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Psychoanalysis in FocusReview - Psychoanalysis in Focus
by David Livingstone Smith
Sage Publications, 2003
Review by Petar Jevremovic
Jan 7th 2004 (Volume 8, Issue 2)

Critical considerations of the basic presuppositions of psychoanalytic doctrine could be seen as the main topic of recently published Livingston Smith's book, Psychoanalysis in Focus. The idea is to reconsider logical and methodological foundations of the Freudian legacy. Livingston Smith's procedural credo could be seen as something like the imperative of objectivity. For our author, being critical and being objectivemeans being intellectually decent and clear minded. Being aware of the various interpretative traditions that are concerned with psychoanalysis (Habermas, Ricoeur, Grünbaum, Nagel...), Livingston Smith is trying to establish his own reading of this rather important problem.

There is something wrong with psychoanalysis, or even within the psychotherapy in general. Psychoanalysis does not have a good reputation within the scientific community... The scientific (or, we could say, epistemological) status of the psychoanalysis (or, we could say, psychotherapy in general) is problematic. First of all, we need more rationality. We have to be more rational and more critical. Why? Ignoring thoughtful criticism is destructive to any discipline. This could be Livingston Smith's starting point.  There is an almost comical contrast between psychotherapists' idealization of their discipline and the disreputable position that it occupies in the intellectual and scientific world at large. There is clearly something fundamentally wrong with a field whose leading lights cannot locate anything wrong with it... If psychotherapy hopes to grow, rather than merely proliferate, its advocates need to abandon their unwarranted conviction that their preferred approach is essentially flawless, and to open their eyes to what turns out to be quite a messy situation.

First of all, there is something that sounds like a diagnosis: my experience in the world of psychotherapy has thought me that, on the whole, practitioners find it extremely difficult to engage rationally with critiques of their discipline. Psychoanalysis is an emotive subject, and discussions of it often generate more heat than light. In the same manner, Livingstone Smith continues: advocates of psychoanalysis are likely to find the critical literature rather threatening. To many, psychoanalysis is more than a theory of mind and associated set of methods: it is a way of life and a road of deliverance. As it could be seen, his position is openly critical. He cannot accept ideological (or something pseudo-scientific, institutional, nonreflexive, dogmatic in the worst sense of this term) blindness of psychoanalytic doctrine. The responsibility of psychoanalysis is twofold. Its ambitions are theoretical (psychoanalysis is theory of the personality), and also, psychoanalysis is practical school of psychotherapy. At the same time (as theory) it deals with abstract ideas and concepts, and (as practical psychotherapy) with living people.

Livingston Smith's criticism of the psychoanalytic doctrine could be seen as his (conscious) attempt to introduce some kind of enlightenment in the context of psychoanalytic education. Criticisms of psychoanalysis are rarely seriously addressed in psychoanalytic education. It is quite possible for students of psychoanalysis to pursue their training whilst remaining blissfully unaware of the serious and substantial critical literature on their beloved subject. This is both poor educational practice and is also morally irresponsible. After all, most graduates of training programs go on to use their newly acquired methods on real people. Any decent psychotherapy is a serious business. We must be careful. Intellectual responsibility is a burden that not all of us wish to bear. Many, or perhaps most, practitioners are attracted to the field of psychotherapy for quasi-religious reasons. Of course, there is not only intellectual responsibility, but also there is that moral one.

Livingston Smith goes further. His sharp criticism of the psychoanalytic institutions hits its target. Psychoanalytic theory is highly burdened with its metaphysical framework.  ...Many if not most psychoanalytic theories are so extremely ambiguous and elastic that they cannot be refuted by inhospitable data. Psychoanalysis is primarily driven by theory rather than by data, and it is very rare for a psychoanalytic theory to be abandoned because of its empirical weaknesses. In spite of appearances, the trajectory of the development of psychoanalytic theory has not been cumulative. It might be said that psychoanalysis has not developed: it has just grown larger... Psychoanalysis is notoriously authoritarian. Works by Freud, Klein, Jung and other psychoanalytic 'authorities' are not cited because of the data that they contain or the compelling interpretations of empirical data they present. In fact, none of these authors present or consider data meeting even the most minimal scientific standards of adequacy. Psychoanalytic authorities are invoked purely because of the aura of credibility they provide for the author...

The question of (philosophically rational and logically coherent) criticism of the psychoanalytic doctrine is rather ambitious task. Practically speaking, there are great many (very important) particular questions that should be addressed. Speaking in the other words, you always have to make some kind of selection, and you always need some kind of the guiding principles. My selection of what to include was based on two guiding principles. First, I felt it essential to include the major standards of critical debate directed at psychoanalysis from outside of the world of psychotherapy, for these address the fundamental issues that give the debate its wider cultural and intellectual significance. Criticism offered from the outside also have an especially incisive character and are, more often than not, applicable with equal force to the non-psychoanalytic therapies. Second I have attempted to confine myself to what is most fundamental and universal within the broad purview of psychoanalysis. In this exact words we can find something like inner logic of Livingstone Smiths critical discourse.

It also could be instructive to look at the order of chapters in this book. After a brief Introduction, there comes Scientific Validity in Focus, Scientific Support and Theoretic Outcome in focus, Hermeneutics in Focus, The Unconscious and Free Associations in Focus, Transference and Countertransference in Focus, Integrity in Focus, The Future of an Illusion? As it could be seen, different chapters of this book are intended to put different aspects of the problem in focus. Livingston Smith is writing about many different things, about some important historic points in philosophic reception of psychoanalysis, logical positivism, Popper and Lakatos, Grünbaum, neuropsychology, cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, hermeneutics...

What are the conclusions of this book? Livingston Smith is rather skeptic about logical and epistemic status of psychoanalysis. But, in his own words, this dismal conclusion is not inevitable. It is certainly possible for psychoanalysis to get back on the rails and secure a happier future.   There are some definite recommendations that logically emerge from the analysis that I have undertaken in this volume. First, psychoanalysis needs to liberate itself from an excessively close attachment to a specific set of psychological theories... Second, psychoanalysis needs to restructure itself as to consistently advance testable hypotheses, and devote serious attention and resources to methodological concerns. 

Livingston Smith has provided us with one very interesting and provocative book. It could be of considerable use for (among others) psychoanalysts, students of psychoanalysis, psychologists and philosophers...

At last, I would like to mention some possible objections:

1.      It is not always clear enough is Livingston Smith writing about psychoanalysis (as one particular kind of psychotherapy), or about psychotherapy in general.

2.      It is not always clear enough is Livingston Smith writing about Freud's (classical) psychoanalysis, or is he criticizing modern psychoanalysis. And off course, there is an important question, could we at all (today) speak about one (more or less coherent) psychoanalytic theory? The differences between some schools (just think about Lacanians, Neofreudians, Kleinians) are so considerable ...





© 2004 Petar Jevremovic


Petar Jevremovic: Clinical psychologist and practicing psychotherapist, author of two books (Psychoanalysis and Ontology, Lacan and Psychoanalysis), translator of Aristotle and Maximus the Confessor, editor of the Serbian editions of selected works of Heintz Kohut, Jacques Lacan and Melanie Klein, author of various texts that are concerned with psychoanalysis, philosophy, literature and theology. He lives in Belgrade, Yugoslavia.


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