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by Robert M. Young

I came to this country in September 1960 to do a doctoral dissertation at Cambridge on the history of ideas about mind and brain. When I first arrived and was looking for a flat the landladies would ask me what I had come to do and suggested the answer: 'Research?' I said no, that I was a 'graduate student'. I was from America, where everyone knew that the people who did 'research' were scientists. Since I was going to write an historical thesis, I thought it right to be straight: I was not a scientist and therefore did not do research.

Thirty-odd years later I went to the first International Psycho-analytic Association Conference on Research (a bit late to have the first one, you might say), and I was absolutely sure I did research and minded very much that some of the people there were trying to restrict the definition of research to empirical, positivistic studies involving quantification and statistical methods.

The kind of research I do is conceptual research. I have thought of other labels: historical research, critical history of ideas, critique. I remember with great pride that P. F. Strawson, whose book Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics remains one of those I most admire, reviewed my first book in the New York Review. He said that I was absolutely right to put forward historical studies as a method of research which could help to clarify concepts and advance the understanding of mind-brain relations.

What I discovered in that piece of research is that the problem is not how to localise functions in the brain. That is, of course, an important problem, but it is less fundamental than discovering what questions to ask the brain. Not: 'How are the functions localised?', but 'What are the concepts we need in order to specify the functions whose mediation by the nervous system we wish to investigate?' Nature does not provide the classification of functions; our differing concepts of human nature do. The brain mediates all experience and behaviour. The categories we use depend on the psychology we believe to be true, useful, efficacious. Different concepts of humanity will lead to different conceptions and lists of functions. The history of localisation of function is not merely one of advancing discovery; it involves, more fundamentally, changing and differing conceptions of brain function and of human nature, e.g., primary sensory projection areas, sensory-motor functions, rhinencephalon (smell brain), proprioception, emotional functions, consciousness, respiratory and other physiological functions. These overlap with, and are partially superceded by, recent conceptualisations in terms of feedback systems and information theory. This list of examples could be extended indefinitely

That research led onto the whole question of the concept of 'function' itself and its fundamental role in the biological, behavioural and social sciences in the twentieth century. That proved a fascinating enquiry, not least because the ambiguity of the concept of function, lying as it does smack in the middle of the mind-body problem, gave the human sciences a biological veneer, while making biology appear easily amenable to being considered in humanocentric terms. All sorts of meanings of the concept of function come easily to us and beg unresolved philosophical questions, e.g., as in 'The mind is the net result of the functions of the brain'. 'The main function of the brain is thought, just as producing insulin is the main function of the pancreas and filtration is the main function of the kidneys.' What does it mean to speak of The Function of Social Conflict' (the title of a sociological book) or Structure and Function in Primitive Society (the title of a classical work in social anthropology)?

Indeed, it turned out — as the context of my enquiries extended further into the interrelations between psychology and biological thought — that the history of evolutionary thinking was deeply immersed in anthropomorphic and teleological thinking and that this approach could be found at the heart of the most fundamental theory in biology: Darwin's theory of evolution by means of natural selection. The metaphor 'natural selection' caused all sorts of grief for Darwin, yet he never abandoned it or purged it of voluntarist and teleological resonances. If we look closely at the most fundamental concepts in the natural sciences, many are anthropomorphic and metaphorical: ‘affinity’ in chemistry and ‘gravity’ (gravitas) in physics, as well as ‘natural selection’ in biology.

Looking at the value laden aspect of scientific concepts has become a fruitful line of enquiry among critical historians of ideas. This opens the door to looking at the ways ideology — value systems representing power relations — constitute research agendas and valorise key concepts. Functionalism in the human sciences is an excellent example, as a number of scholars have shown. Donna Haraway has done so with great force and eloquence in her magisterial Primate Visions: Gender, Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science and her essays, Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. She is, in my opinion, the foremost practitioner of the analysis of scientific concepts which touch on our humanity, and her writings show the integration of science, society and ideology. They are conceptual research at its best.

Practically everything I have done along these likes grew from feeling confused and needing to stand back and sort out my ideas. The more I did this and went back to basics, reading original sources and classical papers and monographs, the more I found that I was not alone in feeling confused. That's how I got into the study of concepts of cerebral localisation, into functionalism and into the close scrutiny of Darwin's thinking about natural selection. Indeed, I recall the moment I read the bibliographical essay at the end of C. C. Gillispie's Genesis and Geology and was struck by the presence of Malthus’ Essay on Population and Paley's Natural Theology as influential works in the Darwinian debate and in Darwin’s own intellectual biography. Looking at their role led on to a whole rash of investigations of the interrelations among scientific, theological and social theories.

In recent years I have found this approach fruitful in trying to sort out key ideas in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. In particular, I have tried to trace the conceptual histories of transference and countertransference, psychotic anxieties, projective identification and transitional objects and phenomena. In each case it has proved illuminating to do a close reading of the key articles and books and to see how the ideas have carried multiple meanings and have changed over time in important ways. For example, countertransference started life as a nuisance, moved on to being something to take account of in order to eliminate instances of its occurrence and is now seen as 'the essence' of the analytic relationship. Similar things can be said about projective identification, which is seen in some quarters as something we must abandon in order to benefit importantly from psychotherapy, while in others it is seen as the basis for all communication. In benign forms it is central to all relating, while in virulent ones it is the primitive psychological mechanism for racism and nationalistic wars.

There is a similar and un-sorted out conceptual muddle about object relations. Klein saw internal objects as essential to humanity and thought, while Fairbairn saw all internal objects as pathological and their elimination as a central goal of psychotherapy. Yet people have not sorted out the very different senses of object relations and where the other main founder of that tradition, Winnicott, stands. Kleinians tend to dismiss the concept of transitional objects and phenomena, while many independents see their role as essential to development, play and the experience of culture.

I am currently in the foothills of trying to figure out why some people insist on primary narcissism in infancy, before we move on to object relations, while others have no need for primary narcissism and insist that we have full-blooded object relations from birth. What hangs on this? Why is it important? Does anyone know? I haven't got very far with this one yet.

There is a similar muddle about the female Oedipus complex and another between Kleinian and Freudian ideas about the Oedipus complex more generally. I have made a stab at the last of these muddles but remain daunted by the question of the female Oedipus complex. Another conceptual muddle: what about the concept of 'perversion'? Is it only an insult to practitioners of deviant sexuality or it it a concept which it is important to retain in understanding psychopathology? The concept of ‘pychopathology’ its itself a fruitful subject of conceptual research.

I think we should study and teach psychology, psychotherapy and the rest of the human sciences this way — as exploration of concepts, along with debates about their explanation and clinical meanings. Moreover, we should acquaint students and trainees with recent debates about different modes of knowing, including some understanding of verstehen, structural causation, hermeneutics, and narrative. However, the powers that be in these disciplines seem not to take this kind of work very seriously. I recently submitted a paper to a psychotherapy journal and had it rejected on the single ground that it contained no clinical material. The editor remarked that the referees said it had much interesting historical and conceptual material but nothing clinical; by their criteria, it was therefore unpublishable. Another paper — which the editor of another journal had asked me to submit — came back with the request that all instances of the first person be removed. I had put them in to show the path of my enquiry and to provide illuminating examples from my own experience (the paper was on racism, and I grew up in Texas). More recently, a professor of psychiatry has said of my entire list of publications that since it involves no quantitative research, it is all ‘navel gazing’.

I mention these experiences to illustrate my point that positivistic and objectivist norms are alive and well in the human sciences. I have a lot of criticisms of postmodernism, but one thing I think we have to thank it for is the subversion of the hegemony of privileged, foundational modes of discourse. We ought to be able to write about things in any mode of discourse which is edifying and not insist on the objective mode, which is so often a fig-leaf over a much more exciting tale — only accessible if you are on the right gossip network — in any case.



(Place of publication is London unless otherwise specified.)


Coser, Lewis (1956) The Function of Social Conflict. Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Demerath, N. J. and Peterson, R. A., eds. (1967) System, Change and Conflict: A reader on Contemporary Sociological Theory and the Debate over Functionalism. Collier-Macmillan.

Gillispie, Charles C. (1959) Genesis and Geology: The Impact of Scientific Discoveries upon Religious Beliefs in the Decades before Darwin. N. Y.: Harper Torchbooks.

Greenberg, Jay R. and Mitchell, Stephen A. (1983) Object Relations in Psychoanalytic Theory. Harvard.

Haraway, Donna J. (1989) Primate Visions: Gender, Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science. Routledge.

______ (1990) Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Free Association Books.

Heyl, Barbara S. (1980) ‘The Harvard “Pareto Circle”’, J. Hist. Behav. Sci. 4: 316-34 (on the historical roots of functionalism).

Malthus, Thomas R. (1798) An Essay on the Principle of Population. Johnson.

Paley, William (1802) Natural Theology. Baynes.

Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. (1952) Structure and Function in Primitive Society: Essays and Addresses. Cohen and West.

Rorty, Richard (1989) ‘The Contingency of Selfhood’, in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge, pp. 23-43.

Sandler, Joseph, ed. (1991) Freud’s ‘On Narcissism: An Introduction’. Yale.

Strawson, Peter F. (1959) Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics. Methuen.

Young, Robert M. (1970) Mind, Brain and Adaptation in the Nineteenth Century: Cerebral Localization and Its Biological Context from Gall to Ferrier. Oxford: Clarendon; reprinted with new preface N. Y.: Oxford, 1990.

______ (1972) ‘Evolutionary Biology and Ideology: Then and Now’, in W. Fuller, ed. The Biological Revolution: Social Good or Social Evil?. N. Y.: Doubleday Anchor, pp. 241-82.

______ (1981) ‘The Naturalization of Value Systems in the Human Sciences’, in Problems in the Biological and Human Sciences. Milton Keynes: Open University Press, pp. 63-110.

______ (1985) Darwin’s Metaphor: Nature’s Place in Victorian Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge.

______ (1993) ‘Darwin’s Metaphor and the Philosophy of Science’, Sci. as Culture (no. 16) 3: 375-403.

______ (1993) ‘Psychoanalytic Teaching and Research: Knowing and Knowing About’, Free Assns. (no. 29) 4: 129-37.

______ (1992) ‘Science, Ideology and Donna Haraway’, Sci. as Culture (no. 15) 3: 7-46.

______ (1994) ‘Is “Perversion” Obsolete?’, paper presented to Grand Rounds, Department of Psychiatry, University of Manitoba.

______ (1994) Mental Space. Process Press.

______ (1994) ‘New Ideas about the Oedipus Complex’, Melanie Klein and Object Relations . 12 (no. 2): 1-20.

______ (1994) ‘The Psychoanalysis of Sectarianism’, British Psychological Society, Psychotherapy Section Newsletter. no. 15: 2-15.

This essay appeared in Changes: An International Journal of Psychology and Psychotherapy 13: 145-48, 1995

Address for correspondence: 26 Freegrove Road, London N7 9RQ

e-mail: robert@rmy1.demon.co.uk

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