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Shervin, H. (2003). The Consequences of Abandoning a Comprehensive Psychoanalytic Theory: Revisiting Rapaport's Systematizing Attempt. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 51(3):1005-1020.

(2003). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 51(3):1005-1020

A Classic Revisited

The Consequences of Abandoning a Comprehensive Psychoanalytic Theory: Revisiting Rapaport's Systematizing Attempt

Howard Shervin

David Rapaport (1901-1960)

In 1959, a year before his death, David Rapaport made what turned out to be his last attempt to formulate a comprehensive psychoanalytic theory. He approached the task with considerable reservation because he felt that the diverse models and points of view current in psychoanalysis, though they were “linked by identical concepts and by common empirical referents” (p. 59), were not systematically related to one another. He was, however, encouraged by Heinz Hartmann, Merton Gill, Robert Holt, and George Klein to accept an invitation to contribute to Psychology: A Study of a Science, a book sponsored by the American Psychological Association and edited by Sigmund Koch. His was to be the psychoanalytic entry.

Rapaport knew that within both psychology and psychoanalysis there were many obstacles to developing and perpetuating a comprehensive psychoanalytic theory. Within psychoanalysis he identified three that are still very much with us: (1) a lack of systematic theoretical literature, (2) the nature of psychoanalytic training, and (3) the character of psychoanalytic practice. He lamented that a comprehensive theory “is a waif unknown to many, noticed by some, and closely familiar to few” (p. 163). What he could not have known is that not long after his death three of the four who had encouraged him to make this attempt abandoned the task he had begun. In the more than forty years since the publication of Rapaport's paper, the task has remained unfinished, unremarked, and unlamented, but not without considerable damage to psychoanalysis.

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