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Galatzer-Levy, R.M. (1976). Psychic Energy: A Historical Perspective. Ann. Psychoanal., 4:41-61.

(1976). Annual of Psychoanalysis, 4:41-61

Psychic Energy: A Historical Perspective

Robert M. Galatzer-Levy, M.D.

Much criticism of the concept of psychic energy is based on its apparent failure to live up to the paradigm on which it is modeled, the concept of energy conservation in physics. In this paper I attempt to clarify the relationship of these two concepts in four ways. First, through historical investigation of the idea of energy in physics, the nature of the paradigm is clarified and the type of thinking involved in its formulation is described. Second, the viewpoints of vitalism and natürphilosophie are reviewed in relation to these ideas. Third, Freud's historical relationship to the paradigm is discussed. Finally, criticisms of the concept of psychic energy are reviewed in the light of these discussions. In this way it is demonstrated that many claims that the concept of psychic energy is “unscientific” are based on a narrow conception of “science”: a conception excluding from science not only psychic energy but also the early developments of energy conservation.

The approach to the problem of scientific “truth” employed in this paper differs from the popular, largely positivistic, methods used in many previous discussions, some of which will be mentioned below. Those methodologies assume certain criteria that must be met before theories and concepts may be granted the title “scientific.” For example, they require that a theory result in certain “testable” predictions. Positivistic epistemology owes much of its success to its appropriateness for dealing with perplexing issues that arose in physics at the beginning of this century and has become a sort of official philosophy of modern science. It is often suggested that the status of psychoanalysis as a science depends on its ability to meet positivistic criteria (Kardiner et al., 1955).

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