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Rubovits-Seitz, P. (1995). The Fallibility of Interpretations. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 43:647-650.

(1995). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 43:647-650

The Fallibility of Interpretations

Philip Rubovits-Seitz

In his otherwise informative article, “Interpretive Fallibility and the Psychoanalytic Dialogue” (JAPA 41/1), Steven Cooper asserts that Freud “always” emphasized the hypothetical, hence fallible, nature of clinical interpretations (pp. 95, 107). He cites one Freud reference in support of that claim: “Analysis Terminable and Interminable” (Freud, 1937). That single reference, however, gives an incomplete and misleading impression of Freud's attitude toward clinical interpretation.

A more complete review of Freud's writings suggests that from the outset of his psychoanalytic work he struggled with a methodological conflict between his positivist preferences for pure observation and objective certainty and his clinical need for the less objective, less certain methods of interpretation. He dealt with that conflict in various ways, some of which were methodologically productive, while others were not. Many examples of Freud's eventual, though wavering, acceptance of some limitations regarding the reliability of interpretations are to be found (1916-1917p. 51; 1923, pp. 28-241, esp. p. 239; and 1937p. 265). Even in the latter essay (1937), however, he expressed the categorical positivist assertion that, far from being fallible, methods of confirming constructions are, “in every respect trustworthy” (p. 263).

Throughout his writings, Freud said very little about the methodological problems and limitations of interpreting clinical data. In fact, he minimized the difficulties and fallibility of clinical interpretation, insisting that free associations provide a “plentiful store of ideas” that put the therapist on the right track of unconscious processes, and that associations contain such “plain and numerous hints” that the therapist is able to guess what is repressed (1924pp. 195-196; for similar statements see Freud, 1914ap. 22; 1915bp. 159; 1925pp. 128-129; 1933p. 12; 1937pp. 263-265).

Freud also attempted to make his interpretations appear as objectively empirical and certain as possible. Schimek (1975, pp.

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