Psychoanalysis at the Limit: Epistemology, Mind and the Question of Science (Book Review)

Author:  Mills, Jon
Publisher: New York: State University of New York Press, 2004
Reviewed By: Marcella Tarozzi Goldsmith, Winter 2005, pp. 53-55

Psychoanalysis at the Limit is a noteworthy book that bases psychoanalysis’s scientific status on philosophical considerations. In fact, since its contributors are psychiatrists or psychoanalysts, as well as philosophers, their respective competencies make the book more varied. The epistemological status of psychoanalysis (especially its Freudian version), as well as questions about the mind, reality, and causality are all topics considered with precise philosophical tools in this volume. The list of philosophers who are considered is impressive: Sartre, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Husserl, Searle, and Ricoeur; however, the therapeutic approaches of Binswanger, Sullivan, Laing, and Lacan are also taken into account. Given this material, it would be arbitrary to divide the authors of this volume as being pro or against Freud without qualifying what it means to accept his ideas, and where lays their fruitfulness.

Since the question of what constitutes science brings about different answers and approaches it is worth considering each of the contributors of this work in the order they are presented. First, the psychoanalyst M. Guy Thompson discusses the role of the unconscious and how the discovery of the dual capacity of the human mind brought Freud to the forefront of his time. Without considering the ontological status of the unconscious, Thompson reminds us that Freud’s theories cannot be fully demonstrated; but after considering alternative theories such as those of Sartre, Heidegger, and Laing, one can conclude that the unconscious is the repository of that which is not experienced, and yet it is “a living presence” (p. 27).

In addition, Thompson’s discussion of Sartre’s rejection of psychoanalysis goes well beyond the generalizations that are customary in this case. He takes Sartre’s criticism seriously because it involves the concept of a prereflective consciousness that leads to the important notion of subjectivity. But Thompson’s conclusion that “Freud was a closet phenomenologist” (p. 18) may be misleading, since Freud remained committed to a dualistic conception of the mind and of experience. And although both theories consider the concept of experience to be fundamental, in Freud one does not find the continuity that phenomenology demands. Yet, a dualistic approach to mental phenomena might be the most useful to explain pathological states, but that does not make psychoanalysis a science, so that Thompson’s elegant analysis of what constitutes experience leaves the epistemological question open.

As we proceed, reading Roger Frie’s discussion of the key issues of determinism and explanation, we realize how much Freudianism is permeated with eclecticism, and why Freud saw in philosophy a dangerous rival that could raise serious objections to his theories. Still, the unconscious is, for Frie, a significant concept that can be understood in different ways. Binswanger’s Daseinalysis, for one, rejected Freud’s deterministic, reductive view of the unconscious; being more philosophically oriented than Freud, he went beyond a schematic view of the mind and rightly refused to objectify the self. Given these perspectives, it is not enough, as Sullivan did, to stress communication and underestimate introspection. Frie reminds us that what is needed is a defense of the individual and of the prereflective, spontaneous, and, therefore, creative, view of the person. Nevertheless, in Frie’s words, Freud gave us, with his “perspective on the unconscious … a uniquely individual form of self-experience” (p. 44). Our task now is to enrich it with ever-new interpretations of human experience.

Thanks to Marcia Cavell’s contribution, one enters the philosophical domain where questions about truth and objectivity determine what is and what is not science. Cavell does not confront directly Freud’s theses. Her main points—expressed clearly and with great conviction—focus on the fact that when we speak of truth we speak about reality, and reality is mainly—according to her intersubjectivist view—the reality of the external, social world. Knowledge is possible only because of the priority of social relations, so that developmentally the “you” comes first and then the “I” or “self.” Critical of Descartes’ subjectivism, Cavell quotes approvingly Wittgenstein, but her triangular view (different from a dialectical, circular view), which comprises reality, truth, and mind, leaves the impression—notwithstanding the interesting part devoted to child’s development—of espousing an unimaginative form of pragmatism and a reductive common sense.

More technical is Livingstone Smith’s article critical of Searle’s views. The author accepts Freud’s theory of the unconscious that he illustrates with the example of Poincaré, who suddenly and unexpectedly solved a problem whose solution he had consciously put aside. This example validates the concept of a specific theory of unconscious mental processes. Searle, instead, develops a dispositionalist thesis that ultimately considers such occurrences to be nonmental in character. Livingston Smith responds with a “continuity argument,” the one held by Freud, according to which “unconscious mental states can be occurrent” (p. 84). The question whether unconscious phenomena are mental in character is thus answered when the author argues that Freud’s conception of the mind was materialist and also functionalist and, therefore, ante litteram, it was anti-dispositionalism.

The article by Jon Mills, the editor of this volume, presents a detailed exposition of that specific form of psychosis, which is paranoia, the topic of Lacan’s dissertation. There is such a thing as paranoiac episteme because, for Lacan, knowledge is dependent on the gaze of the other, and this gives rise to persecutory ideas. The initial polemical evaluation of Lacan is in the course of the article attenuated, especially when Mills discusses the three Lacanian categories of the real, the imaginary, and the symbolic, that, in Mills’s original interpretation, develop a negative dialectic, where the desire to know is contrasted by a desire not to know because desire is persecutory in nature (p. 95). It follows that aggressivity is essentialized by Lacan; in Mills’s words it is “ontologically indispensable” (p. 101) and structurally determined. To say that this theory of desire puts it close to the unknowable real, however, is to ignore Lacan’s many claims to the effect that desire is symbolic and that it establishes the rules of a possible ethics in psychoanalysis. Still, being a desire for recognition, as it was for Hegel, desire can indeed lead to paranoid ideas. The remedy rests on symbolization, to the point that, as Mills rightly writes, Lacan “deifies the symbolic” (p. 104). Mills’s conclusion could have also been that Lacan’s linguistic interpretation of the unconscious did not aim at establishing psychoanalysis as a positivist science, dependent on a rigorous conception of causality.

A good antidote to Lacan’s structuralism is James C. Edwards’ article on myth and metaphysics that begins by presenting Wittgenstein’s views on Freud. The philosopher was fascinated by Freud’s way of thinking but also deemed it to be mythical, nonscientific, even dangerous. Edwards’ Freud is a metaphysician, a poet anxious to present his theories in a scientific manner in order to be accepted by the medical community. Not only a mythmaker, Freud was also a moralist who believed in a hidden, metaphysical reality. To make his points, Edwards, after a hasty treatment of Plato’s philosophy, compares the “deep structure of Western metaphysics” (p. 127) with Freud’s ideas on truth, so that Freud is seen as a full-fledged philosopher. As a matter of fact, Freud had many guises, and that is why it is so difficult to delimit his work that ranges from myths to the mechanisms of the functioning of the mind. A physiologist of the mind, rather than an anatomist, Freud cannot be the object of reductionist views of the mind.

Some articles of this collection do not take a clear-cut position pro or con psychoanalysis’ scientific status, but this is not the case of Adolf Grünbaum; his polemical language and his cryptic use of italics have as a target Paul Ricoeur’s hermeneutics. This method misunderstands Freud by focusing on the identification of meanings, a term that is ambiguous, and consequently scientifically null. Grünbaum’s interest lies, instead, in the concept of cause, and causes must not be confused with motives. Once Ricoeur has been labeled an anti-science ideologue, and after having appealed to Freud’s authority on the matter of meanings, Grünbaum concentrates his criticism on Freud’s thematic by rejecting such contents as the Oedipus complex, the whole theory of sexuality, and of the transference. None of these concepts have been scientifically demonstrated. Thus, Grünbaum demythologizes Freud and thinks that scientific concepts should be univocal; but even so, Freud’s ideas are, after all, plausible. The end of the article is a final verdict against hermeneutics, whose approach has not even shown the utility of Freudian psychotherapy. But Grünbaum himself does not discuss here the therapeutic value of Freud’s theories; reading between the lines one can surmise that he thinks that the causes of pathologies have not been completely discovered. One could also say that even nonpsychiatric illnesses can be treated effectively without knowing their causes, their pathogenesis, or their pathophysiology.

More nuanced is Joseph Margolis’ approach to Freud’s work, and this is because he rightly points out that science is an ongoing process, not yet concluded and, therefore, can still yield some surprises. Thus, Margolis advocates a “methodological tolerance” that is in open contrast with Grünbaum. The issue of objectivity has not been decided once for all, since the criteria for science are not as rigorous as one might think; in Margolis’ words: “Science has no strict canons or methods, [it] must be open-ended” (p. 167). Moreover, Freud’s and Lacan’s conceptions of the human mind and their therapeutic methods have enriched us. Their theories, though, differ in that Freud had a biological conception of the mind, whereas Lacan was more inclined to consider it, together with the unconscious, a social construct. Still, both thinkers have convinced us of the plausibility of something called “the unconscious,” even if Lacan’s theories are more problematic and paradoxical, since they seem to rule out a coherent, dynamic metapsychology (p. 172).

The last article in this work, by Donald Levy, leads us directly to the issue of incompleteness by asserting, as the title indicates, the experimental untestability of psychoanalysis. Different from other articles of this collection, this author discusses at length the therapeutic value of Freud’s theories, and the analogy and continuity between common sense psychology and psychoanalysis. Levy arrives at this comparison by differentiating between desires and beliefs on the one hand, and wishes and ideas on the other; a necessary distinction because the latter are unconscious, whereas desires and beliefs are connected to action (p. 179). Since “assent and self-ascription are the criterion condition for ascriptions of ideas and wishes,” it follows that they cannot be the object of experimentation (p. 183). Such untestability is typical of the functioning of the psyche in general. To convince oneself of this it is sufficient to think of dreams: here we are not in a position to compare a dream report with the dream itself (p. 183). So we see that Levy does not take the usual approach of claiming that psychoanalysis is not scientific because it does not allow experiments as to its therapeutic successes or failures; Levy tells us that all is needed is the assent criterion on the part of the subject. In addition, the success Freud had in mind was not therapeutic success, it was more a matter of presenting a theory that allows “conscious processes to be unconsciously influenced” (p. 189). In this way, the concept of the unconscious becomes plausible. Like an archeologist who reconstructs unique artifacts of the past, Freud’s theories, having to do with unique mental events, cannot become the object of experimentation. Psychoanalysis shares this destiny with common sense psychology: both are experimentally untestable, but nevertheless true (p. 194).

After this overview it should be clear that the title of this book is amply justified, since its historical and philosophical comparisons put psychoanalysis to the test, sometimes on the defensive. With a few exceptions, this work does not give definite answers. It tells us, instead, that Freud’s view of the mind, influenced as it is by unconscious drives, is plausible. Such a view convinces us at times, but it only approaches science.

Reviewer Note

Marcella Tarozzi Goldsmith was born in Italy; she graduated from the University of Bologna and received her PhD in philosophy from Georgetown University. She is a published author in both English and Italian, and she lives in New York City.


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