Psychoanalysis at the crossroad

Abstract: It is argued that psychoanalysis  [*] in the future may only be sanctioned in academia, and find acceptance in the health business, should metapsychological concepts become common knowledge. Psychoanalysis, and neighbouring branches, suffer from conceptual isolation. A knowledge of the unconscious belongs in public consciousness. Empirical research must stand on firm theoretical ground, which is not the case today. For this reason, neither research nor a clinical approach can give direction to psychoanalysis. The answer lies in a theoretical perspective, a clarification of metaphysical and metapsychological assumptions.

Keywords: dialectics, interiority, metapsychology, empiricism, physicalism, cognitive-behavioral.

Psychoanalysis and academia

To what extent is the crisis of psychoanalysis predicated on the fact that it more and more loses its academic platform for the benefit of cognitive-behavioral therapy, etc.? I am doubtful that this development is successfully met by increased empirical research, something which is often proposed. I think the real crisis is taking place on the theoretical and ideological plane. Should psychoanalytic institutes today stake much of their resources on burdensome empirical research, they risk forgoing the most important task, namely the advancement of psychoanalysis in terms of its theory and its own unique perception of man and world. Psychoanalysis mustn’t be forced into the Procrustean bed of empirical science, because it extends beyond science. Here is where psychoanalysts have failed, namely to speak to people. Wouldn’t the public health business be more favourable to psychoanalysis if they could comprehend psychoanalytic literature? The branch of Analytical Psychology, despite never having been sanctioned in academia, sells vastly more literature than traditional psychoanalytic authors, and new institutes are inaugurated. It revolves much around “gods” and “goddesses”. Its foundation does not lie in empirical research, as such. The real challenge is coming to terms with the outgrowth of psychoanalytic theory, and to make it presentable to people, professor and layman alike. Freud had this vision, of psychoanalysis conquering the world. Why have modern psychoanalysts given up this completely, merely navel-gazing on the theoretical aspects of this and that case history?

Dialectical foundation

Why is it that many psychoanalysts today are suspicious of ‘scientific research’? The following is my explanation. In a nutshell, it is the ‘exterior perspective’ of scientific research that collides with a psychoanalytic ‘perspective of interiority’. At the kernel lies the theoretical foundation of research. A theory of metapsychological concepts is a prerequisite of research. Without it we have no means of understanding or interpreting the facts that we observe. Empirical results must be valued against an advanced theoretical backdrop, which is normative, and which also includes metaphysical assumptions. Such a theory will determine how the result shall be judged. In a sense, psychic phenomena aren’t even observable if not viewed through the lens of theory.

On this view, the establishment of a self-consistent theory must come first, otherwise empirical data is bound to be misinterpreted. Research will then further a physicalistic or behavioristic view of man. Without an overarching psychoanalytic theory, how can psychoanalysts even agree on how to interpret data? The psychoanalytic view implies a different, and more well-informed, perspective on man and world. In a sense it qualifies as a worldview, and this is a necessary prerequisite for psychoanalytic research.

G.G. Giacomini has highlighted the two opposites, naturalism and dialectics, and says that personological psychoanalytic research must be dialectically founded (vid. Giacomini [1]). These opposites can also be described in the following way. A naturalistic approach implies an inward movement, a withdrawal from public consciousness, whereas a dialectical method implies that refined notions are created, that are suitable for communication. If interchange with psychiatry and clinical psychology, with the humanities and the social sciences, is important, then psychoanalytic concepts must be graspable, and psychoanalysis must be able to present convincing ideas.

Erich Fromm criticizes the attitude towards science adopted by many ‘psychologists’. They collect empirical facts, make quantitative measurements, and then they expect that theories will develop out of this activity (cf. Fromm, 1979, ch.I.3 [2]). He says that this view of science is very primitive and is long ago abandoned among the hard sciences. Can ‘applied research’ be performed by scientific ‘observation’ in the therapeutic setting? Deep understanding would be a necessary prerequisite also in this form of research. Psychoanalysis must rely on a profound view of human nature as, without it, we cannot even judge the outcome of therapy.

A perspective of interiority

If the above is true then psychoanalysts must hold to the ‘perspective of interiority’, because it does not suffice to look only at surface phenomena. Where a cognitive therapist sees a healthy and active individual, a psychoanalyst could see a forbidding case of narcissism, leading a “false life”, as it were. So psychoanalytic research is obliged to focus on moral aspects, whether or not a patient deep inside feels that he/she lives a “good life”, and whether or not the analysand approximates a “whole man”, relieved of infantile bonds. This does not necessarily mean, on the surface, that suffering is alleviated, or that the patient conforms to societal ideals.

In Great Britain, each year (2006), 10% of the teenage girls harm themselves, cut themselves with razor blades, etc. In Sweden 35% of the women between 16 and 29 suffer from impaired mental health, and 25% of them have contemplated suicide (Dagens Nyheter, Aug 12 2006). Psychoanalysts must be able to discuss, in graspable language, such psychological facts of the surrounding world. The notion of the unconscious has not received its due place in public consciousness. On account of this, even intellectuals are groping in the dark when confronted with many phenomena in today’s world. Many acute problems, such as bullying at schools and workplaces, the phenomena of mass-neuroses, and the problem of group narcissism (such as corporate scandals), cannot be understood without a thorough grasp of psychological concepts. The reason why commentators cannot explain the motives behind the Iraqi war is because they have no notion of the unconscious and its dynamism. The unconscious is the most important finding of modern science, but after a hundred years of psychoanalysis it is still not within the grasp of common people. Intellectuals and politicians, too, who are responsible for taking action and finding the solutions, lack an essential tool to analyze the problems.

Today, people have acquired an understanding of nature around us, the causes of tsunamis, etc. Physicists, chemists, or biologists, do not refrain from explaining these phenomena. Had psychoanalysts been able to communicate notions of collective psychology, for instance, then uncountable people would have a means of understanding the evil that they, society, and corporations, are subjected to. For the victimized person, intellectual understanding, as such, is of great help. That person would not fall for the typical error of questioning his own social capacity. Of course, in the hands of a cognitive-behaviourist therapist, he would soon learn that there is something wrong in his adaptive capacity. This is because cognitive-behaviourist therapy, in effect, supports a superficial and narcissistic view of man.


Normative values are very central in diagnosis. For instance, the behaviour of the individual involved in a narcissistic group, e.g. a Masonic Order, or a mafia organization, can be diagnosed as acutely narcissistic. However, should we adopt a perspective from within group narcissism, he is well-adapted and therefore perfectly normal. On the other hand, a “normal” individual fares awkwardly in the social coterie. He would soon develop “neurotic symptoms” and, typically, diffuse symptoms to the stomach.

In such case, a psychoanalyst must maintain a value-based evaluation of disease and conclude that it is the apparently “healthy” individuals that suffer from pathology, and the “sick” individual is inherently healthy. He only needs to leave the narcissistic group. A morally relativistic perspective is irreconcilable with psychoanalysis. Morals is part and parcel of the human condition and hence also of psychoanalysis.

During Germany’s Third Reich many men belonging to the elite came to the doctors with diffuse symptoms, especially to the stomach (cf. von Franz, 2000, p.165). These were the supposed Aryan supermen who proved to be sickly and weak. It amounted to a virtual epidemic. Of course, these were neurotic symptoms. The unconscious reacted against the monumental immoral condition of society and the weird ideas of a superhuman elite. According to an “objective” evaluation, these people suffered from some form of mental condition, and should be assigned a DSM code. But from a “morally biased” evaluation, they weren’t sick — it was society that was sick.

So we mustn’t overvalue physical signs or evidence of biological causation. This is also the shortcoming of the so called “mental health revolution” (here). They say that they take psychiatric diagnosis away from the descriptive and from the talking cure, to a cure based on deeper biology — lab tests or blood tests. Mental health is rapidly becoming a field of medicine just like any other. “If something goes wrong, clinicians will apply a battery of tests, make a diagnosis and decide on the best treatment for an individual.”

Of course, if we were able to apply this knowledge on the Aryan elite of the Third Reich, the clinicians would soon be able to discover what chemicals and neurons are failing, and correct it by prescibing some compound suitable for the individual. Thus they could return to their duties as superhumans. According to this view, there is no psychic or social backdrop to the illness. It is only a malfunctioning neural system. This is the “objective” and “scientific” view of the current mental health revolution, which is completely amoral. It is the public medical service of George Orwell’s 1984. One sometimes hears formulations such as this: “An ideal empirical system for classification would not be based on past theory but rather would begin from the bottom up — starting with specific experiences, problems or ‘symptoms’ or ‘complaints’.

Obviously, it doesn’t work that way. The symptom, as such, is not that relevant. It is the psychological and sociological backdrop which is relevant, something which necessitates a talking cure. It is better to apply a diagnose, like “bad marriage”, than to observe a patient and conclude that he suffers from the “splitting headache syndrome”. It is easy to see that such a bottom-up classificatory system is perfectly silly.

Public knowledge

There is a misunderstanding among psychoanalysts that only a naturalistic method belongs in science. But science is also dialectical. Science is dependent on metaphysics, and on meta-theoretical concepts (those that Freud called “mythical”) in order to explain the world. Overgrown and erroneous psychoanalytic theory is best reduced by introducing metaphysical paragraphs. Interpreting the facts in this or that way is thus prohibited. Psychoanalysis must cultivate theory by accepting that the psyche behaves “as if” metapsychological concepts are for real. They don’t have to be empirically validated, as such. Physicist rely on concepts such as ‘force’, ‘energy’, and ‘numbers’, to communicate how the universe works. But today we know that the universe only behaves “as if” force and energy exist. Energy, as such, does not exist. An object can be said to be falling because its potential energy is converted into dynamic energy. Although this model still underlies calculations, Einstein argued that it’s the ‘topography’ of the universe that accounts for the attractive force. The object simply moves along topological paths (cf. Wiki [3]).

The force model, the energy model, and the topological model remain in use. They have each their own advantage. Some concepts and models have been discarded because they won’t comply with accepted metaphysics. This situation could be projected on psychoanalysis, since there exist several models in this discipline, too. But psychoanalysis has no means of rejecting the incorrect ones, and removing faults within a model, because it lacks a common metaphysical framework. So the corrective process does not foremostly depend on empirical research. Empirical data can support several models, as is the case in physics.

Psychoanalysts need to explain psychological phenomena with the aid of metapsychological concepts and see to that the equation works out. It’s like solving an algebraic equation, without knowing the referents. If psychoanalysts could explain psychological reality, visible to anyone, by using concepts within the grasp of the layman, then they will make a lasting impression on people in all branches. To the question of the empirical veracity of these concepts psychoanalysts can provide the same answer as the physicists, namely that nature behaves “as if” these entities existed. This is true empiricism. It is how science really works. Psychoanalysis must go into metaphysics, and dialectics, in order to resolve its problem. Concepts must be cultivated and refined, and some must be discarded, foremostly on metaphysical and ethical grounds.


Psychoanalysis was not meant to be the secret knowledge of an esoteric sect. Something must be done about the conceptual isolation, or don’t psychoanalysts care about suffering humanity? In a situation when a quarter of the population suffers from mental health problems, psychoanalysts cannot expect to take them all into analysis. A clinical approach, concentrating on the consulting room, spells doom for psychoanalysis. Knowledge of the unconscious must become common knowledge.


© Mats Winther, 2007.


Psychoanalysis of Psychoanalysis

The patient (Psychoanalysis) expresses feelings of depression because he has lost momentum in life, having gradually been depraved of his former vocational status. Younger talents are taking over more and more, and the patient’s self-esteem withers away. Trying to adjust himself to the perspective of his younger collegues he has been brewing an inner conflict. His conscious outlook is now coloured by compromise formations functioning as inferior solutions to his conflict. The conscious perspective is neurotic.

The patient started out in life as a child prodigy. As is typical in such cases, they tend to get stuck in a puerile state, never wholly taking charge of their life. The patient has remained a weather-driven existence, living day by day, and never bothered much about the big questions, that is, matters of importance to humanity as a whole. At most he has spoken disparaging about such concerns. While failing to assume a definite and elaborate conscious standpoint, in terms of his direction and ambitions in life, he now lacks, despite his talent, the ability to stand his ground against much inferior contenders in working life.

The inability to grow up and accept a fatherly role signals the presence of the mother complex, more precisely, the ‘puer aeternus’ variant. The condition is reinforced by his notion of concepts as ‘fictions’ and theories as ‘myths’. Thus underestimating the fatherly aspect of reality, he is incapable of coming to terms with his mother attachment. Reality to him is Mother Nature, nothing more and nothing less. As we all know, a person with a materialist (’mater’-ialist) worldview is always entwined in the mother complex. Recently this has been accentuated in his attempt to forgo dialectics altogether and leave it all to Mother Nature. ‘By observing nature,’ he says, ‘I will be directed to the truth.’ He actually expects mother to take the lead, thus emphasizing his puerile condition. He has adopted the mistaken belief that this is how ‘science’ is done.

In this case the regressive solution, the return to mother, is wholly improper. Should the patient persist in his regressive solution, this will cause an accentuation of his conflict, which could lead to a catastrophic permanent split in his nature. Therefore the patient must be encouraged to listen to the compensating forces that arise from the unconscious, and which elevate the fatherly aspect of his own nature, and of humanity as a whole.

The way out of his puerile condition goes via the fatherly sphere, by taking on responsibility. The patient must assume the role of the father himself, and strike down roots in reality (which is not equal to physical reality) by taking a definite stand in questions of metaphysical and ethical nature. He must start to differ between what is right and what is wrong, delineating the fatherly metaphysical principles by which judgement is made, thus taking over leadership in the sphere of understanding and wisdom. By assuming the fatherly role, allowing the underdeveloped truth he has always carried to grow, and communicating it to the public, he will conquer the mother complex, acquire genuine self-esteem, and can henceforth look upon the future with confidence.


When I discuss ‘psychoanalysis’ I don’t mean Freud but rather the entirety of theory connected with psychoanalysis, much of which has gone beyond Freud. I suggest that psychoanalytically oriented theories, including Analytical Psychology, have put “the unconscious” in the foreground. Other therapies don’t. That’s why theoretical proposals to explain phenomena such as self-mutilation, etc., risk missing the mark. They have no notion of the autonomous impetus of the unconscious. Hence it’s important that psychoanalytically oriented theories raise their voice.


Franz, M-L von (2000). The Problem of the Puer Aeternus. Inner City Books.

Fromm, E. (1979). Greatness and limitations of Freud’s thought. Harper & Row.

Giacomini, G. Giacomo. (see elsewhere)

Watts, S. (2011). ‘On the brink of a mental health revolution’. (here)

Winther, M. (2005). ‘The ongoing self-destruction of psychoanalysis’. (here)

See also:

‘General relativity’. Wikipedia article. (here)