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Psychoanalytical Humanism or Psychological Reductionism? Article Critique Example

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Article Critique

In Walls’ text “Meaning or Medicine: The Future of Psychoanalysis in the Professional Schools”, the author argues against the reduction of all psychological theory and practice to a form of scientific positivism. Consequently, such a gesture excludes the relevance of psychoanalysis, insofar as the latter is defined as a “humanistic and critical discipline concerned with human agency and language, not biological mechanisms.” (Walls, p. 654, 2006) Walls does not state that psychotherapy in general should not incorporate aspects of a positivist approach that emphasizes the importance of empirical data, but rather that more “pluralistic” (Walls, p. 660, 2006) approaches need to be emphasized. This entails that a variety of different methods should be included within both practice and psychological education. The opposition to scientific reductionism is the opposition to approaching psychological problems from a singular viewpoint. This approach can oversimplify these difficulties, while also overlooking innovative new ways of treating the underlying humanistic and social dimension of mental disorder.

Accordingly, Walls’ argument operates within a context in which the psychological field, largely under the aegis of the American Psychological Association (APA), is dominated by the scientific reductionist approach. Mental disorders are thus viewed as indistinguishable from any other physical illness. (Walls, p. 660, 2006) Psychology is assimilated by the increasing technologization of society, whereby humanistic themes are reduced to a hegemonic scientific framework concerned with materials and quantitative data. The author’s text can thus be viewed as a certain protest against this trend within psychological thought, as he attempts to advance the importance of alternative discourses concerning psychotherapy and mental disorder with the aim of not only making psychological theory and practice more dynamic and inclusive, but also to consider the very real human problems of the one experiencing such disorders. For Walls, it is precisely the psychoanalytic approach that conforms to this pluralism. Psychoanalysis commits to the position that diseases are constituted by a diverse number of factors, while also possessing a precise meaning within a pluralistic and ever-changing society.

Much of the author’s argument is based upon the theoretical stance that scientific reductionism in psychology cannot properly address the phenomena that it examines. Accordingly, Walls overlooks the advances and contributions that more positive based approaches, such as cognitive behavior treatment have made. The author assumes that their presence in the APA is only the result of a technologically and scientifically biased ideology, as opposed to an epistemological position engendered by positive results with real patients. Furthermore, Walls assumes the thorough humanism of psychoanalysis, such that it is not concerned with contributions from the more empirical sciences. Yet such a notion was opposed by the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. This would seem to undermine the cogency of Walls’ argument. Hence, Walls must argue that “although Freud admittedly maintained commitments to both organic bases for mental illness and therapeutic techniques based upon the meanings of symptoms”, (Walls, p.660, 2003) such an approach is incorrect. While Walls appears to maintain an orthodox psychoanalytical worldview, he nevertheless must ultimately oppose Freud himself to justify his epistemological presuppositions.

Certainly, Walls’ opposition to scientific reductionism is a point well made. The attempt to view psychological and mental disorder merely as another form of positive science may elide crucial factors that engender such disorders, while also omitting the social context of the suffering which the patient experiences. Walls rather argues for a form of plurality in terms of psychological approach. Nevertheless, at the same time, he attempts to reduce psychoanalysis to an entirely humanistic discipline, thus overlooking some of the epistemological concepts of Freud himself. Freud arguably offered a more pluralistic view of psychoanalytic theory and practice by also underscoring the importance of so-called positivism and the physical body in regards to the study of mental disorders. Hence, Walls correctly argues against the reduction of the psychological to the physical, but performs his own reductionism when he reduces psychoanalysis to the linguistic and the social. This position undermines his own commitment to anti-reductionism. This appears to be a logical inconsistency in his argument. If Walls would be more amendable to a pluralist position, instead of performing his own form of reductionism, his argument would be stronger.

Walls nevertheless mentions the current “flexible epistemology and methodological pluralism” which means that “psychoanalysis survives in a professional school setting” (p. 655, 2006) Hence, within the education system there are encouraging signs that evince the relevance of psychoanalysis and the opposition to positivist reductionism. It is, for the author, rather the precise views of the APA that hinder psychoanalysis and its effectivity. These empirical conclusions themselves evince a germane tension between psychoanalysis and positivist approaches that accurately reflect the clashing paradigms Walls identifies.

Hence, Walls correctly uses empirical data to delineate a very real and present tension between psychoanalysis and such positivist approaches within the field of American psychology. Such a tension, moreover, appears to be an institutional tension, one which overlooks the possibility of more comprehensive and diverse forms of treatment. Yet in making these arguments, Walls continually criticizes the positivist approach for its scientific reductionism, while maintaining – against Freud – the resolutely humanist approach of psychoanalysis. The difficulty with this thesis is that it seems to evoke a logical inconsistency. Is not the reductionism to the humanist perspective also a form of reductionism? In this case, scientific reductionism itself would be the only type of reductionism possible. If Walls wishes to evoke a plurality of approaches – a plurality that is certainly welcomed, according to both a shared commitment to both effective forms of treatment and the dignity of the patient – it would seem that his dismissal of the validity of the positivist approaches is too haste.

 

Works Cited

Walls, G. (2006). Meaning or Medicine: The Future of Psychoanalysis in the Professional

Schools. Psychoanalytic Psychology. Vol. 23, No. 4, 654-660.

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