Critique of Conflict Theory
‘Conflict theory’ (psychoanalytic) mirrors the
chaotic configuration of the borderline psyche. Charles Brenner has effectively
discarded the separate psychic layers of conscious and unconscious. The stream
of outer and inner information is loosely connected, mirroring the instability
and contradictory nature of the borderline psyche, as opposed to the more
hierarchical and austere configuration of drives and perceptions among normal
people. It is an apt example of a “neurotic theory”, since it cannot function as a model of the normal psyche. Conflict theory is irreconcilable with
neuroscience as well as classical psychoanalysis and analytical
compromise formation, structural model,
language philosophy, indeterminacy, post-structuralism, Freud, Giegerich.
Charles Brenner’s conflict theory is the leading analytic
theory taught in psychoanalytic institutes throughout the United States. The theory is
accredited by the American Psychoanalytic Association. On this view there are no
psychic structures, such as ego and Id, or conscious and unconscious. The term
unconscious is very much relativized since the theory has eliminated the unconscious
structure, as such, although conflicts can be partly unconscious. According to Brenner there is no ego and there is no realm of the
unconscious. He drops the well-known conceptions of both the topographic and
the structural models. Brenner says:
I proposed the view that current data speak
against the idea that mental conflict, as well as other aspects of mental
functioning, are best explained by assuming that the mental apparatus consists
of two or three agencies, systems, or structures, the two system theory being
the topographic theory [conscious/pre-conscious/unconscious] and the three
system theory being the structural theory [ego/Id/super-ego]. (Brenner, 1998)
according to Freud are derivatives of the ego defensive function, which moulds and “improves”
the unconscious content (cf. Freud, 1916). While in itself an improbable idea,
in Brenner’s theory it is developed into something quite different and even more
peculiar. The compromise formation is said to arise autonomously when
maximization of the gratification of desire forms a compromise with the
minimization of unpleasant restraints, deriving from social and moral
proscriptions of childhood origin.
Compromise formations, allegedly, are the sole contents of the psyche
and the formation of compromises takes place regardless of any conscious agency,
and without any involvement of superego, etc. There is no real difference
between health and pathology. If a compromise formation allows for an adequate
amount of pleasurable gratification of drive derivatives, then it’s normal —
it is as simple as that! (cf.
Brenner, 2003). Due to the fact that there exists a
myriad of compromise formations, pathology is extremely relativized. The only thing
that counts is to increase gratification of drives, until a level is reached
that is considered normal. Comparatively, in Freud, conflict and compromise
formations are considered to be in and of themselves pathological.
Brenner uses the term ‘unconscious’ as an adjective, as if a compromise
formation goes into suspension. In Freud and Jung, the unconscious is of a
different nature than the ego system —
a “realm” where different laws
prevail. The unconscious realm, ego and consciousness, are involved in a psychic
economy that bears resemblance to communicating vessels.
Brenner’s idea is to discard the notion of the unconscious as a psychic realm. Instead the term is used as
an adjective applicable to compromise formations. However, adopting such a view will have enormous consequences.
The notion runs counter to the findings of neuroscience which has corroborated
the existence of unconscious motivation. (The concepts of neuroscience aren’t
necessarily directly translatable to psychoanalytic notions, although they may corroborate the latter). Brenner’s central tenet is that there exists no
static function responsible of ego defence mechanisms, such as repressions. Yet
modern neurological research has revealed a highly effective repressive
function located in the medial frontal lobe. Basically, it causes memories to be
selectively remembered in order to prevent unpalatable unconscious contents to
alter a person’s “rational and good” self-image.
Furthermore, neuroscientists have identified unconscious memory
systems that bypass the hippocampus
, which is responsible of generating
conscious memories. It confirms the existence of continuous unconscious
memories that produce unconscious motivations in the form of emotions (cf.
Solms, 2004). Neuroscience has corroborated notions of conscious ego vs.
unconscious, a repressive mechanism, and an unconscious motivation —
very factors that do not exist, according to Brenner. Brenner is very radical in his wish to dissolve all the hierarchies of
the psyche. He repudiates the notion of a rational reality-function:
From these and other examples I concluded that
there seems to be no convincing evidence of a need for consistency or realism in
what is thought of as adult ego functioning and that inconsistency, illogic, and
disregard for reality are quite natural to those aspects of mental functioning. (Brenner, 1998)
Yet neuroscience has convincingly demonstrated
that there is an autonomous function that efficaciously rationalizes away
unwelcome facts, giving plausible but invented explanations of unconsciously
motivated actions. The most well-known experiments have been made by neurologist
V. S. Ramachandran.
We have a remarkable ability to repress
memories selectively and to immediately create rational explanations for the
holes in the story. Ramachandran says that the left hemisphere manifestly
employs Freudian “mechanisms of defence”. We are extremely
rationalizing. Realism and regard for logic is autonomous. When facts don’t fit
our worldview, we immediately create logical stories to make up for the
autonomous repressions that have occurred (cf. Ramachandran & Blakeslee,
Thus, evidence is mounting in neuroscience that there is an autonomous
repressive function and a rationalizing function. We have conscious memories and
we have unconscious memories, which bypass hippocampus. However, in Brenner’s thinking the mind is not composed of separate agencies.
In his scheme there is no place for an overlying repressive function:
Whatever helps minimize unpleasure associated
with a drive derivative is a defense. There are no special defense mechanisms;
that is, there are no mental mechanisms or activities that serve the function of
defense and of nothing else. Whatever thoughts or behavior serve to diminish
unpleasure are defenses. (Brenner, 1982)
Discoveries of neuroscience have confirmed the existence of a non-verbal
and an unrepressed unconscious.
Mauro Mancia says that
“[the] implicit memory is the archive for unconscious experiences that
cannot be remembered or described verbally” (Mancia,
2006, p.97). Such a region exists prior to
the formative principles of compromise
formations (i.e., the unpleasant restraints deriving from social and moral
proscriptions). Thus, we can be certain that at least one region of the psyche is not
comprised of compromise formations. Mancia continues:
[The unrepressed unconscious] is the result of storage in the implicit
memory of experiences, fantasies, and defenses dating from the presymbolic and preverbal stage of development, that therefore cannot be recollected even though they carry on influencing a person’s affective, emotional, cognitive, and sexual life even as an adult. (ibid. p.107)
We are endowed with a dual memory system; the explicit or
declarative memory, which can be verbalized and recalled
(essential to our identity and our autobiography), and the implicit memory,
which is unconscious and can neither be verbalized nor recalled (p.12).
Even during adulthood, strongly stressful or traumatic experiences may alter the circuits of the explicit
memory, so that they have to be filed in the implicit memory, where they
form the building blocks of a late unrepressed unconscious
Although gaining access directly to the repressed unconscious and the implicit memory is impossible, contents may be acquired through a circuitous process. Luigi Cappelli explains:
According to Mancia […], fear and anxiety stored in the emotional
and affective implicit memory can to some extent become independent of
external references that might trigger them. These memories, however,
exert a constant pressure on a person’s conscious psychic life and on the
declarative memory, even if they are not formulated verbally and cannot
easily be called up voluntarily. As Mancia points out, in psychoanalysis
these nonthinkable, nonsymbolic emotional levels tend to surface in non-verbal form, in the tones and rhythms of the voice, and the structure of
the language, more than the content of what the patient is saying. Dreams
and the transference are other gateways through which they can irrupt in
analysis. Mancia considers this level of memory as part of an unrepressed
unconscious that may contain traumatic experiences. These presymbolic
features, manifested in the “musicality” of the patient’s language in the
transference and through the figurative and symbolopoietic aspects of the
dream, can thus be defined in explicit, conscious terms. (ibid. p.184)
Thus, it is evident that Brenner’s
theory, which presupposes that the psychic content has a linguistic and narrative nature, conflicts sharply with the findings of neuroscience, not to speak of the findings of
classical psychoanalysis and analytical psychology.
A borderline theory
Logically, conflict theory does not hold water. How
can we remember things and have a continuous personality if we lack
recourse to a permanent conscious faculty called the ego? How do we explain the
synthetic function whereby contents are assimilated? The theory of projections,
whereby everything unconscious remains projected, suddenly hangs in the air. How
can a reaction formation 
in terms of compromise formations?
It’s evident that we cannot do
without the notion of the ego. Thus, we are bound to adopt the notion of the
unconscious, too, as the idea of the conscious mind is meaningless without a
notion of the unconscious. Conscious and unconscious are better viewed as “realms”
where different psychological laws prevail. The unconscious is by nature manifold,
whereas the synthetic nature of consciousness comes to expression in ego unity.
In the unconscious realm incompatible elements may exist side by side and remain alloyed.
Consciousness requires consistency and directionality, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to
recognize people; nor would we be capable of performing a monotonous work, like driving a
train engine all day. This only became possible after the development of the
self-governed ego, a function that remained unrealized in archaic man.
The quality of consciousness is synthetic, making it a different
realm. At the rise of consciousness psychic laws take shape that have bearing on
the relation between conscious and unconscious. They should be viewed as realms because they
like realms (there is no need to introduce terms of
ontology). How, then, is it possible for Brenner to create a theory that flies
in the face of reason? It’s because he holds that “logic, consistency, and
consonance with reality is not normative”. There exists no ego, and thus
no reality-function. Of course, such a theoretical grounding allows Brenner to
be as illogical as he wishes (cf. Brenner, 1968). In therapy, then, the therapist may interpret the material as he
wishes, due to the fact that there is no logic or consistency in mental
functioning. Instead, “indeterminate meaning” is the basis of the
psyche, in the form of a multitude of compromise formations. Nothing is correct
or incorrect, anyway.
Such an attitude poses an immediate danger to the fragile patient. It’s
always possible, in any person, to discern psychological conflicts of a trivial kind. People having certain forms of borderline or narcissistic disorders are often
rather acute psychological observers. Their apparent nearness to other people’s
unconscious primarily derives from their ability to register minimal nuances in
our verbal expression, voice, facial expression, and other expressive motions,
like our involuntary bodily motions. The problem is that they register only the initial impulse, but fail
to heed its rectification via defence mechanisms and realistic thinking. This
psychological “talent”, together with the very befitting “conflict
theory”, would forebode a future with borderline doctors. They may keep to
the surface all the time and make any deduction they want.
It’s true that pathology and health can, in a way, be regarded as
relative and not absolute concepts. However, Brenner’s version of this relativism is
over the top. A sensible form of relativism, that retains the demarcation line
between conscious and unconscious, signifies a condition as pathological when the
complex continually disturbs consciousness. On the other hand, the subject cannot be regarded as suffering from a pathology, such as neurosis, if the very same complex has not the capacity to disturb
If we are lacking a theoretical divide between conscious and unconscious then a person’s
feelings and perceptions must always be regarded as more or less objective. If a subject is angry with Mr. Smith,
then the subject knows he must be right because otherwise he wouldn’t have had these
feelings. Emotionally, he has not established a division between inner and outer
reality. This is same as the narcissistic short-circuit. On the other hand, had the subject read something of Freud, then he could begin to suspect that
the feelings really spring from the unconscious, and his perceptions might be
misperceptions building on unconscious expectations. His motive of leaping out at
has unconscious roots.
If we remove the theoretical demarcation line, then we are moving closer to a theory that mimicks borderline psychopathology. Characteristic of this condition is that
there exists no inner and outer —
the two are melded together. It means that every
definition of reality, as well as all action, is also a reflection of oneself.
Effectively, the subject’s ego and the world are one. It implies that the subject
himself is capable of defining the world. “Mr. Smith is a bad person
because I have those negative feelings toward him”.
Anything that the
subject creates, whether an intellectual product or anything else, cannot be criticized
because that would imply an attack on his ego. It’s experienced as a
. So the subject’s definition of reality must be fully respected. Everybody
else must follow him in rebuking Mr. Smith. Otherwise, it’s again
experienced as a direct attack on the subject’s ego. Of course, this well-known pattern is
easily recognizable in the narcissistic pathology.
Brenner’s repudiation of psychic structure depends on his
footing in post-structuralist tradition. Post-structuralists hold that the
concept of “self”, as a singular and coherent entity, is a fictional
construct. Instead, an individual comprises conflicting tensions and knowledge
claims, e.g. gender, class, profession, etc. (cf. New World Encyc., here
). It’s necessary for this theory to work that the psychic content is of
a linguistic and narrative nature, otherwise compromise formations could not form.
, on the other hand, may contain opposites that, if formulated
in language, will fly apart. Thus, if the psyche has a pre-linguistic and symbolic
layer, then Brenner’s theory collapses. Whereas a symbol can relate undivided
‘meaning’ the compromise formation cannot, due to the indeterminacy of meaning
Post-structuralist thinking implies the relinquishment of all kinds of structures
(including Freud’s structural model), as well as the assumption that there
are truths to be uncovered, and a (neurotic) conflict to be resolved. This
assumption is what we had before, with Freud. According to the postmodern project, to
which Brenner’s theory belongs, there is merely inherent conflict and
self-contradiction. The subject is only capable of exchanging one inherent conflict, one compromise formation, against another inherent conflict. He may ‘deconstruct’ one
compromise formation, but only to create another. This is modern philosophy in terms of Jacques Derrida, et al. Brenner’s theory clearly belongs in the
post-structuralist and postmodernist project. It is in the same vein as
solipsistic language philosophy.
The inner conflict of language is central to the postmodernist
project, to which Brenner belongs. If there is such a thing as ‘symbolic
representation’, instead of representations in the form of ‘linguistic
narratives’, then Brenner’s model of the mind collapses like a house of cards. A
symbol is something that goes beyond language. Hence it cannot be a part of
any compromise formation. Opposites form after an intervention of a
language-dependent consciousness. Symbolic representation, on the other hand,
transcends the opposites of consciousness and may carry meaning inexpressible
in words. Thus, Brenner’s conflict model stands and falls with the supremacy of
language representation (cf. Peterson, 2002).
The impossibility of determining the precise meaning of utterances
between individuals, the alleged “indeterminacy of meaning”, underlies
the multiplicity of meaning in the compromise formations. These philosophers
think that the intrapsychic, too, wholly builds on language. Hence, its content
is indeterminate, and can be interpreted any way you like. There is no need for
a reality-function (i.e., an ego), due to the fact that the extrapsychic and
the intrapsychic can be interpreted much as you like. There is no “absolute
reality” to adapt to. So it has a strong smell of the Wittgensteinian form
The influence from Anglo-Saxon language philosophy is marked also in
many other academic branches. In the humanities, the so-called post-structuralists
argue that a text, a film manuscript, or whatever, cannot reach outside itself,
which means that we are “enclosed in our language”. In that case one would expect these thinkers to shut up, but the
effect is the opposite. Since it doesn’t matter what they are writing, they
realize that they can just as well babble about anything. It doesn’t matter that
it’s senseless because there is never any true reference to an external
meaning, anyway. Should somebody create something seemingly deep and intelligent,
one can always ‘deconstruct’ it and reveal that it’s simply a petty bourgeoisie
political motif underlying the text, such as homophobia, misogynism, etc. This kind
of thinking is represented in psychology by Brenner’s ‘conflict theory’. The
case material can be interpreted in any way you like, due to a lack of
reference to objective meaning.
I hold that this way of thinking is neurotic. Theories, in themselves, can
be affected by a “rational neurosis”. It means that any person that
digests these theories, and practices them, will acquire secondary and induced
neurotic symptoms. It’s essentially the same phenomenon as a person reading
Communist books by Lenin. With time he might even develop the characteristics of
a personality disorder. Such people really need to be “deprogrammed”,
similarly to how sect members are deprogrammed. It’s the thinking they
subscribe to that is neurotic. This is why “cognitive therapy” has achieved a degree of success. It encourages the patient to challenge his/her
distorted and unhelpful thinking. Much of the problems that people have today
really derives from the bunkum they have accumulated in their heads —
errant thoughtways that
they have come to believe in.
I have criticized the theory that the defining
elements of the psyche consist of compromises formed of narratives, that is,
linguistic entities with indeterminate meaning. To exemplify, let’s look at a common theme in dreams, namely “the failed exam”: “I
am about to take the exam, but I’m probably going to fail because I
haven’t studied diligently.”
Arguably, this theme
would compensate a sense of failure, but not in the way of a compromise
formation. A complex, i.e. a “failure complex”, has formed. It is what
it is: a sense of failure that resides in the unconscious. As soon as
consciousness realizes it clearly, it will dissolve: “In fact, I have passed
life’s exams and may walk straight-backed through life.”
This is one possible
explanation. An alternative interpretation is that the dreamer is too stressed up about
things. An “achievement complex” has constellated in the unconscious
and is causing a disturbance in consciousness. When this is wholly consciously realized the complex
dissolves, and the subject may seat himself on the pier with a fishing-rod in his hand. Again, it’s not the case of a compromise formation, but of a complex
. Its name
is “achievement” and it is what it is.
Yet, these are, arguably, rather
easy and atypical examples. The more difficult case is when the failed exam
dream points at a symbolic
content. In this case the dream says that the dreamer
lags behind in “something”. When he wakes up he has the feeling that
he is missing out on something. The complex doesn’t dissolve. In this case we are
dealing with a symbolic
content. The unconscious doesn’t “know” what
it is —
only consciousness has the capability of formulating it. Typically it
pertains to matters connected with individuation
. When the worldly education has
finished, the spiritual schooling has just begun. Such dreams in midlife, or later,
would herald a change of attitude, which will soon collapse the many preconceptions like a
house of cards. It is high time to pass a bridge (the exam) and arrive at a
higher level of consciousness.
None of the above explanations make use
of compromise formations. So we are dealing with complexes
and with symbol
A theory of compromise formation and linguistic narratives cannot
explain the processes of the psyche. A symbol is not a narrative. In fact, it is
something that is not yet wholly formulated. A complex is not a compromise. On
the contrary, “what you see is what you get”.
The archaic mind
Brenner’s repudiation of Freud’s structural notions is echoed in
Wolfgang Giegerich’s Neo-Hegelian repudiation of Jung’s structures. Jung
likewise postulates an ego, whereas the Id is termed the “collective
unconscious” and takes on a more ideational character. According to
Giegerich, there is no unconscious because “technology” has replaced it. The magnum opus
of our time is “making money” (cf.
Giegerich, 1996 & 2004).
It is not easy to understand the underlying motif of this manner of thinking.
Of course, in a pre-conscious human, or in an animal, there is no ego
consciousness, and thus there is no unconscious. In fact, ego
consciousness emerges coincidentally with the unconscious realm. It functions like a contrast effect.
It seems that Brenner aims to formulate a psychology based on the primitive or animal
mind. The borderline psyche represents, as some theorists have argued, a
fallback to the archaic psyche. Since the archaic standpoint cannot
successfully harmonize with modern society, a pathological conflict ensues.
Giegerich reasons along such lines. He has dropped the notion of
the unconscious and reverted to the archaic mind. Anyway, that’s how I
understand his thinking. In order for a projection to fall out there must exist
an unconscious content (and therefore an unconscious). However, in the archaic state of worldly
identification projection does not take place. For instance, the aborigine experiencing a
divinity in a stone has no doubts of the veracity of his experience. Since the psyche of archaic man remained at one with
the surrounding world there occurred no projection of unconscious content. Comparatively, in a projective economy there is always critical reflection and doubts arising, which means that a projection may be withdrawn.
Giegerich introduces the notion of primitive identity in the modern
world and argues that the modern psyche is at one with technology
. So he
interprets the modern world in terms of pre-conscious mankind situated in a technological
reality, whose foremost drive it is to create money. The modern dweller has no unconscious mind because
he does not project. He is at one with the machines, as pre-conscious mankind was
at one with the trees, the watercourses, etc.
Comparatively, in Brenner, if there is no unconscious, where do all
the repressed contents go? The answer is that they don’t go anywhere, because
there is no repression. A cat doesn’t repress his hunting instinct nor does a
human employ repression. What takes shape are “compromise formations”,
formed by incommensurable contents in the individual. This means that childhood
conflicts, as well as certain compromise formations that they occasion,
persist throughout life. So childhood conflict is all
, and this is
what’s taught in psychoanalytic institutes in the U.S., today (2007).
Brenner makes use of psychological definitions in an
inconsistent way, disregarding their original signification. It is a deceitful
way of introducing a wholly new concept of the psyche. Thus, although the psychological concepts really have a
different meaning, he may argue that he retains much of the former
conceptuality. Conflict theory means a radical departure from the “classic”
economy of the psyche, which includes the transactions between conscious and
unconscious, defence and repression, complexes and symbol formation. It is
necessary to employ such notions in psychotherapy because they are included in
the natural language of the unconscious. In dreams and fantasies the conscious
and unconscious are depicted as realms (entering a churchyard at night, for
instance). The unconscious is sometimes personified, and the daylight world may
take shape as a father figure. Complexes, including the Oedipus, can take any
theriomorphic or anthropomorphic form. The content is often of a symbolic nature and not necessarily a linguistic narrative. The idea that classical models are
translatable to conflict theory (i.e., that the latter is a less cumbersome way of saying
the same thing) cannot be proven and it underrates psychic complexity.
Conflict theory is extremely
relativistic. Since there is no real
difference between health and pathology the irresponsible therapist needn’t really
bother about the patient’s well-being. What determines normality is an adequate
amount of pleasurable gratification of drive derivatives. This connotes a
standpoint of amorality as it neglects notions of a constitutional morality.
Judging from ethological research and recent discussions in evolutionary psychology, such a conclusion is unfounded.
In Brenner’s form of relativism there is no clear
demarcation line —
no clear indicator of pathology. It’s a gliding scale. This
will have as consequence that notions of pathology and health will become wholly
subjective terms. It’s up to the doctor to decide what he deems is healthy or
sick. If the patient is still in conflict, it isn’t necessarily a problem,
since the psyche consists of conflicts. As a consequence, psychological thinking
will become arbitrary and shallow. Despite the fact that adult life is
the root of much psychological suffering, all emphasis is put on childhood
conflict. Such a theoretical preconception is damaging to the therapeutic relation.
The hidden premise of Brenner and Giegerich is a formulation of the
healthy mind as modelled on the archaic mind, existing in a state of world-identity. Such a way of
thinking will sustain the narcissistic psychotherapist since his ego may then
wholly envelop the patient. Thanks to an indeterminacy of meaning he may draw
any conclusion he wants, especially those that are self-gratifying. He may
give free rein to his own projections. There is no need for a painful,
conscientious groping in the dark, anymore. What a relief for the burdened
therapist! What comes to mind is Gresham’s Law (1858), which says that money with
less intrinsic value will drive good money out of market. From a patient
perspective the dangers are obvious.
© Mats Winther, 2007.
1. compromise formation
n. In psychoanalysis, a form assumed by a repressed wish, idea, or memory to
gain admission to consciousness as a symptom, usually neurotic (1), a dream
(2), a parapraxis, or some other manifestation of unconscious activity, the
original idea being distorted beyond recognition so that the unconscious
element that needs to be repressed and consciousness that needs to be protected
from it are both partially satisfied by the compromise. The idea was
introduced by Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) in 1896 in his article ‘Further
Remarks on the Neuro-Psychoses of Defence’ (Standard Edition, III, pp.162-85, at p.170) and developed further in his book Introductory Lectures on
Psycho-Analysis (1916–17): ‘The two forces which have fallen out meet once
again in the symptom and are reconciled. It is for that reason, too, that the
symptom is so resistant: it is supported from both sides’ (Standard Edition,
XV-XVI, at pp. 358–9). (A Dictionary of Psychology, Colman, 2001).
formation Defensive process by which an unacceptable impulse is
mastered by exaggeration (hypertrophy) of the opposing tendency. Solicitude may
be a reaction-formation against cruelty, cleanliness against coprophilia, etc.
(A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, Rycroft, 1995).
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Ramachandran, V.S. & Blakeslee, S. (1998). Phantoms of the
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