THE HERMENEUTIC VERSUS THE SCIENTIFIC CONCEPTION OF PSYCHOANALYSIS
The construction of bridges between the natural and social sciences is a laudable aim. But bridges that do not hold up should not be built. This paper argues that the so-called "hermeneutic" reconstruction of psychoanalytic theory and therapy proposed by Karl Jaspers, Paul Ricoeur, and Jürgen Habermas fails multiply as a viaduct and alleged prototype for the study of human nature. One key to that failure is the misconstrual of so-called "meaning connections" between mental states in their bearing on causal connections between such states.
According to the so-called "hermeneutic" reconstruction of classical psychoanalytic theory, the received scientific conception of the Freudian enterprise gave much too little explanatory weight to so-called "meaning" connections between unconscious motives, on the one hand, and overt symptoms on the other. Thus in a paper on schizophrenia, the German philosopher and professional psychiatrist Karl Jaspers (1974, p. 91) wrote: "In Freud's work we are dealing in fact with [a] psychology of meaning, not causal explanation as Freud himself thinks." The father of psychoanalysis, we are told, fell into a "confusion of meaning connections with causal connections."
The noun "hermeneutics," which derives etymologically from Hermes the messenger, was usefully introduced in the 17th century as a name for Biblical exegesis, and was then broadened to refer to textual interpretation generally. Alas, then, at the hands of those continental European philosophers who wanted to rehabilitate the 19th century dichotomy between the natural and the human sciences, the term was extended to label the interpretation of psychological phenomena or mentation as such, to the exclusion of non-mental ones. And, in that vein, the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur told us the following: (1970, p. 359): "psychology is an observational science dealing with the facts of behavior; psychoanalysis is an exegetical [interpretive] science dealing with the relationships of meaning between substitute objects [i.e., symptoms] and the primordial (and lost) instinctual objects [i.e., repressed instinctual wishes]."
Yet obviously, we interpret overt human behavior, no less than thoughts and feelings, but also such physical phenomena as x-ray films, clicks on Geiger counters, tracks in Wilson cloud chambers and geological strata. In daily life, it is an interpretation or hypothesis to say that the table salt I taste at lunch is sodium chloride, just as it is an interpretive hypothesis to inferpsychologically that a certain eye movement is a flirtatious, sexual gesture. Furthermore, insofar as merely some kind or other of interpretation is involved, it is trivial and unenlightening to note that there is that kind of similarity between the semantic interpretation of a written text, on the one hand, and the psychoanalyst'smotivational interpretation of the patient's speech and gestures in the doctor's office as having so-called unconscious "meaning," on the other. In short, etymologically, the term "hermeneutic" is just asynonym for the word "interpretative." But it is also usedideologically and indeed ambiguously so.
Further serious confusion is introduced by the differentphilosophical uses of the term "hermeneutics" as follows: Whereas some philosophers apply it, as we have seen, to render oppositionto the unity of the natural and human sciences, others use it toendorse such unity as follows (Connolly and Keutner (eds.), 1988):All these sciences are alike hermeneutic, we learn, in the sense of employing Kuhnian paradigms of understanding across-the-board to provide explanations. Thus, Paul Feyerabend, Mary Hesse, and Richard Rorty, for instance, welcomed Kuhn's delivery of a so-called hermeneutic unity of science. Yet others, like Karl Popper, saw this hermeneutic sort of unity of science as a descent into irrationalism and intellectual barbarism (Sullivan, 1993). The deplorable use of the term "hermeneutics" to render incompatiblephilosophical positions just compounds the liabilities of the ambiguous and obfuscatory employment of the term "meaning."
After Jaspers, Paul Ricoeur, and Jürgen Habermas have elaborated the patronizing claim that Freud basically misunderstood his own theory and therapy. As these European philosophers would have it, psychoanalysis can snatch victory from the jaws of the scientific failings of Freud's theory by abjuring his scientific aspirations as basically misguided. Claiming that Freud himself had "scientistically" misunderstood his own theoretical achievement, they misconstrue it as a semanticaccomplishment by trading on the weasel word "meaning."
I can give immediately just one of the reasons for rejecting the use of the multiply ambiguous term "meaning" to characterize the psychoanalytic enterprise. In a 1991 article entitled "Hermeneutics in Psychoanalysis," James Phillips told us à la Jaspers that Freud made a great "hermeneutic" discovery, which was to uncover hidden "meaning" where no "meaning" was thought to exist before. But clearly, what Freud claimed to have discovered is that behavior, such as those slips (or "Fehlleistungen") that were previously not thought to be psychologically motivated, werecaused by specific sorts of unconscious motives after all. In Freud's view, motives were clearly a species of causes.
In his account, an overt symptom manifests one or more underlying unconscious causes and gives evidence for its cause(s), so that the "sense" or "meaning" of the symptom is constituted by its latent motivational cause(s). But this notion of "meaning" is different from the one appropriate to the context of communication, in whichlinguistic symbols acquire semantic meaning by being used intentionally to designate their referents. Clearly, the relation of being a manifestation, which the symptom bears to its hypothesized cause, differs from the semantic relation of designation, which a linguistic symbol bears to its object. This fact is blatantly overlooked in much recent psychoanalytic literature. Thus, in a 1994 Letter-to-the-Editor of the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association (vol. 42, no. 4, p. 1311) Philip Rubovitz-Seitz complained that "Freud portrayed his interpretations as the necessary causal inferences of a natural science, rather than as the construal of meanings employed in the human sciences."
The "hermeneutic" reconstruction of psychoanalysis slides illicitly from one of two familiar senses of "meaning" encountered in ordinary discourse to another. When a parent is told by a pediatrician that a child's spots on the skin "mean measles," the "meaning" of the symptom is constituted by one of its causes, much as in the Freudian case. But when a bus driver tells us that three rings of his bell "mean" that the bus is full, these rings–unlike the symptoms of measles or neurotic symptoms–are intended tocommunicate a certain state of affairs.
Thus, the British psychoanalyst Anthony Storr conflates the fathoming of the etiologic "sense" or "meaning" of a symptom with the activity of making semantic sense of a text, declaring absurdly: "Freud was a man of genius whose expertise lay in semantics." And Ricoeur erroneously credits Freud's theory of repression with having provided, malgré lui, a veritable "semantics of desire."
Yet the proposed hermeneutic reconstruction of the psychoanalytic enterprise has been embraced with alacrity by a considerable number of psychoanalysts no less than by a fair number of professors in humanities departments at universities. Its psychoanalytic adherents see it as buying absolution for their theory and therapy from the criteria of validation mandatory for causal hypotheses in the empirical sciences, although psychoanalysis is replete with just such hypotheses. This form of escape from accountability also augurs ill for the future of psychoanalysis, because the methods of the hermeneuts have not spawned a single new important hypothesis! Instead, their reconstruction is a negativistic ideological battle cry whose disavowal of Freud's scientific aspirations presages the death of his legacy from sheer sterility, at least among those who demand the validation of theories by cogent evidence.
My indictment is shared by the well-known academic psychoanalyst Marshall Edelson (1988, ch. 11, "Meaning," pp. 246-249) who writes lucidly:
For psychoanalysis, the meaning of a mental phenomenon is a set of unconscious psychological or intentional states (specific wishes or impulses, specific fears aroused by these wishes, and thoughts or images which might remind the subject of these wishes and fears). The mental phenomenon substitutes for this set of states. That is, these states would have been present in consciousness, instead of the mental phenomenon requiring interpretation, had they not encountered, at the time of origin of the mental phenomenon or repeatedly since then, obstacles to their access to consciousness. If the mental phenomenon has been a relatively enduring structure, and these obstacles to consciousness are removed, the mental phenomenon disappears as these previously unconscious states achieve access to consciousness.
That the mental phenomenon substitutes for these states is a manifestation of a causal sequence (pp. 247-248).
Yet Ricoeur relies on the double-talk as to "meaning" to misdepictFreud's theory of repression as furnishing a so-called "semantics of desire." Then he compounded that misrepresentation by introducing a pseudo-contrast when claiming that the natural scientist and the academic psychologist observe phenomena, whereas the psychoanalyst interprets the productions of patients. Thus, in his book Freud and Philosophy (1970, p. 359), Ricoeur tells us that, contrary to Freud, psychoanalytic theory–which hereduces wantonly to the interpretations given to patients undergoing analysis–is a so-called hermeneutic endeavor as opposed to a natural science. By reducing psychoanalytic theory,which is far-flung and composite, to Freudian therapy, Ricoeur puts aside most of what Freud himself deemed to be his major and lasting contributions. As Freud (1929, p. 673) put it: "The future will probably attribute far greater importance to psychoanalysis as the science of the unconscious than as a therapeutic procedure."
It is true, but philosophically unavailing to the hermeneutic reconstruction of psychoanalysis, that the challenge of puzzle-solving is presented alike by each of the following three different kinds of interpretive activities:
(i) Fathoming the psychoanalytically hypothesized unconscious causal factors behind a symptom, dream or slip by means of psychoanalytic interpretation,
(ii) elucidating the semantic meaning of a text,
(iii) doing detective work to solve a murder.
After all, the common challenge of problem-solving in each of these cognitive activities hardly licenses the assimilation of the quest for so-called psychoanalytic meaning to the search for thesemantic meaning of a text. Yet some hermeneuts latched on to a statement of Freud's (S.E. 1913, 13:176-178) in which he avowedly "overstepped" common usage, when he generalized the term "language" to designate not only the verbal expression of thought but also gestures "and every other method . . . by which mental activity can be expressed" (p. 176). There Freud declared that "the interpretation of dreams [as a cognitive activity] is completely analogous to the decipherment of an ancient pictographic script such as Egyptian hieroglyphs" (p. 177). But surely this common challenge of problem-solving does not license the assimilation of the psychoanalytic meaning of manifest dream-content to thesemantic meaning of spoken or written language (Grünbaum 1993, p. 115).
Hermeneuts (or hermeneuticians) have tried to invoke the fact that the title of Freud's magnum opus is "The Interpretation of Dreams," or–in German–"Die Traumdeutung." The German word for "meaning" is "Bedeutung." But even in German common sense discourse, that term, as well as its verb "bedeuten," are each used in both the Freudian motivational sense and in the semantic sense, as shown by the following illustrations: (i) There is a German song whose opening words are: "Ich weiss nicht was soll es bedeuten, dass ich so traurig bin"–translated: "I don't know what it means that I am so sad." (And it continues: "Ein Märchen aus alten Zeiten, das kommt mir nicht aus dem Sinn"–translated: "I am obsessed by an ancient fairy tale.") Clearly, the song does not express puzzlement as to the semantic meaning of the term "so sad," which is known all too well. Instead, the song expresses curiosity as to the motivating psychological cause of the sadness. (ii) The semantic sense occurs when someone asks: "What does the word ‘automobile' mean?" An etymological answer might be: "It actually means ‘self-mover'." No wonder that C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards wrote a whole book entitled "The Meaning of ‘Meaning'."
But unfortunately, "hermeneutic" philosophers such as Ricoeur and Habermas have fallaciously misused the following two sets of facts: (i) The interpretation of a text is, at least in the first instance, the construction of a semantic hypothesis as to what it asserts. (ii) By contrast, a very different sort of "interpretation" occurs when the psychoanalyst bases imputations of unconscious motives on the patient's conscious speech, rather than, say, on behavioral indicators like weeping or gestures. In that psychoanalytically interpretive situation, the semantic content of that speech is only anavenue to the analyst's etiologic inferences of causally explanatorymotives; for example, the patient's speech may be a deceptive cover for resistance to the disclosure of hidden motives.
Thus, Ricoeur misleadingly and fallaciously misdepicted Freud's theory of repression as a semantic achievement by misassimulating the following two sets of different relations to one another: (i) the way in which the effect of an unconscious cause can manifest it and provide evidence for it, and (ii) the way in which a linguistic symbol represents its referent semantically ordesignates the attributes of the referent. It is precisely this misassimulation, together with abundant misunderstandings of the natural sciences, that have served Ricoeur and Habermas to manufacture a methodological pseudo-contrast. That pseudo-contrast is between the epistemology of causal hypotheses in the natural sciences, on the one hand, and the psychoanalyst's search for the so-called unconscious meaning of the patient's symptoms and conduct, on the other. In this way, they gave psychoanalytic trappings to the old 19th century false dichotomy between the natural and human sciences.
Similarly, in a criticism of my views, the American psychologist and hermeneutic Freudian Matthew Erdelyi fatuously offered the following platitudinous irrelevancy to discredit the causal content of psychoanalytic interpretations: "When one establishes the meaning of an unknown word from its context, one does not establish that the context has caused the unknown word." However, this puerile truism enables Erdelyi to overlook that the psychoanalyst generally knows the contextual dictionary meanings of the patient's words very well; instead, the analyst has the difficult task of using the patient's words as merely one avenue to hypothesizing the unconscious causes of the patient's personality dispositions and life history! And it is bathetic to use the term "meaning" to convey the banality that psychoanalysis is concerned with mentation and its behavioral manifestations.
Similar mischief is wrought by trading on the ambiguity of the term "to signify," as in the following example:
Suppose that the sight of a small cat evokes associatively an unconscious thought of a huge menacing tiger. Clearly, in Freud's account, this evocation is a causal process whose relata are mental, whatever the underlying brain process. This process of causal evocation has been misassimulated to linguistic reference by using the semantic term "signification" as follows: It is said that the sight of the little cat unconsciously signifies the tiger, as if that sight functions like a word or English noise, which refers semantically to the tiger. But clearly, even if the person who sees the small cat links that sight to the word "cat," such a linkage is hardly tantamount to the unconscious semantic reference of the sight to the ominous tiger. Yet Lacanians tell us that the unconscious is structured like a language. In this way, they may well facilitate a misleading semantic account of an infelicitous statement such as: "To the person who saw the small cat, it unconsciously meant a menacing big tiger." For Freud, the sight of the small cat actuated a causal process of evoking the unconscious thought of a huge tiger. And the explanatory question is why it did so in the given case.
In a book that appeared before (Grünbaum, 1990; 1993, ch. 4), Achim Stephan (1989, pp. 144-149) takes issue with some of my views. He does not endorse Ricoeur's "semantics of desire" (p. 123). But he objects (p. 146, item (3)) to my claim that "In Freud's theory, an overt symptom manifests one or more underlying unconscious causes and gives evidence for its cause(s), so that the ‘sense' or ‘meaning' of the symptom is constituted by its latent motivational cause(s)."
Stephan does countenance (p. 148) my emphasis on the distinction between the relation of manifestation, which the symptom bears to its cause, and the semantic relation of designation, which a linguistic symbol bears to its object. Yet, his principal objection to my view of the psychoanalytic "sense" of symptoms as being causal manifestations of unconscious ideation is that I assign "exclusively non-semantic significance" to them bydenying that they also have "semiotic" significance like linguistic symbols (pp. 148-149). He grants that Freud did not construe the sense or meaning of symptoms as one of semantic reference to their causes. Yet according to Stephan's own reconstruction of Freud's conception, "he did assume that the manifest phenomena [symptoms] semantically stand for the same thing as the (repressed) ideas for which they substitute," i.e., "they stand semantically for what the repressed (verbal) ideas stand (or rather would stand, if they were expressed verbally)" (p. 149).
According to Franz Brentano (1995), the essential characteristic of the mental is to be about something, to be representational, to be directed towards something else, to be referential. Brentano used the adjective "intentional" to render what he thus took to be common and peculiar to all instances of the mental, although that term also has the different meaning of "deliberate." In Brentano's view, the phenomenon of intentionality, thus construed, constitutes the criterion of demarcation between the mental and physical worlds.
Husserl objected that states of pain, and sensory qualities like red, though mental, are not "intentional" or directed towards something in Brentano's sense. Yet, Carrier and Mittelstrass (1991, p. 68) point out that Brentano (1995, pp. 89-91) anticipated Husserl's objection by noting that "After all, something hurts, and somethingis perceived as red."
But as Searle (1990, ch. 1) has rightly argued, "undirected" (i.e., diffuse) anxiety is not representational and yet mental. As he put it: ". . . there are forms of elation, depression, and anxiety where one is simply elated, depressed or anxious without being elated, depressed, or anxious about anything" (p. 2). Thus, intentionality à la Brentano is not a necessary condition for the mental. In any case, Aviva Cohen has noted (private communication) that the later Brentano gave up his "intentionality" as the essence of the mental.
Searle (1990, pp. 161-167) has noted illuminatingly (p. 175) that, unlike many mental states, language is not intrinsically"intentional" in Brentano's directed sense; instead, the intentionality (aboutness) of language is extrinsically imposed on it by deliberately "decreeing" it to function referentially. Searle (pp. 5, 160, and 177) points out that the mental states of some animals and of "pre-linguistic" very young children do have intrinsic intentionality but no linguistic referentiality.
I maintain that Stephan's fundamental hermeneuticist error was to slide illicitly from the intrinsic, non-semantic intentionality of (many, but not all) mental states to the imposed, semantic sort possessed by language. Moreover, some of the neurotic symptoms of concern to psychoanalysts, such as diffuse depression and manic, undirected elation even lack Brentano-intentionality.
Finally, the aboutness (contents) of Freud's repressed conative states is avowedly different from the intentionality (contents) of their psychic manifestations in symptoms. But Stephan erroneously insists that they are the same.
As I have indicated above, the common aim of the hermeneuts is to make philosophic capital out of their semantic misemphasis by buying absolution for psychoanalytic motivational hypotheses from the criteria of validation that are applied to causal hypotheses in the empirical sciences. In short, they want to escape criticalaccountability. Ironically, they cheerfully describe their philosophy as "critical theory" in self-congratulatory fashion. Yet since Freud's interpretations of the so-called unconscious meanings of symptoms, dreams, and slips are obviously offered as explanatorycausal hypotheses, they call for scrutiny as such. Hence we must address the following pivotal issue: Just what kind of validation do causal hypotheses require? And what sorts of causal hypotheses are at issue?
It is of major importance to realize that the very content of causalhypotheses prescribes what kind of evidence is required to validate them as such. And it is easy to show that the required mode of validation must be the same in the human sciences as in the physical sciences, despite the clear difference in their subject matter.
A causal hypothesis of the sort encountered in psychoanalysis asserts that some factor X is causally relevant to some occurrence Y. This means that X makes a certain kind of difference to the occurrence of Y in some reference class C. But let me emphasize that claims of mere causal relevance do not necessarily presuppose causal laws.
To validate a claim of causal relevance, we must first divide the reference class C into two subclasses, the X's and the non-X's. And then we must show that the incidence of Y's among the X's isdifferent from what it is among the non-X's. But it is of cardinal importance to appreciate that this requirement is entirely neutral as to the field of knowledge or subject matter. It applies alike in medicine, psychology, physics, sociology and elsewhere. The belief of the hermeneuts that causality as such is "owned" by the physicists, as it were, is born of ideological special pleading.
Alas, just that error was abetted by the pernicious ordinary language philosophy that faded away in the 1960's. It is illustrated, alas, by Stephen Toulmin's writings on psychoanalysis in the 1950's. But once we appreciate, as Freud did (S.E. 1895, 3:135-139), the stated ontological neutrality of the relation of causal relevance as between the mental and the physical, it is plain that a person's conscious or unconscious motives are no less causally relevant to her or his action or behavior than a drug overdose is to a person's death or than the blow of a hammer is to the shattering of a window pane. As we recall, in Freud's view, motives are clearly a species of the genus cause (S.E. 1909, 10:199; 1900, 5:541-542, 560-561, and 4:81-82). Thus, to speak of our motives as "reasons" does not invalidate their status as a species of cause.
But Stephen Toulmin (1954, pp. 138-139) told us, contra Freud, that motivational explanations in psychoanalysis do not qualify as a species of causal explanations. And he did so by miscontrastingmotives ("reasons") for action and causes for action by relying on ordinary language usage (1954, p. 134), which is scientifically inadequate. By means of such question-begging reliance on the parlance of daily life, he believes to have established that "The [purported] success of psychoanalysis . . . should re-emphasize the importance of ‘reasons for action' as opposed to causes of action" (p. 139). And, in this way, he believes to have vindicated his initial contention that "troubles arise from thinking of psycho-analysis too much on the analogy of the natural sciences" (p. 134). But, as I have just shown, all of this is wrong-headed qua purported account of Freud's conceptualizations.
In his full-length book on Freud, Ricoeur (1970, pp. 359-360) endorses Toulmin's claim that psychoanalytic explanations are notcausal, just in virtue of being motivational. As Ricoeur saw it then, in psychoanalysis ". . . a motive and a cause are completely different," instead of the former being just a species of the latter. Hence, one must welcome that, under the influence of the late Boston psychoanalyst Michael Sherwood (1969), Ricoeur did have second thoughts in his later work (1981, pp. 262-263) and, commendably enough, repudiated the ordinary language approach to Freudian explanations along with the "dichotomy between motive and cause."
As I have noted above, the absolution of psychoanalysis from the validational rigors appropriate to its causal hypotheses can also serve to license or abet epistemological non-accountability and escapism. It is therefore not surprising that, at a Pittsburgh meeting of the Society for Philosophy and Psychology, Toulmin patronizingly told the eminent American psychoanalyst Benjamin B. Rubinstein not to worry, when Rubinstein publicly expressed his epistemological misgivings about psychoanalysis. The ordinary language construal of psychoanalysis was anathema to Rubinstein. And it was salutary that he emphatically reiterated his evidential qualms in his contribution to a 1983 Festschrift for me. There Rubinstein (1983, p. 187) wrote:
It is the clinical part of psychoanalysis that is really disturbing. It is top-heavy with theory but has only a slim evidential base. I have used the theory of hysteria to illustrate the arbitrariness, because of lack of adequate confirmation, of a great many clinical interpretations. This statement holds also beyond hysteria.
Ricoeur (1970, p. 358) celebrated the failure of Freud's theory to pass muster qua natural science as a virtue, and even called for a "counterattack" against philosophers like Ernest Nagel whodeplore this failure.
Thus, there is a basic divergence between the hermeneuts and myself as to both the source and the import of Freud's theoretical shortcomings. Indeed, I contend that the triumph of the hermeneutic conception of the psychoanalytic enterprise would be a Pyrrhicvictory by being the kiss of death for psychoanalysis. Fortunately, such well-known psychoanalysts as Charles Brenner (1982, p. 4) and Benjamin Rubinstein (1975, pp. 104-105), no less than Marshall Edelson (1988, pp. 246-251), have thoroughly rejected the sterile hermeneutic construal of Freudian theory and therapy.
The issues raised in this debate go far beyond psychoanalysis. In my view, the proper resolution of the relation between thematic connections that relate mental states, on the one hand, and causal connections between these states, on the other, not only spells a major general moral for the human sciences, including history, but also has instructive counterparts in biology and even in physics. Let us disregard the hermeneutic polemic for now and examine Freud's own use of meaning connections to infer causal connections. That examination will yield an unfavorable verdict on the hermeneuticists's indictment of Freud, but also a critique of Freud opposite to theirs.
After I elucidate the concept of "meaning connection," one of the key lessons for which I shall argue will be essentially the following: Meaning connections between the mental states of a given personby themselves never attest their causal linkage, even if these thematic connections are very strong. Typically, I shall argue, a good deal else is needed to vouch for a causal connection. This precept will emerge, I trust, from my analysis of just how Freud failed in his account of the relations between meaning kinships, on the one hand, and causal linkages, on the other. One important corollary of his miscarriage will be my claim that Freud gave much too much explanatory weight to meaning affinities, rather than much too little weight, as charged by Jaspers and the other hermeneutic critics.
But what are the so-called "meaning connections" in this context? And just what are their relations to causal connections? First, I shall consider some paradigmatic illustrations of these connections from psychoanalysis. Yet, as I have already explained, I deplore and regret the use of the term "meaning" as a characterization of these connections, because it is ambiguous and lends itself to misleading use. I myself use it here only because the philosophers I cite have employed it.
- Paradigmatic Cases of "Meaning"-connections from Psychoanalysis
Let me now mention some paradigmatic cases of "meaning"-connections from psychoanalysis, which Freud himself linked to causal connections.
Case 1. In 1893, he wrote:
Breuer's patient [Anna O.], to whom I have so often referred, offered an example of a disturbance of speech. For a long period of her illness she spoke only English and could neither speak nor understand German. This symptom was traced back [etiologically] to an event which had happened before the outbreak of her illness. While she was in a state of great anxiety, she had attempted to pray but could find no words. At last a few words of a child's prayer in English occurred to her. When she fell ill later on, only the English language was at her command [footnote omitted].
The determination of the symptom by the psychical trauma is not so transparent in every instance. There is often only what may be described as a ‘symbolic' relation between the determining cause and the hysterical symptom. This is especially true of pains. Thus one patient [footnote omitted] suffered from piercing pains between her eyebrows. The reason [cause] was that once when she was a child her grandmother had given her an enquiring, ‘piercing' look. The same patient suffered for a time from violent pains in her right heel, for which there was no explanation. These pains, it turned out, were connected [etiologically] with an idea that occurred to the patient when she made her first appearance in society. She was overcome with fear that she might not ‘find herself on a right footing.' Symbolizations of this kind were employed by many patients for a whole number of so-called neuralgias and pains. It is as though there were an intention to express the mental state by means of a physical one; and linguistic usage affords a bridge by which this can be effected. In this case, however, of what are after all the typical symptoms of hysteria –such as hemi-anaesthesia, restriction of the visual field, epileptiform convulsions, etc.–a psychical mechanism of this sort cannot be demonstrated. On the other hand this can often be done in respect to the hysterogenic zones (S.E. 1893, 3:33-34; emphasis added).
It will be a corollary of my critical scrutiny below that the thematic affinities adduced here by Freud do not warrant at all the etiologic inferences he drew from them. The less so, since the "symbolic" affinities he marshals as support are grossly far-fetched and very tenuous.
Case 2. In 1896, Freud used the mere thematic kinship between a patient's experience of disgust and her symptoms of supposedly hysterical vomiting to claim the suitability of the given repressed experience as an explanatory causal determinant of the pertinent symptom (Grünbaum 1984, pp. 149-150). In particular, he gives the following example:
Let us suppose that the symptom under consideration is hysterical vomiting; in that case we shall feel that we have been able to understand its causation (except for a certain [hereditary] residue) if the analysis traces the symptom back [etiologically] to an experience which justifiably produced a high amount of disgust–for instance, the sight of a decomposing dead body [S.E. 1896, 3:193-194].
Thus, on the strength of mere thematic kinship, Freud infers that the repressed disgust was an essential cause of the hysterical vomiting in a person made vulnerable by heredity. And, in due course, our problem will be whether such an etiologic inference from a thematic ("meaning") kinship is sound.
The theme of aversion is likewise common to another traumatic experience and a subsequent hysterical symptom in the life of Josef Breuer's famous first patient Anna O. As reported in her case history, she had silently endured traumatic disgust on seeing a dog lapping water from a companion's glass (S.E. 1893, 2:6-7 and 3:29-30). And later, she almost died of thirst, because of her phobic aversion for drinking water. In Jaspers' parlance, we can say that the shared theme of aversion makes for a "meaning connection" between the original trauma and her later symptom. But I myself speak of such episodes instead as exhibiting "thematic kinship or affinity." And the main question will be what epistemological and ontological relevance, if any, these thematic kinships between mental events have to causal linkages between them. It will also be relevant that the thematic etiology on which Breuer based his hypnotic therapy of Anna O. was discredited by therapeutic failure.
Case 3. Freud's famous 1909 case history of the Rat Man Ernst Lanzer provides a cardinal exemplar of his inferential reliance on athematic connection. And this reliance is not lessened, I emphasize, by the fact that Freud supplies other, temporally intermediate, events between the thematically cognate ones!
During the Rat Man's army service, he had become aware of an oriental punishment in which rats are allowed to bore their way into the criminal's anus (S.E. 1909, 10:166). And one of the dreadful thoughts with which he was obsessed was that just this rat punishment would victimize both the woman whom he eventually married, and his father, whom he loved and who had actually been dead for years by then.
But how does Freud propose to explain those of the patient's obsessions that featured the awful rat theme? As we learn, at the age of three or four, the Rat Man had misbehaved like a rat bybiting someone, presumably his nurse. Just as rats themselves are punished for such behavior, so also the naughty little boy Rat Man had thereupon been soundly beaten for it by his father, and had therefore borne him a permanent unconscious hatred ever since. Freud then explicitly infers the supposed cause of the rat obsession via the thematic kinship between the patient's own punishment for biting-like-a-rat, on the one hand, and the role of biting rats in the dreaded oriental anal punishment, which is supposedly going to afflict his father, on the other.
As Freud reasoned, the patient's latent memory of the cruel paternal punishment for biting had produced repressed hostility toward his father. This antagonism, in turn, had allegedly generated the unconscious wish–and, by the defense mechanism of "reaction-formation," the conscious fear–that the father would undergo the particular monstrous punishment of anal penetration by biting rats. The hypothesized hostile wish that the father would suffer this punishment had been morally unacceptable to the patient's consciousness. Therefore, he had repressed it, and had then supposedly turned it into a conscious obsessive fear of the father's punitive victimization by rats via "reaction-formation."
Clearly, without reliance on the thematic affinity between the patient's biting-like-a-rat and the rat-obsessions, the boy's unconscious hatred for the father could not give rise to Freud's etiologic scenario for the patient's obsessions. Thus, Freud interprets the rat obsessions etiologically as the patient's neurotic defense against his own unacceptable wish that his father would suffer the particular punishment of rat penetration.
Let us assume the actual occurrence of the punitive childhood scenario. Then the important issue of causation posed by Freud's etiologic inference is not whether the severe paternal punishment for biting produced hatred toward the father; instead, the etiologic issue is whether that particular presumed hatred then became the pathogen of the patient's obsessive fear of the father's victimization by the rat punishment.
Therefore, when I address that issue in due course, I shall have to ask the following question: Granting the existence of a causal link between the punitive childhood experience and hatred toward the father, does it at all support the further major etiologic hypothesis that this hatred, in turn, was the intermediate pathogen of the rat obsessions? My answer will be a clear "No"!
My last psychoanalytic example will now be drawn from etiologic inferences in the theory of transference.
Case 4. Inferences from thematic affinity also play a central, though logically somewhat different role in Freud's theory of the so-called "transference neurosis," a theory that is fundamental to the hypothesized dynamics of psychoanalytic therapy and to Freud's entire theory of psychopathology. These inferences, I claim, will likewise turn out to be fallacious (Grünbaum, 1993, pp. 152-158).
According to this part of psychoanalytic theory, the patient transfersonto his psychoanalyst feelings and thoughts that originally pertained to important figures in her or his earlier life. In this important sense, the phantasies woven around the psychoanalyst by the analysand, and quite generally the latter's conduct toward his doctor, are hypothesized to be thematically recapitulatory of childhood episodes. And by thus being recapitulatory, the patient's behavior during treatment can be said to exhibit a thematic kinship to such very early episodes. Therefore, when the analyst interprets these supposed reenactments as recapitulatory, the ensuing interpretations are called "transference interpretations." This much involves a retrodictive inference of thematic affinity.
But Freud and his followers have traditionally also drawn the following highly questionable causal inference: Precisely in virtue of being thematically recapitulated in the patient-doctor interaction, the hypothesized earlier scenario in the patient's life can cogently be held to have originally been a pathogenic factor in the patient's affliction.
In short, in the case of transference interpretations, the causal inference from thematic affinity takes a somewhat different logical form from the one we encountered in our previous examples. In the earlier examples, such as Anna O.'s hydrophobia, Freud had inferred the existence of a direct causal nexus between thematically similar mental events by relying crucially on their thematic similarity. But in the context of his transferenceinterpretations, the thematic reenactment is held to show that the early scenario had originally been pathogenic. And once this etiologic conclusion has been drawn, the patient's thematic reenactment in the treatment-setting is also asserted to bepathogenically recapitulatory, rather than only thematicallyrecapitulatory! Freud extols this dubious reasoning in his 1914 "History of the Psychoanalytic Movement" (S.E. 1914, 14:12), where he claims that it furnishes the most unshakable proof for his sexual etiology of the neuroses [den "unerschüttterlichsten Beweis" in his German original].
So far, I have outlined representative illustrations of psychoanalytic causal inferences based on thematic or "meaning" kinships.
- Thematic Kinships Vis-à-vis Causal Connections
Now we can turn to the following pivotal question: To what extent,if any, do mere thematic kinships bespeak causal connections? As I shall illustrate presently, thematic kinships are not only of various sorts, but are also encountered in varying degrees, ranging from very high to very tenuous. Yet it will be crucial to appreciate the following impending moral: Even when the thematic kinship is indeed of very high degree, it does not itself license the inference of a causal linkage between such thematically kindred events.
Thus, let us now consider just a few examples from some fields of inquiry outside psychoanalysis in their bearing on the inferability of causal relatedness among events or states that feature diverse sorts of thematic affinities or isomorphisms. These examples will serve as salutary preparation for appraising Freud's etiologic inferences from thematic affinity as well as of the objections of some of his hermeneutic critics.
1. A tourist looking at an otherwise desolate beach notes that the sand reveals a string of configurations exhibiting the same shapesas the left and right shoes worn by humans. In short, the tourist observes a geometric isomorphism–or "thematic affinity" of shape–between the sand configurations and the shoes. He will then draw the causal inference that a person wearing shoes had actually walked on the beach, and had thereby produced the sandy shapes that we call "footprints." But just what licenses this causal inference?
The lesson of this example, I claim, is as follows: The striking geometric kinship between the two shapes does not itself suffice to license the tourist's inference that the foot-like configurations were, in fact, caused (or produced) by the impact of human feet on the beach. To draw the inference, the tourist avails himself of a crucial piece of additional information that cannot be known a priori from the mere geometrical kinship: Foot-like beach formations in the sand never or hardly ever result from the mere collocation of sand particles under the action of air, such as some gust of wind. Indeed, the additional evidence is that, with overwhelming probability, in the class of beaches, the incursion of a pedestrian into the beachmakes the difference between the absence and presence of the foot-like beach formations.
In short, going beyond the mere sameness of shape, the tourist relies on essential empirical evidence for the overwhelming probability that the sameness of shape was not a matter of mere chance, when he or she draws the causal inference that the sandy simulacrum of a human foot is, in fact, actually the trace or mark left by a human foot, and thus a bona fide footprint (cf. Grünbaum, 1984, p. 63). Let me just remark that one reviewer of my 1984 bookThe Foundations of Psychoanalysis: A Philosophical Critiqueincomprehendingly ridiculed this telling epistemological point as pedantic talk about the word "footprint"!
2. Two significantly different dreams will now serve to show that reliance on mere thematic connections to draw causal inferences is a snare and a delusion. This moral will, of course, also apply to Freud's particular dream theory as a special case. But for simplicity, I shall deliberately not make any psychoanalytic assumptions in dealing with my two dream specimens. In the first, though not in the second, we shall indeed have license to draw the causal inference that the manifest dream content was shapedthematically by a salient component of the waking experience on the day before.
But my point in giving this first dream example will be to contrast it with a second, which is of another kind: In the latter, it is demonstrably fallacious to invoke a thematic connection between the waking experience of the previous day and the manifest dream content as a basis for inferring a causal linkage between them.
Let me now turn to the first of the two dream examples. Note that this specimen is hypothetical, since I don't know of anyone who actually had the putative dream. I devised this first example, because it features a bona fide case of both causal relevance andthematic affinity. The dreamer is a woman, whom I shall name Agnes. The night after her first visit to Frank Lloyd Wright's famous house "Falling Water" (in Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania), she dreamt about a house just like it, down to many of the fine details of its interior appointments. It is important that Agnes had never heard of Falling Water until the day of her visit, let alone seen a picture or description of it. It is also crucial that the very first time that Agnes's manifest dream content ever contained such a simulacrum was the night after her daytime visit to that Frank Lloyd Wright house.
Without these additional facts, the strong thematic affinity between Falling Water and the dream content would not itself legitimate the inference that Agnes's visit to Falling Water was causally relevantto the presence of a simulacrum of that mansion in her dream during the night after the visit. In short, Agnes's visit made a difference to her having that dream. And the relation of making a difference is a crucial ingredient of the relation of causal relevance. Thus, in this case of thematic affinity, there is warrant for the causal inference, because of the availability of appropriate additional facts. But now consider a related example of thematic affinity with the opposite inferential moral.
3. Assume that last night, my manifest dream content included the image of a house. In my urban life, I routinely see and inhabit houses daily. Thus, my impressions on the day before this dream featured visual and tactile impressions of at least one dwelling. Indeed, over the years, on the day before a dream, my waking experience always includes seeing some domicile or other,regardless of whether the ensuing manifest dream content then features the image of a house or not! In this case, I claim, seeing a house on the day before does not make any difference to dreaming about a house the night after, because I see houses during the day before whether I then dream about them or not.
Evidently, in the latter dream example, when a house is an element of the manifest dream, the presence of a house theme in the prior day's waking experience does not meet the key requirement for being causally relevant to the presence of a house-image in the dream. To put it more precisely, my seeing a house on-the-day-before-a-dream does not divide the class of my-day's-waking-experiences-on-the-prior-days into two subclasses, such that theprobabilities (or frequencies) of the appearance of a house in the next dream differ as between the two subclasses. On the other hand, in Agnes's life, just such a division into subclasses by the experience of seeing the Falling Water house does occur, with ensuing different probabilities of dreaming about that house.
We see that there is a sharp contrast between my two dream examples: If a house-image occurred in my dream last night, it is amistake to attribute that image causally to my having seen one or more houses yesterday, although there is undeniably thematicaffinity between them. Thus, it is eminently reasonable to conclude that, despite their thematic affinity, the dual presence of the house theme both in yesterday's daytime experience and in last night's dream was a happenstance, rather than a case of causal linkage between them.
The major significance of the second dream example forpsychoanalytic causal inferences turns out to lie in the following fact: As illustrated by the rat theme in the case of Freud's Rat Man, in the typical psychoanalytic etiologic inferences, the thematic affinity is no greater, and often even weaker, than in the second house dream case. In fact, it is fairly easy to weave thematic affinities between almost any two experiences, and the vivid imaginations of psychoanalysts enable them to have a field-day with doing so.
My account of the second dream example may be greeted by disbelief, because it might be thought that I have overlooked an important pertinent fact. We might never have dreamt about any house at all, unless we had seen one at some time or other in our lives. Far from having overlooked this necessary condition for house-dreams, I shall now explain why this mere necessary condition is demonstrably not tantamount to the causal relevanceof my house-seeing-experience-on-the-day-before-a-dream to my dreaming-about-a-house-the-night-after.
This lack of causal relevance of a mere necessary condition can be seen at once from the following example: Breathing is anecessary condition for being paranoid, but breathing is notcausally relevant to being paranoid. If the wife of a paranoiac were to ask a psychiatrist why her husband is paranoid, the doctor would surely not answer, "Because he is a breather." Let us see why not.
Breathing is a necessary condition for being paranoid, because a person has to breathe to be alive, and in turn has to be alive to be paranoid. A dead paranoiac is surely not paranoid. What matters is that all living non-paranoiacs breathe no less than all paranoiacs do! Thus, breathing does not affect the incidence of paranoia within the class of living humans, because it does not even divide this class into two subclasses. A fortiori, it does not divide it into two subclasses in which the incidence of paranoia is different. Though breathing is thus a necessary condition for paranoia, it is surely notcausally relevant–within the class of living persons–to becoming paranoid. In other words, although breathing does make a difference to being alive or dead, it makes no difference to being paranoid rather than non-paranoid.
Thus, in the context of dreams as well, a state of type X may be a necessary condition for the occurrence of some other sort of state Y in a given reference class, although X is not causally relevant to Y within that reference class. As I have illustrated, if X is to be causally relevant to Y in a reference class C, X must partition C into two subclasses in which the probabilities or incidences of Y are different from one another. But let me add parenthetically for the case of house-dreams: In the different reference class of all humans–which includes people who may never get to see a "house"–seeing-a-house may indeed be at least statisticallyrelevant to dreaming about it. But even that would not necessarily bespeak causal relevance.
It is true that, in the case of the second house dream now at issue, which was dreamt by me rather than Agnes, the thematic affinity between the-day's-waking-experience-of-some-house and the next dream about-a-house is clearly much weaker than in the Agnes and Falling Water example. But there is a telling counterexample to the supposition that every case of high thematic affinity also turns out to qualify as an instance of causal relevance: Consider a woman who sees her husband every day of their married life, and whose dreams over the years occasionally feature him undistortedly. Then precisely her inseparability from her husband in waking life shows that her having-been-with-him-as-well-on-the-very-days-before-dreaming-about-him is not causally relevant to the production of that thematic dream content the night after!
Besides, recall my earlier caveat that even in the example of the footprint, which features very strong thematic affinity, the mere presence of a very high degree of such kinship was quite insufficient to validate the causal linkage.
Hence it would be a momentous error to believe that causal inferability goes hand-in-hand with a very high degree of thematic kinship.
For brevity, I add an instance from evolutionary biology that tells against drawing causal inferences from thematic kinships. As Elliott Sober (1987; 1988) has pointed out: When species match with respect to what are called ancestral characteristics–which is a certain kind of thematic affinity–this similarity is not cogent evidence for the causal inference that they share a common descent. Yet, in the context of other information, a match in regard to "derived" characteristics–which is another sort of thematic affinity–does qualify as evidence of a shared genealogy.
We are now ready to appraise Freud's own causal inferences fromthematic connections. As a corollary, we can reach an important verdict on the objections that Freud's hermeneutic critics leveled against him.
- Fallacious Etiologic Inferences from Thematic Infinity
A. Fallacious Etiologic Inferences in the Case Histories of the
Rat Man and the Wolf Man
As we saw in the case of the Rat Man, Freud appealed to the thematic kinship between the punitive biting episode and the adult rat obsessions as his basis for inferring an etiologic linkagebetween them. But, as is now clear, the thematic connection adduced by Freud does not vouch for the etiologic role of the paternal punishment in the pathogenesis of the rat obsessions. And Freud simply begs the etiologic question here by trading on thematic affinity. Furthermore, as I have noted elsewhere (Grünbaum, 1988, Sec. III, pp. 654-657), in the case of his Wolf Man, Freud appealed to a thematic affinity of upright physical posture as a basis for fallaciously inferring an etiologic connection between an 18-month-old child's presumably witnessing a tergointercourse between his parents and his wolf obsessions in adult life.
B. Fallacious Etiologic Inferences in the Theory of Transference
An equally unfavorable epistemic judgment applies to the web of causal inferences that were drawn in Freud's theory of transference, which I have articulated. For argument's sake, let us grant the retrodictive inference that the patient's behavior toward the doctor does actually recapitulate thematically scenarios from the patient's childhood. Then this thematically recapitulatory behavior toward the psychoanalyst does not itself show that the behavior is also pathogenically recapitulatory, because it does notshow that the original childhood scenario had been pathogenic at all in the first place. Yet that is precisely what the psychoanalyst infers. How, for example, does the reenactment, during treatment, of a patient's early conflict show that the original conflict had been at all pathogenic in the first place?
So much for my appraisal of Freud's own handling of so-called "meaning connections." But what of the hermeneutist objection that Freud gave a "scientistic" twist to these connections? Let me use my answer to this question to draw a general two-fold moral for the human sciences.
I have argued that it is always fallacious to infer a causal linkage between thematically kindred events from their mere thematic kinship. Yet it may happen that additional information will sustain such a causal inference in certain cases. Thus, as illustrated by my example of Agnes's dream about the Falling Water mansion, the existence of a strong thematic connection between two mental events, or two series of such events, does not militate against therealso being a causal linkage between them. Thus, Freud should surely not be faulted for asserting, in principle, that some mental events can be linked both thematically and causally, though he mistakenly claimed entitlement to infer the causal linkage from the thematic one alone.
Yet as I remarked at the outset, the German philosopher and psychiatrist Karl Jaspers (1974, p. 91) chided Freud: "In Freud's work we are dealing in fact with psychology of meaning, not causalexplanation as Freud himself thinks." But since causal relevance is entirely compatible with thematic or so-called "meaning" kinship, Jaspers's objection to Freud here rests on a pseudo-antithesis of "either . . . or" (cf. Grünbaum, 1984, pp. 69-83). Thus, there is no merit in Jaspers's indictment of Freud as having incurred a "confusion of meaningful connexions with causal connexions" (Jaspers, 1974, p. 91). Nor is there warrant for his claim that Freud's psychoanalysis is being vitiated by "a misunderstanding of itself " (p. 80), a patronizing charge echoed later on by Ricoeur and Habermas, as we recall.
As against these philosophers, it emerges precisely from my demonstration of Freud's inferential failings that he gave much too much explanatory weight to thematic affinities, rather than too little, as they have charged. Indeed, such mere "meaning connections" tell us nothing about the supposed unconscious motives or causes for symptom-formation, dream-genesis and the provenance of Freudian slips. Yet such a motivational account is precisely what psychoanalytic theory claims to offer.
I draw a two-fold moral for the human sciences from my stated criticisms of Freud and of his hermeneutic critics: (1) Let us indeed be alert to thematic connections, but do beware of their beguilingcausal pitfalls; a fortiori. (2) Narratives replete with mere hermeneutic elucidations of thematic affinities are explanatorily sterile or bankrupt; at best, they have literary and reportorial value, which may be useful as such; at worst, they are mere cock-and-bull-stories lacking both etiologic and therapeutic significance.
Patronizing hermeneutic sermons by Jaspers, Habermas, and Ricoeur against alleged "scientistic" misunderstandings of the role of meanings do nothing, in my view, for the fruition of the psychoanalytic enterprise, or for any other explanatory theories of human psychology or of history. What they tend to do, however, is foster ideological hostility to scientific thought in the social sciences and in psychology. As I have argued elsewhere at length (Grünbaum, 1993, ch. 4), after a veritable cornucopia of brilliantly articulated thematic connections in Freud's case history of the Rat Man, a validated etiology of the patient's obsessions remainsdeeply obscure to this very day, over eighty years later. Similarly for the Wolf Man.
But that is not all. To my mind, it speaks volumes that those who espouse the hermeneutic reconstruction of psychoanalysis havenot come up with a single new psychoanalytic hypothesis that would demonstrate the fruitfulness of their approach. Theirs is a negativistic ideological battle cry and a blind alley. After a while, it ought to die a well-deserved death from its sheer sterility.
Often, a new interpretation or reconstruction of a theory, or a new style in philosophy –even when flawed by major errors–nonetheless can be illuminating in some respects. Hence I regret to say that, as I see it, the dichotomous hermeneutic reconstruction of psychoanalysis and of the human or social sciences generallyhas no redeeming features.
The hermeneutic philosophers have tried to force psychoanalysis onto the Procrustean bed of their preconceived philosophic notions about the human sciences. To implement this program, they begged the epistemological questions by simply downgrading those features of the Freudian corpus that did not fit their prior philosophic doctrines. And, as a normative recipe for the human sciences generally, their program seems to me to darken counsel.
1. This is a moderately revised version of the paper which appeared in (1999) D. Aerts, J. Broekaert, and E. Mathijs (eds.),Einstein Meets Magritte, an Interdisciplinary Reflection: The White Book of Einstein Meets Magritte. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, pp. 219-239.
2. All citations of Freud's writings in English are from the Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, translated by J. Strachey et al. London: Hogarth Press, 1953-1974. 24 vols. Each reference will use the abbreviation "S.E." followed by the year of first appearance, volume number, and page(s).
3. Quotations from Stephan's reference are my English translations of his German text.
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