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Science and Psychoanalysis:
A Non-existent Opposition
I have been reading the contributions to the Tallis debate. I thank all these
colleagues for making me think about this. I agree with some of their views, and partially
agree with others. I have found the contributions from Harvey Schwartz, Jonathan Ames, and
Bob Hinshelwood to be particularly interesting.
I have been surprised by an argument that I thought outdated, namely, the
"scientificity" of physical science over social science. In this sense, I
believed it had already been agreed that social science is science of the subjective, and
therefore its epistemology differs from that of physical science.
In my opinion, the influence of physical science over social science belongs to the
past, although judging by some of the contributions, it would seem it does not. And, in
that case, we can no longer speak about "psychometrics", but about
"psychological assessment", and here is where we should analyze the testability
I join Bob Hinshelwood in his disagreement with the testable objectivity-gnosticism
polarization. I, too, think there is something in the patient that is subjective and not
objective, and believe we can think of a test as existing outside of positivist,
objectivist science, and yet still being a test.
We are already far from the Vienna Circle and the adepts of logical positivism, with
their indictments that social science must follow the physical science model. Now we know
that in social science (psychology, psychoanalysis) it is impossible to measure. We can
only assess. And, yes: social sciences have a different epistemology. Therefore, I have no
doubt we can make a science of the subjective. That is what I always tell my students.
This brings me to understanding only with much difficulty the opposition between
science and psychoanalysis. I do not think such an opposition should exist.
It is very difficult for me to imagine a time -only a hundred years ago- when a doctor
had to make a justification to his colleagues if he claimed to have Cured a patient. I am
glad that Freud persisted where others desisted. Freud's success was an exceptional thing.
In those days hope was frail, almost non-existent. Today, in many instances we even regard
it as unnecessary. This change from hopelessness to hope is what makes me think that today
we cannot conceive of any kind of psychology without Freud.
In those days of a hundred years ago doctors did not expect their patients to get
better, and were surprised when it happened. Medical statistics of the time stated that
only 5% of patients got over their illness. This idea, the idea of recovery, was what
Freud put into words in his conference of December 12, 1904, at the Viennese Academy. I
can only be amazed at his audacity.
Just as hopelessness breeds more hopelessness, hope had to be carefully fed to change
this status quo. Many years were to go by before Freud's discoveries became common land.
This only happened when specialists had to deal with the recovery of soldiers who came
back from the battle front after the World War.
Those discoveries promised neither miracles nor instant healing, and, in fact, most of
the times did not appear to justify hope. But it happened. And when Jean Delay, on
September 19, 1950, inaugurated the 1st International Congress of Psychiatry in Paris, he
said in his opening speech : "For the first time we are permitted to speak of a cure,
that word which is to be uttered so cautiously because of the hopes it raises." Fifty
years had passed since Freud had spoken of recovery as a possibility.
I believe the other of Freud's great contributions was that, thanks to his work, we
were given the possibility to understand
1. human motivations,
2. man's internal resources,
3. the intensity of partially buried conflicts,
4. the remarkable power each of us has to determine if s/he is going to live or die,
5. and the realization that we, the therapists, must encourage each individual to be
his/her own life's protagonist, and not a privileged spectator ; to consider themselves as
a person, and not as an incident in the Universe.
As amazing as this may appear to us, these ideas did not exist before Freud. We can
either accept or not accept the challenge of being protagonists, or, as we say today, of
kindling a light of hope around us, both in our patients' lives and in our own.
This was the hope that loomed up a hundred years ago in the fields of psychology and
medicine. This is why, as I said before, I continue to assert that regardless of our
position, it is impossible to conceive psychology without Freud.
Back to the beginning, this is why I further assert that if Freud did not develop a
theory of personality based upon human free will it was not by choice. It was because he
found his way blocked by the specific problems posed by the natural science of his time,
which rejected any theoretical development that involved the use of a final cause.
Freud was then forced to compromise and draw up his theory of the libido, which is
doubtless the less sound aspect of his theorization, because he had to translate much of
his final-cause terminology to an energetic formulation, of material- and efficient-cause.
Why did Freud fall for this theory of the libido? I believe he was forced to because of
the restrictions that applied to scientific discourse in his time. He had no choice really
if he was to be regarded as a scientist, and we know this was important to him.
Today we face similar problems. Psychology is so often circumscribed to an
extraspective description of behavior called "responsivity", that if we attempt
a teleological description of behavior, we are left without a technical terminology to do
so. Persuading psychologists to accept this possibility is often the most difficult
obstacle, because they are still entrenched in the Newtonian traditions of the far origins
Freud's dilemma was how to state that the human mind acted for the sake of intentional
ends, without contradicting Newtonian discourse. Today science is much more open to
teleological description than in Freud's time, or at least I think so when reading
Prigogine. This is why I agree with Bob Hinshelwood (and maybe Gregory Bovasso, too) that
social science, from a theoretical point of view, must be understood as science of the
subjective. I would know of no other way to understand Maurice Duverger when he says that
"in social science we have learned to hide ignorance under the sophistication of the
Bob, I don't know if this really responds to your ideas. I would like to know.
Daniel Gomez Dupertuis
24th April, 1996
Prof. Daniel Gomez Dupertuis
Departamento de Psicologia
Universidad Nacional de La Plata
Buenos Aires, Argentina
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Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated:
28 May, 2005 02:29 PM