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Secrets of the SoulReview - Secrets of the Soul
A Social and Cultural History of Psychoanalysis
by Eli Zaretsky
Knopf, 2004
Review by Louis S. Berger, Ph.D.
Oct 22nd 2004 (Volume 8, Issue 43)

In his Secrets of the Soul: A Social and Cultural History of Psychoanalysis, Zaretsky chronicles and interprets this history from its beginnings in what he calls the second industrial revolution–roughly the era in which vertically integrated corporations such as the Ford Motor Company began to emerge and dominate–to its current near demise. In his narrative Zaretsky explores the interplay between (1) changing family and cultural roles, values, and structures, (2) the social, political, economic and cultural impact of industrial-corporate life, and (3) the (positive and negative) influences of psychoanalytic ideas. His goal is "to identify and affirm the emancipatory dimension of analytic thought without denying the validity of the criticisms [of psychoanalysis] or the need to rethink its legacy" (p. 3).

Zaretsky sees psychoanalysis as Janus-faced. Its positive aspect is its transforming force for liberation and emancipation, for freeing individuals from familial and societal shackles. Its negative aspect is dual. One undesirable set of effects arises directly from psychoanalysis's positive transforming influence; by freeing a person, by touting "authenticity" and individuality, it not only liberates but also destroys beneficial external (familial, societal) ties.  According to Zaretsky, "Freud's key contribution lay in theorizing that disjuncture [between the individual psyche and culture]" (p. 6).  A second set of undesirable features arose because as psychoanalysis evolved, "it was absorbed, transfigured, and ultimately consumed by the sociology and culture of personal life to which it originally gave critical expression" (p. 11). Thus transformed and degraded, psychoanalysis became an agent also for repression, oppression, mystification, and consumerism.

It is obvious that a great deal of painstaking, thorough, detailed documentation and hard work have gone into Secrets. It also seems to be well received by critics and readers. Nevertheless, I find that it has significant shortcomings. In numerous contexts the philosopher Martin Heidegger (I will mention him again later) speaks about a belief's being "correct but not true", meaning, roughly, that the belief is valid within its framework of assumptions, but that since those assumptions are suspect, in a larger sense it is untrue. That is how I would characterize Zaretsky's work.

Let me begin by noting that Zaretsky treats psychoanalysis as a church movement, often explicitly so, for example when in describing its more recent decline he says  "the great Freudian church had given way to a new, desacralized, 'married' clergy" (p. 330), or when he characterizes one reformer (Heinz Kohut) as "updating the church" (p. 314). In that context, and under that perspective, Zaretsky understands psychoanalysis primarily as a politicized church of beliefs, theories, ideas, and hypotheses. That is, he seems interested in psychoanalysis primarily for its intellectual contents and insights and their history; for example, he says explicitly that psychoanalysis is "not so much a mode of treatment as a set of understandings that we need to protect [from extinction]..." (342). In other words, Zaretsky's Secrets  is primarily a political, social, and cultural history of psychoanalysis as a cognitive/theoretical project, as a body of changing dogmatic beliefs and systems.

Now, officially psychoanalysis has always claimed to encompass three aspects. It understands itself as comprising a theory, a therapeutic practice, and a research method. My sense is that Zaretsky's knowledge of the latter two components is an academician's, a limited book knowledge that lacks experiential depth and empathy. I do not see indications that he has a "feel" for clinical matters. While at times Zaretsky does refer to these latter two aspects of psychoanalysis, when he does so it is as though he knows the words but not the music. Since he is not a clinician but a historian he hardly can be faulted for these limitations, but it does raise the question of whether Zaretsky's restricted views of psychoanalysis affect the soundness of his historical arguments and interpretations.

I think they do, in subtle ways. I first mention a number of errors of commission and omission that probably have but little relevance for Zaretsky's interpretation of the church and its history. I will not elaborate on the particulars. What I see as his principal errors of commission are misunderstandings first, of  ego psychology (compare, say, his comments on p. 312 with Busch 1995, especially chapter 4; Busch 1999; Gray 1994; Goldberger 1996), and second, of self-psychology and narcissism (compare his chapter 12 with Kohut 1984, Loewald 1980, chapter 20, or Goldberg 1995).

Important omissions are:

(1) The neglect of seminal clinical contributions of leading analytic figures such as Michael Balint, Donald Winnicott, or Hans Loewald; although Zaretsky does mention the former two, he reports only on their political roles in the "movement"and   on their theoretical contributions.

(2) The failure to consider the major psychoanalytic contributions to the fields of personality theory and projective tests.

(3) The failure to mention that within psychoanalysis there are serious and substantial alternatives to the familiar choices between reductive scientisms and humanisms (compare Zaretsky's Epilogue with, for example, Symposium 1995, or Berger 2002, chapter 5).

(4) The failure to acknowledge and consider the grave problems inherent in supposedly scientifically-grounded (e.g., neurobiological),  reductionist approaches (compare his remarks on Grünbaum, p. 335, or on neuroscience and psychopharmacology, pp. 337-338, with such critiques as Tallis 1999a, b; Olafson 1995, 2001; or Berger 1991, 1995, 2002).

(5) The failure to even mention the vexing problems concerning the alleged existence of direct logical ties between psychoanalytic theory and its practice (see Berger 1978, 1985, 1991, 2002).

These errors may or may not affect the sustainability of Zaretsky's narration and interpretations, but in my view there are  several other aspects of Secrets that do.   Two pertain to therapy while the third concerns a philosophical matter. The first problem is this. As I mentioned earlier, Zaretsky claims that psychoanalysis as a body of thought is Janus-faced, that as a body of thought it has had important positive but also negative influences on various aspects of modern life. Specifically, he proposes that psychoanalysis was "[a]lmost instantly recognized as a great force for human emancipation" (p.3).

However, one of Freud's earliest clinical discoveries, one that has been validated over and over in a century's worth of therapeutic practice and experience, was that merely supplying intellectual knowledge about psychoanalytic matters to patients is not therapeutic. For such information to be truly therapeutic, it must be presented knowledgeably in the context of an ongoing therapy. If that is not done, then at best the information will be ineffective and simply be fended off; at worst (and most often), though, it will be distorted and placed in the service of pathological defenses and needs even if superficially the information seems to have beneficial consequences. It often takes a sophisticated clinical understanding to see that the effects are actually noxious.

In view of these considerations I suggest that likewise, the apparently "liberational" influences of psychoanalytic thought on the culture in general to which Zaretsky refers actually harbor noxious, pathological features. I propose that giving the general culture intellectual information about psychoanalysis (say, about the unconscious, dreams, the Oedipus complex, sexuality, or autonomy) is much like providing information inappropriately in what I previously (Berger 1991) called "not-good-enough"therapy. In other words, I submit that ultimately, both the obviously noxious as well as the supposedly liberational influences of psychoanalytic thought on the public at large are, at bottom, negative.  The premise that psychoanalysis exerts liberational and beneficial influences on the general public is a substantial element in Zaretsky's historical interpretations. If that premise becomes suspect, so do his theses.

A second, related, clinical issue concerns the supposedly undesirable side effects of psychoanalytic therapy. I previously mentioned the "disjuncture" that Zaretsky claims is an undesirable side effect of psychoanalysis. He says that unlike previous "therapies" such as a priest's exorcism, or a French king's cure of scrofula by touch (p. 6), both of which retained the "cured" person's communal ties, the psychoanalytic project was "formulated... as a personal and provisional hermeneutic of self-discovery" that made it impossible to reintegrate an individual into a "preexisting whole" (pp. 6-7; compare this claim with clinically informed explorations, e.g., Loewald 1980). In other words, Zaretsky sees analytic therapy with its emphasis on individual autonomy, its supposedly "affirmative attitude toward narcissism" (p. 314) and so on, as innately alienating, necessarily severing ex-patients from their familial, social and cultural ties.

My objection is this. Zaretsky quite properly identifies psychoanalytic therapy with the goal of "defamilialization, the freeing of individuals from unconscious images of authority originally rooted in the family" (p. 5), but then takes an unwarranted step when he goes on to equate that defamilialization with alienation. Now, unfortunately it is quite true that too often, an ex-analytic patient is self-absorbed, self-centered, narcissistically flawed, sexually exploitive, but I submit that this is not a necessary consequence of psychoanalysis. When such outcomes do occur it is because the patient and/or the analyst were "not-good-enough"or, as I put it more recently, because the therapy was a "technotherapy" rather than a "praxially-based" treatment (Berger 2002); analytic therapy is not necessarily alienating. Thus, once again the issue on which I fault Zaretsky is clinical–in this case, his seeming inability to discriminate adequately between good and poor clinical practices and outcomes.

My third criticism is, as I intimated, philosophical. We have seen that the two principal and basic conceptual ingredients in Zaretsky's history and analyses are first, the socio-political-cultural milieu of the second industrial revolution, and second, psychoanalysis. He places these two frameworks on a more or less equal footing, and explores how they mutually affect one another. However, according to Heidegger the industrial revolution–indeed, the entire period of Western technology–can be seen in a different way: as a symptom of "rational-calculative thinking", a "mind-set that underlies the rise of technology and that permeates our daily habits of speech and thought... a way of objectifying our world and our experience" (Pattison 2000, 2). Heidegger claims that this mind-set arose already within early Greek thought; it just became more visible with the rise of the sciences in the seventeenth century.

Heidegger discussed this complex claim at length, and it has generated a large secondary literature (see, for example, Bernstein 1992, chapter 4; Lovitt and Lovitt, 1995; Pylkkö 1998, chapter 2). I will not attempt to describe it further. What matters here is that one can make a case that psychoanalysis, too, is but another symptomatic manifestation of the same underlying "rational-calculative", "technological"dynamic. The possibility of seeing both the second industrial revolution and psychoanalysis as expressions of a common pathological root rather than as two separate but interacting causal agents raises further questions about Zaretsky's socio-political and cultural analyses.

I have two final thoughts. First, Zaretsky's Secrets can serve as a source of much factual historical information about the rise and fall of the psychoanalytic church, but one does need to keep in mind the limitations to which I have pointed. Second, I believe that probably quite unintentionally, Zaretsky has done psychoanalysis a disservice by analyzing it only, or at least primarily, in terms of its (admittedly severely flawed) church-like aspects. That restricted focus is likely to leave the unwary reader with the impression that this is all there is to psychoanalysis. In my view, that is much as though one were to write about Christianity by chronicling the shoddy history of its church, implicitly inviting the conclusion that the church is Christianity; Secrets similarly invites an unwarranted deprecation and disparagement of psychoanalysis which obscures its valuable and fragile elements, rendering these virtually invisible and supporting its currently ubiquitous, fashionable but poorly justified wholesale dismissal.   



Berger, L. S. 1978. Innate constraints of formal theories.  Psychoanalysis and contemporary thought, 1: 89-117.

_____ 1985. Psychoanalytic Theory and Clinical Relevance: What makes a theory consequential for Practice? Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press.

_____ 1991.  Substance Abuse as Symptom: A Psychoanalytic Critique of Treatment Approaches and the Cultural Beliefs that Sustain Them.  Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press.

_____ 1995. Grünbaum's questionable interpretations of inanimate systems: "History" and "Context" in physics. Psychoanalytic Psychology 12:439-449.

_____ 2002. Psychotherapy as Praxis: Abandoning Misapplied Science. Victoria: Trafford.

Bernstein, R. J. 1992. The New Constellation: The Ethical-Political Horizons of Modernity/Postmodernity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Busch, F. 1995. Neglected classics: M.N. Searl's "Some queries on principles of technique." Psychoanalytic Quarterly 64: 326-344.

_____ 1999. Rethinking Clinical Technique. New York: Jason Aronson.      

Goldberg, A. 1995. The Problem of Perversion: The View from Self Psychology.  New Haven: Yale University Press.

Goldberger, M. (Editor) 1996. Danger and Defense: The Technique of Close Process Attention. Northvale, NJ: Aronson.

Gray, P. 1994. The Ego and Analysis of Defense. Northvale, NJ: Aronson.

Kohut, H. 1984. How Does Analysis Cure? Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Symposium. 1995.Psychoanalysis and mysticism. The Psychoanalytic Review, 82: 349-426.

Loewald, H. W. 1980. Papers on Psychoanalysis. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Lovitt, W., and Lovitt, H. B. 1995. Modern Technology in the Heideggerian Perspective. (Volumes I and II) Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press.

Olafson, F. 1995. What is a Human Being? A Heideggerian View. New York: Cambridge University Press.

_____ 2001. Naturalism and the Human Condition: Against Scientism. New York: Routledge.

Pattison, G. 2000. The Later Heidegger. New York: Routledge.

Pylkkö, P. 1998. The Aconceptual Mind: Heideggerian Themes in Holistic Naturalism. Philadelphia: Benjamins.

Tallis, R. 1999a. (2nd edition) The Explicit Animal: A Defense of Human Consciousness. New York: St. Martin's Press.

_____ 1999b. On the Edge of Certainty: Philosophical Explorations. New York: St. Martin's Press.



© 2004 Louis S. Berger


Louis S. Berger's career has straddled clinical psychology, engineering and applied physics, and music. His major interest is in clinical psychoanalysis and related philosophical issues. Dr. Berger's publications include 3 books (Introductory Statistics, 1981; Psychoanalytic Theory and Clinical Relevance, 1985; Substance Abuse as Symptom, 1991) and several dozen journal articles and book reviews.  His book Psychotherapy As Praxis was reviewed in Metapsychology in January 2003.


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