How Far Would You Go?

by Leonardo Niro

In 2015, my department at the University of Essex launched its BA program in Psychosocial and Psychoanalytic Studies, the only undergraduate degree of its kind in the UK, and one of only a handful of courses in Europe to be focused on psychoanalysis. I spent a number of years spearheading the program: from curricular design to directing the program in its initial years. Ultimately, I believe the BA has proven highly successful, as evidenced by student enrollment, student satisfaction, and employability after completion.

There has been much controversy regarding the place of psychoanalysis within academia since its very inception, with resistance from both academic psychologists and psychoanalysts. Whereas academic psychologists have argued that psychoanalysis does not meet their empirical demands for scientific validation, psychoanalysts have contended that “academicizing” psychoanalysis would inevitably force it to adopt extraneous methods, values, and modes of thinking, erasing the specificity of the discipline. There’s been a broad consensus on both sides that psychoanalysis isn’t “testable” and that the independence of psychoanalytic training is essential to its functioning.

One consequence of this resistance has been that, in the Anglo-American world at least, psychoanalysis has found its most receptive home in the humanities, and not in the social and biological sciences. Moreover, in humanities disciplines like history, literature, and philosophy, most psychoanalytic theorizing and teaching is done by non-clinicians.

In my own home country, Brazil, where psychoanalysis dominates the psychology curriculum (as it does throughout most of South America), there was a heated public debate recently, following the private, online university Uninter’s creation of a B.A. in psychoanalysis, which was publicly opposed by a large number of psychoanalysts, and denounced in opens letters by the IPA-affiliated Sociedade Brasileira de Psicanálise de São Paulo and the Movimento Articulação das Entidades Psicanalíticas Brasileiras (a regulating body composed of over 70 psychoanalytic training institutes). Even though I share the skepticism of my Brazilian colleagues regarding that particular program, some of the arguments employed surprised me, as they seemed to rely on outdated notions, including the conviction that psychoanalysis should remain independent from universities as such. The fact that such disputes continue to arise even in Brazil, where psychology students (like myself) are still clinically trained following a psychodynamic/psychoanalytic approach, is an indication of how contentious the place of psychoanalysis in the university remains. It’s hard to say why this is the case.

One of the chief motivations for creating the Essex BA program was recurrent feedback from our MA and PhD students, who often came to us after studying psychology with the feeling that they’d been “tricked” into studying something other than what they’d signed up for. In the UK, the psychology curriculum is heavily dictated by the British Psychological Society (BPS). As a result, a large part of the curriculum is dedicated to research methods and statistics, leaving little room for electives. Students coming to my department for postgraduate education didn’t have a clear sense of what they felt was missing from their psychology programs, but they were intent on finding out.

And they were not alone. When it came time for me and my fellow colleagues to explain to non-specialist audiences what the new BA program in Psychosocial and Psychoanalytic Studies was, and how it differed from the psychology program, we sometimes had to resort to simplistic concepts simply in order to be understood—for example, the notion that whereas psychology deals with empirical description, psychoanalysis deals with meaning-making; or that psychology seeks to be “scientific,” whereas psychoanalysis is “humanistic” or “relational”; or the notion that psychology focuses on the brain, while psychoanalysis focuses on the psyche. Some even intimated that psychology tended to be politically conservative, whereas psychoanalysis had a revolutionary potential.

These are unhelpful and even misleading generalizations. After all, psychoanalysis also depends upon empirical description, and the field often tracks clinical outcomes. Certain schools of psychoanalysis are concerned with scientificity—particularly in the field of neuropsychoanalysis. And of course, many psychoanalytic institutions—past and present—remain deeply conservative. Conversely, various areas of psychology are less beholden to naïve empiricism and focus more on subjective experience.

How, then, might we better strengthen our argument for the value of psychoanalytic studies? Hannah Segal once said that psychoanalysis was a “godsend” for allowing her to bring so many of her seemingly disparate interests—psychology, philosophy, literature, sociology, etc.—together in a single field of study, one where she could also satisfy her desire to help people in distress. I believe many of us feel similarly. Instead of dogmatic adherence to any one psychoanalytic school of thought or set of ideas, we appreciate the field’s diversity, its inherent interdisciplinarity, and its ability to help us integrate a wide range of interests and needs.

A common misperception of psychoanalysis is that it’s a static field—little changed from the time of Freud himself. To the contrary, psychoanalytic theories and techniques continue to be revised and innovated upon, not only by psychoanalytic clinicians themselves, but also by theorists and practitioners from other fields. The numerous—often radical—changes psychoanalysis has undergone reflect the many different purposes and communities it serves. Every “subject” of psychoanalysis (beginning with Freud, as he conducted his own self-analysis) is also one of its potential innovators, ready to push the boundaries even further.

The philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser is said to have posed the following question in one of his courses at Columbia University: “Some say that Freud went too far. How far would you go?” In our work with students (or potential students) of psychoanalysis, this is surely a question we should keep firmly in mind.

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