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Robbins, A.D. (1989). Harry Stack Sullivan—Neo-Freudian or Not?. Contemp. Psychoanal., 25:624-640.

(1989). Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 25:624-640

Harry Stack Sullivan—Neo-Freudian or Not?

Arthur David Robbins, Ph.D.

SULLIVAN IS FREQUENTLY prejudged, and then dismissed as being "neo-Freudian" by detractors, and unfortunately, by some admirers as well. People assume that his ideas are a continuation and an elaboration of Freud's, and that the two writers share a common set of assumptions. It is implied that the best way to understand Sullivan is to start by reading Freud, and that Sullivan is a derivative rather than an original thinker. The alternative view—that Sullivan represents a fresh and independent start, as well as a viable alternative to Freudianism—has not been given the serious consideration it deserves. Yet, as Helen Swick Perry observes, referring to the relationship between Sullivan and Freud, "It is academic to set their thinking in opposition: They came out of different societies …" (1962, p. xii). Or, to quote Sullivan himself, "Our psychiatry emerged here in the particular setting of our national life …" (1940, p. 176). It can be argued that what is most significant about Sullivan's contribution—his definition of personality in terms of interpersonal relations—has its roots deep in the American intellectual tradition of social humanism, a philosophy which embodies American thought in its most original form and owes its origins to America's unique political heritage. Once placed within this context, the argument that Sullivan is simply an offshoot of the Freudian school of thought is considerably more difficult to support.

Belief in the social nature of truth and human individuality is typical of the social humanist viewpoint which Sullivan represents. Basing its optimism in the strength of the individual to realize his human potential and achieve self-fulfillment in the context of his social setting, social humanism is a philosophy of change and movement, function and process.

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