What Does the Physicist Know? Thraldom and Insecurity in the Relationship of Psychoanalysis to Physics

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An unstated assumption in the important discussion What Does the Analyst Know? (Symposium, 1992, 1993) is that the questions of what is truth, of what it means to know, of what constitutes effective understandings of human experience have been resolved in the natural sciences, particularly physics. What is problematic about certain aspects of the discussion is an invidious acceptance of the validity of a positivist definition of physical science, an acceptance that places psychoanalysis as an inferior discipline to physics, as a discipline for which one must make excuses. Missing from the debate is a more textured, critical, and realistic view of the practice of physical science that can ameliorate the present insecurity and thraldom that I believe characterizes the attitudes of psychoanalysts and psychotherapists toward natural science. By examining three vignettes, from physics, molecular biology, and psychoanalysis respectively, I hope to show that knowledge in the physical sciences is as socially constructed as it is in psychoanalysis and that just as the historicity of living matter is not a problem for biology but defines the object of study, so too is subjectivity not a problem for psychoanalysis but defines its object of study. I explore the function that the fantasy of an unproblematic natural science has served in psychoanalysis and suggest that one consequence for psychoanalysis of its failure to understand the actual practice of natural science has been a failure to take seriously and to develop with confidence what is truly original in the discipline.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)45-62
Number of pages18
JournalPsychoanalytic Dialogues
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 1995
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Psychology


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