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Scientific Realism and the Human World

Scientific Realism and the Human
World: the case of psychoanalysis

Andrew Collier

In this paper, I want both to defend scientific realism as the correct ontological assumption of the
human as well as the natural sciences, and to make
certain reservations about the epistemological status
of the human sciences. l The main course of the argument concerns Freudian psychoanalysis, though I also
refer to the other human science ‘to the defence of
which I am committed, namely Marx’s materialist conception of history. But I think my conclusions have
absolutely general application in this area.

The paper arose partly out of an attempt to defend
Freud, both against his critics (particularly
Timpanaro) and against his interpreters (particularly
Lacan); and partly out of an attempt to tie up the
loose ends I left in my essay ‘In defence of epistemology,.2 In that essay I was defending the realist
epistemological claims of Marxism against a neoKantian critique, which itself arose out of an attempt
to resolve certain contradictions in Althusser’s work.

I felt that those contradictions could be resolved,
not by repudiating realism, but by reinstating the
notion of an experiment as ‘a question put to nature’,
and identifying this as the essential epistemic mechanism of all science. But in doing so, I neglected
to mention that an experiment is not just any question
put to nature; thus I undermined the distinction
(which I nonetheless used) between observations made
in the course of the practical application of a
science, and experiments proper. I therefore greatly
understated the insuperable difficulties confronted
by the human sciences in their attempt to approach
the rigour of the natural sciences. This paper then
can be seen as an explication and correction of some
passages towards the end of that essay (pp.94-96).

Throughout much of this paper, I shall counterpose
scientific realism to empiricism. In doing so, I
shall draw on Bhaskar’s model of scientific realism,
as set out in A Realist Theory of Science. So I
shall start with a brief exposition of his view.

Bhaskar breaks with the ontology of classical
empiricism by postulating three domains: the Empirical, which is inhabited only by experiences; the
Actual, which is inhabited by experiences and events;
and the Real, which is inhabited by experiences,
events and mechanisms. 3 Thus his ontology is distinct
not only from phenomenalism, which holds that only
experiences are real, but also from forms of empiricism which allow that events can occur unexperienced,
but which conceive of laws of nature as constructions
made by us. The term ‘mechanism’ refers to that in

nature which corresponds to the scientific law. It
need not be mechanistic in the sense of the Newtonian
paradigm (whic~ Bhaskar argues is actually internally
incoherent). Mechanisms are the structures of things
and they explain the powers or tendencies of things.

For instance, a hydrogen atom has the power to combine with a chlorine atom to form a molecule of
hydrochloric acid; a dog has the power to bark; a
human being has the power to act in accordance with
reasons. In none of these cases is the power something that can be exercised arbitrarily; it depends
on the structure of the ‘agent’, and can be exercised
only in certain conditions.

The structures investigated in the qifferent
sciences will have very different properties; the use
of a common terminology across the sciences (‘structures’, ‘agents’, ‘mechanisms’, ‘powers’, ‘tendencies’)
does not involve generalising either mechanistic or
anthropomorphic explanations; but it does draw attention to some common features of explanation, across
the sciences.

The powers of things, then, are real, even if unexercised. Only if exercised do they enter the domain
of the Actual. But they can also be exercised unrealised, that is to say, without producing the
effects that one would expect from their operation,
and which they would produce ‘other things being
equal’. Newton’s apple was subject to the law of
gravity all the time it stayed on the tree. Scientific experiment largely consists in devising ways of

realising the powers of things, so they can be tested T
and measured. But the interest of the experiments ,i. <;
the fact that we can apply the knowledge we obtain
from them to andaly~e thfe hoperationl ofhthe shame tend_I
encies in the omaln 0 t e actua , were t ey may
operate unrealised.

This theory allows us to form a much clearer conception of the nature of an experiment than empiricism does. Thus Bhaskar says:

These distinctions may be conveniently expressed
by the formula Dr ~ Da ~ De, where the special
case Dr = Da = De, assumed to be spontaneously
satisfied by empirical realism, has in fact to
be worked for in the social activity of science.

(op.cit., p.229. Dr = domain of the Real, Da =
domain of the Actual, De = domain of the

The creation of such a ‘special case’, the elimination of variables irrelevant to the question at issue
by laboratory conditions such that the mechanisms can

so to speak be made to appear, is referred to by
Bhaskar as the production of conditions of closure.

We isolate particular mechanisms as closed systems so
as to discover the workings of these mechanisms,
which also operate in the ‘open systems’ of the world
outside the laboratory. But open systems, though
they obey the laws of nature, don’t present those
laws neatly exemplified in constant conjunctions, as
they appear in experiments.

This theory is realist then in that it asserts the
reality of the world independent of us; in that it
postulates the reality of ‘generative mechanisms’

which empiricism is apt to regard as ‘logical constructions’ or ‘theoretical entities’; and in that it
treats causal necessity as irreducible to constant
conjunction, which is neither a necessary nor a
sufficient condition for the ascription of causality
in open systems. It rejects the empiricist assumption that conditions of closure obtain naturally
(‘actualism’), and the empiricist tendency to reduce
ontological questions to epistemological ones (‘the
epistemic fallacy’).

These positions are argued for in Bhaskar’s book:

I present them as results. But in the following two
sections I put them on one side and discuss empiricist controversies about Freud; the discussion will
illustrate the need for a realist position.

1 Critics of Freud’s Scientific Credentials
Freud is often attacked for being unscientific.

There are, broadly speaking, three lines of defence.

Some boldly claim that there is no problem, that
psychoanalysis is a science just like any other.

Some claim that it is a science, but with a different
method, and perhaps even in a different sense, than
other sciences. And some grant that it is not a
science, but claim that it is none the worse for that.

There are intermediate positions. There is the
idea that all sciences have quite different methods,
so that psychoanalysis is, so to speak, just like any
other science in being unlike all the others. This
view, which I take to be that of Louis Althusser, and
which was my own until recently, falls between the
first two defences. And there is the view that
psychoanalysis is in some respects like a science, in
some unavoidably unlike one; my conclusion in this
essay can be seen as a version of this view.

To test the defences we must consider the attacks.

I shall look at three – those of Sir Karl Popper,
Professor Cioffi and Comrade Timpanaro.4 In each
case, my defence of Freud will not dispose of the
difficulties for his theory, but merely shift the
problem. But I hope that by the end of the discussion, the problem will have been shifted to its
proper place.

Popper’s criticisms both of psychoanalysis and of
Marxism are well known, though they are much more
fully worked out in relation to Marxism, and for this
reason their underlying error is easier to see in
this connection. But the two cases are point-forpoint parallel, and so far as Popper’s case against
them is concerned, the two theories stand or fall

Superficially, Popper’s criticism of these theories
takes the form of a dilemma: if they are interpreted
in a strong form, such that they have unconditional
predictive consequences, they are easily refuted by
the facts of history or biography; 5 if on the other
hand they are interpreted in such a way as to escape
such refutation, they lose all their content, for if
any event whatsoever in the real world is compatible
with a theory, that theory tells us nothing about the
real world.

But this dilemma is not the real content of
Popper’s case, for it assumes that the only way Marxism or psychoanalysis could have a content is if they
were to make predictions about what will in fact
happen in the world; and if they did this, they would
already be shown to be unscientific on Popper’s
criteria, because guilty of historicism. That is to
say, they would not be resting their claim to be
scientific on conditional predictions (if event E
occurs under conditions c, event E’ will occur), but
on unconditional assertions about the inevitable
course of events – in short on what Popper calls
‘prophecies’. If Popper can show that Marx or Freud
made ‘prophecies’, he has already proved his case,
without having to show that they are vague or false
ones; but he has marked his cards, for he never considers the possibility that they could make any sort
of predictions other than prophecies.

The nature of Popper’s mistake can be seen better
if we use Husserl’s distinction between abstract or
theoretical sciences which ‘are nomological in so far
as their unifying principle, as well as their essential aim of research, is a law’, and concrete sciences
in which ‘one connects all the truths whose content
relates to one and the same object, or to one and the
same empirical genus’. Husserl goes on to say that
‘the abstract or nomological sciences are the genuine,
basic sciences, from whose theoretical stock the
concrete sciences must derive all that theoretical
element by which they are made sciences’ (Logical
Investigations, pp.230-31). Physics and chemistry
would be among the abstract sciences, geography and
astronomy among the concrete ones. In Bhaskarian
terms, the abstract sciences operate with closed
systems, the concrete ones with open systems. (Ted
Benton critically analysed Bhaskar’s distinction of
open and closed systems in Radical Philosophy 27-though the present article was written before the
appearance of that analysis – Ed.)

Now it seems to me that when Popper comes to deal
with the human sciences, he assumes that they can only
be concrete sciences, and then blames them for not
being abstract ones;6 and it used to seem to me that,
once this error had been identified, nothing was left
of Popper’s attack. Everything was in order: The
materialist conception of history, for example, was an
abstract science and behaved like one, making only
conditional predictions and so on. Marxist conjunctural analysis (or, in the past tense, historiography)
was on the other hand a concrete science, and behaved
like one; it used the concepts of historical materialism to analyse concrete conjunctures, about which it
made only probabilistic predictions, and, just like a
concrete natural science such as meteorOlogy, was not
refuted when its predictions were falsified. Likewise with Freudian metapsychology, and case studies.

But the identification of Popper’s error does not
abOlish the problem: for Popper’s placing of the
human sciences in the concrete slot was not arbitrary;
there seems to be nowhere else that they could be
tested but in their concrete applications; in the
natural sciences, on the other hand, the conditional
predictions of the abstract science can be tested
experimentally, independently of its application in a
concrete science. In Bhaskarian terms the abstract
parts of natural sciences can be tested under conditions of closure; those of human sciences cannot. 7
This displacement of the problem can be made clearer
with reference to Cioffi’s argument that psychoanalysis is a pseudo-science. Cioffi tells us:

It is characteristic of a pseudo-science that the
hypotheses which comprise it stand in an asymmetrical relation to the expectations they
generate, being permitted to guide them and be
vindicated by their fulfilment but not to be

discredited by their disappointment.

(op.cit., p.474)
The trouble with this formula is that it is also true
of a science once it comes to be applied to concrete
realities outside the laboratory. ‘The concrete is a
union of many determinations’, said Marx,8 and that
particular concrete reality which is an individual
psyche is subject to influences that lie outside the
field of psychoanalysis as well as those that lie
inside it: biological and social influences, for

Once this point is recognised – that in any ‘open
system’ (i.e. outside of artificially ‘closed’ experimental conditions) confirming instances support
but disconfirming instances do not refute – the whole
of Cioffi’s case collapses. Even his most striking
example, intended to damn Freud all the way to hell,
loses its sting.

The example is that of little Herbert and little
Hans. Little Herbert is referred to in Freud’s
paper on the beneficial effects of enlightening
children about sexual matters. His parents’ liberal
attitude is said to have led to healthy development.

On the other hand the unfortunate Hans was a
‘Paragon of all the vices’ – his mother had
threatened him with castration before he was
yet four, the birth of a younger sister had
confronted him ‘with the great riddle of where
babies come from’ and ‘his father had told him
the lie about the stork which made it impossible
for him to ask for enlightenment upon such
things’. Thus, due in part to ‘the perplexity
in which his infantile sexual theories left him’

he succumbed to an animal phobia shortly before
his fifth year.

Cioffi then gleefully informs us (Cioffi, op.cit.,
p.485) that ‘Hans and Herbert are the same child,
the account of Hans written after and that of Herbert
before he had succumbed to his animal phobia (but not
before the events to which Freud later assigned
pathogenic status).’

But just what does this example prove? That
Freud, who had been led by his theories and his
observations to the very plausible and by now well
documented conclusion that it is harmful to threaten
and lie to children about sex, used as an example a
child who appeared to be healthy and whose parents
he believed to be enlightened. Later the child had
problems and it came out that the parents were not so
enlightened. Cioffi later alludes to the episode as
a ‘counter-example’; to what? Freud’s omniscience?

What we have here is a failure on Cioffi’s part to
distinguish between the testing of a theory in experimental conditions and the application of the theory
in an open system. Freud’s error and later correction of it fall into a perfectly ordinary class of
everyday explanaticns and corrections. Compare the
following: a house has been burgled; a detective
examines the house and says ‘the burglar could not
have got in by the door, as it was bolted; so he must
have got in by the window’. Later it emerges that

it is quite impossible that the burglar got in the
window. The detective will consider all sorts of
possibilities; he will no doubt show great ‘adjustability in relation to counter-example’, as Cioffi
says of Freud. You can bet your boots on one thing:

he won’t say ‘the laws of physics have been refuted!

The burglar must have de-materialised outside the
door and re-materialised inside it! ‘

But the fact remains that our knowledge of the laws
of physics does not depend exclusively on our knowledge of the art of burglary. We can argue with
confidence from abstract to concrete because we can
test the abstract sciences experimentally, independently of their concrete applications. If a concrete
science has no such experimentally tested abstract
science from which to derive its confidence, this
confidence may be misplaced, and this is the crucial
problem of the human sciences: they are, so to speak,

Now suppose someone were to say: there is no problem after all. To be sure, Freud’s abstract postulates can’t be tested experimentally; we cannot
isolate and measure the forces which operate in the
unconscious. But we have to postulate them to explain
the phenomena, and the therapeutic practice which both
gives rise to and uses them does not require any
higher level of exactness. This might be all very
well if there was only one theory in the field; but
as our next critic illustrates this is not so.

Timpanaro claims that many of the examples given
by Freud of parapraxes – ‘Freudian slips’ – can be
explained quite adequately in terms of the concepts
of tAxtual criticism. The main part of his book The
Freudian Slip is devoted to giving examples. This is
an altogether more serious and pertinent critique of
Freud than Popper or Cioffi can be bothered to provide
Popper originally thought that one counter-example
scuppered a whole theory; if there ever were any
scientists who proceeded by this method, their names
have not come down to us, for the simple reason that
they never discovered anything. It has now been
accepted by people working in the Popperian tradition
– e.g. the late Imre Lakatos – that refutation involves not two elements (a theory and a counterexample) but three (two theories and a test between
them). You do not abandon a theory until you have
got a better one. 9
Timpanaro claims to have a better theory; it is a
theory which is already in use in other contexts than
explaining parapraxes (as of course is also true of
psychoanalysis); and it undeniably has a bearing on
the phenomena. Different people will no doubt assess
the relative plausibility of the two theories

For example, there is the case of Freud’s acquaintance who forgot the word ‘aliquis’ in a Latin quota,
tion; in a long string of associations he moved via
‘liquifying’ and ‘St. Januarius’ (whose blood is
supposed to liquify periodically), to his fear that
his woman friend had missed her period. ID Timpanaro
gives the alternative explanation, which he describes




as ‘pedestrian (but true)’, in terms of the unfamiliarity to a German-speaker, and strangeness even in
Latin, of the construction of the sentence in which
‘aliquis’ occurs.

Timpanaro wisely refrains from claiming to have
refuted Freud’s theories; after all the account of
slips is only one aspect of the theory, and Timpanaro
unfashionably (but I think correctly) regards Freud’s
essays on sexuality as being on solider scientific
ground than his ‘interpretive’ work such as that on
dreams or slips. But Timpanaro does claim that his
alternative explanations ‘are pertinent to any overall judgement of psychoanalysis’. He clearly
believes that he has rendered certain Freudian hypotheses redundant.

Once again Freud can be defended, but once again
the defence shifts the problem rather than abolishing
it. The defence is that Freud himself pointed out
the presence of mechanisms such as those which
Timpanaro thinks explain the slips, but he claims that
there is also an unconscious motive. One of the peculiarities of Freud’s theory is his notion of overdetermination, according to which many thought processes converge to produce the symptom. Within the
psychoanalytic context, many explanations may be
given of the same event, and it is recognised that the
‘over-interpretation’, as it is called, can never be
kno~ to be complete.

In relation to the other human
sciences too – biology, linguistics, social science Freud likewise leaves open the possibility that their
laws might have made their contribution. (See the
replies to Timpanaro on New Left Review No.94.) But
it is precisely in this possibility of the peaceful
co-existence of theories that we encounter the real
problem. For if no explanation can be pronounced
adequate, it would seem that no limit can be set to
possible speculative explanations, and no criteria set
up for sorting out the true from the false. If on the
other hand we accept that Freud’s and Timpanaro’s
accounts compete as explanations of slips, the question arises how we can decide between them.

Of course there are parallel cases in the application of natural sciences to open systems, where we
may never in fact find out which of several explanations is true; but the concepts from the abstract
natural sciences which compete in these cases will
have received independent experimental justification.

It is important to recognise both the relevance and
the non-relevance of parallels between the concrete
human sciences (which have no independently tested
abstract foundation) and the concrete natural sciences
(which have). Ontologically they are relevant, epistemologically non-relevant. 11 This is a question to
which I will return, but as I have already raised the
issue of overdetermined processes and the possibility
of knowledge of them, I shall try to make this matter
clearer by using this distinction. Ontologically,
the theory of overdetermination is all in order; it
is perfectly logically coherent and intelligible;
there are analogous processes in other fields; it is
quite compatible with what we know of the structure of
the real world. Empiricists who reject it a priori
as contrary to Ockham’s razor are rightly accused of
dogmatism; they commit the epistemic fallacy, i.e.

they reduce ontological questions to epistemological
ones. 12 But the distinction of ontology and epistemology does not in itself save Freud insofar as he also
makes an epistemological claim: to have a science.

In short: the empiricist accuses Freud of being
slippery; Freud may justly reply: the slipperiness is
not in the concept but in the object – it is not ~y
fault if the contents of the unconscious are slippery
fish; but the empiricist may retort with as much justice: no, but if the fish are too slippery to catch,
don’t claim to have an aquarium.

It is not enough to show that the mechanisms of
the unconscious might very well be just as Freud says;
any reputable theologian can claim as much for his
theory. It must be shown that Freud’s theory is
epistemically better founded than its rivals. It
must be shown that there are no rival theories without
the problem of ‘concrete-boundness’; and that there
are criteria for distinguishing epistemically better
and worse theories of this kind – and that Freud
fares well by these criteria. The first task, then,
is to examine the claim that we can have experimental
access to the processes in question after all.


Freudian Theory and Experimental Psychology

Let me set out my aims in this section with reference
to a quotation from Trotsky, which Timpanaro also
quotes. Trotsky, like the other Bolshevik leaders,
was inordinately impressed by the work of Pavlov,
but, unlike some, he also had an interest in and
respect for Freud. Here is how he compares the two:

The idealists tell us that the psyche is an
independent entity, that the ‘soul’ is a
bottomless well. Both Pavlov and Freud think
that the bottom of the ‘soul’ is physiology.

But Pavlov, like a diver, descends to the
bottom and laboriously investigates the well
from there upwards, while Freud stands over
the well and with a penetrating gaze tries to
pierce its ever-shifting and troubled waters
and to make out or guess the shape of things
down below. Pavlov’s method is experiment;
Freud’s is conjecture, sometimes fantastic

(Problems of Everyday Life, p.234)
Let me say at once – without stopping to ponder on
the possible Freudian motives of Trotsky’s metaphor that I think that the metaphor he app’lies to Freud is
an apt one. But he is over-optimistic about Pavlov.

Even if Pavlov’s experiments with dogs bear some
resemblance to conditions of closure, this is no
longer the case when they are generalised to humans,
whose behaviour is affected by a lot of variables
of which there is no concept within Pavlovian theory.

And if we are comparing Pavlov with Freud, we are
presumably talking about humans. You can’t psychoanalyse dogs – they aren’t talkative enough. Pavlov’s
psychology is just as concrete-bound epistemically as
Freud’s, its abstract parts just as speculative. 13
What then is the difference between the two? I would
suggest – they were looking down different wells.

We need to ask why they were doing so, and was one
of them wrong. If they were both ‘psychologists’,
ought they not to have been looking down the same
well? Husserl characterised the concrete sciences as
ones in which the unifying principle that constituted
the science was ‘the same object’ or ‘the same
empirical genus’. But what can this mean in the
present case? Not the individual person or the human
species, for both Freud and Pavlov were studying
people, as are the practitioners of many other
sciences. The constituting factor in each case is
a practice: in Freud’s case, the practice of analytical theory, in Pavlov’s, of conditioning. These
different practices turn up different sets of phenomena – different wells to look down. In Freud’s
case the phenomena were the words, silences and
symptoms by which people talked about their problems
in the analytical situation. This ‘phenomenology’

was the starting point, though not of course the
content, of his theory itself. The theory was the
set of ‘conjectures’ by which Freud explained the
troubling of these waters. The semiotic and conflictual nature of Freud’s theories stems from his starting

point in a different set of phenomena than Pavlov’s,
rather than from a desire for short cuts (as Trotsky
seems to be suggesting), or simply from different
speculative dispositions; the different phenomena in
turn are determined not by theoretical but by practical considerations.

Perhaps, having said all this, I should immediately make clear that no sort of pragmatist, subjectivist or relativist theory of knowledge can be derived
from it. Certainly, practical criteria determine a
‘selection’ of facts (in a certain sense of ‘selection’). But in the first place, from a fruit bowl
containing apples and pears, you can select an apple
or a pear, but not a plum. Insofar as either Freud
or Pavlov succeed in discovering facts, those facts
had to be there to be discovered. And of course, insofar as both discovered facts, these facts are
equally objective, and cannot conflict with one
another. The fact that one may find conditioning
distasteful, or politically dangerous, or morally
objectionable, does not invalidate particular findings of Pavlovian research. Moreover, the term
‘selection’ is misleading insofar as it suggests
choice rather than discovery – as if Columbus chose
what to find on the American continent, because he
chose to sail west rather than east. And finally, it
is not at the stage of theoretical speculation that
the- ‘selection’ is made, but in the ‘choice’ of
practice; any intervention of value-judgments at the
theoretical stage would be inexcusable.

The elements in the human sciences then are (1) a
practice, (2) the empirical phenomena turned up by
that practice, (3) speculations about the mechanisms
generating those phenomena. It is the practice which
comes first and constitutes the science, i.e. designates its object and marks it off from other sciences.

The concrete natural sciences may share this feature of being constituted by a practice, as when we
speak of scientific medicine, cookery or gardening.

But they differ in that they can make deductions from
the abstract natural sciences in quite a different
way from what is the case with human sciences. In
place of these deductions, the human sciences have
what Trotsky called ‘conjectures’, and I referred to
as ‘speculations’. These form the abstract part of
the human sciences, to which belong for instance
Freud’s metapsychological writings. The following
section will be concerned with the status of these.

For the present it is enough to note that these
abstract parts of the human sciences, being (unlike
their natural-scientific equivalents) parasitic on
the practical disciplines which give rise to them,
reflect a practically determined demarcation between
these sciences.

Now let us look at experiments designed to test
Freudian hypotheses. These experiments reflect the
empiricist tradition in psychology. If they succeed,
my hypothesis would be false and Trotsky’s would be
correct; it would be possible to get down the well,
and the sooner we stop staring and start pot-holing
the better.

The experiments are by no means without their own
interest and value. Yet what strikes me about them
is that they usually (not quite always) seem to miss
the point in relation to psychoanalysis, and that it
is not immediately obvious why this should be. After
all there is nothing magic about the psychoanalytical
situation: discoveries made within it could also be
made by other means, as Freud notes in connection
with infantile sexuality.

Let us look at three experiments ciesigned to show
the ‘scientific credibility’ (or otherwise) of
Freud’s theories. 14 The first two experiments appear
to confirm hypotheses of Freud’s. The first was
designed to test Freud’s theory of slips, using post12

hypnotic suggestion to set up the requIsIte mental
conflict. The subject was told under hypnosis that
someone would come in and start talking to him; he
would be bored to tears, but must at all costs be
polite and not show his boredom. Sure enough, when
the occasion arose the subject went and shut the :oor,
and when asked what he was doing, said ‘Why, I just
shut the bore.’

This would be a satisfying example to tell
Timpanaro, but it really adds nothing to Freud’s
examples. We know that post-hypnotic suggestion
can’t hermetically seal its effects off from other
influences, for subjects who have been told under
hypnosis to dream of a certain event and nothing else
generally dream that or a similar event, but worked
into a complex story which clearly has other significant determinants. The purpose of experiment in the
natural sciences – the establishment of a closed situation in which causal laws manifest themselves in
constant conjunctions – has not been achieved. It is
an ‘experiment’ only in that it creates artificially
a conflict of the type that Freud studied in their
natural habitat. But artificiality is not what constitutes an experiment – it is necessary precisely
because closure does not occur naturally. When it
fails to establish closure, an experiment establishes
nothing that cannot be established in a natural open

In this case, we know that the subject made the
slip while in a state of conflict between boredom and
but then we also know that Freud’s
acquaintance made his ‘aliquis’ slip when trying to
put from his mind the possibility that his woman
friend was pregnant. The experiment makes no qualitative addition to the evidence for Freud’s theory.

The second example is a study which ‘sought to
“kill” two birds – the validity of Freudian sexual
symbolism and the kind of psychosexual stages in
chi ldren – but confirms both’. 15 ChiJdr·en of various
ages were asked to give preferences between pairs of
drawings which had been designed to contain male and
female symbolism in their shapes. The Freudian
theory of sexual stages was deemed to predict that
children under four, being at the oral or anal
stages, would show no preference; that children of
four to six, being at the phallic stage, would show
preference for the symbols of the opposite sex;
children aged seven to eleven or twelve, being in
the latency period, would prefer the symbols of their
own sex; and children over twelve, being in the
genital stage, would again prefer symbols of the
opposite sex. 16 It was further predicted that in
the final stage, preference would be weighted towards
male symbols, as America (where the test was carried
out) is a male-oriented culture. (An opposite bias
was predicted for a matrilineal culture in Ghana.)
This bias was not expected to occur at the phallic
stage, as it was assumed that children of that age
were not capable of discerning the ascendency of the
mal e sex in their cuI ture.

All these predictions were confirmed. But the fact
of cultural bias towards one or the other sex should
immediately emphasise the absence of a closure here,
for it is a fact of sociology, not of psychosexual
development. How can we know that the whole process
is not sociologically determined? Or for that matter,
genetically programmed? Freud’s observations may
have been confirmed, but his explanation is precisely
where it was.

Finally, we come to the theory of dreams. Fisher
and Greenberg conclude that the hypothesis of a
‘latent content’ to dreams is superfluous. They
claim that it is not necessary for the dreamer to
give private associations. Instead they propose that
the manifest content of a dream should be sorted into





elements which can then be directly related to other
aspects of the dreamer’s life. The symbols that
occur in dreams are said to be ‘widely shared’.

Let it be granted that this approach may payoff;
by asking a certain set of questions about the manifest content of a dream, one may find something out
about the dreamer. This does not rule out the possibility that there is also a true depth interpretation.

By ignoring private meanings which symbols may have,
as well as the leads given by free association under
conditions of transference, the possibility of coming
across a latent content is avoided. Inevitably, a
method based on statistical comparisons neglects
private symbols, but that doesn’t prove their unreality. And a study which does not try to dig beneath
the surface of a dream should not be surprised to
discover nothing but the surface. The phenomena
discovered are different because the pra~tice leading
to their discovery is different.

These examples show, I think, that the relative
(not absolute) irrelevance of such ‘experimental
testing’ to the claims of Freudian theory is due to
the differences in the kinds of phenomena looked at.

They are not absolutely irrelevant because the paths
of those different types of investigation do cross.

But more importantly, I think they illustrate the
fact that any appearance which such ‘experiments’ may
have of superior scientific rigour to psychoanalysis
is quite illusory. It stems from a misunderstanding
of the value of experiment in science, due to an
empiricist philosophy of science. These so-called
experiments do not go any way towards creating conditions of closure, any more than Freud’s clinical
work did. 17 ‘Experiment’ turns out to be no more
than observation, plus mathematical accessories.

Without then impugning the veracity and interest
of such paths of psychological inquiry, we can dismiss their claims to the sort of superiority that
would put them in a position to make or break Freud’s
theory, i.e. to put it on a scientific footing or
refute it. Their bearing on its verification or
falsification is quite marginal.

It would be unfair not to mention that Fisher and
Greenberg are far from unaware of some of these problems. Yet they remain trapped within an empiricism
which leads them to draw the wrong line of demarcation between science and non-science. In reply to
psychoanalysts’ claims about overdetermination making
experiment impossible in the strict sense, they say
that exactly the same problem arises in other areas
of psychology, and they instance studies of intelligence. I am tempted to say ‘Thou hast said it, my
Lord General, and not I’. So-called experimental
psychology labours under just the same problems of
concrete-boundness as psychoanalysis. Yet these
authors repeatedly use the word ‘scientific’ to
describe the methods of such psychology in contrast
to psychoanalysis. The titles of their books bear
witness to that.

A word is perhaps necessary to prevent a hasty
conclusion, and will also serve as a transition to the
next section. There are of course procedures designed to approximate to closure in ’empirical psychology’ – controls aimed to ensure that ‘experiments’

test what they are meant to and not something else.

It might be thought that, by denying the possibility
of closure in the non-laboratory sciences, I have
discounted these controls and reduced the human
sciences to a purely anecdotal level. Surely statistical controls on the one hand, or the peculiarly
disclosive nature of the analytic hour on the other,
do count for something? And is not one important
function of the human sciences precisely to dispossess the unrepresentative anecdote? It certainly
is, and politically this is extremely important. We

have all experienced the way in which every capitalist, sexist or racist lie, from ‘scroungers on the
welfare’ to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, is
backed up by anecdotes which are based on ‘personal
experience’ and are therefore irrefutable, though
evidentially worthless.

In fact I do not intend to deny intermediate
degrees between laboratory conditions and anecdote.

After all, compare the situation in the natural
sciences: we can never establish 100% perfect closure;
and yet we are not reduced to anecdote outside the

If the purity of one’s materials is an
important condition of closure in chemistry, that
does not mean that we cannot (for the time being)
distinguish sea water from crude oil without the
equipment requisite for analysis.

Statistical controls can certainly be used as an
approximation (however distant) to conditions of
closure. But before they can do so, it is necessary
that some speculative hypothesis has been made which
would explain the possible results. In the absence
of this, even well established statistical correlations which have some predictive power have, as Roy
Bhaskar has pointed out, no explanatory power. And
if the speculations guiding a questionnaire, for
instance, are screwy, the results will have no value.

A particularly blatant example is provided by
Eysenck’s test on politics and personality.18
Communists and fascists are ‘proved’ to share certain
attitudes backed by liberals, by the simple expe~ient
of asking some questions which will be answered in
the affirmative by communists but not fascists or
liberals, and some which will be answered in the
affirmative by fascists but not communists or liberals, and marking the affirmative answers up on the
same axis.

On the other hand, once we know how to speculate
in a scientific manner, anecdotes are far from valueless. A single case study such as that of ‘Anna 0.’

can yield quite a lot of knowledge (e:g. of the possi·
bility of psychogenic physical symptoms, of unconscious ideas, of therapeutic abreaction of memories
– see Studies in Hysteria) .

3 Freud’s Realism
So far this has got us no further than to put Freudian theory and so-called experimental psychology on

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an equal footing. If the latter has come in for more
stick, that is only because it makes unfulfillable
claims to superiority for itself.

But I do think that the Freudian theory is superior, and the superiority lies not so much in the sort
of evidence adduced as in the ontology assumed. This
ontology – which is perhaps what Freud gets criticised for most – is a scientific-realist one: he
takes it for granted that there must be underlying
mechanisms generating the phenomena he encounters in
analysis, and that it is his task to speculate as to
their nature. This task, I would argue, is necessary
despite its conjectural nature, because the alternative is not to abstain from speculation, but to
speculate in a way guided by another ontology. There
are several contenders here: some form of phenomenalism, for which the data are what they are, and not
the symptoms of another thing – I include behaviourism in this category. Or some form of voluntarism,
for which all the data are results of free choices,
equal as to rationality, and assessable if at all
only in moralistic terms. Or some form of reductive
materialism for which the data are mere epiphenomena
of a purely physiological process. The fact that
these speculations may be negative in character denying the need for explanations, rather than offering alternative ones – does not make them any less

Furthermore, all these ontologies have the common
feature of covering the traces of irrationality,
making the symptom invisible as a symptom, i.e. as a
sign of something wrong. If Freud gravitated spontaneously towards a realism of the unconscious, at
a time when phenomenalist and constructivist theories
of science prevailed, this is because his practice
was that of a therapist, and hence the phenomena he
encountered were pathological ones. Once again, this
fact has been used against Freud, i.e. it has been
said that his theory only applies to neurotics. But
a machine-operator can very well be a ‘behaviourist’

as long as the machine is working – all he needs to
know is what happens when you pull which lever. It
is when the machine goes wrong that a mechanic – that
is to say, a realist – is needed. Freud is predisposed in favour of realism because he observes the
methodological primacy of the pathological. 19
It might be alleged at this point that I beg the
question by assuming the reality of symptoms and of
the phenomenon of irrationality and accusing behaviourism and voluntarism of being blind to them, when
of course the consistent behaviourist or voluntarist
will accuse me of seeing things that are not there.

And in’replying to this I can make no use of appeals
to pre-theoretical givens or to the sanctity of
common sense. For Freud himself is highly revisionary in his account of the data. He finds irrationality not only where ‘common sense’ finds it, but also
where there appears to be rationality (rationalization), and where the phenomena had previously been
ascribed to non-rational processes (physiology).20
If one accepts this revisionary function of science
in relation to appearances in one direction, one
cannot rule out the possibility of revision in the
other direction. If good enough reasons could be
given for regarding what appears to be irrational as
really rational or non-rational, we would have to
drop that concept – and with it psychoanalysis. But
a serious project of eliminating the concept of
irrationality would have to include an account of
the appearance of irrationality, just as Freud
explains appearances of rationality in terms of displacement and rationalization. So far, the attempts
that I have seen to eliminate the concept of irrationality – whether behaviourist or voluntarist – leave
me with the impression of a mentality that would

smash the microscope rather than admit to the presence of bugs in the holy water. For instance,
Sartre’s comment on an example from Jane:

A young bride was in terror, when her husband
left her alone, of sitting at the window and
summoning the passers-by like a prostitute.

Nothing in her education, in her past, nor in
her character could serve as an explanation of
such a fear. It seems to us simply that a
negligible circumstance (reading, conversation
etc.) had determined in her what one might call
‘a vertigo of possibility’.

(The Transcendence of the Ego, p.IOO)21
The position of Freudian psychoanalysis in relation to other theories in the psychological field,
then, is as follows:

I It is differentiated from non-analytic psychologies by being constituted by a different practice
(the talking cure, rather than, say, the statistical
survey, behaviour-modification and so on).

2 It consequently takes as its raw material a different set of phenomena – i.e. precisely those phenomena
produced by free association under conditions of

3 As an effect of the ‘pathological’ nature of its
raw material, it makes ‘realist’ assumptions about
the generation of these phenomena. This makes it
appear more speculative than the various ’empirical
psychologies’ constituted by other practices, in that
it makes more positive ontological assumptions.

However, the empirical psychologies neither possess
an experimental alternative to such speculations, in
the way that Trotsky’s metaphor suggests, nor can
they avoid the guilt of speculation by virtue of the
negative nature of their speculations – in that their
theories claim to have explanatory power without
postulating explanatory mechanisms.

These points can be illustrated with reference to
a discussion of the conceptual issues.involved in the
debate between behaviour therapy and psychodynamic
therapy, from the conceptual standpoint of ‘operant
psychology’ by Harzem and Miles. They refer to the
(essentially realist) distinction between those
medical terms which are ‘nosographic’ and those
which are ‘nosologic’.

A nosographic concept is one which describes
the course of an illness but makes no claim
about underlying causes; a nosologic concept
is one which both describes the course of an
illness and entails certain views as to its
orIgIn. Thus in the present state of knowledge
fever is a nosographic concept, while tuberculosis
is a nosologic one.

(Conceptual Issues in Operant Psychology,

The behaviour therapists’ view that in psychiatry
‘the symptoms are the illness’, i.e. that they are
not signs of something else, is then interpreted as
the claim that, at present, psychiatric concepts are
nosographic not nosologic. The behaviour therapist’s
case against the psychodynamic therapists is then
set out; the latter
have assumed that clinical concepts are nosologic and have therefore made the ‘medical’type assumption that one should treat causes
and not symptoms. Since no ordinary cases have
been discovered, such as biochemical abnormalities, they have had recourse to mythological
causes such as ‘conflicts of forces within the
psyche’, and it is these forces which they have
supposed to be in need of realignment. This
mythology has led them into believing that even
when manifest symptoms have been removed
substitute symptoms will appear.


The psychodynamic therapist, then, is accused of
(a) thinking that psychiatry is in a more advanced
state than it is (I would say: in a scientific
rather than a pre-scientific state, explanatory
rather than merely descriptive), and (b) postulating
‘mythological’ (i.e. mental) causes in the absence
of ‘ordinary’ (i.e. biochemical) causes. and
(c)-predicting on this basis a possible clinical
phenomenon (symptom substitution) in advance of the
empirical evidence.

It seems to me that this ‘psychodynamic’ procedure
can be justified as follows: (a) its only a priori
assumption is that psychiatry ought to be scientific.

Hence it takes the speculative risks necessary to any
transition from descriptive pre-science to explanatory science. It assumes a similarity in explanatory
form between psychiatry and other medical sciences.

Cb) It abstains from the a priori assumption of the
behaviourist that mental causes must be mythological,
and hence that psychological medicine must ultimately
give way to physiological, which alone can be explanatory. (It certainly does not assume mental causes to
be ubiquitous; psychoanalysts have never denied the
existence of areas of psychiatry where a physiological explanation and cure are appropriate.) (c) Clinically, it is no more rash than the behaviourist
therapy; the latter’s choice of the practice of
symptom elimination over psychotherapy is equally a
gamble on a speculation – i.e. that symptom-substitution will not occur.

If this is right, there are no counts on which
the psychodynamic approach comes off worse; and on
two counts it looks in better shape, namely that it
is less dogmatic, and that it has the possibility
(if correct) of being an explanatory science. Naturally (as Harzem and Miles point out) this discussion
leaves all the empirical facts to be discovered.

I am certainly not claiming that it is impossible
to work in a scientific way with the data provided by
non-psychoanalytical practices in psychology. The
‘facts’ of the ’empirical’ psychologies are as good
as the ‘facts’ of psychoanalysis. But the tendency
of psychological disciplines whose data are of a nonpathological nature is to theorize them in a nonrealist, empiricist way.

4 Freudian psychoanalysis shares its constituting
practice and therefore also its raw material with a
number of other theories whose speculative content is
at odds with it. If there were no means of deciding
between these, we would be left with an indefinitely
large set of theories, and conceivably all could be
consistent with their empirical input.

Here I think we must appeal to another feature of
Freud’s outlook: not only is he realist in postulating
real mechanisms generating the phenomena, he is

materialist – in a sense akin to Marx’s – in his conception of these mechanisms. Perhaps this is best
understood in terms of a phrase familiar in both
Marxist and Freudian traditions: the scientific world

To elaborate on this: in the first place, the
scientific knowledge of our place in the universe,
our subjection to natural laws, our continuity with
other animal species, our dependence on our material
environment and so on, has a debunking effect on the
pretensions of human vanity to such things as individual autonomy, the self-determination of consciousness, free will; the processes which constitute us as
the beings that we are, occur independently of our
will (as Marx also says of the relations of production in which we enter, and which determine our
social positions).

This imposes on anyone who would adopt a scientific world view in relation to the human world the
Spinozist imperative – to renounce judgements of
praise and blame along with the metaphysical assumptions which they rest on ‘neither to laugh nor weep,
but to understand’. Freud’s whole work is shot
through with this approach. 22
The other side of this anti-voluntarist coin is
the strict determinism which was Freud’s consistent
assumption and the first theoretical premiss of all
his wcrk. We are physical beings, and if determinism
holds in the physical world, our mental life, which
is ontologically dependent on it, cannot be exempt
from determinism – though the causal chains which
include our mental life will not be purely mentalistic. Once determinism is granted at the physical
level, the denial of mental causality implies, not
the autonomy of mind, but its epiphenomenality. (In
the unlikely event of theories about sub-atomic
particles being shown to have any bearing on this,
we can safely say that they will not in any way help
the defenders of free will.) Freud’ s.assumption of
a partly mentalistic determinism is the only theory
that can be described as applying the scientific
world view to the study of mental life. The alternative Cif we leave out the miraculous) is to leave
mental life in magnificent inexplicability, and to
regard physicalistic explanations as the only ones.

It then matters little whether one puts the stress
(idealistically) on the ‘mystery’ of mind, or (reductivistically) on the physical determinism. If we
accept this scientific world view, we can exclude at
the outset theories such as ‘existential psychoanalysis’, or the attempt of phenomenological or
linguistic philosophers to excise causality from
psychoanalysis and transform it into ‘hermeneutics
without energetics’. Why should we accept it?

Simply because, whatever else human beings are, we
are also beings subject to natural laws discoverable
by the natural sciences, and as Marx put it, ‘The
idea of one basis for life and another for science is
from the very outset a lie. ,23
A more specific feature of Freud’s theory which,
given his raw material, is indicated by his scientific
world view, is the role that he assigns to sexuality
in symptom formation and character formation. Of
this matter, Trotsky comments that Freud’s school:

is materialistic, if you leave aside the
question whether it does not assign too big a
place to the sexual factor at the expense of
others, for this is already a dispute within
the frontiers of materialism.

(op.cit., p.233)
However, though the origin of this theory of Freud’s
was perfectly empirical (the correlation of neurotic
symptoms with disturbances of the sex life, on the
one hand – ‘actual neurosis’ – and with infantile
sexual phantasies, on the other – ‘ psychoneurosis’),


it is nonetheless difficult to see what other theory
could have been developed consistently with the
clinical findings, and given the scientific (or as
Trotsky would say, materialist) world view within
which he was working. The instincts postulated by
Jung, Adler, or later therapists with a mystical turn
of mind – instincts which make up in edifying potential what they lack in physiological origin – can be
ruled out; for they would give rise to a psychology
situated in a biological and social vacuum, which
Freud’s is not; Freud’s well has a bottom to it.

On the other hand, the other instincts which have
got materialist credentials – hunger, thirst, etc. differ from sexuality in a way suggested by the title
of an essay by Freud: ‘Instincts and their Vicissitudes l • It is only the sexual instincts that can
properly be said to have vicissitudes. The only
fates which can befall hunger and thirst are satisfaction or frustration, and prolonged frustration of
them is fatal; hence as Freud says, there can be no
question of repression in these cases. The only other
case in which repression is possible is that of an
external stimulus which, because of special circumstances, cannot be removed by action – for example,
fear, as experienced by a soldier at the front. Here
indeed repression can occur and produce symptoms, as
Freud recognises. But such conditions could not
possibly be the normal ones in which our personalities
are formed.

In short, granted a symptom-interpreting practice,
a scientific approach, and a few well-known facts
about human biology, the conclusion that sexuality
is the unique source of symptom-formation and
character-formation is unavoidable. The only question
that arises is whether Freud did not actually understate the influence of sexuality, at least once he
started speculating, in a less than scientific
fashion, about a death-instinct.


Implications for the Geography of the Human

If these sciences have not got ‘theoretically constituted objects’, but practically constituted ones, yet
do discover objective facts in the human world, then
we cannot expect them to be like ‘continents’ or
‘islands’, such that knowing which one you were on
would help you to know where you were. Rather, they
are like criss-crossing forest paths, cut for practical reasons, and communicating only at their intersections. One may know a path without being able to
map the forest.

To make this slightly more concrete and less metaphorical: if each of the human sciences had a theoretically constituted object, clearly marked off from
those of others, there could be no problem about the
legitimacy of using a science in an area far removed
from its associated practice; one would simply have
to ask whether the area in question fell within the
definition of the object of the science in question.

So that, given that art (for example) is a social
practice, one of the ways in which human agents
reproduce/transform their societies, and that Marxism
is the correct theory about such practices, a comprehensively Marxist science of aesthetics would be
known to be possible in principle, even in advance
of any work being done in this area. Some excellent
work – e.g. Della Volpe’s Critique of Taste – has
been motivated by such an assumption. But if the
human sciences are essentially adjuncts of practices,
we may expect Marxist theory to get out of its depth
once it is removed from the context of working-class
politics – and likewise with psychoanalysis outside

the context of the talking cure. Such ‘applied’ uses
of the human sciences are doubly speculative: they
lack not only experimental proof, but any kind of
practical check. I conclude that these uses can
indeed never be scientifically legitimate; it does
not follow that they can never be legitimate in any
way. If the human sciences do not belong to different continents, it may well be that concepts derived
from one practice may throw light’on others. The
metaphor of paths crossing is meant to indicate this.

In other words, there is no codnceptual m~stak~
involved in using Marx’s or Freu ‘s conceptlons ln,
say, literary criticism, but there is no a priori
warrant for doing so. Put that way, this may seem
obvious, but I think it is very easy, given the
Althusserian metaphor of continents, to assume that
there are whole areas of virgin territory just waiting to be opened up for colonisation by psychoanalysis or Marxism, and which, by virtue of belonging
to the appropriate continent, have been assigned to
the science in question by Manifest Destiny. We
should remember Lenin’s warnings:

Whenever any Marxist attempted to transmute
the theory of Marx into a universal master key
and ignore all other spheres of learning
Vladimir Ilyich would rebuke him with the
expressive phrase ‘Komchvanstvo’ (‘communist

(Trotsky, Problems of Everyday Life, p.221)
It goes without saying that one should be equally
wary of psychoanalytic swagger. This does not mean
that we should dismiss works such as The Future of
an Illusion, Civilisation and its Discontents Group
Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, or Leonardo,
nor that we should regard them as fictions like
Moses and Monotheism or Totem and Taboo; but the most
we can say for them is ‘that sounds plausible; that
seems to throw light on such-and-such a phenomenon’;
we should not expect from them knowl~dge of society,
or evidence for Freudian theory, or grounds for new
speculations within that theory.24
Finally, I want to show that the view of scientific practice in the human world that I have presented
is not incompatible with a view that I also hold,
namely that, as Roy Bhaskar puts it, ‘there is an
ontological hiatus between society and people’ (The
Possibility of Naturalism, p.46).

My view may seem at first sight to make all
categorial boundaries within the human sciences artificial, to support the notion that ‘in itself’ the
human world is not ontologically differentiated. In
fact, I have not as yet said anything about different
ontological reglons in the human world – only about
different scientific disciplines. My ‘practical
demarcation’ operates at the level of epistemology,
not of ontology. But the question remains, how can
we know of this ontological hiatus, given that we
cannot in principle establish closure – i.e. study
de-socialised people or a de-populated society? The •
answer must be along the following lines: it is no
accident that we have the practices that we do; the
fact that the practices of the talking cure and of
working-class politics are possible, and are distinct!

tells us something about the nature of the realities
on which they act. A Bhaskarian transcendental aru~­
ment for the ontological stratification of the human
world is therefore possible, but it will be an argument from the possibility of certain practices,
rather than of certain bodies of abstract knowledge,
as in the case of the natural sciences.

This requires a bit of elucidation. If we look at
Bhaskar’s argument for the ontological hiatus,25 we
find that it has to do with the ‘transformational
model’ of the society/person distinction. People
reproduce and transform society, usually unconscious-

ly, in the process of engaging in conscious activities with some other aim; and the manner in which they
can do so is fixed by their places in existing
society. The two aspects of their activities must
be kept distinct: ‘we do not suppose that the reason
why garbage is collected is necessarily the garbage
collector’s reason for collecting it’ (ibid., p.45).

Now scientific socialism and psychoanalytic
therapy are practices which aim consciously at the
self-transformation of society or people (respectively). And it is not logically inconceivable that
the structure of society could be changed simply by
changing people. Utopian reformers such as
Winstanley, Godwin and Tolstoy have always thought
in those terms. Likewise, it is not logically inconceivable that people could be nothing but passive
mirrors of their social positions, which could
develop only insofar as the social structure changed.

Some of the Italian fascists believed something of
the kind, and you occasionally hear it from ‘Marxists’

in moments of Komchvanstvo. 26
Scientific socialism is premissed upon the rejection of (at least) the former as a historical possibility: it is no use converting the boss to socialism,
the constraints of competition will make him act like
any other boss. Of course, in order to change the
social structure, it is necessary to convince a lot
of.people that the change is needed; but these activities of persuasion in which the vast bulk of socialist political activity consists are not an end in
themselves, but constituted entirely by the need to
change the structure. This applies to here-and-now
politics as well as the revolutionary goal: the aim
is not to change people but to build an effective

party, strong trade unions and so on; at every turn,
scientific socialism directs activity away from
individual change towards structural change – pointing
out, for instance, that having leftist individuals as
trade-union officials solves nothing, while altering
the trade union structure so that officials are
accountable to and dismissable by the members solves
a lot. 27
The non-reducibility of structures to people then
can be seen as a condition of the possibility of
scientific socialist politics. Conversely, the nonreducibility of people to the social positions of
which they are bearers is a condition of the possibility of psychoanalysis. If people were wholly
passive products of society, conditioning would be
possible, but not psychoanalytic therapy or rational
argument. If they were wholly self-determining
rational agents, rational argument would be possible,
but not conditioning or psychoanalysis. But all
three are possible.

The possibility of psychoanalysis indicates that
people are agents capable of rationality, but subject
to inner as well as outer constraints, partly of a
biological nature, but partly also autonomously psychological ones – structures precipitated by a
personal history.

It seems then that we know more about the broad
ontological structure of the human world than of the
more abstract parts of existing human sciences, or of
the conditions of the applicability of their concepts.

Our familiarity with the forest paths enables us to
make sound generalisations about the geology, fauna
and flora of the forest. But it leaves us permanently without serviceable maps.28

The same task is undertaken with many of the same assumptions and in a
systematic fashion by Roy Bhaskar, in his book The Possibility of Naturalism,
which was published while I was in the process of writing this essay. But
I had not had time to fully assimilate the findings of that work, and my
references to Bhaskar, except in the final section, are to his earlier work
A Realist Theory of Science.

Abridged version in Radical Philosophy 20. Page references are to the full
version – stylistically mutilated by a copy-editor, sometimes to the point
of literal nonsense – in Issues in Marxist Philosophy, Vol.lII (eds. Mepham
and Ruben).

Represented thus on page 13 of A Realist Theory of Science
Domain of the
Domain of the
Domain of the
All quotations from Cioffi are from his essay ‘Freud and the Idea of a
Pseudo-Science’ in Explanation in the Behavioural Sciences (eds. Borger
and Cioffi).

Though most of the predictions attributed to Marx by Popperians are fictions.

Marx would have burst his ulcers laughing at the idea that Britain would be
the first country to have a workers’ revolution.

That is to say, Popper assumes that any laws, explanations or predictions
postulated in the human sciences must be claims about the open world of
history or biography; then he attacks them for failing to recognise the
abstract nature of the laws of science, and the conditional nature of its
predictions. Likewise with the accusation of unfalsifiability, which only
appears to stick to Marx and Freud because they are assumed to be working in
purely concrete sciences, and it is a characteristic of all concrete sciences
– including natural ones – that counter-examples don’t falsify them.

Unfalsifiability is only an objection in an abstract science.

The structure of science can be represented thus:








The arrows on the left side are absent in the case of the human sciences.

This is what I mean by calling them ‘concrete-bound’.

In the 1857 Introduction. See Grund:t>isse (Penguin, 1973), p.10l, where the
actual words are: ‘The concrete is concrete because it is the concentration
of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse.’

See ‘Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes’ in
Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, eds. Lakatos and Musgrave, Cambridge
Universi ty Press, 1970.

See The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Chapter II.

I am sorry about the cryptic nature of this remark, which I hope will become
clearer in the light of the final two sections of this essay. But roughly
speaking, what I mean is: if someone says of a hypothesis in the human
sciences ‘that it couldn’t be true’, then pointing out the truth of a hypo-



thesis in the natural sciences postulating structurally similar realities
is a useful reply; but if the objection is not ‘that couldn’t be true’ but
‘that couldn’t be known’, such an appeal to natural-scientific parallels has
no force. The human sciences really do labour under epistemological

See John Mepham’s criticisms of Popper in ‘The Struc,.turalist Sciences and
Philosophy’, in Structuralism, ed. David Robey, p.l09.

I admit that I do not argue for this conclusion re Pavlov – but I shall do
so in connection with the ‘experimental’ testing of Freud’s theories, and
the argument can easily be generalised to ‘experimental’ psychology in any

They are taken, respectively, from Freud and Psychology (eds. Lee and
Herbert), The Scientific Evaluation of Freud’s Theory and Therapy (eds.

Fisher and Greenberg, and The Scientific Credibility of Freud’s Theory and
Therapy by Fisher and (;reenberg.

The Scientific Evaluation of Freud’s Theory and Therapy, pp.237-248.

Researcher: Paul Cameron.

It was fully admitted that only approximate results could be expected, as
the ages at which the various stages are reached vary from individual to

Indeed, it might be argued that the ‘fundamental rule’ to free-associate
does establish a sort of closure, as the pressures of reality, conscience
etc. are removed so that wishes can be studied in their nakedness. But this
would depend on the unrealistic assumption of a perfect patient.

Eysenck: chapter on ‘Politics and Personality’ in Sense and Nonsense in
Psychology .

Compare Heidegger: ‘When its unusability is thus discovered, equipment
becomes conspicuous’ (Being and Time, Blackwell, 1962, p.l02) – though I
do not know what Heidegger would think of my thus generalising from the
manner in which the being of the ready-to-hand is disclosed, to that of
Dasein. For Heidegger, it is in Angst that the being of Dasein is disclosed, but from a Freudian perspective, Angst appears as one way among
others in which, if I may so express it, Dasein becomes un-ready-to-hand
for itself.

Freud is quite explicit about the special epistemological status of the
pathological: ‘neurotic human beings offer far more instructive and accessible material than normal ones’ (from The Question of Lay Analysis, quoted
by Paul Roazen, Freud and his FoHowers, p.15l).

I f it is wished – which perhaps it should not be – to designate ‘the obj ect ‘

of psychoanalysis in one word, I suggest ‘the irrational’ is the best we can
do. It covers a larger area than the unconscious, and it is a concept
which, as distinct from the rational and the non-rational, had never been
adequately theorized before Freud.

It is paradoxical in the extreme that some Freudians have thought that
Freud showed that there is no such thing as the irrational, presumably on
the ground that he showed irrational phenomena to be interpretable. It is
exactly as if someone were to say that Marx, by showing that surplus value
is produced in the case that all commodities exchange at their value, had
shown that exploitation did not exist under capitalism.

Of course, it is also true that psychoanalysis tells us something about
the conditions of rationality in thought and action – but not about its

Similar – though nore serious – examples are quoted by Juliet Mitchell in
her counter-critique of Freud’s feminist critics – see her Psychoanalysis
and Feminism.

Compare Marx: ‘My standpoint from which the development of the economic
formation of society is viewed as a process of natural history, can less
than any other make the individual responsible for relations whose creature
he remains, socially speaking, however much he may subjectively raise himself above them’ (Preface to Capital, Vol.l).

In the 1844 Manuscripts, Early Writings, p.355.



A great many misplaced attacks on psychoanalysis – and as many blind-alley
developments of it – stem from an inadequate grasp of the different statuses
of Freud’s various works. On the basis of considerations put forward in
the present essay, I suggest the following categorisation (in order of
diminishing scientificity):

(i) First-hand case studies such as S”tudies in Hysteria and the cases of
Dora, the Rat-man and the Wolf-man. (These are of course themselves by no
means theory-free, and neither could they be.) The nature and treatment of
the empirical material in Three Esssays on the Theory of SexuaZity and some
of the early clinical papers put them in this class too.

(ii) Abstract scientific theorizations such as the meta-psychological
papers and The Ego and the Id.

(iii) Non-clinical interpretive work (dreams, jokes, slips) and second-hand
case studies (little Hans, Senatspr!isident Schreber). These use theoretical
concepts derived from clinical work, in contexts (i. e. individual psychopathology) where they are known to have application. Nevertheless, the openness of the systems involved, and the absence (except in the case of
patients’ dreams, which really belong to class (i)) of clinical checks
(resistance-analysis, abreaction) make all the interpretations highly

(iv) Applied psychoananalysis (as discussed in the text).

(v) Fictions, whether concrete (Totem and Taboo, Moses and Monotheism), or
abstract (such as Beyond the PLeasure PrincipLe or the draft ‘Project for a
Scientific Psychology’).

25 See his The Possibility of Na”tu1’aLism, pp.34-47.

26 I would suggest that the slogan ‘the personal is political’, when used by
non-Marxists, generally implies the former error, and when used by Marxists,
generally implies the latter.

27 Perhaps it is necessary to point out that nothing I have said implies the
absurd view (sometimes attributed to the Marxists of the Second International
or to Al thusser) that social structures can be changed other than by human
agents – who of course will change in various ways in the process. But the
fact that changes in structures involve changes in people does not imply
that the two kinds of change can simply be equated. A personal very
important change in an individual’s life can be politically irrelevant and

viae versa.


In short, one who thinks there is an ontological hiatus between societies
and people need not be disconcerted to find that structures do not take to
the streets; I suspect that those who disregard this hiatus will never be
able to explain the fact that, for the most part, workers do not either.

A note where perhaps another paper is required:

If my model of the work of the human sciences is correct, it might go some
way towards explaining the fact that, whereas the natural sciences progress
exponentially, the tendency is for any human science, after an initial burst
of discovery, to mark time. Thus, psychoanalysis can hardly boast a discovery in the last sixty years, of the same magnitude as half a dozen or so
made by Freud in his first ten years of analytical work. Since then, development has largely taken the form of adaptation to new human subject-matter,
and the rejection of various false paths. ~f my view is correct, this would
not be surprising. Radically new knowledge of the human world is unlikely

to come from already-established sciences; it is more likely to arise from
the production of materialist explanatory speculations in connection with
some praatiae which has hitherto not been theorized scientifically.

This view of the development of the human sciences, taken together with
the fact that these disciplines are heavily subj ect to ideological pressure,
may also account for another singular phenomenon: that precisely the most
rigorous and critically intelligent practitioners of the human sciences will
often appeal to the early sources of the science, as if to an ‘orthodoxy’

against ‘l>eretics’. This need not be due to dogmatism; granted the small
progress which takes place beyond the initial discoveries, and the ease with
which those discoveries are mutilated by and re-absorbed into the ideologies which they had replaced, such defence of ‘orthodoxy’ may be a
condition of the survival of socially critical knowledge.

This does not mean that there is no real danger of dogmatism, but the
form it generally takes is fai 1ure to comprehend new departures in the
subj ect-matter (e. g. the changing culturally-induced images of
masculinity and femininity).

Bhaskar, Roy, A ReaZist Theory of Saienae, Harvester Press.

Bhaskar, Roy, The Possibility of NaturaZism, Harvester Press, 1979.

Borger and Cioffi (eds.), ExpLanation in the BehaviouraL Saienaes, Cambridge
Uni versi ty Press, 1970.

Eysenck, H.J., Sense and Nonsense in PsyahoLogy, Penguin, 1957.

Fisher and Greenberg, The Saientifia Credibility of Freud’s Theory and Therapy,
Harvester Press, 1977
Fisher and Greenberg (eds.), The Saientifia EvaLuation of Freud’s Theory and
Therapy, Harvester Press, 1978.

Harzem and Miles, ConaeptuaL Issues in Operant PsyahoLogy, Wiley, 1978.

Heidegger, Martin, Being and Time, Blackwell, 1967.

Husserl, Edmund, LogiaaL Investigations, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970.

Lakatos and Musgrave, Critiaism and the Growth of KnowLedge, Cambridge
University Press, 1970.

Lee and Herbert (eds.), Freud and PsyahoLogy, Penguin, 1970.

Marx, Karl, EarLy Writings, Penguin, 1975.

Marx, Karl, Grurui:r>isse, Penguin, 1973.

Marx, Karl, CapitaL, Vol.l, Penguin, 1976.

Mepham and Ruben (eds.), Issues in Marxist PhiLosophy, Vol.III, Harvester Press,

Mitchell, Juliet, PsyahoanaLysis and Feminism, Penguin, 1974.

Roazen, Paul, Freud and his FoHowers, Penguin, 1979.

Robey, David (ed.), Strua”tu1’aLism, Oxford, 1973.

Sartre, Jean-Paul, The Transaendenae of the Ego, Noonday, 1957
Timpanaro, Sebastiano, The Freudian Slip, New Left Books, 1976
Trotsky, Leon, ProbLems of Everyday Life, Monad Press, 1973
Texts by Freud are available in various editions, as well as the Standard


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The Workers’ Theatre Movement: ‘A Propertyless Theatre for the
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The Rainbow and Organic Form – Graham Holderness
Against the Tyranny of the Past – Brian Doyle
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