Teaching Psychoanalysis in an Era of Empiricist Psychology: Notes from Cape Town

by Francois Rabie

My love affair with all things psychoanalytic began in my final undergraduate year at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. A module (roughly equivalent to a semester-long course) introducing us to clinical psychology and psychopathology drew strongly on psychoanalysis, and I was hooked. It made intuitive sense. Up until then much of my undergraduate psychology degree had consisted in learning how to design positivistic research methodologies and to deploy statistics in that endeavor. I’ve got nothing against structured observation and factor analysis. But something about the theory and practice of psychoanalysis struck me as intellectually and emotionally compelling—rich with possibilities in ways that psychology was not. In part, perhaps, because I was a humanities major, I was more strongly drawn to psychoanalysis as a way of studying human consciousness and subjectivity.

Twenty-five years later, I’m a clinical psychologist and psychoanalytic psychotherapist—not just thinking about psychoanalytic concepts, but also fully experiencing their meaningfulness to the human condition in my intersubjective encounters with patients. Along the way, my own personal journey as an analysand helped me to apprehend the unconscious in rich, frightening, and liberating ways. Being a psychoanalytic clinician allows me to continue to explore and integrate the theory I’ve studied, the experience of my personal analysis, and, of course, daily encounters with my patients. Among the many satisfactions I derive from this way of life are a more profound personal experience of the oceanic unconscious and a deeply emotional sense of my own developmental journey. At the same time, I continue to refine my technique in the best analytic interests of my patients.

I’ve also continued to work in the academic domain. As a graduate student and, later, as a clinician, I’ve taught psychoanalytic theory at both the undergraduate and post-graduate levels at various universities in South Africa, where—as in the U.S.—the lamentable rejection of psychoanalysis tout court by academic departments of psychology persists, leaving little room for psychoanalytic education.

Rather than debate what constitutes “empirical data” or whether phenomena like transference are “real,” I want briefly to share my thoughts on both the joys and hardships of conveying to students something about psychoanalysis that might inspire them to become more curious about aspects of their lived experience that lie outside the strictly empirical domain. Often, undergraduates begin studying psychology without realizing that they will learn more about statistics than about the human condition, whereas psychoanalysis is the study of the human condition.

As a lecturer in both psychoanalytic theory and clinical psychoanalysis, I’ve faced the perennially challenging questions: How best to teach psychoanalysis? and, Where to begin?

I still think it’s best to begin with Freud. But which Freud? As I see it, the revision of Freudian drive theory by neuropsychoanalysts like Mark Solms significantly enhances our understanding of the nature and function of drive-like mechanisms. We know that Freud began his career as a neurologist and always believed in the neurological underpinnings of psychoanalytic concepts. Solms and others have helped realize Freud’s post-Cartesian vision by offering scientific proof of some of Freud’s most radical insights. This Freud—the Freud I share with my students—is no mere historical figure, but (as ever) a bold thinker for today’s world. I want my students to understand that psychoanalysis has always been about challenging the status quo and about using well-honed techniques of observation, both in the consulting room and, increasingly, in the neuroscientific laboratory.

But if this is the Freud one wants to teach, where can one teach him? Most departments of psychology treat the field either as anathema or, at best, a quaint historical relic. Currently, departments of anthropology, cinema, cultural studies, and literature are the most hospitable environments. But university psychology departments and psychoanalytic institutes need to find ways of entering into constructive and creative dialogue about reforming the psychology curriculum. At the same time, psychoanalytic thinkers need to be more receptive to the best work in other branches of psychology. Ideally, theorists and clinicians from both psychology and psychoanalysis should combine forces and establish dedicated shared spaces at their respective universities. Such spaces could, for example, take the form of monthly psychoanalytic seminars or reading groups, which could facilitate collaborative thinking and serve as crucibles for the development of more formal, credit-bearing modules in psychoanalytic studies.

The obvious rifts between academic psychologists, on one hand, and those few remaining clinical psychologists who teach psychoanalysis within psychology departments, on the other, can be especially bewildering and frustrating for students. They see the eye-rolls of their statistics lecturers and hear the dismissive tones of those devoted to cognitive approaches, whenever psychoanalysis is mentioned.

Many students brought these sorts of experiences with them to my large lecture course on “Personality Psychology,” which I taught in the Department of Psychology at a major South African university. Even though this particular psychology department mandates teaching “some” psychoanalysis, it helps tremendously when, say, the departmental chair is also committed to psychoanalysis, which was the case when I taught there. Still, the anti-psychoanalytic attitudes that students have imbibed continue to generate certain forms of anxiety and defensiveness in me. I know that much of what I say will be met with the same dismissive skepticism they’ve had drilled into them in their (implicitly or explicitly) anti-psychoanalytic psychology courses. It actually helped all of us to speak about these forms of dismissiveness to my class during the orientation lecture and to encourage conversations about the persistent tensions between psychology and psychoanalysis.

For the most part, I’ve found that students quickly overcome this knee-jerk skepticism and are eager to learn about psychoanalytic theory and practice. Indeed, psychoanalysis tends to make psychology “come alive” for many of them, enhancing their curiosity about the workings of the mind. I share anonymized examples from my own clinical practice to help students see even more clearly how unconscious dynamics work.

I’ve also found that literature and film can play a crucial role in enriching students’ understanding of psychoanalytic concepts. For example, I’ve assigned A. S. Byatt’s short story “The Thing in the Forest” as a context for exploring Kleinian psychoanalysis and object relations. The 1977 film Equus, based on Peter Shaffer’s play, has also been a rich source of psychoanalytic insights. Students enjoy such works, and their curiosity about their “meaning” ultimately help them to understand the origins and motivations of that very curiosity in psychodynamic terms.

Notwithstanding these successes, I rarely have more than three weeks in each thirteen-week module to cover psychoanalytic material, as students still must be introduced to theories of personality from psychometric, systemic, and post-modern perspectives as well. This limit makes decisions about what to cover and how all the more challenging. Do I want to give students a sense of the experience of psychoanalysis—a taste of the affective “flavor” of what goes on in the consulting room? Should I seek to help them achieve some form of emotional insight that would be relevant to their own lives and the social world they inhabit? Is it most important for them to understand fundamental concepts, such as the oedipal scenario, even if that means ignoring the subjective dimensions of their own filial anxieties and phallic strivings?

Even in the short time allotted, I try to give them an experience-near education in the fundamentals of psychoanalysis. I also want some of them, at least, to consider possible careers as psychoanalytic psychotherapists or psychoanalysts. Above all, I want psychoanalytic concepts to resonate with them in both intellectually and emotionally meaningful ways.

It’s neither arrogant nor parochial to urge that more time be allotted to psychoanalytic concepts in the psychology curriculum, as they still constitute our most powerful model of human subjectivity. Of course, different psychoanalytic theories give us different roads to follow. But the terrain is always that of the unconscious, and the journey is always intersubjective. Most contemporary psychology departments don’t even provide a copy of the map.

In the end, some of my students do come away with developmentally helpful insights into the workings of their own young selves: their experience of maturation, their relationships with others, their place in the world. That other students remain skeptical is no cause for disappointment, cynicism, or despair. To demand conformation to psychoanalytic thinking would be to undermine the very ethos of psychoanalysis. Also, the tensions between academic psychology and psychoanalysis won’t be resolved anytime soon—they might even prove to be productive (as many disciplinary tensions do), especially now that neuropsychoanalysis is empirically confirming so much of what psychoanalysts have been observing and theorizing for well over a century.

According to psychoanalyst Neville Symington, “psychoanalysis is an experience that occurs between two people. It is a deep experience and can only be very inadequately communicated to another person…The theories within psychoanalytic discourse have as much relation to psychoanalysis as a manual of sexual techniques has to the emotion of being in love” (1986, 9). He goes on to suggest that “psychoanalysis cannot be taught. I can tell you about Freud, I can tell you about the topographical model of the mind, but you will not be an inch nearer knowing what psychoanalysis is, for it is a phenomenon which occurs at the centre of the individual” (1986, 15).

However, as I see it, potentially productive tensions exist not only between departments of psychology and scattered courses and programs in psychoanalytic studies, but also within psychoanalytic pedagogy. Symington forces the question: How do you teach such a subjective form of experience? At the undergraduate level, for example, psychoanalytic theories informed by postmodernist thought contrast sharply with more traditional or “classical” theories. (One approach I’ve developed is to teach Freud as a post-modern thinker himself!) At the graduate level, these differences become even more challenging, as future practitioners face a wide range of clinical models and styles. Just as psychoanalysis and psychology can feel light years apart, psychoanalytic thinkers and practitioners can also hold antagonistic views on matters of both theory and technique.

As teachers, we’ll have to continue to help our students navigate unresolved tensions between theories and concepts, while also—at least indirectly, and even unconsciously—conveying to them something of the affectively charged, interpersonal atmosphere of the analytic consulting room. This atmosphere is saturated with meanings that might be said to approach the condition of truth. Symington, for instance, says that psychoanalysis does not “have” the truth, but that it is able to repair and enhance our ability to seek the truth of our experience. As insights emerge, meaning takes shape and can even be the basis for new epistemologies.

To a significant extent, clinical psychoanalysis is about the re-integration of fragmented selves. We seek to help our patients experience an expanded affective range and to weaken the archaic defense mechanisms that interfere with healthy adaptation and restrict creative growth. And even in an undergraduate lecture hall, with hundreds of students, we can help each one of them apprehend something of the atmosphere of the consulting room and the ways in which theories give way to interpersonal practices—to mutually informing, though asymmetrical, experiences of the dynamic unconscious and new forms of self-encounter.

Work cited

Symington, Neville. 1986. The Analytic Experience: Lectures from the Tavistock. New York: St. Martins.