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Grossman, W.I. Simon, B. (1969). Anthropomorphism—Motive, Meaning, and Causality in Psychoanalytic Theory. Psychoanal. St. Child, 24:78-111.

(1969). Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 24:78-111

Anthropomorphism—Motive, Meaning, and Causality in Psychoanalytic Theory

William I. Grossman, M.D. and Bennett Simon, M.D.


Thus, we have come full circle in our investigation of the role of anthropomorphism in psychoanalytic theory. We began with Freud's assertion that our understanding reaches only as far as our anthropomorphism. We have tried to ascertain in what sense this might be true. Our conclusions are:

1. There is an anthropomorphism in our clinical psychoanalytic theory, which serves a real function in organizing the introspective and experiential clinical data.

2. Those clinical psychoanalytic propositions which are most immediately related to the experiential data of inner conflict are especially dependent on anthropomorphic language. Certain structural propositions are particularly prominent in this respect. However, to the extent that any proposition is modeled on the experience of inner conflict or an inner division, it will tend to be anthropomorphic.

3. It is not necessary to "purge" the clinical theory of anthropomorphic language. Anthropomorphic language is in no way incompatible with systematic study of individual cases, or of groups of cases, or with any number of ways of grouping and organizing clinical observations. Anthropomorphism per se is not "unscientific." It serves a number of useful purposes, including that of inviting empathic participation by the analyst. Its value lies in providing process terms for explanation according to motives. So long as the only processes of which we speak are wishing, intending, and needing, and their defensive counterparts, there is no other language available.

4. The place of anthropomorphic language in higher-order explanatory propositions constitutes a different problem. We expect of such propositions that they begin to explain and place in a larger framework the clinical findings that are stated in the language of wish, intention, and need. From this viewpoint, attempts to eliminate or minimize the anthropomorphism of metapsychological propositions have not been successful. The various terms intended to replace anthropomorphic terms are deficient in one of several respects, the outstanding ones being:

a. They represent a model based on physical systems, for instance, which has no other set of referents than the clinical data from which they are derived and which they are intended to explain.

b. Some suggested terms, such as "tension," are in fact a kind of hybrid. They still bear the essential characteristics of their anthropomorphic lineage.

5. The major route by which the language of metapsychological propositions has been developed is by the use of "bridge concepts." These are terms which by definition bridge the gap between experience and theory but do not per se solve problems inherent in using two logically different realms of discourse.

6. A study of the place of anthropomorphism in psychoanalytic propositions, then, is of value both clinically and theoretically because it highlights the need to keep separate issues relating to meaning and motive from issues relating to causation.

7. Our approach to anthropomorphism is of assistance in appreciating certain other facets of Freud's thinking, especially his particular use of the study of history, of biology, and of the nature of society. Using anthropomorphic formulations, he constructs a framework in which theories about the nature of history, biology, and society become "isomorphic." Behind the anthropomorphism and "isomorphism" is Freud's aim of expounding how these realms are represented in the mental life of the individual, and particularly how they influence the nexus of meaning and motive, rather than of causality.

8. The distinction between discourse in terms of "meaning and motive" and discourse in terms of "causality" is only partly explained by regarding them as two different languages that describe the same phenomena. Far more important is that each describes fundamentally different sets of data and their related concepts, as exemplified in the distinction between "subjective" and "objective."

9. The contrast between "meaning" and "causality" also points to a major difficulty in developing psychoanalysis as a general psychology. The same problem, however, besets any one psychological approach that attempts to become a general psychology. If psychoanalysis, or any other psychological approach, is to become a comprehensive psychology, there must be some superordinate conception which could encompass both kinds of discourse. Such a schema has yet to be formulated.

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