Psychoanalytic Epistemology

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The notion of psychoanalytic epistemology incorporates the epistemology specific to psychoanalytic knowledge as well as the psychoanalysis of mental processes required in the construction of knowledge.

Epistemology refers to the critical examination and logical analysis of scientific knowledge. Traditionally viewed in France as the philosophy and history of science, epistemology is distinguished from the theory of knowledge, which also includes non-scientific knowledge. This distinction is not found in Anglo-American philosophy and, as a result, epistemology is frequently confused with the theory of knowledge, Freud's Erkenntnistheorie. More recently, the concept of genetic epistemology (Jean Piaget) introduced the analysis of the mental processes of knowledge within a developmental perspective.

The term "epistemology" is fairly recent. It was introduced in France at the beginning of the twentieth century, at the time when the relationship between philosophy and the sciences was reversed: it was no longer philosophy that lent its stature to science but science that became an object of philosophical study. This change in perspective reflected a crisis that had two sources: first, the foundations of mathematics and physics were being called into question by the scientific community itself; and second, the claims of philosophical systems, in particular Hegelian systems, of being able to account for rationality without the need for practical applications or experiential data were being discredited.

The concept of epistemology does not appear in the index to the Gesammelte Werke, and the Concordance to the Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud indicates only three occurrences of the term "epistemological" in the Standard Edition, where it appears as a translation of the adjective erkenntnistheoretisch. The word appears for the first time in the English translation of the obituary of Viktor Tausk. Freud wrote in 1919: "These writings exhibit plainly the philosophical training which the author was able so happily to combine with the exact methods of science. His strong need to establish things on a philosophical foundation and to achieve epistemological clarity compelled him to formulate, and seek as well to master, the whole profundity and comprehensive meaning of the very difficult problems involved" (1919f, p. 274). But the use of the term "epistemological" in the English and French translations obliterates the distinction between "epistemology" and "theory of knowledge." Yet Freud's judgment of Tausk can only be fully appreciated when viewed as re-establishing this distinction. It is not, as the translations state, "epistemological clarity" that Freud reproaches Tausk for, but his overestimation of the logico-deductive operations of philosophy. Tausk went too far in trying to prematurely establish psychoanalysis on the basis of a theoretical system that was philosophical in its need for coherence.

Although the term "epistemology" is rarely found in Freud, a Freudian epistemology is nonetheless present. For Freud the epistemic identity of psychoanalysis remained that of the empirical sciences of his time, which are unrelated to the sciences of mind. He relies on observation and inductive logic to rebuff the demons of metaphysics and goes so far as to claim for psychoanalysis a "specific right to become the spokesman" for the vision of the scientific world. He defends the ideal of science against anarchist and nihilist doctrines that contested the criteria of truth found in scientific knowledge. Psychoanalysis was said to possess the heuristic means to show that science required a determined attitude that rejected "wish fulfillment" through acceptance of observation and methodically programmed experiment, the only path capable of leading us to a true knowledge of reality. He wrote, "it would be illegitimate and highly inexpedient to allow these demands [wish fulfillments] to be transferred to the sphere of knowledge. For this would be to lay open the paths which lead to psychosis, whether to individual or group psychosis...." (1933a., p. 160).

In Freudian discourse the scientific ideal assumes the function of a regulatory idea and barrier for knowledge in general and psychoanalytic knowledge in particular. Freud's rationalism and positivism were consequently subverted by his discovery: by taking as its subject the gaps, contradictions, and distortions of our mechanisms of observation, language, and reason, psychoanalysis reveals what the constructions of positivist science owe to repression. In keeping with his discovery Freud recognized the anticipatory role of art and philosophy, acknowledged the historical truth of religion, and affirmed the mythopoetic element in every scientific theory. His literary style, his references to historical, philological, and ethnographic works, his interest in Moses and Shakespeare, his sense of doubt concerning thought transference, all temper the image of a realist and positivist Freud. Freud's psychoanalytic epistemology presents the paradox, analyzed by Paul-Laurent Assoun, of sabotaging the language of science while claiming it as one's own.

The path of Freudian discovery traces the passage from a therapeutic technique to an episteme through the implementation of a method employed within the context of a specific practice. Psychoanalytic epistemology appeared to be essential as much to define and circumscribe the conditions and legitimacy of his approach as it did to respond to the epistemological criticisms to which it was subject. In both cases it is a matter of relating and analyzing whatever is resistant to his method. The criticisms of Karl Popper, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Adolf Grünbaum cast doubt on the psychoanalyst to the extent that they reveal the risk psychoanalysis runs whenever it tends to transform itself into an ideology. Yet such objections have the merit of constraining the psychoanalyst to treat his concepts dialectically and be more attentive to precisely defining their use value within a specific framework. Such criticisms also indirectly reveal the limitations of the phenomenological, doctrinal, and hermeneutic revisionism of men like Ludwig Binswanger, Roland Dalbiez, or even Paul Ricoeur, for trying to save psychoanalysis by means of auxiliary hypotheses. For such thinkers, psychoanalysis could only confirm its results by borrowing from other fields of knowledge (phenomenology or neuroscience, for example) or through the addition of extraneous methods (such as surveys or experimental protocols).

Quite the contrary. It is by repatriating the value and scope of discoveries where they originatethe psychoanalytic situationthat psychoanalysis can verify the consistency of its theorizations. Psychoanalysis does not consist of the analyst's knowledge of the analysand's unconscious or a grid for reading the world, but is based on a transsubjective knowledge created as much as revealed by a particular situation of interactive dialogue whose transference and analysis are operators. Outside that field it loses all epistemological validity.

Such methodological operationalism enables psychoanalysis to participate in the ongoing epistemological debate, which tends to reject the ideal of accuracy for a concern for truth that is conceived as revelation as well as creation.

Roland Gori

See also: Determinism; Gressot, Michel; Learning from Experience ; Psychoanalytic research; Science and psychoanalysis.


Assoun, Paul-Laurent. (1981). Introductionà l'épistémologie freudienne. Paris: Payot.

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

. (1927c). The future of an illusion. SE, 21: 1-56.

. (1933a [1932]). New introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. SE, 22: 1-182.

Gori, Roland. (1996). La Preuve par la parole. Sur la causalité en psychanalyse Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Further Reading

Kulish, Nancy. (2002). The psychoanalytic method from an epistemological viewpoint. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 83, 491-495.

Orange, Donna. (1995). Emotional understanding. Studies in psychoanalytic epistemology. New York: Guilford Press

Strenger, Carlo. (1991). Between hermenutics and science: An essay on the epistemology of psychoanalysis. Madison, CT: International Universities Press.

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Psychoanalytic Epistemology

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