A History of Psychoanalysis

Joseph Schwartz

Penguin, London, 1999.

In the very first sentences on the very first page, it looks like we're not going to get along too well:

"Psychoanalysis is arguably the single most important intellectual development of the twentieth century. Comparable to the theory of evolution in the controversy it has caused and continues to cause, psychoanalysis informs part of our daily discourse in a way that evolution has never done."

Schwartz has a BA jointly in physics and sociology and a Ph.D. in elementary particle physics, and yet he says such a thing. First of all, whether something "informs our daily discourse" may have nothing to do with its intellectual significance. Quantum theory may be far more significant, not least because of its underpinning of electronics and hence information technology, but it hardly "informs our daily discourse", because hardly anyone understands it. As for evolution, a case can easily be made that the theory of evolution has proved to be immensely more fruitful and significant than the tattered claims of psychoanalysis.

Defending his chosen patch, Schwartz claims that,

"a fallacious concept of science lies at the heart of the critiques of psychoanalysis and the responses to them." (p.5)

Here is how he clarifies the concept of science:

"Consider the following definition of science. Following John Berger, we can define painting as a way of seeing. Literature and poetry then [?] become ways of telling, dance becomes a way of moving, architecture a way of building. Science is a way of understanding."

Does this mean that astrology is a way of foretelling, or psychic surgery a way of curing?

Schwartz opines that the critics assume that all science is quantitative, whereas a science like biology is actually descriptive, because its phenomena are historical. He goes on to admit that psychoanalysis is subjective, not objective, but that this does not exclude it from being a science. How did he get there? By mentioning complexity, and stating that psychological phenomena are best understood in their own terms rather than in terms of molecules. This supposedly shows that psychoanalysis is a science.

Not much further on, we have more reason to suspect the author's judgement:

"The adulation showered on Einstein in his famous New York tickertape parade in 1921 was similar to the adulation accompanying a Michael Jackson world tour. Einstein was the first great international pop star, a cultural figure who transcended national boundaries." (p.16)

Anybody here heard of Charlie Chaplin? Rudolf Valentino?

Perhaps you've read the chapter in Martin Gardner's "The New Age" (1988), where he lambasts Freud and Fliess for the hair-raising operation on Emma Eckstein, which dramatically worsened her nasal haemorrhages.

Schwartz actually tries to defend the pair by suggesting that "such accidents", i.e. leaving half a metre of gauze up someone's nose after an operation, "were common" (p.68). He does describe it as the "appallingly botched operation Wilhelm Fliess performed on her nose for her nervous condition", but somehow misses the bizarre non sequitur.

It comes as a relief, but a surprise, when the author accepts that,

"Lacan's use of terms from mathematics has been attacked with justified indignation by the mathematical physicists Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont." (p.254)

For those who would wish to learn more about the development of psychoanalysis and its many schools and schisms, this will be an informative read, and it must be accepted that, whatever the disputes about its claims and theories, it has had a substantial effect on Western culture over the last century.

Before leaving the last word to Schwartz, let us be ready for his attempts to lay claim, on behalf of his creed, to all acknowledgement of the value of human relationships and sociability, rather in the way that Christians try to commandeer any human good:

"What psychoanalysis has to teach us is that human relationships are central to our development and growth, that distortions in the fulfilment of fundamental human relational needs have lasting negative consequences for human happiness - that there is no such thing as the Man Alone. The analytic hour is an indispensable tool for the treatment and resolution of painful, immobilizing inner conflicts. Just as the insights of natural science were central to the creation of a material well-being associated with the Industrial Revolution, the insights of psychoanalysis are crucial to the creation of emotional well-being and to a humanity that can embrace difference and find common solutions to the difficulties created by modern life." (p.283)



Paul Taylor 2002