What is psychoanalysis?

In one of his later definitions of psychoanalysis Freud writes: « Psychoanalysis may be said to have been born with the twentieth century; for the publication in which it emerged before the world as something new – my Interpretation of Dreams – bears the date « 1900 ». But, as may well be supposed, it did not drop from the skies ready-made. It had its starting-point in older ideas, which it developed further; it sprang from earlier suggestions, which it elaborated. » (A Short Account of Psychoanalysis, 1924)

While this still holds true, psychoanalysis has also been altered, revised and even reinvented many times during its short history, from Freud’s beginnings in the twentieth century to an ever greater diversity in the early twenty-first century.

In 1988, Robert Wallerstein, then President of the International Psychoanalytical Association, eventually acknowledged the plurality of orientations in contemporary psychoanalysis (Wallerstein, R. S. One psychoanalysis or many? International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 69, 5–21.). Says Wallerstein: « Psychoanalysis has developed a pluralism of theoretical perspectives, in order preferentially to explain the essence of mental development and human psychology, what I have conceptualized as our variety of symbolisms or metaphors designed to grasp and to give coherence to our own internal unknowables, our past unconsciouses. » (p.18)

Since this turning point, unceasing efforts have been made to find a « common ground » beneath the multiplicity of various approaches and practices of psychoanalysis. Many psychoanalytic authors still seem to see psychoanalysis’ plurality with a regret. To their mind, psychoanalytic theories should be reunited into one big common theory, and practices should standardized to avoid any differences between analysts.

In fact, these efforts do not only seem vain – the idea of a « common ground » itself having spread out in almost as many common grounds as there were un-common orientations – but turn out to be implausible, given the progressive acceptance of the irreducible subjectivity in the dynamics of transference and counter-transference.

There might be a different approach to this problem altogether. Wittgenstein’s idea of « family resemblance » should prove most useful. Because in psychoanalytic literature as well as in clinical discussions with colleagues we do indeed « see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail » (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §66). When we do not think about how to unify the psychoanalytic diversity but, like Wittgenstein, look at what we see, we too might think « of no better expression to characterize these similarities than ‘family resemblances’; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way » (§67).

Many different forms of psychoanalysis attest not only to the breaking out of the common dogmatism that sometimes threatened to relegate analysis to a self-sufficient and self-satisfied discipline – making it lose all contact to the scientific and clinical efforts realized by neighbour disciplines like psychology, philosophy, psychiatry, linguistics, sociology, literary theory, etc.. The plurality and diversity also show the liveliness of contemporary psychoanalysis.

« In formal logic, a contradiction is the signal of defeat, but in the evolution of real knowledge it marks the first step in progress toward a victory. This is one great reason for the utmost toleration of variety of opinion. » (Alfred North Whitehead, The Atlantic, Aug 1925)