Science and Psychoanalysis

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Sigmund Freud defined psychoanalysis as the "science of the unconscious" (Wissenschaft des Unbewussten ). The use of the German term Wissenschaft suggests a particular mode of understanding: Wissenschaft is constituted as a system of knowledge organized into a coherent and ordered arrangement of fundamental concepts (doctrine), capable of accounting for empirically observed phenomena (the objects of possible experiments) by means of a method that ensures their intelligibility and verification through controlled reproduction of the experiment. This view of science, which was dominant in the nineteenth century, characterizes a form of rational experimentalism that gradually reduced the meaning of the word "science" to a narrowly defined "phenomeno-technique" (in the coinage of Gaston Bachelard).

Freud's project to scientifically account for psychic processes appears clearly in 1895 in the introduction to the Project for a Scientific Psychology : "In this 'Project' the intention is to furnish a psychology that shall be a natural science: that is, to represent psychical processes as quantitatively determinate states of specifiable material particles, thus making those processes perspicuous and free from contradiction" (1950c [1895]). At this time he situated his discovery within the field of positivist materialism, where psychic processes are represented by means of the concepts of neurophysiology and the empirical data of clinical research; described, ordered, and reconstructed according to the method of the natural sciences (Naturwissenschaften ). The construction of a metapsychology, a set of concepts specific to psychoanalysis, would lead Freud to abandon the neurophysiological representations found in the "Project" without renouncing his ideal of science.

Freud's belief in a "scientific conception of the world," his fidelity to the positivist ideals of his masters (especially Ernst Brücke) led him, in 1911, to cosign, along with Albert Einstein, David Hilbert, and Ernst Mach, an appeal (Aufruf ) in favor of the creation of a society to help develop the awareness of positivist philosophy. This belief in the ideals of science can be found throughout his work, up to and including the Outline of Psychoanalysis (1940a [1938]), in which he writes: "Whereas the psychology of consciousness never went beyond the broken sequences which were obviously dependent on something else, the other view, which held that the psychical is unconscious in itself, enabled psychology to take its place as a natural science like any other. The processes with which it is concerned are in themselves just as unknowable as those dealt with by other sciences, by chemistry or physics, for example; but it is possible to establish laws which they obey and to follow their mutual relations and interdependences unbroken over long stretchesin short, to arrive at what is described as an 'understanding' of the field of natural phenomena in question."

Freud's adherence to the ideals of science is tempered by an epistemological relativism remote from a "scientific catechism." He writes: "It is a mistake to believe that a science consists in nothing but conclusively proved propositions, and it is unjust to demand that it should. It is a demand only made by those who feel a craving for authority in some form and a need to replace the religious catechism by something else, even if it be a scientific one. Science in its catechism has but few apodictic precepts; it consists mainly of statements which it has developed to varying degrees of probability. The capacity to be content with these approximations to certainty and the ability to carry on constructive work despite the lack of final confirmation are actually a mark of the scientific habit of mind" (1916-17a). In other words, science demands that we renounce beliefs like magic, globalizing visions of the world, and absolute knowledge of metaphysics and religion. The work of the scientist entails the sublimation of epistemophilic sexual drives, which are present in the primal paradigm of the theories and techniques of infantile sexual investigation. Freud raised science to the level of a perfect model of the renunciation of the pleasure principle.

Freud's need to preserve psychoanalysis from the grip of religion and philosophy did not result in his abandoning it to physicians and scientists. As early as The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a) and the Psycho-pathology of Everyday Life (1901b), he took the side of antiquity and popular knowledge against the exclusivity of official science. Throughout his work he manifested this oscillation between art and science, which he discovered that he shared with Leonardo da Vinci. On several occasions he pays homage to the poets and novelists, the true precursors of his own discoveries: "The authors of works of the imagination are valuable colleagues and their knowledge should be held in high esteem, for they have the gift of understanding many things that occur between heaven and earth and of which we have no idea. As for knowledge of the human heart, they exceed us considerably, we humble mortals, for they appeal to sources that are not yet accessible to science" (1908e [1907]).

Freud recognized the role of the imagination in scientific work. This element of fiction within any theory leads him to speak of a "mythology of drives" and the metapsychological "sorcerer." He identifies a dream element at work in science itself and shows, especially in Delusions and Dreams in Jensen 's "Gradiva" (1907a [1906]), the overdetermination inherent in scientific discourse: science, as a whole, can be used for fantasy. Science, with its origins in dream and fantasy, can withdraw only temporarily behind respect for its methodological protocols and critical rationalism. Psychoanalysis can only maintain its scientificity through the implementation of a method within a given form of practice. This epistemological option appears constant over the development of Freudian thought: "What characterizes psychoanalysis, as a science, is less the material on which it works, than the technique of which it makes use" (1916-1917a).

The ideal of Freudian epistemology has gradually given way to the ideal of analysis, which has sometimes been referred to as an ethic. The scientific ideology to which Freud clung has shown itself to be dated, and has been rejected by modern epistemology. Freud's initial belief in the positivist demands of science has been beneficial: It has situated the specificity of psychoanalysis within a method capable of elevating resistance and transference, along with their analysis, to the rank of operators of knowledge of the unconscious. Freud refused to construct and describe a particular structure in which concepts, as well as objects, would remain inseparable from a method. But his positivist and realist prejudices sometimes prevented him from recognizing that the psychoanalytic system created its objects as it discovered them.

With Freud, psychoanalysis, by recognizing its debt to poets and scholars, continued to enjoy the prerogatives of one and the privileges of the other, and vice versa, inscribing its praxeological specificity within the interstices of the traditional loci of knowledge. Having done so, and notwithstanding the classical and modern culture of its founder, it participates indirectly in the decompartmentalization of discourse characteristic of postmodernity.

Roland Gori

See also: Catastrophe theory and psychoanalysis; Future of an Illusion, The ; Matheme; Psychoanalytic epistemology; Psychoanalytic research; Weltanschauung .


Bachelard, Gaston. (1938). La Formation de l 'esprit scientifique: Contribution à une psychanalyse de la connaissance objective. Paris: Vrin.

Freud, Sigmund. (1908e [1907]). Creative writers and daydreaming. SE, 9: 141-153.

. (1916-1917a). Introductory lectures on psychoanalysis. Part I, SE, 15; Part II, SE, 16.

. (1940a [1938]). An outline of psycho-analysis. SE, 23: 139-207.

. (1950c [1895]). Project for a scientific psychology. SE, 1: 281-387.

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

Lacan, Jacques. (1966). La science et la vérité. InÉcrits (p. 855-878). Paris: Le Seuil.

Further Reading

Grunbaum, Adolph. (1984). The foundations of psychoanalysis. A philosophical critique. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Holt, Robert (Ed.). (1997). Psychoanalysis and the philosophy of science. Collected papers of Benjamin Rubenstein. Madison, CT: International Universities Press.

Wallerstein, Robert S. (1986). Psychoanalysis as a science: Response to new challenges. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 55, 414-451.

Weinberger, J. et al. (2000). On integrating psychoanalysis and cognitive science. Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought, 23, 147-176.

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Science and Psychoanalysis