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Book review: Freud and Beyond

Updated: Dec 2, 2021

When it comes to Freud, many have little to no understanding of him, or a simplistic understanding of his relationship to psychotherapy. When I've mentioned Freud to some of my educated friends, they scoff, roll their eyes, or mutter something about "penis envy." While it's true that many of Freud's ideas have been discarded or modified, the core of Freud's genius is in tact. Whether we like it or not, we still live in Freud's world. In "Freud and Beyond" the late Stephen Mitchell and still-alive Margaret Black take on the history of Freud's ideas and how his impact has rippled through the psychoanalytic profession.

Stephen A. Mitchell and Margaret J. Black, Freud and Beyond
Stephen A. Mitchell and Margaret J. Black, Freud and Beyond

Like many worthwhile books, the lessons can be summarized succinctly. In Mitchell and Black's work, "Clinical psychoanalysis is most fundamentally about people and their difficulties in living, about a relationship that is committed to deeper self-understanding, a richer sense of personal meaning, and a greater degree of freedom," is that summary.

While there is much to debate dialectically regarding psychoanalytic concepts, Mitchell and Black make the case for why psychoanalysis is still as relevant as ever. Starting with Freud himself, the authors take the reader on a journey from the inception of the unconscious and Freud's theories, through other theories: ego psychology, interpersonal, Kleinian, Object relations, identity and self, and contemporary conceptions. By the end of the book, the reader has not only been exposed to the trajectory of psychoanalytic thinking, but has also read about the current dialectics regarding theory and technique.

By the end of the book, I crystallized some synthesis of my leanings. I feel that in general, an interpersonal stance resonates with me the most. Ditching two of the most problematic aspects of core-Freudian theory: the body-centered conceptualizations as well as the psychoanalyst as expert, I found myself able to nod approvingly to much of how interpersonal psychoanalysis was presented. People aren't consistent. They are enacted idiosyncratically as a function that encompasses environment, actors, and the psychophysiology of the organism. Interpersonal psychoanalysis accounts for that and more. We are constructed. Our illusions serve us for survival in an ever-changing world. Psychotherapists can never be an "expert" when confronted with such an overwhelming amount of information that currently even a supercomputer cannot synthesize.

Most of the controversies in psychoanalysis can only be taken seriously as a matter of emphasis. It's not nature vs. nuture, external vs. internal, trauma vs. fantasy. It's nature and nurture. Internal and external. Trauma and fantasy. Each person is part of a mutually specified environment. The person acts on the environment and the environment acts on the person. Internal and external are perpetually at work. Inside the person is a network of biological subsystems that are known to be amazingly complex, yet are still largely not understood.

As a result of the overwhelming complexity of the environment and internal workings of the brain, the psychoanalyst must depend upon critical information that is essential to modern psychoanalysis. Modern psychoanalysis depends upon transference and countertransference. How the patient makes the therapist feel must be considered as a point of exploration. What defenses and history the therapist carries must also be considered. It would be a stretch for psychoanalysis to be considered empirical. A hermeneutic conceptualization is the only alternative to an approach that sabotages it's credibility by proclaiming a quantifiable, measurable process to exist when it certainly does not.

By now, I'm interjecting my own dialectical responses and would prefer the reader to make up their own mind. If you read the book, you will have plenty to think about.


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