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Witenberg, E.G. (1976). To Believe or Not to Believe. J. Amer. Acad. Psychoanal., 4(4):433-445.

(1976). Journal of American Academy of Psychoanalysis, 4(4):433-445

To Believe or Not to Believe

Earl G. Witenberg

In a recent discussion of the failure of the consumer movement, Ralph Nader said, The mistake we made was to ask people to think; history belongs to those who ask others to believe.

The field of psychoanalysis illustrates, par excellence, this phenomenon. The various schools with their organization around a founder demonstrate the matter graphically. The splits are, at one level, around differing beliefs. I will attempt to show that there is serious question about the issue of whether psychoanalysis is a science given the way its theories arise; I will demonstrate that there is a split between theory and practice. And with it all, I shall iterate my belief that psychoanalysis can be a powerful therapeutic method.

Psychoanalytic theories have usually arisen in the head of one person. They have derived from experience with himself and with his patients. They have been formulated within the socio-cultural-intellectual atmosphere of his particular time. These theories are essentially belief systems that attempt to give meaning to various phenomena of behavior, thinking, affects, imagery, development, and something usually called the unconscious. Most of these belief systems have an inner integrity in their original form. They are tributes to the need in all of us to believe and to explain. Those who need to have strong beliefs and who need to believe they are correct will be orthodox. By this I mean not only orthodox Freudian but also orthodox Jungian, orthodox Adlerian, orthodox Horneyan, orthodox Sullivanian, orthodox ego psychologist, or orthodox “object-relations” person. The orthodox ones are blessed. They believe what they profess. They have an integrity which allows them to be certain in the midst of uncertainty. They can always know the “right” way — which certainly can be comforting. Never mind the ambiguities of underlying concepts, the reification of ideas, and sometimes the illogic of the premises.

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