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Four years ago, when I first began to ponder the subject of this essay, it seemed to me that the
psychoanalytic community stood on the brink of a major crisis. In newspapers and scholarly
journals the creditability psychoanalysis was under attack. Freud was condemned as an old-
fashioned and unscientific eccentric, while psychoanalytic therapy was dismissed as time-
consuming, expensive, and ineffective. New drugs and new forms of therapy, it was reported,
offered relief to people who had proven completely immune to psychoanalysis, at a fraction of
the time and cost. In addition, the number of practicing psychoanalysts was constantly
decreasing, I read; no one was interested in studying the subject any longer, and the old
practitioners were gradually dying off. Freud’s legacy, it seemed, was slated for oblivion.

Virtually all of the criticism directed towards the practice of psychoanalysis that I encountered
back then could be reduced to the following claim: psychoanalysis, by virtue of its methods
and/or its theory, is unscientific. By this, I suppose, critics meant that psychoanalysis is false
– on par with astrology, witchcraft, and other old, non-scientific superstitions. Compared
unfavorably to the “science” of psychiatry and cognitive therapy, I guess this critique was
intended as a devastating blow against the psychoanalytic profession. And in fact, even those
who defended the value psychoanalytic knowledge admitted it “lacked,” so to speak, the
credentials of a true science; psychoanalysis, they argued, merely provides an alternative to
the “scientific” perspective on human behavior and motivation, articulated as a hermeneutic,
rather than a positivistic, form of inquiry.

Fads come and go, and the anti-psychoanalytic fervor making itself felt in the popular press
back then has disappeared underground again, at least for the time being. But all of that
criticism got me thinking, and led me to pose the following questions (mostly to myself): how
do we, as practicing psychotherapists, know what we “know”? What is the basis of our
knowledge? How well does psychoanalysis stand up to the accusation that it is unscientific,
and what are the implications of that accusation? Is psychoanalysis a natural science, a
hermeneutic inquiry, or a form of mysticism?

During my training here at GPI, strangely enough, these very fundamental questions about
our work were simply neglected. We received no instruction in psychoanalytic research
methods, for example. Nor was the basic epistemological framework underlying
psychoanalytic theory ever clearly explicated during our coursework. Instead, we were
presented with finished theories, usually without reference to any evidential basis whatsoever;
on occasion, a brief sequence would be lifted from an analytic session for heuristic purposes,
but in general the student was expected to accept the theories presented to her as true, a priori.
How analysts ascertained the content of these theories was seldom reflected upon, and the
general validity of psychoanalysis as a knowledge-producing discipline was never questioned.

This may seem a serious criticism of GPI’s training program, but it is, I suspect, merely a
reflection of the state of psychoanalysis in general. Words like verification, falsification, and
hypothesis testing do not seem to be a part of the psychoanalytic vocabulary. A standard
article in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis, for example, is usually structured in the
form of: 1) presentation of theoretical insight; 2) presentation of two or three heuristic
examples; 3) re-presentation of theoretical insight. But a survey of the Journal reveals very
few papers that tackle the serious methodological issues related to the production of
psychoanalytic insight and/or theoretical innovation. It would appear (in print, at least) that

psychoanalysts are not terribly concerned with the question of how they know what they
“know,” either.

This essay began as an attempt to provide a few preliminary answers to the questions outlined
above. Originally, I had intended to present in the first half of the paper an overview of the
theoretical dimensions of the problem; the second half was to be a discussion of various
practical, “hands-on” aspects of the methodology of psychoanalytic knowledge production.
Unfortunately, this proved too ambitious a project, and in the end I have not even managed to
provide a complete overview of the various theoretical positions that can be taken vis-à-vis
psychoanalytic knowledge. For this reason, I ask the reader to view what follows more as an
incomplete work-in-progress than as a finished report. Much more on this subject could, and
probably should, be written.

Be that as it may, it seemed reasonable to me to begin my inquiry with a critical inspection of

what others before me have written on this subject, and that is the method I have used in this
paper. The sections that follow were written at different times, and may therefore seem
vaguely discontinuous with each other; but each one nevertheless revolves around the same
set of central issues. The most fundamental of these issues are those concerning the nature of
psychoanalytic knowledge; what is its basis? Is it empirical? Is it generalizable? Can it be
tested or falsified? Is it different from other fields of natural inquiry? If so, how?

In Section II I briefly present Freud’s views on the status of psychoanalysis, and argue that he
understood his theories as belonging to the natural sciences alongside such disciplines as
physics, chemistry, and astronomy. I also present what I believe to be Freud’s
conceptualization of the nature of scientific inquiry; the section concludes with a discussion of
the ways in which prominent psychoanalysts after Freud sought to defend the scientific status
of the theory against a flood of intransigent academic critique.

In Section III I discuss Karl Popper’s demarcation criterion, also known as the falsifiability
thesis. According to Popper, scientific statements are always empirically falsifiable, a
characteristic which allows us to separate scientific claims from all other types of knowledge
statements. This assertion led him in turn to classify psychoanalysis as a “pseudo-science,”
i.e., as a discipline that appears scientific on the surface, but whose knowledge claims are
fundamentally unfalsifiable – and, hence, unscientific. I end the section with a discussion of
the implications of the falsification criterion for the epistemological basis of psychoanalysis,
and for the psychoanalytic apologetics that have followed its formulation.

Popper’s demarcation criterion provides a touchstone for the remainder of this essay. In
defending psychoanalysis from Popper’s critique, I argue that psychoanalytic theorists have
employed two major strategies. On the one hand, many proponents (and some detractors) of
psychoanalysis have striven to defend the scientific character of psychoanalytic theory,
insisting that contrary to Popper’s claims, psychoanalysis is actually falsifiable. This tactic,
however, has gradually fallen out of fashion. It has been replaced by a second strategy, one
whereby psychoanalysis exchanges its status as a science in favor of a sophisticated
reformulation in the terms of a hermeneutic discipline; currently the view that psychoanalysis
is a hermeneutic, rather than a scientific, field of study is probably the most widely held
understanding of its epistemological foundation.

It has been generally forgotten that traditionally, up until the late 1960s at least, defenders of
psychoanalysis argued stringently in favor of its inclusion within the domain of the natural

sciences. Section IV of this paper presents a brief overview of these arguments, especially in
relation to Popper’s critique. In this section I also discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the
experimental approach to psychoanalytic theory. In addition, I present the work of Adolf
Grünbaum, whose critique of psychoanalysis also includes a sharp rebuttal of Popper’s
assertion of unfalsifiability on the part of “classical” Freudian psychoanalysis; as opposed to
the “experimentalist response” to Popper’s criterion, however, Grünbaum asserts that
psychoanalytic theories are in fact clinically falsifiable, without recourse to experimental
methodologies. I conclude with a critical review of the weaknesses in Grünbaum’s

In Section V I investigate the popular reformulation of psychoanalysis as a hermeneutic

discipline, which I referred to above as the “second strategy” employed in defense of
psychoanalytic theory. Of the many proponents of this view I have chosen to focus on Jurgen
Habermas, whose work I present in detail. Habermas initiates his reflections on the nature of
psychoanalytic knowledge with an in-depth critique of positivist philosophy. Noting that
Freud shared this “positivist worldview,” Habermas continues by examining Freud’s
“scientistic self-misunderstanding” – namely, his unfortunate tendency to formulate deeply
“hermeneutic” clinical insights in a “scientific” language too narrow to fully contain their
import. Seeking to repair this failing, Habermas constructs a reformulated psychoanalytic
epistemology articulated in terms of a “depth hermeneutics,” that is, as a discipline primarily
designed to interpret the broken texts and private language games generated by unconscious
elements within the subject.

However, there is a third response to the falsifiability thesis, one that has not made much
headway in psychoanalytic circles as of yet. This view, derived primarily from the
sociological study of science, presumes all knowledge-producing activities to be
fundamentally social in nature. It therefore rejects the dichotomy that underlies the popular
conceptualization of positivism and hermeneutics, insisting that all empirical research
includes an interpretative element, and that all hermeneutic insight builds upon an empirical
basis. In Section VI of this paper I investigate the relevance of this perspective to
psychoanalytic theory, focussing primarily on the concepts of “incommensurability,” as
developed by Thomas Kuhn, and “underdetermination,” as explicated by Pierre Duhem and
W.V. Quine. I conclude the section with an attempt to apply this sociological perspective to
GPI, speculating (in an admittedly loose fashion) about the way in which social forces within
our own institute shape the content of the theories we teach, and the knowledge we produce.

Finally: a brief note on my use of the term “science.” In standard English usage, “science” is
generally understood to be synonymous with the phrase, “natural science.” The New Oxford
Dictionary of English, for example, defines science as “the intellectual and practical activity
encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural
world through observation and experiment.” Thus, the word “science,” as it is generally
employed in English – and in this text – does not correspond exactly to either the Swedish
word “vetenskap,” or the German “Wissenschaft” – which are (if I understand them correctly)
considerably more inclusive. (“Vetenskap,” indicating an organized body of knowledge, is
best translated into English as “studies.”1) In keeping with this standard usage, I have tended
An ”archaic” usage of the term ”science”, on the other hand, seem to correspond more closely to the Swedish
word “vetenskap.” This older, more inclusive use of ”science” can be seen, for example, in the English
equivalent of ”Statsvetenskap” – Political Science. Nevertheless, it is important to understand that in current
standard English usage, the word science is used almost exclusively to indicate a precise, quantifiable, empirical
discipline. In lay terms it is generally understood, not as a subdivision of “studies,” but as something
qualitatively different, and that is the sense in which I have generally used it here.

to apply the terms “science” and “natural science” synonymously, as referring to a systematic,
“rational” study of Nature that employs a few, specialized methodologies. This usage
corresponds more closely with the term “Naturvetenskap” in Swedish, or “Naturwissenschaft”
in German. Needless to say, a world of complexity lies beneath this apparently simple
linguistic cleavage.

To conclude, then: a caveat. The reader may note that I criticize virtually every perspective
presented in this paper, from beginning to end. I am not a nihilist, however; this is merely the
way my mind works. I believe that by virtue of critical thought one can discover the
weaknesses in a given view of things, with the hope that such discoveries can eventually lead
to even deeper understanding. After all, no one perspective is ever complete within itself, and
it behooves the perceiver to be aware of the theoretical failures generated by one’s underlying
presuppositions. Such shortcomings are chinks in the wall of theory, where new theoretical
insights are waiting to be discovered. Do not be mislead into believing, however, that in
assuming this critical position, I in any sense advocate throwing the baby out with the
bathwater. Every perspective I present in this paper has at least something of value to offer,
as well, and some are extremely rich in content. Assessing this value will be the task of the
concluding few pages of this essay.

II. Psychoanalysis, the “Naive Science”

To state that Freud looked upon psychoanalysis as unequivocally scientific is, perhaps,
something of a simplification. Certainly, Freud was trained as a scientist and physician, and
admired the ethos of natural science – in particular, its stoic adherence to “Truth.” But he
was also strongly influenced by German Romanticism, and at times he seems to have
wavered, uncertain of the status of his psychoanalytic Frankenstein’s monster. In a famous
passage from “Analysis Terminable and Interminable,” for example, he refers to his
metapsychology as a “witch” to whom he turns only as a last resort (Freud, 23; 225).
Arguably more ambivalent is Freud’s lament toward the end of Studies in Hysteria:

I have not always been a psychotherapist. Like other neuropathologists, I was trained to
employ local diagnoses and electro-prognosis, and it still strikes me myself as strange that the
case histories I write should read like short stories and that, as one might say, they lack the
serious stamp of science. I must console myself with the reflection that the nature of the subject
is evidently responsible for this, rather than any preferences of my own. The fact is that local
diagnosis and electrical reactions lead nowhere in the study of hysteria, whereas a detailed
description of mental processes such as we are accustomed to find in the works of imaginative
writers enables me, with the use of a few psychological formulas, to obtain at least some kind
of insight into the course of that affliction (ibid., 2: 160-61).

In addition, a substantial critique has been launched against the English translation of Freud’s
works, especially the Standard Edition, which, it is claimed, has rendered psychoanalysis in a
reductive, scientific language fundamentally alien to its true nature. Perhaps the most
outspoken proponent of this criticism is Bruno Bettelheim, who, in his essay Freud and
Man’s Soul, argues that psychoanalytic theory appears considerably more “scientific” in
English translation than it actually is in original German:

Freud spoke often of the soul – of its nature and structure, its development, its attributes, how it
reveals itself in all we do and dream. Unfortunately, nobody who reads him in English could
guess this, because nearly all his many reference to the soul, and to matters pertaining to the
soul, have been excised in translation.

This fact, combined with the erroneous or inadequate translation of many of the most important
original concepts of psychoanalysis, makes Freud’s direct and always deeply personal appeals
to our common humanity appear to readers of English as abstract, depersonalized, highly
theoretical, erudite, and mechanized – in short, “scientific” – statements about the strange and
very complex workings of our mind. Instead of instilling a deep feeling for what is most
human in all of us, the translations attempt to lure the reader into developing a “scientific”
attitude toward man and his actions, a “scientific” understanding of the unconscious and how it
conditions much of our behavior (Bettelheim, 1982: 4-5).

Bettelheim continues his critique with a veritable litany of clumsily misleading translations
lifted from the Standard Edition. As he would have it, German words and phrases, pregnant
with deep poetic resonance, are reduced in English to a dry, theoretical terminology far
removed from Freud’s original intentions: such as the translation of “Kulturarbeit” (“cultural
achievement”) into “reclamation work” (ibid., 63); the consistent English distortions of the
German “die Seele” (“the soul”) as “mind,” “mental apparatus,” and so forth (ibid., 71-78);
the translation of “Fehlleistung” (“faulty function”) as “parapraxis”(ibid., 87); and so on.
Perhaps Bettelheim’s most telling (and famous) observation in this regard is the Standard
Edition’s transformation of the German “Ich,” “Uber-ich,” and “Es” (“I,” “above-I,” and

“It”) into “a language whose most familiar use today may be for writing prescriptions” – i.e.,
“Ego,” “Super-ego,” and “Id” (ibid., 53).
Bettelheim constructs a compelling argument for Freud’s basic humanism, and I have no
doubt that there is much truth to it. Even Freud’s critics are in agreement about the beauty of
his writing style; some have gone so far as to use the grace of Freud’s prose as an argument
against the validity of psychoanalysis, claiming that his poetics tend to “seduce” or
“hypnotize” the reader and thus paralyze his/her critical facilities (Roustang, 1980: 19-21).
But even if Bettelheim’s polemic is a necessary counterweight to the “scientization” of Freud
so prominent in the American version of psychoanalysis, to understand Freud in purely
humanistic terms is nevertheless, I fear, to misunderstand the fundamental thrust of the
psychoanalytic project as he envisioned it. This is because Freud saw himself, above all else,
as a scientist in the truest sense of the word, and believed that psychoanalysis was the very
epitome of a natural science. And while it is incontrovertible that Freud did use terms such as
“the human soul” in his own writings – terms that have not fared well in English translations
– this does not mean that he advocated a “non-scientific” approach to the study of these
phenomena. As Fenichel argues:

In spite of assertions that Freud by giving the “subjective factor,” the “irrational,” its just due
has turned against rationalism, his procedure clearly reveals the spirit of that broad cultural
trend which proclaimed as its ideal the primacy of reason over magic and the unbiased
investigation of reality…. Freud investigated the mental world in the same spirit as his teachers
had investigated the physical world…. The subject matter, not the method of psychoanalysis,
is irrational (Fenichel, 1945: 4).

Indeed, the astute reader will note that to make his case, Bettelheim must carefully sidestep
the numerous claims Freud himself makes for the status of psychoanalysis as a natural
science. These claims can be found in his earliest writings on the subject and are repeated,
with relative consistency, until the end of his life. Bettelheim is at pains, for example, to point
out that in Freud’s day psychology was considered a branch of philosophy, and as falling thus
under the auspices of the so-called “Geisteswissenschaften” (Humanities) rather than the
“Naturwissenschaften” (Natural Sciences) (Bettelheim, 1982: 40-43). This division, he
explains, is not as clear-cut in the English-speaking world, where the word “science” is
generally understood to be a synonym for “natural science”: hence the confusion over Freud’s
use of the German term “Wissenschaft,” often understood by English speakers as referring to
“natural science,” while being in actuality a reference to hermeneutics (loc. cit.). Having
made this point, however, Bettelheim prevaricates, finally admitting, “The issue that concerns
me here is not whether or in what measure Freud saw himself at certain moments in his life as
a natural scientist, and psychoanalysis as a natural science – for sometimes he did” (ibid., 49).
This is a wise admission on his part, for even speakers of native German have noticed the
overwhelmingly “scientific” character of Freud’s writings. Jurgen Habermas, for example, in
his critique of the epistemological foundation of Freudian psychoanalysis, notes that “Because
Freud was caught from the very beginning in a scientistic self-understanding, he succumbed
to an objectivism that regresses immediately from the level of self-reflection to the level of
contemporary positivism in the manner of Mach and that therefore takes on a particularly
crude form” (Habermas, 1976: 252). Need I point out that Habermas, as a native German,
read Freud in his original language?

Freud the Scientist

In point of fact, to claim that Freud himself viewed psychoanalysis as anything other than a
natural science is, at best, problematic. To begin with, Freud was trained as a scientist – as a
biologist and neurophysiologist, to be specific. The first 20 years of his career – before the
publication of Studies in Hysteria and his subsequent reorientation towards psychology –
were an intensive period of scientific production for him, all but forgotten in most of the
official biographies. Peter Gay’s encyclopedic Freud, A Life For our Time, for example,
dedicates less than sixty of its more than eight hundred pages to this important formative first
half of Freud’s life. In those 60 pages Gay seems more concerned with Sigmund’s love life
than with his scientific publications, which are scarcely mentioned.

But there can be no doubt that Freud first rose to prominence in the international scientific
community on the basis of his highly respected biological and neurological research. As
Sulloway points out regarding this period of his career:

Under the joint tutelage of Claus and, particularly, Brücke, Freud published five scientific
papers during the next six years (1876-82): two on the neuroanatomy of Ammocoetes
(Petromyzon planeri) – a primitive form of fish…one on the gonadal structure of the eel…an
announcement of a new chemical method for preparing nerve tissues for microscopic
examination…and a study of the nerve cells of the crayfish…. This record of publication was
sufficient to establish the general expectation within Brücke’s institute that to Freud would
undoubtedly fall the next available post of assistant to Brücke himself (Sulloway, 1979:15).

Nor did Freud’s research in the field of neurology end with his decision to abandon the
laboratory and start a medical practice. On the contrary, he continued to publish papers on
neurophysiology with the same sort of energy that he would later devote to his psychoanalytic
works. Between 1882 and 1897 he published no less than 19 separate reports, monographs,
and lectures, in English as well as German, on subjects such as the structure of the medulla
oblongata, new techniques for tracing nerve-fiber origins, the medical usage of cocaine, and
cerebral paralysis in children (loc. cit.). With regard to this last topic Freud became an
internationally recognized specialist, and his final monograph on childhood aphasia attests to
this fact. Thirty years after its publication it was still in circulation; in 1936, the prominent
Swiss neurologist Rudolf Brun described it as “a brilliant achievement, which alone would
suffice to assure Freud’s name a permanent place in clinical neurology” (quoted in Sulloway,
1979: 17).

It is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine that this period of Freud’s productive life did not
have a profound effect on his subsequent work. Indeed, as Sulloway argues, Freud’s now-
famous transitionary document, “Project for a Scientific Psychology”(1895), is nothing less
than an attempt to integrate what he had gleaned from his schooling in mechanistic neurology
with his clinical experiences as a beginning psychoanalyst:

…the various properties of Freud’s neuro-anatomical model were defined not so much by the
findings of current neurological science as by his previous clinical and abstract
metapsychological insights. Freud was convinced that psychology must have a physical basis,
and he logically hoped that psychological laws might turn out to exhibit many of the same
fundamental principles as the neurophysiological events upon which they are causally
dependent…. It is clear that the Project also made abundant use of contemporary neurological
concepts, most notably those of neuronal contact-barriers (for which Sherrington introduced
the term synapse in 1897), Bahnung (or the process of facilitation between neurones), and the
complementary principles of energy summation and neuronal firing thresholds (Sulloway,
1979: 121-22).

Regardless of whether one considers the “Project” to be Freud’s “last desperate effort” at
understanding psychological phenomena from a purely neurological viewpoint, or as an
innovative attempt to apply metapsychological principles to brain anatomy, it cannot be
denied that it reveals the highly reductive, “biological” tendencies inherent in Freud’s style of
thought. And though Freud may have used the term “soul” in his writings often enough (as
Bettelheim rightly points out), it is clear that he attempted to conceptualize the soul as a kind
of mechanism; even his earliest psychological works were framed in what can only be
described as a “mechanical” terminology:

I refer to the concept that in mental functions something is to be distinguished – a quota of

affect or a sum of excitation – which has all the characteristics of a quantity (though we have
no means of measuring it) which is capable of increase, diminution, displacement and
discharge, and which is spread over the memory-traces of ideas somewhat as an electrical
charge is spread over the surface of a body.

This hypothesis…can be applied in the same sense as physicists apply the hypothesis of a flow
of electric fluid (Freud, 3: 60-61).

At any rate, Freud claimed that psychoanalysis was a science, in the sense of a natural
science, on numerous occasions throughout his long career. Discussing the attitude of the
larger academic community towards psychoanalysis in 1925, for example, Freud wrote: “I
have always felt it a gross injustice that people have refused to treat psycho-analysis like any
other science” (ibid., 20: 58). In his 1933 lecture, “The Question of a “Weltanschauung,” he
repudiates the argument that psychoanalysis belongs under the methodological umbrella of
the Geisteswissenschaften, stating flatly:

As a specialist science, a branch of psychology – a depth psychology or psychology of the

unconscious – [psychoanalysis] is quite unfit to construct a Weltanschauung of its own: it must
accept the scientific one…. [The scientific Weltanschauung] asserts that there are no sources
of knowledge of the universe other than the intellectual working-over of carefully scrutinized
observations – in other words, what we call research – and alongside of it no knowledge
derived from revelation, intuition, or divination…[T]he intellect and the mind are objects for
scientific research in exactly the same way as any non-human things (ibid., 22: 158-59).

In “Some Elementary Lessons in Psychoanalysis,” Freud presents a detailed explication of the

similarities between psychoanalysis and the natural sciences:

Psychoanalysis is a part of the mental science of psychology…. If someone asks what ‘the
psychical’ really means it is easy to reply by enumerating its constituents…. But if the
questioner goes further and asks whether there is not some common quality possessed by all
these processes which makes it possible to get nearer to the nature, or as people sometimes say,
the essence of the psychical, then it is harder to give an answer.

If an analogous question had been put to a physicist (as to the nature of electricity, for
instance), his reply, until quite recently, would have been: ‘For the purpose of explaining
certain phenomena, we assume the existence of electrical forces which are present in things
and which emanate from them. We study these phenomena, discover the laws that govern
them and even put them to practical use. Thus satisfies us provisionally. We do not know the
nature of electricity…. [This] is simply how things happen in the natural sciences!’ (ibid., 23:

But perhaps Freud’s most unequivocal pronouncements regarding this question can be found
in An Outline of Psychoanalysis, his last published essay. Championing psychoanalysis as a
valid, scientific branch of psychology, 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 the
laws which they obey and to follow their mutual relations and interdependences unbroken over
long stretches – in short, to arrive at what is described as an ‘understanding’ of the field of
natural phenomena in question (ibid., 23: 158).

After describing in general terms the basic tenets of psychoanalytic theory, Freud returns to
the theme of its status as a science towards the end of the essay, asserting categorically:

The hypothesis we have adopted of a psychical apparatus extended in space, expediently put
together, developed by the exigencies of life, which gives rise to the phenomena of consciousness
only at one particular point and under certain conditions – this hypothesis has put us in a position
to establish psychology on foundations similar to those of any other science, such, for instance, as
physics. In our science as in the others the problem is the same: behind the attributes of the object
under examination which are presented directly to our perception, we have to discover something
else which is more independent of the particular receptive capacity of our sense organs and which
approximates more closely to what may be suppose to be the real state of affairs.….we try to
increase the efficiency of our sense organs to the furthest possible extent by artificial aids: but it
may be expected that all such efforts will fail to affect the ultimate outcome. Reality will always
remain ‘unknowable’. The yield brought to light by scientific work from our primary sense
perceptions will consist in an insight into connections and dependent relations which are present in
the external world, which can somehow be reliably reproduced or reflected in the internal world of
our thought….Our procedure in psycho-analysis is quite similar. We have discovered technical
methods of filling up the gaps in the phenomena of our consciousness, and we make use of those
methods just as a physicist makes use of experiment. In this manner we infer a number of
processes which are themselves ‘unknowable’ and interpolate them in those that are conscious to
us (ibid., 196).

Bettelheim’s insistence to the contrary, it seems clear from the quotes above that Freud
sought, via psychoanalytic theory, to establish a new psychology based on scientific
principles – that is to say, to remove psychology from the domain of “Geisteswissenschaften”
and place it under the auspices of “Naturwissenschaften.” Psychoanalysis, as he conceived it,
was to be the vehicle of that epistemological shift. That Freud wrote eloquently, utilizing
humanizing metaphors and similes to bolster his theoretical musings, does not contradict this
supposition. But his success in this endeavor, on the other hand, is still a matter of debate.

Freud’s “scientific psychoanalysis”: For and Against

It is not difficult to construct a compelling case in support of the claim that Freud believed
psychoanalysis to be a natural science. It is, however, considerably more difficult to figure
out what he intended by this assertion, or in what sense, exactly, he felt his theoretical
production should be considered “scientific.” This problem is complicated by the fact that
Freud is, himself, almost completely mute with regard to the question. It was not like him to
indulge in philosophical speculation, or to waste time explicating the meaning of phrases like
“natural science,” and so forth. He merely paused on occasion in his writings to briefly
explain, often by comparison to disciplines like physics, chemistry, or zoology, that
psychoanalysis was no different from any other science, and then resumed his discussion of
the problem or topic at hand. He seemed to straight-forwardly assume that his readers shared
his understanding of the phrase.

Perhaps Freud’s decision to remain silent on this issue was simply a pragmatic one, but it has
nevertheless led to long-standing, complex, and acrimonious debate among scholars. In this
debate we can discern at least two major schools of thought. The first posits that Freud
understood psychoanalysis to be scientific on the basis of its theoretical structure. That is to
say, Freud believed the scientificity of psychoanalysis was guaranteed by the fact that
psychoanalytic metapsychology exhibits the standard characteristics of a general scientific
theory. These characteristics include such elements as quantifiability, logical consistency, a
specialized vocabulary/conceptual apparatus, and so forth. This version of the scientificity of
psychoanalysis suggests as well the possibility that an epistemologically significant gap might
exist between clinical experiences, on the one hand, and theoretical formulations, on the other.
Because it is often argued that Freud’s “scientific” theories fail to articulate what is essential
in the clinical experience of psychoanalytic work, this gap between clinical observation and
theoretical speculation has traditionally served as the starting point for the hermeneutic
reconstruction of psychoanalytic theory.

In contrast, a second school of thought argues that Freud believed psychoanalysis was
scientific by virtue of its clinical methodology. According to this line of reasoning, Freud saw
his metapsychology as merely the “superstructure” of psychoanalysis, and thus subject to
modification or even dismemberment at any moment, should it fail to correspond to the
clinical evidence. Freud insisted that psychoanalysis was an observational science, built from
the bottom up. Therefore, its theories lack any sort of “primordial” scientificity, but derive
their status exclusively from the methodology that produces them. In view of this fact, it
seems unreasonable to argue that Freud’s faith in the scientificity of psychoanalysis was based
on the formal characteristics of metapsychological theory; a serious analysis of Freud’s stance
on this issue must conclude that he understood psychoanalysis to be scientific purely on the
basis of its methods.

In a sense, the dichotomy between methods and theory articulated above is misleading.
Surely Freud felt that his work was scientific with regard to both its methodological
techniques as well as its theoretical structure. Nevertheless, my own reading of Freud tends to
correspond to the first school of thought – that is to say, I believe that Freud viewed
psychoanalysis as scientific primarily because he felt his theories possessed characteristics
held in common by all “scientific” theories, as he understood them. It is for this reason that I
refer to Freud’s version of “psychoanalytic science” as “naive.” It is naive not because it is
philosophically unsophisticated (it is not), but because it fails to fully account for the culture
in which scientific work is done, or the context in which scientific knowledge is articulated.
Instead, it reflects a classical version of empiricism wherein the individual’s privately
experienced sensory impressions can be relied upon to form the factual basis for all rational,
objective knowledge. His view is therefore, at a fundamental level, methodologically

I base this assertion on a few general observations. To begin with, we note that when Freud
seeks to defend the status of psychoanalysis in his texts, he generally does so by defending in
various ways the theoretical concepts he has developed in his work, rather than by insisting on
the correctness of his methodological practices. Thus, taking the passage quoted above as a
typical example, Freud argues that it is the “hypothesis…of a psychical apparatus extended in
space” which has finally allowed us “to establish psychology on foundations similar to those
of any other science, such, for instance, as physics.” Or, consider another example: in a
previous passage from the same essay, Freud observes that as psychoanalysis progresses, it
must constantly frame “fresh hypotheses” and create “fresh concepts.” He continues:

…but these are not to be despised as evidence of embarrassment on our part but deserve on the
contrary to be appreciated as an enrichment of science. They can lay claim to the same values
as approximations that belongs to the corresponding intellectual scaffolding found in other
natural sciences, and we look forward to their being modified, corrected and more precisely
determined as further experience is accumulated and sifted. So too it will be entirely in
accordance with our expectations if the basic concepts and principles of the new science
(instinct, nervous energy, etc.) remain for a considerable time no less indeterminate than those
of the older sciences (force, mass, attraction, etc.) (Freud, 23: 159).

It seems clear from this passage that Freud judges the scientificity of his work in accordance
with its ability to produce new theoretical concepts – concepts that correspond to, or provide
explanations of, clinical phenomena, and that are basically similar to those found in other
fields of scientific research.

A second observation leads, I believe, towards the same conclusion. I note that in the
extensive Freudian corpus, there are no papers which explicitly focus on the research
methodology of psychoanalysis. To be sure, there are a few short papers on technique; but all
of them deal almost exclusively with instructions on how to use psychoanalysis
prophylactically. None of them touch in depth on questions concerning, for example, how
one formulates a psychoanalytic hypothesis, how one clinically tests such a hypothesis, or
how one evaluates the results of such a test. Admittedly, some of these issues are mentioned
here and there in various texts; and in one article specifically, “On Constructions in Analysis,”
Freud offers us a more extensive (though unsatisfying) discussion of the topic. But in
general, he does not seem to lend much weight to the question. This deficiency is particularly
eye-opening when one considers the fact that, at the same time, Freud seemed intent on
establishing a new science of psychology. If he felt that the status of psychoanalysis as a
science was to be primarily guaranteed by its observational methods, then one would expect
him to pay much more attention to these important details, and to address them
systematically. On the other hand, if he felt that psychoanalysis was primarily scientific due
to the nature of its theories, then his oversight in this question seems natural. In this latter
case, one need concern oneself with the methodology of psychoanalysis to the same extent
that one needs to teach a student how to use a microscope – no more and no less.

The idea that the “scientificity” of a theory is determined by the theory’s characteristics, and
not by the practical methods used to derive it, seems to inform all of Freud’s writings. I do
not mean to imply by this, however, that psychoanalysis does not have a methodology. Freud
believed that psychoanalysis also provided a method of research into unconscious processes, a
method based primarily upon empirical observation combined with intellectual “working-
over” (ibid., 16: 244), and utilizing techniques such as free association and free-floating
attention. As a methodologist, then, Freud arguably falls into the category of “naturalist
observer,” employing a style of scientific research common, and generally accepted,
throughout the 18th and 19th centuries (Forrester, 1997: 236). This view is suggested by the
work of A.C. Crombie, a prominent historian of science, who argues that the history of
scientific development must be conceptualized in terms of a plurality of different
“methodological styles:”

The active promotion and diversification of the scientific methods of late medieval and early
modern Europe reflected the general growth of a research mentality in European society, a
mentality conditioned and increasingly committed by its circumstances to expect and to look
actively for problems to formulate and solve, rather than for an accepted consensus without
argument. The varieties of scientific method so brought into play may be distinguished as the
simple postulation established in the mathematical sciences, the experimental exploration and

measurement of more complex observable relations, the hypothetical construction of analogical
models, the ordering of variety by comparison and taxonomy, the statistical analysis of
regularities of populations and the calculus of probabilities, and the historical derivation of
genetic development. The first three of these methods concern essentially the science of
individual regularities, and the second three the science of the regularities of populations
ordered in space and time (Crombie, 1978: 284).

Applying Crombie’s terms to early psychoanalysis, one can argue that Freud’s “scientific
style” involved 1) hypothetical construction of analogical models (his model of the mind); 2)
ordering of variety by comparison and taxonomy (his diagnostic categorizations), and
possibly 3) historical derivation of genetic development (his etiological propositions and
theories of psycho-sexual development). John Forrester, in Dispatches from the Freud Wars,
characterizes this combination of methodologies as indicative of an “observational,
naturalistic science of human beings, somewhat along the lines of ethology”(Forrester, 1997:
236). Indeed, understood in this manner, Freud’s style bears a striking resemblance to that of
Darwin – whose postulation of a set of laws governing evolutionary development, based on
his copious observations of natural variety, were not entirely unlike the inferences Freud
derived from his clinical observations of human behavior.

Nonetheless, it seems to me that in Freud’s mind it was not so much his methodology that
vouchsafed the scientific status of psychoanalysis as it was the manner in which the
information garnered by this method was organized and expressed. Freud seems to have
viewed the method of analysis as little more than a technical tool to aid us in exploring the
hypothetical mental apparatus posited by psychoanalysis, and by 1900 the efficacy of free-
association, along with the theory of “psychological determinism” upon which it was based,
was virtually taken for granted. Thus Freud argued that the patient’s free associations,
combined with the analyst’s free-floating attention, served much the same function in
psychoanalysis as the telescope served in astronomy, or the microscope in biology; useful
because they enhanced the sensitivity of the researcher’s “perceptual apparatus,” and provided
her, as it were, with a window onto unconscious processes. In fact, a few passages after the
one quoted above, Freud makes this comparison himself, noting wryly, “If one looks through
old text-books on the use of the microscope, one is astonished to find the extraordinary
demands which were made on the personality of those who made observations with that
instrument…”(ibid., 23: 197). This is a pretty telling comparison, especially when one pauses
to reflect upon the fact that Freud spent hour after hour of his youth staring into a microscope
in Brücke’s lab. What Freud learned from this experience, I think, was that the mere use of
the microscope could not in any sense guarantee that all those hours of observation would
result in the production of a scientific report; after all, any monkey can look down a metal
tube. Instead, the characteristic that differentiated science from other forms of knowledge
production, in Freud’s world, was the way in which the scientist inferred, from the chaotic
level of perception, an underlying, hidden order of determined cause and effect. The specific
methods of research were secondary, almost irrelevant, in evaluating the status of the results.

If I were to make an off-the-cuff list of the characteristics that seem to form the basis of
Freud’s understanding of the term “scientific,” then, I would include the following, at the very
least: 1) Logic: Obviously, as statements or deductions about Nature, scientific theories
follow the dictates of formal logic, and are in one way or another logically connected.
Conversely, any theory that does not follow the rules of logic is clearly unscientific as well; 2)
Correspondence: Of course, it almost goes without saying that a scientific theory (or model)
will correspond as precisely as possible with the object it is attempting to describe;

3) Universality: Scientific theories are applicable in all times and at all places. They are not
specific descriptions of unique events, but global laws regarding the general functioning of
Nature;2 4) Assumed Order: Scientific statements attempt to articulate the underlying order
that exists behind the chaos of our primary sensory impressions, and reveal the “connections
and dependent relations” which make up this hidden order; 5) Naturalism: A scientific theory
always explains Nature in its own terms, and does not rely on “extra-natural” conceptual
constructs, such as God, in the articulation of its explanatory theses; and, finally, 6) Stoicism:
Science always seeks the truth, dispassionately and unflinchingly, no matter how unpleasant
that truth might be.

These characteristic are necessarily interdependent and interrelated, so that one can define a
scientific theory in these terms as “a logical statement about the universal order which reigns
beneath the chaotic world of our sensory impressions, articulated without recourse to
explanatory phenomena outside the realm of Nature.” Certainly, seen in this light,
psychoanalysis is, or very nearly is, a natural science. Of course, as Freud argues himself, it
is a young science, and thus not yet in a position to formulate its theses with the same
precision as physics, but that day will come (ibid., 20: 58). In the meantime, Freud insists, the
existence of the unconscious mind can be reasonably postulated on the basis of the evidence
garnered from the clinical practice of psychoanalysis, in much the same way as the concept of
“force” is postulated in classical Newtonian physics; and therefore, as a phenomenon of
Nature, the unconscious can be studied in precisely the same manner as any other naturally-
occurring object. It is for this reason that Freud often equated the insights of psychoanalysis
to those of famous poets and playwrights: he had not discovered new facts concerning the
human psyche, he sometimes seemed to feel, but simply articulated them within the
“scientific” framework of his theory. As Fenichel observes, this perspective does not deny a
space for the “irrational” human subject in psychoanalytic work; it merely proscribes the sort
of discourse allowable with regard to such a subject.

Of all the characteristics listed above regarding Freud’s view of scientific theory, by the way,
I would like to suggest that the single most useful is that of “assumed order.” I find this
concept to be an essential key to understanding the general thrust of Freud’s thought. Most of
his theoretical ruminations build on the assumption that beneath the surface of our sensory
impression exists a complex but ordered world of determined cause-and-effect. He believed
this postulate to be as true in the field of psychology as it is in that of physics. In both fields
research begins with a mass of chaotic sensory impressions which must be sorted into a
logical structure. This structure, in its turn, cannot be directly perceived; its general shape,
however, can be guessed at by means of inductive inference. I would like to suggest that the
very basics of Freud’s theory, such as the division between a manifest, conscious level and
latent, unconscious level of cognition – the latter accessible only by means interpreting its
derivatives in the former – reflect this fundamental assumption.

After Freud, other prominent psychoanalysts continued to champion the “scientific” version
of psychoanalysis, especially in America. Important proponents of this view include Heinz
Hartmann, Otto Fenichel, Lawrence Kubie, and David Rappaport. All of them believed that
psychoanalysis was eminently scientific and stridently defended its empirical validity.
However, as time went on, they were forced to address the perceived methodological
weaknesses of psychoanalysis as well. In 1934, the American psychologist Saul Rosenzweig

Insistence on the universality of the Oedipus complex, such as is common among early psychoanalytic thinkers,
is arguably an expression of this basic presupposition.

sent Freud the results of several experimental studies which seemed to confirm some basic
psychoanalytic propositions. The aging Viennese nerve-specialist replied:

I have examined your experimental studies for the verification of psychoanalytic assertions
with interest. I cannot put much value on these confirmations because the wealth of reliable
observations on which these assertions rest make them independent of experimental
verification. Still, it can do no harm (quoted in Glymour, 1974: 286).

This sort of response was a luxury that, a decade or two later, Freud’s followers could no
longer afford. A strong and growing criticism of psychoanalytic theory had begun to make
itself felt from a number of divergent disciplines, including sociology and anthropology, as
well as academic psychology. Anthropologists questioned both the source materials and the
underlying assumptions upon which Freud’s based his studies of culture and society;
academic psychologists, schooled in experimental and statistical methodologies, complained
over the speculative and untestable nature of Freud’s metapsychology.

As criticism from the scientific community grew, proponents of “scientific psychoanalysis”

were forced to develop a double-edged strategy: while continuing to affirm the fundamentally
scientific nature of psychoanalytic theory, they also strove to guarantee the epistemological
adequacy of its methods. Thus, Hartmann, presenting a conference paper on the status of
psychoanalysis, felt it necessary to defend both the scientific content of the theory as well as
its methodological rigor. He argued that:

Since its beginnings analysis has struggled for a system of concepts to account for the
peculiarities of the subject matter it had to deal with. Freud spoke of his endeavor to
“introduce the right ideas,” and said, “We are constantly altering and improving them.”….once
the shock the content of Freud’s discoveries had represented to his contemporaries had
somewhat subsided, people started to take them more seriously and even attribute to them a
certain amount of scientific standing (Hartmann, 1959: 17-18).

Admitting that “not all concepts used are equally well defined,” and that there are some
remaining weaknesses in the scientific content of the theory (loc. cit.), he continued by
defending the psychoanalytic method of collecting data:

One frequently refers to the comparatively small number of cases studied in analysis and tends
to forget the very great number of actual observations on which we base, in every individual
case, the interpretations of an aspect of the person’s character, symptoms, and so on. Thus
every single clinical “case” represents, for research, hundreds of data of observed regularities,
and in hundreds of respects…. By keeping certain variables in the analytic situation, if not
constant, as close to constancy as the situation allows, it becomes easier to evaluate the
significance of other variables that enter the picture…. This is not to claim that psychoanalysis
is an experimental discipline. However, there are situations where it comes close to it (ibid.,

Hartmann goes on to argue that the potential lack of objectivity inherent in the observational
data of psychoanalysis is to some extent “accounted for” by the theories of transference and
countertransference, and additionally mitigated by the fact that the analyst, as observer, has
himself completed a “didactic analysis” that helps to eliminate the distortions caused by
“instinctual pressures” (ibid., 22-23). Finally, throwing a bone to the humanists in the
audience, Hartmann notes, “There is, as I have said, also a psychologically fruitful side to
these same complexities that have led to some methodological discontent” (loc. cit.).

Lawrence Kubie, speaking at the same conference, presents an even more compelling defense
for the basic methodological validity of scientific psychoanalysis. Defining psychoanalysis as
an interpersonal process, Kubie argues:

It designs a situation sufficiently standardized to enable us to make comparable observations

on one person at different times, and also on different people. This framework maintains a
relative constancy of all external variables, making it possible to repeat observations day after
day in relatively unchanged situational circumstances. It minimizes, although it cannot
eliminate, changes introduced by the fluctuating state of the observer – to wit, the analyst. It
also minimizes the distortions introduced by the analyst’s unconscious processes, turning him,
insofar as possible, into a relatively passive and inert recorder of his own “preconscious
perceptions of the patient’s productions.”… This creates a situation in which the major
variables introduced into the stream of observations arise in the subject who is under analysis,
so that a situation can be approximated in which it is possible to study somebody else’s mind
without too much distortion and interference from the observer’s (Kubie, 1959: 67-68).

Naturally, the ideal of the “objective analyst” which Kubie constructs in the text above is also
derived directly from Freud’s writings, and I have no doubt that Freud promoted it as well.
However, while Freud seems to have relied primarily upon the characteristics of his theory to
guarantee the scientificity of psychoanalysis, at least in public debate, as time went on his
followers felt pressed to defend it as a valid, knowledge-producing method as well. As we
can see, this was achieved primarily by downplaying what might be termed the “subjective”
aspects of the clinical meeting, while simultaneously promoting, to the point of exaggeration,
that meeting’s capacity to generate “objective” knowledge – that is, knowledge which could
be intersubjectively confirmed, repeatedly observed, and so forth. That such claims to
scientific objectivity on the part of psychoanalysts may seem foreign to us today simply
reflects the profound epistemological shift that has occurred in our field since the 1950s.

Unfortunately, the scientific psychoanalysis constructed by Freud and post-Freudian analysts

proved unable to withstand the in-depth criticism of its opponents. These criticisms were of
two kinds: on the one hand, the theory was criticized as being too vague, while on the other,
the methods of data collection were criticized as being too unreliable. Regarding the first
point, for example, Nagel, a critic of psychoanalytic science, writes in response to Hartmann:

The reason for my doubts is that the theory is stated in language so vague and metaphorical
that almost anything appears to be compatible with it…. In short, Freudian formulations seem
to me to have so much “open texture,” to be so loose in statement, that while they are
unquestionably suggestive, it is well nigh impossible to decide whether what is suggested is
genuinely implied by the theory, or whether it is related to the latter only by the circumstance
that someone happens to associate the one with the other (Nagel, 1959: 41-42).

Regarding the second point, he goes on to observe:

There is nevertheless the difficulty that in the nature of the case the full extent of the analyst’s
intervention is not a matter that is open to public scrutiny, so that by and large one has only his
own testimony as to what transpires in the consulting room. It is perhaps unnecessary to say
that this is not a question about the personal integrity of psycho-analytic practitioners. The
point is the fundamental one that no matter how firmly we may resolve to make explicit our
biases, no human being is aware of all of them, and that objectivity in science is achieved
through the criticism of publicly accessible material by a community of independent
inquirers…. Moreover, unless data are obtained under carefully standardized circumstances, or
under different circumstances whose dependence on known variables is nevertheless
established, even an extensive collection of data is an unreliable basis for inference (ibid., 49-

If one accepts Nagel’s presuppositions regarding the nature of scientific inquiry then these
two points strike at the very heart of the theoretical and methodological problems inherent in
psychoanalysis. Nagel is of course correct in his observation that there is no simple,
straightforward route between our direct clinical observations and the theories we supposedly
derive from them. In fact, the process is actually the reverse; it seems undeniable that our
theories precede our clinical observations. After all, we invariably learn psychoanalytic
theory first, and use it to understand clinical experience after. Given the inherent elasticity of
metapsychology, and the indeterminate nature of the clinical evidence, we must constantly
grapple with the fact that we can almost always understand our clinical experiences in light of
one or another psychodynamic explanation, and often in terms of several competing and
incompatible ones.

Nagel’s second point is also telling. While Kubie makes psychoanalytic research sound fairly
“objective” in the passage quoted above, his version of psychoanalytic practice is rather
idealistic, to say the least. I doubt many of us would recognize ourselves and our day-to-day
therapeutic work in Kubie’s description. Nagel does not fall for Kubie’s argument however;
he is quick to point out that no one can fully account for the ways in which his interpretation
of events are modified by his own subjectivity. Indeed, this is not a claim alien to
psychoanalytic theory itself. Metapsychology is predicated on the tendency of the
unconscious to distort, condense, and/or displace many of our daily experiences, and
especially those which are affect- or taboo-laden. And yet, at the same time, apologists for
“scientific” psychoanalysis also argue for the ideal of an impartial, objective observer in the
form of the analyst, who acts to guarantee the epistemological purity of metapsychological
theory. Clearly, these two claims contradict each other.

The primary reason “scientific” psychoanalysis capsized in the face of this sort of criticism,
however, was the fact that both side of the debate were in tacit agreement upon a highly
idealized picture of the natural sciences. As Forrester astutely notes, the criticism of
psychoanalysis as a method for the “scientific” study of the human mind is implicitly
articulated “within the tradition established by logical positivism, namely that there is one
model of how scientific explanations work – that there is one ahistorical thing called science”
(Forrester, 1997: 234). Following the positivist call for “unity of method,” the critical
strategy Nagel represents seeks to pass judgement on Freud’s old-fashioned, “naturalist” style
of scientific research, and to disbar alternative methodological strategies – once an integral
part of the investigation of Nature – in favor of quantifiability, measurement, experiment, and
statistical analysis.

And indeed, if one does not accept Nagel’s presuppositions regarding the nature of scientific
research, his critique of psychoanalysis as a scientific discipline immediately begins to fall
apart. Consider his first point, regarding the “open texture” of psychoanalytic theory. Is this
a characteristic unique to psychoanalysis? I argue that it is not: the problem of deciding what
a specific theory actually predicts is common to all complex scientific systems. And in fact,
the relative ease or difficulty by which the implications of a theory can be determined is a
completely inadequate criterion for judging its potential scientificity. As an example,
consider Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. The complex mathematical equations
which form the theoretical core of General Relativity are not easily reducible to observations
of phenomena in the real world. As a result, there have been very few observational
confirmations of the theory, and some of them are disputed (there is an ongoing debate
regarding the perihelial advance of Mercury’s orbit, for example). Such difficulties lead
Thomas Kuhn to comment:

The equations embodying that theory have proved so difficult to apply that (excluding the
limiting case in which the equations reduce to those of special relativity) they have so far
yielded only three predictions that can be compared with observation. Men of undoubted
genius have totally failed to develop others, and the problem remains worth their attention.
Until it is resolved, Einstein’s general theory remains a largely fruitless, because unexploitable,
achievement (Kuhn, 1977: 188-89).

The example is in no sense unique within the physical sciences. I seriously doubt, however,
that the difficulties physicists face in deriving the observational implications of the Theory of
General Relativity would lead Nagel to classify it as unscientific. So why then should
psychoanalysis be held to a different standard?

Nagel’s second objection is equally applicable to “scientific” research as well. Many

complicated scientific experiments, for example, also involve sophisticated, esoteric craft
practices. At the research frontier, such practices may make the difference between success
or failure in an expensive or controversial experiment. And yet, these practices are seldom
visible to public scrutiny or peer review. Rather, only the results of the experiments or
observations are published, reviewed, and criticized, along with formalized descriptions of the
methods employed. Again, the same is true of psychoanalytic reports, often published in the
form of extensive and detailed case studies. If anything, these case studies can be more
revealing than a standard scientific article.

Nor is “objectivity” in science ever fully achieved, despite Nagel’s assertion, even when the
methods and results of experiments are open to “critical scrutiny” by a “community of
independent inquirers.” The consensus reached by such a community on a given scientific
“fact” or discovery is in reality little more than a general – if expert – opinion regarding the
accuracy of an experiment or observation, expressed by a selected group of specialists, none
of whom could be considered truly “independent.” This consensus is always subject to
revision, and is often revised. Indeed, the history of science is littered with abandoned
theories, once consensually agreed upon by the profession as the epitome of objective truth,
and now forgotten or ridiculed as strange, unscientific claptrap. In addition, situations often
arise in which the community of experts cannot reach consensus, leading on occasion to long
periods of endemic dispute among competing theoretical interpretations, each promoted by
rival schools. During such periods, one searches in vain for “objectivity.”

In this regard, psychoanalysis is again no different from any field of scientific inquiry. The
methods, techniques, and theories of psychoanalysis are as open for independent external
evaluation as those of any other empirical discipline, and have in fact been evaluated in this
manner for nearly a century. Competing schools of thought within psychoanalysis wrangle
with each other over the correct interpretation of clinical evidence, and psychoanalysis in
general wrangles with other schools of psychology over similar issues. Nagel’s criticism on
this point merely reveals his unfamiliarity with standard psychoanalytic practice.

Not even the oft-heard accusation that psychoanalytic insight is “theory-driven,” in that
theorizing precedes the gathering and evaluation of clinical evidence, can be invoked as a
means of ejecting psychoanalysis from the domain of science. Once again, the same is true of
any given field of scientific endeavor; before becoming a research scientist, the physicist
spends years studying theory. Without the aid of his theoretical presuppositions, he would
never be able to separate theoretically interesting observations from theoretically mundane
ones, nor design an interesting and useful experiment. In short, all of the objections Nagel

raises to the conceptualization of psychoanalysis as a natural science are equally applicable to
fields of study or groups of theories that he would undoubtedly consider scientific.

In the final analysis, the question of whether Freud believed psychoanalysis should be
regarded as a natural science may appear rather academic, and even more so the dispute over
in what sense, theoretical vs. methodological, he felt this to be the case. On the other hand,
we have an intellectual responsibility to present Freud’s thought, and its context, as accurately
as possible. Regarding this question, then, I submit that we must conclude that Freud’s vision
of the psychoanalytic project was, fundamentally, a “scientific” one; that he sought to
establish psychoanalysis as a natural science, even if his understanding of that phrase was
somewhat different from our own, modern version.

This project, on the other hand, encountered a good deal of resistance from both the
scientific/academic community surrounding psychoanalysis as well as from within the
psychoanalytic movement itself. As noted earlier, the most vociferous academic resistance
was articulated with the tradition of “logical positivism.” In the next section, we will
investigate the work of one of the most stringent(and well known) of these “external” critics –
that of Karl Popper.

III. Falsification and Psychoanalysis

Karl Popper is without doubt one of the 20th century’s most important and controversial
philosophers of science. It would be difficult to fully estimate his contributions to this field of
study, but there can be little doubt that his “demarcation criterion” has had the most lasting
impact. Arguing that the hallmark of a true scientific statement is its “falsifiability,” Popper
condemns psychoanalysis, along with Marxism, astrology, and Adlerian psychology, as
“pseudo-science.” Because psychoanalytic theory fails to generate falsifiable observation
statements, Popper argues, it is irrefutable and therefore non-scientific. Accordingly, its
knowledge claims can never be objectively evaluated; we will never be able to ascertain
whether its theories are true or false. Adherence to psychoanalytic theory as truth, Popper
claims, is at best an expression of blind faith, at worst a sign of intellectual dishonesty. In
this section I would like to present Popper’s solution to the problem of induction and discuss
his critique of psychoanalysis in relation to that solution.

Hume, Popper, and the Problem of Induction

Popper claims that he had found a method of distinguishing science from non-science (his
famous “falsification criterion”) in the early 1920s, but did not think the solution was
particularly interesting, or worth publishing, until he realized its relation to the rather
intractable problem of induction (Popper, 1979: 1). This problem, in turn, was first
popularized by David Hume in his Treatise of Human Nature, and, until Popper, had never
really been successfully resolved by philosophers of science. The problem has a logical and a
psychological aspect.

The logical conundrum Hume elucidates can be formulated in a number of different ways,
such as 1) “What is the logical basis upon which one can generalize from specific instances to
general laws?”, 2) “Is there really such a thing as cause and effect?”, or 3) “How do we
know that tomorrow is going to be like today (i.e., that the sun will rise in the east, gravity
will still function, and so forth)?” To these rather obvious questions Hume answers, with
surprisingly iron-clad logic, that 1) there is absolutely no logical basis for generalization, 2)
cause and effect do not exist outside of the mind of the observer, and 3) we cannot know, with
even the slightest degree of certainty, that tomorrow will be like today.

A simple example can perhaps clarify this point. Let us say that we toss a coin 10 times, and
that by some twist of fate it lands “heads up” every time. Based on this experience, and
assuming that we had never tossed a coin before, is it “logical” for us to posit a scientific law
that tossed coins always land “heads up”, and expect that the coin will do so on the 11th toss as
well? By what means can we logically deduce such a law?

No, it is not, and we can’t, Hume replies. No matter how many times an experiment is
repeated with the same result, there is absolutely no logical reason to assume that it will give
the same result the next time it is performed; nor is it possible to deduce a logical rule that in
any sense justifies our expectation that future experiences will conform to past ones. He
therefore concludes that “…even after the observation of the frequent or constant conjunction

of objects, we have no reason to draw any inference concerning any object beyond those past
instances, of which we have had experience”(Hume, 1978: 139).

Given this state of affairs, Hume goes on to ask why we assume that the future will be like the
past, that effects have causes, and that we can generalize from specific instances to general
laws. This is the psychological aspect of the problem of induction, and Hume takes a pretty
pragmatic view of the issue. We do so, he says, because of “custom or habit”. We are, so to
speak, conditioned by the observed repetitions in Nature to expect them to continue, and we
could hardly survive without that expectation (loc. cit.). Nevertheless, the belief that these
repetitions are based on underlying natural laws is a kind of chimera, based solely on
experience, and is totally illogical. As Bertrand Russell points out, if one accepts Hume’s
conclusions, “…every attempt to arrive at general scientific laws from particular observations
is fallacious, and Hume’s skepticism is inescapable for an empiricist” (Russell, 1946: 698).

Philosophers since Hume have made various attempts to address this problem. To
summarize, one can say that the traditional manner of approaching the dilemma has either
been to 1) try to find a logical basis for inductive inferences (the strategy of “logical
positivism,” among other schools of thought), or 2) agree with Hume and fall back onto some
sort of “skeptical subjectivism.” In the second case, one comes to the inescapable conclusion
that any claim to objective knowledge “…is unmasked as being not only of the nature of
belief, but of rationally indefensible belief – of an irrational faith” (Popper, 1979: 5).

Be that as it may, what is most relevant here is Popper’s solution to the problem. He
essentially turns the question on its head; agreeing that we cannot use induction as a basis for
making logically defensible statements about the world around us, he argues that we are left
to the expedient of falsifying non-truths as our only possible means of coming close to truth.
From such a position, it is never possible to know any truth in a “positive” sense. We can
only know that certain theories are false. In essence, Popper develops a kind of empirical via
negativa; unable to approach truth by means of inductive reasoning, we can only come to
know her by gradually discovering what she is not.

Let us look more closely at Popper’s argument. Popper starts by taking Hume’s statement of
the basic inductivist dilemma and reformulating it in what he calls “objective language,”:

L1: Can the claim that an explanatory universal theory is true be justified by
‘empirical reasons’; that is, by assuming the truth of certain test statements or observation
statements (which, it may be said, are ‘based on experience’)? (ibid., 7).

Popper’s answer to this question is the same as Hume’s: no general theory can be logically
derived from any number of specific observations. But from here, Popper goes one step
further and generalizes Hume’s question by adding “or false” to the above statement:

L2: Can the claim that an explanatory universal theory is true or that it is false be
justified by ‘empirical reasons’; that is, by assuming the truth of certain test statements
or observation statements (which, it may be said, are ‘based on experience’)? (loc. cit.,
italics added).

And here, of course, the answer is yes. We can never logically verify theories, but by means
of empirical testing we can reject obviously untrue theories through the process of
falsification. Go back to the example above, concerning tossing coins. Suppose that we do
make the general assumption that coins always land “heads up” when tossed; on the basis of

our limited experience this is not an unreasonable conjecture. However, upon tossing our
coin for the 11th time, we discover it has landed “tails up”. While it is true that we cannot
derive a general law from this experience, it is certainly the case that we can rule out our first
theory, i.e., that coins always land “heads up,” as false.

Popper thus makes an “end run” around the problem of inductive logic. It should be pointed
out, however, that although Popper accepts Hume’s critique of induction as a logical
operation, he does not agree with Hume’s explication of induction’s “psychological” basis.
The fact that we can obtain knowledge about the world via a non-inductive method, he argues,
allows us to reject the radical claim that such knowledge is little more than an irrational belief,
and to “retain a form of rationalism” as an epistemological foundation (Popper, 1963: 44). On
the other hand, noting that Hume’s common-sense reliance on “customs or habits” of thought
as an explanatory prop falls prey to the same sort of logical inconsistencies that bedevil
induction proper,3 Popper contends that we do not need to observe a series of regularities in
Nature in order to make inductive inferences. A child, burnt once, will think twice before
placing her hand upon a hot stove; she induces, quite correctly, that what happened to her last
time might happen again, without recourse to an observed repetition or any inculcated
“custom or habit” of thought. Thus, rather than viewing inductive logic as the product of
socialization and experience upon the processes of our thought, Popper argues that human
beings are “predisposed” to make generalizations about the world around them (ibid., 46).
This predisposition, he notes, is a necessary element in the formulation of scientific theories;
in particular, it implies that our theories about the world always precede our observations of it
(loc. cit.).

In other words, Popper accepts Hume’s critique of induction, but dismisses his explanation
for our general reliance upon it. Reflecting upon his method of empirical inquiry, Popper

Without waiting, passively, for repetitions to impress or impose regularities upon us, we
actively try to impose regularities upon the world. We try to discover similarities in it, and to
interpret it in terms of laws invented by us. Without waiting for premises, we jump to
conclusions. These we may have to discard later, should observation show that they are

This was a theory of trial and error – of conjectures and refutations. It made it possible to
understand why our attempts to force interpretations upon the world were logically prior to the
observation of similarities. Since there were logical reasons behind this procedure, I thought
that it would apply in the field of science also; that scientific theories were not the digest of
observations, but that they were inventions – conjectures boldly put forward for trial, to be
eliminated if they clashed with observation…(loc. cit.).

It is from this perspective that Popper’s so-called “demarcation criterion” for differentiating
between science and non-science, which leads in turn to his classification of psychoanalysis
as a pseudo-science, becomes interesting.

Popper’s Critique of Psychoanalysis

Popper began thinking in terms of “falsification” while a student in Vienna. During that time
(1919 – 20) he began to feel “dissatisfied” with three theories in particular: Marxist
In particular, the problem of infinite regress: every repetition in Nature can only be recognized by referring to a
previous repetition. So how did we ever recognize the first repetition of an event as a repetition?

historicism, Adlerian psychology, and psychoanalysis. He noted that these theories had
acquired an almost “mythological” power over the minds of those who believed them, yet
somehow did not seem fully scientific:

I found those of my friends who were admirers of Marx, Freud, and Adler, were impressed by
a number of points common to these theories, and especially by their apparent explanatory
power. These theories appeared to be able to explain practically everything that happened
within the fields to which they referred. The study of any of them seemed to have the effect of
an intellectual conversion or revelation, opening your eyes to a new truth hidden from those not
yet initiated. Once your eyes were thus opened you saw confirming instances everywhere: the
world was full of verifications of the theory (ibid., 34-35).

Popper was particularly impressed by an encounter he had with Adler while working for him
at a “social guidance clinic” in a working-class Viennese suburb:

Once, in 1919, I reported to him a case which to me did not seem particularly Adlerian, but
which he found no difficulty in analyzing in terms of his theory of inferiority feelings, although
he had not even seen the child. Slightly shocked, I asked him how he could be so sure.
‘Because of my thousandfold experience,’ he replied; whereupon I could not help saying: ‘And
with this new case, I suppose, your experience has become thousand-and-one-fold’.

What I had in mind was that his previous observations may not have been much sounder than
this new one; that each in its turn had been interpreted in the light of ‘previous experience’, and
at the same time counted as additional confirmation. What, I asked myself, did it confirm? No
more than that a case could be interpreted in the light of the theory (loc. cit.).

Popper concludes that it is precisely the overwhelming explanatory strength of theories such
as psychoanalysis that simultaneously demonstrates their fundamental weakness. In
explaining everything, they in fact explain nothing. By comparison, he argues, Einstein’s
Theory of Relativity makes very specific predictions, and if these predictions had not been
born out by observation, Einstein, as a model scientist, would have been abandoned his

Thus, to briefly summarize, Popper attempts with his falsification criterion to describe what
makes scientific inquiry a unique form of knowledge acquisition/production, and to articulate
a standard by which scientific research can be delineated. He comes to the conclusion that
what sets science apart from all other fields of human inquiry is the fact that it formulates
ideas and theories which can be falsified. To be more specific, a scientific hypothesis is one
from which “observation statements” can be logically deduced. In Popper’s version of
scientific investigation, a test or experiment is then executed with regard to a given
“observation statement,” and, if the observation contradicts the predictions made by the
hypothesis, the hypothesis must be abandoned. If, on the other hand, the observation supports
the hypothesis, this does not necessarily “prove” that the hypothesis is correct; it merely fails
to invalidate the hypothesis until other observation statements can be derived from it and
tested. If a large number of observation statements derived from a hypothesis have been
tested, and none have been shown to contradict it, then the theory passes on into the “canon”
of scientific knowledge -- although no theory can ever be said to reach the status of absolute
or certain knowledge. Thus, as a result of these considerations, Popper draws the conclusion
that “…the criterion of the scientific status of a theory is its falsifiability, or refutability, or
testability”(ibid., 37). It is easy to see here how intimately Popper’s criterion for scientificity
is connected to his solution of the problem of induction. In his view, falsifiability serves as
the identifying benchmark for a scientific theory – and it is precisely this mark, he argues, that
psychoanalytic theory lacks.

Thus, from Popper’s perspective, none of the formal characteristics of theories I suggested
previously (pg. 12-13) can be used to determine a theory’s “scientificity.” Technically, for
example, a scientific theory can appeal to phenomena beyond those traditionally considered a
part of Nature in its explanatory structure, as long as it provides falsifiable predictions.
Conversely, a theory that possesses all of the characteristics I listed, but does not generate
observable predictions, cannot be considered scientific4. Understood in these terms,
psychoanalysis immediately becomes a very problematic body of knowledge, because, as
Popper sees it, it is simply unfalsifiable: “There was no conceivable human behavior which
could contradict [it]….[It contains] most interesting psychological suggestions, but not in a
testable form”(ibid., 37-38).

At first glance, Popper’s critique of psychoanalysis seems devastating, placing him squarely
in the ranks of positivistic critics of the psychoanalytic project. Psychoanalysis can neither be
proven nor disproven; therefore, it is not scientific; therefore, it is spurious. But this is in fact
not an entirely correct appraisal of Popper’s original stance. To begin with, Popper points out
that he developed his criterion merely as an attempt to differentiate science from non-science:

…the problem which I tried to solve by proposing the criterion of falsifiability was neither a
problem of meaningfulness or significance, nor a problem of truth or acceptability. It was the
problem of drawing a line…between the statements, or systems of statements, of the empirical
sciences, and all other statements…. I personally was never interested in the so-called problem
of meaning; on the contrary, it appeared to me a verbal problem, a typical pseudo-problem
(ibid., 39 – 40).

Thus, the meaning (or truth value) of any particular aspect of psychoanalytic theory is not
actually addressed by Popper’s critique; rather, it seems that he is simply interested in
determining whether or not psychoanalysis falls within the domain of what he calls
“science.” In fact, Popper claims that it was not the truth of psychoanalytic statements that
bothered him, and led him to develop his famous criteria; it was “something else” (ibid., 34).
Indeed, for Popper, the fact that Freud’s theories are irrefutable “…does not mean that Freud
and Adler were not seeing certain things correctly: I personally do not doubt that much of
what they say is of considerable importance, and may well play its part one day in a
psychological science which is testable”(ibid., 37).

Given the fundamental non-testability of psychoanalytic theory, Popper argues that he

believes psychoanalysis to be in a “mythological” stage of development. In later writings he
refers to this pre-scientific stage as “metaphysical,” and claims that it is a necessary step in the
development of a scientific theory, for without it researchers have no framework from within
which they can develop theories. In other words, it is precisely this speculative metaphysics
that directs the scientist towards interesting observations. During this phase in the
development of a science truths can be discovered by accident, as it were, or even through
shrewd deduction; however, there exists no concrete method for differentiating truth from
non-truth. I suspect Freud would have hardly argued with this view, having himself defended
the “fuzziness” of psychoanalytic theory on the basis that it was a “young science.”

Popper’s treatment of the “metaphysics” of scientific activity has, by the way, a broader
application; it is also part and parcel of his refutation of logical positivism as espoused by the
In practice, of course, the falsifiability of a theory tends to correspond with the characteristics I listed
previously, but not always. Quantum mechanics, for example, does not postulate an underlying order; it is
nevertheless capable of generating “observation statements,” and is thus scientific in Popper’s sense of the word.

so-called “Vienna Circle.” He adamantly rejected their stance and, in particular, their
insistence that only “non-metaphysical” statements of empirical fact are “meaningful.” In
contrast, as noted above, Popper believed that even so-called “metaphysical statements” can
have meaning and import – that they are, in fact, a necessary element in the scientific
investigation of Nature. Indeed, Popper’s relationship to psychoanalysis sometimes appears a
bit ambivalent in retrospect; and, when it suited him, he could apply its insights himself. In
his essay “The Demarcation between Science and Metaphysics,” for example, he pauses from
a complicated refutation of logical positivism to indulge in a brief psychoanalytic
interpretation of his Vienna Circle colleagues, observing, “One need not believe in the
‘scientific’ character of psycho-analysis (which, I think, is in a metaphysical stage) in order to
diagnose the anti-metaphysical fervour of positivism as a form of Father-killing” (ibid., 275).
Thus it is sometimes difficult to ascertain the true nature of Popper’s attitude to
psychoanalysis; and even prominent researchers such as Eysenck and Wilson, in their
introduction to a critical review of experimental studies of psychoanalytic theory, identify
Popper as “a self-confessed friend of psychoanalysis” (Eysenck and Wilson, 1973: 1).

But one should not let this apparent, arguably cosmetic, ambivalence obscure the fact that
Popper’s demarcation criterion imposes considerable difficulties upon a scientific
psychoanalysis, or lead one to assume that Popper wavers in his final condemnation of
psychoanalytic theory and practice. Popper sees scientific knowledge progressing by means
of a tightly-geared interplay between guesswork (conjecture) and empirical falsification
(refutation). He argues that psychoanalytic theory and methods are well designed for the first
task but poorly equipped to address the second. Thus, if we accept Popper’s analysis, his
critique renders psychoanalytic theory essentially unrelatable to any sort of “truth” as we
commonly understand it. By this I mean that because psychoanalysis is, from Popper’s
perspective, fundamentally unfalsifiable, the truth content of its theories simply cannot be
ascertained. While there might indeed be very much that is true to it, as Popper also
maintains, we will never be able locate this truth, or separate it from any of the theory’s
potential falsehoods, until psychoanalysis is reformulated in such a way as to render it
experimentally or observationally falsifiable. Yet, at the same time, such a reformulation
could conceivably jeopardize precisely what is essential to psychoanalytic practice and insight
– namely, the analysis of two subjects interacting freely within the therapeutic space, a
phenomenon extremely resistant to experimental manipulation. Thus, if we accept Popper’s
arguments, we risk condemning classical psychoanalysis, as articulated by Freud and many of
his early followers, to a drab, indeterminate existence in a metaphysical twilight zone, with
little hope of redemption.

In fact this critique marked the beginning of a bitter feud between Popper and the
psychoanalytic community, and especially between Popper and those psychoanalysts who
struggled to frame psychoanalytic theory in the terminology of the natural sciences. For many
of these analysts, psychoanalysis could lay claim to objective validity only to the extent that it
was considered scientific; once that basic proposition was refuted, it was feared that the
reputation of psychoanalysis would be forever diminished. This fear was compounded by the
interpretive monopoly the natural sciences have traditionally held with regard to the truth and
falsehood of “objective” statements of fact.5 The conflict was further exacerbated by the fact
that Popper chose to classify psychoanalysis with the value-laden term “pseudo-science,” and
place it the same category as astrology.

It almost certainly contributed to the tendency to translate Freud into a more “scientific” idiom, as noted by
Bettelheim and many others.

In addition, there is some merit to the suspicion that Popper was only paying lip-service to the
“truths” contained within psychoanalytic theory. In the face of Hume’s empirical skepticism,
Popper believed that his falsification thesis provides the only real access to objective
knowledge, thus insuring a privileged epistemological position to science. Psychoanalytic
theory, on the other hand, is unable to generate observation statements or predict human
behavior in any real detail. This difficulty, combined with the ad hoc quality that theory often
has when applied to human actions, exposed psychoanalytic practice to charges of dogmatism
and even intellectual dishonesty. In its application, Popper’s criterion represented little more
than an outright rejection of psychoanalytic theory.

IV. Scientific Psychoanalysis (Revisited)

A complicated pattern of responses, of argument and counter-argument, has developed over

the years since Popper first posited his demarcation criterion. There is no neat method of
summarizing the way in which the psychoanalytic community, interacting with the broader
academic world, attempted to meet his criticisms, nor the way in which philosophers,
historians, and sociologists of science have dealt with the his major theses. In the remainder
of this essay I will return again and again to the question of falsifiability in psychoanalysis
and its implications, both clinically and theoretically.

But let us begin at the beginning: clearly, one of the most straightforward responses to
Popper’s critique is to argue, quite simply, that he is wrong about psychoanalysis – that he has
in some way misunderstood or simplified the fundamentally scientific nature of the
psychoanalytic project. This line of reasoning has two variations. The first insists that,
contrary to Popper’s claims, psychoanalytic theory does, in fact, generate statements that are
statistically or experimentally falsifiable. The second, elaborated by Adolf Grünbaum in his
well-known Foundations of Psychoanalysis, argues that psychoanalytic theory is both
experimentally and clinically falsifiable. Grünbaum’s arguments, however, are significantly
more intricate than this; we will return to them shortly.

Experimental Psychoanalysis and the Falsification Criterion

Many proponents of the scientificity of psychoanalytic theory have tenaciously insisted that,
at the very least, some elements of Freud’s metapsychology can be experimentally
investigated and falsified in one way or another. Rapaport and Gill (1959), for example,
construct a “scientific” psychoanalytic theory in terms of a hierarchy with the following
structure (including here, as an example, the theory of the Oedipus complex):

1. Empirical proposition. Around the fourth year of life boys regard their fathers as rivals.

2. Specific psychoanalytic proposition. The solution of the Oedipal situation is a decisive

determinant of character formation and pathology.

3. General psychoanalytic proposition. Structure formation by means of identification and

anti-cathexes explains theoretically the ‘decline of the Oedipus complex’.

4. Metapsychological proposition. The propositions of the general psychoanalytic theory

which explain the Oedipal situation and the decline of the Oedipus complex involve dynamic,
economic, structural, genetic, and adaptive assumptions (Rapaport and Gill, 1959: 153).

Paul Kline, building on their work, continues by arguing that while the top of the structure
(i.e., the general and metapsychological propositions listed above) may well be immune to
direct falsification, the same cannot be said with regard to the “empirical foundation” of the
theory (Kline, 1972: 2-3). Further, he reasons that if the empirical and/or specific
propositions at the “bottom” of psychoanalytic theory can successfully withstand attempts at
experimental/observational falsification, this in turn provides a relatively sound basis for
assuming that the top of the structure, from which such propositions are derived, is also valid
– in exactly the same manner that a physicist, deriving predictions from an abstract theory,
can provisionally assume the theory’s validity if experimental results fail to falsify his
predictions. Thus, the argument runs, the theory of the Oedipus complex could be falsified if,

for example, experimental or observational studies conclusively disprove the claim that
“around the fourth year of life boys regard their fathers as rivals.” If such studies reveal the
typical existence of such a rivalry, on the other hand, then we can continue, at least for the
time being, to adhere to the conjectural theory of an Oedipus complex. The question of
evaluating the validity of the Oedipus complex as a theoretical construct thus devolves to one
of developing reliable methods for observationally and/or experimentally ascertaining the
relationship between young boys and their fathers, or any other of a number of empirical
propositions which can be logically derived from the theory.

Unfortunately, although many researchers have accepted Rapaport and Gill’s proposed
metapsychological theory structure, and Kline’s argument, the derivation of observation
statements from theory has proven to be much more complex than the example above would
lead one to believe. How does one measure the rivalry between father and son, for example?
One researcher, Kuppuswamy, attempted to investigate the theory by asking children, via
questionnaires, to identify which parent they preferred. He found that both boys and girls
tended to prefer their mothers, and regarded the result as a “partial confirmation of the
Oedipus complex” (ibid., 97). Paul Kline, however, in his survey of experimental studies of
psychoanalytic theory, rejects Kuppuswamy’s findings:

First of all, simple questions of preference are not relevant to the Oedipus complex. They
ignore defence mechanisms such as reaction-formation and sublimation – also part of Freudian
theory and not to be ignored since, according to the theory, the Oedipus complex in boys is
‘broken upon the rocks’ of the castration complex – that is it is repressed and unconscious. In
addition problems of social desirability of responses are inherent in the questionnaire method.
This study, therefore, may be dismissed as of little value. It is a good example of the reasons
psychoanalysts ignore psychological research into psychoanalytic theory: the research concerns
itself with psychoanalytic concepts so grossly distorted as to be unrecognizable (loc. cit.).

Kline’s assessment of Kuppuswamy’s study is in no way unique; other studies reveal similar
flaws. Indeed, a brief overview of surveys such as Kline’s reveal that a large percentage of
the experiments reviewed fail to adequately test the theory they are designed to investigate.
Poor experimental design, lack of controls, conflicting results, theoretical oversimplifications,
and failure to consider alternative explanations bedevil these studies and seriously cripple
their usefulness. These weaknesses have led researchers such as Eysenck and Wilson to
lament, “There is probably no other field of psychology where critical scrutiny of editors and
referees has been so much missing as in this; the quality of work looked at by us has been
truly appalling” (Eysenck and Wilson, 1973: xii).

In addition to the difficulties listed above, another major problem makes itself felt when
psychoanalytic theories are put to the test – namely, the question of how to interpret the
results once they are produced. Interestingly, different researchers can draw at diametrically
opposed conclusions when reviewing the exact same experimental evidence. For example:
Freud posited in his Schreber case study that there exists an explicit, etiological connection
between repressed homosexual urges and paranoid delusions (Freud, 12: 60-65). Since then,
many studies have been conducted to confirm, or falsify, this assumed connection. In one
such study, now considered something of a classic (Zamansky, 1958), 20 psychotic paranoids
were shown “picture-pairs” of males and females. Zamansky argued that if paranoia is a
defense against repressed homosexual tendencies, then paranoid males, due to their
underlying homosexuality, would tend to look at the pictures of men for longer periods of
time than at the pictures of women; but, since their homosexuality was repressed, when asked
which photographs they found most appealing, the paranoids would tend to indicate those
containing women. As a control group, Zamansky chose 20 non-paranoid schizoid psychotics.

Both groups were shown the pictures in a “specially designed tachistoscope-like view
apparatus” that allowed the researcher to gage the amount of time each subject spent looking
at each picture.6 Zamansky found that the paranoid men in his study looked, on average, 1.49
seconds longer at the photographs of men than at the photographs of women shown in each
picture pair, as opposed to non-paranoid psychotics (who, on average, observed the women .7
seconds longer). Additionally, he found that there was a significant discrepancy between the
tendency of paranoid men to “fixate” on same-sex photographs, on the one hand, and their
reports of which photographs they found “most appealing,” on the other. This discrepancy
was not found in the reports of the non-paranoid psychotics. In other words, the non-paranoid
psychotics tended to look longer at pictures of women, and indicated that they found such
pictures more appealing as well; by contrast, the paranoid psychotics tended to look longer at
the photographs of men, but claimed that they preferred the photographs of women –
precisely as Zamansky, following psychoanalytic theory, predicted.

Kline, in his review of Zamansky’s findings, comments:

The fact that paranoids fixated longer on the male pictures than did the controls is impressive
evidence that homosexuality is implicated in paranoia, especially since homosexuals have been
shown thus to fixate…. This result is, therefore, powerful support for the psychoanalytic
theory. Result (c), that the attraction score was greater for paranoids – but not for
schizophrenics – than the stated preference for pictures, is also good evidence for the work of
ego-defences and the claim of Freudian theory that in paranoia the homosexuality is
repressed…. This experimental evidence is a far more precise test of the theory than the
clinical surveys of the incidence of homosexual activity among paranoid schizophrenics…. In
brief, therefore, Zamansky may be regarded as having offered good support for the
psychoanalytic theory that repressed homosexuality lies behind paranoid schizophrenia (Kline,
1972: 269 – 270).

Eysenck and Wilson, however, in their review of the exact same study, are not impressed.
Arguing that Freud tended to over-generalize his findings from one particular case (i.e., in this
instance, Schreber), and that later clinical studies fail to support Freud’s findings, they go on
to critically assess the Zamansky study:

Zamansky presents two positive findings: (1) Paranoids spent more time looking at pictures of
men than non-paranoid schizophrenics (2) Relative to non-paranoids, the paranoids expressed a
greater preference for the pictures of women. No doubt Freudian theory could explain these
results (we have argued that it can ‘explain’ any results), but is it true, as Kline says, that ‘no
other theory could predict such a finding’? In fact, we do not need any theory to predict these
results. One of the most outstanding features of paranoid illness is a tendency to be cagey,
suspicious, and sensitive to threat; given these traits the Zamansky findings follow logically.
Paranoids would be expected to be more alert to men in the environment than either women or
non-human objects because men offer a greater threat. There is no justification for assuming
that homosexual attraction to men is the only reason for looking at them….
Zamansky had validated his picture-preference test by showing previously that
it did discriminate overt-homosexuals from normal men. This is a necessary but hopelessly
insufficient precaution…. The vital control that is missing from Zamansky’s study…is the use
of other forms of threat not involving homosexuality, e.g. pictures of electrical apparatus such
as might be used for aversion therapy, or flying saucers carrying sexless space monsters. We
would predict that the paranoids would show greater sensitivity to threats of this kind as well.
In short, the paranoid’s reaction to homosexual situations can be viewed as consistent with, and

Zamansky had used the same experimental procedure previously, in 1956, on a group containing both
homosexual and heterosexual (non-psychotic) men, and found that he could differentiate between the two by
measuring how long they observed same-sex photos. (It is also perhaps worth noting, in all fairness, that
Zamansky’s experimental design is rather more sophisticated than indicated in this short summary.)

as part of, his general suspiciousness and vigilance in relation to threatening stimuli (Eysenck
and Wilson, 1973: 314).

Unfortunately, there is a third possible interpretation of Zamansky’s experimental results:

namely, Zamansky’s own. In his concluding discussion, Zamansky remarks that while his
findings appear to support a strong correlation between homosexuality and paranoia, his
experiment also revealed that paranoids showed little direct aversion to picture-pairs of
females when coupled with “neutral” objects. Zamansky speculates that this would seem to
indicate that “the homosexuality of paranoid men tends to be characterized by a primary
attraction toward men as sexual objects, and not necessarily by an avoidance of women”
(Zamansky, 1958: quoted in Eysenck and Wilson, 312). This leads him to suspect that
classical psychoanalytic theory has put the cart before the horse. Paranoid delusions, he
suggests, are not a result of anxieties experienced by the paranoid subject in relation to his
own latent homosexuality; rather, the homosexual tendencies of paranoids are themselves a
defense against a repressed, and overwhelming, aggression towards other men:

If one considers, in the present experiment, that the paranoid patients were characterized by an
attraction to males without at the same time manifesting a rejection of women, such a pattern
would be consistent with what one would expect if the homosexual attraction were a function
of intense hostile feeling directed toward male figures. It is suggested, therefore, that the
results of the present experiment support the view of paranoia presented by Knight, namely,
that the person with paranoid delusions is indeed characterized by strong homosexual impulses,
but that these impulses themselves serve a defensive function, that of helping to neutralize and
eroticize powerful hostile wishes against male figures (ibid., 310).

Thus, from Zamansky’s perspective, we can say that his findings represent a rather unusual
example of an experiment that both confirms and falsifies psychoanalytic theory at the same
time. Naturally, Zamansky is careful to underscore that his own conclusions are highly

Regardless of the examples presented above, the difficulties inherent in experimentally testing
psychoanalytic theories, or interpreting the results of such experiments, does not in itself
refute Rapaport and Gill’s argument. The real point of this line of reasoning lies in the fact
that by asserting the potential falsifiability of theory, psychoanalysis is rescued from Popper’s
criticism and once again regains its scientific credibility. Accordingly, the technical problems
presented by experimental tests, statistical analysis, and so forth, reflect less upon Freudian
theory than they do upon the complexities of the object of study (i.e., the human mind) and
the limitations of our methodologies. This is a dilemma that psychoanalysis shares with any
number of theories within the natural sciences. As Fisher and Greenberg argue:

One of the prime arguments offered by psychoanalysts to oppose scientific evaluation of their
theories and operations is that the phenomena involved are too complex to be viewed in an
experimental framework. They point out that Freud’s theories often implicate numerous
causation factors for each specific kind of behavior…. There is a certain force to this
argument, but it fails insofar as it implies that the phenomena dealt with by Freud are basically
more complex than those confronting investigators in many other areas of psychology.
Confusing diversity and contradiction threaten to overload every researcher….

One must acknowledge that attempts to test theories empirically are often disappointing in their
crudity….the sociological theorist who constructs an elaborate model of how multiple
institutions interact must feel frustrated when the first empirical tests of its validity are
undertaken by examining the relationships of just a few institutions that have been arbitrarily
selected. The theorist is rarely satisfied with how the experimentalist treats his creation (Fisher
and Greenberg, 1978: xiii – xiv).

No doubt proponents of this view would be glad to learn that such difficulties extend well
beyond the bounds of psychology and the social sciences. To take but one example: as
mentioned previously, it has proven notoriously difficult to isolate and test falsifiable
observation statements from Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, because the abstract
complexity of General Relativity does not readily lend itself to straightforward observations
or experimentation. As Kuhn points out, if we exclude the “limiting cases” in which the
equations of general relativity can be reduced to those of special relativity, physicists have to
date succeeded in deriving only three falsification tests from the theory: the deflection of light
in the sun’s gravitational field, the precession of the perihelion of Mercury, and the red shift
of light from distant stars (Kuhn, 1977: 188). By comparison, Freud’s theories have been
tested much more intensively; indeed, if theories are to be preferred on the basis of their
ability to generate falsifiable observation statements, as Popper claims, then one could even
argue that psychoanalysis contains more “scientific” content than the Theory of General

Fisher and Greenberg’s observations, however, cut both ways. Given the ambiguity inherent
in the study of human beings, one can wonder if it is possible for experimental methods to tell
us anything of real value regarding human nature. Experimental studies of behavior and
cognition are notoriously inconclusive, even those that don’t treat psychoanalysis exclusively;
but the contorted simplifications grafted onto psychoanalytic theory in order to transform it
into an “experimental science” seem to reinforce this critical appraisal. And beneath the
arguments of everyone attempting to assess psychoanalysis in this manner, favorably as well
as unfavorably, lies a tacit agreement: data produced in the day-to-day, clinical practice of
psychoanalysis cannot be relied upon. The therapeutic space, primal source of psychoanalytic
theory, is paradoxically rejected as a means of determining its truth content. In doing so, it
seems as if researchers miss the entire point of the psychoanalytic project – in order to save
the patient, they kill her.

Grünbaum and the “Tally Argument”

In contrast to the above, some theorists argue that we need not rely on complicated
experimental methodologies in order to disprove psychoanalytic propositions; that the clinic
can, in fact, act as a perfectly reliable theater for the falsification of psychoanalytic theories.
One such critic is Adolf Grünbaum, whose Foundations of Psychoanalysis is widely
acclaimed as the most penetrating and challenging analysis of psychoanalytic theory yet
written. Because of the perceived importance of Grünbaum’s work, I will pause to examine it
here at length.

Grünbaum occupies an unusual position in the field of Freud criticism, and for that reason his
placement in this essay is problematic. Unlike many other critics of the Freudian canon,
Grünbaum goes to great lengths in his writings to provide evidence that psychoanalysis
actually does, in fact, meet the standards of a scientific discipline. He is particularly critical,
for example, of Popper’s assessment of psychoanalysis as “non-falsifiable;” Grünbaum
reconstructs Freud as a rigorous empirical investigator, hospitable to refutation and
“responsive to adverse findings”(Grünbaum, 1984: 281). In addition, Grünbaum is virulently
opposed to “revisionist” accounts of psychoanalysis, such as those espoused by Habermas,
Ricoeur, and Gill, which situate the psychoanalytic project in the field of hermeneutics rather
than that of the natural sciences. Yet, at the same time, Grünbaum is still very much a critic

of psychoanalysis as a science, claiming in Foundations, for example, “It is one central thesis
of this essay that the clinical psychoanalytic method and the causal (etiologic) inferences
based upon it are flawed epistemically…”(ibid., 124). Although it is not technically correct to
characterize Grünbaum’s work on psychoanalysis solely as a response to Popper, or a defense
of psychoanalysis in the face of the falsifiability criterion, it is nevertheless true that
Grünbaum believes that psychoanalysis should be evaluated on the basis of its scientific
credentials, and strongly repudiates Popper’s critique. Thus, I have chosen to insert him into
this section. In what follows I will investigate in detail a number of Grünbaum’s arguments in
favor of the scientific nature of the psychoanalytic project, as well as his criticisms of its

To begin with I think it is important to understand that, from Grünbaum’s perspective,

psychoanalysis must be classified as unequivocally scientific. This is because his critical
strategy would be rendered essentially meaningless should we agree from the outset that
psychoanalysis is not a natural science in his sense of the term. He must therefore on the one
hand attack the arguments of those who defend psychoanalysis as valid, non-scientific
discipline, such as Habermas, while on the other hand defending psychoanalysis from those
who attack it as an invalid, non-scientific discipline, such as Popper. He must do this so that
he can then criticize psychoanalysis as an invalid scientific discipline.

Thus, in an analysis of Grünbaum’s reasoning, it becomes necessary to tease apart several

different levels of argumentation and look at them separately. These include: 1) his dismissal
of Popper’s “indictment” of psychoanalysis as unfalsifiable; 2) his dismissal of falsifiability
as a useful demarcation criterion between science and non-science; 3) his assertion, on the
basis of the above, that psychoanalysis should be considered a science, in accordance with the
standard canons of inductive reasoning which have traditionally informed the application of
the scientific method; 4) his articulation and defense of the “Tally Argument,” along with the
“Necessary Condition Thesis,” as the centerpiece of Freud’s sophisticated strategy for
verifying his theoretical inferences; and finally, 5) his critique of that strategy and ultimate
rejection of psychoanalysis as a valid, scientific method for the study of human mind.

Regarding the falsifiability of psychoanalysis, Grünbaum presents a number of different

arguments. To begin with, he contends that at least some psychoanalytic theories can be
falsified by means of experiment or statistical research, as has been argued above. As an
example of this kind of test, he suggests that the connection between homosexuality and
paranoia posited by classical psychoanalysis can be potentially disconfirmed via an extra-
clinical epidemiological study (ibid., 38-39; 110-111). He supports this idea with the
following line of reasoning:

Freud’s etiology of paranoia postulates that repressed homosexual love is causally necessary
for being afflicted by paranoid delusions (S.E. 1915, 14: 265-266). And when the
pathogenically required intensity of repression exists, it is largely engendered by the strong
social taboo on homosexuality. Thus, the detailed pathogenesis of paranoia envisioned by
Freud warrants the following expectation: A significant decline in the social sanctions against
this atypical sexual orientation should issue in a marked decrease in the incidence of paranoia
(loc. cit.).

In other words, Grünbaum argues that if Freud’s theory is correct then the greater acceptance
of homosexuality in today’s society should also result in a statistically significant reduction of
the number of per capita cases of paranoia in the population. He points out that his proposed
statistical survey could, at the very least, potentially falsify a prediction of psychoanalytic

theory – in that it might fail to reveal such a reduction – thus refuting Popper’s critique of

According to Grünbaum, however, we do not need to rely exclusively on extra-clinical tests to

falsify basic psychoanalytic propositions. To support this contention, he turns to an
examination of Freud’s own writings. Here he discovers that “Even a casual perusal of the
mere titles of Freud’s papers and lectures in the Standard Edition yields two examples of
falsifiability” (ibid., 108) – thereby contradicting the myth of Freud as irrefutable dogmatist
and psychoanalysis as unfalsifiable speculation.

The first example, taken from a 1915 paper entitled, “A Case of Paranoia Running Counter to
the Psychoanalytic Theory of Disease,” is the brief study of a woman suffering from paranoid
fantasies in relation to her lover. Again, it concerns the thesis that paranoia is caused by
repressed homosexuality. In this case Freud is contacted by a lawyer who suspects the
accusations directed by his female client towards a male acquaintance, with whom she has
had a brief love affair, are delusional. Since Freud maintains that homosexuality is a
necessary precursor of paranoia, he feels confident that he can make a differential diagnosis
on this basis: if the patient shows signs of repressed homosexuality, then she is also almost
certainly delusional; but if she does not, either her accusations must be accepted at face value,
or he must reevaluate his theory. Naturally, given the strange nature of her complaints, Freud
expects to find some evidence of repressed lesbian tendencies in either the demeanor or
history of the woman. However, during their first interview, he uncovers no such underlying
tendencies. According to Freud, “The girl seemed to be defending herself against love for a
man by directly transforming the lover into a persecutor: there was no sign of the influence of
a woman, no trace of a struggle against a homosexual attachment” (Freud, 14: 265). Troubled
by this apparent discrepancy, he reflects, “Either the theory must be given up or else, in view
of this departure from our expectations, we must…assume that this was no paranoic [sic]
combination but an actual experience” (ibid., 266). He even goes so far as to suggest that it
might be “simplest” to “abandon the theory that the delusions of persecution invariably
depends on homosexuality” (loc. cit.). From these ruminations Grünbaum concludes that:

In short, Freud explicitly allowed that if the young woman was paranoid, then her case was a
refuting instance of the etiology he had postulated for that disorder….

As it turned out, during a second session the patient’s report on episodes at her place of
employment…accorded with the postulated etiology by revealing a conflict-ridden homosexual
attachment to an elderly woman there. But the point is that the psychoanalytic etiology of
paranoia is empirically falsifiable (discomfirmable) and that Freud explicitly recognized it
(Grünbaum, 1984: 109).

In fact, as this case reveals, a single counter-example is all that is required for the falsification
of a scientific hypothesis, according to the strict interpretation of Popper’s demarcation
criterion; and there is no reason at all why such falsifying examples cannot be encountered in
the traditionally clinical setting of psychoanalysis. Though in the specific report presented
above the theory survived a falsification test, that does not necessarily imply that it will do so
in the next case. Thus, the clinical falsification of psychoanalytic theories is distinctly
possible, even without recourse to other methods of refutation.

Grünbaum promotes his second example, taken from a 1933 lecture entitled, “Revision of the
Theory of Dreams,” as nothing less than “an acknowledged case of falsification,” thereby
completely refuting Popper’s thesis (loc. cit.). In this lecture Freud investigates cases which
seem to gainsay his claim that all dreams are expressions of wish-fulfillment. He considers in

particular three sorts of dreams that appear to contradict this thesis: anxiety dreams,
“punishment” dreams, and traumatic dreams. Regarding the first type – anxiety dreams –
Freud suggests that such dreams are, in actuality, wish-fulfillments that conflict with the
conscious will of the subject. In other words, they reveal unconscious aspects of the
personality or articulate repressed wishes that simultaneously frighten the dreamer’s
conscious ego, thus stimulating an affect (anxiety) that would seem to be contrary to that of a
fulfilled wish. Freud then continues by dismissing the counter-example of “punishment
dreams,” stating flatly, “punishment dreams, too, are the fulfillments of wishes, though not of
wishes of the instinctual impulses but of those of the critical, censoring and punishing agency
in the mind” (Freud, 22: 27). But when Freud turns to an inspection of the third type of
dream, he finds himself finally bested. These are trauma dreams – the regular, nightly
reenactment of severely traumatic memories that often accompany the survivors of terrible
events such as war or torture. Freud wonders, “What wishful impulse could be satisfied by
harking back in this way to this exceedingly distressing traumatic experience?” (ibid., 28) and
admits, “According to our hypothesis about the function of dreams this should not occur,”
(loc. cit.). He then goes on to state:

We should not, I think, be afraid to admit that here the function of the dream has failed….But
no doubt the exception does not overturn the rule. You can say nevertheless that a dream is an
attempt at the fulfillment of a wish. In certain circumstances a dream is only able to put its
intention into effect very incompletely, or must abandon it entirely. Unconscious fixation to a
trauma seems to be foremost among these obstacles to the function of dreaming (ibid. 29).

Grünbaum refers to this passage as “an acknowledged falsification by the recurrent dreams of
war neurotics”(Grünbaum, 1984: 112). Again, these counter-examples originated in
analysand-to-analyst reports of dream specimens, but the fact that they contradict the
predictions of Freud’s theory reveals once more that Popperian falsification tests can be
executed in a clinical setting.

Finally, regarding this first point, Grünbaum is careful to warn his readers against confusing
the potential falsifiability of psychoanalysis with the unwillingness of psychoanalytic
practitioners to acknowledge any specific instance of falsification. Even though Freud or
other psychoanalysts might be reluctant to relinquish a theory that has been clearly falsified,
he notes, this is not equivalent to claiming that the theory, in and of itself, is unfalsifiable:

After all, a theory may well be invalidated by known evidence, even as its true believers refuse
to acknowledge this refutation. That the recalcitrance of Freudians in the face of falsifying
evidence, however scandalous, is not at all tantamount to the irrefutability of their theory
should be evident from some of Popper’s other doctrines. As he tells us, theories, on the one
hand, and the intellectual conduct of their protagonists, on the other, ‘belong to two entirely
different “worlds”… (ibid., 1988: 12).

In the face of these considerations, Grünbaum’s argues forcefully that we should dismiss the
falsifiability thesis as a general criterion for the demarcation between science and non-
science. He notes astutely that Popper’s rejection of psychoanalysis forms, in fact, the
“centerpiece” of a much broader attack against inductive logic as a whole:

Thus by 1919, Popper had convinced himself both that inductivism does not have the
methodological resources to challenge the scientific credentials of psychoanalysis and that
Freud’s theory…is in fact empirically unfalsifiable. On this basis, Popper argued that the
inductivist method of confirmation and its criterion of demarcation are unacceptably

Hence, the real philosophical villain of his story was inductivism rather than psychoanalysis or
Marxism as such, though he deplored them in their own right. Having found to his dismay in
1919 that inductivism still held sway as a criterion of demarcation, Popper adduced
psychoanalysis – Freudian and Adlerian – as the pièce de résistance of his case against it (ibid.,
1984: 103-104).

Grünbaum insists that the examples of psychoanalytic falsifiability he has presented in his text
demonstrate the uselessness of Popper’s falsification criterion as means of differentiating
between psychoanalysis and standard forms of scientific inquiry. In other words, Popper’s
reliance upon the logic of falsification as a means of excluding psychoanalysis from the
domain of the natural sciences actually backfires; psychoanalysis is falsifiable, and thus, by
Popper’s standards, scientific. In point of fact, as Grünbaum would have it, Popper’s
exclusive focus on falsifiability blinds him to “the most egregious of the epistemic defects
bedeviling the Freudian etiologies, interpretation of dreams, theory of parapraxis, etc.” (ibid.,
124-125). By contrast, Grünbaum promises that an inspection of classical Freudian theory in
terms of its inductive weaknesses will reveal precisely those defects that Popper misses (loc.
cit.). Thus, in the words of Peter Gay, “One incidental benefit of Grünbaum’s polemic is that
it disposes of Karl Popper’s argument, long thought (by many) irrefutable, that
psychoanalysis is a pseudo-science, since its propositions cannot be disconfirmed” (Gay,
1988: 745). His sentiment is shared by many reviewers.

We have come now to real bulk of Grünbaum’s arguments concerning psychoanalysis. It is in

this context that he introduces his now-famous “Tally Argument.” Calling it “Freud’s Master
Proposition,” (ibid., 1988: 14), Grünbaum posits that Freud’s subsequent reliance on the
“Argument” allowed him to: 1) dismiss claims that psychoanalytic theory was
epistemologically “contaminated” by hypnotic suggestion; 2) assert that psychoanalytic
therapy was fundamentally different from therapies that relied on suggestion; 3) insist that
“the psychoanalytic method is able to validate its major causal claims,” and disavow the
accusation that psychoanalysis relied on post hoc reasoning or explanations; 4) assert that
there was no need for independent or controlled statistical validation of the efficacy of
psychoanalytic treatments; and, 5) establish that once patients have resolved their repressed
conflicts, their “self-observations” could supply solid evidence of the empirical validity of
psychoanalytic theory (Grünbaum, 1984: 127-128). In addition, Grünbaum suggests that
Freud’s Tally Argument makes Freud “a sophisticated scientific methodologist, far superior
than is allowed by the appraisals of friendly critics like Fisher and Greenberg…let alone by
very severe critics like Eysenck” (loc. cit.). However, Grünbaum also claims that research
external to psychoanalysis over the past few decades has nonetheless undermined the
empirical underpinnings of the argument and invalidated most of the conclusions Freud drew
by virtue of it (loc. cit.).

The “Tally Argument,” as Grünbaum constructs it, is Freud’s direct, methodologically

sophisticated response to an epistemological quandary that has dogged psychoanalysis
virtually from its inception – the problem of suggestion:

Despite Freud’s fundamental epistemic reliance on clinical testing, he did indeed acknowledge
the challenge that data from the couch ought to be discounted as being inadmissibly
contaminated…. Freud himself deemed it necessary to counter decisively this ominous charge
of spurious clinical confirmation. For he was keenly aware that unless the methodologically
damaging import of the patient’s compliance with his doctor’s expectation can somehow be
neutralized, the doctor is on thin ice when purporting to mediate veridical insights into his
client rather than only fanciful pseudoinsights persuasively endowed with the ring of truth
(ibid., 130).

For this reason, Grünbaum argues, Freud and Breuer were at pains to insist that their first
therapeutic method relied on catharsis (the release of bound affect associated with traumatic
memories) rather than suggestion (ibid., 132). In fact, Breuer and Freud…

…predicated their etiologic identification of repressed traumatic memories as being pathogens

on precisely their “observation” that the therapeutic successes of the cathartic method are
wrought by the hypnotized patient’s abreactive recall of the forgotten traumatic experience,
and not by prohibitory suggestion (loc. cit.).

Meanwhile, early critics of psychoanalysis focused specifically on the problem of suggestion

as well. It was (and often is) perceived as a pivotal criticism of the validity of psychoanalytic
insight, because the problem of suggestion potentially invalidates psychoanalytic claims to
“scientific objectivity.” Freud summarizes this dilemma in his lecture on transference:

It must dawn on us that in our technique we have abandoned hypnosis only to rediscover
suggestion in the shape of transference.

But here I will pause, for I see an objection boiling up in you…”Ah! so you’ve admitted it as
last! You work with the help of suggestion, just like the hypnotists!…Moreover, if you try to
excuse yourself for your long detour [via transference, author’s note] on the ground that you
have made a number of important psychological discoveries which are hidden by direct
suggestion – what about the certainty of these discoveries now? Are not they a result of
suggestion too, of unintentional suggestion? Is it not possible that you are forcing on the
patient what you want and what seems to you correct in this field as well?” (Freud, 16: 446 –

It is in light of this epistemological quandary, Grünbaum contends, that Freud first articulates
his “Tally Argument”:

The doctor has no difficulty, of course, in making him [the patient] a supporter of some
particular theory and in thus making him share some possible error of his own. In this respect,
the patient is behaving like anyone else – like a pupil – but this only affects his intelligence, not
his illness. After all, his conflicts will only be successfully solved and his resistances
overcome if the anticipatory ideas he is given tally with what is real in him. Whatever in the
doctor’s conjectures is inaccurate drops out in the course of the analysis; it has to be withdrawn
and replaced by something more correct (ibid., 452).

Thus, in the words of Grünbaum,

Freud is clearly relying on the alleged refractoriness of the neurosis to dislodgement by the
mere pseudoinsights generated by incorrect conjectures on the part of the analyst. And he
depends on that purported refractoriness to serve as nothing less than the epistemic underwriter
of the clinical validation of his entire theory (Grünbaum, 1984: 138).

Or, to express it in gentler terminology: Freud argues that because the neuroses are so
resistant to therapeutic influence, mere suggestion never has a lasting effect upon them.
However, psychoanalysis does; the act of uncovering and interpreting unconscious conflicts
in the transference leads inevitably to the resolution of the neurosis and thus to a long-term
improvement in the patient’s life. And there can only be one explanation for this fact. Since
hypnotic suggestion only provides temporary relief, while psychoanalysis dispenses with the
neurosis altogether, this must imply that there is a qualitative difference between the two;
psychoanalysis works because rather than relying upon suggestion, it addresses something
“real” within the patient. Thus the long-term psychoanalytic “cure” provides conclusive

confirmation of the theoretical assumptions upon which it is based, and for this reason Freud
believed that therapeutic efficacy unquestionably validated psychoanalytic theory and
methodology. Hence the “NCT,” “a conjunction of the following two causally necessary
conditions,” as Grünbaum would have it:

1) Only the psychoanalytic method of interpretation and treatment can yield or mediate for the
patient correct insight into the unconscious causes of his neurosis.

2) The patient’s correct insight into the conflictual cause of his condition and into the unconscious
dynamics of his character is in turn causally necessary for the durable cure of his neurosis (ibid.,
1988: 14).

One must keep in mind that because Grünbaum rejects in toto Popper’s falsification criterion
as the demarcation between science and non-science, his critique of psychoanalytic theory
rests primarily upon an evaluation of its purported ability to produce logically valid
inductions. Supposedly the NCT provided the rationale behind psychoanalytic inference, and,
if we are to believe Grünbaum, provided Freud with the epistemological cornerstone of the
entire psychoanalytic edifice (ibid., 1984: 138).

It may strike the reader as strange, really, after all this work vindicating psychoanalysis,
championing it against Popper’s accusations of scientific bad faith and constructing a
meticulous defense of its inductive methodology, that Grünbaum would from this point turn
to an acerbic critique of its theoretical and epistemological foundations. And yet, that is
precisely what he proceeds to do; having first praised Freud’s methodological sophistication,
he immediately launches a critical assault against it. Luckily, in this case, his critique is easily
summarized. Research since Freud’s day has revealed that the NCT fails as an empirical
premise: psychoanalysis, it appears, is not successful in affecting a long term-cure of neurotic
symptoms after all (ibid., 160). This is further complicated by the fact that other forms of
therapy, utilizing significantly different therapeutic techniques, seem equally capable of
“curing” some neurotic disorders. The effectiveness of alternative therapies implies that
psychoanalytically-informed insight into the cause of neurotic difficulties does not seem to be
a necessary component for the long-term “dislodgement” of the neurosis. Taken together,
these facts unequivocally undermine the NCT, the Tally Argument, and, by association, the
entire inductive structure of psychoanalytic methodology.

Paradoxically, Grünbaum extends his argument by noting that even Freud was aware of the
epistemic failings of the Tally Argument:

Before a decade had elapsed…even Freud’s own evidence conflicted with the claim that the
cure of a neurosis depends on the patient’s correct insight into its causes. Thus, by 1926, he
conceded that his type of treatment was not indispensable and merely expedited recoveries that
were in the offing…. The possibility of such spontaneous remission contradicts NCT, which
can then no longer be used to justify counting even spectacular therapeutic success as support
for causal inferences.

Then in 1937 Freud went on to report that a satisfactory psychoanalysis will not even prevent
the recurrence of the problem for which the patient was treated, let alone immunize him against
the outbreak of a different one…. Evidently, far from continuing to claim that there was
empirical support for the two premises of his Tally Argument in his later years, Freud himself
gradually renounced or significantly weakened both of them (Grünbaum, 1988: 16-17).

In addition, as noted above, these difficulties were compounded by the failure of

psychoanalytic therapy to produce significantly better results than other therapies based upon

rival theories, which further contradicts the assertions of Grünbaum’s NCT (ibid., 17). If, as
Grünbaum notes, all therapies are equally effective, then we are left once again facing the
possibility that the success of psychoanalytic therapy relies upon suggestion or placebo
effects. Thus, “The collapse of the NCT completely undercuts the pivotal therapeutic
argument given by the mature Freud for the evidential value of the clinical data generated by
the psychoanalytic method” (loc. cit.). Given this conclusion, we are only left to wonder how
Grünbaum squares the acclaimed epistemological significance of the Tally Argument for
Freud’s theories with both its very serious weaknesses and Freud’s own apparent disavowal
of it.

A critical review of Grünbaum’s arguments

Even if the NCT had not “collapsed,” as Grünbaum phrases it, there nevertheless remain
significant faults in the structure of the arguments Grünbaum presents in its defense. The
conclusions he draws regarding both Freud’s “hospitality to refutation,” as well as the broader
clinical falsifiability of psychoanalytic theory, are poorly supported and contradictory. The
weak case he does manage to construct for his claims relies primarily upon an attenuated and
highly selective reading of Freud’s texts, combined with a naively ahistorical approach the
problems he attempts to elucidate. Consequently he glosses over many of the
counterexamples in Freud’s writings that directly contradict his argument, and ignores many
others, while simultaneously granting excessive discursive import to those very few citations
that support his propositions. I submit that a serious, critical evaluation Grünbaum’s version
of psychoanalysis reveals it to be a deeply flawed reflection of Freud’s actual work.

It is quite clear, for example, that Grünbaum grossly exaggerates Freud’s willingness to
reconsider his theoretical commitments in the light contrary clinical or experimental evidence.
Thus, when citing the two titles that are the fruit of his “casual perusal,” above, Grünbaum
fails to mention that his survey is executed within the context of several thousands of pages of
material, including literally hundreds of papers and dozens of books, that yield few other
clear-cut examples of psychoanalytic falsifiability aside from the two Grünbaum locates,
while simultaneously providing the reader with literally hundreds of examples of non-
falsifiable psychoanalytic propositions. That he can cite this paucity of positive examples as
strong evidence of Freud’s amenability to falsification, while maintaining a straight face,
boggles the imagination.7

Furthermore, it requires a great deal of fancy rhetorical footwork on Grünbaum’s part to claim
even these two papers as good examples of Freud’s amenability to falsification. His summary
of the first paper is particularly tendentious in light of the actual case material. Taking Freud
at his word, Grünbaum does not bother to subject the case report to any sort of critical review.
Thus he does not ask himself, or his readers, what Freud means, really, when he claims to
have uncovered a “conflict-ridden homosexual attachment” in his patient’s history. Nor does
he investigate how, exactly, Freud conceptualizes “homosexual attachment” and clinically
identifies its existence. After all, is it not true that, according to psychoanalytic theory, all
same-sex relationships contain a homosexual element? If so, Freud could conceivably label
any relationship with a same-sex acquaintance “homosexual” and thereby avoid theoretical

In all fairness, Grünbaum does present further examples of falsifiable propositions in other papers, notably his
”Is Freudian psychoanalytic theory pseudo-scientific by Karl Popper’s criterion of demarcation?” But I would
argue that these examples are as questionable as the ones discussed in this text.

falsification – which, as we shall see, is arguably exactly what he does when he identifies the
“homosexual attachment” in his patient’s account.

Freud’s case description provides the reader with very sparse evidence indeed to support his
assumption of an overriding homosexual element in the relationship between his patient and
the elderly woman at work, such as one would expect from his theory. He does provide a
small tidbit of information that allows us to guess that, perhaps, the patient unconsciously
equates this woman with her mother (Freud, 14: 266). From there, he goes on to glibly
speculate, based on information he has gleaned from a second interview with the subject,

…this new information removes any doubts as to the pathological nature of her suspicion. It is
easy to see that the white-haired elderly superior was a substitute for her mother, that in spite of
his youth her lover had been put in the place of her father, and that it was the strength of her
mother-complex which had driven the patient to suspect a love-relationship between these ill-
matched partners, however unlikely such a relation might be. Moreover, this disposes of the
apparent contradiction to the expectation, based on psycho-analytic theory, that the
development of a delusion of persecution will turn out to be determined by an over-powerful
homosexual attachment. The original persecutor – the agency whose influence the patient
wishes to escape – is here again not a man, but a woman. The patient’s superior knew about
the girl’s love affairs, disapproved of them, and showed her disapproval by mysterious hints…
(ibid., 267).

Freud appears to be arguing here that his patient was originally jealous of her homosexual
object, i.e., the elderly supervisor, in relation to the patient’s own lover. However, he admits
that such a union seems “unlikely,” and in fact gives the reader no real reason to believe that
his interpretation of the situation is correct. The dynamics could, for example, have been the
opposite – that is to say, the patient might be jealously of her male lover in his relation to the
“flirty” supervisor. Or, she might not have been jealous at all. It seems that Freud relies
upon his assumption of the connection between paranoia and homosexuality to justify his
interpretation of the situation, but at the same time uses his interpretation to justify his
assumption – thereby performing an exquisite, if unconvincing, exercise in circular logic.

In addition, unless we are to assume that all women have a homosexual relationship to their
mothers, I can find no basis for Freud’s equation of patient’s mother complex = patient’s
attachment to elderly supervisor = homosexual attachment to patient’s supervisor.
Ultimately, such an equation would seem to imply that the patient was really immersed in a
homosexual relationship with her mother, experienced by proxy in her relationship with the
supervisor. But in actuality it is this (empirically unsupported) assumption of such a
relationship that forms the basis of Freud’s analysis of the situation, not the reverse. And in
fact, it is not at all clear from the information with which we are provided that the patient
experienced her lover, in her unconscious fantasies, as her father, despite Freud’s claim that
his “new information removes any doubt,” making it “easy to see” this unconscious

Furthermore, we are at a loss here as to why, if this patient’s homosexual desires are coupled
to the woman with whom she worked, her paranoid fantasies are nevertheless directed
towards her male lover. If Freud’s posited paranoid progression of 1) I love her, 2) I don’t
love her, I hate her (reaction-formation), and 3) she hates me (projection) were true, then we
would naturally expect the patient to have paranoid fantasies regarding the object of her
desire, i.e., her elderly supervisor, rather than her male companion. Freud also notes this
discrepancy, and to avoid its implications, suggests that the patient’s “original persecutor”

was her supervisor. Technically, it seems to me, it is difficult to tell from the material
presented if this was the case; but let us grant Freud right in this instance, for the sake of the
argument. We must still deal with the curious fact that the patient’s paranoid fantasies were
eventually displaced, as it were, from the supervisor to her boyfriend. Freud is not unaware of
this apparent contradiction, and returns to it towards the end of the paper:

Let us consider again the outstanding fact that the patient protected herself against her love for
a man by means of a paranoic delusion. The key to the understanding of this is found in the
history of the development of the delusion. As we might have expected, the latter was at first
aimed against the woman. But now, on this paranoic basis, the advance from a female to a
male object was accomplished. Such an advance is unusual in paranoia; as a rule we find that
the victim of persecution remains fixated to the same persons, and therefore to the same sex to
which his love-objects belonged before the paranoic transformation took place. But neurotic
disorder does not preclude an advance of this kind, and our observation may be typical of many
others (ibid., 271).

This passage constitutes Freud’s entire discussion of the topic. In it, he presents no credible
explanation for the transfer of paranoid fantasies from a homosexual to a heterosexual object;
he merely notes that in this case such a transfer has occurred, categorizing it as an “unusual
advance.” His observation that such disorders do not “preclude of an advance of this kind” is
little more than question begging. In point of fact, to be considered “falsifiable,” his theory
would almost have to preclude such an advance.

In short, I submit that Grünbaum’s reference to Freud’s unsupported (and rather outlandish)
speculations in this case study as a prime example of the hospitality of psychoanalysis to
falsification is, to be blunt, ludicrous. On the contrary; the study is a clear example of the
typical immunity that classical psychoanalytic theory, as explicated by Freud, displays in the
face of a falsifying instance. By any reasonable standard, Freud should have considered his
hypothesis threatened, at the very least, even after his second interview with the patient.
Instead, he simply rationalizes away this obvious counter-example. As Popper notes, such
examples do little more than reveal the fact that any situation can be interpreted in the light of
the theory, given a enough ingenuity on the part of the analyst.

Grünbaum’s second example, “an acknowledged falsification,” is even more eye-opening.

Freud states explicitly in the text (quoted above, pg. 33) that though there is an apparent
“exception” to his “rule” (in Popper’s terms: his hypothesis has been falsified by observation),
there is nevertheless no reason to give up the rule ( i.e., abandon the hypothesis). Freud’s
minor modification of dream theory – that sometimes dreams are merely attempts at wish-
fulfillments, rather than straightforward wish-fulfillments – can scarcely be construed as
anything other than an ad hoc attempt to “immunize” his theory against this rather
embarrassing falsifier. As Freud points out himself in his discussion of the issue:

We say that a dream is the fulfilment of a wish; but if you want to take these latter objections
into account, you can say nevertheless that a dream is a an attempt at the fulfilment of a wish.
No one who can properly appreciate the dynamics of the mind will suppose that you have said
anything different by this (ibid., 22: 29).

It was precisely this sort of reasoning that Popper sought to disqualify when he formulated his
criteria. Astoundingly, Grünbaum presents Freud’s stubborn intransigence in the face of this
apparent falsification as evidence of it’s exact opposite – that is to say, as proof of his open
willingness to reconsider theories in the light of new clinical findings, and of the straight-
forward clinical falsifiability of psychoanalytic theory.

Not only must Grünbaum rely on untenable examples such as the ones listed above in order to
maintain his thesis; he must also gratuitously ignore volumes of counter-examples. To be
frank, Freud was very reluctant to give up his theories once he had established them, and was
particularly recalcitrant in his defense of “dream theory;” he took pains to find every excuse
to confirm it. I’m reminded here of one of the more blatant examples of this tendency, taken
from The Interpretation of Dreams – that of the “non-wish fulfilling” dream:

A contradiction of my theory of dreams produced by another of my women patients….One day

I had been explaining to her that dreams are the fulfillments of wishes. Next day she brought
me a dream in which she was travelling down with her mother-in-law to the place in the
country where they were to spend their holidays together. Now I knew that she had violently
rebelled against the idea of spending the summer near her mother-in-law and that a few days
earlier she had successfully avoided the propinquity she dreaded by engaging rooms in a far
distant resort. And now her dream had undone the solution she wished for: was not this the
sharpest possible contradiction of my theory that in dreams wishes are fulfilled? No doubt; and
it was only necessary to follow the dream’s logical consequence in order to arrive at it
interpretation. The dream showed that I was wrong. Thus it was her wish that I might be
wrong, and her dream showed that wish fulfilled (Freud, 4: 234).

This is but one example in which Freud’s theories show an impressive resilience to
falsification; there are literally hundreds. One sympathizes with frustrated commentators such
as Frank Cioffi, who writes, “There are times when Grünbaum goes through Freud’s text like
a sleep walker” (Cioffi: 1988:73).

How, then, can we square Grünbaum’s assertions of falsifiability on the part of classical
psychoanalysis with what appears to be its excessive resistance to disconfirmation? I suggest
that in order to do so, it is necessary to understand Grünbaum’s reductio ad absurdum
deployment of the falsification criterion. If we accept this version of the criterion, then, by
Grünbaum’s standards, literally any body of statements about the world are falsifiable. For
example, let us say for the sake of argument that one of my previous assertion regarding the
difficulties in falsifying the assumed link between paranoia and homosexuality is correct: that
it is possible to exploit the idea that all same-sex relationships involve an element of
homosexuality in such a manner that we can always locate, in any account given by a
paranoid patient, someone to play the role of “original homosexual object/persecutor.” Does
this observation imply that our theory is unfalsifiable? Not at all, if we apply Grünbaum’s
version of the falsification criterion. We can imagine a situation, for example, in which a
person (let us say, a man) is raised exclusively in the presence of women; he therefore never
has the opportunity to form a same-sex relationship. Our theory would predict that a man
raised under such circumstances would never develop paranoia. One counter-example would
falsify our theory. There: I’ve said it. The theory is falsifiable, and I have duly noted it.
Does this imply that I and my theory are “hospitable to refutation?”

The above example is absurd, of course, but it highlights what I believe to be a serious
weakness in Grünbaum’s account. In order to demonstrate the falsifiability of psychoanalytic
theory, Grünbaum must reduce the falsifiability criterion to a near-incoherent absurdity. It is
this sort of reasoning, generally considered to be a logical fallacy, that leads Grünbaum to
state the following, for example:

Let me say here, however, that if Popper’s case of the drowning child is to have any cogency at
all, he would need to show that Freud’s theory grants unrestricted license to postulate at will
whatever potentially explanatory initial conditions we may fancy as to the motivation or

dispositions of a given person in particular external circumstances. One looks in vain for
Popper’s documentation of such utter license in psychoanalysis (Grünbaum, 1984: 11).

It appears Grünbaum is arguing here that Popper’s critique of psychoanalysis can only be
maintained if we find that psychoanalytic theory permits wild speculation to the point of
incoherent, near-psychotic babbling. But clearly this is not the point of Popper’s objections,
and in fact (not surprisingly) we cannot locate such a discourse within the body of classical
theory. A slightly more conservative (and in my opinion, reasonable) assessment of Popper’s
critique, on the other hand, might lead one to suspect that it implies classical psychoanalytic
theory is too indeterminant: that too many situations can be interpreted in terms of it
(whatever those terms might be), and too few can be seen as falsifying it. If that interpretation
of Popper’s argument is correct, then we do not have to look very far at all to locate a case of
the “ license to postulate at will whatever potentially explanatory initial conditions we may
fancy” (loc. cit.); Grünbaum has thoughtfully provided us with an excellent example, in the
form of woman conclusively diagnosed as a latent homosexual, on the basis of two brief
interviews, ostensibly due to the circumstantial fact that her supervisor was also female. On
the other hand, if this case cannot be considered a clear example of the “excessive
explanatory license” possessed by classical psychoanalytic theory, then I submit that very
little short of stream-of-conscious psychobabble would satisfy Grünbaum’s version of

But this is not the only weakness in Grünbaum’s review of the falsification problem. Let us
explore the possibility that Freud had, in fact, successfully “falsified” his hypothesis in the
case discussed above. Consider the following: let us say that Freud’s theory concerning the
connection between paranoia and homosexuality is true, but that, even during the second
interview with his patient, Freud failed to discover her underlying homosexual fixation. In
this hypothetical situation we now have two interviews, each of which disconfirm Freud’s
(true) hypothesis. Following Grünbaum’s logic, such an outcome would constitute, rather
paradoxically, a “false” falsification of Freud’s theory. How might a reasonable researcher
react to this dilemma? How many interviews must be undertaken before we can safely say
that an abstract psychoanalytic theory of the sort under consideration has been falsified?

My point is that Grünbaum’s arguments do not make allowance for the highly equivocal
nature of the psychoanalytic meeting, at least when he discusses the falsification criterion. In
that discussion, Grünbaum seems to take for granted that psychoanalytic theories can be
reliably falsified by means of the data derived from the clinic. But he then proceeds to argue
the exact opposite: to assert that, in fact, all such data is “epistemically contaminated,” and
that we therefore need something like the Tally Argument or the NCT to validate clinical
findings. As far as I can tell, these two assertions cannot be squared with each other.

Grünbaum’s contentions regarding the Tally Argument and the NCT fare little better under
critical scrutiny than does his counter-factual revision of Freud as clinical falsificationist.
Grünbaum himself introduces the Argument by conceding, ”Two years before his death,
Freud invoked the consilience of clinical inductions…to determine the probative cogency of
the patient’s assent or dissent in response to the interpretations presented by the
analyst”(Grünbaum, 1984: 129). This is a reference to Freud’s paper, “On Constructions in
Analysis,” and its “commonsense approach” to clinical research; but since this observation
also patently contradicts Grünbaum’s contention that Freud relied explicitly and exclusively
on the Tally Argument, Grünbaum must quickly counter it: “…such a reliance on
consilience,” he writes, “is unavailing until and unless there emerges an as yet unimagined
trustworthy method for epistemically decontaminating each of the seemingly independent

consilient pieces of clinical evidence”(loc. cit.). This method, he continues, is the Tally

Again, after arguing that Freud relies on the Tally Argument as the “underwriter of the
clinical validation of his entire theory,” Grünbaum stumbles across a second piece of evidence
that this contention is less than accurate. In Lecture 16 of his Introductory Lectures Freud
states, “Even if psycho-analysis showed itself to be as unsuccessful in every other form of
nervous and psychical disease as it does in delusions, it would still remain completely
justified as an irreplaceable instrument of scientific research” (Freud, 16: 255). Unable to
dovetail this statement with his pet theory, Grünbaum simply dismisses it: “But in the face of
the suggestibility challenge, this statement is a gratuitous piece of salesmanship, unworthy of
the Freud who gave us the Tally Argument”(Grünbaum, 1984: 141).

After bluntly denying the import of the above counterexample, Grünbaum runs into yet more
difficulties when he considers the so-called “narcissistic neuroses,” a diagnostic category
whose members were, according to Freud, impervious to the therapeutic techniques developed
by psychoanalysis. The clinical intransigence of these neuroses, however, did not prevent
Freud from developing extensive theories about them, much to Grünbaum’s consternation; in
fact, the postulated connection between homosexuality and paranoia, which we have
discussed so extensively in this paper, is a prime example of such theoretical speculation.
Struggling with this apparent contradiction, Grünbaum writes:

…in the case of the former subclass of disorders, the Tally Argument is, of course, unavailable
to authenticate his clinically inferred etiologies by means of therapeutic success. Yet, in
another lecture…he explicitly gave the epistemic sanction to the clinical etiologies of the two
subclasses of psychoneuroses. And presumably he did so by extrapolating the therapeutic
vindication of the psychoanalytic method of etiological investigation from the transference
neuroses to the narcissistic ones (Grünbaum, 1984: 141).

Unfortunately, Grünbaum cannot locate a single citation to support this contention, so he is

forced to merely “presume” that it is the case – despite the fact that even a “casual perusal” of
Freud’s writings reveals (once again) many counter-examples. Indeed, if we were to review
Freud’s discussion concerning the link between homosexuality and paranoia in the case study
cited above, we would find that he makes his epistemological appeal not to the therapeutic
success of his technique, but to the simple fact that thus far he has not found a single case
paranoia of unaccompanied by homosexual desire (Freud, 14: 256-266).

In addition to the abundance of textual inconsistencies Grünbaum’s argument founders upon,

potentially serious pitfalls also threaten his ahistorical reconstruction of the rationale behind
Freud’s “Tally Argument.” As noted earlier, Grünbaum predicates his thesis upon the
supposition that Freud felt a need to defend psychoanalytic methodology from the
contaminating influence of suggestion. But there is reason to suspect that, fact, Freud was not
really concerned about controlling therapeutic outcomes for the possibility of suggestive
influence. If we accept this line of reasoning, proposed by Malcolm Macmillan, we find that
the prodigious Tally Argument and NCT are reducible to merely one of a series of arguments
Freud used for the defense of psychoanalytic theory in the sphere of public debate.

Macmillan notes that Freud’s early psychotherapeutic techniques often entailed pressuring
patients to produce memories of events that confirmed his theoretical assumptions. Yet Freud
never appeared to entertain the notion that his insistence could in any way modify the
patient’s responses, or that he could “force recollections of events that had not occurred on to

them”(Macmillan, 1992: 121). On the contrary, Freud reiterates time and again in his early
papers, long before his articulation of the Tally Argument, that it is actually impossible for the
analyst to influence the patient in this manner. Considering Freud’s experience with hypnosis
at Saltpetre, Nancy, and even in his own clinical practice in Vienna, this seems to be an
extremely peculiar claim for him to make.

Macmillan finds the solution to this puzzling discrepancy in Freud’s reliance upon Theodore
Meynart’s theory of associative determination. Meynart, one of the major proponents of
mechanism, believed that the association of one idea to another was best understood as a
purely physiological process: thoughts and images were stored in brain cells, and these cells
were in turn linked to each other in associative pathways determined by past experiences
(ibid., 122). Once these association links were physiologically established, Meynert reasoned,
they inexorably determined the direction of thought in such a way that “a train of thought
could terminate only in an idea that shared experiences and pathways with the starting idea”
(ibid., 123). These pre-determined pathways also limited the possibility of connecting
thoughts that were not in physiological, and hence associative, contact.

Meynart’s theory seems to imply that indirect suggestion is nothing less than a physiological
impossibility. Macmillan claims that Freud explicitly accepted Meynert’s theory in a paper
he published in 1888 (loc. cit.), and that this in turn provided him with a starting point for his
own theoretical speculations, as well as a means of defending his theories from accusations of
suggestive influence:

Meynert’s speculative physiological associationism had provided Freud with the basis for
treating associations as causal connections. The deterministic assumptions ensured that only
the memories of events that had something in common could be retrieved under hypnosis or
the by the pressure method. Because the only mode of external influence Freud considered
was direct suggestion, he obviously believed that in ruling it out he could be sure that the
memories would always be of events that had actually happened. Likewise with free
association: if unconscious purposive ideas or motives set the train of associations in motion
and if only ideas already present in the mind could be incorporated into it, as both Meynert and
von Hartmann (1892) assumed, associations evoked by the starting idea could not but be other
than causes or links in a causal chain which had to terminate with the purposeful, causal idea
(ibid., 125-26).

If this was indeed the case, then the rationale behind Grünbaum’s “Tally Argument”, and his
“NCT”, evaporates. Rather than relying upon successful therapeutic outcomes to validate
metapsychology and insulate it from accusations of suggestive influence, Freud could rely
upon the assumption of a mechanical associative determinism of the sort promoted by
Meynert. Such an assumption would rule out the possibility of suggestive contamination a
priori; in fact, it would render the imperative of locating other ways to insulate
psychoanalysis from suggestion completely superfluous. There would exist, quite simply, no
reason for Freud to feel a need to protect his work from the dangers of suggestion, other than
in the realm of public debate, where accusations by psychoanalytic outsiders required him to
provide some sort of coherent defense against the possibility of suggestive therapeutic
influence. This would also explain why Freud felt himself at liberty to speculate about
disorders that he otherwise claimed to be intractable to psychoanalytic therapy, which
Grünbaum finds so problematic – the permanent cure of the neurosis was not Freud’s only
epistemological consideration.

Let me pause here to clarify a couple of points. First off, it is not my contention that
psychoanalysis, take as a whole, is a completely unfalsifiable body of knowledge. This is

Popper’s claim, one that oversimplifies the nature of both scientific research and
psychoanalytic practice. On the contrary: if we claim that psychoanalysis is an empirical
discipline, then I submit that at the very least some of its theoretical assumptions must be
amenable to falsification tests. Rather, I am merely arguing that the examples of falsifiability
Grünbaum provides in his text are spurious, and are based on reducing the falsifiability
criterion to an absurd caricature. After all, falsification is only a subset of interpretation; in
order to falsify, the researcher must interpret the theory, decide what might constitute
evidence against it, and interpret the evidence, in order to make an assessment. I might
interpret Freud’s theory, and any falsifying evidence against it, quite differently from Freud
himself; so who is to say which of us is correct in our judgement? These considerations
reveal the flaw, I think, in Grünbaum’s (and Popper’s) argument that the falsifiability of a
theory, on the one hand, and the acceptance by a researcher of an instance of falsification, on
the other, belong to two completely different “worlds.” This false dichotomy obscures the
fact that, in reality, researcher, theory, and evidence are all of a piece, and cannot be
meaningfully separated.

Secondly, I do not contend that Freud never employed the Tally Argument, or thought in
terms of the NCT. In fact, scattered references to this kind of reasoning can be located here
and there throughout Freud’s work. To take but one example, when Freud pauses in The
Interpretation of Dreams to defend his method of dream interpretation, he refers to the
effectiveness of therapeutic insight as a means of validating his work theories on hysteria:

…we might defend ourselves by appealing to the impression made by our interpretations, to
the surprising connections with other elements of the dream which emerge in the course of our
pursuing a single one of its ideas, and to the improbability that anything which gives such an
exhaustive account of the dream could have been arrived at except by following up psychical
connections which had already been laid down. We might also point out in our defense that
our procedure in interpreting dreams is identical with the procedure by which we resolve
hysterical symptoms; and there the correctness of our method is warranted by the coincident
emergence and disappearance of the symptoms…(Freud, 5: 527-28; italics added).

Rather, my contention is that Grünbaum exaggerates the importance of the Tally Argument in
relation to Freud’s theory. Grünbaum believes that all evidence from the clinic is
“epistemically contaminated,” and furthermore, that Freud was also cognizant of this
problem; that Freud therefore saw a need to guarantee the validity of his clinical observations,
over and above his own claims to scientific objectivity; and that finally, this guarantee was the
Tally Argument. But the textual evidence suggests otherwise. If in fact Freud worked within
the tradition of the “naturalist observer,” as I suggested above, then he would scarcely require
such epistemological insurance. Thus, by touting the Tally Argument as the “underwriter of
the clinical validation of his entire theory,” Grünbaum does little more than set up, and knock
down, a straw-man.

As I see it, Freud was an indifferent (if not downright sloppy) methodologist who seldom
bothered to provide real evidence for his theoretical musings, relying instead on the hope that
they would somehow eventually cohere in a logical fashion – or that they were logically
irrefutable from the beginning, depending on the specific thesis in question. When Grünbaum,
a pedantic and fastidious philosopher, attempts to reconstruct Freud, he does so under the
presupposition that Freud was just as pedantic and fastidious. As a result Grünbaum quite
simply creates a Freud that was never there to begin with. Certainly, Freud argued on
occasion that the therapeutic success of psychoanalysis provided evidence that his theories
were correct; but he could just as easily turn around and express deep misgivings about his
technique’s real efficacy. In addition, he was just as prone to point out other characteristics of

his method that supported his theoretical suppositions, such as “consilience.” At the same
time, he was aware that one of the real “proofs” of his theory was the subjective experience of
the analysis itself, even lamenting on occasion that while personal experience was one of the
surest ways to convince a skeptic of the validity of psychoanalytic theory, too few people
could avail themselves of it. Thus, a few sentences before Freud pronounces his “Tally
Argument,” he writes:

These accusations [i.e., that psychoanalytic theory falls prey to the problem of suggestion,
author’s note] are contradicted more easily by an appeal to experience than by the help of
theory. Anyone who has himself carried out psycho-analyses will have been able to convince
himself on countless occasions that it is impossible to make suggestions to a patient in that way
(Freud, 14: 452).

Unfortunately, such personal experiences carry little weight beyond the tight circle of
practicing psychoanalysts.

In the final analysis it is difficult, if not impossible, to point to any single strategy employed
by Freud as justification for his methods or the metapsychological conclusions he derived
from them. He never outlined the steps involved in generalizing from clinical observation to
metapsychological theory-building, and when one reviews his writings, it seems there is no
easy or straightforward connection between them. If anything, metapsychological speculation
tended to occur in a completely different context than the clinical setting, at moments when
Freud was resting after his workday, for example, or eating a meal; and it seems that Freud
looked upon the clinic primarily as a means of inductively confirming his theoretical
guesswork. The weakness with this inductive system is of two kinds: one, the subjective
indeterminacy of the therapeutic meeting facilitated Freud’s extreme resistance to clinical
instances that didn’t confirm his theories, and two, the ultimate confrontation with theoretical
blunders left him “trapped” within the context of his own clinical methodology and damned
him to solving them in predetermined psychoanalytic terms. Thus, to take one example,
confronted with the improbability of his seduction theory, Freud relied upon his clinical
experience to reformulate the theory in terms of the Oedipus Complex, an even more
complicated, equivocal, and esoteric unconscious experience. This problem in its turn led,
inevitably, to denser and denser theoretical layering, in which one speculation was explained
by another, and another, and another – eventually resulting in a theory of incredible
complexity that could scarcely be falsified (or even confirmed, really) by the very methods of
clinical observation that had spawned it.

It is, in part, this difficulty that led some theorists to suggest an alternative view of
psychoanalytic theory, articulated in the terms of a hermeneutic inquiry, rather than a natural
science. And it is to this perspective that we turn in the next section.

V. Hermeneutic Psychoanalysis

The nagging sense that experimental studies of human behavior fail to grasp what is essential
in psychoanalysis (and human nature in general) led to a second, diametrically opposed
response to Popper’s critique. This response exploited the gap in Popper’s differentiation
between statements of meaning, on the one hand, and statements of science, on the other. In
addition, it was fueled by a growing criticism of the epistemological monopoly on “objective
knowledge” traditionally exercised by the natural sciences. Within the general field of social
theory this critique found expression in constructionism and, eventually, post-modernism.
Within psychoanalysis it took the form of a hermeneutic reconstrual of psychoanalytic theory.

The argument that psychoanalysis is a hermeneutics, rather than a natural science, has gained
in popularity over the last 30 years and is in all probability the current consensus viewpoint
among psychodynamic therapists and analysts. This version of psychoanalysis trades in its
claims to the status of a science in order to secure the primacy of the therapeutic space as a
vehicle of knowledge production. Proponents of this view, most notably Merton Gill, George
S. Klein, and Donald Spence, accept the argument that psychoanalysis is not a natural science,
but insist that the knowledge produced by it, though qualitatively different, is nevertheless
equivalent in validity to that produced by other methods of inquiry. These claims have been
strengthened by the work of Paul Ricoeur and Jurgen Habermas, two influential scholars who
have argued strongly in favor of a hermeneutic understanding of human nature and
psychoanalytic theory. In what follows, I will attempt to present some of the ideas of Jurgen
Habermas as an example of the hermeneutic version of psychoanalytic theory.

Habermas and the Critique of Positivism

Habermas takes as his starting point a critical reappraisal of positivism as epistemological

philosophy. Briefly, positivism claims that philosophy alone cannot produce real knowledge
about the world in which we live. This is because rational introspection, no matter how
logically it is pursued, cannot be verified or disproven unless it is tested against the
constraints of “reality.” Accordingly, positivism insists that all true knowledge must either be
empirically verified, via the scientific method, or logically/mathematically proven. In
rejecting metaphysics and theism as mere speculation, positivism relegates philosophy to the
task of ordering and generalizing scientific results, and reserves for itself the final
interpretation of all knowledge produced by the methods it sanctions. Consequently,
positivism lays claim even to the social sciences, eschewing in this field as well all methods
of study except those which it considers “scientific,” such as laboratory experimentation and
statistical research.

The dilemma posed by positivism lies not so much in its own epistemological skepticism as in
its tenacious refusal to grant innate validity to any field of study, or type of knowledge
production, that lies outside its province. In claiming a monopoly on “real,” “true,” or
“objective” knowledge, positivism rejects outright the possibility of competing
interpretations. Indeed, this is the starting point for Habermas’ critical reflection.

Habermas argues that before the articulation of positivist doctrine in the 19th century, the
dominant metaphysical perspectives of the time imposed a kind of duality upon Nature. On
the one hand they postulated the existence of an ephemeral, ever-changing world of

appearance, often understood as the “material” world, or the world of the senses. Against this
impermanent world of materia they posited the existence of a second domain – a permanent,
unchanging world of essences, often understood in religious terms, as the world of the spirit.
While the first world was directly mediated through sense experience, the second world was
accessible to man only through subjective introspection and/or mystical illumination.
However, though separate, these two “realms,” (as Habermas refers to them) were also
believed to be inextricably intertwined with each other. The historian Wolfgang van den
Daele describes this pre-positivistic worldview and epistemology as follows:

…hermetic natural philosophy did not only postulate the congruity of religious and scientific
knowledge and the equivalence of their truth claims. It also constructed on the one hand the
experimental method as a means to arrive at knowledge of spiritual matters and, on the other
hand, considered mystic and religious illumination to be the ultimate ground for true natural
knowledge (Daele, 1977: 37).

It was precisely this picture of the world and understanding of science that positivism sought
to overturn; positivists rejected the idea that “mystic and religious illumination” was a
necessary component for a complete understanding of Nature, or that the experimental
method was in any sense related to a deeper understanding of spiritual matters. In dismissing
this view, however, they did not dismantle the underlying metaphysical duality inherent in the
theistic world picture. As Habermas astutely observes:

Early positivism retains in singularly uncritical fashion the metaphysical separation of the
world into a realm of authentic, unchanging, and necessary being on one hand and a realm of
changing and accidental appearances on the other. Only, in opposition to a theory that
professed to be concerned with the essence of things, positivism declares its disinterest in a
realm of essence that has been unmasked as illusion – in other words, fancies…( Habermas:
1976, 78).

The separation of inner from outer, mind from body, and real from imaginary, reflects the
metaphysical duality underlying positivist philosophy. Habermas argues that positivism has
in this regard merely integrated a pre-existing theological duality, modifying it in the
following manner:

1) First, rather than deny the existence of “materia” and “spirit” as separate realms of
experience, positivism merely inverts their epistemological value. That is to say:

Under the name of positivism, exclusive reality is now claimed for phenomena which had
previously been considered trivial…. Thus the elements of the metaphysical tradition are
preserved; in positivist polemics they have only exchanged roles (ibid., 79).

In other words, what was once considered immutable and true – the world of the spirit – is
reconceptualized by positivism as mutable, potentially false, and epistemologically
misleading; it cannot form a suitable basis for the derivation of true knowledge about Nature.
On the other hand, what was once considered ephemeral and undependable – the material
world and our sense experiences of it – is reframed by positivism as permanent and
dependable, and elevated to a position of epistemological priority.

2) Secondly, the two realms are ontologically repositioned. That is to say, the “world of the
spirit” is removed from the realm of Nature and deposited in the inner world of man’s
imagination, to be understood as “fancies” (ibid., 78). Spirit and matter, once intricately
interwoven in a theistic worldview, are now separated; observations of the world of matter are
excised of their spiritual dimension, and spiritual insights, firmly repositioned within a

diminished and epistemologically unreliable subject, are relegated to the category of
“imaginary/metaphysics,” and rejected. From the positivist perspective, the immutable world
of the spirit is no longer perceived as a characteristic of Nature, that is to say as a naturally
occurring aspect of the world in which we live, but as a function of our own subjective

As noted above, these modifications are coupled with a positivist dismissal of all forms of
“metaphysical speculation.” Positivism rejects metaphysics and relegates philosophy to the
task of organizing the various kinds of knowledge it produces:

Comte refuses from the very beginning to go into the problems posed by metaphysics. They
are not reflected upon, but merely supplanted. By restructuring the realm of decidable
questions to the explanation of facts, positivism removes metaphysical problems from
discussion…(ibid., 79).

However, by removing metaphysics from its discourse, Habermas insists, positivism does not
thereby escape metaphysics, nor in reality free itself from metaphysical speculation. The
assumed, and unquestioned, metaphysical duality it inherited from the previously theistic
worldview still continues to act as positivism’s a priorí foundation. Significantly, however,
the positivist rejection of metaphysical discussion leaves its own metaphysical assumptions
beyond the range of its critical discourse. Paradoxically, Habermas points out, positivism
cannot “justify itself” without resorting to the exact same sort of philosophical speculation
which, under the “guise of pragmatism,” it fundamentally rejects. Thus, in dismissing
metaphysics, positivism renders invisible the very presuppositions upon which its own
worldview are constructed, and from which its “facts” are extracted. Habermas refers to this
metaphysically blinkered perspective as “the scientistic self-understanding of the sciences”
(ibid., 80).

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Habermas argues that positivism denies a place for the
“subject” in the production and/or retrieval of knowledge. In his words:

…the philosophy of science renounces inquiry into the knowing subject…. For an
epistemology restricted to methodology, the subjects who proceed according to these rules lose
their significance (ibid., 68).

Before the advent of positivism, Nature was perceived and understood via the “subjectivity”
of the researcher. For this reason, the interrogation of Nature also involved the simultaneous
interrogation of the subject. The inquiring subject stood at the center of knowledge, and the
experiences of this subject were the “facts” upon which the pre-positivist worldview was
based. In contrast, positivism seeks to remove the subject and its experiences from the field
of knowledge production. By this strategy, positivism contrives to create a single, unified
worldview in which the subjective experiences of any particular researcher can be dismissed
as irrelevant. A good scientist does not bring his personal prejudices to bear on any given
experiment; the scientific method guarantees the universality of experimental results without
reference to the individual idiosyncrasies of any given experimenter. It is in this way,
Habermas claims, that the knowing subject loses its significance.

Thus, under the fiefdom of positivism, the “subject who knows” becomes decentered and
alienated. The significance of this insight for Habermas’ analysis cannot be overemphasized.
It is of central importance with regard to psychoanalysis, which, as Habermas subsequently
argues, is nothing less than an in-depth investigation of the “knowing subject.”

Psychoanalysis Reconstructed: The Textual Subject

Habermas insists that psychoanalysis, despite Freud’s intentions, goes beyond the structure of
positivistic natural science and enters the domain of hermeneutics. He bases this perception
upon the fundamental centrality of interpretation, and its transformational potential, within
both psychoanalytic theory and practice. Clearly, the interpretative act, understood as the
translation of a statement from one language into another, is grounded in linguistic theory:

The ego’s flight from itself is an operation that is carried out in and with language. Otherwise
it would not be possible to reverse the process hermeneutically, via the analysis of language.
In a linguistic framework, Freud attempted to render the act of repression comprehensible as
severance from language as such of ideas representing the instincts (ibid., 241).

In this context, Habermas conceives of the subject as constructed along the lines of a text.
This text consists in part of a “public language,” which comprises the contents of conscious
mind, and in part of a “private language,” which makes up the contents of the unconscious

We assume a sphere of consciousness….This sphere is attached to linguistic communication

and actions. It satisfies the criterion of publicness, which means communicability, whether in
words or actions. In contrast, what is unconscious is removed from public communication.
Insofar as it expresses itself in symbols or actions anyway, it manifests itself as a symptom,
that is as a mutilation and distortion of the text of everyday language games (ibid., 238).

Thus, for Habermas, Freud’s metapsychology is also a theory of language, or at the very least,
a model of the human mind framed in the terms of a linguistic theory. Dreams, for example,
can be understood as a “private language” of unconscious motivation, expressed in “visual
scenes…no longer ordered by syntactic rules” (ibid., 224). Symptoms, as well, can be
understood as expressions of a “corrupted text,” a text that disrupts the self:

The object domain of depth hermeneutics comprises all the places where, owing to internal
disturbances, the text of our everyday language games are interrupted by incomprehensible
symbols. These symbols cannot be understood because they do not obey the grammatical rules
of ordinary language, norms of action, and culturally learned patterns of expression….Freud
uses the medical term “symptom” to cover such deviant symbol formations, which he studied
in dreams as an exemplar (ibid., 226).

The most significant aspects of the private, distorted text of neurotic symptoms, Habermas
argues, is that they are also incomprehensible to the subject itself. In contrast to the standard,
publicly-accepted language games of normal, daily interaction, in which language “fits”
actions (and vice-versa), the private language of symptoms does not coincide with actions and
non-verbal expressions. However, because the subject “actualizes” itself through such
languages games, it cannot perceive the discrepancy between word and action, or understand
this discrepancy (ibid., 217-218). Thus, Habermas understands the neurotic symptom as a
kind of “communicative breakdown,” an expression of the subject’s inability to communicate
with itself:

…symptoms are signs of a specific self-alienation of the subject who has them. The breaks in
the text are places where an interpretation has forcibly prevailed that is ego-alien even though
it is produced by the self. Because the symbols that interpret suppressed needs are excluded

from public communication, the speaking and acting subject’s communication with himself is
interrupted (ibid., 227).

According to Habermas, then, symptoms are “the scars of a corrupt text that confronts the
author as incomprehensible”(ibid., 219). From this perspective, the subject can be
conceptualized as an entity involved in a constant, self-constructing dialogue with itself.8
That part of the dialogue which partakes of socially accepted language games, and is
expressed in the idiom of a “public” (that is to say, communicable) language, constitutes the
conscious “I” of the subject. The remaining discourse, a “text” that is produced by the self
but remains alien to the consciously-understood language games of the “I,” constitutes the
unconscious. When this alien, private text makes its presence felt strongly enough, we speak
of it as a symptom. Habermas conceptualizes this symptom as a distortion of the “symbolic
structure” of the language in which the subject constructs itself ( ibid., 219).

Within this framework it is the job of the psychoanalyst to interpret, that is to say, translate,
the private language of the unconscious, or the corrupted text of the neurotic self, into the
public and accessible language of the conscious mind. In doing so, the analyst aids the
neurotic patient in “making sense” of the otherwise “incomprehensible text” of his symptoms.
However, this task implies an “object domain” far beyond that of traditional hermeneutics. In
standard philological hermeneutic criticism, the purpose of the hermeneutic work is the
restoration of a corrupted text; however, philology assumes that the corruptions found in the
original text are meaningless. The goal of the work is therefore the replacement of an
essentially meaningless, corrupted text with a text that has a comprehensible meaning. From
Freud’s psychoanalytic perspective, on the other hand, the textual corruptions inherent in a
neurotic symptom have meaning in and of themselves and are therefore themselves the
primary focus of the hermeneutic interpretative effort:

Psychoanalytic interpretation, in contrast, is not directed at meaning structures in the dimension

of what is consciously intended. The flaws eliminated by its critical labor are not accidental.
The omissions and distortions that it rectifies have a systematic role and function. For the
symbolic structures that psychoanalysis seeks to comprehend are corrupted by the impact of
internal conditions. The mutilations have meaning as such. The meaning of a corrupt text of
this sort can be adequately comprehended only after it has become possible to illuminate the
meaning of the corruption itself (ibid., 216-17).

This process requires, accordingly, an extended hermeneutics, which Habermas labels “depth
hermeneutics.” In contrast to traditional hermeneutics, depth hermeneutics has a unique
“object domain,” the unconscious, and an extended range of application, namely, “the
meaning of the distorted text itself”(ibid., 220). The subjective intentionality of the mind
assumed in traditional hermeneutics is thus supplemented via depth hermeneutics by a new,
unconscious dimension.

Here Habermas introduces what must be considered the central point in his reconstruction of
psychoanalysis as a hermeneutic discipline. It is at this juncture, in the midst of the self-
constituting dialogue of the “I,” that Habermas recasts the psychoanalytic project as a
systematic inquiry into the “knowing subject.” Having articulated the contours of this subject
in terms of a text, sections of which are distorted by a split-off, private, and essentially
In the interest of accuracy, this statement is something of a simplification. Habermas is aware that ”self-
reflection” is not a ”solitary movement” per se, but also requires intersubjective communication with an other.
As he points out, ”In the end, self-consciousness is constituted only on the basis of mutual recognition” (ibid.,
344). However, for the purposes of this discussion, it is the communication of the subject with him/herself that
is of primary importance.

incomprehensible language, he is now ready to deploy his depth hermeneutics, with its
extended range, in a textual analysis of the subject’s self-constructing dialogue:

…psychoanalytic hermeneutics, unlike the cultural sciences, aims not at the understanding of
symbolic structures in general. Rather, the act of understanding to which it leads is self-
reflection…. This disturbance of communication does not require an interpreter who mediates
between partners of divergent languages but rather one who teaches one and the same subject
to comprehend his own language. The analyst instructs the patient in reading his own texts,
which he himself has mutilated and distorted, and in translating symbols from a mode of
expression deformed as private language into the mode of expression of public communication
(ibid., 228).

In other words, Habermas conceptualizes the psychoanalytic process as one in which the
patient gradually learns, with help from the analyst, to translate the corrupted (or private) text
of the unconscious self into a comprehensible, public language. He refers to this act as “self-
reflection,” and claims that it goes beyond the usual interpretative acts of the cultural sciences
on three levels: 1) it addresses the meaning of a distorted text itself, rather than merely
replacing it with an undistorted text; 2) it leads the subject to a deeper understanding of itself,
rather than of some other object of study; and 3) it dissolves the laws of cause and effect that
have led the subject to suffer from neurotic symptoms in the first place.

Habermas is at pains to demonstrate that the fundamental thrust of psychoanalytic knowledge

is towards self-reflection. He argues that the very logic of the “transference situation,”
coupled with the “division of labor” between analyst and analysand, supports his assertion
(ibid., 232). He claims that three “peculiarities” of analytic knowledge also bolster this claim:
first, that it “includes two moments equally: the cognitive, and the affective and
motivational”(ibid., 233-34); second, that it “demands [from the patient] ‘moral responsibility
for the content’ of the illness”(ibid., 235); and third, that it requires the analyst to “undergo
analysis in the role of patient in order to free himself from the very illnesses that he is later to
treat as an analyst”(ibid., 236). Thus, Habermas finds evidence of the self-reflective nature of
psychoanalytic procedures even in the structure of its educational system.

Freud’s “Positivistic” Misconstrual

It is not difficult to discern at least one underlying reason behind Habermas’ insistence in
regarding psychoanalysis as a self-reflective discipline. Placing emphasis on the self-
reflective goal of psychoanalysis allows us to reorient its knowledge content. As a positivistic
science, the goal of psychoanalytic research would be similar to other such sciences, and
consist essentially in developing an empirically testable model of the “mental apparatus,”
along with a set of generalized, observable laws governing its behavior. However, as noted
above, it is precisely the general dissatisfaction with this approach to the study of human
beings that has provided the impetus for developing an alternative basis for understanding the
human condition. Framed as a self-reflective depth hermeneutics, on the other hand, the
knowledge produced by psychoanalysis would have as its goal personal liberation and insight.
Such a reconstruction of the psychoanalytic project would subsequently free it from the
constraints placed upon its theories by positivism. Indeed, psychoanalysis would potentially
pose a challenge to the positivist worldview; for, understood from Habermas’ perspective,
positivism cannot address the transformational change brought about by psychoanalytic
interpretation. Armed with his reconstruction of the psychoanalytic process, Habermas is
now prepared to address the positivistic misconstrual that had been the legacy of Freud’s

As an example of the contradiction between Freud’s method of self-reflection on the one hand
and his positivistic theory and use of language on the other Habermas points to the
epistemological paradox inherent in his structural model of the mind. Habermas argues that
Freud derived the structural model and its categories of ego, super-ego, and id from the
“reflective process” of analysis. Unfortunately, Freud then goes on to describe analytic work
in terms of the model he has just derived from it. Ironically, he does not include self-
reflection as a part of the model:

Freud makes a careful distinction between displacement, as a primary process, and

sublimation, which is a displacement under the control of the ego. Analogously, he
distinguishes between defense as an unconscious reaction and the rational mastery of instincts,
which is a defense not only by means of the ego, but under the ego’s control. But what does
not appear among ego functions on the metapsychological level is the movement of reflection,
which transforms one state into another – which transforms the pathological state of
compulsion and self-deception into the state of superseded conflict and reconciliation with ex-
communicated language. Strangely enough, the structural model denies the origin of its own
categories in a process of enlightenment (ibid., 245).

Thus, noting that in the structural model the “ego agency is precisely not endowed” with the
one characteristic it needs in order to transform the unconscious into the conscious (i.e., the
capacity for self-reflection), Habermas states categorically: “The language of the theory is
narrower than the language in which the technique was described” (loc. cit.).

Observations such as this lead Habermas to his now-famous insight that psychoanalysis
suffers from a “scientistic self-misunderstanding.” This misunderstanding in turn finds its
basis in Freud’s original goal of establishing a “scientific psychology,” that is to say, in his
attempt to correlate psychological phenomena with the physiology of the brain (ibid., 248).
While it is true that Freud eventually abandoned this project after his unfinished paper
“Project for a Scientific Psychology,” he nevertheless continued to utilize its “physicalist”
terminology in his subsequent writings. Thus, despite the formal elimination of a “physical
substratum” from his theoretical musings (initiated by Freud in the 7th Chapter of The
Interpretation of Dreams), he continues to employ concepts derived from that type of
discourse, such as energy, charge, transfer, discharge, and so forth. This problem is
compounded by the fact that, as he progressed, Freud continued to derive his theories from
clinical practice, even though he strove to formulate them in a “positivist” idiom. Claiming
that “psychoanalytic theory formation is embedded in the context of self-reflection,”
Habermas describes Freud’s fundamental theoretical miscalculation as follows:

Independently of the evolution of his work, the way in which Freud went astray
methodologically can be reconstructed approximately as follows. The basic categories of the
new discipline, the conceptual constructions…this metapsychological framework was first
derived from experiences of the analytic situation and the interpretation of dreams. The
meaning of this observation bears on methodology and not on the psychology of research. For
these metapsychological categories and connections were not only discovered under
determinate conditions of specifically sheltered communication, they cannot even be explicated
independently of this context…. Freud erred in not realizing that psychology…cannot content
itself with a model that keeps to a physicalistic use of language without seriously leading to
operationalizable assumptions. The energy-distribution model only creates the semblance that
psychoanalytic statements are about measurable transformations of energy. Not a single
statement of instinctual economics has ever been tested experimentally. The model of the
psychic apparatus is so constructed that metapsychological statements imply the observability
of the events they are about. But these events are never observed – nor can they be observed
(ibid., 252-53).

As pointed out earlier, Sulloway also notes that Freud’s “Project” is a double-edged
document: on the one hand it attempts to connect physiological events to clinical phenomena
such as repression; on the other, it attempts to articulate clinical phenomena such as
repression in terms of the physiological rules of brain anatomy (Sulloway, 1979: 121-22). It
is perhaps significant in this regard that Freud never finished the “Project,” but simply
abandoned it as he came to understand its basic unworkability. In abandoning it, however, he
remained true to a central tenet that was fundamental to the paper – the concept of the “mental
apparatus” as a real, physical system that functions according to the laws of Nature. The
topographical model he subsequently develops in the 7th chapter of The Interpretation of
Dreams rests implicitly on this idea, despite the fact that the system he envisions cannot be
physically located (Freud, 5: 536). Thus, to take but one example of the “physicalist”
presuppositions underlying metapsychology, Freud borrows the idea of “flow of energy” from
thermodynamics and applies it to the psyche, arguing that dreams are created when “energy”
flows backwards through the mental apparatus and charges the perceptual system with images
that originate from more primitive areas of the brain (ibid., 548). As Habermas accurately
notes, none of these concepts – “energy,” “backwards flow,” “mental apparatus,” or
“perceptual system” – correspond in any way to any empirically observable natural object –
which Freud himself explicitly recognizes – though the terminology would lead one to believe
otherwise. This mode of formulating psychoanalytic theories thus represents an attempt to
articulate an insight garnered from clinical, hermeneutically-conditioned experience in
language borrowed from the natural sciences. Such an attempt must deny its origins in the
self-reflective process of analytic therapy, because the language of positivism cannot
accommodate such a process.

To address this problem, Habermas argues, psychoanalysis must reformulate itself as a

hermeneutic discipline. When this is accomplished, psychoanalytic theory reveals itself not
as a natural science, but as “a general interpretation of self-formative processes”(Habermas,
1976: 254). The claim that psychoanalysis is couched in a language that does not correspond
to its clinical practice is perhaps not a new one, but Habermas is among the first to fully
explore the implications of this linguistic mismatch. He argues that the problem has
consequences both for the manner in which psychoanalytic theory finds expression, and the
methodology necessary to verify its metapsychological hypotheses.

Critique of Habermas

In many ways my own understanding of the psychoanalytic process lies very close to the
version articulated by Habermas. The difference is primarily one of focus: Habermas
attempts to reformulate psychoanalytic theory in such a way as to make it logically, and
epistemologically, consistent with his broader view of human nature and his model of
communicative action. He discovers that psychoanalysis “fits” his textual understanding of
the subject quite comfortably. As a practicing therapist, on the other hand, I have been less
concerned with philosophical consistency and more concerned with phenomenological
accuracy: I want to approach the questions posed at the beginning of this paper from a careful
inspection of what we do, precisely, and the implications of those methodological practices.

Habermas presents us with a reconstruction of classical psychoanalytic theory formulated in

terms of a broader, textual understanding of the subject. Thus he speaks of symptoms, for
example, as the text of a private language that the subject cannot interpret without the aid of
the analyst. Yet few of our patients these days present us with “symptoms” of the sort that

Habermas refers to in his writings. Can we apply Habermas’ ideas to object-relations theory,
and to the pre-neurotic psychopathologies that it encompasses? I think so. From this
perspective, the schizophrenic can be understood as a subject who possesses only the bare
rudiments of the public texts and language games of the surrounding society; the subject
engulfed, and completely identified, with the private, distorted language of the unconscious.
Depression, as well, can be conceptualized as a communication from the patient to the patient;
the private language of the despised and abandoned self. The impulse-driven, self-destructive
“acting-out” one sees in so-called borderline pathology can also be understood in this manner,
as the text of a communication from a desperate and split-off section of the personality. In
autism, the subject has only managed to acquire a rudimentary and repetitive private text, and
thus has no reference point in the language games of society at large. These are but a few
examples of the ways in which psychodynamic pathologies can be articulated in terms of a
“textual” version of the subject.

Nevertheless, I do have some critical objections to Habermas’ reconstructed hermeneutic

psychoanalysis. Some of these objections have to do with the specific formulations he uses to
characterize psychoanalytic work, and may or may not be overwhelmingly problematic,
depending upon one’s perspective. Here I would like to point out three problems in particular:
the empirical vagueness of the “self-formative process,” the problem of selecting a “narrative
structure,” and the ill-defined use of the term “general interpretation.”

To begin with, Habermas claims that a “general interpretation” is an empirical statement that
must be judged precisely like any other hypothesis posed within the structure of a natural
science – that is to say, on the basis of “predictions” deduced from it (ibid., 259). However,
Habermas claims that because of the special nature of its “object domain,” the only way to
actually evaluate the “predictions” of a general interpretation is through the “successful
continuation of a self-formative process” (ibid., 266). Regarding this process, Habermas
expressly rules out taking into consideration what the patient says, how he behaves, or even
the disappearance of a symptom. We therefore find ourselves at a loss as to what could
possibly constitute a datum for a self-formative process that can empirically verify a general
interpretation. If general interpretations must be subject to empirical validation, as Habermas
claims, while at the same time the self-formative processes that serves as their validation
produce no reliably observable signs of their existence, then how are we to assess the
empirical accuracy of a general interpretation? Indeed, the more we reflect upon this
question, the more problematic it becomes. In clinical work, for example, it seems clear that
we tend to judge the effectiveness of therapy, and the accuracy of our interpretations, in terms
of the observable changes that are produced in the patient – despite Habermas’ claim to the
contrary. To the extent that therapy is successful, we see signs that the patient’s personality is
becoming more integrated, that s/he is less depressed, more capable of working, loving, living
a good life, and so on. Certainly, these are not the only indications that therapy is successful,9
and that our theories are accurate, but they are the only empirical indications we can rely on.

These considerations lead to a second difficulty, which has to do with Habermas’

understanding of psychoanalytic theory as a “generalized historical narrative.” While I find
this to be a very compelling formulation, the problems inherent in the empirical validation of
a self-formative process can only lead me to pose this question: what factor gives the
psychoanalytic narrative priority over any other given narrative structure? Because as far as I
can tell, one can apply the concept of a “generalized narrative structure” to many other
Sometimes “successful treatment” can even indicate the exact opposite state of affairs, as implied by
Winnicott’s concepts of the ”false self” and the ”flight into health.”

theories about human nature. Jungian psychology, Hinduism, cognitive and behavioral
psychology, Buddhism, biological psychiatry, Christianity and Satanism, to take but a few
examples, also supply such a narrative structure. Habermas would probably argue that in
choosing the “psychoanalytic narrative” over any other, we must look to the empirical
evidence as supplied to us by virtue of the self-formative process, but as we have seen, it is
very hard to ascertain exactly what might constitute this evidence.

In fact, it often appears that Habermas takes psychoanalytic theory to be true, a priorí, and
builds his arguments on this foundation. Since he starts by defining the subject as a text, the
symptom as a “private language,” and the analyst as an “interpreter,” it becomes very difficult
afterwards to criticize the elements of his theory, or figure out their actual connection to real
practice of psychoanalytic work. Psychoanalysis becomes the model of a new science of man
only to the extent that one accepts, for example, that the symptom really does represent the
expressions of a corrupted text. But what if the symptom is the expression of neuronal
misfiring in the temporal lobes caused by an incredibly small, virtually undetectable lesion?
The easy answer to this question would be: if that were the case, we would not be able to
remove the symptom by virtue of psychoanalytic treatment. But as we have seen, not even
the disappearance of the symptom can be taken as evidence of the correctness of our theories,
according to Habermas. This problem is really the crux of the matter, methodologically
speaking; and regardless of whether or not one conceptualizes a psychoanalytic theory in the
sense of a natural science, or in the sense of a historical narrative, we are still at a dead end
when it comes to verifying its accuracy.

Finally, I must admit, I am at something of a loss as to what a “general interpretation” actually

is. It seems to me that Habermas himself wavers on this point. On the one hand, it is not a
specific interpretation, such as is delivered by a therapist to a patient during an actual analytic
session. On the other hand, it is not the metapsychological or “metahermeneutic”
superstructure of psychoanalytic theory, about which Habermas writes:

…metapsychology…allows the systematic generalization of what otherwise would remain

pure history. It provides a set of categories and basic assumptions that apply to the connections
between language deformation and behavioral pathology in general. The general
interpretations developed in this framework are the result of numerous and repeated clinical
experiences (ibid., 259).

Rather, the general interpretation seems to exist somewhere between the level of clinical
practice, on the one hand, theoretical reflection, on the other. In one passage, for example,
Habermas discusses the Oedipus complex in connection with the general interpretation.
Certainly, the Oedipus complex as formulated by Freud consists of “anonymous roles” and
“patterns of actions,” which Habermas claims are the primary characteristics of a general
interpretation; on the other hand, the Oedipus complex has traditionally been understood as a
metapsychological concept in psychoanalytic theory. So which is it? The abstract discourse
of the critical school, in whose tradition Habermas works, seldom provides concrete examples
of its conceptual elements, so in the end we are left to interpret the author’s meaning as best
we can.

Despite the difficulties enumerated above, I nevertheless feel that Habermas grasps something
essential about psychoanalysis. His attempt to reformulate psychoanalytic therapy in terms of
a “movement of self-reflection,” and his philosophical ruminations concerning the
implications of such a process, give much food for thought. Particularly telling is his
observation concerning Freud’s omission of the self-reflective process, actually the very basis

of all effective psychoanalytic work, from the theoretical formulations that are the result of
that process – for it is here that we see most clearly the “scientistic misunderstanding”
embedded in Freud’s theories. Habermas is acutely aware of this difficulty, and struggles
therefore to provide an explanation for a true mystery: how can the mere fact that the self
becomes conscious of, let us say, a repressed conflict, actually affect the conflict and modify
the causal laws upon which unconscious processes are supposedly based? Habermas solves
this dilemma by assigning text-like qualities to the structure of the subject:

The repeated conflict returns upon the patient and, with the interpretative assistance of the
analyst, can be recognized in its compulsiveness, brought into connection with repetitive
scenes outside the analysis, and ultimately be traced back to the scene in which it originated.
This reconstruction undoes false identifications of common linguistic expressions with their
meanings in private language and renders comprehensible the hidden grammatical connection
between the split-off symbol and the symptomatically distorted public text. The essentially
grammatical connection between linguistic symbols appears as a causal connection between
empirical events and rigidified personality traits. Self-reflection dissolves this connection,
bringing about the disappearance of the deformation of private language as well as the
symptomatic substitution-gratification of repressed motives of action, which have now become
accessible to conscious control (ibid., 257-58).

Does Habermas mean that the causality of Fate is structured like a language? Hardly. He
means that we “store” and “retrieve” the coincidental events of our lives in the form of a
continuously-evolving narrative, a narrative structure that functions according to its own
“grammatical logic” of cause and effect. This explains how the self-reflective process can
lead to healing and growth – when we reflect upon our lives, we transform the narrative
structure of the self.

In the final analysis, however, there exists a potentially much broader and more problematic
failure in Habermas’ presentation, one that lies within the very framework from which he
addresses his subject. This failure is common to all the theorists we have reviewed up to this
point, and can be summarized quite simply: everyone in the debate thus far, both those who
favor psychoanalysis and those who oppose it, those who consider it a scientific discipline and
those who consider it a hermeneutic one, have operated under the assumption that there exists
a fundamental qualitative difference between scientific research, on the one hand, and non-
scientific hermeneutic interpretation, on the other. Taking for granted the existence of a
demarcation boundary between these two fields, they have been primarily concerned with
determining the position of psychoanalysis in relation to this boundary: constructing a
scientific psychoanalysis, for example, or defending a hermeneutic one. Thus, in making his
particular case, Habermas accepts without question a “positivist” version of science as clearly
separated from other forms of natural inquiry, and sets about defending psychoanalysis as an
alternative form – separate, but equal.

Recent work in the sociology, history, and philosophy of science, on the other hand, has
produced a much more equivocal view of scientific practice. These studies have also laid the
groundwork for a wholesale rejection of the assumed division between hermeneutics and
natural science, arguing that under the surface, the two fields have substantial similarities.
Unfortunately, it is precisely the assumed cleavage between science and hermeneutics that
functions as the touchstone for Habermas’ entire reconstruction. Should we discover that they
are fundamentally similar and equivalent modes of inquiry, then the claim that Freud suffered
from a “scientistic self-misunderstanding” becomes at best problematic, and at worst,
incoherent. This is, in fact, the most serious flaw in Habermas’ work.

VI. Underdetermination

Thus far our overview of psychoanalytic methodology has focused primarily upon the
question of whether or not psychoanalysis can properly be considered as a discipline
belonging to the domain of the natural sciences. As we have seen, this question has been the
primary preoccupation of both proponents and critics of psychoanalytic theory throughout its
brief history. Beginning with Freud, early partisans of psychoanalysis eagerly defended its
scientific status, while detractors attacked its lack of scientific rigor. The critique of
psychoanalysis was significantly strengthened by the articulation of Karl Popper’s
demarcation criterion and his subsequent claim that because psychoanalytic theories cannot be
falsified, they cannot be deemed scientific. For many, the logic of Popper’s argument seemed
undeniable. The equivocal results of experimental investigations into empirical foundations
of psychoanalytic theory further undercut its scientific legitimacy, and for all intents and
purposes, psychoanalysis lost the debate; in current polemics, even proponents of
psychoanalysis are quick to point out that it cannot be adequately understood as a “scientific”
approach to the study of psychological processes.

Instead, psychoanalytic insights are most often promoted these days as the products of a
“hermeneutic” type of inquiry. Proponents of psychoanalysis remove it from the domain of
science and reposition it within the domain of hermeneutics. Furthermore, they argue that by
virtue of this strategic operation the legitimacy of psychoanalysis as a knowledge-producing
discipline is preserved. They claim that hermeneutic inquiry utilizes a “separate but equal”
methodology, and thus produces knowledge that is qualitatively different from that produced
by the methods of the traditional natural sciences. Psychoanalysis is defended as an
investigation into the “meaning” of the patient’s life history, and as the necessary
counterweight to a “scientific” approach that threatens to flatten the “subject,” with all its
depth and complexity, into a dehumanized and scientifically quantifiable “object.”

The problem with this line of reasoning lies in its dependence upon the assumed existence of
a straightforward, easily discernable distinction between the hermeneutic and scientific modes
of inquiry. It accepts uncritically as its starting point an out-dated, “positivistic” version of
the natural sciences – one in which they are understood as a method for producing value-free,
universal, objective knowledge – and proposes a second method, under the term
“hermeneutic,” as a necessary compliment to this version. It is argued that “positivist” natural
sciences are empirical, that they strive to explain the world in order to uncover generalizable
laws; and that in contrast, hermeneutics is interpretive, that it seeks to understand the world,
and that it focuses on the specific rather than the generalizable. The difference between these
two approaches is understood in terms of the unbridgeable methodological gap that separates
them; and accordingly, psychoanalysis maintains its legitimacy due to its solid foundation as a
hermeneutic, rather than a scientific, discipline.

This position (i.e., the argument in favor of a clear-cut distinction between science and non-
science) has, of course, been strongly promoted by Popper, as well as by prominent positivists
such as Comte, Mach, and Carnap. But it has also been subjected to numerous criticisms.
Larry Laudan, for example, in his “The Demise of the Demarcation Problem,” summarizes
some of the difficulties that philosophers have historically encountered in their struggle to
differentiate science from non-science. Beginning with Parmenides, who sought to separate
doxa, or “mere opinion,” from epistemé, or “true knowledge,” Laudan traces the unsuccessful
attempts of various theoreticians to articulate a substantial difference between the two. In

particular, he notes that Aristotle’s original demarcation criteria, which sought to delimit
science in terms of “true knowledge” – by virtue of its dependence on logic and its reliance on
the “first principles” of nature – had the unfortunate side-effect of removing astronomy from
the domain of the natural sciences; for this reason, astronomy was regarded not as a science,
but as a craft, during much of the middle ages. By the seventeenth century, Laudan argues,
practicing scientists had abandoned the futile attempt to explain nature in terms of so-called
“first principles,” but continued to maintain allegiance to Aristotle’s first criterion: that
science represents true, or infallible knowledge, as opposed to the fallibility generally thought
to accompany opinion (Laudan, 112 –114). However, the claim that scientific inquiry
invariably produces “true knowledge” came under increasing critical scrutiny and eventually
collapsed during the nineteenth century. It was replaced by the now-familiar “fallibilistic”
epistemological perspective, which admits that scientific research is never a source of
absolute certainty (ibid.). It was apparent that science could, and often did, produce incorrect
knowledge; this led, inevitably, to the realization that “…there is no difference between
knowledge and opinion: within a fallibilistic framework, scientific belief turns out to be a
species of the genus opinion” (ibid., 115). Subsequent attempts to separate science on the
basis of its particular methodology also capsized as it became apparent that there existed no
consensus within the scientific community as to what, precisely, could be regarded as the
“scientific method.” Finally, Popper’s attempt to delineate science by rigorous deployment of
the falsification criterion also fails, as Laudan notes:

Apart from the fact that it leaves ambiguous the scientific status of virtually every singular
existential statement, however well supported (e.g., the claim that there are atoms, that there is
a planet closer to the sun than the Earth, that there is a missing link), it has the untoward
consequence of countenancing as ‘scientific’ every crank claim which makes ascertainably
false assertions. Thus flat Earthers, biblical creationists, proponents of laetrile or orgone
boxes, Uri Geller devotees, Bermuda Triangulators, circle squarers, Lysenkoists, charioteers of
the gods, perpetuum mobile builders, Big Foot searchers, Loch Nessians, faith healers,
polywater dabblers, Rosicrucians, the-world-is-about-to-enders, primal screamers, water
diviners, magicians, and astrologers all turn out to be scientific on Popper’s criterion – just as
long as they are prepared to indicate some observation, however improbable, which (if it came
to pass) would cause them to change their minds (Laudan, 1977: 121).

But the flaws inherent in the falsification criterion are not the only potentially weak links in
the traditional version of science promoted Popper and his peers. As I mentioned earlier,
Popper’s account of the growth of scientific knowledge seeks to explain the historical
development of the sciences in terms of their own internal logic, as a step-by-step progression
of “conjecture” and “refutation.” Critics charge that, unfortunately, such an account fails to
address many important features of scientific activity. Primary among these failures are the
interrelated problems of theory choice and scientific controversy: Popper’s model, which
assumes a direct relationship between theory, on the one hand, and experimental evidence, on
the other, cannot fully explain the long-term, endemic controversies over theory choice that
commonly plague the scientific community, nor can it fully explicate the way in which these
controversies are eventually resolved. Thomas Kuhn highlights this failure, noting that
Popper’s recourse to internalist depiction of scientific development is based, in actuality, upon
anachronistic historical reconstructions:

Like the science textbooks on which they are often modelled, books and articles on the
philosophy of science refer again and again to the famous crucial experiments: Foucault’s
pendulum, which demonstrates the motion of the earth; Cavendish’s demonstration of
gravitational attraction; or Fizeau’s measurement of the relative speed of sound in water and
air. These experiments are paradigms of good reason for scientific choice; they illustrate the
most effective of all the sorts of argument which could be available to a scientist uncertain

which of two theories to follow; they are vehicles for the transmission of criteria of choice.
But they also have another characteristic in common. By the time they were performed no
scientist still needed to be convinced of the validity of the theory the outcome is now used to
demonstrate. Those decision had long since been made on the basis of significantly more
equivocal evidence (Kuhn, 1977:327).

In order to address these historical discrepancies, critics of internalist accounts of scientific

history and development rely upon two alternative theoretical constructs: the concept of
incommensurability, and the thesis of underdetermination, also know as the Duhem-Quine


In order to understand the import of incommensurability we must pause to briefly explicate its
necessary compliment, the “paradigm,” first introduced by Kuhn in his seminal work The
Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn originally employed the term “paradigm” to refer to
two separate but intricately interrelated aspects of scientific inquiry. In its most mundane and
straightforward sense, Kuhn uses “paradigm” to connote a specific, accepted model, or
picture, of a given natural phenomenon, along with the research practices surrounding the
construction and investigation of that model. This is Kuhn’s basic definition of the term
“paradigm,” which he borrowed from language teaching, where it is used to denote the word
one uses as a model for the conjugation of verbs, or the declinations of adjectives and nouns
(ibid., xix). Thus, for example, when learning Latin, the student studies the word amo: amo,
amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant. This pattern, known as a paradigm, provides a model
for the conjugation of countless other Latin verbs. Much like a Latin student, Kuhn argues,
the scientist-in-training studies specific examples of “standard scientific problems,” and their
solutions, gradually learning how those examples can be extended to encompass more and
more complicated phenomena. Kuhn cites the history of the various scientific
conceptualizations of light as a typical paradigm of this kind:

Today’s physics textbooks tell the student that light is photons, i.e., quantum-mechanical
entities that exhibit some characteristics of waves and some of particles. Research proceeds
accordingly, or rather according to the more elaborate and mathematical characterization from
which this usual verbalization is derived. That characterization of light is, however, scarcely
half a century old. Before it was developed…physics textbooks taught that light was
transverse wave motion, a conception rooted in a paradigm that derived ultimately from the
optical writings of Young and Fresnel…. Nor was the wave theory the first to be embraced by
almost all practitioners of optical science. During the eighteenth century the paradigm for this
field was provided by Newton’s Optiks, which taught that light was material corpuscles (ibid.,
1962: 11-12).

The reader may note, however, that the concept of a “paradigm” has much broader
implications as well. Kuhn argues that the study of a specific set of paradigms…

…is what mainly prepares the student for membership in the particular scientific community
with which he will later practice. Because he there joins men who learned the bases of their
field from the same concrete models, his subsequent practice will seldom evoke overt
disagreement over fundamentals. Men whose research is based on shared paradigms are
committed to the same rules and standards for scientific practice. That commitment and the
apparent consensus it produces are prerequisites for normal science, i.e., for the genesis and
continuation of a particular research tradition (loc. cit.)

Thus, the conceptual framework of the paradigm also structures the research community
surrounding it; in accepting a specific paradigm, scientists’ also accept a given set of research
practices, a given set of theoretical assumptions, a given set of questions regarding the
fundamentals of the paradigm, and so forth. This is the second definition inherent in Kuhn’s
use of the concept “paradigm:”

By choosing [the term “paradigm”], I mean to suggest that accepted examples of actual
scientific practice – examples which include law, theory, application, and instrumentation
together – provide models from which spring particular coherent traditions of scientific
research. These are the traditions which the historian describes under such rubrics as
‘Ptolemaic astronomy’(or Copernican), ‘Aristotelian dynamics’(or ‘Newtonian’)…and so on
(ibid., 1962: 10).

In later work, Kuhn acknowledges the potential confusion engendered by these disparate
applications of the term “paradigm,” noting that his usage is “intrinsically circular,” in that “A
paradigm is what the members of a scientific community share, and, conversely, a scientific
community consists of men who share a paradigm” (ibid., 176). He thus proposes the term
“examplar,” as a replacement for “paradigm” in its first sense, and the phrase “disciplinary
matrix” as a replacement for “paradigm” in its second sense. “Examplars,” which consist of
“a community’s standard examples,” are thus subsumed under the “disciplinary matrix” of the
research community, as an element of it; the “disciplinary matrix,” he writes, refers in
particular to “symbolic generalizations, models, and examplars” (ibid., 1977: 297).

As we can see, “paradigm” is an extraordinarily flexible concept that can be applied in many
different contexts, and at many different levels. With regard to psychoanalysis we could say
that case studies, and the specific examples of unconscious processes, transference
interpretations, unconscious communication, counter-transference and so on contained within
them, are paradigms in Kuhn’s first sense of the term; “examplars,” or “standard examples” of
the application of psychoanalytic ideas, studied by students as they gradually acquire
membership in the esoteric society of practicing analysts. (The case of Little Hans, for
example, might be a good example of a psychoanalytic “examplar.”) The “disciplinary
matrix” of psychoanalysis, on the other hand, consists of the network of theories that makes
up the totality of the psychoanalytic perspective, that informs psychoanalytic work, and that
binds the psychoanalytic community together as practitioners who share fundamental goals
and values – in a word, the metapsychology. This network of theories would correspond to
Kuhn’s broader usage of the term “paradigm.”

Kuhn argues that as a field of scientific study develops historically, it goes through stages of
revolutionary change that he refers to as “paradigm shifts.” These shifts occur because no
paradigm (used here in the sense of a “disciplinary matrix”) is entirely capable of
satisfactorily explaining all the phenomena within the field for which it is designed. Kuhn
designates the inexplicable phenomena that dog a given paradigm “anomalies:” they consist
of observations that fail to conform to a given theory’s predictions, experimental results that
contradict paradigmatic expectations, and so on. Because a paradigm is a limited artifact,
while the growth of scientific research is essentially unlimited, scientists are constantly
discovering anomalous phenomena; the work of trying to fit these phenomena into the
paradigm, which is part of what Kuhn calls “the puzzle-solving activity of normal science,”
constitutes the much of the primary, day-to-day preoccupation of the research scientist.10

To be precise, ”normal science” consists of explaining experimental results in terms of one or another
generally accepted paradigm. Most often, these results are not anomalous.

As time goes on, the anomalies scientists discover continue to pile up. Eventually, a new set
of theories, or “paradigm,” is proposed, one that seems to offer the possibility of
understanding (and explaining) these formerly inexplicable anomalies in a new manner.
Often, this new paradigm is promoted by younger, marginalized members of the research
community; seldom is it the work of one researcher, acting alone. Finally, during a period
Kuhn refers to as “extraordinary science,” a “paradigm shift” occurs, and the old paradigm is
replaced by the new.

Significantly, Kuhn argues, this shift is not determined exclusively, or even predominantly, by
recourse to experimental evidence, observation, and so on. This is because, as he would have
it, the paradigms competing to dominate a given field are “incommensurable.” The word
“incommensurable” implies that there exists no common standard by which two things can be
measured against each other. In the case of competing paradigms, this difficulty arises
because each paradigm represents, in essence, a radically different method of evaluating the
evidence used to support it. Even if both paradigms share a common set of terms, these terms
are necessarily understood in subtly different ways. It thus becomes impossible to refer to the
evidence as a means of deciding between different paradigms, because it is precisely the
interpretation of the evidence itself that is in question. Thus, advancement in science does not
rely upon new discoveries, or upon the testing and eventual rejection of bold conjectures, as
Popper claims. Rather, Kuhn argues, understanding the new paradigm requires that scientists
“put on a different sort of thinking-cap,” or make a “gestalt switch,” by which commonly-
known evidence can suddenly be reevaluated in the light of the new theoretical model. This
switch might lead, for example, to radically new ways of “seeing” objects long familiar (ibid.,
1962: 114-119), or require extensive, global reevaluations of what constitutes a legitimate
subject for scientific inquiry:11

But paradigms differ in more than substance, for they are directed not only to nature but also
back upon the science that produced them. As a result, the reception of a new paradigm often
necessitates a redefinition of the corresponding science. Some old problems may be relegated
to another science or declared entirely “unscientific.” Others that were previously non-existent
or trivial may, with a new paradigm, become the very archetypes of significant scientific
achievement. And as the problems change, so, often, does the standard that distinguishes a real
scientific solution from a mere metaphysical speculation, word game, or mathematical play
(ibid., 103).

Conceptually, paradigmatic incommensurability implies that scientists often possess no

standard, agreed-upon criteria against which they can evaluate competing theories, and thus
highlights the factors that lie beneath logic, evidence, and observation in the act of theory
choice. In “internalist” accounts of scientific development, such as that promoted by Popper,
these factors remain invisible. Thus, incommensurability serves as one point of ingress for a
sociology of scientific knowledge. By insisting that differing paradigms cannot be
meaningfully compared, Kuhn must invoke explanatory mechanisms beyond Popper’s step-
by-step “conjecture and refutation” logic in order to adequately describe the process of
scientific development. The personal values of the scientist, her place within the scientific
community and within the class structure of the society beyond it, her commitment to a given
set of philosophical or religious principles, and other social/psychological considerations all
influence the way in which she solves the dilemma of choice, and reveal that scientific
theories are not merely “objective” explanations of data, but often deeply personal
Interestingly, Kuhn’s description of the experience of a paradigmatic ”gestalt switch” is highly reminiscent of
Popper’s description of the way in which ”converts” to psychoanalysis experienced their new perspective: ” The
study of [psychoanalysis] seemed to have the effect of an intellectual conversion or revelation, opening your
eyes to a new truth hidden from those not yet initiated….” (Popper, 1963: 35). See page 22.

interpretations of that data. Kuhn notes that many of these “factors relevant to choice” lie
well beyond the domain of the science in question:

Kepler’s early election of Copernicanism was due in part to his immersion in the Neoplatonic
and Hermetic movements of his day; German Romanticism predisposed those it affected
toward both recognition and acceptance of energy conservation; nineteenth-century British
social thought had a similar influence on the availability and acceptability of Darwin’s concept
of the struggle for existence. Still other significant differences are functions of personality.
Some scientists place more premium than others on originality and are correspondingly more
willing to take risks; some scientists prefer comprehensive, unified theories to precise and
detailed problem solutions of apparently narrower scope…. My point is, then, that every
individual choice between competing theories depends on a mixture of objective and subjective
factors, or of shared and individual criteria (ibid., 1977: 325).

The problems inherent in paradigmatic incommensurability have an obvious effect on our

own field of study. A therapist working within the framework of the psychoanalytic
paradigm, for example, is likely to interpret clinical data in a manner quite alien to that of a
neurobiologist reviewing the same information. But many psychoanalytic theorists
mistakenly believe that the problem of incommensurability is in some way unique to the
relationship between psychoanalysis and “science,” and hence that psychoanalytic knowledge
must be reconstructed as something other than “scientific” if it is to have any legitimacy at all.
Kuhn’s analysis of normal scientific activity, however, suggests that incommensurability
affects every field of knowledge production, including the natural sciences. Even within
specific scientific disciplines, competing paradigms vie for interpretative monopoly, and the
same sort of dilemmas that we find between, say, psychoanalysis and cognitive psychology
can also be found between competing schools of thought in particle physics. If interpretation
is an inescapable aspect of all knowledge producing activities – as Kuhn’s twin concepts of
“paradigm” and “incommensurability” seem to suggest – then the argument that the
interpretative act constitutes psychoanalytic theory’s unique contribution to the domain of
human knowledge, as opposed to the “non-interpreted” status assigned to knowledge
produced by the natural sciences, can no longer be considered valid.

The Duhem-Quine Thesis

Arguably more problematic than paradigmatic incommensurability, from the perspective of an

internalist account of scientific history, is the thesis of underdetermination – the so-called
Duhem-Quine thesis. Named after its two primary proponents, Pierre Duhem and W.V.
Quine, it asserts, quite simply, that no single theory is, or can be, directly determined by the
evidence that supposedly supports it. Rather, according to the underdetermination thesis,
there always exist alternative theoretical constructs, or networks, that can also adequately
explain the facts at hand. Thus, in choosing among various competing theories, scientists
must make judgement calls that are not based exclusively on the evidence presented to
support the theories, but are influenced by broader considerations as well.

Pierre Duhem (1861-1916), a devout French Catholic and respected theoretical physicist,
wrote extensively about the philosophy of science, introducing the concept of
underdetermination in his The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory in 1905. Here, Duhem
begins by asking a simple question – “What is an experiment in physics?” – and arrives at a
rather surprising answer:

Go into the laboratory. Approach a table cluttered with a mass of apparatus: an electric battery,
coppers wires wrapped in silk, beakers full of mercury…. An observer inserts the metallic
stem of a rod with an ebonite head into small holes. The iron vibrates and, through the mirror
attached to it, reflects a luminous band on a celluloid scale, and the observer follows its
movements. Here, without any doubt, is an experiment. The physicist minutely observes the
vibrations of the piece of iron. Ask him what he is doing. Is he going to say, “I’m studying the
vibrations of the little iron bar with the mirror attached”? No. He will tell you that he is
measuring the electrical resistance of a coil. If you are surprised, if you ask him what these
words mean and what relation they have to the phenomena he has observed, which you have
observed at the same time…you will be sent away to take a course on electricity.

In fact, the experiment you have seen, like all experiments in physics, consists of two parts. It
consists, in the first place, of an observation of certain phenomena. To make this observation,
it is enough to be attentive and to have sufficiently quick senses. It is not necessary to
understand physics. In addition, the experiment consists in the interpretation of the observed
facts. To be able to make this interpretation, it is not sufficient to be alert and to have a
practiced eye. You must know the accepted theories. You must know how to apply them.
You must be a physicist… (Duhem, 1996: 76).

Reflecting upon the above, and numerous other examples taken from the experimental
sciences, Duhem comes to the conclusion that:

An experiment in physics is a precise observation of a group of phenomena, accompanied by

an INTERPRETATION of these phenomena. This interpretation replaces the concrete data
really gathered by observation with abstract and symbolic representations that correspond to
them by virtue of physical theories accepted by the observer (ibid., 78).

This conclusion, in its turn, has important consequences for our understanding of the nature of
the scientific enterprise, according to Duhem. Among these consequences are the following:

1) It is impossible for sciences that have developed beyond a certain stage to “leave theory at
the door,” and base themselves on observation alone. Noting that “the number and
complexity of experimental facts, and the multitude of laws that constitute physics, would
form an inextricably chaotic mass,” without some sort of classificatory system, Duhem
suggests that theories in the physical sciences are best understood as a specialized vocabulary,
“a sort of symbolic representation, or schema, formed of elements borrowed from algebra and
geometry….” Duhem argues that this vocabulary has become indispensable in the field of
physics, and that “it would be impossible to state the least law or to report the least
observation without it.” Even the instruments that one uses measuring experimental results
are based on abstract theoretical principles; thus, “For physiologists and chemists, as for
physicists, stating the outcome of an experiment implies, in general, an act of faith in the
accuracy of a whole group of theories.” To attempt to express the results of an experiment
without relying upon a myriad of supporting theoretical abstractions, he writes, would be like
trying “to state an idea without any spoken or written sign” (ibid., 79-80).

In addition, Duhem argues this fact implies that the further a scientific field progresses, the
more dependent it becomes upon the theoretical abstractions which form its basic vocabulary,
as the “symbolic translation it substitutes for the experimental facts” grows increasingly
“abstract and distant from the facts” (ibid., 81).

2) Clearly, if the above is true, it becomes impossible to falsify a specific hypothesis in

isolation. All experiments, even those directed specifically towards falsification tests, rely
upon whole systems of theories. It is only if the researcher accepts these “backgrounded”
theories as given, a priorí, that she can conclude her experiment has successfully falsified a

specific hypothesis. Otherwise, she is left with a maze of possible explanations for the
experimental results: something may be wrong with her measuring instruments, with her
calculations regarding the experimental yield, or with any number of subsidiary theories
related to her hypothesis. Duhem concludes:

In summary, physicists can never submit an isolated hypothesis to the control of experiment,
but only a whole group of hypotheses. When an experiment is in disagreement with their
predictions, it tells them that at least one of the hypotheses which constitute this group is
erroneous and must be modified, but it does not tell them which one must be changed (ibid.,

These insights lead to the further realization that it is impossible to construct a “crucial”
experiment in the natural sciences, such that by the results of that experiment alone the
researcher can conclude that one theory is false, or another true. The oft-cited crucial
experiments one finds in science textbooks, therefore, are nothing more than historical
reconstructions or general misconceptions about the implications of experimental evidence.

3) Considering this state of affairs, Duhem writes, the results of any given experiment can be
expressed only as an “abstract and symbolic judgement,” a judgement “transposed” into the
symbolic language of the particular scientific field the experiment pertains to. This
judgement, in turn, builds upon the “approximations” and “corrections” that accompany the
results of any experiment in the natural sciences. “Approximations” set the limits of the
symbolic language; when one goes beyond them, it is no longer possible to generate any laws
regarding the phenomena under study, due to the inevitable variability and limits of our
sensory impressions. “Corrections” adjust a given measurement so that, almost paradoxically,
it fits the set of theories under investigation; corrections can increase the accuracy of the
measuring instrument, for example, but only by relating it to other accepted theoretical

All of these considerations taken together lead Duhem to the conclusion that the laws of
physics, and indeed, of all other natural sciences, are in reality nothing more or less than
“symbolic relations.” They differ from the “ordinary testimony” derived from direct sensory
impression in two important aspects: they are less certain, but they are more precise. To
exemplify this thesis, Duhem takes a simple statement, “All men are mortal,” and compares it
to a physical theory:

The symbolic terms connected by a law of physics are no longer abstractions that gush
spontaneously from concrete reality. They are abstractions produced by a slow, complicated,
conscientious work of analysis, the age-old work that has elaborated physical theories….Take
a peasant who has never analyzed the concept of humanity or the concept of death and a
metaphysician who has spent his life analyzing them. Take two philosophers who have
analyzed them and adopted different, irreconcilable definitions. For all these people the law
“All humans are mortal” will be equally clear and equally true. On the other hand, take two
physicists who do not define pressure in the same manner because they do not admit the same
theories of mechanics…. Submit to these two physicists a law whose statement brings into
play the notion of pressure…. To compare it with reality, they will make different calculations
so that one will find this law verified by facts which, for the other, will contradict it. Here is
evident proof of the following truism: A law of physics is a symbolic relation whose
application to concrete reality demands that we understand it and that we accept a whole group
of theories with it (ibid., 101).

Duhem’s observations regarding the nature of scientific theories were strongly reinforced by
the philosophical work of W.V. Quine. In particular his essay “Two Dogmas of Empiricism”

has had a profound influence on the way in which sociologists have reconceptualized
scientific research since the 1960s. In this short paper Quine investigates and critiques two
assumptions that underlie empirical/positivistic philosophies. One is the assumption that
there exists a “fundamental cleavage” between so-called analytic and synthetic statements.
The other is what Quine calls “ empirical reductionism”: the belief that statements of fact can
be unequivocally reduced to “terms which refer to immediate experience” (Quine, 1953: 20).
Quine rejects both of these claims.

An analytic statement is one whose truth is determined by the internal structure of its logic,
and by virtue of the definition of the terms used within it. As a simple example, Quine
provides the statement, “No unmarried man is married.” The truth value of the statement is
not related to the world of sense experience, but to a definition of the terms within the
statement, along with their logical relationship. In contrast, a synthetic statement is a “truth of
fact,” one that is true because it describes things or relations that exist in the real world, such
as, for example, “Tim is a married man.” Quine examines in depth the various attempts made
to differentiate these two sorts of statements, but finds that none of them are logically sound.
Demonstrating that it is impossible to construct an analytic statement without reference to its
synthetic basis, he concludes:

It is obvious that truth in general depends on both language and extralinguistic fact…. Thus
one is tempted to suppose in general that the truth of a statement is somehow analyzable into a
linguistic component and a factual component. Given this supposition, it next seems
reasonable that in some statements the factual component should be null; and these are the
analytic statements. But, for all it's a priori reasonableness, a boundary between analytic and
synthetic statements simply has not been drawn. That there is such a distinction to be drawn at
all is an unempirical dogma of empiricists, a metaphysical article of faith (ibid., 36-37).

Having come to this conclusion, Quine continues with a critical investigation of the so-called
“verification theory of meaning,” a fundamental positivist doctrine first introduced by the
pragmatist philosopher Charles Pierce in the late 1800s. This theory claims that statements
have meaning only to the extent that they include a method of empirical confirmation – with
analytic statements reserved as the limiting case that are always confirmed, no matter their
empirical status. Quine objects to this line of reasoning by pointing out that the inability to
separate analytical and synthetic statements complicates verification, reducing it to
incoherence. The factual component of an empirical statement, he argues, must be reducible
to a “range of confirmatory experiences.” But it has proven impossible to delineate, precisely,
what these experiences might be:

I am impressed also, apart from prefabricated examples of black and white balls in an urn, with
how baffling the problem has always been of arriving at any explicit theory of the empirical
confirmation of a synthetic statement.… Taken collectively, science has its double dependence
on language and experience; but this duality is not significantly traceable into statements of
science taken one by one (ibid., 41-42).

Given this difficulty, all synthetic statements of empirical fact risk devolving, upon close
inspection, into analytic statements that are, in their turn, meaningless without reference to
their empirical determinants (as Quine demonstrated in the first section of his paper) – a
situation which results, in its turn, in a logically unsolvable vicious circle.

Taken together, these considerations lead Quine to the conclusion that the direct relationship
between a scientific theory, on the one hand, and the evidence supposedly determining it, on

the other, is scarcely as straightforward as has been generally believed. Rather, scientific
theories are “fields of statements” only loosely related to the world of experience:

The totality of our so-called knowledge or beliefs, from the most casual matters of geography
and history to the profoundest laws of atomic physics or even of pure mathematics and logic, is
a man-made fabric which impinges on experience only along the edges. Or, to change the
figure, total science is like a field of force whose boundary conditions are experience. A
conflict with experience at the periphery occasions readjustments in the interior of the field.
Truth values must be redistributed…. Reevaluation of some statements entails reevaluation of
others, because of their logical interconnections…. But the entire field is so underdetermined
by its boundary conditions, experience, that there exists much latitude of choice as to the what
statements to reevaluate in the light of any single contrary experience. No particular
experiences are linked with any particular statements in the interior of the field, except
indirectly through considerations of equilibrium affecting the field as a whole.

If this view is right, it is misleading to speak of the empirical content of an individual statement
– especially if it is a statement at all remote from the experiential periphery of the field…(ibid.,

Thus, approaching the epistemological basis of the natural sciences from different starting
points – Duhem, from a hands-on investigation of actual scientific activity, Quine from a
philosophical inquiry into the logic underlying scientific reasoning – both Duhem and Quine
come to essentially the same conclusion, to wit: after reaching a certain level of abstraction,
all theories become underdetermined. Theories that fail to conform with predicted
experimental results or observational evidence can always be preserved by the judicious
readjustment of some other element in the conceptual network to which the theory belongs.
When deciding to retain a given theory, or to reject it in favor of a competing hypothesis, the
scientist is in fact forced to make a judgement in which an appeal to evidence is, at best, only
one of a number of factors.

As Knorr-Cetina and Mulkay point out, the thesis of underdetermination suggests that “there
are in principle always alternative theories which are equally consistent with the evidence and
which might reasonably be adopted by scientists” (Knorr-Cetina and Mulkay, 1983: 3).
Underdetermination, much like incommensurability, implies the possibility that when
scientists choose between theories, considerations other than those traditionally referred to
(i.e., logic and evidence) can come into play. Thus, like incommensurability,
underdetermination also provides an ingress for the sociological study of science, and for the
construction of a sociology of scientific knowledge.

When I speak of the sociology of science, by the way, I refer to a study of scientific activities
which exploits the standard tools of sociological research. Such an approach is not limited by
a simple investigation into the evidence for, or against, a given theory. Rather, sociological
studies take into account the role of the scientist as a member of society, and the influence
that role plays in his theoretical preferences – in other words, they represent an “externalist”
account of science, in contrast to the traditional “interalist” view espoused by, for example,
Popper. In the words of the historian of science Everett Mendelsohn, this sociological
perspective views of science as:

…an activity of human beings acting and interacting, thus a social activity. Its knowledge, its
statements, its techniques have been created by human beings and developed, nurtured and shared
among groups of human beings. Scientific knowledge is therefore fundamentally social
knowledge. As a social activity, science is clearly a product of a history and of processes which
occurred in time and in place and involved human actors…(Mendelsohn, 1977: 3-4).

Thus, the values of the scientist, his social position, and his psychological predisposition also
potentially influence the choices he makes. The structure of the scientific society or
institution, the scientist’s cultural background, his membership in social or political
organizations, the rhetorical techniques employed by him in professional literature, and
numerous other underlying factors must be considered when investigating how science
actually works, the way in which theories are selected or rejected, and the manner in which
scientific evidence is evaluated. These factors are brought into relief by, for example,
“laboratory studies,” in which the work scientists actually do “at the bench” is studied in
detail, and discourse analysis, in which the techniques of persuasion employed in scientific
texts are meticulously analyzed. Extensive sociological and historical studies of science
published over the last 40 years have provided considerable support for this perspective (see,
for example: Gilbert, 1977; Pinch, 1981; Travis, 1981; Collins, 1981; Hammond, 1982;
Pinch, 1985; and Cambrosio, Jacobi, and Keating, 1993; Collins and Pinch, 1998).

Returning to the topic of underdetermination, the Zamansky experiment discussed previously

(pg. 26-28) provides us with an excellent example of this principle in action. The way in
which Zamansky’s experiment was evaluated, first by the experimenter himself, then by
Kline, and finally by Eysenck and Wilson, present, in essence, three alternative readings of
the experimental results. In passing judgement on the validity and potential significance of
the experiment, each theoretician relies upon other theoretical constructs, or goes beyond the
empirical evidence, to justify his interpretation of the material at hand. Zamansky, for
example, must take on faith the assumption that his device, and the craft procedures
surrounding its usage, can be extended to accurately measure the unconscious homosexuality
of paranoid psychotics. In this context it is perhaps worth noting that, for all intents and
purposes, his methods had been tested only once, in an experiment conducted with non-
psychotics. Kline, in his review of Zamansky, took the reliability of his research techniques
for granted, but questioned Zamansky’s interpretation of the results, suggesting that his
methods failed to appropriately measure the actual aggression paranoids display towards
women (Kline, 1972: 271). Finally, Eysenck and Wilson employed one of the oldest
rhetorical tricks in the book: they threw into doubt the general accuracy of Zamansky’s
measuring instrument as a whole, arguing that if the instrument was unsound, its results must
be discarded. They also suggested an alternative interpretation of Zamansky’s results, but
neither Zamansky’s own conclusions, nor theirs, nor Kline’s, can be solved by an appeal to
the actual experimental results. In fact, the results of the experiment are uncontested; what is
at stake is the question of how these results should be properly understood. As this example
clearly demonstrates, honest researchers with different theoretical commitments can, and
often do, interpret the experimental evidence for or against a given theory in different ways.
To understand these conflicting interpretations, sociologists argue, we must look beyond the
evidence and investigate the social factors that also influence their views.

Significantly, these sorts of conflicts are in no sense limited to psychoanalysis, or to tests of

psychoanalytic theories. In fact, they plague all fields of scientific research, constantly.
Thus, Trevor Pinch, in his seminal article on an experimental attempt to measure solar
neutrinos, traces a process in the field of particle physics that is almost exactly parallel to the
one described above (Pinch, 1985). What sets psychoanalysis apart, if anything, is the often-
times acute awareness many psychoanalysts display with regard to the underdetermined
character of their discipline’s evidential foundation, as well as their own clinical work.
Understood from this perspective, the claim that psychoanalysis is a “hermeneutic discipline”
is really little more than a tacit admission of the difficulties underdetermination poses for the

study of the human mind in general. These difficulties are in no sense unique for
psychoanalysis, even though, in current popular polemics, they are seldom recognized as a
central problem for other research programs.

If we agree that incommensurability and underdetermination are significant elements of all

modes of knowledge production, then we find that it is no longer possible to assert the
existence of an air-tight boundary between hermeneutics and natural science. On the
contrary, we come to realize that the assumed border between these two forms of knowledge
is so porous as to be non-existent; scientific and hermeneutic modes of inquiry are so
inextricably intertwined that one cannot separate them without doing severe injustice to the
actual process knowledge production. In his “Natural Science as a Hermeneutic of
Instrumentation,” Patrick Heelan constructs an eloquent and convincing argument in favor of
this perspective. Dismissing the traditional division of knowledge into the categories of
hermeneutic/scientific, he insists that

…at diverse times, places, and circumstances, different scientific accounts have been given of
Nature, not all of which are consistent with a Scientific Realism that would exclude times,
places, and cultural circumstances from their evidentiary conditions. A Scientific Realism of
this sort has become more and more difficult to sustain even for existing scientific theories, and
still more difficult to defend as the explanatory historical goal of science (Heelan, 1983: 187).

In contrast to the old conceptual division between the natural and social sciences, Heelan
insists that the two disciplines are in fact fundamentally interwoven, suggesting that the
scientific measuring instrument provides a “text” that must be “read,” i.e., hermeneutically
interpreted, by the trained scientist:

Each practical empirical procedure is a humanly planned process in which Nature is made to
‘write’ in conventional symbols a ‘text’ from which scientific information is ‘read’ by the
experienced scientist using the resources of scientific language within which this is then
expressed. The ‘pages’ on which Nature ‘writes’ its ‘text’ is a scientific instrument used as a
readable technology….

There is an old and venerable tradition, passing from Augustine to Gallileo, Spinoza, and
Einstein, that speaks of Nature as a Book, and science as the reading of the Book of Nature….
The old tradition took the Book of Nature to be a ‘text’ already written in final and complete
form by God, its divine author; this ‘text’ lay open for all mankind to see and interpret without
recourse to divine revelation, and the ‘reading’ of this ‘text’ constituted natural science.
According to the view expressed in this paper, the ‘text’ for scientific ‘reading’ has not been
written from time immemorial…but instead the ‘text’ which science ‘reads’ is an artifact of
scientific culture, caused to be ‘written’ by Nature on human instruments within the controlled
context of a scientific environment (ibid, 188).

Mirroring Duhem, Heelan continues by limiting his hermeneutics of science to fields with
“readable technologies” such as are “generally associated with the more advanced stages of
scientific research programs” (ibid., 189). These technologies, modelled as they are on a
given theory, provide a kind of “transparent window” onto an agreed-upon field of
knowledge, although the exact nature of the field can, at times, be problematic:

‘Texts’ generated by readable technologies, when ‘read’ by the suitably initiated, give direct
access to a domain of scientific entities and processes that are the referents of the scientific
account. These entities are perceived as dressed by the readable technologies we use. The
transparency and clarity of such ‘texts’ vary; in well-established areas, such as classical
physics, the degree of transparency may be great, but in areas like microbiology or cosmology,
the degree of transparency may be small, since what is presented to perception through such
techniques is often incompletely understood and obscurely presented to experience…. Such

experiences are closest to that of philologists in the interpretation of archaic texts or texts from
other cultures (ibid., 192 – 93).

Heelan concludes that “Natural science uses hermeneutic methods in its growth and
development, in its use of models, and in establishing continuity with archaic models” (ibid.,
201). His argument implies that hermeneutic interpretation is embedded in the very processes
of scientific measurement; rather than “reading the Book of Nature,” scientific techniques
generate a text “in response to a human form of inquiry,” and thus, “what counts as a
satisfactory answer depends on the time and place, and the cultural interests of the scientific
community” (loc. cit.).

These reflections lead us to an unexpected, almost paradoxical conclusion: not that

psychoanalysis is, in reality, a science, but rather that the natural sciences are, in fact,
hermeneutic disciplines. Science is not “scientific,” as the term is commonly understood. In
fact, almost every charge leveled against the non-scientific character of psychoanalytic theory
can be leveled with equal validity against theories that are considered scientific. The
demarcation between science and non-science cannot be drawn. We thus return full circle to
Larry Laudan’s assessment of the centuries-old, ultimately futile attempt to locate a suitable
demarcation criterion for separating science and non-science, discussed at the beginning of
this section. Laudan’s conclusion regarding the demarcation dilemma, and its consequences,
suggests that in evaluating knowledge claims, the status of those claims as “scientific” or
“unscientific” is an insignificant side issue:

Through certain vagaries of history…we have managed to conflate two quite distinct questions:
What makes a belief well founded (or heuristically fertile)? And what makes a belief scientific?
The first set of questions is philosophically interesting and possibly even tractable; the second
question is both uninteresting and, judging from its checkered past, intractable. If we would
stand up and be counted on the side of reason, we ought to drop terms like ‘pseudo-science’
and ‘unscientific’ from our vocabulary; they are just hollow phrases which do only emotive
work for us…. Insofar as our concern is to protect ourselves…from the cardinal sin of
believing what we wish were so rather than what there is substantial evidence for... then our
focus should be squarely on the empirical and conceptual credentials for claims about the
world. The ‘scientific’ status of those claims is altogether irrelevant (ibid., 125).

Towards a Sociology of Psychoanalytic Knowledge?

Perhaps it should be noted at the outset that the sociological perspective presented above is a
two-edged sword. We cannot claim that the production and subsequent content of scientific
knowledge is influenced by sociological, cultural, and psychological factors without admitting
that the same charges can, and should, be leveled against psychoanalysis as well. Or perhaps
more to the point: if we agree that scientific knowledge is really a “text,” generated by the
very techniques used to investigate Nature, what then can we say about psychoanalytic
knowledge? Psychoanalysis cannot legitimately escape the ubiquitous constraints Heelan’s
hermeneutic view places on the production of all knowledge.

To claim that psychoanalytic theories regarding the human psyche are merely a product of the
methods we utilize in our investigations is the equivalent of claiming that there is, in reality,
no such thing as the unconscious, projective identification, transference, or any of the other
long list of concepts we use in thinking about, and treating, our patients. It is to claim, quite
simply, that we “make up” these phenomena, rather than recognize them, in the course of our
work. In addition, if we accept this argument, we are forced to admit that there is no more

reason for asserting the truth value of psychoanalytic theory than there is for asserting, or
denying, the truth value of any other given rival theory. In its most radical version, then, this
hermeneutic version of knowledge leads to an extreme form of epistemological relativism that
denies priority to any empirical truth claims generated by knowledge-producing disciplines.

On the other hand, this is an excessive interpretation of Heelan’s argument, one that I doubt
even he would agree with. Clearly, our theories are not merely the result of a combination of
methodology and social forces, but also derive from an interaction between these factors and
our object of study. In order to address this fact, Heelan borrows Heidegger’s concept of
Vorhabe, which he defines as “trained bodily expertise and the possibilities of making
readable technologies” (Heelan, 1983: 202). He argues that the Vorhabe sets limits on
possible choice among descriptive frameworks; or, in other words, that our perceptual world
constrains rational theory choice to a given set of what one might call “reasonable”
explanations of phenomena. Heelan labels this approach to knowledge “Hermeneutical or
Horizontal Realism,” drawing on its connection with phenomenology (ibid.). To make use of
a simple metaphor, hermeneutic realism would liken the perceptual field to a puzzle,
consisting of a nearly infinite number of pieces which can be fitted together in a nearly
infinite number of ways. Depending in part on the shape of the puzzle pieces, and in part on
our cultural background, some the pictures we construct with these pieces will make more
“sense” to us than others. In psychoanalytic psychotherapy, our “trained body expertise”
influences the way in which we perceive the various pieces of the puzzle, and this “expertise”
is in its turn influenced by social, ideological, and cultural factors; in fact, the training itself is,
fundamentally, a social exercise. But these factors taken together do not single-handedly
dictate the pattern/theory we subsequently build. This is because we are also interacting with
a naturally-occurring study-object in the form of the patient, whose actions and personality
constrain what we might reasonably hypothesize about him or her.

On the other hand, in applying a sociological perspective to our work, we are called upon to
recognize that our theory preferences are also determined in part by considerations beyond the
information presented to us in the therapy room, just like researchers in any other field. To
my knowledge there have been very few systematic studies of these issues in the field of
psychoanalysis; in my research thus far, in fact, I have only discovered two. The first, entitled
“On the ‘Disappearance’ of Hysteria: A Study in the Clinical Deconstruction of a Diagnosis,”
touches upon psychoanalysis only tangentially, in its relation to hysteria as a nosological
entity. The article investigates the way in which hysteria became a “grab-bag” diagnostic
category during the first two decades of the 20th century, gradually coming to include any sort
of disorder that psychiatrists could not diagnose as something else. It argues, rather
unconvincingly in my opinion, that “hysteria” did not disappear per se, but that the diagnosis
itself has been replaced by group of specific diagnoses more in tune with the idiom of modern
psychiatry (Micale, 1993: 502). The second study, “Reassessing Freud’s Case Histories: The
Social Construction of Psychoanalysis,” critically investigates the interaction between the
formation and acceptance of early psychoanalytic theory, on the one hand, and the structure of
early psychoanalytic institutions, on the other. Of particular interest, it traces the historical
development of the psychoanalytic training program, understood in terms of a “rite of
passage” and a mechanism of social control, and its influence on/control over the
development of psychoanalytic knowledge – arguing that the system served to suppress
dissent and theoretical critique (Sulloway, 1992: 178). It further suggests that Freud
maintained “enormous power” over psychoanalytic institutions by virtue of his patronage and
prestigious referrals. Together these factors worked to propel psychoanalytic theory in
acceptable directions, and weed out critical/dissenting voices. Such factors also no doubt

contributed to the fractured history of the psychoanalytic movement, and lent strength to the
accusations of “religious dogmatism” expressed by its many critics.

So – given the lack of systematic studies, how can we apply these insights to the current
structure of psychoanalytic thought? Well, let us begin by considering the various sub-
schools found within the discipline of psychoanalysis. As noted earlier, many of these
schools promote competing, incompatible interpretations of the evidence we extract from the
clinic. Since it is the interpretation of the evidence that is in question, appealing to that
evidence to provide support for a given theory becomes a singularly ineffective method of
theory choice or public debate. Almost everyone agrees on what the evidence is; we are
simply in disagreement with regard to what it might mean.

Freud claims for example that the superego develops as an inner psychic structure when the
young child accepts the incest taboo, internalizes the Father’s “no” as a cultural boundary, and
thereby “resolves” the Oedipus Complex. On the basis of this reasoning he asserts that the
superego is the “inheritor” of that Complex. Melanie Klein, by contrast, claims that Freud is
incorrect; the superego, she argues, is a clinical manifestation of the death drive, and begins to
make its appearance in the child at around the age of six months. The existence of a primitive
super-ego in children, inferred by Ms. Klein on the basis of her so-called “play analysis,” led
her to the conclusion that even the Oedipus Complex itself begins at approximately the same

In order to clinically determine which of these competing theories might be closest to the
actual state of affairs one must rely on yet another Freudian hypothesis: regression. In other
words, we believe that we can say something about the state of a young child’s or infant’s
mind because we believe that our patients regress to those stages during the course of
analysis.12 So first, before we can even begin to assess hypotheses regarding the origin of the
superego, we must design a method of testing the hypothesis that patients “regress,” and
assess the results of such a test. Then, we must accept the fact that the super-ego, as a diffuse
“psychic structure,” actually exists, in some sense. We must agree upon criteria regarding the
manner by which we recognize the manifestation of that structure in the therapy room. And
so on. I cannot think of any way around these clinical difficulties. Dilemmas of this sort are
in fact so intractable that tests of one or the other of these two competing hypotheses are
seldom (if ever) attempted, especially in clinical practice. Rather, as working therapists we
choose one – usually the one that most appeals to us, subjectively – and analyze the material
from our sessions accordingly. That the choice we make is in its turn unavoidably influenced
by “external” social and psychological factors impinging upon the therapist, and in some
respects essentially unrelated to the material of the session, is explicitly recognized by most
psychoanalytic practitioners – because it is understood that both theories are profoundly
underdetermined by the evidence, and that therefore the judgement in favor of one or the
other must be made in conjunction with other factors.

King’s encyclopedic history of the split in the British Psychoanalytic Association rests in part
on the argument that the very vagueness of the concept of “inner object” was instrumental to
the debates. The indeterminate content of the concept gave the combatants an opportunity to
disguise personal conflicts in the garb of a “scientific” dispute. His account implies that in
deciding between classical Freudian theory and Klein’s innovative object relations

Admittedly, Ms. Klein based her theoretical innovations on direct observations of children undergoing ”play
technique,” but most Kleinian analysts work with adults, and claim to find support for Klein’s theories in that
work as well.

perspective, analysts were motivated as much by their membership in one or the other of two
competing groups as they were by considerations regarding the clinical support for the
theories in question.

Morris Eagle notices this tendency as well. In his “The Epistemological Status of Recent
Developments in Psychoanalytic Theory,” he observes:

…it is entirely likely that many analysts and therapists found in listening to their patients that
their major difficulties seemed to have to do not with Oedipal conflicts and anxieties, but with
feelings of self-fragility, with issues of dependency-independence and generally with issues of
separation-individuation and autonomy (Mahler, 1968). But others, familiar with the same
clinical evidence, have come to the very different conclusion that Oedipal issues are central in
all pathology (e.g., Arlow and Brenner, 1964)…. Gedo has noted that while the clinical
descriptions contained in a casebook (Goldberg, 1978) prepared by followers of Kohut are
replete with references to self defects and hardly mention Oedipally related conflicts, a similar
casebook from analysts of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute (Firestein, 1978) breathes not
a word about self defects but instead finds Oedipal conflicts central. Furthermore, these radical
diagnostic differences occur despite the fact that the actual clinical phenomena (e.g., presenting
symptomatology) are quite similar in the casebooks (Eagle, 1983: 38).

I submit that this situation arises because any specific material from a session can often be
interpreted in light of a number of different, competing theories, in precisely the manner
predicted by the Duhem-Quine thesis. Accordingly, different institutions, embodying
different intellectual cultures, can (and do) interpret evidence in different ways. I might, in
the course of my own work, be able to come to the conclusion that one of these theories is
more satisfactory than the other, in relation to my own clinical experiences, but I cannot
generalize from this anecdotal basis. My own choice is inevitably influenced by the vagaries
of my educational background, my current intellectual commitments, and my cultural
heritage. However, it is worth reiterating that the criticism of psychoanalysis implied by
Eagle’s observation, at least with regard to this point, is equally applicable to the conflicts
found between competing schools of thought in any other field as well.

In fact, if we accept this line of reasoning, we cannot avoid coming to the conclusion that we
are socialized into our profession in precisely the same manner as researchers in any other
discipline (or members of any given culture, for that matter). In “On the Conventional
Character of Knowledge and Cognition,” Barry Barnes provides us with a potential model for
this socialization process. Barnes employs this model to examine the way in which a
“competent member” of a given society teaches a “neophyte” the basic elements of an
hypothetical typology (Barnes, 1983: 25-37). The principle is rather simple: the neophyte
encounters an object that can be classified as belonging to one of, let us say, three categories.
He guesses which category the object belongs to, and his guess is subsequently confirmed or
corrected by the competent member. The process is repeated until the neophyte has acquired
a basic mastery of the terms embedded in the typology. As Barnes notes, “…the correct
application of terms is established by a process of social control operating in conjunction with
the indications of experience” (ibid., 28). This process of social control can also be
conceptualized as an act of teaching on the part of the competent member, and learning on the
part of the neophyte. Significantly, Barnes argues that such a model has two important
implications: first, that the application of a term is always a judgement, and second, that the
proper usage of the term is generally determined by social agreement (i.e., by agreed usage)
(ibid., 30-32).

I submit that the model Barnes outlines above, when applied to the psychoanalytic training
process, provides a useful conceptual tool in understanding the way in which social forces
impact upon the acquisition, stewardship, and production of psychoanalytic knowledge. Here,
the training supervisor can be understood as playing the role of the “competent member”
postulated by the model. The supervisor, by virtue of long experience and study (i.e., by
virtue of having gone through the socialization process himself), has acquired the skills and
knowledge inherent in psychoanalytic culture. He passes this knowledge on to the neophyte
(candidate) via the controlled environment of the supervisory session. Examples of diagnostic
categories, transference reactions, and proper technical procedure are presented again and
again, while the candidate struggles to master, and correctly classify, the basic elements of
this knowledge. In this process, learning and social control are, essentially, one and the same;
the candidate learns by coming to recognize socially agreed-upon categories of phenomena,
even though these categories may, at the same time, be experienced as naturally-occurring.

One implication of this line of reasoning is that different societies, with different conventions,
may present different categories of knowledge to the student. This merely reaffirms the
observation made earlier concerning the influence various institutional cultures may have
upon the acquisition, content and use of psychoanalytic knowledge. In fact, these differences
can be perceived even as the student moves from supervisor to supervisor within a single
institute. Thus, for example, during my training I moved from one supervisor to another; in
the process, some of my patients received a new diagnosis. One, in particular, went from
being melancholic to being phobic. I suspect that this diagnostic shift was as much a
reflection of my new supervisor’s theoretical orientation as it was of my old patient’s
personality. This does not imply that the new diagnosis was solely a reflection of my new
supervisor’s theories, however; it merely indicates that clinical material always contains a
number of interpretive possibilities. For what it is worth, I am also convinced that the new
diagnosis more closely reflects my patient’s personality than the old one did.

I would like to conclude now by applying, in an admittedly off-the-cuff fashion, some of

these ideas to our own Institute, in the form of a brief sociological analysis.

GPI’s ideological foundations can be located in the “anti-psychiatry” movement of the late
1960s, and our Institute has traditionally defined itself against the foil of mainstream, state-
sponsored psychiatric treatment. As such, we have sought to characterize, or perhaps
“demonize,” mainstream psychiatry in terms of a set of negative values that are fundamentally
rejected by members of our own institutional community. To this end, mainstream psychiatry
is generally depicted here as an expression of “biologism,” understood to be a philosophy of
thought dedicated to the reduction of all human behavior to biological functions, or, more
specifically, to the physiology of the brain.13 This philosophy is described as a servant to the
interests of power, and in particular to the interest of economic efficiency (i.e., short-term
cognitive/behavioral therapies and pharmaceutical treatments). It is argued that biologism
represents a simplified, reductionistic conceptualization of human nature; that it focuses on
relief of symptoms rather than actual cure; that the treatment it promotes is little more than a
“chemical lobotomy;” that it is blind to the meaning of a patient’s suffering and the way in
which that meaning is communicated; that it fails to take into account the importance of
interpersonal relations in the process of psychological healing; that it understands human
suffering in terms of a simplified medical dichotomy – “on/off,” “healthy/sick,”
“normal/abnormal,” – rather than in terms of a reflection upon the problematics of modern
Ironically not unlike the mid – 19th century “mechanistic school,” which had such a profound influence on
Freud’s own theories.

culture and society; and, ultimately, that it fails to uphold or respect the fundamental
autonomy and freedom of the individual. The roots of this biological/psychiatric model are
often traced back to the eugenics and racial biology of the early 20th Century, where
connections between influential psychiatrists and prominent racial biologists can be located,
and current psychiatric practices are sometimes understood merely as an extension of the
values underlying that previous racial biology – a limited, postmodern form of fascism, as it

Against this psychiatric backdrop GPI defines itself as a community that embodies values
diametrically opposed to those listed above. Ideally, the members of GPI are critical of
institutions of societal and economic power; of short-term treatment modalities which stress
economic efficiency over the needs of the patient; of diagnostic categories that assume a
clear-cut distinction between, for example, “sick” and “healthy,” or “normal” and
“abnormal;” and of theoretical perspectives that reduce the richness of human experience to a
mere expression of physiological functions. To counterbalance the “biological” perspective,
which supposedly finds its expression in typical psychiatric institutions, GPI stresses the
value of “good enough” interpersonal relations in the healing process, and in particular
promotes the autonomy and freedom of the individual – the unalienable, existential right of
the subject to decide the course of his/her own life.

If the above characterization of the perceived cleavage between GPI and mainstream
psychiatry is correct, then I would like to suggest that the values GPI supposedly promotes
have in their turn a profound influence on the way in which its members evaluate evidence
and select preferred theories. In particular, I argue that members of GPI will tend to dismiss
evidence that supports a “biological” perspective, while lending exaggerated discursive
import to arguments or evidence that runs contrary to such a perspective. This tendency
might make itself felt even when evidence for the biological perspective was “strong,” while
evidence for the psychoanalytic perspective was weak, or non-existent. In other words, the
shared interests, goals, and values of the psychotherapeutic community at GPI predisposes us
here to believe certain theories, and dismiss others, regardless of the evidence.

As a concrete example, I would like to suggest that most, if not all, of the members of GPI
fundamentally reject the DAMP diagnosis as promoted by Christopher Gillberg, and believe
that the problems displayed by children who receive this diagnosis can be understood more
correctly in terms of a pathological distortion of the parent-child relationship than as an
expression of so-called minimal brain damage. I would also like to suggest that, in general,
our rejection of the DAMP diagnosis is not based on an in-depth, critical review of the
evidence for and against it, but rather on a set of a priori assumptions about the underlying
biological perspective of which it is a part. We dismiss Gillberg’s research primarily because
it leads to conclusions that we perceive as a threat to our values. Thus, in addition to
considerations of the evidence for and against DAMP, our rejection of the diagnosis is
socially determined as well. In fact, given that the empirical basis for the diagnosis is highly
equivocal, one could even argue that in this case social factors – such as agreed-upon
community values, pressures of group cohesion, and so forth – play a much more important
role than evidence in our judgement of DAMP’s diagnostic validity.

But it is not only the internal values and goals of the community that play a role in the
production/evaluation of knowledge here at GPI. Consider, for example, the recent impact of
external factors on the structure of GPI’s educational system. Before, when GPI’s training
courses were monitored exclusively by the National Board of Health, the academic standards

at the institute were in fact rather lax. Now, under the auspices of National Agency for
Higher Education, entirely new demands are being placed on GPI’s psychotherapy programs.
Combined with the pressures of the current “psychotherapy market,” it has been decided that
GPI must develop a profile that will enable it to stand out among competing schools. This
profile specifically involves two elements: the inclusion of a “gender perspective” in all
coursework, and an emphasis on our special connection to the so-called “Argentina school” of

I submit that the gender perspective now being promoted at GPI, while a profoundly positive
development, also clearly reveals the way in which broader social forces influence theoretical
content. Psychoanalytic perspectives previously neglected (if not completely ignored) are
now to be included in coursework as important elements of psychoanalytic theory. This
feminist perspective could have been included in the theoretical curriculum 10 years ago, but
at that time, there was no felt need and no pressure to do so. Today, it is becoming an integral
part of theory, at least as taught at our Institute, primarily due to GPI’s need to “stand out” in
the market.

These underlying social factors can be seen even more clearly in GPI’s attempt to cobble
together, from a group of disconnected and poorly translated papers, an “Argentina School” of
psychoanalysis. In what could be described as the ultimate exercise in social construction,
GPI promotes itself as the sole Nordic representative of a South American school of
psychoanalysis that, technically speaking, does not really exist. The attempt to combine these
papers and create from them a cohesive school of thought, however, may eventually lead to
the establishment of such a school, as students begin to build upon the basic theoretical
innovations they contain.14 Regardless of this possibility, the new emphasis placed by GPI on
theoretical constructs of its Argentinean past also exemplifies the manner by which social
processes can influence the content of psychoanalytic theory. It is in this manner, I argue, that
sociological, cultural, and ideological factors impinge upon the structure of psychoanalytic
thought, and channel the direction of psychoanalytic theorizing.

Naturally, these considerations in no way absolve researchers, in our field or any other, from
attempting to derive or construct valid knowledge. They simply highlight the challenges we
face in our attempts to do so. As Kuhn has pointed out, one of the real strengths of the
scientific discourse is that it legitimately allows men and women with different values to
assess theories in different ways. Discussing these questions in relation to the history of
science, Kuhn suggests:

In short, before the group accepts it, a new theory has been tested over time by the research of
a number of men, some working within it, others within its traditional rival. Such a mode of
development, however, requires a decision process which permits rational men to disagree, and
such disagreement would be barred by the shared algorithm which philosophers have generally
sought. If it were at hand, all conforming scientists would make the same decision at the same
time. With standards of acceptance set too low, they would move from one attractive global
viewpoint to another…. With standards set too high, no one satisfying the criterion of
rationality would be inclined to try out the new theory…. I doubt that science would survive
the change. What from one viewpoint may seem the looseness and imperfection of choice
criteria conceived as rules may, when the same criteria are seen as values, appear an
indispensable means of spreading the risk which the introduction or support of novelty always
entails (Kuhn, 1977: 332).

Perhaps, however, a new nomenclature should be selected. How about the “Gothenburg/Buenos Aires

Thus, the difficulties posed by underdetermination and incommensurability are also, in part,
the motor that drives research forward in creative directions.

VII. Concluding Reflections

As I mentioned in the introduction, this paper has only touched upon the subject at hand, and
a great deal more could be written about it. In particular, an in-depth inspection of the
methods we actually use in our day-to-day work, and how they affect our understanding of
that work, would seem to be the next logical step in an exposition of this kind. But given the
limitations of this essay, such an inspection must be the topic for another paper. Here, then, I
would like to finish off by briefly reiterating a few of the conclusions I have come to during
the course of this work.

Regarding Freud, I want to emphasize once again the fact that he strove, by means of
psychoanalysis, to remove the study of psychology from the domain of philosophy and place
it on a scientific footing. This is the classical psychoanalytic project as he envisioned it; and
for Freud, psychoanalysis is a natural science in exactly the same sense that physics is a
natural science. This conclusion is not only drawn in this essay, but in fact represents the
virtually unanimous opinion of published scholarship on Freud’s work. Even those who
would reconstruct psychoanalysis as a hermeneutic discipline begin with a criticism of
Freud’s overwhelming preference for scientific terminology. Therefore, in order for us to
fully understand Freud’s views on psychoanalysis and related topics, it is vital that we keep
this fact in mind.

Reading Freud from this perspective, I argue, will aid the student in coming to grips with his
meaning, and in evaluating both the strengths and weaknesses of classical psychoanalytic
theory. And although we may not be able to ascertain with certainty in exactly what sense
Freud understood the term “natural science,” I would like to re-emphasize one element of his
views that I believe to be of major import: that of assumed order. Again and again, it seems
to me, Freud’s work returns to an attempt to organize clinical data by inferring from it an
underlying order of cause-and-effect, often articulated in the form of energy relations or
unconscious motivations. Psychic determinism, of course, is a necessary axiomatic
presupposition for such work. If we understand Freud from this perspective, we may be able
to more fully appreciate his ambitious theoretical strategy, even if on occasion we doubt, or
even dismiss outright, his conclusions.

Regarding Popper and his demarcation criterion, this essay argues that the falsification
criterion is an unsatisfactory concept for differentiating between science and non-science, for
numerous reasons. Primary among those are the facts that, at higher levels of theoretical
abstraction, all scientific theories are essentially unfalsifiable, while at the same time, many
theories about the world that would not generally be considered “scientific” are, in fact,
falsifiable. The Duhem-Quine Thesis also exposes the shortcomings of defining science in
terms of falsifiability, as does a close inspection of the historical record of scientific

In relation to psychoanalysis, falsification has a number of implications. Like any given

scientific theory, some elements of psychoanalytic theory are falsifiable; some have been
falsified; some have withstood falsification; and some are unfalsifiable. For those who accept
Popper’s arguments, then, this leaves the status of psychoanalysis undecided. There is
another dimension to Popper’s claims, however, one in which psychoanalysis is to be
understood as pseudo-scientific not only because it is theoretically unfalsifiable, but also
because practitioners of psychoanalysis use the flexibility of metapsychology to avoid

falsifying tests. That there is a certain amount of truth to this claim arguably reflects as much
upon the subject matter of psychoanalytic investigations as it does upon the intransigence of
Freud’s followers.

One final note on this topic: while I do not believe that falsification is a viable demarcation
criterion, the idea of falsification or hypothesis testing is, in fact, a useful value, or guideline,
in psychoanalytic work. Indeed, to the extent that psychoanalysis can be understood as an
empirical discipline, some strategy for testing our ideas against the backdrop of reality must
be employed. Even granting the influence of social factors in our work, theory is
nevertheless constrained by the evidence; the Duhem-Quine thesis does not give us license to
say anything with regard to our patients. On a personal note, I have found it helpful to think
in terms of falsification in my clinical work; that is, to think in terms of actively trying to find
fault with my own diagnoses, constructions, and private (or pronounced) transference
interpretations. Here, and in other contexts as well, falsification can be a handy tool in
curbing what I believe to be one of the major hazards of the psychotherapeutic profession,
namely, overgeneralization. In other words, it can be helpful to have the concept of
falsification in mind when addressing the inductive inferences that comprise much of our
work. In this regard, it occurs to me that supervision can play an invaluable role, because the
supervisory space provides a forum wherein various theories about the patient can be reflected
upon and, in a sense, tested against the clinical material.

As is no doubt apparent from my critique of Grünbaum, I do not think much of work. His
interpretation of Popper is specious, in my opinion, and his reconstruction of psychoanalysis
gratuitously selective. He seeks to establish a monopoly on the textual interpretation of
Freud’s writings by rejecting the slightest possibility that Freud can be read, or understood, in
more than one light, and his attack on alternative interpretations is baseless and cheap. As
Bohlin observes:

If one begins one’s argument by stating that first, it is the job of the analyst to objectively
observe the analysand’s behavior, in manner similar to the methods of behaviorism and
physics; second, that the analysis requires the strong emotional involvement of the analysand
with the analyst; and third, that the analyst’s hypotheses must be validated by the behavior of
the analysand, then one can hardly draw any other conclusion than that the analyst has chosen
utterly worthless conditions in which to execute his objective observations, since it is more
than likely that the analysand’s active engagement in the analysis will influence his behavior.
Surely it cannot be necessary to write an entire book to prove this point (Bohlin, 1986: 37;
author’s translation).

With regard to hermeneutics, I would like to highlight again the simple but significant fact
that the hermeneutic reconstruction of psychoanalysis builds on two misconceptions. The
first is the belief in the existence of a clear differentiation between natural science
(“positivism”), on the one hand, and hermeneutic inquiry, on the other; this misconception
relies in turn upon an idealized picture of the natural sciences, which are seen as producing
objective, value-free knowledge. I argue that this picture of science is a myth, and that, in
actuality, scientific research actually involves much “hermeneutic” interpretation of data. The
second misconception is related to the first; to wit, because proponents of hermeneutic
psychoanalysis failed to realize that underdetermination is not unique to psychoanalytic
theory, they have naturally reacted to the difficulties it poses by emphasizing the hermeneutic
aspects of psychoanalysis, and by attempting to carve out for it a special epistemological
niche. In other words, it is reasonable, when faced by the underdetermination of
psychoanalytic theory by clinical evidence, to argue that psychoanalysis is a hermeneutic
discipline; but such an argument fails to take into account the fact that all scientific theories

are underdetermined by their evidential basis. And in fact, I argue that it is the
psychoanalyst’s acute awareness of the underdetermined quality of psychoanalytic theory that
eventually led to the reconstruction of the discipline in the form of a hermeneutic inquiry.

This, then, is the most radical message of this essay: at a fundamental methodological level,
there is no significant difference between the “science” and “hermeneutics,” that is, between
the natural sciences and the humanities. No demarcation between these two fields of study
can withstand critical inspection. Both are social processes which generate knowledge, and
both involve empirical research combined with interpretation. In fact, we can say that the
interpretation is the knowledge we generate, by one means or another. Knowledge is a story
about the world around us and our place in it, produced by a combination of “empirical”
research and “hermeneutic” interpretation; and human beings are, fundamentally, story-
tellers. Granting this to be the case, as I have hopefully demonstrated in this essay, we can at
last conclude that the debate on the status of psychoanalysis as science or hermeneutics is
ultimately irrelevant, and, agreeing with Laudan, once again reiterate:

Insofar as our concern is to protect ourselves…from the cardinal sin of believing what we wish
were so rather than what there is substantial evidence for...then our focus should be squarely on
the empirical and conceptual credentials for claims about the world. The ‘scientific’ status of
those claims is altogether irrelevant (Laudan, 1983: 125).


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