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Glenn, M.L. (1969). Towards an “Uncertainty Principle” for Psychology. Psychoanal. Rev., 56B(2):215-224.

(1969). Psychoanalytic Review, 56B(2):215-224

Towards an “Uncertainty Principle” for Psychology

Michael L. Glenn, M.D.

Psychic determinism has been a basic assumption of psychoanalytic theory since the turn of the century, when Freud elaborated it. Rooted in the causal outlook of the nineteenth century, it has remained unmodified in psychiatry, although other sciences have moved to temper strict and thoroughgoing determinism with a notion of probability.

Rado,12 writing 45 years ago about psychic determinism, said:

Psychoanalysis has but recently begun to exploit the unmeasurable advantages that the deterministic viewpoint affords it, and it will have to work hard to exhaust the possibilities of that principle…. I should not be surprised were psychoanalysis to succeed in attaining a complete understanding of our mental life with its deterministic manner of viewing things.

Now, however, one must assess the boundless application of this historic principle and see if it can remain productively unaltered. This paper will review the notion of psychic determinism and its relation to current scientific thought. It will be argued that an “uncertainty principle” is a needed addition to dynamic psychological theory.

The Emergence of Determinism

The advent of the “scientific age” in the seventeenth century coincided with a vigorous interest in observing and describing the external world: astronomers charted the solar system; physiologists described the circulation of the blood; physicists formulated laws of motion; chemists examined the behavior of gases; biologists classified animate and inanimate kingdoms.

Empiricism led to attempted explanation. Growing masses of data needed organization: things had to make sense.

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