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American Imago 58.3 (2001) 649-684

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Psychoanalysis and the Human Sciences:
The Limitations of Cut-and-Paste Theorizing

E. Virginia Demos

The continuing interest in and exploration of the significance of psychoanalysis for the human sciences seems particularly important now for several reasons. First of all, over the last two decades attacks on the validity of the basic premises of psychoanalysis have intensified, as has pressure from managed care organizations for shorter, more behavioral and/or psychopharmacological treatments of psychological symptoms. These external pressures create a real danger that psychoanalysis could be dismissed, both as a theory of human psychology that is too anachronistic and oblivious to advances in other human sciences and as a treatment modality that is too expensive, too long, and ineffective. Thus, it seems vital for psychoanalysis to reclaim and validate its essential core contribution, namely that intrapsychic unconscious dynamics are decisive in shaping human behavior and experience. In defending this "bedrock" of psychoanalytic theory, Schwaber (1992) states, "In its paradigmatic significance, it has changed the way we see the world" (1040).

Secondly, within psychoanalysis there currently seems to be enormous ferment, with multiple schools of thought proliferating, each offering competing formulations of theory and of treatment. The original split between what is now called one-person versus two-person paradigms has continued to spawn more divisions and differentiated groups. This could be seen (to borrow Erikson's [1968] terminology) as an identity crisis within the field that is creating identity diffusion that might result in dysfunction and collapse of the profession. Certainly, some recent trends could be read as signs of decline, e.g., the closing of many long-term, psychodynamically oriented treatment centers, the difficulty of recruiting doctoral-level candidates for psychoanalytic institutes, the scarcity of [End Page 649] psychoanalytic patients, the proliferation of different standards for training and treatment, etc. On the other hand, (again staying with Erikson's terminology) all crises provide opportunities for growth and change. Thus, the current situation could represent a necessary phase of disorganization to make possible the emergence of a new, creative reorganization. This, then, might be an important time to engage in more crosstalk between these disparate groups (as is happening in some psychoanalytic institutes, where all courses are cotaught by instructors holding different points of view) to facilitate a reexamination of the basic issues and tensions between one-person and two-person paradigms, with a goal of assessing which concepts can and cannot be integrated, as well as which ones can and cannot be retained or reformulated in the light of current scientific knowledge in other human sciences.

Thirdly, there are signs that real dialogues have begun between some branches of psychoanalysis (primarily those embracing a two-person framework) and other human sciences, e.g., developmental psychology, cognitive psychology, attachment theory, the neurosciences, and the nonlinear, dynamic systems models coming out of mathematics and physics. By real dialogues I mean that the possibility for mutual enhancement and influence appears to be at hand. The potential benefits for psychoanalysis are enormous and could include, to mention only a few possibilities, an essential reformulation of its neurological and biological base, as well as the acquisition of methodological tools for demonstrating therapeutic processes and treatment effects. But the influence of psychoanalytic concepts on other human sciences is also occurring in bringing to bear a sophisticated understanding of the complexity and multiple influences on the contents of the mind, showing the need to differentiate processes within the brain to account for nonconscious as well as dynamically unconscious phenomena, enriching the exploration of the form and function of dreams, and understanding the persistence of early learning, etc.

I am therefore delighted to have the opportunity to participate in this special issue, launching the new editorship [End Page 650] of Peter Rudnytsky of American Imago. My contribution is in some respects an updating of an earlier paper (1992) I wrote for a similar effort, sponsored by the American Psychological Association nearly a decade ago, that appeared in a volume entitled The Interface Between Psychoanalysis and Psychology. My...


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