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)