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Imber, R.R. (1984). Reflections on Kohut and Sullivan. Contemp. Psychoanal., 20:363-380.

(1984). Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 20:363-380

Reflections on Kohut and Sullivan

Ruth R. Imber, Ph.D.

THE CLINICAL AND THEORETICAL innovations of Heinz Kohut have generated much controversy in present day psychoanalysis. By some he is praised, by others denigrated; while still others claim he has nothing new to contribute. Wachtel (1982) for instance, recently wrote that Sullivan and colleagues already have "covered much the same ground" (p. 266). This paper will examine this assertion by exploring some similarities and differences between Kohut and Sullivan, first in terms of their theoretical contributions, and secondly, with regard to clinical issues.

There is an inherent difficulty in comparing and contrasting systems of thought which utilize different terminology and frames of reference. One cannot simply translate concepts from one into the other without losing a good deal in the translation. Sullivan rejected Freudian language because he did not want people to assume they knew what he meant when he described his ideas of personality development. This has resulted in his often being far less accessible (or even intelligible), than one might wish. Kohut for years retained Freudian language even when he no longer meant what the terminology had implied originally. Mitchell (1979) has elaborated on this problem in Kohut's work. However, for the purpose of this study some liberties have been taken and some efforts at translation will be made.

Kohut has been accused of not giving credit to his theoretical predecessors. In the introduction to his second book (1977) he seeks to mollify his critics by listing all those investigators whom he acknowledges came before him, and to whom he is indebted. But, while Carl Rogers and Erik Erikson made the list, no mention was made of Harry Stack Sullivan. In fact, Kohut seemed careful to dissociate his ideas from those of Sullivan and the interpersonal school of psychoanalysis (1951), (1959).

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