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Swanson, D.R. (1978). Psychoanalysis, Physics, and the Mind-Body Problem. Ann. Psychoanal., 6:343-351.

(1978). Annual of Psychoanalysis, 6:343-351

Psychoanalysis, Physics, and the Mind-Body Problem

Don R. Swanson, Ph.D.


Don R. Swanson:

Toulmin has suggested that vicissitudes in psychoanalytic theory are connected with corresponding shifts in the philosophical foundations of physics. He foresees a reconciliation between psychoanalysis and the physical sciences, and implies that recent trends in physics remove certain barriers to understanding the mind-body problem. His paper stimulates new perspectives on psychoanalysis and the history of the mind-body problem. However, it is not clear to me that the particular developments in physics to which Toulmin alludes have any substantial bearing on these matters. My comments will therefore focus on the claims which Toulmin advances as to the relevance of physics. I shall pose five questions which delineate areas wherein clarification of these claims seems to me most needed.

1.   What principles of physics are implicit in Freud's work of the 1890s, and are such principles now obsolete?

Freud's work of the 1890s reflected a prevailing conviction he shared with his scientific colleagues that all phenomena within living organisms, including mental events, could be explained in terms of physical causes. Thus far I follow Toulmin. But it should be understood that any presumed connection between a specific mental event and a concomitant neural event reflected a physiological—or perhaps philosophical–postulate and not a law of physics. To suggest only that such mind-body theorizing was “embedded” in classical physics does not illuminate the actual role played by physical laws.

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