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Modell, A.H. (1981). Does Metapsychology Still Exist?. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 62:391-402.

(1981). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 62:391-402

Does Metapsychology Still Exist?

Arnold H. Modell


Metapsychology has been under attack from two principal directions: from those who believe that metapsychology is no longer congruent with observations; and from those who see metapsychology as irrelevant, as they no longer share Freud's belief that psychoanalysis is a form of natural science. In addition there is no shared agreement as to the definition of metapsychology itself. The author observes three different functions of metapsychology: a selection of psychological phenomena that could be termed universal in the sense that they are characteristic of the human species; secondly a set of assumptions upon which a psychological system can be founded and made explicit; and thirdly metapsychology functions as a modelling device, an imaginary entity, an experiment in thinking. When we refer to metapsychology we are not describing a single entity but a broad heading that contains at least these three distinct functions.

We believe that psychoanalysis is a unique discipline in that it shares with the hermeneutic disciplines the use of empathy as a mode of observation, viewing man from the inside, but subjects these observations to the organizing functions of metapsychology which views man from the outside. It is characteristic of psychoanalysis that there are rapid shifts from the I-Thou (empathic identification) to the I-It (naturalist observer) position. For this reason psychoanalysis cannot be fitted into any ready made epistemology. Any attempt to replace metapsychology by action theory or by the organizing principles of the structure of language are announcements of programmes yet to be realized and there is reason to doubt whether such programmes are realizable.

There are, however, empiric discrepancies which require a modification but not the elimination of metapsychology. Our newer observations of narcissistic character disorders, especially the mirroring function, suggest that maturation is not necessarily equated with internalization—that a 'fitting in' from the environment remains an adult requirement and is not necessarily the persistence of something infantile. So that the ego and its relation to the human environment is not a closed system. The task of contemporary metapsychology is to encompass this newer knowledge from the narcissistic disorders without 'reifying' a system of 'internalized' objects or returning to a simplistic theory of 'interpersonal relationships'. Metapsychology needs to be modified but not abandoned.

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