Psychoanalysis Is Scientific

This is a philosophy of science paper. I will summarize the emergence of psychology, psychiatry and psychoanalysis from the Western philosophical tradition, and use Bacon’s (1620/1993) definition of science and the contemporary philosophy of “Critical Realism” to argue that excluding psychoanalysis from science rests on an erroneous valorization of subjectivity or a constricted definition of science.     My axiomatic assumptions:  1) I am real and I have some degree of will power; 2) You are real and, similarly, have will power.  To believe otherwise would suggest “depersonalization,” “derealization,” and “abulia,” impairments of mental functioning. Subjectivity is real and worthy of scientific study, but is not the sole reality for a scientific psychology.  Descartes’s “Cogito ergo sum” is, despite post-Cartesian argument, correct; Berkeley’s “Esse est percipi” is not.

Exploring the world starts at birth, perhaps some few weeks earlier.  Neonates have immediate sensations that slowly become organized, forming a core subjectivity that will be present throughout life.  Toddlers begin to develop a theory of mind, an accurate belief that others also have a subjective core.  Such recognition gradually leads (under supportive conditions) to “I am not the center of the universe; reality exists beyond my perception and will.”  Reality-testing – the differentiation of internal and external – is a basic, though imperfect ego function.  This is a cursory ego-psychoanalytic description of early development.

That psychoanalysis is scientific has been disputed for decades; the debate remains heated.  Recent issues of Psychoanalytic Psychology (2015) and the International Journal of Psychoanalysis (2015) were largely devoted to psychoanalytic research, and an extensive discussion played out on Division 39’s listserv.  Science advances from argumentation as well as data.

Healing, Science and Philosophy

I’ve proposed (2013) that the discipline of psychoanalysis, like Freud’s ego (1923), serves three masters: healing, science, and the history of ideas.  These domains have different standards and methods.  Many conceptual problems in psychoanalysis stem from attempts to meet the conflicting standards.  Epistemology is the philosophical context for psychoanalysis as science, with Ethics, the philosophy of values, also relevant.  Science, philosophy, and history are intellectual domains. Clinicians must respect ideas while attending to the pragmatics of helping patients; in a treatment situation, therapeutic intent should have priority over scientific aims (Stone, 1954).


Psychology emerged by addressing three central philosophical issues: the problem of knowledge (cognitive psychology), the problem of action (behavioral psychology), and the problem of evil (clinical psychology). Psychiatry advanced from demonology through humane caregiving to become part of scientific medicine that itself emerged just a bit more than a century ago.  Psychoanalytic treatment addressed the clinical phenomena of neurotic suffering.  Freud advanced propositions and a method for exploring the dark side of human nature, a dynamic unconscious.  “Social” sciences emerged: sociology, anthropology, economics and politics, each developing validity criteria and methods fitting its subject matter.

Philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626), called the father of empiricism, defined science as “an attitude toward the universe in which observations are made using the best methods available; logic is employed; and contradictions or magical, supernatural, and ad hoc solutions are rejected.”  Brenner noted that all sciences are inferential and influenced by the observer’s psychology, but facts rule (2006).  Experimentation may be employed but is not required (e.g., Galileo’s astronomy); quantification is a tool of science, not its essence.  Two principles to add to Bacon’s and Brenner’s: scientific conclusions are tentative, and although “psychological reality” is rife with contradiction and paradox, its methods are rational and empirical.

Science was first called natural philosophy; epistemology asks how we know.  Plato’s answer: look inward, using “the mind’s eye” rather than easily-deceived senses.  Aristotle declared otherwise: observation is primary.   Descartes followed Plato: we know only what our minds can grasp; we think, we doubt.

The British Empiricists, especially Berkeley, extended Aristotle’s program: perception defined reality.  Perception enhanced by technology: the telescope, microscope, fMRIs , remains subjective. Science requires replication and consensus to validate perception; psychoanalysis attends to counter-transference.  Renik’s “irreducible subjectivity” (1993), suggests that subjectivity is altogether irreducible, rather than not reducible to zero.  That we are imperfect instruments rules out neither scientific activity nor reality-testing.   Physicians rely on subjectivity, asking patients to rate their pain; self-report and lab tests together validate treatment.

The Age of Reason led to the Age of Enlightenment, with observation and reason superseding revelation for comprehending the world.  John Dewey’s pragmatism (knowledge is what works), and Sartre’s choice (of what to believe) are 20th Century contributions to scientific epistemology. Contemporary science rejects supernaturalism, and is uncomfortable with a radical relativism of choice.  Post-modernism treats subjectivity as a spur to scientific inquiry, with certainty always beyond reach.   Scientific disputes focus on methodology.   Science is better served by “both/and” rather than “either/or” approaches to method.  Aristotle promoted empiricism without rejecting Plato’s rationality.

Critical Realism

Philosopher-Psychoanalyst Charles Hanly, a former IPA president, described the central tenets of this epistemology (2014, pp 903 ff): A real world exists, independent of our senses.  Appropriate scientific methods of observation can help us know reality to a degree, as can unaided observation that allows commonsense knowledge of other persons and other things.  Following Freud (1927), Hanly goes on: Evolution has enabled the human mind to “develop precisely in the attempt to explore the external world (p 55).”  Children learn to assess reality with degrees of accuracy.  Freud asserts that the human mind is part of nature, knowable just as any natural object only in a mediated way, and that mind is determined not only by its own structure, but by the objects (i.e., people) that affect it – an early relational idea.

Freud’s arguments support my critique of the distinction between “social” and natural sciences that implies lesser status.  For Descartes and the empiricist philosophers, subjectivity was the basis for knowing, while naysayers see mind as unable to judge reality, leaving it only with constructions.  Critical Realism sees subjectivity as a limiting factor, requiring continuous scrutiny of the reliability of observation, rather than dismissal or mushy relativism.  Hanly states: “there is no end to observing and correcting our clinical observations (p 904).”  [Ongoing debate about “truth” and the nature of evidence in psychoanalysis is addressed by Levine (2016) and others in a recent special issue of the Psychoanalytic Quarterly.] Psychoanalysis has abandoned the idea of a godlike analyst with immaculate perception.   Busch’s (2015) IPA Congress plenary address underscored tentativeness in clinical psychoanalysis as a major change from the approach of earlier generations.

There is hard science – and harder (not lesser) science that must contend with the problem of subjectivity.  Rogers (2014), reviewing Stanislas Dehaene’s “Consciousness and the Brain” (2014), supports this position.  Dehaene acknowledges that subjective reports can mislead, but states that the subjective report of the viewer in the lab is exactly what is meant by conscious awareness.  “Subjective reports are the key phenomena that a cognitive neuroscience of consciousness purports to study. They are primary data (p. 42)… along with …psychophysiological observations.”   And: “The Self is “a statistical deduction from observation…” Every self is different from all other selves, and differs from itself over time” (p. 113).

Reality-testing, an ego-psychoanalytic concept and emergent property of mind, is essential despite imperfect perception.    For Plato, Descartes, the empiricists, and we healers who inquire about thoughts and feelings, subjective consciousness is a natural phenomenon subject to scientific exploration.  Freud deepened the understanding of human subjectivity by focusing on meaningful unconscious mental processes (psychological reality), also natural phenomena.

Reductive Causality vs. Emergence

Reductive causality declares mind to be brain, brain to be chemistry, chemistry to be physics and physical particles and sub-particles to have their character determined ultimately by the Big Bang.  A consistent reductionism would claim our universe is not only determined, it is predetermined; if we can state necessary and sufficient antecedents, everything follows.  That seems as predetermined as the notion of an all-powerful god whose omniscience must include immutable knowledge, even of the future.   Contra this radical determinism, scientific domains develop methods of study of phenomena not adequately understood by their contingent precursors.  There is no dispute about proximal causality or causal chains; free association relies on such chains.  Despite the claims of Churchland (2013), emergent phenomena cannot be radically reduced.

“Emergence” is a conceptual alternative to reductionist determinism.  Particles come together to form atoms and molecules with properties different from the particles; these come together over a vast time span in which life emerges with reproductive abilities not present in earlier material forms.  Evolution generates new forms by variation and mutation.  Life evolves toward complex nervous systems and the human brain.  The brain’s properties include consciousness, self-consciousness, language, a procedural unconscious that allows walking and riding bikes thoughtlessly, and a dynamic, meaningful unconscious.  At each level, the properties are natural phenomena – not epiphenomena – around which scientific disciplines develop.  Each discipline focuses on phenomena within its domain, developing methods specific to their study.  Humans continue to evolve to create groups, economies, polities and cultures.   Each emergent form can be studied scientifically.  Social, political and economic realities exist; science itself must be funded to survive.  Borderline disciplines address transitions.  The brain is the hardware of mind.  Lesions and other hardware differences (variations, mutations) have effects studied by brain science.  When neural hardware seems intact, psychology, psychiatry and psychoanalysis become relevant; philosophy’s Problem of Evil will not be solved by biology alone.

Evolution is progressive because a few hardware changes increase adaption and survival.  Inbreeding produces fewer changes; variety in a genetic pool advantages survival.  Social evolution works in historical, not geological or cosmic time.  Evolution has accelerated since the 1890s: through technology (built on science), social equality (built on evolving value systems), and the population explosion (built on agricultural and medical advances).   Science has become an industry with space-age applications that generate new questions and better answers.

In addition to the personal investment we have in our own offspring, every baby represents a potential Copernicus, Darwin, Freud or Einstein.  The population explosion creates a new set of environmental conditions – not all beneficial, but every baby (including identical twins) is different from every other.

The complex phenomenology of humanity therefore extends itself indefinitely, as long as we do not destroy ourselves and the planet.  Each baby is unpredictable.  Individuals interact based on proximity, creating different cultures, political and economic systems, and now global connectivity.  These phenomena are worthy of scientific study, not to be restricted (as was anatomy by religious bans on dissection), or demeaned by a “scientism” strangled by its narrowness.

The study of individuals addresses commonalities as well as uniqueness.  No generalization fully describes an individual. Intensive individual study will be incomplete, but essential for understanding anyone.  Individualized medicine assumes the same stance as clinical psychoanalysis.

Over-determination, “Multiple Function,” Parsimony

Freud (1895) asserted that a “convergence of several factors” is required to generate a hysterical symptom; human behavior is not based on simple causality. The search for causes is replaced in psychoanalysis by a search for multiple motives operating together and sometimes in conflict; conscious intent is never a single or even necessarily dominant factor.  A depth psychology is posited in which personal history, imperfectly remembered, contributes to thoughts, wishes, fears, symptoms and behavior.  Waelder (1930) described “multiple function” as behavior serving several aims at once. Science eschews teleology in principle, but human minds conjure possible futures or fantasies that motivate behavior.

Over-determination and multiple function are concepts analogous to interactions in statistical analysis of variance and covariance, where outcomes result from single variables and interactions among them.  Psychology is multifactorial and loosely assembled; rarely does simple causality help to understand people.

Parsimony is a scientific principle; it does not overrule actual complexity.  Though I admire its elegance, I find Brenner’s parsimony inadequate for my own clinical work.

Free Will

Philosophy of science discussions are often sidetracked by semantic issues.  Free Will is an issue that appears to contradict science.  The seeming paradox of the psychoanalytic “free association,” which we know is not at all free, is resolved by semantic precision.

“Freedom” is a concept, applicable in several domains: statistical, political, and psychological among them.  For traditional science everything is determined (unfree).  Contemporary science recognizes emergence as a property of evolution. Statistics uses “degrees of freedom” to measure indeterminacy.  Political science measures freedom by rating elections, independent judiciary and press freedom to compare nations.  Natan Scharansky felt he had more freedom in the gulag than did his guards: freedom of thought.  Freedom in any domain is a relative matter; it is a Platonic Idea.  Enhanced agency is a primary aim of psychoanalytic treatment, freeing people from inhibitions, symptoms and anxieties.

Modesty, Ambition and Progress in Science

Scientists focus on specific phenomena to fit their methods.  Dissertations conclude with a section on limitations of the study that may limit generalization (e.g., sample size and population).  Research programs address limitations with further research.  Scientists must be modest in their claims.

Scientists are also expected to be ambitious.  Research does aim for generalization, and for applications.  Freud was ambitious, attempting a complete understanding of the human mind.  His range came to include humor, art, literature, and the psychopathology of everyday life.   Darwin’s propositions have become the overarching paradigm for life sciences.

Ambition leads to error; Freud made many.  The subtitle to his Narcissism paper (1914), “an introduction, could apply to much of his writing.  Freud is chided for having no summary.  This omission may be his recognition that his system, like Darwin’s, was incomplete.  Freud’s view of psychosis is questionable; his psychology of women is undermined by its phallocentric viewpoint.  “Anatomy is destiny!” was publicly challenged in 1951 by Christine Jorgenson, recently by Caitlin Jenner, following a 40-year political movement by the transsexual demographic.  Freud’s “bedrock” (penis envy in women, castration anxiety in men) was a leap of faith.  His rejection of other-than-clinical research promoted an isolation that still hampers scientific progress.

The atomic physics of the 1940’s gave way to nuclear physics and to strange entities; even to “quantum weirdness.”  Nobel Laureate physicist David Gross sees ignorance – and new questions – as driving science.   Scientists must be ambitious and modest.  Ambition expands the frontiers of knowledge; modesty limits premature claims. Scientists devise more refined methods to make progress.  Popper led a philosophical assault on the scientific standing of psychoanalysis over 50 years ago; Grunbaum continued the assault more recently.  Responding to Grunbaum, Howard Shevrin conducted a series of increasingly refined studies.  The philosopher cried “Uncle;” acknowledging Shevrin’s (2012) work as a valid demonstration of psychoanalytic hypotheses.

Best Evidence; Convergent validity

“Best evidence” is a complex concept,” determined – always provisionally – by social, cultural, even political consensus; the FDA recently approved a new pill for enhancing female desire by a vote of 18-6.

Despite Meehl’s (1954) finding statistical prediction superior to clinical judgment, the latter is standard for individual decisions in all health care practice; cases also remain the primary source of psychoanalytic data.  Experimental findings don’t readily translate to individuals; operational definitions and exclusion criteria limit generalizability, and patients may be statistical outliers. Statistical significance often falls short of practical significance, experimental conditions differ greatly from those of clinical practice, and contamination and fraud are not unheard of.    Failure to replicate is common for all areas of scientific research.  Randomized controlled trials (RCTs) are considered a “gold standard” for empirical research, but a close look at RCTs comparing drugs or psychotherapies frequently shows results to be tarnished (Wachtel, 2010), leading to “fool’s gold” claims (Shedler, 2015). It is understandable that practitioners are critics of controlled research; Hoffman’s (2009) rejection of quantitative studies drew a standing ovation at his invited APsaA address.  I read summaries of research papers, often finding full articles dull reading and rarely directly relevant to my practice.

Yet I must admonish fellow clinicians that an art whose claims are more than aesthetic needs more than claims for affirming its value. A google search shows nearly 500,000 listings for psychoanalytic research; with significant support for treatment effectiveness, as well as clarification of therapy concepts and process.  Many studies use quantitative methods to provide normative data; social policy research is scientifically respectable. “The Authoritarian Personality” (Adorno, et al, 1950) initiated political psychology.  Clark, Chein and Cook (1952) were cited in the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision outlawing school segregation.

Scientific method begins with systematic observation, and correlation; clinical evidence may be limited to these methods.  Psychoanalysis is not unique in this regard (e.g., meteorology, astronomy), nor is it unusual for much of health care practice. Scientific judgments are based on current empirical evidence and best rational arguments.   “Convergent Validity” – a preponderance of observation, correlation, relevant experimentation, and findings from related disciplines – is a proper standard for “best evidence.”  Life forms evolve; subjectivity seems to have infinite potential for variation.  Lest we find ourselves in the hatchery of Aldous Huxley’s dystopic “Brave New World,” individuals must be treated as unique.  Science corrects its findings with changing consensus over time.  There can be no complete theory of everything (Critchley, 2015). Researchers and clinicians should stop fighting: “The farmers and the cowboys should be friends” (Hammerstein, 1943).

Epistemophilia and its Discontents

The urge to know motivates infants.  Freud spoke of an epistemic drive.  Panksepp’s recent work (2012) supports this idea.  Curiosity is basic to science and to the future evolution of our species.  Knowing is resisted because knowledge can be painful.  Weaning requires accommodation to a reality beyond personal need; toilet training inhibits urges; the Oedipus complex redirects and defers desire; mortality leads to adaptations, from depression and despair to the search for meaningful lives.  The Western creation myth forbids tasting the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge; Biblical knowing is a synonym for sex.  What Freud made explicit has been in plain sight since Eve met the serpent.   Science aims to discover realities. Psychoanalysis focuses on subjectivity and approaches its task with the best methods available.

Daily headlines demonstrate the failure to solve the Problem of Evil.  Science is not alone in its efforts; by evoking personal engagement, the humanities provide a second path.  Freud was as inspired by Sophocles, Shakespeare and Goethe as he was by Brucke and Meynert.  Psychoanalysis bridges C.P. Snow’s (1959) “Two Cultures.”  The study of superego phenomena exemplifies a psychoanalytic approach.  Religion may provide comfort to multitudes, but its “side effects” – intolerance, fanaticism, cultism and holy war (common expressions of a punitive superego) – undermine its claims. Freud’s genius allowed him to create from his efforts to heal a new science that has become a permanent contribution to the history of ideas. This science, a disciplined curiosity based on a set of ideas, continues to address the challenges of the Problem of Evil.

What do practitioners consider the most helpful personality taxa in understanding their patients?

Robert M. Gordon, Andrea Blake, Robert F. Bornstein, Francesco Gazzillo, Janet Etzi, Vittorio Lingiardi, Nancy McWilliams, Cheryll Rothery, and Anthony F. Tasso 1

While the DSM and ICD basically classify mental disorders according to manifest symptoms, the Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manuals (PDM Task Force (2006) 1 and 2 (Lingiardi & McWilliams in press) are taxonomies based on the dynamics of the whole person. The PDM considers in addition to manifest symptoms: personality organization (healthy, neurotic, borderline, psychotic2), personality disorders or syndromes (e.g. schizoid, histrionic, narcissistic, etc.), and mental functioning (e.g. capacity for intimacy, defensive level, self observing capacity, etc.). The aim of this categorization is to better inform psychotherapy. However, since the PDM is associated with a psychodynamic orientation, it is uncertain if the typical practitioner would accept a taxonomy not based on manifest symptoms.

In order to assess this, we asked a sample of mental health practitioners from a wide range of educational backgrounds and theoretical orientations. The participants filled out a demographic survey, rated a recent client on the Psychodiagnostic Chart (PDC) and then rated the clinical usefulness of each diagnostic taxon (1 = not at all helpful, 7 = very helpful).

Robert M. Gordon and Robert F. Bornstein (2012) developed the Psychodiagnostic Chart (PDC) as an operationalized guide to the Adult diagnostic section of the PDM. Gordon and Stoffey (2014) found excellent construct validity and excellent two-week test-retest reliability. The PDC was recently updated for the PDM2.3

The volunteers (N = 438) were recruited from 14 workshops on the DSM, ICD and PDM.  In this sample, 46% held doctoral degrees, 67% were female, 60% were age 50 or older. Primary orientations were 41% Family Systems, Humanistic/Existential or Eclectic and 33% CBT.  Only 26% identified themselves as primarily having a psychodynamic orientation.

The results of our survey indicated that the percent rated as “helpful – very helpful” (ratings from 5-7) in understanding their patient for each diagnostic taxon were:  level of personality organization 75% (M = 5.3, SD = 1.40), personality disorders 62% (M = 4.9, SD = 1.49), mental functioning 67% (M =5 .0, SD = 1.40), and cultural/contextual issues 41% (M= 4.7, SD= 1.54).  Only 30.5%  (M = 4.2, SD =1.47) rated symptoms as “helpful-very helpful” in understanding their patient. Wilcoxon Sign Ranked Nonparametric Paired Tests was used due to the skewed distributions. All of the diagnostic dimensions were significantly different at p < .0001, except the differences between personality disorders and cultural/contextual issues which was p = .004.

These results suggest that the typical practitioner would find the taxonomy of the PDM1 and PDM2 as clinically useful (the PDM2 has essentially the same taxonomic classification as the PDM1). They even value personality organization, personality disorders or syndromes, and mental functions more than manifest symptoms for helping to understand their clients. However, students and practitioners need to be educated about the PDM, and it needs to be taught whenever the DSM and ICD are introduced.


1. Coauthors after Dr. Gazzillo are listed in alphabetical order.  Many thanks for the help with recruitment and data collection go to: Debra Kay Bennett, Amy Brosof, Robert Galligan , Jenny Holcomb, Arpana G. Inman, Linh Luu, Bindu Methikalam, Sneha A. McClincey, Susan C. McGroarty, Allison Otto, Bethany Perkins, Judi Ralph and Ken Ralph (J&K Seminars), Val Spektor, Lauren Turner and Christina Villani. The IRBs of Muhlenberg College and Chestnut Hill College determined that this project adequately protects the welfare, rights, and privacy of human subjects.

2. The PDM1 did not include a psychotic level of personality organization, but psychotic level is in the PDM2.

3. For free copies of the Psychodiagnostic Chart go to:


Bornstein, R. F. and Gordon, R. M. (2012). What do practitioners want in a diagnostic taxonomy? Comparing the PDM with DSM and ICD. Division/Review: A Quarterly Psychoanalytic Forum.

Gordon, R.M., & Bornstein, R.F. (2012). A practical tool to integrate and operationalize the PDM with the ICD or DSM.

Gordon, R.M. and Stoffey, R.W. (2014). Operationalizing the Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual: a preliminary study of the Psychodiagnostic Chart (PDC), Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, 78, 1.

Lingiardi, V. & McWilliams, N. (in press) Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual-2, Guilford Press.

PDM Task Force (2006) Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual. Silver Spring, MD: Alliance of Psychoanalytic Organizations.

Regarding Fundamentalism: Few Comments on the One and the Other

During an anti-US protest in Bangladesh in October 2001, the demonstrators carried large banners in support of Osama bin Laden. On some of these posters, Bert, one of the Muppets of Sesame Street, was shown peeking from behind bin Laden’s left shoulder. The connection caused some perplexity: the West’s public enemy number one was shown alongside a children’s character loved by the American media and a mouthpiece for American values.

If it is true that all types of fundamentalism share protesting and reacting against change, resisting the modernization and secularization which they regard  as a threat to the very roots of their alleged “cultural identity”, it is also true that, as the above example shows, the contamination they resist so furiously has always already happened. We see this in the weapons that the fundamentalist fighters use, in the different media technologies they employ, in the banking system where they invest their money, in the racist slogans borrowed from the very cultures they are fighting against and so on. Fundamentalists are an integral part of the world they condemn and they make ample use of its resources and customs.

Given that each fundamentalist considers himself the guardian of a certain orthodoxy bound to protect his identity, as well as the identity of his group, it is  useful to examine the topic of “cultural identity” in more details. The notion of “cultural identity” hearkens back to the historical and cultural baggage specific to a given social group, which most of the time shares the same language, and includes the traditions, experiences, rules, values, habits and know-how that are related to the way in which the group maintains and organizes itself, treats its members and behaves towards its geographical environment. The notion was at the basis of the modern concept of the nation, which went hand in hand with the assertion of the principle of popular sovereignty and the introduction of the new conception of the state. Following the 18th century revolutions, the legal adoption of natural law (the philosophical doctrine which attributes to man certain natural and inalienable rights, freedom and equality) implies an understanding of the state whose power is no longer absolute but limited. Based on an individualistic view of society, the state is now considered a function of the individual and the individual no longer considered a function of the State.

History indicates that the notion of “cultural identity” is by its very nature in flux; it is inhabited by constant transformations, which reflect the changes in the social bond and in the individuals that belong to it. Cultural identity maintains an unstable equilibrium between tradition and transformation. It is by definition an aspheric idea, as it is always the case in the domain of ‘identity’. On this matter, psychoanalysis has much to offer. It has shown that the process of identification relies on a structural alienation. As Lacan points out, the emergence of the subject of the statement necessitates a passage through an undefined subject and a reciprocal subject, which are logical agencies within the collective. Through  a specific context (symbolic, imaginary and real); through language,  lalangue and the primary affective environment where the exchange with the other inscribes jouissance in the body; through  the identifying with the expectations and fantasies of the child’s caretakers, the elements of a primary cultural identity, which is at the same time a subjective identity, are articulated. The exchange with the other is by definition a transmission, since it carries within itself, as Lacan puts it, the sound deposits (“dépôts sonores ) of “the ways in which a group handles its unconscious experience”.

What we call “culture” is a social bond infused with the subject’s libidinal and affective relationships to the collective from which the subject originates, whose resonances we will continue to carry throughout our lives. The feeling of belonging to a specific cultural identity provokes immediate affective responses: whether it is nostalgia, joy, shame or rejection. This is inevitable, given that it results from an “operation” of identification that had initially mapped out the territory of the subject’s  drives and structured his relationship to the world. However, based on these premises, the identificatory process continues to operate throughout a lifetime, depending on our social life and standing, on the historical context in which we live, on our work and studies, our health, interests and so on. Always in a state of becoming, cultural identity includes both the idea of a community of kin and the ideas of plurality and difference. In this sense, the way in which the term is used — and abused–- by all those who would like to turn it into a finite set of specific characteristics, which could be counted and determined, is quite paradoxical. It is a contradiction in terms, a hypostasis of sameness: a cult of the One that contradicts the divided nature of the subject of language and serves as a basis for nationalist, racist and segregationist claims.

In relation to this, we remark that the larger the need to adhere to a pre-established identity, the stronger the necessity to manifest this need,   the weaker  is the subject that is expressing it. This is the case, for example, with many young people during adolescence, when the need to separate oneself from one’s original environment and become independent, as well as the need to give meaning to the problems of existence, can result in one’s joining all kinds of identity formations, which are often fetishized or radicalized. The vulnerable subject finds support in identifying with a group, in which, as Freud has shown, putting a person, thing or ideology in the place of the ideal, fosters the libidinal ties among members and strengthens the feeling of belonging. The result is often a homogenization and uniformisation, a bracketing of subjective responsibility and sometimes a blind obedience to the rules dictated by the ideal. By giving the individual a sense of certainty, the group masks the subject’s own insecurity and restores a feeling of unity that is by nature fleeting. Let us note that the more the symbolic context is lacking (lack of recognition and social integration, lack of education, affective isolation, segregation, marginalization and so on), the more unstable is the subjective image and the sense of self. The ego responds to this instability with a defensive rigidity, a paranoiac turgidity, which easily leads to aggressiveness, violence and self-destruction. Hatred is triggered by the ego’s reaction to the very alienation that constitutes it. Responding to the transitivism with the other inherent in the operation of identification, hatred reacts to one of the forms of the subject’s ex-sistence.

Often, the group exploits the subject’s paranoiac tendency and legitimizes it, turning it into the substance of a collective revolt against “the other”, “the outside”, “the enemy” – whose function is to consolidate the group’s identity. Leaders take advantage of the individual weakness to reinforce the group’s cohesion, obtaining in this way the submission of its members. This submission relies on manipulating individual libidinal drives, which are allowed to roam free in the service of a common ideology, whether the individual is rewarded or gratified, thus boosting his narcissism, or by allowing him to kill, rape, dominate, humiliate and so on, thus satisfying what Freud called Murderlust.

Resorting to cultural orthodoxy as a guarantee of total identity is both a mark of weakness and a very precise attempt at manipulating the social bond. In this context, we should distinguish between the two concepts of nation and nationalism. It is interesting to note that when a people recognizes itself as a “nation” (from the Latin verb nasci, “to be born”), it does so based on the construction of a collective memory. The latter is not necessarily derived from factual elements; it can include both facts that have actually occurred and myths and legends. All of these elements make it possible to characterize a given social bond as distinct from another. Based on the meaning of the received tradition, such a construction retroactively assigns a function to what the group itself defines as its historical baggage, depending on the requirements of the present-day community. This shows how memory, by turning backwards, is constructed in a forward fashion. This is a process of identification and selection, which, by linking together factual and imaginary elements, ensures that its own history is only to be constructed in the encounter with difference.

If by “nation” we mean a cultural community of territorial relations of kinship, where the notion of kinship structurally implies the idea of difference, we must distinguish this concept from both the “state” and from the ideology we call “nationalism.” A “state” designates a structure exercising sovereignty over a given territory, through institutions that promulgate and maintain certain laws and govern the relationships between individual citizens. A nation can become a state, but a state can contain different nations; the two concepts, one cultural and the other legislative, do not overlap. On the other hand, “nationalism” denotes an ideology (and a relatively recent one, if we think of Johan Gottlieb Fichte’s 1808 Reden an die deutsche Nation), which is founded on 1) the opposition between one nation and an other (which can emerge even within the structure of a single state) and 2) the support of a single, systematic vision unable to tolerate difference. In this sense, nothing is further away from the idea of a nation — a community within kinship — than nationalism.

This is worth keeping in mind because in many cases, past or present, the appeal to nationalism destroys the nation’s cultural identity. Nazi Germany was a macroscopic example of this. The invention of the Aryan race and its mythology, the apex of an identity construction whose elements were over determined by a very precise political and economic project, tore to pieces the social fabric of between the wars Germany, destroying its pluralistic cultural identity and dismantling certain aspects that were crucial to the complexity of its history. The cult of the One leads to totalitarianism, and thus to the disintegration and abolition of the cultural specificity of its followers.  In this sense, the attempts to systematically eliminate certain elements of one’s cultural heritage show the radical bias of the vision that sustains it, the way in which the weakness of an ideology masks its true aims, which have nothing to do with a collective identity but strive instead to obtain political and economic power by oppressing the masses through sanction and terror. As an example, we can think of the many “cleansing” campaigns which have been carried out over the centuries in the name of a credo or an ideology, in different cultures and places around the world.

And yet, we must distinguish between the past and current ways of attacking the cultural heritage of a given people. If various forms of fanaticism and millenarianism existed over the centuries, fundamentalism is of a recent date. Fundamentalism is inextricably linked to the history of the modern and industrial world, to the transformation of the class structure, to colonization, to the development of science and new technologies, as well as to the rise of, precisely, a new conception of the state inspired by the Rights of Man. The term itself is derived from The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Faith (1910-1915) of the American Baptist Church, which advocated a return to the dogmatic foundations of faith, contrary to both modernism and the Evangelical theological rationalism. In order to defend the Protestant faith against the reformed tradition, Christian fundamentalism gained a foothold by attacking other forms of Protestantism, liberal theology, “Romanism” (Catholicism), socialism, modernism, atheism, evolutionism and so on and so forth. According to their nationalistic base, the values embodied by the conservatives in small American towns and villages expressed the “authenticity” of the nation, in contrast with the alleged depravity of urban modernism — epitomized by woman, sexuality and alcohol.

As an expression of change in modern society, fundamentalism must be distinguished from other forms of pre-modern fanaticism. Here, the fetishized, literalist and absolutist return to a supposedly “sacred” text — seen as an expression of the divine word and a guarantor of a monolithic world vision — takes on the form of a paranoiac convulsion as a reaction to the hostility or the transformation of local conditions. Such conditions are part of a social reality in which the foreign has already gained control. It is impossible to ignore the fact that the present-day manifestations of fundamentalism are also expressions of globalization, the development of human rights, the free movement of ideologies, the speed of information as well as the transformation of the neoliberal economy, which has developed thanks to factors such as the supranational powers of investment.

As the vicissitudes of its name illustrate, ISIS deliberately makes a reference to the idea of the state. It has proclaimed a program of territorial conquest (following the slogan “Consolidation and expansion”) based on a totalitarian state as its preliminary condition. Its aim is to subjugate nations conquered by force, to “denationalize” them in order to align them with a law that is imposed through the systematic destruction of the specificities of the subjected groups, and of the cultural reference points underpinning their national images. Following the Wahhabi slogan revived by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (named ‘Caliph’ by ISIS in July 2014):Those who would not conform to this view should be killed, their wives and daughters violated, and their possessions confiscated.”

Hannah Arendt observes that totalitarianism is an expression of the mass society and a form of power that differs from both despotism and tyranny: it implies a systematic destruction of the existing social, political and legal traditions, and imposes a regime of terror, which makes ideology into a principle of action. These applied ideologies, Arendt remarks, are “-isms” which to the satisfaction of their adherents can explain everything and every occurrence by deducing it from a single premise – a comprehensive explanation of reality, which can interpret any political act as a secret conspiracy and encourages both the acting out and the enjoyment associated to it. What is particular to the mass crimes such regimes perpetrate, is their attempt to strike at and abolish the symbolic universe of the victims; it is a will to deprive them of their cultural heritage and identity – as it was the case in the “final solution.” The cult of the One brings out the passion of hatred that aims at the other’s being, at the other’s uniqueness and history, and tries to abolish its symbolic environment – whether the target is the body, art, architecture, books or habits.

In this context, it is no accident that fundamentalists of different cultures share one common target: women. According to Lacan, hatred as a passion is what comes the closest to the ex-sistence of the speaking being [parlêtre]. It is a response to the subjective division expressed through the act of speaking in the structural discordance between knowing and being; a division manifested on the side of speech closer to the subject’s eternal exile. It is a response elicited by the encounter of the limitations of the Symbolic in face of the Real. Which brings up the irreducible aspect of the encounter with difference and its traumatic quality. It is not by accident that Freud makes the refusal of femininity (Ablehnung der Weiblichkeit) a key factor in the subject’s resistance to his or her own truth, regardless of one’s sex.  The unrelenting fight against femininity, the desire to subjugate it, to reduce it to nothingness, shows the unbearable character of the confrontation with a difference that is, in fact, an encounter with one’s own difference and division. The “love of the whole” — the belief in a phallic, imaginary, turgescent completeness — shows its fundamentalist tendencies, its terroristic implications, as a result of the denial of subjective ex-sistence.

Related to the structural exile of being, hatred aims at the irreducibility of the One within difference. The Other cannot be added to the One; the two can never be complementary – quite the contrary, the Other differentiates itself from the One, emphasizing its intrinsic discordance and undermining the dream of an ideal and satisfying complementarity.

October 2015

Paola Mieli, PhD, is a psychoanalyst in New York, President of Après Coup Psychoanalytic Association, NY.