Psychoanalysis Between Positivism And Hermeneutics Psychology Essay

Through time, psychoanalysis has been an object of debate for scientists, philosophers and theorists. Until today, the debate about if the discipline of psychoanalysis uses or not the scientific methodology to follow an investigation is still a controversial topic, since it is the clinical setting and the case studies are the ones used to prove the psychoanalytic theories.

In 1923, Sigmund Freud, published in Two Encyclopedia Articles, his own definition of psychoanalysis, stating that it can be considered as a method of investigation, because it is a therapeutic technique with a scientific aim of investigation.

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“Psycho-Analysis is the name (1) of a procedure for the investigation of mental processes which are almost inaccessible in any other way, (2) of a method (based upon that investigation) for the treatment of neurotic disorders and (3) of a collection of psychological information obtained along those lines, which is gradually being accumulated into a new scientific discipline.” (p. 235)

The three main characteristics are stated on Freud?s definition of psychoanalysis. These cannot be separated from each other, since accordingly to the author, the feature of doing scientific contributions, relies in the therapeutic method at the clinical setting.

During 1905, in the text Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Study of Hysteria, Freud mentioned the importance of “transference”, as tool in the therapeutic setting. Accordingly to the author, part of the failure of his treatment with Ida Bauer was that he did not realize the importance of transference as a tool. In his own words: “I neglected the precaution of looking out for the first signs of transference, which was being prepared in connection with another part of the same material -a part of which I was in ignorance.” (Freud, 1905, p. 118) By 1910, Freud already stated that psychoanalysis was a way to treat and cure symptomatology, but he also had made clear on the third lecture from Five Lectures on Psychoanalysis, that the interpretation of dreams, jokes, among other behaviors, were an access to the patient?s unconscious. In Freud?s words: “These small things, faulty actions and symptomatic or haphazard actions alike, are not so insignificant as people, by a sort of conspiracy of silence, are ready to suppose. They always have a meaning.” (p. 37)

Even though Freud?s definition gives an approximation on the aims on using scientific methodology as part of investigation, the question if the discipline is scientific or not still rises, since the definition does not provide an exemplification on the procedure used in the discipline or the methodology to followed for such scientific investigation.

The aim of this essay is to propose, in a debate form, the different perspectives and arguments that psychoanalysts, and philosophers of science such as Aldolf Grunbaum (1984), Carlo Strenger (1991) amongst others, have done on the investigation methodology used in psychoanalysis. It will start with the critics of psychoanalysis as a discipline which does not uses the scientific methodology of investigation, followed by the response of this criticism through the hermeneutics methodology of investigation.

The scientific methodology in Psychoanalysis

Freud?s aim on creating a scientific discipline with psychoanalysis, capable of discovering general scientific laws and verifiable by experience, has been discussed from different angles and perspectives, especially from philosophers and scientists with a positivist orientation. To start a debate on science in psychoanalysis, it is important to make clear first, the conception of positivism in research. In general terms, positivism is a science?s philosophy, it based on the idea that either in natural or social sciences, the gathered data must be verified by sensorial or empirical experience.

In the chapter “Science: Conjectures and Refutations” from the book Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge (1974) Karl R. Popper engages the reader by opening the questions: “When should a theory be ranked as scientific?” or “Is there a criterion for the scientific character or status of a theory?” (p. 33) He believes that in science there is no recipe for building up hypotheses, since these are the result of the individual?s creative genius of scientist. We do not actually start doing science until we start thinking about falsifying out hypotheses.

Accordingly to Popper (1974) the common answer for the difference between scientific and non-scientific discipline would be the empirical methodology for doing research. However, in his opinion, falsification is actually what distinguishes science from non-science. The disciplines and theories like the Marxist perspective on history or psychoanalysis are straight forwardly not testable or irrefutable. Popper (1974) considers both Marxist theory and psychoanalysis as “pseudo-sciences” since “they may happen to stumble on truth” (p. 33).

Popper (1974) also believes that the pseudo-sciences seem to have an “explanatory power”, and that are “able to explain practically everything that happened within the fields to which they referred” (p.34)

Finally, for Popper (1974) the criterion of demarcation between a science and a pseudoscience relies on the hypothesis refutation made, therefore, for the he questions psychoanalysis asking: “what kind of clinical responses would refute to the satisfaction of the analyst not merely a particular analytic diagnosis but psycho-analysis itself?” (p.38)

Along with Popper?s (1974) critics and considerations of psychoanalysis, other theorist seemed to agree with the weakness on the psychoanalytic methodology. In the text Between Hermeneutics and Science (1991), the psychoanalyst and philosopher Carlo Strenger, states that “Psychoanalysis has grounded most of its claims on clinical data, which by their very nature violate one of the central requirements of scientific research: evidence in favor of theories should be public and replicable”. (p. 2)

In the same text, Strenger (1991) gives an introduction and a criticizes Adolf Grunbaum?s The Foundation of Psychoanalysis, which was published in 1984 and had a deep impact into the scientific community in the United States. Accordingly to Strenger (1991), Grunbaum?s principal concern about investigation on psychoanalysis is that: “psychoanalysts generally claim that the best- if not the only- way to investigate the truth of psychoanalytic theory is within the setting of analytic treatment” (p. 9). After a detailed analysis to prove his theories on psychoanalytic methodology, accordingly to Strenger (1991), Grunbaum (1984) arrived at a negative answer, claiming that it “is impossible to make sure that the data obtained in the analytic situation are uncontaminated, i.e., not the result of suggestion.” (p. 9)

In the text Foundations of Psycho-Analysis (1984), Grumbaum introduces the concept of the “Tally Argument”, which explains that “only psychoanalytic interpretation and treatment can yield correct insight into the unconscious causes of a patient’s neurosis. In other words, only the patient’s correct insight into the unconscious causes of the patient’s neurosis can cause a durable cure of this neurosis”. (p 130)

Grunbraum (1984) refers to “the conjunction of these two Freudian claims” as the “Necessary Condition Thesis” or “NCT” (p.140) The NCT could potentially be falsified if a durable cure of psychoneurosis occurred in the absence of psychoanalysis, e.g., if another form of therapy (or simple suggestion, or spontaneous remission) were shown durably to cure psychoneurosis. The weakness of the tally argument is that, as Freud admits, patients are subject to suggestion (transference). Transference affects all clinical data. Therefore, all clinical data are suspect, including the insight that supposedly intervenes between psychoanalysis and cure. In Grunbaums (1984) words:

“In any case, since no viable substitute for the Tally Argument appears to be in sight, it is unavailing to take contaminated findings from the psychoanalytic interview more or less at face value, and then to try to employ them privatively in some testing strategy whose formal structure is rational enough as such”. (p. 250)

Grunbaum (1984) concludes that the psychoanalytic method is experiential and therefore, it is impossible to assure its validation. In Is the Concept of Psychic Reality a Theoretical Advance?, published in 1997, Grunbaum also criticizes that “like Freud, the post-Freudian schools of ego psychologists, object relations theorists, and self-psychologists also rely on free associations to validate their respective etiologies and theories of the dynamics of therapy.” (p.250) Therefore, the problem that constitutes psychoanalytic methodology, from Freud until today, has not been solved.

In the other hand, the theorists and psychoanalysts Horst Kachele and Helmut Thoma in the article Psychoanalytic Process Research: Methods and Achievements published in 1993, state that “only the careful investigation of the exchange between patient and psychoanalyst can be used to probe essential aspects of psychoanalytic theory and to develop an empirically based theory of the process.” (p. 109). To both authors, the psychoanalytic methodology in investigation will rely on the bilateral relationship between the analyst and the analysand.

The Hermeneutic Methodology in Psychoanalysis

The publication of Adolf Grunbaum?s The Foundations of Psychoanalysis in 1984, created a controversial response and reaction to the psychoanalytic society, since the author stated that even though Freud?s aim to create science, all gathered data, was contaminated with the patient?s transference towards the analyst. In response to Grunbaum?s statements, the psychoanalytic community stated that psychoanalysis cannot be understood and seen as a scientific method of investigation, since the aims of its investigation are explanatory ad comprehensive or interpretative. Therefore, it has to be considered as part of a hermeneutic method of investigation.

The term “hermeneutics” comes from the Greek verb a?‘I?I?I·I?IµI?IµI?I?, which can be understood as interpret, declare, announce, clarify and traduce. It is believed that the word comes also from the Greek god Hermes, the messenger, which gods attributed the origins of language and writing.

The philosopher, psychologist and sociologist Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911), introduced the difference between natural and spiritual sciences, considering the second ones, as the ones in which emotions and subjectivity play an important role through the process of investigation. Accordingly to Carlo Strenger (1991), Dilthey “opposed to the writers of the previous two periods of hermeneutics, he did not believe that a canon of rules for interpretation could be found.” (p. 31)

The track and studies of hermeneutics, were pioneered by the philosopher Martin Heidegger, who, accordingly to Carlo Strenger (1991) stated three main theses from of the philosophical hermeneutics.

“The first is that understanding is not an activity human beings engage in primarily or only when they approach linguistic phenomena (aˆ¦) the second major thesis has become quite famous under the name “hermeneutic circle”. A reader setting out to interpret a text must assume that there is something to be understood there (aˆ¦) and the third theses is precisely that there is no such thing as a method for arriving at and validating an interpretation of texts” (p. 32-33)

In the text Truth and Method (1993), Hans-Georg Gadamer continues Martin Heidegger?s conception and theory of hermeneutics, and proposes the fundamental principles for the hermeneutic movement. The first one considered that comprehension is the basic mode of human existence in all their manifestations. The second one, assumes that all interpretation remits to a “hermeneutic circle”, in which “the interpreter sets out to understand by presuming, to begin with, what kind of meanings there are to be found”(Strenger, 1991, p.32). Finally, it does not exists a method to validate any interpretation, there would only be an interactive dialogue between the text and the reader.

Accordingly to Carlo Strenger (1991) the essence and basics of hermeneutics in psychoanalysis can be described in five theses:

Thesis 1: Metapsychology should be discarded. The concept of the discipline of psychoanalysis as metapsychology should not be considered the same since it cannot be tested by clinical work, and because it embodies a misleading, mechanistic picture of man.

Thesis 2: Psychoanalysis should avoid subpersonal terminology and use only personal terms. Psychoanalysis should adopt his action language. “The subject of psychoanalytic theory and interpretation should not be drives, forces, and mechanisms but persons who perceive, desire, defend, etc.” (p.39)

Thesis 3: Psychoanalysis does not explain behavior in terms of causes. Psychoanalysis is not only concerned with causal links between childhood and neurotic symptoms found in adults. Even when the patient?s behavior is explained in terms of his present mental states, these are not causal explanations.

Thesis 4: There are always many possible interpretations of human behavior and Psychoanalysis is one of them. Psychoanalytic theory is a systematic elaboration of story lines, arranged along the lines of an account of psychosexual development. These story lines are then used to organize the patient?s experience in an enlightening manner.

Thesis 5: There are always many possible interpretations of human behavior and psychoanalysis is one of them.

Finally, Strenger (1991) concludes that in general terms, psychoanalysis has to be seen and understood as a hermeneutic discipline, therefore, the critics of its non-scientific methodology, are misguided. On the other hand, the author believes that “psychoanalysis is not at all engaged with in investigating the causes of human behavior, but rather in trying to decipher its meanings.” (p.40)


From what has been previously discussed on the paper, the debate on the methodological research techniques in psychoanalysis cannot be understood without the conception of the positivism of science and the use of hermeneutics. On one hand, for the scientific approach, psychoanalysis cannot be considered as a scientific discipline, since the empirical evidence used for investigation, is contaminated with “suggestion”, or in other words, transference and countertransference. On the other hand, the hermeneutic perspective of psychoanalysis allows the research conception of the discipline to be understood as a way in which interpretation, comprehension and especially subjectivity take part as part of the research process.

The hermeneutics proposals imply an original view and understanding of psychoanalysis. It aims to differentiate the natural sciences methodologies of investigation against the social science methodologies. In Schafer?s (1976) words: “The hermeneuticist conception of psychoanalysis was in part a reaction against the attempt to assimilate psychoanalysis to the natural sciences”. (p.67)

These new forms of understanding interpretation, comprehension and explanation as inseparable forms of human life, will support with philosophical fundaments, new forms of doing investigation in social sciences: the so-called qualitative methodologies, name space of several schools, including the psychoanalytic.

The qualitative methodologies have involved interesting controversies and critics to the scientific method, as the only way to create valid knowledge, questioning the notions of statistical representations. Along with that, psychoanalysis is focused on studying the patient?s unconscious and inner worlds, therefore the challenge of doing investigation with a scientific method, in which the observation, quantification and experimentation that provide the required data to create falsified laws, is worthless. The object of study in psychoanalysis is the human mind, which will always imply intersubjectivity as part of making investigation.

It is important to mention that, transference would not be the only mechanism which could contaminate the gathered data for investigation in psychoanalysis, but also the psychoanalysts own unconscious processes. Counter-transference, defined by Laplanche and Pontalis (1973) in The Language of Psychoanalysis would be “the whole of the analyst?s unconscious reactions to the individual analysand-especially to the analysand?s own transference”.

In the text Las Peculiaridades de la Investigacion Psicoanalitica (2004), the psychoanalysts Maria Isabel Castillo and Elena Gomez Castro, state how psychoanalysis should be considered when its research method are discussed:

“Psychoanalysis should be considered as a comprehensive discipline and, therefore its discourse is both explanatory and predictable. This implies the possibility in locate it as a discipline that bears between the humanistic or interpretative and a natural science.” (p.31, translation)

Among other contributions, both Castillo and Gomez Castro (2004) consides that:

“Psychoanalysis should do investigation from a hermeneutic approach, using qualitative methodologies and therefore, use in particular the technique of the case study which is, and will always be the central method by which it reflects and makes progress in the psychoanalytic knowledge” (p.31, translation)

Regarding of the idea that psychoanalytic research is made at the clinical setting, Andrea Marzi (2006), in the article Critical Reflections on Intersubjectivity in Psychoanalysis, considers that there are other important elements that are constructed during the process of investigation, especially in the relation between the analyst and the analysand. In her words:

“The analytic path is a necessary precondition to investigation, experimentation, and reaching. It is not given, but creatable; it is generated by the analytic dyad that reaches such a condition, not through ‘semantic-hermeneutic constructions’, but through the construction of a bond capable of welcoming, containing and holding the ‘relationship’ during its entire course.” (p. 1310)

Finally, Ernesto Laverde-Rubio (2008) in the article Metodologia de la Investigacion: Psicoterapia Analitica y Psicoanalisis concludes that research and the application of psychoanalytic theory, is usually conceived to be used only on the clinical setting, but it can be applied into other settings or scenarios. In the author?s words “the historical development of psychoanalysis had produced an expansion of its own frontiers, of its objects of study, of its applications and its interrelation with scientific disciplines, which has generated a diversion on appropriate methodologies for each line of thinking and investigation.” (p.126)

Thanks to the different schools and theories that were born after Freud?s definition and creation of psychoanalysis, such as the object relations tradition, the psychology of self among others, it has become more complicated to make a definition on what actually psychoanalysis and the methodology it uses to make investigation.

In conclusion, psychoanalysis is a discipline, a theory and an interpretative science. As an interpretative science, psychoanalysis uses concepts directed to personal actions and meanings therefore, it can be applied and used for the analysis and understanding of the unconscious in different scenarios. The debate if psychoanalysis is or not a scientific will be still controversial, since the problem relies on trying to define the discipline on opposite categories instead of understanding it as a complete holistic concept.

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