A Science Suited to its Subject - Michael Brearley

Michael Brearley was, at the time of writing this article, Chair of the External Relations Co-ordinating Committee. This is the first of two articles replying to criticisms of psychoanalysis. The second will focus on practice. Here he addresses the argument that psychoanalysis is unscientific, an outdated religion, with Freud as its guru.

Brearley, M. (2000): , "A Science Suited to its Subject"; The first of two articles replying to criticisms of psychoanalysis

Aristotle said that there is no such thing as absolute certainty, only the certainty that befits the subject: What is certain or accurate for the carpenter is not certain or accurate for the physicist. An example of what Aristotle means is that the kind of verification appropriate for a statement about human emotional reality is of a different order from one that which would be appropriate for a statement about, say, a physical body or a sociological trend. Aristotle again: "If there is no single common method by which we may discover what a thing is, the treatment of the subject becomes still more difficult; for we will have to find the appropriate method for each subject". Psychoanalysis more than any other more or less systematic set of ideas about people takes serious account of the unconscious dimensions of thinking, emotion and action in a way that does justice to the kind of realities people are concerned with in their personal and inter-personal lives. It is an 'appropriate method for its subject'. This conceptual depth makes possible a fuller theoretical understanding of people and their development; the methodology of treatment is designed to make this possible in practice.

Psychoanalytic theory makes it clear that everyone is liable to distort his or her account of emotional transactions; it follows that one aspect of the analyst's task is to scrutinise not only the narratives that the patient brings but also his own. Indeed, one area where psychoanalysis has changed since Freud is in our increasingly complex realisation of ways in which understanding people involves reflection on their emotional impact on ourselves. Self-scrutiny is necessary for the psychoanalyst not only as practitioner but also as maker of hypotheses. Freud was not a saint; but he held it to be essential for progress that his ideas should be open to constant criticism and revision. For example few analysts would now accept his account of female sexuality.

He did not see himself as a guru, nor psychoanalysis as a religion. But does belief in the unconscious require an act of faith? I would say that for a (hypothetical) person who totally lacked this concept, acquiring it would be like coming to understand the notion of three-dimensional space for one who has lived in two dimensions. For most of us, by contrast, it is not faith that is required so much as reflection on and extension of what we already are capable of knowing. One's own self-deception is almost always the hardest to recognise, for reasons that psychoanalysis makes clear - much of the truth about ourselves is for various reasons unpalatable. Psychoanalytic thinking is a logical extension of ordinary, sophisticated, common sense thought about the mind in all its intra- and inter-psychic range and depth.


Copyright © 2000 The British Psychoanalytical Society (incorporating the Institute of Psychoanalysis) London