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Walkup, J. Bellak, L. (1999). Positivism and Psychoanalysis: A New Look at the Historical Record. Psychoanal. Rev., 86(2):163-174.

(1999). Psychoanalytic Review, 86(2):163-174

Positivism and Psychoanalysis: A New Look at the Historical Record

James Walkup, Ph.D. and Leopold Bellak, M.D.

In recent years, psychoanalytic theory has been said to suffer because Freud's theories, and those of his immediate successors, contain residual elements of positivism, the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century scientifically oriented philosophical position known for its combination of hostility to metaphysics and distrust of abstractions not easily translated into observable data. This criticism asserts that Freud and the early psychoanalytic theorists, being creatures of their time, burdened their radical psychoanalytic discoveries with a needless positivism in the service of what we now understand to be a naive image of science. Subsequently, more sophisticated work on the history, sociology, and philosophy of science has discredited positivism and its overly strict rules for science. Consequently, the argument concludes, psychoanalysis needs to free itself of positivism, so that it may further develop the sounder, nonpositivist insights it contains.

In one way or another, antipositivist sentiments figure in many of the most significant contemporary criticisms of psychoanalytic theory, especially when terms such as postmodernism, constructivism, and hermeneutics are frequently cited. In many circles, the harmful effect of positivism on psychoanalysis is so taken for granted that the judgment that one or another psychoanalytic concept shows a positivist influence is considered enough reason to reject or revise it. Furthermore, because people tend not to debate propositions that they take for granted, this negative image of positivism exerts a largely unexamined influence on discourse about psychoanalytic theory.

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