The Last Resistance: The Concept of Science as a Defense against Psychoanalysis (Book Review)

Author:  Bowman, Marcus
Publisher: New York: SUNY Press, 2002
Reviewed By: Geneva S. Reynaga., Spring 2004, pp. 53-54

It is well known that arguments attacking the scientific credibility of psychoanalysis exist in modern discourse. The vehemence with which these critiques are often made implies defensiveness and deeply rooted sentiment against depth psychology. Instead of perpetuating the debate(s) by arguing in favor of psychoanalysis, Bowman makes clear throughout his work that their presence marks resistance against the insight that psychoanalysis offers. His convincing text outlines the arguments commonly made against psychoanalysis, followed by a reconceptualization of neurosis, concluded with an illustration of psychoanalysis’ contribution to the understanding of living in a scientific culture.

Bowman clearly illustrates the foundations of the often contradictory and circuitous arguments made against the scientific viability of psychoanalysis. Drawing on the work of both Nietzsche and Freud, illustrating how Freud’s work provides psychological metaphor for Nietzsche’s conceptualizations of the difficulties individuals face while living in a scientific culture, the author makes clear that psychoanalysis is a necessary by-product of science. He explains that both “Nietzsche and Freud saw that the problem of the health of the human soul now has to be approached in a scientific context, with a new kind of scientific discipline” (p. 134). In fact, it is science that allows us to understand the unconscious in ways never before possible.

The rise of science has led to decreasing credence paid to traditional religious institutions. Although emotional illnesses have plagued human beings since the beginning of their existence, individuals living in today’s society of technology and the skeptical eye of science are plagued with unique challenges without the support of traditional networks. This task is not given due respect as a difficult and novel undertaking, and few fully appreciate the unique challenge it poses to human existence:

We are afraid of the scientific imperative to think about our emotional life in conditional terms because we are afraid that we may lack the strength to organize our lives in a self-governing way, without the support of categorical imperatives. We are afraid we may lack the strength to take responsibility to mastering our own divisions… This is a psychological transition unlike anything human beings have had to go through before. We need to try to confront in an honest way just how difficult it is. (p. 135)

In a desire to return to the “good old days” when religion and dualistic thinking were the rule of the day, many critics argue against psychoanalysis, using the laws of science to “prove” their points. As science has replaced those institutions, or at least cast a skeptical eye on them, individuals are left to develop their own identities without externally imposed guidelines. As freeing as this is, it evokes considerable anxiety and fear from which critics of psychoanalysis allow us to hide. Although explorations into the unconscious are exactly what science now provides, those who are defended against this self-understanding argue against its credibility, citing dualistic philosophies as their “proof.”

Arguments against the scientific value of psychoanalysis are simply masks for the fear of the ability to master oneself without the external control of religion. These critics advocate the dualistic thinking of sciences like physics and mathematics, or the prevailing philosophy in the days when moral certainty was prevalent in society. The methodologies of these sciences can hardly be applied to psychoanalysis, however, as they cannot possibly be used when studying the unconscious. Critics of psychoanalysis allow individuals to avoid looking into the nature and conflicts of their unconscious, and if their efforts were successful, it would allow science to exist without threatening one’s identity and traditions, allowing them to enjoy the benefits of science and technology without being required to gain insight into unconscious processes.

Although emotional illnesses have existed throughout time, it seems that many people do not feel strong enough to overcome their neuroses and are unwilling to partake in the lifelong journey of defining their own identity. Bowman writes,

“We are all … a little afraid, and some of us are significantly afraid, that we do not have the strength to bear responsibility for our own internal divisions and ambiguities. This is the underlying anxiety that science in general provokes in us. And it is the underlying anxiety that psychoanalysis in particular provokes in us (p. 11).”

This provides sufficient motivation for “scientific” arguments against the very science that provides the tools with which to alleviate neurotic symptoms, as

“… the aim of psychoanalysis is to help the individual to meliorate the worst excesses of the conflicts created by living in a scientific culture. It aims at the questioning and weakening of unconscious fears that keep the creative, synthesizing part of the self from developing its strengths (p. 137).“

The appeal of traditional religious and moral codes is that they provide strong external guidance and, as a consequence, people do not have to think for themselves.

Freud argued that science allows us to explore the unconscious, using the past to shape our ideas about the future. Dualistic thinkers argue that the unconscious should be kept “safe” from the skepticism of science. Bowman allows us to understand these arguments as a defense against the anxiety psychoanalysis speaks to those uncomfortable with its requirements.

Bowman’s work makes clear not only that science is often used as a defense against psychoanalysis, but also that psychoanalysis can be placed firmly in the middle of life in a scientific culture. Not only did the foundation of psychoanalysis come from the development of scientific thought, but it is also our only hope of surviving the stresses inherent in daily life within such a culture. In a world that is increasingly dependent on the medical model to “cure” all ailments facing human beings, both physical and emotional, Bowman’s text makes it very clear that neuroses cannot be approached in the same ways as physical ailments.

The author describes neurosis as the effect of when “…the forces of the rule become so strong that they distort what is fresh and courageous within the self into contorted and pathological expressions” (p. 75). It is the means by which we may create something that has not existed before, which allows us to see the potential positivity of suffering, allowing us to “…break out of the past” (p. 79). This helps us understand defense as “…an inability to overcome the past and let it go” (p. 81). Thus, emotional illnesses are essentially human and offer insight into the human condition in ways physical illnesses never could.

Bowman’s book is a must read for those facing the challenge(s) of working as a depth psychologist in today’s profit-driven market advocating extremely time-limited treatment modalities. Although it seems that popular opinion is swayed only by arguments utilizing the terminology of the medical model, with fewer graduate programs teaching depth approaches, the condition of living in a (post) modern world governed by science and technological advancements may be best understood and most appropriately treated by depth psychology. It seems unfortunate that the very science that offers solution and comfort, or “cure,” in a scientific culture, is the very science against which so many critics and individuals are defended. One wonders how successful the critics of psychoanalysis will be in swaying public opinion against a therapeutic approach that appreciates and attempts to nurture what is uniquely human about each individual seeking treatment from its practitioners. 

Reviewer Note

Geneva S. Reynaga is a pre-doctoral intern at the Department of Mental Health located at the Correctional Medical Facility in Vacaville, CA. She is a doctoral candidate at Pepperdine University. Her interests include neuropsychological assessment, psychoanalysis and ethnic minority issues.

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