explanatory fictions that so concern Jopling. They would epitomize the idea that the warrant for a patient’s holding any belief p would reflect nothing more than the fact that it makes him feel better.63 Again, this is to eschew the requirement for being motivated to settle for nothing less than critically discerning, credible grounds for belief.

We may yet succeed in showing that psychodynamic interpretations and insights can never be good grounds for either self-knowledge or justified true beliefs. But we have not shown that their formulation requires the distortions of interpretive force-fitting. I think we have succeeded in showing that we have reason to be skeptical of their uncritical acceptance by therapists and patients alike. Insight-oriented psychotherapy may yet go the way of phrenology but, in the meantime, we ought to do nothing less than rely on intellectual virtues and good faith epistemic practices to regulate these psychic explorations. If justifiedness follows from a belief’s source in intellectual virtues, which are properties of persons, then how might we evaluate the three epistemic goods of psychotherapy? I will consider each in turn.

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