Psychology and Psychoanalysis

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It is important to stress the point that for Freud himself psychoanalysis was a psychology. In 1923 he wrote: "Psychoanalysis is the name (1) of a procedure for the investigation of mental processes which are almost inaccessible in any other way, (2) of a method (based upon that investigation) for the treatment of neurotic disorders and (3) of a collection of psychological information obtained along those lines, which is gradually being accumulated into a new scientific discipline " (1923a, p. 235).

Rarely in his writings did he make any mention of contemporary work in "academic" psychology, however. He sometimes cited authors who wrote in German (Wundt, Hering, and Ehrenfels), French (Binet and Claparède), or English, like Darwin and his cousin Francis Galton, or Stanley Hall, whom he met in 1909 on his voyage to the United States, but such references remain episodic. The two most frequently cited authors are Fechner, from whom he borrowed the principle of constancy in the framework of his energy approach to psychic function, and Pierre Janet, with whom he had a long controversy based both on a conflict of prestige and priority and on a fundamental theoretical divergence: Janet explained hysteria in terms of reduced "psychic tone," whereas Freud saw the effects of conflictual tension in it.

One could therefore consider Freud to be ill informed about work by psychologists in his own time. This would probably be completely false: his interest in memory and perception fits readily into the framework of a "psychology of the faculties," which was still very much present in Project for a Scientific Psychology (1950c [1895]), the main points being reviewed in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a). Over the years, however, his concepts, which were initially strongly influenced by the dominant empiricist associationism of the late nineteenth century, progressively evolved toward a radically different approach to memory and perception that allows for the effects of deferred action and also focuses on the psychoses and delusions (Perron). This provides a new solution to the whole problem of the relations between the "reality of the external world" and "psychic reality," a solution that has nothing in common with the views developed elsewhere in psychology.

We must also bear in mind that while he was still at school it was from a psychologist, albeit an amateur, Herbart, that Freud acquired the fundamental ideas of psychoanalysis, ideas such as repression, the threshold of consciousness, and the unconscious (Andersson)these were the origins of the topical model of metapsychology. The origins of the economic model can be found in the "energetic" trend that included, among others, Brücke, his mentor, and Fechner. The "dynamic" model is specifically psychoanalytic. There is also what is sometimes referred to as a "fourth point of view," the developmental perspective: case studies analyzing the stages in the development of a given child were very much in vogue in psychology between 1880 and 1930, from Baldwin and Binet to Piaget himself. With the cases of "Little Hans" and the "Wolf Man" Freud fit into this stream of ideas in his own way.

After Freud, what were and what are the influences of psychology on psychoanalysis? And conversely, what are the influences on psychology of psychoanalysis? The asymmetry is patently clear. Although certain psychoanalytic developments are deliberately based on ideas and facts coming from disciplines such as psychiatry, biology, linguistics, sociology, and ethnology, it is not easy to cite analogous importations from psychology or any of its so-called scientific branches (experimental psychology and differential psychology, for example). Perhaps the epistemological (in terms of basic postulates) and methodological gap is such that this type of importation seems unacceptable to psychoanalysts, who dread a "psychologization" that would empty metapsychology of its essential substance. In Europe, at any rate, the opposition to Hartmannian "Ego Psychology" has often been justified in this way. However, psychoanalytic theories on memory, perception, and thought processes would gain by being better informed about the current work of psychologists and neuropsychologists on these questions, and it is regrettable that they are still too often discussed in psychoanalysis in the same terms in which Freud posed them.

This discrepancy could be attributed to the "narcissism of minor differences," the separation between things that are too similar. However, it is obvious that, seen from the reverse point of view, the influences of psychoanalysis on psychology are of major importance, in at least three respects:

  • In terms of theories. Certain research trends have developed in experimental and differential psychology based on hypotheses that have been imported from psychoanalysis (albeit with distortions and simplifications): work on selective forgetting of unpleasant experiences and on aggressive behavior caused by frustration.
  • In terms of techniques. Here we are referring mainly to so-called "projective" and "expressive" trials. It is important to remember that Rorschach, a psychiatrist at the Burghölzli asylum (directed by Bleuler, and where Jung also worked), created his famous ink blot test in the context of psychoanalytic ideas, as they were accepted in that institution around 1920. It is patently obvious that in recent years psychoanalytic theory has had a strong effect on this Rorschach test, as well as so-called thematic tests (Murray's TAT), both in terms of research work and its interpretation in individual clinical practice. As for children's drawings (classified among the "expressive" techniques), it has become commonplace though nevertheless still pertinent to interpret them in psychoanalytic terms, as Françoise Dolto illustrated particularly well.
  • In more general terms, a whole new sector of psychology has developed in a context where many consider psychoanalytic references to be dominant, which creates no small difficulties for the professionals in question (Perron).

In fact, no valid questions concerning the relations between psychology and psychoanalysis can be posed without first asking: which psychology, which psychoanalysis? In both fields questions are being asked concerning the permanently threatened unity of the respective disciplines. There is no doubt very little in common between the "pure" experimental psychologist working on the memorization of meaningless syllables and the clinical psychologist who is trying to understand the dynamics of phobic behavior leading to a total inability to work. In a similar vein, apart from very general principles, there is very little common ground to be found between Jacques Lacan, Heinz Hartmann, Melanie Klein, Heinz Kohut, Wilfred Bion, and numerous others.

Can these gaps between and within each of these disciplines one day be reduced? Such an effort presupposes an analysis of the epistemological bases of each approach, and it seems doubtful that such an analysis would produce any unified theory.

Roger Perron

See also: Analytical psychology; Année psychologique, L' ; Applied psychoanalysis and the interaction of psychoanalysis; Archives de psychologie, Les; "Claims of Psychoanalysis to Scientific Interest"; Claparède,Édouard; Cognitivism and psychoanalysis; Ego psychology; Janet, Pierre; Lagache, Daniel; Metapsychology; Meyerson, Ignace; National Psychological Associaton for Psychoanalysis; Piaget, Jean; "Project for a Scientific Psychology, A"; Psychological types (analytical psychology); Self psychology.


Andersson, Ola. (1962). Studies in the prehistory of psychoanalysis. Stockholm: Svenska Bokförlaget.

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

Couvreur, Catherine; Oppenheimer, Agnès, Perron, Roger, and Schaeffer, Jacqueline (Eds.). (1996). Psychanalyse, neurosciences, cognitivismes. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Perron, Roger. (1995). Prendre pour vrai. Revue française de psychanalyse, 59 (2), 499-512.

Perron, Roger, and Perron-Borrelli, Michèle. (1997). Fantasme, action, pensée. Algiers:Éditions de la Société algérienne de psychologie.

Further Reading

Barron, James W., Eagle, Morris N., and Wolitzky, David L. (eds.). (1992). Interface of psychoanalysis and psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological.

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Psychology and Psychoanalysis

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