One of the post-Freudian developments that I find most interesting is Ego Psychology. Freud focused his attention on the Id, and on the Superego – on the unconscious. But the developmental stages of the Ego are also an important subject for investigation, and a number of theorists, most notably Erik Erikson, made major contributions to this branch of psychoanalytic theory. I knew Erikson back in ’59-’61. He was at Harvard then, as was I, and through David Riesman, whom I came to know pretty well, I met Erikson. Riesman, Erikson, and I, along with lots of others, were part of an anti-war nuclear disarmament group called the Committees of Correspondence, a name we took from a Revolutionary War era organization. The young Teaching Fellows who assisted him in his courses adored him, but I found him rather distant and hard to get to know. [This was, for me, a time when, for a brief period, I had a number of older scholars in my life whom I looked up to and on whom I could model myself – Riesman, Erikson, Marcuse, Moore, among others. Not a bad collection of role models.]
Erikson’s greatest work, to my way of thinking, is Childhood and Society, published in 1950. When I met him Erikson was only 57 or so, but he seemed ancient to me. It was Erikson, by the way who coined the phrase “identity crisis” to describe the stage of development through which teenagers go. What was distinctive about Erikson’s work was his attempt to identify a series of turning points in emotional and psychological development that occur at every stage along life’s way, well after the early stages of psychosexual development identified by Freud. Erickson argued that each of these stages presented psychological challenges that, if not met successfully, could result in functional and emotional deformations similar to the familiar neurotic dysfunctions rooted in the oral, anal, and phallic stages of early childhood development. Erikson also attempted fascinating cross-cultural comparisons between the characteristic ways in which European and American cultures organize the passage through the earliest developmental stages and the quite different ways in which this is done, for example, in some of the cultures of Native Americans of the Northwest Pacific region.
Finally, I ought at least to mention a form of therapy emerging from the branch of Psychology known as Behavioral Psychology [associated most famously with B. F. Skinner], which in effect treats the person as a recipient of inputs – positive and negative reinforcement, as it came to be called – and a producer of behavioral outputs, a black box, so to speak. Behavioral Psychology makes no claims at all about what happens “inside” the person between the inputs and the outputs. It hypothesizes that one can achieve alterations in self-defeating or dysfunctional behavior simply by altering the schedule of inputs, the recipe and positive and negative reinforcements, without attempting to interpret the meaning of those behaviors, without construing neurotic symptoms as a form of communication, as psychoanalysis does. My favorite trivial example of this is the parlor trick that undergraduate Harvard and Radcliffe students of Skinner devised. They would go to a party and single out some poor shlub sitting alone on a sofa. Each time he did some particular thing, such as putting his hand to his ear, they would all smile at him. The idea was to see whether by this schedule of positive reinforcements, they could condition him to put his hand to his ear over and over again, like a pigeon pecking at a button. I do not think one can hold this against Skinner! I may simply be out of the loop, but it is my impression that Behavioral Modification has gone out of style. If I am wrong, perhaps a knowledgeable reader of this tutorial will correct me.
And now, a word from our critics. Freud’s theories, and the treatment method he devised on the basis of them, have come in for some excoriating criticism, needless to say. Before I go on to the serious criticisms, let me dispose of one right away that rests on a misunderstanding. Some people say that Freudian psychoanalysis is a pseudo-science, a closed epistemological loop, incapable of empirical conformation or disconfirmation, and they find the patent imperviousness to criticism with which supposed “Freudians” present their “explanations” simply infuriating.
Student A suggests, in a social situation, that Student B is worried about his ability to perform sexually with women. Student B says, “No, I really am not.” “Ah,” says Student A, who features himself an armchair psychoanalyst, “you are in denial.” “I am quite unaware of such feelings,” says Student A, feeling a bit annoyed by Student A’s manner. “You see,” says Student A with an air of smug self-congratulation, “you are being defensive. You have obviously repressed those feelings, perhaps because of an unresolved Oedipus Complex. That just proves that I am right.” Short of punching Student A in the snout, what is Student B to do?
This parody of the psychoanalytic method springs from a fundamental misunderstanding of the way in which an analyst attempts to get at and bring to light repressed wishes, despite the force of resistance with which the mind [the Censor, as I called it earlier] tries to keep certain contents of the unconscious concealed. This is a complicated subject, so I am going to give an example instead of trying to elaborate an all-encompassing account. I will rely in the reader to grasp my meaning.
Let us suppose that in the context of an analytic session, the analyst asks the patient to associate to the several elements of a dream that the patient has reported. The patient starts to voice a stream of associations, and then abruptly stops. The analyst waits for a while, and finally quietly suggests that the patient continue. The patient snaps at the analyst, “I am sorry if you are disappointed, but that is all that comes to mind. Do you want me to make something up just to keep you happy?” The analyst may conclude that she has encountered resistance, and may speculate that this resistance arises because the associations have led the patient close to an idea, an image, or a wish that the patient finds too dangerous to acknowledge. On another occasion, the analyst asks the same patient to associate to the elements of a dream that the patient has reported, and the patient, after smoothly and seemingly effortlessly producing a stream of associations, finally falls silent, and says mildly, “That seems to be all that comes to mind.” This time, the analyst may conclude that the train of associations has simply run out, as all such trains do eventually, and that no resistance is being manifested – hence that there probably is not some dangerous unconscious thought perilously close to being revealed.
Obviously, it takes training, patience, experience, and sensitivity to draw this sort of distinction, just as it takes a combination of ability, training, and experience to enable a research laboratory scientist to distinguish between an important experimental anomaly and just some glitch in the equipment. A skilled luthier [someone who makes stringed instruments] can tell, by picking up a piece of wood, flexing it, plucking at it with a thumbnail, and even smelling it, whether or not it will make a good back of a violin. I cannot do that, needless to say, but the luthier is not claiming to have magical powers when he tests a piece of wood. He is simply exhibiting the result of long training, experience, and some native talent.
All of us judge other people in this manner. Sometimes we call it “reading their body language.” If we are sensitive observers of the human comedy, we pay close attention to a clenched jaw, a forced smile, the impatient tapping of a foot, to discern feelings and beliefs that the subject may not be willing to acknowledge, and indeed of which the subject may not even be aware. I once heard Bruno Bettelheim say, in response to Sidney Hook’s objection that every thing Bettleheim was imputing to Freud had already been done by Shakespeare or Dostoyevsky, “Yes, Shakespeare did it, and Dostoyevsky did it, but Freud taught us to do it.” He might have added, “and Freud managed to develop a full-scale theoretical model of the human mind within which to make sense of these interpretative abilities that he taught us how to acquire.”
A really serious objection to Psychoanalytic Theory, associated in my mind most closely with the philosopher of science Adolph Grunbaum, is that psychoanalytic theory either cannot be disconfirmed by observation, or else has not been systematically tested by controlled experiments. The first objection, as I have already suggested, is based on a misunderstanding. The theory underlying psychoanalysis certainly can be disconfirmed by observation [or experiment], even though one cannot directly observe the unconscious. [That is obviously no objection to atomic physics.] Relief of symptoms is not the only evidence, but it is clearly crucially important, just as relief of symptoms is centrally important to a test of any other medical procedure. Psychoanalysis, like Marxian economics, has developed in some circles into a quasi-religious cult. I have no patience for that sort of thing when it comes to evaluating the theories of Marx [as readers to a previous tutorial know], and I am no more sympathetic to it in the case of psychoanalysis. The Marx-ideologues had great big supposedly “Marxist” countries to point to, and the Freud-ideologues have a large branch of professional medicine to point to, but neither is a substitute for some hard evidence.
A second group of criticisms of Freud have it that he got the emotional life of women dead wrong, that he got homosexuality dead wrong, and that generally speaking he was a prisoner of his culture, his class, and his location in history. As I have already indicated, I think all three of these criticisms are correct, although the third is remarkably ungenerous. All of us are prisoners of our culture, our class, and our location in history [and of our gender and sexual orientation too, for that matter.] There are really very few thinkers of whom I am aware who struggled more successfully than Freud against those constraints.
One of the measures of Freud’s success is that so many of the revolutionary claims he advanced are now treated as self evident truths [something that, in a different context, can also be said of Marx.] Who among us doubts the reality of the unconscious, of repression, of infant sexuality, of the thought processes of displacement, projection, and sublimation?
But what of psychoanalysis, which I think he probably considered his most important contribution to medicine? On that, despite my own valuable experience with it, I must in all honesty say that the reviews are mixed and the evidence indecisive. It may be that drug therapy will entirely replace “the talking cure,” and the prescription pad will take the place of the analytic couch. Eventually, a high speed computer will pass the Turing test, and we will all forget about the inner life of the mind. By then I will probably have gone to such reward as is vouchsafed for belligerent atheists.
And at last, to quote Portnoy’s analyst, “Let us begin.”