A century of psychoanalysis: critical retrospect and prospect

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12 ottobre, 2012 - 16:14

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Introduction by Paolo Migone

This paper by Adolf Grünbaum was read as the inaugural lecture of the "Interdisciplinary Seminar in the Philosophy of Science" held at the University of Parma, Italy, on May 19, 1998, organized byMassimo Pauri, Professor at the Department of Physics of the University of Parma. The fact that a lecture on psychoanalysis was organized by a Department of Physics may at first create perplexity to those who do not know Grünbaum's scientific research. It should be recalled that Grünbaum, one of the most prominent living epistemologists, became originally well known for his studies on the philosophy of physics, culminated in his voluminous1963 book titledPhilosophical Problems of Space and Time (Dordrecht & Boston: D. Reidel, 19742). Only after having received world-wide attention in this area, and armed with his extraordinary epistemological background, he turned his attention to psychoanalysis, rapidly becoming, also in this field, an essential point of reference concerning the relationship between psychoanalysis and philosophy. At the turn of the '80s, when his articles begun to appear, and especially after his book The Foundations of Psychoanalysis: A Philosophical Critique (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1984), almost every psychoanalytic journal and meeting was mentioning his ideas. He discussed the main philosophical positions that during this century had characterized the debate on the relationship between psychoanalysis and science (essentially those of neopositivism, Popper, and hermeneutics), setting the problem on a new light. Psychoanalysis was not discussed only in itself, but, in a way, also in order to face more important issues, such as the problem of inductivism and, in particular, the disagreement with Popper regarding the "demarcation" between science and non science. His critique to Popper was very strong (not to talk of his critique to hermeneutics, seen by many authors as devastating). Grünbaum decisively confuted Popper's assertion of non scientificity of psychoanalysis as allegedly "non falsifiable", and located psychoanalysis within natural sciences in its own right, in front of its own responsibilities, so to speak. He concluded, differently from the previous philosophical positions, that psychoanalysis is "scientifically alive", even if, due to its state of research, "currently hardly well" (Grünbaum, 1984, p. 278). It is for this reason that, paradoxically, and despite many psychoanalysts see Grünbaum as an enemy, we could say that form the epistemological point of view he "saved" psychoanalysis, because he conceded it the dignity of being a science, which Popper and neopositivism never did. It is only after having established its scientific status that it becomes possible to begin to test, one after the other, its various theoretical assumptions, as many psychotherapy researchers are trying to do.

Being impossible here to go into more details of Grünbaum's contributions, I will mention his writings, particularly his above mentioned 1984 book, and his second book, titled Validation in the Clinical Theory of Psychoanalysis. A Study in the Philosophy of Psychoanalysis (Psychological Issues, 61; Madison, CT: International University Press, 1993). Another important source of information is an issue of the journal The Behavioral and Brain Sciences (1986, vol. 9, no. 2, pp. 217-284 ) titled "Reflections onThe Foundations of Psychoanalysis", which contains a "Précis" by Grünbaum of his1984 book, followed by 39 reviews, both in favour and against his ideas, and his response at the end, titled "Is Freuds theory well-founded?".

Let's come now to the paper published here. As Grünbaum himself says in his "Introductory remarks" that kindly sent us for this POL.it publication, this paper is the synthesis of his chapter published in the companion volume of the exhibition "Sigmund Freud: Conflict and Culture", edited by Michael Roth (New York: Knopf, 1998), and it is worthwhile to add a few notes about the story of this controversial exhibition. The exhibition Sigmund Freud: Conflict and Culture, after many polemics, was opened at the Library of Congress in Washington on October 15, 1998, and closed on January15, 1999. It is scheduled to be at the Jewish Museum of New York from April 11, 1999, to August 8, 1999, and then in Vienna from November11, 1999 to February 10, 2000, for the celebrations of the Millennium. From April 7, 2000 to May 21, 2000, it will be at the new Getty Museum in Los Angeles, then it will be in Brazil. Why this exhibition stirred up so many controversies? The exhibition was planned for 1996, but it was postponed for two years officially for organizational reasons; however, many say that its rescheduling was due to the protests caused by an open letter signed by fifty Freud scholars (among the most respected and well known Freud biographers and scholars, psychoanalysts and psychologists in general: we might mention Morris Eagle, Phyllis Grosskurth, Adolf Grünbaum, Robert Holt, John Kerr, Zvi Lothane, Paul Roazen, Oliver Sacks, Morton Schatzman, Frank Sulloway, etc. - incidentally, also Sophie Freud, Sigmund's niece, was among them; Peter Swales was the co-ordinator of this initiative).These scholars were of the opinion that the exhibition, as initially planned, was giving only a partial view on Freud, ignoring critical voices. Incidentally, the signatories were not all critical of Freud, on the contrary, many of them were practicing analysts and respectful of Freud's ideas, but they wanted that the exhibition could have a more balanced view of the founder of psychoanalysis, comprehensive of all perspectives. It should not be forgot that the exhibition was financed by federal government, and an enormous amount of people was expected to see it (to give the idea of the importance of this exhibition, it was planned, for example, that Freud's image be located in the place of the picture of the President of the United States).We could also imagine the big economical interests at play, especially now, given the crisis of the social image of psychoanalysis, and there was the fear that the exhibition could be under the sole control of possibly "one-sided" institutions such as the American Psychoanalytic Association. This controversy of course was reflected in the mass media, where many misunderstanding and accusations appeared, for examples the signatories of the open letter were often called "Freud bashers", and so on. At any rate, the exhibition was rescheduled and also some critical perspectives were included, one if them being Grünbaum's, whose contribution we see here in a shortened version

This paper, as I said, was read at a lecture at the University of Parma on May 19, 1998. During that trip to Italy, Grünbaum gave also a paper titled "Critique of Freud's notion of mental illness" at the meeting of the Academie Internationale de Philosophie des Sciences"Interpretation and meaning of illness", organized by Evandro Agazzi in Milan. Always in Milan, in the evening of May 21, 1998, at the Association of Il Ruolo Terapeutico he conducted a question-and-answer session on his psychoanalytic writings ("Domande e risposte su psicoanalisie filosofia"); the philsopher Alessandro Pagnini, of the University of Florence, was the moderator, and analysts, philosophers, psychiatrists, and psychotherapy researchers intervened (among them, Alfredo Civita, Mauro Fornaro, Salvatore Freni, Massimo Pauri, etc.). This seminar was recorded in two CD-ROMs that are available on request from Il Ruolo Terapeutico, Via Giovanni Milani 12, 20133 Milano, Italy, Tel./Fax 02-70636457, E-Mail <ilruolo.terapeutico@libero.it> (I translated this seminar, as well as the lecture in Parma - both Italian and English languages are easily understandable, in a rapid sequential translation).

Grünbaum's contribution is published in the "Psychotherapy" sectionof POL.it, in the hope that it will stir discussion and interest. As it has been already said regarding other documents published in this section, one of the best ways to understand a problem is also by the criticisms and open discussions of them. We thank, for the permissions, Adolf Grünbaum, the journal KOS (where the Italian version appeared in no. 152, May 1998, pp. 26-31, translated by Rosaria Trovato), and the newsletter of the Center for West European Studies of the University of Pittsburgh (where the English version appeared in the issue of February 1998, pp. 1 and 7).

Introductory remarks by Adolf Grübaum (1999)

The exhibition "Sigmund Freud: Conflict and Culture", held at the Library of Congressin Washington, D.C., from October 15, 1998, to January 15, 1999, has generated worldwide controversy. Alfred A. Knopf Inc. in New York published a Companion Volume to the Exhibition by the same title, which was edited by Michael Roth, the curator of the Exhibition.

I endorse the following excerpts from a commentary by Richard Farr on Amazon.com, which mentions my essay in the Companion Volume:

Sigmund Freud's legacy and reputation have been under attack for several decades, but when the Library of Congress originally planned its Freud Exhibition in 1996, their work seemed to have been conceived in total denial of the fact, and critics cried foul. After two years of tinkering, the exhibit was finally rescheduled to open in October 1998,and this coinciding collection of essays reflects the intervening debate.(...)

Most of the 18 essays, however, remain tenderfoooted and pious, especially those by analysts such as Ilse Gubrich-Simitis and PatrickMahony. Hannah Decker's article on the Dora case mentions critics in passing, but likewise sidesteps the more unpleasant issues, writing that Freud eventually "acknowledged his errors and showed he had made significant advances." But many critics, unmentioned by Decker, have argued strenuously that there were no real advances; even if there were, it remains clear that they did not permit Freud to see his own behavior in an honest light. Some of the overtly Freudian contributors are more flexible but, by extension, more interesting: Peter Gay on psychohistory, for example, and Robert Coleson the social idealism accompanying the idea that psychoanalysis was a key to resolving human conflict. And, as a result of the 1996 controversy, topnotch critics of Freud such as Adolf Grünbaum are now grudgingly represented. Still, Peter Kramer's rueful retrospective could serve asa coda not only to the volume but to the current state of Freud studies: "Our vision of Freud is composed of extreme images that barely intersect." (Richard Farr, Amazon)

I prepared condensations of my full-length essay "A century of psychoanalysis: critical retrospect and prospect" both for translationin to Italian (published with the title "Un secolo di psicoanalisi: bilancio e prospettive", KOS, Nuova serie, n. 152, maggio 1998, pp. 26-31) and for publication in English in the University of Pittsburgh's Newsletter of its Center for West European Studies. The English version that appeared in that Center's February 1998 issue, pp. 1 and 7, is published here by its permission.


The most basic ideas of psychoanalytic theory were initially enunciated in Josef Breuer's and Sigmund Freud's "Preliminary Communication" of 1893, which introduced theirStudies in Hysteria. Three years later, Freud designated Breuer's "cathartic" therapeutic method of clinical investigation of the banished traumatic memories of his patients as "a new method of psycho-analysis."

By now, the psychoanalytic enterprise has completed its first century. Thus, the time has come to take thorough critical stock of its past performance qua theory of human nature and therapy, as well as to have a look at its prospects.

Freud was certainly not at all the first to postulate the existence of some kinds or other of unconscious mental processes. Over the centuries, a number of other thinkers did so earlier in order to explain conscious thought and overt behavior for which they could find no other explanation. Indeed, Freud had additional precursors who anticipated some of his key ideas with impressive specificity: Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche had speculatively propounded major psychoanalytic doctrines that Freud himself claims to have developed independently thereafter from his clinical observations of his patients.

There are major differences between the unconscious processes hypothesized by current cognitive psychology, on the one hand, and the unconscious contents of the mind postulated by psychoanalytic psychology, on the other. Freud's so-called "dynamic" unconscious is the supposed repository of repressed forbidden wishes of a sexual or aggressive nature, which recklessly seek immediate gratification, independently of the constraints of external reality, but whose reentry or initial entry into consciousness is prevented by the defensive operations of the ego. Indeed, according to Freud, we would not even have developed the skills needed to engage in cognitive activities, if it had been possible to gratify our instinctual needs without reliance on them.

But the psychoanalyst Heinz Hartmann was driven, by facts of biological maturation discovered non-psychoanalytically and presumably already known to Freud, to acknowledge in his so-called "ego psychology" that such functions as cognition, memory and thinking can develop autonomously by innate genetic programming, and independently of instinctual drive gratification. In the cognitive unconscious, there is great rationality in the ubiquitous computational and associative problem-solving processes required by memory, perception, judgment and attention. By contrast, the wish-content of the dynamic unconscious makes it operate in a highly illogical way.

Furthermore, the dynamic unconscious acquires its content largely from the unwitting repression of ideas in the form they originally had in consciousness, whereas neither the expulsion of ideas and memories from consciousness nor the censorious denial of entry to them plays any role at all in the cognitive unconscious. Freud reasoned that the use of his new technique of free association could lift the repressions of instinctual wishes, and could thereby bring the repressed ideas back to consciousness unchanged. But in the case of the cognitive unconscious, there is typically no such becoming conscious of, say, the elaborate scanning or search-process by which someone rapidly comes up with the name of the Czarina's lover Rasputin when asked for it. Some Freudian apologists have erroneously claimed support for the psychoanalytic unconscious from the cognitive one, although the existence of the latter does not confer any credibility on the former.

We must likewise beware of the bizarre argument that the pervasive influence of Freudian ideas in Western culture vouches for the evidential probity of the psychoanalytic enterprise. Freud's widespread cultural influence no more validates his tenets than Christian hegemony warrants belief in the virgin birth of Jesus or his resurrection. Indeed the prevalence of vulgarized pseudo-Freudian concepts makes it difficult to determine reliably the extent to which genuine psychoanalytic hypotheses have actually become influential in our culture at large.

For example, the purview of Freud's psychoanalytic motivational elucidation of slips was confined to lapses whose "motives [are] unknown to consciousness," and which are thus thought to be prima facie psychologically unmotivated. Yet all psychologically motivated slips or bungled actions - even those whose promptings are both conscious and transparent - are commonly but incorrectly called "Freudian."

Critique of Freudian and Post-Freudian Psychoanalysis

Let us now turn to my critique of the core of Freud's original psychoanalytic theory, and thereafter, to a verdict on whether my objections to this core are overcome by the two major post-Freudian sets of hypotheses called "self-psychology" and "object relations theory."

As Freud told us, "The theory of repression is the corner-stone on which the whole structure of psycho-analysis rests. It is the most essential part of it." The three principal branches of the theory of repression are sets of hypotheses as to the unconscious causation and psychoanalytic treatment of psychopathology, the theory of dreams, and the theory of slips. In each of these three branches, the repression of mental contents is asserted to play a causally necessary role: It is crucial to the production of neuroses and psychoses by unconscious sexual motives, to the formation of dreams by latent, forbidden infantile wishes, and to the generation of bungled actions by diverse hidden motives of unpleasure.

In Freud's view, our neurotic symptoms, the manifest contents of our dreams, and the slips we commit are each constructed as "compromises between the demands of a repressed impulse and the resistances of a censoring force in the ego." Therefore, Freud can be said to have offered a unifying "compromise-model" of neuroses, dreams and parapraxes. And psychoanalysts have pointed to the explanatory virtue of such unification to claim validity for it, a claim that I shall challenge.

But what, in the first place, is the motive or cause that initiates and sustains the operation of the unconscious mechanism of repression before it produces its own later hypothesized effects? Freud assumed axiomatically that distressing mental states, such as forbidden wishes, trauma, painful memories, disgust, anxiety, anger, shame, hate, guilt, and sadness - all of which are unpleasurable - typically actuate, and then fuel forgetting to the point of repression. Thus, repression presumably regulates pleasure and unpleasure by defending our consciousness against various sorts of negative affect.

As Freud put it dogmatically: "The tendency to forget what is disagreeable seems to me to be a quite universal one," and "distressing memories succumb especially easily to motivated forgetting." Yet, he was driven to concede: "one often enough finds it impossible, on the contrary, to get rid of distressing memories that pursue one, and to banish distressing affective impulses like remorse and the pangs of conscience." Furthermore, he acknowledges that "distressing things are particularly hard to forget." Thus, some painful mental states are vividly remembered while others are forgotten or even repressed. And Freud's account is vitiated by the fact that factors different from their painfulness determine whether they are remembered or forgotten. For example, personality dispositions or situational variables may in fact be causally relevant. Freud never came to grips adequately with the unfavorable bearing of the phenomenon of obsessive recall of distressing experiences on his central plank that negative affect drives repression. Incidentally, the psychologist Thomas Gilovich at Cornell is now doing valuable work on the conditions under which painful experiences are remembered, and on those other conditions under which they are forgotten.

Another basic difficulty, which besets all three branches of the theory of repression alike, lies in the epistemological defects of Freud's method of "free association." It purportedly has a two-fold major capability, which is both causally investigative and therapeutic: (i) It can identify the unconscious causes of human thoughts and behavior, both abnormal and normal, and (ii) By overcoming resistances and lifting repressions, it can remove the unconscious pathogens of neuroses, and thus provide therapy for an important class of mental disorders. Thus, we are told that by using his unique technique to unlock the flood gates of the unconscious, Freud was able to show that neuroses, and furthermore, dreams and slips are caused by repressed motives. But I have argued in elaborate detail in my writings that Freud's tribute to the causal probativenss of free association is ill-founded, and so is his theory of repression, which includes his theory of psychopathology and therapy, his theory of dreams, and his theory of slips.

Thus, as we learn in Freud's opening pages on his method of dream interpretation, he extrapolated the presumed causally probative role of free associations from being only a method of etiologic inquiry aimed at therapy, to serving likewise as an avenue for finding the purported unconscious causes of dreams. And, in the same breath, he reports that when patients told him about their dreams while associating freely to their symptoms, he boldly, if not rashly, extrapolated his compromise-model from neurotic symptoms to manifest dream contents. A year later, he carried out the same two-fold extrapolation to include slips or bungled actions.

But what, in Freud's view, do free associations tell us about our dreams? Whatever the manifest content of dreams, that content is purportedly wish-fulfilling in two logically distinct ways as follows: For every dream D, there exists at least one normally unconscious infantile wish W such that (i) W is required as the motivational cause of D, and (ii) the manifest content of D graphically displays, more or less disguisedly, the state of affairs desired by W. As Freud contends: "When the latent dream-thoughts that are revealed by the analysis [via free association] of a dream are examined, one of them is found to stand out from among the rest... the isolated thought is found to be a wishful impulse... This impulse is the actual constructor of the dream: it provides the energy for its production..."

Freud offered his analysis of his 1895 "Specimen Irma Dream" as an argument for the method of free association as a cogent means of identifying hypothesized hidden, forbidden wishes as the motives of our dreams. But in my detailed critique of that unjustly celebrated analysis of his Irma Dream, I have argued that Freud's account is, alas, no more than a piece of false advertising: (i) It does not deliver at all the promised vindication of the probativeness of free association, (ii) it does nothing toward warranting his foolhardy dogma that all dreams are wishfulfilling in his stated sense, (iii) it does not even pretend that his alleged "Specimen Dream" is evidence for his compromise-model of manifest-dream content, and (iv) the inveterate and continuing celebration of Freud's analysis of his Irma Dream in the psychoanalytic literature as the paragon of dream-interpretation is completely unwarranted, because it is mere salesmanship.

Moreover, quite generally, Freud's wish-fulfillment theory of dreaming was irremediably flawed from the outset: Deplorably, as it now turns out, he did not heed a patent epistemological consequence of having abandoned his 1895 Project's neurological energy-model of wish-driven dreaming. By precisely that abandonment, he had forfeited his initial biological rationale for claiming that at least all "normal" dreams are wish-fulfilling. A fortiori, this forfeiture left him without any kind of energy-based warrant for then universalizing the doctrine of wish-fulfillment to extend to any sort of dream. Yet, unencumbered by the total absence of any such warrant and of any other justification, the universalized doctrine, now formulated in psychological terms, rose like a Phoenix from the ashes of Freud's defunct energy-model. Incidentally, I have argued elsewhere (forthcoming) that his neuroenergetic argument for wish-driven dreaming was dead-in-the-water at birth. Once he had clearly chained himself gratuitously to the universal wish-monopoly of dream-generation, his interpretations of dreams were constrained to reconcile wish-contravening dreams with the decreed universality of wish-fulfillment. Such reconciliation demanded imperiously that all other parts and details of his dream-theory be obligingly tailored to the governing wish-dogma so as to sustain it. Yet Freud artfully obscured this dynamic of theorizing, while begging the methodological question.

Indeed, since there are innumerably many distressing, prima facie wish-contravening dreams, Freud's idée fixe of wish-fulfillment dictated nothing less than the following three major artifactual doctrines of his dream-theory:

(i) The distinction between the conscious, "manifest" content of a dream - which is topically polymorphic - and the repressed, "latent" content, which Freud decreed to feature invariably the imperial repressed wish, and an infantile one at that. The manifest content is allegedly a mere fa�ade for the hidden, forbidden latent wish-content: The former allegedly resulted, in the service of disguise, from the distortion of the forbidden wish by a process that Freud designated as the "dream work"; but this hypothesized distortion must not be confused with the familiar bizarreness of dreams.

(ii) A second artifact of Freud's wish-imperialism was the related tenet that the manifest dream-content, no less than a neurotic symptom, is the product of a conflict and compromise between a repressed wish clamoring for expression - a so-called latent dream-"thought" - and the censorship exerted by a repressing ego.

(iii) The insistence on the universality of wish-fulfillment in dreams also imposed a methodological exigency. As Clark Glymour has noted, Freud's method of dream-interpretation by free association was antecedently constrained thematically by the demand to weave together the ensuing associations selectively so as to yield a wish-motive as standing out from the others. But Freud misrepresented this pre-ordained result as a straightforward empirical finding, unencumbered by prior theory-driven regimentation of the products of the patient associations.

Advocates of psychoanalysis have proclaimed it to be an explanatory virtue of their theory that its compromise-model gives a unifying account of such prima facie disparate domains of phenomena as neuroses, dreams and slips, and indeed that the theory of repression also contributes to Freud's theory of psychosexual development. In fact, some philosophers of science have hailed explanatory unification as one of the great achievements and desiderata of the scientific enterprise.

Yet, in other contexts, unification can be a vice rather than a virtue. Thales of Miletus, though rightly seeking a rationalistic, rather than mythopoietic, picture of the world, taught that everything is made of water, a cosmic chemical unification. But the chemist Mendeleyev could have said to Thales across the millennia in the words of Hamlet: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy" (Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act I, Scene V). As I have argued, the same moral applies to Freud's dubious psychopathologizing of normalcy: By unfortunately assuming the causal cogency of the method of free association, his compromise-model has generated a pseudo-unification of neurotic behavior with dreaming and the bungling of actions.

Post-Freudian Developments

But what have been the contemporary post-Freudian developments insofar as they still qualify as psychoanalytic in content rather than only in name? And are they on firmer epistemological ground than Freud's original major hypotheses? The well-known clinical psychologist Morris Eagle has given a comprehensive and insightful negative answer to this question. Relatedly, the "hermeneutic" philosophers Karl Jaspers, Paul Ricoeur and Jürgen Habermas have indicted Freud for a "scientistic" misunderstanding of his own psychoanalytic enterprise! But their proposed "hermeneutic" reconstruction has not spawned any fruitful new psychoanalytic hypotheses. It is just a negativistic ideological battle cry and is based on several serious fallacies.

What then are the prospects for the future of psychoanalysis in the 21st century? A dismal verdict is offered by the renowned American psychologist and psychoanalyst Paul Meehl: As he explains, if the difficulties I have pointed out in my various writings on psychoanalysis cannot be remedied, he explains, "we will have another century in which psychoanalysis can be accepted or rejected, mostly as a matter of personal taste. Should that happen, I predict it will be slowly but surely abandoned, both as a mode of helping and as a theory of the mind."


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von Eckardt B. (1985). "Adolf Grünbaum and Psychoanalytic Epistemology". In: Reppen J. (editor), Beyond Freud: A Study of Modern Psychoanalytic Theorists. Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press, pp. 353-403.

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