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Hyman - A Minimalist View of Psychoanalysis

A Minimalist View of Psychoanalysis


by Marvin Hyman, Ph.D.


         Over the course of time, the psychoanalytic enterprise has been examined and discussed from a variety of aspects: therapeutic, technical, theoretical, educational, philosophical, political, organizational, biographical and historical.  Sometimes, the outcome of these discussions has resulted in the replacement of one point of view by another.  More frequently, however, the outcome has been the addition to the psychoanalytic edifice of still another layer of conceptualization and the language peculiar to it.  From this process of accretion and syncretism has risen a kind of Tower of Babel, an incoherent structure in which the component elements bear no conceptual or functional relationship to each other. Moreover, the builders of the tower each speak different languages: terms that the languages may have in common are given different definitions; and shared concepts are termed idiosyncratically and differently.  Finally, the seductive notion of "tolerance for diversity" has diluted any meaningful debate by burdening it with a politically correct concern that all points of view be given equal weight and acceptance.


Some of this has been a reaction to the dogmatic attitude that has been a characteristic of psychoanalysis from its inception.  There was a time when certain new ideas were considered heretical, and the proponents of such ideas were subjected to a process of criticism that began with gentle attempts at authoritative persuasion as to the incorrectness of the new point of view, and ended with the pronouncement that "this is not psychoanalysis" and the banishment of its advocates.

In a parallel fashion, authoritative, authoritarian, and dogmatic pronouncements about different aspects of psychoanalysis were accepted uncritically and added to the edifice solely on the basis of who had put them forward.  


The rejection of the dogmatic, however, has led to the opposite extreme: an inchoate conglomeration of conceptualizations, each conceptualization claiming to be an, if not the, essential truth of that aspect of psychoanalysis which it addresses, and perhaps all others as well.  In addition, current versions of psychoanalytic courtesy require that the conceptualization be left unchallenged and added to the conglomeration.  


In each of the aspects of the psychoanalytic enterprise that I have listed, all the activity and ferment of the past century of psychoanalytic effort has resulted in our losing sight of the few, simple notions that, I argue undogmatically, define the essence and the minima of that which is psychoanalytic.  I cannot, in this presentation, address all of the myriad aspects of psychoanalysis in which a minimalist view might be applicable.  I will limit myself today, to considering only the technical or therapeutic aspect of psychoanalysis and, within that area, only a few features of psychoanalytic technique that seem to have become obscured over the years.  


Psychoanalysis and the pathological

I would like to begin with some observations about the analysand in the psychoanalytic treatment.  In his presentation of the "Ratman" case, Freud reports that he began one analytic session with the question "And how do you intend to proceed to-day?" Inherent in that simple question is a view of the psychoanalytic analysand and the psychoanalytic situation that has since gotten lost in the attempt to make psychoanalysis the golden road to the elimination of the so-called pathologies of the mind and the psyche.  


If we label as pathological those mental processes we observe in human beings that indicate the presence of intentions of which the individual is not aware, then we are on the road to perceiving the analysand as victim.  


When phenomena such as slips of the tongue, incidents of "forgetting", and, of course, dreams, are viewed as symptoms resulting from pathological processes, then we are utilizing a model of human mental function in which the individual who experiences or reports such phenomena is perceived as the helpless casualty of forces beyond control, unable to prevent the intrusion of those forces into one's mental life and incapable of removing them.  From the employment of such a model ensues a variety of conceptualizations about analysands and their so-called psychopathology that encumbers greatly the simple process of psychoanalyzing.  Among those conceptualizations are: "real" traumas of abuse, sexual and otherwise, from the effects of which the individual has never "recovered"; arrests in development, and, therefore, in the acquisition of abilities necessary for "normal" living and mentation; genetically caused biological illnesses which leave the sufferer mentally and emotionally immpaired; "defects" in "Ego" development and structure, of whatever etiology, and their accompanying deficits in mental function, which render the individual unable to adapt to the average expectable environment and to effect adequate object relations.  


The implications of this model of human experience for the process of analyzing are enormous.  Analysis becomes something that the analyst does to and for the analysand.  Techniques have to be devised in order to deal with the psychic fragility of the individual.  The analyst has to intervene, for the analysand's good, of course, in the "realities" of the individual's life in order to provide the necessary protection from harm.  The verbalizations of the analysand are heard as descriptions of life events rather than thoughts that have come to mind.  Or, alternatively, associations are perceived as the productions of one with a diseased cortex and without communicative significance.  The interventions of the analyst are instructional, exhortatory, judgemental, benevolent, coercive, and unexamined for their psychodynamic implications.  The "relationship" between the participants in the process becomes a central focus because it is understood to be the arena of the curative process.  Since the analyst has undertaken to cure the psychopathology and to make the analysand's life better, the outcome of the remedial efforts also becomes of major concern.  


The capable analysand  


In distinct contrast to this system of belief about the analysand in psychoanalysis, we can note the implications in Freud's question, "And how do you intend to proceed today?".  In the first place, it implies that the analysand is a fully functioning, fully capable individual who is, like all human beings, experiencing discontinuties between conscious intentions and conscious realization of those intentions.  Further, the individual has concluded that the discontinuties are costly in a possible variety of ways and, therefore, need to be addressed.  Finally, by becoming a participant in the psychoanalysis, the analysand chooses to recognize that an alternative, unconscious agenda, for which she or he is fully responsible, is being pursued and which needs to be elucidated, understood, and addressed.  In these respects, then, the decision by an individual to seek out and/or enter analysis is indicative of the existence within that individual of a psychic entity that controls fully the person's psychological fate and that is responsible for whatever life decisions are made and implemented.  To that psychic entity must be accorded full acceptance of its existence, full recognition of its capabilities and capacities, and full respect for whatever choices in life the individual makes, no matter how seemingly irrational they may be.  Parenthetically, that includes the right to decide not to enter or to leave analysis.  The analysand in psychoanalysis must be deemed to have the inalienable right to be and do as human beings are and do, and to take the consequences thereof.  It is a tyrannical usurpation of the analysand's prerogatives for the analyst to assume responsibility for the analysand's life and living, even if it is done, as it usually is, in the name of benevolence.  And, most ironically, when such "benevolent" tyranny is imposed, it negates the very essence of the psychoanalytic process and situation.


 The psychic entity which determines an analysand's entrance into and participation in the analysis reveals itself and its estimable capabilities in other aspects of the analytic work.  In that work, we understand that the associations of the analysand comunicate ideas and emotions of which the analysand is aware; and other, different, even opposite ideas and emotions of which the individual is not aware.  We recognize that in every manifest communication of the analysand there are both the conscious and the unconscious messages being delivered, and that the manifest communication is selected for just that attribute.  Analysands are thus enabled to "tell what they know about themselves and don't know they know; and to do it in a way that keeps them from knowing they are doing it because they think they are talking about something else".  Freud's question to the Ratman recognized implicitly that the psychic entity would know "how to proceed to-day" in order optimally to convey that which had been chosen as important to disclose.  Further, the question recognizes that the analysand selects, without being aware of such selecting, every manifestation that appears in the analytic session in order to effect the important communication from, the unconscious.

It is one of the joys of analyzing simply to observe the creativity, ingenuity, skill, humor, and wit with which the selections are made.  These works of behavioral, particularly verbal, art are as emotionally and intellectually satisfying to encounter as any painting, poem, joke, musical composition and/or performance, or well executed athletic maneuver.  Tb view them as the product of some "pathological" process is to stand the meaning of "pathological" on its head.  But, then, standing something on its head is what psychoanalyzing is all about, is it not?  


When an interpretation is conveyed to an analysand, we might be curious about which part of the individuals psyche receives that communication.  Certainly, it cannot be the psychodynamic motivational system that requires the individual to experience only in terms of the unconscious conflicts seeking resolution.  If it is something other, then we might be encountering again that aspect of mental function (some call it the healthy or conflict-free part of the Ego; I call it George), which can be conceptualized as reflecting the extraordinary resources possessed by all analysands.

If the analyst doesn't effect change in the analysand, and the analysis doesn't either, then who or what does?  Obviously, it is the analysand who does so, perhaps using that which has been encountered in the analysis.  We may appreciate how this change, whatever it might be, is produced unconsciously by the analysand, but we cannot take responsibility for it.  Rather, we are encountering, in still another way, the wherewithal that the analysand brings to the analytic process.

I have attempted, at length, to muster the reasons why the person in analysis has to be viewed, by both participants in the enterprise, as an autonomous, fully functioning, capable individual who is there, not to be the recipient of the analyst's benevolent efforts, but rather to be a collaborator in a process which cannot proceed without such collaboration.  Once the analyst and the analysand can become unburdened of the feeling that the analyst has responsibility for the life and the present and future well being of the analysand, then the process resolves into the simple endeavor that it is and that it can only be: two individuals analyzing together.

Analysis and reality  


Analyzing together has become another facet of psychoanalysis that is weighed down by unnecessary assumptions and conceptualizations.  The most significant of these has to do with the issue of "reality".  One of the so-called pathologies from which analysands are presumed to suffer is the loss or diminution of the ability accurately to perceive, describe, interact with, or otherwise relate to reality.  The analyst, having been, by definition, designated as free from such pathology, serves, therefore, as the ultimate arbiter of the analysand's reality.  In order to perform this important task, the analyst must listen, in the analyzing work, for the analysand's lapses in relating to reality so that the analyst may correct such distortions.  Transference, in this conceptualization, is a "distortion" of the reality of the analyst's attributes and results in the distorted relationship that the analysand experiences in the situation.  Contrasted to the distorted relationship of the transference is the "real relationship" that is thought to co-exist, at times, with the distorted one. Thus, a significant part of the analyst's curative responsibilities is the effecting, through both interpretation and confrontation with reality, the elimination of those distortions which constitute the transference, thus enabling the analysand to experience the analyst, and ail other aspects of life, realistically.  


In accordance with this view of the significance of "reality" in psychoanalyzing, the analyst is required to listen to the associations in a way that will enable them to be assessed as realistic or not.  Unfortunately, engaging in such judgmental activities reduces the ability of the analyst to listen to the associations simply as communications which the analysand has chosen to present and which are relevant to the psychodynamics of the clinical moment.  Thus, listening judgementally prevents the analyst from hearing the language of the unconscious and appreciating the semiotic significance of the associations.  


Concern about reality impinges on the analytic work in still another way.  One of the recurrent controversies in psychoanalysis pertains to the nature of the so-called "traumas" which constitute the "reminiscences" from which analysands are supposed to suffer.  Freud wavered in his formulation of the "seduction hypothesis" as to whether or not the sexual experiences were "real" or "fantasied".  And, from that time forward, some analysts have made the "remembering" of what they consider etiologically significant traumatic events a central effort of the psychoanalyzing work.  We are familiar today with the raging argument that is taking place over the truth or falsity of recovered memories", which appear to be the product of pseudopsychoanalytic interventions.  


We may question, however, whether the issue of fantasy or reality has any essential relevance for psychoanalysis or for psychoanalytic technique.  One thing that we have learned from a century of psychoanalysis is the extraordinary emotional significance of fantasy in the human experience.  Phenomena that are "not real", in the common meaning of that term, impact with the same emotional intensity as the so-called real.  When one is six years old and watching Bela Lugosi portray Dracula the question of whether or not vampires are real is an academic one.  


From time to time the argument has been offered that there is a qualitative and discernible difference between psychic reactions which are caused by real traumas and those which are caused by fantasy.  It is argued further that indicators exists which can enable such a distinction to be made.  Making the distinction is presented as necessary in order accurately to diagnose and to treat, presumably because each of the caused reactions is a different entity which requires a different kind of psychoanalyzing. We can see how adopting such a viewpoint involves making judgments and determinations, which activities intrude on the listening process and by that intrusion prove the existence of the differences one is positing.  


An alternative argument is that it is impossible to ascertain the reality of an analysand's early experience because (1) the analyst was not present at the apparent moment, (2) the analysand was immersed in it, and therefore, not likely to be objective, and, finally, because reality is epistemologically impossible for anybody to know.  Thus, in an analytic situation all we can know is what was experienced, not what existed.  Therefore, truth and realities become, at the least, irrelevant to the psychoanalytic work.  What is relevant is the encounter by the participants of the experiences of the analysand that relate to the discontinuities which are studied in the analysis.

Although the philosophical significance for psychoanalysis of issues of reality and truth could be discussed at great length, a minimalist point of view is that such issues have to be eliminated from psychoanalytic technique.  Thus, the only truths and realities are those that the participants are persuaded they hear, perceive, observe, and understand in the analysis.  


Psychoanalysis and linguistics  


If psychoanalyzing is not in the service of ascertaining truth or reality, past or present, then the essence of the endeavor is the search for the semiotic and linguistic meaning inherent in the phenomena of the analytic situation.  Each word, phrase, sentence, story, image, sound and gesture is part of a language which has a vocabulary, grammar, and symbolism.  By use of that language, the analysand communicates information about the psychic content and processes ongoing at the moment, and of which content, processes, or even the fact of the communicating itself, the individual is not conscious. Thus, the analyst serves as a translator, converting the manifest presentations into a statement of the alternative., additional message that the analyst hears the analysand trying to deliver.  Freud, in the Interpretation of Dreams and other early writings, gave us the textbooks for understanding and translating that language.  


To be sure, translating is not a process of mechanical conversion; rather it is an art that parallels the creative activity of the analysand as noted and described above.  As art, the translation is not required to be true as a statement of that which exists, accurate as a statement of that which the analysand "said". “correct” as a translation from one language to another, or even the only form into which the translation can be rendered.  As such, it is not a requirement of analysis that the analysand consciously or unconsciously approve the translation, accept its accuracy, or even appreciate its merits as a work of art.  Indeed, when the translation is being presented, the translator has no way of knowing if what he is saying is what has been heard.  Recasting the foregoing into a description of the action of psychoanalyzing together, the analysand associates, the analyst listens, formulates, i.e., translates, and presents the formulation as observation to the analysand, i.e., interprets.  And then, both watch carefully to see, in Freud's words, how the analysand intends to proceed, for, in the proceeding, will appear, presumably, reactions to the interpreting that has just been done.  


Transference as theater  


In the viewpoint just presented the analysand provides everything that the analysis desires to know.  The associations, however, are not just linguistic descriptions of the psychically significant information peculiar to the individual.  The associations are, also, the means toward a theatrical enactment of the unconscious processes and their content which are ongoing at the moment.  In the metaphor of the theater, the analysand has written a script about some personally significant aspect of her or himself, produced and directed the play, representationally cast him or herself and the analyst in the production, and is, at any given moment, giving a performance, of which performance the analyst becomes a spectator.  Sometimes, also, the analyst has the experience of becoming a witting or unwitting participant in the performance, a phenomenon about which I will comment in a moment.  


What I am trying to describe is transference as a masterfully organized attempt to portray representationally an important view of the psychic conflict which is currently being experienced by the analysand, which conflict may include the experience of another in the form of the analyst.  Conceived in this way, transference is by no means a distortion of the reality of the analyst, of which reality the analysand is fully cognizant notwithstanding the apparent portrayal of the analyst as otherwise for theatrical purposes.  To conceive of transference as a distortion of reality is comparable to criticizing Shakespeare for portraying Hamlet as speaking to his father's ghost when everyone knows there are no such things as ghosts.  In analysis, psychic reality is the only reality and, in psychic reality, as in the theater, all things are possible, for the purpose of entertaining, of propagandizing, of representing other times, places, and persons, or for the purpose of making life more tolerable for oneself.  


On countertransference  


On occasion, the analyst observes, often with surprise, that she is reacting in the analysis in collaboration with the unconscious intentions of the analysand.  This may take the form of unexpected emotional reactions, parapraxes, dreams about the analysand, consciously unintended behaviors, or any of the myriad discontinuities of which human beings are capable.  As the analyst self-analyzes the discontinuities, their linkage to the psychodynamics of the analysand become apparent.  Along with the observation of such analyst reactions comes the realization of how powerfully evocative or provocative has been the associational material and the psychic motives in it.  Also, there is the recognition of the analyst's unconscious functioning as an instrument, a receiver of data from the analysand's unconscious, the reception of which data becomes known by experiencing the encounter with the discontinuity.  By studying such phenomena, the analyst obtains an additional avenue of approach to the analyzing of the associations, the unconscious motivations involved, and the transference representations of the moment.  This useful idea of the analyst's unconscious as instrument has increasingly been replaced with the notion of a ubiquitous countertransference which parallels the concept of the ubiquitous transference.  The technical implication of this development has been the growing expectation that the analyst has to be analyzed simultaneously with the analysand, and by the same analyst.  This expectation, no matter how needed or unneeded, desirable or undesirable, is impossible of fulfillment if one adheres to the analyzing method since one cannot, no matter how gifted, listen to the analysand's associations, and simultaneously, produce and listen to one's own associations.  It can be fulfilled if the methodology of analyzing is changed.  This changed methodology consists of listening to the analysand's descriptions of life and its viscissitudes and then, by a process of ratiocination, the participants "figure out" together what is going on in that life and why the vicissitudes are occurring.  In brief, they psychologize, together and individually.  By the use of that same method, the analyst can likewise figure out consciously what is going on in the countertransference.  


This view of countertransference, which, incidentally, illustrates how the Tower of Babel grew to its current size, loads the analytic work with an obviously impossible burden, one that could well be discarded without affecting in any way the power and effectiveness of the analytic method.  Also, it would spare the analysand of having to share that status with the analyst.  


Providing emotional experiences  


Analyzing together the associations and the psychodynamics of the analysand produces in both participants a trust of each other, of their respective capability to do the analytic work, and of the method to elucidate the specifics of the analysand's unconscious conflicts.  Such trust is a necessary condition for the accomplishment of the analytic work; it is not the work itself. Nor are the several conceptions that designate the emotional tone of the analyst's listening as the curative agency in the analysis.  The providing of optimal empathy or empathic attunement by the analyst or making the analysis a "corrective emotional experience" for the analysand are technically far removed from analyzing associations as a matter of linguistics.  Arranging for a certain emotional tone to be part of the analysis, assuming that it can be done, is still not analyzing.  It is, instead, a form of providing compensatory gratification for deprivations the analysand is supposed to have suffered at a time that predates the analysis.  


The alternative to such compensating is, of course, analyzing the fantasy that includes needing such compensation.  The insight thus provided enables the analysand to choose to forego that neediness since it is “recognized” to be an archaic residue of early conflict resolutions.  And, as in all such making of choices, the analysand bears the sole responsibility.  


Psychoanalysis is a powerful method for the achievement of important, but very limited objectives.  In essence, it is the means whereby we study the discontinuities of everyday life and the psychic conflict between the forces of expression and the forces of repression that are presumed to underly those discontinuities.  Over time, we have expanded unnecessarily the simple elegance of the method and the theory underlying it and, by doing so, have grossly distorted both the purpose and the power of psychoanalysis.  I urge that we reverse this trend if only to protect our enterprise from fading into parody and irrelevance.


By way of summary then, let me list briefly those conceptualizations about psychoanalytic technique that I believe can and should be discarded because they burden and distort the process.

We can divest our work of its attachment to a model of disease and pathology, to issues of strength or weakness, capacity or incapacity.  


We can cease pitying and patronizing our analysands, denying them the recognition as collaborators, and relieving them of their responsibilities in and for the analytic work.  


We can dispense with the idea that association is conversation and that skill in conversation is the essential contribution that the analyst has to make.  


We can stop expanding our view of unconscious process into a mystique of convoluted conceptualization that seem to have no counterpart in the phenomena encountered in the clinical situation.  We must resist treating speculation as fact.  


So, like my colleague Ko Ko, I have a little list.  And, like him, I believe that when the elements on the list are eliminated, they never will be missed, they never will be missed.

Abbreviated Curriculum Vita

Psychoanalytic Education
   Classes, Seminars, Tutorials and Supervision with several senior analysts, notably Siegfried Bernfeld and Richard Sterba.  Personal analysis.   Education self-directed.

Academic Appointments
    Associate Professor, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience, Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan (Retired 31, December 1998).

Organizational Positions
    Former President, International Federation for Psychoanalytic Education.
    Former President, Division of Psychoanalysis, American Psychological Association
    Former President, Psychologist-Psychoanalyst Practitioners
    Former President, Michigan Society for Psychoanalytic Psychology
    Former President, Michigan Psychological Association

Current Professional Activities
    Private Practice of Psychoanalysis, West Bloomfield, Michigan (Retired 31 December 1998)
    Faculty, Center for Psychoanalytic Studies, Michigan Society for Psychoanalytic Psychology

    Co-Author (with B.F. Auld):  Resolution of Inner Conflict:   An Introduction to Psychoanalytic Therapy