Applied psychoanalysis?

In my experience, there is a commonly held view in clinical circles that the only people entitled to call themselves ‘psychoanalysts’ are those individuals who have a case load; that is, they see patients/clients/analysands for some form of psychoanalytic treatment.  Of course, it’s actually more complicated than this because one may be seeing patients, and a great many of them, but still not be in the position of analyst.  Leaving this to one side for the time being, the point I’m getting at here is that the idea of a psychoanalysis as a clinical practice runs deep.

This is in spite of the fact that almost from its inception there have been continual attempts (some more successful than others) to apply psychoanalysis to fields well beyond the clinic.  And, of course, Freud himself was not averse to this concept; some of his most important papers, including Civilisation and its Discontents, The Future of an Illusion, Totem and Taboo, and Moses and Monotheism, are examples of such ‘applied psychoanalysis’.

But isn’t all psychoanalysis ‘applied’ in the sense of engaging with a subject?  Such a ‘subject’ could be a patient suffering from neurosis; or equally it could be a work of art or literature.  This may be true in principle, but as I indicated above, most clinicians would scoff at the idea that a ‘psychoanalysis’ of a painting or even of the biography of someone long dead, is even remotely on a par with an analysis of a ‘real’, living human being who is experiencing some form of psychopathology.

Interestingly, though, it wasn’t always like this.  Up until about 1914 or thereabouts, the ‘founding fathers’ of psychoanalysis, including Freud, Jung and Ferenczi, were as much interested in the social and cultural applications of psychoanalysis as they were its clinical ones.  However, at some point after this period something seems to have changed and the idea that the only ‘real’  or ‘pure’ psychoanalysis is clinical practice started to cement itself.

Caio Padovan and Vinicius Darriba explore this distinction between ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ psychoanalysis in their paper The notion of applied psychoanalysis in the early years of the psychoanalytic movement.1  The authors begin by making a distinction between ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ science, making reference to the work of Koyré. ‘Pure’ in this context relates to theory, whilst ‘applied’ appears to relate to some rather ill-defined notion of ‘practice’.2

[q]With regards to the use of the terms ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ in psychoanalysis, the authors point out that in the early days (broadly speaking pre-1914) the founding fathers (Freud, Ferenczi, et al) made the distinction between ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ on the basis of psychoanalysis as science and psychoanalysis as practice. And more specifically, psychoanalysis applied to medical problems (psychopathologies). They were also very interested in seeing how the knowledge that emerged from the clinic could be ‘applied’ in other fields, notably in the arts and humanities. Much of this material came to be published in the Central Journal for Psychoanalysis (Zentralblatt für Psychoanalyse) and in the Imago journal.

An important distinction that the authors emphasise are the two different meanings of the term ‘applied’, even within the field of medicine itself:

…under the title application of psychoanalysis to medicine, it is possible to think of at least two application dimensions, the one regarding the technique as an application of psychoanalysis and another one, regarding the application of theory to practice per se. This is an important distinction, as it warns us about the existence of two different movements, which, by chance, are gathered under the same designation of application. The first of them regards the very exercise of psychoanalysis, which is marked by the use of a technique. The second one concerns the application of knowledge extracted from that exercise to situations which at first could be seen as foreign to psychoanalysis, as was the case of the clinical aspects of psychoses in the first decade of the 20th century.3

It should be noted here that technique is not necessarily the application of theory; in fact, a great deal of psychoanalytic technique appears to be have been developed without the aid of theory, and was more of case of experimenting with ‘what works’.  And in fact, even today this is often the case.  However, I think the critical point about this passage is that it reminds us that psychoanalytic knowledge (theory)  was originally formulated within the field of medicine, and more specifically within the framework of treating psychopathology (and especially the neuroses).   But this immediately creates a problem because the theory is essentially a theory of the clinic of the neuroses.  This means that even in its ‘pure’, theoretical state, such knowledge is always already ‘applied’; it is ‘grounded’ in the clinic of the neuroses.  However, it does not follow that such a ‘grounded’ theory cannot be put to use in a different context, including within the medical field itself, as noted by the authors in their reference to the psychoses.  I will come back to this point later.

Interestingly, Miller refers in his paper Contradictions to Psychoanalytic Treatment to the fact that, strictly speaking, the many varieties of psychoanalytic treatments that exist today are all forms of ‘applied psychoanalysis’.4 This is because they all represent deviations, in one way or another, from an ‘ideal’ form of psychoanalysis that Miller defines as ‘pure’:

What are we to understand here by ‘pure psychoanalysis’? It is psychoanalysis conceived as a  treatment of a paramedical order, which aims at a cure, or even ‘normality’, and proceeds by way of an  average of five sessions per week, and as Glover says, ‘for a period of one and a half to two years’5

Of course, and as Miller immediately recognises, since 1954 (the period he was referring to, and in reality almost from the beginning of psychoanalysis) this idealised version of analysis has been compromised. But what’s interesting here, I would argue, is the idea that ‘applied’ does not necessarily or only imply an application of psychoanalytic theory to fields outside of the clinic of psychopathology.  Rather, it can refer to ‘deviations’ of an idealised version of psychoanalytic practice within such a field.

Coming back to the concept of ‘applied psychoanalysis’ in its broader sense, that is, of applying psychoanalytic theory to non-clinical fields, as Padovan and Darriba note in their paper, Freud and his colleagues were only too keen to apply the psychoanalytic approach to the humanities and what we would now call the social sciences.  However, for Freud in particular, some of his colleagues were a bit too keen, and were prone to wild speculation and ‘interpretation’ when it came to ‘analysing’ a work of art, or a particular artist or author.  However, and as Padovan and Darriba point out, Freud himself was also prone to such ‘wild analyses’, and they cite his own self-criticism of his paper The Moses of Michelangelo. They go on to note that:

Unlike a clinical psychoanalysis, a psychoanalysis applied to the arts and to  artists, even one that had a large literature of reference,  would always be limited to the observation of a mute work  of art. In that sense, research that is said to be applied, even though strictly, could easily dive into an endless speculative chain, as an investigation of that type would not allow for the same interaction found in the clinical practice  between an analyst and a patient, who are able to speak  and listen.6

But what strikes me about this observation, which the authors return to later in their paper, is not that such analyses are somehow ‘fake’ or ‘not proper analysis’, but rather that the subjects of such analyses present some very difficult challenges for the analyst, and not least the fact that they cannot ‘answer back’, so to speak.  Padovan and Darriba reemphasise this point when making a further observation on Freud’s analysis of Michelangelo’s Moses:

In that sense, we may understand that the application  of psychoanalysis as a means to produce knowledge cannot  be seen as an unquestionable procedure, even though such  thing can be done in a careful manner. Even though the details in marble of Michaelangelo’s Moses can reveal something regarding its maker,  (they) are mute and cannot be compared  with the vivacity of a slip a psychoanalyst has access to in  his clinic. Conversely, the recognition of psychoanalytic  concepts in an applied context, whether it is a work of art, a  myth, or a biography, can be an instrument for the transmission of psychoanalysis, illustrating amidst a still-life picture  what could be the case in speaking subjects.7

The final paragraph in this quote is particularly interesting because it suggests that in spite of all the difficulties of ‘applying’ psychoanalysis to fields such as art and literature, there is still a ‘transmission’ of psychoanalysis taking place.  Furthermore, is it actually the case that such subjects as Michelangelo’s Moses are, in fact, ‘mute’?  This is to suggest that works of art and literature do not have a voice, that they do not speak to us.  Clearly this is nonsense; of course they do!   Perhaps we just need to have ears to hear what they are saying.

In fact, perhaps we could turn the whole argument upside down and say that clinical practice presents the analyst with more obstacles than those encountered in non-clinical environments.  And the very fact that the analysand does speak is one of the key ones.  What I’m getting at here is the fact that, contrary to some popular perceptions of psychoanalysis, speech is often the problem, especially when there’s too much of it.  As Lacan would put it, a great deal of talk in analysis is ‘empty speech’, or to put it more unkindly, is just ‘blah blah’.  The work of analysis is not to extract the ‘meaning’ of the analysand’s speech, but rather to cut through it, and to bring the analysand to a place of speechlessness, in the sense of reaching the limits of meaning.  Or as Miller put it, the aim of analysis is to bring the subject back to his or her elementary signifiers.8 Another way of looking at this is to say that much of the work of analysis is about filtering-out the ‘noise’ of the analytic conversation.   With a work of art or literature one might argue that much of this work of filtering-out has already been accomplished.

I want to conclude by coming back to the idea of a ‘pure’ versus ‘applied’ psychoanalysis.  Earlier I cited Miller’s paper on contraindications to psychoanalytical treatment, and focused on his reference to Glover’s ‘ideal’ type of psychoanalysis as ‘pure’ psychoanalysis.  Now, I’m sure that Miller was deliberately using this as a caricature, because as he was well aware, even in its early days, psychoanalysis never adhered to this ‘ideal’.  But it does raise an important question: if we are going to talk about a ‘pure’ psychoanalysis (and use the term ‘pure’ in the sense of analytic practice rather than theory), then what is our ‘baseline’?   At what point in the history of psychoanalysis can it said to have been ‘pure’?  It certainly wasn’t in the time of Freud’s Studies on Hysteria because at that time psychoanalysis was still being invented (and it could be argued that it has been continuously ever since).  And once others joined the fray, so to speak, then the concept of a ‘baseline’ effectively went out of the window.  But if we cannot realistically pin down ‘pure’ psychoanalysis, then from what is ‘applied’ psychoanalysis deviating?

Of course, this problem is resolved once we think of ‘pure’ in terms of theory and ‘applied’ in terms of applying the theory.  In this sense all psychoanalytic practice, clinical and non-clinical, is ‘applied’.  The only difficulty with this argument, which I touched on earlier, is the fact that the theory emerged from clinical practice, and more specifically, in the clinic of the neuroses.  This might suggest that such ideas are not ‘transferable’, even within the wider clinical field itself, let alone outside of it.  And this, of course, is what some ‘purist’ analysts have argued over the years.  However, the fact that a theory of the psyche originally emerged within a particular setting does not mean that such ideas are not applicable in other areas.  Furthermore, it does not follow that such ideas are only ‘pure’ within a particular clinical environment, and are somehow ‘contaminated’ once they are moved into another setting.  All it means is that such ideas may need to be ‘applied’ in a different way.

  1. Caio Padovan and Vinicius Darriba (2016) ‘The notion of applied psychoanalysis in the early years of the psychoanalytic movement’, Psicologia USP, 27 (1), pp. 104–114. []
  2. Presumably technology could be defined as ‘applied science’. []
  3. Ibid p.107, emphasis in original. []
  4. Miller, J.-A. (2003) Contraindications to Psychoanalytical Treatment. London Society of the NLS. []
  5. ibid, p.2 []
  6. op cit, p.109 []
  7. ibid, p.111 []
  8. Miller, J.-A. (2007) ‘Interpretation in Reverse’, in: Véronique Voruz and Bogdan Wolf (eds.) The Later Lacan: An Introduction. State of New York: Sunny Press, pp. 3–9. []