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Psychoanalysis and the Philosophy of ScienceReview - Psychoanalysis and the Philosophy of Science
Collected Papers of Benjamin B. Rubinstein
by Benjamin B. Rubinstein
International Universities Press, 1999
Review by Brent Dean Robbins
Sep 11th 2000 (Volume 4, Issue 37)

By far, the best portion of this collection of papers by Benjamin Rubinstein is the editor's introduction. I cannot say if I have ever read a more warm and loving tribute to a friend and colleague than Robert Holt's portrait of Rubinstein. He depicts "Beni," as he and other friends called Rubinstein, as a loving and devoted husband and brilliant theoretician who bravely dared to go against the grain. Holt's tale is so inspired and passionate that it almost seems out of place in Rubinstein's collection of highly technical and abstract theoretical work. When Holt, in a deeply personal way, describes Rubinstein's final years, including his gradual withdrawal from his close interpersonal circle after his wife suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, one is moved in a deeply visceral way.

The irony is not lost on Holt that a man who loved theater and art as much as science should hold so tightly to a notion of psychoanalysis which refutes the power of narrative in favor of the abstraction of logical positivist philosophy of science. At the same time, despite his apology, the joke appears to be on Holt. There is a tension between Holt's criticism of narrative and the way he so beautifully describes the life of his friend. If Holt and Rubinstein are correct, what is the merit of Holt's description if it is mere story? It is quite telling that Holt, when faced with the task of describing a friend who he loved deeply, turns to the language of narrative, but when face to face with another human being in psychotherapy, prefers to speak of the relationship in terms of calculation and technical jargon. Rubinstein claims that such narrative is a secondary abstraction, a mere language of "as-if," that covers over what is "really" going on at the level of the physiological.

Rubinstein acquired his medical degree from the University of Helsinki Medical School in 1936. His interest in medicine developed from the influence of logical positivism, neurophysiology and Freud's Totem and Taboo, which combined his love of both history and philosophy. After some time in England, Rubinstein accepted a fellowship at the Menninger Foundation in 1947. Early on, Rubinstein took a critical posture toward Freudian metapsychology. In his original thesis, he criticized the psychoanalytic theory of sexuality by pointing out inconsistencies in the location of the drives. As Holt tells the tale, "The Education Committee was scandalized: he dared to criticize Freud," (Holt, 1997, p. 3). In order to graduate, he was forced to perform a typical case study instead. Rubinstein is portrayed as a hero who was daringly independent and innovative in his thinking and certainly not wedded to orthodox Freudian psychoanalytic theory. Again, however, there is a tension here, for despite Rubinstein and Holt's critical posture toward psychoanalytic theory, they both take pains to argue that Rubinstein's work is consistent with Freud's intentions.

Rubinstein is situated in a camp of psychoanalytic thinkers, along with Eagle and Grunbaum, who perceive themselves as attempting to make psychoanalysis more scientifically valid by appealing to positivistic philosophy of science. They are contrasted with the "other" camp of psychoanalysts who are rooted in a human science approach with an emphasis upon interpretation and narrative. Rubinstein, like Grunbaum, argues that psychoanalysis cannot be a self-contained system of knowledge, but must move beyond the psychoanalytic situation in order to achieve scientific validity. For them, scientific validity can only be found when studies can be conducted and variables can be isolated, predicted and controlled, presumably by a neutral observer. On the other hand, the psychoanalytic relationship, pregnant as it is with transference and counter-transference, appears to make for messy and biased observations of the 'data.'

I am struck, however, by the naive way in which Rubinstein and his colleagues depict hermeneutics as a "straw man" concerned with mere storytelling. This makes his arguments less compelling and appear manipulatively biased in its own way. Further, this criticism is not a petty argument in any sense since Rubinstein himself appeals to philosophy of science, and, if he is to be consistent, he needs to seriously consider that the particular philosophy he chooses is one which, for the past half century, has come under intense scrutiny.

If we are to be concerned with the "facts," we need to be concerned with the "fact" that positivism has increasingly begun to be seen as a rather quaint and outdated philosophy of science. If this is the case, the effort to situate psychoanalytic theory in a positivist framework would, contrary to his argument, only further discredit psychoanalysis as quaint and outdated. The supreme irony would be on Rubinstein and his psychoanalytic colleagues since the resurgence of psychoanalytic theory will almost surely not be on the part of those who adhere to a positivist model. Rather, psychoanalysis, outside of psychoanalytic circles, has consistently and increasingly been supported by postmodern thinkers in the human sciences rather than the natural sciences. Rubinstein, however, appears to be unaware that, by taking his stance, he just might be swearing allegiance to those behavioral scientists who have already given up on psychoanalytic theory. By doing so, he would be giving over psychoanalysis to the wolves.

Coming from a positivist perspective, Rubinstein's primary argument is that psychoanalysis, by itself, is unable to hypothesize and make predications based on theoretical terms such as the unconscious since, he argues, such theoretical terms cannot be directly observed but only inferred. This positivist sentiment is rooted in a more fundamental argument that science should be about mathematical logic as a subject-neutral language in order to arrive at mathematically precise and unambiguous meanings. The impetus is a desire to discover universal laws of nature which allow for prediction and control by revealing the causal relations between events in the world. In order for this to happen, "correspondence-rules" must be developed which explicitly and unambiguously tie theoretical terms to observable terms. The problem, however, is that this is a pseudo-problem. As Quine and Duhem have pointed out, it is impossible to clearly distinguish between theoretical and observation terms, since any observation is already theory-laden, and thus purely observational terms are a fiction.

To observe something as something as opposed to something else is to have already engaged in an interpretation. That post-positivist philosophers such as Quine and Duhem have arrived at this conclusion within the positivist tradition is significant--and it is significant most of all because it already implies what must come next: hermeneutics, the study of interpretation. If all scientific observation is interpretative and can never truly step outside of a theoretical orientation in order to observe phenomena in a purely neutral way, it would behoove Rubinstein and others to more seriously consider the long and rich tradition of hermeneutics. Instead, they reduce hermeneutics to the shallow argument that good things happen in psychotherapy when people tell good stories. It would almost be to his credit if, by this tactic, Rubinstein avoids dealing with the difficult consequences of hermeneutic theory in the tradition of continental philosophy. It would perhaps be less shameful than ignorance.

Based on his positivist argument, Rubinstein goes on to argue that, if psychoanalysis is to be scientific, it must step outside the frame of psychoanalysis and enter into the language of organisms as opposed to persons. In short, psychoanalytic theorists should speak the language of extraclinical theory, which amounts to speaking the jargon of neuroscience instead of the descriptive language of clinical experience. Interestingly, it is precisely at this moment, when he is about to sell out the language of psychoanalysis, that Rubinstein appeals to the authority of Freud.

What this reader finds especially interesting is that Rubinstein's particular portrait of Freud provided is nothing less than interpretation of history, a kind of constructive process which the hermeneutic philosophers (e.g., Gadamer) so adeptly articulate. Rubinstein makes the case that, for Freud, supposedly unconscious "mental events" are in fact purely neurological events, and can only be assumed to be mental if it is assumed that "a) observed phenomena resembling the effects of such phenomenal events as wishing, intending, and fantasizing...are in fact the effect of these neurophysiological events, and b) the latter are in some ways transferable to the particular neurophysiological events that are correlated with the phenomenal events, the effect of which their effect resemble" (p. 43). Thus, to talk of unconscious events as "mental" is to engage in an "as-if" form of discourse in psychotherapy whereas, scientifically, one must adhere to the language of neurological functioning.

Rubinstein, like others, appeals to Freud's claim that, one day, psychoanalysis would be better understood in light of advances in psycho-physiological research. What Rubinstein appears to forget, however, is that Freud also wrote that "the true beginning of scientific activity consists in describing phenomena" (1915, p. 7). Freud's innovations came not from the advances in neuroscience at his time, but rather through his descriptions of phenomena within the therapeutic relationship. As Wertz shows, Freud had asserted to fellow physicians that "their education in biology, chemistry, and physics had taken them in a direction not only 'far away from' but 'the opposite of' psychoanalysis, with no portion of their interest whatsoever being directed to psychical life" (p. 115). For Freud, it was precisely due to the kind of attitude exemplified by Rubinstein that "psychological modes of thought...remained foreign" to psychiatrists," since they had "grown accustomed to regarding them with suspicion, to denying them the attribute of being scientific, and to handing them over to laymen, poets, natural philosophers, and mystics" (1978, p. 20). It was by reclaiming the psychological, rather than reducing it to purely mechanical events, that Freud developed his method.

As Wertz writes, Freud's psychoanalysis was envisioned as a "pure psychology" which was radically indifferent "to the methods and concepts of physical science" (p. 116). As Freud wrote, "Psychoanalysis must keep itself free from any hypothesis which is alien to it, whether or an anatomical, chemical, or physiological kind, and must operate entirely with purely psychological auxiliary ideas..." (1978, p. 21). Hence, it is ironic that Rubinstein appeals to the authority of Freud at the very moment that he most deviates from Freud's project.

Further, by appealing to extraclinical experimental neuroscience as an external "verification" of clinical reality, Rubinstein indirectly disparages the fundamental, descriptive method of psychoanalysis, which attempts to remain true to the phenomena of therapy. That such external verification did not in the least appeal to Freud is evident in his reaction to Saul Rosenweig's work on experimental studies of repression. When Rosensweig sent his study to Freud, Freud replied: "I cannot put much value on these confirmations because the wealth of reliable observations on which these assertions rest, make them independent of experimental verification" (Mackinnon & Dukes, 1964, p. 703). It is just such an independence from experimental verification which Rubinstein and others in his positivists "camp" cannot tolerate. If so, Rubinstein's appeal to Freud seems empty and insincere, and one wonders why Rubinstein continues to appeal to the tradition of psychoanalysis when, all along, he seems quite content to give it over to cognitive science and neurophysiology--a move which, if Freud is correct, would be a return to a "psychology" which is not a psychology at all, but a discourse which remains alien to the world of the psychological.

That Rubinstein claims that the narrative of psychoanalysis is a mere "as-if" narrative, betrays his feeling that the abstractions of neuroscience and cognitive science are somehow closer to the "real" than the language of the psychological. What is lost on Rubinstein is that the language of science, quite the opposite, can be viewed as an abstraction from lived experience. It can be legitimately and powerfully argued that such lived experience is best articulated in the descriptive language of phenomenology as a pure psychology. Such a descriptive approach would be phenomenological in the sense of Merleau-Ponty's description of phenomenology:

to return to that world which precedes knowledge, of which knowledge always speaks, and in relation to which every scientific schematization is an abstract and derivative sign-language, as is geography in relation to the country-side in which we have learnt beforehand what a forest, a prairie or a river is. (p. ix)

Rubinstein fails to see that psychoanalytic language is a legitimate discourse in itself, a form of knowing which can be understood as distinct and not ultimately reducible to neurocientific terms. Further, it can be understood as such a legitimate discourse without losing its rigor or truth-value (see Robbins). On the other hand, neuroscience, to this day, has failed and will likely always fail to demonstrate that phenomenal experience has a one to one correspondence with isolated neurological events. If anything, the appeal to neuroscience would only further complicate rather than simplify and clarify psychological experience in the practical understanding of the therapeutic relationship.

Thus the reader at this point might now see the inherent irony of Holt's loving portrayal of his friend in the introduction. For it is just such an appeal from the heart--such a closer, phenomenological, descriptive narrative--that Rubinstein wishes to replace with the cold, hard interpretation of the human as machine rather than as flesh and blood. Such a move toward positivism wouldn't be as negligible, however, if Rubinstein had recognized that what he claims to be a value neutral approach to psychoanalysis is in fact a value-system which denies it is a value-system. A good philosopher of science, who knows his stuff, wouldn't be so naive, because if he was worth his salt, he would have learned from psychoanalytic theory long ago that the transferences which echo between the walls of the psychoanalytic clinic are also evident in the self-deceptions of scientists who claim value-neutrality. But such lessons fall on the deaf ears of those who have sold psychoanalytic theory down the road.


Duhem, P. (1982). The aim and structure of physical theory.

Eagle, M. (1984). Recent developments in psychoanalytic theory: A critical evaluation. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Eagle, M. (1985). Benjamin B. Rubinstein: Contributions to the structure of psychoanalytic theory. In J. Reppen, ed., Beyond Freud: A study of modern psychoanalytic theorists, pp. 83-108.

Freud, S. (1915). Instincts and their vicissitudes.

Freud, S. (1978). The question of lay analysis.

Gadamer, H. (1993). Truth and method, 2nd Revised Edition. (J. C. Weinsheimer & D. G. Marshall, eds.)

Grunbaum, A. (1984). The foundations of psychoanalysis.

Klee, R. (1997). Introduction to the philosophy of science: Cutting nature at its seams.

MacKinnon, D. W. & Dukes, W. F. (1964). Repression. In L. Postman (ed.), Psychology in the making, pp. 662-710.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962). Phenomenology of perception. (C. Smith, trans.)

Quine, W.V.O. (1960). Word and object.

Quine, W.V.O. (1961). From a logical point of view, 2nd edition.

Robbins, B. D. (1998). A reading of Kuhn in light of Heidegger as a response to Hoeller's critique of Giorgi. Janus Head, 1(1), 2-35.

Rubinstein, B. B. (1997). Psychoanalysis and the philosophy of science: The collected papers of Benjamin B. Rubinstein, M.D. (R. R. Holt, ed)

Wertz, F. J. (1993). The phenomenology of Sigmund Freud. Journal of Phenomenological Psychology, 24(2), 101-129.


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