A constructive critique of the structural model in psychoanalysis

Abstract: The article illustrates how the theory of complex psychology is highly relevant to the ongoing discussion within the psychoanalytic community. Critique is directed against Freud’s structural model of the psyche that generalizes an Oedipal psychodynamics. The obsolete operationalism that still lingers in the psychoanalytical community must once and for all be abandoned. Psychology must cease devoting itself to unconvincing empirical investigations and allow more room for rigorous theorists.

Keywords: Oedipus, operationalism, autonomous complex, transference, rational neurosis, structural model, complex psychology, Freud.

Complex psychology versus the structural model

In analytical psychology (contrary to psychoanalysis) the psyche is viewed as consisting of complexes. The autonomy of the complex is lost when it is integrated with consciousness. It then becomes purely functional and remains in the service of consciousness. The ego is a complex among many. This model is malleable and more organic than the psychoanalytical. The complexes merge, disappear, and are created with time. The different “structural” models in the psychoanalytic tradition are reminiscent of the old Ptolemaic system of perfect circular epicycles in the heavens. This astronomical theory were functional, to a degree, but in the end failed because it was too difficult to handle and contained too many inconsistencies. Today the planets move in a malleable space-time. Likewise, the psyche is malleable. It is not made up of structures chiselled out in a rocklike material.

Psychoanalytic literature is no less theoretically complicated than the Ptolemaic. I think it’s due to the same reasons. In order for the theory to work reasonably well, more and more corrective theory must be added. This complicates the picture and more and more inconsistencies are introduced. Although it’s still reasonably functional it’s becoming unwieldy. It is high time that we follow the example of the astronomers of olden times and do away with the structural model. This, however, means that psychoanalytic theorists must kiss the rod and give some credit to Jung. Some theorists must dare to take this step and adopt some of the fundamental principles of complex psychology. There is great need of brainpower and much work to do in the field.

Note that Freudian findings are translatable to notions of complex psychology. For example, as the Id is dominated by the pleasure principle it coincides with a positive mother complex. The superego is the reactive constitution of a negative father complex. The conclusion is that Freud (1962) formulated the structure of the psyche in terms of an unresolved Oedipal pattern. He had empirical grounds for doing so, especially in his own lifetime. In the Western hemisphere the heavenly Father was regarded as the summum bonum, whereas all evil derives from a miserable mankind. It contributed to a negative father complex in the collective. The father (the superego) threatens the Oedipal boy with retaliation should he seek pleasure in the lush motherly garden.

Of course, there are patients that are caught up in this dilemma and where this psychic picture is applicable. Certainly, in terms of complex psychology this pattern is always present, although normally lacking in energy. This circumstance makes it all the more treacherous as it’s always possible to find traces of Oedipal psychology in any patient, even if it’s not the central problem. If the analyst consistently applies this model of the psyche it will often lead him astray.

Adopting a notion deriving from philosopher of science Nicholas Maxwell (1984), I think that the very theory itself can be rationally neurotic. When I say that Freud’s structural model is “Oedipal” I also want to express that Freudian findings are compatible with complex psychology and that they can be translated into terms of the latter.

In complex psychology the notion of dissociable functions exists alongside a concept of integrable autonomous complexes. The psyche is composed of complexes that undergo integration with consciousness and become functional. On the other hand, the functions of consciousness are dissociable when they regain their autonomy as complexes. This is not generally viewed as a regressive movement although it’s most apparent when an ill patient “hears voices”. Such relatively autonomous complexes become contaminated by unconscious contents. This occurs since complexes tend to colour each other, and sometimes they even merge.

The psychic economy is viewed as compensatory. The major underlying libidinal drive is brought forth when the necessary one-sidedness of ego consciousness is compensated by a perspective of wholeness in the form of a complex termed the self. It is the energetic potential between these two standpoints that constitutes the fundamental drive, the deepest undercurrent, so to speak. This is termed individuation. Other energetic potentials exist too, but they are of a type that is resolvable.

A dialectical methodology replacing Freud’s operationalism

Not all the concepts used in scientific statements must be definable in terms of identifiable and repeatable operations. The positivistic operationalism of Freud’s days has been abandoned. Today, an intellectual, dialectical, methodology is more proper than an operationalistic. Still, one can often see how analysts in journal articles exemplify their ideas with a single patient case history, as if they want to bolster their thoughts with this sole case. It doesn’t really correspond to the scientific method. Psychology is in need of rigorous theorists, like in other branches. The idea that we can reach some scientific truth by delving into the mind of this or that particular case is rather far-fetched, although this idea has certainly taken root.

If a dialectical and logical approach is the correct one, we must go one step further and endorse the standpoint of neutrality. Let’s take the example of a clergyman that never stops harping on the heavenly Father as the summum bonum. In this case we might suspect that he has a problem with the negative father complex (popularly called “the devil”).

As a besides, although the clergyman always speaks about how compassionate the Father is I personally don’t think it should be termed a “positive complex”. It’s better to refer to what exists in the unconscious when talking about complexes.

As the clergyman’s standpoint is too far away from a neutral standpoint it’s likely to constitute a “reaction formation”, using Freudian language. Likewise, if the Id is referred to as the “steaming cesspool of humanity’s desires”, then this, too, is suspicious from a neutral perspective. It’s likely that a positive mother complex is in the hiding, a kind of longing for a childlike Garden of Eden.

It’s important to point out that I am not discussing Freud’s own complexes. It is possible to discuss complexes without much regard to personal psychology. This is doable with a neutral and logical language of complex psychology. It’s somewhat similar to how physicists use mathematics. I use the notion of positive mother complex in this general sense (for instance, how in our culture we unconsciously long to recreate the paradise lost).

Many psychologists have argued that narcissistic pathology is on the increase in our culture. For instance, the patient is caught up in a neurotic pattern of incessantly breaking the taboo. Giving free rein to sadism and sexuality is not uncommon. This constitutes a somewhat different pattern than the above Oedipal lockup. So later theorists, as Kohut and Winnicott, chose instead to view the narcissistic pattern as foundational (cf. Winther, 2003, here). But in doing this they made the same mistake again. They instated a neurotic pattern as constitutive of normal personal psychology. Freud’s structural model generalizes human psychology according to an Oedipal pattern that is not generic enough. It must be replaced with a neutral and malleable theory of complexes that is not fashioned according to any kind of neurotic pattern.

The therapeutic setting

Today, during therapy, the patient runs an apparent risk of not being truly seen through the dense theoretical vegetation. He might as well get a DSM stamp on his forehead. In complex psychology this unfortunate division between patient and analyst is compensated for by the fact that the notions of pathology and normalcy are much relativized. The factors of pathology are present in the doctor, too, in the form of complexes, the only difference being that these are not charged with energy and do not disturb consciousness. The mother complex, the Oedipus, etc. are extant in him, too. So there is no reason for the doctor to look down on the patient.

All psychoanalysts are well aware of the invasive character of patient pathology. In dealing with a neurotic person one might oneself become slightly neurotic. This is understood as an activation of a dormant complex in the analyst. The patient’s energetic complex animates the corresponding complex in the doctor. The problem of unconscious relations hasn’t been properly approached in the psychoanalytic tradition. Trying to deal with it has generated theoretically intricate notions of “projective transidentification”, for instance. In complex psychology it’s not always necessary to cope with such entangled notions as identification, introjection, and counter-transference. The problem of the patient is not foremostly viewed in theoretical terms. Instead it’s looked upon as a living portion of psyche. This is due to the autonomy, malleability, and expressive capacity of the complex. It has its own peculiarities, it grows and changes, and is affected by the unconscious relation with the doctor. It expresses itself in dreams and might also surface in the doctor’s unconscious.

This is yet another factor that compensates for the division between patient and analyst. Psyche is viewed as living psyche and not as a tangle of dead theoretical structures. Too much theorizing is deadening to the living expression of the unconscious. With this attitude of consciousness there is no marked need of the transference to compensate for the division between patient and analyst. This implies that on the conscious side there is not much entanglement between the two individuals. There is only a relative and constant melding of the unconscious psyches. As these unconscious factors are consciously deliberated, troublesome projection is kept at a minimum.

Although in analytical psychology the concept of a collective unconscious is standard jargon, the notion is little understood in psychoanalysis. Freud (1960), following his operationalistic programme, advanced the biological notion of a “herd instinct”. It might be more appropriate to apply psychological thought. There have been attempts at grasping the collective psychology of twosome relations, but such phenomena as group narcissism and mobbing are very hard to come to grips with. Possibly the problem is too complicated for a structural theoretical model. Complex psychology makes it easier from the start. Factors of unconscious relations animate the corresponding complex in each member of the group. They all become neurotic and give themselves up to group narcissism. Regrettably, the inability to understand these immensely important issues has led certain psychoanalytic theorists to the appalling notion that the victim of group narcissism is a socially inferior individual.


There is no reason why complex psychology, as a component of analytical psychology, cannot inform psychoanalysis. The model seems to tackle the weaknesses in psychoanalysis. Viewing complex psychology as a subdivision of analytical psychology makes it possible to disregard much of the metaphysical assumptions that come with the latter. Complex psychology can be adopted as a form of neutral, dialectical, psychological language. Regrettably, the trend goes today in the opposite direction. Complex psychology remains unduly undeveloped because of diverse reasons. One reason is probably that many of the intellectual talents choose to work in the psychoanalytic tradition.


© Mats Winther, 2004.


Brenner, C. (2003). ‘Is the structural model still useful?’. The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 84:1093-109.

Freud, S. (1960). Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. New York: Bantam Books.

  -------    (1962). The Ego and the Id. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Jung, C.G. (1972). Two Essays on Analytical Psychology. New York: Princeton University Press.

  -------     (1978). The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche. New York: Princeton University Press.

Maxwell, N. (1984). From Knowledge to Wisdom. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Winther, M. (2003). ‘Winnicott’s Dream: A Critique of Winnicott’s Thought as a Form of Mystical Narcissism’. (here)