Applied Psychoanalysis and the Interactions of Psychoanalysis

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Aside from being a theory of the unconscious, psychoanalysis as a method is used as an investigative tool in a wide variety of fields, the treatment of neuroses being only one among many. The term applied psychoanalysis is often used to refer to fields other than psychoanalysis or psychotherapy, particularly literature, art and culture. The term is therefore likely to have a range of accepted meanings that is either very broad, as in the case of collective phenomena, or narrowly restricted, as in the case of individual works of art.

The idea of application, to the extent that it presupposes use outside a field of origin, has often been criticized for introducing the risk that psychoanalysis will be used abstractly or mechanistically. This was certainly not the opinion of Sigmund Freud, who felt that most psychoanalytic concepts were buttressed by the great myths and works of literature, such as Sophocles's Oedipus the King, Michelangelo's Moses, and Shakespeare's Hamlet, which he mentioned in his letter to Wilhelm Fliess on October 15, 1897. Freud's later writings made use of the work of Wilhelm Jensen, Dostoevsky, and others. There are also numerous references to Goethe woven into the fabric of his thought. In this context we cannot really speak of application but, rather, of different modes of expression for the investigation of what it means to be human. This proximity of culture and psychoanalysis also has the effect of mitigating the field's association with medicine, which was indeed one of Freud's objectives.

Freud's writings are interspersed with texts that are not specifically about psychopathology but contribute to its development indirectly. Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious (1905c), "Psycho-Analysis and the Establishment of the Facts in Legal Proceedings" (1906c), Delusions and Dreams in Jensen's "Gradiva" (1907a [1906]), "Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices" (1907b), all written over a period of two years, reveal the variety of fields to which Freud applied the psychoanalytic method. More generally, psychoanalysis appears to embrace the fields of both individual therapy and collective phenomena, although we cannot speak of applied psychoanalysis in the latter case. Examples include Totem and Taboo (1912-1913a), Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921c), "The Acquisition and Control of Fire" (1932a[1931]), and Moses and Monotheism (1939a [1937-1939]). Given the importance of these texts and their theoretical richness, "applied psychoanalysis" in the broad sense loses its meaning.

An especially rich and frequently examined field is the psychoanalysis of works of literature and the plastic arts. When it turns its attention to the artist or author, the psychoanalytic approach is not really far removed from its psychotherapeutic role. Freud himself emphasized the proximity between the case study and the novel, asserting that his case studies could be read as novels (1895d) and that novelists knew more about the unconscious than psychoanalysts.

Yet, the matter is not quite as simple as it appears. Although studying an author's biography is relevant for understanding his or her writing, such an examination should not be reduced to a form of pathography. Isidor Sadger was referred to as a bungler (Nunberg and Federn,1962-75) and Max Graf, supported by Freud, pointed out that an author's neurosis does not explain his work. In "Creative Writers and Day-dreaming" (1908e [1907]), Freud shifted his focus to the question of the author's creativity with the hypothesis of a relation between the daydream and the themes of literary creation. He also questioned the nature of the reader's pleasure.

In 1912 the review Imago, published by Freud with the help of Otto Rank and Hans Sachs, printed articles on psychoanalysis applied to works of art, but even earlier, in 1910, Freud's study of Leonardo da Vinci (1910c) had shown the protean nature of this type of psychoanalytic investigation. This was a study of a "childhood memory" of da Vinci's, and the earliest impressions of his life; it also provided an occasion to develop the theory of sublimation in its various versions, along with a new approach to male homosexuality.

Freud's paper on da Vinci is a good example of the impossibility, when referring to research devoted to a work of art (The Virgin, Infant Jesus, and Saint Ann ) and its author, of limiting oneself to a single "application" of the psychoanalytic method. This, with all the risks it entails (mistaking the kite for a vulture), is creative because it directs toward the analysis of the work of art hypotheses and intuitions that could have come into being elsewhere or differently, blending episodes of therapy with a self-analytic approach (Freud's fantasy relationship with Leonardo).

Conversely, Freud's study of Michelangelo's Moses (1914b) ignored the facts of the artist's life. The interpretation is based on the feelings of the viewer, Freud in this case, and his understanding of the Bible. He explicates the work using the same method used for dreams, teasing out what is hidden or secret by means of details that are barely visible. Freud does not sharply distinguish between interpretation of the work of art and reconstruction of the author's fantasies, and when he turns to Jensen's Gradiva (1907a [1906]), it is only as an afterthought that he questions the author about the actual existence of a young girl with a club foot whom the author was supposed to have known in childhood.

The term "applied psychoanalysis" does not seem to be appropriate when we consider that for Freudas for many psychoanalysts like Karl Abraham, Otto Rank, Wilhelm Stekel, Max Graf, Theodor Reik, and Fritz Wittelsit was not a question of demonstrating that the psychoanalytic method could be used outside the context of therapy (Laplanche proposed the expression, "extramural psychoanalysis"), but of developing hypotheses concerning this method within a field of research other than therapy.

Aside from the psychoanalysis of works of art, Freud highlighted the interest of psychoanalysis (1913j) not only for psychology but for the other sciences. By "interest" he meant the implicationsbeing in (inter-esse )of psychoanalysis for the other sciences, which can make use of psychoanalysis as a means of self-enrichment and even self-analysis. Thus linguistics could draw on dreams and symbols for the study of language, philosophy could make use of the psychography of philosophers, and biology could borrow the opposition between ego instinct and sexual instinct to identify the opposition between an immortal germ plasma and isolated individuals. Similarly, the history of civilization could make use of the psychoanalytic approach to myth to help explain religion.

Nearly fifteen years later, in The Question of Lay Analysis, Freud wrote, "As a 'depth psychology,' a theory of the mental unconscious, it can become indispensable to all the sciences which are concerned with the evolution of human civilization and its major institutions such as art, religion, and the social order. It has already, in my opinion, afforded these sciences considerable help in solving their problems. But these are only small contributions compared with what might be achieved if historians of civilization, psychologists of religion, philologists and so on would agree themselves to handle the new instrument of research which is at their service. The use of analysis for the treatment of the neuroses is only one of its applications; the future will perhaps show that it is not the most important one" (1926e, p. 248).

Of course it is not necessarily the case that the benefit of psychoanalysis for the sciences is a one-way process. Just as the "application" of psychoanalysis outside therapy leads to discoveries that affect therapy through a deepening of theory and method, it benefits psychoanalysis to be questioned by the sciences with which it interacts. The "interactions of psychoanalysis" (Mijolla-Mellor, S. de) highlight the fact that it is impossible to focus psychoanalysis on a specific domain without the validity of its own methodology being questioned in turn. Such interactions assume the pursuit of a renewed epistemological investigation of the value of the psychoanalytic method and its ability to encounter other logics. This not only provides new insight into the field of application but also helps clarify the essential nature and potential for growth of psychoanalysis itself. The principal reason for this fecundity lies in the ability of psychoanalysis to allow itself to be questioned, and enriched, by, the fields of inquiry toward which it is directed.

Here, the cultural object or scientific discourse itself may exhibit a certain resistance (much like a patient) because they function according to their own logic and presuppositions, which in principle acknowledge no unconscious dimension. To introduce this dimension into other domains means that the psychoanalyst must become newly aware of this object suspending the work of interpretation and, above all, questioning its ability not only to account for the facts in question but also for the way in which they are viewed and cathected.

The multidisciplinary interactions of psychoanalysis thus require an ongoing epistemological investigation of major importance, and which risks being undermined if psychoanalysts limit their inquiry to the therapeutic situation alone. This perspective is epistemological first and foremost, opening up the possibility of borrowing other models and allowing for conceptual fusion; but it also shows up the abiding (at times) specificity of fields of knowledge, and even their impermeabilityand hence the limits of these interactions.

The common goal of research in the field of "interactions with psychoanalysis" is an awareness not only of the impact of Freud's discovery of the unconscious on the humanities (Geisteswissenschaften ) but also of the effects of models specific to those domains on psychoanalysis itself, as theory and as method, whenever it attempts to "interact."

Sophie de Mijolla-Mellor

See also: American Imago ; Anthropology and psychoanalysis; Christians and Jews: A Psychoanalytical Study ; Cinema (criticism); Cinema and psychoanalysis; Civilization (Kultur ); "Claims of Psychoanalysis to Scientific Interest"; Criminology and psychoanalysis; Delusions and Dreams in Jensen's "Gradiva" ; Don Juan and the Double; "Dream and Myth"; École Freudienne de Paris; Ethnopsychoanalysis; Ethology and psychoanalysis; Hard sciences, psychoanalysis and the; Freud, the Secret Passion ; Goethe and psychoanalysis; Hamlet and Oedipus ; History and psychoanalysis ; Imago, Zeitschrift für die Anwendung der Psychanalyse auf die Geistesiwissenschaften ; Law and psychoanalysis; Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood ; Linguistics and psychoanalysis; Literary and artistic creation; Literature and psychoanalysis; Moses and Monotheism; "The Moses of Michelangelo"; Myth of the Birth of the Hero, The ; Mythology and psychoanalysis; Pedagogy and psychoanalysis; Psyché, revue internationale de psychanalyse et des sciences de l'homme ; Psychoanalysis of Fire, The ; Psychoanalytic Bewegung, Die ; Psychobiography; Psychohistory; Psychology and psychoanalysis; Racism, anti-Semitism, and psychoanalysis; Sartre and psychoanalysis; Schiller and psychoanalysis; "Seventeenth-Century Demonological Neurosis, A"; Shakespeare and psychoanalysis; Sociology and psychoanalysis, sociopsychoanalysis; Spinoza and psychoanalysis; Structuralism and psychoanalysis; Surrealism and psychoanalysis; The Life and Works of Edgar Allen Poe ; Thomas Woodrow Wilson, Twenty-Eighth President of the United States ; Totem and Taboo ; Training of the psychoanalyst; Visual arts and psychoanalysis.


Freud, Sigmund. (1887-1904). The complete letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess, 1887-1904, Ed. and Trans. Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson. Cambridge, Mass, and London: The Belknap Press, 1985.

. (1905c). Jokes and their relation to the unconscious. SE,8.

. (1906c). Psycho-analysis and the establishment of the facts in legal proceedings. SE, 9: 99-114.

. (1907a [1906]). Delusions and dreams in Jensen's "Gradiva." SE, 9: 1-95.

. (1907b). Obsessive actions and religious practices. SE, 9: 117-127.

, (1908e [1907]). "Creative writers and day-dreaming." SE, 9: 143-153.

. (1910c). Leonardo da Vinci and a memory of his childhood. SE, 11: 59-137.

. (1912-1913). Totem and taboo. SE, 13: ix-161.

. (1913j). The claims of psycho-analysis to scientific interest. SE, 13: 163-190.

. (1914b). The Moses of Michelangelo. SE, 13: 209-236.

. (1921c). Group psychology and the analysis of the ego. SE, 18: 67-143.

. (1926e). The question of lay analysis. SE, 20: 179-250.

. (1932a [1931]). The acquisition and control of fire. SE, 22: 183-193.

. (1939a [1937-1939]). Moses and monotheism: Three essays. SE, 23: 1-137.

. (1950a). Extracts from the Fliess papers. SE, 1: 173-280.

Nunberg, Hermann and Federn, Ernst. (1962-1975). Minutes of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society (December 4, 1907 session). New York: International University Press.

Further Reading

Baudry, Francis. (1984). Essay on method in applied psychoanalysis. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 53, 551-581.

Esman, Aaron. (1998). What is "applied" in "applied" psychoanalysis?. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 79, 741-756.

Gehrie, M.J. (1992). Panel: Methodology of applied psychoanalysis: key issues. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 40, 239-244.

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Applied Psychoanalysis and the Interactions of Psychoanalysis

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