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Perry, H.S. (1999). Sullivan's Search for a Rational Psychotherapy. Contemp. Psychoanal., 35:373-394.

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(1999). Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 35(3):373-394

Sullivan's Search for a Rational Psychotherapy

Helen Swick Perry

In A World Torn By Intense Strife and confronted with the uncanny appearance of a reality-based world-disaster psychosis in our young children, the psychotherapist must rationally consider himself in possession of significant data that can be mobilized for use in a preventive way at the highest levels of official decisions, whether in local government, at a national level, or at the United Nations, for instance. The painstaking work required of a conscientious psychotherapist must be reported in the literature at a level that can make a difference in the actual well-being and survival of our world.

It was this task that Sullivan set for himself in the late 1940s. At that time, many of his psychiatric colleagues felt that his attempt was grandiose. As of now, it is clear that he was foresighted, and that any of us who have any special skills in anticipating the tensions that cause trouble between people and war between nations must use those skills in new and daring ways. To do so, however, requires that we base our efforts on a careful analysis of what is the fundamentally rational basis of our knowledge and our skills.

Central to this task was, for Sullivan, the method of psychiatry, participant observation. The concept of participant observation seems to have been first developed among social scientists at the University of Chicago; at least, that seems to be the way that it moved into Sullivan's thinking. In truth, this concept places psychiatry and psychotherapy within the broad range of social science in America; yet the kind of participant observation used by psychotherapists is per se of a different intensity from that used by field observers in cultural anthropology, for instance, or by social scientists observing ward structure in the mental hospital. In order to make a science out of psychiatry — using the term in a general


The Second Annual Erwin Singer Memorial Lecture, presented for the Psychoanalytic Society and the New York University Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis, New York City, April 23, 1983.

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