Open minds open doors

September 10, 1999

Psychoanalysis merits academic attention for its insights into the subjective business of learning, argues Joseph Schwartz

One of the most astonishing features of Freud's achievement was his creation of a professional discipline lying entirely outside established institutions. Although the situation is changing slowly, with psychoanalysis finding scattered homes within UK universities, the relative isolation of psychoanalysis from the world of higher education has meant that the extraordinary developments in the field over the past 20 years have largely gone unnoticed.

Recent public discussion about psychoanalysis and psychotherapy has been dominated by concern that psychoanalysis is unscientific. This fear is another expression of science's movement away from its 19th-century grandeur as an accessible source of understanding about the world towards its current bureaucratic status as a voice of authority and legitimacy.

Psychoanalysis is not authoritative. Its focus is the human subject and human subjectivity. In a culture that has reified objectivity - turning objectivity into a thing instead of seeing it as the outcome of the complex process of the formation of consensus views - human subjectivity is seen as something to be avoided. We strive to be objective. We must never be subjective. Such a culture was never going to embrace psychoanalysis as the science of human subjectivity. As a result, a lot has been missed and not understood.

The analytic hour is an instrument analogous to the telescope or microscope. And psychoanalysis is the discipline devoted to developing an understanding of human subjectivity as it is revealed in the protected space of the analytic hour. What has been discovered?

The disciplined engagement with the real world for the express purpose of understanding that is modern western science has resulted in the replacement of medieval views with more intimate knowledge of the natural world. The telescope led to the abandonment of an Earth-centred universe. The microscope led to an abandonment of vitalism and to an understanding of the cellular basis of all life.

The analytic hour, in turn, has led to a challenge to one of the most deeply held modern myths about human individuality - the myth of Man Alone, of individual achievement, of an independence that rests on a denial of human relational needs. It follows in the tradition of the great liberating accomplishments of western science, where the liberation consists of a liberation from fantasy, a recognition of the material realities of the world in which we live.

In an evolution of theory first explicitly stated in the 1940s by the Scottish psychoanalyst Ronald Fairbairn, the human being is seen to have a fundamental drive towards relationships. Freud's view of the individual as being fundamentally pleasure-seeking is turned on its head. In Fairbairn's understanding, pleasure-seeking is a result of the deterioration -the not-good-enoughness - of interpersonal relationships.

More clinical experience, studies of hospitalised children, attachment research and new techniques of infant observation lead to a picture of the absolute centrality of human relational needs for the very creation of the human being. People matter to each other.

The fundamental human anxiety is separation anxiety stemming from inadequate attachments. The most profound psychopathology/ mental distress is annihilation anxiety - the threat of destruction of the self. Our mental health depends on the availability of good-enough relationships. And although it can sound familiar to say that the human being is a social being, it is psychoanalysis that has understood what sociality consists of and has understood what happens when it is absent or deficient. Psychoanalysis has provided the intimate knowledge of what happens in the psyche, in the human inner world, when relationships go wrong.

Applications of the perspectives and techniques pioneered within psychoanalysis are now routine. Among these are the focus groups of modern electioneering politics, where what is of interest is how the electorate feels rather than what it thinks. Political scientists have taken up the issues of emotional literacy. And the methods of group analysis have been applied effectively in dealing with maths anxiety, in a technique that makes explicit the emotional, subjective components that are an integral part of the learning process.

A century-long historical process has placed human subjectivity high on the cultural agenda. Psychoanalysis, via the instrument of the psychoanalytic hour, offers a possible base from which to explore and to develop an understanding of the inner dynamics of human subjective experience of the world. This is its claim to scientific and academic interest.

Joseph Schwartz is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist. His latest book is Cassandra's Daughter: A History of Psychoanalysis in Europe and America, published last month by Allen Lane.

* Should psychoanalytic degrees and diplomas be more widely available in universities? Email us on

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.


Featured jobs