Psychoanalytic Research

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Research, whether to create scientific advances or investigate historical and epistemological issues, is generally supported by the state and is often carried out by specialized institutions or in laboratories. In psychoanalysis, research with a view to theoretical and clinical advances has sometimes been conducted in such settings, but it has also been conducted by individuals and psychoanalytic associations. Freud's hope, that analysis would find a place in the university in ways that would ensure its status as a separate discipline, has been partially fulfilled: from the 1960s, dissertations in the field of psychoanalysis have begun to appear in countries around the world.

Psychoanalytic research implies scientific standing, and a persistent issue has been whether analysis is a science. If science is limited to experiment and the use of mathematical tools, the answer is no. This has been the view of such prominent philosophers as Karl Popper and Alfred Grünbaum, for whom psychoanalysis presents a body of claims that cannot be falsified or refuted. But the scientific nature of psychoanalysis has also been questioned by those who prefer to see it as an art, not so much to be taught as transmitted. It thus escapes the objective criteria on which the sciences, whether physical or social, are based.

For Freud, psychoanalysis has a place among the sciences and shares its worldview: it is above all a method of investigating unconscious processes and could be adapted for use in fields unrelated to therapy. In this sense, psychoanalytic theory comprises a set of hypotheses and concepts subject to constant revision. Therapy is one possible application of psychoanalytic method and is also to a great extent its source, because therapy provides the link between theory and clinical practice, the space in which the principal hypotheses are developed and tested.

Freud distanced psychoanalysis from religion and philosophy, from unverifiable constructions in general, and from medical pragmatism. In 1911 he signed a manifesto, together with Albert Einstein, David Hilbert, Ernst Mach, and about thirty others, that appealed for the creation of a society to disseminate positivist philosophy in order "to outline a vast vision of the world on the basis of positive facts that each science has accumulated" (quoted in Hoffmann, 1995).

Psychoanalysts have developed a relatively independent network by which they exchange ideas and information at professional seminars and colloquia. While university research provides new and original perspectives and is designed to address questions by reexamining them within the context of history and the critical perspective of previously published work, independent researchers often come up with their own clinical findings of the type they believe the clinical setting can provide. Some of these researchers may formulate more general hypotheses, which they then test in various clinical situations.

The actual content of psychoanalysis also affects how research is conducted. In terms of theory, psychoanalysts have produced a body of notions and conceptstwo terms that should not be confused. In psychoanalysis, fundamental concepts (Grundbegriffe ), or even keystones (Grundpfeiler ), are not a priori categories but result from investigations into mental processes. These create the scaffolding that Freud called "metapsychology," the theoretical superstructure that includes such useful fictions as the psychical apparatus. For Freud, metapsychology was necessary for advancing new ideas but could always be modified or revised.

The "fiction" of a "psychic apparatus," noted in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a), was followed by the first theory of the instincts with its dualities of the self-preservation and sexual instincts and of the pleasure/unpleasure principle. Freud introduced narcissism in 1914, which led to a revision of the theory of the ego and ego ideal, and in 1920, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, he introduced the dualism of the life and death instincts. Although these theoretical developments, advanced through clinical practice, did not require a reconstruction of the metapsychology, revision did arise from certain particularly innovative notions in psychopathology.

Ongoing clinical work, with its infinite diversity of patients and variety of psychological facts, vastly added to the number of notions in psychoanalytic theory. Not all notions fared equally well. Some met a clinical need, while others fell into such disuse as to interest only historians of psychoanalysis, who sometimes resuscitate lost notions or bring forth new ones that originated in forgotten antecedents.

Psychoanalytic theory and investigation have produced an abundant literature, often a surfeit that makes it impossible to read everything written in any particular area. For this reason, the division of research between academicians and individual practitioners would appear to be complementary and desirable.

Sophie de Mijolla-Mellor

See also: Applied psychoanalysis and the interaction of psychoanalysis; Hard science and psychoanalysis; Knowledge or research, instinct for; Truth.


Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. SE, 4: 1-338; 5: 339-625.

. (1920g). Beyond the pleasure principle. SE, 18: 1-64.

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

Hoffmann, Christian. (1995). Le manifeste positiviste signé par S. Freud en 1911. Cliniques Méditerranéennes, 45-46, 7-11.

Laplanche, Jean. (1995). La psychanalyse dans la communauté scientifique. Cliniques Méditerranéennes, 45-46, 33-42.

Mijolla-Mellor, Sophie de. (1995). Potentialité des scissions dans la théorie psychanalytique elle-même. Topique, 57, 291-306.

Further Reading

Schachter, Judith, and Luborsky, Lester. (1998). Who's afraid of psychoanalytic research? International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 79, 965-970.

Shapiro, Theodore, and Emde, Robert N. Ed (1995). Research in psychoanalysis: Process, development, outcome. Madison, CT: International University Press.

Vaughan, Sarah, et al. (2000). Can we do psychoanalytic outcome research? A feasibility study. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 81, 513-528.

Wallerstein, Robert. (2001). The generations of psychotherapy research: An overview. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 18, 243-267.

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Psychoanalytic Research

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