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Psychoanalysis in a New LightReview - Psychoanalysis in a New Light
by Gunnar Karlsson
Cambridge University Press, 2010
Review by Diana Soeiro
May 3rd 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 18)

In short, Gunnar Karlsson's main claim is that psychoanalysis can benefit a lot to strengthen its scientific/ theoretical ground if it meets phenomenology. The relationship between both field studies has been strongly neglected in contemporary literature. Having both being founded in the beginning of the 20th century, authors like Ludwig Binswanger, Medard Boss, Eugene Minkowski and Erwin Straus, did make an effort to connect them, and of course there was a strong influence of existential phenomenology in psychoanalysis (and vice-versa) during the 60s and 70s in France (Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Paul Ricouer, Gabriel Marcel).

But, since the 80s what both study fields have been sharing mostly is a consistent decline over the years. Freud's psychoanalytic process is seen as out-of-date and though several attempts to renew it have been made, according to contemporary demands of scientific knowledge, it continues to fail to present an accurate explanation and identification of its results (if one is available to assume that psychoanalysis ever does). Karlsson clearly shows he is aware of this fragility (Ch 3: A critical examination of neuropsychoanalysis) and not only he states it as he boldly questions current science's demand for results that can, literally, be measured. He identifies this demand as a result of the dominance of a positivistic epistemological model (following Husserl's perspective "The Crisis of the European Sciences", 1936) that he claims to be ineffective to evaluate what is at stake in the psychoanalytic process. (Ch 2: The life-world as the ground for sciences).

As for phenomenology, it seems to have found a privileged place among cognitive sciences dedicated to the interdisciplinary study of mind focusing on how information is processed, articulating humanities with linguistics, artificial intelligence and neuroscience. In cognitive sciences existential phenomenology has no place (Martin Heidegger or Jean Paul-Sartre), yet its founder, Edmund Husserl seems to play a privileged role mainly for his approach on perception, attention and memory. Yet, there is not a proportional balance between all disciplines. Phenomenology is used instrumentally in order to serve and support any measurable results. Nowadays it almost seems that there is no other way to do science, or even worse, that any science that ever wants to be acknowledged as so has to privilege measure and, mostly, neuroscience. For many centuries the brain has been a completely unknown organ and since the beginning of the 20th century serious progress has been made, so culturally, it's understandable that there is a fascination for the organ and that any discovery takes the brain as the decisive factor: if it appears in the brain and it can be placed and measured there, then, it (whatever that is) must be true.

There seems to be a connection between phenomenology, psychoanalysis and neuroscience: they all started in the beginning of the 20th century and while phenomenology and psychoanalysis experienced a decline, neuroscience evolved conquering a privileged role among sciences. This connection cannot be ignored and deserves attention in order to remind us that there is the possibility that new epistemological strategies can be balanced differently, or at least to make us realize that the scientific model we are currently on can represent a prejudice that becomes an obstacle.

In short, the book's proposal is on one hand to approach both the unconscious (psychoanalysis) and conscious (phenomenology) processes, though they are acknowledged in their difference, sustaining that both disciplines along with its main concepts can benefit from it; and on the other hand, to sustain that both psychoanalysis and phenomenology should, together, claim its place among nowadays science asserting their own scientific ground. I did not dwell on the strategy the author follows in order to do this but I can say, very shortly, that after showing how Freud constructed his concept of unconscious (psychoanalysis main feature) around his libido/ sexual drive theory, Karlsson states that the theory is not a theoretical construction, it is instead a theory that has arisen from a lived-experience, analyzed during Freud's clinical practice, that finds its correspondence in a model, conceived afterwards, and not in an actual sexual drive connected to an individual's sexual experience. Then, Karlsson approaches Freud's difficult essay "Beyond the Pleasure Principle" (1920) that questions the dynamic of the relation between the libido and the apparently incomprehensible tendency to repeat something unpleasurable, in order to better understand the relation between the libido and the unconscious.

Considering all of the above, I think Gunnar Karlsson's book is a powerful attempt to break two main prejudices that I will phrase in a positive way: 1. Psychoanalysis does not have to stand up to neurosciences' demands, it has its own theoretical reasoning -- and phenomenology can help grounding them; 2. Phenomenology is different than existential phenomenology and it is possible to go back to its origins, Husserl, that proves to be an author that still has a lot to offer if not fully subjected to other disciplines demands (as it happens most times in the cognitive sciences model).

Karlsson's effort is therefore to give psychoanalysis back to psychoanalysis strengthening it's theoretical field by claiming its independence and ability to sustain according to its own principles. Though one may not share his views and approach, to the ones that do Gunnar Karlsson does stand up to his book title providing a fortunate public statement for the ones who do recognize the need to address psychoanalysis in a new light taking Husserl's phenomenology.


© 2011 Diana Soeiro


Diana Soeiro (b. 1978) works and lives and Lisbon. She is currently pursuing her Philosophy PhD thesis "Colour as shelter; Architecture as care" at the New University of Lisbon.


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