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Shevrin, H. (1999). Howard Shevrin on Peter Wolff. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 47(1):203-205.

(1999). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 47(1):203-205

Howard Shevrin on Peter Wolff

Howard Shevrin

April 28, 1998. Peter Wolff's elegant essay in JAPA 44/2 deserves careful attention, as his argument against the relevance of infant observations to psychoanalysis is at bottom an argument against the relevance of any research to psychoanalysis. As he states at the conclusion of his response to his commentators, “all that is relevant for psychoanalysis must come from the couch” (p. 473). Arnold Wilson, in his commentary, appears to be aware of this implication when he states that “ironically, Wolff's arguments with respect to research on infants are equally applicable to the clinical psychoanalysis he seeks to preserve …” (p. 457). In effect, Wolff's argument is a powerful version of the position I attributed to “Dr. Case” in my plenary dialogue published in JAPA 43/4, with all of its undoubted strengths and considerable limitations.

As Wolff correctly notes, the psychoanalytic method is unique and irreplaceable. It does make possible at its best a process of personal discovery no other method can duplicate. But it is also based on certain fundamental assumptions about the nature of the mind that are not in themselves testable “from the couch.” Wolff asserts that psychoanalysis is about “phenomena subsumed under the concepts of unconscious ideas, hidden motives, and repression …” and that psychoanalytic theories should “specify a method or methods for exploring the polysemous meanings of irrational fantasies, dreams, and actions that are presumed to be motivated by unconscious ideas” (p. 370; emphasis added). But it is exactly in the presumption of an unconscious that is both psychological and motivational in nature that psychoanalysis has encountered the most skepticism from scientific quarters, including the neurosciences that Wolff (and Barnaby Barratt) quote with satisfaction on the complex nature of memory.

Moreover, by correctly emphasizing the importance of polysemous meanings, Wolff introduces another fundamental assumption, and a real bugbear in the minds of other scientists—the apparent abandon with which psychoanalysts decide that a particular manifest content carries with it other, “hidden” meanings.

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