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Gullestad, S.E. (1993). A Contribution to the Psychoanalytic Concept of Autonomy. Scand. Psychoanal. Rev., 16(1):22-34.

(1993). Scandinavian Psychoanalytic Review, 16(1):22-34

A Contribution to the Psychoanalytic Concept of Autonomy

Siri Erika Gullestad


Psychoanalytic terms often have multiple meanings (Sandler, 1962, 1983; Sandler et al., 1991; Schafer, 1968). As pointed out by Sandler, conceptual terms in psychoanalysis become stretched to encompass new insights and new ideas. In his view, “elastic and flexible concepts take up the strain of theoretical change, absorbing it, while more organized newer theories or part-theories can develop” (Sandler, 1983, p. 36), thus playing “a very important part in holding psychoanalytic theories together” (p. 36). However, this defence of elasticity cannot be accepted without reservation. Empirical testing of psychoanalytic theory should be considered the ultimate aim. In particular, the testing of the psychoanalytic treatment theory represents a challenge. For testing to take place, it is necessary to establish the meaning of conceptual terms as precisely as possible.

In psychoanalytic tradition, autonomy is one criterion in the clinical assessment of therapeutic change. However, as a concept, it does have multiple meanings, and is therefore unsuitable as a research tool. Even if we accept the relevance of the concept from a clinical point of view, it proves to be vague. Hence, the difficulty remains to specify what may be considered expressions of autonomy on that level. In this article, I shall (1) discuss the concept in general, and (2) point to possible manifestations of autonomous behavior in the analytic situation.

Theoretical Discussion

In the following, I shall outline (1) Freud's use of the concept of autonomy, (2) other theoretical contributions, and (3) present a definition that links autonomy to observable behavior.

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