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Burston, D. (2002). Embracing the Impossible Profession. Psychoanal. Rev., 89(4):465-483.

(2002). Psychoanalytic Review, 89(4):465-483

Embracing the Impossible Profession

Daniel Burston

In a foreword to August Aichhorn's book, Wayward Youth (1925), Freud characterized psychoanalysis as an “impossible profession,” a bon mot popularized by Janet Malcolm (1983) in a book of the same name. Malcolm glamorized Freudian orthodoxy (and slammed its critics) in ways that do her no credit, but the phrase itself is apt in more ways than one. Psychoanalysis is an “impossible” profession from several points of view. To begin with, there is constant debate between the natural science-based and hermeneutic and/or humanistic versions of psychoanalysis. Though it was not apparent at the outset, perhaps, this tension is now integral to, if not in some sense constitutive of the whole Freudian field, with the result that its epistemic foundations are shaky, if not downright suspect-and not only to outsiders, either.

Another feature of the analytic field that causes interminable debate concerns the therapeutic, rather than the theoretical side of things. Leaving issues of “technique” to one side, what are the actual goals of analytic therapy? After all, technique is merely a means to an end, and unless we are clear on the ultimate objective that informs a specific procedure, we may waste our ingenuity splitting hairs, losing the proverbial forest for the trees.

Though seldom addressed by practitioners, at least to my knowledge, there is a profound tension between what I term the “philosophic” and the “instrumental” (or pragmatic) versions of psychoanalytic therapy. The philosophic view stresses the “disillusioning” function of the analytic dialogue. According to this view, only when the person relinquishes his (or her) most cherished illusions is deeper self-knowledge possible.

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