Friday, January 7, 2011

Sciences of the mind -- and of society

One can still find Freudians in the ranks of American psychiatrists, but you wouldn't know it from reading Eli Zaretsky's review (in Perspectives on Politics, Sept. 2010, pp. 940-41) of Kurt Jacobsen's Freud's Foes: Psychoanalysis, Science and Resistance (2009).

Zaretsky, author of Secrets of the Soul: A Social and Cultural History of Psychoanalysis (2004), manages both to tell a story and to make an argument, which is quite a feat for a two-page book review. The story is this: Once upon a time, there was psychoanalysis, "an intervention in the long-standing modern project of understanding the human mind." It drew on nineteenth-century brain neurology, but also Enlightenment philosophy, literature, and Darwin, among other sources. Psychoanalysis, Zaretsky says, was "a genuinely new, unified, and brilliant theory":
This theory was scientific -- a new science -- but a science of a particular character, one that studied the mind not as one studies chemical or geological phenomena, that is from the outside, but rather from within, as part of a process of self-study.... [P]sychoanalysis was a critical theory, a Wissenschaft, and not a natural science per se, although it contained natural science elements.
Psychoanalysis lost "its critical dimensions" in the U.S. when it "became part of psychiatry, and in that way became part of an official system of power/knowledge...." Then came the assault on American psychoanalysis that began in the 1970s and was carried on by an odd alliance of big drug companies, feminists, and the gay rights movement. The "decimation of psychoanalysis" can be seen as "a vanguard maneuver, initiating a long period of corporate rationalization in every area of the economy." Needless to say, the result, according to Zaretsky, was not good:
The destruction of a supposedly malevolent past was accompanied by the creation of a set of new gods, new ways of thinking about the mind. These, however, lacked the element of self-reflection that had been critical to psychoanalysis. According to the new worldview, we can know the mind objectively by understanding the chemistry, neurology, and physiology of the brain.... If we have a disturbing thought or a strange dream, we could speculate that it's a wrinkle in the amygdala or a bit of protein imbalance in the hypothalamus, but we really don't have to because a doctor can adjust the chemical mix for us; self-reflection ("navel gazing") belongs to a previous epoch. What drops out of the new dispensation is not only self-reflection, but any general approach to the problem of human motivation, that is, to a dynamic theory of the psyche, the very quality that had distinguished psychoanalysis from the brain psychiatries that preceded it.
OK. Deep breath. What is my problem with this? It's not about Freud. I'm willing to stipulate that Freud was a brilliant thinker (he made some rather weird forays into speculative social theory, but that's another story). No, the problem is not Zaretsky's positive view of Freud; the problem is that he is determined to link the quarrel between psychoanalysis and its critics to the broader question of how to do 'science' and to "the need to restore the line...between the kinds of questions that can be answered in a causal and deterministic manner, and the kind that require self-reflection, democratic deliberation and cultural exploration." So intent is he on making this argument that Zaretsky neglects to mention that some people who suffer from serious mental illness actually have been helped by drugs (or pharmacological therapies, if you prefer). Has there been misuse and overuse of drugs? Undoubtedly, but that doesn't undermine the point.

Zaretsky's review poses, implicitly if not explicitly, a false choice: either
pharmacology or psychoanalysis; and, by extension, either science from the outside or science from the inside. But we do not have to choose, and we should not choose. We can have both drug therapies and talking therapies; both a science of causal explanation and a science of interpretive understanding. (Max Weber's definition of sociology encompassed both.) Each approach has its place, whether we're talking about the sciences of the mind or the sciences of society. The trick (easier said than done!) is knowing what that place is, and what each is good for.

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