[lbo-talk] The scientific status of psychoanalysis

Jim Farmelant farmelantj at juno.com
Sat Jul 29 12:15:19 PDT 2017

The issue of the scientific status of psychoanalysis is one that has long been debated by Marxists, just as it has long been debated by non-Marxists.

In the Soviet Union, psychoanalysis flourished through the 1920's, into the early 1930's. During that period it had some powerful sympathizers like Leon Trotsky and Nikolai Bukharin, and it intrigued many Soviet psychologists and psychiatrists including the young Lev Vygotsky and the young Alexander Luria. Later, under Stalin, it was basically banned, and so remained, pretty much into the Gorbachev years. The official Soviet position became one which portrayed the work of Freud and his disciples and rivals as being unscientific and politically reactionary.

This official Soviet position contrasted with Trotsky's position which looked forward to a merger of the experimentally based psychology that Pavlov and his students had created with psychoanalysis.

In this country the CPUSA had rather interesting attitudes towards psychoanalysis. There was a current of opinion within the Party that was quite hostile towards psychoanalysis, as represented for instance in Harry K. Wells's books on Freud and Pavlov. Wells, much like the Soviets, viewed the work of Pavlov and his disciples as providing the only basis for a psychology that was both scientific and politically progressive. Freud's work was blasted by Wells as being unscientific and reactionary.

On the other hand, it was no secret that many Party members did go to psychoanalysts. In fact during the McCarthy period, the FBI turned one of these psychoanalysts into an informant for them.

Trotsky's more sympathetic view of psychoanalysis was not too different from the one that certain American behaviorists have taken, such as John Dollard and Neal Miller, in their book, Personality and Psychotherapy: An Analysis in Terms of Learning, Thinking, and Culture, or that B. F. Skinner took in his book, Science and Human Behavior. For these behaviorists, psychoanalysis was seen as providing a set of perspectives and speculations which, over time, might be integrated or absorbed into a scientific, experimentally-based psychology. In the English-speaking world, for a long time much of the debate among philosophers over the scientific status of psychoanalysis centered around the issue of falsifiability.

The issue of falsifiability turned out to be a rather complex one. Karl Popper had contended that both psychoanalysis and Marxism were not falsifiable, and hence, were of dubious scientific status. In the case of Marxism, Popper had argued that it originally was falsifiable, and, hence, scientific, when it was initially developed by Marx & Engels. But that as predictions that they had made were subsequently falsified, Marxists responded by altering the theory so that it could no longer be falsified. Therefore, Popper contended, Marxism ceased to be scientific. In the case of psychoanalysis, Popper argued that it was unfalsifiable from the get-go. Thus, it was never a real science. It is interesting to note that some Marxists have agreed with Popper on psychoanalysis, while presumably disagreeing with him concerning Marxism. Thus, Sebastiano Timpanaro in his book, The Freudian Slip, concurred with Karl Popper (and Ernst Nagel, and Sidney Hook), concerning the scientific status of psychoanalysis. In other words, he agreed with them that psychoanalysis was not falsifiable, hence, not scientific. And he proposed an alternative account to Freud's concerning phenomena like slips of the tongue that would be based on his own training in philology. This alternative account he maintained would be falsifiable, and thus, scientific.

Jim Farmelant http://independent.academia.edu/JimFarmelant http://www.foxymath.com Learn or Review Basic Math

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